Sunday, August 31, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Soap Opera Ever After...

If tragedy ends in death, and comedy ends in a wedding, what do we call the drama that falls in between?

"The morning after the wedding -"

- Cinderella began her long battle to reform inheritance laws and improve conditions for servants.
- The dwarfs called in a favor from Snow White.
- The reformed rake's past came back to haunt him in the form of a dozen paternity suits - which the good woman whose love saved him insisted he take responsibility for.
- The surviving soldiers of the Armies of Dark and Light, the war over, were turned loose to find their own ways home.
- The princess started teaching the woodcutter's son, now King, how to read.
- The bickering lovers started matchmaking all their friends.
- All the magical creatures in the kingdom rushed to fill the power void left by the fall of the Wicked Witch.
- The abusive family found someone new to abuse.
- The bride refused to change the habits she formed while living in disguise as a boy in for forest, and set a new fashion.
- The Frog Prince discovered he could still understand the language of amphibians, and craved flies.
- The older sons, passed over for the throne, began their campaign to have the old king declared incompetent, based on the tests he devised to determine who would inherit; and the brides they brought home teamed up to advance their own agendas.

(Yeah, it's been done before. That's not a reason not to do it again.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

TL;DR: Read Everything. Believe Nothing. Write Authentic Stories Anyway.

So yesterday I was asked how to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate history books, and the shortest answer is: "You can't." The less short, more accurate, answer is: "There aren't any." All history is inaccurate, all sources are biased; that's just the way it goes. Two loving parents can disagree about the best interest of a child; two competent doctors can disagree about a diagnosis. History is the same way.

That doesn't mean research is pointless, far from it; but it means you can't accept authorities at face value, no matter how tempting this may be. You have to approach history resources as you would real people, reading and talking to as many primary works as you can, assessing the kinds of innocent inaccuracies that are likely to creep in (Do any two people in your family agree on which year it was that the cat decided to have her kittens in mom's underwear drawer? Mom's diary can tell you for sure - but it may also say that they were all she-cats, because you didn't get the kittens correctly sexed till they were almost ready to adopt out, and she never noted that down, but the reason you're trying to remember the year at all is that you started wondering exactly how old Aunt Maybelle's tomcat Knickers is, so -); what biases the source has ("As a completely objective historian whose grandfather was in that battle, I can tell you for a fact -"); what the agenda of the recording agency is ("Yeah, people say my youngest son looks kind of like the handyman but I can't see it myself and that is totally my husband's nose, I mean look at it!"); and how the source knows, or thinks it knows, what happened and why. You already have a lot of the skills necessary to make these assessments, because you have to make them every time you're called on to referee your kids or your co-workers, or choose between the recommendations of two different contractors, doctors, theologians, or relatives. (And don't think I've never wished I had the option of knocking two historians' heads together and sending them both to their rooms! An awful lot of disputes, in any profession, are six of one, half dozen of the other.)

This is all very well when you have conflicting information; but far more insidious is the conflicting information we don't realize we don't have. This is especially true when you're trying to learn about people who aren't speaking for themselves, whose voices have been erased from the record, or never entered into the record, or are filtered through the voices of others - generally, people with more power, more privilege; people in control of what is and is not worth preserving. We don't hear the voices of medieval women very often; the voices of medieval children, almost never. The voices of slaves seldom come to us except through their masters, or people who resemble their masters enough for the slaves to be wary. Monolinguals can only hear most of the voices in the world through translators; anthropologists monitor the interface between "primitive" and "advanced" cultures (and how many people even understand those terms as jargon rather than as value statements?); folklorists translate spoken words into written ones and don't always ask themselves why their source is being a source or how that might affect the story. The person keeping the records has purposes for keeping and curating them, the person asking the questions has reasons to ask certain questions and not others, and these may not match up well with the reasons the person answering the questions is answering them.

A lot of these lacunae are invisible to us until we make conscious efforts to notice them; and they are not always surmountable. One thing all medieval women have in common is, that they're dead. But, if you are a woman, you can read between the lines of male narratives and use your own experience to try to fill the gaps. It won't be perfect, but it'll be better than taking the word of literate medieval men. If you are a white person writing an American slave protagonist, you can find black historians who will discuss with you the pitfalls of reading WPA slave narratives and help you negotiate with them - and they will have their own reasons for helping you, and their own biases, which will at least be different from the biases of even the best-intentioned white historians, and that will be better than nothing.

You can't change that. But you can remember it, and screw up less often than you would if you forgot it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Buried House

Apparently, a man who inherited a single-story house in Turkey started cleaning it out, and discovered it had five stories, four of them buried, at least some of which date back a couple thousand years.

