When Life Gives You Zucchini

You make zucchini bread.

We all know how it is with zucchini.  Somebody in the neighborhood has a garden, and they have a zucchini plant.  Maybe even they have two (if they’ve never grown zucchini before.)  And the zucchini does as zucchini plants do, and sometime around the end of summer everybody in the neighborhood is receiving gifts of abundant zucchini, because the alternative is seeing their neighbor’s kitchen fill up with zucchini and possibly even explode.

And there’s only so much zucchini you can steam or saute or stir-fry before you start to bring out the recipe books.  And you think about Zucchini Lasagna, but not for very long, because the voice in your head that says “lasagna” also says, “That isn’t lasagna, that’s a vegetable casserole,” and your stomach says, “If you’re making lasagna, I want the real thing or nothing.”  And you think about zucchini pickles, but not for very long, because you don’t want to get involved in the whole pickling and canning thing.

And besides, zucchini bread isn’t imitation anything else, it’s real zucchini bread; and it doesn’t require specialized equipment and messing around with vats of boiling water and worrying about lids and seals; and you already know that everybody in the house will eat it.  And if they don’t, that’s okay, too, because you happen to like zucchini bread just fine.

Sometimes story ideas are like that.  You’ll get a story idea that comes out of nowhere like a gift of random zucchini, and it’s not your usual sort of story . . . maybe it’s a little over-the-top for your normal style, maybe it’s not your usual subject matter, maybe it has a bit too much of the guilty pleasure about it for your artistic peace of mind.

When something like that happens, you can try to make zucchini lasagna out of your story idea — slice it up and sauce it up and generally try to turn it into something more like your usual thing — but unless you really truly like zucchini lasagna, your readers are going to see what you did and know that your heart wasn’t in it.  Or you can go the pickling-and-canning route, taking that story idea and using all your hard-won tools and techniques to make it into something you can point to and call art.  And the critics may praise what you’ve done to elevate zucchini into something better and longer-lasting, but the voice in your head that doesn’t shut up is going to say, “And why does zucchini need elevation, anyhow?”

So you might as well make zucchini bread.  Don’t try to make that story idea into an imitation of something else, and don’t try to make it into something fancy and difficult just to please the critics.  Make it into good honest zucchini bread, and serve it to the people who will like it that way.

And don’t worry.  Eventually the frost comes, and the zucchini flood will dry up until next summer.

Presented for Your Amusement

Revision:  The Game!

You are in a WRITER’S ROOM.
There is a desk here.
There is a chair here.
Exits are W and E.
What do you do?

One of those humorous pieces with a lot of  good advice buried inside it.

This next one is at least tangentially writing-related, but mostly I’m linking to it because it’s funny, and because at various times in my life I too have been trapped in Paper-Grading Hell.

And Then I Was Eaten by a Grue

>read essay
With trepidation, you lift aside the cover sheet. Suddenly, the world around you seems to melt away…

You are in a maze of twisty little paragraphs, all alike. The path ahead of you is littered with sentence fragments, left broken and twitching at your feet as their pathetic spaniel eyes implore you to put them out of their misery. Dangling modifiers loop happily through the branches overhead. In the distance, that sound of undergraduate feet has turned into a heavy, erratic thwump – swoop – THWUMP you recognise immediately – it’s a badly-indented long quotation, and it’s coming closer.

You wish.

The Turning Seasons

Only a few days ago, it seems, I was complaining about the sultry summer weather.

Last night, we had a frost warning, and there are already spots of color on the maple tree in the front yard.  And in about a month, it’ll be time for us to head south to Martha’s Vineyard and the Viable Paradise workshop.

If you didn’t apply this year, don’t worry . . . next year’s applications open on the first of January 2014.

Worldbuilding: Implications and Consequences

Writers in the science fiction and fantasy fields talk a lot about worldbuilding, mostly because it’s a necessity in their genre.  Stories set in past or contemporary consensus reality don’t need it, or at any rate don’t need it in the same way — they may need to show the reader a new or unfamiliar part of the world, but the writer doesn’t have to make that part up from scratch.

