Tuesday, March 29, 2016

to the bottom of the earth: a progress report

Lammerson looked up, blinked into the light and then he stretched out his arm toward the immense map which stood to his right and cried, "Antarctica!" Five hundred souls shivered and held their breath at Lammerson’s feet. Lammerson tossed his head, his eyes flashing, his gapped teeth bared.

"The bottom of the Earth," Lammerson said. His Norwegian accent was a thick liquid, undulating around sharp points of consonant, a growling music that would’ve been comical in a smaller man but from Lammerson it seemed to sound forth out of another world, a world of danger and mystery.

"I have trod the ice of Antarctica on four separate expeditions, more than any other man alive. I know Antarctica well: her mountains, her blizzards, her plains of broken snowpack, her vastness, and her deadliness."

Lammerson spoke for nearly an hour, now and then leaping to the map to point out where his adventures had taken place.

"Here we first laid anchor along the shores of the Southern Ocean, more than a thousand miles below New Zealand. We marched to the southeast, parallel to this line of high coastal mountains that curve like a great archer’s bow and lead nearly to the Pole. East of the range, shown here in light blue, is a great sea, an enormous bay hundreds of miles wide that is covered over with thick plates of pack ice pressed up against the continent by the ocean currents. We pulled our sleds out onto the frozen bay and saw how it was not flat, as we’d thought from the ship, but was broken and buckled, immense slabs of dense white ice the width of villages, the height of cathedrals, all laying one atop and alongside the other, a vast waste that shone hard in the sun, blinding us nearly at mid-day, uninhabited by any man since the creation of the world. On this bay we spotted dark seals and giant penguins, which we tracked, hunted, killed and ate. The seals and penguins also live out beyond the edge of the land here, on great sheets of sea ice that float freely, encircling Antarctica in a magnificent halo. The orca, those huge fish who swim all of the earth’s cold oceans, even into the fjords of Norway, hunt beneath the sea ice, leaping up between the floes to snatch unwary seals and families of penguins. Antarctica is no pastoral and sleeping land, ladies and gentlemen. Antarctica is violently in motion, day in and day out. The pack ice filling the bay seems at first to be a solid and unchanging mass, a sculpture carved by God in millennia long past, but it is not. The sea moves beneath the ice to push and pull the surface, and we learned to our sadness that we trod over unstable ground.

"We dragged our sleds, making our way from the ship’s anchorage here, crossing the bay in this direction. At times we were forced to leap across narrow chasms whose bottoms we could not see. On the third day we reached the foot of what we’d taken to be a granite cliff. It was instead a high wall of ice, forced up from the surrounding slabs by Nature, its head rising a hundred feet into the air. My friend Lars, well-known in Oslo as a mountaineer, said he would climb the face of this gigantic slab and take photographs from the top. We could see that such a climb was possible, as the cliff was composed of long striations of blue and white ice, a natural ladder much like crushed breccia or weathered gneiss, almost a steep staircase, ladies and gentlemen. A trivial climb for an experienced mountaineer such as Lars. With his ice axe and hobnailed boots he made his way up quite easily, fifty or sixty feet above us, and then we felt the world shifting, the pack ice shrugging beneath our weight. Lars called out to us and then the face of the ice cliff collapsed; its many layers of blue and white tumbled down from the top to the bottom. Those of us below scrambled away and as I looked back I saw Lars disappear under countless tons of ice and snow that poured down upon him, a great wave of shale-like fragments the size of houses. We dug for an hour but found no sign of Lars. The next day we made our way off the ice and set foot on the continent itself."

Lammerson shook his head and walked back to the lectern, where he shrugged, adjusted his cuffs and tugged absently on the gold medal hung at his throat. He drank a glass of water and turned his attention back to the large map.
I'm foolishly still writing the first draft of yet another novel, a thing called Nowhere But North. At this point, according to my design document, I'm about 40% of the way through the work. At this rate, I'll need a year to finish the draft. I am writing this book very slowly as compared to my previous first drafts. There is a huge amount of research reading to do, as well as certain interesting formal considerations that slow me down. Structure is tricky in this one, and I'm not writing it in the order that the material will be presented in the narrative. The above excerpt will eventually be found about a third of the way into the novel. I've already written the final chapter of the book. Next I'll write two middle sections, and then three beginning sections, and then one long scene that ties all of the sections together, running like a ribbon around/between nine longer pieces. It will all be clear on the trail, as the saying goes.

Also, the usual caveats about the text above being a rough draft all apply.

19 comments:

  1. it's great!! i'll buy it right now! at one point i read a lot about antarctic and polar exploration, but the ones i remember most are poe and lovecraft: narrative of a. gordon pym and in the mountains of madness, the latter of which scared me and gave me nightmares for years... but yours will be great i'm sure! the most inspiring was the shackleton story: what a guy, saving almost all of his crew and sailing a very small boat, overloaded, across half the antarctic ocean...

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  2. Oh, that's a marvelous landscape to put characters through--where it is so bold and estranging and also gives birth to events because it is so dangerous and unstable and almost a living thing in its action. Interesting that Mudpuddle read a lot about exploration but remembers the weird best. (And the Pym landscape really does feel alive, with its colored veins in the water particularly. I read the Lovecraft novel when I was 18, and it has vanished entirely, or so my head thinks.)

