Editing in my sleep

After a dry spell, imposed on me by many other demands, for the past several days I’ve been writing new content again. It’s good to be back, I really needed a little creative expression. It’s been a couple of months since I put time into the current project, so I started at the beginning, editing all of what I’d written (roughly the first quarter of a novel). Once I was clear again on the story arc under construction, reminded of my understanding of the characters, over this past week I’ve written another couple of chapters. I feel like the story is going somewhere again.

When I’m really immersed in a project, you might say obsessed, I find myself editing wherever I am, in my head. I recall a piece of the dialogue or a section of the narrative, deciding on adjustments. He shouldn’t reveal that secret yet, or too much description made the scene too long. I’m not in front of my computer, looking at the draft, I’m just remembering what I’ve been writing, critiquing the memory.

Most of the fiction writing I do is in the evening, after work, after household chores. I often fall asleep thinking about what I’ve just written, so there is a sliver of reality to support the claim made in the title of this post.

I used to say to myself, oh, that’s good, I’ve got to remember that edit.

I seldom remember.

Now I pull out my phone and make a hurried note. Here are some actual notes from my phone.

Mk sure Mex shws hes vulnerbl

Well, that’s clear, isn’t it? It’s Max, not Mex, in the first manuscript I finished. I’ve been mulling how to take away its ordinariness, how to abandon tropes and make the leap to people behaving like real people behave. I wrote the note thinking about wanting to make Max less perfect, less predictable, let his vulnerability show a little bit. When I wrote the note, in a doctor’s waiting room, I had the spot in mind, but I didn’t write down that useful bit. I’m still looking for the spot.

Shrtr hrses

It’s not that the horses are too tall. A chapter in the new project has two characters go ride his fences. It has to much exposition, I decided the morning after writing it. I had the impulse to add the little horse-race, I think it works, I like where it leads, but isn’t it too much detail? I’ll edit that chapter next time I have time for writing. I wrote the note in my car at a stoplight, that’s why its so short.

I don’t rely on word counts to tell me anything about progress being made, but I do have a word count budget for each chapter. This one runs long.

Why go rdng?

In the chapter where the horses aren’t too tall, the bad boy invites the good girl to ride with him.  The first draft of the chapter starts with them already side by side on two horses out in the country. Driving to work in the morning, I couldn’t explain why good girl would have agreed to go riding with bad boy. As soon as I was parked where I work, ten minutes after the stoplight, I captured a note that I needed to give a reason why this scene was possible.

Why not Nick beer?

This note is an example of discovering my characters by writing about them. Farmer Nick’s side gig is the little bar in his little farm town. His rule as the bartender is he’ll never let a man get drunk enough that his wife would come in complaining. But still, I felt he had some other reason to spend money and time on an espresso machine, to serve fresh-squeezed lemonade. Those details started as just being more family-friendly. The only bar in a tiny town would do that.

Early on a Saturday morning I wrote a section in which Nick could have had a beer, but drank iced tea. Two hours later, pushing my cart through the aisles of the grocery store, I wondered why he’d do that. I wasn’t sure why, except that it felt right, I had included him skipping the beer. He’s already admitted travel in Europe was mostly a search for the next scenic place to drink beer. He’s not against running a bar, so he’s not a teetotaler. Doesn’t that suggest he’s a recovering alcoholic? That’s not in the story yet, but I have a place in mind where it might be a useful detail in a conversation leading to the climax.

I transcribe my notes into a file on my computer now, expanded with more detail. Like my handwriting, notes on my phone are easiest to understand in the first few days after they’ve been written.


Let it snow

There’s been snow the past few weeks. There’s more snow forecast. I like the snow, for many reasons.

The silence of a snowy morning seems exceptionally peaceful. Early morning, before the neighbors are out clearing the snow, my world is quieter than I’ll ever hear in the summer. Sound doesn’t seem to carry as far, the snow provides a layer of sound insulation. The snow, interfering with our usual routines, keeps us inside later in the morning. Not that all summer sounds are undesirable, we hear no songbirds in winter.

Oddly enough, the neighbor who thinks nothing of revving his motorcycle engine before he and three friends leave at six for a morning excursion in July is the last one to come out, switch on his snow-thrower and clear a path from his car to the street.

The sounds of the children out playing, shrieking at the shock of the cold, vocalizing their excitement, that’s music. The silence of the early morning disappears, but children at play, just down the street, is quite a nice thing to hear. I came out of the house the day after our last snowfall to find two of the three young girls next door out building a big snow pile. Then I realized the third was there with them as well. Just her head was visible, the rest of her was buried in the snow.  It was like burying someone in sand at the beach, only colder.

