Writing thoughts

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I’m thinking a lot lately about going back to writing fiction.

My big writing project lately has been a new memoir, Erika to Earth, where I talk about my life since the publication of my first book Born on the Wrong Planet, as well as exploring in depth some issues that I regret ignoring or portraying simplistically in my first book (which I wrote as a college student with limited experience and a somewhat idealistic worldview).

Similarly, I want to write fiction that portrays humanity with more of its true complexity than the first fictional book I published, Kea’s Flight. When John and I collaborated on that novel, I still believe we did something good in telling the story of some strong and intelligent autistic characters like ourselves, but there are still aspects of it that I regret.

I’ve been working on a sequel, bit by bit, and as time goes on, I’m becoming more and more aware of how important it is for the sequel to be more inclusive.

I want to show a wider range of the disabled people that were mentioned living on the ship. The first book never went into their lives, and I regret that. I want to show those with more severe impairments, those who can’t speak vocally, those whose intelligence was never recognized, those with low intelligence. I want to show Kea interacting with them, listening to them, taking their ideas into consideration. I want to see her learn to respect them, as I have.

I want to show non-disabled people who are more in-depth characters than Brandon from the first book. Life is not just autistic heroes versus allistic villains. I want to show interaction between autistic and non-autistic people as the complex, nuanced, sometimes enlightening, sometimes painful reality that it is.

“Kea’s Flight” included a lesbian, a bisexual and an asexual, all female. I want to show more of the LGBTQ spectrum. I want to show gay and bi men, and maybe some trans characters. I want to make them complex characters and show more scenes from their viewpoints. There were also a few characters in “Kea’s Flight” who were apparently Hispanic (though the setting is such that people’s ethnic heritage is difficult to know). I want to show a wider range of people of color. I want to paint humanity as it really looks, in all its intricate detail, showing all the colors and shapes and fascinating twists.

I know I’ll get things wrong, and I’m prepared to accept criticism. I hope to build my skill at accurately depicting all aspects of the world and its people.

I’m a growing and changing person, and, I think, so is Kea. When John and I created her, our hearts were more or less in the right place, but our awareness was narrower than it is now, and we made her in our image.  I believe she can grow as we have, and expand her worldview and the diversity of her group of friends.

Freestyle

Radio host: So Iggy, freestyle for us.

Iggy:

Radio host: …Is that a breast pump?

Iggy: yes, it’s for draining fluids out of your body to feed babies

Iggy: here’s one for vampire babies:

Between the Words

Work in progress: the jewelry collection I’m making for a local art show at the Vine Arts Center  in Minneapolis, put on by an art discussion group called “The Art Salon for Fertile Minds.”

I will post more about this show as our plans progress. Right now, it’s still kind of in the concept stage.

The theme of the show is “The Space Between the Words.” That can be interpreted many ways… the phrase was chosen because we are a group of artists who discuss our art at the Art Salon, and our art is created on our own time, “between the words” we say at the group.

My own interpretation refers to my short story collection, “If the World Ended, Would I Notice?” In the first story, “Doug Day,” I described a necklace given by one character to another. It was basically my dream necklace, the epitome of exactly what I find beautiful.

Between two paragraphs, I included a pen-and-ink illustration of it. So the inspiration for this jewelry collection came literally from “the space between the words.”

The project is almost done. It’s crafted in sterling silver and stainless steel, with lemon quartz, blue mystic quartz, pearls and other assorted gemstones. I’m just waiting for some amethysts I ordered in the mail. 

I will be reading aloud from “If the World Ended, Would I Notice?” at the opening.














You’re invited! Yes, you, everyone reading this.

This Saturday

Sep 27th, 2014

from noon to 5 pm

come visit me at

the Zine Fair

at

Minnehaha Free Space
3747 Minnehaha Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55406

I’ll have my comics, self-published stories, jewelry and other goodies!

Here is how you get there from downtown Minneapolis. (The downtown Target is where I work, so that is why it’s labeled “work” in the directions.)

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Hope to see you there!

The Alien F-Word, and other twists of science-fictional linguistics

(Note: In this post, I mention several alien words from episodes of science fiction programs. The shows in question do not always display these words onscreen in written form. Therefore, I may not have spelled all of them in the way the scriptwriters intended. However, since the aliens who supposedly made up the words did not even use the same alphabet I use, my spellings cannot be said to be “incorrect.” So bear with me.)

The science-fiction show “Farscape” is not one of the most well-known shows out there, but it has one detail that is familiar to a wide circle of sci-fi fans, even those who have not seen any episodes of it.

That is, of course, the curse word “frell.”

In the far corner of the universe where astronaut John Crichton finds himself, this word is used by aliens of all species. “Translator microbes” native to this area make most speech understandable to Crichton, but not certain words. These untranslatables include measures of time, like “arn” and “microt,” and measures of distance, like “metra,” but also swear words, like “frell.”

Which is strange, since “frell” appears to be an exact synonym of the F-word in English. It can be used as an interjection (“Oh, frell!”) and as a verb meaning “to copulate with” (“You frelled her?”). It is used in the phrases “Frell you!” (a generic insult), “We’re frelled” (we’re in big trouble), and “Don’t frell it up” (don’t make a mistake). It acts as an otherwise meaningless expression of anger or shock, in phrases like “What the frell are you doing?” and “That’s frelling stupid.”

