Friday, November 28, 2014

[links] A few nifty links for Friday morning

Neil Gaiman takes on fairy tale stereotypes: "You don't need princes to save you," says Neil Gaiman, speaking about his new fairy tale, The Sleeper and the Spindle. "I don't have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men." And so, in his slim, gilded, wicked book, a beautiful young queen calls off her own wedding and sets out to save a neighbouring kingdom from its plague of sleep.

Yogurt lives up to its rep as a healthy food: Yogurt was linked to a significantly lower risk of diabetes. And this was true even after controlling for factors linked to diabetes risk like body mass index (BMI) and diet. The team then pulled in data from previous studies to add to theirs, and calculated that 28 grams of yogurt per day was linked to an 18% lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

We've got a candidate for life outside of Earth: Scientists think Europa is the best candidate for life outside Earth in the solar system because life depends on three key ingredients - liquid water for chemical reactions, essential chemicals and an energy source - and Europa seems to have all three.

Dogs and humans co-evolved. The scientists found that dog owners' aroma actually sparked activation in the "reward center" of their brains, called the caudate nucleus. Of all the wafting smells to take in, dogs actually prioritized the hint of humans over anything or anyone else.

In memory of Jay Lake's wonderful [linksalad]

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Winter Reading, part 2

As the end of the year approaches, my stack of to-be-reviewed books grows ever taller. I realized to my horror that I am rapidly approaching the point of not being able to remember what I liked or disliked about each story. So here are reviews of varying lengths for your amusement – and hopefully a few will pique your interest enough to check out the books themselves.

The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg (Roc, 2011). I’m an unabashed Carol Berg fan. I love her world-building, her characters, and the way she puts a story together. This series is new to me, and I inadvertently started with the second “Collegia Magica” book – and had no difficulty at all, so seamlessly did Berg weave in all the backstory I needed. Sometimes, I find a biiiiig book daunting, but in Carol Berg’s case, it’s fantastic because I want to spend a long time in her world. This is Renaissance/Gothic/romance/fantasy with echoes of Jane Eyre and Hamlet (a young woman with a great deal of common sense and without morbid self-doubt, with lots of skeletons in the family closet, but determined to solve her sister’s murder). Oh, and ghosts. Complex like dark chocolate. Addictive. 

The Specific Gravity of Grief, by Jay Lake (Fairwood, 2010). Written when Jay was still struggling
with metastatic colon cancer, this fictionalized version follows another cancer patient as his life disintegrates. “Long ago, when he was fat, happy and colorful, the ragged man used to joke that perhaps it was his purpose in life to serve as an example to others. While he still believes that might be true, these days he is more inclined to think that his purpose in life is to absorb the pain of others. A modern day sin-eater, with cancer the bread of error.” Wise, passionate, generous – just like Jay. Cancer sucks.

Fortune Made His Sword, by Martha Rofheart. A well-done, absorbing fictional account of the rise of Henry V. The cool thing is that the author was a theatrical actress, well versed in Shakespeare’s “Chronicle” plays. I can imagine her going, “There’s a lot more to say about this king – I’ll write a novel!” What could have been drek turned out quite lively, filled with colorful settings and interesting characters. Check it out if you enjoy historical fiction.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gifts of Darkover Table of Contents

Here's the lineup for the next Darkover anthology, to be released in June 2015. I'll show you the cover once it's finalized. I'm very pleased with how the anthology came together.

Introduction: Darkover, An Evolving World, by Deborah J. Ross (editor)
Learning to Breathe Snow, by Rosemary Edghill and RebeccaFox
Healing Pain, by Jane M. H. Bigelow
Blood-kin, by Diana L. Paxson
The Tower, by Jeremy Erman
Stonefell Gift, by Marella Sands
Compensation, by Leslie Fish
Green Is The Color Of Her Eyes So Blue, by DeborahMillitello
Renegades of Darkover, by Robin Wayne Bailey
Memory, by Shariann Lewitt
A Problem of Punishment, by Barb Caffrey
Hidden Gifts, by Margaret L. Carter
Climbing to the Moons, by Ty Nolan

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Career Chat: Day Job

“Don’t quit your day job until you have contracts to support you for the next 2 years…” or “Don’t quit your day job period.” I’ve heard variations of this advice – applicable to musicians, dancers, and visual artists as well as writers – many times over the years. But what is a day job and which one should you choose?

