Friday, February 27, 2009

The Hardest Thing

It's not easy getting up early to write or run. It's hard. Really hard.

In fact, it occurred to me the other day that once I've gotten out of bed and am loping down the road under a sky of stars, or I'm sitting at the computer trying to re-enter the world of the story, that is the hardest thing I'm likely to do all day.

My life is not hard. I have food and shelter and a job, and clothes and oxygen and I'm in good health. I even have hobbies, which are pretty much the definition of having more time than you know what to do with. But it's not easy, and I don't want it to be easy, and it shouldn't be easy.

But I have to admit some masochistic satisfaction in knowing that nothing will be that hard for the rest of the day. I don't think success is like winning the lottery, I think it's like building a house. Or a boat. You have to make it happen. And there's no way other than hard work. Anything less feels dishonest.

Or so I mutter to myself as I try to roll out of bed.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Poems backwards reading

This shouldn't work, and I keep expecting to hear ghostly phrases about Paul McCartney being dead, but I've discovered that some poems can be read backwards.

This happened one night when I was reading before bed, barely able to keep my eyes open, and sleepily started at the bottom of a page and worked my way up to the top of the poem. Maybe because I knew the poem well, its intrinsic sense remained. How could that be? Isn't language dependent on order? Not perhaps. Latin roots our language of dependent on order not (Yoda notwithstanding).

The above may be one of the oddest sentences I have ever written.

Nevertheless! With some poems, such as Tennyson's The Eagle, which seem to rely on an accumulation and sequence of events, it doesn't quite work:

Like a thunderbolt he falls.
He watches from his mountain walls
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls

Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
Close to the sun in lonely lands.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands.

But with Yeats's shivery The Second Coming, something strange and awful remains:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
The darkness drops again;
all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while
a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The best lack all conviction,
everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Turning and turning in the widening gyre

It's a rough copy-and-paste job, but how is it that any sense of the emotive strength and imagery remain? Because I think they do. I'd be outraged if someone suggested reading in reverse something I've written, and this is utter bowdlerization of these fine pieces of art, but I offer them up, vivisection-like, from which to learn.

To learn what, I do not know. But I can't explain why this works so well.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Trouble With Reality

I recently read an article in The Economist (14 Feb 2009) that noted a scientific study that found that in the animal world, bigger predators had an advantage ... up to a point. Once they got too big, it's too hard to lug themselves around after smaller and more agile prey.

Now, I'm all in favor of house-sized super-bears and wolves galloping across the tundra like horses, and it's articles like this that spoil everything! Ever since I learned on 3-2-1 Contact that an ant can only get so big (i.e., not very big at all) before it's so heavy that its little stick-legs can't support it, I've been disappointed in science.

But wait: imagine that some predator -- lions, let's say -- evolves bigger and bigger, fiercer and fiercer, faster and stronger. Then when they cross that mass/speed threshold ... they keep getting bigger but now they're getting slower. Socially they're still at the top due to sheer size, but the reality is they need the smaller lions to bring them their food. Bigger. Bigger. Until what you have is a corpulant, fly-swarmed, glistening thing that barely resembles a lion, served by a small and agile corps of sycophants who bring food to the terrible swollen thing out of sheer social necessity. Ha ha, gross; cool! Maybe science isn't so bad.

The image reminds me of the corporate world, where executives -- but no! I mustn't speak ill!

Still, all things being equal I'd prefer to imagine spiders the size of kittens and eagles so big they punch holes in thunderclouds.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


My work-in-progress passed 80,000 words this morning. What in the world? It was just last month that it was half that length. I'm not so much telling the story as writing down the story that's telling itself. And I tend to write more than is necessary ... so that, six weeks after I seal the first draft into a box (cord, duct tape, closet shelf) I can descend on it with a long thin boning knife and remove the fat.


So it has doubled in size in not quite two months. But it also feels like it's rounded a turn, and that even if the end is not quite in sight, I can at least envision the last push. The last third.

When captains brought their ships around a long point of land, hooking like a claw into the grey seas of high latitudes ("South of 40 there is no law; south of 50 there is no God") they referred to a successful rounding of the corner as "doubling." As in:

19th Oct 1796
Sighted Cabo de Hornos six bells forenoon watch. Wind fair SE b E backing to ENE by two bells. Offwatch set to work chipping ice from rigging and deck. Stood off tho' kept land within sight. Doubled Cabo de Hornos by five bells graveyard watch; turned north. Extra ration grog for all hands. Sighted ice mountain three bells, steered due S, wind increasing with nightfall.

