Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rus and the Ship

A story for Christmas. Happy holidays, everyone!

Rus and the Ship

Rus ducked under one of the big ship frames arcing up from shoulder-height like a tree branch, slapping his calloused hand on the wood as he passed. Good solid wood, this hornbeam was, brought up from the south and seasoned for two years in the shipyards here at the edge of Quartermoon Bay.

“Time yet?” he bellowed to the other side of the building stocks. In a few weeks this cargo ship would be planked, but now his deep voice carried right through the riblike frames to where Vander and Kell worked on another frame, adzing its rough shape.

Vander shook his head without even looking up. The sun had already dipped behind the snowy Teeth that rose west of the city, and though the sky held a bit of pale light still, the harbor water was dark. They were all waiting for the bell that would signal the end of the day, and their release into the pubs along the waterfront.

Rus turned back to the frame he was planing. The sweeping curve of golden wood rested on five sawhorses, and he ran the hand plane across with the grain, chewing his beard as he watched the line and the ribbon of wood that curled back across his tattooed forearm a foot, four feet, ten feet.

“Enough!” Kell’s voice came like a summons through the unbuilt ship. “We’re thirsty!” And just then came the toll of six bells from the far point of the Hook.

Rus put down the plane and sighed. None too soon. He buttoned his wool shirt against the wet wind that came swirling off the harbor -- there was always a land breeze as night fell -- and followed Kell and Vander out of the shipyard, scuffing through piles of fragrant wood shavings.

Before they even reached Stone Road, he stopped. Had he heard something, back at the shipyard? Vander and Kell trudged on ahead. Rus moved to follow them, but then heard it again: the creak of oars.

“Wait a moment, you thick slops!” he called, but Vander and Kell waved their hands at him without even turning back.

“Idiots,” Rus growled. Back to the shipyard he went, though he ached for the cool dark taste of ale. And tonight Old Mother Tallero was going to tell them the story of the Witch in the Cave.

Well. He would deal swiftly with whatever fool was trying to row into the shipyards, and then hurry over to the Smoking Owl and not miss much.

When he reached the shipyards it was nearly dark, and he could just discern a small rowboat pulled up on the rocky shore, with a figure standing next to it, holding an oar.

“You!” Rus called, letting all his impatience thunder out. “You can’t land here!”

The figure leaned on the oar, and Rus saw it was an old man, with lank, grey hair framing a wizened nut of a face, and a tangled grey beard. Overhead, the first stars gleamed in the dark blue.

“I ... I am,” the old man said in a thin voice.

“You are, you are,” Rus snapped. Old Mother Tallero had probably already started. He grabbed the man’s elbow to encourage him back into the little rowboat. But the man stiffened.

“Wait!” he said, and his voice was stronger. “Wait, please. I am ... so tired. I have come far.”

“Not far enough,” Rus said. “Come on, then. Back you go.” A gust of wind blew in from the water, carrying the salty and thick sea smell, but also something else. Rus inhaled. It was a clean smell, like wet iron.

Then he noticed that the stranger was dusted white. As the old man straightened, the dust fell from his shoulders. Rus touched it, and his fingers stung with cold.

“What ... snow?”

“Aye, snow,” the old man said, and his voice, louder now, rang like a bell. Behind him the sky was dark and jeweled with stars, and Rus could hear the far sigh of the surf.

“I have, as I told you, come very far. Very far.”

The man’s hair, Rus now saw in the starlight, was not grey but white like snow, and though his mouth and eyes were wrinkled from smiles, his eyes were grave and dark.

“Rus,” the stranger said, letting go of the oar. It clattered to the ground and he reached inside what Rus now saw was a sort of leather traveling coat, covered with buckles and flaps and little pockets, all of it stained and worn.

“Here,” the man said, and held out a gloved hand. Rus took the small object, unwrapped it, and held it up to the stars to see. It was a tiny model of a ship. But this was more detailed and intricate than anything he’d seen. Every mast and spar, every little flying jib, a working rudder and wheel the size of kernel of corn, even a web of rigging like silver hairs.

The world swayed. Rus put out one arm to balance himself, and planted his feet so he wouldn’t sit down. Because this -- this tiny model -- was something he had wanted when he was small, wanted it so badly he dreamed about it, talked about it endlessly, infuriated his parents and friends with the idea of just such a tiny ship. For Yuletide, he told himself. No, my birthday. No, Fishmarket Day. Okay, maybe Yuletide.

And then, as so often happens, he forgot about it. Years passed. Decades. And now he was standing on the beach with a stranger in the cold wind. His cheeks were wet and he rubbed them dry.

“How ... how did--?” he said, but the stranger held up a hand.

“I always come,” he said. “I always come.”

“But I’m grown now,” Rus said. The tiny ship was a relic of his childhood, and he felt a pang of the old want like a dream, but he was no longer a child. “I grew up.”

The man frowned. “Has it been so long?” He knelt and picked up the oar with surprising agility. “Has it truly been so long? Sometimes I cannot tell.” Then he smiled. “But you have a son.”

Rus was startled. “Ye-es,” he said. “Corin. He’s ... he’s six.”

The man nodded and rattled his little boat down the pebbled beach. The black water reflected the stars, and for a moment Rus’s head swam: it looked like the boat was floating through the sky.

“Your son, then,” the man said, and started to row. “I have much to do tonight. Goodbye, Rus.”

Corin, Rus thought. He would love this.

He carefully pocketed the tiny ship, marveling again at the intricacy and craft, and strode up the beach, thinking of his own childhood. He walked fast, and turned his collar against the first grainy flakes of snow.

As he reached Stone Road he turned not right toward the pub, but left, uphill, in the direction of home. He did not look back at the harbor, and he did not hear the splashing of oars stop, and the low chuckle of warm mirth, and the sploosh as if a large object -- the size of a rowboat, perhaps -- was lifted from the cold waves into the sky.

Yet as Rus stepped to the doorway of his little house, he paused. For even as the wind carried the iron tang of snow and the salty breath of the sea, it seemed he also heard the far ringing of bells under the stars.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I Come From The Land of the Ice and Snow

I've never known what two feet of snow looks like. Now I do. And although it resulted in eight hours of shoveling and no small amount of sore muscles, it also enabled long afternoons by the fire, surrounded by books, soft pillows, and dozing cats.

It makes me think of Chabon's werewolf-pulled sledges, goblins cracking whips in the frozen air; Lewis's "always winter and never Christmas;" Pullman's wild and muddy trip to the far North; of Angmar and the Citadel of the Stars; of the snows of Kilimanjaro and frozen leopards; Scott's men in their last tent, in the howling dark.

Why is it that winter seems so much more evocative than summer? Or is it because I'm IN winter right now, when for most of the year it's temperate and, well, not covered in two feet of snow? Do children in Spitzbergen dream of the desert, of trackless dunes and sultry nights where the stars glow like jewels, just as we dream of the iron smell of coming snow and the northern lights glowing on fields of white?

Unfortunately for my characters, I'm fascinated by almost any geography, and sending them to experience it is the next best thing to traveling there myself. Because I've found my favorite stories have a rich sense of place, of being there. And everywhere is interesting.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fever Dreams

Interesting night last night. Plunging sense of well-being resulting from the onslaught of a head cold and a query rejection (la, inevitable but still stings) sent me early to bed ... to lie awake feeling a vise squeezing my sinuses.

At 2 I gave up and took a decongestant. Knowing this would keep me awake, I also "took" some Glenlivet (la, it is medicinal). Tossed and turned until the Glenlivet wore off and then lay, wide awake, heart pounding (I blame the decongestant) until 4:00, when I gave up and arose to read. Got bored, came back to bed, and started mulling over, in a haze of forehead-crushing sinus pain and a dry mouth, the following problem:

It's winter. Too cold for epoxy to cure. Yet I need to install the chine "logs" on the boat. These are actually three pieces of long wood, each about one inch square by sixteen feet. I need to warm them and the spot where they attach to at least 70 degrees, otherwise the epoxy won't work.

Now, working through winter before, I've heated small areas with a tenting of plastic, lights, and a digital thermometer. But I'm beginning to think I may have to tent the entire boat, frames and all, bow to stern, like the house in E.T.

Or so it seemed to my humming mind in the wee hours of the morning. Thus, today: a doctor visit and more cogitation. How do you warm a sixteen-foot-long area when the ambient temperature is in the low thirties?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Crickets Beware

I have recently come to realize that if I want to build a boat that looks more like a boat than the closing half of a parenthesis, I'm going to need to be able to get to the port side.

Two years of boatbuilding and garage-storage has littered the wall of the garage with scrap wood, boat frames from an abandoned project, great loops of rope, a few cardboard boxes filled with smaller cardboard boxes of screws, firewood, a rake, two shovels, 200' of 14-gauge extension cord, and so on.

For the most part I've been able to teeter on a stack of 2x4s (as perilous as it sounds) or reach across from the starboard side, or wiggle in under the building jig (crickets, spiders, and nightmares galore).

But as I now need to dry-fit and install the port chine, well: time to clean!

Last night I opened the garage door, donned what I hoped would be cricket-proof gloves, and pulled out as much detritus as I could. Most of this was scrap wood: little knobs of locust, or strip cutoffs, or things accidentally epoxied to each other. Some of it might have been good firewood, but I gotta boat to build, there's no time for discernment! Into the big plastic trash can it all went, to be sorted through later.

