Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I Aten't Dead

Sorry to miss a Sunday. Nothing's wrong. We had to leave for the game a bit earlier than usual, and in the evening I had other stuff going on. Monday I was light-headed, and anyway all the stuff I came up with I'd think: "Naw, I may need that one." And the prime motivation to garage sale ideas is to get the excess ones out of my head to demonstrate how easy they are to generate, not to give away stuff I might use.

Since stalling out on the WIP, I'm considering doing short stories again for awhile. Six books, in various genres and age groups, in the bank unsold is kind of a lot, and they tend to get in the way of my hands as I'm working at novel-length, their unsold state a reproach to me. Starting another full-length work feels a bit like getting pregnant again when I can't feed the kids I've got. But if I'm not writing new stuff -

-- Okay, so, that doesn't happen unless I'm deep in the old depressive hole and not doing anything constructive at all. Every time I try to focus on selling, revising, tweaking, whatever, old stuff, I find myself directing more of that creative energy into some game or other. (Hence the current healthy state of my simblr.) Telling stories is what I do, whether anyone listens or not, and my media for that are text and games.

Short story markets are frustrating in a completely different way than novel markets, of course. But what isn't frustrating most of the time, when you come down to it? If you avoid all frustration, you avoid all accomplishment.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Still Slogging Away

By my standards, having to decide between two equally compatible-looking agents at the same agency to target a query at is a pretty good problem to have.

Unfortunately the process of finding out more about them looks a lot like wasting time on social media. Fortunately, no one is looking at me.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: A Walk on the Edges

I was always looking for that portal to another world.

Had I found it, a physical reality in a physical world, I probably would have been too chicken to go through. But I looked, anyway. I used to take long evening walks, beginning and ending in the all-too-familiar area around my house (though when I used alleys I got some intriguingly mysterious overgrown spaces even within that wasteland of ranch-style houses) and creating magical liminal spaces around the fringes, especially near the Concho River.

San Angelo, Texas, is not a promising-looking place for the imagination to roam, but one thing I learned in my career as an Air Force brat was that all places are boring and ugly, and all places are interesting and beautiful, depending on the personal investment and the distance. Everything is ugly when you're separated from it by a car. When you are close enough to be intimate, but for one social or physical barrier holding the spot just out of reach, many mundane things become beautiful and full of possibility. Vacant buildings, untended drainage easements brimming with wildflowers, culverts that were either flooded (during the October or May rains, if we got them that year) or dry as bones, gates to nowhere, haunted gardens - I found them and I made them into what I needed them to be. I almost touched a bird once. I trespassed more or less accidentally, and undetected, more often than I care to think about. I discovered the only newsstand in town where you could buy new fantasy and science fiction paperbacks. I learned that there's a large species of hummingbirds that sings - tweeter tweeter.

Does anybody let their middle- and high- school kids take these untended walks anymore? Do solitary children ride bikes out to explore? They have their phones, after all. They've had the warnings. With a little exercise of common sense, they should be fine, just like I was. For my own part, I don't remember many personal encounters, and those I remember have nothing of the threat about them even in hindsight. I stabbed myself on the palm by grabbing onto the wrong branch during one of my river explorations, and the lady I'd accidentally trespassed on cleaned the wound and was very nice to me.

But every parent I meet now is paranoid. We fear the people who want to hurt us and our children out of all proportion to their numbers, because the consequences of misplacing trust are so dire. But as a species we need to explore. We thrive on leaving our safe spaces to explore the spaces we cannot control, where danger is a possibility but far from a certainty, and returning, still safe, more or less, give or take a thorn in the palm. And if we never pick up the thorns, no one ever has a chance to be nice to us, do they? Kindness at home does not count; it is the job of home to be safe and kind to us. I never met kindness at school, of which the less said the better; school was soul-crushingly and inevitably dangerous because the predators of whom I was the natural prey gathered there in force, and I have no reason to think that this has changed. My walks were soul-expanding, marginally risky at most, and sprinkled with small, spontaneous kindness.

I was making my own portal and going through it every time I left the house.

How would a modern child accomplish this, in the paranoid cities of a world assumed to be unkind?

Is that a grown-up misperception on my part?

It is 2015. You are twelve. You need to find, or make, a portal to another world. You need to explore. You need liminal spaces, intimate mystery, a chance to encounter the kindness as well as the rudeness of strangers.

Where do you go? How do you get there? Who tries to stop you?

Answer me that. Write me the book. I want to know.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Dadgummit to Heck

I have now put the same damn zipper in wrong seven times.

Only four ways to put it in at all exist. Three of them are wrong. So I'm repeating myself. Multiple times.

But if I don't make my own pants I don't get pants that cover my butt. It actually costs me more woman-hours, and more tears of frustration, to buy a pair of pants that doesn't quite fit than to make one that fits perfectly.

