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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, October 30, 2006

when things don't end as you expect

Reverted to Standard Time over the weekend; now at 3:35 p.m. the sunny day is drawing in. The weather has turned clear and crisp; it was freezing at dawn.

Kimmie wrote her final exam this morning for the in-house course "The Principles of Buying". She had studied diligently, getting me to help with math questions and even having me read a few parts of the textbook to try to explain passages to her. She felt nervous but confident and good when she set out just before 8:00.

At noon, when the exam was over, she called me, sounding subdued and disappointed.

"I baffed on it," she said. "I just couldn't come up with any ideas. I really don't think I did very well. On one question I was supposed to list twenty-five things and I could only come up with ten--that's not even half!"

"I think you did really well," I said. "You gave it your best shot. If you don't do as well as you hoped, it won't be from lack of effort. You had a bad day. Can happen to anyone."

"Yeah," she said glumly. "At the beginning of the course I just wanted it to be over--I thought about this moment, noon on October thirtieth, and how great I was going to feel that it was over. Instead I feel bad."

Soon she'll be home from work. Maybe it's time to light our first fire of the season--have that burning cheerfully in the fireplace while dark comes over the house early.

While I was taking out the compost this afternoon I found a little dead bird--a chickadee, I think--lying on the concrete in the alcove just outside the steel door of the common garage. I put on a pair of gauntlets and picked it up by its tiny stiff legs. Its abdomen had been crushed flat. Could it possibly have been crushed by the door? I wondered. Surely not. Its eye was a dark milky gray: lifeless. I tossed it into the yew hedge separating our yard from the neighbors'. It will be recycled.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

writing for dollars

More copywriting.

What is copywriting, you ask? My favorite definition: "writing for results". That is, it is writing intended to persuade people to do something specific. Usually it refers to advertising: getting people to buy something, or call someone, or visit a website. It is one way for a writer to earn money from writing.

I became interested in it one day in September 2003 while I strolled up Lonsdale Avenue in the afternoon sun. Passing the window of McGill's Stationery, I saw the title Start & Run a Copywriting Business in the rotating book-rack. I stopped, thought, then decided to go in and take a look at it. I picked up the book, written by Canadian copywriter Steve Slaunwhite, and published by the Self-Counsel Press, a small press located here in North Vancouver. The book seemed serious and sincere--not a come-on about how to make $$$ in your spare time. If you can write, and are disciplined enough to be self-employed, you can be a copywriter. Intrigued, I bought the book and started reading.

Slaunwhite makes copywriting seem a very reasonable, doable thing. I became mildly excited at the possibility of having an income-generating business that I could pursue without having to actually return to the wage-labor force. I started buying other books on copywriting and taking still others out of the library. I researched it just as I research anything else, typing up notes and creating folders on my PC.

Following the advice in the books, I started putting out feelers among people I knew. I became derailed somewhat when my friend Harvey died and I became involved in administering his estate, but eventually one of my contacts, a Vancouver copywriter named Patrick Cotter, when overloaded with work one day in 2004, referred a job to me. A U.S. client of a Vancouver web-development firm needed copy for their new franchising website. I sent some writing samples to the client, and was hired. I wound up writing all the copy for the website of Archadeck of Richmond, Virginia (go ahead--check it out).

I enjoyed the experience very much. I never thought I would be interested in writing ad copy or promotional copy; I had always hated ads and made endless satirical attacks on them when I was a kid. Plus the advertising industry is notoriously sleazy--even worse than television, supposedly. I can't stand sleaze.

But the best copywriting authorities point out that the typical high-profile "Madison Avenue" ad is not really representative of most copywriting, and indeed does not represent good copywriting for the most part. High-priced ads tend to be clever and slick, but they don't necessarily sell. They're about image: the image of the client, and even more the image of the ad agency. Think about car ads on TV: has any of those ever made you want to buy one of their cars? They certainly haven't with me. Narcissistic displays, full of sound and fury--and we all know what that signifies.

