Wednesday, December 7, 2011

And we roll on

Where is all the writing? Thousands and thousands of words appearing not here in this neglected blog but on the creeping growth of my work-in-progress. I've always known that consistency and moderation are the keys to smart exercise, like marathon training. But it turns out the long slow burn -- for me, anyway -- is also the way to write a novel.

Actually, in this case, I am re-writing in a complicated and risky way that I hope will pan out. "Just wait until the re-read," I keep telling myself. You have to kill the doubts, because even though they may be justified, they will douse the creative spark.

I am unraveling the threads of the book and weaving in a new character, new perspective, additional thickness that should make it more real and more compelling. Many scenes are new; a few are rewritten from another point of view, which involves (I'm learning) more than a simple copy-and-paste of pronouns. Different characters describe things in different ways. They notice different things, use different vocabularies. They are different cameras through which to see the world.

Right now I'm rushing to get it all down in a way that makes rough sense. Later I'll shape it. Will it work? That's what I'm gambling on. If I didn't believe I wouldn't work at this solitary mind game.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hellfire in blue and gold

Once upon a time I wrote a book that featured a lean and rakish ship called the Hellfire. She was based on the nineteenth-century pilot schooners featured in Chapelle's The Search for Speed Under Sail and, more recently, embodied by the Pride of Baltimore II, Lynx, and others.

Just look at that photo of Lynx in a thundering reach on their homepage!

I put a ship called Hellfire in the book because I always wanted to name a ship that, I've always loved the look of these old schooners, and because I needed a dangerous and unmistakable vessel.

So when I got a chance to join Steve Earley for a sail this past weekend, I bundled up against the cold. Just after dawn we tacked up and down along the Chestertown waterfront, where the tall ships had gathered for Downrigging Weekend.

Steve's boat Spartina is the same Pathfinder design I'm building, and it's always inspiring to see that familiar shape in a completed boat. And even better to sail in a fresh breeze! OK, we had to tuck in a reef. And by "we" I mean "Steve."

As a clear sunrise warmed the frosty air, we slipped past Pride II and I shot a stream of photos.

Inspiration for the Hellfire:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Take that, inertia

Book revisions continue, but today I took the big step of leaping from reading and researching, jotting notes and thinking, to actually writing. Starting is always hard -- nearly paralyzing. I got over it by reasoning that it's going to be awful no matter what, so why waste time looking for the best way to start?

If you can't avoid crap, well, full speed ahead. Getting past that hurdle of my own expectations is like knocking the first shackle off my legs. Now I can get started. Is it bad? Yes, I hate it. Just as I expected, and just as it's been every other time.

Writing: the cure for hubris. But at least I started.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Okay, I think I may be able to manage one posting per month. This even takes into account my boycotting of Facebook as just another time-suck. I mean it!

We all have limits. Sometimes those limits are physical, as I learned a few days ago after cleaning out the garage.

I have a large pile of scrap lumber, mostly plywood, leaning up against two 6x6 beams of oak that are probably 12 feet long. Why do I have these? No idea, but why would I get rid of such massive timbers?

When I moved all the scrap plywood out of the way, I saw that the previously covered side of the oak beams was crawling with a half-dozen cave crickets. After a soothing beverage to cool my screech-torn vocal cords, I returned to the garage to find all the crickets still in situ with one. Important. Addition.

A very large wolf spider had approached them.

TEE HEE HEE! I giggled, putting my hands to my mouth and getting very wide-eyed. TEE HEE HEE!

I watched the crickets stupidly and suicidally crawl in their disgusting way closer and closer to the waiting spider. TEE HEE HEE! I may have clapped my hands.

Closer and closer ... but the spider didn't move. I sprinted into the house for a camera, and when I returned I saw that the arachnid-hellbeast standoff had continued. So, moaning, I approached, camera in hand, to get a better look.

I have seen some beauteous and wonderful sights in my short life, but nothing as delightful as this: a cricket was hanging from the spider's jaws.

TEE HEE HEE! TEE HEE HEE! TEE HEE HEE! I gamboled and capered about, pointing and gibbering like a chimp. The spider sat there, calmly draining her prey's liquefied innards through the fang holes in its spotted carapace.

I adjusted the light and snapped a few photos. Hooray for wolf spiders! HOORAY!

What about limits? The cricket discovered the limits of sharing a stack of wood with a wolf spider. Because once in a while your neighbor gets ... hungry.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I said, You can keep my things, they've come to take me home

Well, well, well. Been a long time, what? After some disruptions with my day job and a change of seasons I have rediscovered this blog. Doors swing open that had been shut.

It's a rainy fall day, like someone is wringing a sponge out over the trees and lawns and puddled driveways. I can hear it ticking on the roof; the view outside is a clot of green leaves and mist.

