Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Proof/Disproof. Yeah, Right.

Sorry about missing the garage sale Sunday; I was wiped. And yesterday and today I was actually able to go out and do yardwork in the wake of the recent storms, so I did. Now it's almost possible to drag the fallen branches all the way to the brush pile at the property line! Yay! But I am tired. Oh, well.

Anyway, this morning, an article titled: Alternate Theory of Inhabitation of North America Disproved appeared on my tumblr dash. So I made a skeptical sound and said: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

I suspected it was about the Solutrean Hypothesis, and it was - or rather, about one element of it, the freezing of the North Atlantic down to appropriate latitudes for humans to utilize the ice fields for hunting, as historical and modern hunters have utilized the Arctic ice. The lead paragraph contains the claim: "Now, researchers at the University of Missouri, working with colleagues the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and elsewhere, have definitively disproved the ice bridge theory."

Well, maybe they have; but if so, you can't tell from the rest of the posted article, which consists entirely of a muddled account of nitpicks concerning the provenance of a point associated with mastodon bones, both dredged out of Cheaspeake Bay in the 70s. I wouldn't have to know anything about the Solutrean Hypothesis to know that you can't prove or disprove anything with the data presented, as presented. I can't tell whether the University of Missouri archeological team write lousy press releases and make grandiose claims, or if they tried to explain the background to a University employee in charge of writing it, who got bored halfway through, lost the thread, took crappy notes, and then gave it to somebody else to write the headline in which the grandiose claim is made. Either way, lousy journalism has been committed here, and both the Solutrean Hypothesis and the arguments against it have been oversimplified into absurdity.

(And may I just say, if I never see the term "bridge" brought up in a discussion of the peopling of the Americas again, it'll be too soon? Nobody needed a land bridge, or an ice bridge, or any kind of bridge to get to America. The most conservative archeologists I've ever met conceded that the first Americans not only may have had, but probably did have, boats, and will emphasize that Beringia (and the ice sheet) were not passageways from one continent to another, but distinctive geographical regions with resources to be utilized in a number of different ways. Nobody refers to or thinks of the polar ice caps or Central America as "bridges." If the Isthmus of Panama is flooded, people will wind up on side or another of the resulting strait, but it would be absurd to think that they were in transit the whole time they were living on the Isthmus of Panama. Get a grip, geez!)

Which is why primary research is so important. When you're writing something inspired by science, or history, or whatever, you'll inevitably encounter a lot of accounts and explanations that fall easily into the shapes of common conceptions. They report in broad strokes that create familiar patterns, as conflict between two opposing forces (because a story is character + conflict, right?), in terms of proof or disproof, stodgy conservatism or reckless iconoclasm, arguments that stand or fall on a single piece of evidence - and it simply does not work that way. You read the journals and talk to the scientists, though - really read them, for information, chewing your way diligently through all the background details that seem tedious at first - the moment will come when you have your epiphany and see them as the millions of tiny pixels making up a much more complicated, much grander, a thousand times more ambiguous, but far more interesting story than the broad strokes that first intrigued you led you to believe.

When you write your own story, you'll have to leave out a lot of those details, too. You'll have to create your own broad strokes version - and you'll probably have to draw, or at least sketch out, a conclusion that the scientists will hedge around with disclaimers. But that's all right, that's the nature of narrative.

As long as it's the narrative that paints the picture you built up for yourself out of all those pixelly details; not the same old familiar lazy pattern that everybody already knows.

Because why write the same old story over and over and over, when the world is infinite? All your readers will see on the beaten path is packed dirt. Lead them into the long grass, into the trees, and across the pristine ice fields of the mind!

They might be confused. But they won't be bored. The better a story reflects this infinite, chaotic, beautiful, reality we live in, the less dull it will be.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: The Transgender Western

Seriously. Since we just established that I haven't written it, somebody out there should. Somebody transgender, for choice.

Female crossdressing is a standard trope in the genre and happened a lot in history, but in fiction it ends with the woman declaring her heterosexuality and returning to female garb. As it sometimes did in real life. But not always.