I've had that dream! Usually it's a house I've lived in, but sometimes it's one I just moved to, or one not resembling the house I live in currently but which I've been living in for awhile in the dream. And then you're cleaning, and you find an unfamiliar door, which leads to a room with more doors; stairs and halls; all kinds of space you could be using and haven't been, full of resources you didn't know about.

And bathrooms. For some reason, lots and lots and lots of extra bathrooms...that's probably not true of the house in Anatolia, though.

The thematic uses of a house which gets bigger the more you clean and explore in it are obvious (I've always assumed that houses are metaphorical of minds in the dreams), but - what can you do with it, as a plot?

Can you go back and forth in time using the hidden layers of house?

Is there Something down there which was deliberately buried? And is it a Dread Secret that should stay buried, a Fabulous Treasure that should be brought to light, or a Can of Worms that one might sensibly hesitate to open?

What if the world above the Buried House is hostile, and the Buried House can provide a refuge, an Underground Railroad safe house or a semi-permanent hiding place, a Secret Annexe?

What if the homeowner allows the archeologists to move in, but insists on continuing to live in the top house layers, family and all, with academics coming and going, relationships forming, and screening stations all over the backyard? There's a live-action farce there, I think.

What if someone is already using that space? For nefarious purposes? Or simply to live?

What if the buried space is the interface between two versions of the same world?

What if the people already living down there are you and your family - only different?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I Should Write a Tribute.

I can't.

Elaine died.

Death sucks.

I am useless at this and shaky and I'm about to cry some more, so I direct you to the post I made when she had her stroke.

I'm afraid that's all I can do right now.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sorry not to be more helpful today

The September/October issue of Archaeology Magazine is discussing the peopling of the Americas, talking to people I have met about places I have been, or have read about. I am still sure I will write another Pleistocene book; I still do not know when, or what the plot will be like.

The men working on the house next door are playing oddly beautiful classic rock (why does overheard music have different qualities than music you're actively listening to?), singing along, and talking about copyright. I can't hear the whole conversation and am not eavesdropping, but I definitely heard one say "copyright" and "my bad."

Those charged with maintaining the peace are still making war in Missouri. Which is not that surprising a development, in the context of the history of Missouri, specifically with regard to racism.

I have received more than one gratuitous, unsolicited, and (I can't help feeling) not-quite-warranted compliments online this week, and am not sure how to accept them graciously.

The WIP flops along its merry way, continually turning up fresh viewpoints that help me see the whole better, and I am increasingly convinced that what I'll get in the end is a moderately brilliant structural fantasia in a superficially familiar but unique setting, that will never get read because I have no clue how to write a synopsis for it, or how to market it, and anyway if people do read it they will insist on reading into it what they expect to see instead of seeing what I show them, and because of that they will read nonsense. Unless the solution I find to the structural problem is brilliant enough to trick them into reading what I actually wrote...I have no confidence in my ability to do that. But it's too late to walk away now. I can see the turning point approach, the moment from which it will be all downhill and I will be done with the draft. I am in prose stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

I live in Texas. It is August. My house is a hundred years old, and has three window A/C units, two of which cannot be run at the same time without tripping the circuitbreaker. By midafternoon, the hardwood floors will be as hot under my bare feet as if they were full of laboring electronics.

The same phonespammers call me at the same times every day. Most of them are machines.

And here I sit, with all these disparate facts, so few of which are in any way under my control, trying to make a meaning. Because I am human and that is what humans do. We invented meaning, because we need it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Yet More Fun with Titles

The Turn of the Shrew.

Because I can't read Taming of the Shrew as anything but a celebration of spousal abuse and psychological torture. It's the only Shakespeare play I actively dislike. (To be fair, I've never seen a production of Merchant of Venice. How you feel about that one depends a lot on how Shylock is played.)

Anyway, the idea of Kate adapting her methods and gaslighting Petrucchio to get control of her own life - and money - back appeals to me. It is often forgotten that Petrucchio is explicitly interested in marrying her for her dowry because he's broke, which makes Kate's climactic speech about wives "owing" obedience to their hardworking breadwinning men so wincingly and obviously inappropriate I wonder how anybody can play it straight. I'm not sure exactly how the plot would roll, though. In order to make the title work best it would have to both borrow some of the tension and subtlety of James's psychological horror story and retain much of the bawdy, physical humor of an Elizabethan comedy.

It is a damn shame that getting a genius-level idea is so much easier than pulling off, or even knowing how to start, genius-level work.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bad Week All Around

So today my tumblr dash, normally full of book discussion and history/archeology and the funny/moving/absurd adventures of pixel people, today is blowing up like a certain town in Missouri, to which the people of Gaza are sending helpful advice about how to cope when tear gassed.