I have coffee, a one-inch stack of revision notes, a second and completely different novel in progress, my favorite pen, a new desk lamp, a boat project in the garage, a bike in the shop, another bike in the garage, and list of things to do running the length of a legal pad.

In the past five weeks I have ridden over 200 miles of backcountry mountain bike trails; discovered an outstanding new beer; said goodbye to a young friend; attended two glorious weddings; considered new career paths; considered moving across the country; returned to boatbuilding; and rethought some of the fundamental structure and meaning of my book.

There is much to do!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When I Was Young

When I was young, I didn't believe in the real world. Not really, anyway. The world where I got up and went to school and looked at cars and heard boring conversations about politics was, I was certain, a front for something deeper, richer, and much more wild.

If I could just break through!

There were signs everywhere, I told myself. The whispers of wind; a falling leaf arranged just so on the forest floor; a cat that looked at me a little too long. The constant belief that this world wasn't all there was kept me going through the mundanities and frustrations we all forget about as we grow up.

I didn't yearn for this other place to exist; I knew it did and I yearned to get there somehow. How? How? Through dreams? Hypnosis? Travel? Time travel? Astral projection? How do I break through?

And the saddest thing of all was when that started to fade and I grew up.

But even now I catch myself wondering: what if that tree bending in a storm is a signal; what if that dark little hollow in the forest is a doorway; what I touch this boulder and my hand presses on through?

It turns out I have found the way through, after all: what we call "fiction" is really just my way of communing with that Other Place. I close my eyes and imagine it, and then I write it down and try to bring back some of the wildness and strange beauty.

Because, to roughly quote Tennyson: All experience is an arch through which gleams the untravell'd world.

Monday, July 25, 2011

And another thing

... Where was I? Ah, yes. Boatbuilding. Fools and optimists set schedules for building boats; realists know better. All summer long the boat skeleton swelters in the garage, swarmed with cave crickets and sawdust. I peek through the window and say goodbye every morning on my way to work, humidity fogging the trees and a chorus of late-summer cicadas already swelling the air.

But unless you measure progress by "thinking," there's been little progress.

This weekend I rode past a salt marsh, that almost electric jolt of green grass and blue water that always feel like coming home. The oily, musky, fecund stink of the mud, ospreys soaring, cattails drooping in the heat. How nice it will be to drift past those grass-whiskered shores someday.

(One learns that one does not plan to "sail" on the Chesapeake in July except by some divine intrusion on the natural order of things. It happens, but like miracles, it's best not to count on it.)

I rode past the lost ruins of a house that was built over 350 years ago, by a man who likely cursed the calms and reveled in the seasonal gales just as I do; who skated his vessel over oyster beds and sandbars; and who perhaps looked at the far grey line of the horizon and thought: there.

Lambert Wickes, born where I road, grew to be a naval captain of the very young United States of America. He harried British ships, carried Benjamin Franklin to France, and had all manner of heroic exploits before his vessel, the 16-gun Reprisal, was lost in an autumn storm off the Grand Banks.

Eastern Neck is silent now; but under the marshes and thick trees lie the remains of a that old house from so many years ago.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Clamps ahoy

Clamping the port lower sheer stringer -- an eighteen-foot piece of floppy fir that curves in three dimensions (and some days, four) -- requires clamps. Lots and lots of clamps:

What you see here is:
  • The stringer itself, or its lower half at least, going diagonally across the shot. It fits into a notch in a frame.
  • The frame itself is braced and clamped to withstand the Herculean forces applied by my muscles and the stringer as I torque it into position.
  • Two pinch clamps holding cedar wedges in place. So I cut the notch too big and had to wedge it out. What?
Multiply this by a half-dozen frames or so, and it adds up to a lot of clamps.
What's neat about this stage of the build is that the shape of the boat -- a leaf, a cockle, the curve of a gull across the sky -- really starts to show itself. Squint if you can, and look past the clamps and bracing to see the edge of the boat, arcing up toward the bow.

And later, lo, the boatbuilder was tired and retired inside where the lion hath laid down with the lamb. For lo, he opened a beer and all was right with the world.

Friday, June 3, 2011


I recently re-read Francisco Stork's excellent Marcello in the Real World. Even though I'd read it a year or two ago, and this time was reading for technique, like a surgeon watching an operation, I was still pulled into the story.

But even as I was tumbling and roiling along, I noticed something that I've never seen before: There is no wasted narrative.

This is an epiphany for me, as I tend to write circles around what I really want to say. And then, having said it, I write my circular way back out to the story. The result is a fatty first draft that always needs to be tightened.

At first I worried that readers wouldn't able to connect the dots. First a character is eating dinner and then he's doing dishes? What? How did he get there? So I diligently (and tediously) would narrate the whole thing. Bo-ring.

