A Novel Is A D-9 Cat

Posted February 19, 2021 by fencer
Categories: fiction, Remembering, sixties, Telkwa coal mine, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

Once upon a time, in the north-central part of the province of British Columbia, I worked in a coal mine.

(I will get to the nub of this post encapsulated in the title, but it will take me a little while.)

British Columbia is not particularly well-known for its coal, but in their day coal mines on Vancouver Island and in the north in the Telkwa area supplied home stoves and wider industry too.  At Telkwa where I worked one high-school summer at a small mine in the last half of the 1960s, some coal was hard enough to be considered metallurgical and all types were exported through the port of Prince Rupert in the post-World War II era.  Of course, there are modern-day large coal producers in the eastern part of this province.

But when I went to work at Bulkley Valley Collieries for $1.87 an hour that one summer, the old mine, once underground but now open pit, was barely supplying local coal stove needs.  Most people had wood stoves, and even then coal was considered too dirty for widespread use.  And trees were much more plentiful and accessible than coal.

I was looking for summer work, and we knew Les Hatfield, who hired me on.  Les was a neighbour who lived with his family way back in the woods around Walcott, a barely-there old railroad station on the Bulkley River.

Les was an interesting guy.  In most weather, he liked to wear vests made out of shirts with the sleeves cut off, revealing impressively tanned and muscular arms.  He and his family emigrated from Oregon to the Bulkley Valley not long after our family had done the same from Washington state.  He was an ex-race car driver, in the lower circuits, who claimed that he had once raced alongside A.J. Foyt.  He was a Bible-thumper, obsessive about the Book of Daniel.  He was also a hard-working, genuinely decent man.

So Les – Mr. Hatfield to me – hired me on at the coal mine for 10-hour days when he ran things for the manager for awhile.  He seemed to love to work outdoors and with machinery. At least those were the jobs easily accessible to him, whether in logging or mining.

The mine could only support a few workers at that time.  So mainly it was Les and me, occasionally his son Terry, whoever up on the hill was excavating coal with machinery – often Les no doubt – and an old German guy with a nose like a potato who was my immediate boss.

At the coal mine years before the conveyor belt there was a track for underground workings.. I identify with that guy with the smudged face.

The coal mining worked as follows.  An excavator would claw coal out of the ground well up in the foothill surrounding the mine buildings below.  That coal would be dropped in a waiting dump truck, which then trundled a ways down the hill to deposit its load on the top of the widely spaced iron grill of a large hopper.

My mission, which I accepted, was to then use a heavy pick to break up the large pieces of coal so that they could pass through the approximately eighteen-inch squares of the grid, and fill the hopper.

The other part of my job, after dealing with the truck load, was then to race below under a long canopy covering a conveyor belt where the old German fellow sat next to the hopper outlet.  I remember him as being extremely grumpy.  He plucked out pieces of clay and dirt from the coal as it passed by on the slow-moving conveyor.  He gruffly pointed out my mistakes as I occasionally missed a clump of clay covered with coal dust.

It was a job, but not one I particularly liked.  The 10-hour days seemed to go on forever, although Les would usually drive me home to our cabin on the way to his more remote farm.

One day, I think he must have taken pity on me during a lull in production.  The mine had a monster of a bulldozer, a D-9 cat, rarely seen in our environs down below.  For some reason, probably for Les to work on during a weekend, it sat at the beginning of the long gravel grade leading past the hopper and up the hill to the coal face.  Les explained he needed to go up and clear off overburden so the excavator could get at the coal.  We were going to “walk” the machine up.

A D-9

He climbed on and fired it up with a roar, the cover of the diesel stack fluttering as black smoke puffed and belched.  He beckoned me over.  It was too noisy to talk, but he gestured me on board.  The 49-ton machine seemed huge, its tank-like tracks a chest-high hurdle to climb up over and into the covered cab.

We started to move slowly, in an amazingly loud cacophony, grinding over the gravel, Les at the controls.  Walking was an apt metaphor.  I could have jumped off and kept up easily.

