Once Upon A Time: A Trunk Poem

Following in the tradition of revealing my trunk stories years after I’ve written them, I would like to share a poem I wrote lo’ those many years ago. I didn’t understand poetry fully then (still don’t) but something about the imagery in a few lines of this poem were evocative enough that I thought to finish the whole thing. Enjoy!

Once Upon A Time

We remember fables from childhood:
How the synthetic greenery
Of Old Earth
Once bled to a black clot.
Where ebony graves
Were tucked snug in the
Cracks of desert floors,
And ebbing ocean tides
Orphaned continents
Whose true names we’d long forgot;
Then, that Earth was stripped bare
Of fuel rich mineral guts:
As a cancer grew deep in her lungs.
As we survived and
crusaded to the vastest reaches
Of space.

Alone,she squandered her infinite lives,
Star-gifted to planets,
To bring breath to a choked sky
Struggling with certainty,
Grappling with fate.

When transient echoes of life
Were heard, across time and space
On another home, an adopted Earth,
We felt the stasis of a planet,
We thought dead,
Only a myth.

Again there were verdant swatches,
Oceans kissing land,
The uncanny shuffling of mountains
Creasing continental brows,
And all the beleaguered triumphs
Of the civilizations which followed
To the stumbling cadence
Of nature’s paradigms.

Now, we quest across the cosmos,
Seeking a home old as time,
Turning revolutions, far, far, away.
How long before her breath gives,
How much longer can she live?


The Importance of Deadlines

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

– Lao-Tzu

So last week I finished and submitted my short story “Arboromancy” to the Writers of the Future contest. Not all that impressive or glamorous, I know, but the important thing (in my mind) was that I finished the story. And submitted it.

Still, you say, what’s the point? I think that submitting the story allowed me to prove a few points to myself.

“Arboromancy” is a story that I’ve written at least six times in different incarnations. Each time I wrote it there was something wrong with the plotting or the narrative or the idea. The latest effort was one with which I was mostly happy. In the end, I can’t keep revising the same stories over and over and over ad infinitum. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that its deceptively easy to continually fine tune a story, to agonize over descriptions, adverbs, and other minutiae. But, that’s not how you get better. Following the advice of Tobias Buckell and others, the best way to improve at writing is to finish stories, then move on to the next one.

I decided to submit to Writers of the Future so that I would have a hard deadline to meet each quarter. At a minimum, I can finish four short stories this way while I work on my novel.  I’m not saying that this method will work for everyone, as there is always the exception that breaks the rule. But, as a few professional writers have pointed out, each story you complete teaches you incrementally more about different aspects of fiction, while allowing you to experiment with different narrative methods.

If I had held on to the story, revising and endlessly polishing it, I would have never gotten an accurate measure of my writing skill. Now, granted, the story I submitted was a little rough around the edges and could have done with more revision. But submitting it, puts it out there with everyone else’s material. If it doesn’t win, well, what have I really lost?

Writing to a deadline wasn’t all that different from all the writing I did in school. For “Arboromancy” it meant that instead of coming home from work and following my usual routine (eat, walk dogs, waste time on internet, write a few hundred words), I compressed all of my non-writing activity into a shorter time frame and dedicated a bigger chunk of my time to writing. When the writing was good I did nearly 1,500 words a night. Doing this allowed me to finish the story in ten days. Add revision time to that, and I probably spent the better part of three weeks to finish that story. If I can do it once, I can certainly replicate my efforts on my next few writing projects. Because that’s what deadlines do best. They beat procrastination. Based on a few back of the envelope calculations:

– If I finish on average, between 8,000 and 12,000 words a month, I can write around 96,000 – 144,000 words in a year. That’s most of a novel or a half dozen short stories.  Even allowing for 10-20% editing cuts for concision, meeting my monthly goal and my quarterly submission quota will mean that I finish my projects, if nothing else.

It comes back to being professional. Wanting to write is well intentioned, but to get further than that, you have to meet your goals.

Research Help for My Novel in Progress

Hi all. As I mentioned in a recent post, I’m writing a novel this year. Its a first attempt for me and I had no idea what to expect when I started planning it. One of those unexpected surprises was the amount of research I have to do. In a post, I covered the following topics I was researching:

Research Topics:

My actual research list is quite extensive, but here’s a small sample of some of the topics I’m currently researching:

– Architectural design of different types of buildings. [edit: looking specifically at palaces, schools, manors, and ornamental structures]

– True accounts of grave robberies and famous heists.

– Engineering systems of the 18th and 19th century.