Assuming you are serious about a writing career, a day job is a source of reliable income that does not impair your ability to write. Some of us come to writing with an established occupation; others, especially young writers, are beginning both their writing careers and their other occupations at the same time. Some begin writing once they have retired, for one reason or another, from their previous occupations. All face the uncomfortable reality that very few writers, even seasoned professionals, can support themselves, let alone their families, on their writing income alone.

Of course, some writers can and do. Some get up in the morning and churn out words for 8 to 10 hours a day. They write three or four novels a year. Others have attracted such enthusiastic readers that even one or two novels a year generate enough sales (or sufficient advances, if sold on contract) to pay the bills. Although once upon a time, it was possible to earn a meager living with short fiction (a story a week, with lots of markets), I know of no writer today who can do that.

So the reality is that, one way or another, you are going to need a second source of income, whether you are starting out or you’ve been doing this for decades. What sort of work should you look for, assuming you have a choice? There is no one answer that is right for everyone.

The most import characteristics of a writer’s day job are that it generate sufficient minimal income, which will vary from person to person and the cost of living in various areas, plus whatever other resources the writer has; and that it leave sufficient time and creative energy so that the writer can actually write.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

[link] Larry Brooks on Story Structure and "Going With the Flow"

Larry Brooks has one of the clearest explanations of story structure I've read. He calls it "story physics" -- the basic underlying rules for generating a satisfying reading experience, no matter what the genre. In general, he's not an advocate of "pantsing," that is, writing whatever pops into your mind without any idea where your story is going. I began writing that way, and had to learn to revise and revise and revise. Then I learned to use story structure principles as a diagnostic for where my story wasn't working. The more experienced I become, the earlier in the process I reach for those analytical, structural tools.

Brooks says, 

Organic storytelling — pantsing — is certainly a viable way to find your story, and to get it into play in a story development sense. But be clear, that’s all it is. If you stamp “Final Draft” onto a manuscript that hasn’t, in fact, landed on the optimal structure for the story you are telling, then you are putting your dream in jeopardy.

I like that he recognizes that some of us need that seat-of-the-pants experience. He talks in terms of finding the story, but it can also be crucial to the joy of writing and therefore to the nurture of our creative muses. But we also want the thrill of "nailing" the story exactly right, and to do that, we need more than very cool ideas. We need to understand how to put them together, how to present them, in the way that enhances and makes them all work together -- the "flow."

One of the things that delights me about this concept is that it seems to rely not on some artificial set of rules, but on an understanding of how the human psyche works. The Greek playwrights understood this. So did Shakespeare. So did Jane Austen.

So can you.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Winter Reading, part 1

As the end of the year approaches, my stack of to-be-reviewed books grows ever taller. I realized to my horror that I am rapidly approaching the point of not being able to remember what I liked or disliked about each story. So here are reviews of varying lengths for your amusement – and hopefully a few will pique your interest enough to check out the books themselves.

