Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Harvest Festival

The historical myth behind Thanksgiving is problematic in a number of ways, and it's been a rough week so it's hard to be thankful; but the basic idea of a harvest festival in combination with a day to count your blessings is sound, so - Merry Thanksgiving, y'all.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Because this is not a political blog but I'm so totally not in the mood to write about my projects or writing principles or any of that stuff, here's a link to donate monetary support for the protestors in Ferguson. They're going to need it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Trickster vs. Dark Lord

So, you've got an Evil Overlord, and the problem is, how to bring down the guy with all the power. You can destroy his power base and throw the ring into the volcano, you can fight a guerrilla revolution that carries within it the seeds of its own corruption (Yeah, saw Mockingjay Part 1 yesterday; the last book is easily the most disturbing and if you're in it for the happy ending, I can tell you, you need to bail now), you can go toe-to-toe in the field, your armies vs. his armies and way too many innocent people get hurt.

Or you can trick him into destroying himself.

The trick was lost to me when I woke up; and, being a dream-trick, probably wouldn't work in the real world or any plausible fictional one I could cook up. But I remember the Trickster. She had no political acumen or abstract sense of right or wrong. She had no physical power and no network of friends. She didn't even have a long-term plan. She was a street kid adept at talking her way out of trouble and accustomed to living from moment to moment. But the habit of jumping to the next stepping stone without looking to see whether there's another beyond it lands her in more and more complicated situations.

She has learned that, when she's at someone's mercy, the most effective strategy is to figure out what that someone wants, and convince them that the way to get it is to show mercy. She brokers information, and when she doesn't have any she makes it up. No one's going to take the unsupported word of a street kid, so she's also learned to seize on something, anything, concrete within reach and turn it into evidence of her truth. With any luck, she'll be able to escape before everything unravels.

But once in the Dark Lord's sanctum, she can't escape. All her ways are blocked. And she's not the only desperate liar in the citadel. Everyone from the lowly guard who first catches her all the way up to the Dark Lord himself wants a small handful of things: Security, Promotion, Power; which all boil down to the same thing in the toxic atmosphere of a reign of terror. They all, in their eagerness for more control, give her a convenient handle to control them; but if they ever suspect that she's anything but a scared tool of their ambitions, that's the end for her. Her basic claim is to know where Something is. They're the ones who project their own knowledge of the Something that can make or break the Dark Lord's power onto the vague flim-flam she starts with; and the faster she tapdances to reflect their desires, the closer to the top she gets. Until she has to deliver to the Dark Lord himself.

She doesn't want to be his downfall. She just wants to get away. And when she does become his downfall, and is shoved into his place at the top of the festering heap - she manages, at last, to slip away, leaving the Good Guys to sweep in to a squabbling, disoriented citadel and mop up.

This was a dream, and the few details of this broad outline are hopelessly impractical. A key feature of the con, for instance, was the cherry-red 50s Cadillac convertible she drove through the volcano. (Wrecked the shocks.)

As blockbuster fantasy series go, the premise has real possibilities. It'd have to be fast-paced, clever, disorienting, and very, very plotty. I.E., well outside my talent range, alas.

The premise would also work for a realistic stand-alone novel, if it were scaled down; if the Evil Overlord was the boss who runs a single town or corporation, for example. Still not really the kind of thing I can see myself writing.

I'd read it, though. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Nothing's Wasted

So there's this weird novella thing that I really like, but it's premise puts up a number of challenges that I've been having a hard time dealing with and who the heck publishes novellas anyway? It's been hovering around 10,000 words for over a year.

I was looking at markets earlier this week and thinking, maybe it would do for that one, but the 6,000-word limit is firm. Could I really cut 4,000 words?


But the 8,923-word version reads a lot better than the 10,000 word version. So the time spent trying was time well-spent.

Now to deal with those continuity errors. It beats dealing with the novel WIP, which at this point is scaring me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I'm a Bit Dilatory Today

Hey, speaking of Pleistocene child graves, Project Archeology has a curriculum packet and guide for teaching about the Anzick Burial!

Also, on the importance of re-reading the guidelines right before you make the submission, I was just narrowly prevented from sending a story in Courier to a magazine whose editors believe Courier to be evil. I kind of feel like Times New Roman is evil, myself; but I'm not the one in control of that market, so back to the word processor we go.

I just - I like Courier. It looks like typing. It's large and readable. But hey, I type two spaces after a period, too.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Longest Vacation

So there's this kingdom, with magic, and the wizards made this little haven refuge, a pocket dimension, where the royal families could go on vacation. They'd be perfectly safe, and happy - the weather would do what they wanted, there would always be food, gardens, etc. It's hard to keep track of time passing inside, but that's okay, as long as there's somebody trustworthy on the outside to say the magic words and call the family home.

