Friday, June 28, 2013

Hand Sewing

I have never had the bravery to create a garment myself, since That One Experiment when my parents first gave me a machine and I attempted my first pattern.  It's a shame I am so easily discouraged, but nothing new; since that time the only other actual *creation* I've made is that quilt, made with Hawai'ian quilting squares my sister-in-law gave me, which I do still have but which itself is no raving success.  It wasn't wide enough, so I used a (somewhat dingy, old) sheet to widen it, and "decorated" that with slubs and scribbles of rubbery fabric paint.  You can imagine the results.

And so I have a perfectly nice Singer, and it has only ever been used for hemming and darting.  I can do a pretty good job taking in a pair of pants, actually ... but here is the point of my post.  One of the odder oddment skills in my repertoire is a dab hand with a needle.

I'm no Isis, to be sure; the very idea, particularly given my age and lack of confidence, is as laughable as she rather wishes it wouldn't be (it's so lovely to see someone of great talent who is not a snob) - but mom taught me to hem pants somewhere in my early womanhood, and I actually know what Isis refers to when she discusses visible machine stitching.  I can hem a pant leg invisibly; I understand how very good that looks.  It's no great shakes, seamstress-wise - never creating anything means never accomplishing anything but remediation - but it is more than many people can do, and I am happy enough that I do it well.  I've done many little alterations and repairs with hand stitching, and my eyes' decline over the past three or so years hasn't dented that completely.

This weekend, I have six bras I want to prevent from falling apart (they're brand new, but the idea of a "convertible" strap is a nuisance innovation I intend to put paid to with immobilizing stitches), one piece of lace to tack down, where the dogs I've been walking together made me step on it and tear it apart, a beaded dress in need of serious de-beading where the sharp glass edges of unnecessary bugle baubles tear at the tender skin of my arms, two necklines to modest-ify, a skirt waist to take in, and three maxis which are a bit too maxi for my frame.  One I may hem closer up to the knee; it's a great dress and I have visions of it at a more flirty length.  Finally, there are two harnesses Pen has partially and fully chewed through; while I am glad to give my money to products manufactured in the US (these both were), I also don't quite like to believe in instant obsolescence every time.  These harnesses are reparable.  I plan to repair them.

Not all of these projects will be done by hand stitching, but actually most will.  The bras, the lace, the necklines, the taking-in.  And the harnesses.

I like jobs like this.  As Madame Isis points out, you can sew and listen to movies, you can socialize with those around you (well, in my case, you can occasionally interject to the furbabies how cute or how good they are ...).  Sewing *is* a pleasant pastime, hand-sewing at least.

And so I am off to teach a few bra straps a few things about not converting spontaneously.  When it's done I'll have that nice feeling of "new clothes" and significantly more comfortable garments for me and for Pen.

Yet More Wisdom From Beloved Ex

As he exhorted me in our emails "celebrating" our twentieth non-anniversary:

A new interjection for you: Well...for the love of tasty cheese....Use it.  People will hold you in high regard and know the quality of your character, should you choose to use it.


He's right, you know.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

19930626

Today would have been our twentieth anniversary.  When I emailed him to send many happy returns, Beloved Ex wished me "a day that sparkles and pleases" ...

He's a dork, my ex, but an unmitigated peach.  He once called me "a wonderful bag of things."



We're not divorced because he's unlovable.  I'm grateful for him.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Author, Arthur

Elizabeth Chadwick recently wrote a nice piece about her formative influences, which inspired her to historical fiction.  I came to actual authorship far, far later than she, but those works she wrote of I am familiar with set chords thrumming, and those which I don’t know, and which are out of print, have me most intrigued.

That and a recurring crop-uppance of Arthur recently have me thinking along similar lines:  how did I come to where I am as a writer?  Not as an author, but as a writer?  For me, the author is the business steward of the work I as a writer – that solitary thing, that creative animal not participating in the querying and all else – creates.  Why am I the writer I am?

The short answers have been written – how I came to write about Clovis, specifically.  But why do the things I gravitate to fascinate me?

I tend most often to remember the books my mom put down – Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Norah Lofts – and think that was my entre’, along with the appearance of Mary Stuart and Myrddin Emrys just at the right moment, that summer I was fourteen and staying at my Aunt Leila’s house.  I can still remember the bookstore, the sun, the very wall before which I stood, when I found The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills.  Today, though, for whatever reason … the name Malory appeared somewhere or other.  It’s been a long time since I remembered that my dad had a copy of Steinbeck’s very late Arthurian work, the 1976, modern translation of Le Morte.  And now I can think of little else - oddly, that work tied up to a reading of Connecticut Yankee when I was young as well.

I have not touched Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in thirty years now, but suspect I still own it, and am burning to pick it up again.  My recollection of it is fairly clear as something very unlike other Arthurs (though, like most, Arthur himself is just the excuse to tell others' stories).  Steinbeck’s experience of violence, Steinbeck’s cynicism, Steinbeck’s humor and even extreme disillusion permeated that writing.  And it was writing, pure and clear – nothing worried over with an eye to any market, nothing coddled for the needs of any agent.  It was a raw thing, as I remember it, but that is not to say it was a draft piece.  I remember its view of women – both a pitying and pitiless view, a consideration of characters from the man who wrote Rosasharn, the man who had no "feminine side" as the kids call it nowadays, but who has nonetheless touched millions by now.  I remember being affected by that book.  It may be the first book that ever involved me quite as it did emotionally, it may not.  But I remember it – not as clear as Stewart’s Arthuriana, which I re-read and re-read, and which still is new to me when I leaf into it a little – but perhaps more deeply.  That it ended incomplete – the place it ended – always physically hurt me.

Given my leanings, you might think I’d have been more of an Arthurian nerd, but if the truth is told, even with friends and family thinking of me that way and even giving me Arthurian books, some of them beautiful artifacts in themselves, I rather limited myself after Steinbeck and Stewart.  Who was going to improve on my experiences of those two writers’ works?  Nobody.  It wasn’t a need for Arthur that interested me – it was Stewart’s Merlin, it was Steinbeck’s impossible talent.  It never really was Arthur himself, and the truth is, in the books I did read, he wasn’t even the main character.  Only a frame on which more interesting stories were hung.

I was in college before my Aunt Leila (she and her own bookshelves had a great deal to do with my fascinations; I wish I had ever told her that before she died …) gave me the Kristin Lavransdatter series by Sigrid Undset.  Lavransdatter intrigues me, as I grow older, as a study in the way we read things differently as we mature (or not).  The first time I tried to pick up The Bridal Wreath, I found the writing arid in the extreme.  The whole of the works is, after all, very hefty.  So things do not move at a clip, though there is no lack of action in Kristin’s story.  I recall finding the story offputting, as a girl of a certain moral conviction, and disliking the leading man very much indeed.  It was hard, therefore, to much like the girl so taken with him, and the first experience for me was clinically unappealing.  I thought I wasn’t smart enough to get the novels, and indeed I probably wasn’t – the story was geared to be archetypally feminine, and I at that age had hardly experienced my own feminine life.

I don’t know whether I read them in the interim, I think that I must have, but my next recollection of reading Kristin is when I was just past thirty.  I remember sitting in what we joked about being my De-Lux Apartment In the Sky.  I remember the 3-CD stereo my dad and I had bought, listening to only two on random rotation – Fiona Apple’s debut and David Bowie’s “Hours” – some of the best reading music ever written, and I’m not much for music when I’m reading, actually.  I remember giving my brother a copy of “Hours” and his saying to me, “I hope you bought this for me because you have it” – it is that good a piece of art.  I remember sitting in my grandmother’s chair, in the alcove beside my door, feet tucked up beside me, facing, but hardly looking up from the book to actually gaze, westward.  I remember the light in that apartment.  I remember that reading, those days, those weeks, those hours, as sacred time.  It may not have been peace in my life, but those books, that music, that light, that chair.  Peace in the sacred space we create when reading.