I cannot think of a single use of “frell” in all of Farscape where our own F-word could not have been substituted. That already strains my suspension of disbelief– just to suggest that any alien language (let alone all of them!) would have a swear word so close in meaning to ours. But even if they did, then by all logic, the translator microbes should have rendered it as its closest– really, identical– English equivalent.

Of course, to keep Farscape an acceptable TV show, they couldn’t. But they could have found ways around it. They could have made the usage of “frell” so different from the usage of any English curse that the microbes could reasonably consider it untranslatable. They could have had different alien species use different untranslatable curses, which would have made perfect sense, since their words are presumably being translated from different languages.

And for that matter, make different species use different units of measurement, too! The translator microbes offered the terms “arn” and “microt” for whatever alien measures of time were closest to an hour and a second, respectively. It’s possible that these were words they simply left untranslated. But for a unit of time close to a day, they gave the translation “solar day,” which suggested that they were trying to convert the aliens’ statements of time into terms Crichton could understand. For an approximately year-length period, they said “cycle,” which suggests a similar idea.

Unless there was an interplanetary time standard, these measures should have been different from species to species. If aliens, like humans, have one measure of time based on their planet’s rotation and another one based on their planet’s travel around their sun, then those words would indicate different amounts of time depending on the planet and star system. Any translation method with the goal of making this comprehensible to Crichton should have converted these measures into Earth days and Earth years. If it couldn’t do that, then it should have just left them untranslated, giving him different words from each alien species he spoke with, leaving him to ask the aliens for clarification on how much time they meant.

Maybe “arn,” “microt,” and whatever words were translated as “cycle” and “solar day” actually were part of an interplanetary system of time, agreed upon by all the species in this area of the universe. But that seems improbable; Crichton met groups of aliens that had gone many years with little or no contact with the surrounding planets, and they still used those words.

This is the sort of thing that always keeps me from getting fully sucked into any work of sci-fi, no matter how much I love it. Being a language geek has its downsides when it comes to appreciating fiction.

The “universal translator” in Star Trek drove me crazy. Okay, I’ll buy the idea of a machine that can learn to translate languages through exposure to them. It would have to be exposed to a lot of words, in context, along with visual or other physical cues, before it could reliably translate a language. And it wouldn’t be able to translate a word it had never heard before, unless there was significant contextual and etymological evidence to suggest a likely meaning for the word.

But a machine that can voice-over the entire first conversation of your first contact with an alien species, right from the first word? Forget it. It’s like the science-fiction and crime-drama trope of “enhancing” a blurry photograph. You can use technology to gather all manner of information, but not from a place where that information isn’t there to begin with.

It’s been suggested that the universal translator actually reads brain activity to figure out languages. But that presupposes that all, or nearly all, intelligent species in the Star Trek universe have brains similar enough that the same brainwave-reading equipment would work on them. It’s bad enough that they all look similar enough to be played by human actors, but near-identical brain structure as well? No way! Not when they’ve canonically got different internal organs everywhere else. It’s as unrealistic as the Vulcan mind-meld working on every species. As far as I remember, Picard’s Enterprise only encountered two species on whom the translator did not immediately work. That is too high a success rate.

And you may recall that one of those species was met in the episode “Darmok and Jalad.” These aliens communicated only through historical and/or literary references, used as metaphors for all the day-to-day situations they encountered. For example, when they were met with a situation of failure, they said, “Shaka, when the walls fell.” To express the idea of realization, they said “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!” Picard spends most of the episode trying to figure out what they mean by “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

The thing is, if a species really did communicate this way, their speech would have to have evolved (devolved?) from a more typical language. If you say “Shaka, when the walls fell” to indicate failure, that quotation must have originated in a time when words like “walls” and “fell” actually had individual meanings of their own.

If words no longer have individual meanings, and exist only as parts of metaphorical phrases, then modern people who speak that language have no way of reading the stories from which the metaphors came. So when they use the reference “Shaka, when the walls fell,” they can’t actually have the image of Shaka’s falling walls in their minds. To them, that series of syllables means nothing but “failure.”

These aliens’ culture has apparently changed until they say “Shaka, when the walls fell” when the thought in their mind is just “I’ve failed” or “We are going to fail.”  So why doesn’t the brainwave-reading universal translator render their words as an expression of the thought they’re actually having?  I mean, English speakers say the word “goodbye,” which is actually a shortened version of the phrase “God be with you,” but most of us don’t know that, and when we say that word, we’re not always thinking about God actually accompanying the person we’re saying it to. I’m pretty sure a universal translator aimed at an English speaker would not give a translation of “God be with you” for every instance of “goodbye.”

I try to spackle the plothole by assuming that this species actually had two languages: an informal language for use at home, with individual word meanings and everything, and a formal language for polite company, composed entirely of metaphors. But it’s still weird that they wouldn’t try using the informal language, when their attempts at talking to Picard in the formal language kept falling flat like Shaka’s walls.

Even in my favorite novels, this language thing can ruin pieces of the story. Charles Sheffield is wildly creative when it comes to making up aliens, but his names for them are inexplicable. A member of a species that communicated only through smell was somehow named Atvar H’sial, a sound-based name that she could obviously neither say nor hear. A team exploring an unfamiliar planet found two heretofore unknown species, which communicated through high-pitched shrieking. Upon learning to communicate with them, the language expert reported that they were called the Coromar and the Maricore. I can only assume the linguist was making that part up, because their language did not contain the sounds necessary to form those names, and there was no other species around to name them.

