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.