Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Over the Brink

A few late mornings (caused by late nights) notwithstanding, I've remained mostly on track with my early writing plan through the holidays. Note to self: playing Guitar Hero until 2AM is generally not conducive to rising early to write the following day.

Nevertheless! I crossed the 30,000 word threshold on the morning of December 24, and as of this morning I'm at 34,400 words, every one of them seemingly a dull agony, an ugly little bowl filled with pap and tasting of nothing despite the effort that went into them. Kind of like a 34,000-word version of that metaphor, actually.

Nevertheless! 34,400 words is 34,400 words; some of them may be useful; as a whole the thing has momentum now and, most important, I can make it better. It's salvageable, which is really all I ask of a first draft.

Nevertheless! It is not finished, no Precious, a long way indeed from being finished. I'm at the point in the story where I thought I'd be after 10,000 words. Once I trim 20,000 words in revisions -- I'm only half-kidding here -- I should be in good shape.

Nevertheless! Between my "30,000 by end of year" post on Jolie Stekly's blog, and the way such a round number feels significant, I feel like the story has finally clawed up over the lip of the cliff and will have easier walking for some time. That's fancy metaphor-talk for "momentum."

Or maybe the right metaphor is that it's been dragging itself downhill, picking up speed (and cuts from brambles) and now, having rushed to the edge of the cliff, has swung heedless into the abyss.

Nevertheless! The story is on its way.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lights in the Trees

Today I got up at 5 and went for a run. It was 17 degrees: cold enough for pants; not cold enough to freeze my nose hairs. Freezing my nose hairs is the second-best part of a very cold run. The best part is that it usually gets that cold only when the air is very clear and dry, and the stars glitter like nail points caught in the trees.

It was very cold, and very dark. Even the deer that usually clattered, panicked, across the road in front of me were still. All I could hear was my own breathing and the crisp scrape of nylon on nylon. I ran by the dim blue light of stars and a slender, hooked moon just setting in the south.

The stars seemed very bright, but still the woods along the road were dark and full of mottled indistinct shapes: trees, stumps, bushes.

I padded up a hill, adjusted my jacket zipper to cool down a little, rounded the turn at the top of the hill, and started down the other side when I saw a shape in the woods. It was so dark that I could only see if it I looked next to it, but my breath caught and I slowed to a walk.

It looked like a person. Leaning against a tree about six feet in from the edge of the woods.

These sorts of things -- Balrogs, velociraptors, wolves, Nazguls -- often appear during my runs and turn into natural features -- trash bags, mailboxes, fallen trees -- as I approach.

But this, God help me, was a man wearing some sort of robe (a pervert! freezing! psycho freezing fiend! my mind helpfully stuttered) and just watching me as I walked closer.

"Hey," I said. "Are you okay? It's cold out."

He nodded at me and I smelled the sweet burning of a pipe. My steps crackled the ice at the road's edge, brushed last year's leaves as I walked closer. He had to be in trouble, or homeless, or something.

"It's cold out," I said again.

"I am ... accustomed to the cold." His voice sent puffs of white into the darkness. "I seem to have lost my way."

I didn't want to get any closer, though he seemed anything but dangerous. Feeble, in fact. Lost. "Where are you going?"

He looked up at the tree branches. Was he looking at the sky?

"It's almost time. Help me, son. Help me from these woods."

And I saw for the first time a rope tangled around his leg and foot. No, it was a vine or something. I bent closer. It was a tree root that looked like it had grown there.

I was getting cold now, and felt how wet my shirt and fleece hat were. But he must have been hypothermic: he wasn't even shivering. I knelt down and pried the root open. He lifted his boot up with a soft gasp and stepped out of the woods, rubbing his shin.

"Obliged," he said, and again I smelled the pipesmoke. He raised his arms as if he were a priest giving a benediction and not some creepy old man standing in the woods for no reason, and a icy wind rustled the leaves and bit at my exposed skin like a knife.

The stars grew brighter and it sounded like they were ringing, almost: a thin, high, unimaginably distant chiming, more like the idea of bells than the actual sound.

The sky was filled with distant airplanes then, the lights tracking across the darkness. So many of them. And I realized they weren't airplanes but the hard little stars themselves, rotating and then moving slowly in great curves.

I put my hand out to steady myself, but it was the middle of the road, and with nothing to hold onto I swayed like a drunk, blinking fast to clear my watering eyes.

"Much obliged," he said again, and the stars were no longer caught in the nets of dark branches, they alighted like blue sparks on his head and arms and -- I saw it for the first time -- his white beard.

"You," I breathed. It was very cold. "Are you...?"

"You know who I am," he said. "This is my season. Cold is my country."

"I thought, I thought--"

He looked very stern then, almost grave. "Believe," he said, and he was lit with the cold white fire of the stars. "Believe."

The word hung in the air even after he had gone, and I looked at the dark trees and the stars and felt younger than I ever had before.

I turned and continued down the cold road, breathing steadily, warming up again, nylon brushing on nylon. Seven miles under the stars, until sunrise paled the east and I returned home, shaking and wet with sweat.

Happy holidays, everyone. Believe.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Taking and giving

There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can't.

Thank you, thank you! And now the main course: the actual blog posting:

There are two kinds of people in the world.

Those who think the world owes them something, and so they take.

And those who think that they owe the world. That the very fact of their existence means a debt which they must spend their lives repaying. And so they give.

There are always exceptions, sure. People who act differently on different days, or at different stages in their lives, or when they're around different people or in different places. A business meeting. Line at the grocery store watching the women in front of you fumbling with her purse. A refugee camp in Chad. A subway station in Bucharest.

So maybe there's a third type: the person who gives when they can but takes when they must. Or wait, people whose circumstances force them to be one way when their morals might indicate a different path. Or what about someone who comes through a life-changing event deeply changed? That's what, five types of people now?

It's a simplification, but like many cliches it got that way because it works.

Two kinds of people: Those who think the world owes them something; and those who think they owe the world. Something to keep in mind as the holidays approach.

Discuss amongst yourselves....

p.s. 25,900 words to date.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I Have Lost Control of My Characters

If I ever had it, that is. Over the weekend this work-in-progress took a dark turn as something bad happened to a character I've come to really like.

I say "happened" like I had nothing to do with it, and that's in fact exactly what it felt like. He made a series of bad choices and they caught up with him and it was heartbreaking to read it -- to discover it appearing on the screen even though I was the one typing it. The worst part was, once I realized it was happening, I knew it had to happen that way. There have to be consequences, otherwise the story is a cheat somehow.

Still, it affected me. Strangely and intensely, sending me into a sadness for most of Sunday. The upside, of course (to paraphrase Stephen King) is that if even I didn't know this was coming, it will surprise readers even more.

24000 words and change so far. I'm coming for you, 30,000!

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I posted a comment on Jolie Stekly's blog when she asked about December goals: my goal, no longer a secret, is to reach 30,000 words on my work in progress by the end of the year. I'm about about 19,500 now so in theory, that shouldn't be impossible. In theory.

But with the holidays comes travel, gift-buying, and fattening, all of which provide ample excuse not to write.

At 30,000 words I should be well into the story; it should have its teeth well into me.

We'll see where I am on January 1. Will it be 30,000 words? Or will sugar-induced lethargy win the day?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Fear Not

Dear Rough Draft,

I am not afraid of you. Yes, yes, I know sometimes you seem intimidating, or (worse yet) meaningless. I know how you can spin yourself into a tangled rat's nest that nearly impossible to wend my way out of. Sometimes you roar or growl or cluck like a chicken. Sometimes there are juicy squirming sounds as if you're made of worms. Nice.

Sometimes you play hard to get. Oh sure, the words are there when I call up the file, but they're just decoys. You cast them off like a locust skin and scuttle somewhere dark where you huddle, moist and pale and defenseless, until your carapace can thicken and you reemerge into the light. Gross. Even when you hide you're kind of creepy.

Other times you smell bad. Like old potatoes, or rotting fish, or garbage that someone forgot to take out before leaving for vacation. In the summer. And the AC is broken. Sometimes you buzz with flies.

Sometimes you wait in the room before I turn the light on, and I can hear you breathing. Wait a second, your breathing sounds funny. Are you ... are you actually laughing at me?

I'm not afraid of you because I have the only weapon I need. Which, coincidentally, is the only weapon that can tame you.

I. Won't. Stop.

Go ahead, be meaningless. Be intimidating. Hide. Stink. Refuse to make sense. Do whatever you think is best because I'm coming for you and I will not stop until the story is finished.

I'm not afraid of you.

p.s. Dear Publishing Industry: I'm not afraid of you either.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Hardest Part

The hardest part of getting up early to write is ... getting up early to write. Ha ha, brilliant!

Seriously. Three days a week I get up early to write. The other two I TRY to get up early to run. And no matter if I'm lacing up running shoes or brewing coffee, the hardest moment is just before I get out of bed. That tiny hateful moment when I roll onto my right side and sit up, hating everything.

After that it's not easy, but Lord, it's less bad.