So the royal family goes there on the eve of the princess's wedding, to rest up and make last-minute preparations for the big party. And it starts to seem to them that they've been here for awhile...

Turns out the trustworthy person wasn't so trustworthy, took over, and never told anybody the magic words. So the country was ripe when the Age of Revolution rolled around. Three hundred years and umpty-ump wars later, the country is a constitutional democracy, the palace is a museum, and though nothing's perfect, one thing the entire country agrees on is, that nobody needs a monarchy back.

The entrance to the pocket dimension is in the museum. It's something trivial, not magic-looking at all. Maybe it's the door to a dressing room or something.

The trustworthy usurper never told anyone the magic words, but they're perfectly ordinary words, strung together in a peculiar order. Which is why the teen daughter of the curator used them for a secret code, maybe a password to an electronic device. And the royal family comes home to a world that doesn't need them.

They become celebrities, of course. Other than that, what happens to each of them depends on who they are, what they want most, and how adaptable they are.

Is the King an easy mark for political manipulation? Does the Queen assume that all this democracy nonsense will go away when the royal family apologizes for the inadvertent absence and expresses its willingness to return to its duty? Is the Princess relieved that she doesn't have to marry the Prince anymore and anxious to sign up for art classes at the local community college? Does the Prince come out of the closet and become a spokesman for gay rights? Do the younger princes and princesses have to enroll in school?

What uses are devised for the pocket dimension magic?

Does the girl who accidentally released them feel ultimately responsible for them, and spend the rest of the book scrambling to bring them up to speed and keep them out of trouble? Yes, I suspect she does...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Optimist at the Gaming Table of Life

So the gaming group tried something different last Sunday: Deadlands, with the Savage Worlds system, with a GM who doesn't play with us very often, who is less mechanic-focused than about half our regular group. It was October 1879 in an American West overrun with magic and monsters, and the party we assembled to go looking for a missing railroad crew in Donner Pass consisted of war-weary Confederate veteran Captain William Palmer, bounty hunter Mina Winchester, frontiersman "Texas Jake" Johnson, Father Patrick O'Flannery (who one of us - not me, surprisingly - said should be named Connor), and - schoolmarm Miss Agnes Cranthorp.

I kept thinking, as I put Miss Cranthorp together, that she was going to die horribly, or at least be a drag on the party. All her attribute points went into Smarts, Spirit, and Vigor; her skills were things like Intimidate, Guts, Knowledge, and Persuasion; she was near-sighted, loyal, strong-willed, and charismatic - and she couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with any of the weapons the others were carrying. Even Father O'Flannery had a sidearm and a hunting rifle. Miss Cranthorp had a carpetbag full of books, a good black silk dress, and school supplies, and we were all joking about how her favored weapon was a ruler. But from the moment I heard "Weird West" I knew my character was a schoolmarm. I'm used to playing the character who's the Least Valuable Player in terms of damage dealt, whose main function is to keep other characters alive or to distract the GM while the strategists and game mechanics experts devise plans. I play to be somebody besides myself for a few hours, not to indulge power fantasies. So I put together Miss Cranthorp (you're not engaged or related, you don't get to even think of her as Agnes!) with the mental reservation that she'd probably be dead at the end of the day.

Instead, the DM was making jokes about everybody else hiding behind the schoolmarm and Texas Jake was promising to buy her a yardstick when we got back to civilization. For one thing, I was rolling pretty hot - our opponents, a wendigo and the victims of its curse of insatiable hunger (yes, I know wendigo is an Algonquian monster, not something you'd normally find in the Rockies, but I guess for purposes of the module they'd spread across the continent or something) - could not touch Miss Cranthrop, and she was nailing almost everything she tried. She shook off the curse, she dodged wolves and bullets and claws, she was unshaken by cannibalized corpses or being surrounded by hunger-crazed railroad workers or even the wendigo himself and the zombies he raised to oppose us.

Her shining moment, however, came when we were surrounded by the hunger-crazed railroad workers. Two had shotguns, four had clubs, and they were all clearly intent on eating us. Miss Cranthorp had borrowed a shotgun, but she had never used one before and had probably never struck a blow in anger in her life. Also, both Texas Jake and Captain Palmer were also affected by the curse, though they had so far fought off the urge to kill and eat the rest of us. Our working theory was that consuming human flesh would change a cursed person in a fundamental way, and we had ample reason to believe that our opponents had crossed that line. So when she happened to be the first to be able to act in the round, I as player knew that she probably needed to just pull the trigger, that we would be forced to kill them all. But I as Miss Cranthorp knew that she had to try to talk them down, that if she survived she would not be able to live with herself if she didn't. So I took an Intimidate, describing her as pointing the shotgun in her best imitation of Miss Winchester, drawing herself up as straight as she could, and using the Teacher Voice to address one of the men with shotguns, telling him that we would find the source of the curse and break it, freeing them all from this awful hunger, but right now he needed to put the gun down. And once again, she nailed it - not enough to make him actually put the gun down, not then, but enough that the GM decided he lowered it, looked confused, and held back from acting.