It’s like Spock and his mind-meld in “The Devil in the Dark.” How could that blobby creature tell him telepathically that it was called a Horta? How could it be called a Horta? Did it have a spoken language with human-pronounceable words, and did it, for some reason, just never attempt using that language with the humans? Did it have a sound-based language that wasn’t human-pronounceable, and was “Horta” just as close as Spock could get to saying its word for its species?

Or was “Horta” a translation of some word in its non-sound-based language– a language based on smells or touches or ground vibrations or electromagnetic waves? That wouldn’t make sense either. How could a non-sound-based message translate into a particular series of meaningless syllables? (My pet theory is that it’s not meaningless: perhaps the creature’s name for itself literally means “garden” or “cultivation” in its language, so Spock translated it into the root of the English word “horticulture.” But that doesn’t make much sense either; why would a subterranean rock-being associate itself with gardens?)

It’s not just the aliens who speak unrealistically in science fiction. Star Trek is set about 200 years from now, but the people use pretty much modern English. (Or rather, English that changes depending on the year of filming. In episodes of The Original Series, I catch the occasional phrase that I suspect is 1960’s slang, like when a minor character in “The Enemy Within” reports to Scotty that he has fallen down, using the words “I took a flop.”)

This is, of course, a flaw of nearly all science fiction. It’s fair to assume that people two centuries from now will be speaking something as different from present-day speech as present-day speech is from what people were speaking two centuries before now. (When I was a kid, I thought the changing of language might stop with the current generation, because we’ve gotten so good at writing things down and documenting what the correct spelling, grammar and usage is. But as I grew up, I realized our technology was speeding the changing of speech more than it was slowing it down. Centuries ago, it took newly coined words a long time to spread. Now, a new word or phrase can span the globe in a matter of days, when a few influential people use it on social media.)

Of course, I can give Star Trek the benefit of the doubt and assume that people in this future really are speaking drastically evolved languages, and it’s just being translated for the benefit of the listener (in the same way I can read a novel set in France and understand that the characters really are speaking French, even if their words show up in English on the pages).

But still, when I’m engrossed in a foreign or futuristic story, the spell can be broken for me by something as minor as a character making a bunch of puns. I have to stretch my suspenders of disbelief to imagine that all the puns work in both modern English and their language! But at least I can try and pretend that the puns they actually used were translated into somewhat similar puns in English for my benefit. It’s worse when a major plot point hinges on a character misunderstanding another’s words in a particular way; then I can’t pretend that it was just a similar thing, I have to accept that the words have that same double meaning in both my language and the characters.’

There is no perfect solution to this. Misunderstandings, and puns as well, are part of life. A story without them wouldn’t be realistic. And you pretty much have to write your dialogue in such a way that readers will understand it. Few audiences are willing to learn a new language, or even a drastically altered version of an old language, just so they can read a story.

Authors just have to do their best, and learn from their mistakes. In “Kea’s Flight,” I had the characters speak pretty much present-day English, suggesting that the natural development of language had been stunted by the control of a totalitarian government. Looking back on it now, I feel that wasn’t quite enough reason for the language to remain as unaltered as it did.

I think I did a better job with “Furnace,” my short story in the anthology “This is How You Die.” In it, I described a future so distant that our descendants have evolved not just linguistically but physically, and their concept of wordplay has been shaped by the heightened abilities of their minds and bodies. They are explicitly stated to be speaking a future language, not English, and their puns are left somewhat to the reader’s imagination:

In the Pnn-kiai language, the sentence she had just spoken was an aural palindrome: recorded and played backward, it would sound the same. Skeeiao had always been a lover of wordplay.

I’m not saying that was a perfect solution either. There are very few works of fiction that have handled this sort of thing in a way that truly impresses me. The “Ender’s Game” series tried to have young characters using an occasional future slang word, but mostly it seemed like an afterthought. “1984” came up with the innovative idea of Newspeak, but, for the sake of readability, had to relegate it to the status of a work in progress, a language-in-the-making that nobody actually spoke yet.

For an example of future speech that’s different enough to be believable, but familiar enough to understand, I have to recommend the movie “Demolition Man”: a futuristic vision that’s a comedy on the surface, but has much deeper and more well-thought-out worldbuilding than most viewers realize.

How I backed up my personality on paper

(Updated with the more recent version of the project. I redesigned the books to be prettier, fit better in the box, and hold more data.)

*****

A recent art project, of sorts. My attempt to cope with fears: the fear of death, the fear of societal collapse. My fantasy that my personality could somehow survive both my death and the downfall of civilization.

In an apocalypse, digital media are of questionable use. I toyed with the idea of microfiches for a while, but then realized that paper, kept in a safe place, can last just as long. Lulu.com prints on acid-free paper, and can print very, very small.

*****

Text of the back of the book:

I am Erika Hammerschmidt. I am an author, artist and speaker from Minnesota. I am terrified of dying, but far more terrified of being forgotten. Being forgotten is true death, the death not just of the body but of the information that makes up the personality.

The information that makes up a human personality is more bountiful and complex than any book can hold, but this is my best try. This is my novels, my poems, my private emails, my art, my journals. It is my secret perversions, my selfies, my websites, my handmade jewelry, my travel snapshots, my diaries, my childhood scrivenings. Please let me live.

*****

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Grammar, rule exceptions, and thinking in words, pictures and raw data

Did you know that words are not things?

