Friday, December 17, 2010

Awesomeness of Things Past

My wife and I have recently started watching reruns of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

(That's the title, I mean. We're still here in 2010.)

Now, when this was originally on TV in the early 80s, I was not blind to its sillier elements. Those helmets make people look like Q-tips! Why are everyone's pants so tight? Shut up, Tweaky. God!

But mostly the impressionable eight-year-old me thought it was totally awesome. I was building a spaceship in my backyard, after all, so this was all important source material and / or motivation.

And today? Mostly I see the campiness but there's a part of me that says: This. Is. Awesome. Especially the theme tune: that crackling macho voiceover, the tentative strings as Buck hurtles through time, the plunging bass note and then, and then: a squadron of fighters and the crescendo speeding towards New Chicago. Who am I kidding? I love it.

This morning, the office opened late due to snow (thank you, winter) so I hopped on the stationery bike and watched quite of a bit of The Empire Strikes Back while spinning and sweating like a furious ape. I scored the original version a year or two back, and just like Buck Rogers, it's still ... well, cool. The special effects are better, too.

The stories stay with us: and the music, the looks, the gestures. They are, I think, laid down one by one, over and over until we can see them with our eyes shut. But then to go back and watch the real thing after so many years?

Still awesome.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ten pages

I'm grinding through edits at ten pages an hour. That's about twice as fast as I wrote them the first time. Does this mean editing only takes half as long as writing?

Ha ha, what a hilarious question! I wish revisions only took half as long as writing the damn thing in the first place. For me, revision is much slower. In the first draft I'm easy on myself.

But now there is no mercy. No "I'll just figure this out later," or "I think that word is close enough." Close enough ... isn't.

This morning I tried to calculate how many pounds of coffee beans I've ground into coffee during these revisions, but couldn't carry the four or figure the square root gerund participle of eleven or something. And I'm not sure I want to get to a "coffee per page" count. That is a lot of coffee.

I wonder: without the various drugs of history -- stimulants, narcotics, the Internet -- would we have the same vast field of literature we have today? Let me sip another cup and ponder that....

Monday, December 6, 2010

O Coffee

When the alarm goes off at 5 I discover through a fog that my clock radio has station-drifted from to soft static like a distant ocean.

This is why I set a second, backup alarm. Ha! It beeps every second until my arm shoots out and hits snooze. I press the button a few extra times for good measure and then retreat, slug-eye-stalk-like, back under the covers.

It's not getting up at 5 that's the hard part. It's staying up. Coffee and editing until 6:30, sure, no problem. The time flies by, marked by a snoring dog, leaves blowing against the patio door, and cats pawing at things in between (their) naps.

But when I get to work, as bleary-eyed as if I just rolled out of bed, my hands still numb from the walk through the parking lot to the office, I heft my not-nearly-full-enough travel mug and think: gonna be a long one today.

And tonight: more edits!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fifth Base

I'm learning that writing and revising (repeat as needed) is like sprinting around the bases. You think you're heading for home, the manuscript looks good, everything is going great, and then SURPRISE! That's not home plate, it's a fourth base. You're running in a widening spiral. On to fifth base!

I've been hesitant to update on the revision process because it seems so repetitive. All the hackneyed metaphors come crowding in: honing the knife until it's sharp; chipping away at the sculpture; running in circles.

But the fact is that with each revision the story gets a little. Bit. Better. And that's what it's all about: truly the first (I almost said "only") measure of success.

Early morning is the only time I can make for this maddening and revealing process, so that's when I work: up at five, make coffee, step over the cats, put on my glasses, and get to work.

These days I'm doing one last look at the bones of the story. Chapter-level and scene-level changes. Paragraph-level if absolutely necessary, but I'm trying not to go deeper than that, because it's too easy to get distracted by line-edits.

Instead I satisfy my inner critic by swiping an impatient underline to mark clumsy text, problematic text. Because I want the words to go sliding past fluidly in exactly the way a cat does not swallow a pill. Or exactly the opposite of the previous sentence.

In any case, with each pass it gets better. And I think I can see home plate, up ahead in the outfield, where kids stopped playing years ago, and tortoises wander in the tall grass. Or do I see more bases?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Night Harbor

(More microfiction)


He's holding a lantern, with just a candle inside, and the wind makes the flame dance against the glass, blackening it with soot.

-- War is coming, he says.

I look at the stars and swirl the coffee in my mouth. He's full of it.

This year the dark came early. Down in the harbor a spattering of white light shows where Torvald's still welding.

Diesel and seawater. The stars turn.

He has to go, he says, touching my palm.

Cross my palm. Numb hands.

Damn this, damn him, damn the war. Damn all of it.

The candle gutters and goes out.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Then one time

Microfiction: very very short stories. I think of it like a baseball player standing at the plate and fungoing quick shots to the infield. Low-stakes practice.

Then one time, I was at the beach with Mommy and it was SO hot. She thought it was going to rain later, but not thunder because I'm afraid of thunder, so I made a sand castle for the crabs.

Mommy had her book out but I don't think she was reading it. Sometimes I could see her looking at the ocean, so I looked too, but all I saw were big blue clouds like giants. They looked like thunder clouds but I didn't want her to feel bad so I pretended not to see them.

Sometimes she sniffed like she was going to sneeze but didn't. Sometimes that happens to me too.

"What about Daddy?" I said. Daddy always made us his special sweet potato fries. Special sweet potato fries, you always had to call them that.

She sniffed again and pulled her sunglasses down from her hair to cover her eyes. She didn't answer and I knew she didn't want to answer. So I just played with my castle and watched the giant clouds.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

City of Lights

Imagine that you are building a sand castle, but instead of raising it you are uncovering it, brick by sandy brick. When you have finally revealed it you discover that it's really not much of a castle after all, but more of a ... cruller. Do you get to work slapping and shaping the gritty monster into a castle? Do you make it a better cruller? Or some combination unseen by the world and which may turn out to be ghastly ... or brilliant?

You have been asked to make a meal for people you do not know, using ingredients whose faded labels you cannot read, using knives and a stove and pans you cannot hold right. Yet you are compelled to cook, and think only of the feast. This image sustains you through the mess, the rinds of oranges and gristle, spills, dirty dishes, and the grueling and unglamorous labor.

You are dreaming. You must be. Because all you feel is warm air, holding you up, up in the night and you realize you are flying above a moonlight landscape: tiny blots of trees, and winding streets, and the silver shine of the ocean far off. It's a town, spread out below you like a quilt, and in the warm-lit houses people have their own lives, their own fears and joys and quietnesses.

No, it's a city: a great and broad glittering city of lights. The wind rustles and you sail higher, high enough now to glimpse the distant glows of ships tracking across the horizon. Below you is a carpet of stars: the city lights and streetlights and cigarette lights and campfires and rain puddles in the moonlight and bits of mirror and everything shines.

Everything shines.

And you think: that spot needs a light. A tiny spark glows. And that spot. Another one.

One by one, far above the city, you point and sparks glow brighter or dimmer, until everything is just as it needs to be.

You sail higher. It's colder up here, but you need to be able to see the whole thing. Now the dark ocean dwarfs the small city, but the lights ... the lights are patterns. Strings like tiny pearl necklaces, threads of lights, cold blue and warm yellow sparks and silver drops like sugar against the night.

And now you rearrange the threads just a little: straightening this one, pulling that on into a more graceful arc, connecting this one to that one.

This is revision to me: arranging the all the glowing pieces to make sure the patterns I see are truly there. Sometimes it's exhausting but it is always rewarding.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Narrowing Gyre

Turning and turning....

Revisions continue well. Or at least, not face-punchingly terrible, which is pretty good. This is the third book I've revised and I have never scraped away quite so mercilessly. Sometimes I'll find a glittering little piece of prose and I'll take it out, hold it up to the light, and toss it aside or fit it in somewhere else.

There is a general sense of tightening. Not just tightening language, removing fatty words and making the prose more direct, but also a winding of tension, threads of plot spiraling closer and closer into a knot I can't quite see fully yet.

This has been the process so far. I had a list of, let's say, a dozen fairly significant changes I wanted to make. Things like character motivations, or deeper implications, or even arguments that needed to be expanded, or moved from one scene to another.

As I cogitated on these changes, they suggested others, and at this stage I followed every lead, indulged every conceit. Because I didn't want to discard any ideas until I was SURE they were no good.

So now, many bad ideas and a few good ideas later, I have a 16-page "notes" document filled with cryptic questions and answers, bulleted ideas, and the self-indulgent chatter of the overcaffeinated.

From those 16 pages there are maybe five new elements to weave into the story. At this stage those new additions are not huge: clarifying conversations, names, showing things that are important but perhaps not quite clear.

And the strange thing is that I feel like I'm excavating my own story. I don't know what it will look like or what I'll find when all the slobbery mud of the process gets cleaned off it. But I hope it's a little more appealing than what Saruman's minions dug out of the ground!

Thursday, October 28, 2010


This morning I was trying to write a scene where lice play an important role. What are lice like? I am lucky enough to have no idea. No, really, I don't!