Now that side of the boat is not only accessible, but swept clean of dust and the bones of spider victims. In all of this, I saw not a single cricket.

Which means they have massed themselves somewhere. Probably inside my pillowcase or under my toast or somewhere equally ghastly.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The grass is always greener

I have the wooden skeleton of a sailboat in my garage and the always-in-revision third novel on my laptop. Both are wonderful and long projects. And still I find myself daydreaming about the next boat. The next book.

Partly it's the idea of starting fresh. Right now I'm far enough past the beginnings of both projects that I have to struggle to remember how daunting it was to have no momentum, to just ... start.

And partly it's the half-adulterous feeling that "sure, this boat is good. But that one ... that one could be better!" Except unlike spouses, we can accumulate boats and books and grow and learn with each one.

Wait a second, maybe that's exactly like spouses.

*rim shot!*

If for no other reason than wanting to avoid uncertainty when these projects are done, I've already begun thinking about what to do next.

There's always the Folkboat plan, of course, except that wouldn't fit in the garage. Paul Gartside draws some beautiful boats that have helped me couch-sail on many a winter's evening. There's Joel White's bewitching lapstrake double-ender, the Fox Island Class -- if only it had a centerboard I might be building it right now! Because my oh my that beauty looks fun to sail. And then there's Paketi, which I would do with a small cabin and a gaff topsail because life is short. With that flat bottom and all that sail area she would fly downwind.

There's the story of the girl driving west with her loser father. Or is he really that much of a loser? The snow adventure. The desert. More, oh so much much more to say about Rigel and his friends.

There is, I am pleased to discover, so much to do.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Asymptotic quality

Once upon a time, in a cold desert where men performed cruelties by moonlight, an old slave woman had a map of the known world tattooed on her tongue. When she swore, which was often, the juicy invectives passed over rivers and caves and winding blue paths; and when she wanted you lost she closed her mouth with a foamy snap.

Okay, now. The trouble with revising is that ... well, I don't want to do it. I know: wah. But I keep thinking about other stuff I could be writing, strange and fascinating stuff, and then I turn back to my manuscript -- also strange and fascinating, let me not forget! -- as it grinds toward quality.

I have a theory about quality. It is, no doubt, not original, but I like to pretend that I'm the first to have thought it.

In algebra (I'll wait. With me? Okay.) when you graph an equation, say "x=y^2" for example (I'll wait. With me? Okay.) the result is an arcing curve. This line, always changing, soars ever closer to an imaginary limit, but never reaches it. Never reaches it. This imaginary line is the asymptote.

It is perfection. We never reach it.

And so when I change a word, then rethink it and change the sentence, then rethink that and change the paragraph, and then start to have doubts about the whole lousy paragraph and don't get me started on the scene or voice or pace or rhythm (yes, they're different) or metaphor or imagery or tension ...

... it means I'm sliding along toward the asymptote, sluglike, slow and laborious.

Sometimes I think one great side effect of being a writer is the ability to complain in metaphor! Anyway, happy weekend to all and to all a good night.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Twelve pages

Twelve pages. Twelve. Pages. Of single-spaced notes, questions, failed attempts at a workable query. The process is a great exercise -- and I mean 'exercise' in the training-for-a-marathon sense -- because it has forced me to think about what's really at the core of my story.

What it all means. Why it matters.

Simplicity, I've learned once again, is hard. But finally, I think I've landed on something workable.


The port city of Quartermoon Bay teems with shipbuilders and captains home from the sea, fishermen and priests and menders of nets. People call fire from the air with a twist of their fingers, and an old woman’s storytelling silences a pub of rowdy sailors.

Twelve-year-old Riga has never seen much point in the stories Grandmother keeps trying to teach him. Until one bright morning, when six strange ships attack and burn his city to the ground, slaughtering the weak and the aged, and enslaving the rest. Grandmother has time to whisper one final story to Riga: across the mountains, hidden in a sea cave, lies the last Ship of the Light, a half-mythical relic of the old wars.

Riga escapes, killing two guards and fleeing into the mountains. He’s driven by the wild hope that he can find the Ship and strike back against the invaders who destroyed everything -- and everyone -- he’s ever known. But as he grasps the terrible significance of the ancient stories, and his role in them, he must weigh revenge against survival, and loyalty to his friends against the true burden of carrying the stories of the dead.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Go, monkey mind, go

I don't think I made up the term "monkey mind" myself. It refers, I've decided / read, to the magical quality of total innocence. Say, when you first learn to bowl and roll a strike because you're not hung up on your shoes or your form, or how crooked your pinkie has to get.

When you don't know it can't be done, in other words. There's a freedom there, before you get down to the nitty-gritty of "technique" and "precedent" and "details" and sometimes -- rarely, but it does happen -- you just ... do it.

Sometimes I'll be daydreaming and ideas will start circling like angry birds, wheeling and coming in so fast my head aches at the thought of writing them all down. I used to lunge for pen and paper, and scrawl incomprehensibilities like "Queen wall bricks" or "Lollipop paper -- semicolon not Tennyson!!!"

This was anti-monkey mind. True monkey mind just lets all those ideas slosh around for awhile -- overnight is best -- before plucking them out.

Other times I'll just forget. Monkey mind is not infallible; there's a reason it's not called Cyborg Mind.

But sometimes, if you can sneak up on a problem (e.g., "who's that bald guy, the lead singer of Genesis, who is NOT called Paul Simon even though that's all I can come up with"; or "how can I get this big meaning into this little sentence") and surprise it after not thinking about it ... you can trap it and figure it out. That's monkey mind.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How do you think he does it?

I don't know. What makes him so good?

These days I'm listening to Michael Chabon read his "Summerland" (book on CD). It is very, very good. A few months ago I read "Gentlemen of the Road," by the same author but very different in style and tone. And also very, very good.

So my question to myself is: Self, although you are certainly dashing and freakishly cool, this appears to be quite the mystery. How is Michael Chabon so good?

Is it innate talent? Practice? A clean workspace? Maybe he does Internet searches more than me. Or less. Or exclusively. Or never.

Maybe I need a plant in my writing room. Maybe I should vacuum it. Maybe I should put more clothes on the floor. Or put away the half-empty epoxy containers.

Or maybe -- just maybe -- none of these mean a damn if you don't just sit down. And get to work.

Perseverance, I believe, is a spark of heat on a cold day. A cold winter. Nothing matters if you do not carry on.

Yes, I will read more, and not just as someone in the audience but as a technician: how does he do that? Why does she make this choice instead of that one? Why so many verbs? Why this pace and not faster? Or slower?

In the meantime: back to work! Still on the query. But I'm close: it is sneaking around my peripheral vision, flicking my ear and melting into shadows when I turn. But I know where to find it: in the corner. And I step toward it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

There is a fire in it.

"That girl is dangerous," one of my characters says, about another. "There is a fire in her."

This is what I must remember; what I do remember: there is a fire at the heart of my story. It can be disguised by the slow death of editing; it can be hidden behind word choice and frustrations over tempo and pace ... but there is a still a fire in it.

Now, then. The job of a query is to burn with that fire. To singe, to smolder, to crackle and glow. To carry some of the story's fire in just a few short sentences that nonetheless sear the reader like a hot sidewalk.

Interesting how I'll choose to write about the query instead of writing the query itself. Enough avoidance. Here goes:

There is a character. He is, like all of us, both a product of his environment and defined by -- imprisoned by? -- his expectations about right and wrong and how the world works.

One day all of that changes, suddenly and horribly. He fights back but learns, for the first time in his life, that he is too weak. That bad things happen no matter how fierce you are.

But still, against all reason and evidence: he believes. He hopes. He, as a very wise man once wrote, carries the fire.

He fails, over and over again. And each time his belief that the world can be understood crumbles a little. In its place is a cynical hope that despite the vagaries of the world, despite the invisible dice-throwing hand of God, despite everything, he can persevere.

Instead of believing in the world, he believes in himself.

Cheesy? No doubt. Like all themes, in the abstract it's little more than a Hallmark card. But when I think of him, my character, Riga, standing in the snow high on the burning white slopes of a mountain, hacking and gasping in the thin air, he wants to stop. The sky is so blue-black it almost vibrates, and he has been coughing up blood for four days.

Behind him is the way back down, to warmth and the soft green lowland valleys. Ahead is a wall of rock and ice.

But ahead is also hope. He takes a step. And another step.

And he keeps going.

Does he believe in himself? Hell and death, he believes in himself because everything else has failed him. Or because he has no choice. Or because he can't stop and die.

Somewhere in there is the kernel of my query.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


And he cannot write.

He chatters about motivation and emotional arc but the characters seem like straw dolls, simulacra.

He runs outside to stare at the night sky, filling his lungs, but the cold air does not burn, and the stars are paste chips. He drinks deeply of wine, but it tastes of oatmeal, a thin slurry of feh. He thrusts his hands into the fire but feels only woolen softness. He screams but no sound comes. He bites his lips and tastes no blood.

And he cannot write.