Well, they are, in the sense that a word is a type of thing. But a word is not the thing that it’s a word for. It is a symbol to represent that thing. The word “apple” isn’t an apple. An apple is an apple. It doesn’t need to be called by that word. It doesn’t have an inherent name of its own. Names are just tools that humans invented for talking about it. It doesn’t need to be called by any word to be what it is.

Of course you knew that. But you’d be surprised how often people forget.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

One last reminder: today SpringCon begins!! Head on over!

Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

More info in this older blog post

Jewelry, Abby and Norma merchandise, and various self-published books will be for sale!

Last day for the fantastic kaleidoscopic Abby and Norma poster!

Attention, fans of my webcomic Abby and Norma: the exclusive poster sale is alllllmost over! Tomorrow it ends! Become a backer at app.net!

There is a Backer campaign to make a crazily cool, very exclusive limited-edition Abby and Norma poster! It will be a psychedelic geometric explosion of images and quotations from the comic, and will look awesome on your wall regardless of the style of your home.

And after this campaign is over, there will be NO MORE. You will own one of the very few posters like this in existence!

Remember Ron’s art? He would absolutely approve.

Become a backer at app.net and get your own poster, plus loads of other cool stuff like books, stickers, t-shirts and even a chance to add your own idea to the poster design!

Just another reminder: this is the month of SpringCon!! Save the date!

Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

More info in this older blog post

Jewelry, Abby and Norma merchandise, and various self-published books will be for sale!

Another reminder: 15 more days for the amazing Abby and Norma poster!

Attention, fans of my webcomic Abby and Norma: the exclusive poster sale is halfway over! Become a backer at app.net before they’re all gone!

There is a Backer campaign to make a crazily cool, very exclusive limited-edition Abby and Norma poster! It will be a psychedelic geometric explosion of images and quotations from the comic, and will look awesome on your wall regardless of the style of your home.

And after this campaign is over, there will be NO MORE. You will own one of the very few posters like this in existence!

Remember Ron’s art? He would absolutely approve.

Become a backer at app.net and get your own poster, plus loads of other cool stuff like books, stickers, t-shirts and even a chance to add your own idea to the poster design!

Review of “The Uncovering,” a fantasy novel by Jes Young

“The Uncovering,” by Jes Young, isn’t a book I would have decided to read on my own. The fantasy genre isn’t first on my list of interests (though I have deeply enjoyed some fantasy novels), and this one was labeled as “romance” as well, which I had come to associate with a writing style that interested me even less.

I encountered the book because I was on the Enchanted Book Tours mailing list, and despite its deviations from my usual fare, something about the synopsis must have caught my eye… I decided to give it a try and post a review.

The story is centered around a young woman named Tabitha who finds out that she is really an elvish princess, destined to take her place as queen in a magical realm and marry an elvish man called Alex. But while her family prepares to put her on the throne, other forces are plotting to kill or capture her.

An enchantment, placed for the purpose of ensuring a happy marriage, causes Tabitha and her betrothed to feel irresistibly attracted to each other, which leads to some quite intense sexual scenes. But the story isn’t just built as an afterthought around the sexy parts, as many romance novels are. It’s a complete story, with fight scenes, snappy dialogue and lots of cleverly worded lines that stuck in my head long after reading them. Like this one, reminiscing on her sister Rivers’ long disappearance years ago:

Rivers left abruptly and without warning, which is, I guess, the crucial part of running away. If you plan it and tell everyone you’re going to do it, that’s just called moving.

Or this moment when she confronts her caretaker and asks him to “break the enchantment”:

“Spells are broken,” he said wearily. “Enchantments are laid and then, like a blanket, they are lifted. In any case we hardly make a habit of shouting about either in front of the staff.”
I didn’t think it was the time for a lesson in vocabulary or manners. Emily Post herself could have appeared to present me with a copy of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and I wouldn’t have cared even one bit.

There is a lot of description of characters’ appearances, from the color and style of their hair to the scarves and shoes they’re wearing, and at times (as a somewhat fashion-unconscious nerd) I found it tiresome. But such visual descriptions did reliably paint a clear picture in my mind, and some scenes felt to me like small but memorable bits of a blockbuster fantasy movie:

After a moment of hesitation I picked up the ornate wooden box and carefully worked open the silver clasp. Inside lay a circlet, a delicate ring of braided platinum vines and flowers and diamonds flashed and sparkled. I touched it tentatively, just with the tip of my finger, and the flowers and vines burst to life, transforming into living roses and ivy and vibrant blue forget-me-nots. Clustered around the diamonds, the living flowers were more beautiful than the platinum imitation could ever hope to be. The flowers disappeared, becoming metal again, when I took my hand away.

This doesn’t go down on my list of all-time favorite fantasy novels, because the plot doesn’t contain quite enough complexity and originality to make a strong impression on me. I had hoped that the main character would do more exciting and ingenious things on her own, instead of just watching events unfold, and a few times barely managing, by not-all-that-creative means, to fight off people who want to attack her. I also hoped I’d get to see her spend some time in her destined fairyland, which, sadly, she doesn’t get to visit before the book ends.

But then, this is only the first book in a series, and Tabitha does pretty well for a beginner who was thrown into the whole mess after a lifetime of thinking she would never have to handle crap like this. And if we don’t get to see the inside of the elf realm she’s destined to rule, that’s all the more reason to read the next book in the series. I’m in no position to condemn that, in any case, since my novel “Kea’s Flight” got criticism in one review for not ending with the ship landing on a planet. The planet is planned for the sequel, folks; I will get to it eventually. And, I’m sure, so will Jes Young.

