Thursday, April 30, 2009

I am afraid. Be afraid.

Today the cows scared me. Wait! I can explain.

The grass is that almost electric green of late spring, and though the sky was dark it glowed with that bad light just before a storm. I love that. It made the grass even greener; the clouds even darker.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a black cow on a green meadow, and I jolted, because it reminded me of something. The herd of cows were so deeply black, and so sharply defined against the grass that it looked like they'd been chiseled right out of the green to show the void beneath.

It's funny how long it took -- several seconds -- before I realized why this was familiar. Those few of you who have read a draft of The Turning Away will recognize it as an iconic image from the first part of the book. It's meant to be scary, and it wasn't until today, when I saw it, out my car window, that I felt that little shock of fear that I'd been describing in my main character.

It didn't help that, at the same time, I was listening to Sympathy For the Devil, and thinking about this poem, and how evil can seem so attractive in its power and certainty. It's bad-ass, and who wouldn't want to be bad-ass? Especially if you've been victimized all your life, that dark power must be a pull as strong as the tides when it finally calls your name.

We've been waiting for you, I thought. That's what it would say.

"Hope you guess my name!" Jagger howled. And then I saw the cows.

So. Cows? Not scary. Black shapes in a green field? In the right context: scary.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Find the pain

"Find the pain," one of my characters instructs another.

There are moments in life that are so piercing that even their memory seems to puncture the fabric of daily life. Sitting on a pew during a service. A child digging the hard ground behind his house to bury a pet. A handshake offered, and accepted in surprise as rancor melts away. Final goodbyes. First hellos. Absent friends.

These moments spur narrative, spark character development. They are the electricity, the fire that makes a story burn and smolder; the embers of a warm life.

Too many of these can overwhelm a story just as they can, I suspect, overwhelm a life. But we should not shy away from them in fiction or in life because they make us who we are; they are the thorny structures we hang a story on, bleeding and desperately alive.

I say this because I realize my characters have been shying away from the rawness of both pain and joy. No more! Within reason -- always this balance, within reason -- I will find the pain in their stories and weave it into the larger narrative.

We cannot always control these moments in our own lives, but reading about them in a book may provide some comfort, or at least companionship.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's A Good Thing I Am Such A He-Man

I have installed the centerboard and well assembly into the boat. After spending more than a week hemming and hawing about how to get the 120-pound widowmaker up, across, and down into the precisely shaped slot in the bottom; after stripping three blocks off the Windmill on the other side of the garage; after several nights' testing and re-testing the lifting tackle with heavy pieces of scrap steel ... in the end I just lifted the soul-breaking monstrosity off the workbench, staggered over to the boat, and dropped 'er in! Thanks to my diligent regime of fingertip pullups, fat-guy throwing, and cinderblock-punching this was a piece of cake.

Ah, you say, but this is boatbuilding. Nothing is simple. Right! Here was the sequence.

First, take the 80-pound centerboard and place it on the inside of one of the sides of its well. Insert the pivot tube and make sure it can swing freely. This will probably take several evenings of belt standing and magical dimension-changing wood.

Then, place the other well side atop this assembly. You probably thought lining up the bolt holes would be possible since you pre-drilled them, right? Ha ha, what a comical fellow, of course they do not line up. Remember the magical size-changing wood? Somehow get everything together, slop with epoxy, bolt-screw-clamp, and let cure.

After a few days, remove clamps and sand off excess epoxy. Meanwhile insert screws in the boat bottom (from below).

Apply 3M 5200 (uber-goop, stickier 'n' roofing tar and more tenacious than a Pekingese dry-mounting a tennis ball) to contact surface.

Put centerboard and well assembly, now weighing in at 120 pounds, next to the slot cut for it.

Insert in slot. Tighten all screws. Wonder why there are so many screws. Decide screws should be banished from building project. Experience shooting pains in forearms and neck from lying under boat twisting screwdriver. Add screwdriver to list of items to banish. Wonder if you could survive 120-pound beast crashing through boat and landing on trachea.

