The art of low expectations

First, a word of explanation after my long absence.

In the past six months, my health has broken down for various periods in various ways, which the McStudge (having requested copies of the relevant reports from my personal tormentor-imp) found most amusing in a small way. Normally he, or it, depending how you look at things, turns up his nose, or its disgusting proboscis-type appendage, at anything less than the damnation of millions and the destruction of nations; but the suffering of an individual, especially if pointless and unedifying, makes a pleasing appetizer or between-meals tidbit. But enough about the McStudge, or I shall be carried off to the suburbs of Gehenna on the resistless wave of a single run-on sentence.

During the spring, my trouble was simple depression for the most part; I could not frame to write anything, and though I started various blog posts with the best of intentions, the impulse always ran out in a general fog of despair and futility before I got anything half finished. Part of the trouble has been that my Beloved Bride lost her job through no fault of her own, her employers having shut down their Calgary office, and then, when she seemed certain to get a new job, that employer went out of business also. The reason for this deserves a short but angry digression.

According to the rules prevailing in Calgary, business properties as a whole are expected to pay a fixed share of the city’s budget every year. For many years the bulk of those taxes were paid by the tenants of expensive downtown offices – oil companies, banks, and the like. Then, thanks largely to the stupidity of higher levels of government, our oil industry collapsed, leaving millions of square feet of empty office space, and nobody to pay the taxes thereon. To compensate, the city raised the tax rate on all the surviving businesses. And when some of those went out of business, it raised the rate again – and again – and again. The average business-tax increase was 32 percent for 2019 alone, and many firms are paying triple what they paid just five years ago. All this culminated in a full-fledged tax revolt earlier this year, but not before thousands of small businesses had gone to the wall, my B. B.’s old and new employers both among them.

Wurst restaurant in Calgary, with sign: ‘PROPERTY TAXES – 2014, $74K – 2019, $208K’

An example of The System at work. (My Beloved Bride was not employed here.)

To the best of my knowledge, this method of setting taxes was last used in the late Roman Empire, and played a considerable share in causing the fall of Rome. Each town and district in a province was set a fixed tribute, to be collected from whoever had the ability to pay. In the declining days of the empire, it sometimes happened that one citizen had to pay the entire tribute due from his town! Some Romans escaped this ruinous system by fleeing right out of the empire. Millions more stayed put, but when the Goths and Vandals invaded, they did nothing to defend themselves; they would rather be ruled by barbarian kings than Roman tax-collectors. Calgary has not had a barbarian invasion – yet – but a lot of business owners have been fleeing from the city, and we now have the highest unemployment rate of any major city in Canada.

All this takes a toll on one’s health, mental and physical, and my Beloved Bride has had a hard time of it. I have done what I could to help, or at any rate, what I knew how; but it left my mind in no condition to write anything. After months of this grief, we took a holiday to save our sanity. We spent most of a week in Penticton, B.C., among lakes and beaches and orchards and vineyards; also among Elvis impersonators, who were having a festival there at the time. We came back rested in body and refreshed in spirit, and I promptly caught pneumonia. My doctors prescribed antibiotics, which caused my gout to flare up. They then prescribed prednisone for the gout, which caused me to become narcoleptic – I generally passed out two or three hours after taking my morning dose. There was nothing they could do for the prednisone, except wean me off it slowly – it is dangerous to stop taking that drug suddenly. These things cost me the whole month of July and half of August. I stopped taking prednisone last Monday, and today was the first day I felt well enough to write.

So now you know where I have been, and why.

One of my many unfinished tasks is to draw some maps for the Magnificent Octopus, and the Orchard of Dis-Pear, and various other works in process. I have scribbles and scrawls and scraps, but nothing suitable for reproduction; and as Tolkien observed long ago, if your story contains any substantial amounts of travel, you have got to start with a map and then write the story to fit it – it won’t work the other way round.

I should like to post my revised and cleaned-up maps here, as I get them done; but I have a shyness about it. Just now, thanks to the gaming industry, the world is flooded with pretty-pretty fantasy maps, ‘painterly’ in quality, rich in saturated colours and quasi-pictorial renderings of terrain, and often very poor in the actual information that one wants to get out of a map – visually impressive, but not particularly legible. (George R. R. Martin set a deplorable fashion, by the way, when he published his maps of ‘Westeros’ without any scale, and then wrote about 5,000 pages of turgid text without ever mentioning how many miles it was from hither to yon, or how many days it took to get there. This is inexcusably lazy; but that is a rant for another time.)