I count it as a victory that the book managed to rack up more pros than cons for me, despite the annoying perfectionism I can sometimes have. My language obsession messed with the enjoyment in some parts, as it usually does when I’m trying to enjoy fiction. Sometimes I found sentences that contained errors or unclarity, like the second sentence in the paragraph about the crown. (Should the comma be a semicolon, or should “platinum vines and” be replaced with “platinum vines on which”?)

Other times I took issue with the way made-up terms were used, even though a fiction author has every right to use made-up terms however she wishes. (In this book, light elves are called “We of the Light” and dark elves are called “They of the Dark”– even when they’re the object of the sentence. On reading sentences like “You won’t need to hide from They of the Dark,” my pedantry kept screaming out, “From THEM of the Dark! THEM!” I’m glad I don’t know any actual elves, because they would certainly not appreciate my attempts to police their use of their own elvish terminology.)

I really liked many of the descriptions of romance– not just the sex scenes, but the handful of random realistic details about life and love that happened to catch my eye. I may not be one to talk, because my love life has consisted of pretty much just John, but I feel the author paints a believable picture of being torn between an old love and a new one, still having feelings for both.

For a romance novel, this is a surprisingly clever and entertaining book. The dialogue and internal monologues are witty and very alive, and I never had to make any effort to keep turning pages. It may not be a powerful and epic work of literature, but it’s a fun read and I’m pretty sure the sequels will be even better, with the potential I see in this author.

Speaking of destiny, when I started reading this book I had no idea that it had starlings in it! Pleasant surprise there. They’re not normal starlings, they’re magical ones with red eyes and apparent psychic powers, but they’re in the book:

“Well, one of them may have indicated that he wanted me to go outside.”
“He said that?”
“He didn’t say anything, because he was a bird. But he tapped on the window when I asked if he wanted me to come out.”
“That wasn’t a bird, it was a harbinger.”
“A harbinger of what?” I asked. “You better not say doom.”
“Not doom,” George laughed, “change. The starlings means change is coming to you; one part of your life is over and another part is about to begin.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “they’re certainly right about that.”

“The Uncovering” is available from MP Publishing. Go check it out!

Here’s an interview with Jes Young! Thanks for joining me on my blog, Jes!

Erika: I’m very entertained by your style of narrative. What fantasy and romance authors have inspired you?
 
Jes: A few years ago I decided I wanted to write a book about elves. I imagined it as your basic good versus evil, light versus dark, princess in disguise fantasy story with a beautiful heroine, a handsome prince, some unresolved daddy issues, and a quest for revenge. It sounded simple. I sat down and, drawing on everything I learned about writing fantasy fiction by watching the Lord of the Rings movies, I wrote the first draft of The Uncovering. And that’s when I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance. I was in way over my head.
 
As is so often the case, I found the solution to my problem in a book, in many books actually but I feel most indebted to Karen Marie Moning and Kresley Cole. They both do, seemingly effortlessly, what I want to do with my writing. That is create fun, engaging, sexy, moving stories about people you really like and care about.

Erika: As I was reading the story, I found many of the scenes easy to imagine in a movie. I’m sure most of us authors fantasize from time to time about our work being made into a film. If “The Uncovering” were a movie, what actors would you imagine playing the characters?
 
Jes: Would you believe that I have a Pinterest.com board dedicated to this very thing? http://www.pinterest.com/jesyoungwrites/characters/
 

Erika: I once heard someone complain about some elf-related movie because the elves didn’t have pointed ears.  He said pointed ears are the defining feature of an elf, and if the ears are round you can’t call it an elf at all. I can’t say I agree with him, but I’m still surprised when I see elves that don’t have distinguishing features of some kind.  What factors affected your decision to make your elves look physically pretty much identical to humans (instead of having them look “traditionally” elvish and hide their appearance through some enchantment when in the human world)?
 
Jes: I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Tolkien made that whole pointy ears thing up, and that before that the shape of elf’s ear was not an issue. He was a storyteller, and a great one, so that’s absolutely his right. Making stuff up, creating your world and the rules of it and what everyone looks like is a big part of what makes telling this kind of story fun. In my own work, I decided that what set the Elvish apart from the humans was their beauty, their, strength, and their eyes which change colors based on their emotional state. I liked the idea that they could almost blend in – but then not quite. I suppose it was a way of making them my own.
 
In the second book there’s a character, a water witch named Jenny Greenteeth, who’s green and she uses magic to blend in.
 
Erika: This may sound weird, but I love it that you included starlings in the book! I’m a bird-lover, and I have a pet starling that was raised from an abandoned baby. Sure, starlings are an invasive species and a pest in the USA– probably because they’re too smart for their own good– but they just have a charm I can’t resist. What reasons did you have for making starlings the “harbingers of change” in Tabitha’s life?
 

Jes: The starlings are in the book because someone sent me a link to a YouTube video of a starling murmuration:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY

I watched the birds flying around together, looping and swirling in a way that seemed random and yet perfectly choreographed, and I thought it was beautiful and a little spooky.
 
When I sat down to write, that image was in my head. With no particular plan for them in my mind, I added them into the story – as atmosphere mostly. The more I wrote about them though, the more important they became until finally they’d taken on a life of their own. In the second book, they’re a major character.

