Manhandling a Plot

Roadtrip Z
Still free, until April 9, 2023…

Welp, Amazon just killed Book Depository, as we all knew they would. The metastasis continues; it’d be nice if the signs of timeline healing I’ve been trying to focus on lately could also include some good new for publishing instead of ho-hum business as usual and fuck the writers, but apparently that’s entirely too much to ask for.

Plus ça change, and all that. Although there’s an arraignment today. Too late, not enough, and the criminal will be handled with kid gloves as he has been all his life, but still. Gotta take the small bits of hope where one can, even if one suspects one will be kicked in the teeth later. I can’t afford to spend time celebrating, and indeed this is such a lukewarm, dilatory response to high crimes and treason there’s not a whole lot to wave pom-poms over.

Anyway. Today is for a push to at least get near the end of a zero draft, even if I don’t knock it off completely. This heroine needs to find out a few things and there’s a fire in a certain district of New Rome to set; the “hero” (he’s not a nice guy, but then again, that’s part of his considerable charm) is going to have his hands full. Everything needs to be arranged just so, and the big thing I’m worried about right now is getting a traitor into a hired hack. I already know how the heroine’s going to respond, but I need this bullyboy to get his priorities straight and get in the goddamn mech. (He’s no Shinji, but it’s still funny.)

It’s raining steadily with very little chance of letup. Boxnoggin will be morose during walkies, but I’m looking forward to having sidewalks to myself for the run afterward. The trap-n-bass soundtrack does good things while I’m hauling my weary corpse along, especially if I need a slight break from manhandling a certain plot around. I’m in a peculiar state of hangover, both from copyedits and finishing the first zero draft of the year; my brain needs a rest from chewing itself.

I won’t get one; once I finish this particular zero too there’s no shortage of work looming to get other projects out the door. No rest for the weary or the wicked in this part of the world, my friends.

So. Today the heroine’s patroness gives her a few missing pieces to a puzzle, and if all goes well I’ll start a few (fictional) fires. That will set up the heroine vs. the traitor, and once the “hero” gets things sorted amid five-alarm flames and his wounded subordinate returns bearing news it’ll be time for the endgame, which may have to happen at a lunatic asylum since the villain’s house will be used for another scene.

…I’m going to have to think about that, though. It would be a shame to not use the asylum, since I got it set up earlier in the story. The Muse knows better than I do, I have to trust the story, yadda yadda bing-bong and all that. I should think our heroine won’t mind a chance to even the scales not just for herself but for everyone being held in that bloody awful place–but before solving that problem I have to write my way through a few others.

Suppose I’d best get started. Here’s hoping today will clear the (very low) expectations I’ve got in place.

Breaching in Absurdity

There was a band of bright pink and gold at the eastern horizon when I took Boxnoggin out for his first loo break of the day, and a waning moon tangled in the lilacs’s bare branches as well. I prefer to be going to bed as the sun is rolling out, but decades of kid- and dog-schedules means it hasn’t been an option.

Maybe someday soon. In the meantime, there are bits of beauty to be found even while my body grumbles.

My health almost broke completely last week, but things are a tiny bit better now and I’m trying to be as gentle as I can. Plus there’s all sorts of purging and spring cleaning in the works. I can’t recall the last time I did a good old-fashioned Kondo-ing–I have to wait for better weather to put a “free” pile at the end of the driveway, but that just gives me time. I’m breaking tasks into tiny chunks, arranging them like mosaic around the large stones of two projects on the grill.

At least those are going well. I’m within striking distance of finishing two zero drafts at once. Maybe when that’s done I can arrange the surroundings for my usual productivity, because if I’m not juggling three-plus projects at a time I don’t know who I am. I need that third slot in my working schedule open, dammit.

The biggest thing is trying to be kind to myself, a skill I have very little practice with. I tend to hurt myself before anyone else can get around to it, a purely protective mechanism. Trying to be friendly with the person in the mirror is difficult at best; on the other hand, difficulty is what practice is for. The purging of physical space will also help me let go of habits which aren’t serving me. At least, that’s the theory. We all know how vast–and instructive–a gulf looms between planning and execution.

One of the quandaries I’ve been struggling with lately is the paradox of being completely free to decide who to be, and it generally ending up with being who one actually is. I could not wrap my brain around it, no matter how accustomed I’ve become to putting a few contradictory ideas in the old skull-case and just…letting them sit there. There was something in the tension I just wasn’t seeing, and I kept picking at it with every invisible finger I could spare. (Like a scab…)

A couple days ago Boxnoggin was busily sniffing a thorny bush he always tries to get his harness hooked on while voiding his bladder into its tangle. I was occupied with keeping just enough tension on the leash to make sure he didn’t get gouged like a prince attempting to hack his way to a sleeping castle, and it hit me. Right between the eyes, in fact, and I gasped with relief like a breaching whale.

