Welcome to my travelogue blog! This is the website of the science fiction and fantasy author Danica Cummins. Come see the universe (or at least my small part of it). I post every Friday.

And More: The Fast-Forward Festival has launched its first issue! To read some funny, creepy stories about Time, hit up www.fastforwardfest.com.

I have a new story out in Luna Station Quarterly. Huzzah!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Goodbye for a Short Time (that may seem long)

            Well, it’s time for Clarion.
            I can’t say I’m not nervous, but at some point last week I rolled off the main hump of nervousness and moved into the groove of excitement.  My packing list is marked (Ewok doll, check; Shakespearean insult mug, check; my roommates are bound to think I’m cool!), and my shorts are rolled up at the hems, ready for the beach. 
To San Diego I go, bordertown, harbortown.  Is there anything else that I need to prepare?  This’ll be my first peer-critiquing workshop (because up until now I’ve lived like a hermit in the hills, shielding my scribbles with a well-placed elbow whenever anyone approached).  But I have confidence in my own adaptability and my peers’ tactfulness, so we should be fine.  Star Wars paraphernalia aside, all I’m bringing is my mind, and hoping it’ll be enough—hoping I can live up to the challenge. 
The Intergalactic Coffeeship will take a long, boring journey through uninhabited space while I’m gone: blogging and participating in nerdly SF workshops feels like the kind of madness-inducing exercise that wise people avoid.  I’m considering lining up some guest bloggers, so it might be best to check the site periodically.  In any case, though, thanks for giving me your attention ‘til now.
            I’ll be back in the heat of August.  Au revoir.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Imagination Prompts

When I was a kid, I got the idea in my head that I would benefit by studying writing instruction manuals (even though I’d already written a novel with cross-dressing princesses, and seemed, for a sixteen-year-old, to be doing fine).  I lighted on a few that became my favorites, like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. 
Now, I don’t want to diss Natalie Goldberg: she’s an incisive poet and memoirist.   I’ve come to the realization, however, that she’s completely unqualified to teach novel-writing (she only ever wrote one novel, Banana Rose, which turned out to be autobiography).  She’s especially not qualified to teach science fiction or fantasy writing.  I mean, how far is the prompt “Describe your father’s tie” going to get you toward figuring out a motive for your invading aliens?
(And how classist is that prompt, anyway?  I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen my dad wear a tie.)
All of those Natalie Goldberg exercises were about looking inward—a.k.a. “Describe a time when you were ecstatic / Describe a time when you were humiliated.”  They were about closing yourself into boxes: boxes of memory and emotion.
            I thought it might be fun, this week, to invent some prompts of my own.  Think of it as a form of revenge.  They aren’t really writing prompts, so much as imagination prompts, ‘cause I had such a grueling time relearning to be imaginative after my entanglement with writing manuals.
            So here ya go:

Danica’s Imagination Prompts

Invent a mode of government.

If you were a wizard, but had one weakness, what would your weakness be?

Invent a failed superhero.

Describe an imaginary country you’d like to visit.  This can be someone else’s invented country, or your own.  (Personally, I’d like to go to the world of Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Castle in the Sky, because it has airships, derelict robots, flying trees, and sheep-herders.  Seems like an interesting place to get an ale.)

Alternately, describe a real country you want to visit and what you might find there.  (This second option is significantly harder…)

Invent a Muppet.  What are its defining characteristics?  You can learn a lot about constructing characters from the Muppets, because each of them is built from a single attribute—i.e. Gonzo: weirdness, or Miss Piggy: vanity.  Start with one trait, and then add layers (such as Gonzo’s sexual attraction to chickens, or Miss Piggy’s karate skills).

Write half a page of an awful screenplay.  And I do mean awful.  If you find yourself wanting to put in some intriguing narrative device or witty comment, STOP.  I want something like,

Mr. Good Guy: Broheim, I won’t go into that room because, by going into that room, I would be going into a room full of masterminds who are not my friends. 
Pan left, to show the door.
Broheim:  All right sir.  We do not have to go through the door.  But we do have to save Angeline, my sister, the daughter of my mother.
Mr. Good Guy: Angeline is so hot.  I’d like to sleep with her.
Pan left, to show the door again.  Cue a gasping, feminine scream.
Mr. Good Guy:  Angeline is behind the door!  Oh, what can I do to save her…

Name a character after your favorite type of cheese.

