Sunday, May 25, 2008

Me, on a Boat

Current Reading: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Inspirational Quote: "There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges." -- Earnest Hemingway

The Ulysses of legend was not just a commander of men, but of ships as well. It is one of many things he and I do NOT have in common. This was originally written almost a decade ago. My sailing skills have not improved.

So, my first sailing lesson was last night.

Actually, it wasn't a sailing lesson. It was a swimming lesson with a 12-foot aluminum life preserver.

I had been planning on sailing with a fellow from work, but due to the number of people vs the number of boats, we were separated and I got to sail with an older couple instead. They didn't know how to sail. I didn't know how to sail. Apparently, the instructors figured that was qualification enough because they assigned us to a boat and pushed us out into the water without so much as a word about how to sail. Oh, we were told what to do (ie: sail around the buoys), but not HOW (ie: what the heck do you do with that bloody great sheet-and-clothesline array sticking up out of the center of the boat?).

The evening's exercise was to sail around for a while. One by one, they'd call on us and get us to capsize the boat so we could practice getting it upright and sailable again. Well, that was the plan, anyway.

In fact, what happened in our boat was this: we cast off and floated a little way into the harbour while frantically trying to figure out what all the ropes and pulleys had to do with our sails. At one point, we discovered that if you pull one rope, the front sail catches the wind. If you pull another, the main sail catches the wind. If you pull both, both sails catch the wind, your boat almost tips over and you go screaming across the harbour with an instructor in a rubber dingy chasing you and yelling "Turn! Turn!"

Actually, he said a bunch of other things too, but "Turn" was the only one I understood, and I really didn't have time to hunt up a Nautical-to-English dictionary. I think he also said, "Let out the sails!" but about the time that I figured out that they weren't really feeling particularly shut-in, we ran into the breakwall around the harbour. The owner of that particular stretch of wall didn't seem too ruffled by having Gilligan and crew show up on her lawn, but her pit bull took a rather dim view of the whole thing.

"Just learning, are we?" she said, and for the life of me, I couldn't think of any more smart-ass an answer to such a painfully obvious question except, "Yes."
What can I say? I was a little rattled by being given care and control of a lethal weapon disguised as a stately watercraft and really wasn't at my best.

The instructor pulled us out into the harbor again and let us go. Again we tried something (everything) with the ropes and sails. We set our sails and positioned our tiller for a bold move up the harbour channel that led out into the open bay.

The boat responded by promptly falling over.

Now in theory, when the boat falls over, the skipper (the one who had been steering and who's fault it probably was that the bloody boat fell over in the first place) or the heaviest person formerly in the boat, moves to the underside of the boat and grabs ahold of the keel to pull it down and balance the mast in order to keep the boat from rolling right over on its back (called "turtling," a fine example of which was shown off by a group of my friends later in the evening). Meanwhile, the other occupants swim to the front of the boat and try to maneuver it so that it's pointing into the wind. Once it's pointed in the right direction, the skipper actually climbs onto the keel blade and uses their weight to counterbalance the sail and pull the boat upright again.

In practice, I grabbed onto the tiller (which promptly fell off and tried to float away), the other passenger tried to head the boat into the wind but got their directions mixed up and tried to turn us sideways instead. Meanwhile, our skipper had kept the boat from turtling, but couldn't lift himself onto the keel blade. I had to do it instead, and was quite surprised when my meager weight was enough to pull the mast out of the water. Unfortunately, that made me the first into the boat, and the guy who has to bail until there's enough water back in the bay that the boat can support the remaining crew. It took about 10 minutes of serious water-shovelling and at the end of it my arms were ready to fall off.

The instructors, who had been watching this whole comedy and shouting instructions so we could understand them (words of one syllable), shook their heads and towed us out into the bay.

I was feeling pretty good. "Capsize the boat tonight," they told us, and we'd done it. That we had done it while still in the harbour 5 minutes after leaving the dock, just proved that we should have been in the advanced class since we were so far ahead of everyone else.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

There's a Draft in Here. And over here. And on top of here. . . Part the First

Current Reading: The Android's Dream, by John Scalzi

Inspirational Quote: "A writer must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid. " -- William Faulkner

An old joke:
Inexperienced Writer: How many drafts do I need?
Experienced Writer: All of them.

Writing a first draft is hard. The only advice I've heard that makes sense to me is "Put your head down and charge." I try to ignore critical thoughts. I try to ignore my doubts about the story and my own ability to tell it. I try to just write. It's not easy. Some days every word that comes off my keyboard is wrong and I know it from the moment my fingers touch plastic. Getting through those days is a test of endurance, and every word is a struggle.

I write beginning to end. Some people write end to beginning, or somewhere-near-the_middle to somewhere-else-near-the-middle. I figure whatever gets you through the draft is all that matters.

