Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Snow; woe; whoa

Today something white and slushy fell from the sky and made the ground white and slushy too. It may have been snow, but it tinkled like crystal in the trees. But either way I'm home from work. And I made scones. Coziness ahoy!

However, such rare luck is not without a downside: the devil collects his share for every accident of luck. Our grocery store has stopped carrying Peet's coffee, so as far as I'm concerned, that's the end of writing, boatbuilding, and consciousness in the morning. I exaggerate, says you? Never in life, quoth I. For lo, in days past I wrote words on this very topic and now I am sore afraid.

Or is it little more than an excuse, any excuse, to stop writing? The danged book is so inconsistent: one day I can't stop thinking about it and scrawling notes like "K. sulks at implications of story; brother also failed." And other days it's like trying to chew gravel and whistle at the same time.

But like the parabolic swaying of a slender willow branch in a gale, so too arcs my luck back to positive, or at least neutral. For behold! I have seen the Coraline trailer, posted on Laini Taylor's blog, and it. is. awesome. Probably not something to watch alone in a dark house, though.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Need Yak Dung

Attention zookeepers, Kyrgyz shepherds, and souvenir-hunting mountain climbers:

I need yak dung.

My work-in-progress has lurched its way into the high and snowy mountains, where my characters encounter (among other things) fires built with yak dung. Himalayan-style, yo.

Always on the lookout for killer details, I need to know what this smells like. And that means finding some yak dung and burning it. Please don't make me head for the litterbox with rubber gloves. Not cool.

Here in farm country I could probably put my hands on (I mean, obtain) some cow patties for a suitable test. But aren't yaks different from cows? Or do all ungulates produce droppings of a similar composition and thus aroma?

Details matter!

Monday, January 19, 2009


Number of words written this morning: 2211
Cups of coffee: 2
Ounces of coffee: 20
Times I walked down to the mailbox before realizing it's a federal holiday: 2
Toilets cleaned: 2
Weight, in pounds, of boat centerboard, thanks to lead casting: 80
Temperature of sunny upstairs room, where centerboard epoxy is curing: 74
Temperature outside: 40
Feet of snow: 0
Inches of snow: 0
Number of snowflakes seen: 13

Friday, January 16, 2009

Don't Know Where We're Going

I had better come clean and admit that I have no idea what my characters are going to think or say or even do next. Certainly I don't know what I'll write tomorrow, and often I don't even know what's going to happen in the next sentence.

Unless I'm on a roll, that elusive-as-spidersilk moment when all friction vanishes and I forget I'm typing, and I've disappeared completely and just living the story.

When that happens I don't even know that I don't know what happens next.

This is one reason I look forward to these morning writing sessions: I get to find out what happens next! It's the closest thing to reading I can imagine -- thinking overnight about the characters and their problems, wondering how they'll react or what they'll say.

I have a rough idea of the story, a few images I want to be sure to capture, and an overall feeling for the emotional arc. I know where we're going but I don't know how we're getting there -- the characters and me -- until I read it on the page.

So who is doing the writing? Is it Scary Me, who sleeps all day and paces the hallways at night, gaunt and hollow-cheeked, wringing his long-fingered hands and muttering story ideas? A muse? Creepy Possessed Hand?

All I know is that I sit down and get to work. And when I work, it sometimes -- sometimes -- works too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


It looks worse than it really is. I can find anything!

Having books instantly available has always meant stacks for me. And since the stacks were getting out of control (I was tripping on them) I had to group them by category. Thus, we have:

  • Books describing (and showing) ship design through the ages. (Books on operating these ships stay on the shelves; I cannot explain this except that I don't need them yet.)
  • Books about storytelling: theory and practice, examples, etc.
  • Books I have grouped together, doing a sad injustice to both categories but unavoidable because I get a similar thing from each, a glimpse of the darkness of human nature: Holocaust memoirs, child soldier biographies, fiction and non-fiction.
  • Mountain climbing books (some of which have migrated downstairs for my reading-by-the-fire time on weekends).
  • A strange category of "literature/philosophy," with The Poetic Edda, Sagas of Icelanders, The Golden Bough, Paradise Lost, Saint-Exupery's Flight to Arras, and more. These are books where I've identified stories or scenes or even snatches of phrases that strike me and hang in my mind like the ringing of a bell. They are beautiful, terrible, poignant, and touching.
  • A similar category of books that contained interesting phrases and ideas, but which somehow didn't seem to fit with the literature/philosophy. For example, a photo-essay of a sailing trip around the Delmarva coast in 1974 notes an incident when birds inexplicably attacked the Cape Charles lighthouse on two consecutive nights, shattering the lens and exhausting the lighthouse-keepers. The birds never returned.
  • A happily large stack of books which, once read, will be sorted into one of the other categories but whose principle role now is "books I have not yet read."
  • Not books but a stack of printed news articles, pages torn from magazines, etc. For some reason, regardless of topic, these are grouped together by virtue of their format: letter-sized pages.
  • A cardboard box of library books left over from a vacation several months ago (I get a 6-month loan at the university library). They were threatening to spill across the back seat until I got wise and put them in the box. I rotate them in and out as I read them, and it helps me keep track of what I need to return.
Most of these, except some of the library books, are research for my work-in-progress. I flip through them when I need ideas, to check facts, or simply to get inspired and remember what it's like to pace the slanting deck of a man-of-war, or to fall into dry snow, gasping from altitude sickness, or to feel the gravity-swinging sense of betrayal at the thought that sometimes the world is bad and nobody notices.

As for the bookshelves themselves? That's where I keep the not-used-every-day books. Messy but honest and workable. What I'd do with a cavernous and open workspace, I have no idea.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

For example

To continue from my last post, the new (to me) idea that every element of a book can have a structure and emotional arc like the larger book, that even paragraphs, conversations, and scenes can have mini-stories with a beginning, middle, and end, I thought I'd try it out.

Version 1: "Typical" recitation of facts without any attempt to make them into a meaningful story arc:

This morning on my run I noticed the moon was full and low in the sky. It was bright enough to cast shadows, though I realized it was setting. At the same time the sun was rising on the opposite side of the sky, and for a strange moment, a golden-orange glow hung on both horizons and painted the clouds. Cool!

Version 2: More of a story:

I started my run in the dark. It was cold but not too bad, 31 or so. I spotted the Little Dipper arcing overhead, and a low silver moon hung like a lamp above the mountains lining the western horizon. The moonlight was bright enough to cast long blue shadows, and, as I trotted uphill and downhill along the wooded road, I was grateful for the thin light.

I crossed a river, crusted with ice, and blew on my hands to stay warm. The moon was setting behind a cloak of clouds, which were painted a dull orange as the light diffused. The sky was lightening, and now I could see thin pale clouds brushed among the few remaining stars. I started up another hill. When the moon fully set behind the mountains, how long would it be until the rising sun lit my path? Running in the darkness means not seeing road kills, thorny branches, and little except the blinding headlights of cars.

The moon-clouds glowed orange, and as I reached the top of the hill and half-unzipped my jacket to vent some heat, I turned to the right and saw the first edge of sunlight lighting the eastern sky.

I turned to the left: pumpkin-colored clouds from the old moon setting. Back to the right: the clouds were lit the yellow of egg yolks, and then even as I watched, brightening to ripe lemon.

I pointed my arms like a clock: setting moon and rising sun, each poised on opposite horizons. And when the moon dipped behind the mountains and went out, the sky blazed blue with the new light of morning.

Okay, clearly some trimming needs to be done (sufferers of logorrhea unite!) but speaking strictly structurally, it feels like the arc of Version 2 works better than the simple recitation of facts in Version 1.

Ideally it would be part of a chapter (or even a longer scene) that also had an arc of emotional flow, tension or mystery, emotion, climax, resolution, transition.

I'd have to be careful only to give this much weight to something if it were truly significant. And I admit in my hasty and unedited blog-scrawling, I did not try to make even each paragraph have its own flow from start to finish. And I'm not sure this would work in all cases ... but I need some guiding philosophy to shape my sloppy and rambling first drafts, and I think this may be part of it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Paragraph - Scene - Chapter

I can never tell whether something I've just discovered that may be obvious to everyone else -- hey, tomatoes taste better in the summer! -- but as I was driving home today an idea struck with so much force I almost pulled over to write it down in case I forgot it.

I'm listing to the book-on-CD version of Mark Helprin's A Solider of the Great War, which, in addition to a superb story, is a textbook I find myself studying intently. Here is what I discovered:

Each conversation between characters should have a beginning, middle, and end. Each scene should have a beginning, middle, and end. Each chapter should have a beginning, middle, and end. And there's some unit that's bigger than a sentence, maybe bigger than a paragraph, that makes up a scene. Beginning, middle, and end there, too.