Building a world from scratch is hard work.  Most writers, being only human, tend to concentrate on the aspects of the world that are of the most interest to them, or of the most importance to the story.  A writer of hard science fiction might not be able to rest until he or she has got the orbital mechanics of their fictional planet’s fictional solar system all worked out to five decimal places.  A different writer might be content to leave the moon and sun and stars set on “default”, but will insist on figuring out all the finer details of the local banking system and exactly how letters of credit work in the absence of faster-than-light interstellar communication.  And yet a third writer may not care very much about either moons or money, but will be as thoroughly conversant with their imagined society’s rules of etiquette as the local version of Miss Manners or Emily Post.

The trick — one of the tricks, anyhow; there’s lots of them — is to think about the day-to-day implications and consequences of the worldbuilding bits that you’re concentrating on.  For an example of the kind of thing it pays to think about, the blog Hello, Tailor has a post on the way worldbuilding in film is implicit in — or fails at being implicit in — the costuming.  To quote the author:

The visuals of movies like Equilibrium and Gattaca (and Aeon Flux, and Ultraviolet…) are, to me, the costuming equivalent of all those thousands of hard sci-fi novels that concentrate on the science fiction but forget to give the characters human personalities. Even in a world where everyone is genetically engineered to perfection (Gattaca) or everyone is drugged with emotional inhibitors (Equilibrium), it’s never really articulated why people look so similar. And if they were pressured to wear identical outfits every day, they wouldn’t be dressed to the same degree of neatness, a trait that varies enormously from person to person. Not that this really makes much difference to the overall quality of the film: it’s just something that bugs me, personally.

Because in the long run, everything in your fictional world is connected. The length of your planet’s days and seasons, and the rise and fall of the tides in its seas, will have an effect on how long or short the working day is, and how hard the seasons are, which will effect in turn the way the local economy is set up, and who is hardworking but poor and who is rich and idle and what the politics are that arise from that division, which will in turn influence the social customs and the unwritten rules of behavior that are an etiquette-writer’s stock in trade.

You can’t trace out all of the connections — you are, after all, only human, and this world you’re making is only words — but you can trace out the ones you’re interested in, or that influence your plot, and that will be enough to convince your reader (at least for the length of time it takes to read a story) that you’ve seen them all.

Look What the Postman Brought

One of the small pleasures of a writer’s life is the arrival of author’s comp copies in the mail.  The new-book smell, the solid heft of the real and physical object, the gratifying appearance of one’s name and words in crisp black type . . . there’s nothing quite like it, and it never really gets old.

Today’s mail included our comp copies of the Thomas Easton and Judith K. Dial anthology Impossible Futures, which contains our short story, “According to the Rule.”  We think the anthology looks nifty-keen, especially the cover art:

(This has been a shameless plug.  Buy one; better still, buy a dozen.  They’re just the right thickness to shim up that short table leg that’s been driving you crazy for months now . . . .)

Sultry Weather

Hot and humid, with thunderstorms happening in random places that aren’t here.

Not good weather for thinking, or for writing.  Summer in general isn’t.  Spring and fall are the best times, and the shoulders of winter.  Deep winter is almost as bad as summer, because (as I’ve said here at least once) the answer to “How warm can you keep a nine-room house with a full basement in deep snow country” is “Never quite warm enough.”

It could be worse–a couple of years ago at about this time, we were dodging the remnants of Hurricane Irene on its way up the Connecticut River Valley, on our way down to Massachusetts to return one of our two remaining offspring to college.  He attracts weird weather like that; when we moved him in for the first time as a mid-year transfer student, we ended up fighting our way through a massive snow storm that blanketed the east coast from Washington up through Maine.

Oh, well.  Back to work, heat or no heat.