Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Okay, this day snuck up on me.  I just posted yesterday and here I am needing to say something pithy and profound and summative about the year that is rapidly heading toward extinction.  And I need to say it quickly, because I went for a lovely ride on this cold, crisp afternoon and now I can't stay awake.  I'll be lucky to make it to midnight East Coast time, and I live several times zones west of that one. . . (Guaranteed insomnia cure: exercise until you're frozen, come in and thaw out and eat a large dinner and then just TRY to stay awake!).

Okay, wise cracks out of the way, I do want to look back over the year.  At the beginning of 2012, my writing was just about where it is now. . . except it was the first Ninja Librarian book I was trying to polish up, and now it's the second.  Over the course of the year, I've seen my book in print, done author readings, and been recognized in the grocery store as a writer

I have developed as a writer, doing a much better job of believing that it's a real job, and therefore should take precedent over many other things, including sweeping the floor.  Not always there, but getting better.  I've learned more about marketing than I ever guessed I would ever need to, and just enough to tell me that I've only scratched the surface.  I've also learned that nothing about my new published status has made me any more eager to sit down with a flawed MS and do the hard work of turning it into a publishable book, but that having people waiting for the new book can inspire me to do even that.  I think that's part of what it means to be a professional.

I have also learned that I can write short stories just for fun, and share them so that others can have fun too.

In my personal life, I have watched my boys get another year older, and seen my Eldest Son putting me to shame for his ability to write under nearly any conditions.  While I want to crawl off alone, he sat in the middle of the family Xmas bash with his computer in front of him, and added page after page to his first novel.  It's pretty good, too.  I don't know whether to be a proud parent, or just chagrined that he manages to write, and well, under circumstances that made me give up (twelve people in our dinky house over the holidays, for example).

I have also done some great trips, including my first visit to Hawaii and a seven-day backpack trip in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming (here and here).  That was one of the most scenic I've done, and the longest single backpack since I was 27 and hiked 200 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.  It was a lot more fun doing it with my family than alone, as I did back then.  

What do I wish for 2013?  Aside, that is, from peace and love and general good stuff for all humanity.  Let's stick with the personal here.  Mostly, let's stick with what the writer wants.

1.  Make writing a featured part of every day.  Write like a professional.  Except on Zero days.
2.  Bring out the sequel to the Ninja Librarian (still mostly on track for Feb., though we are looking at the end of the month, not the beginning).
3.  Either finish and publish my "PTA Murder" novel, or decide it has no future and start a new one.
4.  Sell more books each month, find more followers for this blog, and discover more great reads for myself.  Which I'll share if you are good.
5.  Go for another backpack trip as glorious as last summer's.  Swim even more, ride even more, and--the gods willing--become a runner again when my about-to-be-operated-on toe heals.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Take a Zero

I've been catching up on some through-hikers I was following last summer.  For those of you who aren't backpackers (in the US sense, not the European sense), through-hikers are people who hike an entire long trail (Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, etc.) in a single season (well, more like 3 seasons, starting very early in spring and continuing until they arrive at the end or snow gets too deep to manage, whichever comes first).  I'd been following a couple of PCT hikers, and got distracted, so I went back yesterday and read the blogs all the way through, since they were all off the trail by late October. I don't know if this sort of thing is meant satisfy my desire to do a long hike, or feed it, but that's a post for another day.

What I wanted to talk about was the concept of a "Zero" or "Zero Day".  A day in town or camp when you don't hike anywhere.  Zero mileage.  When you are trying to cover 2660 miles between late March and first snow in the North Cascades, you think a lot about miles (you also think a lot about miles between food drops, since taking a day too long could mean a day without dinner, not something you want to consider when hiking 20-25 miles/day).  Spending a whole day without gaining any miles can be hard.

What I got to thinking about this afternoon is how hard it is for me to take a Zero, to stop doing all the things I'm supposed to be doing.  Now, granted that on those "Zero Days" the hikers usually kept plenty busy--laundry and shopping and eating as many meals as they could jam in--in a sense they didn't do any of what they were there to do, i.e., hike.  That's the beauty of a Zero.  Just don't do it.

