A Puzzle My Unconscious Gave Me

Posted April 30, 2021 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, fiction, mystery, Novel, Science Fiction, sixties, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’m writing a second science-fiction novel.  This is partly while I wait for responses from literary agents as I flog the first sci-fi novel around, and partly because I’ve finally discovered how novel writing, a life-long ambition, can work for me.  I want to pursue it further.

This second novel started out in my notes as a contemporary thriller/mystery.  Then I realized that it fit better into the universe started in the first novel.  (That was a welcome Aha! moment.) 

In that first novel, we are taken to developments a thousand years or more in the future, in the Third Era where a young archaeologist pursues his destiny.  (At that time, archaeological research to rediscover the advanced scientific accomplishments of the past are about the only way to make progress in the present and preserve Earth’s tiny toehold in space.)

The Third Era followed after the breakdown at the end of the more advanced Second Era, known for its over-the-top genetic engineering and weather wars.  But more obscure, historically, is the distant First Era in which you and I live now.  It became a matter of scholarly argument in the world of the first novel as to when the First Era came to an end, but there was speculation that it might be around the middle to the end of the 21st Century.

First draft of a second novel

So this second novel is set towards the end of that imagined First Era in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland where I live.  There are the the trends of climate change and disruption, pandemics have come and gone, there are internet conniptions and decay, as well as other breakdowns in the financial and legal realms of what we’ve taken for granted as our “normal” world.  At the same time, technology (at least some of it) marches on.

The engine of this second novel though are the questions:  What if an intellectual, even spiritual genius, approaching, say, the level of Einstein and Krishnamurti were to appear, in this case in the body and mind of a young girl?  How would these particular characters and milieu respond to that?  How would the “hero”, who lost his sister at the same age to suicide, respond when this girl goes missing and is asked to find her?

I’m about 33,000 words into the first draft.  I’m happy about the cast of characters. The matrix of starting story events have been progressing without too much fuss.  I’ve wanted to explore issues of personal loss and the nature of consciousness (of all things), and I’ve got a bit of that going.

But now I’m at the point, I fear, of beginning to lose my way, despite my preliminary schemata of important scenes and character realizations to be reached.  Writing characters and scenes is always, I’ve found, necessarily different than what I might have imagined.  The logic of what is happening in the here and now of writing them often dictates a different result than I blithely foretold to myself.

I’m not yet stuck, but the organizing principle of the story is slipping from me and I need to regain it.  John Truby talks about this in his book The Anatomy of Story, as he describes the “designing principle” of the story, the unifying internal logic.  But I’ve got too much going on in my story with levers here, pulleys there, gears not meshing and turning the clockwork as they should.  It all threatens to tangle up without taking the story forward.

Primitive theory of psychology

My primitive theory about my writer’s psychology I’ve described before in the post “Working On A New Novel – Obsessed With Character” where I outline my reliance on the unknowns of my unconscious relaying through the subliminal level of my subconscious.  Very Freudian or Jungian or something.

Most anything I try to do on purpose with my dreaming parts never seems to quite work out.  I don’t, for instance, rely on going to bed with a fixed question in mind and a notebook to write down the realizations that pop out in the dreams I can never remember.  But last night, I dared to form a vague question to myself about where to go with the novel and an equally dim hope about maybe getting a fleeting image of something in a hypnagogic state.

King Rat

But nothing dramatic resulted, per usual.  However I did wake up this morning with the words “King Rat.  James Clavell” in my mind rising from the depths like a rare sea creature.  Just those words, clear as a bell.

I haven’t thought about that novel for years.  I remember reading it as a teenager in the 1960s in the rear bench seat of the rattly old school bus riding the 23 miles or so to the nearest town’s high school.  I remember now that my friend Ray recommended it to me.  He wasn’t much of a reader.  I took the book from him after he was done, wondering what he found in it.  I remember when I finished thinking it was good too.

King Rat was James Clavell’s first novel, based upon his own experiences in a deadly Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War.  He would go on to write a number of novels, perhaps most well known being Shogun, which was made into a hugely popular TV miniseries.  He became a well-known screenwriter and even a director in Hollywood.

In King Rat, the prisoners from different armies and social classes struggle to survive under appalling conditions.  The novel creates situations for the characters to show how they choose to meet this struggle.

The King Rat of the title is an enlisted man who through his intelligence, ruthlessness, creativity and drive, has become the “King” of the closed society of the prison camp.  The ostensible leader of the prisoners, a British officer, is obsessed about catching the King contravening rules which supposedly regulate the prisoners’ affairs, such as smuggling of goods.  Of course the smuggling has become a necessary part of survival for many.

The story is told through the viewpoint of Peter Marlowe, a British pilot befriended by the King due to his facility with languages.  In time, although he disagrees with many of the King’s actions, he comes to view the charismatic corporal as a friend, which is a rarity in the often cut-throat atmosphere of the camp.

By the end of the novel, the end of the war comes, and the prisoners are liberated.  And, interestingly, at that same time the King loses all power and influence, or even attention, as everyone goes their separate ways, freed from the webs of control he devised.

A perplexing bafflement of a conundrum

At the end I will list several reviews which helped refresh my memory of the novel.  But I found these remarks posted on the blog History in your eyes quite apt about the King:

Marlowe comes to realize about him: “the King asks for the best of each man and rewards them accordingly, irrespective of class or position. …

“This is a story of power struggle in doomed and powerless surroundings. This is a story of mental agility over physical ability. This is a story where morals and principles take a backseat. This story shows how when one is determined to rule and lead in miserable circumstances, there are always people who shall follow.”

I also found this relevant question from another blog review of the book on Dead End Follies:

“Who would you become if the rules of society suddenly crumble and you had the opportunity to form new ones?”