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    1. p. s. Meant to ask, what do you think are the virtues and drawbacks of writing a book in such a way, all out of order, in pieces? (Perhaps that's too big a question for the comments!) Of course, movies are usually shot in such ways--we're accustomed to that idea. And you really need to know the shape of things in order to make any narrative in that manner. It has crossed my mind a few times to try that way with a particular project, but I have not decided one way or another. I don't tend to know exactly where I'm going, though, or how my characters will alter in response to events.

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    2. I will tell you my trick with this out-of-order novel: I am writing it in strict chronological order, but will cut it up and present it in the order of the development of the big themes. So the mechanics of storytelling mostly take care of themselves. The thematic development, if it's too rough once the ms is reassembled, will all be fixed (I hope) during revisions.

      The only tricky part, regarding how the plot will be presented out of order, is deciding in which section characters learn certain key things, have key experiences. But I have spent the last five or so years making diagrams of the book, pushing ideas and events around. So, as you say, I really had to know the shape of things. But I plot in terms of theme anyway, so actually getting into the details of scenes is something I can leave open until I'm sitting there with a pen. It's hard to talk about this in a general way; I feel like I'm being obtuser the more I talk.

      But to tell the truth, I've never written a novel in strict chronological order, because I lean heavily on flashbacks (and the last chapter of The Astrologer has flash-forwards, too).

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    3. Interesting. Well, my most important revision of Maze of Blood meant radically rearranging the order, so I suppose that I did something like this (though for somewhat different reasons.)

      Some day I am going to have to try making elaborate pre-writing frameworks, just for the fun of a change. It does seem less wasteful.

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  3. There's a big nod to Poe's novel in my book. I've read the Lovecraft, but like Marly, it was so long ago that I don't know if I remember it at all.

    I'll admit to holding the unpopular opinion that Shackleton was not a hero, just a poor leader who got very lucky as his expedition failed. Frank Worley and Tom Crean, those are the real heroes of the Endurance.

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    1. you could be right... all i know is that everyone i've read seemed to think he was a standup guy and a fearless leader who kept it all together...

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    2. I'm definitely in the minority on this. I believe he was fearless, but also mostly clueless. Everyone glosses over the total failure of his actual mission, the loss of his ship, the loss of men from the second party, etc. Scott wouldn't take Shackleton along on his final push to the pole. Lucky for Shackleton, certainly, but also telling, and that dismissal from the polar party had a definite influence on Shackleton's subsequent actions, a need to prove himself and a need to be in charge. An interesting psychological study there. My novel has nothing to do with any of that. My novel is mostly about technology, in a way.

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    3. hmmm you make a good case! i read it when i was a kid and most likely missed a lot...

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    4. I've read a big stack of books about Antarctic exploration by now. Robert Scott's expedition diaries are heartbreaking. At the end, his main concern was the welfare of his family back in England, that someone should take care of them after his death. There was no pension or life insurance for the widows.

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  4. Do I make too much of the "bottom" as trope standing in for "lower depths" and "failures" when I ponder the possibilities of polarities?

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  5. But my question might be too hasty since I'm looking at a portion of a work in progress.

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  6. I just get tired of writing "south" or "Antarctica" all the time, so I look for other nouns. A lot of writing is just mechanics, not thematic at all. It's not my fault Antarctica lies where it does!

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  7. But dies it really lie at the bottom? No. That is all about POV of map and globe makers (and the implicit errors in "north" and "south" concepts).

    Do I sense correctly that my simple question annoys you? If so, it seems as though I have once again intruded. Put up the "keep out" sign if my sense of things is accurate.

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    1. No, not annoyed at all. But "bottom" is just a way to say "south" in this book. An example of elegant variation, that's all. Antarctica's at the bottom of the globe. Honest, there's no deeper meaning here. You can imagine it means anything you like, though! That's every reader's prerogative.

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    2. I asked the "annoyed" question because sometimes I can be a bit of a prick with my comments/questions and people can sometimes be prickly in response. I need to mitigate my frame of mind by reading something attuned to my more congenial self: Jonathan Swift. Yes, Swift might help me navigate without being such a prick!

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    3. Admittedly, I feel quite prickly lately. I begin to think it's because I've changed my commute, from a slow bus to a high-speed train, and that means I've lost the time I used to have for reading before and after work. I think I've given up a valuable relaxing episode of my daily routine.

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    4. I noticed it as well, R.T., if that's any help. The implications of "bottom" or "under" or "down" being used as a substitute for "south" are a bit more resonant when that's where you come from.

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    5. I grew up in the American south, and I still think of "north" as an essentially foreign and unfriendly place. We say "down south" where I come from, and it's a positive thing.

      When I think of the Southern Hemisphere, I do think of globes. I guess there's a south everywhere except at the South Pole. But I've never thought of Australia as being at the bottom of the earth.

      All the speakers in my novel are from the Northern Hemisphere, from the north of the Northern Hemisphere, so Antarctica will surely be the End of the Earth to them. If you look at the literature of the early 1900s, it was as if they spoke of a different planet.

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