Anyway, my own maps are not pretty or painterly, and I don’t generally work in colour, and I am rather afraid that my 3.6 Loyal Readers (if you are still there and still reading) will give them a resounding raspberry. So I am going to start off with a map by a Famous Name, the worst piece of work I could find. Then your expectations will be duly tempered, and I shall have nowhere to go but up.

In 1870, at the height of the Franco-Prussian War, every newspaper in the world was full of breathless reports about the Prussian invasion of France and the siege of Paris. The immortal Mark Twain contributed his own unique burlesque angle to the story, by hand-engraving a ‘Map of the Fortifications of Paris’ for the public to follow the proceedings by. The map was published in his own Buffalo Express (and other papers) with glowing ‘blurbs’ and reviews, written, of course, by Twain himself. Some of the blurbs:

I have seen a great many maps in my time, but none that this one reminds me of.
TROCHU.

It is but fair to say that in some respects it is a truly remarkable map.
W. T. SHERMAN.

I said to my son Frederick William, “If you could only make a map like that, I would be perfectly willing to see you die – even anxious.”
WILLIAM III.

And my personal favourite:

My wife was for years afflicted with freckles, and though everything was done for her relief that could be done, all was in vain. But, sir, since her first glance at your map, they have entirely left her. She has nothing but convulsions now.
J. SMITH.

And here it is, in all its hand-gouged glory, Mark Twain’s map:

I hope to do better than this. God have mercy on my soul if I do worse.

Long belated

In September, I found out that a man can’t write a book in the midst of preparing for his own wedding. (At least not this man.)

In October, I found out that a man can’t write a book in the immediate aftermath of his own wedding.

In November, I had a medical emergency, a possible TIA (or else the mother of all migraines, the doctors still aren’t sure), which left me tired, groggy, and with a calendar full of appointments with labs and specialists. Also, we took on a roommate to save money, which meant we had to clean the flat from top to bottom and back again.

We shall see how December goes; but my Beloved Bride (formerly the Beloved Other) has given me the green light to give my work top priority.

Apropos of which, allow me to introduce Sonya to you all:

Sonya is the one without the beard. Thank God.

Scatterbrained

I have been driving Impendices three abreast, and working in a desultory way at other things (and wasting a good deal of time on Plants Vs. Zombies), and have yet to finish any of the promised work for September. CreateSpace is shutting down and being replaced by the Kindle print-on-demand service, and that requires my attention; and other matters are becoming urgent.

For one, I am getting married. The Beloved Other and I (after a rocky period in which it was not certain we would work out together) are definitely tying the knot on the sixth of October. Preparations for this have been taking a great deal of my spare attention (and nearly all of hers), and therefore I cry you mercy for my slowness at other tasks. Pray for us, or else wish us well, according to your customs and those of your fathers.

Report: Nothing to report

So: Immediately after my last post, in which I detailed the long list of projects that I believe I need to complete in order to have any viable shot at paying the bills by writing, I came down with a moderately severe case of flu. The muscle aches gave me sleepless nights, which I could have dealt with; but I also had a fever, and when I get a fever, my inner ears get inflamed, and when my inner ears get inflamed, I get spasms of dizziness whenever my head moves, and can actually hear the faint whoosh of the perilymph sloshing about in there. (It took me half a century to figure out that the illusion of sound I heard at such times was no illusion at all, but an actual sound inside my ears.)

Kipling observed in his autobiography:

I discovered that a man can work with a temperature of 104, even though next day he has to ask the office who wrote the article.

