Friday, December 31, 2010

The last day of the year

Happy new year to me! Congratulations on successfully completing my Fulbright fellowship, for becoming part of the Romani research community, for some interesting teaching experiments, for actually working through the preliminaries to a novel and writing 150 pages. NaNoWriMo winner! And on Monday I get a hearing aid so perhaps trying to figure out what everyone around me is saying will require less energy in the new year.

But where am  I today on my writing project? I have completed a satisfactory draft of the four chapters, plus a good deal of a fifth, and of a prelude. I have a good but not completed idea of what this will all be about. Some of that develops in writing itself, some needs to be planned and considered ahead of time. I have some realistic and ambitious goals. My longer term goal is to complete the first draft of this volume of the three-volume novel by the beginning of the summer, at which point I will do a editorial but not comprehensive re-write. Instead I will commence on the second volume (Havel's Bridge) over the summer and hopefully be ready to write a major section for NaNoWriMo next year, while at the same time re-writing Bloem more thoroughly so as to cohere with its companion volume. I want Bloem to be in submittable manuscript form one year from today, with perhaps a couple hundred pages of Havel done too. I'm not looking to seek an agent or publication -- beside contests like Amazon -- until I have two complete volumes, and a good plan and beginning for the third. I have a job, so I can take the time necessary to do this correctly. My longest long-term goal is to sell this book and to eventually make some living out of writing. Unrealistic? No, not with persistence and vision.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The new season

The month-long writing marathon was very invigorating, though exhausting, and was perhaps the most important thing I've ever done as an aspiring novelist. That is, I wrote. I put other things aside, I made time when there was no time, I was not discouraged by the lack of a coherent plan,  I made stuff up as I went along, and I believe that my writing improved. I also demonstrated to myself that it was possible, even in what is probably the busiest month in the academic calendar, for me to write fiction.

Since then, though, it's been difficult to get back on the horse. I had all this other stuff I had to do, related to the paying job. There was some other stuff that I thought I ought to do, like work on research papers. And there was the fact that I had written myself off my map, literally. So, while I have put few words in the narrative down over the past three weeks, I have done some preliminary research that hopefully will allow the narrative to proceed in a good direction. Having read a lot of young adult fantasy/sci-fi novels recently, I know that there are underlying themes and motifs and mysteries to be revealed and problems to be solved and that the whole thing needs to hang together and make some sense. And a world with "magic" needs to a magical world, and the magic has a history.

Now I am ready to begin again. I have completed most of my necessary work, and with some sadness, crossed out plans to work on projects I in which I have invested a great deal of time and energy. You can't have it all.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Creating a magic system

There's magic of a sort in this book, but I haven't conceptualized in any detail how it works, or how it will contribute to the story. Right now, it has mostly been used sociologically, as a means of marking the one with magic.

Here's Stuart Jaffee from Magical worlds on magic systems as a way to develop characters.

"Think about how you build a character when you are doing the ground work before you write the tale.  Part of it is simply sitting back and letting your imagination play.  And part of it is asking questions.  How does this character feel about hard work or religion or putting herself in dangerous situations?  What does this character fear?  What’s this character’s favorite food or color or movie?  In fact, the majority of character building can be summed up as asking yourself questions.
Well, I’m sure you see where this is going — the same can be said for building a magic system.  The initial part is just letting your imagination go.  Let it play a game of “What if?” and see what happens.  But the second part is the crucial “asking questions” phase.  What does this magic look like?  Can anybody use it?  What is the cost of using it?  What are its limits?  Is it something people and/or animals are born with or is it something developed over time?  Do you have to go to school for it?  What are people’s attitudes towards the magic and those who wield it?  The more questions you ask, the better you will understand how the magic works."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Time for a little horror

I was thinking ahead to the next section, when Bloem is a captive of the New Order deep in the salt mine, because I hadn't given any thought to what she would be doing there, or why. So I've come up with the grisly idea of medical experience, a la Dr. Mengele, on Talented children and youth, to figure out how they work, or how to make more who will follow orders. Somehow, amber is involved. I see that I can buy amber necklaces guaranteed to drive away arthritis pain, and that amber has been a part of alternative medicine for millenia. Ibn Sina, in his Al-Qanun ti l-tibb identified amber (kahrubá in Arabic) as a magnetic substance useful in curing many diseases.

In 12th century Poland, amber was thought to be the most efficacious of medicinals. Here is a recipe for tincture to cure all that might ail you:

  • Crush 15 grams of amber chips in a mortar.
  • Add it to 250 ml of vodka.
  • Store the vodka for 10 days in a warm dark place. Be sure to shake it at least one a day.
  • After 10 days, more is better, the tincture is ready. You do not have to decant or filter it. You just pour off what you need. When it is almost all used, crush the amber again and start a new batch.

Here's a bottle of Dr Fenners Kidney & Backache Cure made from amber, produced in Fredonia, NY, from 1872-1898. It cost a dollar a bottle!
19th Century Amber  Dr Fenners Kidney & Backache Cure Bottle

Here's a bottle of Dr Fenners Kidney & Backache Cure made from amber, produced in Fredonia, NY, from 1872-1898. It cost a dollar a bottle!

According to the GemStoneDeva,

Amber (Chemical Composition: 75% C, 10% H, 15% O + S) cures and protects the bronchial tubes, helps the teething of babies. Against fears, phobias, depression, hysteria, asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough, infections, fevers, yellow fever and malaria. Strengthens teeth, stops bleeding, against rheumatism, laryngitis, fatigue, for a trouble free pregnancy, against shingles, intestinal problems, poisoning, good for bladder and heart, metabolism, spine and viral diseases. Amber prevents goitre because it stimulates the energy flow in the thyroid. Works fantastic against Graves' disease (formerly known as Basedow disease). Amber is a stone that attracts love. As an amulet Amber protects against negativity, sorcery and witchcraft. Amber has always been associated with witchcraft. Put a large piece of Amber on your altar to enhance your magic. This is also one of the reasons why many wiccans wear necklaces of Amber and Jet during rituals. Amber is used for all magical purposes.

Here's an amber mine in Kaliningrad:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


After the mad rush to 50,000 words in November, and the need to take care of some deferred business lately, and not nearly finished with that, I'm gearing up for the next phase. Last night I finished chapter 5, and I plan to finish chapters 6 and 7 (the whole Wedroniczki section) before school recommences. My hope is to have an entire first draft by the end of the second semester. Though that may depend on whether I take April to do Script Frenzy -- it would be a good way to jump-start that portion of my projected new career, and to get me going into the summer.

I have less then a complete plan for the rest of this section, though I must say that the plan I started with for the last section does not correspond to where things eventually went, in many cases. The general outline is for Bloem and Yuma and a couple of the male scouts and scout leader, to become involved in the smuggling of amber from Kaliningrad into Poland. Besides its value as a jewel, there must be some connection between amber and talents. The amber is going to the Agathi to enrich them, and allow further suppression of the resistance, and the Talented. There's some more to work out about this, but it sound potentially plausible. Perhaps the goal is for Solidarity to smuggle the amber in, for its own purposes, and Yuma is involved in this illegal trade through Kaliningrad. This leads to some kind of skirmish in which Bloem has to choose a side between her Wedroniczki colleagues and Yuma's smugglers. In the "battle" (details to be imagined, but it ought to have some coolness factor, Bloem must choose between the two. She chooses Yuma, allows herself to be arrested in place of Yuma, but is surprised when it is Pavel who takes her into custody. It is in this section that she experiences some kind of push-back to her powers, some force that can undo what she can do. The sense that she is chosen, for reasons as of yet unknown to her, to play a role, not yet known to her, becomes more pronounced.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What I wrote for NaNoWriMo

Progress has been made, no repatriation done! Here's most of the work to date: chapter 5 almost done. But now I need a new monthly goal.

Bloem in Flight 12-07-10

SO: this month, I'd like to finish chapter 5, complete chapter 6, and make a good start on chapter 7. This will require some bit of planning, though I never got to plan much last month and it was hardly missed.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Winner. Bloem in Flight -- 50,000 words, 5 chapters, 150 pages

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I'm not giving up, just repatriating

That's it. I'm not.

My new thought is to move it all to America and become an American writer with an American setting. We have lots of mountains, lots of cities, and it's a lot more accessible to me than Poland or Slovakia. Where could I put this story and retain some of its geographical essence. Originally, I was going to be right here in Wisconsin, and use the Great Lakes and bring Indians into the story. I could do all the research necessary for that in a car on weekends. The starting point is then Chicago, the two other endpoints are West Rock, WI (now that the Rock River has become nearly impassable from the east), and Traverse City, MI, home of cherries and salt. There's not much in the way of mountains, but there's plenty of wilderness in between, wolves, Indian Country, water, magic ...

My original title was Dazhiikewin.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Lately, every post here needs to read, "I'm still alive." As a writer, potentially. Notwithstanding the ravages of class projects to grade, academic papers that won't die, sinus infection, child-related events that must be attended.