I have a vague recollection of the controls, but there was no steering wheel, just a collection of vertical and horizontal metal sticks to grab — clutches and throttles, chokes and hydraulics.  Les had me turn the beast by standing on one of the track brakes, like a car brake, but on either side of the operator’s seat.  This enormous clanking pile of metal, smelling of oil and iron and diesel smoke moved up-slope.  It was fun, but too soon it was back to breaking big ones into little ones again at the hopper.

So, a novel is like a D-9 cat?  Really?  It struck me, as I got 8000 or so words into the first draft of this second science-fiction effort that a novel is a bulky, clanking thing.  A bit of a behemoth to even think of directing.  Lots of moving parts with an uncertain driver at what he thinks are the controls.  The shaking noise of it like thoughts banging around about characters, and plot, and meaning.  It moves at a slow speed, unduly slow it seems often as the operator strains to get to the imagined sweet terrain ahead.

Or perhaps the process of a novel is more like what that lone teenager did, trying to keep balance on crossing metal struts, swinging that pick up and smashing down into the large pieces of coal.  Getting into the nitty-gritty of each scene, emerging finally with a smear of hard-earned dust on a forehead.  Maybe it’s like that.

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All Our Adventures

Posted December 10, 2020 by fencer
Categories: Art, Awareness, Culture, Novel, psychology, Writing

Tags: , , , , ,

Although I usually sleep well, from time to time I unaccountably wake up in the small hours of the morning.  Sleep has fled like a disturbed bear into the underbrush.

I don’t rest at the boundary of sleep and waking — I am wide awake.  I’m sure something is busy in my unconscious, indeterminate, but making itself known with a feeling of muted dread, or heartfelt remembrance, or realizations about actions I really need to take.

On this recent occasion, my thoughts drifted to news of the day, to a dentist’s appointment, to a chess game, and finally towards the novel I’m working on.  I tried to review the shape of it.  That’s how I tend to think of it, as a felt shape, with its characters and plot and the ups and downs of its planned crises tunneling through its duration.  (The hard work is getting to the specifics of that.)

I have a kind of rough confidence about writing the novel now, perhaps quite unjustified, after completing one already — as yet unpublished.

The characters are taking on more and more cohesiveness.  As I lay there unmoving in the dark, I started to muse about the nature of these novel characters.  I felt as though my aim should be to dip into the flow of their lives already in progress, cooperate/direct with the currents found there to paint a semblance of their fictional being. 

It may be helpful for me as a writer to consider the characters of the novel, even the most minor ones, as having full lives mostly unknown to me.  I may barely glimpse them, like whales from the depths just touching the ocean’s surface, but I like to think of them as there to discover, as much as I need to.

It occurred to me that each character is on a kind of adventure for me to understand, as far as that understanding is important for the novel. Say, that waitress in the tight dress taking coffee to the main character. Skeins of adventure weaving in and around each other, contradicting and reinforcing….

Then I thought, maybe our lives are like that too in certain ways. Our “adventures,” though, are fraught with real disappointments, failures and the occasional disaster. Most of all there is the inconclusiveness of much of life, unlike a novel. But our “adventures” also have patience, bravery, resilience, and caring embedded in them, and maybe that’s what they’re about.

I’m reading a book called Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, by the poet Rebecca McClanahan, from 1999. She makes it clear that description is a lot more than tossing a salad of adjectives and adverbs together with a sprinkle of nouns and verbs.

At one point in there, she advises the writer to become aware of his or her particular “constellation of images.” These are “recurring images, descriptions, or isolated words, …the ruling passions that fuel your most original work.”

She goes on: “Paying attention to recurring motifs in our work can help us discover the sources of our originality.”

For me that ties into author Ray Bradbury’s writing prompt: to make lists of nouns as triggers for ideas. He wrote: “I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds.” His list might have The Lake, The Night, The Dwarf, The Ravine…. That specificity of the definite article is important.

Mine might be, in part: The Creek, The Cabin, The Mountain, The Trout, The Fire, The Clearing, and so on.

And now I can add a new one — The Adventure.

As I lay awake with my wife beside me asleep, dawn arrived marked by the distant ululation of seagulls and the honking of Canada geese.

