Tag Archives: memoir

399. I Changed My Mind

No, I did not change my mind about cutting back on posts in the A Writing Life blog. Since I made that decision, I have outlined most of, and written the first six chapters, rough draft only, of a new novel. The title is still in limbo so I won’t say more until I can name it properly. The decision to cut back was a good one.

I am actually making a change in Serial. I had planned to run a guest novel. I had written two posts explaining why and giving a bio of the author, Harold Goodwin. I had also reduced the first several chapters of that novel to serial posts, enough to carry through mid-September, and positioned them in the queue, ready to publish.

So, why? First, why a guest novel — then why did I change my mind?

Since 2015, Serial has been a place for me to present short stories, a novella, presentations from Westercon, long and short excerpts from novels, and complete novels.

Christmas week of 2015 I presented five classic poems that have inspired me. Otherwise, everything in Serial has been something I have written.

The cupboard isn’t empty; four novels remain. Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, and Who Once Were Kin, are complete fantasy novels. They deserve to be held back to be presented in a more traditional way. Symphony in a Minor Key is a complete novel about teaching. I’m quite proud of it, but it didn’t seem right for this blog, which has been largely aimed at science fiction readers.

I argued with myself through the month of June. Should I run a classic SF novel that is unknown to today’s audience, or should I run a novel of my own about teaching. It was a big decision, since once committed, it would be six months before I could change course. I opted for the SF novel.

One the decision was made, I placed the first 20 posts in the Serial queue. Then I went on with my life, still mulling over the decision. Spirit Deer began appearing, and you all kept reading. I found no reduction in reader’s responses. Hmmm. You had stayed with me through Raven’s Run and through Voices in the Walls as well. Hmmm, again.

I started this blog to reach two audiences. First, I was looking for lovers of science fiction and fantasy who might want to read my novels, if I could make them aware of them. Second, I expected the blog to be read by new and would-be writers.

I found both but, clearly, in reverse order. Ok, I hear you. I never was comfortable with a guest novel, anyway.

New plan — I will post Symphony in a Minor Key. But first, I need to buy time. It takes many hours to turn a novel into a serial (see 245. Serializing), and my guest novel was due to start today.

No problem. I have several pieces that were published in Serial before anyone was reading this blog. I’ll recycle one or two — no one now reading has seen them, anyway — while I am preparing the next novel.


Blondel of Arden, beginning in Serial today.

396. Fire Again

It was nine o’clock at night upon the second of August — the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west.      ACD

Talk about atmosphere. I was copying those words from His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle, a story about how Holmes and the opening days of World War I, when the helicopters started going over.

I was a teenager and then a draftee during the Viet Nam War, although I didn’t actually go there to serve. For many of my generation, helicopters are like the four horsemen. We don’t run out to smile and wave at the pilots when they go over because, for us, they represent death from above.

I’m about to change my mind about that. My new impression of helicopters is tied to the red and white Cal Fire ‘copters, with those huge steel buckets hanging down, which drop down to local lakes to carry water to fires. I’ve certainly seen plenty of them lately.

This decade, where I live, has been a decade of fire. I wrote a post on that subject less than a year ago, and here I go again.

In the previous post, I opened with a picture taken from my front yard. I am opening this post with another, also from my front yard, taken a few weeks ago. In both cases, there is a lake between my house and the fire. The first fire burned 677 acres. This fire started in nearly the same place, but this time it burned 81,826 acres, so far, destroyed 63 homes, and threatened to destroy two nearby towns.

The day it started, my wife and I went down to watch the aerial ballet as DC 10s dropped fire retardant, spotter planes orbited high overhead, and Cal Fire helicopters carried tank after tank of water from the lake to douse the fire. This time they couldn’t stop it, and it eventually took thousands of firefighters to do the job. It still isn’t really over.

Then another fire broke out ten miles north of here and caused damage and confusion for two days. A day later, another fire broke out in the same area, and it is still burning.