Older now, I look at Kristin and understand why some voices of posterity remember the story as somewhat melodramatic, a bit soap-operatic.  But I know, too, why this histfic has the staying power it has.

Likewise, Anya Seton’s Katherine, the story of Katherine Swinford, nee de Roet, who shaped English history for centuries.

My mom found this one at an antique store, and amazingly I had never heard of it.  She gave it to me around the time I had split from Beloved Ex, and that seems late to me for the discovery of this work.  For one, its place in the genre is perhaps as well known as Lavransdatter.  For two, the first time I read it, I was utterly ensconsed, and a later re-reading felt just as pleasant but very different.  It came off more as a romance novel than it had seemed to me at first, but still a high quality story I know I will read again.

It is this kaleidoscopic experience of perspective which drives me to return to works I have loved.  Some never pall for me – A Memory of Lions, I know, will never lose its place in my heart and mind.  Some simply shift a little.  A recent re-reading of the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide reaffirms its appeal, but exposes to me the extent to which I am no longer the facile kid I was when I first knew those characters.  (The blasphemy – H2G2 will never die for me, but I like the Dirk Gently novels better …)  So I am burning to pick up Steinbeck’s Arthur again, to clarify in my mind those scenes with Lancelot encountering the tragic, the ridiculously sad, the cruelly tempting.  Between picking up my own work – and picking it apart once again – there must be something else to fill, to occupy, my reading mind.  Because that’s what a writer is:  a reader.

Flostsam of the Day at Work ...

... an unfinished poem by Cute Shoes

blood, guilt, vodka and an ice pick
tears, petulance, whining and bad perfume

We are not having our least stressful times, as you might have guessed.  Le sigh.

Revisionist Histfic

And so it came to pass that, for lack of readers on the first go round and with a bit of consideration, I have almost against my own will begun another pass at the manuscript.  This will not be so profound as the last time, but then again – it depends upon definitions.  Profoundity may not be measured in volume, but in net effect, and some of the small changes already made have altered the work.

It just depresses me.  There are times I tell myself it’s freeing, admitting just how long I have worked on Ax now.  Mostly, though, it has become oppressive.  All writers have excuses, all of us have disappointments.  But my first JRW conference was almost nine years ago now.  It was within three months or so of that I began in earnest.  So this work has gone on for something over eight years.  Three jobs.  The entire lifetime of my younger niece.  If I told her I’d been working on a book for that long she’d dismiss me outright, and it’s not like the publishing industry would be much more impressed.  I know that.  Deadlines aren’t set around concerns about pet care, or full time jobs that have nothing to do with getting a book researched, written, revised.

If I admitted precisely how long the list of agents is, I have actually queried in the over a year and half since the first time I thought I had finished the manuscript, I’d probably be dismissed as a dilettante, wasting time and not truly dedicated.

Fortunately, I don’t in fact know exactly how many it is.  I have an Excel spreadsheet, yes, but I deleted quite a number of agents after the first round of queries/before the Great Revision, so I’d be unable to pin down totals with any degree of honesty.  It’s not as many as I’d like to let on … and periods of “Oh I live in a doggy toilet” or the various other stresses of 2012 led me to far-too-*long* periods of inactivity in my stewardship of my own work.

And here I am, going back into reverse, the “revised” manuscript already out in various states of snippet-ery to agents who, not at all surprisingly I guess, aren’t wetting themselves to get their hands on more.  Sigh.

The good news is that the past two or three weeks have at least had me regularly engaged.  I was investigating whether to do another revision, even as I was getting out a few queries … and, in the end, I have to be honest with *myself* now and do the right thing.  It’s helpful that I don’t actually resent getting back on the old horse.

I just worry that I’ve let the poor thing’s journey get longer than it should have been.

Probably not unique, and who wants to read a blog about a continually unpublished author having second thoughts.

Y’all are reading the blog of an author still *waiting* to be published.  Be patient with me, and we’ll get Ax out there.

And then it’ll be time for me to start sighing here and there about the second novel – in between posts about how cute my animals are.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

... And a Billionaire Shall Save Them

Very late, as usual (I may be no Procrastacritic, but apparently I have the same DNA ...), I have finally gotten around to watching the culmination of Nolan's Batman trilogy.  The Dark Knight Rises is, in its way, the perfect movie for our times - but it is not a feel good spectacle.

This isn't the statement it seems to be.  I like a "dark" movie, and don't ask for pap.  But this film is disturbing.  It doesn't question our world and posit something better.  Its function, in the end, is to look at our world - this economy of haves, the invisibility of the have-nots - the cruel dynamic of "the 1%" - the ever-tipping balance of imbalance - and posits that revolution is evil, *and* that self-rule equals anarchy and ends in death.

Bane, the villain of the piece, is the product of ultimate deprivation, and his theorem that the concentration of power (and money) in the hands of the few is unacceptable is positioned, in this story, as the ultimate form of evil.

The Dark Knight Rises celebrates the wealthy, mourns any injury to them in the most shamelessly sentimental terms - "This house belonged to a family" says, of all people, Catwoman, as The Great Unwashed overtake a mansion - and rejoices in the billionaire savior, come to return Gotham from its peril in the hands of The People and restore it to the wealthy, the rightful in power.

DKR is more offensive and disturbing even than The Artist or Battlestar, for being a direct rebuke of justice.  The Artist's problems were not thematically unallied to this thesis (a bid for pity of the wealthy white man who loses not even close to everything that counts, when he arrogantly and petulantly chooses to resist the very authority he's adored as long as it was making him a fortune).  Battlestar's were racist, sexist, and philosophical, though it was rising somewhat from its worst by the end.  DKR is simply a political piece, commanding obedience to the now, decrying any questioning of our existing economy, our existing political structure, as unthinkable villainy.

It's pretty sick, is what I am saying.  Worse, it's fairly engaging (though not as well done as it should be, and far too full of bizarrely convenient ramps for people to escape far too many chase scenes), if a bit murky to follow and somewhat poorly plotted.

Here is the surprise gem.  Catwoman, here portrayed in as close to her Julie Newmar incarnation as any production in the past forty years has attempted, by Ann Hathaway (she of all the teenaged girl-fantasies about getting to wear fancy fancy clothes) of all people.  Selina Kyle, in this incarnation is as wildly competent as ever, which is nice to see, and her sexuality, fully present, doesn't get to compromise her in this script.  The character remains competent at all times, is able to manipulate without missing a beat - but NOT because she is a "wily female" character (indeed, her gender is not the informing source of any of her worse traits, nor is it the excusing factor in redeeming her from them).  She is not vulnerable in the pouting, diffident way most female characters, particularly in action movies - *particularly* in *superhero* movies - are.  No, her evolution, through this story, is singularly personal, has some meaning, and keeps her the most fascinating character on screen.  She participates perhaps more than Batman, Bane - more than anyone else in the film, except Joseph Gordon Levitt's John Blake - in the reality of the consequences of the action.  She and Blake alone appear to actually represent the masses, the huge population of Gotham, enduring - and overcoming - the results of those forces battling it out so attractively for the audience.  I even like the design choice that justifies/creates her cat ears.

I didn't go into this watching hating Ann Hathaway, but I've come away appreciating the hell out of her bringing to life this character.  It's even explicit in the film:  "There's more to you than that."

All this and only one gratuitous shot of her ass.  Would this had been her film entirely.  Ah well.

