Preamble

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Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.  Geoffrey Chaucer said that about 600 years ago as part of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the first writing we would recognize as English.  I believe it.  What would life be worth if it weren’t a pilgrimage?  Every day.  I hope you will join my pilgrimage.  I’m writing a book … well, several.  Writing is pilgrimage, and I’ll need sustenance along the way.  I hope you will follow along, comment, help lead me.  C’mon, it will be an adventure …

Cyberwar

cyberwarNot long ago, a writer friend said, “You’d better get published quickly, or your concept will be part of history.”

He’s right. Back when I got the idea for my first novel, Fatal Score, I thought there would be a future war in cyberspace. I guessed at the time (2011) that it would start with a bang in 2018. I was wrong.
I was wrong because “war” had, in my mind, a definite beginning. Like Richard crossing the Channel in 1066 or Franz Ferdinand being assassinated in Serbia to start World War I.
The foreword to Fatal Scores says that, in the unspecified not far future in which the story takes place, “the world is not dramatically different, but what the media called Cyberwar I has happened. In the wake of fires, floods, power-grid failures and a small nuclear episode, the United States rushed to develop the most secure (and most expensive) data vault in history. They named it, in bureaucratic mumblespeak, the Interagency Communication Channel. The acronym was thus the unpronounceable IACC, which shortly became ‘Yak’ in popular speech.”

Like lots of events in this new world of ours, the whole notion of war is being torqued by technology. It seems as if Cyberwar I has started, perhaps by our attack on Iran’s centrifuges, perhaps earlier. It heated up in the recent election.

One thing almost certain: it will escalate further.

I need an agent.  Double quick.

Sailing and Editing

cotuit-skiffs-racing

Cotuit skiffs a-racing

At risk of straying into overwrought metaphor, editing is a bit like sailing. My wife’s family is of New England whaling stock. She grew up sailing the flat bottom, gaff-rigged skiffs that evolved from the workboats designed to sail the shallow bays and shoals of Cape Cod. Her grandmother wrote a wonderful story, The Cut of Her Jib, which she took from a journal and letters of her grandfather, a whaling captain, and her grandmother. Have a look.

cover-cut-of-her-jibOkay, back to torturing the metaphor. When I go to my critique groups, I get gusts of wind coming from different directions. They’re like the changing winds that bedevil sailors near the shore. But those contrary breezes, if you read them right, you sail a better line. Same with the critical comments. I’m somewhere just off shore with my third novel, Open Circuit, tacking and backing, trying to maneuver.

After you pull free of the shoals and into the ocean, the wind steadies. You have to trim the sail and determine which line work best. Not unlike the work of editing once the story’s laid out. I’m halfway through the first substantial edit on my second novel, Skins and Bone, realizing I’m in deep water. I better navigate right or I’ll miss the point of the island.

Awright, awright. I think I’ve bludgeoned that metaphor enough.

Back to the editing …

The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

Art, Wisdom, and the Comics

Sally ForthI must admit that I glance at the front page of the paper, scan the news of the day and go to the comics page for wisdom.

So, here you have it.  We writers often miss this truth, vainly trying to lock the reader into our own special vision.

(from www.sallyforth.com)

Overhead

Overhead:  That concept they lay on you at the auto dealership when you wonder why it costs $70 per hour to fix your car.

Overhead:  A life concept I too often ignore.

mechanic bill

I digress today from writing about writing per se to talk about the real-world business of writing. Specifically, is this new age better? Or just different?

Surely, we have resources we never had before. Google maps, Wikipedia, thousands … nay millions … of specialized websites. I said in the last post that I was able to scope out and define a little town in Austria right from my comfortable chair in Minnesota.

Wonderful, but …

  • Arriving home from a trip abroad, my good old HP printer doesn’t print. Turns out Apple’s latest update of its OS is probably the problem. That cost three hours and led to a new printer.
  • WordPress.com explains that my podcast hasn’t passed through to iTunes, depriving it of 80% of its listeners. Nobody knows quite why. I’m looking into a separate website. Several hours squandered there.
  • Audible/ACX, the Amazon audiobook service, hasn’t responded after having told me there’s “electrical noise” in my audition file. Serializing the first novel as a podcast is on hold.

