Monday, November 30, 2009

There is a fire in it.

"That girl is dangerous," one of my characters says, about another. "There is a fire in her."

This is what I must remember; what I do remember: there is a fire at the heart of my story. It can be disguised by the slow death of editing; it can be hidden behind word choice and frustrations over tempo and pace ... but there is a still a fire in it.

Now, then. The job of a query is to burn with that fire. To singe, to smolder, to crackle and glow. To carry some of the story's fire in just a few short sentences that nonetheless sear the reader like a hot sidewalk.

Interesting how I'll choose to write about the query instead of writing the query itself. Enough avoidance. Here goes:

There is a character. He is, like all of us, both a product of his environment and defined by -- imprisoned by? -- his expectations about right and wrong and how the world works.

One day all of that changes, suddenly and horribly. He fights back but learns, for the first time in his life, that he is too weak. That bad things happen no matter how fierce you are.

But still, against all reason and evidence: he believes. He hopes. He, as a very wise man once wrote, carries the fire.

He fails, over and over again. And each time his belief that the world can be understood crumbles a little. In its place is a cynical hope that despite the vagaries of the world, despite the invisible dice-throwing hand of God, despite everything, he can persevere.

Instead of believing in the world, he believes in himself.

Cheesy? No doubt. Like all themes, in the abstract it's little more than a Hallmark card. But when I think of him, my character, Riga, standing in the snow high on the burning white slopes of a mountain, hacking and gasping in the thin air, he wants to stop. The sky is so blue-black it almost vibrates, and he has been coughing up blood for four days.

Behind him is the way back down, to warmth and the soft green lowland valleys. Ahead is a wall of rock and ice.

But ahead is also hope. He takes a step. And another step.

And he keeps going.

Does he believe in himself? Hell and death, he believes in himself because everything else has failed him. Or because he has no choice. Or because he can't stop and die.

Somewhere in there is the kernel of my query.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


And he cannot write.

He chatters about motivation and emotional arc but the characters seem like straw dolls, simulacra.

He runs outside to stare at the night sky, filling his lungs, but the cold air does not burn, and the stars are paste chips. He drinks deeply of wine, but it tastes of oatmeal, a thin slurry of feh. He thrusts his hands into the fire but feels only woolen softness. He screams but no sound comes. He bites his lips and tastes no blood.

And he cannot write.

Brick wall; towering cliff; windless ocean; rain dripping on crows; silence in the great forest; a hand closed into a fist; a smile faded; a head hooded and withdrawn; a curtain closed. Nails bitten; keys stroked; sun hidden; fire doused. And he cannot write.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Querulous Query

Still. Working. On. The. Query.

Here's the challenge: hook the reader, but don't take too long. Summarize the book but don't give too much away. Demonstrate a plot arc and justify the story being 110,000 words. Tease out what the story's really about. Hint: it's probably not what you thought for the past year.

Fortunately, even though it's not quite about what I thought, it is about SOMETHING. And that's what the query focuses on: the main character's view of himself, how it changes, and how he feels about it changing. Oh, and the titanic battle of good and evil.

But! Lest it be thought I spend all my time double-checking the spelling of "querulous" (nearly missed that second U) I have also managed to "work on the boat" by poking querulously at camel crickets and ordering ungodly amounts of expensive screws.

Silicon bronze screws, to be precise. The boat's made with wood, and stuck together with epoxy, and in many spots also held together with screws (and sometimes small bolts). I use silicon bronze because:

a) It's the best. Hands down. It will not rust, corrode, or suddenly fail.
b) It's beautiful. These screws look like jewelry, copper-gold and heavy.
c) Although the glue is not likely to fail, if it does I rather like the notion of a mechanical fastener as backup ... and I rather like the idea of not having to worry about it. See a), above.

I also ordered the first of many inspection ports. This is a circular opening about six inches across, which enables you to reach inside the many storage areas of the boat (and retrieve water, beer, binoculars, recently published book about the titanic battle of good and evil and one boy's evolution of selfhood, spare line, etc.)

It's not time to install the inspection ports yet, but it's time to cut the holes out in the boat, because it'll be easier now then later, when everything is at funny angles and not clamped to my workbench.

I wonder if I could train the crickets to mix batches of epoxy for me. And then jump into it and perish horribly.

Friday, November 13, 2009

This Query Is Kicking My Butt

Here's an idea. If you ever wonder how to suck all the life out of a story you spent over a year working on, if you ever want to drain every juicy drop of joy from your ideas until they're as stale as last week's bread ... why, all you have to do is write a query!

What I've been doing is eliminating possibilities. Does this work? Let's try it. Nope, failure.

How about that? Let's try it. Nope, failure.

This? Failure.

That? Failure.

Scrub everything, try again.


The trouble is that it's supposed to be the synopsis that's the spirit-breaker. Distilling the story into a 1-2 page summary, glossing over nuance and completely skipping subplots, all of it in dreadful passive language with no room for motivation and meaning? That's hell; that's a synopsis. You expect that to be hard.

But a query? A query is supposed to find the spark at the core of the story, that burning piece of starlight that beams across the pages and pages and pages. What it all means. Why it matters.

Identifying that should be easy, right? Writing it into a couple of sentence should be fun, right?



I'm off to a conference this weekend. I intend to return with a new energy. I will master this query!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Micro and macro

Micro-level line editing continues very slowly. I realized that if I quit slouching around on the couch watching TV, I could get in at least another hour per day. Done! And thank goodness for coffee.

