Thursday, May 15, 2008

Watching Myself Write

Here I am last week holding a canoe paddle that had been hand-carved from a single piece of wood. It is a beautiful thing to hold and to look at and it is beautiful in function, too, and I was aware that I was holding--and beholding--something that a skilled crafts person had labored over for many hours.
It occurs to me now (why it hadn't occurred to me before, I don't know), that, as I was reading a short story in the New Yorker, that the writer, the gifted person who had woven the tale, had labored hard at the very words I was now reading. He/she had stared at their scribblings, wracked his/her brain, re-wrote, hit "delete," got up and got a drink of water, sat back down, crossed his/her legs, uncrossed them, put his/her head in his/her hands, kneaded his/her forehead, sighed--and then, maybe, said, "Ah, that's it. That's just right."

And it was just right, because later an editor at a major magazine read it and thought the same thing, and then another editor higher up the editorial ladder read it, too, and thought so. Then it was selected for publication in that prestigious magazine and thousands of people read it and as they read it, they thought, these words are just right. How did the writer to it?

Like being able to carve a paddle, play a musical instrument well, or draw wonderfully, this is magical stuff we are doing when we write well. Think of it: pure magic. It comes from nothing and, if it's good enough, it makes peoples' blood run fast, inspires and thus changes lives. And very few people can do it. While I was reading just now, I was aware that I was looking at the same words, in the same brilliant order, that a gifted person the likes of William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, Pearl Buck, or Jane Austin sat and looked at and cogitated on, maybe for hours. When we read the writing of genius, we participate, in a some small way, in the creative process that genius experienced.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Traveling Tasmania: Wandering the World Still Gets the Blood Up

Lucky us to be so wise as to appreciate the whole world. Tasmania? Where the hell is Tasmania? And such a fine place, too. I was warned by a friend who lives there to keep the secret to myself lest I start a gold rush of barren souls storming the place. Here are some pix then.

Hobart town is wonderful: clean, sophisticated, filled with good food and wine, and even kangaroos hopping down the market area. The mountains are clean and submerged in a vast sea of crystal-clean air, and, then, to gild the lily, as it were, I managed to be at the finish line of the 2007 Sydney-Hobart race armed with my new Nikon D40X with a telephoto lens. It was a very fine day, cool and breezy, and we got out to an outer dock and watched at the Maxi took line honors. I could live here, in Tassie, if it weren't so far away from where my heart is.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Walking My Way Into the Next Book: Gathering the Realism of the Next Book

Scroll down past these pictures and you will see their stories. It's about war and writing and going out and looking for ideas and researching what your creative side says will be the next story. I like taking pictures because pictures tell stories and they can help you understand where you need to go with an idea.

It takes time to write a book, even when I have the plot and characters pretty much sorted out in my mind. With the three fantasy books I just finished, research was limited to looking into finding out more about fantasy-type stuff: parts of a castle, types of bows, arrows, that crossbows shoot bolts, not arrows, clothing that might have been worn in the time(s) the novels were set. Most of what I put into the book I already knew from traveling and reading and being alive for all these years.

Now, though, I have a bigger challenge. If I'm to write a novel--an adventure story--about these beautiful islands and their people, I need to know more than I now do about their culture. I need to know about their traditions, how they view the world, their basic beliefs. What gives them pleasure, what makes them happy, and what scares them. How are they born, how do they grow up, raise families, and finally, how do they die. It will all be incredibly important to get the details right. Or else? Or else the readers will know I'm a phony, that I didn't do enough research to get it right. Make one egregious error and the reader will write you and your book off as just so much garbage. When a reader spends his or her money on what you've written and then spends the time to read it, you owe them absolute authenticity.

This adventure novel will include war, the war that was fought right here in these islands sixty some years ago. That was World War II. I'm sure you're heard of it. Maybe your great grandfather fought in it. My dad did. And in fact, my wife's father fought right here on the island of Guam as a seventeen year old underwater demolitions guy (UDT). So, here are some pictures of what I see when I go for my walks. All this stuff, the caves, the old anti-aircraft guns, the mini submarine, the bombed out house, and the cemetary dedicated to the war dogs who died here are all going to be food for thought in the book. I took these with my Christmas present to myself, my new Nikon. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Sweet Sunday Morning: Researching an Adventure Novel in Paradise

Here it was, what I faced last Sunday morning. The scene at the right is the view from VATNA's cockpit--the marina at Sumay Cove, Guam where I was sitting with my cup of coffee and my book. The book was this one, all about the legends of the Pacific islanders. Not everyone can do their research in paradise on a sweet Sunday morning, so I say thanks to the choices I've made that made this thing come true. Life really is all about choices--that's one cliche you can live by.

I've got the general plot of the book in my head and now I'm doing the dirty work: reading and reading and reading to steep my brain in island lore. I've learned that when I'm writing, I might not remember all the myriad of facts I've read (I need to go back and check my facts), but I will somehow get the mood or feeling right if I've read enough and thought about it enough. While I read, I take notes in a notebook or put them in a file named The Spirit of the Voyage here on this laptop.

But, in this case, the reading is part of the adventure of writing. It's exciting to learn about the unique perspective on life the islanders have. How each tiny atoll has its own beliefs on how the world was created and how mankind came to exist. It's also exciting to learn that there are commonalities between life experiences on a remote island in the Pacific where I live now and a remote farming village in Massachusetts where I grew up. We all live until we die, are afraid, seek answers to our fears, try to explain away the darkness through myths and religion. And we all cling to those most important things: love and family.

