In Which My Writer Brain Surprises Me, and I Wax Celebratory Over It.

My 10th graders are doing an in-class essay exam today.  And I’m all caught up with grading and planning.  So I opened my laptop and started writing.

I’ve been stuck in this battle for days–weeks, even.  I’ll get 300 words out if I’m lucky, and that takes HOURS.

Today I opened, looked at the screen, thought for about thirty seconds on what could happen next, and got a wide-eyed look of “Of course!” and started typing.

I drive a 2007 VW Passat that has a turbo engine.  It’s no supercar, but one of the things I love to do–more than I ought to love it–is to floor the gas and feel the power of the turbo accelerating to freeway speed, or to pass someone.  I’m not even a car guy, and I freaking love doing this.  This car has power.

Just now?  My brain felt like that.  Once I knew what I wanted to do, what made sense, the words just flowed.  That happens so rarely that it’s like a drink of cool spring water after hours of working in 100+ heat (Fahrenheit, of course; I’m an American).

And the best part is that I’m not even done.  I had to quit because in five minutes a new class is coming in, and I have to actually teach, but my lunch will be me taking a quick look at the notes I just wrote down and flying.  And then this afternoon I’ll get some more writing in before it’s time to pick my daughter up from her basketball practice.

Actually?  That’s not the best part.  It’s great, but the best part is that what’s happening right now in the scene?  The moment that will engage the Protagonist in the last desperate actions that will save his ass?  I never saw it coming.  It came out of left field, and it ties directly into stuff from an earlier scene I was afraid might not work, and ties it into his larger journey as well–and even dips into some of my favorite techno-spiritual ideas.

I love my brain when it works.

While I’m here, I’m going to thank my Viable Paradise 17 Instructors, who gave me the courage to trust my writer self when it does this.  Before VP I might have said “No, it’s dumb, it won’t work.”  Now I know I can trust myself.

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I Like Writing Space Opera. Space Battles, Not so Much.

This final battle is totally kicking my ass.

Because I’m writing in first-person, I am trying to limit the battle to only what my narrator sees and does, which on the one hand makes it easier, but on the other hand does precisely the opposite.  HE may not see what’s going on in another part of the fight, but I have to know, and it’s making me insane.

While I am a decent star pilot–at least in the admittedly-unrealistic realm of computer simulations–I am not a tactician by any stretch.  Give me one ship and an objective, and I can usually get it done without having to reload and restart.  But give me a fleet to manage a wide-scale battle with, and I will get that fleet largely destroyed, if not completely annihilated.  Apparently I come from the Ender Wiggins school of sacrificing ships to win a battle.

I’m trying to keep my narrator instrumental to the plot, and not rob him of agency–but at the same time, it isn’t realistic to have him come through all this by himself, so I’m having to rewrite my original plans so that he isn’t sitting in space getting rescued by someone else, but he also isn’t saving the day alone.  It has to be an ensemble effort.

Anyway, my students are writing in-class essays, so I really ought to get back to work grading the last assignment.  Then we’ll see if I can’t find some time to write this afternoon.

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The Odd Behavior of Memory

Last night I thought of Caisha.

Caisha was my cat, an adorable, staid, stoic kitty who was black as night with beautiful golden eyes.  When he was born, I hoped he’d keep the blue, but of course he didn’t, and as soon as I saw them change I knew that was right and proper.

CaishaCaisha learned, fairly early, that he was hard to see in the dark.  As I have a habit of walking around in the dark, he developed a “trill,” which he only used at night when I came into a room he was in, to let me know he was there.

Caisha was with me for twelve years.  There was another cat, Shinji, who was sort of Caisha’s little brother.  Shinji died in 2005 of an unknown illness. It was hard to let him go, but I still had Caisha.

In December of 2009, I came home to find Caisha laying on his side under a cabinet.  He didn’t respond, and when I pulled him out, he continued to lie there without comment, not reacting to anything, even my then-two-year-old daughter prodding at him.

We rushed him to the vet, and they determined that Caisha had a tumor, one we could not have detected, and that it was already far too late.  I made the incredibly hard decision to let him go.  When it was over–I never let my animal companions die alone if I can help it–I calmly walked to the car, handed my wife the key, got in the passenger side, and immediately dissolved into heaving sobs.  I felt like a part of my heart had been ripped out of me.