So although I eschew e-books, I happily went online to research lice. Of which, it turns out, there are many sorts. My arm itched a little just looking at the pictures.

Lice are small. They are bugs. They are itchy, and lay eggs, and can carry diseases. But what do they FEEL like crawling up your arm? My head itched. Do they skitter like tiny ants? Do they bite with a piercing red itch, like a flea (now those I have had)? My elbow itched. Do they just wander around causing general itching, like poison ivy (ditto)? Can you eat them like monkeys do? What do they taste like? Crunchy? Salty? Squirmy or so tiny you can't even tell whether you're biting down on a louse or a poppy seed?

Pretty soon I was scratching myself all over but still no closer to understanding, truly, personally, in the flesh, what it's like to have lice. And soon I may have to face the question: how far am I willing to go in the name of verisimilitude and accurate writing?

The answer makes me itch.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Redraft, thou saucy varlet!

How much change does a draft go through before it's not an update but a REdraft? Significant change? Well, I've stripped out all the velociraptor helicopter pilots and flaming robot soldiers, but the battle moths and proselytizing garden slugs are still intact.

Kidding! Or am I?

No, a redraft is when you remove the second two-thirds of the book to save for later, and focus on the first third.

If there's a scary part, make it scarier. Turn-your-stomach-to-water scary, I hope. Sad parts get sadder. I want readers to feel pierced by grief. Hey, the characters are; it only seems fair. Beauty? Make it ache.

But it's not just turning up the volume on drama and emotion. It's clarity. Clarity. Clarity.

Lots of mud gets scooped up with the first draft. I try to clean that out. Fragments of plot ideas that ended up going nowhere: take 'em out. Unclear motivations, or ideas that grow out of sequence: fix all those.

But here's what has surprised me the most. During the first "exploratory" draft, I'm improvising. Testing out ideas, phrases, ways to describe things. I try not to feel too attached to anything I'm writing, because I can "easily" go back and change it, either in revisions or right there as I save the first draft and begin "draft 1A." And 1B, 2, 2B, etc.

I cribbed this idea from Laini Taylor and it's worked wonders. It's like writing with a safety net.

In any case, in the first draft, the stakes feel nice and low. When I can't think of the exactly the right word, I use the closest approximation: Characters are running and trying to talk? Do they gasp? Breathe? Pant? Grunt? Gulp? Shudder? Cough? Gag? Hack? Stutter?

But in the redraft: Ah, the redraft. Every. Word. Matters. It's the opposite of the wild freedom of that first draft, where I'm so frantic to get the words on the page I don't even check spellings.

No, at this point, I'm working with scalpel and forceps, needle-nose pliers and long thin tweezers, removing a word and trying another, and another, and another, until it's just ... right. It's painstaking work, but slowly, very slowly, the needless layers slough off and what's left is the story I've been trying to write since that first draft many months ago.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Coming back from a two-week vacation and launching right into work has meant that the house is full of stacks of (clean) laundry; half-unpacked laundry, water bottles, nearly empty containers of sunblock, shoes and sandals, boarding passes and dinner receipts, national parks brochures, guidebooks.

All great stuff! But it's meant that my normally only-half-messy workspace has become an obstacle course that forces me to high-step through debris to get to the computer.

I deliberately set up my writing space in a small and dark room, facing a bulletin board rather than a window (which is closed most of the time anyway, since I write before dawn). I like the idea of not having a view or a beautiful room to distract me. But when I can't even see the carpet, the mess itself is a distraction. So it has to go.

The same thing goes for "the shop" (garage) where I'm building the boat. How many cars fit into a two-car garage? None, if it's already filled with one boat, a second half-built boat, a kayak, two bikes, a table saw, a workbench, and stacks of lumber. To say nothing of the crickets.

And I can tolerate drifts of wood shavings; clamps not put back in their correct spots (hung to the right of the bench, if you please), dulled pencils in nearly every little crevice of the boat, and so on. But when I spend more time avoiding obstacles than working, it's time to clean up.

It always seems aggravating to be cleaning instead of working, so I'll usually clean a little, work a little, clean a little, etc. Here's the secret, though: cleaning never takes as long as I think.

Still, on a bright and cool October day, with the wind tearing through leaves the color of fire, I think of glittering blue water or the frustrating and beautiful intricacies of my book, and wish I could just get down to work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taken home

Get taken a lot. Taken when I was little away from motherlap, motherwarm, mothermilk. Taken from others, wiggling and warm and crying like me.

Taken to a new place, didn't know, didn't like it. Food but not hungry. Blanket but not tired. Scared. Dark. No others.

Taken outside sometimes. SMELLS sweet grass sour road warm squirrelpath, dog dog dog dog dog dog, marking here. Taken away from trash smell, from food smell, from motherlap smell.

Lived with others, not so cold anymore. Not so dark. Sleeping, outside and in, sometimes on the couch until the big ones made scary noises at me. Hiding, sometimes, under porch under bed under bed.

Same for long time. Everything the same, everything good, understand it all now. Walk. Outside. Smell. Mark. Eat. Sleep. Outside. Big ones scratching ears, scratching neck, rubbing head good good good.

Taken again. Big ones gone. Taken to a different place, full of others, loud and smells and scared and scared and strange others, fear and anger and hate and fear and alone alone alone.

Loud. Screaming others. Always loud, always strange. Smells different, food different, big ones different.

Not hungry. Not loud. Not eating. Everything coming at once, everything closing, everything crushing closer closer closer.

Loud and loud and loud everywhere. Not eating. Not sleeping. Not drinking. Loud screaming smells and screaming.

Taken out. Two big ones, and quiet. Waited. They came again. Taken out again, taken into car. Noise and bumping and can't stand, can't eat. Smells and strange and smells and noise noise noise.

Taken out of car. Grass strange. Sun strange. Smells strange: cat and bird and squirrelpath and dogs street leaves mouse woodsmoke creekwater lowflowers treeflowers dirt mud trash big ones.

Taken inside. Catsmell strange. Blanketsmell strange. Floorsmell strange.

Eating. Sleeping. Catbarking. Outside smelling.

Good now. Sleeping sleeping.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Escape into Print

I readily admit that I prefer printed books to reading online. Hey, I also build wooden boats from hand, and cook pizza from scratch. I like doing things that way. But because I also pretend to be living in the 21st century, I've been known to spend time online. Such as, um, typing this right now.

This means I try to be objective --agnostic, really, is a better word -- about whether people prefer to read online or in print. I know what I like, which is all I can control anyway. But even so, today's story in the NY Times caught my eye.

Children, a study has found, are more comfortable reading online than anyone had expected. Evidently the scientists didn't consult babysitters, teachers, or anyone who's spent more than a few days with a child.

However, book lovers take heart: most of them would not give up printed books. Hooray!

Because I can't help but feel that when a society prints its last book, it ends its own story. Printed books, like libraries, are vital to democracy. As I noted before: sure, you can burn a stack of printed books; confident moral despots can cry for their banning; and bookstores can fail to carry them.

But they can and always will be snuck under covers; read instead of Algebra; slid into lockers, smuggled across border; printed on basement presses. A printed book holds the fire of revolution. Because -- and this will come as no surprise to anyone who loves to read as much as I do -- stories have power. And printed books ... well, they have magic.

Plus, I have to admit what triggered this entry in the first place: the sudden awareness, as I clicked "close" on one more pop-up ad that appeared as I was trying to read the news online, that maybe web advertising will become so intrusive that people are ANNOYED BACK TO PRINT. Can you imagine reading a news story without animated ads dancing around your peripheral vision, or the screen suddenly going dark so you can see a video for a luxury watch?

I can. It's called the printed paper.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Work work work work work

Each day that my boat does not explode is a good day. Maybe soon, with this warm weather, the epoxy will cure and I can remove the forest of clamps holding on the starboard sheet stringer!

Meanwhile, as the mood-pendulum swoops from despair to euphoria, I'm at the "happy" stage with book revisions. It's rare and delightful to feel anything but gloom about a project (while I don't expect the manuscript to explode like the boat, there are times when it feels trite, melodramatic, and unfocused).

But these days the book seems ... well, good. And though that may be little more than Caffeine Euphoria thanks to the brimming cup of Sumatra I drink from my lucky blue mug, I am crossing my fingers.

And waiting for epoxy to cure.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book surgery

There are some old ships of such value, historical or sentimental; or built with such care and love that their very shape is worth preserving like a museum or a painting. When these vessels decay, as we all must, often there is debate about how to repair them.

To preserve them? To rebuild them? To replace them with chrome and gas-powered motor boats?

If every single piece of wood in an ancient ship is replaced, is it still the same ship? If one piece is replaced? What if it is carefully measured before it sinks, and then rebuilt as an exact replica?

I mention this to illustrate the lengths to which people go to preserve things. Sometimes, I have even heard, an ambitious or stupid builder will obtain a boat and proceed to cut out the middle. The resulting two ends he will then graft onto a different midsection, often shorter or longer or fatter or thinner than the original.

This would be like replacing my chest with someone else's, and is about as easy. But sometimes it works, and the resulting boat is actually an improvement. Success!

