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!