Today I was in the middle of dream. My wife and I were on board the USS Constitution, a restored warship from the 19th century. We were the only ones on board, and it became important to lower the anchor. I chivalrously allowed her to kick the metal tang that would release the heavy anchor, and we leaned over the side to watch it plunge into the water. Chain poured over the side as the anchor sank, and sank, and sank.

It never reached the bottom. Instead, the ship started to tip, as if something big was tugging it over. The deck became vertical and we fell in! Luckily we swam into someone's basement (?) where we managed to dry off. Inconveniently I had to go to the bathroom. Even more inconveniently the only toilet was in the middle of the room. Most inconvenient of all, everybody arrived for a basement party(?) after I'd already -- let's say -- committed to my urgent physiological imperative. A dozen people, most of them from work crowded around and kindly pretended not to notice what was going on, as they made small talk and sipped punch.

Waking up from that was a delight, but the growing realization that sleeping time was over ... was not. I rolled over, saw the clock, and got up.

All of which is merely to say that I didn't approach my morning writing with any sense of optimism, excitement, anticipation, joy, or anything other than groggy resentment (why have to get up so early? why toilet not in bathroom? why basement party?) and the thick taste of strong coffee.

Too bad, I said. You don't have to like it, in fact, you're probably not going to like it. But this is what writing a book means: writing when you don't want to.

My job is just to show up and start putting words on the screen. It's the first draft: they don't have to be good, they just have to be salvageable.

And to my surprise I managed 1500 words -- some of which may even survive the first revision! Sometimes self-doubt is right (I bet I can't jump across that river) and sometimes it's wrong (writing this morning is useless). The trick -- for writing, not river-leaping -- is to ignore it.

Which means the only question worth asking of this first exploratory draft is not "is it good?" but "Can it be fixed?" Yes.

UPDATED: Creepy coincidence or serendipity? Either way, 4AM looks pretty early, even from 5AM: From Nathan Bransford's blog, Jeff Abbott on waking up at 4 to write his novel. Whatever it takes. Make that time sacred.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Ink on Page

I've learned that it's hard to take text seriously when it's just words on my monitor. Things I can wipe clean with the delete key, or select and replace. It has a feeling of impermanence.

In one sense this is good: it makes it easier to construct that all-important, sprawling first draft. Who cares about polishing it? Just get it out so it can be fixed later. There's less pressure when it's nothing more than colored pixels on a computer screen.

For example, I have just spent a half-dozen sentences all saying the same thing. Fun! But I can get away with it because it's on-screen.

The trouble comes later, when I'm polishing, sharpening, revising, honing not just the words and sentences but the whole shape of the story itself. So that I'm sure, or as sure as I can be, that it says what I meant it to say.

That's when I imagine the printed words on an actual page. A thick, creamy, rough-textured book page, with dark assertive type, maybe a drop cap. This ... is real. This is a book. Somehow there's a magic to the printed page: the words can be the same as they are on screen, but they carry more weight than the onscreen ramblings of earlier drafts.

Not to mention that it's helpful even when writing the rough draft to imagine the permanence and solidity and real-ness of the finished project. Someday this will be real!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

This Is How It Ends

Another Sunday Scribblings exercise. This week's theme: A Winter's Tale. This one could use a little more work -- always the case! -- but I'm off to work on a real-life tale of winter: crackling fire and homemade chili, warming me and the house against a cold November evening.

So this is how it ends, Jase thought.

He grimaced into the darkness, grinning and winking and flexing his face to try to keep it numb. His hands had gone dead hours ago, after he’d dipped them in the racing sea and let them freeze as they gripped the wooden tiller. Hooks of ice, they were now, frozen to the tiller. But at least he could steer the boat up and down the mountainous waves.

So this is how it ends, he thought again. He heard spray rattling on his back and neck, but felt nothing.

Nineteen days out of Sander Ryk, the schooner had struck a berg. Odd for it to be this far south, but it was never mind that and all hands on deck, even the children, to staunch the killing flow of seawater. The berg had opened the ship like a knife prying open the white flesh of an apple, and forty-nine men, women, and children, had gone down when it plunged beneath the iron-grey waves.

He was lucky, or unlucky: he’d found the only boat, the little tender they used to unload fish in the harbor, and had thrown the only children he could find on deck aboard, stepping into the unsteady little sloop as the big schooner went under.

He’d shouted something at the children, got them under some oilskins and out of the way. Got the sail up, smeared the salt and ice off his face. And got underway in the screaming black storm.

He caught the sour smell of vomit, and looked forward. The younger one, a girl, was staring at her cupped hands.

“Hold it close! Don’t spill it!” She bent her head to say something to the other child, and he was about to tell her the foul mess would keep her warm, when he saw a paleness in the black swirling night.

He rubbed his face into his shoulder and looked again: Yes. Land shone out there somewhere.

A wave caught them sideways and the boat lurched and corkscrewed, sliding sideways and he was laughing, laughing, because he had been wrong, the land was so much closer than he’d thought, they were upon it, they would not drown at sea, God help them they were upon it, and he cried through the wind to hold on, and they were swept under the thunderous icy sea.

A snow-muffled seashore. Flakes melting into the water. The murmur of surf against seaweedy cliffs. A sand-floored cave. Spark of light; smell of woodsmoke; crackle of fire. Steaming wet wool. Two children and a club-handed man huddle toward the fire.

This is not how it ends, Jase thought. Not yet, anyhow.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Slow week

This has been a week of fits and starts. Some great momentum on my work in progress has been replaced by a ragged, strained effort not unlike running my closed fist along a barbed-wire fence. La, writing!

I posted below, somewhat smugly, about how if it's boring you shouldn't write it. Physician, heal thyself: of the 900 words I bled out this morning, probably 600 will be lost in revisions. So it goes.

Lots of compensatory progress in other areas, though! Several days of boatbuilding have provided me with the dressed, measured, and shaped locust pieces that hold up the boat seats on the centerboard well. The centerboard is the vertical plate that is lowered down to help hold the boat upright. It slides down into a slot, like bread into a toaster. The toaster is the "centerboard well," and where the seats attach to either side, they need little supports to hold them up.

Considering that I started with a log, ending up with clean, straight, smooth, beautiful, tough, support pieces is a pretty cool thing.

Last but not least: I seem to have solved the Mystery Of The Unpredictably Stinky House. The culprit is neither fish nor in-laws, but a heat pump condensate pipe that drains into a P-trapped pipe that dumps into our sewer outflow. So far, so good, right? Except when there's no water in the trap, foul humors backflow up the pipe and ... directly into the intake vent for the heat pump. Lo and behold, the stink is instantly dispersed, along with heat, through the house.

Several days' travel and heedless gluttony will, no doubt, make me desperate to return to all three projects (book, boat, pipes).

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I have been ungrateful

This week's Sunday Scribblings prompt is "Grateful." These prompts are a great way to try a quick different direction from my ongoing work in progress. And for that I'm grateful! Here it is:

I Have Been Ungrateful

There is a dusty little town some miles off of Interstate 25 north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the Sangre de Cristo -- Blood of Christ -- mountains fill the eastern sky like white knuckles on a fist.

In this dusty little town is a dusty little restaurant attached to the cook and owner’s house. The handwritten menus are laminated in torn plastic. Inside the air is close and warm, thick with humidity and the aroma of roasting chiles and the pinon fire smoldering in the corner brick fireplace.

Dad and I were the only ones there, shouldering in from the starry desert cold, blowing on our hands as Maria handed us the menus. She clucked at our confusion, all white hair and dark eyebrows, and recommended green chile and posole stew, for both of us. We rested our elbows on the grey formica table, unzipping our expensive fleece jackets, stretching out, sighing into the folding chairs. We had been walking in the high country for three days. We were unshaven and unwashed and hungry for warmth and food cooked on a real stove.

Red Christmas lights glowed from the walls, illuminating children’s drawings, statues of the Virgin Mary, paintings of Jesus and desert mesas, faded school pictures.

We heard voices through a doorway: a small group of children and adults, was singing. It took us a moment to realize the unsteady and out-of-tune melody was “Happy Birthday dear Grandpa.” We stopped crunching on chips to listen.

The song finished and a child’s thin voice said, “Grandpa, why are you crying?”

Outside, the stars spread a milky arm across the clear black sky, and the snow on the Blood of Christ mountains glowed blue in the starlight.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Left hand: a slice from cutting garlic, a red gouge from a splinter of locust, a row of callouses from tightening clamps, mysterious abrasions most likely from rough lumber.

Right hand: two dings on my thumb, one a blood blister of unknown provenance, the other received when the wrench slipped while I was changing thickness planer blades three nights ago. Mystery divot on the knuckle of my middle finger. A small slice from opening a pop-top jar of peanuts, two mostly healed splinter holes.

Boatbuilding and running in cold dry weather are not kind to hands: these things I do in my spare time leave create small damages in their wake.