Pick a word, and then randomly attach it to other words.  Bacon Train.  Bacon Tuba.  Bacon Phantom.  Phantom After-Dinner Mint...  You get the gist.

This is one of Greg’s prompts:  “You’re in a laboratory with a child and a mad scientist.  What’s your name, the child’s name, and the mad scientist’s name?”  (His answers, incidentally, were “Ronzolo, Philbert, and Mr. Chesterton.”)
After writing those, I’d like to add that I am by no means claiming to be an expert novelist or fiction writer.  I’m just in the process of learning, and I find that being playful—allowing myself to relax, throw caution to the winds, or write totally unusable prose—is a very freeing activity. 
 One good piece of advice that I got from writing manuals is, “Give yourself permission to fail.”  What they didn’t explain is that failing, as a creative writer, is vital; and it can also be fun. 
It’s fun to admit, “Okay, I suck at writing about parties” (I do: the prose always gets mawkish and frigid).  Once you admit your weakness, you get to explore it or ignore it, as you see fit.
Failure is an essential part of the job.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Grimmest Fandango

“Grim Fandango is in my soul,” I said.
That was high praise, because I don’t use the word “soul” very often (like punch-lines, eyeliner, or eighties music, I find the word most powerful when kept in moderation).  And even if I did—even if I elucidated exactly which works of fiction I’ve held inside my heart of hearts—the list wouldn’t be very long.
Example: A List of Awesome Fiction According to Danica.

1.      Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano
2.      Tanya Huff’s Smoke series
3.      Frasier
4.      Everything by Tamora Pierce: stories where girls struggle through the pitfalls of chauvinistic societies to prove their worth.
5.      The Left Hand of Darkness.
6.      Avatar: The Last Airbender
7.      Dealing with Dragons
8.      Unfortunately, The Animorphs.  And don’t get me started on the utter irresponsibility of K.A. Applegate toward her fans, with that series.  I mean, killing off the most awesome character and making all the others suffer for years from PTSS?  When did she forget, along the line, that most of her readers were ten to fourteen years old, and would view the character’s death as if it were a real-life tragedy?  Grrrrr.  I may write unhappy endings, during my career as a novelist, but I swear this now: I will never, never expose child-readers to that kind of despair.
9.      Okay, sorry.  I’m just really mad at K.A. Applegate still.  Here’s another one, to clear the palate: the bumbling, moody, good-hearted Schmendrick the Magician, from The Last Unicorn.
10.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