Brick wall; towering cliff; windless ocean; rain dripping on crows; silence in the great forest; a hand closed into a fist; a smile faded; a head hooded and withdrawn; a curtain closed. Nails bitten; keys stroked; sun hidden; fire doused. And he cannot write.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Querulous Query

Still. Working. On. The. Query.

Here's the challenge: hook the reader, but don't take too long. Summarize the book but don't give too much away. Demonstrate a plot arc and justify the story being 110,000 words. Tease out what the story's really about. Hint: it's probably not what you thought for the past year.

Fortunately, even though it's not quite about what I thought, it is about SOMETHING. And that's what the query focuses on: the main character's view of himself, how it changes, and how he feels about it changing. Oh, and the titanic battle of good and evil.

But! Lest it be thought I spend all my time double-checking the spelling of "querulous" (nearly missed that second U) I have also managed to "work on the boat" by poking querulously at camel crickets and ordering ungodly amounts of expensive screws.

Silicon bronze screws, to be precise. The boat's made with wood, and stuck together with epoxy, and in many spots also held together with screws (and sometimes small bolts). I use silicon bronze because:

a) It's the best. Hands down. It will not rust, corrode, or suddenly fail.
b) It's beautiful. These screws look like jewelry, copper-gold and heavy.
c) Although the glue is not likely to fail, if it does I rather like the notion of a mechanical fastener as backup ... and I rather like the idea of not having to worry about it. See a), above.

I also ordered the first of many inspection ports. This is a circular opening about six inches across, which enables you to reach inside the many storage areas of the boat (and retrieve water, beer, binoculars, recently published book about the titanic battle of good and evil and one boy's evolution of selfhood, spare line, etc.)

It's not time to install the inspection ports yet, but it's time to cut the holes out in the boat, because it'll be easier now then later, when everything is at funny angles and not clamped to my workbench.

I wonder if I could train the crickets to mix batches of epoxy for me. And then jump into it and perish horribly.

Friday, November 13, 2009

This Query Is Kicking My Butt

Here's an idea. If you ever wonder how to suck all the life out of a story you spent over a year working on, if you ever want to drain every juicy drop of joy from your ideas until they're as stale as last week's bread ... why, all you have to do is write a query!

What I've been doing is eliminating possibilities. Does this work? Let's try it. Nope, failure.

How about that? Let's try it. Nope, failure.

This? Failure.

That? Failure.

Scrub everything, try again.


The trouble is that it's supposed to be the synopsis that's the spirit-breaker. Distilling the story into a 1-2 page summary, glossing over nuance and completely skipping subplots, all of it in dreadful passive language with no room for motivation and meaning? That's hell; that's a synopsis. You expect that to be hard.

But a query? A query is supposed to find the spark at the core of the story, that burning piece of starlight that beams across the pages and pages and pages. What it all means. Why it matters.

Identifying that should be easy, right? Writing it into a couple of sentence should be fun, right?



I'm off to a conference this weekend. I intend to return with a new energy. I will master this query!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Micro and macro

Micro-level line editing continues very slowly. I realized that if I quit slouching around on the couch watching TV, I could get in at least another hour per day. Done! And thank goodness for coffee.

At the same time I'm getting ready to start querying this latest book. Since I know it takes a good couple of weeks to come up with a workable query, I'm trying to start now.

It's tricky, like going from reading glasses to a telescope, to be working on micro-edits but also trying to hold the macro-level themes in my head well enough to pull out the threads of a compelling query. That's what it feels like: I'm faced with this enormous tangle of yarn, and I have to reach in, hook a few strands, and tease them out. Then mail them off and hope somebody can envision the sweater.

Hey, a knitting metaphor! Probably my last! Hooray for coffee! Did I already say that!?

Friday, November 6, 2009

We Are Not Amused

Last night I was working on the middle of three chine pieces, the sixteen-foot strips of fir that bend around the edge of the boat. I followed the same technique as the inner piece ... right down to committing the same error. In the very same way. After trimming off a neat angle I found that it was precisely 9mm too short. Again.

Maybe, thought I, it would just be easier to slice 9mm off the back of the and boat and move the whole stern forward to close the gap I seem to insist on creating.

This morning, continuing my painstaking editing, I managed to do 4 pages in an hour. That fourth page took 45 minutes, most of it on four sentences. S ... l ... o ... w.....

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Night Of The Crickets

After my slick chine-lengthening move (see previous post) I returned to the boat project with vigor and optimism! Immediately I set to work test-fitting and then bending the second (middle) of three chine pieces.

As I was working up near the bow, I realized that I hadn't seen any spiders in a while.

Don't get me wrong, the normal cobweb spiders spin their hairy webs over everything. I have decided their fangs are too small to puncture my skin, so I don't worry about them apart from flailing like an electrocuted Wookiee when I wander through their webs.

No, what was missing -- speaking of Wookiees -- were the wolf spiders. I've written about these before. Suffice it to say that the method of finding these leviathans is to go into your yard at night with a flashlight. And look for the glowing eyes in the grass. I am not kidding.

Wolf spiders eat, among other things (dolphins, gazelles, lambs), crickets. Not just any crickets, but the hunch-backed, striped, spidery horrors called camel crickets.

These are so ghastly, so viscerally awful that I cannot even post an image. Prop yourself in front of a bucket and Google them if you must.

So wolf spiders eat camel crickets. No wolf spiders in the shop equals ...

I reached under the boat to tighten a screw and nearly put my hand on a cricket the size of my thumb tip.

When I returned to the ground -- seriously, one moment I was kneeling under the boat and then next I was five feet away after some sort of fugue state -- the cricket was gone.

Ha, I said (after saying other things), and reached for a killing stick.

Since it's a wooden boat I'm building, there are scraps of wood everywhere. No shortage of long clubs with with to dispatch a cricket. I found a piece of wood. Found the cricket. Made the cricket not be a cricket anymore.

Look, I'm sorry but there are certain things I will not tolerate, and camel crickets infesting my boat is one of them.

A few minutes later I nearly stepped on another one. Different cricket, different wood scrap. Same result.

Now I find myself in need of a hungry wolf spider that will eat crickets but not me. Looks like it's time to go spider-spottin' with my headlamp and leather gloves.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Swine Chine

The chine is the long, curved piece of wood that runs along the bottom edges of the boat, port and starboard (left and right, ye blasted lubbers). It reinforces the corner between the side planking and the bottom.

There I was, tra-la-la, merrily ripping a 16' piece of beautiful douglas fir. (Okay, "ripping" is an overstatement, I was using a circular saw and a careful eye to the inked line. 16' is a long long cut.) In this case the curve is too severe (not to mention a twist; it's a curvy boat) for the full piece to bend on, so I'm using three narrower pieces, each of which is sufficiently bendy enough. The three pieces get bent on individually, then all glued together.

Test-fitting the first piece is a complicated operation, involving crawling around on my hands and knees, scattering wood chips and spider carcasses (what eats spiders? Bigger spiders.) and trying not to scrape my back on the frames arcing above me like open arms.

At the bow, the chine piece is trimmed into a long and sharp angle, so it can nestle up flush to the front of the boat. Then it runs through six notches, one in each frame, bending and twisting and clamping and grunting it into place.

At the end of the boat the chine piece snugs up inside the transom, which has an angled socket ready to receive it. All I had to do was cut the wood to this complicated angle and it would press smoothly into place. Right? Who's with me?

I maneuvered the long piece of wood, flush at the bow, aft frame by frame. When I reached the transom it was time to trim it to the right angle, so I clamped five or six times until it was just right, tried several measuring techniques to capture both the angle and the depth of the hole, moved the light six or a hundred times so I could see, drew the line and cut.

Here is the result, after several hours of preparation, testing, re-testing, and finally cutting:


The chine (under my thumb) is exactly 9 millimeters too short, although it's at precisely the correct angle, thanks to my careful measuring. For what it's worth, the transom is exactly 9mm thick. Odd, that.

Luckily I had my Swearin' Hat on and was able to fire off a few blistering phrases, stunning mosquitoes and curling wood shavings. There was nothing else to do but cut a piece to make up the difference, since there was NO WAY I was going to spend another day working up another sixteen-foot piece.


And solution in place:

The douglas fir is beautiful and fine-grained. As if that's any consolation. I'll soak the whole thing in epoxy, drop a counter-sunk #10 x 1-1/2 bronze screw in through the transom, and it'll be fine.

But still.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Which I Avoid The Bear

"Bear Update," was the title of an e-mail recently sent to everyone in our neighborhood. "A bear and her cub have been spotted roaming the streets and woods."

Now, I do not live on the Aleutian Islands, or Alaska, or the zoo. I have seen bears a few times WAAYYYY up in the Virginia mountains, but having them loitering by my mailbox is a bit much. Especially considering the stomach-churning fear everyone experiences when they think about things "a bit too much" while running in the foggy dark before sunrise.

The deer are bad enough, huddling behind bushes and mailboxes, waiting for me to approach -- rubbing their hooves together, I imagine -- and then exploding across the road in a rain of demon-hooves and swaying tree branches. Ha ha! Hilarious, deer! Perhaps you'd like to try my venison-flavored deer treats!

This morning I was trotting along in the milky ghost light of a rainy night and thin moon, when I saw outlined against the dim road a squat thing moving in the leaves. I veered right; it followed. I swerved left, it followed.