And this could easily be reversed, and undoubtedly was, but since women led more circumscribed lives it doesn't inspire adventure fiction. But feminine "men," masculine "women," and intersex and genderfluid people have always existed. People must have changed their effective gender by changing clothes quite a lot, during time periods when gender was so strongly coded that nobody, ever, looked for other gender clues without a reason.

You'll need some kind of plot beyond that, of course, but if you read in the western genre, you know the plots and it should, once you consider your character, be clear at once how and where and into which plot this character would fit. Let's hear the story of the schoolmarm who used to be a cowboy, the widow rancher whose high collars mask an adam's apple, the orphan whose choices include which equally-possible face to turn to the world, the escaped slave whose description in the advertisement cites the wrong sex.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Thinking Out Loud

So it has come to my attention that I need to work out whether Len is lesbian or transgender in order to pitch her story properly to a modern audience. I'd thought I could shrug it off, because Len has no concept of either, and the categorization of gender identity and sexual preference has only recently become precise enough to distinguish between the two - until gender reassignment surgery became possible, a transman might as well be a lesbian, for all practical purposes, and the idea of a male mind in a woman's body was seriously proposed as a "cause" for lesbianism even within the community. Radclyffe Hall takes it for granted in The Well of Loneliness, for example. (Not the only reason that book reads as strange and problematic today, by a long shot; but I think it reads a bit better if Stephen Gordon is interpreted as a transman, and his lover Angela, at least, as straight rather than bisexual. Mary could be either bi or straight. But anyway.)

Refusing to label real historical people by terms they wouldn't find applicable is all very well, but it leaves people with underrepresented identities feeling even more like beggars at the table than they are. St. Paul and H.P. Lovecraft both came as close to declaring themselves asexual as they could without having a word for it available to them, so it seems mean-spirited toward modern asexuals not to apply the label to them.

And in a modern book written for a modern audience, refusing to label is bad marketing as well as bad representation. Yes, there is a danger of agents and publishers and marketing people marginalizing a title with clear labels into literary ghettos - but there's no guarantee that won't happen, anyway, and at least a clear label, or even a ghetto, allows the audience to find the work, whether their circumstances empower them to pick it up, or not.

I started off thinking of Len as a lesbian by default. I'm bisexual, so it's fairly easy to imagine my way into a lesbian character; plus I'm so freaking cis I came up with the notion of gender as a social construct on my own when I was twelve. I feel so congruent with my body I have no intuitive grasp of the concept of feeling different or separate from it - if my body is female, I'm female, which makes feminine a wholly redundant term and the gendering of activities and self-presentation simply silly. A woman doing something is enough to render the activity feminine, and a man doing the same thing genders it as masculine, and in an ideal world nobody would be gender-policing anybody. And of course nobody would be transgender because everybody would be comfortable in their own skin and able to do what they wanted! Which probably meant they'd be bisexual, too, though the skinny parts of the bell curve would be occupied by strict monosexuals. In the meantime, of course, people who felt the need for extensive body modification surgery to bring their gender and sex into synch should not be prevented from getting it, or stigmatized for it, even though I personally found the whole concept icky. Surgery of any kind is a medical miracle that is indistinguishable from mutilation to me. Sometimes it's necessary, but the same is true of the death penalty and abortion, and those won't be necessary in a perfect world, either!

As I've become better informed about the subjective experiences of the genderqueer I've realized this was naive at best and insufferably smug at the worst. I may not have any better grasp of how it feels to be transgender than of how it tastes to enjoy an olive (which is one of the foulest things I've ever had in my mouth), but that's a limitation that doesn't prevent me from accepting the voice of experience when it tells me that for some people, sex and gender aren't the same and olives are delicious, and writing an olive-eating transmale character if I need to. And it began to seem to me that I had. (Not that there's any olives in the story, but Len has a close personal relationship with food like you wouldn't believe, and seems to enjoy everything. I had to cut out a lot of meal details during revision.) However, if Len is transgender, I'll need to do another big research stint and overhaul the manuscript, looking for places where my cis assumptions have trampled over Len's trans voice. I don't much want to do that - but I'd rather make that effort, than be guilty of misrepresenting the character.

So what makes me think Len might be a transman rather than a lesbian?

