punch lines with brass knuckles

So The Palace Job has these little news-bulletin narrative asides that are simultaneously playful and cutting, to the point where you almost, almost flinch at the vitriol of the satire. Then you cut away back to the friendly banter of a hodgepodge band of heroes in a fantasy adventure tale. Case in (spoilery) point:

“TODAY’S DISCUSSION: SECURITY,” intoned the dragon in the puppet show the next morning. “With today’s debacle, the Republic has lost an airship complete with wind-daemon, and three dangerous prisoners have escaped justice.”

“If I could just start,” the manticore butted in, knocking the dragon aside as the crowd laughed, “I think debacle is a very loaded term. We’ve got people assigned to their jobs, and they’re doing their jobs, and it’s very presumptuous to judge how they’re doing.”

“Well, any time you lose a ship,” suggested the griffon, “you have to wonder whether things are being done prop—”

“Silence!” steamed the dragon, driving the griffon back with alchemical flames, and the crowd applauded. “We’re here for a civilized discussion!”

“But I think that this event, when taken within the context of the earlier escape, points to an overall lack of performance by the Learned,” shouted the griffon from the edge of the stage, hiding from the flames.

“Wait, now, you can’t play politics with national security!” The manticore jumped onto the griffon, its stinger flashing, and the griffon howled and tried to buck it off. “And I’ll have you know that the leader of the task force, a justicar with a shady past and a reputation for playing loose with the rules, was appointed by the Skilled. They’re the ones who should be answering for this.”

“But that isn’t true!” cried the griffon. “Justicar Pyvic has an excellent reputation and—”

“Let’s not get off topic!” the dragon proclaimed, belching a puff of fire that stopped both of the other puppets in their tracks. It raised a claw toward the manticore, and the griffon took the opportunity to run to the other side of the stage. The crowd laughed derisively. “What do you have to say about Warden Orris’s resignation yesterday?”

“Totally unrelated,” the manticore said promptly, “and if you listen to what he has to say, you’ll know that.” The manticore yanked on a leash, and a goat puppet was reluctantly dragged onto the stage. The crowd hooted.

“…proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said the goat in the whiny whistling voice that signified a cheap recording crystal, “but now is… and now I intend to spend more time with my family. I know that others will continue this important work.” The goat broke off as the manticore’s jaws clamped down on it and tore off its head. The manticore then snatched up the body and shook it violently, throwing small candies out into the crowd.

“There you have it!” declared the manticore with a burp.

“But the timing,” protested the griffon, only to be knocked down by the manticore’s giant bat-wings.

“I honestly don’t know why we’re even having this discussion!” boomed the manticore. “This is the Skilled Party’s fault for putting this Pyvic fellow in charge, and if you want to play the partisan blame game, Warden Orris has already resigned. Why can’t you people let a good man retire in peace?”

“Strong words!” boomed the dragon. “We’ll keep you informed of any updates on this fast-breaking story!” It threw more candy out to the crowd while intoning the ritual words. “Remember, everyone, it’s your republic!”

I can’t do that. Maintain that balance. It’s exhausting even to try. It’s either grimdark or, at best, descriptive. I can do neutral or chipper description but that’s about it — funny is, typically, beyond me. Which is frustrating, because it’s not like I don’t appreciate a good laugh or work to surround myself with people capable of producing the same. But I can’t call those laughs up in others — and if I try, it’s a blackened humor that makes people’s faces fall even as they’re coughing up a snicker. I guess when you don’t stare stuff like dementia in the face all day you find it harder to laugh at. Your loss, people.

Only once was I on-target all the time. An old professor I helped out on a book thought I was the funniest damn thing on the planet. I had her humor pegged to a T, and I could always make her giggle helplessly. I miss her, most selfishly, for this reason. I’ve tried to figure out what worked so well. Like any professor, she was a bit cynical, but no more so than usual. And my jokes to her weren’t particularly dark, either, but they definitely poked fun at the departmental bullshit that weighed her down (and which she ultimately fled, more power to her). I think I was her only female friend, and I know I was the only woman who credited the crap she put up with from her male peers. Maybe that was it.