Easy, easy, I whispered. This is reality. Reality! Come on, reality! When I saw it waving long arms and legs I felt the long cold shiver down my scalp and neck.

It was my shadow.

In my defense, it was a solid-looking shadow because the air was so humid and it caught on ... uh, water droplets ... three-dimensional....

The worst part is that it startled me twice. On the same run. As in, "I know the last thing was just my shadow but this new hell-denizen is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT."

Somehow I made it home without crashing into deer, bear, or anything worse. If I could just convince myself that the "bear" was just someone rehearsing a Halloween costume, then all I need is candy.

If I see the bear I will pelt it with Smarties and lock the door.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Burning Road

This week's Sunday Scribblings prompt is "Shame." We all experience it differently. Here we go!


And it all come back to me. Well no. Pieces of it, pictures. Like when I used to catch glimpse of Red Haney’s TV cross the water some mornings, just blue flickers in the dark and sometimes a picture I could see.

Just pictures.

I hit her. I think I hit her. I hit her.

She aint in the passenger seat and she aint in the back seat and she aint anywhere in the car, just her stuff, her plastic SuprFresh grocery bag with clothes and another with makeup and music and thats it. No her.

And some more come back. I been drinking, it aint news, I been drinking my whole drinky life, against cold in winter and bugs in summer and crab pinches and fish spines and diesel stink all damn year. ALL damn year.

So I been drinking and she was arguing again, just like Julie always used to, and I knew, I just knew maybe some drink would soften her voice a little, soften her hard words so they didn’t nettle at me so. And partways I thought it was wrong and partways I thought it was right.

And she said no, dad no! like I was some kinda killer when all I wanted was some quiet so I could think. Cause we had a long way to drive and I was going to scratch my ears off if she kept shouting like that.

I didn’t hit her. I hit her. I tried to feed her the bottle like when she were little and Julie showed me how God it was so long ago, and she pushed the bottle away.

It all come back.

She push the bottle away and I got one hand on the wheel cause we still driving, aint we? And I take the other hand and guess I push the bottle at her hard, too hard cause something happens, the car’s swerving and she aint moving. And I know I just KNOW I made things worse not better, like I always did.

So we come to a dirtbag little town and the sun aint quite down and its raining that cold rain like its never gonna stop, and theres a clinic. I bust open the door and take her in and leave her there and they’re crying at me and my head’s spinning and the world’s spinning and the car’s still running and I get in and get it right out of there.

I think that’s last night. Same night as now and its still raining and still dark and she still aint here. But at least she safe. Away from me.

I look at the bottle by the gear shift and it says, I’m your exit buddy, turn here and its the way you want to go. This way home.

I look at that thing a long time. Dashboard lights make it sparkly and there aint nothing on the radio worth hearing.

I look at the pack of Camels and they say kinda the same thing and my mouth wants something besides drink so I light one up and smoke it fast. And I light another and smoke that down till it burns my fingers.

And another, smoking my way down the road to where Julie maybe is, west of here. California, all the west you can go, where there aint no rain and shitty crab boats and diesel stink and cold water.

The butts go right out the window, one after another, I don’t even care if they’re out or if they start a fire. Cause I would deserve it, and I think I see each little bouncing spark setting the road afire, and its fast cause its burning all the dead leaves, and the fire is racing along behind me, and the road of fire chasing me in the wet night.

And I hope it catches me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Transom dry assembly

That's right, you read it correctly: the transom, Frame 7, and seat fronts are all dry-assembled!

While you fan yourselves and mop feverish brows, allow me to explain. I'm at the stage in the boat project where I'm putting together the whole back half of it. The place where you sit, where the outboard motor attaches, where there are lockers to be filled with line, flares, emergency pump, etc.

You clamp everything together -- and this is, let's see, six separate pieces of wood, all three or four feet long -- drill the holes, and insert temporary screws. Then you do some other stuff (mumble mumble chines mumble #$#!*@ inflexible wood), remove all the dry-assembled pieces, add glue, and reassemble permanently. So needless to say this is an exciting moment, to see the aft end of the boat come together.

Last night around 7pm I had reached a convenient stopping point. It was getting late, I was about three hours past hungry, and the next step was a complicated boat-lifting operation.

Except I still had half an hour before making dinner, so I looked at the boat and got back to work. It'll only get built if I build it, after all.

So I measured the gap, selected a piece of one-by, ripped it to width, slid it in under the boat, removed the old jig cross-piece, and happily drilled the transom-bottom holes at the correct angle. (Previously the jig piece had been in the way of the drill. What I wouldn't give for a tiny but powerful drill.)

Hey awesome, it worked and I still had time for dinner. I know, right?

I seize on every opportunity to celebrate in this long building process. Kinda like writing a book.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Slow Discernment

Revisionzzzzz. Recently I decided that every sentence of my manuscript should be perfect.

Because after all, if you think about it, why wouldn't you want every sentence to be as good as it could be, just right ... perfect? Exactly. That's the trap I found myself in this morning.

No problem I said, heroically sipping coffee from my special Writing Mug, I'll just go through and check 'em all. So I started, after some more coffee (no reason to be barbaric), and it -- was -- working!

Sentences and paragraphs that previously hadn't been quite right, or which had been good but not great, I examined, turned inside out, dissected and rebuilt, diced and recombined, or (best of all) deleted.

It's scary how much I was changing. In fact, it was almost like re-writing the whole book, one sentence at a time, just like the first draft. So it was alternately frustrating and exhilarating to realize there was a different and better way to say most things.

This is where discernment comes in, and judgement. Does the rhythm of this sentence work? How about the sounds of the words: rhymes or alliteration or mushiness? Should the clauses be reversed to emphasize something different? Can I pick a slightly different metaphor that will resonate through multiple meanings? ("darkness at its center" was one I landed on this morning).

It's great that this was working (which for me, maybe for many writers, means: not failing) but it was. very. slow. After half an hour I'd gone through two pages, which is about as fast as writing the book from scratch.

At this rate it will take weeks and weeks to go through.

But so what? The book needs it so that's what it gets. Time to make some more coffee.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Seeing Stars

Accursed Daylight Savings: It is now dark when I arise at 5 to run, dark when I leave the house, dark during my run, and dark when I return. In a few weeks when we lose Daylight Savings Time, I'll get an hour of daylight at dawn. Of course, it'll be pitch dark when I leave work, so six of one...

This morning we finally had clear skies, so I was hopeful that some light would leak across the horizon from the rising sun. No such luck: it was stars, stars, stars, and my breath fogging in the night of our first frost.

It was too dark to see: deer, monsters, other runners, road kills, goats, man-sized vultures, and other nightmarish creatures that I am certain inhabit our darkened neighborhood. Often a mailbox or a trashcan would pretend to be something else as I approached it nervously.

But mostly it was just stars and trees and the dim paleness of the road. Until, at about 3 miles, I looked ahead to where the mountains were just showing their crumpled outline in the darkness, and there was a streak of light in the sky, blink-fast and nearly vertical.

Ha! quoth I, a falling star!

And then, a few miles later, another one. This time I snapped my head up faster and saw a lingering trail of green hanging among the stars for an instant after the tiny green light fell, like a long dab of fingerpaint or cold smoke.

Nice to know there are some benefits to forcing myself out of bed and into the cold, cold darkness.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bad Odds

What do you do with bad odds? You beat them.

At my day job I'm sifting through resumes for a position we have posted. Whether due to the economy, the town, or some sublimated tectonic explosion of interest, we've been deluged. And I can only hire one person.

Tossing out the sloppy ones, or those riddled with errors, is an easy decision. As is eliminating those who have mixed things up and are applying for a different job. But then I'm faced with several dozen, very qualified applications, and I think to myself: I feel like an agent going through query letters.

Agents: I feel your pain, sort of. Because each one of these remaining resumes has a person's hope attached to it. The careful formatting, the agonizing over phrasing in the cover letter, the debates about font and margin spacing.

So I had to start thinking like an agent. This person has the wrong professional background? Out they go. This one has typos and misspellings? Cut. They may be accidental, but at the same time, this resume -- or query letter -- is a representation of you and your work. It better be spot on.

This one is personalized to the job opening or, better yet, our company? Hang on to it for now. This one answers everything we ask in the ad without going on and on and on? A keeper.

There's also a strange element, which I've sometimes seen agents note as well. Does this application, does this query letter, have heart? Is there a spark there? It's subjective and maybe unfair, but writing should have heart. A query should have heart. A cover letter should have heart.

And in the end, what do you say when the resume is perfectly fine but just not right for the job? Thanks, but this is not for me. We've all heard that from agents. It's not malicious or condescending; it's just that there are fifty other resumes to go through and I can't take time away other work to write a detailed letter of pros and cons for each person.

The odds are not good. Sorry, they're just not. Which is why, when I labor over my query and synopsis, and when I grind through another revision, I remind myself: Beat the odds.

Steve Martin once said the secret to success was to be so good they can't ignore you. There's no trickery to it. Just quality.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Crap Blast Dang Crunklesnit Gashbunking Crud

News flash: it is fun inventing curse words. All those good Anglo-Saxon fricatives, harsh and spittly. Sliverous wretch! Ark-barking mange-eating snail pit! Gubbering, zit-poxed, lackwit, specilious, feculent gorgon! Harpish festoon! Squit-flanked rash-cobbled linny! On and on.