What Francisco Stork does reminds me of some study that proved how little of a word has to be there for us to recognize it. Or of those stories of B-17s that returned, critically damaged, to airfields in London, somehow able to limp home.

Marcello in the Real World has only the bare number of scenes to carry the story. I don't mean that it's sparse: it's anything but. No, I mean that the gaps between scenes -- so invisible when you're deep in the story -- are actually pretty big when you stop and analyze them.

The magic here is that the reader fills in those gaps without even noticing.

And what it means is that the amount of narration I thought was the absolute minimum ... can be even less. The result will be a tighter story that's not ruined by being over-told.

So now I ask myself: what is the absolute minimum I need to show in order to carry the story forward? It's less than I think.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Now I have a fly swatter. Ho ho ho.

The trouble with hitting, or trying to hit, cave crickets with scraps of wood is that I get worried about banging up the boat. And if I end up damaging the boat while attempting to dissuade cave crickets from whatever it is that they do, my rage will be Biblical.

So I picked up a fly swatter. Fly swatters are kind of hard to find. Maybe the Internet has made them obsolete; for all I know there's some kind of e-swatter everybody's downloaded. But I was able to find an archaic "real" fly swatter.

I'm not sure it will be able to withstand the crispy, horned carapace of a cave cricket, but I'm willing to give it a try.

Except that, now that I've hung the fly swatter in the shop, no cave crickets have shown themselves. Which means that either I've found the right deterrent ... or they are planning something.

Meanwhile, Steve and Bruce, in Steve's boat (the same Pathfinder design I'm building), are rocketing across the Bay in Small Craft Warning conditions. Like I said to a friend once: Small Craft Warnings just mean there's finally going to be some good wind!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Port Sheer

Lately I've been working on the long, gently curved piece of wood that forms the upper left-hand side of the boat. Ugh, just using that lubberly language is like hearing fingernails on a blackboard.

Port sheer stringer. That's better! This is a actually a pair of 18-foot noodly pieces of wood, about 3/4" square in cross section, that arcs from the top outer corner of the transom, out along the side of the boat, and then up and in to the point at the bow. It rolls and spirals, it sweeps down and out and then swoops up and in, a crescendo of fine-grained fir. This defines the shape of the edge of the boat, so it's important to get right.

It's also very difficult to persuade wood to bend in what seems like five dimensions at once. This morning I was struggling with the aft end, where it snugs into a carefully angled notched trimmed into the edge of the transom. What to clamp it to?

Small C-clamp: fail.
Large C-clamp: fail.
Small bar clamp: fail.
Long rope: moderate success.
Long rope with crush-block and bar clamp: moderate success

But not close enough. There's a millimeter of space still to fill, and I'm not going to sink the screw in until that gap is closed ... even though I could get lazy and fill the gap with epoxy.

Just as I threw up my hands this morning and headed inside for coffee (come to think of it, boatbuilding before coffee may have been part of the problem) my eyes fell on Klamp Korner.


Klamp Korner is a magical land filled with the boatbuilding equivalent of rainbows and fat-hoofed unicorns: a section of the workshop filled with clamps of all size. Do I have enough clamps? Never. But I do have The BFC: a six-FOOT pipe clamp I used to use to close up 10-by pieces of oak.

I applied the BFC to the problem at hand. It's long enough that it actually extends all the way across the boat to the starboard sheer stringer. A few twists and the port stringer suddenly saw the light of reason. Gap closed.

Now I just have to figure out how to drill through the clamp, or how to move the clamp to access the screw location.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cave Crickets Beware

For I have returned to boatbuilding.

After some schedule-shuffling, I was in the shop at 6 this morning for a quick spot of epoxying before starting the day. Unfortunately this was also before coffee, but I figured resin and silica powder are not the ideal taste to combine with dark-roast Sumatra, so I was blinking owlishly while mixing the goop and counting to sixty.

I installed the forward port bunkflat supports as the sky cleared into dawn. It was a cool 55 degrees, but warm enough for epoxy to kick, and now, as I happily watch the temperature climb into the 70s, I am wondering why it is that I can still smell epoxy. Occasionally a nub will lodge on my scalp -- a frequent consequence of bending around pieces of wood and bumping into them.

And now that I've returned to the boat, and cleared away the cobwebs, I am going cricket-hunting with a bat of seasoned locust. Attention cave crickets: stay away from my boat or you feel the business end of what I learned in physics: momentum equals mass times velocity. And I can swing a heavy piece of locust.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Back to Work

Yesterday morning, post dog walk, post coffee-making, but pre-breakfast, I slumped down in my desk chair for a quick look at the news before starting writing. I call it "ritual" but it's really just procrastination. Hey, better than Procrustenation, right? Look that up, kids, it's an allusion.