This successful Intimidation changed the whole tenor of the encounter. If the cursed could respond to the Teacher Voice they were still human and probably not responsible for their actions; so everyone in the party immediately switched modes. Captain Palmer, who had been about to aim for the head of the other shotgun-weilder, went for a disarm instead; Father O'Flannery helped Miss Cranthorp take the gun away from the one she'd intimidated; Texas Jake and Miss Winchester used their weapons as clubs; and we soon had them all tied up and stowed, in varying states of consciousness, in a ruined cabin with furs tucked around them so they wouldn't freeze while we tracked down the source of the curse. Instead of killing them, we freed them; and since we had explicitly come to Donner Pass to find out what had become of them and help them if we could, this was by far the most satisfactory outcome and a big win for humanity.

This sort of thing happens all the time in games. It happens in stories, too, but in that case the dice are all loaded - the author has a desired outcome and that outcome will happen. The reader may shove that knowledge down deep into her head where it can't interfere with her enjoyment, but she does know that. In games, though, you've got honest die rolls, implacable mechanics, and a player who is or is not determined to play the character to the hilt and not give in till the last roll of the dice.

And here's the thing - I am the only optimist in my gaming group. I have a biological tendency toward depression, and being an optimist has sometimes been the only way I could get out of bed in the morning. Everyone else at the table is saying "TPK time" and "OK, I may as well start rolling up my next character," or acting on the worst-case scenario assumption, and my not-exactly-optimized character is saying: "Okay, I do this then. No? I try this then. No? Oh, hush, we can still pull this out. I try this then. Yes! Okay, that's a start, now I'm gonna do this."

I am not a better player than the others, not by a long shot. We have players who can make a system dance; who can finesse a build or pull a huge advantage out of an innocuous mechanic or solve an intricate puzzle in ways I can't even follow, much less do myself. My strength is in playing my character flat out, to the hilt, and to the bitter end. That's why, when five out of six party members were captured by cannibals, my rogue got away and returned alone to free them from the larder. That's why this Deadlands party is not made up of murderers. That's also why I also occasionally get into situations in which my characters get into head-to-head confrontations with other characters, over how to treat prisoners or who's in charge (not something I normally fret about, but that was explicitly Sofia's mission, dammit, and not only did he flout her authority he damn near got everybody killed doing it) or how to handle some delicate situation; but that's the breaks. It makes for an interesting game, anyhow.

And it's because this works in games that, when push comes to shove, I never can quite give up on something there is any chance of doing, or that nobody else can do for me. And why I get so frustrated with people who quit before they begin; who assume failure as the default state, or that because they failed once that's the end of it.

It's not over till it's over. Stay on the ride. At least find out where it's going.

Do you want The Thing, or not?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

News: Ice Age Infant Burials in Alaska!

Two of them! Plus the cremation of a three-year-old; all buried underneath a living floor, which is a behavior common in Ice Age burials from all over. Even in warmish places, so it probably wasn't just that the ground elsewhere was too hard.

The most remarkable thing, to me, is that such a high percentage of the low number of Ice Age American burials we have are the burials of small children. When you think how delicate the unformed bones are - particularly of the one who apparently wasn't even born, but was a miscarriage (how, I wonder, are they sure it wasn't a preemie?) - and how rare any organic human remains are from this period, it's striking. And then there's the fact that the infants were buried and the three-year-old was cremated, in the same place, at about the same time? Were there age-dependent variables on burial customs? Was there a lot of individual variation and parental choice? Was the culture sufficiently stratified that the three-year-old and the two infants came from different status families and were treated differently on that basis? Did it make a difference how someone died?

It is impossible to answer these questions with such a small sample. It is equally impossible not to speculate.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Getting the Cat-Sitter

A couple of a close friends of mine work Renfaire every year, so I stop by to feed their cats and clean the litterboxes on weekends and during the week when Faire opens midweek for schools. They live in an apartment, and I park in the visitor lots on the side of the complex, using one of two walkways passing directly underneath second-floor apartments in the first building to get to my friends' unit on the far side of the small complex.

On Thursday, as I walked through, I heard a man say: "There you are! You're not getting away from me this time!"

Reflexively I looked up and saw a man I didn't know from Adam's off ox, and wouldn't know again if I saw him, standing on the balcony above the walkway. Apart from one glance up I didn't vary my pace or change my posture or do anything to send off "victim" signals - I may be too old to deal with catcallers on a regular basis anymore, but I was an obligate pedestrian through dark streets for far too long to have lost that discipline now.