Yet I should get down to the business of this post and the reason for my vexation: the thunderclap realization that while my latest book is pretty good, it's also NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Here's what brought this home. In my writing room I have a shelf full of sailing books for "research" (and entertainment when I'm supposed to be brushing my teeth, going to work, cleaning the litterbox, writing, folding laundry, finding receipts, whatever).

Several of these focus on the nearly-lost art of seamanship of big square-rigged sailing ships. A few others --strangely interesting -- are just dictionaries of archaic sailing terms, now nearly lost. I'm fascinated by words that are specific to a skill, or an industry. Especially when the words go the way of the great ships, sunk or lost at sea or burned in war. Imagine a whole language comprised of nothing but the thin whispers of extinct words.

I actually have to make myself not even open the dictionary of archaic sailing terms, because it tends to ensnare me: jaw sags open, eyes dilate, unfolded laundry drops to the floor, and I read and read and read.

The problem is that even with this wealth of information at my fingertips, I have not included nearly enough of it in my manuscript. Part of which is very concerned with life at sea, and in a port city by the sea.

The only solution, I fear / hope, is to read that dictionary, to learn all the terms, and then to carefully sprinkle them into the story. After all, I don't want so many strange words that I need a glossary.

EXCEPT! Hold that thought! D. M. Cornish does just that with his Monster Blood Tattoo books; I should be so lucky to create a world so vivid and compelling as that one.

The good news is, whether I add in lots of these words, or just a few, I get to read the dictionary either way. Now I just need a cold and rainy weekend.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Completed boat

No, not MY completed boat, but Steve Earley's. I met Steve at the Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival this weekend and finally got to see a finished, working version of the boat I'm building. Very exciting!

Steve did a great job building Spartina, and, after cruising over 500 sea miles in her, knows more than a little about what works and what doesn't. He even took my mom and me out for a gentle sail in light airs while I hopped around probing into hatches and asking about bungs and plywood joints and mast step drains.

Without further ado, here is my inspiration, the completed boat:

You have to kind of slide into it, and it tends to sail fastest backwards, but....

No, only joking. Here is Steve's boat:

Note spooky disembodied hands; I wasn't taking pictures of people, but rather hatch, sheeting, and coaming details. And here's mine from the same angle:

As you can see I have a little ways to go in the waterproofing department.

Two more: Spartina from above (beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, love the grey) and my frames from above, similar angle.

Steve, thanks for answering my endless questions and taking us out for a sail. Someday I'll return the favor!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Small Craft Warning

Got a call this morning from Steve Earley -- he and his friend Bruce made it to Rock Hall, MD after several days of small craft warnings coming up the Chesapeake Bay.

I sit here in my office and watch the trees fluttering and swaying under a bright blue sky.

Steve's sailing a Pathfinder, the same boat I'm building, so when I head up to the Mid Atlantic Small Craft Festival this weekend, I plan on taking loads of pictures and -- even better -- seeing a completed boat! A far cry from the dusty skeleton in my garage, but still very, very inspiring. Can't wait.

I've sailed in small craft warning conditions before -- that's the meteorologist's code for "awesome sailing conditions" and the boat pounds through glittering waves, swaying and tilting. You're going so fast that when you trail your hand in the water it feels hard, like you're slapping a wall. Everything is wet and breathless and happening very fast.

Wait a second, that sounds like ... something else.

I'm beginning to think that my other hobbies and loves are simply lesser replacements for sailing fast in a good boat. Running brings me into the outdoors; biking adds the element of speed. When a thunderstorm cracks open the sky and I stare at the churning clouds, it's sailing I'm thinking of. When I visit the beach I stare out to sea, thinking, watching the waves.

And days like this I sit inside, gnashing my teeth and savoring the strange little boatbuilding cuts on my fingertips. (Did you know the back of a saw can cut you?)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Footwell progress

What's that, you say? A footwell? Boring? Never! The footwell is where you put your feet when sitting in the boat.

It's where sunblock gets tossed, where a sponge (on a cord, always on a line) swipes the painted wood so your feet stay dry, where you stash a wine bottle or a cold beer at the end of a long trick to windward. Where you check the compass course and hope you've accounted enough for the powerful tide sweeping out of the vast Potomac. Where you kick up your feet and daydream on a long downwind run.

It's the boat's cockpit. Where the magic happens.

With the frames in, "all" I have to do is add in the sides. These are the fronts of the seats, where -- if you were a small doll with very short legs -- you'd drum your heels when sitting and draw the ire of the captain.

The tricky (and best) part is: the boat's bottom is gently curved up. The front and back edges of the seat fronts is at a strange angle due to the angled frames. And the top is also curved, almost but not quite at the same arc as the bottom. Solution? A pattern! Here are two views of the pattern, clamped in place on the starboard side of the cockpit.

The thick frame on the aft edge -- the Legendarily Difficult Frame 7 -- is different to starboard because it's where the outboard motor clamps. In fact, the alignment of that F7 onto the bottom was so precise I snapped a picture. Freakish accuracy like this is all too rare:

This is the centerline of the frame (labeled "AFT" so I don't install it backwards) and the centerline of the bottom. The pencil line is about 0.5mm thick. Yeah!

Lastly, the view I treat myself to at the end of each boatbuilding session: the frames up, the shape of the boat beginning to take shape. Inspiration....

The front of the boat is out of the frame to the right, but you can see the centerboard well, the frames, and the bottom, as well as all the holes for ventilation.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Animals Gone Wild

Another one from the NY Times, fast becoming the premier weird-animal-fact-discoverer. Evidently, fanged, bird-eating frogs have been discovered in Southeast Asia. ***SPOILER ALERT*** It's actually Dracula.

Frogs that eat birds? No, thanks. That's almost as bad as spiders that eat birds, wasps that paralyze and lay their eggs inside live tarantulas, and eagles that eat monkeys. I guess you could have a gruesome circle of life: Frog and spider team up to catch bird; bird escapes and goes off to eat monkey; spider is attacked by wasp and becomes horrible paralyzed living nursery for wasp larva, which consume it as they grow and eventually eat their way out.

"Circle of life" may be an optimistic term, now that I think about it. Circle of Painful Death And Sometimes Crippling Fights For Survival doesn't have the same ring to it, though.

Seriously, once you start thinking of humans as prey, poor wee naked monkeys with neither claws nor fangs nor defensive stings (most of us, anyhow) things move into the crueler perspective already shared by the rest of the natural world.

Would my two housecats stalk, kill, and eat me if I was smaller? No doubt. After which they would probably have a hurking fit and barf me onto a section of rug (never linoleum, oh no, they aim for carpet).

Yesterday I encountered further signs that animals have Had It Up To Here. First, as I was recounting my tale of near-gut-exploding terror at work, one guy noted that he had actually run into a deer while jogging.

Was the deer stupid? Nearly blind in the darkness? Or simply ... waiting?

RUNNER: Is that ... a tree branch? A shadow? What the...?
DEER: Oh, step on, mofo. Let's dance.

Then, after work, I was biking up a cruelly steep gravel road when I rounded a bend and saw a fat copperhead snake S-coiled in the road. I noted the location (left turn, powerlines, steep camber) so when I returned, racing downhill later, I wouldn't run it over.

But on my way back down, it was gone. Spooky!

Next week: enough with the animals, already. Boatbuilding and writing galore.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Spin, my spiders. Spin like the wind!

The NY Times had an article yesterday about -- ready? -- Madagascar Golden Orb Spiders harnessed to tiny silk-extracting machines. The silk is spun into golden thread, which people have then woven into beautiful and costly tapestries.

Unfortunately, when I read "spider harness" I picture a tiny warrior in a Roman chariot, being pulled by an armored war spider. This moth uprising will not stand! To war, my arachnid brothers! Maybe partly due to -- ready? -- cat armor I saw on Laini Taylor's blog. Very cool, though I imagine the martial effect might be lost when the armored cat decided to sit down, raise one armored leg behind its armored ear, and lick its po-po. (First rule of Cat Club: Always stay clean.)

It gets me worrying about the spiders, too. What if, once they realized what they could do as a group, they gave up on gallery-ready tapestries and instead spun a giant web? They're already the size of bats, so I have no doubt that a web as big as, say, a trampoline would serve to hold an entire kindergarten class. And then the golden killers would scurry across the thread, gnashing their spidery jaws and squeaking their horrible spider language.

Where was I? Oh, right. Art from spiders.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


This time of year, when I step out the door for a run at 5:30AM it is DARK. And even more so when it's overcast and there's no moon, like this morning.

I have been startled on runs before. A mailbox or a trash can slowly looming out of the murk can appear to be a dog, just standing there, watching me. Or a deer can crash through the woods and gallop, hooves clicking, across the road, giving me a little jolt. Often branches lie in the road pretending to be snakes.

But what happened this morning surpassed all that.