So now I have this puzzle.  How does this World War II prison-camp story, in all its complexity, relate to my first draft sci-fi novel set sometime in the middle of this century?  I am going to have to sit with that for a while.

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Notes: 

I came across several useful reviews of King Rat online.  They vary in their articulateness and focus but I found all of interest:

Dead End Follies

History in your eyes

BakerstoneBroadcast

My Book House

Posted April 19, 2021 by fencer
Categories: Art, Book Review, Culture, Heroes, publishing, Remembering, Seventies, sixties, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

My Book House, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, 12 volumes, 1937; For My Book House, A Parents’ Guide Book, 1948.
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For those of us who are readers, what we read as children is at the core of who we are and the paths we’ve taken.

I have a dim memory of going as a child to second hand bookstores with my father and mother in Washington state searching for books to take with us to the wilds of northern British Columbia.  This was in the early 1960s.  I was 9 or 10 years old.

Their finds included all the volumes of the famed 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, literature such as Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and the 12-volume set of My Book House, by Olive Beaupré Miller, 1937 edition.  It must have been my mother who insisted on completing the set with the 1948 parents’ guide, since the older grouping didn’t have it.

Inside the front cover of Volume 10

Sixty years on, I still have the My Book House volumes.  It is amazing to hold them – the illustrations are so evocative and bittersweet.  A reminder of a completely different time and place.

The volumes are slender blue books, in this fourth edition, numbered 1 to 12. They very roughly correspond to grade levels in their contents, although the first volume is oriented to much younger children, to be read to them.  Miller was an ardent believer in education for the young, and began these books, originally in a six-volume set in the 1920s, when she found that nobody was providing the graded stories, poems and illustrations she thought important for her daughter and other children.  

Books to grow with

The books were meant to “grow” along with their intended audience.  Early volumes contained nursery rhymes and simple stories and later volumes drew upon Chaucer, Shakespeare and Swift among many other classic writings which Miller adapted.  Sometimes, she wrote the stories herself.  Not only were fables, stories and poetry intended to be read by children, but also to be read by parents to them.  And the illustrations!  The illustrations by well known artists including a book cover by N.C. Wyeth do a wonderful job of creating imaginative space for the stories to dwell in. 

Miller set up a company with her husband to publish these books in Winnetka, Illinois and the first one, In The Nursery, was issued in 1920.  The first six-volume sets were often, as a promotion, enclosed in a small wooden house.  The six were eventually split into 12 thinner books for the benefit of small hands.  An interesting aspect of her publishing company was its staffing predominantly by women, including the sales force.  This was most unusual at a time when women were deemed best suited to staying at home.

The last edition was published in 1971.  Miller had continued to revise her books until her retirement in 1962. She died in Arizona in 1968.

A father’s Grand Adventure

Not only do these books connect me to my childhood and the northern log cabin I grew up in, but in an indirect way to my father.  He died of a stroke a couple of years after he moved his wife and three sons to the pioneering life he imagined and hungered for in the north.  He was only in his mid 40s.  He fought in the Second World War in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, went to university where he met my mother, and dropped out with her to start a family. He worked for years as an architectural draftsman and trouble-shooting machinist, before embarking, his family in tow, on his Grand Adventure.

These books were part of his design for his family (along with serious advice from my mother, without doubt) as he took us to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia to live on a section of land without electricity, phones or indoor plumbing.  He changed all our lives, and our futures, in a fundamental way and for the better.  We boys were given, on the outside, the gift of wild spaces, and our interiors were furnished by My Book House and all the other books that made the inside of our small cabin seem like a library.  Even my mother, who at first regretted our departure from the States and its amenities, came to love where we made our home.

So these books mean a lot to me.  I’d like to give just a sampling of their content.

Volume 5, Over the Hills, contained stories about Abraham Lincoln, Jack and the Beanstalk, the boyhood of Robert Fulton, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, among others, drawn from many classic sources. 

I think my favorite from this volume though was “Casey Jones, A Song of the Railroad Men.”  It goes: “Fireman says, ‘Casey, you’re running too fast. You ran the block signal, last station you passed.’…”  Then later: “He turned to his fireman said, ‘Boy, you’d better jump. ‘Cause there’s two locomotives that are going to bump!'”

Volume 8, Flying Sails, featured for me “Gulliver’s Travels to Lilliput” adapted from Jonathan Swift.  The accompanying illustrations are marvelous, of Gulliver tied down by many tiny figures.  This volume also included a couple of stories from the Arabian Nights, “The Adventures of General Tom Thumb,” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

In Volume 10, From the Tower Window, we have the story of the Children’s Crusade, “The Home-Coming of Odysseus,” legends of the Round Table, the Spanish tale of “The Cid” and what moved me, for some reason, as a teenager, the tragic “Song of Roland.” 

In this last, retold from the Chanson de Roland, Roland heroically blows his horn, Oliphant, at the end of a great battle to call for relief for his men and himself, only to finally die.

In demand for homeschooling

In an interesting twist to the saga of the long out-of-print My Book House, the volumes, in all their many versions, are in demand as part of the homeschooling movement.  The set, as the Parents’ Guide points out, has 2752 pages of graded selections from over fifty different countries with two thousand illustrations, many in full color. They are a valuable resource for any family, homeschooling or not.

Homeschooling as a movement began in the 1970s as a rebellion against the rote regimented learning of the standard classroom, and has spread in many different directions, from the free school perspective to the evangelical.  But to me, My Book House is ideal as an underpinning for any youngster’s education.  I’m grateful that it was part of mine.

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References:

For more information on My Book House, here are some sites of note:

Winnetka Historical Society

Books In Heat: Books As A Passion

Circe Institute

Arthur Chandler

Plumfield and Paideia

TurtleAndRobot.com

Pam Barnhill

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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