When you doubled a point of land, you crossed the "horizontal" (on a map) latitude line that marked the beginning of the peninsula. And I have finally doubled my story, in both senses.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Blind bolts

My centerboard is a heavy piece of wood and lead about two feet by four feet, the size of a small coffee table. For a variety of reasons too awesome and whip-crackingly adventurous to go into, it's made from a stack of 22 small, flat strips of wood glued face to face. Kind of like a jumbo-sized pack of Juicy Fruit.

Great, right? I know!

Because wood is always a little flexible (compared to, say, steel ... which is also a little flexible, just less so than wood), in clamping up a two-foot wide assembly of wood strips to glue, the outer strips compressed a tiny bit more than the inner strips. Multiply that by 22 strips and you (me) end up with less clamping pressure in the middle of the stack.

And what that means is that much later, hairline seams appear between some of those middle pieces, where there just wasn't enough clamping pressure to squeeze them together.

Blast and death and raggedy old hell, quoth I, smiting my brow, this must be fixed.

But how to squeeze those pieces together? Re-clamping is no good because the same thing will happen again: insufficient pressure in the middle of the stack. I can't eye-drop glue into the cracks because it's too thick, like maple syrup or mayonnaise, and the cracks are too narrow. I can't put screws in because the cracks are six inches from the edge of the centerboard. Which, by the way, I had shaped into a graceful and thin curve not much thicker than a dictionary.

Then I had it: blind bolts! This is an arcane and complicated technique that lets you (me) attach things I can't reach.

Step one: take 3/16" x 2" stainless machine screws (I retract my frustration at having to buy these in quantities of 100!) and lay them atop the centerboard to determine ideal position, way inside the board. This is like taking a little pine needle and laying it across the narrow edges of the stack of gum.

Draw lines on the (curved) wood representing the end of the bolt (inner end), the top (its head), and the depth of hole required to get it that far into the centerboard. Note that the head is exactly 3/8" in diameter.

Clamp a straightedge to the line, chuck a 3/8" brad point bit ('cause you're drilling into to a curved surface: the narrow edge of the centerboard) into the drill, and drill away to a depth of a few inches (exact depth has been marked on the drill bit with white tape).

Switch to the super-long 3/16" bit and continue the hole, dead straight, to the appropriate depth for the actual bolt.

Now you have a 6-inch hole. The first half (from the outside of the flat face to about 3 inches in) is big enough for the entire bolt to slide into. The second, deeper half, starting about 3 inches in, is 3/16", just the size of the bolt shaft but too small for the head to fit through. It's a homemade countersink!

Here's the best part. Take a 3/4" Forstner bit, which drills smooth-sided and flat-bottom holes (not all bits do this), center it on the pencil marks on the top of the wood showing where the bottom of the hole SHOULD be, and drill straight down.

If the first two holes were like inserting a needle into the side of the gumpack, passing through five or six pieces, then this last, vertical hole goes straight down to meet -- you hope -- the bottom of the other holes.

When this happens the 3/16" hole connects at right angles to the vertical 3/4" hole. Push the bolt into the first, horizontal hole, press it on through with a screwdriver, and wait for the tip to appear in the side of the vertical hole. With needlenose pliers pinching the tiny washer and the nut in one hand, and the other on the screwdriver deep in the hole, thread the washer and nut onto the bolt like a surgeon.


Tighten and fill the holes with glue. Result: an absolutely secure bolt, directly through the cracks and pulling both pieces together, six inches deep in the center of the board.

It took almost as long to do it as to explain it, too!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I May Have a Problem With Coffee

Maybe the indigestion comes from stress at work. It's possible, right? Or maybe, just maybe, it's from black coffee on an empty stomach. But I wrote this morning, how could I not have coffee? O the barbarity of such a thought.

But now something odd has happened. Having some coffee at work (what goes better with a PBJ than coffee? Nothing, that's what) I discovered that it actually reduces my indigestion. Hooray coffee!

This is like the time I thought I was catching a cold, so I diligently ate leafy greans and whole grain bread, drank lots of water, etc etc etc. Day after day I was mercilessly conscientious ... and day after day I felt worse and worse. Until the night I had half a pizza and a few beers for dinner. Hey presto: cold symptoms immediately gone.

