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Wilderness Restoration

Taken from

Last month my wife and I flew out to Idaho to join some friends on a seven-day trip on the Main Salmon River (not to be confused with the Middle Fork or the South Fork). The river runs through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest contiguous wilderness area in the United States (I have to say rowing the Salmon involved some of the most enjoyable river miles I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. The whitewater was not terribly intense, the scenery was stunning and the wildlife abundant.

It felt good to get back behind the oars for a multi-day trip for the first time in eleven years, since we did a 16-day trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Having guided for a number of years on the rivers of southern West Virginia, returning to the river felt good. It felt natural, reading the currents, feeling the movement and scouting the horizon lines.

The best part about multi-day trips is truly immersing in the condition of just being. Sure I thought about the dinner menu or wondering where we might stop for camp, but mostly I was in the moment, taking it all in, sharing it with my wife and maybe another member of our party who would be boat hopping throughout the day. It’s one of the few times in my life I’ve been able to truly disconnect and let everything else slip away.

We saw eagles and ospreys, big horn sheep and mountain goats, snakes and jumping fish. We ate ripe cherries from an old abandoned homestead and soaked in a primitive riverside hot springs. We watched the sun creep into the canyon in the mornings and slip behind the ridges in the evening. We saw the great bowl of stars overhead, more stars than many people get to see in their lives. That’s the beauty of a huge wilderness area.

As with most trips, I brought my journal and a book, Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. Also as with most trips, I didn’t do much journaling, but read nearly every day. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of reading a dystopian story in a utopian setting. The contrast helped me enjoy both that much more.

At one point someone asked me about my writing and my current novel. In the middle of the conversation, they realized their phone, with which they’d been taking pictures, had fallen out of their vest–and into the river. And that was the end of the conversation. As I look back, that was probably the only time I really thought about my writing during that trip and I think I needed that.

I’ve been back for almost three weeks and finally have my feet under me as I work through key story elements in the beginning of the novel. You’d think that by draft number four I’d have this stuff nailed down, but here we are and it’s okay, just part of the process. I think I can thank the Idaho trip for the dollop of equanimity in the long journey of writing this novel.


Slow Burn

I’m working through the fourth draft of my latest novel, Flood, and have been leaning into the process, doing my best to not worry about the final product and timelines.

It’s hard work.

But it’s also good, gratifying work. The way I figure, we only have the time before us. The time that’s most enjoyable is the time actually doing the work. Sure I like to imagine what commercial and critical success looks like, but if that’s the only thing I’m after, what about all the time spent (13 years and counting)?

If I never publish a novel will it all have been for naught?

Will I have wasted my time?

That was a question I didn’t ask myself when I was younger and my life was stretching ahead of me. But as I’ve put some decades behind me–five and change so far–I’ve become more conscious of how finite my time is. And so the question of using time wisely is often in the forefront of my mind.

But I’ve also become more conscious of how the time we’re in, the present, is the only time we have. And thus, there’s no reason to be in a rush.

So when my mind starts questioning the value of my writing, my toiling in unpublished anonymity, I ask myself, “Is the writing enjoyable? Is the challenge still there? Do you still get a thrill seeing things come together?” Samuel Delany points to the German word “Begeisterung”, literally defined as “bespiritedness”, to capture the kind of enthusiasm creatives bring to their work.

Begeisterung is a tonic for all my doubt, all these questions, so much so that when I find myself revisiting them yet again, my answer is invariably “yes,” which is reason enough to keep writing.

Raising a Relic

Coming to you live from the Star City, Roanoke, Virginia.

I’ve decided to bring back Words and Coffee using the most economical means possible. As a result, I’m back where I started on I probably should bring in all the content between that last post I did on this platform in 2010(!), but we’ll see if I can find the old .xml export from when I took Words and Coffee offline in 2021.

Long story short, I’m still writing, deep in draft number four of my latest novel. It’s been an illuminating project for a few reasons:

  1. Having done this before, I thought I would find some efficiencies, but that really hasn’t been the case;
  2. Because this is a totally different novel and my goals go beyond just getting a novel under my belt, I have more difficult goals that are taking longer to materialize; and,
  3. It occurs to me that, if you’re striving to be better with everything you write, your difficulty level is always increasing and therefore the idea that it gets easier isn’t really true.

I read an interview with an author recently (I can’t remember who, shame on me) where they said every subsequent novel is actually harder. I firmly believe that’s true, although I secretly hope it isn’t at least once!

I’ll make no commitments to how often I post, but because I’m still at it, it’s a good idea to have an online presence, especially since I’ve dialed back my social media presence almost to nil for sanity’s sake.

Anyway, it’s good to be back. Looking forward to reconnecting.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

I hope to be a little younger than this guy when I start reading again.

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Some writers have sacrificed their families and marriages, discarding them along with their empty rattling Wendy’s cups in a ditch on the road to publication. Others have defaced their bodily temples with amphetamines , cocaine and hallucinogenic drugs by the handfuls. Still others have forsook the entire human race to pour their hearts into various magnum opera. And there are those who gave their lives for their work.

Me, I’m making the ultimate sacrifice. What? No, not that ultimate sacrifice. It’s hard to write when your flesh is distributed amongst the worms and insects.

No, I’m giving up reading.

Seems kind of sacrilegious, but I think I must do this thing if I am to make significant headway on my third draft. I’ve been moving along, but I need to go into deep cover and live the manuscript.

