Monday, March 30, 2009

Short time

Passing 100,000 words in my work-in-progress has turned out to be a relief. No more milestones! I know I won't reach 200,000 -- Lord knows I don't want to -- and so now I can concentrate on the crescendo of narrative that is just starting to build. Big finish, now, everybody focus!

At the same time I'm rushing to prepare boat parts so then when we have company this weekend I can enlist our guests' muscles to help lift the widowmaker centerboard assembly into the slot prepared for it in the boat bottom. Yep: I cut a slot in my bottom. Still funny!

This entails bolting, prepping, gluing, curing, sanding, and cleaning, all by this weekend. So just as the book kicks into fast gear, so too has boatbuilding. Luckily with warm weather, epoxy now cures overnight so I can go twice as fast as I used to. The down side: the bright work lights attract bugs, which nosedive into the uncured epoxy and stick, as it cures, like mosquitoes in Jurassic amber. Extra ballast, I say.

Friday, March 27, 2009


This morning my work-in-progress lurched past 100,000 words. A landmark! Which means nothing! It's just a number at the bottom of my screen that makes me feel like I've done something of note.

But like a broken clock that still shows the correct time twice a day, I suspect that if I had typed the same word 100,000 times, at least occasionally it would be the right one in the right place, which is more than I can say for this first draft now slouching towards completion.

How can it seem to be both melodramatic and boring? Both superficial and self-indulgent? I don't know, that's the madness of the exploratory draft!

Oh well. I try not to judge, because I suspect that it's impossible to be objective this close to it. What seems slow-paced will turn out to be fast; what seems meaningful will turn laughable; what I half-remember as sloppy, half-witted prose will become poetry. So really, nothing I think now about its quality matters. At all! Or so I tell myself.

But now the end is in sight. I know roughly what is going to happen and (more importantly) how I want it to feel -- to me, to the reader, to the characters.

There are still -- heh heh heh -- a few surprises in store for the characters. This may be the end of the book, but it's not the end of the story, after all.

Just a few more weeks. I feel like I've rounded the last corner in a race and I can see the finish line even as my muscles turn to glue and everything goes slow and dreamlike. Almost there....

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Time I Invented a Space Shuttle

When I was young I intended to build a spaceship. So what else is new? I diligently collected soup cans (they could be beaten flat and formed into the exterior), milk jugs (cleaned out and trimmed just so, they were perfect space helmets), vacuum cleaner hoses (fuel lines) and unbelievable amounts of sketches on graph paper, lists of weaponry, notes on force and mass and thrust. Binder after binder after binder. It was a little worrying that our backyard was not quite big enough for a launch pad, but I decided to focus on bigger issues first. Like how to build laser cannons.

It was a combination of the Space Shuttle program, The Empire Strikes Back, and Eleanor Cameron's The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, in which intrepid boy heroes David Topman and Chuck Masterson build their own spaceship and voyage to ... the Mushroom Planet. (It is impossible to describe this without chortling -- Topman and Masterson? Really? -- but that book changed my life.)

Things got even more complicated and interesting as I learned about aerodynamics, lift and thrust, wing geometry, etc. My career path, I assumed, was clear! Around this time, when I was in SMAS, I sketched out an idea for a jet engine that took the exhaust gases, super-compressed them, and ignited them. Awesome.

Imagine my delight when I found that this had already been invented as the turbo-ram rocket or something similarly badass-sounding. I was on the right track! My idea would have worked!

Then I discovered puberty and girls (sadly, they did not so much discover me until I learned how to be cool, years later) and boats, and now instead of spaceships I build sailboats. With turbo-ram rocket engines. No, not really.

I recently had a similar moment. I'm reading a book on deep, very deep archaic Germanic folklore called The Well and the Tree. So far it's sort of an ethnography of early Germanic culture based largely on their remaining literature and the sparse archaeological remains. And there is a section on the idea of the past and the present, and the future, that rang so true I had to put the book down.

Lo and behold, it was the ding-dang turbo-ram rocket all over again. Because I've spent months, years, sorting out the idea of history and free will, the vexing and troublingly common idea of Prophecy, and eventually came around to the foundational reality of my work-in-progress. Only to learn that some group of early Germanic people had already done so!

Oh well. If it made sense to them at least now I have the confidence -- let me be accurate, the suspicion -- that it may make sense to readers, too.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"My lord. We have them."

