Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dear slugs: I'm sorry

Slugs of the world: please DO NOT unite!

Recently there was an unfortunate incident involving one of your brethren or sistren or co-unspecified gender on a local gravel road, or paved road, or parking lot. The precise provenance of this ... incident ... remains unclear, for reasons which sadly, will become very clear.

I know, slugs, that you enjoy a good rain. Who doesn't? As long as nasty hard-skinned bipeds don't come out with their tempting bowls of beer, or magnifying glasses, or salt, few things are better than a "stroll" (slide) across a field of wet grass.

Or, presumably, a gravel road.

When said road is winding down great, swooping switchbacks from the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and somebody -- an innocent victim, no less -- is flying downhill on a new bicycle, it is all he, or she, can do to maintain control and not slide off the shoulder into a tree.

When slug and bicycle meet, there can be only one outcome. Let me point out again that I, I mean someone, is the victim here as well.

Upon returning to his (or her) car, a certain bike rider found something gooey on his bike. It looked like a piece of brown chewing gum. He gamely wiped it off with a piece of gravel.

Then he found another one. And another. And another. Something had spattered the bicycle tube, the pedal, the gears, the back tube, and -- worst of all -- the front of his ankle.

Gritting his teeth heroically, he performed what might optimistically be termed an autopsy only to discover, too late, the horrific truth!

Even worse: an hour of drying air flowing across these ... pieces ... had dessicated them to the consistency of rubber.

What I Did On My Weekend: I accidentally made slug jerky.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Words is Words

Since I work in an office I have meetings, at which I have lots of time for daydreaming and doodling. Sometimes I jot down story notes. Several times I've sketched maps.

This means that when I have to think about something complicated, like Jupiter or magnetism, I have a ready-made Thinkin' Time for it.

Lately I've been thinking about those fancy electronic gizmos that plug in and display books. Some kinda magic lantern spaceman goggles, online book reader robot thing, if I'm understanding correctly.

Evidently there are some complicated and heated arguments about digital rights, readership numbers, accessibility, cost, creative licensing, and so on. Not to mention the whole Jupiter-magnetism issue.

But where I've landed is this: I write stories. I do not illustrate. I tell stories through words. And people can read them printed on paper, or illuminated on a screen, or posted on a blog. Words is words.

I am very easygoing, as you can see. It's not just a perspective of wanting anyone to read my books on any device or medium they want (though I concede that's a factor), but rather that if people want to experience the words this way or that way I don't attach much value judgement to it.

As far as they're concerned, that is. As for me, stock my little house with bookshelves, let me smell the ink and paper, and marvel that this thing made from pressed plant fibers, and glue, and ink, somehow holds entire worlds.

But audio books? Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war! Hearing words isn't the same thing as reading them. Or is it? To learn more about this fascinating debate, sign up for my podcast in which I continue this using speech. Oh, you have to have a sound card installed. And speakers. And I've invented a sort of grunting hog-language, comprised largely of gerunds and references to slops, but as long as you've installed the Translato-Pig 9000.03.1.29 you should be fine. Also you will need ears.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cat barf and line edits

The title says it all. Foamy yellow puddles on the kitchen counter? Check. Full spectrum of manuscript edits, from word changes to character arcs? Check.

I thought about quoting one of the editing notes I write to myself -- how self involved can you be, jeez -- but then realized that in order not to give away even crumbs of the plot, I'd have to black out so much it would look like a post-censored Hoover letter:

"Final XXX/XXX argument: pivotal disagreement. XXX focused on XXX, XXX wants to XXX XXX XXX it is. Stained-glass XXX in XXX. XXX wishes he'd XXX more XXX. XXX XXX at end. Maybe we don't see what XXX XXX through XXX XXX."

See? Useless. No, for now, it is mine, all mine, this tender and raw manuscript. Someday I'll look back at this first draft and think how close it was and how far it was, all at the same time.

But for now: edit edit edit edit edit edit edit.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


How much do you give to an effort before it consumes you? Sleep, effort, wealth, health? Is it ever worth it? Is it ever not worth it? Is there anything sadder than not hoping for anything?

I don't know. But I do know this*: most of the things I love doing started out as smaller-scale and -- often -- much more wild efforts.

Right now I'm building a boat, John Welsford's 17-foot Pathfinder design. Last night I glued and bolted (#10 x 2" SS pan head machine screw) the mast step in place. Okay, not really the mast step, the twin supporting posts that go under the mast step and help transfer the mast's downward load to the I-shaped spine and thus to the boat's bottom.

