Sunday, August 14, 2016

Life on the edge: Random thoughts on mountains and manuscripts

If I had one talent as a mountaineer, it was the complete absence of a voice in my head telling me to be afraid of the edge. I have zero fear of falling and an absolutely unfounded belief in my own sense of balance.
The view of Steven's Canyon (and my boots) from Faraway Rock, Mount Rainier. Photo by the author.
Maybe I am stretching my metaphor too far, but my brain's absolute refusal to be afraid of falling has mostly served me well in both the life outdoors and at the typewriter. I have climbed plenty of mountains that were beyond my actual abilities as a climber just because I was too dumb to notice, and I have attacked many a story that other writers might shy away from out of fear that they would fall into the canyon of cliche.

Writing Howard Carter was a bit of a high wire act. Every plot element, every theme I was exploring had long ago been cast in bronze as a science fiction trope. I had a list of them that I wanted to use ranging from the freeze ray to the boy genius and as I ticked each of them off the list, I knew I was walking a ledge and in danger of my story plummeting to its death.

My newest Work In Progress actually, honestly, scares me in a way that actual cliffs do not. It's not because I've never written anything in this vein before, but because the path through the world of mysteries and thrillers is so well trod and the cliches so numerous that there are cliffs on every side and new ones opening before me with each previous one I successfully traverse.

That might be overselling it a little, but I'm not sure that the same couldn't be said for everything we write.

As authors, we live in a world where all the mountains have been climbed before. There aren't many 'first ascents' left for us to assay. So we walk in the footsteps of those who came before us and try to be aware of the anchors that they set along the path; some of them are solid and secure and we would be fools to ignore them while others are set in crumbling stone and we trust them at our peril.

It's an imperfect metaphor and I don't climb mountains as much as I used to, but I've been spending a lot of time thinking about it recently as I laced my literal boots and set out through the meadows and valleys of Western Washington.

Unlike writing, mountaineering is often (but not always) a team sport. And it's here that my metaphor has the greatest chance of falling apart completely. In mountaineering, of course, you take precautions involving ropes and anchors and companions who will either point out that you're being an idiot or they will feed you more rope.

Writers are mostly solo artists, but I think most, if not all of us, have that First Audience. For Howard Carter, I threw it out there for anyone who reads this blog to see and invited the world to point out when my footing was uncertain and I should back away from the ledge.

In writing, you anchor your story in the truth of the scene and at the other end of the rope is your audience's faith in you. No matter how the tropes and cliches blow and circle you and attempt to knock you off the ridge, you cling to the truth of your scene and rely on your First Reader(s) to let you know if you're doing okay and feeding you more rope, or you're being an idiot and should turn back and try another route.

Either way is fine, I'm not afraid of falling and I don't mine living life on the edge as long as I have someone I trust not to let go of the rope.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Next Book

News: The new book I am working on is not a Howard Carter book. There will be more Howard Carter stories, of course. They seem to occur randomly in my head and I can't contain them so those who enjoy them will find more to enjoy in the future. But the next novel will be something else entirely.

I hope you're willing to go with me on this journey because I find that I cannot live by farce alone.

One of the things that interests me about writing is how books and writing facilitate the nearly-magical transmission of ideas from my head to yours. I've worked in every aspect of this industry from the pressroom to the author's desk and there are no bits of it that I am not passionately intrigued about, even if I don't want to earn my living doing them every day.

During NaNoWriMo this year, I took the opportunity to explore that a little and I think I'm on to something, a story which will allow me to fuse my passion for history with my love of the written word.

My passion for the written word has taken me down some very strange roads and into some wonderful friendships. I've been in rare book archives and breathed the air of previous millennia and held the weight of cuneiform tablets.

All this gave rise to a desire to write about it and breathed life into a character who is a paleographer, someone who studies ancient writings. Jordan Elias is her name and her adventures will preoccupy most of my writing time this year, and this blog will track some of the research I'm doing to breathe life into her character and her world.

Speaking of Jordan, the characters I'll be using aren't new to me. They've been around awhile and I've tried at various times to get them into print. The closest I ever came to getting an agent was with these characters and only the imposition of Howard "Very Silly Book" Carter sidetracked me from pursuing their story. I've had a lot of fun with Howard and, as I said, he's neither gone nor forgotten, but I very much want these stories which predate his escapades to see the light of day.

The setting this time will be modern-day Seattle and London. There will be libraries. There will be books. There will be intrigue. I'm looking at what I wrote during NaNoWriMo as well as the various drafts the original stories trying to find the story I want to focus on finishing and selling this year.

I have a feeling this one will come together fairly quickly.

In the meantime, I commend to your attention this talk Neil Gaiman gave at the Long Now Foundation (via Brainpicker) to be well and truly worth an hour and 43 minutes of your time. If you have any interest at all in how the stories live and breathe in our midst and the methods of how they are conveyed across the years.