This is what I'm doing with my book. Not so much replacing the middle; that would be too easy! But pulling out a big section, expanding parts of it, moving in aspects of other books and other sections of the same book, pulling and tugging at the poor fragile thing like it's a piece of pizza dough.

Which makes my valiant sheer stringer gluing efforts seem easy!

Workspace from this morning: coffee, eyeglasses, and the stack of ideas I call the next draft:

Friday, September 17, 2010

Steve is Oscar Mike!

Oscar Mike = on the move. I know, I know. But it's snuck into my vocabulary and I can't shake it.

Steve Earley, builder of the same Welsford Pathfinder design I'm building, sailed off for his fall cruise! Thanks to technology run by tiny elves, dynamos, and soup cans, or perhaps some other form of engineering, we can track his progress into the watery wild from his SPOT page.

Very cool. And very inspiring as I slowly progress with my own build.

Last night's progress? Ah. Well. I "prepped" the sheer stringers for gluing. This meant walking around talking to myself, planning where to rest the 18-foot bendy strip of wood when it's covered in sticky epoxy, where to store clamps so I can reach them one-handed, clamping sequence, wax paper location (it keeps epoxy from sticking in places it shouldn't be), and so on.

It's all very cerebral, you see.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I Find Your Lack of Explosions Disturbing

I may have mentioned how bending the spring-loaded sheer stringers on the boat puts the whole thing under enormous stress. As in, I have to huff and puff and make squinty faces and squat-lean all my weight against the wood to get it to curve into place. Still seems like it should explode all over the garage. Odd.

Today I was fitting the starboard sheer stringer, and eventually, after swatting mosquitoes and braving antediluvian crickets, claimed victory, the whole thing creaking and taut like a room full of catapults.

Getting the strips to lie flush against the bow was no small challenge, what with the quadruple-helix twist they went through, and the soul-flexing forces I had to apply. But fit they did! Here you see, in center frame, clamped in place, the flush fit of the top layer of the starboard stringer. Oh, just trust me, it's flush:

Also note, three wedges slipped under the rope to tighten it up. Much more effective than any knot.

And now, behold the army of clamps that made it possible. Spring clamps, bar clamps, C-clamps, and today's favorite: scrap rope wrapped three or four times around the wood and secured with a lazy half-hitch. Holds tight, can be installed with one hand (unlike certain bar clamps) and gives as much as I need it to.

Next step: gluing.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


"This isn't real," the child whispers, hiding under his covers. "This isn't real," as his closet door creaks open.

"This isn't real," he groans, looking at his test.

"This isn't real," he scoffs, alone, from the corner of the party.

"This isn't real," he says, gritting his teeth in a meeting.

"This isn't real," bursting out of the office and into the spring brightness.

Talons of the hawk. Bite of the fish. The long drop off the side of the trail. The bone-deep cold of your last night. The wrong choice. Lost balance. A careless decision.

This isn't real, we all whisper in the dark at least once in our lives, when the arrogant certainty of day is gone like a dream, and all the demons come roosting home where they belong.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Butter scraped across toast

"I am old, Gandalf," Bilbo says, his voice withered and soft. He feels, he notes, like butter scraped across too much toast.

Not only is that metaphor so perfect for the situation, it's perfectly English as well, and so hobbity and true-to-tone that I smile every time I read it. Butter and toast: it makes me think of sunny mornings, crumbs on a white tablecloth, the sweet bitterness of marmalade.

These days I am spread a little thinner than I'd like. Between bike training, boatbuilding, hoarding the One Ring, and writing, there are just not enough hours in the day. I snatch moments of work when I can, but apart from bike riding, I've haven't spent much more than an hour or so doing any of these.

Crickets scramble across the boat. Book revisions exist in my mind and on marked pages of research books (shelves and shelves worth) and on scraps of paper and on a typed list.

In any case, after this weekend I should be able to reshuffle -- no, re-balance -- priorities again. But then what will I complain about? Not to worry, I will find something!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

It Has Probably Exploded By Now

Yesterday's boatbuilding began with me discovering two mating camel crickets as I was moving plywood in search of a Torx wrench for my bike. I calmly re-swallowed my lunch, selected a long piece of scrap wood, and BANGED THE BEJABBERS out of the other side of the plywood.

A second inspection showed the in flagrante disgusting situation had ended and the crickets were nowhere in sight. Teach them to join carapaces near my boat. What I need are some raccoons, snakes, and wolf spiders to eat up the crickets.

Then I worked more on the starboard sheer stringer: a long, bendy piece of fir that -- in defiance of all laws of physics, wood properties, and sense of moral rightness -- stops being bendy as soon as I clamp it along the frames, and instantly becomes a spring loaded-piece of fragrant (it is fir, after all) death. Every time I struggle to get it into the frame notches I feel like I'm slowly cranking a crossbow into high tension.

Well, I shot a few clamps through the air and dropped a few more on my feet, but finally got everything lined up into a nice fair curve. So far the stringer has not ripped the frames out of the boat. Then, as if things weren't precarious enough already, I drilled it for 30mm x #8 countersunk bronze screws. Now my spring-loaded, just-reached-maximum-bend, did-you-know-a-crossbow-bolt-can-drop-a-velociraptor-at-forty-yards, fir stringer has been further weakened by half a dozen holes.

Despite the mortal terror of the stringer and the crickets, I managed to keep all the clamps in place and scuttle inside. I was afraid to check it this morning before work.

And I never found the Torx wrench.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Neither Fire Nor Ice

Frost's poem about the end of the world notwithstanding, I believe I've found one of the signs of the Apocalypse: Ralph Lauren has launched "the world's first shoppable children's book": "The RL Gang." And somewhere in the world another child closes a book; only this time it's not because the story's no good, it's because Mom (it's always Mom, never Dad) cannot afford the $250 ruffled wool blazer.

Fortunately for my blood pressure their site appears to be down, but here's a YouTube clip of ... what, a trailer? an ad? the "shoppable" experience itself? A lurching hybridized horror assembled by a committee of overpaid ad executives choosing focus groups over the courage of morals?

Maybe I'm not being quite clear enough. I have noted my ambivalence toward e-Books (they're not for me, but what do I care as long as people are reading?); my impatience with the rote vampiromances that I feel like I've read and seen before even hearing about them; my vexation at books that don't try, that don't take risks, that don't carry us to places outside our normal comfortable lives.

But this -- a "shoppable" children's book -- tops them all. "It's never too early to teach kids to shop online," crows one executive. My response? "What you mean is that it's never too early to teach kids there's no escaping the pressure to consume, even in a book."

My god. There's only one vaccine against this sort of thing: to write good -- and I mean good -- literature to stand in opposition to seductive and powerful advertisements cloaked in the still-warm skin of a book.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Slow Progress Is Still Progress

A week since I worked on the boat? It's not ideal but somehow the days fill up, from strong coffee to dozing on the couch before trundling up to bed.

But today I came home from work, changed into boatbuilding clothes, and spend an hour or so wrestling seemingly spring-loaded strips of fir and noisy clamps that were intent on leaping off the boat and hitting me in the face.

But I DID succeed in clamping, measuring, checking and double-checking, and finally cutting the complex angles at both the bow and stern ends of the first sheer stringer. This wasn't the old fat-grained practice piece. Nope, it was the real thing, though what 16 rings per inch doug fir was doing at the local lumber yard is beyond me. In any case I snatched it up and now it's MINE ALL MINE!


Not all frames have a close fit to the stringer. That's what fillers and epoxy are for.

Others are nice and flush.

Completed stringer clamped in place (starboard side; do not be fooled by the decoy pieces all around. Some are scrap; most are bracing the starboard frames):

I call this one: "Help, I Am About To Be Run Over By A Skeleton Boat":

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Back to the boat

Well, I'm back.

(Special Contest for Alert Readers: name the book whose final line that is.)

Back from mountain climbing under the vast and dry skies of California. Returning to humidity was a bit of a shock (how do people SURVIVE here?) but my sweat glands have kicked back into turbo-mode after a few bike rides. And it's good to be home.

One of the things I missed, without even realizing I was missing it, was the smell of fresh-cut wood, sawdust, spiderwebs; the short scraping sound of sharpening a pencil with a knife; the clean thin vibration of trimming a piece of fir with a very very sharp handsaw.

So it was that I was up at 5, coffee in hand, for a return to boatbuilding. This morning I was wrestling with the starboard sheer stringer. This one piece of wood defines the top edge of the boat -- arguably the most important curve in the whole thing.

It's also so long I had to open the garage door so the end could stick out into the insect-singing darkness. (It'll be trimmed to length later.) So it was clamp-spring-clamp-drop clamp-swear-clamp-bendy wood-clamp-drink coffee.

Altogether an enjoyable way to spend the dawn.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Seven in Black

Driving through the high desert of Northern California a few days ago, I daydreamed a nightmare:

Imagine: the land is flat and immense under a sky like hammered lead. The hard ground almost rings in the heat. Crumpled brown mountains line the horizon, shimmering under the sun.

In the middle of this desolation, near nothing at all, is a disturbance in the ground marked with a crooked stick.

Bad place, you think. This is a bad place.

