Where I’ve Gotten To

For all you skeptics out there: yes, I still blog. I’m not going to make any promises about regular posting because, let’s be realistic. This has never been anything close to regular. But I do promise never again to let this much life stuff accumulate without depositing some of it here.

First, an update on the main purpose of this journal, me trying to get paid for my novels. I’m sad to report that there is nothing to report. Specifically, I haven’t yet gotten a positive reply from an agent, though I’m encouraged that I’m refining my query letters. In general, I’m not discouraged. The Valley of Steel is becoming an ever-stronger query, and has only been rejected 13 times so far, which is amateur hour as far as I’m concerned. And The Glass Thief is, well, The Glass Thief. I’m still proud of it–it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done–but people just aren’t buying lobsters right now. At least not to read. They still taste good.

(Side note: certain edits provided by A., my favorite backseat driver, who also offers encouragement, a flower crown, and helpful comments about the battery life of my 5-year-old MacBook. She is the most helpful.)

The creative part of writing, which I like to poke and prod at whenever I’m not cycling from agent to agent peddling my wares like a desperate dust-bowl farmer, is going a bit better. Rafter’s Rats is in the editing state, and since it’s shorter than either of the other two (and Cold Snow, though longtime readers will know we do not talk about Cold Snow) I’m able to play around with some alternative editing technique. I’m using this method wherein I produce nine drafts, each focusing on a specific aspect: timeline, characterization, etc. I’m currently on stage two of nine, which I imagine will take the longest, since it’s got several sub-drafts. I need to follow scrappy lightning-bug Rafter, cowardly but silver-tongued Larsen, freewheeling Hiely, and the others through the story while ensuring everything they do makes sense and ignoring everyone other character until I’ve done so.

I’ll post an excerpt soon. I’ve admitted this before, and I’m not proud of it, but Rafter Loosestrife, with his fight-or-flight instinct and niche superpower and dragonfly wings and total guilelessness and deep-rooted mistrust, is the character I love to write most. Staever and Lauren and St. Brendan and Foerhant are still in my heart, of course, but Rafter is my favorite child. I can’t wait to start putting him out into the world (as something other than a motor-mouthed Numenera character, of course).

I’ve also started another novel, called The Clockwork Raven, wherein I’m also doing something I’ve never done before: written a large chunk of book I may not intend to survive even until the first draft is completed. The plot is fairly simple, and I’ve described it as The Martian directed by Miyazaki. A castle floats over a faraway land, ruled by a family that disdains the “surface people.” After a cataclysm, two children are stranded alone on the flying castle–the last son of the ruling family, and a girl from the surface. Ten years later, Karla and Geo gain powers that allow Karla to return to land, with one catch: they have to split up, breaking their first promise to each other.

I started by depicting the enormous gliders and spearguns vs. flying high medieval castle battle that leaves the two leads alone in the sky, and it got huge. So huge that I don’t think it fits the feel I want–a story that begins very small, with two people facing questions of survival, and gradually reveals the tragedies and failures in the larger world that led them to where they are. Opening with the most traumatic scene in the book, where Karla and Geo are forced to bury the victims of the battle that destroyed both their families, sets the wrong tone, as though Avatar: The Last Airbender had opened with an on-camera depiction of the Airbender genocide. I’d prefer to reveal, through flashbacks, what these characters have suffered and what they’re healing from. I’m glad I wrote the battle, as it’s going to direct my thinking as the book continues, but at the moment, I don’t think I’ll show anybody else.

Some communal writing is still going on, as several friends and I are working out a setting called Impulse (named after the magic system). It’s gaslamp fantasy, in a colonial era based heavily on Europe’s possession of the West Indies–they had a “line” that they would be civil on one side of, but on the other side, they’d send privateers and soldiers and everything else they could throw against each other’s colonies. We have five different powers, uncharted land, and some profoundly weird places I love. Right now, we’re thinking we need to tell a story in it to galvanize things, as most of the worldbuilding has been done encyclopedia-style so far.

Outside of the writing, I am searching for other work. I applied to five more land trusts this summer (remember how this blog was supposed to be half about that when I started? Well, expect more great stories of throwing pants at things if I’m successful). Two of them declined, one hasn’t replied yet, one interviewed me and decided to pass, and one interviewed me and is still considering–Orleans Conservation Trust on Cape Cod, which sounds like a fantastic place to work. I don’t want to talk too much about it and jinx anything, but I’ll know by Thursday and will hopefully have good news for you all.