That’s a pretty short list, considering what a story-rich world we live in today.  Like I said, Grim Fandango is in carefully-selected company.  And yes, I know: my tastes are peculiar, or at least specific…
Anyway, two weeks ago I wrote about my end-of-high-school trip to Costa Rica.  I’d like to explain that Latin America—as a place and an idea—first got under my skin many years earlier than that, with Grim Fandango.  A computer game produced in the late 90s by Lucas Arts (the studio that gave us classics like Monkey Island), it was a witty puzzle-based RPG that took place in limbo.  
The storyline centered around the struggles of Manny Calaveras, a grunt in the Department of Death.  Manny’s problem: he’s stuck working off the sins he committed in life (though he can’t remember what they were) by playing grim reaper in the 1st Underworld.  His goal is to move on to the 9th Underworld, where he’ll get to enter a new phase of existence—but his job is rigged by the mafia.  Playing straight and square, he’ll never get out of this lively, colorful, corrupt purgatory.  We join him as he defects from the Department of Death, helps a league of freedom fighters, buys a casino, sails to the end of the Underworld, escapes from an underwater prison, finds true love, battles demon beavers, and uses catchy one-liners to restore justice to the land of the dead. 
Every character in the game is a skeleton, of course: reminiscent of the skull-candy that Mexican children collect on El Dia de los Muertos.  And since the occupants of limbo are already dead, of course, the only people they’re really afraid of are the florists—because the florists can plant them, and force their bones to decompose.
            Never trust a florist.
While I love Monkey Island, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and other classics from LucasArts in the 90s (there really aren’t any funny video games nowadays that compare), Grim Fandango is the only one that’s in my soul.  The soundtrack is amazing, the characters are endearing, and I didn’t see world-building as imaginative as that again until I watched Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.
Speaking of Latin America (What can I say?  It’s under my skin), now I’m reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa.  That’s the book that won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.  Unlike most Nobel Prize winners (which tend to be heavy works about disenfranchisement), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is an absolute joy to read: it’s funny, sexy, culturally detailed, and has that great Latin American style of symbolism which elaborates everyday events into tragi-comic dramas.  The novel is set in Lima, Peru, during the heyday of the radio serials that preceded telenovelas.  The protagonist is a young man who tells two interwoven stories: first, how he makes friends with Pedro Camancho, the king of the radio scriptwriters—a short, self-absorbed Bolivian who can spin up a murder or a stirring taboo romance at the drop of a hat... and second, how he starts an affair with his recently divorced Aunt Julia. 
This book is wry, witty, and brimming with useful advice for young writers.  Maybe that’s why I like it so much. 
In one of the books I read as a kid (I believe it was called “The Last Wizard”), the main character finds out that she was created by seven goddesses.  When she sees herself in a mirror, she sees the goddesses’ faces instead of her own.  “Is there nothing left of me without them?” she asks sadly. 
Sometimes I wonder how much of me would be left without all the books and movies and shows I love: who would I be if I’d grown up in an igloo in Antarctica, no VHS player, no musty old copies of Jane Eyre lying around?  I’m sure there’d be somebody left—but how would she talk?  What kind of crackers would she eat?  Would she wear hats?
Those are questions (ironically) that can be answered in fiction, and nowhere else.  
Good thing there's so much fiction around.

Friday, May 11, 2012

11 Days in Costa Rica

I can’t tell you all of this story.
There are parts that I can’t tell because I don’t remember them: the airplane ride down to Central America, for example.  I distinctly remember getting picked up by the charter bus from my senior year dance recital (the finale of my career as a ballerina), and finding an open seat while tussling my hair out of its bun—but as for the airplane ride, all I’ve got is a blank.
It was the end of my senior year of high school, a tumultuous time when I was eager to leave home for college—so I suppose I can forgive myself for having forgotten a few details of leaving home for Costa Rica.  I remember nothing of my flight down the Americas: no sweeping vistas from the window of the plane, no allegorical incidents when traveling through Customs.  I’ll have to let another author speak for me:

“America begins and ends in the cold and solitude.  America, with her torso of a woman with an hourglass waist, a waist laced so tightly it snapped in two and we put a belt of water there…  Its central paradox resides in this: that the top half doesn’t know what the bottom half is doing.”