In fact, some part of me positively likes advertising--as a concept, an industry. When I read about how the new mass-media technologies of radio and television were made possible by advertising, I was excited. It seemed like a fantastic fit between technology and the means to make it commercial, viable. I even like the idea of that progressing further: I really like the concept of "product placement"--drama productions receiving money for placing products in the show. Some people regard that as cheesy, but not me. That way you can have heightened realism and no commercial breaks. From the advertiser's side it's a dream come true: Harrison Ford might drink a Coke while playing a character, whereas he would probably never do an ad for Coca-Cola at any price.

When I've mentioned copywriting to TV-writing colleagues, I've expressed it this way: "Instead of having lots of writers chasing a few dollars, as in TV, you have a few writers chasing lots of dollars."

Works for me.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

a pilot-light of research

Again, a day focused on copywriting. Kimmie is back to part 2 of her in-house corporate course, "The Principles of Buying". She will be hitting the books hard again tonight, gearing up for the final exam on Monday. The day itself is dull, with a light rain falling through the cool air.

What can I say that is at all project-related? On Sunday, while Kimmie and I did the grocery shopping at Save-On Foods at Park & Tilford Centre, we checked the magazine and book section on our way toward the checkout aisles. The best part of their small book section is the one set of shelves labeled Biography, but which in fact usually carries various nonfiction titles. There I spied two copies of Persian Fire by Tom Holland, a history of the Persian-Greek wars. Even though these events, in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, are rather before my period, I felt drawn to the book, and decided to buy. I had read Holland's Rubicon, and found it most useful. Plus I'm intrigued with any information I can find on the Persian empire and its contributing peoples, for this was the empire taken over by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, whose systems and statecraft became fused with those of Greece to become a melting-pot of ideas.

Amid all my other reading, which these days is mainly about petroleum and its influence on geopolitics--and the implications of this for humanity--I plunged into this text when I got home, the first ancient-history work I'd read in months. I was immediately drawn in by Holland's energetic, dramatic prose, spiced with modern-sounding terms like "terrorist" and "hit man" to try to bridge the great gap of time. I'm still on chapter 1, but so far, so good.

Another project-related purchase has also arrived. I trudged down to the post office on 3rd Street today to pick up a box of DVDs from Bibleplaces.com--the excellent site featuring digital pictures of the Holy Land. These are not stills but aerial videos, with narration. I decided to splurge and get the whole set of four: The Coast, Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem. It seems like a unique opportunity to get a good feel of the geography there, without having to travel there myself--and rent an aircraft!

So I've actually saved a bundle. Yeah, that's it.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Still not much in the way of direct (or indirect) work on my book.

For the past couple of days I have been sunk in gloom over global warming and the environment. It was triggered by reading a news piece mentioning James Lovelock's book The Revenge of Gaia, a work in which the famous maverick geophysicist states flatly that it is too late to avoid environmental catastrophe in the coming century. The best that humanity can do is try to mitigate the worst of the effects. He apparently states that there will be a massive die-off of humanity (no doubt among many other species), leaving survivors numbering in the hundreds of millions--no more. Even if our most radical efforts at curtailing carbon emissions were to be implemented immediately, it would be to no avail; and of course, they will not be implemented.

In my heart I've been an environmentalist since at least 1971, when the U.S. conducted a nuclear-bomb test on Amchitka Island, as I mentioned in an earlier post. I felt frustrated and angry that pollution was being poured into the world's air and water. I remember mentioning it to Dad once while we were driving over the Lions Gate Bridge.

"All these cars are just sending pollution into the air," I said. "They've got to stop people driving so much."

"A car like this is not a problem," said Dad. (He was driving a red 1971 Triumph sedan.) "Four cylinders, very little pollution."

I felt a little better, but we were still putting out some pollution.