But this potential "I" is still alive and perhaps a period of thriving is upon me. Even though it is undoubtedly a terrible idea, I intend to write my 50,000 words this November. Perhaps I will set a personal goal of 60,000 so that I might be permitted to fall short. As far as I can determine, only in young adult or juvenile fiction would 50,000 words count as a complete manuscript: let that be my guide. My copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is in the mail!

In the past few days I have despaired of being able to complete a book set more than fifty miles from Beloit, WI, because it seems that my ability to travel is so limited. But that is truly untrue and just signifies cowardice, indecision, and general pusillanimity. (That last word is hard to spell and hard to say.) In fact, I do have the resources to trip along the route of my heroes' journeys; all that is required is a bit of creative fiction about my intentions, or at least some minor concessions to academic pursuits in my pandering, and I can make at least one extended visit, and perhaps two shorter visits. I am drawing the line at a ten day faculty seminar because after that I would probably be inclined to hole up in a bar in Warsaw for a week. What I need is a plausible long-term project that never has to be finished ... Perhaps a history of the Gypsies in the Slovak lands. That would put me just in the right place and the project is potentially endless, and even possibly valuable.

But what shall I write for NaNoWiMo? Since I have done so little actual writing of prose so far, though a great deal of planning, almost nothing related to Karpatia is off-limits. I did want to include dogs, I decided that this week when I went to a Newfoundland pulling contest. The story I'm liking is Bloehm's, starting in the parking garage in Bratislava, transported to Poland, joined up to the Wedrowniczki as a scout, sees something she's not supposed to see, imprisoned in Weiliczka Salt mines, escapes with younger child and dog (Casimir), and begins the trek southward along the Salt Road back to Bratislava.  This story ends with their capture and "detention" at Spissky Hrad by the Rromii -- Bloehm does not let on that she is Rromii by adoption, if not appearance. The rule of the In-Between is that nobody leaves.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sex and romance

What I've learned most is that if I'm writing a young adult fantasy novel, these books are not relevant, because of their unrelenting dystopic perspectives, the third-person point of view, and the seemingly obligatory graphic sex scenes. The latest one -- which I put down after about 100 pages -- was Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand, which I'm sure many people liked a lot. In fact, there's a lot to like. But there's a lot not to care so much about either. First, there's the two or three male anti-heroes who are not really likeable. After 100 pages I didn't care one way of the other about them. And I gathered that they were the good guys, since their "nemesis" (and seducer) was a really unattractive character. The main main character, a Christian rock star, kept getting unsolicited blow jobs which had the effect of destroying his faith. The premise of the book was promising, and the "end of the world" as we know it was interesting. But the third person subjective viewpoint seems rather dusty and ponderous much of the time, more literary and polished and less stylized than many popular novels, but not so literary or imaginative to suggest "writing for writing's sake." One might predict that this middle ground would be a good place to tell a story from, but for this reader, I either wanted someone who moved things along like Elmore Leonard, or someone who can REALLY write. Ian MacDonald can really write, and River of Gods is for the most part a really fascinating read, but it never seems to decide whether it wants to be action-adventure, soft porn, of high theory sci fi. There's so many characters and such a great machinery of plot and idea behind the scenes to keep them converging ... I wondered if it was all at the expense of telling a story, and creating characters that were memorable. The Krishna Cop and his wife from the country, with her romance with her gardener around cricket, were quite memorable, but there's several others who got equal space on the page who I can hardly remember at all. I did like Tal, the transgendered character. And the world they all lived in seemed so totally unattractive in every way, just like Elizabeth Hand's world, and Paolo Baciagulpa's futuristic Bangkok. Aside from being sort of depressing, it doesn't seem like good futurism to predict that everything bad about our current world will persist, and nothing of the good.

So I dropped all that and this morning started reading Skybreaker by Keith Oppel (I read the first volume a couple years ago) which I guess is some sort of steampunk, as the main characters run around the world in zeppelin-like airships. There's romance between Matt and Kate that's always just at the brink of sex, there's high adventure, colorful characters, lots of great settings and gadgets, and the action is unrelenting. So it's probably completely unsuitable for a grown man, but I can't get enough, and this is exactly the kind of book I'd like to write. Maybe my narrators will be a little less pure-of-heart and sincere than Matt and Kate, but still the reader will like them, and I'll like them too. I get the feeling that many of these characters in the adult sci fi are unloved and unloveable. I think back to Ursula LeGuin's Ged, who she obviously adored, and to Sabriel and Lirael, who are sufficiently complex, but who you would never think of not rooting for. Harry Potter, well sometimes you'd just like to see him fall off the broom. The key might be the certainty of a happy ending, or heroism, or good prevailing over evil, all that stuff. Whereas, the best you can do with the adult novels is what happens at the end of Earth Abides, which is that the main character dies but with the knowledge that things go on.

So I will make you love both Havel and Bloehm.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'm not dead yet

That's all I have to say. That despite my silence in these here parts, I have not gone away and I have not succumbed. Though I am sore afflicted by those who would take my time, my mind -- and I am chief among the assailants, spawning new open commitments on the basis of a moment's thought, beating dead horses, bailing boats already sunk.

But I have been reading, and perhaps even reading what I ought to be reading! The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Earth abides, and now something called The Glimmering. And I made several pages of world-building kind of notes, based partly on what I've been reading. It seems that I am not taking the full apocalypse route, convenient as it is a premise, wiping the slate clean that way. Mine is more of a future history, or the post-decline, with local catastrophe, probably as similar to historical fiction as to science fiction. In the history of Europe and the world there have been many moments of collapse, abrupt change, but never has the effect or the locale been global. To imagine a completely global catastrophe is somewhat grandiose, I think. Even a nuclear war is more likely to produce great gaping holes in the world, and less than optimum conditions everywhere, but life for most will go on, however altered, and forgetfulness and the grind of evolution and planetary history will continue.

So my world offers me the opportunity to imagine a number of outcomes to global and more localized processes. The end of oil, it seems to me, will have its most traumatic effects at the centers of global commerce, and on the mechanisms of globalism itself, travel and telecommunication. Climactic and geological catastrophe are likely to have very different effects in different places, and these effects are likely to be transitory, in the big picture. So that, for instance, in my world a geological event (super-volcano or something) in the context of global warming, could produce floods and famine in one part of the earth, and drought in another, and intemperate temperance in others. My flood-prone Danubian world might go under water -- as it has before, and transportation to and communication with the Karpathian region could become greatly limited, but the weather could be different in a small degree that makes a big difference, and differences in terrain, fauna and flora, could also make for a very different development. At the same time, a small ice age in Poland might occur. (As a writer of fiction, there's only so much scientific credibility to be responsible for). There might also be overlaid some pestilence -- in fact, disease is a likely companion of flood and being cut off from medical supplies, particularly in an age of genetic and other kinds of experimentation. In a little story by Stephen King, the side-effects of a "calmative" turns out to be senility, and when applied globally, results in the stupidification and disappearance of humans. In order to account for the hostility toward the Misabled, we only need to make a connection between pharmaceutical and genetic innovations that resulted in both misability and some kind of plague, or some of the misabled themselves became culpable in producing the plague, but poisoning the water system or engaging in biological terrorism or something like that.

This last idea I like and will incorporate.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Complexity of adult and young adult language

Or it is the difference between the first person and the third person? Just finished Canticle by Ken Scholes which is third person adult and have now started reading Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, first person young adult. Two of the six or eight main characters of Canticle are young adults, and the rest of adult adults. Those parts that are about the two young adult characters -- Neb and Winters -- would be very much at home in a young adult novel. In fact, I often wished the novel were just about them. The third-person limited POV was not so far from first person, though it allows for a more expansive, elaborate narrative voice than would have been the case with a first person narrative. Carrie Ryan's narrator (Mary) tells her story in much more simple, though still subtly complex, poetic language. There seems to be no particular reason why the first person young adult narrator cannot feature in an adult book: I'm sure I could find many examples. All of my big three of YA fantasy novels -- LOTR, His Dark Materials, and HP -- have a subjective third person pov, though Pulliam stays pretty close to his two young protagonists. Mrs. Coulter's behaviors and actions are seen only through Lyra. LOTR is not a young adult novel at all, it's just a favorite of many young adults. Does that make it a young adult novel?

For my own little project, I've chose alternating first person, though I may use a subjective third person in the last volume. The language of my characters must be different, and I can see no reason why these characters can't make careful observations or use language in inventive ways. Who would want to read it if they didn't?

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Bloehm in flight

I wrote the first page of the part of the book about Bloehm and the words just flowed, and a voice was created. It's important I think that I work on the two narrative simultaneously because it's essential that I make their voices and viewpoints distinctive, and that I coordinate the action. Bloehm and Havel share the curse of being Misabled: he can teleport others, and perhaps himself, she can fly, though neither knows the extent of their ability or how to exercise it at the beginning. It is thus potentially dangerous to themselves and others. As Misabled, they are subject to apprehension by the Bounty Hunters (Polyovniky). What I hope is that the juxtaposition/alternation of these two converging narratives will provide impetus for the story, keep the "romance" alive even during the long separation of the characters, and also provide some suspense because each narrative can be left "on the brink" to pick up the other. The first section of Havel's Bridge leaves him on the river, nearly in the clutches of the Polyovniky. The story then moves to Bloem, and her first section leaves her also apprehended by authority figures. I've a good deal more to do to fill out the story for that one: now I have only a shape. Given my own anti-authority bent, it is probably inevitable that my main characters will find themselves in conflict with the powers-that-be. I want to have some parallelism between the two stories, but I will try to avoid mirror images.