Maybe that's behind the old religious prohibition on doing any work on Sunday.  If we humans don't know enough to take a rest day when we need it, maybe we need an outside force telling us to, before we burn ourselves out.  Around here in the U.S. we've pretty much forgotten about that whole Day of Rest thing, but I'm old enough to remember when very very few stores were open on Sundays, and most people (except ministers) took the day off.  Everyone took a Zero and was the better for it (eventually my Mom stopped cooking on Sundays, too, though not for religious reasons.  She just needed a day off).

So today I really haven't done much.  I finished two books last night, and read another clear through today.  It was past time for me to do that, and it meant, as much as anything, getting the heck off the internet (where I'd been all yesterday afternoon, reading about through-hikers. . . ) and just reading a book.  But I was also feeling pretty guilty.  Not doing any writing, not cleaning up the post-holiday mess, just indulging myself.  Like I did when I was a kid--curled up with a book for hours.

But here's the thing: on my "Zero", when I'm kind of beating myself up for not doing anything productive, I have puttered at a number of minor kitchen chores, baked a batch of bread, done a load of laundry, finally pulled out my dead and dying tomato plants and spaded compost into the beds to rot the rest of the winter in preparation for the spring planting, and cleaned up the mud I tracked into the house afterward.

See what I mean?  I'm not too good at taking a Zero.  Okay, yeah, I can take a day off from writing, especially the revisions I'm supposedly working on right now, all too easily.  But the rest of my job is that of chief housekeeper and I can't seem to let it go.  But the thing is: if the hikers don't take a Zero now and then, they break down.  The body just won't keep it up, the mind wears down.  Next thing you know, you've left the trail for permanent, not just for a day.

Now, I've a hunch that "trail fatigue" might happen to writers, too.  Take a break or get the boot.  I'm not so sure about housework, but I do know that a) it will never go away, and b) it will never go away.  It'll still be there tomorrow.  Take a Zero.  Read a book and let the dust bunnies thrive one more day.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas in Skunk Corners

We’ve never been much for holidays here in Skunk Corners. Not until just lately, when my students figured out that celebrations mostly come with food. They thought Thanksgiving was about the best thing ever, what with the wild turkey and the baked squash and the pies that Tess brought for our celebration, unless maybe the real best was the Fourth of July picnic. There they had all the food they could eat and it was outdoors, so they didn’t need any manners. At least, that’s the way the kids figured it.

After the success of those events, I began to wonder why we didn’t seem to celebrate Christmas much. Sure, some families did something, maybe a stocking with a bit of penny candy and an orange in it, and a dinner they took extra care over. Maybe they read about the baby Jesus in their Bibles. I don’t know much about that. But I’d been reading up on how folks elsewhere did things, and it made me kind of sad.

Even the first Christmas in Little Women, when no one had gifts but Marmee and they gave away their breakfast, seemed to have something we were missing. At least, I didn’t have it. So, naturally, I went to the Ninja Librarian.

“But why doesn’t anyone around here celebrate Christmas?” I wondered. “I know why I don’t, but why don’t other people?”

Tom gave me a long, grave look, and rather than answering my question, asked one of his own, which I should have expected. “Did you and your father not honor the day? Or did you stop when he was no longer with you?” Funny how he won’t let me ask about his life, but he doesn’t stop at asking me about mine.

I shook my head. “I was born the 20th of December, or something thereabouts. And Ma died a few days later. On Christmas.” It didn’t hurt much to say that, since I never knew Ma. It was thinking about Pa that stung. “So Pa never looked at the day. He’d go hunting or something.” I changed the subject. “What about you and your family? What did you do?”

He did what he always did when any question touched near to his own life or history. He said, “That was a long time ago.” Then he set me to doing more exercises so I could learn to be a Ninja fighter. The more questions I ask, the better I get at those moves. If I’m nosey enough, I might learn to be as good as the Ninja Librarian.

Maybe not. He works twice as hard and more often, and he’s been doing it for a long time, though naturally, when I tried to find out how long, he set me to learning a whole new set of complicated moves.

The idea of Christmas wouldn’t leave me, though. We celebrated another Thanksgiving, though I wasn’t sure to whom or for what we were being so all-fired grateful, unless it was that the Ninja Librarian had come back to us, and the fire didn’t burn us down, nor the roughs from Endoline take over our town. Which, come to think of it, was enough to be thankful for. But Christmas was just around the corner, and I didn’t know what I was going to do about it. If anything.