I worried about it, just as I worried about nuclear war. (In fact the second film I made in high school was a short, apocalyptic drama about two teenagers being killed in a nuclear blast.) I thought that the oil embargo of 1973-74 was a good thing in that it got people thinking about how to conserve gasoline and not drive so much. I remember too feeling good about attending a presentation in my high-school social studies class in 1975 given by a passionate, curly-haired Brit, connected with the upcoming Habitat conference in Vancouver, about the importance of sharing the world's wealth with its starving inhabitants. I hoped that Habitat would help make a difference, and I was glad there were people who felt as strongly about it as this man did.

As the years wore on I mainly joined the inertia and indifference of society. I was always environmentally aware, but I did not make major personal efforts to effect social change. I was naturally thrifty in any case, and believed in getting the most use out of resources; I never liked waste.

Kimmie and I became environmentally conscious shoppers in the 1980s, and participated in recycling programs before these were brought to residential curbsides. I never wanted to own a large or inefficient car. In the 1990s we became members of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and more recently regular donors to the David Suzuki Foundation. I've even voted for the Green Party.

But behind it all there has been a sense of a great wave or tide, human behavior in the mass, to which each of us contributes very little but in which we are all carried. This mass behavior arises out of the values we hold, the collective sum of our values--our mythology. Our relationship to the Earth, to our environment, is dictated by our mythology. Whatever catastrophes we face are the direct result of holding the myths we live by. There is nothing that forces humans to consume or to grasp for wealth; many people do not and most cannot. It is our beliefs about the universe and our place in it that governs our acts.

Lovelock's eco-catastrophe of the 21st century is already in progress, he says. We are fish swimming in the sea of our daily lives, unaware of the tsunami we ourselves have created. I think of the great tsunami that hit the coast of the Pacific Northwest on 26 January 1700 (timed exactly because of the meticulousness of Japanese record-keeping at that date), product of the most recent subduction earthquake in these parts. It was so violent that whales were thrown onto hillsides, where their skeletons were found centuries later. There was a catastrophic die-off of sea creatures, abruptly and unexpectedly flung from their element to their deaths.

Is this us?

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Friday, October 20, 2006

lunch in town

The sun is back, streaming at a 45-degree angle, barring my blue office wall through the venetian blinds.

I had lunch downtown with my sisters--all three of them: Mara, Lisa, Shannon. We seldom get together as a group (the last time was about three years ago, at Lisa's instigation as always, to have a photo taken to give to Dad), but I really enjoy it.

We met at the Steamworks Brewing Company in Gastown, right by Granville Waterfront Station where I get off the SeaBus. It's a busy, popular place with dark wooden tables and bars in a remodeled 19th-century building. The little table was barely large enough to hold our four large plates. Without intending it, the three women all ordered the same salad--some kind of Indian-influenced thing that came with papadum. I had the special chicken and blue cheese on a baguette.

"I'm not ready to be one of the girls yet," I said.

The talk first of all was of Mara's elder daughter Chella, who had just found an apartment downtown after weeks of searching--apparently a real find in a newish building at Howe and Davie, a ninth-floor suite with full utilities, hardwood floors, and granite counters. Not bad for a 22-year-old and her roommate. Interestingly, Mara's younger daughter Clare had also found digs in Vancouver just days before--a suite in a house in Kitsilano, shared with three friends.

Shannon, the youngest, also has two daughters, aged three and one, and I got to talking about one of my favorite subjects, astrology, answering questions about their charts (I have these loaded on my Palm). It was all very animated, with much back and forth--a lot of fun. I'm an Aquarius, Mara and Shannon are both Libras, and Lisa's a Leo. But I was getting into the intricacies of reading the Moon sign and rising sign, and how these reflect our emotional nature and our coping skills respectively. Shannon seemed delighted to hear about how her girls reflect their astrological signs: her moody and emotional eldest, Emily, the Cancer; and her impulsive go-getter one-year-old Chloe, the Aries (right on the cusp of Pisces, so also compassionate and caring, tenderly tucking in her little plush toys).