In short, each of these units should be composed like a story, with conflict, tension, and resolution. Not a resolution in that the conflict is necessarily fixed, but rather that the tension is acknowledged and released.

This was so surprising that I held my hand in the air as I listened. With each paragraph and scene-component and larger scene, my hand jigged upward as tension rose, through mystery or conflict or just a disagreement between characters. It peaked, often in just a sentence or half a sentence, and then sloped down, only to rise again.

If you could draw this it would not be a staircase leading up to the climax of the book and then back down. It would be, I imagined while listening furiously, like the doodles I used to make in Algebra: a series of small half-circles, like frowning mouths or a child's drawing of foothills. Or the trail of a bouncing ball. Up, over, and down. Quick-quick-quick. Those are the sentences.

Above that are the paragraphs: larger arcs that bridge two or three of the smaller arcs. And above those are the sub-scenes, again swooping across two or three paragraphs ... all the way up to chapters and the whole book.

And while I may have been writing like this occasionally already, it was through accident or instinct rather than deliberate purpose. So many of my scenes just exist to convey information to the reader. How did the characters get to the top of the hill? I'd better show them walking. Etc.

But if each component is a mini-drama, or a mini-story, it make it much more interesting to read. The small ones feed the medium-sized ones, which combine into the momentum of the largest, and so on.

Can a story inhabit a sentence? Sometimes. A conversation? Yes, it must. A scene? Very much so.

It's not just the whole book that has to be interesting, it has to be the component chapters, and scenes, and paragraphs. And "interesting" is just code for: structured with a beginning, middle and an end; with conflict, drama, tension, resolution, transition to the next, and so on.

Now. Like all rules I suspect there are -- and should be -- exceptions. Certainly there are other ways. But rules are easier to break when you know what they are, and I'm going to try this in writing this weekend.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Easy come, easy go

Slugged through another 1000 words this morning. That's not a typo, I felt sluggish and clumsy. By mid-morning I had decided that the entire 1000 words would have to go: it was a scene that I was trying too hard to squeeze in as a transition, to make what came before make sense with what came afterward. It felt forced ... so out it comes!

This is the beauty of having two Word documents open simultaneously as I write, something I cribbed from Laini Taylor: the draft itself (version 1b, in this case) and a Working document where I dash off notes to myself, complaints, ideas, and -- now -- discarded scenes. It takes the pressure off finding an immediate home for those 1000 words, but gets them out of the way of the draft itself.

Too bad, though, a few sentences seemed to really sing. Maybe they'll reappear later!

Special Boatbuilding Note, Inserted for the Use of Schools: an electric blanket works much better than a work light for keeping things warm.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

4; 40,000; 2009

Four consecutive days off from work has meant four consecutive days of writing and boatbuilding, with lots of coffee and naps too. It's tricky to apply epoxy when it's 40 degrees outside, but an electric blanket and some work lights are (I hope) keeping things warm enough for the glue to cure.

I've reached 40,000 words on my work in progress, crossing the arbitrary but significant-feeling line this morning in a 2,000-word frenzy. I'm still not nearly as far into the story as I thought I would be, and I'm beginning to think that 60-70,000 was WAY OFF as an estimate. This thing may crack 100,000, which should make revising (pruning) interesting.

Also, you may have noticed that it's 2009. A new year! I've often thought that years, like academic papers, should have subtitles ("Readings in Dialectical Metaphysics: An Excursus in Longing and Polar Epistemologies.") Here are some possibilities for 2009:

2009: Agents Fall to Their Knees After Reading My Manuscript
2009: The Year of Cheese and Crackers
2009: It's Payback Time.
2008: Last Year Decides It's Not Going Anywhere.
2009: The Cows Finally Do Come Home. And They're Hungry.
2009: Reality Finally Cracks Open and Things Come Scuttling Out of the Darkness
2009: More Vegetables This Time. Leafy Greens Would Suffice. Seriously.

And now, as a cold-but-not-nearly-cold-enough-considering-it's-January-consarn-it dusk falls and I worry about my epoxy curing in the chilly garage, I'm off to build a fire (in the fireplace), pour a glass of wine, and settle into an armchair to read mountain climbing books (research for the book).

Happy New Year!