I'm coming to a point in my work-in-progress where I have to describe some very bad things. Researching them, so I know what to say and how to say it, has taken me into some of the darkest chapters of human history. I'm not boasting; I'm explaining why it frightens me, and why I'm starting to discover that I've been delaying writing this part of the story.

It scares me. I wonder if it will damage me. And if it does, is that enough of a reason not to write?

Or is that all the more reason to write?

I don't like talking about the specifics of things I'm working on until a draft is behind me, so this will have to remain vexingly abstract for now. But I can say this: I'm not afraid of sending my characters into these bad places and therefore going there myself. I'm afraid I won't be able to get them back out.

Then I think about the real people in real history who are now part of my research. Whose pain I am somehow using.

And I think, forget about me, what about them?

And I think: this must be told.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Love the moment

Here's something I struggle with during a first draft. I get very excited picturing this scene or that scene, to the point where I can call up any detail from the color of the sunlight to the sound a cat makes walking down a gravel road (nearly silent, by the way). I can see it! It's a great scene! I am brilliant! Editors will tremble before my prose, and weep!

Usually I have several of these scenes in my head at any one time, and then all I have to do is connect the dots: write the story that links each beautiful and compelling moment to the next.

The trouble comes when I'm writing the parts of the story that are not those scenes. That stuff is less interesting. Bor-ing! It's no fun to write, so I throw something together while daydreaming of how great the next scene will be.

Then I remove that boring transition months later during revisions.

I remove, in fact, everything that's boring. And if it's boring even to write, imagine how dull it must be to read! Here's my solution. It is not exactly rocket science:

If it's boring, don't write it.

A book isn't a series of precious scenes strung together like beads on a cord, it's a whole, with scenes and dialogue, narrative, transitions, flashbacks, all of it, knit together so tightly and so multi-layered that often several things are happening at once, nothing is removable, but nothing more is needed.

So I try to love the moment. Every moment of the story has to be interesting. Has to be worth writing about, has to be worth taking the reader through. I don't mean it all should be slaptastic melodrama, or lurid description. But it does all have to mean something.

Loving the moment means finding the interesting, beautiful, remarkable, noteworthy elements of everything, and then writing about that. Because every moment of the story should be relevant, important, even critical to the story.

It is also, I suppose, a worthwhile principle for daily life as well. Love the moment.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Boat dreams

Schoolkids dream of summer; the boat dreams of water. Inside the child sleeps the man; inside the wick sleeps the fire. Inside the marble sleeps David; inside the cloud sleeps lightning. Does the acorn dream of the oak it will be or the oak it was? Does the wood dream of the boat it will be or the tree it was? Do the words dream of the story?

Warm thoughts after a cold day of boatbuilding, followed by splitting firewood (fun), a roaring fire (delight) and tasty new beer (coziness triumphant!).

Friday, November 14, 2008

It Doesn't Suck. I Think.

When I'm writing a first draft, it's so rare for things to go well that whenever I sit down to write and don't face existential doubts about story, characters, voice, plot, etc., it is a day to be celebrated. Hooray, I don't hate it!

Doubt will come later, certainly during revisions and probably in the tangled middle of the story. And (mercifully) I can't remember enough about what I wrote this morning to say whether it was good or bad.

Instead, what I remember is the feeling of the story, and of the world it takes place in: the things I saw when I closed my eyes to see, so that I could write down what I saw. I like being there, in the story-world.

So it's a relief, and an uncommon one at that, for me to actually -- can I say it? -- believe in the story. Absence of despair = victory!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rain and Darkness

There's something about an early-winter rain: it's not cold enough to snow, but the leaves are all off the trees and you can't pretend there's any vibrance or color left in the world. It's a damp cold, too, with numb fingertips and foggy breath and dripping bare trees.

Perfect for staying inside and writing!

I've been trying to figure out why coziness appeals to me as a writer so much. (And I'm not the only one.) There's something about a crackling fire, the raindrops frizzing a wool sweater, water beading down windows, the early dusk of fall ... it makes me want to sit down and imagine.

Maybe it's because there's so little stimulus coming in from the outside world, so there's less to distract me from hearing the high, thin, quiet music singing faintly on the edge of my awareness.

My writing desk (a quarter-sheet of 3/4" marine plywood) faces the wall, after all: a short angled space where the roof hunches down toward the floor. And I keep the blinds closed most of the time: I don't want to see the world outside, I want to see the world inside.

I think the appeal of a rainy day is more than just shutting off the outside world. I think it's days like this when we like to tell stories, or hear them. When we gather around the fire or the dinner table, or even a TV screen, to get pulled into a story. It's the sort of weather that makes it easier to huddle closer to the storyteller. Closer to the story.

Storytelling weather.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Today I wrote

A small celebration of that small fact: today I wrote. Before dawn, with coffee (no need to be barbaric, after all), a few hundred words. Some of them might even have been the right ones. Some of them might even have been in the right place.

But it is, as it always has been and probably always will be, a testing. An experiment, an exploration. Like I've said, you can't improve something that's not there, so I start with an imperfect draft and revise later. Later!

And the strange thing is, I can barely remember anything of what I wrote this morning. Something about a pipe, I think. Oh, and bells, I was looking for different ways to describe the ringing of bells. Hey, it's coming back to me: sunrise and shadows and a cold church.

That's enough, though. I want to not remember it. I want it to stay separate from the awake-me who doubts and edits. And if I can only resist dipping back into the draft to tinker "just for a minute," I might be able to keep that little glowing coal of a story idea alive just a little longer, till I can sit down again with my coffee and sleepy eyes, and tuck back into the story.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I have tried to stay politically neutral here, with little more success than most television news anchors. Katie Couric got progressively more giddy -- punchy may be the right word -- last night as the numbers trickled in: slowly at first and then with a sense of rushing unstoppable momentum.

In a night of superlatives, after a campaign of superlatives, after eight years of -- oh, forget neutrality: eight years of despair -- one moment stuck with me from the news coverage.

Here is historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King railed against injustice. It is election night and Barack Obama is poised to make history. The noise inside the church is almost a physical weight, a crush of joy and hope and expectations that after so long, things might change.

And here is CBS anchor Russ Mitchell, standing in the throng interviewing people, listening to Katie Couric on his earpiece, trying to provide coherent, objective, neutral reporting in this moment.

He's calm. A cool professional. Suit and tight tie, microphone and journalistic savoir faire.

But look closer. Look at the microphone in his hand. It's shaking. His hand trembles as if a thundering noise is shaking the foundations of the stone church.

And we all turn the page of the story to read more.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Revised Lost Boy

Version 2, with yesterday's edits made. Plus some more that occurred as I was typing.

Something is killing the squirrels.

My neighborhood, huddled in the woods, used to be thick with the little things. One bold grey fellow even gnawed a playing card-sized hole in our cedar siding.

But as the year turns the corner and the brilliant leaves of fall fade to brown and grey, the forest is quiet. No scolding chatter from a swinging branch, no twitching prey for our cats to peer at through the window, lashing their tails.

I walked down to the creek behind our house, wading through dead leaves as the sun set on an unseasonably chilly day. Tree skeletons spiked the glowing sky, and at the creek I found stringy roots, knotted like crooked arms reaching over a trickle of muddy water.

Even here, there were no squirrels. But there -- I bent closer. There was something, under the bank, tucked into the dirty overhang. It looked like part of a doll.

I stepped down to the creekbed, snapped dead branch off a tree, and hooked what turned out to be a rag of checkered blue fabric soaked with something wet. Something rancid. It smelled like potatoes that had been sealed in plastic and left in the dark for too long.

It must have been washed there during a flood. Though it hadn't rained in weeks. I took a step back and something crunched like dry twigs under my foot.

Bones. Tiny, fragile bones like rings of porcelain, a pile of them. Rib cages the size of my hand and long things that looked like multi-jointed fingers or spines, all gleaming white, half buried in the wet sand.

I wanted to leave. Right now. I wanted to go back up to the house and turn on the lights.

I started to step out of the creekbed, when there a scuffling noise behind me, something moving in the sand. I spun.

There was a small raggedy child with wild eyes and leaves in his hair. Her hair? Its hair. It was dressed in what looked like a piece of burlap, and its fingers and lips were crusted black.

I stared for a moment, then pointed to the bones. "Did you... Ah, are you, are you lost?"

He just stood there, watching me without blinking, his shoulders moving as he panted. But when his eyes opened wider I could see the dirty whites and I knew he wasn't tired, but excited. He opened his mouth as if to yawn, and I saw a red hole with no teeth.

I stepped back. He stepped forward. My ankle rolled on something and I started to fall.

He made a sort of gargling noise in this throat and sprang. I turned my head but he was on top of me and I looked under the muddy overhang and saw bones and more clothing, so many bones.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Editing "Lost Boy"

Re-reading my Lost Boy post from last week, it occurs to me that it could be sharpened up a bit. What a great opportunity to work through the editing process! It's a good thing it had so many fixable spots.

This is a quick inventory of the types of things I scrawl on my own drafts. Next time I'll make these changes and, I hope, improve the piece. An exercise to improve my own editing skills and to force me to think through what I'm really trying to say: the story behind the words.