Wrap in plastic and heat lamps and head inside for a cold one.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Magnifying glass and scalpel

Here's an exercise I use to keep myself from writing a story about the story, instead of just the story itself. First I get out the magnifying glass.

Our character, call him Fred, sits on a dock feeling homesick. When I peer through the magnifying glass I start to see things: the color of the water, the grain in the wooden planks, maybe Fred's chewed fingernails. Maybe the way he's sitting is stretching his shirt against his sunburn but he doesn't care because he's committed to feeling sorry for himself so he doesn't fix it.

Deeper. Why are all his fingernails chewed short except that one? Can his legs reach the water? Is it cold? What does the chill make him think of? Are there mosquitoes?

Deeper. Why did he go out to the end of the dock. Can it symbolize an end-of-the-line decision point, where he must metaphorically leap into the river or return home?

Now the other senses. What does the air smell like? What does the mud smell like? What does it make him think of? Can he hear mosquitoes? Are they biting him? Are bats fluttering black against the sky? Are these noises strange or familiar to him? Is there a taste in his mouth? Blood? Peanut butter? Sawdust? Stinky nap breath? Is the dock rough on the back of his thighs? Is it cold?

Closer and closer and closer.

And then deeper. What does this all mean? I touched on this above, but can some of these images link, implicitly or explicitly, to metaphors? The end of the line, or swatting at little annoyances, or embracing the discomfort of sitting on a dock because after all his life is already miserable.

Deeper. Can his reactions to any of these things demonstrate who he is? After all, what we do reveals who we are. Does he splash his feet? Is he too glum even to brush away mosquitoes? Does he smile a secret smile as he remembers his sunburn or his chewed nails or how the water feels on his feet?

Deeper. Motivations, reflection, symbolism.

And then I get out the scalpel. What we're after here is probably not more than a few sentences, so everything that doesn't advance the story or (more important in this scene, at least) our understanding of the character must be cut away ... keeping in mind that multiple layers of meaning are the last things to go.

For example, if I can show that he has sunburn, he's been outside all day, he's not happy about it, and he's stubborn enough not even to shift his position so his shirt doesn't hurt the burn, then there's a deep glimpse into Fred and his story just from one or two sentences.

At the end of C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, the rallying cry was, "Further in and higher up!" That's how I think of this level of editing, except I'm going in deeper and closer. Further in.

With discretion. That's where the scalpel comes in.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Different Storytelling

We interrupt our normally scheduled lack of posting to bring you this update, via Andrew Sullivan and Jeff Abbott: an ad for Phillips TV that (in this version, anyway) has neither logo nor sales pitch.

Hail the power of story, and may we always be open to its variants.

p.s. Keep telling yourself: they're just masks.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Closer to the swamp

While the exploratory draft of one book is resting until I have enough objectivity to hack my way through it again, I've turned to revising the previous book. It's good, but is it good enough? No, it never is. That was a trick question!

One of the things I'm focusing on in this revision is characters. It's always tempting for me to set my characters up as "types." The shy kid. The introspective main character. The bully. Etc. Sometimes I even do this on purpose so as not to take away from the merciless clarity of the main character's story. What a mistake! Making characters real adds to the story.

I think of my stories as enormous fetid swamps. They are messy and sprawling, humming with life and death, decay and birth. Hummingbirds flash over black water; turtles sprawl like ropey knots on logs; the water is so full of organic matter it's nearly opaque, and the air is thick with insects. It's complicated, rich, messy. Alive.

And while I'm not saying a story should be a mess, it should have the pure stink of life. Veracity. Slicing away all that nuance, the richness and ambiguity of people who sometimes make the wrong choice, for example; or who might not be clear why they do X rather than Y, leads to a hard and sterile story that in the end feels -- to me -- artificial.

For example, see how this posting is sprawling and convoluted? Yeah, just like that. Revising should remove the crud but keep the complexity, the loamy and humid exhalation of the swamp.

