Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Fond Farewell

Twenty-six years ago I bought a nice little ETAP 23, a Belgan sailboat I could single-hand on the various rivers and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay.  I was not new to sailing, having sailed on other people's boats as a teen and then renewed my skills on a little ten-foot Wesort at the headwaters of the Severn River for a few years before upgrading to a larger boat.

Over the years Sparrow, as I christened her (the dingy was named Hawk, in case you were wondering,) and I explored the various rivers and creeks feeding the Bay.  First sailing out of Back Creek in Annapolis, through the mouth of the Severn, and into the Bay itself.   From there I sailed across to circumnavigate Kent Island, cross under the Chesapeake Bay bridge, and once, sailed all the way to Baltimore.

After I moved to a marina on the South River I learned the pleasures of reaching the more southern reaches of the Bay and later, in the Magothy River, I managed to explore further.  Sparrow finally ended up in Pasadena, quite near where I first learned to sail and from where I could sail by the huge carriers and transports entering and leaving the waters of Baltimore's inner harbor, often lying in irons off Fort Carroll to watch the tugs and Bay pilots maneuver the large container ships to dock.

Sparrow was ever ready for a day;s sail, responding to the wind, current, and my steady hand on the tiller and lines. She sometimes acted the frisky colt, eager to run and at other times like a tired plow horse.  There were hours of crushing, searing boredom when the summer failed to produce sufficient wind to blow the chuff off a dandelion.  There were also moments of near terror when gale winds and storms came with little warning.  I once had to chip ice from the shrouds on my way to winter storage because I procrastinated too long by wanting one more day with her.

But as time and tide cannot be stayed, neither could my ability to sail Sparrow as I wished. The last year I ventured no further than six nautical miles from the marina, far less on windless days, and often regretted the other things I could be doing instead of limping along.  For the past two years I wouldn't go out when the winds were stiff and dreaded the weaker winds that failed to give Sparrow  a good run.  I'd like to think that Sparrow understood, wishing instead that we could sail as we did before, brisk against the wind, surfing the cresting waves, and running free and happy.

But all good things must end and so I finally admitted that we had to part. I donated Sparrow to charity so she could find a happier home with someone who loved her as I had.

I will miss her.


Friday, July 18, 2014


When my very first stories appeared in Analog too many years ago I used to hang around the newsstand and wait for someone to pick up one of the few copies. While I waited newbie published thoughts ran through my head: Should I offer to autograph my story? Perhaps introduce myself as one of the magazine's writers? Rip the magazine from their hands and open it to point at MY story? What would be the neatest, bestest thing to do now that I was a published author.  My first story - what a rush it would be to meet an actual reader!

And so I lurked for hours, waiting, waiting, waiting and, sadly, since no one picked up a copy I never acted out those fantasies.  Eventually, the impulse to expose myself in public faded, although I still look for someone buying those magazines when I'm in at the bookstores. Now I restrict myself with meeting a fan or two (usually less, most of the time) at conventions.

As my sales increased I began documenting my efforts recording when a piece was written, to whom I'd submitted, and when I could expect an acceptance or rejection.  That latter was more frequent than I liked, but I persevered and, over time, I was fairly able to predict how soon I'd get a reply from any specific editor. My list also clued me as to when I needed to send a gentle reminder that I still existed and was waiting for a reply.

I learned that some editors take a long time, others a very long time, or in a few forgotten cases, an eternity.  I placed the more tardy editors at the bottom of the rotation. I did have a cut off when it was obvious there would never be a reply of any sort, which also removed that editor from future consideration. Rudeness should not be rewarded. I'd rather an unequivocal rejection than no answer at all.

You would think that receiving an acceptance by a magazine would be the end state - joy at the notification and happiness when the check arrives.  But acceptance is one thing and publication another.  First you wait for the galleys to arrive, a sure sign of imminent publication, you hope.  There is no certainty, even at this stage.  Few editors provide an anticipated publication date, so I am constantly in a state of uncertainty after the notice contract, check, and galleys. Will it appear next month,  some future month, next year, of in a fat collection?  Author copies arrive after distribution so you have to check again; waiting.

Some things never change.


