Blackberry Writing

It’s blackberry season, and as is my custom at this time, I went out this morning to pick from the brambles along our little country road. (We have our own patch, but the berries ripen later because it’s in a shadier place.) I try to do this early, when it’s cool and I’m not having to squint into the sun for the higher branches. As I picked, I thought about the story I’m working on (and currently stalled on 2 scenes-that-need-more), and also writing in general.

Blackberries are tricksy things. They can look ripe from where I stand, but turn out to be all red at the base. Sometimes I can tell the moment I touch the berry — it’s too firm and too tightly attached to the stem. I have to be ready to give up on what looked like a great prospect and move on. When I’m in the flow of picking, it seems I don’t even have to think about this. Isn’t this like a story that seems promising but doesn’t yet have the necessary depth? Occasionally — well, more than occasionally — my mind gets set on “this berry must get picked” and I force the issue. I’ll glare at the red parts and pop the berry into my mouth (“for private reading only”). Berries that are almost-ready go well in oatmeal. I freeze quarts and quarts of them for winter breakfasts. They’re too sour on their own, but they blend well, adding pleasantly tart notes. That’s not unlike taking several different story idea, none of which can stand on their own, and setting them at cross-purposes to make a much more interesting tale.

This whole business of “readiness” in a story is a curious one. It’s a bit like cooking without a recipe, because while there may be guidelines, there are no hard and fast rules of how to tell when a story concept is “ripe.” All too often at the Big NYC Publisher’s Office, after rejecting a work – especially if it was (a) slush and (b) got the standard slush reject letter, which was polite but clear that it wasn’t something they were interested in — the beginning writer would respond. Now, professionals know that, unless you are specifically invited into an exchange, you don’t respond to a rejection.  You take it, you consider what’s worth considering, and you move on.  That exchange is over.

Occasionally the appropriate response is to to ask for more details, keeping in mind that time-crunches didn’t allow the editor to do that in the first place.
More often, though, the editor gets a response along the lines of “My work is utter genius, and you’re too blinded by (fill in the blank) to see it!  But you’ll be sorry!”

I think this kind of reaction isn’t limited to beginning writers, but it is a particular trap. It’s far easier to think that your story got rejected because of the blindness/stupidity/conspiracy/conventionalness of the gatekeepers, rather than that it simply isn’t good enough. It could be a great idea and you weren’t ready to do it any kind of justice. It was a trivial idea that no one could have turned into a decent story. It could have been a nifty idea but it wasn’t developed, it wasn’t “ripe.”

One of the hardest things for a new writer to understand is that there is a threshold of quality — for ideas, for execution — for publication. It’s so hard to hear that the story you are so proud of isn’t good enough. Those thorns hurt as much when I’m pulling out as when I’m pushing in.

And here’s the catch: sometimes the story really is great. Sometimes the market just isn’t ready for the story at this time, but it will be in the future. Somewhere there’s an editor and a readership who will adore it. How can you tell? Continue reading “Blackberry Writing”

Stop the Joy Rides

I don’t like billionaires taking joy rides in space.

This is not an objection to space exploration. I’m all in favor of space exploration. I grew up with the U.S. space program. I went to church with the people who put Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

Also, I write science fiction. I believe in the human desire to figure out what’s going on in the universe.

Further, I’ve never believed that our choices are between exploring the universe and taking care of people here on Earth. We can and should do both.

What I object to is billionaire-driven space exploration. Continue reading “Stop the Joy Rides”

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 7

Puerto Rico is called the Isle of Enchantment. There is, in fact, remarkable beauty to be found just a short walk down the hill from Casarboles, the “treehouse” built by my wife’s parents. The first thing you see is the Caribbean, just beyond the view of Ponce. From here, you can turn to your left to enter the grounds of the Japanese Gardens and Cruceta del Vigía.

We were treated to a private tour by the lovely activities director Luciris on a day the museums were closed (Allysen’s dad was once very active on the board of directors). We first entered the Japanese Garden, which might seem a little incongruous in this land of Latin culture, but it’s enchanting, just as promised. Here’s a view across the grounds.

And a strange and beautiful tree. I don’t know what kind.

Continue reading “Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 7”

All Alone in a Sea of Alone

Remember this dress?

I had an existential crisis when I was ten years old.