Lisa had a meeting to get to back at Environment Canada, and Shannon had to return to her mites, whom she'd left with a neighbor and her daughters. Lisa had a busboy take a photo of the four of us, and we headed into the cool sunshine of October.

Lisa and I walked together as far as Waterfront Station, where we were surprised to see a chase: a short, rumpled, long-bearded homunculus of a man sprinted across Cordova Street with first one, then two more, security guards in hot pursuit. The thief (I'm assuming it was a thief) was running as though for his life on his short little legs. The lead guard, a short, stocky man himself, in black, was also running as fast as he could, with adrenaline-charged energy. The thief dashed in front of cars on Seymour Street, right across the flow of traffic. I thought that would give the guards pause, but not so--they dashed right after him. The fleeing man then cut onto Cordova, again plunging right out into traffic, and out there, at the yellow center-line, the little black-clad guy caught him and hauled him down. The other guards ran up to pin him to the pavement while cars crept around them. I admired the lead guard, because the grizzled little thief had done his best to escape. It was a raw physical contest, and he lost fair and square.

Lisa and I embraced, and I went in to catch the SeaBus back to North Van.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006


Another day devoted more to copywriting-related chores than to my book. There was the patter of rain in the dark when I removed my earplugs after the alarm.

It's been a quiet day. Mom phoned before lunch; we talked about the visit of two of her sisters early this week (now returned to Ontario). Kim and I had an excellent time on both our visits out there, Sunday and Monday. For me it was an unusual feeling: being among family. Usually I'm not, except for visiting Mom and her sister Jackie, and occasionally seeing my own sisters and father. My aunts--short, rather dark-complexioned women, smokers, and with the earthy intelligence and barbed sense of comedy that characterizes my mother's large clan of origin--were delighted with their sister's new house in Cove Cliff, and I think also happy to see me and Kim again after 12 years (we had popped up to visit them while I was in Toronto to attend the Geminis award ceremony as a nominee). The four sisters together were almost a complete set--only my youngest aunt Jan was absent (there are a large number of uncles as well).

Except for the roar and honking of aggressive traffic on the street outside, the house is quiet. I'm reminded of other times in my life when I spent a lot of time alone, reading, writing, fixing myself basic meals in a space so quiet I could hear the faint high singing in my ears. Soon I'm engaged to pick Kimmie up from work to chauffeur her to a hair appointment. Then, for me, it's reading-time.

Yes: quiet.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006


The fall rains are here: water falling out of a wet but still faintly glowing sky, pasting big rusty maple-leaves to sidewalks and streets.

It's been a solitary day. The phone has rung twice: each time it was the dead sound of a telemarketer's automatic dialing system waiting to connect, and I hung up before the salespeople clicked on.

Down here in my dim office, in the pale splash of light given off by my tiny metal desklamp, I typed in little bursts in my Notes document for chapter 25. I'm feeling stuck, and this creates a sense of futility and anxiety, since it seems no more productive than standing by a high wall, waiting for a way over to present itself.

Looking for ways to break the logjam (new metaphor--sorry), I went to the dictionary to look up words. I typed the definitions into a Word document I have for Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition: credit and grace. Rome was in turmoil just before Caesar's return from the civil war in the East. The big issue was the cancellation of debts--a law pushed forward by the aggressive and heavily indebted patrician-turned-plebeian Dolabella. People weren't sure whether Caesar would ever return, or whether he would be killed first, and so the issue of who was running the show was up in the air. Nominally it was Mark Antony, the so-called Master of the Horse appointed by Caesar to run the city in his absence, but Antony was preoccupied with carousing and transferring the property of Pompeians into the hands of himself and his cronies. Meanwhile, armed gangs roamed the streets, fighting each other and terrorizing other citizens.