Overhead!

I don’t know about you, but I realize I should allow for all this overhead when I set my expectations about what this wonderful world of technology promises.

Fiction and reality

I have just returned from a trip to reality.

In my second novel, a main character is drugged and pushed off a Danube river boat. She ends up in a little town at the eastern edge of Austria called Hainburg an der Donau.

With my Internet resources, I was able to see a Google World view of the town, locate the hospital in it, observe the uniform of Austrian policemen, calculate the actual speed of the boat after it left Vienna for a trip to Budapest, view a plan of a boat similar to my fictional one. I knew the depth and temperature of water in late June, and I knew that a single screw (propeller) would most likely not drag an unconscious person through its blades. More than enough information to write a credible story, right?

A little over a week ago, my wife and I had dinner in VGruner Veltlinerienna with several friends from my former business life. Over a very nice glass Grüner Veitliner, I allowed as how I planned to ride the train to Hainburg the next day. Chuckles. Well, I said, part of my novel takes place … Outright laughter. “In Hainburg?” they asked, with the same inflection a Manhattanite would use to describe central North Dakota.

I mentioned that I had written ahead to the Tourist Bureau there (not-so-stifled laughter) and received a long German reply to my request to visit the police station. The Tourist Bureau had summed it up in four English words: “It is not possible.”

My friends Werner and Tina took pity on us and drove us to Hainburg the next day.

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg hospital

Hainburg hospital

The town was substantial, but definitely in the sticks, at least to my sophisticated city-dwelling friends. The hospital was far more substantial than I expected, and its design would not have allowed the story line as I had written it. The police department, the one which was “not possible” to see, produced a constable very like my fictional one and an interior design that made what I had written plausible.

I will make some revisions, but fiction is fiction. The lovely little town Hainburg an Der Donau with be portrayed, umm, a little inaccurately.

Genre, quantification and precision

I was just trying to remember how to forward my land line. I went to the Xfinity website. Before I found the answer, though, I was presented with a survey about how my experience was. Which got me to thinking …

It seems more and more of our experience is being quantified, presumably to make various commercial activities easier for merchants and service providers. The power of virtually infinite computer power and the Internet have helped us make a giant leap in the way we slice, dice and parse our lives.

There is some evidence that this preference for classification is hard-wired … a survival skill. And that Babylonian who marked out the first pictographic writing probably worked for the then-equivalent of Amazon. Certainly Aristotle carried the notion of divisions and subdivisions of practically everything forward.

Which brings me back to genre. It’s a conundrum for a beginning writer: to get through the genresvery narrow eye of the needle that leads to a published work, you need to know your genre and state it in the first line or two of a query to an agent or a publisher. Trouble is, “genre” is a pretty vague notion, the more so because published authors routinely ignore it.

Not too long ago, as my weekly writers’ group worked through my first novel, Fatal Score, one of the members said, “This novel is a bit literary for a thriller.”

“A bit literary” made me think of Amazon’s review questions. Amazon is now asking a series of classifying questions that would warm the cockles of Aristotle’s heart when one reviews a book. (Example: How would you describe the plot of this book? Predictable/Some Twists/Full of Surprises). Maybe we should go to a more precise, numerical score for genres. Perhaps a ‘literary-ness’ dimension. (This would of course be a vertical scale with Literary on top and Commercial on the bottom.) Then a complexity dimension (much like the fog index) with board books at one end and a modern philosophy text at the other. There could be many others.

I can just see the first line of the query:

Fatal Score (88,900 words; 8.4 action/6.7 character/5.1 tension/6.4 litfic/7.4 complexity) is a thriller about big data, the brutal reality of future medical care, and an ordinary guy who makes an extraordinary discovery.

Yecccch!

 

 

 

 

New Orleans Purgatorio: A Short Story Podcast

Here’s a Podcast of my short story, New Orleans Purgatorio,   which was shortlisted for the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom short story prize.

New Orleans Eveningpodcast copy222

Why a podcast?  Well, my writer friends know that the market for fiction is changing faster than a 2016 politician’s promise (sorry!).  This is, frankly, an experiment in advance of a larger commitment to produce my first novel in audio form.

Hope you enjoy!