Saturday, May 30, 2009


This week's Sunday Scribblings prompt is "Covert." Away we go!

Dud wasn’t drunk. Not anymore, at least, and not yet. But he was still mad enough to pound the wheel when the gas light came on and we were in the middle of goddam nowhere, the land dry and brown like toast and probably cow bones and vultures everywhere.

“Gas!” he said, like that would fix it. “Gas!”

When he pounded the wheel I could see the sunburn blisters on the back of his hand. You’d think thirty years hauling traps and don’t you forget it would have sealed his skin like leather against the sun. But apparently not. And now he was working himself up, though it was early for his afternoon fit.

Thirty-eight more miles of Gas! and wheel-punching and we came to a dusty little gas station in the middle of dusty little nowhere. A few big rigs idled in the shade, and we rolled up in neutral, Dud goosing the car like it was a dying horse.

We’d left Virginia four days ago. Four days of heat and sunburns and the sour stink of sunwarmed whiskey. Dud had got it in his head that we’d go to California.

He didn’t say it, even when he’d had a few, but I knew he was thinking of Mom.

Dud was pumping the gas, swearing at something or other, and I got out. When I felt the air I got right back in. I’d sweated through my tank the morning we left, and now it felt crispy and hard on my skin. Awful.

I heard footsteps on the gravel, and an old truck driver-looking dump of a man came shambling over. I gave him my hard look, the one that teachers always shrank away from.

He looked away and wiped his mouth.

“Plates say Virginia,” he said.

I’d had it. I kept staring. The trick was not to blink. Like a hawk or a mean cat.

“You—” he began, and looked away again. Dud had his back to us and I could see his jaw moving. Christ, even his ears moved when he talked to himself.

“You folks need some help or something? Here.” And he came forward slowly, like he was a kid, and held out his hand.

Not this again. The five was soft and slightly damp, like he’d been holding in his pocket or, more like, his big red hand.

Dud wasn’t looking. I took the bill and stuffed it into my cutoffs.

“What do I have to do for it?” I knew how this worked but we needed the money. I needed the money.

His eyes were the color of tobacco juice and they trailed over me.

“No,” he said. “Take it.”

The pump stopped. Dud jiggled it back.

“Just take it. For ... whatever.”

All that day, driving through the heat that made the road shimmer and the sky hurt with blue, I thought of the crumpled five in my pocket. It felt sneaky. It felt like the beginning of something. Dud didn’t know and it felt good. Covert.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Enough Is Enough

That's about long enough without a post. Sheesh, you'd think I was doing other things with my time!

What I've been doing is revising, revising, revising, revising, revising, revising, revising, revising. The plan is to revise Book #2 while the rough draft of Book #3 is "resting." This way when I return to #3 I'll be objective enough to see the flaws and any (accidental) successes.

Meanwhile, once #2 is ready I'll start another querying cycle. I've never figured out why it's difficult to query agents -- something about actually launching oneself toward one's dreams, maybe -- but it is frustrating not to have ANY queries out there. So: soon.

And then, it's back to Book #1, the one I wrote to see if I could write a book. Turns out I could, and re-immersing myself in that story not only might help me see if it's worth reworking, but will also be a great way to distance myself from #2 and #3, which are, after all, related.

And in all of this sweaty and unrewarding work, the burning eyes and clenched neck and feeling of staleness, I step outside into the singing summer darkness and think: there are stories out there. Everywhere. If I have the wild audacity to try to pluck them unbruised from the air then I should at least have the courage of my convictions and get back to work. To work.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Problem solving

It's unclear* whether "problem solving" requires a hyphen. If it does I am far too busy and important to type it, so I'll provide them here, and you can insert them as you see fit:
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. There. That should do for the rest of this entry.

Part of learning how to build a boat really means learning how to solve wood problems. For example, if I cut a notch with the intention of fitting a smaller piece of wood into it, and the notch is slightly too small, what then? Do I cut it out again? What if the saw slips?

Do I use a jigsaw, a hand scraper, a knife blade, a manual plane, a power plane, an axe? Or what if the notch is too big, or angled wrong? At what point do I throw it out and start over?

What I've found is that this great and frustrating exercise in self-education I call boatbuilding is teaching me the best ways to fix problems like that. Sure, experts make fewer mistakes than amateurs, but they still make them. The difference is that one of the things that makes them experts is their knowledge of how to fix those mistakes, and the judgement of when it's better to start over.

Writing is the same way. If I'm not feeling close enough to a character, if as a reader I'm just not inhabiting her resentment, or secret fears, or in-the-moment frustration, how do I get closer?

Do I explain more? Explain less? Explain differently? Maybe I need a new scene showing her interacting with her father. Or maybe I need to rewrite an existing scene from her point of view. Maybe I can go into another character's thoughts about her, and instead write a scene from this second character's POV.

The point is, there are always going to be problems. And while in the beginning I had thought that problems were nothing more than symptoms of poor craftsmanship, I am realizing that craftsmanship really means knowing how to address those problems, from a variety of tools and methods.

"How did you know to do that?" asks one of my characters.
"By doing everything wrong first," the other replies.

There is no shortcut to this. Humbleness, it would seem, is unavoidable.

*To me

Friday, May 15, 2009

This Would Be Better With Pictures

But I have none. In the spirit of "The first transport is away!" I can announce: the first frame is installed!

"Uh-rayy!" cheer the scurrying, white-jacketed boatbuilding interns, lifting one arm into the air.

(Note to non-boatbuilding readers: sometimes I will talk about boatbuilding. This is one of those times.)