Monday, July 14, 2014

And Here I Thought I was the Only One

For the past umptynine blogs I've been bitching about how lonely is the plight of the poor writer who slaves away in darkness and only rarely emerges from his barrow to embrace the company of others, sometimes even those who share his affliction.  I have often pondered if all writers feel this way and commented on the fallacy of thinking their success comes easily.

But that was before I read an article by Gwenda Bond that confirmed my worse suspicions.  My eyes have been opened to see that other writers share my special circle of hell; ever cursed to "scribble, scribble, scribble..." in a state of perpetual concern that we have neither the skills nor talent to write anything worthy and that any success we've achieved was through sheer luck or a mistaken acceptance by an editor.  Perfection always gets in the way of sufficient as we polish our prose endlessly, submitting only when fatigue or deadlines overtake us. We all know, deep in our hearts, that we are impostors and- dare we say it - inadequate.

It matters little how well others might praise or curse our writing. In our tiny writer's minds we know that we were merely lucky, that our best work were largely accidental, and that we are undeserving of whatever praise is being bestowed.  We are all pitiful, sniveling wretches, doomed like Sisyphus to be forever striving, only to discover there's always another boulder, another hill, another damned deadline ahead and each momentary success only leads to more opportunities to fail, fail, fail.

But, by God, despite all that, all the misgivings, self-doubt, and time required, I do love writing.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Memory Lane

While browsing my files I sometimes take another look at some stories that never found a home despite, in my humble opinion, being the finest literary work of the century*.   Of course one does look for reasons that the tales failed to resonate with editors, some of whom might have liked the work, but demurred for reasons unconnected to the story itself or its presentation. Some of these stories have been rewritten numerous times in an attempt to correct whatever problems others might have perceived. Others I've re-read to discover where the plot sags or the characters morph into creatures untrue to their established nature.  Some of the older ones are simply outdated, speaking of things overtaken by technological progress, or thrown in the trash due to scientific advances.

I browse the past whenever creativity lags and, as I do so, I have to face the inevitable questions about their disposition.  Do I attempt yet another rewrite, a better edit, a slight modification, or simply send it on another round of editors, hoping that at least one might be in a better mood when they read it again or at least suffer from sufficient memory lapse that they no longer recall rejecting it.

I have far more completed, but failed pieces than those that were successfully published,so don't even get me started on those incomplete messes that I simply abandoned. They outnumber the completed ones by a substantial number.  Someday, I mutter to myself in my darker moods, the future will recognize my brilliance and grant me posthumous success. This is a dream shared, no doubt, by legions of other writers who also flail against the cruelty of the speculative short fiction market.

I have such an abandoned piece before me at the moment. It is a perfectly respectable story. Do I work on refurbishing it, or do I push on with yet another new story, hoping that it might find better success?  It's a problem, and one I despair of ever solving.

Or maybe this sort of self-abuse is just a way of avoiding writing.

* Or maybe not: I'm somewhat biased.


Friday, June 27, 2014

The Idea Factory

A short while ago I got an inquiry from a student who asked the classic question that all writers get from time to time.  "Where," she asked, "do your stories come from?"  Note that she didn't ask about ideas, concepts, or characters. She specifically asked about stories.

Most people ask where my ideas for the stories come from, seeking the wellspring from which all literature flows.  If they have a scientific turn of mind they might ask the question in technological terms, seeking the source, the article, the paper, the magazine, or the discussion that provided the spark for the central McGuffin of the piece.  The more literary might ask what well-known (to them in most cases) writer's works inspired the style in which I wrote this or that.

My answer to all is the same.  Ideas are all around you, in the very air you breathe, the water you drink, and the affection that others lay upon you.  You can no more ignore ideas, once you open your mind to them, than you can stop breathing.  We humans swim in an ocean of cognizance where daily we are bombarded with questions, assertions, conflicts, and contradictions that stimulate our minds.  Each of these influences can generate a story, a tale, or a logical extension that resolves the issue. Only the dead can ignore the flood of ideas surrounding them.

This is an easy answer one can shrug off easily, but the answer to the student's deeper question stopped me.  Where do my stories come from?