I wish I could play those sorts of notes in prose. I can make people thoughtful or sad, but I’m shit at making them laugh. Clearly everyone just needs to study the same things I did, obtain a position of slightly higher authority than me so I can always joke upward (joking down is mean), and I’d be entertainer of the year.



old david mitchell notes

Turns out I scrawled this on the back flap of the fic notebook. From a talk he gave.

“And this is just a primitive, gorgeous, beautiful magic.” — re: the act of writing novels

“Fear on the page tends to turn to disturbance, that insulates you like plastic over copper wire” — re: the difference between words on a page vs. the way he reads them out loud. Page as sheltering, a toning-down of fear.

Q: How come fiction works?

A: An unintended consequence of the vitality of our imaginations that showed up way way back to give us the evolutionary advantage. Tools  = the imagination being used to alter reality. [insert many exclamation marks here about DA:I and the fear of mages / alterers of reality] We’ve needed stories for as long as we’ve been humans. In different forms, but still they’re there. Story: we can watch these things unfold, see these events unfold, learn from them, without having to risk experiencing them firsthand.

Q: Teenagers in fiction? Why?

A: [At that age] we still half-believe in the phantoms of childhood, without yet being old enough of an adult that we can excise the demons of childhood. But some of the petty stuff of adulthood has started to bear down on you — “you don’t yet know what you can’t do” — don’t yet know what you don’t know. Don’t yet have the kevlar armor of maturity.

Q: Why the age 13 in particular?

A: It’s the youngest age when you can conceivably have “metaphor-spewing meta sarcastic observant youth.” You can’t go younger unless you really go the child genius route.


es bueno

I found this in a bookshop and stood rooted to the spot:

Secret Autumn

by Jorge Teillier, trans. by Carolyne Wright

When the beloved everyday words
lose their sense,
and we can’t give a name to bread,
or water, or windows,
and all dialogue not with our own
abandoned image has been false,
we can still look at the ruined prints
in our little brother’s book;
it’s good to greet the plates and linen set upon the table
to see that in the old cabinet
the cherry cordial our grandmother made
and the apples put by for storage
still keep their joy.

When the trees’ form
is not more than the slightest recollection,
a lie invented
by the troubled memory of autumn,
and the days are disordered
as the attic nobody climbs to,
and the cruel whiteness of eternity
makes light flee from itself,
something reminds us of the truth
that we love before knowing:
branches break gently,
the dovecote fills with flutterings,
the granary dreams once again of sun,
for the party we light
pale candelabras in the dusty salon,
and silence reveals to us the secret
we didn’t want to hear.

One can only legally distribute such work in small amounts, I am told, and only if their distribution serves the purpose of critique. I do not wish to critique this. Pithy arguments like “it’s too beautiful to critique” aside, this is a translation and I do not speak Spanish. Moreover, I have known exactly one person who suffered under the Chilean regime under which this poem was written. So I lack context.

Things I would like to know: Why does the whiteness of eternity make light flee from itself? Something scientific about the spectrum of light? Or winter? Is it a way to talk about something hidden to me, without getting arrested at the time it was written?

I was attracted to the poem, initially, by the reference to lost words. My mother, my inbox tells me this morning, is going into a dementia care facility as soon as someone there dies and frees up a spot. So yes, lost words–and disordered days–matter to me. But, like the people who listen to me in my darker moments discussing my mother, I can only take so much grimness. So “the truth that we love before knowing” matters more. Dreaming again of sun, lighting candelabras against the darkness: that matters more. Even the secret we don’t want to know is no secret. And it matters. I’m assuming “the secret” here is that all this is ephemeral. A grim fact to many, it’s true. But a blessing of a kind to those who know what will happen before they die. Who know what their mind will devolve into and cause them to do to their loved ones before they forget them. In that context, the fact that it ends–that it’s ephemeral–is something to be grateful for.