Besides, I was busy. As the weather got colder, I found some of my students were frozen half through before they got to school, mornings. And those who had gotten coats the year before were sticking out of them by several inches at the sleeves. Tommy couldn’t even fasten his, because now he was in his teens he was starting to fill out some. He’d stopped dodging chores at home, and around school he tried to take the place of Hank and Yance, who were mostly working now, learning finer carpentry and even making furniture with Ike Holstead.

I was working hard to get the women of the town to hunt out whatever old stuff they might have, and work it over to fit the bigger kids. The little ones were easy, since we could just pass last year’s coats down to them. And we were all making moccasins again, especially the ones stuffed with leaves and moss to keep the feet warm. So I didn’t have any time for thinking about Christmas.

No one else said anything, so I decided to just let the idea drop. On the shortest day of the year I decided that I had turned eighteen, but I didn’t say anything about that, either. Pa would’ve made a big deal about it, like he did when I was thirteen, but he wasn’t here and I was too old to cry about that or anything else. I didn’t say anything more to Ninja Tom, and he didn’t mention the holiday to me, either. Though he did comment on midwinter’s night—he called it the solstice—and had the children make a note of exactly what time the sun set.

“Way too early,” was Tommy’s assessment, and I agreed. Dark cold nights weren’t agreeing with me just then, though Tom mostly kept me from being cold by making me practice for hours until I could do each drill perfectly every time.

Of course, we didn’t have any school on the 24th or the 25th. That was tradition, whatever else folks did, or didn’t do. Preacher Dawson would have thrown a fit if we had gone on. He held a church service on the 24th, and I suppose some folks went. I stayed in my room behind the schoolhouse and read. Every single book by Miss Alcott that I could lay hands on, until I got a bit tired of all the girls ending up married. Then I took to reading history, and stuck with the explorers who wandered the hot southern lands. That worked better for improving my mood, at least until I had to go out and get more firewood.

On the 25th, I didn’t get out of bed when I woke up, not even when it got light. I just stayed where it was warm and read until the sun shone in my window. That got my attention, seeing as I hadn’t seen it for several days. I tossed back the covers, pulled on my dungarees over my long underwear, and topped it with a heavy wool sweater my Pa had worn. I was near as big as he’d been, unless the thing had shrunk.

Then I headed for Two-Timin’ Tess’s Tavern, where I could count on a decent meal, as long as it was after ten in the morning. They keep bartender’s hours over there. I figured on having a lot of breakfast, since I hadn’t eaten a thing when I woke up several hours earlier—just picked up my book and started reading. My belly was flapping against my spine, as Pa used to say.

I came around back to the kitchen, since it was much too early for the bar to be open, and stepped into a world of beautiful smells. Annie had been up far longer than I had, I decided. I could detect bread and apple pie and soup and maybe somewhere in all that a hint of the bacon and eggs I had thought I was looking for.

“Hey there, Al,” Annie greeted me. Tess was at the table, clutching a cup of coffee and watching Annie with something between delight and fear. “Pull up a chair and sit down.”

I didn’t know what to say, but I knew a good invitation when I heard it. I sat down, and Tess shoved the coffee pot toward me. By the time I had poured a cup, Annie had filled two plates with bacon, eggs, and some kind of cake. Cake for breakfast seemed a bit odd, but I wasn’t in any mood to say no. I sailed into the food and didn’t even look at Tess until I was nearly through it. When I did look, she was eating as single-mindedly as I had been, if somewhat less rapidly.

I looked again at Annie, who was pulling a pair of pies from the oven, and back at Tess, who shrugged.

“Annie,” she said, “is determined to make a real Christmas breakfast. And lunch, and dinner.”

“Who for?” I asked.

“For anyone who walks through that door hungry,” Annie said.

I didn’t know what she was expecting, but I thought there wouldn’t be much of anyone coming in on a day like this. The wind had kicked up again, the sun gone away after luring me out, and the temperature dropped to something just below unbearable. In my opinion, no one in their right mind would go out. Unless, like me, they were in need of something to eat.

Of course, she’d be feeding Johnny and the girls, and I figured Tom would be in. Like me, he’d taken to eating most of his meals at Tess’s. But no doubt everyone else would be sensible and go out only to do their chores. How should they know there was a feast at the Tavern?