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The Pain of the Long-Cutting Novelist

Posted October 31, 2020 by fencer
Categories: fiction, Novel, publishing, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I finally did it, fretting and stewing and twisting my long socially distanced hair — I cut my verbose science-fiction novel down to a more acceptable length.

Originally I claimed it was a mere 168,000 words long, although in reality it was more than 10,000 words longer than that.

As a rough rule of thumb, a typical novel might be around 90,000-100,000 words (and shorter in some genres).  In the science-fiction genre, it is acceptable for it to be longer due to world-building requirements.  Around 115,000-120,000 might be an upper limit, I’ve read.

So I’ve spent the last couple of months “murdering my darlings” as such severe editing has been described, shrinking the manuscript down to a more publisher-friendly 116,000 words.

As result, I think it is better paced and focused, while keeping the main threads of the story that I wanted to explore.  But it was a definite challenge.

Prior to that, I had been sending query letters to literary agents in North America without any response other than occasional form letters of disinterest.  (This is understandable as their time is valuable and apparently out there resides an earnest horde of would-be novelists.)

I wanted to improve so I sharpened up my short and long synopses, and developed a much better pitch in the body of the query. (A beta-reader and friend helped me with these efforts.)

My pitch now is:

A thousand years in the future, the Earth is failing, and civilization barely hangs on. A young archaeologist, Nick Himinez, desperately eludes a ruthless politician’s clutches by escaping to space after the man murdered Nick’s parents. Nick vows to bring him down while the politician rapidly gains global power and pursues Nick relentlessly. As they confront each other on a moon of Saturn, Nick is forced to choose between fulfilling his revenge and embracing a last-ditch opportunity for humanity offered by a powerful, but dying, alien race.

A literary agent very shortly after I made these changes to my queries responded to me as a living human being!  She strongly suggested that I really needed to shorten the novel.  She made no commitment but said I could re-query if I could get the novel to lose its wordy weight.  That was so heartening, even if it goes nowhere.

So back to the query-letter fray, and see what happens.

And also back to working on a second novel — got to keep writing! — set in the same universe as the first but in a much earlier era.  I have missed elaborating the characters and story of that while forced to pursue the loneliness of the long-distance writer (to go off on one of my elliptical references).  And with a little more prep, that first draft will begin!

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A Tale of Two Books About Writing Novels

Posted September 10, 2020 by fencer
Categories: Art, Awareness, Book Review, Culture, fiction, Novel, psychology, Science Fiction, Writing

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The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson, Adams Media, 2011
Plot, Ansen Dibell, Writer’s Digest Books, 1988
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I read a lot of books on the craft of writing. 

It’s a little like my quest for meaning and spirit during my twenties — a search for the book or person or method or experience that could make sense of the world in a deep way.  Unsuccessful in many respects, I might add, yet that impulse informed my life too.

So it is with wanting to learn more about writing novels.  It’s another kind of spiritual quest, if you want to get highfalutin’ about it, in the form of this impulse or desire to evoke imaginatively a world and characters to care about.  If done well, such creations can seep back into our every day world in surprising and even beneficial ways.

The frustration for me is how far off the mark my written meaning falls from what I want to inarticulately portray.  This frustration is part of the impulse — maybe I can do better this time.

I look to books on writing to help.  I have two here to discuss: The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson, and Plot by Ansen Dibell.  Both are about “plot” but are really structural guides for the entirety of a novel and its characters and settings.

I have to say, and it’s the impetus for writing this post, that Ansen’s book (I love that first name) has moved into the pantheon of my top three books about writing novels. It is there with John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story (for its inspiring analysis and formulation of the elements of a great story) and Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel (for the solace of its wisdom about how daunting it is to discover the story that wants to come to life for you).

The Plot Whisperer

I will describe Ansen’s book in more detail below, but I wanted to start with The Plot Whisperer, which is presumably like a horse whisperer in leading you to water.

Alderson’s book is subtitled: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. That’s promising a lot — even me?!?

It’s a useful book in many ways about structuring and planning your novel. She has a method with schematics and diagrams, a plot planner, which may or may not inspire you. Her book, unavoidably, shares some characteristics with many, many writing craft books: Three-act structure, the importance of theme, showing over telling, what makes a good protagonist, what makes a despicable villain, and so on.