Well - the fact that once she puts on the Len persona she never, ever takes it off again, but spends the rest of her life presenting herself as male to the world. Even when sharing the secret with Di, she does not say: "I'm a woman" but "My name is Eleanor." When trying to convey, without breaching Victorian mores, that if she marries Di she will want a real marriage, not a sexless front, she says: "I would want to be your husband. And for you to be my wife."

The fact that to a certain degree she's not even donning a persona. She has always been "masculine" enough that her father had a Dad-joke about her and her sickly twin brother being switched at birth. She and her brother Leonard have always done the same things, a mix of masculine and feminine behaviors: "I could shoot as well as Len. He could sew as well as me." Even the name Len isn't appropriated from her brother, but shared with him - their family addresses them both as Len, because for most purposes one will do as well as another, and if you call for one you'll get them both. The feminine "Lennie" was used by outsiders to distinguish them, but not one instance of this has survived to the current draft.

The fact that, though she has several sad introspective moments in which she contemplates a lonely bachelor future, and regards getting into a satisfactory romantic relationship as equally impossible whether she lives as a man or a woman, she never considers returning home, where at least she would have her family. And she does love her family.

Moreover, the idea of a Boston marriage, which was common and perfectly respectable (because assumed to be sexless) never crosses her mind, and she doesn't discuss the possibility with Di. The original ending, since cut, explicitly shows Len living out the rest of her life as a man and never going home again.

That's all - pretty persuasive, actually.

Against this, we can place my consistent tendency to use female pronouns for her. (See preceding paragraphs!) This might, however, be my cissexism overriding my intention to accept Len as herself. Himself. Whatever.

If I'm that cissexist, though, is it even possible for me to accidentally create a transgender character, let alone one who feels as strongly individuated and fully-formed as Len has always been to me, from the first day I heard the voice in my head? Unconscious processes shouldn't be underestimated, but - if mine is capable of a trick like that, am I perhaps less cis than I've always felt? Suddenly I wander in fields of self-distrust.

Also, Len doesn't talk about body dismorphia at all. When she worries about being outed by an imperfection of the arrangements she's made in her clothing, by the tenor of her voice, by her smell, by her lack of snore, or whatever, she doesn't express any sense of the factors that might give her away being alien or wrong or not belonging to her in any way. When she looks in the mirror she expresses no sense of satisfaction at finally seeing the "right" self looking back at her, only examining herself critically for ways she can improve the illusion. She appears to accept the body she's in, and concern herself with presenting a male face to the world primarily because, having once begun, being discovered will cut her off from society - she will be a ruined woman, and fair game for anyone (any man, particularly) to treat any old way. She never comes out and says so, but if Cave discovered the secret while they were out tracking Pegasus, one consequence will almost certainly be rape, unless she's willing to shoot him. (And she would be able to. Even as a boy, Cave underestimates Len throughout; realizing she's a woman would remove all respect for her abilities as marksman.)

But would Len talk about body dismorphia, in terms I would understand and not edit away (unconscious cissexism at work again)? She is, after all, a respectable Victorian! The terms in which she can talk about bodies at all are limited. She never describes the specifics of the arrangements she makes to her wardrobe, or of what aspects of her natural body are more troublesome to hide than others. In Victorian society, changing the gender other people saw really was as simple as changing clothes and the part in your hair (men parted on the side; women, straight down the middle), because gender was signaled so clearly and unequivocally by clothes. People may or may not have talked about what was under the clothes, when they needed to; but only medical professionals and pornographers were not extremely cagey and indirect about what they wrote about bodies. And Len, though again this is in the cut-out ending, was writing to her and Di's adopted kids, to explain the shock they were going to get when they had to lay her out after she died.

