Worldbuilding: continuing thoughts after panels

I was on a worldbuilding panel at ConFusion that was labeled Worldbuilding 495, intended to be graduate level in contrast with another panel that was labeled 101. I’m not sure we got it that far, but we certainly took it beyond default questions. And then I went to another panel where an audience member’s commentary made me shoot steam out my ears (seriously, ask 4/6 of the panelists–maybe the other two too, but four of them commented on my face after), and so here we are with a handful of post-panel thoughts.

I think the thing I didn’t get to after my own panel was about sidelong politics and parallel social structures. We have those! We have them everywhere. If you ask who is president of the US, who is prime minister of Canada, etc.–even who is in Congress, who is on the Supreme Court–that doesn’t give you influential members of the communities that might interest you. Who’s the president of a charity, who are the major donors. Who are the people who make sure there are chairs set up for that charity’s talk. Who’s the lecturer at the university people want to hear; who’s the journalist who calls them. All of these groups have their own internal and overlapping politics. If you read about monarchs and heads of state, you’ll get one picture–and maybe that’s the picture you want to draw. But if you read about things that are less centrally about governance, a different picture emerges–sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

Sometimes even basic social structures don’t overlap much with the official government. The work of James C. Scott has been really influential in my thinking about this. He writes about hill people as a particular category of peripheral social groups to empire, and how and when they succeed at keeping themselves out of the imperial eye. And we have a bit of that in our legends with Robin Hood, but I think there’s a lot more potential here.

I left the other panel with a strong sense of classism in worldbuilding, and I’ve just run into it in the book I’m reading too. I think it’s worth asking ourselves, especially in urban fantasy and near-future SF, how much the shorthand we’re using for “these are bad people” overlaps with “these are poor people, these are the lower classes.” I think it’s worth making some effort not to do that. And if it’s farther-future SF, it’s worth considering whether what you’re saying is “some groups of people are just squalid and awful no matter what you try to do for them because they inherently aren’t like us.” And don’t do that either.

The commenter at the panel used “eating potato chips and watching TV” as his flag for the mentally inferior lower classes. There were potato chips in the consuite and lots of panels on TV shows…but we all know he didn’t mean our snack foods and filmed entertainment, he meant their snack foods and filmed entertainment. You know. Them. And if we lived in a post-scarcity society, he went on, they would likely outbreed us, and what would happen to our utopia then?

Because, y’know, education is not a scarce resource now, nor are time and energy, so any way that they are is because of how they are. Previous situations where people’s standard of living was improved and their family patterns changed are not relevant for reasons. But it’s not racial! It’s just…about groups of people…who have inherent group traits that make it just and right that they’re poor and we aren’t. And all the nerds who have families who don’t understand them don’t count as counterarguments to the idea of being swallowed up by a growing inherent inferior class, apparently, because reasons. Because it’s so much more satisfying to create an us vs. them. Because you can say beer and cable TV, as the book I’m reading now does, safe in the knowledge that it’s not our beer (which is the good beer) and our cable TV (which is the quality shows). And if one of our people happens to like entertainment with a broad base of appeal, clearly we’re liking it differently and it doesn’t count like when one of them likes it.

“The Marching Morons” needs to go. March on. March away. Just stop doing your worldbuilding in ways that postulate that people are entirely awful by demographic group. We can all do better. And we should.

What do I write next: the squishy side

I felt like my panel on what to write next, with John, Dave, and Ty, went pretty well on Saturday. The audience seemed engaged, and there was plenty to say. So much to say, in fact, that here I am with the next thing: I feel like the panel focused a fair amount on market considerations. I feel like it focused a fair amount on choosing among ideas that you already have.

And sometimes that’s great. Sometimes those ideas have been pushing and shoving to get out, and now it’s their turn. Pick one through some means: choosing a project that’s very different from what you’ve just written, following through on a prior success, consulting someone who knows a lot about the market, hurrah. Whatever works.