Those helicopters I told you about? They weren’t part of any of those fires. They knocked down a fire less than a mile from my house. I heard them, closed my computer, and drove by back roads to a place I knew I could look without bothering the fire fighters. I needed to know if I should start loading the car to evacuate.

Nope. When I got to my overlook the helicopters had already knocked the fire down. To my eye, it looked like about twenty acres. When I turned around to come home, I saw a battalion of firetrucks arriving.

The helicopters got my attention at 4:55. I saw the knocked down fire at 5:05. It is now 5:45 and I am about ready to post this for tomorrow.

There aren’t enough words to thank firefighters, aerial and ground, but I do have two things to add:

I now keep my computer backup forty miles from here, and —

I’m thinking about moving to the rain forest.

395. The Sum of Fears

If you haven’t read today’s Serial post, go read it first.

We all have our fear-inducing creature, and for me, it is bears. Sharks? Nope. Wolves? I’d pet a wolf if it would hold still for it. But bears have my number.

It all started when I was a kid. The old black and white TV carried two stations, and one of them carried the program Cheyenne. I was eight years old when the series premiered, and big, quiet, gentle, soft spoken, confident Cheyenne Bodie became my picture of what a hero should be.

But there was this one episode . . .

Something was terrorizing the region. No one knew what it was, or even if it was human, animal, or supernatural. It came out of the dark night and killed, but there were never marks of claws on the crushed and mangled bodies. It scared the crap out of eight year old me.

Cheyenne set out to rid the ranchers of the curse. The thing hated campfires, and always attacked those it found around them, so Cheyenne went out alone, built a campfire, and took his place in a tree with rifle in hand. The night wore on — and wore on my nerves. The campfire burned down. Cheyenne left his rifle in a crotch of the tree and climbed down to put on more wood. As he was crouched over the fire, it appeared. Cheyenne reached for his six-shooter . . .

After the gun smoke cleared, we all found out that it was a giant grizzly, his claws burned off from a cubhood encounter with a campfire. Perfectly logical.

That bear still lives in my dreams. Be careful what you watch when you are eight years old.

And if that weren’t enough, there was the Bible. The old prophets who lived there were as real to me when I was a boy as the people who lived in my town. Every Sunday morning I avoided the boring sermon by looking attentive in the back pew, with downcast eyes and my bible open on my lap. There are a lot of exciting stories in that book, and one which was particularly troubling. I quote:

And he (Elisha) went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. (2 Kings 2:23-4 KJ Version)

Yikes! I was a fervent Christian back then and now I’m a card-carrying bald guy, but it seemed then, and seems now, a harsh fate for a bunch of kids who were just calling a bald guy bald.

Bears still scare Hell out of me, all out of proportion to their actual danger. So when I decided that Spirit Deer needed a demonic adversary to carry it through to the end, there was no question what it would be.

Two Hands and a Knife, which was always in my mind while I was writing Spirit Deer, was a boy’s vision of a long, adventurous vacation in the woods. Spirit Deer is more like what it would really be like if it happened. Two Hands and a Knife, was a perfect boys’ book; mine partakes of the realism I don’t ever seem to be able to shake.

So, a bear. I introduced him early, kept him simmering in the background until needed, and he will be there in a few more days for the climax, when . . .

No, that would be a spoiler.

394. Today, everything changed

Today, everything changed. Those were Ramanda’s words when Viki picked up a chipped stone and the explorers of Cyan discovered that they were not alone.

Today, things will change in this blog, but perhaps more meaningfully for me than for you.

On the last day of August, 2015, I released the first post in A Writing Life and the first post in Serial. I immediately began a program of five posts of fiction and four mini-essays each week. It wasn’t long until I trimmed Serial to four posts a week to keep the two halves of the website in synch, and I have kept that schedule with very few breaks for nearly two years.

The early AWL posts were short, about 350 words, but they quickly grew and now they are typically about 700 words. Occasionally I repeated old posts, for various reasons, so my best estimate of how much I have written for A Writing Life (the blog) has reached over 200,000 words.