I don't outline. I've tried it, and it just didn't work for me. I found myself thinking, "I've already written the story. Going back and filling in the details is going to be no fun."

All I want to do in the first draft is write the story. Sometimes I don't even know what the story is yet, but I put things down anyway. It's like walking through a dark room. I don't always know where the next step will take me. Sometimes I stub my toe on a chair leg, bang my shins on the coffee table and step on a building block my daughter neglected to put away after playtime... alright, I guess the metaphor doesn't hold up well when you run with it. The point is, I don't always know where I'm going. Oh, sure, I've got a vague idea in mind about the end, but sometimes even that turns out to be wrong.

There have been times when I've finished a particularly difficult scene, written the last line and realized that it was difficult because things didn't happen the way I wrote them. I've been fighting a subconscious conviction that there was another, better way to present things. Sometimes I go back, although I suspect that's counterproductive. I should just ignore it and write the scene again right after. That way, I can take advantage (cut and paste is a marvelous thing) of some of the work I've already done.

I try to get everything down, every scene, every event, every character, even if I don't know why some of them are there. Spelling and language are incidental. I don't go back. I force myself not to edit, not to engage the critical part of my brain because it might undermine what the creative part is trying to achieve.

I've just finished a short story that started as an image of a character in a situation which would normally be totally alien to him. Of course, that raises questions: who is he? Why is he there? How does he feel about things? What does he do? I work things out in words, in draft. I didn't know any of the answers. I threw in some funny dialog, and it was in there, buried in the humor, that the reason for the story surfaced. I finished the draft and set it aside in all its sprawling chaotic glory, ignoring the nagging urge to dive back in with this new motive in mind and rewrite.

Instead, I set it aside, and for six weeks I worked on my novel (which is in its second draft).

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Current Reading: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Inspirational Quote: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying." -- Woody Allen

I think I started writing one day in 1977. My brother had a friend who was into SF and comics. For reasons that are lost in time, he decided that he and I should do a comic together. Well, I drew a few things and showed him. He said I should stick to writing and he'd do the art. I didn't feel insulted. I felt it was an equitable division of labour. Of course, nothing came of such an ambitious project between two grade-schoolers, but I wrote anyway. I remember doing a piece for Language class that was part Tarzan, part Jungle Book. It's the first time I remember having fun with a story, or having someone read and praise it.
In May 1977, Star Wars opened here in Canada. I'd always been a Star Trek fan, and I loved reading SF and Fantasy (In 1974 I read a book about space pirates. It had a cool ship on the cover). One book I remember well from before '77 was Way Out, a collection of SF stories for younger readers including Teddi (Andre Norton) and The Lights of Mars (Raymond F. Jones). I read the stuff, and watched the stuff on TV. I built plastic model kits of the Eagle from Space 1999, the Enterprise and the Romulan Bird of Prey. I drew space ships and made little paper spaceship models. However, once I stepped into the theater and saw so much magic brought to life, I couldn't just mess with images of other people's worlds any more. I had to make my own. I wrote volume one of an epic space opera trilogy (ie: Star Wars rip-off).

Around the same time, another of my brother's friends (Jeez. Didn't I have any of my own?) began lending me books. His mom was a bibliophile who'd buy them by the box. I spent the summer of '79 reading and writing. The fellow who had suggested the comic book had moved away by then, but returned for a visit long enough to introduce me to Dungeons and Dragons. That did terrible, wonderful things to my imagination. After I read Tolkein in 79 and the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in '80, I wrote volume one of an epic fantasy trilogy. In '84, it was an epic hard SF novella that I saw as part of a series.
After that, well... I've never stopped writing. I've been forced to take breaks as family and employment make their weighty demands known, but I've never stopped. I have trunk-books (Stephen King's word, I think) and trunk-stories taking up space on my computer. I've also had a few short stories published (for money!) and although my output over the last few years has been pathetic, more is coming.

So, if you've read all this and you write more than just blogs or e-mails, how did you start?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

In The News

Current Reading: Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2008

Inspirational Quote: "I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can." -- Ernest Hemmingway

The caves at Lascaux, France are slowly being destroyed by bacteria, fungi and moisture. The caves are the first UNESCO world heritage site and home of the most beautiful and moving prehistoric cave paintings on the planet. They have been endangered largely through bureaucratic and political mismanagement. Contact the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux for more information and a chance to help.

For the first time in almost a decade, the NYT bestseller list is missing a Harry Potter book. Like them, hate them, or remain indifferent to them, they have had a considerable impact on modern culture.

Interesting things about this next one:
1) I haven't been able to find coverage in any of the major news providers, just an article here.
2) The remarks were made a month ago. What? Nobody noticed until now?