Tom Hardy, unfortunately, is all but lost.  As a Trek nerd, I've watched him ever since America glanced across him in Nemesis.  But there's no way to direct around the constraints of the character Bane.  Hidden behind a mask, given another in the series of all-but-ridiculous voices the Nolan Batmans provide such a rich series of - there's not much an actor can do to clamber out of the hole dug by such constraints.  Edward Norton, in Kingdom of Heaven, and hidden behind a silver mask of his own, somehow managed to make a memorable character leap out from behind it - ironically, not least by his use of a somewhat funny voice.

Sadly, the funny voice doesn't seem to be the magic.  I'm sorry to watch Tom Hardy, whom I can't hold responsible for his own death, lost so completely in DKR.  Bane's not bad to watch, but there is no depth as written, and as directed there's nothing to lift the bad guy out of a flat comic panel.  After the late and legendary Heath Ledger, I guess putting the villain behind a mask was about all they could do, but it is still unfortunate to waste an actor like that.

Thirty-seven years ago, Luke Skywalker was a hero.  He was a rebel against tyranny, fighting the faceless, artificially animated Powers That Be.  Now the hero is the guy kicking down the rebel, who is himself repulsive for his infirmity.

Way to go, progress.

Way to go, billionaire Bruce Wayne.


Please understand - I know that this is a reductive interpretation.  That doesn't make it incorrect, and it doesn't redeem this film from its reckless and disturbing messages.  Dark Knight Rises is still a dangerous story in this day and age.  Think about whom it serves best before thinking it's time to get shrill on this reviewer.

Friday, June 21, 2013

YA Reading ... and Reading ... and Reading

Sixteen years ago next week, apparently, was the debut of the first book in the Harry Potter series.  I remember the first time I heard of it, from a friend of mine with an advanced degree and a penchant for guilty pleasures in the Melrose Place, Buffy, and - obviously - Potter vein.  I remember, too, hearing Diane Sawyer tell the world that reading was in again thanks to the boy wizard.  The book was a phenomenon many of its target audience may not now remember, nor have comprehended at the time.

I remember, more than anything else, being a bit bewildered as to why what I categorized in my mind as a "children's book" (the label YA was not yet the hot trend it's been ever since; many of us were barely aware that such a genre/category as "young adult" lit existed) was such a sensation.  Having had it recommended to me was a little bemusing as well; there's really nothing in my character that points to much interest in preteen boys' adventures in magic-land.  I wasn't offended, merely perplexed at the idea.

It's not something one discusses these days, YA having become the market maker that it is ... but I've never "gotten" why it has come to dominate the market as it now does.  Intellectually, sure, I can easily see that YA is easy reading, and the genre is well suited to the trends of urban fantasy and the genres selling the most right now.  Its accessibility is key, and I've also been told by more than one person that it's nice to get a break from sex in books.

This last bit perplexes me, too, admittedly.

After the death of Parke Godwin this week, I spent a little while after work today perusing his works at Amazon (it's an easy tool, even if Amazon is a terrifying market behemoth) and then took a look at Donald Harington as well.  What struck me was that, in Harington's reviews in particular, the negatives had a very strong tendency to judge his books badly because of the sex.

Harington takes hillbilly stereotypes and turns them into storytelling and characters.  So one finds an awful lot of incest - consensual and non - a good deal of very youthful canoodling, and not an incidental amount of rape.  Of course (and there's a whole screed in this problem, but I will leave it unsaid for now) rape scenes are called "sex" scenes by reviewers nursed on our seriously deranged culture.

But what interested me is how viscerally people were responding to the sex.

When Fifty Shades is the other bestseller of the moment (and is written, as far as I can tell, with a good deal *less* sophistication than the YA series leading the rest of the market these days).

We have ... an interesting interplay, in the US market anyway, right now where Terrifying yet Titillating sex is concerned.  People seem to hate it, react against it powerfully, find an entire book ruined by it - when it's rarely the whole point.  And then books whose whole points *are* the sex scenes (again, I've never heard anyone accusing the Fifties of being good literature) sell like steaming hotcakes all over the place.


***


NPR, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED

The upshot of all this is that even the adult novels selling right now seem to have become less sophisticated.

Which actually brings me (you thought this was post enough? I'm just getting started) to the thesis of this post, which is that readership nationally has devolved.  In schools, "the classics" (again, deconstructing this is another post, but don't take it as read I think this generic label is necessarily a be-all) have steadily given ground for about 25 years to more accessible, and less complex, reading.

As with everything else we do these days, Americans don't go in much for balance in the written word.  There is a quote in the NPR story linked here:  "Every single person in the class said, 'I don't like realism, I don't like historical fiction. What I like is fantasy, science fiction, horror and fairy tales.'"

Now, most of us know that all of the latter genres mentioned as likable are represented in some of the most sophisticated echelons of our literary heritage.  But the current market has a tendency to gravitate to these genres in YA, and the market has for all of the sixteen years since Potter been stalking YA properties for the Next Big Potter (or Twilight, or Hunger Games, and so on).

In a sense ... the bestseller lists are not much about readers and books, but about product and profit.  We all know this, too, but we don't think a lot about its ramifications.  And the YA-ification of our reading habits is beginning to tell on us, apparently.

I may not be able to lead a literature symposium, but I can at least, thanks to the education I was fortunate to partake of, competently participate in a discussion of Hemingway, Shakespeare, the greater themes and plots through the history of literature, and even manage to avoid appearing an utter dunderhead when it comes to literature beyond (gasp) those Great Classics of Western lit.  I have a little exposure to ancient storytelling beyond my heritage, I have enormous respect for Asian storytelling I adore but would be terrified to try to actually take on.  I can function intellectually precisely because, while we did get to read "accessible" literature when I was young (which I think is an extremely good thing) it was often in the form of a kind of dessert, toward the end of a term or a school year, when we'd been working pretty hard on the sorts of reading which presents greater challenges.

Reading is entertainment, but its value as a literal exercise, a mental challenge, seems to have gone out of vogue.

Again, I have been biting my lip for the past decade and a half - and particularly since trying to make an "author platform" out of this blog - about what I must admit to be a contrarianism about YA.  It isn't politic, if one wants to be a published author (even if not in the Hot Genre du jour) to go around dissing what *is* hot.  It isn't clever to sneer at what's popular, nor at particular authors/works, either.  And it isn't smart to go to a cocktail party and give everybody the finger.  What if I queried an agent who loves YA but also does happen to do straight historical fiction?

It also just isn't nice to be nasty about something just because you don't get it, and don't want to.  Okay, I can't find any part of myself that can understand the fascination for a kid in a magic school.  (Yes, I know that is incredibly reductive - our first impulses on buying/reading anything tend to be so.)  I also don't begrudge my PhD pal for loving the kid, nor anyone else out of the millions of readers.  Reading is entertainment.

I just wonder whether this sixteen year trend will ever turn again.  I'm old enough to be skeptical any market maker is forever.

Whatever the trends - and I don't think I ever will write to them - books like The Ax and the Vase still have a place.  They have, as long as literature and publishing have been in anything like the forms we recognize today, since Walter Scott's romantic adventures in historical fiction, and there are plentiful authors keeping histfic not merely alive, but fascinating.  To intellectually mature readers of whatever age.

The fantasy I have about Ax's "place" in this world remains the same.  It is:  on that shelf at some old relative's house, where a kid, thirty years from now, is going to find it and pull it down, some boring summer day.  And they will love it for the rest of their life.


I've been that kid.  I know that kid's still alive.  I know that kid doesn't need to be talked down to, that the story of Clovis will be enough.