That was the ever-brilliant Angela Carter, in a 1988 short story about the prairie.  She hit the nail on the head, in terms of North American ignorance.  I didn’t even know what I was doing, visiting a country in tropical zones, a country with pickpockets and volcanoes and rainforests and giant spiders.  The trip was a graduation present from my parents, and I embarked on it with a lack of forethought that insured that everything (even the fact that Costa Rica borders both the Pacific and the Caribbean) would take me by surprise.
Headed by my former AP Biology teacher, I made the journey with fifteen of my classmates, riding a rickety bus between five points on the map: Tamarindo, where I tried to surf; Mt. Aranol; San Jose, the capital city; Tortuguero, haven of the giant sea turtles; and the Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, where we walked inside the cloud forest canopy.
Costa Rica is an amazing country, in that it has preserved huge sections of rainforest as protected land.  Neither its northern neighbor, Nicaragua, nor southern one, Panama, has been so environmentally prescient.  Animals and the environment were a huge part of my Central American sojourn: both in their audible presence (howler monkeys; tree frogs), visible presence (alligators, reptilian and somnolent; the emaciated, aggressive dogs), and absence.  We spent one evening with linked hands, walking down a beach looking for giant sea turtles come ashore to lay eggs.  We were blind: it was night, and synthetic light—even the small light cast by our cell phones—would have frightened the turtles and disrupted their reproductive cycle.  It was a grand adventure of tripping over logs and twisting our ankles in sandpits, followed always by the thrum of the invisible sea…but the only turtle we found, in any state, was a corpse that had been half-eaten by a jaguar.
            Mt. Aranol, which I’ve rendered in fiction at least three times, was definitely my favorite part of the trip.  On one hand, it was a towering mountain that I saw from a spindly, monolithic viewing-platform, clenching my teeth against the wind.  On the other hand, it was a green-blue immensity that jutted over me while I swam, along with my compatriots, in a naturally warm lake.  On a third hand (I write science fiction, after all, so why not add that third appendage to hold perspective?), it was a fiery red tip, surging and oozing and visible even through smoke that blotted out the stars—a concentrated point within the darkness of the night.
            Mt. Aranol is an active volcano. 
Green and muscular, I would later conjure its image whenever reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, my favorite book, even though the geological formation in that book is located in Oaxaca, Mexico. 
Volcanoes have a way of leaving their mark.
I don’t remember the face of a single Costa Rican—except maybe the toothy smile of a young man who sat in a laundry mat, his back to a beer poster, when my friends and I wandered through the door to ask for directions.  He thought we were funny, no doubt.  Amusing and lost, trying to get to the mercado (where I got an intense lesson in the popularity of Fanta, as a soft drink).
Being a tourista is a defining characteristic: enter into the tourist/native relationship for too long, and you end up only being able to see your own brashest characteristics.  And then you find yourself asking, “Should I feel sorry for the Costa Ricans, with their commodified culture?  Their Pura Vida?”  That’s the national slogan: we couldn’t go anywhere without seeing T-shirts with it scrawled across the chest.  “Or do they feel sorry for me?”
Tourism is a complex entanglement.  Good thing I was too tired, most of the trip, to give it much thought.
            We were kept to a tight schedule: no sleeping past seven, no un-chaperoned field trips, no sneaking off to buy Jagermeister (as a few of my classmates tried.  And why they’d choose Jagermeister, of all drinks, has always befuddled me).
            I always slept on the tour bus as it rumbled cross-country, along puddle-strewn dirt roads and among green, treeless mountains.  I forced myself to wake only whenever we stopped at a tourist outpost to get fruit juice and bric-a-brac.
The variety of fruit juice was amazing.  Papaya, mango, watermelon, passionfruit, banana...  The variety of the bric-a-brac was somewhat more curtailed.
The night after the anticlimactic turtle adventure, I returned to the cabin in which I was bunking with six other girls, had a glass of watermelon juice, and took a humid shower in a bathroom where a lightbulb buzzed and sparkled cheerfully.  I went to bed and woke up early, because one of my classmates insisted on seeing the sunrise over the Caribbean (this was right after that first Pirates movie had swept through theaters, giving that gulf sea a kind of roguish mystique).  Like the giant turtle, however, the sunrise evaded me: as soon as I’d trekked out to the beach, I lay down on the sand and went right back to sleep.
“The farther you journey from home, the more the tale of the journey becomes a tale about yourself.”
I wrote that earlier today.  Is it true?  Let’s save the discussion for next week.
            There was one morning, in an open-topped tour boat on a river, that I sat earnestly trying to stay awake through my biology teacher’s lecture on local flora.  I had a notebook open on my lap and a pen in my hand.  I’d close my eyes, jerk them open, close them again and dream of being depressed…  I’d found out, the previous night, that one of the classmates I’d taken as a friend didn’t care for me at all.
So there I was wrapped up in self-pity and lethargy, a seemingly inescapable duo—when all of a sudden, the clouds spewed forth a torrential rain.  I was soaked in seconds.  Everything in my backpack, including all of my notebooks and books, was soaked in seconds.  It was as if the world was laughing at me for being so mawkishly self-absorbed. 
That rainstorm had the power of a parable; it destroyed my previous two months' worth of note-taking.  
And it was one of the best moments of my life.