So while I am now trying, as I always will, to burn away the useless parts of the story, I am also trying NOT to burn away that richness. Little mannerisms of characters that make them more real. Their quiet fears, that they know only upon waking before they force them back into the subconscious. The shames and selfish prideful moments. All of it.

I am trying to get closer, in other words. Closer into my characters' heads. It's fun because I need to be able to articulate things about themselves that they would not be able to. Once I am armed with this knowledge I can rethink the way they experience the story and how they react to plot points.

All of which is a way of gathering my courage before I plunge into the swamp. Yoiks ... and away!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Getting Jiggy

The Pathfinder design I'm building has a fairly flat bottom that is supported, during the building, by a series of cross-pieces or profiles. Each of these (there are ten) is cut specifically to a slightly different height, so when the vaguely triangular bottom panel is flopped across them, it rises a little at the bow and a little more at the stern.

These are just yellow pine one-bys, ripped to a very specific widths and then attached to the building jig. This was a neat step: to see not only the newly cut out bottom shape, but also the gentle curve from bow to stern.

You can also see here how I cut away the edges of the profiles to make it easier to fit my bash-prone hands under the bottom when drilling for screws later.

Also note the upside-down spine and bow curve making a cameo appearance atop the table saw in the background. Farther in the background is the Windmill, a thirty-year-old spitfire-fast daysailer I restored a few years ago, now doing duty as a storage platform.

Now, if only I could get that curve in the bottom panel to match the curves in some of the other components -- centerboard case logs, spine, etc. -- that I carefully drew out and trimmed. Good thing epoxy loves sloppy fits.

With warm weather, breeze and rain and chirping frogs, comes thoughts of getting back out onto the water. It's been a long winter.

Monday, April 13, 2009


I didn't type "The End." Somehow I can never bear to. But on Sunday morning, after a three-hour push, I took off my glasses. The first draft, the exploratory draft of the book is done. 112,000 words and change.

The last of my already-thin objectivity burned away in that final stretch, and I have no idea if it works, whether it contradicts itself, whether it takes the risks I wanted it to, whether the ending makes sense. And there's no doubt it will need some judicious pruning, 5-10,000 words or so.

But still! There were many times in the last 6 1/2 months that I never thought I would get to this point. Part of me is still reeling from the effort, and part is starting to comprehend the sad fact of absence: I have to say goodbye to these characters for a while.

The plan is to print it out, seal it in a box (literally: duct tape and cord) and forget about it for six weeks or so. I won't be able to forget about it, of course, but at least I won't be reading it, tinkering with it, living it like I have for months and months.

Distance enhances objectivity. Because when I get it back out it's time to be cold-hearted and analytical. What works? What doesn't? What almost does? What's in the wrong place? What should be the sequence of realizations, illuminations?

But now it's something that can be fixed, edited, changed, broken down and reconstructed. Now I have something to work with.

Now I just have to wait. And wait. And wait. The only thing that will make waiting out that six weeks bearable will be ... starting on the next project!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rejection Fu

A one-line rejection on a full? Yeah, that's fun. Awesome. Keep it coming! Lemon juice or salt in my cuts? Hey, why not both?

The challenge with rejection, I've decided, is not to avoid giving up. All I do is get angry and determined, so I've never seriously considered the idea of stopping. No, the challenge is not letting the rejection own you. That resentment can take over the day, take over the writing, block the flow of creativity and the already-elusive state of relaxed and disciplined openness that writing needs.

And there's a humility too it, also. I don't mean the humility of being reminded that somebody doesn't like the book; big deal, that's unavoidable. Unavoidable.

I mean the humility of diving back into the work-in-progress. Those characters, as the book arcs up to the climax, are in trouble. Really in trouble. I mean, I sit at a desk and open bad-news e-mails: big deal. But these poor people are absolutely screwed unless they come up with a good way, a convincing and realistic and (in retrospect) inevitable way to win or at least survive. And things, to put it mildly, do not look good.