Yet, somehow, as the day went on, folks just seemed to happen by. Some came for a drink, and stayed for pie. But some, like Tommy, just happened to be passing by and thought they’d see if there was anything to eat around, and to show us how warm his new coat was. Hank and Yance came with a shelf they’d made special for Ike Holstead, and Ike just happened to come in with Janey about that same time. She had her mocs on, having outgrown her boots. Eunice had those now. I know, because she stopped in too.

Crazy Jake and Wild Harry Colson were working, but the train stopped in town for an hour, long enough for my two oldest students—getting on into their twenties now—to come by for a turkey sandwich, pie and coffee. And for help with a report they had to write about a mishap on the line, so I figured that was their real reason, and the food was their luck. Those two would never turn down a good meal, no more than I would.

Me, I couldn’t see any reason to go back to my cold room, so I just stuck around and had a bite when I felt like it. Everyone who came in gave me a friendly “Merry Christmas,” and Tom had brought his chess set. He was teaching me to play, though Pa had made a start at it that last year before he died. Ninja Tom was a tough teacher, but that day I won two games, and figured I was making progress.

It finally wound on down to night, the last piece of pie went down Johnny’s gullet, and I headed back to my book and my bed, pretty pleased with the way the day had turned out.

Maybe I’m not as bright as a teacher ought to be, because it wasn’t until I was drifting off to sleep that it occurred to me to wonder if all those folks stopping in had been such happenstance after all. Maybe it had been some Christmas magic, conjured up by some folks who wanted me to think maybe I had a family after all.

Maybe Tom had even let me win those chess games.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Wishing Everyone. . .


  The Joyous midwinter celebration of your choice

--From all of us in Skunk Corners.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: Homer Price

Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey, c. 1943, 160 p., middle-grade fiction

I don't usually review books that are 70 years old, but as I was comparing my own book to it, I realized that few kids today may know about Homer.  A check of the library records for our county confirm that, while the book is available in most of the branches, it only goes out about once a year.  And that's a shame, because not only are the stories delightful and fun (as well as slightly absurd. . . if you have read The Ninja Librarian, you see where I'm coming from. . . ) but they are illustrated in the same style as his classic picture books (Make Way for Ducklings, One Morning in Maine, etc.), which means they are worthwhile just for the pictures.

Each of the six chapters is a free-standing story of some event in the life of Homer Price and his little town of Centerburg.  In the first, Homer deals with a foursome of robbers by a creative trick and with a little help from his friends.  As in each successive chapter, the set-up is engaging, and the story ends with a twist that shows some real creative problem-solving on Homer's part.

[I hadn't read the book for years until I picked it up last month, looking for something soothing.  I was surprised to find the degree to which McCloskey's approach paralleled my own in the NL.  Clearly early childhood influences are strong!]

In each story, underlying the elements of silliness and adventure that appeal to the children, there is a certain amount of social commentary that can appeal to the adult reader, particularly with reference to modern "progress."  If only McCloskey had known!

The six chapters are:
The Case of the Sensational Scent
The Case of the Cosmic Comic
The Doughnuts
Mystery Yarn
Nothing New Under the Sun (Hardly)
Wheels of Progress

If you or your children haven't read this, get a copy now!  While you're at it, pick up the sequel, Centerburg Tales.

Five stars.  I can't think what I'd improve.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Who are you like?

I had intended today to post a discussion of editing one's work (since I'm busy procrastinating on just that task), but a post on Rachel Abbott's blog about writing blurbs got me thinking.  Not just thinking that there's one more thing I should probably revise (again), but about one particular bit that hit a nerve.

Guest blogger Mark Edwards, writing about writing blurbs, encourages us to use the names of known authors (he calls it namechecking).  You know the thing: "if so-and-so wrote such-and-such. . . ".  Now, I can certainly see the power of this in advertising.  Associating your unknown name and book with a name everyone (or everyone interested in your genre) will recognize is a great way to get some attention, maybe draw in some readers.