I’d overlooked preferences. Choosing what one wants to be can be boiled down to a preference. For example, I prefer to be kind, it’s literally the easiest state for me and has the benefit of feeling good as well. And what are preferences but part of who one is? The paradox is not neatly resolved–it never is–but the signpost goes up and that’s all I need.

Just point me at it, and I’ll start moving.

Of course, some of my wants and preferences are a little less than ideal–frex, I would prefer to be in bed right now, and to stay there while the books write themselves. Alas, such is not the world we are given. But even those non-ideal wants make me who I am, and I get to decide which of them to indulge and which to gently chivvy myself out of. I suppose that’s the “absolute freedom” part of the bloody paradox.

Life has mostly been about what I can endure rather than what I like. Philosophically it’s been great training; emotionally it’s been a rough patch. Now I have a little breathing room to do something else. Sorting through a midlife tangle (because I’m sure that’s what some of this is, just a function of getting older) is proving most enlightening. A few parts are even fun, but mostly they’re deeply satisfying, plenty amusing, and occasionally painful enough to provoke tears.

I never used to cry, either. Nowadays it’s safe enough to let a few feelings show. A great and lovely change.

Anyway, the coffee is almost done, and there’s feathery bright clouds over a layer of darker grey as the sun rises. The daily balance has been tipped past dawn into actual morning, and soon the dog will need his ramble. I might even have another meditative untangling while he’s busy sticking his nose in something foul; they tend to happen when life is simply so absurd a deeper meaning can slip through the cracks. And we all know dogs are great at absurdity.

See you around.

The 2×4 of Cosmic Benevolence

The stress nausea is still lingering in my corpus, but at least the meeting I was so worried about went without a hitch. Well, only with hitches I was prepared to deal with, that’s a more precise way to put it. Giving things a good whack to reset them is not my preferred method–I like being gentle–but sometimes there’s no choice.

Often, gentle kindness is mistaken for complaisance or weakness. I don’t recommend this route. It leads to the 2×4 of Cosmic Benevolence being applied, and that chunk of power has splinters.

Anyway, there have also been a few good working days in a row, though I’m technically supposed to still be in recovery. I’m as surprised as anyone. I think some energy has been freed up since my holding pattern has been rather violently upended, now that I’ve actually said something about the stress. One can’t poke a universal bear and then quibble with the timeframe of the response, so away we go. If more recovery and re-wrapping of shattered nerves is necessary, it will have to be after I *checks notes* finish these two zero drafts, get a good buildup on the next serial, and revise the second Sons of Ymre book.

I’ve been focused on Dead God’s Heart and another far more troublesome series for so long it feels weird to be considering the new serial, let alone revisions on something else. Frankly I thought the plague or rising fascism would have done me in by now, yet against all odds here I am, trying to heal what I can.

Oh, you thought I was just telling stories? But what do you think those are, hm?

I should probably update the master to-do list hanging above my desktop’s screen. There’s also a positive litter of Post-its growing like coral along the bottom. Some can probably be moved to the corkboard, others can’t be retired until Hell’s Acre is done. And there’s a subscription drop to get sorted too. I’d love to get back to having a few weeks’ worth of those scheduled out–before the pandemic I was running a good month or two ahead, but since then things have been kind of suboptimal.

Go figure.

Plus there’s walkies to accomplish. I’ve finished my coffee but not yet moved in the particular way that will summon a yawning Boxnoggin, so–oh, crud, I just heard his collar jingle. It’s the particular sound of a post-nap shake to settle the hide, and now he’s trotting down the hall.

Best get started, then. Publishing schedules are all very well, but the canine needs his daily jaunt. Running my own tired corpse is probably recommended as well; stress compounds when it can’t be purged. I can use the time and motion to figure out just what the Rook is going to do in this pub…

Off I go.

Aid, Abet, Power, Justice

I finished off the weekend by watching a Netflix documentary on Charles Cullen, nurse and extremely prolific serial killer. What struck me was not his methods–sociopaths gonna sociopath–but the way he was allowed to keep killing, aided and abetted by the American for-profit “healthcare” system. Many other serial killers have been aided and abetted by misogyny in similar fashion.

I could write a whole article about the links, but I’m tired, only halfway through my coffee, not being paid nearly enough, and have deadlines besides. Instead I’ll just say, serial killers are cowards and they choose vulnerable, marginalized prey. We find the idea of the handsome genius serial killer entrancing because it makes for good fiction and we want there to be some meaning in the horror, but in reality they are empty wastes creeping through shadows and picking off easy prey if they think they can get away with it.

And all too often, society colludes.