The process of writing -- aside from its vulnerability to being pre-empted by work and other stuff, like our taxes -- jumps for me from one things to another. I am finding it very important to write the actual prose before all the world-building and planning is done, but then to stop the writing to resume world-building and planning. When just writing, I imagine a world more fully that when I focus on the task of just imagining a world, or a character. But then, I find myself in corners and not quite knowing where I am going, so it's necessary to go back to laying foundations and roughing out some walls and doors and windows.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Welcome back!

School started, my health went to hell, and I stopped working on my writing project. Go figure.

But I have evened the keel somewhat with respect to my professional work, and now find that I have my Tuesday mostly free to write. This requires much more discipline about my time than I am used to exercising. Now I must get all, or almost all, my work for Wednesday done on Monday. It also means consciously not making work for myself in my classes. Today I am also going to send a story off to a magazine, because I must start thinking of myself as a writer, not just a college professor with a hobby. It is similar to convincing my student teachers to stop thinking of themselves as students, without any real responsibilities) and start thinking of themselves as teachers, with real responsibilities.

I want to write about what I have learned from reading Ken Scholes' Lamentation, and now, Canticle. First, Scholes sticks to the Vonnegut principle of offering only sentences that advance the action or reveal character. In fact, I think he follows nearly all the rules pretty faithfully, except that he keeps a lot of information from the characters and from the readers, which mystery is what gives the story its its impetus. There are a lot of major characters, and you can root for just about all of them, and those who are not attractive are always interesting. There are a few characters, particularly the secondary bad guys who are a bit cartoonish -- their actions are very important but they are not perhaps well-enough developed to squeeze the most out of their involvement. Sethbert, a man without good qualities, could have been made less odious and more complex to the benefit of the story. But there are a whole bunch of other interesting and engaging characters. The book is written in consistent third person, with constant switches between focus on the five or six main characters; occasionally I found myself wishing for a little less back and forth, but the changes from character to character (and place to place) serves as a major way of moving the story forward. The world and its history are very fully imagined -- at heart, this is in the tradition of the post-apocalyptic, though the apocalypse happened a long time from the present action -- and there is a great combination of magic, old-fashioned Medieval world, and technology that does not actually belong to the world. There is also an undercurrent of philosophical/religious speculation that makes it all seem relevant, juxtaposed to action, sex, intrigue, etc. For me, the most interesting characters are the two teenagers, Neb and Winters, who I believe will turn out to be the central characters as I get closer to the end. This brings me to ask who this book is actually for, or what fantasy/sci-fi readers are. The presence of these two young people at the center of the narrative, plus the magic and the steampunk technology, marks the book as interesting for a young adult audience (which includes a lot of grownups who like happy endings), and there is not so much adult material to turn anyone away or to make it inappropriate for a younger reader. In this way, I am reminded of Ursula LeGuin and Philip Pullman.

For me, this serves as a reminder that I can generally think of my project as "young adult" but not write down in any way. The sort of violence, sexuality, and philosophical gravity of some of the science fiction books I've read recently is not what I want to write anyway, though I like reading it well enough. In the end, I'm probably more of a PG-13 kind of guy, doing my best to avoid reality not to make it more intense or unpleasant than it already is. But for my narrative, this means that I do not need to shy away from developing full adult characters, evoking "big ideas," or a creative and expansive use of language. Since I have chosen one very typically young adult tool, the first-person narrative, rather than the third-person which seems dominant in so-called adult fantasy/sci-fi, the scope of my narrative is limited by the identity of my narrator, in this case, adolescents. But adolescents have more vivid ideas and feelings than they are represented as having in most third-person adult narratives, where they tend to be represented as somewhat more innocent and wondrous than the adult characters. I may have to read some more non-fantasy young adult fiction to remind myself of the range of personality and experience I might allow myself. Much wider than maybe I'm imagining.

In any case, today there will be words on the page. And a map too, because every good fantasy book has a map.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The beginning of the work year

With being sick and the beginning of the teaching year, my resolution to write every day has gone wanting. I must be patient with myself, and make sure that next week when things are a little more regular that I have organized my time so that I can do some writing. Actually, I have put some more words on the page for the beginning chapters. And in doing so, and starting Ken Scholes' Lamentation, I've gained some insight into how this process is going to work.

First, I'm really out of practice and just turning out quality sentences that move the story along. Or perhaps it's just that I am overly concerned with each word, and each sentence, because the going is slow. I believe part of this is not being sure what the first chapter is supposed to do, even though I have outlined it pretty thoroughly. I am happy with the words I've put down so far, but I'd like to see them appearing more rapidly! First, I had started with this idea that I could write what was basically a short story as the first chapter, but as I've gotten through the first ten or so pages I realize this is a bad idea, because a short story does not carry the burden of building a world in which the succeeding action will take place. Using a first-person narrative, and staying true to the voice -- I don't like those narratives where the speaker breaks away from the story at hand, the present, to provide historical background or social analysis. Maybe that works when the speaker is an erudite adult with an interest in theory, but not when the speaker is a sixteen year-old outcast with minimal education and a lot of minute-to-minute issues to deal with. Whatever details are provided must move the story forward, but there must be enough of them to convey the shape and sound and smell of the world in which he lives.

In Lamentation, which is growing on me with each chapter, the pov is third-person omniscient, or rather, there are several main characters, with different chapters focusing on their actions and perceptions. In each case, the third-person narrator knows what the main character knows and sees and thinks: through this mechanism, a great deal of detail about the fantasy worlds in which the characters live is revealed in a reasonable unobtrusive way. The different characters have access to very different kinds of information. Perhaps as the intertwined narratives continue, there will be less need to provide background information. Another things I generally don't like in fiction of any kind is the sort of  imbalance of popular movies, where there's a lot of meditation and conversation for about half or two-thirds of the book/film, and then someone turns up the speed, like we used to listen to the Allman Bros. at 45, and the last couple chapters proceed like a car crash. It's sort of like bad sex. A good amount of foreplay, and then a rush to climax. A different way to say that is that I prefer a pace that is more even, or variegated according to the perception of time, with some effort to slow things down when they threaten to run away, or to speed things up when the breath nearly ceases.

I also in this time of not actually writing as much as I would like came up with some more of the plot motivation, in thinking about the world at the beginning. In this world (Bratislava), the waters of a great flood have receded considerably, but there is a reduced population due to a pestilence that either preceded or accompanied the disaster of the flood. Let's imagine rather than a doomsayer's litany of the bad things that are destined to happen, more of a series of unfortunate events, in the context of peak oil et al. So as society and political structures begin to unravel relative to, say, the economics of energy -- e.g. the EU comes apart, communist parties take control of some governments, some ethnically compromised nations split or go to war with themselves. Maybe even Russian becomes the lingua franca on the region. Then, in a somewhat unrelated way, there is a climactic or geological event, like the explosion of the Yellowstone volcano, that disrupts the climate, and in the aftermath, a very ordinary old-fashioned illness like small pox or something descends on what's left of the population, a plague. As the people move back into the city and re-establish the rudiments of civil society, an economy, and government, there is a prohibition enacted against what are called the Magiks, due to the dubious relation between this group of individuals with strange abilities and the class of bio-scientists who are believed to have made the errors that led to the downfall of the previous order. Our two main characters, both possessed of less than well-controlled or even useful, abilities, become the targets of bounty-hunters (in the absence of anything like an organized police force.) It's fantasy or science fiction and I can make up whatever shit I want, as long as it seem reasonably credible. Having re-acquainted myself with contemporary sci fi and fantasy, I realize that credibility is more a matter of imagination than it is scientific probability.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The dynamics of wanting

On one of those advice-giving blogs I've been reading -- there's undoubtedly a good short story there -- one the writers (Edmund Schubert, author and editor of Intergalactic Medicine Show) has written a couple times about making sure your characters want something, and that this desire shapes the story in a way that sets up expectations and interest for the reader. He quotes Vonnegut, who says somewhere that a character can just want a glass of water. I was thinking about his while I was doing my daily walk yesterday and it started to make more sense and to connect to stuff I do in my teaching life on motivation.