What about the other times? What do you do when you’re staring at your fingers and muttering, “What now?” Well, here are some ideas.

Rest. Seriously, rest and then rest and then rest some more. Rest is underrated in our culture. Lately I have heard people talking about how they don’t have time to rest, acting as though taking a break would be a failure. Rest is a human necessity, not a failure. One of our most prevalent cultural attitudes is that if you work 50 hours in a week, you will get 25% more done than if you work 40, but in fact this is only sometimes true. Quite often you will get 5% more done, or 1%, or if you’ve been doing it enough weeks in a row, 25% less. So when you finish a big project, at least consider that napping, playing with the dog, going for a walk, watching Netflix, are the things that are getting you to the point of being productive with the next big thing.

Change inputs. My friend Mary, a poet and fiction writer, talks about filling the word bucket. Read something different, read something very different, read a bunch of things on a theme. Read a bunch of things on a non-obvious theme. Especially if you’re trying to make political art: a lot of the best ideas for art get sparked by combinations of things that are not linearly related, directly next to each other. Reading about pigments or manatees or Tlingit art is not something that automatically says, “From this will come the great protest literature of our time, the cry my heart needs to make.” It gives your brain not only space to breathe but space to make nonlinear connections, to think thoughts that are relevant to the current situation but not identical to the thoughts everyone else is thinking.

Change media. Art museums. Online stuff. Wandering around looking at public art in cities smart enough to have it. Reading is not the only way to refill the bucket. Hell, change to something that isn’t a medium at all but a natural phenomenon. What kind of stories does this landscape produce. What do people who live here learn from it.

Don’t be afraid to be too small or too big. There is no wrong size of canvas. Short-shorts can teach discipline. Giant multi-volume series can too, but not in the same way. Distill your ideas into tiny vials of concentrate. Let them swoop out all over everything. You are not too ambitious to listen to. You are not too trifling to bother with. If it sounds like it might be nifty, give it a whirl, and then do something else if it doesn’t work. Do something else if it does.

Surround yourself with people who believe in the work. Gentle people. Fierce people. People who ask you dozens of intelligent questions. People who leave you the hell alone and make mashed yams and let you work. People who have read all the same things as you so they know what you’re doing here. People who have read totally different things than you so they can see your blind spots. People who want to get technical. People who see the big picture. Your big picture. Your shared big picture. Your own big picture, just yours.

Ask yourself specific questions about what you need to do this work, about what work you need to do. Sometimes you will end up with vague answers. Keep going. The specific is our friend.

Like the man said, say what you mean, bear witness, iterate. You can interrogate all three of those when you’re figuring out what to write. Is this what I mean? What do I mean? Maybe I need an entire short story to figure out what I mean. Maybe I won’t know at the end of a trilogy. What can I bear witness to? What do I need to bear witness to? What do I see in the world that needs to be framed, noticed, seen? And for the sake of all I love, iterate, iterate, iterate. The world is not what it was a week ago. You are not who you were a week ago. Think it through. Try again. Try tenderly, try roughly, change perspective, change form. Get parallax.

I can’t tell you whether you’ve got this. Maybe you don’t. Maybe I don’t. But trying is a virtue. Trying is what we have. Don’t ever apologize for putting the best of your mind and your heart and your body into trying to make something wonderful in the world that wasn’t there before.

The work of optimism

My friend Fran Wilde said this week, “Do not hesitate to speak up for the reality you wish to live in. Don’t live in silence or fear. Those are really crappy universes.”

They are.

Having an optimistic imagination as a professional skill is hard work right now. It’s never actually trivial, but when the people around you are all muttering, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and you know exactly what they mean, it’s hard to turn from that to creating entire worlds from scratch with hope as a major component.

Hard, but important.

Hard, but necessary.

But hard. Did I mention hard?