In any case: Osama bin Laden dead? Wow! I skimmed headlines, scrolled through pictures, sat back and pondered ...

... and then shut the laptop, opened the notebook, and took a sip of coffee. Seventeen minutes available of sweet unbroken writing time. Time to get to work.

Inconveniently for this story, I didn't have much of anything to say, and the story meandered along in its unhurried way. Still: it's one ratchet-click of the wheel closer to completion: the great wheel whose circumference spans months or years, whose curve is so vast it's like the curve of the earth, clicking one tooth further each day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The smell of water

I was in the desert the first time I smelled water. We were camping in a little orange-cliffed bend of the Gila River, a thread of green in that red country of New Mexico, and bullfrogs and dragonflies danced above the rocky shallows.

In the Southwest you can smell dust and warm pine bark and hot stone, so when that liquid and unmistakable scent bloomed out at dusk, I realized I was smelling fresh water.

I thought of this on Sunday, when I was hosing water into a bucket to water some new plants. There's something magical about the sound of water plunging into water, whether at the top of a breaking wave or a the trickling ripples of a shallow creek. And as I stood there, musing, holding the hose, I smelled the water for the first time in what has felt like a very long winter.

Later that day, the temperature climbed into the eighties and we took a happy dog to the lakefront park to gallop around with his equally happy friends. I stood and breathed in the warm watery smell of the lake and the rain-heavy clouds gathering their skirts above the mountains.

It reminds me of sailing, that river-smell. Sunlight flashing on big water, the muddy marsh odor near shore, and the gusty fresh breath of wind as the boat leans, the sail catches, and away you go.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Indulge me

Indulgence: disciplined indulgence. That, I'm discovering, is what's necessary for a first draft.

Too much discipline and you're paralyzed: your arm a rigid arc of bone, fingers crooked, words frozen in your mind because they're not ... quite ... right. They're never quite right.

Too much indulgence and you close up the computer and go eat chips instead of writing. What, that's just me?

You have to find a way, and I struggle with this every day, to force yourself those indulgent explorations of the story, to go down paths that hadn't occurred to you when you started writing the scene or the paragraph or even the sentence.

See where things go. You're exploring. There will be time enough later for the merciless gimlet eye of revision.

So the early draft stinks? So does organic fertilizer. But it's great for when you need something to grow.

Did I just compare my exploratory draft to excrement? Yes I did. Sometimes you have to just roll with it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I wrote today

And yesterday. And the day before. When I look back on it -- a few pages of dense black scribble -- it seems like such a small thing. But anyone who has faced the dead nothingness of a blank page knows how hard that is.

The thing that finally kicked me into gear was the realization that I try too hard in rough drafts. That is: I start out writing with the finished goal in mind, and when my draft is NOT that finished version, I despair. Stupid! Like most mistakes, this is crystal clear when I stop and think about it.

In fact what we should compare those exploratory drafts to is not the finished masterpiece ... but the blank page.

When I look at it that way, these first fumbling pages are a huge step.

Something else that's surprised me: in just a few days of writing (but, I'll grant, years of thinking) I have started to care about these characters. I can see the street they're standing on; I can taste the air.

This was not the case when I started, but I pushed on anyway -- not out of any defiant belief that that spark would appear, but because I couldn't figure out what else to do.

When in doubt, sit your ass down and work.

And suddenly the characters are coming to life. It's almost as if I'm not creating them, but uncovering them. Discovering them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sunblock and black coffee

Sunday morning I was up at dawn, walking the dog and brewing coffee as cool night became deep blue morning, filled with birdsong and the promise of a warm spring day. Black coffee and oatmeal were followed by a liberal application of sunblock, with its heady and evocative smell.

Salt, honey and walnuts in the oatmeal, another swallow of black coffee, sunblock caking my arms and face ghostly white, more coffee, a few sips of electrolyte drink from my water bottle to make sure it tastes just right, and I loaded the car with a full stomach, blinking sleepily into the sunrise.

An hour later (and another cup of coffee, half a bagel, and a fistfull of pretzels) I parked at the foot of the mountains, tasted the air and squinted at the clouds, made some clothing decisions, and swung my leg over my bike and clipped in.

Clif bars and electrolytes had to sustain me for the next few hours, as cloud shadows chased me up and down mountain roads and past green-gushing, rock-filled rivers of snowmelt, through fields of late-winter dead grass and early-spring riots of blossoms, under speck-vultures circling in the bright sky, past herds of unmoving cattle, mile after rolling mile after rolling mile.

Afterwards, at home, I unloaded the bike off the car, carried in the empty coffee mug, and raised my dirty arm to my nose. Yep: still smelled like sunblock. I love it.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Heroes. Most stories have 'em. Charming heroes, flawed heroes, heroes who are cruel, or brave, or young, or old.