The trouble is, writing fantasy means I get to / have to think about things like Baba Yaga and her house on chicken feet, or what a spider might feel like skittering down my throat (another worry: gulping down a glass of water at night without first checking that a spider is not floating in it!), or whether a goat standing alone on a dark road, grinning, is frightening, or whether there's an old man with long fingernails under my bed. Crows with smoke leaking from their eye sockets. Something in the air too big to be a bird. Poetry scrawled in tiny letters inside a rat den. The smell of rotting fish inside a cave. You see, I can't turn it off.

This is what happened today on my run. It was so dark that all I could see was a dim belt of grey above me, where the trees open to the sky, and an equally dim belt of grey below my feet. Everything else was that black, black, almost vibrating darkness of zero light.

I ran up what seemed like the middle of the road, trying not to think about dogtoothed clowns and old women giggling insanely -- you know, normal running thoughts -- when I glimpsed something in the darkness in front of me. RIGHT in front of me.

In less than a second, the following thoughts flickered through my animal brain like lightening:

1) That's a dog or a deer. Scary, but no problem.
2) It's not moving like a dog or a deer. What is it?
3) It's my height and flailing its arms and legs.
4) It's coming right at me OH GOD WHAT IS IT?

You know the sound you make when you open a drawer -- to get a spoon, say, or your keys -- and there is a spider that you nearly grab? Sort of "Unnhhhh!"

I made that sound and leapt out of the way of what turned out to be ... another runner, who was just as scared as I was. However, what scared him was the near-collision, whereas I was worried about face-eating demons who would take me back to their master, the bloody-faced old lady who lives in a dead tree and sends her scaly children out each night to bring her their prey to toy with.

The phrase "a chill went down my back," is an understatement. I shivered from the back of my head, down both arms, and down to my calves, a breath of ice that I expect was every hair trying to raise itself up as if I were a startled cat. Fight or flight is a difficult decision when you're already running directly at the problem.

I wanted to explain the strangled groan I had emitted, so I remarked in a shaky voice, "You scared the crap out of me!"

The rest of my run, thank goodness, was uneventful.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sennen Cove

One of the places we visited during our Cornwall trip in June was a tiny village called Sennen Cove, tucked into a rocky concavity on the coast of Southwest Britain. When we were there it was overcast and breezy, though we were in shorts and long-sleeve shirts, and we scuffed along the cool sand and wondered about sunburn through the clouds.

Today's weather report (I love the Internet) for Sennen Cove is 70 degrees, mostly cloudy, a gentle onshore breeze. And when I do an image search I find beautiful shots of turquoise water, corkscrew narrow roads, rocks at low tide. Postcard stuff.

But Sennen cove is also the handwritten "Open" sign on an empty snack stand, staffed by solicitous matronly types who cluck happily at American tourists who haven't yet had a cream tea. The tables are faded plastic, and you go up four steps to the restroom, past a mural of a larger-than-life mermaid.

Or the ancient tavern you have to duck your head to enter, warm and cheery on a cool day, with uneven tables and a surprisingly large menu of sandwiches and good beer.

Or the old man, striding along the beach in galoshes as if he could walk over or through anything, led by a bounding dog that leaps over the rocks as if he were a mountain goat. Sure enough, you blink and in what seems like seconds both man and dog have scaled a small cliff and are cruising through a slope of gorse twenty-five feet above the beach.

Or the surf shop with a whiteboard listing water conditions. Or the complicated bus schedule. Or the round souvenir shop, still full of chest-height spokes. Or the surprising taste of cold Coke on a cold day. Or clutching a paper bag of postcards or maps or books or vases, the brown paper wrinkled and folded and now beginning to tear through at the corners. Or the bright purple seats on the bus, where you huddle below because going up to the open "upstairs" would be unpleasantly cold and rainy.

On and on. Even a few hours can result in such a rich bouillabaisse of images, smells, and sounds, that if you're in the right frame of mind, or the right place, they come flooding back almost unbidden.

There is so much to tell.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What a fascinating, modern age we live in

It's funny how after something is invented -- a blender, the Internet, whatever -- that we get so used to it we can't imagine life without it. Yet somehow we survived for many years doing just that.

Life before the Internet? I think I can remember. We all lived in caves, right? I think my dad worked at a quarry and slid down a dinosaur at the end of the day.

What seems even stranger to me is the fact that we (I) didn't even yearn for the Internet before we had it. Oh no, I was perfectly happy with my printed books and actually visiting the library in person and writing letters and talking on the phone. It didn't seem like I was missing out.

Maybe that's how it was before the printing press. Could it be that most people, when they weren't being repressed or plowing icy fields (for some reason my image of the Middle Ages is hunchbacked, ancient thirty-year-olds groveling through ice and mud while the stern manor home rises in the distance) simply never thought how nice it might be to have some form of accessible printed books?

I guess what I mean is: accurate relativity. It's tempting to look at those who came before and wonder if they knew how much they were missing. In most cases that's not quite the right question, because they weren't "missing" anything. (Except maybe a good set of insulated clothes and a toothbrush for the medieval peasants.) We don't just invent products, we often invent the need for those products.

Which is why it's such a funny, perspective-inducing moment in the Master and Commander film, when Jack Aubrey looks at a hand-carved model of a ship in astonishment. Referring to some slightly different underwater shape, he remarks, "What a fascinating, modern age we live in."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ray's Sting and Squid Ink

It's been so long since I worked on something other than The Book, so I was glad to read this week's Sunday Scribblings prompt. Though I couldn't fully pull myself out of that world I've come to know so well. Enjoy!

Ray's Sting and Squid Ink

When the door blew open the fire guttered blue -- sea salt in the driftwood -- and all the candles bent their heads to the chimney as if in agreement.

“Close it! Hell and death, close the door!”

Someone, a latecomer who could find no seat by the warm fire, kicked the wooden planks and the door shut with a gust of snowy night air. Everyone in the Ragged Sailor that night heard the storm pounding the walls and mumbled a blessing into their cups that they were not at sea. Some discreetly touched talismans, secreted in deep pockets and warmed by their skin. Others traced patterns in ale puddles on the table, then rubbed them out with their elbows.

“As I was saying,” said Young John, a shriveled raisin of a man whose father, Old John, had been dead for forty years, “As I was saying, we all know the names of the seventy three stars to steer by, in winter and high summer. But in the Far Countries the stars are different.”

“Diable!” came the shouts, Morris’s loudest of all. He knew Young John loved this, loved the skepticism of the sailors and fishwives that crowded the dark little alehouse.

“Never!” cried Young John. He pounded his empty glass on the table and gestured for another with his other hand, fingers fluttering from ragged wool half-gloves. “Never! The fish walk on land, women have three, have three ... never mind. Men write books on their own skin. Aye, they do so, Arlen, so shut yer mouth.”

“You can’t live without skin. How do they get if off?” Morris called. This was one of Young John’s better performances. And three of what, anyway?

“They write on themselves. The ink stays.”

“What do they write, then?” someone called from the other side of the room.

Young John paused, his glass halfway to his lips. He beamed over the rim at them. It was so quiet Morris heard the rap as Young John set the glass down.

“They write,” he said softly. Everyone leaned forward. “They write of a strange land, far far away, where people gather in pubs at night, and warm themselves, and enjoy drink and story while the wind howls outside.”

People were groaning before he finished. Someone threw a roll, but Young John ducked happily.

Morris turned to go. It was late, and he was expected early at the smithy to start the fires of the great forge. As he passed the latecomer who had shut the door, the man’s arm shot out and gripped Morris’s wrist. The strength in his fingers was so great that Morris’s surprise turned immediately to pain.

“Wait,” came the voice, and the hand released its grip. Morris saw that the skin was dark with ink, so filled with lines of writing, arabesque script and ornate letters and half-seen sketches of strange beasts, that it was nearly black.

“Wait. He tells no lie.”

Morris swallowed. “Skin ... writing?”

The man nodded, though Morris couldn’t see his face. “Squid ink and a ray’s sting. I bleed for every word.”

The alehouse had returned to its normal hum of conversation, calls for drink, the crackle of the fire.

“What does it say?” asked Morris.

The man draw a long, curved object from a chest pocket. Morris recognized it immediately. The whip-thin tail of a stingray.

“I will tell you,” the man said, reaching into another pocket and placing a small vial of night-black ink on the table. “But for every word I read, I will write one on you.”

Morris stared at the vial, his heart thumping. “How ... how did you get yours?”

“I was curious.” The man slowly rolled up his sleeve to reveal a knotted forearm nearly as inked as his hand. “I was so very curious.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Back again. I mean it, this time.

Okay, I'm back after a week's vacation in Sunny! San! Diego! How many times this summer have I "come back"? I think I've travelled for four weeks, two of which were vacation, so I can't complain. But I will, precious, I will.

This time it was a week of stuffing myself like a Christmas turkey (except with homemade bread), sailing, biking, swimming, toddler-hanging-out-with, eating, and even some editing. After lugging my nearly 400-page manuscript, crumpled with edits, through three airports, I spent a healthy few hours typing in edits. Then printing. Then viola*! Draft 2 is ready!

Printed single-spaced and double-sided, it became much more manageable. And this time I remembered page numbers, so it's easier to keep track of things when it goes sliding off the coffee table or couch.

Is it good? Is it good? After much time writing, editing, and pondering, I have this answer. At the risk of getting a big head: Yes. It is good. Or at least, I don't hate it, which is the writer's version of "good."