So as this book takes shape, I can see that this writer will invoke the small gods and demons that haunt world's sleep and shape world's waking moments and out of them, out of these elemental energies, create an adventure story that will rise into the atmosphere and travel around the world and be understood everywhere.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Today's Sapience? Don't Obnubilate and Repair the Woof and Warp of Your Writing

Sapience? More on that later.
If there's one thing most writers dread, its the edit/re-write/correction part of the deal. I'm lucky, I guess, because I have always enjoyed the process of going over what I've written and making changes. Sailors, too, must pay great attention to detail. Last week we were putting the sails on VATNA and there, lurking amongst the folds of the old main sail, was a neat slice, about five inches long. It looked like someone had taken a sharp knife to it. So, out comes the sewing kit and I spend the next hour patching it up. A sailor can't sail with holes in his sails--they'll likely rip open and destroy the sail and leave you in trouble out there on the big, blue ocean at the worst possible moment. Best to fix things while your in a safe harbor.

Same with writing. We need to view mistakes in our writing as rips and tears in the fabric of our manuscripts. Your teacher, your publisher, your readers, will rip it to pieces like a strong wind if you don't pay attention to detail and patch things up. The other picture is of me, now down below on VATNA, sitting at the table in the salon, working on the final edit of A Drop of Wizard's Blood, Book III in The Eye of the Stallion trilogy. It's slow going, very slow going, because my "teacher" (editor), has made a lot of suggestions for changes. Every page is filled with comments, deletions, and here and there, a nice complement: "This next paragraph is Arvidson as his best," or in the case of my use of the word, obnubilation, she wrote, "Wonderful. Applause." I liked that. Made my whole day.

So, as one famous writer said, and I've forgotten who, "There is no such thing as writing, just re-writing." Or as another writer put it, "Make a mess, and then clean it up."
That is sapience for a writer of the first order. Sapience--it's my word for the day and it's an good one, I think. My editor said she loved that fact that I'm giving my readers my full vocabulary and that it's a credit to them. Meaning, I guess, that we shouldn't underestimate our readers' sophistication. Of course, to be honest, I found the word in the same place I found tarradiddle, in my Visual Thesaurus.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Spirit of the Voyage: Researching the Next Book

The working title the next planned book--and I like it, it'll probably stick--is The Spirit of the Voyage. I've mentioned before that the way I envision this next project is as an adventure story for young people about traditional sailing in the islands of the western Pacific where I have lived for the past ten years. Specifically, the Marianas and the Carolines. To find this area on a map, find Tokyo, Japan and go south until you run into them. We're about 13 or 14 degrees north of the equator.

I'm pretty lucky because--well, I'm lucky for a lot of reasons, but in this case, I'm lucky because I can do research for this book right where I live and its pretty exciting stuff. Below are a series of pictures of a ceremony held last week to launch a hand-carved traditional canoe. In the first picture, I'm the old guy on the left. Next to me is my friend, Manny Sikau. Manny is from the tiny atoll of Puluwat and is a master navigator. This means that he started learning to navigate small canoes on long ocean voyages when he was a small boy and, after many years, proved himself competent to steer a canoe across the ocean using only stars, waves, wind, and sea creatures. The canoe we are standing in front of was built by his father and then he and Manny sailed it to Guam, a distance of about 500 miles. I've known Manny for maybe five years and we have sailed hundreds of miles of ocean together in my sailboat.

The ceremony involved making an offering of food and chanting to please the spirits of the voyage and of the canoe.

The man standing next to Manny in the picture at the left is his uncle. If you look carefully, you'll see he is missing part of his left arm. The truth is, a shark bit it off while he was spear fishing as a young man.
Below is the thatch hut, or "utt" that the canoe is kept in. It is considered a sacred place. The people are carrying the canoe from the utt to the water for launching after the ceremony.

Below you can see the canoe right after launching being paddled on its maiden voyage. Later it will have a mast and a sail. This canoe is too small to take to sea, but will be used in ceremonies and
to teach people how to sail.
So, you can see how exciting researching a book can be if you are really lucky. There are exciting things to write about all around you, though. You don't need to live on an exotic island.
So, this is the core of my next book, the central theme that all books need to have: two boys from different cultures have to learn to live and work together in order to survive the ravages of war. Learning to ancient techniques of traditional seafaring will be a major key in that survival.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

There's No Cliche Like a Sunset: How To Ruin Your Writing Without Having To Think About It

Everyone loves a beautiful sunset. I took this photo from the companionway of our boat a couple of weeks ago. It's the rainy season here in the tropical Pacific and this means great sunsets and sunrises because there are lots of clouds filled with water. It's a pretty neat picture because of the complexity of the cloud patterns and the wonderful colors.

What's the problem then? The problem is that sunset photos long ago became visual cliches--sentimental and overdone. No one can resist taking pictures of them and family photo albums are full of them.

The same is true with verbal cliches. They sound cool and colorful and for the first person who used them, they were. Using a phrase like, "It was a dark and stormy night," something we laugh at when Snoopy uses it, must have seemed like a good idea to the writer who first penned it. Now, though, it's even a cliche as a joke.

So, the lesson is this: Read your manuscripts over carefully and clean out cliches and replace them with original phrases that catch the ear and hold on to it. Because we use cliches so casually in our everyday conversations, you might not be aware of them . There is nothing wrong with having a friend read your stuff to root them out.

It is an absolute truth that every writer needs an editor. In fact, I'll send your teacher the email I just received from the editor of my last book, A Drop of Wizard's Blood so you can see what she said about my writing.