Wednesday, June 30, 2010


“You must hurry,” the boy said. His voice was high and pure.

We climbed into the carriage, wedging our bodies into what little space there was between our large trunks. Cornelius handed me a small jar of wine and I took a drink, grateful to him. The boy cracked his whip over the oxen’s backs and the cart lurched forward. The snow fell heavier now and I could not see anything of our destination. The world had disappeared behind a shifting, sparkling veil.

“Can you find the observatory?” I said.

“Do not worry. I can find Brahe’s house in any weather. But pray do not distract me.”

I fell silent, hunched under my cloak and I looked past the oxen at the snow falling onto the barely visible road. Somewhere within the worsening weather sat Uraniborg, or what was left of it. Tycho had designed the observatory himself and it had been built to last a dozen lifetimes, yet after only four years of disuse people called it a ruin. It was inconceivable that the palace no longer stood. The walls of the keep were four feet thick, the towers rose fifty feet and the roof was of heavy copper tiles. The huge timbers beneath the floorboards had been sawn from great fir trees felled in Sweden and ferried over the Sound at some expense. Uraniborg was no barn, no shepherd’s hut to collapse upon itself after a few neglected years. Uraniborg was a noble house of many floors, with seven towers and terraces to hold the great brass instruments. Uraniborg was a glittering villa standing on the highest point of the island. Every angle and measurement that had gone into the construction, from the subcellar laboratories to the Pegasus weather vane on the tall center tower, had been computed to result in a structure perfect to eye and soul, a place where all was in harmony within and without, a microcosm of the macrocosm. Uraniborg was beautiful and solid, a shining fortress on the frontier of the future.

“Here is Brahe’s ruin,” the boy said.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chapter Eleven Done

I'm calling this chapter "The Mason's Son," as it introduces a tiny bit of Horatio's backstory and some more mystery. Mystery is good.

wordcountometer = 39,305!

I have no idea how long this is going to be. Lots of stuff needs to happen yet. There is going to be a murder very soon, in an upcoming chapter, and I'm still not sure which of two people the victim will be. I have the murderer and the location, but not the corpse. Well, we'll just see.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hiding Behind A Hero Of Our Time

I have been reading Mikhail Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time in a translation by none other than Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov, in typical fashion, intrudes himself upon the narrative through his lengthy preface and numerous footnotes, giving a running commentary not only on possible variant meanings (that is, translation-related items) but also on Lermontov's writing style, story structure, character development and so on. Little by little, Nabokov places himself between the reader and the text until he is a constant presence, whispering into the reader's ear.

The two most obvious things Nabokov is doing with his editorial footnotes are showing his erudition (does the reader really need to know, for example, that Pushkin's poem "The Cloud," which Lermontov briefly quotes, is written in amphibrachic tetrameter in the original Russian?) and pointing out the flaws of Lermontov's technique. The erudition is no surprise, as Nabokov can't help but point out that he's smarter than his reader; it's just what he does in all his works and why I can only read one Nabokov in a calendar year else I become too vexed. The sometimes-harsh criticism of Lermontov struck me, at first, as simply more of the same stuff: "Look how much better a writer I am than Lermontov," Nabokov seems to be saying.

But I realized this morning that Nabokov is only pretending to sneer at Lermontov's book. Consider that Nabokov valued good writing above most other human endeavors, and had little patience with books that he considered to be rubbish (read his lectures on literature if you don't believe me). If Nabokov wished--as I believe he did--to throw all the rubbish onto the fire and rid the world of it, why would he make the effort to translate the Lermontov if he didn't prize it?

My theory now is that Nabokov liked A Hero of Our Time, wanted it to be widely read in a good translation, and wanted the reader to like it. But Nabokov realized that Lermontov wasn't among the best of the 19th-century Russian novelists and his desire to share the book, and his enthusiasm for it, embarrassed him rather. And Nabokov, instead of simply being brave and putting his translation out into the world with sincere wishes that we'll love it as dearly as he does, puts on a show of disdain for the book to protect himself in case we don't like it.

So I adjust my mental image of Nabokov and extend this fairly childlike desire to be appreciated to all of Nabokov's writing and I think it makes sense. Nabokov wanted us to fall in love with his novels the way he fell in love with his own favorites, but just in case we didn't--and he was sure we wouldn't--he distanced himself emotionally from us and hid behind a veil of contempt. Which is, when you think about it, sad.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tipping Point of No Return To Sender

Saturday night I was typing my handwritten MS up into the Master Word Document(tm) and I found that I'd passed the 35K word mark. Seeing that I was this far along in the book came as a relief, and I looked at my notes for the rest of the story and realized that I do actually have something book-length on my hands. That's always a worry for me in first drafts; I haven't yet had to struggle to make something long enough to be publishable, but there's always the fear that I'm just stretching out a short story or that the ideas I'm working with will play themselves out too quickly.