So you start a story with "More than anything, I wanted a glass of water." And this can set the whole mouse-trap in motion. What I was thinking, though, was that desire is always preceded by need, or lack, or anxiety, or something psychological, that is, he wants a glass of water for some reason. He's thirsty, he has a terrible taste in his mouth, he's trying to recover from alcoholism. So there's always an unsaid sentence before the first sentence that sets the stage, that only the author knows, or ought to know, and say to himself. I tell my students about motivation -- which is related to want and desire -- that we tend unfortunately to think of it either in a passive sense or as a character attribute. Someone is motivated to drink a glass or water. Someone is motivated to get off the bottle. I recommend that we think of motivation as X causes (or some derivative) Y to do Z, and that this helps us understand behavior and its related thinking and feeling better. Thirst makes me want to drink a glass of water. What happens next? Well, that depends on the environment, and it depends on "thirst" (as a physical and/or psychological demand) and its depends on how Y responds to his own desire. In a situation where Y has just come in from a long walk in the sun, and gets a glass from the cupboard, and draws some water from the spigot, and drinks it, not a lot is going to be revealed. If the environment offers no water, then the situation is different. If Y's thirst, and his relationship to his own desire, is problematic is some way -- let's say he is always thirsty and his survival depends on drinking water only when he actually needs it -- then we have a different kind of story. If we replace "water" with "Jack Daniels" we have a different story. And we can play with the "more than anything" part, by asking, "really, more than anything?" 

In my own story, what does Havel want? The way I've set it up what he wants is (a) to get away from where and what he is, and (b) to get back to where and what he imagines he ought to be. Both physically being the same place. More operationally, X causes Havel to do something (or to think, believe, want, feel) something. Guilt about teleporting Bloehm and her not returning causes Havel to feel badly about himself and to want to separate himself from others. The animus of the community causes Havel to leave the garage. The betrayal of his father causes Havel to want to remove himself from the site of pain. The bounty hunter causes Havel to run. So there are a preponderance of causes for Havel to flee. But none of this answers the larger question of what Havel wants, or rather they complicate it. It seems he both wants to harm himself (by further separating himself from society and family) and to save himself (by preventing capture for his "crime," to which he admits). His almost immediate recontact with people demonstrate that his real need is to not be alone, but rather to reconnect, while the more existential dilemma of being caught becomes more acute and requires the help of others. At the higher level, Havel wants to find Bloehm, and to restore her, and thus to restore himself.

The next question, raised also by Schubert, is how I see the story ending, because without a sense of the goal, it's hard to go in the right direction. Because young adult novels have to have at least somewhat happy endings, I can't just have everyone die or go insane on the last page. I think I'd like to see Havel and Bloehm, together, returning to the parking garage to find it either gone, or with some completely other use. The notion would be that they are not in the same time-space in which they began the story. Probably they have gone further along. This is not an entirely happy ending, but it does leave space to go on with the story, on one hand, or just to go on with life, such as it is, on the other.

Marching orders

Despite all the good advice one can find about how to write a novel, and the self-talkings-to that occur at regular intervals, the business of getting the bus rolling toward a destination remains difficult. My problem throughout my scholarly writing career has been usually a lack of planning, an enthusiasm for substance over form, and a tendency to write myself into corners or corn filelds. For instance, I have this one paper that I think is probably pretty good, and informative and insightful, but I believe nobody will publish it until I completely write it into another form. Now I've taken that not so much as a reason to revise as a reason to abandon ship, mostly because I get so little personally out of writing to form, even when publication occurs. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't plan more and better for writing a novel, and keep the form and purpose and readership in mind as I do so, and as I write. It has also become apparent to me, as a novice novel-writer, that my narrative imagination is something like medieval maps, highly detailed at the local level, but tapering off into the distance, where one sees names like The Wastelands, or The Impassible Mountains. I don't really know what's going to happen next, or where it's going, except in the most vague sense, and I don't think this is enough to start driving the car down the highway, to return to my previous clichéd metaphor. The problem, for me, with planning -- which has meant doing the snowflake and other stuff -- is not that I mind doing it, or that it's not producing good results, but that I feel anxious that I will never really get "started." But my marching orders for the day are "stay the course," As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said (thank you,, "A plan without a goal is just a wish," which I think is not really apropos, but does get me further toward what I wanted to say. It is through the planning that my wish is transformed into a goal. The simple plan to "write a novel" was just a wish, like the ones related to weighing 180 pounds, driving a Porsche, and cleaning up my office.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Making time

Even though today is my professional day, and I still have not done all the stuff I scheduled for myself, I decided to post something here. As a transgression. It's always been very easy to allow the flood of small jobs related to my work drown everything else, but now I would like to summon a countering flood of imagination related to writing. Similarly, it has always been easy not to exercise because I had "too much to do" and that also will change. It is possible to be efficient in one's work, and to put it in its place, not to allow it to put me in its place. Part of this resistance entails resistance to people, sometimes students but most often not, who have the expectation, the demand, that my priorities will be thus and so. This they demand even when, or perhaps because, their own priorities are not thus and so. But let me positive: today I finished one syllabus, along with many of the assignments, and a good chunk of the new reading for this course. Now I will commence to read the one book for my other course that I have not previously read and taught. And before that, I'm going to make a little start on my portfolio task for student teaching. Tomorrow is the fall conference, so the morning is wasted, but I will hold the line this weekend and in other weekends against working at home.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Structure, re-structure

My idea for the time-honored and popular-with-readers-and-publishers trilogy was that the first volume would follow the story one main character, and the second would follow the story of the second main character, each with a first-person narrative (forbidden, I understand), and the third volume would bring them together with a third-person, or even another first person, narrative. In developing the first MC, Havel, I have found myself thinking of him as a sort of young Clint Eastwood, driven by guilt and anger over separation, or something like that. This leads him to be somewhat darker and more dangerous and less dorky than Harry Potter, but with also a very soft underbelly where he feels things intensely and is prepared to make ultimate sacrifices, partly because he values himself rather little. So the story is to some extent one of redemption through quest.

But the main source of guilt is his belief that he has killed a girl he liked in trying to help her, by teleporting her into the nevermore. I thought for a young adult novel, it might be best if the actual survival, if misplacement of this character, were shown to the reader early on, so that Havel is feeling guilty for something he hasn't actually done, or done to the degree that he imagined. Also, I wondered if staying in his head exclusively for 400 pages was a great idea. My new idea then is to incorporate what would have been two consecutive first-person narratives into two continuous volumes in which the stories and voices alternate. The more I think about this, the more I like it. Thus, the originating story in the parking garage can be retold in the second section (around 100, or even fifty pages) in, from Bloehm's point of view. Also this allows me to create the two contrasting worlds of Nitra and Nova Huta simultaneously, and to make the tension between them greater, so that even if the result of their being connected by the salt road through the in-between is not understood well by the characters, it is understood by the readers. This will make the readers more ambivalent about the actions and motivations of the characters. Finally, this setup provides an opportunity to keep a romance-of-the-imagination more vividly alive.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Becoming a writer

and not just someone who writes. I was trying to figure out the logistics of writing a three volume YA masterpiece that would sell million of copies and allow me to retire to a Greek island, and I came up with about 375,000 words, or 1200 pages, or 60 twenty-page chapters. That's not just lunch at the diner, that's solid beating on the keys for a long time. But that is my goal, even the Greek island part, though I might make due with a hut and pail. This is not the work of a weekend dabbler, any more than being able to shoot par or run a marathon is something you get every other Saturday. I do have another job, or a real job, but it's pretty much adjustable to however much time I feel like putting into it. But if this project is to be done, then the job, the teaching and being-part-of-the-community part, have to be back-grounded. And I've not ever been able to do that sufficiently, even when my other writing was academic. It suffered seriously from half-assed-ness. In concrete terms, I must plan my teaching etc around my writing, and not the other way, though of course my teaching takes place at certain times on certain days. But it must not leak out and fill every other crevice of time.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Location location location

I began by setting my story in a future Wisconsin, near where I live, for several good reasons. Then I moved it to Central Europe, Slovakia in particular, for other good reasons. Though the fact that I have just returned from Slovakia was a primary motivator. Or, at least it gave me the first hand experience and knowledge of a setting that fit well with the structure of my story. There was also the matter of the salt road, which had attracted me -- like it has attracted many others. I also have learned about the more famous salt road from the marshes near Venice to the highlands where prosciutto and other stuff was produced. But I had become attached to the mountains, as an In-Between. I have worried about my treatment of the Rom as major characters, but then someone has to serve this role, and it does give me the opportunity to portray these people in a more positive light than previous depictions. And there is a good deal to be said for a location with castles and a fitting geography and history.

What will readers, young adults apparently, think about this location? It has promises both for the traditional fantasy realm, and for gritty post-apocalyptic dystopia. In fact, Slovakia and other parts of Central Europe already convey these contrasts -- castles, panelaky and abandoned mega-industrial complexes like the steel mills of Nova Huta, super-glitz shopping malls, ritual pig-slaughters, drinking, atomic physics and the manufacture of weapons, the strangeness of Slavic languages ... The American locale offers a much more shallow history, unless ones partakes of the Native American history, which was my original plan -- all the names were in Ojibwe. I suppose its not more or less exploitative to use Indians than it is to use Gypsies. In either case, my intention seems to be put a marginalized, degraded people into a position of centrality and power. In both cases, these "natives" occupied the land that the white folks wish to cross. In the American context, this is a replay of American history, in European history, it is also a replay, but of a different type. My conclusion for now is that I should stay in Karpatia, and be even more exotically there, without for now getting into Romania and the vampires.