I confess to a prejudice against shoe-horning any novel into the three-act boot, as if it’s magical footwear, but I always translate it into just being statements about the beginning, middle and end of a story.

She is good about the emotional trials, how many writers struggle over their stories.

I found of use her visual way to lay out the different facets of your story as you develop it. I wrote previously, for instance, about her method of circling around potential themes in The Quest to Write with Meaning .

She has seven questions to ask for every scene and its relationship to the plot, which you can find in many places, but still are valuable:

  1. Does the scene establish date and setting?
  2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?
  3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?
  4. What dramatic action is shown?
  5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?
  6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?
  7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?

There is much more to her book than I will cover here. The most inspiring thing I took away from Alderson’s work was her identification of “The Universal Story” and its three phases — comfort and separation, resistance and struggle, and transformation and return. That’s a lot to think about: what those words mean.

Plot

Ansen Dibell was an American science-fiction author who passed on in 2006. She also became well known for her writing about writing, in particular for Plot.

(Ansen Dibell was a nom de plume and probably a wise choice — her real name was Nancy Ann Dibble. It’s amusing that some reviewers on Amazon assume Ansen is a man (as I did at first). It probably helped, back in the day, with male science fiction readers’ prejudices about women writing in “their” genre….)

Without cutting down Alderson’s book too much, I rate Ansen’s book so highly because it seems to arrive from within the novel writing experience, whereas Alderson’s book is more from the outside looking in. Ansen’s stance is more “this is what it’s like, what I’ve found that works, what you need to think about” rather than as a template bestowed upon neophyte novelists.

I like Ansen’s writing voice a lot; that is her, still in the world.

“But you know, and I know, that writing is as much a process of discovery as it is one of invention, and the more serious you are about your writing and the more complex the story you’re trying to tell, the more likely it is to start creating itself in unexpected ways.

“Unfortunately, the inevitable flip side is that the story is also more likely to take a quick dive into the sock drawer, unless you can identify what’s going wrong and choose an effective strategy for coping with it.”

And so we have this book of hers, with her strategies about two problems: creating plot and controlling plot.

Let me highlight just a few of the insights and strategies she talks about.

— I found invaluable a section on how to test a story idea. I’ve had so many great ideas for novels over the years that led nowhere. “I think that’s what the traditional advice to ‘write what you know’ really means: to choose things that matter enormously to you, things you have a stake in settling, at least on paper.”

— She advises on practicalities: multiple viewpoints, how do you switch; the dread world-builders disease, where it becomes more fun to create the world than to write about it; keeping exposition under control.

— Her chapter called Building the Big Scenes: Set-Pieces really provided me a different and valuable way to think about the progression of a novel. Set-pieces! This is the first craft book I’ve read which talks about set-pieces.

What is a set-piece? These are the memorable landmarks of the story, like the duel between Luke and Darth Vader. “Seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama and suspense in a story.” This isn’t every scene. In even a long novel, she says, there might only be between six and a dozen. She calls it “outlining from the inside” by connecting each set-piece, as you block out the story in a rough form.

— There is another entire chapter about using melodrama as a carefully administered spice to occasionally add zest to the story. It’s not always to be avoided, as would be my tendency. Get a little dramatic! “Melodrama is a part of our common emotional and cultural language.” She uses the idea of “a curse” as a symbol for melodrama in her discussion of how to use it, which I found fascinating. Even if you don’t believe in it, some of the characters will….

There is much more but this gives you an idea of this excellent book about fiction writing.

Her final advice:

“Use the simplest possible structure that conveys what you want to convey, presents what you want to present. … It’s not the form but the content…

“Now, quit reading. Go write.”

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An afterword:

It struck me after reading over Martha Alderson’s seven questions to ask about a scene: The frame of mind to ask those questions is exactly not the frame of mind that allows the flow of imaginative writing to which we aspire.

The questions are good, but need to be limited to being pursued after something is written, for revision. Or even better maybe, reading them just before buckling down to the heart of the thing itself, following a man through a room as he abruptly swerves to speak to his sister… the devising is of a different order than a list of analytical questions.