That’s the equivalent of a long novel or two short ones. I have never run out of material, but there have been times I have come close.

The content of Serial was already written, but even that takes a lot of time to convert into serial form. (see 245. Serializing)

I started preparing A Writing Life six months before its rollout. And yes, I know that it was dumb to name the overall website and one of the two posts with the same name. But I didn’t know it when I started, and it’s too late to fix it now. AWL (the website) came about when Cyan was accepted for publication, as a way to see that it didn’t die quick and quiet like A Fond Farewell to Dying had done. FFTD was a good novel. It deserved an audience, but it never found one.

It took a long time from acceptance to publication, but Cyan finally came out this April. In July, I went to Westercon to tell everybody who would listen that they ought to buy it. That’s how we do things these days. Hemingway would puke.

Where was I — oh yes, changes. I have spent so much time on this website that it has curtailed my actual writing. That can’t go on, but this site is how I met all of you, so I can’t quit it either. So here is the plan.

Starting today, I will no longer post on A Writing Life (the blog) to a schedule. When I have something to say, I will. For example, there will be a post August first about bears, and why they are in Spirit Deer.

If you haven’t followed me yet, this would be a good time to start, so you will get notification when I post. I will still have a lot to say, just not four days a week. This will get the schedule monkey off my back. I have a couple of sequels to Cyan that are calling me.

Serial will continue. Spirit Deer will be finished in early August. I will follow it with one of my favorite Harold Godwin novels from my childhood, now largely forgotten and in public domain. That will carry us most of the way to Christmas. Then we’ll see. There will be a post explaining all that on August 14, here in A Writing Life.

I’m not going away, I just won’t be around quite as often.

Download Cyan, or order it in paperback. If you like it, write reviews for Goodreads and Amazon. Tell your friends. Then in a year or so, you can tell them about the sequel.

In many ways, A Writing Life (the blog) has been less of a blog and more of a magazine. From now on it will be more like most blogs, with news, events, and updates of ongoing writing. But the magazine style mini-essays won’t disappear. They will simply stop dominating my life, so that I can get back to my novels.

392. Cold to the Bone

Poor Tim. I’ve been putting him through Hell since he wandered off and got himself lost in Post five. But you have to give me some credit. I gave him two breaks. If he hadn’t found that piece of pyrites, or something equivalent, he would have died by the second night. And if he hadn’t stumbled onto that piece of obsidian, he could not have made spearpoints and arrowheads.

The rule of fiction is: you can use all the coincidence you want in getting your hero into trouble, but be very careful in using coincidence to get him out of trouble. That is story logic, not real life logic. We dodge bullets every day by sheer happenstance, but we don’t expect our authors to cut our characters any such slack.

So I gave Tim a piece of pyrites and a piece of obsidian, then gave him rain, cold, clouds, a twisted ankle, and got him so thoroughly lost that he had no idea which way to walk out. That’s fair, in story land. Two ounces of luck and a thousand pounds of pain.

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Write about what you know; the oldest cliche in the book. Well, I know cold.

Take a typical December day in Oklahoma. That means not much snow, some sleet occasionally, but typically bare, hoof churned dirt, frozen by thirty degrees of frost into a tangled mass of lumps and holes. It was deadly to walk on and the cow flop froze solid when it hit.

You will find me snug and warm in my bed until 4:30 A.M. when my dad would throw back the door and shout, “Get up!”, in his take-no-prisoners voice. He had no patience for coming back a second time and, with that voice, he never had to.

I hit the floor with a jolt of adrenaline and went in the living room to dress. The only stove we owned was there, gas burning and hot. The stove pipe in the back had been replaced with a “C” of pipe sections that redirected the fumes into the fan that sent glorious heat into the room. OSHA would not have approved, but OSHA hadn’t been invented yet.

First I held my long johns over the fan. They stood out like a wind sock briefly, then I put them on. The same with my jeans and shirt. The same with the overalls that went on next. Then two pairs of socks, boots, overshoes, then a blanket-lined jean jacket. I was warm as toast.