Off we go!

Something is killing the squirrels. [I love this high-impact opening. And the "is killing" gives it present-tense urgency]

I live in a wooded neighborhood [so?], and until recently the trees [redundant with "wooded neighborhood"] were thick with squirrels. One bold grey fellow even gnawed a playing card-sized hole in our cedar siding [good detail] and tried to get up our chimney [who cares? chimney is irrelevant].

But as the year turns the corner and the brilliant leaves of fall turn [used "turn" in this sentence already] grey and crunch [nice image but wrong word. "crunch" sounds too substantial] underfoot, the forest is quiet. No scolding chatter from a swinging branch, no twitching prey for our cats to peer at through the window, lashing their tails.

There's a little creek downhill from our house, and I went to see it [what, the creek? the house? rework.], wading through dead leaves as the sun set on an unseasonably chilly day. Tree skeletons spiked the glowing sky, and at the creek I found knotted tree [used "tree" already] roots overhanging ["overhanging might not be a word. rework.] a thin muddy trickle of water [lose one of these adjectives. why spend flowery description on a little creek? that = imbalance].

Even here, there were no squirrels. But there -- I bent closer. There was something under the bank, tucked into the dirty overhang [2nd use of "overhang."] It looked like part of a doll [creepy = good! immediately we think "dead body"].

I stepped down to the creekbed, snapped a stick off a leaning branch [why leaning?], and retrieved what turned out to be a piece of fabric soaked with something wet and rancid. It smelled like potatoes that have been ["were sealed" seems better here. More distant. And passive voice works here] sealed in plastic and in the dark for too long.

It must have gotten washed there during a flood. Though it hadn't rained in weeks. [like this rhythm]

I took a step back and something crunched like a cracker under my foot. I jumped and looked down [at the same time? rework timing.]. Bones. Tiny, fragile bones like rings of porcelain, a pile of them. Rib cages the size of my hand and long things that looked like multi-jointed fingers or spines, all gleaming white in the creek sand.

I wanted to go back up to the house then. Something moved behind me and I spun. [rework timing. The "I wanted" sentence is the turning point of the whole piece: make it easier to see.]

There was a small raggedy child with wild eyes and leaves in his hair. Her hair? Its hair. It was dressed in what looked like a piece of burlap, and its fingers and lips were crusted black. [good and creepy.]

"Did you?" I pointed to the bones.

"Are you ... are you lost?" [sounds like the kid is saying it. Move up.]

He stared at me, his shoulders moving as he panted. But when his eyes opened [opened wider, I mean] I could see the dirty whites and I knew he wasn't tired, but excited. He opened his mouth as if to yawn, and I saw a red hole with no teeth.

I stepped back. He stepped forward. My ankle rolled on something and I started to fall.

He made a gargling throat-noise [noise in his throat? add "kind of noise" to show narrator confusion, fear?] and sprang [is this really the best spot to end? what about a last image of the kid against the dark sky, or looking up into the muddy cave filled with bones?]

Friday, October 31, 2008

Lost Boy

Something is killing the squirrels.

I live in a wooded neighborhood, and until recently the trees were thick with squirrels. One bold grey fellow even gnawed a playing card-sized hole in our cedar siding and tried to get up our chimney.

But as the year turns the corner and the brilliant leaves of fall turn grey and crunch underfoot, the forest is quiet. No scolding chatter from a swinging branch, no twitching prey for our cats to peer at through the window, lashing their tails.

There's a little creek downhill from our house, and I went to see it, wading through dead leaves as the sun set on an unseasonably chilly day. Tree skeletons spiked the glowing sky, and at the creek I found knotted tree roots overhanging a thin muddy trickle of water.

Even here, there were no squirrels. But there -- I bent closer. There was something under the bank, tucked into the dirty overhang. It looked like part of a doll.

I stepped down to the creekbed, snapped a stick off a leaning branch, and retrieved what turned out to be a piece of fabric soaked with something wet and rancid. It smelled like potatoes that have been sealed in plastic and in the dark for too long.

It must have gotten washed there during a flood. Though it hadn't rained in weeks.

I took a step back and something crunched like a cracker under my foot. I jumped and looked down. Bones. Tiny, fragile bones like rings of porcelain, a pile of them. Rib cages the size of my hand and long things that looked like multi-jointed fingers or spines, all gleaming white in the creek sand.

I wanted to go back up to the house then. Something moved behind me and I spun.

There was a small raggedy child with wild eyes and leaves in his hair. Her hair? Its hair. It was dressed in what looked like a piece of burlap, and its fingers and lips were crusted black.

"Did you?" I pointed to the bones.

"Are you ... are you lost?"

He stared at me, his shoulders moving as he panted. But when his eyes opened I could see the dirty whites and I knew he wasn't tired, but excited. He opened his mouth as if to yawn, and I saw a red hole with no teeth.

I stepped back. He stepped forward. My ankle rolled on something and I started to fall.

He made a gargling throat-noise and sprang.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Notice How I Am Not Blogging About The Campaign

Must...not...get...political! Must...resist...even though ... so much ... is ... at stake.

Can't help it!

If you saw Obama's half-hour TV special last night (I can't, just can't refer to it as an 'infomercial') then you saw the stories: the profiles of people woven together with some more specific political talking points.

Stories are how we connect, and how we relate with people not like us. Narrative has that power, beyond any list of ideas or bulleted press release topics. I know I keep saying this ... but stories work. They matter. And in the end the sheer fact of their resonance and ability to move us at our core is what keeps me doing this.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Am Greedy

As I work to improve my stories (always, always they can be better) I find that I'm greedy for advice and suggestions. Sometimes this comes in the form of a manuscript critique, or notes on a shared draft, and even a rejection letter.

You didn't like it, you say? Why not? In fact, skewer me: tell me what didn't work, what you found stupid or boring or weak or almost-but-not-quite-good-enough. Run me right through and leave me gasping on the floor as the dry fragments of my dream flutter down around around me.

Because even as I'm reeling, even as the child in me punches its little fists at the unfairness of it all (how dare they? it's perfect!), I am salivating because here and there I see how to fix the story. There are gems gleaming in the wreckage of my ego.

Look over there! That advice stung at the time but it's spot on. Gimme!

There, in the corner, that incisive and almost cruel comment: it can help make the story better. Mine, all mine! And that question, give it! And all those bigger thematic ideas that I didn't want to hear: mine, mine MINE!

My ego will recover. I'm interested only in the story. And I'm quite merciless in my pursuit of anything that will make it better, even if it's painful to hear.

Story first.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Anatomy of perseverance

How to fail:
Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try. Fail.

How to succeed:
Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try.

I think it was Rachel Vater at Folio Literary who said:

Never stop writing. Never stop submitting. Rejection means nothing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Milquetoast or salsa?

I like to cook. I like to cook because I like to eat and I like sharp knives and I like making things. La, salsa. One of my favorite recipes is this. I call it the Crucible of Pain.

Dice some habaneros.
Dice some garlic.
Squeeze some lime juice.
Combine with a little salt.
Eat on chips. Commence weeping and wailing and rending of garments.

I like exciting food and I like exciting characters. That doesn't mean they can't be bored, they just can't be boring.

I've read about how important it is to have active characters that make things happen, rather than passive characters that things happen to. Reading about a bunch of passive fops complaining weakly about how boring everything is is like tasting a mouthful of bread soaked in milk. Bleh.

But characters who make things happen! who give a damn about something! who stand for their beliefs! who argue or disagree or shout! These are the characters I want to read (and write) about.

It's not quite that easy, of course. Too much making-things-happen and arguing turns into a frothy melodrama. But for me, at least, I too easily fall into the "let's sit around and think about things but not actually do anything" trap.

So avoiding melodrama is one key. Another is that passive characters can still have a role, but maybe they shouldn't be main characters. Most characters stand out in sharper relief when contrasted to someone else, and if that someone else is passive when the main character is active -- or, occasionally, vice-versa -- so much the better.

Characters are interesting when they stand out: if they're sad when everyone is celebrating; if they're floppy when everyone else is galvanized; if they're in an unfamiliar situation. Could this be because we, the readers, are boring? And so we seek out characters unlike us as antidotes?

Yet at the same time we connect to characters like us because that familiarity helps create the bond. Just don't let them be too much like us. I already live my own life, I don't need to read it in a book, too.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I Have Had It With Myself

There's someone here who's not pulling his weight. That's right, I'm just going to come out and say it: I have a real problem with myself. Someone around here moans and groans about how wonderful it is to write, and how he never has time to do it, but then doesn't make time. Wah, wah, wah.

Well, I'm not taking any more of this lazy attitude from myself. I have to realize that if I don't get down to business and start writing, I'll never get anywhere. Honestly: how is a book supposed to get done if I don't write it?

So I think I'm going to have to have a long talk with myself. And explain to myself that this simply won't do. I'm not going to tolerate this sort of misbehavior from myself any longer. That's right, I'm talking to me! There, sitting in the chair, typing. I should listen up.