Speaking of strange physical maladies, last week I took the two 8-foot sheets of heavy plywood that will form the bottom of my boat, and glued them end-to-end, forming a single 16-foot piece. This required a special angled joint called a scarf, lots of glue, and a complicated clamping-and-heat-lamp apparatus. But at the end of the afternoon, with the bottom pieces curing into a single long piece, I was able to announce: I have glued my bottom together.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Good Bad Magic Place

Some time ago I was camping in the winter. There was so much snow we had to shovel a flat space for the tent, and little pathways to the "bathroom." This was the sort of thing that seemed irresistibly cool when discussed by a roaring fire with a glass of amber liquid in hand ... but which, when put into practice, seemed to result in numb fingers and the near-paralysis that comes from wearing six inches of clothing layers.

Not fun! I told myself, scuffing through snow in the blue dusky darkness. Why do we do this, again?

Then I realized: because it's a different place. Because there's something of value to be gained from just being somewhere unusual. Forget about how it feels at the moment; it's enough for it to be different and, therefore, good.

I am way into my work in progress. Way in. Way, way, way in. So far in I can't remember the freshness of the beginning, nor can I see the end. It's exhausting me, and it's not even that good.

But no first draft is, I tell myself, and return to the slog.

But maybe it's like that cold weekend in the snow. There's a magic to writing a first draft. I don't know what's going to happen, so in a sense it's like reading the story for the first time. Yes, it's hard; yes, it's frustrating; yes, it comes nowhere close the shining image I had when I started.

But still, it's different. There's a magic to this part of the process that won't be here when I revise, or send out queries.

Or so I tell myself.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mountain maker

I am no artist, so when I needed to picture the trail my protagonist takes through the mountains, I was stuck. Sketching was out of the question; diagrams and stick figures weren't detailed enough. Clip art useless, graph paper unhelpful, what to do, what to do, what to do.

Then I realized: I can just make the mountains. Brilliant!

Twenty minutes with a piece of Sculpey and a popsicle stick, and I had enough to work with. Did you know it's hard to sculpt a mountain? I'm not saying these are accurate, but they're close enough to work, and now the palm-sized piece of white modeling clay sits on a saucer next to my computer. Out of the corner of my eye it bears a strong resemblance to a lump of melting ice cream, and in fact I've found myself reaching for it absently several times.

No! Do not eat the mountain!

This is much better than the useless maps I was trying to draw. What tripped me up is that, for this section at least, three dimensions are important. Cliffs and abysses are as relevant, probably even more relevant, to my poor character than forward and backward, right and left. Besides, how often do you get to make a mountain and stick it on a plate?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Hold the Line

Here is a quote I came across in Mark Helprin's A Solider of the Great War:
To see the beauty of the world is to put your hands on lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone on the other side, if there is another side, is touching them, too.
This gave me chills when I heard it (audiobook). It was spoken by the main character, a man who has made a study of aesthetics, and a study of the study of aesthetics: the beauty of the world.

Isn't this what we are trying to do when we create, or read, or visit a museum, or sit on a rock watching clouds race? To create, or uncover, and share a line that can exist and affect people after we have left the room or left the world.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Widening Gyre

I know these are generalizations, but ....

Short stories and poems seem to take us inward, deeper into layers of character, motivation, memory.

Often pulp stories, or superficial melodramas* take the reader outward, through larger and larger layers, adding in more characters, more places, additional conflicts and subplots. We go out through the layers.

I suspect that in most stories longer than a few thousand words, it's difficult, if not impossible, to avoid that outward journey: the adding-on of new layers of conflict, character, etc. But isn't it also good to explore inward? If as readers we are on -- and here the metaphor shatters -- both spirals, going in to the core and out to orbit at the same time?

Story and meaning take us inward, past the surface, to the shadowy deep place of forgotten motivations, old grudges and loyalties, quiet fears and strength. It's the "why" things happen. Plot draws us out into the shining world, "where" things happen.

It's possible that in my desire for elegance I'm combining two things that need not and should not be combined. Maybe linking "story" with an inward journey and "plot" with the external journey is, well, crap.

But my point is: as hard as it is to do either of these well, imagine a book that did both. Who was it that said this: "Make no small plans."**

*To keep things safe, let's just call this category "anything you want to add to it." We all have our personal writing bugaboos: mine is superficial and unrisky prose.
** Google cites Churchill, Macchiavelli, and a 19th century urban planner named Daniel Burnham.