Cut to last night.  I walked into my room, saw my current cat, a lovely little creature named Celty, who is totally unlike Caisha and yet has become my new buddy.  She’s ill–in fact, I’m taking her to the vet this afternoon–and thinking of that reminded me of Caisha, and tears threatened again.

I really hope the news with Celty isn’t bad.  It’s way too soon to go through all that again.

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Treading and Sweating: The State of Michael Today

All in all, I’m doing pretty well, really.  I’m writing the last chapter of the book, and although I’ve got some ideas for additions that I’ll work on when I’m doing the first revision, it’s going OK.  I’m learning to trust myself, which is actually the single hardest thing for me to do as a writer–I haven’t yet learned the knack of not comparing my first drafts to Steve Gould’s or Elizabeth Bear’s or James Macdonald’s and Debra Doyle’s or Ken Macleod’s final, published drafts.  But I’m getting there.

The Day Job is, well, the day job.  My classes are mostly easy, and being prepared and planning weeks in advance is helping me stay on top of things, mostly.  But the administration implemented a foolish “fix” for a recurring problem from last year that is actually making things harder on me, and the other teachers, too.  So, that’s a mess.

Home is home, which is to say that some days are amazing, and other days less so.  This is married life, I guess. My family does their best to give me space to write, but it doesn’t always work.  Theoretically I have one night a week to duck out and write on my own, but I never seem to take it–which is an ongoing issue in our home, anyway: I am notoriously bad at taking what I need, even if everyone else in my life wants me to.

Anyway, this book will be finished soon.  Then on to the next.

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A Tiny Piece of Dialogue For You

From the Work In Progress, a post-colonial Space Opera that I SWEAR was in progress before I’d even heard of Ancillary Justice.  I’m not, like, super proud of it or anything.  It’s just that I can’t get the words out of my head, so they appear here in hopes of exorcising them.


“You didn’t just destroy our world. You suppressed our culture.  You robbed us of our language, all but a handful of our literature and music.  You took from us everything that made us what we are.”

“And yet,” the Empress drawled, “you are still human.  Fractious, rebellious, impatient.  We gave you our language, our literature, music, our structure–we gave you our Empire.  And you have rejected it.

“And so now we reject you.”


And now I foolishly go to play dodgeball against a bunch of students.

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Horses I’ve Known…

Ages ago, my friend Alex said she’d like to see me write on the horses I’ve been involved with.

To say I grew up on horseback is only a slight exaggeration.  I was born in Redwood City, California, but when I was five years old, my adopted family moved me to Napa, California, a tiny town of (at that time) some 30,000 people  (I recognize that’s not “tiny” compared to some, but Napa always felt like a much smaller town than it actually is).  We lived in the slightly more affluent east side of town, in a house that is modest by Napa standards, but it had a pasture, and we were allowed by our neighbors, who had a larger pasture, to use theirs as well.

Our first horse was a tiny Shetland pony, which was named Patches.  Patches was a very patient, and very slow, pony, which was good as I was only 7, and I did not like galloping at all.  She was a lovely bay, with a black main and tail.  I loved brushing her, but I hated getting her ready for rides–she knew when we were coming after her, and she made every single ride an exercise in first cornering her and then bridling and saddling her.

We also at that time had a black stallion named Midnight (I don’t know what breed he was, but my dad claimed he was a thoroughbred), a dark bay quarterhorse named Easy Rider, and a palomino quarterhorse (I think) named Amigo.

Midnight was hell on legs, and we didn’t keep him long.  My father couldn’t seem to get him acclimated to us, and ended up selling him to a friend who had more time to spend training the beauty.  I was sad, because that horse was amazing to me, and I longed to get up in the saddle.

Amigo was my mother’s horse, but when she lost her sight a few years later, she sold him; I never really got to know him.

Easy was the most idiotically-named horse I have ever known.  He was fairly young when my dad bought him, and he was a fiercely partisan animal.  Only my father could ride him.  He wouldn’t let anyone under ten even get on him, and I never saw anyone but my father stay on him for more than a few minutes–either he’d scare the crap out of them and they’d quit, or he’d throw them.  He caused a few injuries, but my dad loved that horse, so we kept him.  He was my dad’s primary mount while he was in the local Sheriff’s Posse, and performed in many parades and searches over the years.