Friday, October 17, 2008

What is "A Squirrel in the Chimney," Alex?

Midget assassins
Midget ninjas. Minjas?
Firearms instructor friend
Vacuum cleaner
Cardboard boxes
A slingshot
Trained spider army

One problem, many solutions.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What makes us strong

Some of you may have noticed that we are in the middle of a presidential campaign. No, really, we are. I know it's been quiet and respectful and most people don't have an opinion, but trust me.

I've been watching Laini Taylor's blog and how the issues of the election, and of the country in general, are being vigorously debated there and elsewhere. It can be frustrating, and I mean bang-your-head-into-the-wall frustrating to hear the other side argued as vigorously as our own. How could they possibly think that? Etc.

I think argument is good. Disagreement is good. Democracy doesn't just protect our right to disagree, it needs it. Think of all the bad-guy totalitarian regimes through history: do you think they had anywhere near the level of rhetoric we have today?

Yes, it's embarrassing. Yes, it's childish. Yes, in some cases, it's rude and even wrong to shout racial epithets or to get caught up in confusing patriotism with racism because you're in a stadium of people shouting USA! USA! USA!

But still: muscular disagreement makes for muscular democracy. Conflict is good. Contrasts are interesting. Disagreement drives good countries.

Democracy, Churchill said, is the worst form of government. Except for all the others. But the fact that it's not perfect shouldn't make us abandon it, and it shouldn't prevent us from arguing about it. It needs that debate, we all do.

Disagreement also drives good stories. Contrasts are interesting; difficulty makes for good reading. Friction makes heat, and nobody wants a cold story where the hero strides through bad guys without any effort whatsoever.

No, we want muscular writing. Muscular stories. And I have to believe the same thing goes for our country.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Get the lead in

I mentioned earlier (below) the centerboard for the sailboat I'm building. This has the same effect as the vertical tail of an airplane: it helps keep the boat stable. Since I'm building the centerboard from wood, it will actually float if I don't add weight to it somehow. Plus adding weight will help it ballast the boat.

How to add weight to a centerboard? Easy, just carve out a big hole and pour in molten lead.

I have neither a desire nor suitable pots for melting lead. How about steel? Not heavy enough. Concrete? Too messy. Stone? Come on, I'm not making a stone boat. Okay, then, back to lead.

And then I hit on the answer: lead bullets! Off to the gun shop! (Of course we have gun shops in town. This is Virginia.)

GUN SHOP WORKER: Gotta question?
SETH: [not staring at the wall of assault rifles] Yeah, hi, do you have lead?
GUN SHOP WORKER: Sure, we got bird shot and whatnot. [waves at a box of shotgun shells]
SETH: No, I mean, lead shot, all by itself.
GUN SHOP WORKER [Stares at shells. Stares at Seth]: There's lead in them shells. You could cut em open to get out the shot if you want.
SETH [wonders about the result of sawing through a shotgun shell]
SETH: Thanks, anyway.

Next stop: the fishing store. Which is also, naturally, a gun store.
SETH: Hi, do you sell lead fishing weights or shot or anything?
CLERK [looks up from doing something with tweezers to a detached bird wing]: Sure do!
SETH [thinks: Jackpot. Follows clerk.]
CLERK: Here y'are, man. This what you need? [points to small bag of fishing sinkers.]
SETH: Perfect! Now that's what, a 4-ounce bag? Okay, I need forty-five pounds.
CLERK [wishes he was back working on bird wing]
CLERK: Of lead?
CLERK: You should try the gun store, man. I mean another gun store.

The solution, it turns out, is dive shops, since scuba divers use lead weights to keep themselves from floating to the surface -- exactly why I need weight for my centerboard! Soft diving weights -- neoprene pouches full of tiny lead pellets -- are just right. Now all I have to do is buy twenty of them, spill out the lead beads, carve out a hole in the centerboard (brow-furrowing mathematics of lead weight and volume), mix the beads up with some epoxy to hold them all together, and slurp it all in.

Good thing I'm not melting lead, that would have been a real hassle.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bashing board

It's been a while since I posted about boatbuilding, so here's where I am with the Pathfinder project. I've just glued up the centerboard from twenty-two pieces of appx. 1" x 4" locust and pine. This is a lot of glue, and even today, three days later, my right arm is still tired from stirring.

(It's a two-part epoxy that has to be stirred together vigorously for two minutes, then stirred again after adding the silica thickener. I've never been out of breath from stirring something before.)

So I've essentially glued up tabletop-size thing, and when the glue is cured and I take the clamps off (this week), then I'll shape it into a curve and eventually attach it to the boat.

This centerboard is the blade or "fin" that sticks down under the boat while sailing, to prevent capsize and instability, so it's important to get right. It's also the part of the boat that will bash into things (logs, turtles, crab pots, my leg) so I'm trying to find ways to reinforce the front edge. Latest contender: Xynole cloth soaked in epoxy, so when (not if) I run aground and the centerboard drags through a bed of oyster shells, it won't be reduced to a pile of soggy splinters.

(Kevlar also was an option, but evidently it's better for puncture resistance, and what I want is abrasion resistance.)

Given the way I sail, it's safest to assume there will be collisions, groundings, etc., and plan accordingly. Otherwise I'll be sailing around in a beautiful but very fragile Faberge egg of a boat, unable to do anything fun but wrap it in padding and get nervous every time I approach a dock No, thanks!

Friday, October 3, 2008


After watching the vice-presidential debates last night, I have just this to say:

There is only one Maverick.

Mav, you can be my wingman any day.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fish Pirates?

Today on Jim Lileks' blog, he mentioned browsing the YA section of a bookstore, and he made the following observation:

After the haircut I got a book Natalie has requested – part of a 946-volume series about talkative, clannish cats. I spent some time examining the rest of the books in the YA section, looking for my own niche. I think Fish Pirates is open, as well as Yugoslav Amoebas with Magic Powers. Perhaps a series about a world where all the kids have magic powers, and then some interesting, conflicted, smart, resourceful kids discover they don’t have any powers at all.

(If you're not familiar with this blog, he rarely discusses books, or at least, books I read, but he does provide a steady supply of wry and very funny observations on politics, parenthood, cereal boxes, postcards, architecture, and more. Try the Gallery of Regrettable Food. Or anything else. Wonderful stuff.)

At any rate, what exactly are the niches in YA books these days? In fact, what is a "niche"? I would think a niche is only full when nobody buys and reads the books in it anymore. Vampire stories would seem to be overflowing the market yet ... people are still reading them.

And is the diversity of books so bad? (I know that's not his point. Probably.) I love that just about anything you can imagine is available. Samurais? Check. Vampires? No comment. Fairies? Yep. Elves dwarves hobbits rabbis stepmothers talking beasts magic technology dystopia historical fantasy spy thrillers horror romance high school drama dragons zombies octopi pirates bird-people aliens.

It's all there! Makes it tricky for writers to find their own space -- and maybe this is the best working definition of "niche" -- but it represents an incredible wealth of options for readers. I remember coming home from the library with a stack of books as long as my arm. It felt like Christmas morning.

So bring on the fish pirates and magical amoebas. Or so say I.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Once upon a time

I've been thinking a lot about the role of storytelling in a community, and (quite easily) convinced myself to go spelunking around the university library stacks. There is a whole field, or several fields, of study on this, ranging from folklore to English theory to anthropology and all sorts of academic self-congratulatory pap. But mixed in is some good stuff.

I stumbled across John D. Niles's Homo Narrans, flipped through a few pages, and checked it out. This is a fascinating exploration of the role of storytelling disguised as an academic piece on Beowulf and oral narrative.

Seriously, this is good stuff, and has helped focus some of my own thoughts. For example:

I believe that a group of people needs stories like they need air and love and nourishment. That stories help place us in our own history; help define what is right and wrong; explain why good things and bad things happen. They pull us together; they are a link to the past as well as the unimagined but optimistic future.

Stories are the way we breathe with the world outside our own immediate experience, and I think when people stop telling stories their society becomes stale and dried up and brittle. Stories breathe as they are told and read and remembered and re-told. They change. They're alive.

Somewhere I read that prisoners in a concentration camp in WWII would recite, from memory, entire passages of Shakespeare or the Odyssey, scratching the old words on bricks or wood. Something about that gave them strength, I like to think: the idea that a character and his or her misfortunes and fortunes, choices, villains, adventures ... somehow endure beyond the life of the storyteller, even beyond the life of the society that produced the story.

So why tell stories? I can't help it, though often they are thought to be "lies" (Recently I tried to convince my wife that a "goat" is just what we call a recently shorn sheep. Same animal.) But it's not just elements of stories I'm talking about. Not just a magic bean, or a three-legged ox or a green-faced monster that lives at the bottom of a fog-shrouded pool.

It's the story. The what-happens-next? The listeners or readers or watchers of this spun reality who are somehow drawn into it until they feel the chill of the characters in winter, they feel the hot anger or betrayal or fear. The thing that happens when a story is "experienced," for lack of a better word ... well, this, as Gordon Gecko would say, is good. It works.