I’m working on three things at the moment, two of which have other people involved in one role or another, so that’s taking up a lot of my time and energy. And rightly so. But every day this week I have made sure to write some number of words on the third project, which is an optimistic science fiction novel.

That’s not to say that it’s teddy bear picnic science fiction. Lots of dreadful things happen. Some of the characters are–brace yourselves–not all that cuddly. But many of them–most of them–are making at least some effort to solve problems and treat each other decently. Even if they don’t always agree on what’s a problem and what’s a solution. Even if they don’t always agree on what decent treatment would entail. It is science fiction about people who are trying. It is science fiction for adults. About people who are trying.

Did I mention that this is hard work? because it is. And combining the difficulty of it with the other projects I have going on means that I’m not writing reams at a time on this thing. A couple hundred words a day is all I’m getting for now. But I can see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel with the other projects. I’m getting them toward a point where I can pass them back to the other professionals involved, and my main project focus can be optimistic science fiction novel for awhile.

And you know what? I think it’s good for me. I think that making this effort, doing this hard work–putting in the energy to imagine doing some good, putting in the energy to imagine doing better–is a bit like working out. You get better at it. You find more capacity in yourself the more you do of it. And you find more challenges, places where your previous skillset would have been insufficient, but now you can manage, you can just barely manage.

I know that some people find that writing about terrible universes is their way of trying to avoid living in one. And that’s fair. Saying, “OH GOD NOT LIKE THIS” is valid both as art form and as approach to improving the world, to the extent that the two are separable. It’s just that it’s not the only valid approach. And honestly right now I think it’s the easy way out, and if we’re going to have some balance, some of us are going to have to take the hard way. Some of us are going to have to imagine realities we would rather live in, and then speak up for them.

A little bit a day will do.

Suspense

I watch a lot of cop shows to get through my workouts. The pacing is right, and the fact that there’s almost always a resolution of at least an intermediate problem within a few episodes is very satisfying when I’m not thoroughly in love with the story line. (I need more workout fodder than I can find “thoroughly in love with the story line.”) But oh my golly, do they have a common misconception about how narrative tension and suspense work.

People who tell stories get told to make it personal, and to up the stakes. And apparently for a lot of writers that means “threaten the death of your protagonist, possibly along with as large a number of other people as possible up to and including the entire universe.” But this is actually a pretty decent way to decrease the suspense in your story. Is the main character going to die horribly? Particularly in a show where you have actors under contract, is the star who is under a big contract going to die horribly and not be on the show any more? No. No they are not. I was watching a show last season where people said, “I can’t believe they killed off one of the two leads!” And surprise: they didn’t. In the middle of writing this, I watched an episode where they upped the stakes from “will this kill one of the main characters?” to “will this kill the entire cast?” and guess what, no. It did not.

Some stories try to kill characters off early to show you that they mean business, that no one is safe. This almost never works unless you are not paying attention. Early deaths almost always mean less investment from the viewer/reader–you’ve been with that character for twenty minutes, not twenty hours. And it’s also less investment from the storyteller–especially in media that involve big name actors whose level of involvement in a project is going to be clear from ads. Even prose writers who don’t have to worry about that thing tend to get used to having particular characters to play with. So what early deaths mean is “this will have some level of death/gore,” not “no one is safe.” I can tell you who’s safe. Ask me.

One way to manage this kind of tension is to make the suspenseful question not whether Our Protagonist will get out of this particular bear trap but how. Getting the reader/viewer invested in the details of the story is never a bad idea. If they just want to find out yes/no on horrible deaths–if yes/no on horrible deaths is all you’ve given them as a question–their investment level will probably be pretty low anyway.

Another is to use what appear to be lower stakes problems, because they can result in more tension/suspense if they’re things that might actually happen. Are you going to kill off the protagonist of your successful series? Probably not, or at least not in any lasting way. But are you going to make their best friend or family member mad at them? Are you going to give them setbacks along the road to their goals? Almost certainly. Are you going to give them this particular setback? The reader/viewer doesn’t know. And that’s where the suspense comes in.