And yet.  I have seen this done so much, and so clumsily.  "This book has been compared to 'Harry Potter' and 'The Lord of the Rings'!"  "It's like Steinbeck and Shakespeare met for a few drinks and wrote a novel together!"  Things that sound both boastful and stupid.  I guess if the reviewer for the NYT compares your book (in a positive way) to the work of a best-selling author, you should grab hold and go with that--and give the attribution and the link.  But if your Mom says "oh, honey, you write even better than Danielle Steele" (NB: my mother doesn't read Danielle Steele and would never say such an insulting thing to me, especially as I don't write romances), you might want to rethink the comparison.

Of course, everyone wants to know what your book is like, and comparing it to something they know is the fast and easy way to get there.  But it's a fine line between useful and reasonable name-dropping and something that sounds like a playground boast. 

So here's what I think: I have no idea where the balance lies.

My inclination is to use words like "reminiscent of" and "in the spirit of" or even "inspired by the likes of."  Actually, so far my inclination has been to avoid any such comparisons.  But now I'm thinking about it, and thinking about a little revision of my blurbs to include some.

"The Ninja Librarian is a tall tale in the (slightly outrageous) spirit of Mark Twain and Robert McCloskey's Homer Price."  (This might at least attract the attention of the parents and grandparents of my juvenile readers, though I'm not sure how many 4th graders will recognize either name, more's the pity).  Or maybe "Hank the Cowdog would feel right at home in Skunk Corners."  (Adult readers without children may, in their turn, need to look up who Hank is.  Great fun for family read-alouds.  Sort of like the NL.  Check it out).

Is that too weird?

What do you think about "namechecking" in blurbs by unknown authors?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: The Winged Watchman

The Winged Watchman, by Hilda van Stockum, 1962.  Juvenile Historical Fiction.

Not long ago a friend who teaches grade school tipped me off to a grand book, called 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.  I've been happily browsing the sections for kids about age 8 and up (juvvy fiction, not picture books or easy-readers; this is the stuff I like).  Not surprisingly, especially given how small our library was when I was actually a child, I've missed a lot of the books (even the ones that were written before I allegedly grew up, and many post-date my gradeschool years, which were a lot longer ago than I think).

The Winged Watchman is one of those I missed along the way.  Set in Holland during WWII, it is the story of the Verhagen family, who live in and tend a windmill--the Winged Watchman.  As a note, it was a bit before I processed the obvious (well, maybe not!) fact that these windmills were not for grinding flour or to pump up water (as windmills in the American West are), but to pump the water out of the polders, the stretches of farmland that lie below sea level.

So there was a fair bit of history and lore to learn, but never to the detriment of the story.  And the story is that of the Dutch Resistance, of everyday people who did what needed doing to save a downed aviator or hide a Resistance fighter or a Jewish child, working against the German occupiers without letting on that they were.

The Verhagens are just such people.  Not giant heroes, but little ones, people who shared what they had, and took their chances with the Germans.  We follow them through the last year of the war, when things are at their worst, and their most exciting.  Events move along at a brisk clip, keeping the reader engaged, with just enough tension to make it exciting.  The story is told from the perspective  of the two sons of the family, primarily Joris, who is 10, but also Dirk Jan who at 14 plays a more active and dangerous role.

And how is it to read?  Being written in 1962, certain aspects of the book are dated, though the language and style are modern enough (though I suspect a writer tackling the scene in 2012 would make life and death seem more real to the reader).  I hit a couple of brief rough patches where religious sentiments were presented in a manner that felt somewhat preachy, but they quickly passed, and the overall tone was acceptable to people of any or no faith.  That sense was a bit dampened by the ending, where the author makes it clear she believes that religion--Christian or otherwise--is a powerful support in difficult times, as it undoubtedly is for those who believe.  To me, it made the ending feel a little preachy, not in keeping with the adventure story, but it by no means ruined the book.