The snow changes the appearance of things, too. The landscaping I can’t wait to change is concealed under a soft blanket. That ugly pile of stones, dumped incongruously in plain sight before the biggest window, is just one of several mounds of white up on the hillside. The pile of firewood isn’t as unattractive, an illusion which lasts only until I must sweep off snow so I can bring more wood up near the door, ready for use.

The porch railing has a narrow pile of snow, impossibly high.


The trees have collected snow. Oaks, tall before the house was built over fifty years ago, have a white coating along the upper sides of the horizontal branches. It’s as though they’ve been drawn, a tangle of lines in dark pencil for the trees, white chalk highlighting to make the snow even whiter than the page of the sketchbook.

The evergreens, their needles retaining the snow so well the branches all droop down, have a beauty not adequately captured in the illustrations on the holiday cards we’ve just received. One branch was broken. As I went out through the snow to pull it away from the tree I had a sudden recollection of Auguste Rodin’s “Fallen Caryatid” sculpture, which I remember in white marble. Looking online for an image,  the original is actually dark bronze. So much for a lasting impression from the art I’ve seen.

Animal tracks, rabbit and squirrel as well as the neighborhood cat on patrol, have changed from footprints, to streaks across the top of the snow, to channels where they’ve had to push through the accumulation. We’ve heard coyotes howl in the distance, probably down along the creek, but no signs of them up here among the houses.


Snowfall does mean clearing snow so the daily routine of activities and obligations can resume. It’s a bit of work, but it’s no more effort than the time I spend on the home exercise machine. It’s a nice change, more interesting. Instead of a news channel on the television, I have Mozart, the Rolling Stones, the Modern Jazz Quartet, or Adele in my ears. (Sometimes, instead of or, it’s and. Play your music on shuffle more often.) I call it my alternative workout, a pleasant break from the dull routine of short, cold days and long, colder nights.

I like all four seasons. I’ve lived much further south, and I’ll happily deal with winters up here in exchange for not enduring the summers down there.

My experience was eclipsed

I didn’t see the lunar eclipse. A family issue demanded my attention, and it was f-f-freezing cold, not conditions for spending time outside.

It was, however, the kind of beautiful, perfectly clear night I’ve only seen during winter cold. I imagine the stargazing would have been nice.

Out the kitchen window, I could see the bright moonlight casting shadows of the trees across the snow. It was a pretty sight, the moonlight on the snow and the shadows, the places where there was no moonlight. I tried to look up at the moon, but the angle wasn’t right, I couldn’t locate the moon in the sky. Not that I spent much time trying.

Going to bed later than usual, I realized the sky was dark, the shadows gone from the snow. The eclipse was underway. Knowing I hadn’t located the full moon in the sky, I spent no time tying to find the eclipsed moon.

I woke a few hours later with the full moon shining into the room. The eclipse was over. The moonlight had returned, so had the shadows. I went back to sleep

I couldn’t see the lunar eclipse, but I did experience it.

Market research: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”

I haven’t read much science fiction or fantasy in the past decade. I read quite a lot until I was about 30 then life and nonfiction books changed my focus. I saw a mention of The Fifth Season in Acquadimore Books’ wonderful blog of book reviews and decided to try it.

(I also wrote myself a note to look for a list of recent Nebula award winners.)

Many great fantasy books have a setting “just like Earth, except.” The exception here is much busier plate tectonics. Volcanoes and earthquakes are commonplace. The earth is a very active background for life in this place. “Like an old man lying restlessly abed it heaves and sighs, puckers and farts, yawns and swallows.” Everyone knows what a Shake is, many can describe the erupting volcano they’ve seen. Most families live in houses designed to be survived should the next Shake catch them sleeping; most families have runny-sacks should it be necessary to evacuate on short notice. Deadcivs are dead civilizations, destroyed by the movement of the earth with nothing but structures left to say they’d been there. Some of those structures aren’t entirely dead, though, and play roles in the story. Every few hundred years something really big happens, and the climate is changed. Volcanic ash in the upper atmosphere can lead to a six-year winter. Earthquakes can redirect rivers, making towns disappear completely under the mud. A Season can last months, years, or decades. The four seasons happen every year, the fifth season less often, but a more serious thing to survive.