Distraction – Science Fiction For Our Times

Posted August 22, 2020 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, fiction, Internet, Novel, Politics, Science, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 1998, Bantam Books
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Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells is often given as an example of a writer who predicted the future. For example, almost 100 years ago he foretold wireless communication systems, and before that he wrote about devastating atomic weapons and the doomsday scenarios they might cause.

Given that the pace of technological and social change has accelerated so much from Wells’ time, Bruce Sterling’s feat of prognosis in his sci-fi novel Distraction, from 1998, is equally impressive in its way.

For me, it is not so much the specifics of the world in 2044 that Sterling imagines, it’s that he’s captured much of the weird atmosphere that we’re living through today.

Although published in 1998, Sterling must have been writing it for at least a couple of years before that. This is before Google, and Y2K; before Napster and massive downloading of music files; just after the first online purchase (of pizza) in 1994; and before social media platforms, and corporate and political interests, have turned the internet into a surveillance system mixed with genuine information and outlandish conspiracy theories.

In brief, the story’s protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, is a political operative who has just got a senator elected, and is casting about for work for himself and his “krewe” (anyone who can afford them has such an entourage). Oscar has the advantage of not having to sleep very much, and the social disadvantage of having been birthed as a clone from a test tube, with a few genetic tweaks. He is quite philosophical about this.

Oscar comes across as a well-meaning guy who wants to see the world progress, while all around him the political and social system is coming apart at the seams.

Extortion by bake sale

An Air Force base nearby in Louisiana, mistakenly left out of the budget by the dysfunctional national government, has soldiers blockading roads with the pretense of a bake sale to extort money from the citizenry.

The renegade governor of Louisiana is running his own nomadic militia and using outlaw biotech to further his presidential ambitions.

Rabid internet disputes become street fights between ideological militias. Half the population is unemployed and the United States has a 20-year-old State-of-Emergency. Covert wiretapping is a national pastime. Whites are considered a violent, unpredictable, suspect minority. Squatters take over federal buildings as needed. Climate change has made genetically modified crops necessary for people to survive.

“There were sixteen major political parties now, divided into warring blocs…. There were privately owned cities with millions of ‘clients’…. There were price-fixing mafias, money laundries, outlaw stock markets. There were black, gray, and green superbarter nets. There were health maintenance organizations staffed by crazed organ-sharing cliques, where advanced medical techniques were in the grip of any quack able to download a surgery program.”

Plausible deniability

There is one particular situation that Sterling imagines that really knocked me out with its futuristic insight and potential for harm that to a certain extent has already happened in our world.

He imagines political bosses throwing out ridiculous, extreme conspiracy theories about an opponent which no sane person would believe. They’ve compiled large lists of dangerous lunatics, though, and feed them all the inflammatory rubbish.

“Finding the crazies with net analysis, that’s the easy part. Convincing them to take action, that part is a little harder. But if you’ve got ten or twelve thousand of them, you’ve got a lotta fish, and somebody’s bound to bite. …That [opponent] guy might very well come to harm….

“Somebody, somewhere, built some software years ago that automatically puts [the politican’s] enemies onto [such] hit lists.”

Talk about plausible deniability.

In the midst of all this, Oscar soldiers on as a new member of a national science committee, appointed there by his senator, who by the way has become bi-polar. Oscar is good at manipulating people, mostly for their own good, but is not averse to dirty tricks either if he deems them necessary. He sees the only possible path out of the nation’s quagmire as starting with a new mission for science, where the practice of science becomes the actual primary function, rather than striving for the blessing of committees and making desperate appeals for funding.

In the end, Oscar creates a coalition between one of the large, disenfranchised nomadic militia groups and a bunch of renegade scientists.

Writer Michael Burnam-Fink, who is a major fan of Distraction, summarizes the outcome well: “While the nomads provide muscle and logistics, the scientists provide a sense of idealism and purpose for the nomads, who don’t recognize their own political power. The alliance threatens everything about the status quo.”

I’ve only provided a glimpse of the many imaginative wonders of this work, not all of them depressing. There are many parallels with our times. And often the book made me laugh out loud.

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