Good Enough

Every writing problem has an equal and opposite writing problem, right? It’s like Isaac Newton or something. So any time you hear a piece of advice, the opposite is almost certainly also great advice for someone. So let’s talk about one of those: the good enough problem.

There are the perfectionists: nothing they write ever reaches “good enough.” They revise it over and over again and never let anybody see, or never anybody who might do anything with it. Or they don’t revise at all, because everything is so flawed that there’s no point, they might as well try again and look, the new thing needs revision too. Definitely flawed. Might as well scrap it and try again.

And then there’s the other category: the people who don’t want to be told how to revise their piece, they want to be told that it’s good enough already. Just as it is. You may find some of these people at student workshops, but they don’t want to workshop, they want to be the immediate and effortless star of the workshop. They want to show up and have the pros running the workshop say, “This is so amazing, let us shower you with fame and wealth.”

Perfectionism is the enemy of good fiction. So is the conviction that good enough is good enough.

The thing is, if you’re going to ask “is this good enough?”, the question is, for what? Good enough to be published? Well, sure; all sorts of awful things have gotten published. Good enough to be a strong contender for publication? Maybe. Good enough that you’ve done what you can do with the idea with the skills you have right now? Good enough that you learned from it? Good enough that figuring out what to do with it and moving on to the next thing is the best plan? Good enough that it will help you make the next thing better?

If you’re aiming for good enough permanently–if you want it to be a minimum bar you clear–then it can get in the way of aiming for good.

If the only thing that’s good enough is perfect, you’ve given yourself an excuse not to work for better.

And either way you miss the satisfaction of “as good as I can make it for now, and the next thing will be better.” Which is worth finding, whether you’re publishing or not.

Space for the heart

I am newly returned from a week and a half out of town. I went on a writing retreat and visited some friends for a few days. I came back to a bunch of stuff to catch up on and am still not quite caught up. Closer, though.

And I want to say: this is great. I have done more of it this year, I will continue next year, it is so good. I think it doesn’t require a particular shape of thing to be good. Whatever you can manage, whatever works for you. For some people this will be an hour at a coffee shop, for some a weekend at a friend’s house. For some people, having any humans around defeats the purpose, and for others having to do any maintenance work does, so those shape what will be possible for you. If you really need to not have to think about food and cleaning, housesitting for a friend while they’re out of town won’t fit the bill. If you need at least a day to really get mental distance, a few hours by yourself won’t work. If you can’t have people around you, getting an airbnb with half a dozen friends will be a pleasant vacation rather than a productive retreat. But.

But consciously, actively making a quiet, separate space–this is a thing that I think is undervalued, especially for people trying to do large creative projects. It’s not just the room of one’s own. It’s the time of one’s own, the permission to take that time. The sense that taking that time is not the same thing as powering through a word count goal. Ideas may come, word count may come. But the quiet comes first. Even if it’s half an hour’s stop at a waterfall on the way home from running errands, a quick dash into the woods when you’ve been doing eldercare. Whatever shape it takes for you.

I have seen in people of all ages–though reflected in different behavior sets–the idea that being up on current events and well-informed is an unlimited virtue, and a virtue that requires the intake of every soundbite that comes out of a politician. I am all for informed voting and civic engagement. But 1) You do not get informed from soundbites. Yes, there are times when “this candidate said this appalling thing” is news you can use. But it’s not all there is to the vast majority of campaigns. If you were going to buy a major appliance, you wouldn’t consider yourself ill-informed if you hadn’t watched all the company’s commercials–or well-informed if you had. “Hey, the Maytag man said they’re reliable! He said it again!” That’s not research. Neither are the soundbites the news/commentary cycle thrives on. And 2) Everything you do in life, you do within your own limits. Even if you’re committed to making home-cooked meals, some days that’s going to mean pasta or scrambled eggs instead of five elaborate courses. Your limits include your emotional limits as well as the limits of your time and understanding. Doing your best does not mean doing nothing but reading political commentary for months before an election. There has to be room to set it aside and think of other things. Your family, your friends, your scrambled eggs, your creative work. The way the river looks as your plane lands.

