Sunday, November 27, 2016

The 2016 dumpster fire.

It all started a few days ago, when I saw a photo on Facebook of a festive felt dumpster, with felt flames filling the interior of the dumpster, and "2016" embroidered in gold on the front.

I laughed in empathy, because this year really has been a dumpster fire. From the multitude of musicians and actors we've lost (Florence Henderson of "The Brady Bunch" and Ron Glass of "Firefly" being the most recent), to this month's election results (I mentioned I'm a progressive, right?), to the standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota (#waterislife), this year has been miserable and disheartening in ways too numerous to count.

It might not be the sort of year you want to commemorate on a Christmas tree. But if you were going to do it, this is the ornament that would sum things up.

I showed the photo to my daughter Amy and said, "Do you have any felt?" Not only did she have felt, but she had more fabric paint than any normal person should own. And a hot glue gun. And a red jingle bell. And my daughter Kat came up with sparkly ribbon.

In short: It was on.

The creator of the original dumpster fire ornament, Jennifer Brooks, published her step-by-step directions in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune today. Hers are way funnier than ours, so please go and read them. (Besides, I'm indebted to her for checking the AP style manual to see whether "dumpster" still needs to be capitalized. It doesn't.) But I think ours is prettier, if you can say a dumpster fire is pretty. Here's how we made it.

1 Sheet of copy paper or notebook paper
5 sheets of felt -- 1 each of red, orange, yellow, and white (ours is white with sparkles), plus 1 color of your choice for the dumpster
Needle and thread
Fabric paint (we used red, gold, and blue, but whatever strikes your fancy) or embroidery floss
Hot glue gun
Jingle bell (optional)
Something to hang it on the tree with (we used 1/8-inch-wide metallic gold ribbon)

1. Draw pattern pieces for the dumpster, the snow, and the flames on the copy paper and cut them out. I made the front of the dumpster 3" x 2" -- the size of a standard business card -- and attached a parallelogram to the left side. Amy drew patterns for the snow, and cut out the flames freehand (which is why I got her involved -- I knew I would be topping out my drawing skills with the parallelogram). She cut enough for 7 flames total, but feel free to go crazy and stuff in as much fire as you think the year deserves.
2. Cut 2 pieces of felt using the dumpster pattern piece. Pick 1 to be the front of the dumpster. Use fabric paint, or backstitch with embroidery floss, to outline the dumpster panels. Draw 2016 on the right-hand panel with a pen or pencil, and go over the numbers with fabric paint or backstitch. If you used fabric paint, let it dry for several hours or overnight.
3. Sew the front dumpster piece to the back dumpster piece. I used buttonhole stitch, but use whatever you can do that will hold the thing together. Don't sew the top shut -- that's where the flames go.
4. Sew or hot glue the snow to the top and bottom edges of the dumpster.
5. Stack your flame pieces (never mind what Jennifer did -- yellow is the hottest part of the flame, so it goes closest to the wick) and tack or glue them together.
6. Glue a row of flames to the back side of the front dumpster piece. Then glue the next row of flames to the back of the first row, and so on, 'til you run out of fire.
7. Affix your hanging loop. I cut a length of ribbon that was about 13" long, doubled it, and tied the cut ends together to make the loop. Then I cut a tiny slit near the top of the back dumpster piece and threaded the loop through, so the knot was hidden inside the dumpster. Amy then glued the dumpster back to the last row of flames, and also glued the loop to the middle flame in the back row.
8. Thread your jingle bell, if you're using one, onto the hanging loop. Then hang the whole shebang on your tree.

The other thing I've been doing, when I'm not helping to create dumpster fires, is working on the NaNo novel -- and I'm pleased to report that I finished it tonight. Maggie in the Dark, the first book in the Transcendence trilogy, is 50,670 words (according to NaNo's official validator). It's another urban fantasy, and it's kind of a dumpster fire right now (for one thing, I'm pretty sure I've named two characters Aaron). Editing will commence in January. But the first draft is in the can, and normal life can now resume.

Rest assured that I'll have more to say about this novel later. For now, happy writing, happy crafting, and come on, 2017.

These moments of crafty blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The clickbait election.

Remember last week, when I said I was going to skip that post about politics? Well, it's been another week, and things haven't gotten any better. And it's not really about politics, anyway, but about politics on social media, and how we've come to be where we are right now.

A whole bunch of Obama-Biden memes like this one have been popping up lately. I trust there have been just as many in favor of President-elect Trump, although I haven't seen many because I'm a progressive (sorry if that's a spoiler) and so Facebook doesn't show me too many things I don't already agree with.