Storytelling is what makes us who we are, from fur-clad proto-humans huddled around a fire to sailors passing the graveyard watch, a circle of kids listening to Where the Red Fern Grows.

Light the fire and dim the lights. Close the door against the dark and the rain. Step closer, children. I'm going tell a story.

Once upon a time...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Weak is the flesh

Brain say run, body say no way.
Brain say stay awake, body say sleepy time.
Brain say stop coughing, body say TICKLE TICKLE TICKLE.
Brain say why head hurt? Body say you sick, bro.

So I drink lots of water (sorry kidneys!) and tea (Lo, I am become Peppermint Man, enabler of cat hysteria, as the used teabags drive him bonkers) and bundle up and do nothing. None of my normal activities, such as boatbuilding or woodchopping or elephant taming or pit-digging.

Then I realized what I could do was write. Disaster! Suddenly I found myself without excuses ... except this realization:

Writing a book is like building a sandcastle. One grain of sand at a time. You have a pair of tweezers and a tube of sunblock. And the tide's coming in. Off you go!

Whereas reading it is like walking through the completed sandcastle (you have to be a fiddler crab for my metaphor to work), admiring the balustrades and arches and corpuscles and whatnot.

So I wrote. And thought. And scribbled notes. And wrote. Weak is the flesh but the story knows no mercy.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pace and story

Back from a week at the beach, where I consumed mass quantities of food and books and salty ocean wind, twenty-five or thirty knots from north-north-east.

And as I struggle with the beginning of my next book I had an interesting idea. I've admitted before -- though this will come as no shock to anyone who's read one of my drafts -- that I have trouble with beginnings. It's hard to present characters, their relationships, their setting, etc. without putting readers to sleep or confusing them. My tendency is to go slow ... too slow. Thus when I trimmed 9000 words from my last draft, most of it came out of the tendentious first half.

But! Think about how many stories open with action. Then there's a pause for backstory, characterization, etc. Then back to action, but this time readers are armed with deeper knowledge of what's going on and so the action -- the sweeping movement of the story as it rolls to the climax -- can be that much more nuanced, deep, and resonant. Which is the goal.

Huh, I thought, pulling up to a light and frowning in a swashbuckling manner (Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack; iPod), could this really be right? Because it seemed like a trick or a cheat to catch readers' attention with that opening action scene -- necessarily less deep than the rest of the book -- and then, once you have them, taking a breath to introduce them to the rest of the story. It seemed ... like cheating, somehow. Like a real author shouldn't have to resort to sleight-of-hand. Or appetizers.

Okay, I thought, trying a slightly different rakish sneer in the rearview mirror, let's test this.

Raiders of the Lost Ark starts with an independent action scene that has very little to do with the rest of the story, before slowing down into the story-building of Indy at college, meeting dubious Army guys who didn't go to Sunday School, etc.

Star Wars opens with Vader's ship overtaking and capturing the smaller Rebel ship. We have no idea what's going on, and the pace then slows once the Tatooine story opens.

Master and Commander: the curtain rises and we are in a concert hall watching two people in the crowd interact. It's not visual action, but it's very strong emotional action, and we don't know what's going on or who these people are (Aubrey and Maturin) until the scene ends and O'Brien treats us to a slower series of scenes sketching out each of them.

Lord of the Rings: A bit of a cheat since many readers had already gone through The Hobbit. Except remember that LOR is deeper and more complex. Tolkien had an introduction and we
still open with the bustle of a birthday party, planning, guest lists, etc. In fact, there are a couple of chapters of action -- Bilbo leaves, Gandalf vanishes to investigate things, and years (if I recall) go by before Gandalf returns and things pick up again.

Blackbringer: Noted here because I just re-read it and it's fresh in my mind. It opens with immediate action: Magpie and her crow compadres swing down from the sky to a deserted fishing boat. Mystery and the echoes of dark violence follow. But then things slow as we travel with the character back home ... at which point mystery trickles back in again.

Hey, wait a second. Pirates of the Caribbean: A little girl is on board a ship that comes across the flaming wreckage of a pirate attack ... and a half-drowned boy! The pace slows -- briefly -- as we see scenes of life in Tortuga or wherever they were. Then things pick up again.

Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling. We first meet Rossamund literally in the middle of a fight. The names of weapons and moves, even of characters pass by in the blur of hand-to-hand combat. Never mind that it's a sparring session in school: the immediacy of the action hooks us and convinces us that it'll be okay to take a breath in the following section, where we more slowly learn the beginnings of the story.

What else? I 'll check the Odyssey and the Iliad when I get home. And for some reason -- post vacation mind-blank, most likely -- I can't remember any other books or movies. Any other instances of this?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Away Ere Break of Day

I know it seems like all I ever do is go on vacation, but to me it seems like all I ever do is not go on vacation. Either way, we are packed and hope to be away before 7AM for a week at the beach.

I've given up packing books in with other things and have just piled them all into a cardboard box. Books on writing, some good fiction, some nonfiction for research. Notebooks for story ideas, the laptop with story notes. All sorts of good stuff. Oh, and food and clothes and things too. Not to mention the French Press, since I'm dubious about rental house coffeemakers to produce appropriately thick coffee.

I'm also dubious about Internet access from vacation, so this may be my last posting for a week. Fear not! I will return revived and energized and sandy.

I'd been hoping to get up and leave before 6; there's something magical about starting a trip before dawn. That suggestion did not get a good reaction from my wife, thus the 7AM compromise.

Have a great week!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This is not more like it

News flash: I did not get blown away while running in the hurricane last weekend. And by "hurricane," I mean sprinkling rain, and by "running," I mean sitting on the couch squeezing cookie dough into my mouth. Kidding! I waited until after the run for that. Kidding! It was during the run.

Okay, enough. I'm in New York for business this week and OMG it is soooo awesome, the hotel room like has its own sweet mini-bar, and even tho there's nothing in it it could totally hold like six Zimas and whatnot. My cousin's friend works with this guy whose ex-girlfriend that he's still like with, but not with-with, is gonna get us into this club and...

Okay, enough. I've been in meetings all day WEARING A TIE and apparently there's some sort of side effect of saying things like "proactive" and "identity is a dialogue" and "shutuppa you face." Kidding!

I tend to become grouchy and cynical in New York; I find the setting claustrophobic and the people proudly cruel. But that can't be right! Some of the most interesting ideas in the world come from this city. Some of the best books, food, etc. So I try to remain open to the bustling mad wonder of it all. Most of the time I succeed but nine hours of wearing a tie tends to strip off my civilized veneer.

Worst of all the schedule leaves no room for writing, so I scribble notes to myself all day, like "avalanche of bones" and "cod cheeks" and "soot on snow; blood?" Trust me, these will (mostly) work their way into a draft someday.

So forgive the spotty posting for now; I'm paying bills.

Friday, September 5, 2008

This is more like it

Here comes Hanna. The forecast of gusty wind and rain bodes for an interesting Saturday morning run. But then I get to say I ran in a hurricane. I know it won't be a hurricane anymore but everyone knows I tell lies anyway. Wait until I describe the possums and crow's wings and oil drums tumbling past me.

But this is why I labor in the garage with iron-hard locust lumber. Because it's thick and dense and will not rot, and if I put in the hours and sweat to make that wood part of my boat, the boat will, maybe, better withstand weather like this.

And this is more like it. 35 gusting to 40! Apart from the high likelihood of catastrophic structural failure on my poor old boat (not the one under construction), that is the sort of weather I should be sailing in. Or very much the sort I should not be sailing in, if you listen to my mother.

626 AM EDT FRI SEP 5 2008




This is why thoughtfulness and care in building -- writing too, for that matter -- is so critical: the world is dangerous. Bad things happen. Has anyone ever been lulled into a real sense of complacency? No! It's always a false sense of complacency.

Let's build our boats strong for they may be in danger someday. Our stories may be read in a world very different from the one we live in. Imagine the books published on December 6, 1941. Or September 10, 2001.

Write strong!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Stop thinking

When I'm writing, am I thinking about writing? No -- at least, not when it's going well. Ideally I'm in the story, experiencing it just before it appears on the page.

It's not until revisions that I'm thinking about the story. In fact, the magical and not-to-be-understood moment of story creation requires, for me, a sort of relaxed effort, the hanging pause in a cathedral just after the organ's last thunderous chord, a very very quiet space where I can hear the high thin singing of the story.

It is very quiet but it is there, way up there, way up there, up the narrow dank spiral staircases and out above the clerestory to where dust motes drift like milkweed and swallows wheel. Up there is where the story lives.

And then I climb back down to revise, bringing -- I hope -- that quiet singing down to earth where I can look at it and try to refine it, shape it, see it in the harsh light of judgement. Not-thinking and thinking.

Now, then, a question. With "more" people buying books online, is it less important where a book is shelved in the store? Believe me, I am heartily in favor of actual stores with actual people and actual chairs and even actual books, but it would be unwise to ignore the growth of online bookstores like Amazon.