Once more, “The Uncovering” is available from MP Publishing. Go check it out!

Abby and Norma Promotional Post!

Is your favorite thing about “Abby and Norma” the vicious deconstruction of neurotypical social norms? Or Abby’s obsessive exploration of legal loopholes and gray areas? Do you love the puns, but feel sad when Abby bashes down her mom’s wistful hopes for grandchildren? Love the mom-bashing, but get annoyed when she debates religion with Chrissy? Love the religious debates, but hate Abby’s badly-drawn doodles? Or do you read “Abby and Norma” solely for Ron and his palindromes?

Well, “Abby and Norma” Mini-Books are the answer for you! They’re short printed collections ranging from 50 to 80 pages, and separated by topic.

Each costs only $5 or less, is printed on 8.5 x 11″ paper with a grayscale interior and a full-color cover, and contains two bonuses (boni?) at the end:

(1). a pencil drawing of one of the characters in a realistic style, with an acrostic,

and

(2). an Abby and Norma Blooper– a screencap of a moment during the copying-and-pasting process when some unintended humor or weirdness existed for a few seconds.

(Like this one, where I had just taken a panel where Abby had two speech bubbles, and flipped the second one to become Norma’s bubble in the next panel, but I had not yet changed the text in them. I’ll leave it to the slash shippers to try and come up with an explanation for how Norma “uses” Abby’s left leg. o_O)

———-

Collect all eleven (if you’re into that) :

The Abby and Norma Antheology
Wherein we make fun of religion.

The Abby and Norma Anthologician
Wherein we mess with logic, reason and everyone’s head.

The Abby and Norma Compilegation
Wherein we deconstruct laws, rules and government.

The Abby and Norma Compundium
Wherein we play with SO MANY WORDS.

The Abby and Norma Cultlection
Wherein we laugh at popular culture, both mainstream and geeky.

The Abby and Norma Festivitreasury
Wherein we survive the holidays, from Halloween to Christmas.

The Abby and Norma Momnibus
Wherein Abby’s mom fails to convince her to pass on the family genes.

The Abby and Norma Palindromicon
Wherein we play with palindromes; semordnilap htiw yalp ew nierehw.

The Abby and Norma Psychosortment
Wherein we explore psychology. Also there’s a doodle gallery!

The Abby and Norma Scianthology
Wherein we play with science! For Science!

The Abby and Norma Sociellany
Wherein Abby makes fun of social customs… how dare she!

Spectacular, symmetrical, eloquent, elaborate, kaleidoscopic Abby and Norma poster! VERY limited time!

Attention fans of my webcomic Abby and Norma, and anyone else who likes fantastic posters! Please read, please share and pass it on to your friends! Become a backer at app.net!

There is a Backer campaign to make a crazily cool, very exclusive limited-edition Abby and Norma poster! It will be a psychedelic geometric explosion of images and quotations from the comic, and will look awesome on your wall regardless of the style of your home.

And after this campaign is over, there will be NO MORE. You will own one of the very few posters like this in existence!

Remember Ron’s art? He would absolutely approve.

Become a backer at app.net and get your own poster, plus loads of other cool stuff like books, stickers, t-shirts and even a chance to add your own idea to the poster design!

Just a reminder: one more month until SpringCon!! Save the date!

Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

More info in this older blog post

Jewelry, Abby and Norma merchandise, and various self-published books will be for sale!

My one regret: I didn’t spend enough time working

They say that people never die wishing they had worked more.

But I’m pretty sure that if I died now, that would be my one big regret. I fully expect to die someday wishing I’d worked more.

Not at my job, necessarily, but at writing, participating in events, talking to people, making connections. Perhaps even if I worked harder at my paying job, earned more money, earned promotions, that would have contributed something to my life’s goal.

My life’s goal is to make my way into a position where I have the influence to help fix the greatest problems in the world.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

Prejudice and promiscuity, and my own fictional archetypes

I’ve been thinking with some concern about two issues relating to my webcomic “Abby and Norma.”

One is the simplicity and one-dimensionality of some of the minor characters; their tendency to serve as cardboard cutout counterpoints to Abby’s arguments, and whether I should just let them be what they are, or try to build them into something more complex and interesting, if not realistic.

The second is one particular facet of that simplicity: the sexually promiscuous nature of Abby’s enemy Cathy.

The term “slut-shaming” has gained a lot of ground in recent years. People are becoming more and more aware that the world is cruel to those who have many sexual partners. Promiscuous women are labeled as “sluts” who have no self-respect. Promiscuous men are generally treated better, but still not great: they’re often seen as sexist “womanizers” who have no respect for their partners.

These characterizations are, of course, unfair, though they’re based on grains of truth. It’s totally possible to have lots of casual sex and still be careful, responsible, and respectful of everyone involved. Sex is perfectly fine as long as you’re honest about what you’re getting into, and considerate of other people’s happiness and well-being. It’s true that many promiscuous people break these rules, but that doesn’t mean promiscuity in itself is bad.

Certainly I didn’t intend for Cathy to be a slut-shaming stereotype. As I’ve said before, the character of Cathy is a mixture of all the things my school-age self found distasteful in other students. And back when this mixture was being formed, I had little or no knowledge of slut-shaming. In fact, in my own personal high-school and college experience, the very opposite seemed to be happening.