So there I am, needing to revise my query (again) and completely bewildered. So I did what any modern woman would do, and went to the internet. My Google Fu failed me in looking for critique groups composed entirely of genderqueer people, alas. But Diversity Cross-check is a place where people from underrepresented demographics - people with disabilities, people who aren't Western white people, people who don't fall on the gender binary, people in marginalized subcultures, people who are more than one of these things - volunteer to give advice to people who want to write outside their own identities and don't want to be jackasses about it. So I went there and read far too many profiles of people who didn't sound like Len at all - but I did find one transman who used to think he was a lesbian, and as it happens he's a student of queer theory and has been very helpful. He cut right to the heart of the matter, and pointed out that what's going to govern modern perceptions of Len will be her motivation to live as a man. Possible reasons suggested were:

1. She wants to be with women, and in that case, she needs to be a man.
2. She dislikes the social restrictions on women, and prefers to be treated as a man because it jives with her personality better.
3. She doesn't consider herself a woman, and so the other option is being a man.
4. She thinks gender is dumb and wishes people would stop asking her; she lives as man because it's convenient/practical.

Other reasons could govern the change, but I don't really need them, as Len's motivations are straightforward. She initially cut her hair and donned her brother's clothes in order to run off with the neighbor girl. That's Reason #1. They couldn't do a Boston marriage because they had already caught them doing married-people things, so they'd have to go right away where no one knew them, and on the lawless Texas frontier, two women traveling alone were much less safe than a woman with a man. Two men would've been better, but Maudie was way too femme for it. When Maudie refused to go, Len was still in running away mode, much too angry to return home tamely (and see Maudie all the time), so she chose to stay away awhile and prove that she could make a living as a man, that her plan would have worked, if Maudie had been a little braver. That's Reason #2.

Most of the book is the time period during which she is proving this, partly to herself; and during this time she is falling in love with Di. Also, it's only a couple of months, and she explicitly thinks that, if Something Bad seems to be coming down the pike, San Antonio is further up the news chain than home, and not so far from it that she couldn't beat the Something Bad to them, and warn them. So she's committed to maintaining the male disguise until the political situation settles down, out of concern for her family.

By the time they emerge from the wilderness and blackmail Middleton into permitting them to marry, Len is committed to the gender presentation by her commitment to Di. Not only do they both have established identities in San Antonio (they could move, after all), but Di has a secret of her own, which scrutiny might reveal. And if they did go home and try a Boston marriage, in a place where Len's identity is well-known, Di would be scrutinized - by Len's own family. So retaining the male identity is about protecting Di - right back to Reason No. 1. Reasons 3 and 4 (and 5 and 6) aren't actively contraindicated - but they aren't actively invoked, either.

Besides, without the ending I cut out, the audience doesn't know that Len maintains the male disguise till the end of her life. The Len they will see is one who loves women, who wants to find, spend her life and have a family with, and protect one special woman, who imagines her desires in the context of the companionate marriage usual in her society; who is competent to do work normally reserved for men; for whom presenting herself as male is a means to an end.

So it looks as if I should pitch this as a lesbian novel, and treat Len as a lesbian, and be prepared to discuss the transgender issue if anybody else brings it up. Another comb-through of the text may not be a bad idea; but I'm not looking down the throat of a major revision.

And now I've worked all that out, maybe I can finally get back on revising down that query letter some more. Because it's still too long!

Much like this post.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: Can't Be Bothered

Ugh. Headache. Don't want to do this. Will anyway.

An awful lot of human life is made up of doing things we don't want to do. Which is a conflict, and conflict means story, so where does that take us?

Unless you want to write depressing literary fiction (in which case, go you, but leave me out of it), most of the things we don't want to do aren't interesting enough to write about - washing the dog, going to work, changing diapers, cleaning the oven. Unless -

Wait a minute.

It occurs to me that all the same mundane, distasteful activities that would fit into depressing literary fiction would also fit into comedy; in which case, the more mundane the task that goes hilariously wrong, the better. It's an old, old trope, the humor arising from mucking up simple tasks because they look so simple no one thinks they need instructions, from freak accidents complicating simple tasks in a snowballing fashion, or from elaborate attempts to avoid the distasteful activity. (Combine any two of these elements, and you have a commercial for Be-bop-a-re-bop Rhubarb Pie)

Because this trope is so old, of course, it's not easy coming up with fresh material for it. We've all seen the kid put too much soap in the washing machine, thank you; we've all seen the guy who tries to lie himself out of an unpleasant duty winding himself up in a web of deceit till he can't move without disaster striking. And we hardly need elaborate ruses to get out of a lot of the new duties that weigh us down - all we have to do is get on the internet and pretend we were working!