The situation echoed with some reading I did in the morning on the conditions in Baghdad, which are (or were in spring this year) much grimmer than what we generally hear about on the news, which for me generally appears only as headlines of daily body-counts from bomb blasts and such. I think back to when I was growing up in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War. Every evening the news would come on TV, and Walter Cronkite would somberly report the day's (or maybe the week's) death-toll. Even by age 9 I could see that the death-tolls followed a strange pattern. U.S. casualties were always in the single digits; South Vietnamese in the tens; and Vietcong in the hundreds, sometimes over a thousand. How was it they always died in those same proportions? I wondered.

I didn't know then that the proportions were due to the very first casualty: truth.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

working with symbols

I'm back.

Lately, as I rehabilitate myself after my long hiatus, I have been confining my blog posts to weekdays. Yesterday I missed again due to a time squeeze in the afternoon: Kimmie and I were to head out to my mother's place to join two of her sisters, here on their first visit from Ontario, for dinner. Mindful as ever of getting my reading-time in, I went to my reading-chair early and never got to the blog.

I haven't been doing much on my book for the past week or so, focusing mainly on this copywriting gig. In a burst just before lunch yesterday I did manage some more notes in my steadily growing Notes document for chapter 25 (49 pages and counting, I'm almost embarrassed to admit--though quite a few of those are extracts from research books). I just repeated and consolidated to myself some of my thoughts about the imagery and symbolism of this chapter and therefore of the work as a whole.

And what exactly is a symbol, anyway? I must have some definitions of it around...

I turned to the bookcase and pulled out my old hardback copy of Jung's The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. I checked the index for "symbol", and, among many other entries, there was this in the chapter called "Spirit and Life" (slightly compressed):

By symbol I do not mean an allegory or a sign, but an image that describes in the best possible way the dimly discerned nature of the spirit. A symbol does not define or explain; it points beyond itself to a meaning that is darkly divined yet still beyond our grasp, and cannot be adequately expressed in language. Spirit that can be translated into a definite concept is a psychic complex lying within the orbit of our ego-consciousness. It will not bring forth anything, nor will it achieve anything more than we have put into it. But spirit that demands a symbol for its expression is a psychic complex that contains the seeds of incalculable possibilities. The Christian symbols’ power changed the face of history.

In this context he is talking only about symbols of the spirit, but what he says goes for other symbols too--they express the inexpressible. They are the best way of saying something that cannot be said. Their very lack of explicit meaning makes them more meaningful than conventional signs--"symbols" in the everyday sense.

Since, in storytelling as in all true art, nothing is as it appears, this means that everything is a symbol. And therefore symbolism is another rack of tools in the writer's workshop. These are the tools I've been working with lately.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

authority again

The sun continues to shine. It's like summer, but the sun is lower, and the shadows darker. Trees are turning yellow and orange.

I had a chance to do a bit more work on chapter 25 (notes thereon) this morning, around my copywriting tasks. I'm still investigating the symbolism of my material, making connections. I don't want to say too much about it, since symbolism is not effective if it is perceived consciously as such. At least, this is certainly true in filmmaking. In fiction there is more leeway, since the reader controls the pace of his or her interaction with the material. Some readers enjoy thinking about the material on more than one level.

I'm thinking now about how I like to read a work of fiction. What do I do? How exactly do I do it?

I like to be in an alert, receptive frame of mind, unhurried and relaxed. If I'm just starting a book, I look for signs of the writer's authority: can I trust this person with my attention? I notice awkward or redundant turns of phrase, and these count heavily against the work; I start switching off. If the writer appears to know what he or she is talking about, though, I will bear with it as long as I can.

I've said it before but it bears repeating: authority is the writer's only asset. If you don't know what you're talking about, why should anyone read you?

For some reason I wanted to pull down my paperback copy of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. Here is how it opens:

One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.

To me, this exudes authority. The narrator to me suggests that he knows this world and its people, and this knowledge comes through in subtleties of expression, what he chooses to emphasize and chooses not to mention. Weydon-Priors sounds like such a specific place, even if fictional: it grounds the story. And Hardy even, in those two sentences, manages to evoke a sense of curiosity, even mystery, making me wonder why this young couple has been on such a long journey on foot with a baby.