I really mean “has to.” There has to. Our elections have gotten unreasonably long in the US, and it’s affecting everyone else in the world. If you stay intensely engaged on it, you will get exhausted, you will burn out. There has to be space to breathe occasionally.

I know I’m lucky to have the money, the flexibility, and at the moment the health to go somewhere completely separate from my ordinary life. I’m really lucky. But I also think that it’s a good thing for most of us to look for opportunities for set-aside space within our lives, however we can find it. Not just “I am on deadline and now I will go and go.” But also “what is this thing that I am doing that is worth doing, and how can I do it better?” and “what am I missing, what am I not seeing?” And other subtler questions that are how we keep our heads above the waves, other questions that speak to what we’re doing that’s worth protecting. Culturally easier when you’re at some stage of a large project–I could say to my Facebook, “I’m going away to start my new novel,” and that was true. But the novel is what it is because I had the conceptual space, the emotional space, to make it that and not do it by rote and reflex.

No matter what work you want to do, I think that’s something we all need from time to time, especially in times of whirling chaos.

Begin as you mean to go on, or why I’m willing to quit

Sometimes I run into people online wondering whether they gave a book enough of a chance.

These people are often writers, and I think there’s a component of “I want people to give me a chance, or, if possible, an infinite number of chances” in this reaction. But there’s some sense that if you don’t like a book (or even just don’t love it) and quit reading it after a few chapters, you might have been unjust, you might be missing out. It might get better.

I don’t have this. If I bounce off a book on page one, that’s where I bounce. If I read half of it and decide I don’t care about the characters, if I notice that I’m consistently coming up with other things to do rather than reading this book, I’m out. And I’m totally, completely fine with this. Because the beginning of a story has a specific function, and it’s not to tell you what came first. You can write the beginning of a story that’s not the beginning of the events quite easily–it’s done all the time. And why is it done all the time? Because the beginning of the story is there to draw you in and tell you what kind of thing you’re dealing with.

So–take, for example, the movie I bounced off recently from the library. It was filmed in the 1940s, and it started with a racist joke and continued with at least four minutes of sexual harassment. I know, times were different then, different things were accepted by polite society, blah blah blah…but the point is, they were harassing the living shit out of this woman, by the standards of this viewer. And I say “at least four minutes” because I turned it off, I was done.

Did I miss out? Maybe. Sometimes if you dig through a dumpster you find someone’s wedding ring. But it’s still okay to say, “I don’t feel like digging through that dumpster is going to be worth my time even if there is a wedding ring in it.” An article I read (in the Journal of I Read It Somewhere Studies) had the staff of their magazine watch the first ten minutes of movies, write down how much they thought they’d like them, and finish the movies. And if I recall correctly, they were only wrong in a single-digit number of cases.

Here is why: the beginning sets expectations. That’s what it’s for. It says, here is the kind of story you’re reading. Even if it’s a deeply subversive story, it sets out what kind of thing is here to be subverted. When a movie starts with a racist joke that is, as far as I can tell, completely incidental to its premise, that’s telling you something. It’s telling you that this is the sort of thing the people who made this movie find funny. It’s totally okay to say, you have given me this data, and I have learned from it; I am stopping here. This is why the early episodes of House featured some really graphic medical scenes: they were letting you know, if you are going to be grossed out by the medical stuff, this is not your show. Thank those people for their clarity of vision and move on.