Junk mail is junk mail. Ads are ads. Listen to me on this: I work in marketing for my day job, and I know of what I speak: most marketing budgets are wasted on things that look flashy -- ads are a great example -- and are great to point to as "marketing" but which fail to actually get people to buy the product.

So why do people buy the book? see the movie? attend the college?

Word of mouth. We hear about stuff from other people, people we trust, people we don't know, it almost doesn't matter as long as it's not the manufacturer itself. If I'm a high school senior, which is more convincing: a slick ad from a college, or somebody not affiliated with the college marketing office who just talks about what it's like being a student there?

We are a skeptical society. Rightly so, given the tripe masquerading as objective news and information [rant narrowly averted here]. What this means is that we don't trust salesmen as much as we trust "users." This means other people who have read the book.

A word of mouth "campaign" is hard to track and nearly impossible to assign a budget to, so the corporate world tends to get twitchy when it's mentioned. But if you can get people talking about a book, reviewing it, discussing it on blogs ... that is huge.

Disclaimer: I have no knowledge of the economics of book promotion, and certainly there are other important factors, such as bookstore reps, catalog sales, etc. All I'm saying is that the thing we -- ironically -- talk very little about is how important it is to talk about books. Better yet, to get other people talking about our books.

The Internet has revolutionized this, with blog tours, guest interviews, reviews, comments, links to other sites, on and on and on -- and all of it completely independent of the traditional publishing house marketing campaign. Let that continue, as it should: it is not without purpose. But let's also warm the smoldering energy of a conversation about good books. Because that's how you reach skeptical readers and buyers.

p.s. I am trying and failing not to be turned off by the word "marketing." Maybe it's because so much of my day job involves it, but more likely I'm not comfortable with the business and promotional aspect of book-making. Better get over that, huh?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Wind Freshens

Well, after five days away from the blog and home, I'm back. The best part is that I accidentally didn't think much about my manuscript at all during those five days! I don't think that's happened since I started writing it!

I did many great things on my vacation, not the least of which involved sailing a screaming reach twelve miles down the Chester River as dusk fell and the wind rose. I had no idea my little boat could go that fast, and I'm now reconsidering plans to give it away to make room for the new boat. Can't I keep them both in the garage? Where would the plywood go? Where would my tools go? Where would I go? Etc.

I'm serious, this was like doing a wheelie on a bike. Downhill.

At any rate, this accidental holiday from the book means that I've started to forget all the little dips and bumps and can think more broadly about the overall shape of the story. It's not there yet, but it's close. So I've found, to my delight, that the freshening wind provided an unforgettable couple hours of sailing and the distance I've so badly needed to look at the book critically.

And now, even as I wonder if I can take a few more days away from it, I remember the sound of the boat running up onto the sand in the twilight rain, how warm the water was, the shaky-leg feeling when we walked up the hill to the yacht club bar. Part of me is still there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Two nights ago I fell asleep while doing revisions: sitting on the couch, scrolling, checking consistency, chapter titles, scrolling, scrolling ... drool ... hummingbird ... leather ... sandy feet ... and suddenly I woke up.

Then I read about Stephanie Perkins' don't-take-prisoners-unless-you-can-use-them-to-brew-you-more-coffee revision plan on her blog: Come home from work, nap and then revisions until 3-4AM! (Thanks to Laini Taylor for the link.) Holy cow. That is dedication. That is belief. That is the sheer madness that I'm beginning to think must be necessary to succeed.

Story uber alles. Necessity knows no law, etc.

What do you want for dinner?
What time is it?
Do you want to change that shirt?
Here, at least clean your face.
Do you even know where you are?

E.B. White told us to omit needless words. Stephanie Perkins reminds us to omit needless activities. What counts as "needless" will vary! TV? Sure. Sleep? Depends. Food? Probably not.

I'm no longer writing just so I can "be an author." And I'm no longer writing because it's fun (though it is, desperately fun sometimes). I'm writing because I believe in the story and the characters. They own me; I owe them. How I let them remain incomplete?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thumb. Thumb. Thumb.

I've just finished reading Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, four novellas bound into a single book. This was an edition printed in the 80s and then left, forgotten, in various boxes and shelves. Come on, it had a boring cover and the paper was the wrong weight so it was hard to open. Plus I was too busy reading Robert Aspirin and not talking to girls.

Anyway, I'd seen some references to the haunting quality of Garner's work and tried The Owl Service and then this. The Owl Service is about two kids in Wales -- my memory is spotty here, this was several months ago -- who stumble into a very old story and find themselves playing roles that others had played, generations before. A very old story. And I have to say the book was downright creepy.

The Stone Book Quartet is not easy to read, filled as it is with regional English dialects, references to offstage action and events, and to some extent, a lack of the comforting explanatory narrative I think we've gotten used to in books like the Harry Potter series. Alan Garner doesn't explain, he describes. He observes.

What makes these four interlinked novellas so haunting and compelling is that each of them is concerned with the past and old stories, all relevant and affecting the narrators. And each story has characters and references -- a stone wall, a steeple, a way of shouting -- that echo the other stories, so while reading you feel like you're in the middle of a pond with ripples spreading out and in, all around you. It's dizzying.

It reminds me of when I was little and used to be able to put myself into a semi-trance state by staring at my thumb and saying, "Thumb. Thumb. Thumb." Over and over until my thumb seemed strange to me, and my own existence seemed strange, and the fact that I was sitting on a chair in my grandparents' house, in a country in Earth in the twentieth century, it all felt like a hugely random accident, as if there was so much more in the world than my tiny perceptions. Thumb. Thumb. Thumb. Thumb.

It's the same feeling I get when I force myself to remember that, for example, people have been living in this part of the world for hundreds of years. Thousands of years. Right here. Playing and fighting and thinking and wondering, just like I am. And it's not some chapter from a history book or a museum exhibit: I could go outside right now and see the same kind of sky they saw, the same kind of tree.

(One Small Blue Bead has this same dizzying quality.)

AT ANY RATE. The link between my auto-fugue state and Alan Garner is this awareness of the heaviness of the world, all of the things in it besides me, the narrator of my own story. Somehow Garner pulled it off in a "children's book." Check it out.

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner
Stone Book Quartet, by Alan Garner
One Small Blue Bead, by Byrd Baylor

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Here Be Monsters

On the outside of my house, to be specific. This afternoon I watched a praying mantis devour a cicada. This was interesting because the mantis was the size of my finger and the cicada was the size of my thumb.

I bravely crouched down and took pictures, but it turns out they are too horrifying to post, so instead I'll try to describe the situation. Remember, nature can be cruel. And warning: this is horrible.

The mantis grasped the cicada in its front legs. One of the sharp legs had gone through the cicada's wing and pierced its back through; the other had clamped across its face. I bent closer and said, "Oh-". The back of the cicada was gone and it was opened up like a bowl as the mantis chewed, scissoring its heart-shaped head back and forth.

The cicada's gossamer wing was fluttering and humming, and its legs twitched and wiggled as if it was trying to escape the great hook-legged horror that was wetly eating out the back of its head with neither haste nor mercy.

I leaned closer. There was a tiny cracking like matchsticks snapping as the mantis leaned and bit, leaned and bit. Chewed. Leaned and bit. Chewed. The cicada's legs crawled, brushing its hollowed head. Tiny cracklings.

BANG! My wife, inside, rapped on the window above me and for a moment the world was ending because I was the cicada and I was the mantis.

Be glad I have not posted the pictures!

How can I sum all this up in some witty yet meaningful writing advice? I don't know. I've been revising all weekend -- it's getting there! I don't hate it! Much! -- and I have nothing left except the capacity to be horrified and drawn in by a trauma, a drama, a small world I'd never expected and which entranced me. There: isn't that what a good story does?

Ugh. I can still hear the chewing.

p.s. The worst part was that six inches away was the brown husk of the shell the cicada had just emerged from. Not the best timing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tinker, tailor

It's not pentameter, but is it iambic?

Tinker, tailor
Soldier, sailor
Rich man, poor man
Beggarman, thief.

I-am, I-am, I-am. Iambic? Someone with an English degree please verify!

As I plow through revisions I waver between large-scale (storyline, revelations to readers and character, plot arc) and micro-scale (imagery, dialogue). The rhythm of writing falls in the latter category.

I try to write musical sentences -- I've actually found myself whispering the words out loud as I write them (I do NOT move my lips while reading). But I have to be careful not to fall into a sing-songy bounciness.

Tinker, tailor, solider, sailor. Both the rhythm and the rhyme make this sentence rest comfortably in my mind. It's the same beat as "ice cream, ice cream, ice cream FREEZE!" -- a clapping rhyme that, somewhat embarrassingly, is lodged in there as well.

Not all sentences have to bounce or rhyme. Depending on the scene, the mood, the point of view through which we're experiencing that moment, a sentence can be languid and ornate (Austen?); short and clipped like a tough-guy mustache (Hemingway); circuitous and repetitive (my early drafts), etc.