At the same time I'm getting ready to start querying this latest book. Since I know it takes a good couple of weeks to come up with a workable query, I'm trying to start now.

It's tricky, like going from reading glasses to a telescope, to be working on micro-edits but also trying to hold the macro-level themes in my head well enough to pull out the threads of a compelling query. That's what it feels like: I'm faced with this enormous tangle of yarn, and I have to reach in, hook a few strands, and tease them out. Then mail them off and hope somebody can envision the sweater.

Hey, a knitting metaphor! Probably my last! Hooray for coffee! Did I already say that!?

Friday, November 6, 2009

We Are Not Amused

Last night I was working on the middle of three chine pieces, the sixteen-foot strips of fir that bend around the edge of the boat. I followed the same technique as the inner piece ... right down to committing the same error. In the very same way. After trimming off a neat angle I found that it was precisely 9mm too short. Again.

Maybe, thought I, it would just be easier to slice 9mm off the back of the and boat and move the whole stern forward to close the gap I seem to insist on creating.

This morning, continuing my painstaking editing, I managed to do 4 pages in an hour. That fourth page took 45 minutes, most of it on four sentences. S ... l ... o ... w.....

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Night Of The Crickets

After my slick chine-lengthening move (see previous post) I returned to the boat project with vigor and optimism! Immediately I set to work test-fitting and then bending the second (middle) of three chine pieces.

As I was working up near the bow, I realized that I hadn't seen any spiders in a while.

Don't get me wrong, the normal cobweb spiders spin their hairy webs over everything. I have decided their fangs are too small to puncture my skin, so I don't worry about them apart from flailing like an electrocuted Wookiee when I wander through their webs.

No, what was missing -- speaking of Wookiees -- were the wolf spiders. I've written about these before. Suffice it to say that the method of finding these leviathans is to go into your yard at night with a flashlight. And look for the glowing eyes in the grass. I am not kidding.

Wolf spiders eat, among other things (dolphins, gazelles, lambs), crickets. Not just any crickets, but the hunch-backed, striped, spidery horrors called camel crickets.

These are so ghastly, so viscerally awful that I cannot even post an image. Prop yourself in front of a bucket and Google them if you must.

So wolf spiders eat camel crickets. No wolf spiders in the shop equals ...

I reached under the boat to tighten a screw and nearly put my hand on a cricket the size of my thumb tip.

When I returned to the ground -- seriously, one moment I was kneeling under the boat and then next I was five feet away after some sort of fugue state -- the cricket was gone.

Ha, I said (after saying other things), and reached for a killing stick.

Since it's a wooden boat I'm building, there are scraps of wood everywhere. No shortage of long clubs with with to dispatch a cricket. I found a piece of wood. Found the cricket. Made the cricket not be a cricket anymore.

Look, I'm sorry but there are certain things I will not tolerate, and camel crickets infesting my boat is one of them.

A few minutes later I nearly stepped on another one. Different cricket, different wood scrap. Same result.

Now I find myself in need of a hungry wolf spider that will eat crickets but not me. Looks like it's time to go spider-spottin' with my headlamp and leather gloves.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Swine Chine

The chine is the long, curved piece of wood that runs along the bottom edges of the boat, port and starboard (left and right, ye blasted lubbers). It reinforces the corner between the side planking and the bottom.

There I was, tra-la-la, merrily ripping a 16' piece of beautiful douglas fir. (Okay, "ripping" is an overstatement, I was using a circular saw and a careful eye to the inked line. 16' is a long long cut.) In this case the curve is too severe (not to mention a twist; it's a curvy boat) for the full piece to bend on, so I'm using three narrower pieces, each of which is sufficiently bendy enough. The three pieces get bent on individually, then all glued together.

Test-fitting the first piece is a complicated operation, involving crawling around on my hands and knees, scattering wood chips and spider carcasses (what eats spiders? Bigger spiders.) and trying not to scrape my back on the frames arcing above me like open arms.

At the bow, the chine piece is trimmed into a long and sharp angle, so it can nestle up flush to the front of the boat. Then it runs through six notches, one in each frame, bending and twisting and clamping and grunting it into place.

At the end of the boat the chine piece snugs up inside the transom, which has an angled socket ready to receive it. All I had to do was cut the wood to this complicated angle and it would press smoothly into place. Right? Who's with me?

I maneuvered the long piece of wood, flush at the bow, aft frame by frame. When I reached the transom it was time to trim it to the right angle, so I clamped five or six times until it was just right, tried several measuring techniques to capture both the angle and the depth of the hole, moved the light six or a hundred times so I could see, drew the line and cut.

Here is the result, after several hours of preparation, testing, re-testing, and finally cutting:


The chine (under my thumb) is exactly 9 millimeters too short, although it's at precisely the correct angle, thanks to my careful measuring. For what it's worth, the transom is exactly 9mm thick. Odd, that.

Luckily I had my Swearin' Hat on and was able to fire off a few blistering phrases, stunning mosquitoes and curling wood shavings. There was nothing else to do but cut a piece to make up the difference, since there was NO WAY I was going to spend another day working up another sixteen-foot piece.


And solution in place:

The douglas fir is beautiful and fine-grained. As if that's any consolation. I'll soak the whole thing in epoxy, drop a counter-sunk #10 x 1-1/2 bronze screw in through the transom, and it'll be fine.

But still.