Many great fantasy books have people with wizardly powers. The wizards here can interact with the earth. They can feel shifts leading to earthquakes and soften them. These wizards are called, politely, Orogenes, or impolitely Roggas. The strong ones can reach inside a volcano and redirect it’s pressures to a less catastrophic result. Or they can cause the earth to shake; unguarded mistakes by children can kill people and threaten towns, a primary reason Roggas are feared. In this land, Orogenes are conscripted into a corps of Orogenes who see to preserving stability for the places most important to the empire.

One of the things I liked about the story is Jemisin didn’t just give Roggas the power to do these things, she described where the energy comes from to do it.

The book follows three main characters, Damaya, Essun and Syenite, all female. Their stories are told in independent chapters, but as the story moves forward we see the connections between their stories. Damaya, a child, is identified (perhaps we should say outed?) as a Rogga in her small town, her unguarded mistake triggered when a boy she knows plays too rough a prank. She is taken to the capital of the empire, to enter training to be a member of the corps. The training isn’t just book-learning. Before even arriving at the capital city to begin training, the man assigned to bring her in breaks  her hand, to teach her a lesson about self-control and obedience. Through Damaya’s share of the story we learn in detail the nature of the Orogene’s powers and skills, as well as a bit about the power centers and intrigues of the capital city.

Essun’s story begins when a child is outed as well, her son. Her husband killed the son when he realized the boy was a Rogga, then left town with their daughter. The same day, Essun, a Rogga herself, prevents a large earthquake from damaging her town. The twenty-mile circle of land with no damage brings her the town’s mistrust, not gratitude. She has to leave town anyway, to chase after her husband and secure her daughter’s safety.

Essun’s story is told in the second person and present tense: “you realize there is nothing you can do, so you move back out of the mud.” I thought it a quirky, unconventional choice at first, but you quickly get used to it. Of course there’s a sound, narrative reason to tell part of the story in the second person. Late in the book I began to suspect which character is narrating Essun’s story to her.

Essun’s story shows us the history of this land, it’s Seasons, where the empire came from and the rules it has set out for the towns and people it governs. Jemisin deftly populates this world, with all its complications, without bogging the reader down in having to remember the details. They just seem to fit.

Syenite is a twenty-something Orogene. Ambitious, planning on rising in the corps, she does what she is told to do and behaves as she is expected to behave. The corps, controlling even bloodlines, wants her to bear a child fathered by Alabaster, one of the most powerful men among the Orogenes. She is given an assignment requiring weeks of travel and Alabaster to mentor her on the assignment. There is an unspoken expectation she will return with something to show for their joint efforts.

If Damaya and Essun’s chapters of the narrative give the structure of life in this world, Syenite’s chapters show weaknesses in that structure. The structure and its weaknesses emerge as the central tension of the narrative.

I learned a great deal about viewpoint, voice and tone in this book. I’m still thinking about how a story can be so compelling, even though told softly, plainly. I think it’s because Jemisin gave us characters to care about, people I needed to follow through to the ending. I’d not been clear what “character driven” means; now I have a clear example.

Acquadimore, by the way, reported only getting through 20 or 30 pages, she doesn’t care for sad books. It’s true this book is not upbeat, the words quoted at the top of this post are how the book opens. The main characters face challenges without benefit of white knights or happy endings. Children die, adults get scarred. That’s part of the strength of this narrative, I think: it feels like real life. An alien location, yes, but the details of life have a familiar mix of the sad and the happy.

It is rare that reading a book is a compulsion for me. It’s far more common that I return a book to the library unfinished, having run out of time. This book demanded my attention, I made the time to keep reading until I reached the final words. I look forward to reading the remaining two books in the trilogy. I can only hope the world Jemisin has shown us can still exist after the changes foreshadowed in the first book, from its opening words to its closing.

Have you ever noticed how people often have a resemblance to their dogs

Today the cat jumped on my lap. The only problem is my lap was crowded under a keyboard tray. She got tangled in the skinny headphones cable, so of course she attacked the cable. (Strings are for biting.) She wallowed on my lap, she couldn’t find a comfortable place to settle. She ended up walking across the keyboard on her way up onto the desk to look for a better place to settle in.

20181120_155300__RSMy computer is a laptop. When I’m at my desk at home, I have a larger keyboard plugged in so the tray, pulled out from under the desk, puts the keyboard at a convenient level. When the cat walks on my desk, she tends to walk on the laptop keyboard. Never mind the random letters appearing in what I’m writing. Apparently there is a magical function key there in the top row, the row I usually ignore, that shuts down the computer. There it is, the little icon of a lock on F9.


20181103_210149__RSThis particular cat is a new addition to the household. We’ve had her for just a few months. She is the latest in a long line of cats stretching back to the 80’s. She’s between one and two years old, the shelters we adopt from are never sure. She’s still a bit like a kitten, very active. She has yet to learn a little finesse.