I took more risks. Held less back. Tried to be less self-conscious -- which, I'm learning, sometimes means holding back** instead of self-consciously indulging in "writerly writing." Writerly writing comes out contrived or overdone, anyway, and it's a nectared trap I fall into too easily.

But. It's done, first readers are taking a look, and now I'm faced with an odd question: having completed three books, do I focus on querying or revising? And which one?

The impatient part of me says: query the ready one! The wise part of me says: query the better one. Trouble is, the second one's better and it's not ready.

O Impatience, thou frisky and lilting voice! Trouble me not with your beguiling schemes!

I know it's "voila." "Viola" makes me laugh.
**Edited: This may seem like a contradiction, but what I mean is this: I held back less of the story. The florid prose, thank goodness, I DID hold back.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dear slugs: I'm sorry

Slugs of the world: please DO NOT unite!

Recently there was an unfortunate incident involving one of your brethren or sistren or co-unspecified gender on a local gravel road, or paved road, or parking lot. The precise provenance of this ... incident ... remains unclear, for reasons which sadly, will become very clear.

I know, slugs, that you enjoy a good rain. Who doesn't? As long as nasty hard-skinned bipeds don't come out with their tempting bowls of beer, or magnifying glasses, or salt, few things are better than a "stroll" (slide) across a field of wet grass.

Or, presumably, a gravel road.

When said road is winding down great, swooping switchbacks from the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and somebody -- an innocent victim, no less -- is flying downhill on a new bicycle, it is all he, or she, can do to maintain control and not slide off the shoulder into a tree.

When slug and bicycle meet, there can be only one outcome. Let me point out again that I, I mean someone, is the victim here as well.

Upon returning to his (or her) car, a certain bike rider found something gooey on his bike. It looked like a piece of brown chewing gum. He gamely wiped it off with a piece of gravel.

Then he found another one. And another. And another. Something had spattered the bicycle tube, the pedal, the gears, the back tube, and -- worst of all -- the front of his ankle.

Gritting his teeth heroically, he performed what might optimistically be termed an autopsy only to discover, too late, the horrific truth!

Even worse: an hour of drying air flowing across these ... pieces ... had dessicated them to the consistency of rubber.

What I Did On My Weekend: I accidentally made slug jerky.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Words is Words

Since I work in an office I have meetings, at which I have lots of time for daydreaming and doodling. Sometimes I jot down story notes. Several times I've sketched maps.

This means that when I have to think about something complicated, like Jupiter or magnetism, I have a ready-made Thinkin' Time for it.

Lately I've been thinking about those fancy electronic gizmos that plug in and display books. Some kinda magic lantern spaceman goggles, online book reader robot thing, if I'm understanding correctly.

Evidently there are some complicated and heated arguments about digital rights, readership numbers, accessibility, cost, creative licensing, and so on. Not to mention the whole Jupiter-magnetism issue.

But where I've landed is this: I write stories. I do not illustrate. I tell stories through words. And people can read them printed on paper, or illuminated on a screen, or posted on a blog. Words is words.

I am very easygoing, as you can see. It's not just a perspective of wanting anyone to read my books on any device or medium they want (though I concede that's a factor), but rather that if people want to experience the words this way or that way I don't attach much value judgement to it.

As far as they're concerned, that is. As for me, stock my little house with bookshelves, let me smell the ink and paper, and marvel that this thing made from pressed plant fibers, and glue, and ink, somehow holds entire worlds.

But audio books? Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war! Hearing words isn't the same thing as reading them. Or is it? To learn more about this fascinating debate, sign up for my podcast in which I continue this using speech. Oh, you have to have a sound card installed. And speakers. And I've invented a sort of grunting hog-language, comprised largely of gerunds and references to slops, but as long as you've installed the Translato-Pig 9000.03.1.29 you should be fine. Also you will need ears.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cat barf and line edits

The title says it all. Foamy yellow puddles on the kitchen counter? Check. Full spectrum of manuscript edits, from word changes to character arcs? Check.

I thought about quoting one of the editing notes I write to myself -- how self involved can you be, jeez -- but then realized that in order not to give away even crumbs of the plot, I'd have to black out so much it would look like a post-censored Hoover letter:

"Final XXX/XXX argument: pivotal disagreement. XXX focused on XXX, XXX wants to XXX XXX XXX it is. Stained-glass XXX in XXX. XXX wishes he'd XXX more XXX. XXX XXX at end. Maybe we don't see what XXX XXX through XXX XXX."

See? Useless. No, for now, it is mine, all mine, this tender and raw manuscript. Someday I'll look back at this first draft and think how close it was and how far it was, all at the same time.

But for now: edit edit edit edit edit edit edit.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


How much do you give to an effort before it consumes you? Sleep, effort, wealth, health? Is it ever worth it? Is it ever not worth it? Is there anything sadder than not hoping for anything?

I don't know. But I do know this*: most of the things I love doing started out as smaller-scale and -- often -- much more wild efforts.

Right now I'm building a boat, John Welsford's 17-foot Pathfinder design. Last night I glued and bolted (#10 x 2" SS pan head machine screw) the mast step in place. Okay, not really the mast step, the twin supporting posts that go under the mast step and help transfer the mast's downward load to the I-shaped spine and thus to the boat's bottom.

Earlier attempts:
  • A self-designed "sea kayak" in my parents' basement, which I sketched out when I should have been reading Homer. Inconveniently, it was nearly too heavy to lift, and so I sawed it into firewood with a strange lack of regret.
  • A thirty-foot ocean-capable sailboat. Project was scuttled for a variety of reasons, not least of which was my own lack of ability and the vexing tendency of 10x10 oak beams to warp and check like DNA strands. Sawing that one up broke my heart.
  • A sea kayak built from a kit. Aha, this was the solution! With everything cut out, I "just" had to assemble. Success; it still hangs in my garage.
  • Countless rafts over the years, with only two outcomes: 1) too heavy to lift; 2) too heavy to float.
But we can go back even further. When I was young, it wasn't boats but spaceships. For this I blame Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet books, which I've noted before. In these, two young lads build a spaceship! In their backyard! And it works! There was something about mushrooms, too, but I barely remember anything besides the building! Of a spaceship!

Evidently I took this very seriously. My parents relate one side of an overheard conversation when I called NASA. Seriously. And someone answered.

"Hello, do you have any plans?"
"Nine. And a half."
"I'm building a spaceship."
"In my backyard."
"Okay, thankyouverymuch."

Naturally, I spent hours and hundreds of pages of recycled dot-matrix paper (remember the horizontal green and white stripes?) drawing spaceships, instrument panels, rocket engines, seating diagrams, etc. I have never understood why or how, but this drive transferred to boats right around the same time I discovered girls (age 30. Kidding! It was in eighth grade.)

Point is, the thing that sends me out into the sweltering garage every afternoon to work on the boat is, in part, the same thing that sent a very young me to the library to look up liquid fuel rocket engines, or to stockpile Campbell's soup cans with the intention of hammering the thin metal into spaceship body panels. Hey, free metal, right?

Still, I have to say that if I could build a spaceship in my garage I'd do it in a heartbeat. Especially if I was ten years old.

*Bill Murray: "I don't know Babs. But I do know this: you've really let your uvula go to the dogs."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Untangling motivation

I'm halfway into my second read-through of my latest draft -- it's nearly 400 pages so this is not a quick process -- and I am discovering something different this time: I love it.

This is rare. Unique, in fact.

Don't get me wrong, it still has the clumsy prose and wandering narrative that is my specialty. But there is, maybe for the first time, something there.

At this macro level of editing I'm focusing on character motivations and change, something for which (rightly so) my brother took me to task in the last book. It's since been fixed, but I'll never forget his red comments, getting more and more disbelieving, culminating in "YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! NO F'IN WAY!" It was like being edited by John McEnroe.

And so on this book, I'm sensitive to the same issue. Why does my character act this way but feel this other way? Does he grow and change? Is it realistic for him to react in that way? Because I did not outline in detail -- and really, how can you for something this big? -- my character tends to contradict himself, behave inconsistently, hide, reveal, and re-hide truths to himself, on and on.

I have built a spreadsheet that would put an accountant to shame, detailing chapters, POV, primary motivation, secondary motivation, etc. My first thought was to surgically remove everything that did not represent a linear path from Belief A (the main character at the beginning) to Belief B (the main character at the end, when he feels differently about a great many things).

Things were going well; it was fun, when I charted his changing motivation like this, to see what lay outside that path and surgically remove it. I was editing! Hooray! I cannot be stopped!

Until, that is, I realized that none of us proceeds down a single, linear path from Belief A to Belief B. We avoid the issue. Get distracted. Try out different ways of thinking and then double back to the original. Pretend to abandon it. Come back to it. There is a wandering nature to how we grow.

The task of fiction is to maintain one foothold in reality by showing this wandering ... without abandoning the art of it, which requires a certain artificial linearity.


Let's try that again. Showing a simple progression from believing in one thing to believing in another might be convenient for the plot but it would be unrealistic. Yet documenting every motivational twitch or flirtation would be tedious: why read about that when we live it every day? Fiction walks that line, as it so often does.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Keep Running

Today on my way to work I saw a guy running down the sidewalk. Jogging, I mean, for exercise.