I am extraordinarily cool-blooded by nature, and if my temperature gets up to the canonical 98.6 (or 37 °C) I am already suffering from all the effects of full-blown fever. With a temperature of 104, I should in all likelihood be dead. But having to ‘ask the office who wrote the article’ is a significant handicap when (a) the ‘article’ is part of a tightly organized book, or worse, a series of several books, and (b) there is no ‘office’ to ask. I find that when I am feverish, the perpetual dizzy spells and whooshes are apt to cut off the whole writing process every few minutes, just long enough for my short-term memory to lose track of what I was doing; and if I do nevertheless get stuff written down, my long-term memory is never properly informed, and next day I have to ask what I was writing it for, and nobody can tell me. This is unsatisfactory.

More specific and serious unpleasantnesses have also occurred, but I shall spare you those. I am very unhappy with life and the world, and furious with my own utter lack of progress in recent days.

Miles to go before I sleep

Write quickly, and you will never write well; write well and you will soon write quickly.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (1st century A.D.)

Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria contains a lot of tiresomely good advice for writers, and some that seems (to a gloomy fellow like myself) too pleasant to count as advice at all. He tells a little story about the perils of excessive rewriting, told to him by his friend Secundus:

I remember in this connexion a story that Julius Secundus… told me of the words once used to him by his uncle, Julius Florus, the leading orator of Gaul… a man eloquent as but few have ever been, and worthy of his nephew. He once noticed that Secundus, who was still a student, was looking depressed, and asked him the meaning of his frowns. The youth made no concealment of the reason: he had been working for three days, and had been unable, in spite of all his efforts, to devise an exordium for the theme which he had been given to write, with the result that he was not only vexed over his immediate difficulty, but had lost all hope of future success. Florus smiled and said, ‘Do you really want to speak better than you can?’

The purpose of editing and rewriting is to help us write as well as we can; nothing can make us write better than we can. Verbum sap.

Lately I have been trying to make myself mindful of this. I do not agree with the ‘Pulp Speed’ school, when they say that the sole and sufficient qualification for success is to put out a sufficiently large quantity of written product. It has to be well written, and it has to have something to say; every author whose work has endured has spent a great part of his working time coming up with good and original ideas for stories, and not so much on merely racking up wordage. Developing fluency with ideas is part of learning to write well; and nobody does it quickly except after long practice. ‘Pulp speed’ aims at nothing higher than recreating pulp fiction, which was sometimes good and occasionally brilliant (as with Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the best works of Robert E. Howard), but usually trite, derivative, formulaic, and dull. The best writers nearly always got out of the pulps the moment they found better-paying markets, and worried less about speed and more about quality thereafter. [Read more…]

Coming soon – Writer’s Block: An insider’s guide

That book I wrote the other day? Looks like I will indeed be releasing it, probably in late August or early September. Watch these non-blank pages for updates.

Herewith, a Cover Design:

[Read more…]

Writing a book in one day! (Sort of)

So on Wednesday, whilst brooding over my lack of productivity through the entire house-move kerfuffle, I came up with a perfectly silly idea for a novelty book, or as they are called in the trad publishing trade, ‘non-book’. I told my Gentle Editor, Wendy S. Delmater, the idea. She thought it was amusing enough to put in some effort and try it on a dog. We agreed to confer online Friday afternoon.

So today, beginning at about 12:30 p.m. Frozen North Standard Time, I started furiously typing any old gag that would fit the idea. The beginning and ending were easy. Filling out the middle took a little longer. About 4:00 I began formatting the text in InDesign, and at 7:03 precisely I sent the PDF to my beta reader, the talented and cover-designer-ly Sarah Dimento. She is not a dog, but she does have two cats, and no disapproval being met with from that quarter, I have decided to throw the thing out there and see what happens.

I call it Writer’s Block: An Insider’s Guide.

It begins with ‘This page intentionally left blank’, and goes on from there. If there is a way of not writing books that I have failed to mention in its voluminous pages, I will eat the hat that I haven’t got.

Warning: This book will not tell you how to cure writer’s block. At best, it will give you some of the kind of company that misery loves, and maybe a few laughs. But perhaps that’s enough.

Back in the saddle

The Beloved Other is getting past the crisis at Wreck Tech: one of her courses finished today, and she’s pretty sure she passed the final exam. That makes easier going for the rest of the term, with no more classes on Wednesdays. Easter is on its way, the sky is getting lighter, and I have been taking stiff doses of vitamin D to rev my sluggish metabolism. And I have, thanks partly to the encouragement of my 3.6 Loyal Readers, begun slowly working again.