At a lecture to high-school students, Stephen King said, "If you can read you can walk into a job later on. If you don't, then you've got the Army, Iraq - I don't know." The army has responded: "America's Soldiers are proudly serving and fighting for us all. We can be proud of our Soldiers' selfless service, their skill and their ingenuity. They certainly are role models for every high-school student in America considering a noble career . . . and many book authors." While the Army's statement is unquestionably correct, I notice they didn't challenge King's assertion that although illiteracy will disqualify you from most jobs, the military is not one of them. I can draw many conclusions from this, some of them funny, most of them accurate, and none of them very kind.

Q: What's the difference between a nerd and a geek?

A: 2d6+3

(The funniest thing about this joke is knowing why it might be considered funny).

Monday, May 5, 2008

Book Report: Winter Tides by James P. Blaylock

Winter Tides is a weird ghost story in which the ghost (a psychotic little girl at the time of death) is not the primary villain. The ghost serves more as a plot catalyst and a common ground for the living characters in the story. It brings them together and sets various events in motion.

The strength of this book is the world and the characters. They are detailed and completely believable. Enough detail is given that I truly inhabited the Southern California of the book. I found the characters to be flawed and occasionally contradictory: very realistic. Even the true villain of the piece, a perverse megalomaniac with artistic pretensions, is believable. We see the world from his perspective through much of the story, and his actions (arson, home invasion and murder) make perfect sense within that frame of reference. It is interesting that the scariest thing about this ghost story is a man who appears normal and even charming.

A weakness, I think, is the plot. It's a slow build-up, a gathering of sinister elements. I was left wondering what the villain's motivation really was in the end, since the reason for his final actions was never clear to me. I also kept waiting for something big and supernatural to happen. Instead, after the climax, the ghost vanishes and I was left without a clear idea why.

I had some difficulty reading this book. I'm not a horror fan, and sometimes the urge to put it down was stronger than the urge to pick it up. Still, it was worth the read just to see how Blaylock brought his people to life, and he got me involved enough with the characters that I had to see how it ended. My wife, a Blaylock fan, tells me that this was her least favorite of his works. She recommends I read All the Bells on Earth, or The Last Coin to catch Blaylock in top form.

I intend to take her advice.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Place Your Bets

Current Reading: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Inspirational Quote: "If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." -- Kingsley Amis.

In this corner, J. K. Rowling, multi-billionaire author of the Harry Potter books.

In this corner, some guy named Steve VanderArk, rabid Harry Potter fan, trivia collector, and web master.

The backstory goes like this: Rowling writes some popular books. VanderArk builds a fan site "lexicon" that details everything that is known or speculated on by Potterphiles world wide. Rowling loves it right up until VanderArk decides to publish a paper version. Money becomes involved, and, as day follows night, so do lawyers.

Rowling sees it as appropriation of her work.

VanderArk sees it as homage du art.

The lawyers see it as a shower of money. Oh, and a chance to hammer out copyright rules in an internet world.

Some see it as a chance to define "publishing." Is it published if it's on the web? Traditional publishers believe that web published and "published" are two different things. If it doesn't have an ISBN, then it's not published. Publishers of web magazines, and web counterparts of print magazines respond, "What does that make our stuff, then?"

Here's a chance for the law to decide. Yes, it looks like a David and Goliath battle. Personally, I'm hoping for Goliath.

Why? Because of fan fiction. There's a lot of it out there. I don't write the stuff because I've got enough of my own worlds and characters to play with, but I respect those who do. I have no doubt that a 50K-word Firefly fan novel is just as difficult to write as a 50K-word original fiction. If you wrote it, bravo. If it's actually GOOD, wow.

What worries me is that the law might decide that VanderArk's work is an original creation, that a compendium of someone else's words is on a par with the work of art from which it draws.

I don't have any characters that are worth writing fan fiction about. However, if I did, and you wrote fan fiction based on my work, I'd still be behind you all the way.

Just don't try to get it published.

These are my characters. My world. Not yours. The book/television/movie/comic/puppet show was a labor of love for me, but more than that, I put myself out there. I approached an agent. I got rejected a horrible number of times. I got accepted somewhere, then waited forever until my agent snagged a publisher. Then I had to endure edits and marketing binges until finally, my world and characters showed up on your bookshelf.

I did that, not you.

I don't mind if you release your little homage on the web, where effort is minimal and rewards are intangible. However, if you take my world and my characters and you try to publish your story for compensation, then I'm going to come down on you so hard your teeth will rattle for days.

My world. My characters. I created them. I fought for them. Maybe, like Rowling, I skipped a few meals for them. Maybe you came up with the plot, but for all the rest of the hard stuff, you just read and borrowed. That's not enough to qualify you as a creator. That's not enough to qualify you to be rewarded for your effort with anything more than a smattering of applause.

In fact, your trying to profit from my work is an insult to me and to what I put myself through creating something worth imitating.

Don't you dare.

Now go write something. Make it original. Make it good. Become a creator instead of an imitator.