And there's some personal stuff which isn't happening to me, but which is distinctly me-adjacent, about which I am extremely limited in what I can usefully do.

So I will now go and write about the imaginary problems of imaginary people, because we should all do what we're best at, even if it amounts to treading water. And it's nice to solve a problem, even if it's only a paper one.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why Am I the One Stuck Saying This Stuff?


Yesterday a very talented, hard-working creative person died, in circumstances that suggest suicide. And today I see lots of people posting suicide hot line numbers and clips from Aladdin or The Dead Poet's Society. And the one time I look at comments, inevitably (why do I ever look at comments on news stories?) some troll condemns him as selfish and weak; and pretty soon somebody's going to turn up the old chestnut about how creativity and mental illness go hand in hand. And by the time the autopsy's done it'll be too late - there'll already be an Official Public Version of the death, shellacked hard, and everyone will know what moral to point from this.

And it'll all be crap, because you know what doesn't get talked about?

The ways in which we in America (and other places, but I am American and have even less control over what happens in the rest of the world than I do here) treat creative people in order to drive them crazy. The way we take it for granted that creativity is madness (when all the people with mental disorders I know who are sufficiently self-aware to have an opinion agree, that creativity is the opposite of madness); and treat it also as a moral failing, and go and do things that make it punishingly hard to make a living creatively. Like, structuring the economy and intellectual property law so that it's easier for corporations to make money off of a creative work than those who do the creating do. So that a creator has to spend far more time and energy on promotion and public image than creation.

Like the way we treat creative work as less valuable than other kinds of work, demanding to be entertained 24/7 at no cost, or at absolute minimum cost. I have been told to my face that I should be grateful to be read, rather than hoping to be paid enough to cover expenses, let alone make a living at it; every day, authors and illustrators are asked to allow their work to be used for a payment of "exposure." You can't pay the electric bill with "exposure," y'all - sorry.

Like the way we put pressure on creative people to be creative but not too creative; to be creative and personally accessible and to give not just our work but our time, our attention, our personalities, to the world. Which will then feel free to judge what we do and say, and how we look, and how we match up to other people's fantasies about the creative life, without mercy.

The way we are told that because we are creative we must also be depressed, or abusers of substances, or obsessively devoted to our art; and that depression, substance abuse, and obsession are all moral failings.

The way we can't get good mental health services because (I speak from experience here) counselors don't know what they're doing; don't understand, even, that what they do best is to help people understand the mechanisms of their own malfunctions based on a huge database of similar malfunctions; and that this approach works best on people who fall within the thick parts of the bell curves generated by that data. I have never been to a counselor whose generalizations applied to me. I don't react the way most people do; therefore, advice based on the expected reactions is irrelevant. If those of us on the skinny parts of the bell curve are to be saved, we have to save ourselves. No one is helping us.

How many of the people who bring us pleasure, insight, joy, and escape have to go through this wringer and get spat out dead before their times before we stop doing this?

Before we stop doing things to depressed people that make them worse?

Before we stop doing things to people, ordinary or extraordinary, that make them depressed?

And yes, I know - (believe me, I know!) that depression is a physical problem. I was born with a biological tendency to depression. I've been there, I've done that, I've taken the bottle full of pills - and, thanks to a confirmed habit of introspective intellectation and emotional honesty(for which I have been punished all my life by most of the people I've come into contact with), I was able to pull back in time. Nobody gets the credit for saving me, but me (and the wonderfully calm nurse in the emergency room who knew exactly how to make me throw it all up). Which makes me reject any attempt to blame a suicide who didn't save herself. The odds were stacked against me and against everyone else in this position.

A clinically depressed person can be in an ideal situation and still get depressed (and be even more depressed because she can see her situation is ideal so she must be fundamentally wrong to feel so bad and clearly something as wrong as her has no right to clutter up this ideal situation), just as a non-smoker can get cancer without smoking. But natural biological tendencies are exacerbated by environment; and the environment of American society is toxic for depressives.

So toxic that it is easy to translate "circumstances suggestive of suicide" in the case of someone fantastically talented and with a gift for making people laugh, into a firm judgement at first sight, in the absence of any details, in the absence of any right to make a judgement.

And it's because we will not face up to this that we keep being toxic. Nor is that the only thing of which this is true. We are still racist because we won't face up realistically to our racism; we are still sexist because we won't face it; we are still unprepared for global warming because we'd rather drown than face the fact that we're going to drown; we perpetuate evil because we keep looking for evil out there in things and people we can't control instead of looking for the evils we can control. Our own.