What about quitting in the middle, though? Well, look. Sunk cost fallacies are hard. Humans are, generally, neurologically, terrible at getting ourselves out of sunk cost fallacies. Even if you’re aware of this, it doesn’t always help. Last week I caught myself thinking, of the book I was reading, that I heard rumors that the series was almost done, so I would probably only have two or three more books to read before it was over. Not regretfully. Just in the way that you would think, “I have to wash sheets and towels and delicates, so that’s three more loads of laundry before I’m done.” No one assigned me these books. I have read some in this series before. I can go pick it up again if I really want. But if it is not being worthwhile to read now, it doesn’t matter that I’ve already read one or two or six or however many.

Reading isn’t just a process of discovering what happened, because I could just ask someone who read this book. It’s the experience of reading. If that experience isn’t going well for you, go ahead and read something else. Why not? If no one is paying you money and you’re not in love with the author–I mean, literally, actually in love with the author, not “in love with” as a colloquial way of saying you enjoy their work very much–the fact that you are not happy with this reading experience, right now, in a larger way than just one paragraph or scene making you go meh: I hereby give you permission to get out. You don’t have to finish desserts that taste bad, and you don’t have to keep reading books just because you’ve already read a hundred or two hundred pages of that book, or 1600 pages of that series. You are free. Run like the wind. Run to a different book. There are several out there.

Intermittent

Today I sold my third short story this week. I also had a revision request from an editor I work well with and have done revisions with in the past; while a sale is never guaranteed in those circumstances, it’s certainly better than a rejection. Two of the stories I’ve sold, I wrote this summer; the third I co-wrote with Alec Austin in early 2013. I mentioned this on social media, and my kind friends are congratulating me. That’s really nice of them, and I do feel proud of the work I’m doing.

Here’s the thing: before this month, the last time I sold a story was April. And before that January. One of the most important things that would-be writers should know is that this business is completely sporadic–but even people who know that can I think have difficulty with the phenomenon of comparing other people’s highlight reels to their own uncut footage. This week I am the superstar who sold three stories in a week. Last week I was in a drought lasting a third of a year. Same writer, same writing.

So you hear wry quotes about how intermittent reinforcement drives lab rats crazy. I have a solution to that. Do not let sales be your main positive reinforcement. Don’t get me wrong–selling stories is great. If I didn’t want to sell stories, I would write them and throw them in a drawer; it’s not like attaching files to emails and web forms and keeping track of who has seen what is deeply entertaining. But if I was relying on sales to be the reason I love this work, I would be miserable.

The work is the work. The work is its own reward. And if you’re finding that the creative work you’re doing is not its own reward–whether you’re a person who likes to write or likes to have written–then it may be time to assess what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You cannot sell something every day, or even every week–even the most prolific writer just does not have that consistency of response. (Or probably that many markets, unless they’re writing a huge variety as well as a huge amount of fiction.) The editor who is going to love this particular piece might be on vacation this week. They might have a family emergency. They might, God forbid, have left the magazine. Or there might not even be an editor working yet who will like this particular piece–you might have to keep sending it around and being patient.

Look: a friend with a geology degree posted to Facebook a meme claiming that a career in geology sounds so much cooler if you talk about it like a six-year-old. It’s true. But: there is approximately no way to talk about my work and sound any older than that. “I make up stories about magic and the future and different worlds.” How cool is that.

So yes, we get happy about sales. We celebrate the sales. But it’s far easier to avoid getting anxious and wrung out if the main enjoyment is in making the thing you wanted to make. People are saying things to me like, “You’re on a roll!” And in fact I am. But not just for the reasons they’re thinking. I’m on a roll doing the things that will make another week like this next month or next year. Doing the things that will sit for weeks, months, without any thought of being published. It’s a good writing time for me. It’s really nice that it’s a good sale time, too. But if I attached too much to that, it would interfere with the good writing time. And we can’t have that.