When beginning to write the actual text of this work I've been working on working on, a weight attaches to the motion making words appear. At the end of the rope pulling down against the emergence of words on the page is fear, plain and simple, of not being good enough. I think there's a passage in 2666 about this fear. It coexists with confidence in one's ability, with fantasies of grandeur, with knowledge and skill, with excellent planning, with sloth and distractibility. It is a sort of valence, an electrical charge that makes me slightly more likely to do one thing than another. It is the well-spring of doubts, legitimate and irrational. There's a good deal more to fear than fear itself; it cannot be banished, it can only be directed or ignored or worked with and through.

I worry that nobody will value what I write. Join the club. Keep writing.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Things I've learned

As an academic scholar in the social sciences, curiosity is usually a liability. It gets you off-topic, it makes you think and then write about things your colleagues in the field don't care about or understand. It gets you a lot of "interesting, but not right for this journal" responses from editors. Curiosity leaves you standing alone at the bar at conventions in your field, it leads to a sampling of disciplines rather than a focus on a problem recognized as relevant by the "community" (of which one is not typically a member). In the world of the 9,000 word article, the fruits of curiosity are cut from the final text, where one is required to repeat a great deal of what others have already said as part of what goes by the name of "conceptual framework." Needless to say, it is a tremendous bore and there are very few who actually read what other scholars write, and if they do, it's for the purpose of one-upping them. Since progress not appreciation is the object of science.

I'm finding in these first phases of writing a novel that curiosity runs wild, though time will tell if it any more useful than it was when I was writing articles about minority education. Today I learned more about humanure toilets and energy production, about other low-voltage, low-wattage devices like LCD lightbulbs, and about the body as a generator of re-usable energy. I figured that since we are stuck at 98.7,  a good deal warmer than the outside air most of the time, that there must be ways in which this heat could be recycled, such as in powering an LCD bulb on your forehead or someplace else more practical. And since we do move on our own, both the energy that is used efficiently and that which is wasted might be recycled. Hence my idea that a downhill skating track could generate energy, through the wheels of the board going down, little turbines, and through the energy expended by the young people getting back up to the top of the track. Now maybe it would be easier to just extract this energy directly from whatever they were eating, but they like to eat and skate down and run back up. In my post-petroleum world, folks are not lying around grieving the demise of Chrysler and waiting to die. There's an ethic and an economy in which energy has value, the value we ought to promulgate now ... which of course would be one goal of literature, to promote a moral. Anyway, I also learned a good deal about the use of salt in the Roman world, learned that the word "salary" comes from salt (sal) because sometime soldiers were paid in salt. In fact, the word soldier originate in salt. And in the spirit of learning to make things, or learning about making things whether I personally make them or not, I learned about fish sauce (made by the way, by Romans, not just SE Asians), one of the preferred ways of putting salt into action. And then I read the Roman recipe for producing a ham, taken from a Celtic source. Meaning that the prosciutto derives probably from the original ham-sters, those handy Celts who the Romans wiped out. In my story, some of that ham-making salt came from Galicia (where Gal is related to the Celtic word for salt) in Poland. The premise of the book is then similar to that which motivated the Romans, get some salt and make a pig last longer and taste better.

Some of the technological magic kit I intend to feature in my novel is a body suit that generates heat from body heat. We already have such things: "Disclosed is a heat-retaining, moisture-permeable, waterproof fabric having a highly moisture-absorbing and releasing organic fine particles immobilized on at least one surface of an unprocessed fabric (base fabric) with a moisture-permeable waterproof resin. The fabric is capable of generating heat by the absorption of moisture." That's patent number 6046119 issued in 2000. I figure a little bit of electricity from the body would make this work even better, and keep one quite warm in Karpatia. Naturally such things would be either heirlooms and very rare, or scarce and expensive, or make one place and not another. And I want a wagon, pulled and directed by a horse or something and a human that is able to use the kinetic energy of going downhill to move it back up the hill without needing extra calories. Could you put it on a railroad track? Then there are the single-use flyers which can use the smallest air current to rise up into the air -- something like paragliding. And one of my MCs who has some extra-special trick can make such a vehicle go faster and farther and higher, and is able to drop like a feather. Then there is the self-sustaining pig farm that I must create, replete with the ancient zabijacka, because still the pig must die for us to have prosciutto. I'm thinking that as in the old days, salted meat and salted fish could serve as a sort of money. I had originally thought, then rejected the idea, of fish, but perhaps I should not be hasty. What about all those new catfish now spawning in the new tributaries in the delta where the hron meets the Danube. I think in this area it might be time to re-invent Cajun cooking, some rice growing ....

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Forecasting futures

A couple days ago I finished PB's The Windup Girl and now I am reading IM's River of Gods. Also, not long ago I read JV's Veniss Underground, all of which feature dystopic cities with a preponderance of genetically-altered and/or AIs, plus an oppressive corporate presence that overrules government. Their worlds are generally anarchic, violent, with fantastic wealth juxtaposed with fantastic poverty. In other words, these future cities look a lot like some contemporary global cities, particularly in the developing world. It's not coincidental that two of them are recognizably in south Asia: Veniss could be anywhere. The protagonists -- I'm not far enough in River of Gods to know who the protagonists are -- are flawed and frequently just plain weird, though also quite recognizable (like the calorie man in Windup Girl and the girl who gets dismembered in Veniss Underground.) All of these books feature ecological disaster of some sort or another, as well as plagues etc. Computer technology does not play much role in Windup Girl but is a central player in the other two.

I'm trying to find my way, but it seems that my futuristic setting is less urban and less degraded than those in these books. I suppose my premise is that famines, plagues, ecological disaster, post-oil would affect some places differently than others. In my WIP,  Bratislava and Budapest are largely deserted, with some recent re-population as a result of epidemic, flood/cold, and the winding down of carbon-based globalism. But a smaller city not so far away has not been affected in the same way -- out of the zone of flooding, semi-self-sufficient with respect to food and resources, self-quarantined geographically (by closing bridges, preventing in-migration of infected people). One notion I had was that globalism and its attendant large scale governmental structures (national and post-nationalism) are artifacts of the possibilities of production and transportation with cheap oil. The EU could implode any day now as the result of austerity, debt, etc. So let's say it starts with Greece, Portugal, moves toward the center. The place of Brussels is taken by Ankara in the south maybe, maybe by Moscow. The next step is the dissolution of nation-states along ethnic and geographical fault lines, and their replacement with regions, cities, enclaves, fiefdoms and republics. This could be both the product and the producer of the decline of global commerce and production. Why make something that nobody can buy, when the price of bringing it to market rises? The Free City of Nitra puts tariffs on imported goods that can be made locally, travel (and trade) are complicated and made more expensive, and so on. In my world, the wilderness -- damaged in the Carbon Age -- has now regenerated itself, not in exactly the same manner, but in a manner that makes it more wild than before, increasingly impassible, increasingly able to impose isolation and separation on those living within and without. The urge for trade and expansion, though, returns, when one entity wants something available somewhere else -- like amber or salt or bananas or procciutto.

So my city is smaller, practices conservation to a great degree, slow food, etc. There are post-modern technologies side by side with Medieval technologies (nano computers run on body heat, carts pulled by horses, windmills ...) And there's magic or special talents. But I don't want it either to regress to a complete pre-modern fantasy world (though castles are good, and still present), or to a post-apocalyptic utopia or barbarism. In some ways, then, I plan for this world to be something like what the world is today (just like these more dystopic future cities) but different too. A place for the King of Pigs.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The story gets bigger as the story gets smaller

When you begin by imagining something really big, usually it's because you haven't worked out any of the details and you expect that they are in some ways immaterial. This is how many of college students approach their writing: they have this idea and if they could just get it all down on paper in a more or less sequential manner, then all would be good, and the A would come forth. Unfortunately, after the pre-writing conversation, it comes out that they've really not got more than a paragraph of really coherent idea, and mostly it's just blather. "Schools would be better if they weren't boring." Yea, true dat. What makes their writing potentially interesting, in this case, is their own experience as being (a) bored witless, and (b) convinced that this educational experience was good for them in a way that would be revealed some time in the future (when Christ comes down to harrow the sinners once and for all).

My own novel-writing project has followed this trajectory as well: the vague and grandiose vision with which I began was eventually revealed as a half-baked first sentence full of adverbs. And I hate adverbs. But through a good deal of talking to myself, by writing, I believe I am coming to something a little more chewy. And the more I fuss with the detail of imagining a world, real or fantastical, in which my characters, those little avatars of self, might inhabit and do something interesting in, the richer the possibilities become. I am using, off and on, the snowflake method, which I found somewhere online, where one starts with a one sentence summary, moves through a longer synopsis, characters sketches and synopses, and then something else. I have decided to treat what I hope will be a three part/volume novel as one, making the relationships between the plot elements, the world, and the characters more organic.