Would I be a true child of the 80s if I did not reference a movie? Especially that foundation of my morals and attitude, The Empire Strikes Back.

The last few days have been tricky, writing-wise. But then yesterday, returning to the office after a lunchtime errand, I heard a song and all became clear.

The main character's motivations sprang into focus as if I'd twisted a knob and revealed something that had been there all along, just impossible to see. The line that burns through the entire narrative from start to finish and ties it together: what he wants, what he fears, what he does. All of it.

From one song.

And in my rush of relief -- things like this seem to occur only after I've tormented myself, often on this very blog (and a heartfelt thank you to Laini and Rebecca for the goodwish comments on my last post) -- I realized I had captured the essence of the story. I had it! The image that came to mind was Admiral (or was he General at that point?) Piett when he finally spots the Millenium Falcon. He turns to Vader and says:

My lord. We have them.

What was the song, you ask?

Well, as they used to say in the Time-Life book advertisements, also from the 80s, "read the book!" Ho ho ho.

Okay, anyone who asks about it after reading the book will get the answer. I'll be curious to see if my vision matches what comes through in the story. But for now: back to work. I can see the end in the distance.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Dear Publishing Industry: I'm not afraid of you. Nobody's reading? Wait, they are, but it's all e-books about celebrity kung-fu vampires who do nothing but score with each other? And every publishing house is folding because six-year-olds with Twitter accounts are signing contracts to publish cell phone novels?

I'm putting my fingers in my ears. LALALALA I can't hear you.

Dear Rough Draft: You think I am intimidated by the way you take 90,000 words to say nothing of substance? Oh boo hoo, I'm broken-hearted because I wrote 1061 words this morning and they were -- sniff -- almost all useless! Wah! Wah! LALALALA I can't hear you.

Dear Creative Muse: Do you think you can hide forever? I WILL FIND YOU.

Here is my trick: emotional judo. According to Pink Panther movies and 80s cartoons, judo means turning your enemy's attack against him. Not by blocking a flurry of kicks or nunchuks or whatever, but simply by leaning and flowing. Going with it, you might say.

Example: My rough draft is a shambling horror? Great! It's supposed to be. Mission accomplished, what's next?

The publishing industry is eating its own young? What, am I supposed to stop writing? I can't. Write more? I can't. Faster? Impossible. Write something different? No. So what am I supposed to do other than shake my head, accept it, and move on.

Judo. Acceptance.

That, and stick my fingers in my ears. LALALALALA!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Boat progress

Things are rolling along with the boat. Fortunately I have photographic evidence: these are about a week old, but are still a good status snapshot, since most work since then has been on small and nearly invisible components.

First, the centerboard. The lights appear to be huddled around in fascination, but in fact are trying to keep the temperature high enough so the epoxy cures instead of freezes. The bottom of the centerboard is at left, and the dark patch near the middle is about 45 pounds of lead.
The whole thing weights approximately 9,000,000 pounds, and will break anything it knocks into, including me.

Next we have "my" bottom. That's right, it's hilarious. Here it is, half-cut out of the plywood:
This also shows the incredible neatness and organized nature of the garage. Don't be intimidated!

Once the bottom was cut out I had something that was almost a boat-shape for the first time on this entire ding-danged project. This was so exciting I decided to prop up the frames for a very rough 3D view of the basic shape:
This is looking aft; the thing shaped like a stop sign at the top left of the image is the transom, or the very back part of the boat. There will be more frames than this, but they're a little tricky to prop up. Another view, looking forward:

The heart-shaped piece is actually a bulkhead just aft of the pointy bow. I'll eventually cut an opening in this piece for a round hatch. Since I don't actually have said hatch yet, it seemed safest not to go cutting holes in expensive plywood.

This was an exciting moment, seeing the big shape together like this. I'm almost at the point where I can start assembling these pieces like a dinosaur skeleton.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Complicateder and complicateder

And another thing. Making villains more than paper-mache bad guys certainly adds depth ... in which case, making protagonists more than shining and infallible good guys has the same effect.

For some reason adding shadows and texture to protagonists seems hard. Wouldn't it be hard to imagine Luke Skywalker going home and backhanding C3PO head over heels for making one more inane observation, you damned shiny-pate toolbox? That'll teashu to ... where's my darwongian brandy? Gimme that bo'le!