I am not sure that, aside from the historical context, I would consider this a "must read," but The Winged Watchman was a worthwhile read, and kept my attention from start to end with no desire to wander off.  Three and a half stars.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Short Story--An Elegant Apocalypse

  Sunrise on Planet X-4732B is one of the most stunning and beautiful events in the Universe.  This is a well-established fact, determined by a complex algorithm developed by the Ultra-Computer housed on the 4th Moon of Planet G-7512, known to locals as Home.  The lunar location was originally meant to isolate it and prevent the most powerful computer in the universe from running amok.
  Naturally, by the time the Ultra-Computer was completed, there were six more computers being built on six asteroids, each one an order of magnitude more powerful than the Ultra.  That is not germane to the issue, but does explain why the Ultra was free to spend its time determining the nature and location of the most stunningly beautiful sights in the universe.
  So the morning of the last day of the world began with the last most beautiful sunrise.  If anything, the approach of the disaster gave the sunrise a more vivid coloration.  It was not, however, beautiful in the eyes of the beholder.  There were no beholders, for the same reason that X-4732B has no local name: there are no higher order inhabitants on X-4732B.  Lower-order organisms abound, or did before the world ended, but they had failed to evolve to create pollution, disrupt the perfect order of the landscape, or anticipate the apocalypse.
  The absence of human or human-like observers is, of course, central to the elegance of the X-4732B apocalypse (for every apocalypse is local, until the final event, the end of the universe so eloquently documented by Douglas Adams).  Besides a failure to muck up the view, lower-order organisms tend to lack the necessary glands to panic.  Had the planet evolved so much as a muskrat, the day would have taken a different turn, and the Ultra Computer would have had to recalculate the event’s standing in its ranking of events approaching perfection.
  Naturally, just when it seemed safe to assume that the apocalypse would proceed with dignity and quiet splendor, everything changed.  A lone, tiny, and definitely lost space capsule spiraled down through the oddly Earth-like atmosphere.
  In the best of all possible worlds, the man who emerged, dazed, from the erring and now disabled spacecraft would have been Arthur Dent.
  It wasn’t.
  His name was Johnson Bob, and he’d been in transit between two planets far from X-4732B when his flight path took him a hair too close to a concert by the intergalactic band Disaster Area.  The cosmic disruption of the loudest band in the universe had put an end to his tedious business trip and landed Johnson on X-4732B in time to witness the end of that world, and potentially to disrupt its tranquil order.
  The event was saved from the contamination of panic, despite the intrusion of a more-or-less higher life form, by the simple fact that Johnson Bob never left his ship.  He was sleeping off the disconcerting effects of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster he’d had in the space port bar before leaving, a task that requires the full concentration of all bodily forces for a full day.  In fact, in an act of incredible bravado, or idiocy, he had consumed two of the Gargle Blasters, and would be fortunate to wake up at all.
  Johnson Bob therefore slept through the end of the world.  He failed to observe as the sky turned from its usual chartreuse to an odd shade of puce and finally a perfect shade of red-orange.  Nor was he aware when the atmosphere boiled away, as his ship maintained the ideal balance of gasses for the continuation of human life.
  Johnson Bob likewise missed the exquisite moment when all factors coalesced into the perfect, nearly silent yet symphonic finality.  It was this perfect coordination of elements that led the Ultra Computer to designate the X-4732B Apocalypse as the most elegant apocalypse of all time.
Millennia of constipated volcanism beneath the immense chain of volcanoes that ringed the planet burst through the plug in every peak simultaneously, exactly at the instant the asteroid that had boiled away the atmosphere struck precisely at the southern pole, and the sun went nova at the same moment.
  Johnson Bob should have been boiled away with the atmosphere, of course, but the Ultra Computer considered the final touch that perfected the X-4732B Apocalypse to be the manner in which the volcanic cataclysm ejected the one bit of alien matter from the planet in time to make it a purely local event. When Johnson Bob eventually awoke, he had a nasty hangover but no awareness of where he’d been or what he’d done.  The blast had flung him back onto his orignal trajectory, and he landed without incident and went to the nearest bar for another Gargle-Blaster, in hopes of clearing his head.
To a human observer, the tiny space capsule as it exited would have looked like a watermelon pip spat contemptuously at the remainder of the universe as the planet exploded into a nearly infinite number of identical fragments.
  But of course since Johnson Bob was unconscious the whole time, there was no human, or even sentient, observer.  That, the computer decided as the final rays of the perfectly symmetrical pattern of dissolution faded into empty space, was perhaps the most elegant feature.  Perfection could only unfold unobserved.

With reverent apologies to Douglas Adams

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Drowning in words

Dorothy Sayers said it, and I heartily agree: "The rereading of one's own works is usually a dismal matter" (Gaudy Night).  Even the bits that you can see are really pretty good have a great deal less shine to them than they did when they were new.