I'm very pleased with the arrival of a new main supporting character, Kral Sviň (King of the Pigs) who is adult with undisclosed some special abilities and relationship, and a business. His business of raising pigs and selling pork products is the centerpiece and engine of the plot. He wants to make sausage, in particular, something like Prosciutto, and he has no salt. He is limited to fresh and frozen pork products and to smoke curing. [Of course, as we find out later, salt has other special properties in which he has a keen interest.] Both main characters find themselves working for Kral Sviň, who has many stories about history and life. [It turns out that he has been around since the time of the Union, several normal lifetimes, in various guises and is related to the Rromii: perhaps he is actually one of them. Both Havel and Bloehm seem to find themselves with him by strange chance, but it is their magic that has brought them to him. In fact, he collects magical young people. I'm thinking of a sort of Romani-Slovak Obi Wan Kenobe with pigs. So the pig-slaughter, the zabijačka, will figure in the story as well. Another major secondary character is Jasmina, who Havel is supposed to protect in the first part, but who disappears in the battle at Kráľova hoľa (where Slovak folk hero Juraj Jánošík appears ... more on that later). Anyway, each added character and place, full contextualized historically, geographically and culturally, puts the meat on the bone. Though more and more, it doesn't seem absolutely necessary to the story that there be a futuristic setting ...

Friday, July 30, 2010

A new title

Now, since nobody but me reads this, I can change the name at will. Now we have Karpatia, a region rather than a theme for the title. This is because there are already at least two other current novels called The Salt Road, and because I'm doing pork instead of fish now, and because the books will be about Karpatia, the in-between of central and eastern europe, what has historically divided the north from the south, and in many places, east from west.

Old stories, new stories, real stories, made-up stories

This headings are valuable in thinking about my own writing, and in thinking about when I teach my course on literacy this fall, which includes doing writing workshops with K-2 students. For me, to read some of my old "fiction" and to write a new piece about my father's drinking made me think and feel deeply about my own history and the "meaning" of my life. Perhaps in some ways it is simple therapy of the self, done with words that could be private. But the stories, I think, are quite good enough to be published, which I'm assuming means that someone would be interested in reading them. The reason why I did not pursue publication is part of the story, though probably it would require some imagination to make it interesting to anyone else. But, of course, that goes for most everything I have written in these stories. One thing that comes across to me from this prose written quite a number of years ago is that I have always been able to write. That is something of a revelation.

On the other hand, I'm not that sure that this is the sort of thing I would want to read. Or the kind of thing I would like to focus now on writing. One partly unconscious reason, I think, not to pursue publication in the past was not to speak publicly of my father or my feeling towards him. But now he is gone and it would seem that I can say whatever I want. But maybe now I have little left to say, at least directly. I could write the fictional story of the man who yearned to share his writing with his father before he died, and the attempts to do so, and to not do so -- it could even be comedic -- and his eventual decision to let it go. There's a big lie there, naturally, but there's a lot to think about when it comes to the morality of lying and truth-telling. It's not always ethical and moral, let alone practical, to tell the truth. And one's own truth is not necessarily anyone else's. One reason not to tell the truth is the fear of finding out that you got it all wrong. I haven't ever written a story in which my father was the good guy, but truth would demand that story as well.

But while I appreciate the kind of writing in which I was engaged for many years, I don't read much of it anymore. Actually, I'd like to read more of it and now that I have foresworn academic reading there will be more opportunity. What does it mean to write and read fantasy, where there is so much real history and painful history? The answer is of course to obvious to state, but I better state it. Fantasy is the working out of conflicts and desire in relative safety. It is the dream-world, the world of magic, the world of childhood. All the best fantasies are brimful of pain, discomfort, tragedy and death, but in most cases the ending is hopeful. And that is what I would like to read and write, made-up stories that repair the world and save the self. One could return to Adorno's reflections on art after the Holocaust, and his pessimism about its possibilities. History has demonstrated that he was not entirely correct: art has flourished and not just as forgetfulness. What I will teach my students is that there is not so much difference between "real" stories and "made-up" stories, that each includes the other.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Old stories

For the past couple days I've been organizing, reading and editing old stories, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. I'm amazed at how many there are and how good they are. What was I thinking not to seriously pursue getting published. Because my attempts were sporadic and uninformed, and unsuccessful too. But I think now that I will re-submit these stories and see whether I can get some publications. Many of my stories were at least partly autobiographical and so I've been reminded of things that happened that I've haven't thought about for a long time. I've been reminded of the anger I felt and probably still feel toward my father, as he is a frequent character. It's kind of a bleak back side to the "shit my dad says" book and show. Like, it wasn't nice and it wasn't funny either, the things he said, and the things he did. I could write a flash fiction about all the stupid shit he did, right down to his last opiated days. But there are other things that I wrote that are funny. And there was a persona I created, a consistent character, not a real attractive character either. My self-image.

"When my father was thirty three he almost cut his finger off with a table saw. And then he hurt his back digging a hole. In both cases, he chose bourbon as a pain-killer. It's the first I remember of his drinking, except for the beer everyone drank when my parents went water skiing."

"In the last year of his life my father gave up drinking because he was taking enormous doses of codeine and later morphine for the cancer in his bones. He said he hardly noticed not drinking."

"My father's marriage to Leona was founded in desperation and ended the same way. She was a spiteful little woman, long-divorced and caring for her father who was nearly 100 years old, clutching as straws. My father was mourning my mother's death by replacing her with women he hated for not being her. One night they both got drunk and beat each other up. She got the house and he got a night in jail and anger-management and substance abuse classes. He always claimed that he looked worse after the fight than she did. For a while he didn't drink because the judge forbade him, but eventually he got over his fear."

"My father's marriage to Mary Jane was founded in false hope and ended in desperation, and then he died. She about bankrupted him with her crazy business and delusions of grandeur. Once they were at her daughter's home in California, on their way to Arizona for the winter, and my father got into some sort of drunken altercation with Mary Janes' son-in-law, and after that they were not welcome at their house."

"When I was home from college one summer, my mother and father went to a party at one of my mother's colleagues homes. There was lot of drinking. Someone said something to my mother that my father found offensive and he about threw the person in the pool. When they came home he came into my room with just a t-shirt on, his penis hanging down below, and told me the whole story. Then he went and pissed off the deck into the back yard."

There are a quite a few more to tell.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The skate park

This morning I began to write, as opposed to planning and plotting and muttering to myself in print. I was afraid that the words would not come, that I would be held captive in the planning phase forever, like the old man with his travel brochures, looking at all the places he was going to go and still not realizing that the future was now the past, and he was just remembering what he'd never done, not dreaming about what he might someday do. I started by thinking that this would be a free-standing story, and maybe it will still pass that test -- as every chapter of a book ought to -- but now I see it as the beginning of the big story, where the table gets set. I need another first chapter for the second volume, which I may write simultaneously with the first. Here's what I've done so far: (501 words)

My first night in the garage I was awakened by a gravely whine of wheels on concrete, first a rumor, then a roar, as the skater flashed by in a jacket of her own light. Like a firefly, and then darkness and silence returned. When I was little, I might have taken it for a dream and gone back to sleep, but I had seen already too much of the real to misrecognize flesh and blood for what the mind makes. I opened the door of the old Škoda where I slept, my feet under the steering wheel and my head in the trunk, and tiptoed across the oil-stained ramp where the skater has passed. The sound of the wheels was gone, but now I could almost hear the sound of feet slapping the up-stairs. Should I go wait for her, see what kind of thing she was up close? I didn't even know how I knew it was a girl, the skater had gone by so quickly, just as I opened my eyes. It could have been anyone. But still I knew it was a girl, the way you know when you're getting sick and not just coughing dust. The door to the stairwell was maybe fifty feet down the ramp where I stood, rusted white shining against the gloom. The sound of her feet grew louder; she would be only one level down. The patter of her feet grew louder, and now I could hear her breathe, in and out, an even measuring of the stairs. I stared hard at that door and maybe her breath caught for an instant as she passed on the other side, feeling without feeling the force of my gaze. Then the sound of her began to diminish. Before they faded out of my hearing, I reached out to her with my mind, the way my ma had taught me before she went away, and made the girl stop short, mid-step, the sole of her foot an inch from the riser. She exhaled and inhaled but her feet, for two seconds, did not move. She felt like she must fall down, but then I let her go, and one foot followed the other as nature intended. That would be something for her to think about when she reached the top.

My ma called me Havel after someone who died in time out of memory. She had a painting of him she took from a museum when she was out scavenging that she made into a shutter for the little house with no windows where I was born. Or so she told me because I only remember the smell of that house, like something had half-died there but never finished the job. I'm the only Havel I know, and sometimes I imagine that I'm the only Havel there is, or was. Except for whoever it was that half-died in our house, I call him Havel too, in what passes for my memory.

Later I will write more, hoping to top 1000 words for this first day of real writing. But I almost must work on my snowflake.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How do books work?