Okay, perhaps I was an overachiever, anxiety-wise. My class was studying the sense, and the subject of differences in individual perception came up, like it does. It’s very likely, my teacher said, that humans perceive things like color, or certain scents or tastes, differently from one another: that I might experience the color I characterize as yellow differently from you. In terms of light and spectra, the color yellow is the color yellow is the color yellow, but my experience of yellow is based on my hardware and software: that is, my eyes and brain, as well as my experiences in interpreting color.

My class had some fun with this; ten year olds are not notably sophisticated about humor, and for a day or two there was a rash of “Nice red shirt,” comments to people who weren’t wearing red, and so forth. In science class the next day, someone asked, if our experiences are all different, how can we knew that yellow is yellow? My teacher fumphed a bit and got sidetracked talking about light and the visible spectrum, and… my classmate never quite got an an answer, but I remember sitting at my desk feeling deeply unsettled.

If my color  yellow was not the same as someone else’s color yellow, how could I be sure that the word yellow when I spoke it would sound like yellow to a person I was talking to? How could I make sure that anything I said or experienced was the same thing someone else heard or experienced? Short of crawling into someone else’s head, how could I ever know? Which made me feel as alone as I had ever felt in my young life. I felt suddenly like everyone–me and everyone I loved–were all just individual objects blithering through the world, crossing paths but unable to confirm our experiences. It was a kind of lonely I had never suspected existed, and I lost several nights sleep trying to devise different ways that I could confirm with someone that yellow was yellow.

And then, gradually, the anxiety diminished and I stopped trying to invent telepathy or some other way to contact and verify that the reality I live in is, in fact, consensual. I don’t think about it too much any more–although back in the 1990s I wrote a story about a man who establishes a telepathic connection with a pair of genetically engineered lions–and while he’s delighting in the connection with another being, they’re sizing him up for dinner. 

When I think about it, maybe it’s just as well I don’t know what anyone else thinks is yellow.

Readings From the Treehouse

Logo for Virtual Events from FOGcon

Treehouse residents Nancy Jane Moore, Madeleine E. Robins, and Gillian Polack are all reading on Sunday, July 25, beginning at 5 pm PDT as part of FOGcon’s Authors Read.

Nancy is a featured reader along with San Francisco author Claire Light, and Madeleine and Gillian are part of the rapid-fire readers participating in FOGcon’s ongoing virtual event program.

The current schedule is three rapid readers, followed by Claire, then a break before three more rapid readers. Nancy will close the readings. There will be time for questions and the event will close with breakout rooms with each of the featured readers.

All of this takes place on Zoom. Register here to get the Zoom link.

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 6

Back pain and sunburn and plumbing, oh my! And Puerto Rican rain, which comes fast and goes fast. The rain cools things down briefly and washes the Sahara sand out of the air, which is great. And wets all my lumber, which is not great. Here’s where the pool deck work stands:

While working on the deck, I’d had the recurring thought: Don’t hurt yourself. You don’t have time! And so, two days ago, while l/i/f/t/i/n/g/ h/e/a/v/y/ l/u/m/b/e/r/ m/o/v/i/n/g/ c/o/n/c/r/e/t/e/ b/l/o/c/k/s/ bending over to pick up a screw, I did something and my back screamed. I jackknifed to my knees on the brick pool deck and hollered for help. My daughter and wife were both in online meetings with headphones on and couldn’t hear me. Finally Allysen looked out and saw me and yelled, “Are you okay?”

“NOOO!!!”  Continue reading “Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 6”

Things That Keep Me Up at Night

Our current civilization is built on many dangerous fallacies. Most of them have been debunked, but their impact is still felt. Here’s a few off the top of my head:

  • Some people are better than others.
  • The “better” people are entitled to take things from their “inferiors”.
  • The world is here for human use and it doesn’t matter how we use (or abuse) it.
  • Wealth is more important than ensuring that all have enough.
  • The natural world, both plant and animal, has no importance on its own.

I just read a short piece on how the indigenous people of what is now the Texas Gulf Coast lived for the 2,500 years before the Europeans invaded. They fished to their heart’s content in the bays protected from the Gulf by the barrier islands. They hunted inland for bison, deer, and other creatures, careful not to trespass into the territory of other peoples who lived farther inland. Lots of plant life grew in the area. They used bits of oil that came up in the Gulf to seal things.

Except for mosquitoes — I’m sure they had mosquitoes — it sounds like a pretty good life. The climate there is mostly warm and there must have been good sources of food year round.

I note that they did not build luxury homes and condos on the barrier islands, just temporary shelters where people could gather. I suspect they knew the signs of approaching hurricanes and moved inland ahead of them.