The hard soil has been lumped and raised into a long grave; the stick its only marker. You approach. Tiny birds wheel far above. The huge space is silent.

There's a fluttering sound, like a flag snapping in the desert wind, and the scene changes: instead of an ancient mound, there is now a long box on a raised bier. Strange shapes and writing writhe around the coffin. Ceremonial sheets of white fabric hang and billow.

Seven figures, wrapped head to foot in black, stand before the bier, unmoving and silent as chessmen.

Bad place, bad place, bad place.

You lean closer to see. The coffin -- closer -- the coffin is empty and you start.

Seven black-wrapped heads snap in your direction. Seven pairs of withered hands appear and tug the hems up. Bony bare feet, grey and pockmarked, and stringy calves.

They run at you, and the tight wrappings blow back, and they are seven old women, and they are smiling.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Books for the Mountain

I'm heading out of town for a week to do some mountain climbing out west. Much less exciting than it sounds, this will still involve snow and camping, long views, and the clean sweet scent of the high country. O to escape the miasmic lowlands for a few days!

In any case, the most urgent priority is not camping gear or food, but -- what else? -- the selection of books to take.

I'm halfway through Catherine Fisher's excellent Incarceron. I love how things aren't explained to us and they're not fully explained to the characters, either. There's a fine line between letting your readers share the characters' emotions and just plain confusing them, and this book nails it.

Trouble is, I'd finish it during my first airport layover. Sorry, Incarceron!

Another possibility: Thomas Mann's weighty Buddenbrooks. Yeesh. I've been trying to read this in the evenings before I fall asleep, and that may be the problem. How hard should I have to fight to get into a book? Isn't it supposed to hook me? This one may not make it into my luggage.

What about Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler? This one's the wild card. I've heard good things about it, and it's no flash-in-the-pan, having been in print since the late 1970s. It's thin enough not to be a burden, and it could be fascinating ... OR a self-indulgent romp through avant-garde goofiness. Verdict: undecided.

And now we get to my two shoe-ins. Two books by David Michell, author of the wonderful Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Ghostwritten. My cup runneth over! Somehow I imagine both of these will be taken, squeezing out optional equipment such as socks and my backpack.

What else? Surely there are others. As soon as I get home and browse the stacks on the dining room table (I know, I know!) I'm sure other books will clamor to be taken. On a trip like this, the only thing worse than running out of something to read is accidentally packing the wrong book. In which case I need to run not walk to the nearest bookstore and support my fellow writers.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Purple Shirt

Yesterday I wore my lucky shirt. Let's call it purple. Somehow this shirt has become a magical talisman of confidence and luck. Who am I to argue with that?

When I wear Purple Shirt I burn with the charisma and power of a thousand suns! Nothing can go wrong, thanks to Purple Shirt.

People encountering Purple Shirt have only two choices: to submit, or to flee.

Chuck Norris doesn't wear a purple shirt. Purple Shirt wears Chuck Norris.

Often Purple Shirt will cause: fire alarms to ring; cats to deliver kittens; moonpies to eclipse; spontaneous tromboning; hedgehog arbitrage; and baloney sandwiches to become prosciutto on rye.

It got me thinking about other talisman-like objects in some of my favorite stories. Sylvester had his magic pebble; Boy had his one small blue bead; Frodo had ... well, we all know what he had.

What value is there is bringing an object into a story; an object which then becomes so meaningful that it's essentially its own character?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Unbraiding and braiding

After some incisive comments on my latest draft, I'm going to try something I've never done before: untangling -- no, make that unbraiding -- a few of the plot strands that really carry the story, pulling them out, and rebraiding them into a cohesive whole: a standalone story.

The other strands I will rebraid as well, so the events and choices, characters and their growth, all continue mostly as they stand now, but with some more context and detail. The story, I think, will become richer. More powerful. More moving.

Which, after all, is what ever writer (or most writers, at least), hope their stories to be.

Keep in mind these "strands" aren't the consistent, smooth, and abosolutely clean lines of 1x19 stainless steel (316 if you please) cable you use to hold up a mast.

No, I picture an aged seaman in a fire-lit pub; smoke-darkened ceiling beams and a plank floor dented by the heels of ten thousand seaboots. Our old sailor sits on his three-legged stool by the fire, hunching his shoulders against the draft that sweeps the smell of a snowy gale through the crack under the oak-timbered door.

In his lap his calloused and immensely powerful hands move ceaselessly, picking at a hairy coil of rope as thick as his thumb. The rope might be as old as he is, prickled with stray strands, stained with tar or bleached by sun and salt air.

He teases a strand open, un-splices a loop, smacks the line across his narrow thigh and palm-rolls the round shape back into it. Pauses for a drink or three. Returns to his ropework, picking and fiddling and reshaping.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I will push

This past weekend I rode in an eight-hour backcountry bike race, mostly on rocky and steep trails. I have ridden farther, mileage-wise, but not for eight hours. The black, flitting demons that plagued me were:

Falling off the bike

All pretty much what I expected, except for the cramps: both legs! All at once! Hip to ankle! Where are the invisible dwarves stabbing me with battle axes? Quit it, you!

Many of the uphills were so steep that I, especially after six hours of pedaling, couldn't claw my way up. So I would hop off the bike, punch my cramping thighs, and push the bike up the rutted trail, gasping for breath.

About 48 miles in I realized I was going to make it to the finish, despite the fluttering demons listed above. I said:

If there is a downhill I will ride down it. If I fall I will stand back up and keep going. If there is an uphill I will ride up it until I cannot, and then I will push the bike until I can't go any farther, and then I will rest until I will continue.

This wasn't some heroic Eye-of-the-Tiger moment of pure defiance against a backdrop of soaring eagles and crashing kettle drums. It was just a simple realization: I. Will. Push. No different than remarking on the color of the sky (clear blue) or the singing of the locusts (chirring).

Boatbuilding? I will push. Writing? I will push.

It's risky quoting from memory, but I think it was Epictetus who said, "First say what you would be, then do what you have to do."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Can't Hold Back the Vampires

I am slowly starting to realize that vampires are popular. No, really, they're like catnip! So it seems fitting to take advantage of this new trend by writing some vampire books.

Many of the tried and true vampires stories have been done to death. (Get it?) High school vampires struggling with angst and pimples, New Orleans vampires, Gothic vampires, steampunk vampires, and so on.

Clearly the solution is to go further. Vampires can be paired with anything, right? What about Boy Scout vampires -- call them campires. Where's Vlad going with that axe? Or an infestation of blood-drinking baseball players: The Vumpire Chronicles.

Not sassy enough? Yes, that's a criticism I often receive. That, and "not snarky enough." Well, here's the solution to both problems: Desperate Vampires. They don't just struggle with purse-dogs and Botox, but how to get blood by the quart.

More? Heck yeah I have more! Vampire cavemen: Cavampires and neander-vamps. Toddler vampires, doomed to remain pre-verbal, bloodthirsty toddlers forever in Kindervamp and Kindervamp II: Nap Time for Everybody.

Wait a second, I half-remember some sort of boarding-school-themed fantasy about a boy magician. What does it need? It needs more vampires. Teen Vamp. No, Freddie Figglebottom and the Vampires of Math Class.

Sometimes vampires go into space. They DO, okay? Inconveniently they usually try to eat all the science experiments. Coming soon: Vampronauts.

What about vampire animals? Oops, already been done. How about vampire plants? Wait, vampire stuffed animals! Mommy, why is Teddy drooling?

Or fairy tales: the Ugly Duckling doesn't grow into a beautiful swan, but a vampire swan, who then slaughters the arrogant ducks. "Ugly beat-th dead," he lisps around a mouthful of duck feathers.

By the way, do you know why all the Stormtroopers in the Star Wars movies had those sweet white outfits? So you couldn't see that they're all vampires! True story.

Somewhere a vampire is wishing he could read a book to take him away from his daily bloodthirstiness and angst and all-around awesomeness. But I will not write that book.

Everybody together, preferably in a Christopher Walken voice: what do we need? More vampires!

Friday, July 2, 2010

I forgot that it didn't happen

I've been carefully following the recent sailing trip of Steve and Bruce in Steve's Pathfinder, the same boat design I'm building. Reading about their adventures and daydreaming continues to be both a distraction and an inspiration.

Today they updated the blog with Day 2 of their eight-day trip through the marshes and bays of coastal North Carolina. (Dang it Steve! I will be there someday too, if I ever get this boat finished!). In one of the pictures a very sleepy Bruce is taking it easy as the boat thrashes to windward, and I thought: that looks familiar. Have I done that? Has someone napped while I sailed?

Then I remembered: it didn't actually happen, it was a scene in my first book: after working feverishly to rebuild an old sailboat in time for an all-day race, Grandpa and Alton are finally on the water. Grandpa dozes off, leaving Alton in charge.

I must have imagined that scene -- really seen it, tasted the air and heard the slap of waves -- so intently that it's nearly as strong as a real memory. Strange. And a little alarming. Maybe when I was young I didn't drop a torpedo into a two-meter hole on the Death Star, after all.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Time For a Change

It's not that querying isn't fun. It's more fun than a water slide. Euuwaahuah!