And why, you ask, this spirit of disheartened eloquence?  Because, like thousands who "won" NaNoWriMo, I am struggling with the revision of a novel that isn't quite there yet.  Unlike the NaNers, mine isn't fresh, but rather a book abandoned about five years back when I couldn't interest an agent in it.  Now, it's better than five-year-old fish--the book doesn't stink--but five years is long enough to let me see it as an editor might, which is rather harsher than the casual reader, I suspect.

Thus the "dismal matter."  But here's the thing: if I don't push through the dismalness (did I just make that word up?  The spell-checker thinks so), my book will never be more than mediocre.  So I'm rereading, outlining, making notes of what works and what doesn't, all preparatory to heavily revising a manuscript that I have already revised two or three times.  And, of course, getting some distance and reading it like an editor will make for a better book.

Does this make me happy?  Frankly, no.  This is the work side of writing, and not much fun. Oh, there are occasions when the realization that you've figured out how to make something that was just okay into something good is as exciting as was composing the crappy first draft.  But most of the time, it hurts a little.  "Dang," you think.  "I loved that scene.  But it really doesn't work.  Not unless I figure out a way to get the dog out of there, and I already made such a big deal about the dog never leaving the girl's side."  So out goes the scene.  Or days are spent in dealing with the dog, only to decide that your changes ruin something else, and the scene gets the chuck after all. (I made that up, so when the book comes out, please don't go looking for a girl and a dog and writing me snippy letters when you can't find them.)

This painful reality explains the sudden burst of short-story writing I've indulged in.  I can only edit for so long before I need a creative booster shot, and have to write something.  So, coming up next week: "An Elegant Apocalypse," just in time for the end of the world on December 21st.  You know, just in case.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Free Story!

I'm moving a little slowly, but picked up at last on a challenge put out by fellow-lunatic, I mean writer, Gus Sanchez back in September.

Now that I'm waiting on feedback on the Ninja Librarian, I thought I'd keep my chops in shape with some short stories, and a writing prompt is a nice starter.  So I followed Gus's link to and clicked the random phrase generator until I got something I liked (I did notice a certain tendency to reuse a few phrases.  Lots of stories about avoiding arguments!).  I settled on the prompt,
The veteran kindergartener threw a feather within the space ship to avoid the argument.

Here's my story:

Feathers in Space 

"Class! Class!  Please line up for roll-call!"  The teacher sounded weary, even at the start of the day, as all adults did in the gravitational sector of the ship.  Children were allowed to spend at most two hours a day in zero G, but to save power--the artificial gravity field took a lot of power--most of the ship had little or no gravity, and adults spent little time under gravitational pull.  So even the teacher, who was in the Field more than most, moved and spoke slowly and with fatigue.

Max knew that.  He'd been in he kindergarten class for as long as he could remember--at least two sets of children had come and gone while he stayed on.  He couldn't believe that only he had figured out that graduating from kindergarten was for chumps.  He'd talked to older kids--they could have been his brothers; who knew?  No one knew their family on the ship.  Families were a luxury, like gravity.  Everything was communal, and the population was strictly managed to maintain the exact number of inhabitants desired.

Anyway, those older kids had told him the sad truth: after kindergarten there was no more nap time, which was a good thing, but there were no more snacks, either.  And you had to learn strange things called grammar and algebra, and the history of the Earth, which seemed stupid even to a little kid.

Earth might as well be a myth, for all the good it would do them.  The colony ship was never going back, and wherever they were going, it would be different.  Even the youngest kindergarteners, who were a lot younger than Max, could figure that out.  Besides, the teen who had taught him the skills needed to survive in the Ship said that they wouldn't even get there in Max's lifetime.  He would spend his life on the Ship, which was fine with Max.

So Max decided early on that he'd just stay in kindergarten, with the toys and snacks.  The teachers never seemed to notice--they had to rotate teachers in and out every few weeks.  Max thought it was because the gravity took such a toll on them.  Or maybe it was the children.  Karl, his teenaged friend, said it was so that all the adults could spend enough time in the gravity field to stay healthy.  The actual teaching was done by computers, anyway, so the teacher didn't matter much.

Whatever.  The rotating teachers meant that no one really kept track of things.  Including Max.

He was starting to get taller, though, and soon someone was going to ask the question he didn't want to answer: how old was he, anyway?