We are all society and we should knock this crap off.

And that will remain true whatever Mr. Williams's autopsy tells us about he, as an individual, died.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Libraries of Timbuktu

Way too many news stories happen in any given year for me to garage sale them all, even if I made a serious effort to keep up with the news. (Which I don't, because depression + crying jags.) So excuse me that the inspiring link to the thriller about the rescue of the Manuscripts of Timbuktu dates back to April.

It boggles my mind, however, that there's no movie in the works yet. Youthful vow to guard a fabulous fragile treasure in the form of the manuscripts, implacable black-hearted foe in the form of the book-burning legions of Al-Qaeda posing an imminent threat; desperate coordinated action under the noses of the conquering Bad Guys; "exotic, distant" lands (from the point of view of the locii of thriller-making, southern California and New York) - seriously, this has it all! For YA authors, it is no great stretch to get a fictional hero in the correct age range, given that business about "family vows," working within the covert organizational framework provided by Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, who led the rescue attempt.

The equally urgent threat of mold and subobtimal curation environments in the Mali refuge where the bulk of the manuscripts wound up is less photogenic and requires more work. But a movie which used the safe arrival in Mali as the unambiguous happy ending required by the thriller format could be leveraged into a fundraising effort to provide for the safe curation and study of the manuscripts, and benefit the reputation and bottom-line of the production company. So the sooner somebody with deep pockets gets on this, the better.

A whole treasure-trove of disparate stories, however, lies behind this, in the possibilities presented by Sankore University of Timbuktu, where these manuscripts originated. Starting with a mosque in the tenth century, Sankore attracted students and scholars from all over the known world. Timbuktu was a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis which rivaled the cities of Europe - yes, even Paris; even Rome - when it didn't outright overshadow them. As a setting, it can't be beat - none of the stories buried in this fertile soil have been told to modern Western audiences before. It should only take a little digging to turn up a lifetime's worth of intriguing possibility. Love stories, war stories, political intrigue, spiritual exploration; fantasy and gritty realism - they must all be waiting there for the willing researcher.

What if a modern Al-Qaeda member intent on destroying the knowledge of the past got lost in a time loop and went back, alone, to 16th-century Timbuktu? Would he wreak havoc? Would he undergo a major character arc and, in the absence of the social, personal, and political pressures that set him on this path, acquire more humility and a truer Islamic spirit? Or would his isolation in an alien time exacerbate his opinions into madness?

What if the last member of a family sworn to protect its cache of books is a young girl who has internalized both her responsibility to the manuscripts and her responsibility to adhere to "traditional" feminine roles? What positions does this put her in; and how does she choose when these responsibilities conflict?

Who was the "female philanthropist from Mandinka" who financed the infrastructure of the University; what else did she fund, where did her money come from, what motivated her philanthropy?

How did European scholars who came to study in Sankore during the times generally called "medieval" live? What did they do with the knowledge they gained? How did they deal with living as a Christian minority among Muslims, and learning from them? What were the burning questions and conflicts of the day?

Asian scholars, ditto?

It's kind of like that dazzling expanse of snow I remember waking up to when I was small and lived in places where snow happened. You're afraid to step in it, lest you mess it all up. But you can't build snowwomen, or forts, or have snowball fights, or even get to school, without taking those first steps; and once you start, isn't it glorious to run around in?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Your Body Doesn't Know It Isn't Happening

This weekend, our gaming group was playing along in our game as usual, having narrowly escaped death at the fangs of a gargantuan tarantula; when the Non-Player Character, of dubious allegiance, with which we were dealing tried to pull an obvious cover-up, which his degree of authority in the situation should have allowed him to do. But Stephanie Neotomi, my ratfolk rogue (recently recovered from being paralyzed by the venom of said spider), had already started asking questions and wouldn't be put off. Suddenly everything devolved into a shouting match, violence was narrowly averted, and we spooked the NPC badly enough that he had to run; but the guards under his command were already moving to arrest us.

After a hairy bit of play, we emerged with the evidence we needed to get the guards on our side, the information we needed to advance our mission, and with all party members alive - but two of us probably infected with lycanthropy and nothing with which to stop the infection. So we had to ride hard in the opposite direction from where we wished to go in order to get some wolfsbane - ride so hard that it was necessary to stop and perform some magic to keep the horses from floundering on the way back. Which is when the ghost of one of the random monsters we recently killed decided to attack us, coming within a hair of killing three of the party. Again, we emerged victorious, but only by dint of some serious cooperative play and one of us remembering a resource that we've had for awhile but which the rest of us had forgotten. Also, the DM letting him deploy that resource retroactively, so that our sorcerer was only mostly dead.