And it's not that boatbuilding isn't rolling along in its crickety, gluey, sawdusty, wood-bendy way. Though I admit it's inconvenient that my progress these days looks little different from months back, except that what was temporarily clamped or braced into position for the photos in those days is now permanently installed.

No, it's the husky voice, the quiet voice, the fingernails-down-your-neck voice. The dark-hallway-at-night voice. The glimpse of blue moonlight and shadows under the bushes. The sound of a train across miles of frozen cornfields. The ... where was I?

The old memory, so quickly staled, of writing. Not revising, or tinkering with query sentences, or thinking about plot structure. Writing.

And writing something different. I've lived in the world of Quartermoon Bay, with its tragedies and joys, piercing sorrows and the slow-burn of defiance, for so long that I'm ready to stretch and hop sideways into another story.

This one, maybe. I see a yellowed advertisement from a centuries-old newspaper: Sought: Brave Men Unafraid Of Cold. What happens next? What happened before? I have to write it to find out.

Or this one, which continues to buzz around my head like a bumblebee trapped in a jar. I'm tempted to lift the glass and see where it bumbles.

It's time for a change: to start something new again.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Someday I Will Remember All This

Last night I applied the first fillets to the boat! A fillet is a goober of peanut butter-thick epoxy that reinforces the seam where two plywood pieces come together, usually at an angle. The fillet is then covered with fiberglass tape and painted with unthickened epoxy.

It's kind of like attaching two index cards together with a bead of chewing gum and then a strip of tape along the inside of the seam. I'll need these fillets all over the boat, to provide extra strength in high-impact areas, but these were the first I installed, in and around the motorwell just to give it extra strength (along with stainless steel through-bolts, high-grain-count yellow pine, and plenty of epoxy glue.

The other reason to start with these is they'll be less visible than nearly every other fillet on the boat, and I want to get the ugly practice fillets out of the way before putting in the visible ones. For these you'll have to grope around inside the aft lazarette (storage compartment) even to feel them.

And with that the thought struck me: Someday, when I'm sailing a hard reach across blue water, or drifting off a marshy shoreline under the heavy thunderheads of August, my hand will graze that first fillet and I'll be transported back, across the years in an instant, to the hot garage with its boat skeleton, and the smell of epoxy and plywood sanding dust.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Notice How I Didn't Soil Myself

Sometimes an event will take place that is so earth-shattering, it knocks aside my typical writing and boatbuilding self-indulgences. This happened last night, and it involve a four-foot dowel and a shot of single malt!

Everybody knows the spider armies have been massing in my lawn, preparing a nightmarish assault on the world of giant bipeds (us). For a few nights now I've been shiveringly shining my not-nearly-bright enough flashlight on the driveway next to the garage, where a palm-sized, starfish-lookin', kitten-eating wolf spider flexes its arachnid biceps and makes faces back at me.

Ha ha, I tell it nervously, hopping sideways to avoid turning my back on it, ha ha, there's a good spider, you just staaaay there.

So when I came home after work yesterday to find a spider curled inside the top corner of our entryway like a brown fist, I calmly changed into biking clothes and rode as fast as I could for an hour and a half.

Later in the evening I (my wife) decided the spider had to go. While it was great that our house was instantly cleared of bugs, one of our cats was unaccounted for and that wouldn't do.

At this point I discovered I have a mild phobia of spiders, and that things I thought I was afraid of (heights, biting deer, grinning old men in the dark) were in fact not phobias whatsoever. I found a four-foot dowel and a large glass bowl, and, sweating, tried to knock the spider off the ceiling into the bowl.

Was the bowl in my hand? No it most certainly was not. It was on the floor, where the non-web-spinning spider would fall into it.

When the dowel approached the hell-spider, it curled up, then reared back and attacked the dowel. The thing was fighting the dowel. This would be akin to me, upon encountering, say, the Eiffel Tower poking at me, assuming a kung-fu pose and beckoning fifty stories of steel to come dance, mofo.

The spider fought; I clenched and sweated, and eventually knocked it down the wall. At which point the non-web-spinning spider lowered itself on a strand of silk and dangled there. So much for bug identification. We looped the strand, dropped it into the bowl, and I took it far, far away outside to release into the darkness.

I dried my palms and decided the salty brown fire of Talisker would be the best thing for the shaking. And it was.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Gluttony

The only trouble with reading British children's books like Swallows and Amazons is that they tend to go quickly. Since last week I've churned through my third or fourth re-read of Winter Holiday and -- though I was pacing myself -- just finished Terry Pratchett's excellent Nation last night.

(Morning reading: Worse Than War, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Part of my ongoing attempt to understand human and institutional cruelty. Also finished that yesterday).

Which means that in the evenings I've moved on to Pigeon Post, another Ransome classic. This morning I started Suzanne LaFleur's Love, Aubrey. I read a review of this (recent) book and its quiet tale of sadness, independence, and determination seemed similar to my first book. Plus I like the voice.

"That's all great," you might say. "But what about when you go out of town, or need something bigger to read?" Ha, I'm ready with Victor Klemperer's diary of the Nazi years, I Will Bear Witness. Which happens to be one of the themes of my recent book, so I'm curious to see how it's expressed in nonfiction.

It was only last summer that I read David Mitchell's superb Cloud Atlas, a book that defies genre and even tidy explanation. I can best describe it as the series of rings left by a plunging stone in a pond. Is it too early to re-read? Probably. But I think Mitchell has a new book out. And then there's Alan Furst's atmospheric mysteries: I've never been a mystery reader but man oh man do I love the voice and scenery in those.

There are more, there are always more.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Garden Parties and Lime Candy

Someone whose theology includes healthy doses of Katzanzakis and Jagger should not claim to be an authority on tropes in literature. So I won't! But in re-reading the Swallows and Amazons books, I'm struck, as I am each time, by the singularity of, well, British children's literature.

Arthur Ransome, Edith Nesbit, Barrie, Kenneth Grahame ... and surely countless others (Lewis, Tolkien, some of Susan Cooper) write characters that somehow all form part of the same world for me. And while surely parts of that world should be critically examined, for me it is a delightful retreat.

I think of leaf-shadows dancing on table cloths, floral-print dresses, tinned milk and oilcloth. The sweet sharp taste of jewel-like green candies. John and the Swallows meeting Nancy and Peggy Blackett for the first time; the pebbly beach of Wildcat Island; the sense of potential, almost like a breath held, of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy when they explore Professor Kirk's mysterious empty house.

I suppose it could be twee, if taken too far. And it seamlessly merges, as these things do, into what came before as well as what comes after. Victorian novels, gritty YA.

Someone once said a book is another country, and the precious (precocious?) charm of British literature is a place I've been happily spending much time lately.

Now, back to Winter Holiday. Dick and Dorothea have stumbled to the North Pole ... but it's empty. Meanwhile the others launch a rescue expedition across the ice at night!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Solution to Boatbuilding Manliness

I frequently find myself being too manly. Fortunately, I've found a solution: gender-specific hardware tools! I always buy the ones meant "just for ladies" to bring myself back down to a level appropriate for polite society.

A few weeks ago, when gluing the slippery three-layer port chine, I decided to install a temporary, narrow through-bolt just to help hold everything together. After the glue set, I reasoned, I'll just back it back out.

What happened instead was that I torqued the head right off the bolt. It was a very thin piece of steel -- maybe 5/32 diameter (because I didn't want a huge hole through my chine), and, naturally, it's stuck to the glue inside.

No worries, sez I, I'll just heat up the bolt, soften the epoxy, and draw it out. One pastel-blue glue gun later, and I've discovered that glue guns do not get very hot at all. Only hot enough to melt glue, you could say.

Next step: a soldering iron. Off to Michael's, our local craft shop. The heady scent of pressed flowers and old perfume always makes me think of a pillow-carpeted and water pipe haze-filled harem, with pale eunuchs lolling on velvet, and inbred royalty painting moles on their sunken chins.

Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Bravely in I went in and found a soldering iron. It's Designed For Her®. Sweet.

With this manly tool I shall heat my bolts and draw them from the chine like young Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone! With any luck I'll ding it up, maybe spill some epoxy on it. You know, just so it fits in with the other tools.

I just hope nobody finds the empty blister pack among the used paintbrushes and wood chips in the trash.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I have described a 109,000-word novel in a 1000-word synopsis. How did that feel, you ask? Like extracting my skeleton from my body, standing it against a wall, and -- using my boneless rubbery hands -- sketching a picture of it with a sharp rock. In thirty seconds.

People complain about writing synopses all the time. It is, without doubt, a difficult thing to take months (if not years) of planning, suffering, writing and revising; the agonies and triumphs of characters; twining subplots and symbolism ... and compress it all into a hard little pellet.

But it's necessary. Let's be realistic: two single-spaced pages is a lot of text. And sure, you may have to remove the art and the joy and all the subtlety of which you're so proud, but so what? The synopsis isn't the book.

Defying the expectations of the publishing world and refusing to write a synopsis could be the start of a brave new defiance! Brave new voice! Look, he has thwarted the litero-industrial complex and toppled the fusty paradigms!