The comfort lasted about thirty seconds after the kitchen door closed behind me and there was no comfort for the next three hours while my dad and I milked cows.

There is nothing like three hours of arctic cold seeping into your feet from a concrete floor to make you appreciate that you would soon be in a heated classroom. I loved school. I loved learning. I also loved being where it was warm — while it lasted. After school, we did it all over again, then I got to sink into the comfort of a warm bed.

Until 4:30 the next morning.

After milking each morning we would load hay onto the truck and drive out to scatter it in the pasture. Then we would drive to the pond, and both hop out with our axes. We each cut — or recut — a series of eighteen inch square holes in the ice so the cows could drink.

There is a science to this. After you chop out the four lines which form the perimeter of the hole, you flip the loosened square out onto the ice, then splash water up and around the hole. This removes the floating ice chunks that would quickly refreeze, and also thickens the ice where the cattle will later stand.

It works well, usually. But one day there had been a rare snowfall. There were drifts, only inches deep, at the edge of the pond. Actually, over the pond, as I found out when I stepped out, thinking I was still on land, onto the ice itself.

No, I didn’t drown. I’m here to tell the story, aren’t I? But I can’t describe the shock when I went in to my knees.

Science tells us that water, under ice, is 0o Celsius or 32o Fahrenheit. Science lies! It is infinitely colder than that.

So yes, Tim, I know all about cold. I feel your pain, but you are the hero and I am the author. I am going to enjoy sitting here in front of the typewriter with my feet wrapped in a blanket while you sleep on the frozen ground. It’s nothing personal, but I’ve been there, and I ain’t goin’ back.

391. Pilgrim Son (3)

Continuing Pilgrim Son from yesterday —

Masters says:

I began preparation of the first novel. (ultimately titled The Nightrunners of Bengal)  The subject must be the most powerful to my hand: the Indian Mutiny. I spent two days wondering whether I could afford to start with another, for the Mutiny was so great a subject that I really ought not to tackle it until I was better equipped to do so. But a man being charged by a tiger is wise to use his biggest gun the first time, there may not be a second. So the Mutiny it was.

. . . What was the natural second level (story behind the story) of the Mutiny? That stuck out a mile: the fact that good men on both sides were turned into beasts . . .

The next problem was research: now or later? I knew the principal events of the Mutiny, and more important, I knew roughly why it had come about, and what most British and Indians felt about it at the time. If I did a lot of research, I would dredge up more detailed information. I would find out what young ladies wore at formal balls in 1857, what was the correct way to address a deposed Rajah, the names of Havelock’s aides. But it was not certain that I would want to use any of that information, so the collection of it might be a waste of time. I also knew, from correcting Staff College papers, that once a man has done research, he has a strong tendency to make his reader swallow the fruits of it. I could see the danger. After all, it would seem a criminal waste, once I had with so much effort dug up the fact that Tippoo Sahib used to give his pet pug dog champagne for supper, not to use it. To hell with the architectural line and ornament plan of the book — stick it in.

I decided to leave research to the end. If my broad plan was not right, I had no business writing the novel in the first place. After I had done the first or second draft, I would find out whether the greased cartridges were introduced on April 1 or March 1, and I would make out a calendar for the year 1857 so that my Sundays fell on the right dates . . . important because on Sundays the British troops went to church, leaving their arms behind, until they learned better.

Research costs time, which is money, and sometimes travel, which is also money. I wrote Spirit Deer first because I could dive in with only a minimum of research. I also wrote science fiction and fantasy first, not only because they are my first love, but because I simply could not afford to write anything else. (See 208. The Cost of Research)

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Masters says that critics of a certain type, in the early fifties, believed that writers should take sides in the political problems of the day . . .

I did not. I had come to believe that the writer’s duty, as a writer, is to offer some effectively worded insight into the human condition. If anything else, a particular situation, for example, is at the center of his work — that is, if the situation and not the humans are the essentials of it — it will not last, because all situations change. It is for this reason that Of Mice and Men is a greater work than The Grapes of Wrath. The Depression has long gone; George and Lennie live forever.