By then it was late enough that we needed to quit, so the game broke up. Once home, I crashed hard. We all agreed, in e-mail postmortem on Monday, that the session had been intense enough to be physically draining. Sitting around a table rolling dice, making notes, and pawing through rulebooks looks sedentary; but the intellectual and imaginative handling of the scenarios and rules, and the sheer suspense, activated plenty of adrenaline and had significant effects on our body chemistry. That night I was in that peculiar state of exhausted wakefulness that you get on your most strenuous days of vacation, when you can't stop shooting the rapid or climbing the mountain or riding the rollercoaster, or whatever it was you were doing that had your body convinced that you were about to die, even though you were perfectly safe.

The same thing happens when you're writing. Or reading, but there's a level of control in reading that you don't have in writing. You cry real tears over Beth March, but you don't have to deal with it all at once. (Remember how Joey, on Friends, used to put intense books - including Little Women - in the freezer when he couldn't handle them?) When you're writing, you're writing pretty much constantly. When you're doing dishes. When you're in the shower. When you're watching TV or driving or kissing your husband. Your backbrain is handling the material, going over it and over it to get it into a form you can write down; and then you write it down and you have to bull your way through it to get the draft and then - you'll have to revise it. And go over and over and over it. To top off which, even the most comfortable writing posture, over time, involves being locked into place for a prolonged period, which is physically taxing. (So cultivate good habits, like pacing and taking little breaks. At least get yourself an ergonomic keyboard. You'll kill yourself typing on a laptop.)

I had to rewrite the ending of The Ghost Sitter five times for the editor (I didn't count how often I went over it in revision before she even saw it), and I cried every time.

So don't be surprised if you get up at the end of a writing session shaky and weak and exhausted.

Writing only looks sedentary. It has physical effects. Don't discount them. Accommodate them.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Resurrection McGuffin

Your family has an artifact that can bring someone back from the dead. No time limit. Usable only once. Possibly there's a need for some suitable ritual or sacrifice to make it work, but nothing that raises huge moral dilemmas (at least, not in most of your family members). It comes with a "side effects" warning, but it's not clear what these might be. Perfect health and a certain amount of youthening, however, are guaranteed - so even someone who died of a chronic illness or old age would be worth bringing back.

Scenario 1: Anyone in the family can use it, but only with the full consent of all members of the family. Therefore, it is never used; there is always one hold-out. That's a satirical short story about family politics. Perhaps the protagonist is left alone, after a disaster that kills off the rest of the family, staring at the artifact with too many names to choose among.

Scenario 2: Only one person in the family can activate its power, which passes to a new member after the death of the old one. The person with the power right now is your parent. Are you more careless as an adolescent, because of course if you die in a car crash your mother would bring you back? Are you more careful because you are sure she likes a sibling more than you; or because your other parent is in a dangerous occupation and you want the option to be available in case the worst happens? Does your parent routinely warn you that if you die of stupidity she won't bring you back? Do you go into a heroic profession yourself, secure in the knowledge that, if you die pulling children out of a burning building, it'll be all right in the end?

And then you die, and are brought back. The artifact can never be used again. You are ten years younger than you were and the side effects include partial emotional memory loss - you have no sense of any connection to your family, except the one who brought you back.

That's a novel.

Scenario 3: You are in sole charge of the artifact and, in a surge of altruism, patriotism, or sheer fanboyish enthusiasm, you resurrect your favorite historical personage. Who will inevitably disappoint you in some ways. Wacky hijinx ensue. Farce, satire, or deep philosophical humor.

Scenario 4: You learn of the artifact when it comes into your possession on the death of the previous holder, who has left it to you in her will. It comes with a note in which she explains how it works, and why she never used it. Maybe there's a notebook, a kind of mortology, detailing deaths in the family back several generations, with notes in the handwriting of generations of ancestors, from detailed philosophical musings to a cryptic "No," beside each one. A few are labeled "Maybe." For the most part, it's being held against an untimely death, and there haven't been that many in your family since these notes began to be taken. Do you do the same? Or do you have a death in mind, all ready to undo?

Scenario 5: You are holding the artifact when your spouse is reported MIA from a theater of war; or your child goes missing. You hang onto it for years, not wanting to waste the use if this person is still alive - somewhere - or afraid that, if dead, he will be resurrected in the same place that he is lost now, and the unknown side effects will keep him from returning to you.

Scenario 6: ????? You've already thought of Scenario 6, haven't you?