For the fall, I’ve been interviewing with a sloop on the Hudson River called Clearwater, the flagship of an initiative founded by the folk musician Pete Seeger in the 70s. By that time, General Electric had spent thirty years polluting that august river by dumping toxic PCB coolant into it. Seeger’s idea was groundbreaking for the time: sail a sloop up and down the Hudson to educate the various riverside communities about the river’s vital role as a lifeline, use music to heal the broken connections with the water, and push for all that legislation like the Clean Water Act that makes me like the Nixon administration so much.

If hired, I’d work the fall as a deckhand/educator, sailing the ship and teaching school groups about various aspects of the Hudson: what lives in it, how to sail on it, what’s happened to it and how to fix it. I can’t imagine a better way to keep gaining sailing experience, that being one of three careers I’m certain I could be happy in. Once again, hopefully I’ll have good news, though the deadline is less certain.

My paid life has taken another complicated but mostly welcome turn since I last posted. I’ve been doing a bit of freelancing through a site called Upwork, billing myself as a hired hand for creative ghostwriting, copywriting, and proofreading. My first job was from a guy who runs a streaming service for Bollywood movies, and wanted me to summarize 82 films I had not seen, by reading their Wikipedia synopses. I learned several interesting things: that India has six actors and six actresses that are in every movie, that Hindi-language films tend to be rom-coms, crime thrillers, dramas, or historical epics, but almost never fantasy or sci-fi, and that several of the movies looked really good (thanks to the above-mentioned A. I have now seen DDLJ and Bajrangi Bhaijaan and both were fantastic).

The second I could feel good about as well, since I was proofreading a letter for a Brazilian neurobiologist who was applying to an American lab but didn’t speak fluent English. But now the complicated bit starts. I wrote a 25,000-word romance novel for $56, working out to about a quarter of minimum wage for the hours I spent on it. I don’t mind for a couple reasons. First, the plot outline allowed me a lot of leeway, so the client’s relatively straightforward Civil War love story now has a climax dependent on a one-legged Irishman firing off shotgun blasts while belting out “Star of the County Down.” Second, it’s good experience for future, better-paid jobs. The problem is, the client tried to tack a second job of equal length and pay onto the first, and I’ve no interest in more work at that kind of wage. I’ve asked them to renegotiate, and if they won’t, I’ll gracefully back away.

The much more distressing part has been that I originally listed “academic writing” on my profile. Now, I probably should have seen this coming, but it led to totally undisguised invitations to do people’s homework for them. According to the letter of the law, and none of its spirit whatsoever, it’s not technically plagiarism, but there’s no way I’ll ever be that desperate, so I had to remove the skill. Upwork does nothing to police that sort of behavior, so it’s up to freelancers to use their best judgment.

Anyway, this has gotten very long–typical of what happens when I wait too long between posts–but I need to spare a few words for what I’ve been reading lately. In progress right now is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, part of a series about time-traveling Oxford historians. This one focuses on a student sent back to the year 1320 (though I have my doubts this is the actual year) and how various complications at both ends of the study test everyone’s resilience and courage. I’m only halfway finished. The book is a bit slow to start, but I’ve never minded that–it just means that, while I’m enjoying it, I’m reserving strong opinions because I feel the second half is going to be more critical to forming them. One thing I can say right now is that I love Willis’s subtle parallels, as seemingly inconsequential characters in the past mirror those in the present.

Recently finished, but still weighing on my mind, are The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, a Chinese-styled high-fantasy reconstruction (with airships!) and Brian Doyle’s Mink River. I need to talk more about this last one, because, while I have a favorite book every few months (I still love you, The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane) it doesn’t mean any less when I say Mink River is my favorite book right now. It’s one of those bunch-of-stories-from-one-town novels, primarily concerned with two big families and the people surrounding them, but mostly with the meaning of life in an overlooked seaside village with no jobs and too much rain and lots of really unglamorous crime. The pendulum between happiness and sadness swings wildly but never disorientingly. The language is purely poetic but isn’t out of place as prose, and plenty of things happen to the characters–no sitting around navel-gazing, these people have no money and things to do. One of the things that happens is magic: there’s a talking crow, and a talking river, and a man who can sense other people’s pain, and a storehouse of time sealed away in Mount Hood. If you’re looking for irony or snark, go elsewhere. Everyone should read this book.

With that, I think I can back away from the keyboard for now. More changes are coming for me, I can tell, but I think they’ll be good ones. I’ve thought of something recently that I may unpack more in another post: I’ve set my life up in such a way that I’m capable of feeling moments of what Tolkien called eucatastrophe–total and sudden triumph, or in my case, a leap closer to my dreams. When one of the right e-mails comes, it’ll wipe everything else away.


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