Here in California, the indigenous people used fire effectively in managing the forests and grasslands. They figured out that it was a necessary part of this environment. They, too, had a balanced relationship with a bountiful environment.

And now here we are, with the Gulf on fire from burst pipelines and wildfires already raging through the west ahead of fire season, plus condos on barrier islands collapsing. The people who settled here long before my Anglo ancestors knew how to deal with the environment, but their knowledge was dismissed and ignored.

Look at us now. Continue reading “Things That Keep Me Up at Night”

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 4

I’ve made progress on the home repair project, here in Puerto Rico. I’ve constructed a small Quonset hut over the pump for the main cistern, a task left over from the last trip. Not elegant, perhaps, but for the last couple of years the pump and electric motor have been exposed to the elements, which can’t have been good. Now they’re snug and protected, more or less.

Before:

After:

That, you’ll note, wasn’t on the to-do list I gave last time. There are many such things, and every one of them is going to take ten times longer than I estimate when I start it. Death, taxes, and ten times longer. You can count on it.

Remember the air conditioner I was working on? I got the frame installed around it. That took ten times longer, too. It doesn’t look good yet, so no picture.

Remember the pool deck I showed last time, in late-night mood lighting? Here it is, in daylight, close up. You begin to see the problem. They all have to be fastened from beneath. I estimate it will take… well, never mind.

Foliage in Puerto Rico is glorious. Here, to brighten the mood, are some trinitaria and flamboyán behind the house.

 

Characters Hurling Insults For Fun and Profit

How many times has a discussion escalated into an argument, or an argument into violence, with the hurling of insults? It seems we human beings never outgrow the impulse to call people who disagree with us nasty names. There have been enough compilations of creative, gleeful, or historical insults to fill entire libraries. We so much enjoy our own cleverness that we blithely ignore whether calling someone names actually encourages them to change their behavior or whether it firmly cements their own negative opinion of us and their determination to not do whatever it is we want. The words we use and the comparisons we make say as much about us as about those we are insulting. The same is true for characters in fiction.

Let’s accept as given that the purpose of insults is not reconciliation. If that were true, we’d have long since achieved peace in the Middle East, not to mention a few dozen other places around the globe. What are the other possibilities?

 

  • Venting ill temper, including displaced aggression – that’s the man who kicks his dog instead of his boss, the real target of his anger.
  • Showing off for a third party.
  • Parroting what has been said by those the character respects.
  • Being out of control. If violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, then surely hurling insults is an expression of frustration in a person who simply can’t come up with a constructive response.
  • Trying to provoke a reaction, whether it’s loss of control in the other character or an escalation of violence.
  • Justifying previous ill-treatment of the person being insulted.

 

Some of these motives are deliberate, calculated to evoke a specific response, but others are just the opposite. Assuming a character knows what he’s doing and does it on purpose, how invested is he in the result? He might get what he wants, but he might not. One of those two overgrown schoolboys taunting one another might turn the other cheek. Or might laugh in his face. What does your character do then?

The parallel to this is how a character reacts when she realizes she’s crossed a line, that she’s out of control, and that to large extent depends upon how self-aware she is. Some people are so embarrassed, they escalate hostilities, trying to get the other person’s response to justify their own lapse in judgment. Others will back off if given the opportunity, for instance if a third party steps in and lowers the tension. A character could realize what he’s done, lack the skills to remedy the situation, participate in whatever bad things happen next, and carry away a secret feeling of guilt for the outcome.

Then there’s the particularly (and often deliciously) odious character who is in perfect control of himself and hurls insults deliberately. The cruelty has a purpose, and if the character is challenged on his own behavior, he justifies it as being in the best interests of the person being insulted. “For your own good,” “to toughen you up,” that sort of thing.

Sometimes insults are a form of betrayal. Is this deliberate or unconscious? Heated words inflicted on a friend or loved one in the moment, without reflection on the hurt they cause? Even if the hurt is verbally forgiven, do the effects of a moment of ill-considered pique change the relationship? And how might the resulting resentment and guilt play out over time?

Now to flip the mirror and look at the character being insulted, who really is the person with the power in this situation. She has the greatest degree of freedom in her actions, whether to respond in kind or in some other way; whether to walk away, whether to draw out the suspense of the encounter; whether to end the exchange for good or let it fester – or encourage that festering. What is his history in the relationship and will he use the insult to settle an old score or will he refuse to take it personally – and why?

Therein lies a tale or twenty…