Writing a book is a pretty serious commitment, at least for me, and while I'm working out some useful methods as I get more novels behind me (the current WIP is novel number four), I am also finding that I have the same fears while writing every novel. The primary fear is that I won't be able to finish the first draft. Not only do I worry that the idea isn't "big" enough, but I worry that I'll simply run out of energy or let the difficulty of the task overwhelm me and I'll fall out of the habit of writing and simply never get to the end.

I am past that particular fear with this draft, because even though I'm not at the halfway mark (I am looking for this to be around 90,000 words long), I know that I've got enough material planned and I also know that the middle section of the book is going to be a lot of fun to write and will go pretty quickly and will be cool and awesome so I am rather itching to get moving with it. The third act, the climaxes of all the various story strands, will be straightforward enough and so what all this means is that even though I'm not quite halfway through this first draft, I feel like I'm already on the downhill side of things, and that is an excellent place to be.

Of course I still have all the other fears that go along with writing a novel: fear that the basic idea is stupid; fear that the basic idea is a good idea but I will give it a stupid treatment; fear that my writing is simply awful at the sentence level; fear that nobody will like the book, etc. I get around those fears by convincing myself that the events in the book are actual historical facts, and I'm just writing them down. Subjectivity has no role in mere reportage. I'm only saying what happened, not showing off my creativity. I have tremendous powers of self delusion, you know.

Anyway, my target for finishing this draft is around the end of August. We'll see how that works out.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Chapter Ten, False Starts and Then We're Off

About two weeks ago I finished Chapter 9 of this draft of The Stars Are Fire and wrote what I thought would be the first sentence of Chapter 10, which sentence would--I thought--catapult me magically into the fictional dream and words would come pouring out like my imagination was some sort of magical spring. Well, that didn't happen. The first sentence led nowhere, so I tried again. That sentence went nowhere. In fact, I took three stabs at the opening paragraph before I abandoned the point of entry I had planned to use, and switched to a different idea for the chapter opener. Here's the first page of my handwritten ms, showing the aborted attempts to get started:

You can see that even the idea I went with required a lot of revisions as I was writing it. But it gets worse. Here's the other side of that notebook page, showing just how much I kept changing my mind and reworking ideas for this chapter opening:

Yes, I understand how all of that mess is supposed to read, believe it or not. The writing settled down a lot over the next several pages, and I've skittered ahead and written about 2,500 words for this chapter, which puts me most of the way through it. I hope to be working on Chapter 11 by the end of this weekend. Fingers crossed and all that.

Anyway, one thing I've noticed about my writing (and one thing that I really appreciate about writing longhand, because there is a graphic record, so to speak, of my hesitations and mind changes) is that most of the scratched out sections, the false starts and abandoned ideas of mine come at the beginnings of chapters. I think that's because--especially when a chapter skips ahead in time or to a new location--I am not always sure how I want to jump into the scene. I don't have a solid image or character emotion in mind, and I'm shoving ideas at the page until one of them says "yes, this is the key that unlocks this scene and you are now allowed to enter."

Anyway, if I wrote on a computer I don't think I'd ever have observed this about my own writing and I am, you know, the most fascinating writer working today. To me, that is.

Update: Chapter finished, I think! Wordcount = 35,684! I say "I think," because I just now realized that the point to where I've written would be a good place to stop, letting me skip ahead to the conversation between Horatio, Cornelius and Voltemont that I wish to have; it's a very important conversation and skipping straight to that means I get to skip some boring travel and shifting of luggage.

Favorite part of this chapter? Possibly Father Maltar drifting randomly in and out of Latin while relating a disturbing dream.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Yes, I Said Yes

Happy Bloomsday! I first read bits of Ulysses back in my college days (likely Molly's inner dialogue chapter which ends the book, if nothing else), but only took in the whole of this magnificent book in summer of 2006, when two of my friends were also reading it. I wanted to quote my favorite passage this morning (either the very first pages, or Poldy's flight from the pub and the tin of biscuits being thrown, or the dinner at the hospital), but I am short of time so you get nothing except my recommendation that if you've not read Ulysses, you should.

Ah, happy is the man who googles and finds what might be copyright infringement. Not sure about that. Anyway, here is the Cyclops episode, from about the middle of the novel.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Middles, Muddles et Cetera

Today I made some notes (a couple of pages) for the middle section of my novel-in-progress, preparatory to actually beginning the writing of the middle in question. Although my original outline for this book used a typical Elizabethan five-act structure, I have decided that, for my purposes, it makes sense to think of the middle as its own three-act structure. When I wrote my last book I hit upon the idea of having the middle (or the Second Act, if you wish) be a sort of novella all of its own, with a story arc that connects the two halves of another novella (told in the narrative form of the First Act and the Third Act of the novel). Which is all not what I was going to say here. I over-complicate this.