-Djinns (mostly folkloric and historical records)

– Tombs/Strongrooms/and Bank Vaults

The novel is a steampunk heist story set in a world influenced by Eastern cultural flavours and traditions.  There are a lot of books written on heists, but I haven’t had too much success (besides the Internet) finding books on the other topics. If anyone has a good book recommendation or three, please drop your suggestion in the comments. Alternatively, if you have a book recommendation that doesn’t entirely fit the research topics, but feel that it might be an inspiring diversion–please feel free to let me know in the comments.



Made By Hand: Book Review

I read Seth Godin’s review of Mark Frauenfelder’s Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World a few months ago and immediately put Mark’s book on hold at the library. Now, a few months later my hold was processed and I finally got Mark’s book. Here are some of my thoughts:

Made by Hand is an essay on DIY culture, a maker manifesto written by BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder, a fellow maker (editor-in-chief of Make Magazine) who decided to try out some of his own DIY projects in a decision to live a fulfilling life by being more connected to the world around him. There are two preview chapters and other freebies at the Made by Hand webpage that I encourage you to check out.

Mark’s honesty about the DIY experience, including all the bruises and failures, was what made this such an entertaining read. We follow Mark’s journey from the time he decided to get into DIY projects through his various pursuits: cigar box guitars, espresso machine hacking, urban free-range chicken keeping, and kombucha tea to name a few.  The experiences at times were hilarious, heartbreaking, and educational. I’ve been following some of these projects through the occasional posts on BoingBoing, and reading about Mark’s experience has inspired me to try my hand at a few of my own. (For a recent example, check out my iteration of Mark’s homebrew ginger beer recipe).  Most of Mark’s projects look hard, but they look like too much fun that it would be a shame not to try them out.

There was one passage in the book that resonated with me, and its not a part of the book review proper but I felt it appropriate to share:

A cartoonist isn’t like a writer. Writing requires a special kind of focus. Your mind must be utterly devoted to the task at hand. When I’m breaking down a strip or hammering out dialogue, I’m using that writer’s focus. But drawing and inking are different. They use different parts of the brain. I often find that when I’m drawing, only half my mind is on the work — watching proportions, balancing compositions, eliminating unnecessary details.

The other half is free to wander. Usually, it’s off in a reverie, visiting the past, picking over old hurts, or recalling that sense of being somewhere specific — at a lake during childhood, or in a nightclub years ago. These reveries are extremely important to the work, and they often find their way into whatever strip I’m working on at the time. Sometimes I wander off so far I surprise myself and laugh out loud. Once or twice, I’ve become so sad that I actually broke down and cried right there at the drawing table. So I tell those young artists that if they want to be cartoonists, the most important relationship they are going to have in their lives is with themselves.

Seth, The Quiet Art of Cartooning, The Walrus

Frauenfelder: I wonder if one of the main reasons people garden, or knit, or retire to their garages and basements to tinker, is because they enjoy this unusual state of consciousness. Some people might be able to achieve it by meditating, but using your hands seems to do the trick, too.

Mark wrote this in reference to a passage where he was describing the meditative nature of rebuilding a chicken coop. The act of rebuilding and allowing his thoughts to wander enabled him to remember events and memories from his childhood. This excerpt resonated with me because I’ve had similar experiences while painting or cooking or working on a repetitive task. Last year, I tore out, sanded, painted and mounted a new shelf rack into my closet. The process took two weeks to complete but it was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. Friends and family didn’t understand when I tried to explain the peace and meditative nature of the work to them, but it was gratifying to hear that Mark had had a similar experience.

One topic in the book really stuck with me long after I’d finished reading it. Primarily, it was one of the central themes discussed in the book and alluded to in the book’s title. Western culture has gotten used to the idea of disposable material goods. From cellphones and any other number of gadgets to pretty much anything that breaks down, our dominant solution has been to dispose of it and buy another. Mark doesn’t have a solution to change this cultural mindset, although he does recommend fixing your old tools and objects instead of ditching them and buying replacements.  He also got me thinking about my relationship to the tools and gadgets that I own and how I interact with them in every day life. I try not to think about new gadgets in terms of their “marketed desirability”, and approach them instead as tools to serve a specific purpose.

You may not have DIY tendencies, but I still highly recommend Made By Hand as an entertaining and educational story.

Inspired by Mark’s own list, I’ve compiled my own list of DIY projects since reading Made By Hand. I’ve already done some of these, and others I’m hoping to do over the next year.

– Make sushi

– Learn bookbinding (I’m taking a course this November.)

– Start a garden in my backyard

– hack my desk (as in rebuild it, my desk’s on the verge of falling apart.)

– Learn rudimentary woodworking skills