Of course, refusing to play by the rules is also the shortest path to rejection. Second shortest path? Writing crap.

So I take my synopsis and I take my knife and I trim. And I trim. And I trim.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Boat Dreams

He would wake up, sometimes, in the nights after Grandpa died, and open the window to hear the wind in the trees and smell the river's thick sweet muddy scent. Stars and mud and the whiskery scrape of long grass in the yard that even now needed to be mowed.

And he would remember that loud voice, sharper than the howl of a saw or the screeching planer, and the stubbed fingers and dirty nails, old hands stronger than his young hands would ever be.

All the bottles with their faded labels sat on the sagging shelves, covered with sawdust.

Dust to dust.

He leaves the window open and in the morning the little bedroom in his grandparents' house is filled with birdsong, and he creeps downstairs in his socks, peeling them off before he reaches the dewy grass. Leaves silver dew-tracks in the long grass, a trail to the river, wraithed in fog.

And the dew-tracks lead up to the garage, with its stacks of wood and ancient tools. And there in the center, on sawhorses older than him, the beginnings of a boat. A new boat built by an old man and a young boy.

He whispers the unfamiliar words. Frames. Stringers. Chine. Bilge. Runs his finger along a curving piece of fir, jumps back at the splinter's pain, pops his finger in his mouth, tastes the sweet crumbly dust.

Dust to dust.

He swallows, twice. Clears his throat. Picks up the tools and returns to work.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Hey! What's your favorite planet?

Mine's the sun.

Rejected blog post ideas:

I have lost control of my eyebrows.

What if cookies grew on trees and you had to construct tomatoes and bananas in the kitchen? Hey you kids, get away from my tree, the cookies are almost done!

Cats: Nature's consolation prize.

The Dialectic Epistemologies of Funk, or, How I Escaped Academics and Gave Myself to the Music

"Donkey" is pronounced differently than "monkey." Why?

We all know that animals can't get much bigger because the physics of weight-bearing structures would, for example, cause a two-story ant to collapse. But how small could animals get? I would like a flock of moth-sized bats fluttering around me. Take notice, world. I await compliance.

Do deer scream?

What are Tootsie Rolls made out of and how can I convince myself they're all-natural?

Bending properties of scarphed fir.

"This boat is fully operational": would my boat sink if I launched it right now? It has no sides but is completely made of wood. Except for the 45 pounds of lead in the centerboard.

Speaking of the boat, why haven't I see any crickets in the shop? What in God's name is hunting them?

Imagine a world of sentient bats and stupid but powerful humans. The bats might have stories about the superhero Manbat, who has all the normal attributes of a bat but also some hominid superpowers (ability to walk on hind legs, burp on command) and features (nose, thumbs).

"Who are you?"
"I'm ... Manbat!"

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fear in the Desert: Revision

Done? It's never done. But I've tweaked this a little following the notes below, plus made a few other changes. This version is, I like to think, cleaner and more closely approximates what's in my head: the movement, the colors, the smells, the taste of dust and fear.


Curtains of red and blue beads swayed as the caravan lurched across the burning waste. A hand the color of dried leather parted the fall of color. Three v-shapes of blue inked the spaces between the copper knuckles: three wolves’ heads.

Gripping the hand was a falcon; hooked talons ended in four spots of blood. The falcon flew across the sand and rock. The curtain closed. Of this the driver, perched atop the caravan, heard nor saw nothing: a mute since birth, he had been blinded for this task. Rags of no color wrapped his head save for an opening at this nose, and he twitched his head, snuffing the shimmering air.

“The falcon will not return,” said the man who had released it, licking the blood from his wrist. The figure facing him made no response. He expected none. For him this was a humor.

“She will not,” he said again.

The figure was slight, hunched, and showed no skin nor, in fact, any sign of life. Its head was draped in thin fabric that perhaps had once been patterned with a thousand tiny images, or words to a forgotten language.

The man pursed his lips. Ran his dry tongue across his yellowed teeth. Folded his hands so his left fingertips rested on the blue wolves’ heads.

He had been tempted, oh, how he had burned with temptation, to lift the faded fabric to see the passenger’s face. This passenger who had never spoken and who sat, day after day, in the darkened caravan while he performed the necessities to keep it alive. Keep it happy? Keep it subdued?

Alive, he decided.

“Faster, up there!” he called to the deaf driver. At this the figure leaned forward, as if it was going to speak, or even rise, and he tensed. When he realized it was falling he tightened his lips and, wrapping his hand into the deep indigo of his sleeve, pressed the thing back upright.

He jerked back. Even through the fabric he could feel it. Warm.

As he had a thousand times, across a thousand miles, he swallowed, stroked the wolves’ heads, and reached to pull back its hood. And as he knew he would, he stopped.

Instead his hand went to a brass carafe stopped with a wooden plug. When he opened it the liquid stank of urine and old milk.

He leaned forward and poured the unguent over the figure’s wrapped head. The liquid soaked the old cloth instantly, gluing the fabric to the figure’s features. He narrowed his eyes. Leaned forward. He could almost make out its face.

The fabric moved.

He was struck, motionless as stone.

The fabric moved as a mouth opened below the ancient pattern,. The yawning hole was outlined in faded colors through the wet cloth.

He breathed through his mouth. There was a smell, a strange and bad smell. Yet familiar.

He tried to swallow but his throat was too dry.

He raised his fingers, shivering. Then he pulled back the terrible veil.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Fear in the Desert: Problems

Stories and boats: two things that aren't ever quite done. The "Fear in the Desert" piece below continues to rankle me. So for a window into the craziness of revising, I'm going for a public self-flagellation.

Come with me, won't you, on a journey up the creaking attic stairs to the cobwebbed place, boarded-over and dark, where the darkness is crowded with shapes that may or may not be hungry. Revisionland.

First step in revising is to go through and write angry and insulting notes to myself about practically everything. (Next time I'll look at fixing the problems; today the challenge is to find them.)

Here we go:


The [why 'the'? couldn't they be any curtains? seems needlessly specific] red and blue beaded [this is an adj. may be stronger as a noun: curtains of beads] curtains swayed as the caravan lurched across the burning waste. A hand parted the fall of color [have to admit, I love this], a hand [repetition seems precious; too clever for its own good?] the color of dried leather [great, implies mummies]. Three v-shapes of blue inked the spaces between the copper knuckles: three wolves’ heads.

On the hand was a falcon [is this a tattoo too?] and the falcon flew [evidently not. but the dreamlike language is distancing and makes things a little unclear. OK if intentional.] across the sand and rock. The curtain closed. Of this the driver, perched atop the caravan, heard nor saw nothing: a mute since birth, he had been blinded for this task. Rags of no color wrapped his head save for an opening at this nose, and he twitched his head, snuffing the air.

“The falcon will not return,” said the man who had released it. The figure facing him, nearly shimmering [isn't it dark inside the caravan?] in the incandescent heat, made no response. He expected none, but for him this was a humor ['a' humor seems contrived.].

“She will not,” he said again.

The figure was slight, hunched, and showed no skin nor, in fact, any sign of life. Over its head was draped [passive voice] thin-woven [isn't it enough to say 'thin'?]fabric that perhaps had once been patterned with a thousand tiny images, or words to a forgotten language.

The man pursed his lips. Ran his dry tongue across his yellowed teeth. Folded his hands so his left fingertips rested on the blue wolves’ heads.

He had been tempted, oh, how he had burned with temptation, to lift the thin [word repetition] and faded fabric to see the passenger’s face. This passenger who had never spoken and who sat, day after day, in the darkened caravan while he performed the necessities to keep it alive. Keep it happy? Keep it subdued?

Alive, he decided.

“Faster, up there!” he called to the deaf driver. At this the figure leaned forward, as if it was going to rise, or even speak [reverse; speak is less interesting than rise, so end with rise], and he tensed. When he realized it was falling he tightened his lips and, wrapping his hand into the deep indigo of his sleeve, pressed it back upright.

He jerked back. Even through the fabric he could feel it. Warm.

As he had a thousand times, across a thousand miles, he swallowed, stroked the wolves’ heads, and reached to pull back its hood. And as he had [seems like a lot of As and Ds here. Clumsy wording], as he knew he would, he stopped.

Instead his hand went to a brass carafe stopped with a wooden plug. When he opened it the liquid smelled of salt and new milk [almost evocative but mostly just weird.]. It was time [melodramatic; makes me think of Thundercats or something equally cheesy].

He leaned forward and poured the unguent over the figure’s wrapped head. The liquid soaked the old cloth instantly, and it clung [misplaced modifier: the liquid clung? even if correct it's unclear = no good.] to the figure’s features. He narrowed his eyes. Leaned forward. He could almost make out its face.

The fabric moved.

He was struck, motionless as stone.

The fabric moved as, under the ancient pattern, a mouth opened. The yawning hole was outlined [passive] in faded colors through the wet cloth.

He breathed through his mouth. There was a smell, a strange and bad smell. Yet familiar.

He tried to swallow but his throat was too dry.