Authority comes only from knowledge. The writer's job is to communicate, but first of all it is to know.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

laziness vs. fun

The last day of an extra-long holiday weekend for Kim. It's been another splendidly sunny one, and quiet, with a sense of post-holiday rest and inertia out there.

I spent more time preparing my copywriting notes, in case the project goes forward (I still haven't heard back from the client on that). I find it hard to concentrate on my creative writing when business needs to be taken care of. So, since I had the energy and desire to push forward with the business stuff, I did. I want to lean into my inclination that way more: to do what I feel like doing, have the energy for. It's the most productive way to work and live. In my life I have tended to slog, often pushing myself to do things I didn't really feel like, in order to get them done, or simply to convince myself that I'm not lazy.

Sloth is one of the Seven Deadly Sins (and incidentally: the animal was named after the sin, not vice versa), but what exactly is sloth?

In the Buddhist context, laziness is everything we do in order to avoid practicing meditation or studying the dharma. So: our career, building houses, getting a PhD, making $25 million--all lazy. They are lazy because they do nothing for us at the moment of death and beyond: only the practice and study of dharma can help us with that. Stripped of all our possessions, achievements, and even our body, our mind goes naked into the beyond to face its destiny. Therefore, only the work we have directly done on our mind is of any use at that point.

My own, perhaps neurotic definition of laziness is probably something like: a reluctance to do tasks that are not fun. This leads to a belief that only unfun things count as "work", and therefore a tendency to push oneself to do things one doesn't enjoy, in order to gain some kind of merit. Things that one enjoys are seen as entertainment and "fun time", and therefore don't count as work. One must defer those things until one has done a certain amount of drudgery.

This attitude does lead to the adolescent condition of being in a mess: dirty dishes piled up, garbage overflowing, bed unmade.

One aspect of Buddhist training for me has been to expand the notion of "fun": doing dishes is fun, if you have the right attitude. In having the courage to step over one's habitual disinclination, one discovers an energy arising from the act of uplifting one's surroundings, and a special heightened awareness that occurs when experiencing the result: that feeling of pleasure at being in a cleaned-up environment. The environment supports a more alert, aware frame of mind.

But another factor is that I want to get out from under the Puritan disapproval of enjoyment. Like most people--I think all people--I enjoy being productive. Why not do those productive things that I enjoy, at the moment I want to? For me, highlighting dense books and typing up the notes is fun--something most people would regard as drudgery. And when you're having fun, you get a lot done.

So: today was about preparing forms and documents for marketing and copywriting. It was fun.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

novel-writing as chess game

It's Canada's Thanksgiving Day holiday. The long weekend has been sunny and gorgeous. Kimmie and I walked the Stanley Park seawall yesterday, and the West Van seawall today from the Capilano River to Dundarave and back. Yesterday it was quite warm, sometimes hot, as we made out way around the lawns and cliffs of the city part; today it was chilly in the shade, even as the sun was hot when we were directly in it. A great bank of fog lay on the water beyond the harbor.

I haven't opened up The Mission since last week. For one thing, I've been organizing my copywriting notes over morning coffee. For another, I may be experiencing some resistance--old and familiar. Chapter 25 is taking me plenty of time.

But yesterday I had a thought: writing a book reminds me of playing chess, in a way, and each chapter is a move.

Starting in 1972, during the Fischer-Spassky world-title match in Reykjavik, I became a chess enthusiast--a passion that remained through most of my teens, but especially from age 15 to 17. I would study chess from books, playing out games on the combination table-board I had at home. I played the games that appeared in the chess columns that used to appear in the newspaper. I played in a few local tournaments (way down in the "D" section of weakest players), once even winning a prize: a chess book.