She can be friendly, she can be needy. She has been known to show up unexpectedly, desperate for some cuddling. She spends most of the night sleeping up against my hip, or my wife’s, but won’t join us until twenty minutes after everything is dark and quiet.

She can be cold and stand-offish. She likes alone time. She can snarl when I interrupt her, even when she’s just spent ten minutes sitting on the carpet looking up at me while we watch a movie on the television.

She wants things her way.

Here we have a case study in people getting pets who are like themselves.

I can be friendly. I have been known to be desperate for a cuddle. But I can also be cold, and I definitely snarl when my alone time is interrupted. Sometimes my alone time, writing, doesn’t end until twenty minutes after the rest of the house is dark and quiet.

I don’t make it easy for my family in the way I want things my way.

I have one saving grace. I’ve learned to compromise, to respect other’s feelings and needs instead of just my own. I know I can postpone alone time without consequences.

She’s much better at living in the present than I.

And I am still learning finesse.

What do you give a voracious reader?

For as long as my children can remember, I’ve given them books for their birthdays and for Christmas. This was easy when they were eight, ten and twelve, my view of literature was so much broader than theirs. I always had some ideas for a new book to give. Each new book was a new door for them to open, discovering still more of the world of books.

My children were raised as readers. They received books as gifts, we read aloud from books, they saw both their parents reading, for work as well as for pleasure. As adults, they are lifelong readers. One belongs to a book club, both live in houses full of books.

They’ve been reciprocating. I’ve received some really great books from my children in recent years. One of them has been particularly good at finding interesting little gems.
On the other hand, now that they’ve read a lot themselves, picking out a gift book for my children has become more difficult. The roles are reversed, their view of the literary universe is now broader than mine.

As I see book reviews, as I see books in the library that might be interesting, I keep lists of books to consider for all of the people to whom I gift books. That’s not enough, I’ve learned; my children keep lists of books they want to read and we find ourselves overlapping. I no longer know what they’ve read. Two years ago I gave a book to one of my kids. She reported it was a great choice, a perfect book for her, in fact she’d read it a year before with her book group. We returned it, I sent another. She’d read it. It took three tries to give her a new book.

I’ve started thinking about older publications instead of just recent books. Everyone should read a little Graham Greene. Everyone should know more about P.G. Wodehouse than the Bertie and Jeeves series we saw on television. That works for one child. The other has her university degree in English, it’s not so easy to find a classic she hasn’t been required to read.

It is a challenge I enjoy. I have to stay more connected to the world of books if I’m going to successfully continue giving books as gifts, which I most certainly shall.

The fireplace DVD

 In the house before the one we just moved into, we didn’t have a fireplace. Before that, it was a house with a fireplace that couldn’t be used.

My wife and I both like a fire in the room. It’s not just the atmosphere, the flickering, yellow-orange light of the burning wood, the aroma. It’s also that lovely glow of heat radiating from the fire as well.

In the house without a fireplace, we began talking almost immediately about wanting one. We picked out the location where it would be added, we had a rough idea of the cost to have one put in. But it never rose to the top of our list of priorities for spending money.

What else could we do?

I remembered, several years ago, flying to Edmonton, Alberta, the evening of Thanksgiving Day in Canada, which is in October. I would start a work assignment the following morning. When I switched on the television in my hotel room, I found the channel that broadcast a turkey roasting beside a crackling fire. A tradition on Canadian cable TV, the video is broadcast for 24 hours on Thanksgiving day. (Sorry, I couldn’t find the name of the broadcaster who does this with a short search online.)

Remembering the video in Canada, I went looking. I found an 11-hour fireplace on YouTube, but patchingYouTube into the television involved a cable from my computer to a the television well over twenty years old. Then I found I could buy a fireplace DVD. It has four scenes, with the fire fading from high to low embers over 60 minutes. You can just play the whole thing through for an hour, put any one scene on repeat, or repeat the whole thing.

The perfect Christmas gift, no?


 It did not go over big that Christmas. It wasn’t the same as a fireplace. My argument that the televisionwas a 600-watt heater fell flat. (It is hot, just stand close to it.) Engineering does not prevail over aesthetic judgment.

But times changed. The past few years we played the fireplace DVD when entertaining, a little detail in the background.

Now, we’re in a house with a fireplace again. I doubt the fireplace DVD will see much use.

And, in case someone calls me out: yes, a fireplace burns fossil fuels. I do feel a little guilty, and we don’t use it all that often.