I mean, I love a good serial killer show or detective novel just like anyone else. I enjoy the fiction. The real-life study is something I engage in because looking steadily at the horror is my lot in life. Plus, I have always tried to believe knowledge is power. (Cersei Lannister says power is power, and as a reductionist analysis it’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s also bad-faith, too simplistic, and let’s not even talk about problematics.) I’ve also tried to believe in justice, though I know very well otherwise. (Pratchett in Hogfather pointed out why it’s important to believe so; I shall let you go forth and discover–or remember–for yourself.) At the same time, I think a lot of power resides in belief, in finding meaning, in patterns and the breaking of them.

…it’s a Monday, I’m allowed to be philosophical. At least before the caffeine hits.

Today is for more Hell’s Acre, getting prepped for a meeting I don’t want to have, finally a ramble with Boxnoggin–who has been very patient with the snow keeping us from his accustomed exertions–and a decent run. It’s the last I’m looking forward to most. Getting the stress chemicals sweated out and rinsed off will do me no end of good, and thankfully the sidewalks are clear. A few more days above freezing and the snow will be a distant memory. The dog can hardly wait; I suppose I’m the same.

Onward and upward, then.

Iron Key, Active Brain

A key of iron, on a stump of wood

This was my most popular Mosstodon pic lately. I can see why, it stopped me dead in my tracks while out with Boxnoggin. Intellectually I know someone doing work on the park infrastructure (or the road nearby) set it there and forgot it, or someone found it on the road and put it there so it didn’t puncture a passing tyre. But the visual glutton in me was arrested by the image, and the storyteller in me immediately began spinning tales, not just about the stranger who had placed it there for reasons I could guess at but would never know but also about a visitor from another world finding such an item, or a catastrophe striking and a survivor finding it in the wreckage, or even of the iron thing vibrating through layers of the real to become a magical key in some far-off dimension.

I amuse myself so handily it’s a wonder I need the internet at all. My brain is always like this. I’ve never in my life experienced a single moment of boredom, because the entire world is a smorgasbord and if for some reason the table is temporarily bare there’s always my inner expanses, and those never dry up. Of course, it could just mean that I’m very easily distracted, but I don’t mind. I like it that way.

The thingummy–I want to call it an eyelet, but that’s probably inaccurate–was gone by the time the dog and I wandered back through, which isn’t surprising. It was enough to see it once; the ideas remain. If I end up writing about an iron key in a few years we’ll all know why.

Can’t wait. Have a good weekend, my beloveds. (And don’t forget Friday Night Writes tonight!)

Truly Reliable Unreliable Narrators

Just because you don’t personally understand a story’s narrator does not make them “unreliable”. Being an asshole does not make a narrator “unreliable”. And a narrator presenting as female in a way you don’t think is “valid” doesn’t make them “unreliable”.

It’s becoming fashionable to throw around the term “unreliable narrator”, to make lists of stories someone thinks has one, and those lists generally feature the same inaccurate cast of suspects. In House of Leaves Navidson is simply an asshole and “Johnny” a damaged mama’s boy, both confronted with a Lovecraftian geometric dilemma. Gone Girl is a good mystery with a psychopath at its core. Rebecca’s narrator is nameless and naive, not unreliable. Haruki Murakami’s protagonists function on the logic of dreams, not unreliability. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has an autistic narrator, and conflating that with unreliability does both the book and neurodivergent people a grave disservice. Atonement’s narrator is not unreliable, she’s simply a nasty lying child caught in English class war. Joe Goldberg in You is simply a very charming serial killer, Ted Bundy with a higher IQ, some luck, and a bookstore. The Bell Jar’s narrator is entirely honest and reliable about her own breakdown. Lolita’s Humbert Humbert has a very fancy prose style, but he is not unreliable, he tells you flat-out what he is and how repulsive, and his cry “but I loved her!” deceives neither us nor him. The Secret History’s narrator is a grubby class-climbing gold-digger we are forced to find queasy sympathy with, not unreliable even if his “friends” lie to him.

And before you start to hiss that I’m just a jealous little hack, I’ll have you know I love every single one of those books. But their narrators are exceeding reliable indeed, even when the reader cannot or will not like them. And The Yellow Wallpaper’s narrator is not unreliable, she’s driven fucking mad by her awful husband and misogyny.

A story’s narrator is unreliable when they are lying both to themselves and to the reader. Very late in the story–usually on the very last page–the lie must be revealed unto the reader (though not necessarily the narrator), with the shock of a bomb exploding. This is mostly why “unreliable narrator” is such a hat-trick to pull off, and why so many stories attempting one fail, generally in “asshole” mode.