I can't wait for that kid to stumble across him, and dog-ear him to death, till something is on fire inside.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Rest in Peace, Mr. Godwin

When I was about sixteen or seventeen, I bought a book based on its cover.



The book turned out not to be what it might look like ... I'm not sure whether I really experienced that nor cared at the time.  I loved the novel from the very first time I read it.  When the edition above slipped away at some point, I ended up replacing it with a used one from Bibliofind (long since subsumed by that perniciously helpful, ubiquitous behemoth, Amazon).



This one has a great very late 60s/early 70s feel, but is even less relevant to the story than the first one I had. I might not have bought this one.  I might have missed out on The Best.

Lions is the best piece of historical fiction I have ever read.  Only very recently, I was excited to find several friends online whose opinions I respect very much, who loved this book too, and others of Parke Godwin.

Godwin was not a young man.  But he died yesterday.  And I am sad, but grateful for his work.

Godwin and Donald Harington wrote two of the works I have loved most in this world.  Very briefly, after I had begun work on The Ax and the Vase, but many years ago now - I had the joyous honor of corresponding with Harington via email.  He was working on a new novel at that time, and he himself was about seventy then.

My brother - not a cover - first introduced me to Harington, when I was in college.  He lent me The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, and I loved it, and ... that year for Christmas, my brother gave me his own copy, because I had asked for it and he could not find a copy to give me.

I am a wide-eyed and trusting fool, and when many years later I became friends, online, with a woman who worked at the same University with Harington, I sent her the book.  As things go ... I've never seen that book again.  For years, she would email me periodically, apologizing.  But the getting-him-to-sign-it and the sending it back never happened.  I hope she still has that copy somewhere; the idea of its not being merely lost, but actually trashed, or recycled, or otherwise destroyed as an artifact - breaks my heart.  I feel less personal loss than immensely guilty about being such a careless steward of the GIFT that was given to me.  And the loss of my brother's note to me, in that copy, is more painful than the novel.  (Of that, oddly enough, and in a very weird and squicky way actually, I have another copy - a first edition in hard cover.  I've never once opened nor read that one; with the result that I haven't read TAOTAO in quite a few long years now.)

I don't even know what became of my first copy of Lions.  In that novel's case, the cover's first-look magic notwithstanding, the artifact doesn't matter to me.

Both of my favorite authors have died.  Both wrote histfic - and many other things, too.  They were immensely unalike - yet peers in their great talent.



I will miss you, Parke Godwin.  May peace be with your loved ones and friends - and with you.  I know many readers' gratitude always has been.

Pitchy

Hah.  In a thread about where we get our inspiration, at Absolute Write - I half rewrote (again) my own darn pitch.

Non-fiction is a starting point for me as well, but particularly in the case of [I]The Ax and the Vase[/I], there is a very personal connection indeed which brought me to reading about Clovis I in the first place.  Clovis was the Romanized form of the name Hludovechus, and through history the name has never gone out of use, with forms across multiple languages.  "Clovis" gave us Louis, Lewis, Ludwig, and dozens of variants, and the name spent a very great deal of time on the throne in France; he is considered the first king of what became France, after all.
My own middle name is Louise, and I had never heard of Clovis before I was past thirty.  This is the first king of France, the first Catholic king in Europe, the founder of the Merovingian dynasty.  Clovis brought the Franks and Gallo-Romans into one people, set down the Salic law, accepted the tenet of Divine Right - his queen, Clotilde, was sainted for her persuasions in bringing this powerful king into the Church - and, having ousted (and executed) the last Roman governor in Gaul, Clovis then built the foundations for Rome to assert its dominion in the form of Christendom, in the form - no longer of the Empire - but of the Church.
This guy did a few interesting things, and I could not bear his not being present in, at least, American fiction, with so many other fascinating royals so well represented indeed.
So, yeah.  First it was vanity (the connection with my own name; I have a great affinity for the power and meaning of my names) - then it was outright, almost bewildered, fascination. :)

Hee.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Edwardian Lovelies and Flapper Flirts

It's interesting to me that the post from which I linked to this vid brought it up as the subject of derision.  I enjoy a lot of these preserved vintage vignettes, and am fascinated in the car-wreck sense that someone who seems to share an interest in history presumes that the people watching a piece like this are only doing so to laugh at its outlandishness.



Most of the people I know who'd find clips of this sort would in fact die of pleasure, finding extraordinarily clear, 360-degree views of genuine vintage styling, especially hair styling.  The watching and sharing is all for enjoyment, in every iteration of anything like this I've ever seen before.  Indeed, the enjoyment of beauty - and, for an awful lot of people, recapturing some of its essence, or even recreating it today - is the reward here.

Obviously, some who run across vintage videos online probably do find them quaintly amusing, or perhaps baffling.  Those people, though, aren't the preservers, and most of the time I have to assume they are neither the intended audience nor came across them intentionally, certainly not just to laugh at them.  It is sad, and bewildering, that someone who would not seem a casual, taunting gawker, then, looks at this clip as, in their mind "obviously", a source of derision.

I find these ladies' styles to be fascinating, and their beauty its own point of interest.  It is a lesson in both an early technology already obsessed with women on display, with commodotizing beauty - with the aesthetics of the two periods it presents.

Why would that be risible ... ?

"Keeping History Fresh"

Great essay, today, from A. L. Berridge at The History Girls, on the care and freshening of artifacts ... and ranging across a great deal more - up to and including the writing of history in fiction ...

Sometimes, fresh and pristine is perfect, sometimes it's not the best way to find an artifact.  (Just ask me or my brother some time about how depressing a "mint in box!" toy seems - decades old, and never once played with ...)

A great thought I had to quote/highlight:

Our ancestors may not have had our attitudes to personal hygiene, but they washed their clothes, they washed their pots and pans, and even the English word ‘clean’ derives from Anglo Saxon. People in previous centuries arguably took better care of their possessions than we do, because they were much less easy to replace    --A. L. Berridge 
For her thoughts on writing - hit up the link, kids.

I'm One of Those Costume Nerds ...

... for whom this is not a new thought.  Ahh, but I love American Duchess, and it was an interesting idea to revive the original styles.  It's not surprising, though, that enthusiasm is running distinctly against the idea.

Also fun was finding this in the comments.  Yet another blog of following-ness for me, I'm afraid.  Yay!

Love them or hate them, chopines make an interesting study in design, as well, in a way, as about our assumptions about design and clothing.  These shoes seem "shocking" to us not merely because they appear to defy (our centers of) gravity, but also because - by the mainstream aesthetic which has guided shoe design since before we kept our kicks on display when skirts became shorter in the early 20th century - they're kind of ugly.  Read the responses at American Duchess' post suggesting a revival, and the antipathy is almost emotional.  The silhouette of the chopine not only goes against our assumptions about footwear, but the modern "edgy" versions remind us of nothing so much as would-be shock professionals like Lady Gaga and, frankly, I would posit they also resemble fetish shoes (the link's just to results for an image search, and what appears at the top is nothing outre' - but click on your own reconnaissance), which is a whole area that disturbs ... well, I suspect, a lot fewer people than would like to say so ...

So it looks unlikely, given the lack of enthusiasm, that the Duchess won't be going into repro chopine production.  But for consolation, there's always the modern market for the glittery/Gaga-y options.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Childeric's Bees

Doing a quick self-referential link search for the last post, I am floored to see there isn't a single post in this blog about Childeric's bees.

Image:  Wikimedia
Drawings of the original, widely flared-winged bees


King Childeric was Clovis I's father, and may have been the son (certainly he was the successor) to Merovech, the Frankish king whose name was the basis for the name of the Merovingian dynasty.  There is reason to believe that Childeric, a federate client-king within Rome's empire, owned a great deal of wealth - his tomb, discovered in 1653, yielded the most astonishing treasure.  (In the opening scenes of The Ax and the Vase, Childeric's grave goods are described in detail, including a prodigious series of funereal sacrifices.)