The most memorable, or anyway the largest, tournament I played in was Vancouver 1975, held out at Totem Park on the UBC campus. It was a major tournament whose prizes were big enough in the open (top) section to draw international players. The top-rated player there, and eventual winner, was the Estonian grandmaster Paul Keres, who died almost immediately afterward. (He was an anomaly, since, although he never played in a world championship match, he was consistently rated among the ten strongest players in the world for 30 years.) Other notable players there were Walter Browne, then U.S. champion, and future U.S. champion Yasser Seirawan, a fixture of junior-level tournaments in Vancouver at that time. I loved the intense atmosphere, the long rows of tables with their taped-on paper boards and large plastic sets, the purring chess clocks, and even the increasing pall of cigarette smoke as each day wore on. I won a few games, but didn't perform as well as I'd hoped.

In a chess game, some moves can safely be made quickly, but others take time. Grandmasters who can speed through an opening may arrive at a point where they must use up a quarter or even half of their total allotted time on just one move. Such moves have the quality of a crossroads. There's nothing for it: you have to think it through.

Well, I think that writing chapters is a bit like this. Some take more time: they are challenging, and require more thought, more planning. They are like crossroads.

I tell myself this, anyway. I have to justify spending not just weeks but whole months on a single chapter. Just as in a chess game, one has to think, "I'll make up the time later." Or, more accurately: "If I don't get this move right, the time won't matter anyway."

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

voyage of discovery

More relatively sleepless time at night. As I noted in my morning e-mail to Kimmie, it can get boring lying around in bed in the dark.

It could be much worse, of course. And I don't spend as much mental and emotional energy on worrying about my work--that's surely a good thing, no?

I'm still preparing my notes for chapter 25. Now well acquainted with this process, I don't worry as much about this either. I recognize that I need to achieve a certain level of knowledge of my setting and scene before I can launch in and write it. It's kind of a visceral feeling of "getting it". Something goes click and I want to start writing--I know where I'm going.

I haven't always waited for that click moment before starting; indeed, I have probably started without it more often than not. The result is that the writing is hard going. The direction is not clear and everything feels arbitrary. Conversely, when you know what you're trying to do, what you're actually writing about, the writing goes quickly and easily--and it's fun. And it's usually also good.

So there are great benefits to be harvested from putting in the preliminary spadework. The trouble, of course, is that it feels unproductive. No new prose is being spun. Notes accumulate--notes that no one will ever see but me.

But the notes are, or can be, exciting in themselves. The draft itself, I've decided, is a voyage of discovery, just like the voyages of the Renaissance. You set out somewhere, or to find the way to somewhere, and what you'll encounter along the way you have no way of knowing until you meet it. Will you find monsters? Gold? Loving maidens? Hostile headhunters? Only one way to find out.

Thus, I find, even with an outline, I find the first draft to be exploratory: I'm learning about my world and my characters. Gradually things start knitting together, and there is a sense that it can be a single whole. My way, now at least, is to relish delving into the images I'm using, to seek their connections and meanings. I want everything to be there for a reason.

And now: off to lunch with my mother again. She has her own writing project on the go, and is seeking my help. Good luck to her!

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

great potential

Another day of more focus on copywriting than on novel-writing. It was good, though: I felt energized, and inspired to look back through notes I made some time ago on copywriting, in order to prepare a proposal for a new client. I felt myself lean on techniques I learned and developed while I was a business analyst at ICBC. I enjoy analyzing things and coming up with solutions.

I also like doing these other kinds of writing. To me, even as a teenager I was attracted to all the various types of writing that could be done, including scriptwriting, songwriting, and even writing computer programs--I did them all. It was as though the word write was the basic verb of creativity: the act of catching the traces of one's ideas on paper (or, now, on a PC). I loved the idea of being a Renaissance man, whose creativity could be expressed through all those different media.

The psychologist Scott Peck, in his famous book The Road Less Traveled, describes life as a journey on which we progressively outgrow (or not) various misconceptions about ourselves. One of these really stuck in my mind: "the adolescent fantasy of omnipotentiality". I was an adolescent--and postadolescent--with such a fantasy.