Okay, Luke's a bad example. Imagine your typical tough-talking, unpopular-but-painfully-hip, beautiful-but-doesn't-know-it vampire-hunting, demon-slaying, fairy-attracting/repelling, Glock-packing, no-nonsense-taking, half-immortal/not high school girl. I've been waiting for someone to point out that this character can now take her place in Central Casting with white-hatted cowboys, sniveling mustachioed villains, and lovable rogues, but so far it's just me.

Let's say this girl -- call her Az'Kikerella -- goes home after a tough day in the trenches of high school biology and clique warfare (to say nothing of the otherworldly creatures who surround her like paparazzi) and realizes she can't turn off the violence and beats her little brother because he cries too much.

Too much violence? Okay, bad example. She goes home and hits her parents' liquor cabinet because she hates being a tool of destruction.

Worse? She goes home, changes, and spends the night on the street corner to finance her ammo habit.

Less bad? She goes home to a loving family, but cries herself to sleep because she's so tired, so tired, and the monsters never stop coming.


I am being unfair to this character type and to the many good stories with a similar character in them. But my point is that making somebody -- hero, villain, bystander, whatever -- all one thing or all another is boring and unrealistic. It's also easy, and we should be suspicious of anything that appears easy.

More? Okay! A guard at a concentration camp in World War II has a fondness for painting watercolors featuring baby animals playing together.

A guard sings his infant son to sleep, then goes back to work at the death camp.

A soldier in an invading army pauses while plundering a ruined town, and falls to his knees at the sight of a stained glass window that has somehow survived the bombing of its church.

Some of these are examples of human depth, little details that help flesh out a character. And some of them are potentially plot-altering moments that can fundamentally shake our perception of who a character is, or what motivates him or her. Being shaken is good; the world is too full of tame stories.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Darkness at Dawn

Daylight Savings Time has made my morning runs a little tricky. As in: completely black. Imagine my surprise, then, when I left the house this morning under the silver light of a full moon.

It hung in the sky like a sun, and was so bright I wondered if I'd need sunglasses. Moonglasses. My shadow streamed behind me as I ran into the glow.

But the moon was setting, and 40 minutes later , it was a watery and tired yellow behind a screen of clouds that looked like woven fingers, the light diffusing and spreading so that I almost couldn't see the round moon at its center. And my shadow faded. And the trees darkened. And the sky lots its sheen.

By the time I walked panting up our driveway the moon had set and it was fully night: black sky and stars, and a dim blueness high and far off that only hinted at dawn.

That's first time I've ever seen it get darker on a morning run.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


I like complicated characters and complicated stories. Real life, I've often suspected, is complicated as well. This got me thinking about my antagonists (sorry main characters, you're up against more than one).

How bad is TOO bad? How evil is TOO evil? Can everything be forgiven? Can anything? Murder? Dishonesty Cruelty? Swearing? Stealing?

This was, in part, the subject of Ian McEwan's excellent Atonement. What is forgivable and what is not. And -- to my mind this is more interesting -- the wracked mental gymnastics people go through as they struggle to either defend what they have done, or to overcome it.

Don't get me wrong: it's useful to my story to have pure and black-hearted bad guys who do evil things because they are evil, and they are evil because they do evil things, and they love evil because they are evil.

But why? And what happens if they change?

Complexity; second thoughts; regret; atonement; revenge; forgiveness. These are the colors that add depth to the story.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Invisible Progress

Today I took great strides with my work-in-progress without adding a single word to the draft. Actually, that's a lie: I think I reworked a sentence. But most of my sleepy-eye, coffee-drinking, back-cracking, bird-listening-to, career-rethinking, doubt-saturating, draft-despising, motivation-erasing work this morning was a long discursus in my working document about the rest of the book.

The first two thirds have felt like setup. A long pitch. The "deep breath before the plunge." Getting ready. I have two or three (or six or ten, it feels like) separate plot elements that need to come together in a symphonic crescendo of resolution: that's called the end.

These elements aren't really subplots so much as questions raised that need answers; choices made that need implications; characters poised for growth who now need to take a next step and either stand or fall.

And so I realized I'd better quit indulging myself in thousand-word explorations and get down to the business of wrapping up this story so that the story is surprising but inevitable. Elegant.

And that meant taking the time to list and then work through upcoming issues. It's not even an outline, just a dozen paragraphs of questions and answers, dead ends, and ideas. So: no new writing today, but loads of progress.