I see a hero as a dark silhouette on a foggy hill, grasping the hilt of a sword and drawing it from stone. A frightened boy who no longer has to live under the stairs. A mole who saves his friends. A woman who defies convention and rides to war. A rascally smuggler who returns after everyone has given up on him.

What makes them heroic? We sympathize with them, want to be them. Often they are heroes because they defy expectations. They look at a situation, weigh the soft whisperings of temptation, and say: no. I will not go gentle into that good night.

I am hungry, I am scared, I am alone. I am in the dark, in the attic, in the cave. Nobody knows me; everybody needs me. I will probably not survive. This will hurt. I could still escape. But I will not go gentle into that good night.

Is it only defiance, then? No, I think there's more to it than that. Often the heroes who are most compelling are the ones who didn't start out that way. Because, really: what good story starts out with Once upon a time there was a total bad-ass who destroyed all evil.

Defiance; sacrifice; growth. And we have to know the hero. Feel their uncertainty because we've felt it ourselves in the school hallway or lunchroom or cold and distant wilderness. Feel their fear, the anguished choice ... and their resolve.

Even if that resolve is beyond us -- or especially if it is beyond us. Heroes do what we cannot or will not do. Maybe that's why they are so compelling.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Corpsey the Squirrel

Hi! I'm Corpsey the Squirrel! I got run over by a car about a week ago, or maybe more. It's kinda hard to keep track of time passing when your head is half an inch thick, ha ha!

Anyway, ever since "the transition," as I call it, I've been hanging around on the side of the road, just kinda watching the world go by, you know? At first crows picked at me, and once they even flipped me over so I could see out of my other eye. Just kidding, I don't have any eyes.

Oh, Corpsey, I told myself. You may not be a "living" squirrel anymore but chin up! Oops, never mind, you don't have a chin either. Well, stay positive, Corpsey. You may be talking to yourself but something is sure to come along sooner or later.

Then one day it rained, and what did old Corpsey do? Well, I drifted over to the gutter and hung around under the leaves for a while. Then IT happened! A big friendly dog found me and we became best friends!

By "best" I mean "delicious" and by "friends" I mean "a chew toy." This was great! And boy, was this dog happy! He carried me all the way home, chewing away. It would have tickled but those things don't really bother me any more. I think he was going to take me inside the house. Maybe even wipe me on the couches and people's faces: delightful!

Then there was some sort of commotion and I was drenched with a stream of water. Some blasted human was spraying my dog-buddy with a hose! Disaster for Corpsey! The dog -- Benedict Arnold, I'm calling him -- eventually dropped me and was taken firmly inside. "Hey!" I called out, sort of. "What about Corpsey?" But they ignored me.

So now I'm stuck in the leaves, waiting for my next adventure. Where will I end up next? Maybe another dog will come along and save me!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Think of the one

I recently read that one in ten manuscripts sees success. I say: ignore the nine and be the one.

Or is it one in fifty? In three hundred? In ten thousand? One in ten thousand? "So you're saying I have a shot!"

Each of us thinks we're that one. Why bother doing anything if you assume you're in the group of nine who get ignored? Half-effort is a waste of time.

No: you have to believe. And then get to work.

Because, sure, patience is a virtue. But so is diligence. After all, to paraphrase Steve Martin, how else can you "be so good they can't ignore you?"

Friday, February 25, 2011

If you go

If you go outside of town to the junkyard on a warm spring day,when everyone else is at work and the ground lies open and bare-brown for acres, and you drive past the washing machines and couches, empty pallets and stare-eyed dolls, past rusting yellow metal contraptions and broken glass shimmering like ice, startling the hulking shapes of vultures, you may find a group of empty oil barrels collected like muttering old men.

And if you dig in your pocket for a five, press it into the glove of the site overseer, and hump the barrel into the back of your car, it will roll around and deposit showers of rust and spider carcasses.

And if at home, you wonder how to get it open, wishing you had a giant can opener, you may instead settle for a cold chisel, sledgehammer, and brute force, and by the end of the afternoon, as winter reclaims the air while the sun sets behind bare trees, you peel the top off the barrel.

Inside it is slimed with oil residue, aromatic and rotten and industrial. The steel smells like ice, like industry, like cooking oil, and you think of clanking machinery. Gouts of black smoke. Mechanical contraptions never seen in our world: strange and ungainly walking machines, ships floated by a thousand balloons.

And always, always you hear the steady footsteps of the man with the bats limping his way through the fallen bricks of the old city.

And you think: there is a story there.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stop saying query

Query the Third lies jumbled at the bottom of a notebook, coiled like a sleeping snake. When the time is right I shall release it to strike!