Maybe my view was warped by my social difficulties, but to me, in school, it always seemed that having a wildly active sex life was considered normal, and that I was considered a loser because I didn’t; because I focused my attention on nerdy, uncool things like art, writing and schoolwork, instead of sex. Everything I observed in high school and college indicated to me that being a slut was cool, popular– all the things I wasn’t.

I don’t remember ever seeing any slut-shaming. Maybe I just couldn’t recognize it, or maybe it wasn’t common in the state I grew up in or the schools I went to, or maybe the popular kids never did it around me. But I do remember a lot of virgin-shaming, aimed at me and other geeks.

Back then, the only social distinction I really saw was the distinction between nerds and non-nerds. From my perspective, the girls who had one long-term boyfriend, the girls who had a different boyfriend every month, and the girls who had one-night stands every week were all blurred together. To me, they were all just “the girls who looked down on me for having nothing.”

I realize that they probably didn’t look down on me as much as I thought, at least not for that reason. But at the time, I had a very long memory for all the moments when it seemed as if they did. I felt as if sluttiness was the prevailing world order, and I was the downtrodden underdog who dared to consider my grades more important than my sex life.

When I learned the word “slut,” it felt like a weapon of the resistance, a way for oppressed geeks like me to fight back against the insanity that was considered normal. It felt like learning that I could use the words “sheep” and “conformists” to insult those who followed social rules. I didn’t feel that I was oppressing sluts, I felt I was rebelling against their oppression of me.

Of course, being who I was, I didn’t actually go around calling anyone a slut. For the most part I stayed buried in my books and drawings, ignoring and ignored by my so-called peers. But sometimes I thought dark thoughts to myself about the popular and promiscuous. The word “slut” may have made its way into some of my internal rants.

I did eventually outgrow this simplistic hatefulness. As I grew up and built a more diverse and sophisticated circle of friends, I began to distinguish between promiscuity and virgin-shaming. I learned that people are complex, and not everyone who sleeps around is a nerd-abusing cheerleader or jock. But somewhere inside me remained the old, simplified view, the traces of how my schoolgirl mind had divided the whole world into geeks and antigeeks.

And even once I knew better, Cathy rose up out of those ancient feelings and took her place in the comic, because the feelings were too old and ingrained to stay out of all the things I created. The more I write Abby and Norma, the more I realize that Cathy is not like any real person I know, and that some people might even be hurt by her portrayal of promiscuity.

Cathy is evil not because of her slutty ways, but because she tries to force them on others, insulting and belittling Abby for not being slutty like her. She is what I used to think all normal students were like, back when I was in school and trying to figure out the world.

Abby is often a caricature of me, expressing opinions that are exaggerated versions of opinions I have or used to have. Abby’s mom is a caricature not of my own mother, but of the annoying traits of some other mothers I’ve known. Likewise, Cathy seems to be a caricature of non-autistic students, taking some of the things they occasionally do and exaggerating them to ridiculous extremes.

I don’t know how, or if, I could ever develop her into a more realistic character. I don’t know if “Abby and Norma” is even supposed to be the kind of comic that has realistic characters. But I felt I should write something to shed light on the origins of Cathy, and how the way the world looked to me as a teen and young adult is quite far from the way it looks to people today.

The animal-hoarder of 1930’s Vienna: A review of “King Solomon’s Ring”

I’ve just finished reading Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,” a naturalist’s account of his life with a ridiculous number of not-so-domestic animals. It was recommended to me by a guest at a speech, because I had mentioned during the speech that we had just adopted a pet starling. So, of course, I went into this reading experience with the expectation that starlings would be a main feature of the book.

In that respect, I was disappointed, but overall the book has been more fun than I could have imagined.

It was published in 1952, and describes events from much earlier, most of which took place in Europe before World War II. Lorenz was an Englishman living in Austria (having lived in Austria for a semester myself, the setting as well as the subject matter was of interest to me). He, and his wife and children, lived in a house that also contained dogs, mongooses, monkeys, apes, parrots, jackdaws, geese, lemurs, hamsters, water-shrews, crows, an eagle, and any number of other bizarre animals– mostly not even kept in cages, or if they had cages, they were allowed outside of them most of the time. Lorenz saw his pets as both companions and research subjects; he let them run free partly because he valued their happiness, and partly because he felt he could observe their behavior more naturally that way.

In both the body of the book and the foreword by another author, Konrad’s wife is described as saintly for putting up with all this. She’s quoted as saying that she managed to tolerate it because she spent more time at her job than at home. But, as another married woman with a fascination for nature and the bizarre, I find myself wondering. Did she put up with it because of a sense of wifely duty? Or did she actually, deep down, enjoy living in a zoo– as I might– but feel hesitant to say so in a day and age when no “proper” woman would feel anything but disgust for such a situation?

In the present day and age– and in the USA– such a situation, of course, wouldn’t even be tolerated by law enforcement. Native birds can’t legally be taken from their nests as Lorenz described (though non-native birds like starlings are fair game) and there are very few places to live where you could keep a pet ape or mongoose without some sort of special permit. From his account it seems that his animals were happy, but I can still imagine modern neighbors rushing to call animal control (not to mention child protection services– according to his narrative, sometimes the only safe place for a child in his house was inside a large cage.)

But his stories of animal behavior are still delightful to read, if one makes allowances for the time he lived in, and the different values of that time.