The most famous treasure of all was Childeric's bees.  Napoleon himself had these millennium-deep symbols of France and the monarchy embroidered into his coronation robes.  (Interestingly/possibly ironically if you like, Napoleon is said to have chosen the symbol of the bees to eclipse the Bourbon fleur de lys.  It is also said that the bees were in fact the inspiration for the fleur itself, though there are many origin theories for the symbol.)

Image:  Wikimedia
Fleur de Lys wall


Sadly, almost all these incredible artifacts were lost in the first third of the nineteenth century.

The significance of bees spans many centuries and much of the globe, and often they are used as living avatars in tribute to work - perhaps what we today would call "teamwork" - what in many cultures through history might have looked at more as service.  Bees are associated with gold, and the sweetness of honey, and there is some ambiguity as to why a bee might be chosen as a royal votive offering, never mind the emblem of monarchy and authority.  Theories reach back to the goddess Artemis.  The fact is, three hundred of these tiny treasures were sewn on a prodigious red cloak in the tomb of Clovis' father.

Of the funeral scene, and the offering of these gifts in tribute to the late king, I had this to say of the bees:

            My sister and Basina approached the grave from another direction.  The horses having died at Childeric’s feet, the women approached toward his crown.  In Basina’s hands was a cask of great dimension, heavy enough to beg assistance—yet she would not depend upon a slave, nor even Audofleda.
            Her eyes, grey as his had been, were dry and steady, but seemed as heavy as her movements.  Her hands moved smoothly, but as if dazed.  Her posture was automatic, calm, but no longer regal, as she had been just weeks before.  I saw her let her head bow forward in silence.
            “To the King.  To my husband—this last gift, before you depart.”  Her voice was quiet; yet in the aftermath of the women’s mourning, she was easy to hear.
            Knelt beside him for the last time, she opened the box before her, and revealed a trove of tiny golden bees, swarmed upon brocaded, blood-red linen.  Finally, she allowed the her daughter to join in her last greeting to the King.  Together, they unfurled a great cloak—of such prodigious length it might grace a god or daemon—and spread it across the body of my father.  The bees glinted in the cold air, warding away greasy smoke and death itself.  They settled in dimples between puffs of rich red, and their field settled slowly between them; three hundred golden symbols of regeneration, wisdom, royalty … immortality.
            Basina’s gift was the richest one of all, an offering of thanksgiving to the king who had given her gifts still greater, but no more potent than the worker-creatures eternally wrought to accompany him, in precious, glinting gold.

There are those (see the second link above) who do not even see bees in these tiny artifacts.  I do, and they are most famously presumed to be bees, but theories do abound.

Image:  Wikimedia
Replicas commissioned by the Emperor Leopold, Innsbruck, Austria

Do you see a fleur de lys here?  Do you see flies, or bees, or that intriguing, mystical insect, the cicada?  Perhaps the head of a spear - or even the flower, the lily?  Perhaps not the weapon, the totem, that gave the Franks, and France itself, its name:  the francisca, the ax carried by Frankish men from even long before Clovis' own period.  It isn't the narrow shape of the axe's head, but then it's not a literal image of a bug, nor flower, nor another weapon either.

It has a face; I am content to see Childeric's bees as bees.  What do you think, out of all the legends ... ?

Vintage Stockings

American Duchess has collected a wonderful array of stocking designs, these photographs are so much fun.  Enjoy!

I like the ones with (not Childeric's) bees ...

The Met collection, 19th century

Monday, June 17, 2013

Arthur Dent, Archaeologist

I knew him first as Dentarthurdent, then Watson, and of course I'm aware he's been a hobbit and an office worker.  Heh.  Now I can know him for the most amazing vest ever, and some unusually tight little cutoff, rolled-up jeans shorts ...



"It's under, so it's older."  Fantastic.

Bill-thuselah and Vintage Pugilism "Live"

The ice pack recycling continues for my head, as well as a solid nap from which I awoke in lots more pain that I felt like entertaining (the sun had come out - how a good headache *loves* a strong high pressure system).  Still, with "real" reading beyond my grasp and an inability to watch a movie without doing anything else, I'm noodling around online.

Found the world's oldest, at well over 600 years old, surviving bank note.  It's large, it's beautiful, and it's in pretty amazing condition.

Thanks to the links on that page, there's also this.  The center of gravity on the central boxer appears to my completely ignorant eye to be a bit distended, but it's an interesting little "flicker" ...

Ruminating, Aching Brain

Today has turned out to be a sick day for me - with a head so painful the little pills aren't helping, so here I sit with a refreshing ice pack strapped to my skull.  (I'm not actually being facetious, at least not entirely; it feels stuffy in the house, so even apart from managing the pain, an ice pack isn't going amiss on this nice and cozy leather couch.)  The problem with a sick day, for me, is that even when it's my head affected, when I am alone with my thoughts (and the pack), things to write will, unfortunately, inevitably start clamoring.

If only what were clamoring were some resolution to the various work I need/may want to do.

No, thanks to the sweet melancholy of a rainy day, hormones, and the fact that Fathers Day was yesterday, my wee and paltry little brain is turning, turning on that day.

Yesterday was my tenth Fathers Day without one.  My brother, being a father, and I believe busily planning a fun day's hard (berry picking) labor with his kidlets, I think may feel the pangs, but has distractions.

I just get cranky and resentful every year, shouting "I HAVEN'T GOT ONE!!!" at the presumptuous Sears commercials and ever-present exhortations everywhere you go online to BUY A GIFT FOR DAD.  I roll my eyes a lot at the insistent dumbing-down of the name of the holiday to "dads day" - which for no justifiable grammatical reason makes me want to kill puppies anyway.  I get mad, in short, that my dad is gone.

He wouldn't appreciate that much.  It's wasted energy, and I know it going in every year, and it's not like I devolve into psychotic breaks or anything - but there just is no escaping it.  (Hey, other old people out there ... remember when advertising didn't have the capability to follow you around like a seriously desperate ex?) And it sucks, because my dad was a wonderful man.  And it hurts.

Maybe this is the low-grade personal pettiness that had me feeling low all week last week when there was no justification for it.  It felt like a bad week, though nothing really happened to justify my pettishness.  And Saturday was more of the same, just magnified.  I did nothing all day but a few desultory pokes at the opening line for The Ax and the Vase and a whole lot more sleeping than I should publicly admit to.  It was something of a mini depression, and an ugly piece of self-indulgence I recognized even in the midst of it.

One of the very very good/very very bad things about living alone with nonjudgmental animals:  Sometimes, you can indulge in the very excessive extreme ...

So maybe it was odd that, finally, on Fathers Day itself, I got up, got myself somewhat presentable, and took myself out for a while.

Went to go see Iron Man Three.  A good, LONG movie, on a bright, hot Sunday afternoon.  It ate up a very nice chunk of the day indeed; and I got randomly hit on in the lobby.

I didn't sit in the dark remembering all the times I went to movies with dad, just me and my dad, but ... that, apparently, is what today is for.  I may have to drag out that one DVD; he did love a good spy story.  I may have to find myself a copy of Skyfall, the third Craig Bond.  The Craig entries into the series have their frenetic moments, and are seriously loud, but I think dad might quite have enjoyed them.  Certainly Skyfall's many tributes to the classics he'd have had fun with - especially the riff on having a Q aged about fourteen.