I wasn't sure he was addressing me, either. He could have been talking on a mobile phone I didn't see, the dang things are so tiny, and he could have been joking. This is far more likely than that he was some sort of predator keeping tabs on dumpy middle-aged visitors, intent on terrorizing them. But I'm not stupid; I used the other walkway on my way back, and checked Moby's back seat before I got in and drove away. And nothing untoward has happened in my subsequent visits. He probably was on the phone with someone; and he probably was joking.

But what if he wasn't?

If I were a writer of a series of detective novels, this non-incident would need to be poked, prodded, stretched, flipped, turned inside out, and wrung for every drop of potential that could be extracted from it. In a mystery novel, this would have been a threat and it would have had consequences. But a number of questions would have to be asked, and a number of decisions made.

Why would the threat be made overt? Why not lie in wait for the cat-sitter and take her by surprise? The answer to this would be tied directly to the motivation for whatever crime was contemplated on her person.

Why the cat-sitter? Who is the cat-sitter? Dumpy middle-aged white ladies count as tempting targets for certain kinds of crimes, but the same qualities that make us vulnerable to some attacks protect us from others, and in any given apartment complex in Texas, there will be an irreducible minimum number of men on hand who are hard-coded to leap to our defense. Probably more than would automatically rush in to rescue a gorgeous 20-year-old, though less than would rush to rescue a small child. A mystery writer must choose victims carefully, not necessarily for the victim's own sake, but as part of the characterization of the murderer, the setting of clues, and the manipulation of the reader's sympathies. I did not recognize the man who spoke, but I'm not good with faces. Perhaps, if I am the story's victim, I did know him at one time, and did not remember him. Perhaps this is the past returning to bite me in the butt. Perhaps I am merely his "type" and he's a serial offender looking for someone to offend against. Perhaps I did not know him, but he thought I did, and my ignoring him incensed him past bearing. Perhaps I merely reminded him of someone - someone (oooh, hey) he thought he had killed, but was gone when he returned with the equipment to dispose of the body, so that he's spent the last umpty-ump years in a stew, waiting for her to reappear and exact her revenge! Yes, that last one is by far the best idea.

What would the practical difficulties be in "getting" someone in this situation, with this apartment complex's layout? This calls for a good old-fashioned Map of the Relevant Area to go in the front of the book, with routes, Moby, the positions of witnesses, and the locations of clues clearly marked. (I don't know about you, but no mystery novel that doesn't entail map use is 100% satisfactory.)

These decisions, and others like them, will need to be determined in reference to the requirements of the series. If it's a series of police procedurals, then the apartment complex may need to be gussied up or grunged down in order to fit within the jurisdiction of the series protagonists. If the detective is an amateur, something must draw her attention to this crime and place her on the scene naturally - and how best to do this will depend on that detective's established habits, interests, and milieu. In a cozy mystery, the cat-sitter may be the detective herself, and the remark addressed to someone else she is prevented from seeing by some feature of the immediate terrain. In a hard-boiled one, the detective may be on hand because it's his own apartment complex, or because he's on another job in the complex that intersects with this one, or may be a suspect. This is a problem the writer of amateur sleuth series encounters over and over, and if you're not equipped to handle it, you have no business creating an amateur sleuth!

I've got a couple of mysteries under my belt, but I'm not plot-driven enough to make them a habit, so I'll let this one go by. But it doesn't hurt to think about it. (And make sure that Moby's locked.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ah, November

All hail Kitchen Sanitation Month. When working with your hands leave your brain free to think broadly and deeply; but leaves you too tired to write anything down.

Which explains a lot about history and literature, actually; who gets to do them, and how, and why. Because for the vast and silent majority of humanity, from before the dawn of man, every day must contain the level of sheer physical labor that Kitchen Sanitation Month entails, in order to survive comfortably. (Or, in a war zone or a famine, at all.)

Got to go get lunch and then get back on it.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: An Example from Real Life

Somehow I managed to get behind and lose track of time on Fall Back morning (some talents are undervalued in society), and though I had one in my head I can tell it's at least a two-hour type to work out in print, and I have, um, fifteen minutes, so...

Fortunately, this morning one of the regular comics I look at posted a comment from the creator describing exactly how idea generation is done in real life, from day-to-day, constantly:

Channing: I went to Disneyland a couple weeks ago, and instead of just enjoying myself like a normal person, I sat around trying to think of how I could make a story set in Disneyland featuring a talking unicorn robot. Thankfully I also enjoyed myself.

Yup, that's an important part of How It's Done!

Happy Dia de los Muertos and go watch The Book of Life, which has not been marketed strongly enough here, in a town which is brimming over with its natural audience, illustrating my point from Tuesday. We saw it yesterday. And now I have to go to Game with People Day.