Completely off topic

A published author whose blog I follow keeps referring to her work in progress, which contains stuff about “a cigar box full of magical p**is bones,” according to her updates. Now, she could be making a funny ha-ha. But every time I see that, it puts me in mind of an old Vaudeville joke that ends with the punch line, “When can I meet your boyfriend?”

Or else there is a serious misconception about anatomy in play here.

Or perhaps it’s a book about an alien.

I don’t know. Can’t spend any time wondering about this vaguely naughty idea, as I am trashed from my current participation in the week-long David Farland Writers’ Workshop event here in Dallas. I got my critiques today on _Song From the Heart_, which I recently (and possibly misguidedly) decided to re-title _Love Is the Bridge_, after Thornton Wilder*. I wore a paper bag over my head while they discussed their observations on the first three chapters. Not really–it was a cotton shirt I had to bring along because I was sitting by the room’s only A/C unit.

* “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead,
and the bridge is love.”–Thornton Wilder, _The Bridge of San Luis Rey_

The workshop leader, bless him, said my style/voice was good. In fact, he said “nearly flawless” about the piece. *preen*

HOWEVER . . . of course it’s never something as easily fixable as a matter of style or craft. The problem he saw with it is that it’s a Ghost in the Machine story about a rudimentary AI that gets possessed by a rogue spirit, and he says that editors see this so often that it could be an auto-reject, and is a cliche. NEUROMANCER sort of dealt with something similar, he said. (I remember loving that book just for its first line.) Old hat. And here I thought I was being SO ORIGINAL and all. Sigh! He would like to see it redone as a simple haunting. He said he’d like to get rid of ALL the technology. I get his point here, and I came to get expert opinions about marketing this thing, so I will be considering this.

However . . . I would like to keep the technology for several reasons.

One is that I believe the technology angle will resonate well with the current twenty- to thirtysomething generations. They’ve grown up with the Web and email and texting. It’s natural for these methods of communication to appear in a story set in the present day.

The entity that is in pursuit of poor Paige has a Twitter feed that’s among the most popular feeds around because it sends out cryptic messages that people try to puzzle out. Its popularity gets it power because it has people click on its “donate” button on its website (!), and it uses this money to get more money, and then it’s a real threat In Real Life. If the entity can “be” in the cyberworld, then it can be powerful as a thing that ruins people’s lives and keeps them from making a living in their computer-run advertising-music studio. I know this sounds nutty, but I am hoping I can make it work. (It works for me so far.) If not, we’ll back off to Plan B From Outer Space and just have a haunting. And a major rewrite, complete with sobbing and rending of garments.

I think I do have some clever things in mind . . . the entity messes with Paige’s Facebook page (turning her into a stripper and freaking friends out, heh) and with her uncle’s bookkeeping software (where it suddenly looks as if someone has been dipping into the till, and he assumes it was Paige, and she is shamed within her family for that and fired) and also gets her suspended from school for plagiarism (she’s a grad student and submits a composition, but the entity gets to the school’s network and makes it look as if another student last semester had written the same one, etc.)–stuff like that. It’s sort of another leap of faith that such an entity could figure all of this out, but as David Wolverton/Farland (the workshop leader) said yesterday when discussing someone else’s story, when you’re 200 years old and have been hangin’ around the ether, you pick up a few tricks. Only an entity that thinks it used to be a man who dated the Swedish Nightingale would have those kinds of wicked revenge strategies–an AI wouldn’t think of that stuff. (grin)

I wanted this entity (confused as it is) to be floatin’ around searching for his lost lady love, and to discover this AI that is still a child and thus can’t defend against it. It possesses the AI and at the end gets cast out. (I use the term “possess,” for it must actually be a demon, in my worldview. For several reasons. Let’s not get into them, because the entire workshop lost its mind when someone suggested that no one has the right to tell anyone else “you claim to be a believing Christian/Druid/Humanist, but you’re not, because no Christian/Druid/Humanist would say/do X and this proves you are a phony and a faker,” because no one can know the heart of another person except God/the Most High/Creator, so we logically can’t make such a pronouncement upon another no matter what we witness them doing that we think is an “unforgivable sin.” If I got into any reasons to explain what I think about possession and so forth, we would have a real poolpah flaming out of control. Let’s just ignore all of this and call it “fantasy, and a fun story.” *grin*)

Here is something extremely helpful that I learned. The class said that I could definitely NOT “leave it open for interpretation” as to whether this was really a ghost or not. My plan was to let readers conclude that “it was just some hacker messing with them, that guy they suspected” if they are skeptics, or let them conclude “it was a truly a supernatural entity, a Ghost in the Machine” if they are believers in the dimensions that are unseen in this world by those who are not paying attention. (grin) But the class said, “NO!! You have to tell them!” Literary fiction could get away with “believe whatever you will,” but apparently not commercial fiction.