Dad and I enjoyed a wide variety of movies together.  He took me to Elizabeth at the little theater near campus, which is now in its final days of survival.  We saw Firefox, of course (see the link at just me and my dad above).  When I was fourteen and in my first flush of Arthurian excitement, he took me to go see Excalibur ... and we agreed before going home and after a couple of extremely embarrassing moments - my first R-rated movie, that was - to tell mom it was so rated because of its violence.  An interesting comment on our culture, and our family's subscription to it, actually:  that exposing a child to violence is more acceptable than the exposure to naughty old sex.

Anyway.

So I went to go see IM3 yesterday.  And came home and watched What You Leave Behind, which provided exactly enough excuse to be gooey without going overboard.  It was probably the right antidote, and as indulgent as this post is, today's dwellings on my dad are more of the "I remember that last Fathers Day" variety, thinking about how all of us were together, the picture of my dad and my little (then) niece holding up sweet rolls I'd baked that morning - from *his* mother's recipe.  Out on the brick patio.  Rotating stints on the hammock.  It was a beautiful day, that one.  And I was so lucky to have him.  I'm so grateful, still, to have all the rest of the family we were that day ... and some more of us.  A little redhead we never knew would come to be.  Some good times.

Pen is in her yard being friendly with our neighbor and generally still quite in love with it.  Gossamer is taking loving care of me, only nibbling on the velcro bits holding my icepack on just a little bit.  There is some light, high up in the grey sky.  And I think I will sleep, this post now having escaped from rattling around in my brain.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Dungeons are Like Pirates" ...

When I saw this link on Twitter, my first reaction was:  "Neat!"

Teresa Bohannon, who posted the article, put it like this ...  "@DianeLMajor Dungeons are like pirates, historically we find them fascinating, in modern context...horrifying."

Yep.  That.  But a good article, nonetheless.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Being A Historical Novelist (... Just Not *Here* ...)

Ben Kane has an interesting piece here about the links between the UK and ancient Rome:

History oozes from the fabric of this small island. Let’s be honest, England’s/Britain’s impact on the world has (historically) punched above its size.

Very true, England's always had a good left hook.

The Borgias

I actually made attempts to watch this, but it was for me so bad as to be alienating.  This review misses some of the worst production/performance/direction issues in favor of being drop-dead hilarious, but it's al*most* enough to make me wish I had someone else to watch it with if only to make fun of the series.  Not really.  It was just too bad to try.  The writing dismissing it is in fact far too good for it.  Still - worth a read.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Miss Manners

Anyone who believes an etiquette maven must necessarily be antiquated in her attitudes and quaintly out of touch must not read Judith Martin.  It's columns like this one I love most.  If someone is insulting, rude, and controlling on the very first date:  that someone is not good relationship material.  But, as she says, "Miss Manners will leave it to you."

The very height of evolved, progressive, and polite behavior.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Geeks Who Make Women Hate Themselves

Food for thought ...
(All images/words above:  Thumbcramps.com)

My friend Leila has a great post up about women (and, really:  men) in geek-dom, which I hope gets a ton of traffic.  I've thought about this topic many times, and it even goes beyond the characters in comics with pneumatic breasts and legs four feet long ... it even goes into those feminine icons in the real world men are given permission to think they are superior for finding attractive.  Women who are supposed to be less threatening to real women but who, if we're honest, still conform to certain weights and other mainstream standards of attractiveness.

Hollywood's idea of the drab, workaday Real Woman
(All celebrity images:  IMDB)

Over the past twenty years, I can't begin to count the number of nerd guys who have congratulated themselves (they like to tell women about this; I've fielded so many of these conversations, and am sure most other nerdy and nerd-adjacent women do) for liking:  Allison MackJeaneane Garofalo, Allyson Hannigan, Felicia Day, Amy Acker, and Tina Fey.  Not one of these women actually fails the Hollywood test of visual appeal - they simply aren't fully plastic bimbettes.  They're all of a certain petiteness - in Day's and Acker's cases, they're ever bit as thin as editorial models (slimmer by far than swimsuit models).  It's as if women are supposed to be grateful that a man can find a woman who is already physically striking attractive because she ALSO is intelligent and funny and Joss Whedon gets her to commit shocking violence.

Because, yes, it's no coincidence I listed three of Whedon's often-cast actresses.  It could have been significantly more.  Joss is one of those guys, I suspect, who thinks himself evolved because he finds women attractive who are not appearing in Playboy.  And he has done a bit, at least, to provide some interesting faces, especially in his work on the small screen.  But he's also got rather a thing about YOUNG women, (a whole different post but not in fact a completely different squick) - and, again, Allyson, Felicia, and so on are hardly ordinary to look at.

NONCONFORMITY IS NOT THE SAME THING AS OPEN-MINDEDNESS.


I can still recall a very old friend of mine, a sometime boyfriend - a boy whose first kiss I was, in fact - philosophizing with me in the early nineties, about the movie, "The Truth About Cats and Dogs", a movie starring Jeaneane Garofalo and Uma Thurman.  He was so proud of himself (a lot of guys were, I remember this movie's reception very well, at least amongst my lot of friends and acquaintances) for finding Jeannine SO much more attractive than Uma.

Well, the fact was, Jeaneane was (a) no uggo to begin with (she still is not, no matter the much-hammered themes of her standup and her own endorsement of the idea she might ever in her life have owned a cell of back fat), and (b) so luminously well styled, lit, scripted, and shot that she was both ethereal and completely lovely.  Add to this that the scripting on Uma was *nice* but not breathtaking, so the character had to lose out to the heroine we were following, along with Jeaneane's glossily dark locks.

At the time, I was still grateful enough for any sign of male attractiveness-egalitarianism, and deeply enough mired in my own sense of how attractive *I* was relative to Jeannine (I thought I was hotter), that I could accept that this guy's preferring her to Uma was some sort of a triumph.

As may be obvious:  over time, I have come to remember this ground-breaking example of male sensitivity in something of a different light.

Enough conversations about how "hot" Gabrielle was on Xena:  Warrior Princess, Mary Ann was, versus Ginger, Betty versus Wilma or even Betty versus Veronica later, and the theme became so obvious even to me that I stopped being impressed when men bragging that they had so generously found it in their libidos to find "UNATTRACTIVE" women attractive.  (My continued attempts to be a Veronica, even to this day, still don't negate how deadly boring a conversation this can be.)

If you can find "awkward" creature appealing - you're the hero ...
(All celebrity images:  IMDB)

Here is the Earth-shattering news, guys.

Glasses do not render a telegenic woman run of the mill.  A tinsey little scar on a lip does not destroy the luminous skin, figure, good hair, and large eyes of a television star.  Being SCRIPTED as "the girl next door" or a neurotic does nothing to diminish the requisite level of appeal a woman must maintain in order to be agented for television work, and cast as a regular.  This is how we get so many former models playing cops and private investigators, and always have.

In Hollywood, she's a second-banana ...
... but even she, eventually, will get an edit to a skimpy costume
so we can admire her exceedingly ordinary six-pack abs.
(All celebrity images:  IMDB)

Not the first beauty queen presented to American men as a girl next door ...
Not even the beginning of this issue, for American women ...
(All celebrity images:  IMDB)
Guys have bragged about finding all sorts of women they consider to be outside the beauty queen mold attractive, expecting this to make them more attractive to the women they brag about it to, and convincing themselves this makes them not only better than other "shallow" men but EXPECTING to be rewarded for their sensitivity.  By real women.  (Here's a thing:  the un-glamorous Mary Ann was a pageant princess.)  I can tell you, too - the woman who dares question a man showing off his crush on Willow, as actually perpetuating the standards held out to real women by an industry not in the business of promoting real women (don't get me started on Hollywood's long affair with increasingly dumpy leading men, at least not tonight ...), will get shrieked at in outrage by the guy who's cast himself as being Above the Whole Looks Thing.  They cannot take the idea they hold an entire gender to a standard they have trained themselves to think - and brag that - they don't believe in.  Hit that "Willow" link above and tell me how totally natural that shot is.