Frame 5 of the Pathfinder is attached to the aft edge of the centerboard well and helps hold it at right angles. In the last month since I installed the centerboard well I have had it braced to the tablesaw to avoid even the slightest chance that it would get knocked out of alignment. This back-scraping arrangement was most vexing, as I had to fold myself in half like a sawdusty imp and scuttle underneath the brace each time I wanted to go to the front end of the boat. This happened approximately seven thousand times each evening.

But no more! With Frame 5 in place and holding the centerboard case rigid (along with plenty of adhesive and heavy bronze screws) I can remove the brace and walk upright again, or as upright as I can given my simian qualities. Have I mentioned that I've included places on the boat for banana storage and a tire swing?

What's even more exciting about this first frame is that, by standing back and squinting, I can start to envisage the shape of the boat without worrying about the frame falling over. It's glued in, baby!

Pictures to come. No, really, you deserve it.

The frames forward of the centerboard well are just propped up for looks!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Getting it right

Sometimes I think boatbuilding is an antidote to writing. After all, when I fumble through a scene or chapter, or even a sentence of dialog, it's not always easy to tell when it's right.

Bad writing is easy to identify, of course. Good writing: sure, I can tell when I see it. But nearly everything is somewhere in between, especially in a first (or eighth) draft.

Boatbuilding, on the other hand, tends to be much more clear. Draw a line on a piece of wood. Attach another piece of wood along that line. If it doesn't match, there's a problem. Close equals good; far equals a sinking boat someday. And there's a very real satisfaction in tightening up a countersunk bronze screw and watching that gap close ... close ... and finally disappear.

That certainty, the demonstration of quality, immediately noted, checked, and relied on, proves much more elusive in writing. It reminds me of what someone, John Ruskin maybe, said about the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty.

The workmanship of risk refers to work where the outcome is not certain, but rather dependent on the skill of the craftsman. Craftswoman? Craftsperson?

The workmanship of certainty is work where the outcome is predictable, even, and consistent.

Writing cursive by hand is the workmanship of risk; typing is the workmanship of certainty. A factory producing lightbulbs is the workmanship of certainty. Handblown glass is the workmanship of risk.

The terms, of course, are fluid, shifting like ghosts across the daily realities of what we do and how we work. From the example above you might think that boatbuilding is the workmanship of certainty. But what is less certain, less consistent, less reliable than a hand built wooden boat? It's not as if I'm popping plastic boats out of a mold, over and over again.

Yet writing a novel is definitely the workmanship of risk. So is telling a story. Which is what makes those risky endeavors so ... well, risky.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Synonymity, or: I Draw An Embarrassing Shape

Let me see if I can relate this story using only synonyms, for reasons which will become clear.

Yesterday I was at work, explaining an idea to two women. I tend to think visually, so I hopped up to the whiteboard, and drew a shape.

Now. At the same time I was (and still am) experiencing a niggling facial twitch along the side of my nose. Usually I get these micro-spasms in my eyelids, and while they tend to be completely invisible to other people, they feel like earthquakes, and I have an image of myself helplessly fluttering my eyelashes at strangers. The twitch on the side of my nose felt like I was snarling like an angry silverback: lip up, lip down. Lip up, expose teeth, lip down. Up. Down.

The shape I was trying to draw was intended to look like one petal of a flower, to which I could add others to further illustrate my idea, all radiating out from a central point, like a many-armed star. We've all drawn these, usually on the margins of calculus notes. Right? Who's with me?

I turned to the whiteboard, my lip snapping and snarling away (or so it felt), and carefully drew the first petal. It was a long, vaguely oval or cylindrical shape, about six inches long, sloping down and to the left.

The idea I was trying to express was that we could write short articles, or profiles, of various business executives.

"So here," I said, sketching the shape, "is our Wall Street guy."

Oh. God.

I had drawn something that half of the world has, and half of the world does not have. Right? Who's with me? I had drawn something that looked vaguely like a small cucumber. Down and to the left. Our Wall Street guy. My lip was twitching away in Extreme Ape Rage as I looked wildly for an eraser. No erasers! Anywhere! Of course!

The meeting had derailed, so I lunged for a kleenex on my desk -- and by this point I was so flustered that even a kleenex gave me the willies (get it? willies? who's with me?) and wiped it (the shape) off the board, wrinkling my simian snout and trying to recover good form.

All was lost. There is no recovery from something like that. Just another day at the office!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I am revising. It is hard. And slow.

It's not even a big revision: just adding some character motivation, fleshing out a few scenes (not "flushing out," as people here at the office mistakenly say, causing me to suppress giggles), and so on. But armed with my knife and scalpel, tenterhooks and shovel, I am wading in to do battle.

But wait! Hasn't this been revised before? Why, yes. Yes it has. So why revise now?

Because it's NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Now. I'm not going to be that cliched character kneeling by the unmoving body of a friend shouting "I can fix him I can fix him I can fix him" while performing weepy chest compressions with my little clenched fist.

But, when I look at my manuscript, I think "I can fix it I can fix it I can fix it," and I start scrawling edits with a pen in my little clenched fist.

Here is my method. I just came up with this ten seconds ago. First I write the book forwards, beginning to end. Then I put it away. Then I come back to it. Then I change the beginning so the ending makes sense.

Then I tinker with the ending so it follows the beginning. Then I rework the beginning so the ending is more poignant and meaningful.

And then I get to work on the middle! Yee. Haw.

I'm averaging about ten pages of revisions per day. In a month maybe it'll be ready. For a re-read!