In fact, the teacher, having gotten them all to  line up--the last teacher had insisted they sit in their desk-pods for roll, so it was a change and took them by surprise--was calling down the list of names.  Of their full names, which gave Max a jolt.

"Suzy TenSevenTwelve.  Johann FourTwentytwoTwelve."  Since no one knew his--or her, needless to say--parents, children were surnamed by their hatchdate.  First names came from a random name generator in the Ship's computer.  Later, they would get surnames to match their work specialties.

"Maxwell SevenForuteenTen."  The teacher halted.  She looked around for the child who matched the name.  "Maxwell?  Is this correct?  Are you a Ten child?

Max pretended he didn't know who she was talking to.  It didn't work.  He stood a head taller than any other child in the class.

"Maxwell," the teacher asked, confused but trying to be kind.  "Have you had a problem with kindergarten?"

Max shook his head.  No, he had no problem with kindergarten at all.  That was why he was staying.  But that didn't seem to be what the woman meant.

"It looks as though they haven't moved you on to first grade.  Or," she looked at him dubiously, "have they misprinted your hatchdate?"

Max didn't like the direction this was taking.  Desperately, he looked around for a distraction.  Suzy was playing with a large feather, collected from some bird in the farm area--another place where they had to keep the gravitational field on.  Max reached over, snatched the feather, and threw it toward Rommel.  It wasn't much of a missile, but Rommel could always be counted on to raise a distracting fuss.

Suzy yelled, but the feather never reached Rommel.  Caught by the steady suction from the air duct, it moved further upward, and disappeared into the opening, where there should have been a grate.  That morning, there wasn't.

As everyone stared at the place where the feather no longer drifted, an alarm began to sound.

Max had a very bad feeling about this.  He'd been in kindergarten along enough to know.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Review: The Bartender's Tale

The Bartender's Tale, by Ivan Doig.  Fiction; coming-of-age novel for adults.

I've reviewed Doig's work before, and confessed that I consider him to be one of the best.  I have always focused on Mr. Doig's use of language--which remains masterful.  But this book struck me, as well, with his ability to create twists of events which strike the reader, as they do the characters, as both utterly unexpected and yet somehow inevitable.  As I read, I think I see the unraveling coming from far back on the left, yet when it arrives it is sudden and around the corner on the right.  In fact, early on I thought Doig was going to disappoint me with a book that was too inevitable.

The Bartender's Tale, like many of Doig's books, is the first-person narrative of an adult recalling the pivotal time of his childhood--in this case, the summer when Rusty Harry, son of the legendary owner of the Medicine Wheel, the best bar in Montana, or certainly in Gros Ventre, is twelve.  The year is 1960 (a year which I am forced, however reluctantly, to admit makes this an historical novel), though 1960 in Gros Ventre, Montana, looks little like 1960 in New York or San Francisco.  Or even, as Rusty's new-found 21-year-old half-sister finds, like Reno.  The hippie era has not reached Montana.

Rusty and his father have worked out their own way of living from the time Rusty was six, and Tom Harry came and collected him from the aunt who had been raising him (in Phoenix; and the one really hard thing for me was figuring her as Tom's sister.  But there might be those who look at my brothers and me and wonder if we are really kin.  Lives take different tracks by middle age).  But into their peaceful existence come no end of disruptions: a friend for Rusty, a collector of "lost voices" from the Smithsonian, and above all a never-known daughter for Tom.

How it all works out, and Rusty and his father manage to come out sane, alive, and mostly on an even keel, is the result of the quiet brilliance of Doig's plotting.  That I can't pass the halfway point without becoming hopelessly hooked and unable to stop reading is the result of his even more brilliant twists of the language.

Del Robertson comes from the Smithsonian to try to capture the language of rural Montana before it is lost.  Ivan Doig has done the job for him, smoothly, convincingly, and without apparent effort.  I never know when I finish one of his books if I should be inspired to be a better writer, or should quietly pack away my pens, because I can never equal his mastery.

I found The Bartender's Tale excellent reading, but I'm in a dilemma--I didn't think it was quite as good as The Whistling Season.  That should mean a lower rating, but I think it still deserves five stars.  Call it 4.5, though it might be more reasonable to up WS to 5.5 and leave this its five stars.