Earlier attempts:
  • A self-designed "sea kayak" in my parents' basement, which I sketched out when I should have been reading Homer. Inconveniently, it was nearly too heavy to lift, and so I sawed it into firewood with a strange lack of regret.
  • A thirty-foot ocean-capable sailboat. Project was scuttled for a variety of reasons, not least of which was my own lack of ability and the vexing tendency of 10x10 oak beams to warp and check like DNA strands. Sawing that one up broke my heart.
  • A sea kayak built from a kit. Aha, this was the solution! With everything cut out, I "just" had to assemble. Success; it still hangs in my garage.
  • Countless rafts over the years, with only two outcomes: 1) too heavy to lift; 2) too heavy to float.
But we can go back even further. When I was young, it wasn't boats but spaceships. For this I blame Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet books, which I've noted before. In these, two young lads build a spaceship! In their backyard! And it works! There was something about mushrooms, too, but I barely remember anything besides the building! Of a spaceship!

Evidently I took this very seriously. My parents relate one side of an overheard conversation when I called NASA. Seriously. And someone answered.

"Hello, do you have any plans?"
"Nine. And a half."
"I'm building a spaceship."
"In my backyard."
"Okay, thankyouverymuch."

Naturally, I spent hours and hundreds of pages of recycled dot-matrix paper (remember the horizontal green and white stripes?) drawing spaceships, instrument panels, rocket engines, seating diagrams, etc. I have never understood why or how, but this drive transferred to boats right around the same time I discovered girls (age 30. Kidding! It was in eighth grade.)

Point is, the thing that sends me out into the sweltering garage every afternoon to work on the boat is, in part, the same thing that sent a very young me to the library to look up liquid fuel rocket engines, or to stockpile Campbell's soup cans with the intention of hammering the thin metal into spaceship body panels. Hey, free metal, right?

Still, I have to say that if I could build a spaceship in my garage I'd do it in a heartbeat. Especially if I was ten years old.

*Bill Murray: "I don't know Babs. But I do know this: you've really let your uvula go to the dogs."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Untangling motivation

I'm halfway into my second read-through of my latest draft -- it's nearly 400 pages so this is not a quick process -- and I am discovering something different this time: I love it.

This is rare. Unique, in fact.

Don't get me wrong, it still has the clumsy prose and wandering narrative that is my specialty. But there is, maybe for the first time, something there.

At this macro level of editing I'm focusing on character motivations and change, something for which (rightly so) my brother took me to task in the last book. It's since been fixed, but I'll never forget his red comments, getting more and more disbelieving, culminating in "YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! NO F'IN WAY!" It was like being edited by John McEnroe.

And so on this book, I'm sensitive to the same issue. Why does my character act this way but feel this other way? Does he grow and change? Is it realistic for him to react in that way? Because I did not outline in detail -- and really, how can you for something this big? -- my character tends to contradict himself, behave inconsistently, hide, reveal, and re-hide truths to himself, on and on.

I have built a spreadsheet that would put an accountant to shame, detailing chapters, POV, primary motivation, secondary motivation, etc. My first thought was to surgically remove everything that did not represent a linear path from Belief A (the main character at the beginning) to Belief B (the main character at the end, when he feels differently about a great many things).

Things were going well; it was fun, when I charted his changing motivation like this, to see what lay outside that path and surgically remove it. I was editing! Hooray! I cannot be stopped!

Until, that is, I realized that none of us proceeds down a single, linear path from Belief A to Belief B. We avoid the issue. Get distracted. Try out different ways of thinking and then double back to the original. Pretend to abandon it. Come back to it. There is a wandering nature to how we grow.

The task of fiction is to maintain one foothold in reality by showing this wandering ... without abandoning the art of it, which requires a certain artificial linearity.


Let's try that again. Showing a simple progression from believing in one thing to believing in another might be convenient for the plot but it would be unrealistic. Yet documenting every motivational twitch or flirtation would be tedious: why read about that when we live it every day? Fiction walks that line, as it so often does.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Keep Running

Today on my way to work I saw a guy running down the sidewalk. Jogging, I mean, for exercise.

I've seen him before; he has some vague lack of mobility or twistiness to his limbs, and when he runs, he flails, he gasps, he labors. He looks like he's struggling underwater, or fighting an invisible foe. I have never seen anybody put so much effort into running. Every time I see him my own problems seem small.

He's been doing this every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the five years I've taken that road to work. This is, clearly, not a short-term thing for him.

This morning I also passed a small box turtle, huddled inside its shell on the double yellow line in the middle of the road.

Should I go back and move it? I thought, driving on. For years I've pulled over to rescue turtles because they're slow and cars are so fast. Should I go back? No, I'm late for work. Just go back. What difference does it make? Maybe I should go back. No, I'm already late.

I drove on.

I turned around.

I went back, worried about where I could pull over safely. It's a winding country road, so I was scoping out driveways and patches of gravelly shoulder.

The turtle was smashed into a wet pulp like a broken melon. It had been less than two minutes since I drove past it the first time. Two minutes while I debated about what I could do. What I "should" do.

I turned around, my stomach tight. Continued the familiar road into work.

And when I saw the familiar guy running toward me, flopping along the sidewalk, his mouth gasping open like a dying fish, his limbs bent into parentheses clawing the air, and when I realized he'd been doing this in all weather for years and years, I still thought of the dead turtle but I now I also thought: keep running.