What surprises me is how similar these all are. That suggests two possibilities:

1) I have Hit The Mark, and now it's just a matter of reworking sentences. Sentences which must be reworked. I need to revise sentences. Certain sentences demand improvement. Fixing sentences. Reworking phrasing. See what I mean?

2) I've deftly avoided an effective query, but can't jump out of the rut because I've gotten used to it. Human beings can adjust to almost anything: this is our salvation and our curse. In this case I worry that I'm so accustomed to this basic query that it's blinding me to possible alternatives.

Meanwhile, winter's bite is gone from the wind and trees are showing their first tentative buds. Spring trickles in and reminds us that the clock of winter ticks away, ticks away, ticks away.

Yet the boat languishes, a victim of cold weather. How can I glue things -- I bleat plaintively -- when it's too cold for the glue to set? How convenient, I answer, that cold weather arrived just when the revision and query process jolts into high gear.

But with winter ticking away I find myself peering into the garage at the skeletal boat. Soon.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Query the Second

The trouble, as you will soon see, is that different versions of the query don't seem all that different at first.

At first.

It's hard to say whether I love the sentences so much I'm loathe to revise them, or whether I'm keeping what works and changing what I can, but probably half of this is similar to the first version.

This one focuses on my the character's emotions and perspective more*. It also shrinks the focus to his immediate motivations ("strike back against the invaders") and avoids highlighting the larger themes of memory, guilt, revenge, etc. This is because in something this short -- 200 words or so -- it's hard to do much more than just list those larger themes. And lists are boring. So this one follows the principle of: "If I can't evoke the emotion in the reader, it comes out."

For three hundred years, the great sailing vessels have called at the port city of Quartermoon Bay. Until one bright morning, when six strange ships arrive carrying not spices, timber or silk but an invading army.

Thirteen-year-old Rigel’s first instinct is to resist. That’s how he’s overcome every other problem, from Da leaving to learning the old fairy tales Grandmother insists are so important. But the soldiers -- some of them children with terrible power -- burn Quartermoon Bay to the ground. They slaughter the weak and the old, and enslave Rigel along with anyone else strong enough to work.

New prisons rise from the ashes of the city, and Rigel’s world shrinks to hard labor, public executions, and whispered escape plans in the dark. As his fellow prisoners succumb to exhaustion and madness, Rigel’s determination withers into despair.

Then he learns Grandmother’s final story: across the mountains, hidden in a sea cave, lies the last Ship of the Light, a half-mythical relic of the old wars. Now he has to do something even harder than fighting: he has to believe. Rigel escapes the work camp, abandons his ruined city and flees into the mountains, chasing the wild hope that he can find the Ship and strike back against the invaders who have destroyed everything -- and everyone -- he’s ever known.

*Yesterday morning I found a way to go deeper. Closer to his emotions. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Query quandary

Okay. How many ways are there to write a query? How wet is the sea?

I've settled -- FOR NOW -- on three. First, from author Jodi Meadows, a technique posted last summer to the Writeoncon site, and reposted on Elana Johnson's blog. Second, the approach which, as far as I know, agent Kristin Nelson developed, focusing on the inciting incident. Which had better be found in your first 50 pages.

And lastly, the hideous and rarely spoken-of Third Method, where I build sentences through sheer force of will and stubbornness. If the first two methods are shiny-faced children performing piano recitals and eating politely, the Third Method is the thing under the stairs that keeps eating cats.

In any case! The result of many hours of brow-furrowing, talking to myself, gesturing at the cats, and consuming Stygian amounts of coffee is that I have three separate queries. All for the same book.

In the coming days I'll post them here. Note that each will have an opening and closing -- these are letters, after all -- but what you see is really the meat of the sandwich. Or the peanut butter and jelly if, like me, you have tasted this food of the gods.

Ready? Here we go. We'll begin today with The Third Method. I should note a strange situation: this query was originally written for a much longer book, which I've since revised, focusing only on the events in the first third. That first section has become the standalone book I am now querying.

Oddly, the original query for the longer book still applies, as it refers to events and situations which still endure in the new book. I myself am often surprised at life's little quirks.

So. Here is the Third Method query: a taste of the world of the book, the character and his conflicts, a few seasoning details, building up to what seems to be an unresolvable situation.

The port city of Quartermoon Bay teems with shipbuilders and captains home from the sea, fishermen and priests and menders of nets. People call fire from the air with a twist of their fingers, and an old woman’s storytelling silences a pub of rowdy sailors.

Thirteen-year-old Riga has never seen much point in the stories Grandmother keeps trying to teach him. Until one bright morning, when six strange ships attack and burn Quartermoon Bay to the ground, slaughtering the weak and the aged, and enslaving the rest. Grandmother has time to whisper one final story to Riga: across the mountains, hidden in a sea cave, lies the last Ship of the Light, a half-mythical relic of the old wars.

