Nineteen Eleventy-Ten

First off: Happy New Year to my 3.6 Loyal Readers, and anyone else who may drop in!

I have been terribly silent these last few months, and I believe I ought to make some account of the reasons. My Beloved Bride and I had a complicated finish to 2019 (or Nineteen Eleventy-Nine).

Earlier in the year, after long and tedious tests and much soul-searching, my GP and I agreed that my spinal injury (which is degenerative and will not improve) and my depression (which is treatable, but always with me), taken together, made me unfit for any regular employment. We put in an application for me to receive a disability benefit. This application, I am told, is usually denied on the first attempt, and often on the second; it’s a bit like getting neutrons through an osmotic diffusion barrier – a small fraction of the eligible particles succeed on each pass, and most of the others eventually give up and fly off elsewhither. To my vast surprise, I was accepted on the first try, and duly proclaimed a Complete and Permanent Waste of Space. This hurt my self-conceit, but we needed the money more; and as a married man now, I could not honestly contemplate the alternative of just curling up and dying with the cold comfort of an old-fashioned freeman’s honour. The philosophy of Trufflehunter the Badger was out of my reach:

He said he was a beast, he was, and if his claws and teeth could not keep his skin whole, it wasn’t worth keeping.

My claws and teeth could not save my skin, but I have someone who thinks it is worth keeping nevertheless, and must defer.

That was in the spring. A few months later, the long-delayed affairs of my father’s estate were finally wrapped up; his bit of land in northern British Columbia cleared the immensely complicated probate process of that province, and the persons responsible for the estate (I among them) agreed to put the land up for sale. Even before we could hire an agent to handle the sale, the next farmer to the south, a man by the name of Juell, made an unreasonably large offer. We dickered a bit to observe the decencies and got out from under.

This gave me an odd problem. I now had a lump sum of money coming to me, large enough to disqualify me from my disability payments, but not large enough to keep me indefinitely. There is, however, a well-intended loophole in the regulations. It seems that one can own exempt assets over the limit and still receive the benefit; and one exempt asset is a house. My Beloved Bride and I accordingly started house-hunting. This was more difficult for us than it would be for most people, because most banks (in Canada at least) won’t consider disability benefits when counting your income to determine your eligibility for a mortgage. Our real-estate agent, the cheerful and competent Justine Poirier, put the matter in the hands of an equally cheerful and competent mortgage broker, Jodi McDonald; I recommend both, if you ever happen to be looking for real estate in Calgary. After due process, during which several officers of the bank crawled up all my bodily orifices with a microscope and Geiger counter, we were approved for just about the smallest mortgage that the banks will deal in. (Anything under $75,000 is considered fiddling small change, and they leave it under the sofa cushions where they found it – or something.)

We then, after a careful search in the course of which several likely properties were sold before we could make an offer, bought a quaint old townhouse on the less fashionable side of town, with a basement that made us dub the place ‘That 70s House’. I am sitting there now, surrounded by imitation wood panelling, stuccoed arches in the Spanish Colonial style, and mural wallpaper with a scene of autumn foliage in high mountains (which partly makes up for the lack of windows). When we bought the place, there was also a superannuated shag carpet in the colour known to decorators as ‘Harvest Gold’ and to the rest of us as ‘Mustard Vomit’, but this was just one layer of kitsch too many. We expelled it from the premises and replaced it with a modern carpet in a deep, tranquil blue.

We took possession of That 70s House on the 16th of December, moved in on the 20th, and celebrated a quiet Christmas under our own roof. In the course of  the move, our roommate (who came with us) caught flu, or typhoid, bubonic plague, hydrophobia, or all of the above – something of about that degree of virulence – and passed it along to both of us as a Christmas present; and I, in a bungled attempt to cut down an old candle to liberate the wick which had burnt down into the wax, stabbed myself an inch deep in the webbing between my left thumb and forefinger, so that we had to pay the movers extra to do all the things I could not manage with one hand. We survived all this kerfuffle, and had our first dinner guests over last night for New Year’s Eve. (It would have been Hogmanay, for both the Beloved Bride and I are largely Scottish by adoption, but we were mercifully spared, because the dinner was conducted without haggis. We count this among our blessings.)

And now I am sitting in my new basement among kitschy décor and half-unpacked boxes, and my B.B. is upstairs playing the latest Mario game on her Nintendo Switch, and it is Nineteen Eleventy-Ten today, and I finally feel fit enough to get on with some work. I hope there will be no more extended silences on this site for a long time to come.

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…]