When I was twelve, my parents divorced.  My dad took Easy with him, and we had only Patches.  My mom sold her pretty quickly, and it was traumatic watching the new owners pull her unwillingly into the horse trailer.  I wept as she drove off, because even though I was getting almost too big for her, I loved that pony.

My mother, my siblings, and I left Napa not long after, and thus began my first period without a horse.  It was the shorter; I lived “in exile” from my hometown for only a year before I moved back to live with my dad.  After I arrived, my father and my stepmother made an announcement one morning:  They had bought a new horse, an Arabian papered horse called Baja’s Magic Star (we called him Baja, or if we were feeling stupid, Baja-ha-ha), for my father.

Then they informed me that the horse they had already bought, which I’d met briefly, was to be mine.  This was not expected, and I was floored.  The horse was a Mustang Stallion who had been captured by the Bureau of Land Management and whom we’d adopted.  He was untrained, so I would be learning to train a horse, and my teacher would be my stepmother.  His name was Sage, and he and I became pretty close, but I never got to ride him due to my stepmom’s personal issues, which necessitated my leaving their household before he was ready for riding.  He got to where he liked me, and would let me saddle him, but he wouldn’t let me mount.

In the meantime, since I didn’t have a horse that was ready for riding, my dad informed me that Easy would also become my horse.  He was having a harder time getting up on Easy, and he felt the horse was better suited to me.

I was terrified.  Remember, Easy had never even let me on him, and he’d thrown everyone but my dad I’d ever seen ride him, except for the few who’d taken the hint and gotten off quickly.  But I wanted to impress my dad, and so I steeled myself and mounted.

And he didn’t even try to get rid of me.

We rode for a few hours, and as I’d long since learned to love speed, we galloped and loped all over the place.  He was brilliant and awesome.  When I got off, I was sore and slightly unhappy with myself–I hadn’t ridden a horse in over a year–but I was sold on this horse being mine, and I curried and rubbed him down happily, and gave him a treat for being so welcoming.

The next day, my dad asked me if I minded if he rode Easy one last time. Of course, I didn’t.  So we saddled him up–and he wouldn’t let my dad even get his foot in the stirrup.  He stood perfectly still for me, but any time my dad or my stepmom tried to mount, he’d shy away from them.  When we cornered him so my dad could mount up, Easy just sat there.  He didn’t buck, but he wouldn’t move, either.  My dad laughed, gave Easy’s nose a rub, and said “Ok, I get it.”  After that nobody else rode Easy.  He was mine, and I was his.

Sadly, it was only a few months later, just before school resumed, when my dad had a stroke and my stepmom convinced him I should be sent to live with my aunt.  It was sold as a temporary thing, and I chose my classes in my new school accordingly, taking a class in animal management that focused on ranch animals so I would be better prepared when I returned to Napa.  Alas, I had been deceived, and I never returned to Napa except to visit.

That was 1986.  I’ve ridden a few times since then, but not often, and I’m pretty certain my skills have atrophied.  I have barely seen a horse since then except when I’m driving by one, but I always stop and feel western saddles when I see them in antique stores when I’m traveling the central valley, and I still love cowboy boots and actually miss wearing them even though I have no need of them anymore.  I love the smell of leather horse tack.  When I attend the county or state fair, I always go to the animal exhibits and endure my wife’s ridicule while I breathe deeply.  She hates it, but I love that smell.

It smells like home.

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Progress on book slowed, but not for long.

Classes at my school start at 8:20 and run until 3:08.  Usually, I get to work about 7:30, and I stay until 4:00.  This week, though, is the end of the first quarter, and a few things have put me behind on grading.  I’m still getting to work at 7:30, but I’m staying until 5:00.  I know others work longer hours, or work these hours more commonly, but it is what it is.

Then I go home and try to write. I’ve begun the big climax, but I’m only getting a couple of hundred words a night right now, some of which have to change because they’re bad.  But, it’s progress.

And progress is good.  But I do find myself wishing I could just do the writing full time.  Ah well.  The world has other requirements.

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