I woke up this morning before the sun wondering how to get from point a to point b, and trying to remember how others do it. The point a I'm thinking about is sometimes called "part 1" and point b is "part 2," or in series of novels telling one story, volumes one and two.  Having decided that I wanted each part to feature first person narration, but with two different narrators. I read somewhere the first person narration was forbidden in fantasy fiction, but also that it was normative in young adult fiction. But putting aside genre for now (and perhaps forever), the rationale for a first person narration in a novel with young adult protagonists is to convey their perspective (and only their perspective). My thought was that the narrator of the first part would be a secondary but important character in the second part. The third part would be in the third person, so that I could have both main characters (and others). Do I know of any other works that employ this structure? Not off hand, but I'll take that to be a good thing, not a bad thing.

In the movies, there must be a great car chase, a bad guy must get what's coming to him (or maybe her or it), the protagonist must survive (though there could be doubt about this), but the job cannot be done. Jason Bourne survived the first movie, got the girl, killed the bad guy, and then went off to live in anonymity and obscurity in Goa. But for some inexplicable reason, other bad guys saw the need to come all the way out there and kill his girl friend, so now there's a motivation for the next installment ... At the end of every Harry Potter volume, the kids win the game (while nearly perishing), and go home for the summer, to do it all again next year. The pattern is a little more troubled toward the end of the series. In LOTR, there is only one continuous story, broken every five hundred pages, or three hours, at a convenient turn in the story. But nothing with respect to the main quests (those of Frodo and Aragorn) is resolved at the end of volumes one or two: that can't happen until the end of the last volume. Similarly, in His Dark Materials, the endings of volumes one and two are provisional, and not very hopeful. In many ways, things keep getting worse and worse. New characters are introduced along the way and carry the story forward, while sometimes the previous main characters disappear (always to re-appear): Lyra and Will must be there at the end, just as Frodo and Aragorn must be there at the end. Maybe JKR could have actually killed off Harry (or one of this chums) at the end, but we all knew that he would prevail against Voldemort. The ending of Harry Potter is somewhat unsatisfying because here are all these main characters, all grown up and ready to do an adult's work in the world, and there's nothing left to do. We see them middle-aged, living in the suburbs, sending their kids off to a safer Hogwarts. LOTR has the right side winning at the end, but in true epic saga fashion, the main characters pay a price for their ordeals. Aragorn faces mortality and Frodo goes into "exile," sailing into the West. Pullman has the darkest and most provocative vision -- no wonder so many hate him: in the end, the kids have sex, God dies, and Authority falls from the sky. It's the ultimate "adolescent" happy ending.

My hesitation has nothing to do with not knowing how books work. I've read enough good ones and bad ones to know what works and what doesn't, and to know that anything can be made to work with the right combination of imagination and skill. Also, it is clear that good writing is motivated by deep and long thinking about everything, which then finds its way into a story. In this sense, all these stories are parables or fables. I'm sure what I eventually come up with will be no less a reflection of what matters to me -- even if I'm not sure what that is -- and what I know and what kinds of tricks I can perform. Sit up, shake hands, roll over.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The glories of salt

When I was in Slovakia this past winter I became fascinated by food preserved with salt: a plethora of sausage (klobasa), fish (rybi), kapušta (cabbage), beets (repa), cheese (syr), and I'm sure other things. I ate them all the time, despite the risks to my blood pressure. What's prescription medicine for but making it possible to fully live? The use of salt is the historical residue of a pre-refrigeration culture. And of course, salt makes everything taste better. Bread (also salted) is baked every day, vegetables and meat and fish are preserved for winter and for summer too. Another preservative is alcohol: grain is made into beer, fruits is make into liquor. In the spring, everyone has a garden, many of which are quite large: it is a nation of domestic horticulturists, brewers and distillers. In times past, when this was an "occupied" part of Hungary, salt came down from Poland, or what is now eastern Slovakia. In exchange, goods that came up the Danube and from Venice, were transported further inland.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


My wife said the other night that she thought that my metier for writing would be more historical than fantasy, probably because I like to tell everyone in great detail about obscure historical events. For instance, the "years without summer" (535-536) and the Plague of Justinian a few years later. I don't know much about these things, but just the ideas fascinate me and make me want to know more about the Vandals and the decimation of Byzantium. This was part of what prompted me to look again at The Salt Road, one of the ancient and rustic roads from north to south: you can still walk down them. I discovered that there was one from near Warsaw to Budapest, which accounts for the Saint Kinga from Esztergom in Hungary. In fact, not that I think about it, making Esztergom, or even Budapest one of the focal points of the story. Naturally, I would have to make this a Slavic Budapest ...

But returning to historical roots for a novel of the future, with fantasy elements, is helping me simplify the premises and structure of the story. Suddenly I had the structure for a full three self-sufficent parts -- each targeted at around 100,000 (or more) words -- with two primary protagonists, one male and one female, whose individual development and relationship can be sustained for the length of the trilogy. Also, the structure resonates with a variety of religious and traditional stories: quests, Purgatory to Paradise, for example. It's important in this genre to be able to address large issues. But anyway, my lesson for today is paring the story down to its essential elements and then maybe building up some interesting, supporting detail around that elemental structure. The current literature about post-petroleum is mostly pessimistic, framed as The Fall: I'm much more interested in a story that could be about The Rise, which could be read as a history of the future, but also as an alternate history of the past or the present. If my focal question is what it means to build a road from point a to point b? with the question of when it might be best to leave the journey unfinished, which is to say, to leave the interior uncharted, uncrossed, then I am asking a very BIG question which can be addressed in a narrative about whether a boy builds the next relay station or not, whether he tells what he finds in-between, or keeps the secret, as well as in some abstract philosophical way.

The point of writing a novel is not to escape the questions that concern philosophers, but (at some level) to escape the professional philosophers and their methods of asking and answering the questions.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

an epigraph

I've started reading John Michael Greer's Druid blog, from the beginning, partly because I decided I was too cheap to buy one of his books. On May 24, 2006 he wrote:

Knowing many stories is wisdom.
Knowing no stories is ignorance.
Knowing only one story is death.

I like these lines, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps I don't like them so much as I want to use them for my own purposes, like using someone's favorite six iron as a hoe. Also noted on May 24, 2006, by the LA Times:

A driver ran over three children and two women in the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant in Covington (GA), police said. One witness described the man as having a smile on his face. A 2-year-old girl was in critical condition; two other children and a pair of adult sisters were in stable condition, authorities said.

That's a pretty compelling story. Probably this makes for a good writing exercise: find synopses such as these and write an accompanying of two pages, double-spaced. The driver of the car (a green Honda Accord) was 46-year old Lanny Barnes (not to be confused with the female American winter biathlete), described by family members as having "mental problems," namely depression. The restaurant was closed for the remainder of the day and counseling was provided. The little girl succumbed from her injuries the next day. I learned from a conservative blogger who was outraged by this incident that Lanny Barnes was black and that his victims were white. His outrage, by the way, was in reaction to the fact that Mr. Barnes's mothers initial reported response was "he's been suffering from depression" rather than an expression of sympathy for the victims. Of course, we don't know what Mrs. Barnes was responding to, but probably a question like, "why would he do such a thing?" The author of the blog does not provide his name (though he calls himself Shamalama) but he does tell his readers that he hails from Conyers Corners, GA and is of Irish descent.

I learned from another blogger (StinkyNigs) that Lanny Barnes died of leukemia in October of 2008 while serving a life sentence at Valdosta State Prison. StinkyNigs concluded his obituary (entitled "A nigger who deserved worse") with the following: "His funeral was the one that wasted my time as it went by, but at least the Sheriff's department didn't waste any more money renting a hearse for that piece of shit nigger. Rot in hell with your nigger kin, Lanny, you fucking shining example of all things nigger. You more than deserve it. Only it should have been at the end of a rope."

The story just gets better and better, and worse and worse. In April of this year, a man was run over in another MacDonald's parking lot, though this time the deceased was a man and the driver a woman, who did not intend to hit him, or run him over. This was in Seattle and the restaurant was not closed for the day. The respective races of driver and victim were not provided. Bloggers first speculated that the victim (67-year old George Ketah) was lying drunk in the parking lot, which was why the 37-year old woman ran him over. But it looks like he was walking, was knocked down by the car, and then run over. I learned this from a personal injury lawyer blog looking for business: in this case, the family of unfortunate victims like Mr. Ketah.

As they say, "you couldn't make this stuff up."

Friday, July 23, 2010


At different times in my life I have written for very different reasons. Now I write all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, with many levels and types of motivation. I need to ask myself why I would put my time and energy into writing a novel. Because while I have packaged this choice for myself and perhaps others as trading in scholarship for imagination, the fact is that I could just stop doing scholarship and not replace it with any kind of writing. My decision to give up scholarly writing went into effect (a) roughly after I was promoted, and (b) specifically after my last prior commitment was satisfied, in Istanbul. This would lead me to believe that the main reason for engaging in this activity was to achieve the promotion, putting aside what that might mean to me. (Although probably I ought to take up that question ...)

The desire to be involved in creative writing comes from a sense that it sustains my life: years of scholarly pursuits had left me feeling dishonest, inept, and pointless. To write and think imaginatively is simply necessary for me to regain a fuller experience of life, and avoid alcoholism or dissipation. Or so it seems to me sometimes. I began to feel this last spring when I was teaching poetry and fiction to my Slovak students: which could be a clue as to how to sustain greater interest in teaching.

