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.