The actresses themselves ... I don't resent them much for making money off this conceit.  (A multi-layered term I'm loving right now.)  They're trading in an industry which, the older I get, the gladder I am I never found my way into, much less suffered success.  What this must do to someone I pity their having to endure.  May none of them suffer the decades of surgeries and ossifying expectations of self-image Joan Rivers and others who once traded on not-being-pretty (but still exemplifying it to such a degree that, past seventy, it's still such an imperative) have forced themselves to endure.  Even Phyllis Diller had some years in the eighties when she put off the fright wig and put out airbrushed photos to rehabilitate her "uggo" image.

I may suffer my own vanity issues - to be sure.  But I'm also grateful for every minute of my age, and the older I get the more I'm concerned about my HEALTH over my ability to make people think I look attractive.  Just today, I finally posted a nice, but not overly made-up image of myself as my avi on Twitter.  Baby steps.

Someone once said to me:  "You use your wit and intelligence as if your appearance had no power, and the effect is devastating."

That said a lot to me about my looks - which, with this person, even still matters to me.  But it also said something profound about what I have to back up the first impression.  I am so grateful mom and dad girded me with that power.

Side-eyeing the whole dadgum thing

Establishing Shot

It's easier to write a scene with an establishing shot.  In film, a few moments spent gazing at rolling hills and a small hut with a tendril of smoke rising and a contented beast of burden outside munching on grass, or the ubiquitous pan across a city's skyline, tells you where you are about to be placed, as a story begins (or a new scene).  Where it once began, The Ax and the Vase spent a few pages introducing characters and a battleground before the opening setpiece, the battle itself.  And even now, opening in an entirely different point in Clovis' life, there is half a page or so of scudding clouds in a milky white vault and a very quiet stockade before we learn that king Childeric, Clovis' father, is about to die.

Thanks to a discussion at Absolute Write (my participation there is nowhere near as great as it is at HFO, but my visitation is exactly as frequent), I'm looking at butterknifing the opening page.

Beginning in media res is tempting.  Some authors can do it, providing all the necessary knowledge, without seeming to "tell" it - expositing so well and in such brevity it's almost painless.

I have a few things to tell, in my opening scene.  Its core is the core conflict both of a prince and a king - the battle between ambition, the desire to inherit, and the impiety of wishing one's own father dead.  This is the first building block in Clovis' character as king, and it is also the curving, circling threat against it:  as he becomes a king with four sons of his own, all of whom will inherit (primogeniture was not the habit of Frankish succession).

This is an incredible tension, the seduction of desire forced against the guilt of its only means of fulfillment.  Imagine living your life with the understanding that you have one purpose ... and that the only means of attaining that is someone else's death.  The intellectual parricide, every day, of *wanting* the throne you know will be yours, the throne everything has taught you to aspire to, the throne that represents - not just power, not just wealth - but the very purpose in your having been born at all.  You can't be fulfilled without gaining it.  You can't gain it without your father dying.

Not all parental relationships, to be sure, are like mine with my dad.  But even so, in the Frankish community, family was the basis of everything.  And there is much reason to suspect that in Clovis' time, at his level of nobility - in him personally, indeed - filial piety ranked high among the personal value system.  His life is an example of this expectation of his own sons, and there seems no reason to imagine he would not have valued his own father, Childeric, very highly.

And so the opening scene - this moment of realization that he is about to become everything he is meant to be ... and how - is emotionally very powerful.

I'm going to give it a go in media res, even though I swore the butterknife was down.  Maybe just for myself, maybe as a real edit.  If I feel it works out, I may post drafts, or the finished scene, as a new excerpt page.  (Those who have been watching carefully may have noticed - I took down all my excerpts about a week ago, except the Author's Note page.)

We shall see.  But I am interested in the possibilities.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Do You Know Who Emily Davison Was?

... does any of us know why she did what she did?  Not the social cause - but was her action that of a terrorist, a martyr - or was it the miscalculation of a woman dedicated to a cause, neither willing to die nor to commit violence against others?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How to Write a Great Query Letter ... What They're Not Saying

There are likely thousands of articles and blog posts out there offering advice on how to get an agent's attention.  There's also no shortage of agents at conferences, explaining what to do/not to do quite passionately.  I've read and listened to my share, and after a while you start to shake your head because either people are stupider, en masse, than you can comfortably contemplate, or it is just far too easy.  Some of the commonest advice boils down thus:

  • Address queries to a particular agent - this means, don't send out a blast email query to every agent whose email you could find, without personalizing nor, perhaps, even researching to whom you are sending.  Choose to whom to submit by researching, and know your audience - and create each submission for its recipient.
  • Corollary to addressing a particular agent - spell his or her name correctly.  Seriously, getting a name wrong is a pretty basic insult to avoid in an attempt to get someone's professional attention.
  • Follow the agency's submissions guidelines - if an agency as a whole or a particular agent prohibits attachments, or specifically says they like to see word count, or requires the use of an electronic form, counting yourself as the Special Snowflake who doesn't have to conform to simple guidelines is a dealbreaker.  Just do it.  It's the low-low price of admission.
  • Content - keep it to a page or less.  Don't yammer about the money you're going to make an agent.  Don't cast the movie.  Don't be a braggart, and don't be an apologetic milquetoast either.  Get the synopsis done, introduce yourself as a prospect, include what is required/allowed, and get out.  With THANKS for time, attention, etc.  (Yes:  this kind of thing actually needs to be said.  Sad, isn't it?)
  • Mechanics - anything you send represents your writing.  If it's not free of typos, misspellings, outright construction errors, and precious formatting, it will speak very very VERY poorly indeed of your skill in the field of writing.  If it lacks energy and momentum, the assumption will be:  so does your manuscript.  Your main character, setting, and major dramatic question should be clear in your query. (Again, yes:  this kind of thing actually needs to be explained.  Ad naseum, yet.)

A lot of it is professionalism and common sense, and of course - unfortunately - it's all too necessary to advise professionalism and simple common sense, particularly in a field so dominated by dreams.  People as a whole aren't super with the self-awareness thing, and self-awareness is unfortunately very necessary when it comes to successfully presenting that self to others in patent bids for attention.  Know your assets, know your work, be confident without being a tool, go forth, and conquer.

The thing is ...

I have heard, personally, and read countless times:  "If you can get these things right, you WILL GET ATTENTION."  I've heard agents say, if you get these things right, you're ahead of 95% of the queries they see.  It is a song oft-sung, and it has a pleasing melody.

It gives a fat whack of us confidence that that's all there is to the magic.

Then we send out several dozen queries, all conforming to these general standards, and - not at all astonishingly - do not receive 100% requests for full manuscripts.  Incomprehensible!

No.

The unspoken fact is this:  the advice above constitutes only the minimum, and only the beginning.  Regardless of how many times I've heard that properly created queries are an extreme minority - and the "if you get this right you are better than ninety-some percent of the queries we see" figure is an often-heard quote, I can tell you - the full scope of a slush pile still leaves that magical ten, or five, or one percent of acceptable queries at a prodigious figure.  If an agent receives one to two hundred queries every week, you're still up against ten or twenty other competent queries in that week.  And you would be beyond fortunate to find an agent who took on even as many as five new authors in a year.  And not all of those new authors' properties even SELL.