The next poem in the book, “Joy,” also has a line that begins “it’s good to…” I checked the original Spanish of both poems, to see if it was just a foible of translation or of they really had both begun that way, and they do. Es bueno saludar lose platos y el mantel puestro sobre la mesa. Es bueno beber un vaso de cerveza. I wanted to check because, reading the English, I love when writers say these things. Not because I need a playbook–with silver linings or otherwise–but because I value knowing how other people cope. I value knowing what matters to them. When they take that step back, and say something not directly about this or that character, or about themselves, but about “how things are,” even knowing that they can only conceivably be commenting from within their own worldview doesn’t tarnish it for me. Maybe the necessarily limited nature of their scope gives such statements greater value, even. Because the writers aren’t stupid. They know their limitations. But they’re going out on a limb and saying, not “this is how it is for Bob,” or “this is how it is for me,” but “this is how it IS, dammit!” It can be seen as arrogant, yes, if they’re blind to their own limitations. But if they are aware of those limitations, and still say it, it’s ballsy as hell.

Also the candelabra lines put me in mind of Mrs. Dalloway, with whose efforts I strongly align:

“One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”

nano pride

Things that contributed to the completion of this year’s NaNoWriMo (the zillionth I’ve participated in, but only the first I’ve ever finished!), in no particular order:
1.) I wanted to write a story I could conceivably read to any future children

2.) I wanted said story to explain feelings about dementia, race and transgender issues

3.) Africa: we were taught absolutely nothing about it in school. Ever. Everything I knew about it came from my mother, who lived there. I wanted to fix this.

4.) 80 Days: I wanted to play with the 19th century and its fallout the way this game does. I didn’t do it half so well, but I still wanted to try. This means, among other things, looking at colonialism and resistance to it.

5.) I was still riding the feel-good coattails of a bunch of Penumbra updates I did the previous month. Thanks, Penumbra commenters!

6.) The game that came out in November–because there is always a game that comes out in November–actually made me sad playing it, so it didn’t suck up all my time the way a dearly-beloved title like Dragon Age or an Elder Scrolls game would.

7.) We started using the espresso machine we got for our wedding years ago in earnest.

8.) Lufti. I’ve always found it hard to care for my characters the way I care for others’. But Lufti is awesome, dammit, and I’m proud he exists. I’d write another whole story just about him.

I’m sitting in a knit cap in a rainy window shovelling olives and tofu down my thoat and drinking what the bottle tells me is roasted dandelion root tea and The Cure’s “Pictures of You” just came on. And the first time I heard it was during an HP commerical before a movie in a theater, and I thought it was so awesome, and my heart hurt at the idea of there being, per the commerical’s promise, so much in a life you’d want to hold onto. But really there is. I didn’t think there could ever be that much but there is.

the places you retreat to

About a year ago, without even having properly finished Dragon Age: Inquisition yet, I started writing Feathers. Please don’t confuse this for vanity–I’m old enough to have seen big movers and shakers (zing!) in slash fandom, and I am not one of them. But that fic, and the writing of it, were precisely what I needed, when I needed it. I treasured every comment, the erudite and the giddy, the maudlin and the occasionally biting. I never had any doubt of how I wanted to feel at the end of it, because of how I felt every moment I wasn’t writing it, those first weeks.

Again, as is probably known all too well on this blog, my mother has early-onset dementia. A number of factors led to this but it is much messier than Hollywood would like you to think. We aren’t all granted crystal-clear moments of lucidity where we make decisions for ourselves. Even those of us who told our daughters in their teenage years, point-blank, “Let me die before I get as bad as you see your grandmother right now”–even they will not be prepared. My mother wasn’t. Isn’t. My father isn’t, either, and by no fault of his own: you can’t be prepared for something like this. Long before she became this bad, he would fantasize aloud about how he wanted to die: while mowing the lawn in his swollen, overtaxed body in the too-hot summer sun, “bam, just like that.” Thus would he be free of the misery of facing a wife who doesn’t remember him at the best of times, and who confuses him for some conniving devil he isn’t at the worst of times.