Riga escapes, killing two guards and fleeing into the mountains. He’s driven by the wild hope that he can find the Ship and strike back against the invaders who destroyed everything -- and everyone -- he’s ever known. But as he grasps the terrible significance of the ancient stories, and his role in them, he must weigh revenge against survival, and loyalty to his friends against the true burden of carrying the stories of the dead.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Here is what I love about writing

It's better than a movie, watching these ideas -- scenes -- visions -- go flitting past my mind:

A flock of crows explodes like shaken pepper from the stubble of a November cornfield.

A fiery old woman with the map tattooed on her tongue.

Tap, tap, step, step: a tall figure dressed in black and crowned with a well-worn top hat, picking his way through the brick piles of the old part of town. He may wear an eye patch and a monocle. From his moleskin vest hang three small bundles that upon closer inspection prove to be slumbering bats, swinging as he favors his right leg. The left was torn open by a six-inch claw in the old wars no one likes to remember.

Only the very old and the very young show their true expressions; in between we learn to hide what we feel. On the very old the lines on their face are a map of their lives, all the experiences, every pursed lip or guffaw, clenched jaw and knotted brow, all worked into the hanging skin until they look exactly like what they've always felt. Which is why when I realized my son had frown lines at the age of nine, I called the police, my wife, and then the psychiatrist.

Winter seawater smells like salt and iron. Swamps stink of life.

Baby's teeth are the size and shape of sweetcorn kernels. But, thinks the monster, they taste different.

In a small and old town in Europe, the sun sets over a landscape of snow and spires. On the hill leading past the butcher's and the old church, a townhouse leans against its neighbor. The windows are dark, the glass hanging in fangs, but smoke dribbles from the chimney. Inside the floor is too old, the boards spongy and curling up at their edges. Upstairs there is a room where the furniture is covered with sheets turned yellow with age. In this room is a small closet. Inside the closet ...

On and on and on....

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Two steps forward, one step back

At least it's better than "two steps forward, three steps back."

It's occurred to me that writing a query is not unlike kick-stepping up a steep and somewhat loose ramp of snow (which I spent much of last week doing): You plant your foot hard, hoping to pack down the snow for more traction, then lean up and onto it. If you're lucky the snow holds, if not ... it slides and you end up either falling over or crossing your leg behind your other as you half-collapse into a squashed X-shape.

Either way it's a struggle, and the trick is to step up MORE than you slide down. And so as I grind through the caffeine-fueled early morning conversations with myself I call "figuring out the query," it often seems like what I'm doing is trying new things and eliminating options that don't work.

So far I have found many things that do not work.

The scary moments come when the whole slope threatens to slide away and send you snow-gusting and pinwheeling downhill. Moments like the one where I wondered if the reason I was having so much trouble describing the book in a compelling way is that the book isn't that compelling.

Uh-oh! Negativity alert! Stand up, stretch, swing the arms, sip some coffee, and focus. Put away thoughts of turd-polishing and remember what I first loved about this story in the first place.




Two steps forward, one step back.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bring winter gear STOP

Urgent from H. A. Richtoven, Univ. Belknapp STOP Come immediately Urshaven Sta STOP Pack winter gear END

From Larsen Jen, Univ Belknapp STOP En route but curious STOP Have brought warm gear and dogs STOP Food and fur STOP Weather poor STOP Explain urgency END

From Richtoven STOP Weather worsening STOP Borealis expanding STOP Most peculiar STOP Have you astrolabe octant photogram materials double goggles END

From Larsen STOP Unable to understand yr last STOP Request speak English END

From Richtoven STOP Larsen you boob STOP Last was gear list STOP Astrolabe STOP Octant STOP Photogram materials STOP Double goggles STOP Evidently dictionary too STOP

From Richtoven STOP Belay last STOP Also need 40 qts frozen blood STOP And mittens END

From Richtoven STOP Borealis obscure STOP Patssnn STOP Patterns STOP Ice in air STOP STOP STOP Wolves I think no Borealis END

From Larsen STOP Richtoven repeat yr last STOP Are you in danger END


LOST and Presumed Dead, this Eighteenth Day of Foreyule, in the White Lands, Professor-Esquire Harold Armodius Richtoven frmly of University of Belknapp, explorer and scientist. Professor Richtoven had voyaged from Tumlar Station north to study the Borealis. He had advanced a theory called "wicked" and "degenerate" by his sponsors, and we must only presume he succumbed to madness or to the dreadful weather or to both. Body unrecovered.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Witchy, Twitchy Art

After attempting a bike ride in sixteen degree temperatures, I have discovered the following fact:

That although the solution to numb fingers and toes might well be better gloves and socks, it is more likely that the solution is: don't go bike riding when it's sixteen degrees!