Sarah Waters pulled it off in The Little Stranger, Dan Simmons in Drood, and Shirley Jackson in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Stephen King did it in my very favorite short story of his, Strawberry Spring, from the Night Shift anthology. This list is not exhaustive, since it comprises only the books Yours Truly has read with truly unreliable narrators, but it is also smaller because the trick is so difficult to perform. The craft necessary to make the reader complicit and then whisk away the curtain at the very last moment, to provoke that blinding earthquake moment of realization, is immense. And often books that could have had honestly unreliable narrators run up against the wall of editorial, “but readers are stupid, you must hold their hands, alter this story to make it more palatable!” Or bean-counters with, “this won’t sell, readers want pablum instead of difficult books with bombs at the end, change it or you’ll starve.”

I realize I am shouting into the wind, but my writing partner sent me a link to yet another list purporting to be of “books with unreliable narrators” and we both had a moment of “Jesu Christ, words mean things, people, just stop it”–or rather, I had that moment because she knows it is very easy to put the quarter in me, yank my arm, and get a lecture on this very subject.

I am exceeding reliable on that particular count.

Anyway, this will make no difference, nobody cares what I think about the matter and inaccurate listicles infect every corner of Beyoncé’s internet. But Hermes as my witness, my friends, a true unreliable narrator is a joy to read, an almost insurmountable trick to pull off, and while I will not precisely die on this hill I will reliably splutter about it at length to my writing partner.

And now, to you. Have fun.

Monday, On Mastodon

We’ve reached the “hose off all your internal surfaces with mucus” stage of whatever respiratory bug this is, which is gross and hopeful at once. (It does NOT seem to be Covid; currently the evidence points to it being RSV.) Short, easy exercise sessions, plenty of hydration, and only the bare minimum of decongestant are in order–as well as the last of the garlic soup my daughter made, of which the last few days’ worth of consumption is no doubt leading allium byproducts out through my pores.

Bodies are weird, yo.

There’s been yet another massive wave of people joining Mastodon instances (servers). My own is closed because I can’t afford the cost of adding more members–most instances are entirely volunteer-funded, so the waves of new users make things creak and shudder a bit. But all in all, a highly decentralized system really is good at absorbing this kind of mass migration. There are those people who have joined just to complain1 but that’s the case in any situation like this. The learning curve for the fedi2 is a trifle uncomfortable at first, but no worse than it was for, say, early Twitter or Facebook.

The important thing is to find a few people to follow so your home timeline gets populated a bit–and to use a third-party interface if the regular web interface doesn’t work for you. (I like Mastonaut and Toot!, and a lot of people like PinaforeSocial.) And to remember that the fedi has its own culture, built up over the years3 and while people are helpful and kind there, they are also not willing to have a lot of Johnny-come-latelies tell them what to do.4 I really, really recommend watching and learning for a bit, following people, having your manners on, and muting/blocking at will. Those few things will help make your experience a lot better.

There are migration tools like Fedifinder and Debirdify available, if you want to find your Twitter folks who have migrated to the fedi–though the recent tantrums by that Musk fellow and the firing of three-quarters of Twitter staff, including those running API support, might make them a little wonky. All in all, we’re doing the best we can to help new users, though drive-by complainers and bad actors get short shrift.

…I did not mean for this to become a “here’s how to join Mastodon” post, but I’ve been asked several times over the past few days, including on my subscriber Discord channel, so it just worked out that way. I’m a little sad to see Twitter go–I had, after being there since ’09, just finally achieved some traction so I could tell people about my books.

On the other hand, algorithmic suppression and shadowbanning meant my Twitter posts were becoming as useless as non-paid posts on Facebook, which is saying something. The fedi doesn’t have an algorithm shoving shit down your throat all the time. It’s purely chronological, and it depends on organic measures like quality content, replying, and boosting. The people who are really successful at gaming SEO and algorithms–especially on Instagram–to get their stuff seen are having a super hard time with the transition to Mastodon, and a few of them have had tantrum-y meltdowns because of it. *shrug* They’ll learn, or they won’t.

I have deleted most everything except a pinned “here’s how to find me” post from my Twitter feed, and locked it for good measure since harassment was beginning to be a bigger problem than usual.5 If you want to find me on the fedi, I’m here. There’s also social media links on my About page, if you look down and to the right. (I’m also on CounterSocial, which I like for breaking news.) I spent some time yesterday changing Twitter links on my other social media feeds over to Mastodon links or scrubbing them entirely. I just can’t in good conscience stay on Twitter anymore, even for promo–though I do not recommend deleting your account there entirely, since after thirty days anyone can take your username and post rancid stuff with it.

Anyway, my coffee’s almost gone. Boxnoggin has come down the hall once to nose at towards brekkie. He wants walkies; the last couple days I haven’t felt well and he’s been a brat, so he hasn’t had a good long ramble. Today we’ll probably get one in.

Welcome to Monday, everyone. Please keep your limbs and digits inside the gondola, and try not to make direct eye contact with the upcoming week. (Sometimes temporal divisions regard that as a sign of aggression.) Keep your belt buckled and your popcorn handy. Something tells me this is gonna be a wild one…