I don’t fully agree (not that Masters expects me to). George and Lennie types and Depression type economic disruptions both, sadly, live forever. The Joads were stopped at the California border and undocumenteds are stopped at the Southern U. S. border. There is no essential difference.

It is certainly true that novelists who treat events through the actions of people with whom we can have sympathy, will get their point across better than propagandists. Uncle Tom’s Cabin started the Civil War by making northerners care about particular, fictional slaves. I have always had strong feelings about overpopulation, but I could not write with any effect until I wrapped the problem into the story of the colonization of Cyan, by people we could care about.

If these three posts have seemed a bit disjointed, remember that my intention has been to give bits and pieces of Masters’ advice to an audience that otherwise might never see them. The entire books is worth reading, if you have the time and patience.

390. Pilgrim Son (2)

Continuing Pilgrim Son from yesterday —

Masters dictated an outline of Brutal . . . and sent that with the first two chapters. Dial Press, who had asked for Brutal . . .  in the first place, was impressed, but wanted another reading. Two weeks later, they passed on the book.

Masters was not like you and me; he had friends in high places, so he could find out what went wrong. It turned out that a famous publisher had advised them not to publish anything by an ex-British Indian officer, and they caved to pressure.

Nothing personal, but your book does not meet our current needs. Does that sound familiar?

Masters returned to what he had written, and found it different than any book of its type and better than most. He decided to finish it and send it on its rounds to publishers on spec.

He finished it. He sent it out. It came back. He sent it out again —

As is the manner of things in publishing, rejections began to pile up. A friend of Masters’ gave this advice: (page 127)

A writer’s time is always valuable. If you don’t write anything, I can’t sell anything.  While Brutal is going around the publishers, you should be starting something else. . . .  Why don’t you write a novel? You could, you know.

Master’s says, “The writing of Brutal . . . had given me confidence that the mere mass of works in a full-length book was nothing to be afraid of.”

I offer you that quote here for the express purpose of adding, “AMEN!” Spirit Deer did that for me.

As usual, Masters approached the question with deep thought. Write a novel, or become a novelist? It isn’t exactly the same thing. Masters was looking of interesting work to fill the rest of his life, and provide security for his family. Writing one novel would not further that end. Becoming a novelist — producing novel after novel — would.

He would become a novelist, but what kind. He wrestles with this for many pages, starting on 128, before he decides what we already know. He will write historical novels about India, from the viewpoint of Brits who are half inside and half outside the culture of India. By page 138, he is ready to say:

I listed thirty-five areas of conflict about which I felt I could write novels. They covered the whole period from 1600 to 1947. Taken as a whole, they would present a large canvas of the British period in India. The British would be in the foreground, as they had been in actuality, yet I thought the canvas would show how they were controlled by their environment — India — even while they were ostensibley directing it.

(to provide unity to the project) . . . I thought that the only course left open to me was to put into the foreground of each book some member of a single continuing family.

And that is exactly what he did, through more than twenty novels.

Through all this, and other chapters besides, he interrupts his memoir with short paragraphs like:

John Day rejected Brutal. They said they already had a writer on Oriental subjects. . . .  and  . . . Little, Brown rejected Brutal. It was very well written and eminently readable, they said, but the couldn’t think what category to publish it in, as it contained elements of travel, belles-lettres, adventure, and military history, as well as autobiography.

I also remember those days of frustration. Now rejection slips are kind, vague, and always contain something like, “not for us, but try elsewhere.”  They do not cause hurt feelings, but they also don’t give any useful feedback.

Back in the day, I was once turned down on an outline that my agent was excited about, because the novel, on the subject of Shah Jehan’s reign, was “too Indian”. Imagine that. A novel about historical India that was too Indian. Another novel was highly praised by a publisher, who ended by saying, “But I can’t take it because men’s adventure books are no longer selling.”

Maybe its better when we don’t know why.  Pilgrim Son review continues tomorrow.