The dog barked.
The dog was barking.
The dogs bayed.
The noise of dogs barking filled the night.
Barking were the dogs.
The dog coughed a wet bark without getting up.
The bark of the dog was harsh and tight, a sandpaper sound of rage.

Okay, I cheated a little on the last one. Hear the rhythm? It's almost like riding a horse. Clackety-clackety-clackety.

It's one more thing to pay attention to. Every tiny piece of the narrative must be deliberate: it must communicate a message beyond whatever the words say. There's a second layer of meaning, that comes from word choice and the shape of the sentence. Readers pick it up, even if we're not aware of laying it down.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Last night I dreamed a story, full of complexity and nuance and innovative ideas about the nature of reality, prophecy, choice, magic, fire and blood, flight, danger, heroism. As I was dreaming it I came to realize I was actually reading it: I had found some book that was so much better than anything I could ever write. This realization was upsetting but the story was so good that I kept reading, pulled into it like wind into a canyon.

Then another realization crept in as I was waking up: it wasn't some book someone else had written. I had dreamed the dream myself. It came from me! And I thought, I'd better write this amazing thing down before I forget it.

I did not write it down. I did forget most of it. Except for the important part that it came from me in the first place. It's in there, somewhere.

And it was shocking how engrossing it was, even though I had created it. How surprising and unknown it seemed.

Jan Chipchase, who studies usage patterns of cellphone technology from cultural perspective (more interesting than it sounds, see his blog) took this photograph in Kabul, Afghanistan recently.
This is not what I usually think of when I imagine people reading something I've written. But I would love to have my books in this shop someday; I would love for someone to be that engrossed. Look at how it's pulled him in. Look at how it's not a Barnes and Noble or a school library or even a kid on a porch in the States.

Is it possible to write stories that are so rich with shared human experience that they transcend politics, war, distance, even culture itself? I have to believe that it is.

(Image copyright 2008 Jan Chipchase. Used by permission from www.janchipchase.com.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sharper. Sharper. Sharper.

The title is an allusion to this post, where I likened editing to honing a tool like a knife: it requires the taking away of material to make it sharper. (And why shouldn't I reference my own blog? It's not as self-indulgent as footnotes* and besides, I'll clean it up when I revise later.)

After I printed out the micro-book so I could see the timing and rhythm of larger thematic elements, I just started editing right on the pages themselves. It's almost easy (To read, that is. Never easy to do.)

Apart from fixing typos and rewriting a sentence here and there, here's a sampling of my comments to myself:

good part.
poss. move
Show Tom looking? Would appear before scene on dig (see previous page)
Now we're two layers removed from action.
Note: in micro-format, these details are an interruption of the main story.
Not redundant so much as unnecessary.
Scene really starts here.
opt cut
We already saw this!
Only new relevant info is that Sam forgets....

They're a mixture of impatient criticism and a hard-eyed look at what works and what doesn't. Occasionally I mark "good" sections, but since I already know what I like, I'm really only interested in what I don't like.

Sometimes it feels like I'm disassembling a castle brick by brick, only to rebuild it. But for that metaphor to work, the original castle would have to have been a hulking mess, not thought out, with passages that led nowhere, arrow slots facing inward, half-completed drawbridges, and a moat that couldn't hold water.

I've got grit under my nails and I heave out another brick, toss it aside and it tumbles away. Work on a replacement, fitting it in with the rest of the structure, even if it only exists as a whole in my mind, scraping the flat stone and square edges until it's just right. And I hold my breath and lift it up and slide it into place.


Sometimes it even fits.

*Not that there's anything wrong with footnotes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Remembering books

I went home last night and learned that at least half of the first lines I quoted from memory below were completely wrong. But not because I couldn't remember and just guessed, I actually had remembered them wrong.

Which makes me wonder: what else have I remembered wrong? Does Odysseus not summon a great army of flaming soldiers to help him defeat Vader after all? Is Tuck not everlasting?

Ha ha. Seriously. The gap between what I meant to write and what actually appeared on the page is familiar to me. But the gap between what I read and what I thought I read ... that's a new one. We can't really control our stories once they go out into the world. Every reader will live that story differently; remember it differently.

I like to think that a book is more than a suggestion, but if we accept the fact that readers co-create the story with the author as part of the act of reading ... well, we have to let go.

Monday, August 11, 2008

First lines

It's a shame ... no, it's regrettable that I'm challenged, to put it mildly, by beginnings, since the opening pages are the threshold of the story. That's the one chance we have to welcome the reader in or to turn him or her away. And as I struggle to revise my own beginning (of my book; not of myself) that I think of how others have done it.

Even down to the level of the first line. Here are a few that come to mind ... meaning that they and their books must be memorable since I've accidentally memorized them. These are from my hazy memory and may not withstand a Google search! What beginnings linger in your memory?

When Augustus came out on the porch, the pigs were there.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.

The music room in the Governor's mansion was a shining octagon of polished wood....

"Too many!" said Will.

Roger was being a ship.

The small boys came early to the hanging.

I wear the ring.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Earn this

I have a friend who, when Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, remarked that all Americans should be required to watch it. One of the best portrayals of history and something that he felt should help define the bandied-about notions of patriotism and responsibility.

This week I watched a wrenching documentary about homeless children in Bucharest, called Children Underground. It was one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen.

The documentary follows five kids between the ages of 8 and 16, who live in an underground subway platform in Bucharest, and who spend their days huffing paint, fighting, begging, and protecting each other. As alarming as it is to see a grizzled homeless man so drunk he can't even form the words to beg for more liquor, it is more shocking (to me) to see a child in the same state.

I know that the badness of the world can become trite when we try to look at it all at once. I've written about it before, and there are tragedies happening every hour, every day, in every city on earth. Bad things happen but somehow there is a blurring when we try to comprehend the jump between a single child drooling out her life on a piece of urine-stained cardboard, and a thousands of children lost to warfare and sickness in the Sudan. Tens of thousands.

I write for children. I imagine ten-year-olds and their older and younger brothers and sisters drawn into a story in the same way that I was when I was young. But there are children all over the world in shattering conditions doing terrible things, with terrible things being done to them.

Who writes stories for them?

Who writes their stories?

How do we, as writers for children and as human beings, address the fact that through no achievement of our own we were born into this society and not that one? This time and not that one? Because I sure had nothing to do with the unimaginable luck of being born in America in the early 70s. Especially when you consider the alternatives.

At the end of Saving Private Ryan, the dying main character looks into Ryan's eyes. They had been sent to rescue him, and did so at at terrible cost in lives. But Ryan survives, and Tom Hanks' character says to him: "Earn this."

How can we compensate or apologize or be absolved or be forgiven for our hapless luck?

I think we have to earn it.

Children Underground is at Amazon, Netflix, and other places. Watch it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Write write write
Coffee coffee coffee
Write write write
Research! Serendipity! Google!
Coffee coffee coffee
Write write write
Joy. Despair. Joy.
Revise revise revise
Ideas for next book. Must resist.
Coffee coffee coffee

Monday, August 4, 2008

Q. Why is writing so hard?

A. Because I've forgotten English how speak to.
A. Stories in brain but not come out. Stories laugh. Writer gnash teeth and think caveman thoughts.
A. Writer too sleepy.
A. Writer too caffeinated.
A. Writer decides to check online weather, cuticles, laundry, cats, actual outside weather, e-mail, bookmark location, reading material, shipping status of ordered books, pen colors, ink saturation of various papers, chair / desk alignment, screen angle, font size, notecards, idea journal, thesaurus, revision notes, amount of water left in glass, ceiling fan setting, lint on carpet, lint on chair, lint on leg, location of missing lint brush, healing progress of stubbed toe.

But I've learned a trick. Certainly I'm not the first. You can't make it good until you revise. You can't revise until you write. When you write it doesn't have to be good.

Ha ha! Take that, blank screen! I can write anything I want and it doesn't matter because I can fix it. I can revise it. Trying to make it good the first time is like painting a room before the house is built. Good luck.

So yeah: I got up at 5 since I couldn't sleep, and made my coffee and put on my Writing Glasses and re-read my notes and bled out a few hundred turgid words. Not anything near what I needed them to be. Or what I imagined they would be. Or what I know they could be.

Was it a waste? It seemed to be at the time. But now I can go back and fix it.

If a book is a sculpture, then writing the first draft is like heaving the ugly piece of marble out of the ground with a long pointed piece of steel. The rock sits there, scabbed with mud and pickaxe marks and you think: that is not really what I had in mind. Disaster! But no. Then the real work begins and you turn it into some approximation of the sculpture that floats in your mind. Ahh, revision.

When I'm building my boat, I cut out lots of pieces of wood. I start with a rough cut, then I take a second pass, then maybe finish with hand tools to get it just right. Then the piece is assembled in the boat and attached with bronze screws and epoxy, then it's sanded and sanded and sanded and painted. The finished piece is a far cry from the rough thing I hack out of lumber.

Somehow I thought writing would be different. It's sad how often I forget and re-learn that.