Tin Star by Cecil Castelluchi (Roaring Brook Press, 2014). First, a disclaimer. I met (and instantly adored) Cecil (a she-Cecil, not a he-Cecil, sometimes known as Miss SeaSkull) at Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in 2011. This story, she says, was inspired by all the space science we learned together. I got to be one of her early readers, so I had seen a rough draft of this story before. But one of the cool things about the passage of time is the sense of reading the story for the first time, maybe a story a friend told you about so you have some idea what to expect, only what is there is so very much better than what you r/e/m/e/m/b/e/r/e/d expected. Tin Star delighted and absorbed me at every turn, and I honestly can’t say whether any of my comments had anything to do with the marvelous finished product. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all Cecil’s doing! So here’s the skinny: Tula Bane, a young colonist from Earth, is left for dead on a space station, home to a host of alien races. As she learns to survive without friends or resources except her own wits, she plots revenge on the colonist leader who betrayed her and blew up the ship carrying her family. With deceptive simple language, Castelluchi takes us on a journey of growing up and learning what it is to be human. Highly recommended for adults as well as teens.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013). I was a little behind the curve in checking out the Collaborators, as Deborah Wheeler, in which humans make contact with a gender-fluid alien race), I was particularly curious about how Leckie handled the topic. Her alien race is binary gendered, but gender is not important or even a thing to be noticed; hence, the universal use of the feminine pronoun, leaving it to the reader or members of other races to guess who is which. I can see why readers got excited about this novel; it’s a very, very competent debut novel. It certainly grabbed and held my attention. The one thing I felt uneasy about was that the sense of a moral center was very slow in development, and on the way, there were too many times when I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters. Leckie pulled it together at the end and it might not bother other readers, so this is a highly personal quibble. I will look for her future work, but probably not set in this world. Well worth checking out, especially if you like military science fiction.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Midwifing A Story: The Trusted Reader

Some writers do all their work in isolation. They are the creative hermits of the literary world.  When they get an idea for a story, they tell no one. This isn’t always the misplaced fear that the other person will “steal” their idea. Few ideas are so strikingly original that they have not already been told in a myriad variations. Even if the other person were to write a story on the same idea, the stories would have different executions. Knowing this doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some folks just work better alone. I’ve heard some of them say that if they discuss a work in progress, the very act of telling it aloud dissipates the creative energy: they’ve told the story, so there’s no reward for writing it. Some of them never improve as writers, but others seem able to teach themselves and to produce work of quality.

I’m not one of them.

First of all, I am, as the French say, “très sociable.” I flourish with regular chats with other writers. More importantly, I learned early on in this business that if I am left to my own devices, I will come up with the most dreadful poppycock and think it’s great. My stories will have plot holes you could ride a tyrannosaur through. And let’s not mention grammatical atrocities, inconsistent characterizations…you know the drill. Fortunately, my second and third drafts are a whole lot better than the drivel I throw together as a rough draft. I revise a couple of times, just to get the words on the page into some correlation to the story in my head, before I let anyone else see it.

At some point, however, I need feedback. I need an ally. Better yet, several. I benefit from having a “story midwife” to help me with the process of pushing and squeezing and ruthlessly pruning a story into the form that is most true to my creative vision.

A “story midwife” is someone whose insightful feedback helps me to make the story more fully what I intended it to be. It is not a person who rewrites my work to their own agenda, sabotages my writing efforts in order to make themselves feel good, or who goes about claiming credit for having salvaged or inspired my work. These things happen (and they’ve happened to me), but they’re not only not helpful, they’re potentially devastating. All these things happen because the person reading the story has motives other than being of help to the writer. These folks are often unsuccessful writers themselves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Meditation for Today

It’s been a brutal year for me in terms of stress. Some of it was outright loss, other parts happy but pushing me over the edge of tolerance, for stress  too, which is a loss of calm. Whatever is happening, I keep up the mantra, “This too shall pass!” 

Life sometimes sideswipes us with occasions for rejoicing or unspeakable tragedy, but hard times run in cycles. It’s important to find ways of reminding ourselves of this rhythmic nature. Outward-facing periods of great vigor and challenge are followed by periods of apparent stagnation. These fallow times can feel like the pits of despair when nothing seems to be changing (except for the worse) and no matter how hard we engage with the problems in our lives, we seem to make no discernible progress. Winter is never going to end; all our senses convince us of it. We are never going to find “the one,” or sell that first story. And we’ve heard enough tales of folks who actually never do find a partner or make a sale that we are sure we belong in that group. As the days shorten and snow or rain turns into mud, we become even more certain the sun will never return.

That’s when I need black belt survival tools. My mantra (above) is one of them. Here are some others that work for me.

  • Every day, I speak with someone who loves me.
  • I try to do a daily act of kindness in a way that I will not be found out.
  • I try to begin each day with trust and end it with gratitude. These can take whatever form seems good to me on that day.
What helps get you through winter blues?