And seven times is nothing - I'm well into double-digits for queries on every work I have ready to sell. So when I stop being lightheaded, and have gotten myself round some chocolate, I'm going for lucky #8.

Because even if you're bad at something, if it's the only way to get what you need, you're stuck.

Edit to Add: I was wrong. I just invented two brand-new wrong ways to put in a zipper. Clearly, I have talent for this. Too bad it's not one I can be paid for.

Tomorrow is another day. Today I'm thinking: Sims and more chocolate.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Characters: Gaming, Fiction, Life

So there's this guy who used to game with us. He made himself persona non grata in our house and Damon and I don't play with him anymore, but he's still in a group with someone else we know. (And if you're reading this, A - your feelings are about to get hurt, but I'd advise you to pay attention, because sometimes the way to self-improvement is through hurt feelings. If you had ever shown any sign of actively listening to me I would've said all this to your face long ago.)

He gamed with us for a long time, and for most of that time we didn't understand why he was showing up. And though he has not done any of the specific things there that have made him unwelcome in my home, we are still regaled occasionally with tales of what A did, in the other gaming group, to demonstrate that he hasn't changed. He brings an electronic device and does things on it rather than paying attention to the game. He comes late. He deliberately builds suboptimal characters that don't accomplish things in the game.

I have often thought, and several times remarked, that if you gave A a high-level, fully-optimized character and ran him alongside, or in direct conflict with, a low-level, poorly-optimized character played by Damon, Damon's character would still be the effective one. Because Damon would (grumbling all the way at the unfairness of it all) milk every advantage he could out of the character he had, that character's surroundings, the game mechanics, and the dice. A wouldn't even use the advantages that were spelled out for him on his character sheet.

I wish to be clear about something: I build suboptimal gaming characters all the time. I get my stats (in systems derived from D&D, four-d6-drop-the-lowest-and-arrange-as-desired is the one true character generation method; all others are cheats and imitations), I get the specifics of the campaign setting, a backstory sparks, I create a character, and then I do all the fiddly skill-building, power-assigning, equipment-buying stuff - in character. When we play Pathfinder, a D&D derivative whose creators believe heavily in "the build" as the be-all and end-all of character creation and combat as the main focus of the game, I sometimes feel crushed under the weight of the decisions that have to be made, and if I don't get Damon (who is great at manipulating systems) to help me I generally have a character who would die if not surrounded by combat monsters and healers. Even in a rules-light game like the current Deadlands campaign I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I often find myself looking around for something Miss Cranthorp can do while the other characters are fighting. Put Miss Cranthorp into melee and she's at a loss.

But - and this is why people respond to Miss Cranthorp as an awesome character and to A's characters as bad jokes - if Miss Cranthorp can't fight she will volunteer to drive the train to free up the current driver for combat (and accidentally shake a bunch of mooks off the top of the passenger car before they can enter melee, suddenly putting the odds in our favor). A's characters, in a similar situation, will hide, or spend several rounds building up personal defenses while other party members are getting clobbered within arm's reach, or run away, or do nothing at all because A is watching cat videos or something on his laptop and the GM gets tired of trying to get his attention.

My characters are individuals who engage with other individuals in the game, with the setting, with the particular problem in hand. I inhabit them fully while I play them, and even if they die (which they tend not to, even in Pathfinder), people remember them fondly, and not as suboptimal at all. Being remembered well is a more important part of "winning" in RPGs - and in fiction - than is triumphing. Many a great gaming story ends in a Total Party Kill. Nor are Romeo and Juliet memorable for their ability to solve the conflicts presented to them by the plot!

A doesn't appear to inhabit his own character fully, much less the fictional ones under his control. He doesn't engage with the people around him enough to understand or even respect their points of view (which is how he got kicked out of my house). He doesn't understand the rules - of the game, of the story, of the society he lives in - well enough to use them, abuse them, or even effectually break them. He won't even engage his own problems, preferring to continue behaving in the same way endlessly amid people who don't know why he showed up and inevitably grow contemptuous of him.

Which is why I'm bringing him up. A no doubt has reasons for the behaviors he slouches along in. One reason we dealt with him as long as we did was that we assumed he had a lot of crap he was dealing with and that, as fellow borderline social-rejects, we were doing him some sort of good even though we couldn't see it, by providing a safe place to work through - whatever he was working through. But it's been more than 15 years and, if our friend in his current gaming group is to be believed (I have no reason to doubt him), he's still passively, stubbornly, even a little self-righteously, not doing the same old things he always never did. No meds, no therapy, no experimentation. No engagement.

An awful lot of life is just a matter of showing up and paying attention.