So what they're not telling you is that there is still a lot more than just getting it mechanically, professionally correct.  There's actually making a connection with the agent - sparking their imagination with your story, your character(s).  There's the imperative of how good a story is, how artful your words are, how important it is to tell what you have to tell.  There's the chemistry, simply, of getting the right work in front of the RIGHT agent.

The little-known fact is:  any given agent might be the right one at one time and the wrong one at another.  I've had personal experience with this - an agent I'd love to work with was intrigued with my subject in 2011 - and, indeed, was a guiding force in my revisions.  I got priceless feedback, and significant correspondence with this query.  A year later, revisions done, this same agent was very frank in saying this wasn't his current area of interest, and it may take a very long time for him to read it again - if he ever does.  Even with my work in a better place, the agent himself wasn't in the sweet spot where my work would hit the target for him professionally.  Because it's not about "what I like" with agents, and most of them will tell you that very candidly.  The market can exert its demands, and any human being may be subject to fatigue with repetition.  "I loved Work X so much, but I knew I could not sell it" is hardly an uncommon phrase in agents' blogs.  This business - is a business, it's not always about "liking".


You can't make lightning strike, all you can do is set up a lightning rod and prepare, prepare, prepare.

And, keep the faith.  The work is the thing.  Give it a good vehicle, but it has to speak for itself.

Butterknife

I've spent some more time now with the MSS, and am thinking again (hard) about whether to take it to a full new revision.  The comments I got from the contest were based on a 50-page partial, and some of them I will take to heart, but a few I just cannot agree with.  Never too precious with my work to rework and even trash it, my instincts in this case are somewhat against a full new edit, and that's not because "I don't wanna" - in some ways I don't mind having a goal set before me.  But at the moment, I don't feel there's a new goal necessarily.  I've punched up some of the emotion and conflict in the opening chapter or so, but not fundamentally altered the whole.

And so it goes.  I'm glad I sent the queries I did the other day, and expect to keep up with that.  My other focus should go on research for the WIP (yes, forever untitled - it will come, once the actual writing gets serious).  The important thing right now is to make some damned progress.

Today I am off work.  Today is for progress.

Kitten-age

Penelope gets a lot of ink (or pixels, if you prefer) here, thanks to her hilarious personality and fascinating breed.  But Gossamer does not lack for attention in the meatspace that is our little pack's house.

I've been realizing lately just how much I had missed having a cat in my life.  With Siddy-La, it was never a sacrifice, but every now and then I did go soft over the idea of a feline nuzzle, the things a cat has to offer a dog doesn't.  To have one of each is in so many ways a revelation.  To be the alpha, for all of us - yes, even for the kit - is a happy responsibility.

Right now, I'm on the couch, Gossy lying beside me, feet against my leg, occasional green eyes peering up at me.  He's only just stopped purring, after a nice little petting session, and making the odd adorable-sleepy-kitty-boy noises, a sort of luxuriantly sighing sound of mild protest at being awake.  And he keeps just looking up at me, that slow, steady, luminous gaze of cat-stillness and easy trust.

Loving up on a dog is easy stuff - they'll take a nice hard scratch on the top of the skull, a good playing-with of the ears, a belly rub (well, Pen-Pen will), whatever you've got for 'em.  They'll go limp and quiet, and petting a pup is an awfully fine pastime.  Dogs are the best thing in the world.

The magic of it is, if you let the right cat pick you, cats are the best thing in the world too.  A kitten responds uniquely to your touch.  The way they push between your fingers, the way they press their nose at *just* the angle they prefer, manipulate their way around you to get the petting they want - Gossy makes me laugh all the time, not because he's particular or selfish, but because he is seeking pleasure so patently it's just kind of a joy to watch him.  There's a heedlessness in a cat when he's being well petted, they lose all sense of anything but their sensation.  In a way, it's one more interesting little piece of trust.

Gossy's little jellybean paws touch you while you're petting him - as if to say, "I'ma move this way now" and he kneads and he does his own thing.  The very best is when he wraps a paw around your hand or wrist.  "Do not stop *that*," this says, "just perfect."

You can wrap your hand almost all the way around a cat's head, and if you pet him from nose to neck over and over that way, just running him through your palms and fingers chin to brainpan, he'll go half dizzy enjoying it.

Cats luxuriate in petting in a special way.  Oh, dogs do too, but completely divorced from the reputation they have, there's actually an un-self-consciousness in a cat enjoying indulgence I think is all their own.  Maybe I've just been blessed with four of the nicest cats in the world.  Smike, for sure, and now Gossamer in his turn, have tickled everyone they ever met just being friendly and funny little guys.  Beloved Ex found Smike, but I had him until he died (I got the cats in the divorce; we could not bear to part them), and he was family - in a family who didn't care for cats.  He was my puppy-cat, gregarious as anything you've ever seen.

Gossamer still insists on his "minute" - you can't make a beeline for his attention, nor scoop him up as you walk in the door.  Even I don't do that.  When I come home, it is this:  enter the back door, drop my bags, and stand still for a few moments to get my ankles nuzzled.  Meanwhile, Pen is in her cage, wanting to get out - but she is patient, and Gossamer gets some silent time to give me my greetings, *unencumbered* by my greeting him back, except maybe verbally.

For others, of course, the introduction, even if he knows you, is somewhat more remote.  He'll rub ankles other than mine, but don't try picking him up before he's come that close.  My mom wants to come in the house and go right to nuzzling him in her arms - and he's such a nice guy, he'd totally love that - but the initial human tension of "I want to pet the kitten" has got to dissipate or he'll jump away like any other cat.

People joke with me, "He loves his momma" - but the fact is, his momma knows ... I'll get all the loving boy I can STOMACH, but not before he's had his time to decide to love on me.  I know the way this animal works, and he has almost perfect comfort, so I am rewarded with almost perfect freedom to snuggle the devil out of him when he's relaxed.  And, when he's relaxed, he will be such a love bug he'll drool all over my chest giving the love back.  Heh.

I love the little scoopy guy.  He's the softest cat I've ever had, I think (memory may fail me on Gert, the BOY (yes) cat I had first of all of them, back in about 1990 - I know I used to say he was "chinchilla soft" - so soft you could not feel his fur).  Gossy's fur is light and rich all at once, a fine softness unique to him I like to believe.  He has a sweet smell about him, too (the late, great Byshe had that, he smelled *very* sweet, like baby powder).  His coat is pearly glossy.  Yes ... glossy Gossamer.  I try not to play with that too much, heh.

He's the littlest cat I've ever had, and means the world to me.  The little lightning bolt on his rear driver's-side leg.  The soft taupe color his grey takes on around his head and forepaws.  The little white sneakers, the black-outlined burgundy/grey nose pad, the blob under his chin on his white neck and chest.

Don't know what it is about grey tabby males.  Three of four of my cats have been one stripe (augh) or another.  And I have been lucky in *all* my cat kids.  So don't think the proportion of posting means Gossy gets any less disgusting affection than the puppy gets.  I am disgusting enough for both of 'em.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Genres I Don't Want to Know About

Researching agents just now, ran across one (who still doesn't even accept electronic queries - good lord, people) who is especially drawn to "chick lit, lady lit, lad lit" ...

This is a woman I clearly do not wish to work with.

As offensive as the idea of chick-lit is (because, like razors and other perfectly ordinary products, it is necessary to color things pink and/or outright label them For The Ladies so we'll know we're allowed to consume ... and avoid anything else our dainty tiny little brains might not be able to cope with), "lady lit" frankly terrifies me and "lad lit" - given what I know about lad culture - scares the pickles out of my not at all pink little brain.

Holy crud.

NYC 1939

One of the more interesting vintage clips I've seen, in that it's a slice of life consisting of more life than strictly a bunch of white people ...




Some of the streets you can see are in incredible, perfect condition.