Where Angels Die has lain fallow so long (and against my original intentions) that I could not look at it without a pang of guilt. Part of the trouble was that I published the first episode without having done enough of the necessary background work. And then the second episode proved stubborn, and I made four or five false starts over the course of many months. But I think (and my Editorial Consultant, the fine and capable Wendy S. Delmater, agrees) that I have nailed it this time round.

So here, after long delay, is the opening chapter of Episode 2, ‘The Little Charter’.


 

Chapter 1
MOSQUITO AT THE GATE

 

There was a commotion at the gate of Angel Keep, and Ham Yushon, known to all and sundry as Greyhand, was the first man out to see to it. It was his business to be first, as Baron Vail’s unofficial steward: first to arrive whenever there was news, first to bear the word back to his master. Things were so much harder to manage if the Baron heard six conflicting stories first and Greyhand had to set him straight. He was not a man who took confusion in his stride. [Read more…]

Catching up

I should perhaps let you know, my 3.6 Loyal Readers, that I have been bogged down in a new set of troubles, now that the old ones have partly lifted. Fortunately, the new ones do not bid to be as durable. They don’t make ’em like they used to – thank God. [Read more…]

Happy Belated New Year

Well, 2017 was more or less a write-off as far as my writing was concerned; hoping for a write-on this year, if there is such a thing.

Not that the whole year was wasted. I did much work patching up the relationship with the Beloved Other, and more work putting ghosts to rest in my own head. This partly explains why I was never able to produce for more than a few days at a time; that, and a general want of mental maintenance. The last couple of months, I have been taking apart, cleaning, repairing, and reassembling all the instruments of my own internal orchestra; new strings for the fiddles, new reeds for the woodwinds, new thingumbobs for the doohickeys in the whatchamacallum section. (Is exploding TNT a percussion or a wind instrument? Depends where the gas comes out.) At present the band is tuning up and doing finger exercises, and it sounds as ghastly as that always does.

This week, the Beloved Other began a highly accelerated program of studies at an institution which I shall choose to call Rectocranial Polytechnic, or Wreck Tech for short. It is the kind of institution that Canada, it appears, excels at producing, where the faculty are highly accomplished practitioners in their field, but have long forgotten what it is like to be a raw beginner, and what their students need to be taught, which doesn’t much matter because they don’t know how to teach anyway. Nevertheless, Wreck Tech has a shining reputation for turning out good technicians in many fields. I attribute this chiefly to the industry and initiative and cooperative ingenuity of the students, who seem to have an admirable knack for doing through the grapevine what their instructors should have done in class. At least that is my impression so far.

A minor but typical example of how things are done at Wreck Tech: When you start out as a student, you are assigned a Wreck Tech email account with a default password. This is all well and good. The password is emailed to your Wreck Tech email, which you cannot open without the password. You could not ask for a more classic instance of what I call ‘Can Opener in a Can’.

(‘Yes, I did want a can opener, but now I need another can opener to open the can that the can opener is in.’—‘I can sell you another one.’—‘Is that one in a can, too?’—‘Of course. Can openers always come in cans.’—‘May worms rot all your insides, and may the Great Bird of Corruption come to feast on them and eat your innards instead and leave the worms behind.’)

It took a good deal of effort to get round that one. There is, fortunately, a PDF in the bowels of the Wreck Tech web servers that explains how the default password is constructed for each student, and I was able to find it by a modest application of Google-fu. Needless to say, that information was not given out to the students, either in printed or electronic form. It was left hidden in the monstrous and unnavigable depths of the website.

Institutional buildings are infamous for their bad design and baffling layout, but they are nothing compared to institutional websites. There are physical limits to how convoluted and inaccessible a building can be: for instance, it is not actually possible to build an office block in the shape of a Klein bottle. But the arcane complexity of a computer system is limited only by the diabolical imagination of the designer; and so much better if the designer does not have to use it himself.

Anyway, the Beloved Other is beginning to get the hang of things at Wreck Tech, and I am beginning to have time for my own work again. I wish you all (3.6 Loyal Readers and sundry visitors) a happy and prosperous New Year, and I hope and intend to have some new writing for you soon.