Maybe you don't understand the rules. You don't have to understand them to engage with them. To challenge them. To find your way through them. To bend them to your will.

But you require a will, first.

You have to have a character before you can create a character.

Are your characters flat and lifeless on the page? Are they boring? Are they whiny? Are they collections of quirks and flaws and virtues moving through the plot rather than people moving the plot around? Do they all sound like each other?

What about you? Are you showing up for your own life?

If you're not - it doesn't matter why you're not. Maybe your reason's good, maybe it's crappy; either way, it's preventing you from doing something you say you want to do, i.e. write well.

So what are you going to do about it?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: The Girl in the Underwater Cave

I think we all know that today's garage sale idea is yesterday's news.

How did that girl, did "Naia," wind up in that cave with all those other bones?

Accident? Sacrifice? Suicide? Execution for a crime? (What crime?) Murder?

Each answer implies a different societal and personal background. And "sacrifice" is a muddling category. If you volunteer for human sacrifice in a bargain with the gods to save your tribe from famine, to ensure that the sun continues to return, or whatever, how shall we distinguish that from modern concepts of suicide? If you kill someone else in the same bargain, is that distinguishable from murder? What about execution? How did, how could, the idea that something as obviously and openly wrong as killing a teen-age girl could ever be a good thing take hold in any cultural context? How does it happen that we do not recognize at once that a goal that can only be accomplished that way is not worth achieving?

Was human sacrifice invented by the suicidal? There's a certain resonance between the reasoning behind both, for a deeply depressed person is capable of believing that removing herself from the world would be a net benefit to her loved ones. But what situation is so dire that the loved ones would accept this reasoning? What coincidence between the act and the relief of the dire condition could be strong enough to make the conclusion that the gods accept or require such bargains a part of a culture?

Those are all side questions if this girl's death is not connected to later traditions of sacrifice. Just because it's what leaps to my mind does not make it the only story.

The important question is: Who was that girl? What was her life like? Who mourned for her after her untimely death?

How you answer that question governs the themes of the story you build around her.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

News: The Face of Paleoyucatan

Cool! The nearly complete skeleton of a teen-age girl who drowned in an underwater cave full of bones in Yucatan during the late Pleistocene has undergone facial reconstruction, and good old NatGeo brings us the pics. She has a distinctive face.

The article itself is a reasonable overview of the complex state of the art, but I have to object to the use of a Greek name for the girl, and also - ick - those references to her "bad luck" in the lead paragraph. Historical Central Americans deliberately sacrificed people in bodies of water - it is by no means a lock that all those bones wound up in that cave by accident! In light of the unspecified (because this is a general summary rather than an examination of the data) signs of interpersonal violence and domestic abuse described as being found on the Paleoindian skeletons we have, speculations about darker reasons for her to be there should not be overlooked.

Chatters's theory about why these Paleoamericans don't look like the later Americans to whom they are genetically linked is interesting; but I would ask that you remember what this field is like. Archeologists are doing the same thing fiction writers do when they look at these remains - taking what they see and building a story to fit. When an archeologist does it, it's called a theory rather than a story - but it's still an imaginative interpretation of the data. It is unlikely that this is the only theory derivable from the data and, as long as you examine the evidence to the best of your ability, you are not obliged to consider a professional's opinion as automatically closer to the truth than your own.

Popular articles like these are the starting point. If you want to work up a story, whether for scientific or artistic purposes, it behooves you to go to the source material. You may not be able to see the bones yourself (or interpret what you see if you do), but academic papers can be read by laymen, academic conferences are open to the general public, and archeologists are, as a group, approachable, if you do so with respect and having done your research. I have never met a scientist who wasn't a huge geek, eager to talk about his area of expertise. You don't need qualifications beyond curiosity and open-mindedness to get in on this act.

Look at that young woman's face, and tell me you don't want to know her story!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

News: Ancient American Dogs

Although even the most conservative archeologists now concede that humans populated the Americas 13,000 or more years ago (with the smart money on "more" and even "way more"), genetic evidence seems to indicate that they did so without dogs, until about 10,000 years ago.

This is based on mitochondrial DNA. Expect refinements and a pushback when someone does a nuclear DNA study. Because that's how it works.

They also found a greater-than-expected amount of genetic diversity in ancient American dogs; the historical "Indian dog" being a recognizable and fairly uniform breed that led researchers to expect a fairly uniform origin. It's a poor scientific study that holds no surprises! (At least in a field like this one, in which the knowledge gaps are so huge.)

As is so often true, this study is limited to North America and ignores Central and South America. Given the distinctive breeds ancient Mexicans produced, and the degree to which focusing on North American human populations distorted our picture of the process of populating the "New World" for so long, I think a study that includes the entire Western Hemisphere cannot be undertaken too soon.