He raised his fingers and, shivering, [wording sequence not quite right here. call out 'shivering' more with its own sentence?] pulled back the terrible veil.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fear in the Desert

I can't shake the image of a caravan, alone in the desert. Where is it going? Who's inside? I can see it but I know nothing about it. Here's one answer: this week's Sunday Scribblings topic, which is Courage.


The red and blue beaded curtains swayed as the caravan lurched across the burning waste. A hand parted the fall of color, a hand the color of dried leather. Three v-shapes of blue inked the spaces between the copper knuckles: three wolves’ heads.

On the hand was a falcon and the falcon flew across the sand and rock. The curtain closed. Of this the driver, perched atop the caravan, heard nor saw nothing: a mute since birth, he had been blinded for this task. Rags of no color wrapped his head save for an opening at this nose, and he twitched his head, snuffing the air.

“The falcon will not return,” said the man who had released it. The figure facing him, nearly shimmering in the incandescent heat, made no response. He expected none, but for him this was a humor.

“She will not,” he said again.

The figure was slight, hunched, and showed no skin nor, in fact, any sign of life. Over its head was draped thin-woven fabric that perhaps had once been patterned with a thousand tiny images, or words to a forgotten language.

The man pursed his lips. Ran his dry tongue across his yellowed teeth. Folded his hands so his left fingertips rested on the blue wolves’ heads.

He had been tempted, oh, how he had burned with temptation, to lift the thin and faded fabric to see the passenger’s face. This passenger who had never spoken and who sat, day after day, in the darkened caravan while he performed the necessities to keep it alive. Keep it happy? Keep it subdued?

Alive, he decided.

“Faster, up there!” he called to the deaf driver. At this the figure leaned forward, as if it was going to rise, or even speak, and he tensed. When he realized it was falling he tightened his lips and, wrapping his hand into the deep indigo of his sleeve, pressed it back upright.

He jerked back. Even through the fabric he could feel it. Warm.

As he had a thousand times, across a thousand miles, he swallowed, stroked the wolves’ heads, and reached to pull back its hood. And as he had, as he knew he would, he stopped.

Instead his hand went to a brass carafe stopped with a wooden plug. When he opened it the liquid smelled of salt and new milk. It was time.

He leaned forward and poured the unguent over the figure’s wrapped head. The liquid soaked the old cloth instantly, and it clung to the figure’s features. He narrowed his eyes. Leaned forward. He could almost make out its face.

The fabric moved.

He was struck, motionless as stone.

The fabric moved as, under the ancient pattern, a mouth opened. The yawning hole was outlined in faded colors through the wet cloth.

He breathed through his mouth. There was a smell, a strange and bad smell. Yet familiar.

He tried to swallow but his throat was too dry.

He raised his fingers and, shivering, pulled back the terrible veil.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Starboard Chine

To me the words "starboard chine," if I squint with my mind, call up images of some foreign harbor at night, with colored lights reflecting on muddy water and the creaking mooring lines of big wooden ships. Yar, it just sounds nautical.

Of course, the starboard chine is also the part of the boat that lines the corner between the (flat) bottom and (nearly vertical) side. This is a critical part of the boat: if your chine unzips you're in trouble. Solution: three long pieces of fir, layered to take the gentle corkscrew shape of the side of the boat as it swoops into the bow.

I wanted to minimize fastenings here so the wood -- under severe strain as it bends -- didn't break. I'd shattered several pieces when mocking this up, so it was a real possibility.

I mixed up what felt like several gallons of epoxy and got to work in the 82-degree shop. While I was securing the inner strip, the epoxy, which is exothermic, got hotter and hotter. As I was holding the plastic container (nee Eggdrop Soup), I noticed it was actually burning my hand.

At this point it started to smoke, and I, like a safety-goggle-wearing ballerina, leaped through the frames and scrap wood, twisted past the table saw, vaulted the worklight, the old air conditioner, and the bucket of other scrap wood, and went galloping through the yard with the smoking pot.

Hose; water; fire averted. Back to work!

Installing the inner strip was easy, since a dozen screws hold it to the bottom of the boat. The inner strip and the outer strip are held on solely through epoxy and force of will. After much fidgeting, and only a little dropping-pieces-and-covering-them-with-crud, I stood back, sticky with epoxy, and surveyed the carnage:

Mess everywhere, and the starboard chine installed. Success!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Done with revisions!

I have finally completed revisions! Forever! That's it!

[waits for laughter to stop; wonders why there's sharp cheddar but no such thing as dull cheddar; wishes he could have another look at that last MS page.]

Ha ha. Phew. What a comical way to start a blog post. A book is like a pencil: the more you use it the more it needs to be sharpened. So what I'm done with are the CURRENT round of revisions. The book is now closer to my vision than it ever has been.

At least, until the next revisions. It never stops.

Now all I have to do is decipher my notes; disagree with nearly everything I decided to do; un-disagree; write "stet" and cross it out and write it again and cross it out; and type thousands of glittering little improvements that accumulate and make this story burn and shine. Because this is what I want:

I want the story to catch fire in readers' minds.

What's the difference between published and not published?

Wait, I'll make it even broader. For any endeavor, what's the difference between successful and not successful?

It's not intelligence, or society-shattering good looks (trust me, if that were the case I'd be selling books like crazy. Am I right, ladies?). It's not the ability to whistle while inhaling (handy for long solos) or wiggling your ears individually (check and check). Special judo-like cat-claw-clipping techniques? Watermelon seed-spitting accuracy? Freakish adherence to a single brand of coffee? Kindness to stray dogs and small children? Lackadaisical approach to gutter-cleaning-out?

Nope. Nope. Nope.

The difference between success and failure is one thing: work.

And I doubt it's a coincidence that it's one of the few things we can actually control.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Violence and Stories

I've pondered whether, and how, to write this, but that was taking way too long. This is a blog, after all, so I've decided I can get away with slightly meandering prose and incomplete

I'm not sure when a movie review became a springboard for social commentary (maybe when movies themselves stopped being the springboards) but A. O. Scott in the New York Times last week takes aim -- I think -- at violence in movies. Or maybe it's depictions of violence. Or maybe it's when children are doing it, or being subjected to it. It's a little hard to tell: if I were critiquing the article I'd advise the writer either to write more and fulfill the promise of the premise, or less so we don't get our hopes up.

In any case, here's my issue. There are some truly valid points raised here: inuring audiences to graphic depictions of violence; the message for children when they see their heroes committing violent acts, or subjected to them.

And the article, to Scott's credit, does throw one lifeline out of the quicksand of its own rhetoric: "It is, of course, the acts themselves that are cruel."

I know movies and books should be, at times, an escape from a cruel world, or a mundane one. I know we all, and especially children, are impressionable creatures. I know it's irresponsible to wantonly expose people to the message that casual violence is acceptable.

But casual violence exists. Random cruelty exists. Anyone who complains that it's unreasonable to show the torment of children -- or, and the author seems undecided on whether this is worse -- children committing acts of violent or vengeful cruelty -- should make that case to a room of child soldiers or traumatized war orphans -- pick your continent, pick your skin color, pick your century.

My point is that although I am opposed to shock for shock's sake (and shlock for shlock's), I find it reprehensible -- cowardly -- to pretend that any of us is somehow immune to cruelty.

The world has light and it has darkness; inexplicable cruelty and loss, and surprising joy; unfairness as well as delight unlooked-for. I guess what I'm advocating is balance: don't anesthetize us, but don't traumatize us either.

As far as movies go: watch them or don't watch them as you choose. But if you're opposed to violence and cruelty, perhaps a place to start is where those exist in the world, rather than in the stylized depictions of them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This Coffee Tastes Catty

From yesterday's New York Times: the revelatory discovery that not only can you make coffee from cat-excreted coffee beans, it's actually a sought-after delicacy.

What a strange and wonderful world we live in.

It's not just any cat, but the Indonesian quasi-cat called the civet. The civets eat the coffee beans (?), deposit them (??), they are collected with sighs of delights (???) and then ground into delicious coffee (!??!??).

Now. I love my coffee. After a vigorous campaign of sighing and feeling sorry for myself, our local grocery store finally caved and now carries Peet's Coffee again, so once more I have the strength to face the day.

But civet-crapped coffee!? I'm sorry, that's just ... I mean, can you even imagine ... Okay, who am I kidding, I would try it. There, I said it!

After all, when you're, say, wandering the jungles of Java, and you find some droppings that look curiously like coffee beans -- and you have a roaster, grinder, press, fire, and water -- why not just go for it?

In this vein I'd like to suggest some other untraditional uses for animals:

-- temporary tattoos made from butterflies that cling to you (the ink sinks in and they fly off, colorless)
-- clothes made from worm excreta (never mind, somebody's already thought of that.)
-- trained snakes to hunt rabbits (they're just the right shape for snaking down rabbit holes; also for finding lost socks behind the dryer)
-- horse trumpets (don't ask)
-- flying piranhas

Okay, Nature, get to work!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pallid Cave-Dweller Reporting For Duty

Yesterday was one of those rare spring days with bright sun and cool air; dew glittering on the pines. I had laudable plans to go for a long bike ride after work.

But then again, I AM revising a book. So I when I got home I walked past my pile of biking clothes, patted my wheel regretfully, stared through the garage windows at the dinosaur-like boat skeleton ... and sat down with my manuscript and a pen. There is work to be done here.