He gives a fascinating account of the territorial behavior of sticklebacks and cichlids in his aquariums, making the reader see more depth and complexity in these little fish than previously imagined. His story of keeping water-shrews is hilarious, this time not because of the animals’ complexity, but because of how simple their minds are, and how absolutely baffled they find themselves when an obstacle in their cage is moved.

For a scientist of his time period, I find his view of animals surprisingly balanced between the extremes of anthropomorphizing them and reducing them to thoughtless and unfeeling automatons. He recognizes that, being distantly related to us, they have many of the same basic drives and instincts as humans, and probably feel similar emotions, but he also frequently reminds the reader that the animals come at things from their own perspective, which is often totally unlike the human perspective.

There certainly are times when I suspect he’s jumping to conclusions in his interpretation of his pets’ behavior. It’s easy to be wrong about the motives for an action, even the action of a close human friend or relative, let alone the action of a creature physically and mentally very unlike us and living a completely different sort of life. He makes the best guesses he can about why his animals do what they do, but his observations are inevitably somewhat hampered by his own attachment to them and the not-quite-natural environment in which he’s observing them.

He’s also, of course, a product of his time when it comes to errors in the biological sciences. He devotes an entire chapter to the differences in personality and temperament between the breeds of dogs descended from wolves and the breeds descended from jackals– which looks pretty ridiculous to someone reading in an era when all the genetic evidence indicates that dogs are 100% descended from wolves and none of them have any jackal blood.

Still, for his era, he’s very advanced in his understanding of animal behavior, and even when he might be wrong, his accounts are still a lot of fun to read. I only wish he had written more about starlings.

His mentions of starlings are confined to a few paragraphs, in which he recommends them as an easy-to-raise pet for the inexperienced keeper of animals, and describes their infancy, rate of growth, and the diet they should be fed in captivity. He only briefly mentions that they can be affectionate and learn to mimic words.

In the little he says about them, I can see tons of things that would outrage my friends on the Starlingtalk.com forum. The foods he advocates have virtually no overlap with what present-day starling-keepers consider a healthy diet, and he actually recommends taking infant birds from their nests to raise them, which is heavily frowned-on among the starling-lovers I’ve met online.

But for me personally, the biggest disappointment was that he didn’t include any actual stories of life with a starling. He makes it known that he raised them, but sadly, he gives no specific examples. His accounts of the antics of his other pets are so delightful that I think I would have loved some funny tales of the things his starlings learned to say, the mischief they made playing with jewelry and the like, or any of the other silly things that they must have done, if my own pet starling is at all typical of the species.

He does make up for it, though, by giving many pages to the lives of his colony of jackdaws. They’re not starlings, but they are similar birds, being very social, very affectionate and able to mimic speech. The hierarchy, social rules and interactions within his jackdaw society are utterly fascinating and lovingly described, reminding me a lot of the descriptions of raven society in the more recent book “Ravens in Winter.”

Even though starlings were somewhat neglected in his narrative, I’ve found that a side effect of reading Lorenz’s prose is a tendency to observe my own pet as he would. Whole paragraphs of Lorenzian naturalist description pop into my head from time to time as I watch Sirius the starling, and I find myself wording my own my observations in a 1950’s English scientist’s writing style:

“On the whole, Sirius prefers for his sustenance such foods that are white or very light-coloured, or black or very dark-coloured, and regards with suspicion any proffered fruit of a brighter orange or red hue; this, I believe, owing to the proclivity of the starling for feeding primarily upon insects in the wild, and his instinctive knowledge that the insects upon which a wild starling may most safely feast are those of dark colouration, such as the ants and house-flies, and the black beetles which are ever present in a garden, as well as those of light colouration, as the larvae of such beetles, and fly-maggots– the species that bear patches of bright colour most often doing so to signal to their enemies that they are venomous, or at the very least, foul-tasting.”

SpringCon again!

This year, for the second time, I am participating in Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

I’ll have several of my self-published books available for sale, including the big Abby and Norma collection:

and all the cheap little Abby and Norma Minibooks:

I’ll also have some Abby and Norma merchandise and some jewelry for sale!

I will be sharing a table with Aaron Poliwoda, a local comic artist with whom I’ve collaborated on a few projects.

Getting there isn’t too hard. From most places in the Twin Cities, you can get to downtown Minneapolis by bus. Once you are there, this is the route you take.

The rest of the route, from downtown to the fairgrounds, is only one bus: the 3B.

This is where you catch it:

It goes like this:

and you get off when you see this:

and then you just walk through the State Fairgrounds until you see this building:

Have $10 with you for the fee to get in, plus enough more to shop for cool comic-related stuff! There are lots of awesome vendors at this thing.

Enjoy, and I hope to see you there!

Neurosis, math, grammar, empathy, and the transformative power of love

Falling in love can change a person in so many ways.

I’m not just talking about how you become a different person when you’re falling in love and your levels of bonding hormones are all over the charts. That’s a whole issue of its own, with its own set of relationship problems. (Ever think, “He’s not the man I fell in love with anymore,” or “We got married and then he changed everything about himself”? Maybe he just changed back into the person he was before he fell in love… and for that matter, so did you. Oxytocin and the other mating hormones that run rampant at the beginning of a romance are powerful mind-altering chemicals; the mind you fell in love with was probably under the influence.)

No, what I’m talking about is the change that happens over the course of a long, happy relationship. It can be slow, or fast, changing speed and intensity over time, but it’s always there, the way two trees growing close together change their shapes to adapt to one another’s presence.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.