From the point of view of the person wanting to write fiction set in the Pleistocene, the presence or absence of dogs matters a lot. I left dogs out of 11,000 Years Lost, despite a private opinion that Clovis people probably had them, specifically so that I wouldn't have to show them being eaten. Had I included them, the shape of the society would have been significantly altered. Dogs are beasts of burden, food sources, hunting partners, and a major economic factor, which modern Americans have the luxury of considering primarily in the light of their qualities as companions. We can afford to be sentimental about them. Clovis and pre-Clovis people would not have.

Which does not mean they wouldn't have been affected by the cuteness of puppies. But if you want a model of Pleistocene dog/people interaction, you might do well to consider the attitudes of farming families to their livestock, rather than your own feelings about Snoopy and Moon-Moon.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

First Query of the Year

It's in the mail. The e-mail. Whatever. And - we'll see.

I believe in Len's story so hard and so much, a part of me is convinced each time I send it out that the person on the other end will see what I see and realize what potential is there, to change the whole game.

And I also find myself believing that, if it once again doesn't happen, that something I did or didn't say or do is at fault. The story is great, so I must be screwing up, right?

Well, maybe. Or maybe the agent just signed somebody else with a transgender western. (We can only hope.) Or maybe she has so many clients she decided to stop taking queries five minutes before mine showed up. Or -

There are a thousand reasons to turn down a query, only one, maybe two, to accept it.

It's hard to remember that when you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, suddenly certain that what you said in the third paragraph gave entirely the wrong impression and guaranteed rejection. But it's true, whether we remember it or not.

And regardless of whether I screw up or not - I'm the only one who can sell this story, because I was the only one who could write it. So it is my duty to the story to keep it in the mail.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: The Cat Lady of Florence

A rather complicated one from the good old reliable Fortean Times. In the October 2015 issue, in a recurring feature called "Blasts from the Past," Theo Paijman went old newspaper diving in the annals of Florence, South Carolina, and turned up a "cat lady" flap.

The most tantalizing and disturbing thing about this article is that the flap was apparently chiefly affecting the black part of town, and the newspapers at his disposal were all from the white press. Newspapers reporting flaps generally start out with a serious story or two and then start poking fun at people for believing in, fearing, or going out looking for aliens, or monkey men, or tigers, or whatever the flap is about. In the case of a Depression-era southern town white newspaper, it's very hard indeed to tell whether the opening stories are serious or jeering - I think even a native of the town, not alive during that era, would have difficulty reading the newspaper reports in the way that the original audience would have.

Given the trust gap between the black experiencers and the white reporters, moreover, it is impossible to tell what really happened. There's always a rumormill in these cases that makes extracting the real, core experience out of the gossip and the grafting-on of folk motifs difficult. In a case in which the witnesses don't trust the reporters, and the reporters are untrustworthy because they don't respect the witnesses - who knows if anyone ever told the truth to anyone who wrote it down?

Did anyone ever, in fact, claim to have seen a "cat-faced woman...having a small head only a little larger than a grapefruit but comes exactly like that of a cat, with fur, ears and eyes of a feline appearance...dressed in a long black coat" and with "paws and claws just as a cat has?"

Did anyone in Florence, in fact, believe that anyone had?

Did the black population of the town really leave work early to go home and bar themselves in at night?

And if they did, was it really for fear of a cat lady? None of the accounts of her attacking or pursuing people, after all, are half so chilling as the following quoted snippet from the Florence Morning News, February 3, 1939: "The police in reality were inclined to favour continuance of the catwoman's presence in Florence..."I don't believe we'll have any trouble with these darkies at night - and that's when they do most of their devilment. I went down Cox Street last night a little after dark and didn't see but one negro It ought to be a good thing while it lasts."

Uh-huh. The police are cited several times, and while some of the quotations are contradictory concerning whether or not the incidents are ever reported at all, they are consistent in saying that the truth behind the flap was never investigated, and the overwhelming impression is that the(presumably all-white) police force were openly contemptuous of the black population's sense of insecurity. So the urgent question becomes, not "was there a real cat lady?" but "was the cat lady flap, as reported, a cover for a coordinated terrorist action on the black population by certain elements of the white one?"

Up front, I cannot write this story, because I am not black. I do my best to get around my own privilege, but understanding what happened in Florence, for either a novelistic or an investigative purpose, requires someone who starts much closer to the original experience than I do. All I can do is stand at the edge of it feeling slightly sick to my stomach and knowing that I belong to a demographic that can at least call the police without fear of being murdered.

I would, however, be really interested to see a black paper's contemporary take on the story. Perhaps the black population had its own reasons for circulating the story, and the whole thing was some kind of con on the white population.

Is it tragedy? Is it farce? Is it Just One of Those Human Things?