They're the ones facing truly bad news: my job is to just write it down so it makes sense. And that puts one-line e-mails in perspective.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Notes To Self

If you decide to vault from the top of the stairs in your socks, and your feet slip out and make a thunderous, guest-frightening sound, and all you can do to prevent catastrophe is to panic-clamp your right hand to the banister like a disc brake, do not be surprised at the friction burn on your palm the next day.

If you send your characters sprinting away and leaping off things because you can't figure out how else to end a scene, you will only get away with it once per book. Maybe not even then.

Figure out some way to invent a fireproof apron for the stove so that when frying, the grease spatters on the apron instead of everywhere else, such as tea pot, face, burners, counters, cat, salad, wall, clean dishes, guests.

Do not spend five minutes "practice-lifting" your heavy centerboard and then fail to understand why your shoulders feel like you've been attempting Wing Augmentation Surgery in your sleep.

Warm spring days are meant for being outside. Brook no argument to the contrary.

Keep boatbuilding. The river isn't going anywhere.

Keep writing. Otherwise your characters won't go anywhere.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Centerboard illumination

In a day of slow and misting rain, fogged windows and damp sawdust carpeting the floor, a lone boatbuilder stood at his workbench and pondered the pieces of steel and wood before him.

A bird sang; a man died; a child was born; a star exploded in the silent tomblike darkness of space.

He reached forward. Bolt and tube; rubber ring; washer and nut. And the solution jolted him with a sudden icy chill.

The tube IS the pivot. It turns inside the board, or inside the well sides, or both; it doesn't matter. And the trick is that it is cut exactly flush with the outer surfaces of the well sides. There is bound to be some leakage around the edges of this pivot ... so you compress a rubber ring and steel washer around the top of the tube. How to compress these? With a bolt through the tube.

The bolt is just there to hold the O-ring and washers in place. Those, in turn, are only there to seal out the leaks around the pivot. And pivot must be a hollow tube so the bolt can extend through it and tighten the washers on each side.

Best of all, because the tube takes the weight, the bolt-washers arrangement can be removed and modified / repaired / slathered with grease without dropping the 80-pound centerboard. RESULT!

Meanwhile I have reached a similar problem with the book. It's embarrassing how unexpected this was, but I've stumbled into a scene that is turning out to be the pivotal emotional moment of the whole thing: an argument between two characters, each of whom is right. They face a bad choice where there is no right answer.

Ha ha, just the sort of thing that makes stories interesting! I wonder what they'll do next. Thank goodness I'm not in either of their positions; I just flutter my hands in the background and act worried.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Boat Balks At Building Pace; Builder Gnashes Teeth

Boatbuilding on a schedule? What a comical notion! Capital! Thank you for the laughs, Dr. Humorous Droll.

Getting everything assembled (and glued, and bolted, and final-shaped, and sanded, and sealed) for this weekend was going to be a tight schedule anyway. But things slipped off the rails last night with the discovery that my pivoting centerboard does not pivot. This is like having a car's wheel that does not turn.

Luckily nothing's been put together yet, and some careful work with a belt sander will remove enough of the pivot area to enable the hell-blasted, snicker-snack, thunder-and-death, red-gobbled centerboard to swing freely. Once everything is loose and movable, I can put the board inside its case, insert the pivot pin assembly, and bolt/glue the whole thing together.

The pivot pin is an interesting conundrum. It consists of a steel tube that fits snugly through a hole leading from one side of the well, through the board, and through the other side of the well (the well is like the casing for the board; the bread that sandwiches the ... peanut butter ... that is the board). Then you thread a bolt through the tube, slather it with grease, and tighten nuts down on either end to forestall leaks.

Here is the question that make me wrinkle my brow at work and set up miniature tests with business cards and pencils. The bolt is designed to turn inside the tube. But the tube doesn't know it has a bolt in it, and the bolt isn't attached to anything except the tube. What pivots?

I mean, obviously the board swings up and down and something is turning. Either the board pivots on the tube, or the tube sticks to the board but pivots inside the holes on either side of the well.

For the life of me I cannot understand what function the bolt provides besides keeping water out. But if that were the case why not go with solid rod?

Hulk confused. Hulk crush!