And so I return to the indoor trainer / stationary bike. Though the weather is much improved indoors, the views are not, so I have been working through DVDs this winter. Last week was the Princess Bride, where I was delighted to find that the whip-smart dialog still makes me smile.

"I mean, if only we had a wheelbarrow."
"Where did put that wheelbarrow the albino had?"
"Over the albino."
[Sighs.] "Well, why didn't you list that among our assets in the first place?"

And there are more, so many more. Writing smart dialog is an art. You have to advance the story, demonstrate each character's viewpoint and specific idioms (accent, word choice, sentence length), thread some emotion into it (this can be humor, as above), and avoid boring the reader.

Even real dialog rarely measures up: take note of what we talk about at work, at the grocery store, while cooking dinner. BOR-ing! Thus we turn to fiction.

Here's another favorite: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

"Is that what you call giving cover?"
"Is that what you call running?"

We have William Goldman to thank in both cases. He has a rare ear for the witchy, twitchy art of dialog. It's hard to define it when it's right, but Lord, can we tell when it rings false.

"I knew you would come. Somehow I always hoped for it. Right here, in this kitchen of the house we built and where I grew up and then met you before everything else happened. And I-I-oh Samuel, the pain -- and I think -- no, I must finish, you must carry on, lads, don't give in to laziness and folly, you must -- carry -- on!"

Sheesh, writing bad dialog is almost as fun as writing good dialog. It's just MUCH EASIER.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Odysseus Strings His Bow

Wily Odysseus, wandering Odysseus, canny Odysseus. He fought the Trojans for ten years and took another ten years journeying home to Ithaka. The Odyssey has been noted as a story of adventure, of the often-comic adventures and trickery of Odysseus, of the pleasures of homecoming.

All of this misses what to me is the pivotal moment of the story. The point upon which the whole lumbering and picaresque narrative balances.

Odysseus has returned home in disguise. Suitors, dozens of them, have been living in his house, eating his food, slapping his servants, romancing his wife. Penelope, having lived practically as a widow for twenty years, is on the verge of marrying one of them. But Odysseus waits.

He comes into his house, clad in white beard and dirty rags: a bent and decrepit beggar. The suitors laugh. Jostle him. Pinch the servant girls; perhaps bed a few more. But Odysseus waits.

Penelope, her will and faith in her husband pared away by two decades of absence, announces she will marry the man who can send an arrow through the ring-shafts of a row of axes. Odysseus hears this, and waits.

The suitors demand Odysseus's great bow. None of them is strong enough to string it.

"Oh please, let me try," croaks the old beggar from his stool. The suitors laugh, tossing him the bow. He stands. He takes the bow and strings it with long-practiced hands. His arrow flies clean through the ring-shafts.

He nods to his loyal servant. "Lock the door." He turns to the suitors and casts off his tattered rags.

--STOP.-- The long buildup of pain, of indignity after indignity, the looming loss of his home and his wife and everything he's been striving to return to for twenty years: all of this hinges on this one moment, suspended like a note from a violin.

This is a story of revenge, of justice, of scalding rage and the white heat of righteousness.

He kills them all.

The story doesn't end there, of course: war looms; Athena intervenes; Odysseus takes Penelope to the bed he built so long ago.

But maybe one reason this speaks to us, thousands of years later, is that Odysseus does what many of us cannot: face his demons and destroy them.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Now, then!

Cue AC/DC (as if we all didn't have "Back in Black" running on a continuous loop inside our heads all the time anyway). I'm back!

And now that I am back I've received literally some e-mails asking where I have been and what manner of wondrous things I've been up to. Ready? Here we go.

I danced a surreptitious flamenco on a sun-flamed Barcelona beach. I extracted nineteen lark's tongues but lost the recipe for pie. I learned to carve life-sized effigies of myself and set up tea parties which I then proceeded to karate-kick. I gulped saltwater, choking, and burst through the surface into a sour sheen of spilled diesel.

I dotted yellowed vellum with spots of squid ink by candlelight. The pen came from a Denrovian eagle; the vellum from Basque lambs. The notes I scratched trailed across the page and became a symphony, a dirge, a jumprope chant, seventh-grade doggerel, a libretto, a haunt.

I built a church and prayed to a god who worked, and breathed, but knew not me.

I smacked a pan of water; I shook the roof with my rage; I burned a loaf of bread; I turned wood to fire, then to smoke, then to ash.

I saw cities of men, and empty skies, and the cold glittering stars. Squirrels chattered, jays fussed, the dark gnawing wet things gnashed and shrieked at the sound of wings in the air.

I punched an egg; romanced a wisp of cloud; watched the stars wheel. It turns, it all turns.

And now: I am back.