But perhaps what you've got to do is, to be available online to people you don't want to talk to, asking the same stupid questions over and over again, questions that were covered in the FAQ they didn't bother to read. And they keep interrupting your pursuit of fanfic. So you build a little AI bot, basically an interactive FAQ that users think is a tech support person, which takes care of everybody who would have solved their own problem if they'd used the FAQ and only lets people with interesting problems (and people you like) actually get through to you. Because you are clever (but unambitious) this bot fools everybody who encounters it. It's probably a lot nicer to users than you are. It makes friends with the more hapless users who call all the time, and they get fond of it (thinking they're fond of you), and this leads them to make nice remarks to your supervisor and send you banana bread and stuff. (Meanwhile, the person in the next cubicle, who is actually dealing with these people and being genuinely nice and helpful, doesn't get squat.) Which is all good and you can have entire days of eating banana bread and reading epic fics; but now your bot's friends are inviting you out after work to do stuff you'd as soon cut your hand off as do, and when people with interesting problems get all the way through the bot's routine to deal with you, they recognize the difference and start to ask questions.

Which is where it starts escalating and eventually you can only get out of the mare's nest with the assistance of the person in the next cubicle, who is the one who should've gotten the banana bread all along, but my head hurts too much to figure out what you do to escalate. It's partly web-of-deceit, but it's partly Frankenstein as the AI bot, which is a more social version of you and which you made far more clever than it ought to be, does its own escalation. It probably winds up in a sexting relationship with somebody in accounting...

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: A Game of Poems

Happy National Poetry Month!

I long ago gave up trying to write poetry because of the universal criticism from knowledgeable people that I could never get it to scan right. I think this is a function of my accent, which is an amalgam of Midwestern and Southwestern that has the emphasis hopping all around a sentence in ways that aforementioned knowledgeable people (whose sense of scansion is tied to the way academics speak on the coasts) don't hear properly at all. The stresses all seem to land fine to me. But the rhythms of my prose work better for my purposes than trying to tell stories or convey ideas or information in verse, so I have stopped consciously trying and only now commit the occasional lyric outburst in the course of some other pursuit. These are generally songs, which the reader can assume has a tune which will fix the scansion problem.

It is not a bad exercise, however, to read a poem a day, or to block out April or some other time as an occasion to write one a day, to keep the wheels properly lubricated and season the labor of turning an idea into a Work with some play. You don't have to show them to anybody, after all, and it's not as if making a living with poetry is a thing these days, so the pressure is off!

It's especially fun to play with poetic forms. A sonnet or villanelle is as much a puzzle as a poem, when you're writing it; and formal poetry can be read as a kind of game in which the reader is catching and the poet is trying to fake her out with a curve ball and surprise her in spite of her knowing roughly what to expect.

In that spirit, why not get out your polyhedral dice and inspire yourself with this random table of poetic forms and topics? Roll d20 once to get the form from the first table, and a second time to get the subject! If you roll an unfamiliar form, you can find the definition at The Poet's Garrett; which you can also use to make your own random form generator.

If you don't have a d20, you might want to rethink your life and priorities; but in the meantime, you can use an online random number generator to simulate dice rolling in a much less viscerally satisfying way.

Poetic Forms:
1. Ballad
2. Blues Sonnet
3. English Sonnet
4. Haiku
5. Heroic Couplet
6. Common measure
7. Hymn
8. Limerick
9. Muzdawwidj
10. Ode
11. Rondeau
12. Sapphic Stanza
13. Saraband
14. Sestet
15. Spenserian Stanza
16. Spanish Quatrain
17. Than Bauk
18. Triolet
19. Villanelle
20. Zani La Rhyme

Poetic Subjects:
1. Cats
2. Death
3. Spring
4. Social Media
5. Childhood
6. Winter
7. Parenthood
8. Dogs
9. Birth
10. Flowers
11. Snow
12. Food
13. The First Thing You See After You Turn Around Three Times
14. Eros
15. God
16. Extinct Species
17. Science
18. Geography
19. Agape
20. Roll twice and cover both subjects. Yes, if you roll double twenties you should roll another two times and have four subjects! Why not?

And if you feel like posting the results in the comments, I have no objection at all!