The painting is by Karl Roux (1826–1894), public domain.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Tajji Diaries: Learning to Play

One of the joys of providing a retirement home for our new-to-us seeing eye dog, Tajji, is watching her re-discover the behaviors of a puppy. For most of her adult life, Tajji performed a job so difficult that it’s beyond the ability of most dogs. Seeing eye guide work is highly unnatural for dogs. They must learn to be visually vigilant and to scan for obstacles well above their height; what is perhaps more demanding is that when in harness they are not allowed to explore the world of smell, a dog’s most vivid sense, or to interact with other dogs. In effect, they work blind and dumb.

Now Tajji’s work is re-engaging with the natural world of dogs. Whenever possible, we let her sniff the “bulletin board” left by other dogs (and other creatures – we live in a rural area, so she’s also smelling raccoon, skunk, squirrel, bobcat, coyote, and most likely mountain lion, as well as the various domestic cats and dogs on the block).

We’re also learning how to play together. Our last few dog, also a German Shepherd Dogs, had high prey drive. He would run after anything that moved and when that drive was engaged, would prefer to chase rather than to receive food treats. Tajji, like all dogs, notices movement, but she is less captivated by it. She will chase a ball in a field, but we get the feeling the primary joy is just the freedom to run wherever she likes. At first, she wouldn’t bring the ball back. I wonder if that wasn’t in her behavioral repertoire or if it felt too much like work, like having to do what her handler commanded. We dealt with the issue by bringing lots of balls to the field. She’d run after one and then play “keep-away;” when she’d begin to slow down, we’d throw a second ball, she’d chase and keep-away that one while we retrieved the first. We didn’t force her to obey. The goal was play, not training. You could almost hear the gears turn in her mind as she became more willing – of her own free choice – to deliver the ball back to her monkey when she wanted it thrown again. Now she mostly brings it back as opposed to never. She has also figured out how to play fetch in the house by presenting us with one of her stuffed toys while we are at the dinner table. Since we wouldn’t get up and chase her, she came closer and closer to us. When one of us could reach the toy where she dropped it, we’d throw it into the living room, where she’d bound after it with gusto. Now, more often than not, she will bring the toy to our hands. And she lets us know she’s had enough simply by not bringing the toy back.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Tajji Diaries – Unexpected Help

Tajji on the fieldIt’s been a while since I posted our adventures rehabilitating our retired seeing eye dog, Tajji. We’ve had her about 8 months now and she has made progress on her reactivity to dogs (and sometimes people) that made it impossible for her to continue service work. Most of our focus has been on learning to read her signals of distress and teaching her ways of self-management as we keep her safe.

Our promise to her was that she would never have to work again. Guide dog work is not only stressful psychologically and physically, it amounts to sensory deprivation for the dog. A working guide dog cannot follow normal canine behavior or even respond to the richness of sensory input that a normal dog enjoys. Dogs, even “sight hounds” have keen olfactory senses, but a working dog is taught not to sniff. Imagine Tajji’s delight when we not only permitted but encouraged her to sniff while on walks! A working dog must be constantly alert (hypervigilant) for dangers to her handler, and must make rapid decisions. We let her take her time assessing a new situation, removing her as best we can when she shows signs of discomfort. (In our reactive dog class, we modify this by giving her simple, pleasurable tasks like nose targeting or eye contact to help her reduce her own anxiety level.)

Because we never ask Tajji to do seeing eye harness work (nor could we -- we do not own such a harness, and her front-clip harness of soft webbing is quite unlike the rigid one she used to work in), we do not encounter her trained behaviors very often, other than manners and basic obedience. One notable exception is that she has been taught not to move when she is lying or sitting and a person approaches. This makes sense in terms of letting the blind person know where she is (and will be in the next minute). Our other dogs have scrambled out of the way, especially at night. Tajji doesn’t budge.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

[link] Juliette Wade's "Dive Into Worldbuilding" on Economics

Hot new author Juliette Wade holds regular Google hangouts on various aspects of world-buildings. Her most recent discussion was about economic systems. Here's a snippet of her summary. If you scroll down, you can click to watch the conversation.