That is what I retreated into fanfiction to escape. Mom’s confusion, Dad’s fury at her, her fury at him, the kind but ultimately helpless pity of my husband. My family was more supportive and true to itself than most, and it is shattered. I wrote Feathers in the next room as Mom watched the same episode of Castle for the fifth time that day, which Dad put on just to calm her down. I wrote it between trying to make meals she would eat instead of shove away from her haggard frame; I wrote it in between trying to coax Mom into telling us where she hid her ID and being bragged to about the new gun that my wretched sister-in-law had enthralled Dad with (would he kill himself with it, tired of waiting for the longed-for heart attack to do its work?) I wrote it because I couldn’t escape into a game–I’d left DA:I and anything to play it with at home–but I couldn’t spend every hour of every day swirling around the toilet bowl of what had been my family’s life together, either. I wanted Dorian and Cullen to suffer, but I had no intention of leaving them there. I was going to lift them out of their shit the way I couldn’t lift my family out of ours.

Now it is the holidays again, and we are slated to pay a visit again*, and I am frightened. Because there is no bulwark against the tide of despair that is my childhood home. Everything is worse. Incontinence, petulance, surgery, a refusal to take medicine and a refusal to hire a visiting nurse. Obviously I will push for help. I will argue the benefits of nursing, and cook, and clean, and I will try to cheer them up. But anyone who has dealt with dementia knows what a sisyphean task that is.

I try not to follow much what meta comments people want to make about pairings or fandom at large. But over the past few months, in media and in real life, I’ve been privy to little off-handed remarks that seem to belittle the whole enterprise as a waste of time. A way to diddle away feelings the writers and readers are too scared to bestow on other people. A way to avoid the world.

To the latter accusation, yes, I confess. But it’s not because I’m hoarding my feelings for a world fictional or internal. It’s because there is not enough feeling in this world to account for the loss that seeps from the wreck of my family like a rusting oil  tanker at the bottom of the sea. It slicks over everything, making it impossible to see the depths you once loved. It kills, dammit.

So yes, fanfiction is an escape. It will result neither in money nor real-life fame. But it is necessary. As surely as the escape of sport (on the field or on your screen) or music or published literature is. Because the medium doesn’t matter. You can’t feel this all the time. Better to watch fictional characters fall in love than to watch your parents fall out of it.

Do not be so quick to judge those of us who treasure the dalliances of people made of pixels and paper.

* to clarify, I have been back since, but the holidays are particularly painful


Reading whilst writing is like nutrition. You know your style will be affected by what you read. Even a vise-like grip on your intended voice will change, at least a little. So you have to read the right things, fuel yourself properly, to get what you want out of yourself.

I wanted to write lyrically. I finished rereading Name of the Rose and began prowling my shelves. A bunch of the free stuff I’ve received was too spare. Not YA but it might as well have been. Tried a few chapters of Druids, by Morgan Llywellyn, because I read it in fifth grade and remembered with amusement–though I was so outraged at the time!–arguing in the evangelical South against a ridiculously Judeo-Christian slideshow (one of the ancient ones with a cassette tape that beeped when you had to click “forward” on the carousel) about the Roman incursion into Gaul. She is not lyrical either, though. Dirt Music–too modern. I do not wish to read of websites. Wrath & the Dawn--unread, so blessedly not a reread, but too spare, still. Refiner’s Fire? Remembered too well. But something else by him, perhaps, something more distant, so as not to keep returning too quickly to the same people.

Ah. Perfect.

I won a prize the last time I read this. I never finished it–got wrapped up in my own story. And though I read it more recently than Refiner’s Fire, more of this slipped away in memory. More so even than Winter’s Tale, still more distant. I read this, oh, a decade ago? But still it feels–do not chastise me; I am allowed to sound written here if nowhere else–like you’re the maypole and he’s wrapping the ribbons around you with words. Delicious.

Proper nutrition.