To that end, my evenings of reading for two, three, or four hours are done for now. The only reading I’ll be doing will be here:

You can be sure I won't get too much read here.

Reading is in my top five things that I love to do. I’ll miss it. Tim Powers and The Anubis Gates will have to wait. Hopefully I’ll be back on the written sauce sometime in mid August.

Magic, Magick, Magyck – Striving for Originality in Fantasy

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Spelling is a tool many fantasy writers use to lend originality to their writing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it distracts the reader from the story. I find myself getting caught up in this device, wondering if I should spell a word as it is commonly spelled or give it a twist to increase the fantastic patina with which I coat my world.

You can see in the title of this post one of the more common words with which writers play in hopes of setting their work apart. I’m reminded of the variations on popular names: Tiffany & Tiffani, Julie & Juli, Steph & Stef and on an on.

There’s nothing wrong with the whole thing, but after all is said and done, how much of a difference does it really make?

The answer is, like most things in writing and in gas mileage,  that your results may vary.

The use of word variations doesn’t mean squat if the story is stale and the characters are flat. In fact, I would argue the superficial stuff (odd spellings, two moons, green skin) not only doesn’t cover those shortcomings up, it calls attention to them.

The reality is you can always go back and word search and play with those things after the meat is on the bones. If the story is done well, then those little embellishments, those accessories can enhance the reader’s experience.

Much-Anticipated Books

Love this Cover Artwork

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I got home from a weekend out of town and found a little package on the front porch from Amazon. Inside: Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer, and Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi.

Finch is on my list of must reads for 2010. It just so happened that I finished The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss on Saturday (more on that in an upcoming post), so I jumped into Finch last night. So far it’s every bit what I hoped it would be. I’ll be posting a review of sorts once I finish and have time to digest.

Maps is a different thing altogether. Published by Trinity University Press, I had this book on my wish list based on a recommendation from VanderMeer (not personal, mind you, but from his book, Booklife). I’m excited about this one.

Image from inside Maps of the Imagination - What's not to like?

Check out the American Library Association’s blurb:

It’s not uncommon to compare the writing of a story to the mapping of a world, but no one has so fully, or so seductively and rewardingly, performed as extended a meditation on this illuminating metaphor as Turchi. A fiction writer, anthologist, and the director of the MFA writing program at Warren Wilson College, Turchi parses with equal insight, knowledge, and elan the making of maps and the writing of fiction. Both involve purposeful omission; both require compression; both are subjective in their perspective, orientation, and emphasis; and both create illusions.

Look for a future post on writing reference materials that I’ve found useful over the last few months.

Coffee Break No. 4 – Mieville

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“We are all the mucky aggregates of all our influences.”  China Mieville discussing reading while writing.


Update 4/28/10:

China Miéville’s The City and the City has won Miéville the UK’s most prestigious SF prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, making him the first author ever to win three times.

Writing from an Outline (or summary, if you will. And I know you will.)

Whiskey still in a Georgia cave.
Distillation in writing doesn't need to be hidden in a cave. Photo by Ken Killian.

Way back in the beginning of the new decade (Jan. 15 to be precise), I was reading Albert Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Although there were some useful bits in there, it was Ken Follett”s successive outlines for The Man From St. Petersburg that caught my eye. When people talked about outlines and writing I had always imagined a scientific outline replete with capital and lowercase letters, numbers and indentation. Follet’s ‘outlines’ are more story summaries. Each version is about 15 pages long. This was a revelation.

Now I am working on my third draft of Shadow of the Black City, but instead of forging ahead and just revising my second draft, I’m using Follett’s method to explore the story deeper. It seems to be working out pretty well. I find that looking at it in a distilled form allows me better see themes, character relationships, and story arcs. It also makes it easier to play with different things without committing to writing 5 or 10 thousand words about it.

My hope is that working over these outlines a few times before working on the third draft will be more efficient in the long run, allowing me to really revise rather than completely rewrite my next draft. I feel like I could have saved myself that horrid first draft (replacing it with a mildly repugnant one) had I approached my story this way.

My blogging friend Teresa Frohock has a nice post related to her experience of working from an outline versus off the cuff. In her post she compares two novels she’s written – one from an outline and one from the seat of her pants. The side by side comparison is illuminating. Check it out.

For my next novel, I’ll be using this approach at the beginning rather than in the middle. If you haven’t tried, I recommend at least giving it a shot.

Ry Cooder, Tone, and Imagery

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Dig this version of Woodie Guthrie’s Vigilante Man by Ry Cooder. Cooder is probably best remembered these days for his work on the Crossroads soundtrack and The Buena Vista Social Club. I could tell you that he rips it up, but you can watch for yourself. Enjoy the how the tone of the slide, Cooder’s voice and the words work together to form an image of  the story in your head.

Here’s an example of Cooder’s work from the Paris, Texas soundtrack. Without seeing any of the movie, images of heat and dust and desolation spring into my mind as I listen. Melancholy and loneliness drip into my emotional bucket as well.

Now watch with movie footage:

Spot on, don’t you think?

The best writing analog I can think of is Cormac McCarthy’s writing in All the Pretty Horses:

They rode out along the fenceline and across the open pasture-land. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The light fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

It’s that tone and emotion that makes writing richer, almost tangible. What are you doing to layer your writing with tone and emotion?