Not writing the phone book

I often hear people say of actors they particularly like, “Oh, I could watch them read the phone book.” You never hear that about writers, “I would read it if they wrote the phone book.” And there’s a reason for that. A major part of being a good writer is the judgment about what to write. When people are saying that about an actor, they mean that their voice, their face, their body language, everything is very expressive and interesting. And there is a common writerly impulse to take any statement of “I find [thing] boring” as a challenge, to make it interesting. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good impulse; writing interesting stories is hard enough without being belligerent about things that bore your reader friends.

Recently a friend of mine started reading a fantasy piece with rogues in it, and it started with two annoying characters boasting to each other. “If [bestselling author friend] or [other bestselling auth–oh, fine, she said Scott Lynch and Steve Brust] had written this, they could have pulled it off, they could have made it funny, they could have undermined the annoying characters and shown what jerks they were,” she said, and I said, “Okay, but part of what makes Steve and Scott as successful as they are is that they generally choose not to do that.” They choose not to lead from a disadvantage that’s a boring disadvantage–not “can I make my reader sympathize with this intriguing villain” but “can I make my reader sympathize with a guy who’s like the annoying co-worker they’re glad they left in their last job.” Sure, someone with writing chops is in a better position than a beginner to pull that off. But it’s writing the phone book. It’s challenging for no particularly good reason.

I can’t remember where I read the review that suggested that Lois McMaster Bujold could write another novella between the two recent Penric novellas, in her Chalion universe, that would basically be a training sequence for the protagonist. And…okay, so there is an adage in physics that I think has a parallel here. If a respected, award-winning senior physicist tells you that something is impossible, she may or may not be right; if she tells you that something is possible, listen. In writing, it’s this: if one of the most decorated writers of her genre of all time chooses to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives of her genre, she may or may not have a good reason for it. Genre conventions sink into us all, just as the sense of constraint does in physics. But if she chooses not to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives, to skip over that bit and on to the next, pay attention, there was probably a really good reason why she didn’t find that part interesting enough to focus her time on it. And that’s worth learning from.

Take my advice. Or don’t, there are other options.

I am a sucker for advice columns.

Usually I describe this as: I want to see what people who think of themselves as normal think of as their problems. I want to see what people feel are insoluble problems, or at least problems for which they really need outside perspective. I know what I think is hard, and what I think is a lot of work but straightforward, and what I think is just plain all-around easy. But no one’s skills and strengths are universal, and seeing where people run into a wall and ask for help–and how they ask for that help–is fascinating to me.

This does not explain why I like this new project my friend Rose is doing, Story Hospital. Because Story Hospital is for writers with a particular kind of broken relationship: the relationship with one particular story or with their work in general. So: people who think of themselves as normal are pretty much right out the window, then, we are talking about the sort of people with entire imaginary casts in their heads. This project stemmed from a story-fixing panel at Readercon, and you can write in with whatever feels like it needs a fix, in whatever detail you want to give.

I guess this still fits the “other people’s problems” field, though. Gives you perspective on your own–of various kinds. And I think that Story Hospital will not get very many of my least favorite kind of advice column questions: “Other person is doing a thing in their own life that doesn’t affect me much, but it looks like a problem from here. How do I make them fix it?” (“My sister-in-law raises her children in the following non-abusive way. How can I make her stop?” “My adult child’s non-abusive romantic relationships or lack of same are disappointing to me. How can I make my adult child live my life instead of their own?” etc. This happens all the time in regular advice columns. I think it will not in Story Hospital.

I don’t know, maybe I’ll see my own problems solved in other people’s questions, but I think much more likely it will be a companionable feeling, like working side by side with people who are doing different things but in a congenial way. And one of the things I like about general advice columns that I think will be even more true here is that, unlike people who have modes of pressure to bring to bear on the person asking, an advice columnist really can’t. You can ask, they can answer, and if you don’t like their answer, reacting against it provides its own useful answer in some way. “That totally won’t work because what I really need is–” can be its own flavor of useful in creative projects. I’ll be interested to find out.