I've seen him before; he has some vague lack of mobility or twistiness to his limbs, and when he runs, he flails, he gasps, he labors. He looks like he's struggling underwater, or fighting an invisible foe. I have never seen anybody put so much effort into running. Every time I see him my own problems seem small.

He's been doing this every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the five years I've taken that road to work. This is, clearly, not a short-term thing for him.

This morning I also passed a small box turtle, huddled inside its shell on the double yellow line in the middle of the road.

Should I go back and move it? I thought, driving on. For years I've pulled over to rescue turtles because they're slow and cars are so fast. Should I go back? No, I'm late for work. Just go back. What difference does it make? Maybe I should go back. No, I'm already late.

I drove on.

I turned around.

I went back, worried about where I could pull over safely. It's a winding country road, so I was scoping out driveways and patches of gravelly shoulder.

The turtle was smashed into a wet pulp like a broken melon. It had been less than two minutes since I drove past it the first time. Two minutes while I debated about what I could do. What I "should" do.

I turned around, my stomach tight. Continued the familiar road into work.

And when I saw the familiar guy running toward me, flopping along the sidewalk, his mouth gasping open like a dying fish, his limbs bent into parentheses clawing the air, and when I realized he'd been doing this in all weather for years and years, I still thought of the dead turtle but I now I also thought: keep running.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What the Dickens is that thing in the dark?

I am reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time. This is only my second Dickens book (first was Great Expectations) and I'm loving it.

Here's one of my favorite elements -- and I saw this in Great Expectations too: Dickens takes the reader through a series of scenes, or sometimes whole chapters, which seem completely unrelated to the action at hand.

For example, our hero is following his father one foggy night, only to find that he and his ne'er-do-well co-conspirators are digging up bodies. He flees in terror! And then we have two or three consecutive chapters of a French nobleman mistreating the locals. Maybe then we'd jump ahead four months, or a year, to a criminal trial where entirely new characters are speaking, worrying, fuming, and so on.

But gradually, for such is the magic of Dickens, the threads tying all these miniature stories together become apparent. Slowly I realize that this person is the same Jacques referred to three chapters earlier; that the dissolute lawyer is actually in love with the young woman we last saw as a small child five chapters before.

At first this seemed distracting and random, but now it's almost a game as I try to piece together the narrative from these various viewpoints, for the story is larger than any one character can tell. (It's also a warning to read everything closely, since you can never tell what will turn out to be significant: a good warning for fast and careless readers like me.)

It reminds me of the story about blind men and an elephant, though I prefer regular people and an elephant in the dark. Why does that sound so strange?

They circle around this great and silent mystery in the dark, one of them touching a trunk and reporting a snake, another brushing against a leg and claiming that it is a tree, etc.

Come on, metaphor, we're almost there, hold together!

The elephant is the story. Each person's perceptions are a part of the larger whole. And it makes me wonder: how much of this could I get away with in my own writing?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Battle of Frame 4

Nothing on a boat is a right angle, except when it is. Some things, like the mast, or centerboard, should pretty much be exactly vertical. Or the seats, which should be mostly horizontal so you don't slide into the water.

Since this is MY boat, though, many of the right angles have slumped into 89 or 91 degrees. No big deal, right? Ah yes, once I thought as you did.

Frame 4 is bisected by the centerboard well, and although I built it as a single frame, I had to cut it in half and trim it a bit so each side could butt up against the centerboard well. This took about seven months.*

In the instructions, John Welsford (designer) states something like, "Using your third arm, attach the frame half to the bottom panel and centerboard well, being sure it is at right angles to each."

Oh John Welsford! You are so funny! I would like to meet you so I can explain in person how funny you are!

Imagine the situation: nothing is a right angle. Every surface is crenellated with notches or little support pieces, so nothing is flat, either. The whole assembly fits together like one of those trick locking wooden boxes. Or rather, doesn't fit together like that.

It's akin to taking something large and squarish, like a coffee table book, and gluing its spine to the cover of another coffee table book. At right angles. Oh yes, in mid-air, with nothing to attach them to or hold them upright. Also, there are spiders skittering everywhere and gnashing their spidery mandible with rage as their egg-sacs are crushed.

And due to some heretofore unknown fluctuations in the very fabric of reality itself, previously solid wood curves and bends. Did you think that was a right angle? Oh boatbuilder! You are so funny! Now it's 3mm off center. Was that level yesterday? Ha ha! Nothing stays the same!

"Oh no you shan't," quoth I, reaching for clamps so fast I no doubt appeared the spitting image of a multi-armed Hindu god to the massing spiders. The buzz of their frustrated, spidery screams was a suitable counterpoint to the constant ripping of my shirt as rage-muscles burst out not unlike those of the Hulk!

"RIGHT ANGLES, OBEY ME!" I roared, scattering spiders with the pure force of my voice. But what was this? Were they climbing atop one another? What gymnastic arachnid devilry was this?

There was no time for that, as the epoxy chose that precise moment to ignite, due to its inconvenient exothermic (heat producing, write that down) properties. I was forced to hurl the smoking plastic container (nee Egg drop soup) into the air, where it described a gentle parabola and landed on our neighbor's prized snapdragons. Ironically, the snapdragons were the color of flame when the flaming pot obliterated them.

I turned to the spiders. They had formed a pyramid, and then an ovalesque shape that spoke. "You will never succeed," it intoned through a thousand spiders. "Bring us flies. Moths are acceptable as well. And stop walking through our webs."

"NOT NOW, YOU IDIOTS," I howled, even more muscles bursting through my rags. In one hand I took both frames and held them in place on either side of the centerboard. Be at right angles, I willed them, remembering not to include my fingers in this command (still paying chiropractor bills from my last blast of willpower).

With the other hand I simultaneously mixed a replacement pot of epoxy, applied the thinned epoxy, added in silica thickener, mixed the glue, applied the glue to the faying surfaces, and applied screws. Everything was working. Even the spiders had gone back to their webs to dream their malevolent dreams.

Until I discovered I had epoxied my hand to the frame! Yet I could not complain, for there, permanently fixed into the epoxy, lay my hand at a precise right angle to the centerboard well.

*Certain sections may be exaggerated for effect.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Unrelated detritus:

1) Horse puppets!!! The fact that a generation ago we had Cookie Monster and now we have war horses is an interesting comment on the evolution "debate," since humans created both puppets.* In any case, this is unbelievable ... precisely because it's SO believable. Did I just blow your mind? Yeah, mine too:

NY Times article
YouTube video
YouTube video

2) Today I heard the following story. During a near-shore sailing race off the coast of France last year, a squall thundered in, strong enough that blowing sand stung like fire and drove people off the beach. At sea, the race continued, as races tend to do. The boats were Dragon class sloops, long, narrow, full-keeled needles that go fast and hard.

One was running downwind when it was overtaken by a breaking wave. The tumbling water knocked the helmsman aside, filled the boat with water, and the momentum of wave plus gale-force wind on the towering sail slewed the boat sideways and over in a fatal maneuver called broaching.

It sank. Fast. Everyone got off except a crewman whose leg was tangled in a long line attached to the sail. Down the boat went. Down he went. His water-activated life vest inflated as he dropped into the darkness, tethered to the plunging boat.

He struggled. Got free. And exploded to the surface "like an Exocet missile," said my storyteller.

This is one reason I always carry a knife when sailing!

3) Why do the professions that provide the least to society pay the highest salaries? And why do those that do the most good pay the least? Okay, there may be exceptions but this seems to be the general rule. People in expensive and flashy clothes arguing and caring and worrying over all the wrong things. Or maybe I'm just imagining things, filled with vexed thoughts as I watch a beautiful day through a window.

*The quotes are the limit of my editorializing on this.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Back to work

Hey, remember Reagan? There was a Saturday Night Live sketch that showed him (played by Phil Hartman) as a kindhearted and slightly off-kilter goofus, absently showing a girl scout around the Oval Office. He waved goodbye, nodding and muttering to himself, and then, as soon as the door shut behind her, he spun on his heel.

"BACK TO WORK!" he shouted at his staff, instantly transforming into a steely and efficient getter-of-things-done. Ha ha!

It's back to work for me too, as I have unsealed the Cheerios box containing -- no, not the Ark of the Covenant, though I'm an absolute nut on the subject -- but Draft 1 of my book. Finally!

Criminy, this thing is long. So far, however, I have found no apocalyptic, clothes-rending errors. In fact, and in saying this I'll probably jinx it, it is largely tolerable. A great leap forward, in other words! Ordinarily my exploratory drafts are as palatable as giraffe saliva, but this one seems to be an exception.

I'm halfway through, which means that any day now I'm going to come across some irreconcilable error and have to turn the whole thing into a fleet of paper airplanes. Hey, gotta stay positive.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Aaaand pictures

I had planned on posting a handful of Cornwall pictures here, but I took too many. Thus, a sampling:

Typical view of the narrow streets of St. Ives, with the harbor peeking through beyond.

Clouds and sea and a surprising burst of sun on the far shore.

Houses of the living cluster around the graveyard. Let us in! Oh, we will, we will....

Big foggy sea; small optimistic surfers.