And lo, from outside I heard the shouts of children playing, and bike riders whirring past, and birds singing, and all the delightful and joyous hum of spring; and the late sun shone golden and the breeze caressed ... other people. Not me.

For I sat inside away from the sunlight world, growing pale and Gollum-like, blinking at the pages and my scrawled edits, grinding stone against stone to produce the fine dust of revision. We grind, and the work grinds us, and it grindeth us exceedingly small.

On the upside, though, I got to feel sorry for myself. Never a bad thing!

As far as the revisions go, I oscillate spastically from despair ("This is utter garbage") to trembling joy ("This will change the world"). Usually within the same breath.

Solution: up at 5 today to black coffee, a chilly sunrise and more revisions; then this afternoon I get to play outside with the other kids.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Stringers complete!

Completely scarphed, that is, not completely installed. I've scarphed 18 of the suckers, each requiring a floppy ten foot by 1-inch square piece of fragrant pink fir, with a very, very, very delicate feather-edge angle trimmed into one end.

Once glued, the twenty-foot pieces are even floppier. But I have them. Finally! Sixteen plus two in case of breakage. 'Cause hey, wood breaks.

Then again, it also floats, so I figure we're about even with fiberglass, aluminum, steel, all those other boatbuilding materials.

Oops, and it won't kill you when it gets on your skin. Go wood!

Ahem. In any case, having liberated my workbench from epoxy shavings, sheets of plastic, two heat lamps, a digital thermometer, a few dozen clamps, heavy steel weights, safety glasses, ear protectors, scraper, chisel, other scraper, silica powder, rubber gloves, epoxy mixing station, mixing sticks, plastic container, and other gluing detritus, I can now proceed with next steps: bunk flat supports (these hold up the "floor" of the boat) and the bunk flats themselves (the "floor".

The chine stringers are still awaiting a stretch of warm days to coincide with me not being at work so I can glue them in. We've hit 80 a few times and I quit using the heat lamps on the stringers several weeks ago.

As the monkey said about his tail after he backed into the lawn mower: won't be long now.

Monday, April 5, 2010

O Spring, thou cruel minx

80 degrees? In April? Spring blossoms have an actual smell; it's not just poetry.

Each year I forget and each year I remember again, and the smell takes me to the small house we lived in until I was in fifth grade. A small blossoming tree droops over a cracked sidewalk; three brown steps and a leaning iron rail. In the summer you could palm moths on the marigolds. Inside we watched black-and-white Superman reruns and, if it was a good day, TV dinner while Buck Rogers was on. I stood on those basement stairs and wept when I heard my grandfather had died.

I buried a pet in the back yard; we moved when I was nine and I always wondered if some curious child would find, ten inches down from the edge of the metal shed, the towel-wrapped tiny bones of a guinea pig. What pets would they have? Where would they bury them?

So now when I pause while taking out the trash, or walking the dog, or stretching after a run, and I close my eyes and inhale that breath of spring, thirty years flicker past like an eyeblink, and I think of that old house and that young family and the sidewalk with weeds in the cracks.

Then the wind blows, bending the snow-weakened pines, and I think of the sound of river water against a wooden bow. I can almost smell that low-tide mud. And I think of epoxy and curving wood, and the scrape of sharp of tools, and the sound of a man's voice now ten years dead.

How broad life seems on the first warm day of spring.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Which I Explore Chapter Titles

Revising a manuscript is like repairing dry rot from the hull of a boat. The deeper you dig, the more you find that needs work

For example, chapters. I am a notoriously fast reader (not just famous; I'm INfamous) and many times will not even consciously notice that I've crossed into a new chapter. This may explain why only now am I realizing how many ways there are to signal a new chapter. (I don't mean a scene break, for which I usually employ two hard returns).

Chapter 1

Chapter 1
The Harrowing of Edward Deane

The Harrowing of Edward Deane

Chapter 1
Edward is chased; his flight through the forest; he comes to a strange place; what befell him there.

Chapter One: In which Edward is chased through the forest.

Chapter 1
Twelve leagues he fled
the forest bare
His trail was red
His eyes they stared
from the Lost Book of the Sudmark

Okay, I KNOW it's doggerel. Point is, once I started playing around with chapter titles, it was as if I'd fallen down a long well with no bottom. I've settled on the simplest version:

Chapter 1
The Harrowing of Edward Deane.

Adding in fictional epigrams can always be done later. Which reminds me of my favorite, from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat,perhaps the funniest book I've ever read:

"I forget I am steering. Interesting result. Strange disappearance of Harris and a pie."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Soothing words

There, there. Night-night. Rest your head on the pages of the book and...





No! Bad! Soothing words are for lullabies and corporate memos. I don't want my writing to put people to sleep; I want to scare them, galvanize them, make them weep and laugh and stare, shaken, into the distance. I want to keep them awake at night, reading under the covers until, red-eyed and lost, they stumble through the next day.

Stories have power; let us not anesthetize them with soothing words.

What do I mean by soothing words? Well, self, I'm glad you asked. This morning I half-seriously did a search of my manuscript for:


In some cases (like deliberately simple dialog), these are okay. In many (of my) cases, they are not. They are soothing! Drip by morphinic drip, they anesthetize and ... uh ... lull reader to ... to...uhh... zzzzzz.


My challenge, now that my manuscript is peppered with florid yellow highlights of these energy-killing words, is to replace them when possible. The scary thing is that I had no idea how often I fall back on them. I think most writers -- certainly including me -- are tired, or intimidated, or lazy, or confused, or insufficiently committed during the first draft. That's okay.

The problem comes when that uncertainty, and its attendant uncertain words, carries through into revisions.

We all have words we lean on like crutches. First drafts need crutches. But for a good story: stand up straight, hurl away your leaning stick like Odysseus in the great hall, and shake the reader out of the complacency of every-day life. Isn't that why we read?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Stringer gluing continues. I think I have nine or ten of the sixteen needed ... though if any more snap when I try to bend the complex curves I'm going to need more than sixteen.

First lesson of boatbuilding: plan for failure.

With this recent spate of warm weather it's been hard to make myself scrape glue in the shop instead of frolic outside. More frolicking, less building.

Second lesson of boatbuilding: it will get done if you work on it. If you don't ... it won't.

One of the things taking me away from stringer gluing is book revisions. I keep saying this, but I mean it this time! I think I'm in the home stretch.

Third lesson of boatbuilding: balance it with other hobbies.

Right now I'm outlining, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, every section of the book. It's generating a large spreadsheet that, even as I build it, is letting me see the rhythm of scenes (choppy? languid? tense? relaxed) and the balance of points of view, energy, and emotion. I only wish I'd stumbled across Anita Nolan's "The End is Only the Beginning" sooner. Because this outline method -- laborious as it is -- is proving to be incredibly useful.

In fact, sometimes I think the difficulty of something is the best indication that it's helpful.

Fourth lesson of boatbuilding: hard is not bad.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I Nearly Forgot the World

As I swim through the quicksand slurry that is revision, I have found that it's time to further flesh out (not "flush out," as current corporate speak would have it) the world that embraces the story.

I've heard -- and felt the tidal pull -- of the desire to play God, to sketch maps and outline lines of kingly descent, to chart trading routes, ocean currents, street names, economies. To build an imagined world so richly complete that it can seem more real than our own. And this is now my task -- or at least, to continue this.

But the reason I haven't done too much of this already is that I wanted to tell the story first.

Story first, quoth I! Now that that story is written I can go back and fill in the blank spots on the map. I worried that if I did it the other way around -- world first -- I'd go so distracted and fascinated by it -- not to mention intimidated by the vastness -- that I'd never get around the story.

Plus, the story called to me.

So this morning I sipped you-know-what and made up city names, roads, cosmologies. It's a task that could go on forever. After all, look at our own world, where we still struggle to catalog and understand its complexity. But in this case my guide is the story. IT determines relevance, not me. Which is wonderful and humbling.

Stringer update: #4 is complete!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Attention, stringers

Boatbuilding update:

Stringers built: 3
Stringers still intact: 2
Stringers still to be built: 14

But things are moving: #4 is clamped to the workbench as I type this, wrapped in plastic and heat clamps, curing away at a happy 86.1 degrees.

When I unclamped the last two stringers, they were long and rubbery-soft, unwieldy twenty-foot strips flopping all over the place. Kinda tricky in a 23-foot garage.

The great thing about these is test-clamping them in place to show the sheer (edge) of the boat and -- evidently -- to test their bendiness.

Breaking a stringer is a very clear signal that that particular stringer probably wasn't up to the job. Of bending. Which is the whole reason for a stringer's existence.

Luckily, although #2 is now in three pieces on the floor of the garage (after the first break I bent it again, unbelieving. It broke again. Now I believe.), #3 has been behaving much better and in fact has become a bit of a show-off, here arcing gracefully out of frame as the shattered remnants of #2 look on. See, #2? That's how it's done.

Did I mention I talk to myself while boatbuilding? What?

Finally, the GOOD stringer clamped in place. The shape of the boat is really starting to take ... shape.