One of the really critical things that can grow out of understanding how people are paid, and in what form, is a sense of how the social system works and where crime arises, and why. I spent a bunch of time working out how different members of the Varin undercaste would be paid, and when I did, it really changed everything about how I understood them. The trash workers, who are paid in cash, are naturally subject to attack by thieves who wish to make off with such an easily reusable form of money, so they band together into gangs to protect themselves. The prison workers are paid almost no cash, but have their housing and clothing and food paid for by their employers, which makes them into a sort of undercaste "impoverished nobility" - because they are taken care of, but they are trapped in their situations with no ability to flex to circumstance. The crematory workers are paid in housing and clothes, but not food - and they receive cash, because it's not a job most people want to do. The association of their work with death makes it so that nobody wants to steal their "death money," but at the same time, they are something of a pariah class even inside the undercaste. The real value in exploring this kind of thing in detail is that critical story elements like crime and the need for self-awareness in the street, for different social groups, is motivated and explained on a really basic level, and the world's sense of reality is immeasurably enhanced.

Small details of economics lead to enormous consequences for the success of your worldbuilding.

Genre, anything that takes us away from the realities of our own world, makes a great vehicle for questioning how we do what we do. It allows us to move outside our assumptions and privilege groups. Research on our own world, and its cultural subgroups, is super valuable here.

Currencies are all about belief. We discussed a real-world situation where some economics professors were able to bring hyper-inflation under control in Brazil, by creating a second currency whose value was constant while the other currency's value fluctuated. By paying people in the stable currency, they were able to create a real sense among the public that the currency was stable, so when they finally converted to it, the hyper-inflation problem stopped.

We also talked about magic as an economic system. Magic is a resource, and if it's not used properly, you can end up with Magic Inflation. If magic has no cost of use, and is too easy to use, it ends up being used all the time, to the point where nothing you can do magically will have any value because it's all just to common and easy! What is the price of magic? This question can not only be practical, but an incredibly good driver of conflict in your story. A great example of magic used as an economic system is in Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars. Reggie told us about her work in progress, Spectra's End, where magic can't be counted on because talents are too random and can't be replicated; when people with a magic skill die, their ability is lost and people have to fall back on real world solutions.

Consider also the money vs. time equation for your society. Who has money? Who has time? It's hard to be a person with both, and even for those people, they may be paying in some other form.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Tomato Harvest - Two Easy Sauces

We think of autumn as a time to harvest pumpkins, but around here, it’s bonanza time for tomatoes, as well. Our tomatoes don’t get going until midsummer because the night time temperatures are still too low. The plants just sit in the ground and shiver. Long about October, they are in full swing and we’re wondering what we were thinking to have planted so many. A bowl of cherry tomatoes sits on the kitchen counter, ready to grab for snacks, and every dinner is accompanied by a salad that’s mostly fresh tomatoes. What to do with the rest? Make pasta sauce, of course!

The usual instructions call for dipping tomatoes in a bath of simmering water, then peeling the skins, and either scooping out the seeds or running the cooked pulp through a food mill, ricer, or sieve. I’ve tried the water bath technique, and find the prospect of standing over a steaming pot, getting my fingers burned, and sweltering in late summer heat less than appealing. So I’ve devised or adapted a couple of simpler, less painful approaches.

Method 1: One Pot, Food Mill.

Wash your tomatoes (this goes without saying, but is even more import if you, like we, let our tomato plants just sprawl all over the place, of particular merit when growing ginormous varieties like Mortgage Lifter; as the fruits ripen, place a plastic lid of appropriate size to shield them from ground moisture) and chop them into big pieces. Fill up a big pot. Do not add water.
tomatoes fill the pot
Heat up the pot, stirring to avoid burning as the tomatoes release their juices and to mix up the more- and less-cooked chunks. Once everything is more or less juicy, reduce the heat and simmer on low for hours. And hours. Really. Open the windows and bask in a cool place, stirring every half hour or so. It will thicken as it reduces down to a fraction of its former size. When it’s however thick you like it, let cool a bit.

tomatoes cook in pot