My ambition is to write something really good and to be recognized for having done so.  My ambition is to publish a work that people will want to read, and that they will pay money to read, to have a book with my name on it on the shelf. My ambition, in the end, is to make a little money out of writing so I can retire from my "day job" at around 62. I am not a youngster, which means that I'm not just starting out as a writer, and that I don't have forever to develop my talent. The time is now -- relatively speaking --- to express what talent and experience I have. Part of my experience and wisdom ought to consist in patience and taking the necessary time to do something well. There are practical reasons for this also: bring something good to market the first time and the prospects for success are better. Being more practical yet, if I were planning to write a trilogy, for instance, plan the whole thing thoroughly, create the world thoroughly, do the research, up front. That doesn't mean waiting a year before writing a single word, but it means having a fully conceived notion before getting in too deep. This was how LOTR, Harry Potter, and HDM (Pullman) were written, as I expect is true of many other very long books divided into three or more or fewer parts. 2666 presents as five separate, semi-free-standing novels, but in fact when read together they form a whole.

To commit to a whole of that scope is daunting, but as I always say, in for a dime, in for a dollar.

Returning to the salt road

Having slept well on this idea of combining story-ideas, I must now marshall all the good reasons why this is not a good plan. I walked away from the Salt Road because Slovakia and environs are a long way away and I don't read Slovak or Polish or any other relevant Slavic language beyond a rudimentary level. So a really deep historical novel would stretch my resources, as well as take a very long time to write.

What's different in switching settings from a Dazhiikewin in the norther Prairies/Wilderness to, say, the ground between Nitra and Krakow? The caveat remains that there are limits to the depth of the history I could access, though I must admit that probably sufficient material is available in English to create a credible post-petroleum (EU) world. Let's imagine, for the sake of argument, that the new site is Nitrawa, which is located on the shore of the Great Hungarian Sea (to the south), by the raging Nitra River, backed up against the mountains between Nitra and Novy Sacz (capitol of the Krakow region). Between are the Romii. There is a desire to open the old salt road between the two (a passage from commerce and communication).

Nitra (capital of Moravia) is part of the New Union (of city-states), as if Novy Sacz (capitol of Galicia). The rest of the general eco-history might remain. This is a post-petroleum world, something like 100 years in the future (though this is negotiable, depending on the status of artifacts and the level of divergence I'd like to posit. This could all happen at the end of The Age of Rain, precipitated by a combination of carbon-based warming and volcanic eruption. This would have caused famine and population decrease/mobility -- the succeeding age, without carbon pollution and with sun and adequate rain would be one characterized by the possibilities of prosperity. The necessary commerce between north and south could indeed be driven by a need for salt, to cure the fish that came from the new Sea to ship further inland. In this setting, once could still have an urban setting (Nitra) and rural settings between there and Poland, as well as along the Vah and Dunajec.

So find out that it's not just the Salt Road, but also the Amber Road ... I'm sure there's some more history here. The amber road went from the Baltic to the Adriatic, but with the mining of salt in southern Poland from the 14th century, the same road would have used the Dunajec-Poprad-Vah passage, or so it seems to me. In any case, there's sufficient historical record here for my uses.] The thing is ... I'm fascinated by salt.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Parking lot epiphany

Walking across the Shopko Plaza parking lot, an expanse of concrete more appropriate to an international airport than a smallville stripmall, the sun simmering in a hot towel of cheap corn oil, I thought: what if I set my novel in Slovakia. Then I could use my Salt Road idea -- damn, the name could be The Salt Road -- and put the cosmopolis in Nitra, castle, shopping mall, panelaki, Big Tesco, everything one might want. The Nitra River is now a torrent. Energy (which drives data) for salt, hence the Salt Road from Krakow. Towering peaks, waterfalls, wild Gypsies, real wilderness.

The best elements of two stories combined in one.

And your point was?

It's hard to manage the squirreling of the mind, to get the nut without inhibiting the necessary search.

There's also a lot happening on the street, interesting but distracting stuff, as well as the necessary thngs to keep track of, like the cars coming up and down, barreling like bullets.

It's a wonder anything but just being around gets done. Or perhaps, you must think of what you're doing as part of just being around. Perhaps it is a necessary part and perhaps it is a chance event, that depends on your theology.

In my own personal sense of how the world work and what God and gods might do, if they in fact "are," stipulating right up front that they couldn't be the same way I be, or they wouldn't be gods at all. It would just be me, impersonating a god that I had made up entirely, or with help ... And that sentence was going where? According to me, I don't do this because I must, exactly, but because I want to, but wanting in this way is part of who I am, and includes a good measure of must-ness to it. Even if I were doing something different, it would be -- if observed from an appropriate distance -- not just appear, but would in fact, be, the same thing exactly.

I think Robert Duncan said something like this, let me check Mr. WWW on that .... hmm, nothing. But there was this lovely little lyric that will do for now.

Neither our vices nor our virtues
further the poem. "They came up
and died
just like they do every year
on the rocks." The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I was reading yesterday about the difference between the so-called genres of young adult fiction and adult genre literature, and while it all seems pretty vague, I did find some guidelines and links at Atsitko's Chimney that were very helpful.

The first thing was that AG (fantasy, sciFi, detective) literature is quite specific while you can put anything in YA literature: in that way, it's probably less like AG literature and more what the bookstores put in literature, except that so much YA is fantasy/SciFi/Romance ... The point is not moot because when you're writing something and you're not looking for the great American novel, but a place on the bookshelf, then you have to identify your audience and your "place." I conclude that if you write YA literature (more below), then you can mix and match "genres" and just write literature. Clearly a lot of adults (like me) read YA literature and some young adults read adult literature. For my purposes, the goal would not to get too entangled in the literature v. genre trap, since I really like all the genre literature, and I like things that are literary, as in, well-written. A statement I like to this effect is from Carrie Ryan who is writing post-apocalyptic zombie romances. 

I found this helpful list of characteristics of YA literature on the Suite100 site:
  • a teenage protagonist
  • adults characters as marginal and barely visible characters
  • a brief time span (the story spans a few weeks, yes, a summer, maybe, a year, no)
  • a limited number of characters
  • a universal and familiar setting
  • current teenage language, expressions, and slang
  • detailed descriptions of other teenagers' appearances, mannerisms, and dress
  • a positive resolution to the crisis at hand (though it may be subtle and never in-your-face moralistic)
  • few, if any, subplots
  • about 125-250 pages in length (although many of the newer YA books are much longer)
  • a focus on the experiences and growth of just one main character
  • a main character whose choices and actions and concerns drive the story (as opposed to outside forces)
  • problems specific to adolescents and their crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood
I think this is pretty much geared to the realistic side of YA fiction, the kind that Yuma likes. I disagree with point 2 about adults because there are lots of parents, teachers et al. in YA fiction of all sorts. I also disagree that they are single-character focused: there are all sorts of dyadic/triadic relationships, multiple narrators, ensemble structures. If you include the fantasy/sciFi YA fiction, you could make these corrections/amendments: a "universal" but not familiar setting, a good deal of made-up language and idiom, more subplots often leading to other volumes, resolution to crisis (though with the proliferation of series, the resolution is partial), and non-realistic YA works can be much longer. Also, there is a moralistic element to almost all this in perhaps the best notion of the novel as moral art. This is especially true in sci-fi/alternative history novels which have commentary about social values etc.

Of the 2010 Alex Award winners for YA literature (none of which I have read), there is 1 biography, 2 "true-story" novels, 2 memoirs of awful childhood, one realistic romance, and five novels with SFF angles, including vampires and impending comet strikes. The Morris award seems to highlight realistic teen relationship novels. The Michael J. Prince awards feature 2 of 5 SFF titles in their winners and nominess, though all of them seem more Middle School than high school. The ALA list seems to consciously to take a Chinese menu approach. Interestingly, the Amazon Top 10 consumer's list features more than half SFF (series), with some romance on the side. The editor's much prefer the realistic, serious mode: there is only one cross-over: Suzanne Collins's Fire, the sequel to Hunger Games. All the SFF title suggested by both are part of series, and none of these it the first installment. If you look at the adult fiction/literature section, you find nothing that is not realistic or historical. If you look at just the bestsellers list at BandN, there's a lot of SFF, a lot of crime fiction, a lot of current non-fiction, a good deal of romance, and not much "literature." So if you wanted to make money, or get a publisher, you would want to write something that someone might buy, and read.

But what I wanted to say was that what I was thinking of writing - Dazkiikewin -- seems clearly in YA category.: teenage protagonists, coming-of-age themes, story direction driven by character choices, moral viewpoint, current relevance, potentially "happy" ending (in which the protagonists save the world). It is in an alternate world so it would be longer probably, there will be more than one character (but that's an invalid criterion), etc. I can write it like adult SFF or even adult literature, but because of it's YA qualities, it must be accessible to that audience.