That's part of the problem. Facebook makes money by drawing eyeballs to flashy content, figuring out who's attracted to each type of flashy content, and then marketing products to users based on that information. Not too long ago, I filled out a form for a Facebook ad for my books (sorry in advance...). You know all that identifying information that privacy advocates are always haranguing us to limit Facebook's access to? Those are the parameters, pretty much exactly, that Facebook presented to me so I could tailor my ad to people who would be most likely to buy my books.

In addition, once Facebook figures out what you like, its algorithms will dump more of the same into your newsfeed. So a liberal won't see much in the way of opposing viewpoints unless, say, a conservative friend or relative posts in response to a liberal post. Because we tend to live in an echo chamber on social media, these posts from the other side can seem to come out of left field. "Do people really believe that stuff?" we wonder. Well, yeah, they do. We just never see it, because Facebook algorithms.

Here's another wrinkle: there are people whose business model is solely to post links to attractive and/or outrageous stuff on social media, because they get paid every time someone clicks through. You've probably heard the term clickbait. That's the sort of stuff I'm talking about. How lucrative is it? The Washington Post published an interview this past week with a guy who runs a whole host of clickbait "news" sites. He makes $10,000 a month, just from Google ads. It's not exactly chump change. And he doesn't have anything complimentary to say about Trump's supporters. "I can write the craziest thing about Trump, and people will believe it," he said. "I wrote a lot of crazy anti-Muslim stuff -- like about Trump wanting to put badges on Muslims, or not allowing them in the airport, or making them stand in their own line -- and people went along with it!" He's actually worried that Trump won the election because of fake stories he wrote and disseminated on social media -- although he's not worried enough about America to stop doing it, because $$$$.

Facebook and Twitter have both announced crackdowns on these purveyors of fake news, although I haven't seen any evidence that they've begun. One thing they could do is label each post from a purported news site as either real or fake. That shouldn't be too difficult; a team of college kids figured out one method during a recent contest, and it only took them 36 hours.

In the meantime, it's up to each of us to evaluate the links we see before we share them. You can click through the following link to find an evolving list of fake or slanted news sites. You can also check to see whether something is true, and check the original publication date to make sure you're not recycling an old story. Here's a handy reminder for all of this advice -- and yes, I found the meme on Facebook.

Go forth and post responsibly, everyone.

A quick NaNoWriMo update: As of tonight, I'm at 33,500 words or so -- right where I need to be in order to finish NaNo on the 30th. I think I'm just about where I need to be in terms of the plot, too. Typically, I begin writing faster once I get between 35,000 and 40,000 words, which means I may get on a roll and finish over Thanksgiving weekend. I'll keep you posted.

Oh, and happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

These moments of sensible, fact-checked blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The obligatory NaNoWriMo post.

I was all set to do a post about the election this week. I had a not-very-political topic picked out and everything. But then today rolled around and I decided most of us are sick of hearing about it, one way or another, by now. So I'm going to write about National Novel Writing Month instead.

You knew this was coming, right? I mean, we're nearly halfway through November (and how did that happen?) and I haven't done a single post about NaNoWriMo, even though I've alluded to the fact that I'm participating again this year.

And it's popular on writing blogs and writers' blogs at this time of year to break out all the hoary advice about winning NaNo. There's plenty of stuff on what to write about and how to structure your story -- or, heck, forget structure and write whatever pops into your head. (We don't need no stinkin' outline!) And there's even more advice about how to stay on task, why you shouldn't give up if you fall behind, and how to catch up. As you may know, I believe weekends are made for this: schedule a day with just you and your computer, shut the door, and bleed as many thousands of words onto the virtual page as you can manage. I've gotten so I do this even when I'm not doing a NaNo-type event, and sometimes I go a little overboard. This past June, I wrote 8,100 words in a day. I don't think I'll ever do that again; I spent a good twelve hours at my desk that day, and by the end of it, I was exhausted. So this time, I'm trying to pace myself.

Just like with any major project, there are two ways to tackle NaNo: you can do a lot of work in an intense burst; or you can work on it steadily, in bits and pieces. The dumbest way to do it, I've found, is to not write at all during the week, and then cram a week's worth of word count (11,669 words) into a two-day weekend. It can be done, but you lose your whole weekend for other things, like real life. Plus it takes more time to get your head back in the story if you haven't touched it for five days.

So this year, I'm trying to write at least a little each day -- maybe not the full 1,667 words you need in order to finish by November 30th, but a few words. My challenge to myself is to not fall behind by more than a single day's word count; that's a relatively easy amount to make up on a weekend day, assuming you can make a date with your computer and shut the door and all the rest.