I am getting ready to start writing the middle section of The Stars Are Fire. I assume it will take up about half the actual length of the book, or about 40-45K words. Maybe a bit more. I am using a three-act structure for this middle section.

When I put together outlines, I am not generally thinking in terms of plot, or of events. My stories are not really of the "put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him" variety. Mine are more of the "here's a weird thing; let me tell you how it got that way" variety, which means that endpoints are important. That is, I know how the novel itself ends, because that end-state is the whole point of the novel. As a writer, it is my target and I constantly point the reader toward the target and move the narrative toward it. My target is not necessarily an event; I really am concerned with the emotional state of a character, or an awareness reached by a character. Possibly it's Joyce's epiphanic moment that has now become de rigueur in short stories, or perhaps it's the Chekhovian or Dostoyevskian moment of dramatic irony to which I am moving. I'm not sure and I don't wish to analyze it too closely, ta awfully. Anyway, I am moving toward what I'll refer to for now as an emotional target.

There is a specific emotional target for the book as a whole, where the protagonist feels a specific way about life. The book maneuvers the reader into seeing how someone could/would feel that way, and leaves the door open for the reader to speculate about that emotional target being a good thing or not. This specific emotional endpoint necessitates emotional waypoints, or definite moments in the narrative where the protagonist and the antagonist become aware of how they feel about certain things, and are surprised to find that their opinions are--upon examination--not what they had thought. The Second Act--the middle I'm about to start writing--is that part of the narrative where the protagonist and the antagonist realize that they are in fact working in opposition, and determine to do something about each other.

It's good for me to know this, and to know it in these terms. I've been able to break the middle down into three parts:

1. The protagonist and antagonist are thrown together and isolated from everyone else. Their beliefs of the status quo are laid out.

2. I expose the truth, that their belief systems are in conflict, and the protagonist and antagonist struggle to reconcile this conflict.

3. I show that this conflict cannot be reconciled, and only one belief system can win out, and so the protagonist and antagonist must destroy each other's belief systems (which systems are, of course, embodied in the persons of the characters so it's a fight to the death coming).

So the Second Act will set up a mortal conflict to be resolved in the Third Act. The Second Act will also show how the conflict in the First Act was just a part of the real conflict: both the outer conflict begun in Act One but left hanging when Act Two began, and the inner conflict shown in Act Two must be resolved together, in Act Three. So the Second Act raises the stakes for all the players.

All of this sounds very disconnected and abstract, I realize, but I don't so much want to go into a lot of details about the book here.

Also today, I edited the first chapter of this book-in-progress, which is a violation of my own rules for first drafts. But I did it anyway because I print out each chapter as I finish it and make a nice, neat stack of growing manuscript on the table beside my desk and I happened to take a look at the first page in this growing manuscript and I really hated something about the first paragraph so out came the red pen and before you know it, I'd gone through the whole chapter and made a bunch of changes. I think it's much improved now, but there's no point in revising the first chapter of an unfinished novel, so my energies are now only allowed to go into finishing up the rest of the draft.

So anyway, I have my middle divided into the three sections listed above. For each of those sections, I know my emotional endpoints for the protagonist and antagonist. I have written lists of events that might bring the characters closer to those emotional endpoints, and these lists will--I assume--become lists of scenes that I'll write, which scenes will all flow one into the next and take the protagonist and antagonist from one emotional state at the end of the First Act to a different emotional state at the end of the Second Act. That's the plan, at any rate. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Keeping Up and Leaping Ahead

I have been pushing my way through a new draft of a book since the end of March, and it's felt as if I have been moving very slowly. Most of the time, it's like I am making no progress at all. "You ran headlong through your last book," I tell myself. "Why can't you keep up the same pace here? Why are you writing at a snail's pace now?"

One of the things for which I use this blog is to keep track of my progress in my projects, and whenever I've written a good chunk or finished a chapter, I try to post my word count. That means that for this draft, and for my prior book, and for the book before that even, I have decent data that I can look at whenever I want to analyze my writing methods (which, I am ashamed to admit, is more often than I will actually admit). Anyway, kids, it turns out that I am actually writing this draft a bit more quickly than I wrote the first draft of my last book, and I need to back off from my self-flagellation.

Mighty Reader asks me why I think I'm making poor progress compared to last book, when in fact I am not. My answer is that I don't know. Probably writing is just hard, you know? Every book feels like an ill-fated attempt to push an ocean overland, and this one is no different. But the good news is that I am, in fact, doing pretty well here. So yay, me!