I have seen such an ambiguous ending work in many films, but film is film. Of course I’m thinking of masterworks such as “Harvey” (in which I believe the pooka Harvey is real, but many people would say not) or “Calvin and Hobbes” the cartoon (in which I believe Hobbes IS real and others simply don’t get to see him, but many people say that Hobbes is just Calvin’s imaginary friend). It may well be that only such geniuses who created those entertainments can pull off that ending of “was it or wasn’t it”?

I know the class was confused about my genre. I was aiming for the people who read John Case thrillers. John Case (a pseudonym, I’m sure) has written a couple of pretty good technothrillers involving paranormal stuff. One of them that stuck with me, _Ghost Dancer_, was about a man who researched the lost inventions of Nikola Tesla and planned to become Ruler of the World–and it had some woo-woo stuff in it. It sold fairly well, too. My story is smaller than the “Pinky, we’re going to take over the world” thing, but could appeal to similar people. **IF** I can find an editor who is not jaded about the AI thing.

As portrayed, this is not really a full-fledged AI, anyway. Years ago when I worked as a software engineer at E-Systems, I was part of a team that created a rudimentary expert system, and boy was it ever rudimentary. We discovered that the ideas SF was promoting at that time–mid-1980s–were still just cool ideas. We did end up with a system that could help people diagnose problems, but it was fairly “stupid” and really wasn’t an AI that could learn by forming its own new heuristics or rules and then testing them, as intended. But the concept of an Artificial Intelligence is pretty well ingrained in popular culture, so I figured I could get away with having one.

I am thinking of this as a mainstream romantic suspense/thriller, so perhaps the editors who’d see this would not be the SF/F editors who are sick of it. We’ll see.

Another thing everyone mentioned was that when I have Paige make a wisecrack “in a Groucho voice,” it’ll confuse all the dimbulbed nitwits who know nothing of history or of our American culture and think that Groucho is the Marx who “invented communism.” *facepalm* I have heard this argument before. I understand what they are saying, but I don’t agree that I need to change this to “Seinfeld” or some other new icon. Why is that, you might ask?

Well, for one thing, we have no idea how long “Seinfeld” will remain a pop culture memory. In a few years it may be as obscure as “My Mother, the Car.” Whereas Groucho Marx’s films are in the anointed canon of filmmaking, and his work has already stood the test of time. If you use as a touchstone a cultural icon that has already stood the test of time, it is more likely that said icon will STILL be known in the future . . . whereas ‘N’Sync is already pretty much forgotten except in trivia questions. This is a major reason that I would rather compare someone to a modern-day Olive Oyl or even to Twiggy than to some pop-tart who won’t even be on the scene in a few years.

This rationale used to be the common wisdom among teachers of writing, in fact. The argument that the readership is so dumb and ignorant of history that they’ll be dazed and confused and stop reading upon encountering something that makes them have to think about who someone is . . . ain’t my favorite argument. After all, when *I* read, if I encounter a term or a name I don’t know, I use the context to get the general drift (“it’s some famous comedian”) and read on, filing that away until I can get a chance to look it up. Often when I look it up, it adds to my storehouse of useful general knowledge. This goes for things I vaguely think I have heard of as well as stuff that makes you go “hmm.” I usually have a flash of insight into what the author was really meaning when I “get” the reference, and it deepens the experience much as a metaphor or symbol might.

My problem here is that people don’t appear to have been taught that when we encounter an unfamiliar word or concept while reading, we do not stop short and begin whining and be “yanked out of the story.” That is the action of someone with poor reading comprehension who is going to find it tough to pick up new subjects because she or he won’t be able to assimilate the required vocabulary of the new field. (When I first got into 35mm photography as a teen, I had to just BLEEP over terms such as “aperture” and “shutter priority” for a while until I could assimilate and grok the experience in fullness–you’ve got to do that in order to enter a new field.) What you do is get the meaning from the context. In the example I cite, it is apparent from the context that I am referring to some comedian or another. That means it’s not necessary for me to edit the text every few years to reflect whoever is the new hot comic. (“Soupy Sales, I mean George Carlin, I mean Sam Kinison, make that Chris Rock. . . .” Just say “Jerry Lewis” and get on with it.) SO now you know what I think, which is worth about what you paid for it.

What I didn’t expect is HOW EXHAUSTED I AM. I got home around 5 PM and fell asleep around 6:30. They couldn’t rouse me until 9 PM. I had to wake up to take all these stupid pills that I take every evening. Then I did a few chores and sat down to check in with y’all and with the e-mail. Now I have to go straight back to sleep so I can leap up at 7 AM and head off for another day of workshopping. The chairs in the meeting room are really tough on old people’s backs and creaky knees! And I have a new respect for seven-year-olds who can sit through an entire eight-hour class day! How do they DO it?!

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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