We're nearly two weeks in, and so far it's working pretty well. I was behind when I started yesterday, but I caught up pretty easily. And today, I'm right where I need to be: just under 22,000 words.

I do love a day when I can set the world aside, immerse myself in the world I'm creating, and write. So I expect I will keep doing those days occasionally. But this slower pace, especially for this first book of the series, feels right to me.

These moments of NaNoWriMo blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Music, mounds, and atheists: A World Fantasy roundup.

Last week at this time, Kitty and I were wending our way across Pennsylvania, coming home from this year's World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio. So this week, I thought I'd mention a couple of convention highlights before they recede into my memory.

Convention panels, I find, are hit-or-miss. Sometimes you get a really super-fantastic panel that's into having a conversation about the topic, both with each other and with the audience; and sometimes you get a panel with a blowhard who considers himself an expert on the topic and/or simply doesn't know when to shut up. My editor Suzu Strayer, who attended the conference with me, chalks some of this up to a lack of intellectual rigor: panelists, she maintains, should be required to back up their assertions by citing facts. That sounds like an awful lot of work to me. All I really expect from a panel is to have my thought processes kicked a little -- and to be entertained.

Now that my criteria for judging have been established, my two favorite panels (besides the one I was on) at this year's convention were "Fantasy and Music" and "Atheist Fantasy: Is God Dead?"

First, the music panel. The entertainment factor was established from the outset, when the panelists "tuned up" vocally. That was followed by a discussion of the way writers use music in their works of fantasy. I picked up one tip that I wish I'd known about before I wrote SwanSong: Mercedes Lackey puts the full lyrics to the songs her characters sing at the back of each novel, and only uses pertinent portions of each song in the main part of the story. That was followed by a discussion of authors, or fans, who have written music to go along with the songs in novels.

I was fascinated by a quick mention by Fred Durbin (I think) of the Shepard tone, which sent me Googling because I had never heard of it before. It's an aural illusion akin to Escher's famous staircase to nowhere -- you think you hear the music going up and up, endlessly, but it's not. (Here's more info on it, and how it was used in a Super Mario game.)

In nearly the same breath, he went on to talk about the tritone or devil's tone, known musically as an augmented 4th or diminished 5th. This is created by playing two notes together -- say, a C and an F# -- that create dissonance, a sound that leaves you dying for resolution to a prettier chord. (Wikipedia has some examples here, if you'd like to take a listen. Mental Floss has a much less technical discussion here.) Back in the Middle Ages, the Church prohibited the use of the tritone, as much because it was difficult to play as anything else. Today, you hear it a lot in heavy metal music and the blues, as well as in classical pieces when the composer is after something sinister.

Speaking of the Church: the atheist fantasy panel was scheduled, aptly, for Sunday morning. The question here is that if your world is full of good and evil, or even people who act on moral values, do you need to have gods in your story? Of course, someone can be morally good yet not be religious; morals are societal constructs that religion simply enforces. But if you have a character who is religious, do you have to have the gods show up? In the Pipe Woman Chronicles, my answer was yes; that was pretty much the point of the whole series. But in a different type of story, of course, the gods never have to make an appearance at all. The panel gave me some points to ponder for future novels.

And speaking of future novels, Suzu and I took a side trip on Saturday morning to find some mounds. Our first stop was the Shrum Mound, an Adena burial site in Columbus. The Adena lived from about 1000 B.C. to about 100 A.D., before the Hopewell, who built the Newark Earthworks. The Shrum Mound isn't on anybody's list of significant sites, but we thought it felt peaceful.

From there, we proceeded to Chillicothe and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. The site we visited, known as Mound City, originally had at least 23 mounds surrounded by a nearly square earthen wall. A number of the mounds were destroyed in World War I when the Army built Camp Sherman on the site, but some have been excavated by archaeologists and then rebuilt. In other words, the site is in nowhere near the shape that the Hopewell left it in; all the artifacts they buried with their dead have been dug up. Still, some things are authentic. In this photo, you can see a grassy mound on the left -- but beyond that, there's another one under the trees. The signage says the whole site was wooded like this when white settlers first found the site.

Besides the mounds, there's also a path down to the Scioto River. The route is one that the Hopewell would have taken to get from the river to Mound City. I believe all of the major Hopewell sites are situated along rivers or creeks, and archaeologists speculate that making the journey by river may have been part of a vision quest or coming-of-age ritual. In any case, the weather was beautiful, and I learned more stuff that may show up in the new series.

Which, by the way, is progressing. I passed 10,000 words today on the NaNo novel and I think it's going pretty well. I'll let you know next week if I still feel the same way.


These moments of musical blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.