In other news, I've been a bit less than healthy of late and so I went to see my doctor this morning. No brain tumor, which is a shame because brain tumors are sort of sexy. But nothing to worry about and I'm taking a second day off from work, which is nice for me. After having god knows how much blood drawn (and thanks, Miss Phlebotomist, for blowing the vein in my left arm and then finally making the draw from the other one after I suggested we try a different arm) I sat down in a coffee shop for a restorative double-short and a lemon bar and, to my utter surprise, the first 400 or so words of my next book--which is to be the story of an Antarctic expedition that goes awry--came to me so I scribbled them down into my notebook and now I have to find a place to keep that page until sometime next year, when I'll actually sit down to write up a draft of the Antarctica book (title still pending). Hey, I know: I'll write it down here so I can find it a year from now. It's a bit rough, but here goes:

Chapter One

Tom had lost the compass, but that was not important in a land where every direction was north, where the landscape was the same no matter where he looked. He couldn't see the camp, nor could he see the ocean, so he walked with no real purpose across the ice, circling through and over bits of wood and metal and oilcloth and filth. A light wind pushed against him from some direction and he kept the hood of his parka closed over his face as much as possible, open just enough for him to peer out with his right eye. His left eye remained swollen shut and Tom wondered if he'd been blinded in it.

The circle he walked widened into a loose spiral and he stumbled ever farther from the shack where Farraday had imprisoned him earlier in the day. There was something to his left rising black from the ice and snow, at a distance impossible to estimate. The ice floe was the same greasy dull white as the sky and Tom was unsure if he saw the horizon. The dark shape to his left could be a quarter mile away or it could be a dozen miles off. But it was something other than ice and snow and so he moved toward it, dragging his heavy boots and wondering what had happened to his pipe and pouch. Likely Farraday had taken them when he'd relieved Tom of his flask, his bible, his ration of blubber, his knife, pistol, diary, and whatever else could be dug out of Tom's pockets.

The dark shape came into focus and Tom saw that it was the hulk of the
Lady Tilton, lying broken backed on her side, her masts and arms like felled trees. Rubbish and abandoned equipment was strewn from the ship's open hatches away across the ice. Tom's gaze followed this trail of detritus and he thought perhaps he saw the dark line of the sea beating against the edge of the ice, and the moving black shapes of men, tiny and desperate in the distant gray haze. His crew. And Farraday with them. Tom knew they were not searching for him; he was the least useful man on the expedition. He did not matter. He stumbled forward, past the shattered hull of the ship, toward the men, maybe half a mile away.

Still rough, but I'll deal with that.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chapter Nine Finished!

Yes, finished. On to the great middle section of the book. I have all sorts of ideas; we'll see how they work out. Horatio is now on a boat, bound for an island in the middle of the Oresund.

wordcount = 32,691!

I am approaching the halfway mark! Yay! I hope that the first part of this book doesn't drag; I feel like I should've arrived where I am now in the story about 12,000 words ago. But my projections were just guesses and it doesn't really matter. If the middle section is short, that might be a good thing. Like I keep saying, we'll see.

Off to make dinner.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chapter Nine, first page

The king's generals and captains assembled on horseback in the courtyard the next morning. The sky was cloudless and hard, the blue of agate. I stood next to the prince and his horse, shivering under my cloak. Prince Hamlet looked fine in his armor, very like a hero of old. I thought it a pity that at any moment the king would be discovered dead in his chamber. The prince's valiant sally against Jaaperson would not happen.

"You look very much the warrior this day, my lord."

"Thank you, Horatio. But where is my father? His squire left to seek him a quarter hour ago."

"It is curious, my lord. The army hath never waited for the king; he hath always been the first man ready to do battle. I hope no ill has befallen him."

"Tush, my friend. Such talk brings bad luck. Ah, here comes the king."

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Research, With Slight Embarrassment

In the process of writing The Stars Are Fire, the book I'm revising for my agent so we can get it out on submission, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of historical research. I've read the history of Denmark (from before the Ice Age up to about 1600), I've read about the Reformation, about the city of Wittenberg, about Renaissance food and drink and costumes, I've read about Swiss mercenaries, I've read about rapier fencing and European economics in the late middle ages and early Renaissance, I've read about Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and the Holy Roman Emperor, I've read about purifying mercury and about equitorial armillae and the history of the telescope and the Copernican solar system and today I purchased the book "The Idiot's Guide to Astrology" because my protagonist is a professional astrologer and I thought I should make sure that while I'm throwing around all the cool astrological terms (like sesquisquare, Arabic Parts, conjuctions and the like), I am actually using them properly. Wikipedia is only good to a point; eventually I have to sit and read a book to see if I actually understand the system and how all the parts work together. Not that I said any of this to the clerk at the bookstore. I just endured her gaze and paid my $5.

Also! I am at about 30,000 words now. I need to set aside some time to type up my ms. I have decided to end Chapter Eight where I am and begin Chapter Nine. This also cleverly allows me to skip ahead a bit in the timeline, and to begin Chapter Nine with the discovery of a corpse. Oops! Who put that there?