 I admit that I sometimes model characters on people I've met. I use memories of places I've been and situations I've encountered or only read about. I also liberally steal snippets and bits from other writers, drawing on the vast library of expositional material generated by our genre. Sometimes I even borrow plots after carefully repurposing characters, settings, and times* But all those are simply component parts and the pieces from which I assemble the whole. Simply snapping these elements together like Lego blocks does not a story make.

A story is more than the simple aggregation of words and ideas, more than a logical arrangement of more or less connected scenes, more than the words themselves, and manages to transcend its mechanics.  The writer must also imbue the tale with heart and soul to become a living thing.

My answer to her is that my stories come,, just as a river is fed by a thousand streams, from the experiences of a lifetime and all that I have learned.

*Some of the Sam Boone series used Wodehouse's plots 


Friday, June 20, 2014

The Act of Writing

A new day dawns and I sit at the computer, staring at a blank screen, ready to produce a stream of words, and I ask myself: Why?

"WHY?" is the question that faces me every morning.  Why am I consuming hours of a beautiful spring day pounding out words when there are so many other wonderful things in this world? What impulse is driving me to write instead of doing practically anything else? Is it some uncontrollable mental affliction, an obsession, or manic craving? Am I insane to be doing this?

That I can write, have written, have even sold a few stories over the years is not in question. I can produce prose (I leave it to the reader to judge the literary worth of such) that sells, so it isn't the lack of ability, skill, or grasp of the mechanics that makes me question what I am doing.

I am, have been, writing a novel for no other reason than to see if I could do so.  I have no pretensions that the current piece will ever be published or even read, save by some slush reader.  But that dire view does not deter me from daily adding to the preponderance of words as I drag the characters toward an as-yet unrealized epiphany.  I know I am not writing great art nor even a skillful retelling of a classic story: It's just a long adventure set in a world of my imagination.

So I ask myself why I continue producing a thousand words, day after day? Why not crank out a few salable short stories instead?  What is it about the ACT of writing that keeps me pounding on the keyboard to produce wordy footprints of my passage?  Is seeing the words magically appear before me or is seeing the scenes in my head become words on the page that is so enjoyable?  Is it the simple joy that comes from creativity?  Perhaps therein lies the answer I seek;  the realization that it is the process of writing and not the end result that is important.

Perhaps the act of writing is its own reward.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Plotland Progress (of a sort)

Last week I reached a new Plotland plateau of frustration as the burgeoning novel approached the 70K mark.  I've only completed the first third of the original (very bare) outline and, if I continue at this rate, the result will be rather too long - about 0.5 Sandersons.  This means I must either (a) abandon the outline (b) eliminate one or two subplots (c)write faster or (d) cut, cut, cut, cut.

In a moment of crystalline clarity I put on my editor's cap and chose the latter, cutting nearly eighteen thousand precious, hard wrung words from the latter part of the novel and placing them aside for possible later use.  Nevertheless it was a painful move.  I now understand why it sometimes takes years to complete something in the long form, as this is starting to threaten.

The first nine chapters (about 50k) are in second draft.  The first two have been peer reviewed as acceptable which heartens me, but makes any further changes to the elements introduced there very chancy.

 Chapters Four through Nine continue to be influenced by the new material I'm creating with my back and forth create and edit process.  Still, I am happy with the prose for the most part, somewhat doubtful of the facts, and dead set against introducing yet another character or plot element.  Of course I still have to deal with the rebellious characters who refuse to take my orders and go haring off the script.  Nevertheless, I know my will is the stronger and I will soon have these miscreants yoked to the plot.

Then there's the other novel, somewhat incomplete and waiting for the Big Fucking Idea (BFI) that will let me tie together the threads.  It is the lack of the BFI that confounds me. Each time I attempt to develop a solution the effort drives me back to Plotland and its own challenges.  Back and forth, back and forth, I go, leaving me nearly no time for writing more short fiction.

I find that fighting the nearly irresistible short story idea demons that flutter about my head is difficult. Their cries are like the sireens, tempting, tempting, enticing.  No, I must resis, I cry. I'm too much committed to completing these novels than having them languish on my desktop. I feel that I must continue, slogging ever forward to the point where I will call "Finished!" to the effort and send them forth to find a home or die languishing on some slush reader's desk.