Sticking too long with the belief that "I can do anything" is injurious to one's progress, since, while it may have been partly true at one point, it shrivels into meaninglessness as one approaches death. I remember a cartoon: a headstone incised with an image of a steaming coffee cup, and the words "great potential". The jack of all trades is in grave danger of needing that headstone.

One needs to take a hard, honest look at where one's interest and passion really lies, and, generally speaking, the sooner the better. The adolescent doesn't want to suffer under the limitation of a single path. But our life is a single path, like it or not. You're already on it, kid. If you can pick that one path, you'll find plenty of variety and adventure in that one field. Detailed worlds open up, and challenges greater than you could have imagined as an overconfident adolescent.

It's hard to be honest with oneself about one's true preferences. And, having been honest about them, it's hard then to act on them. And yet I have no doubt this is the best thing for everyone. We're here to realize our true nature. Why shirk that task? Why delay?

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

composure and creativity

More trouble sleeping. My pattern now seems to be to wake up at about 3:30 and lie fully awake for all or most of the time until the alarm rings at 5:30. This morning I dozed off at around 5:00, time enough to have some dreams when the alarm went off. The mornings are dark again, and now cool as well.

I didn't manage much book-work this morning. For one thing, I'm trying to learn how to get the most out of Google News, which I've made my new homepage. For another, I had to return a call on some possible copywriting work, and review some material before talking to the new prospect (I didn't manage to get hold of her). And finally I had an appointment at 11:30 for dental cleaning. It all combined to trim away my regular writing time.

I find I can do creative work only when my mind is clear and undisturbed with emotions or stress. Back when working in TV this was an important consideration. Both Warren and I felt that way, and knew we were creatively useless after any meeting involving the network, so we tried to schedule these for later in the day, after we had already done any writing we were going to do. Here on the West Coast people in television often have to start their day early to be in sync with the powers in Toronto, three time-zones away.

I remember one day when Hart Hanson, our story editor during the development phase, told us he had been roused from bed at about 5:00 that morning by the CBC executive in charge of our show (he was an employee of the CBC at the time).

"Cripes," I thought, "there's no way I'm doing that for anybody."

I think part of the problem might be that writers often accept the low status often accorded them by others in the TV industry. There are problems of self-esteem among those who can be so easily overridden, rewritten, and fired. The writer is vulnerable too because his work is submitted to criticism before anyone else's. No one else has had a chance to screw up yet when the writer is being mauled. But I'm keenly aware of the magnitude of the writer's input, which in some ways is the majority of the creative effort of a production. So I push back against those who try to minimize the writer's input.

I remember a conversation with the producer, Michael, at the height of the frenzy of production. I was stressing some aspect of the script, or worrying about it, and he said, "Everyone on the show thinks their contribution is the most important."

He was mischievously yanking my chain, but I still had to say, "You think the hairstyles are as important as the script? Zoom in on a hairstyle for half an hour and see who's still watching at the end."

It irked me. Sure, the stylist might complain as much as I did (I have no idea--I just named that job at random), but she had only appeared on the scene when the show was funded and her weekly was assured. The writers had worked almost for free for three years, subjected to relentless criticism and attack by those making large salaries, and with utterly no guarantee of success. I was gambling with my house and my marriage, both of which were in real jeopardy over the strain. And I suspect that the hair stylist was not getting calls each day dunning her for the next hairstyle, because the crew had to start building sets and getting locations lined up for the next episode. No, it was the writers who were being called for the next story.

"Just let us know what the story's about, where it's set, so we can get our crew to work!"

By then we'd become hardened, and could work through (though only after phone calls and faxes--not after a face-to-face meeting; those were just too draining and demoralizing sometimes).

But over all, I need tranquility and composure to be able to work creatively. That's another reason I like to get at it first thing in the morning, the earlier the better.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

the re-emptied nest and Victoriana

This past weekend saw the moving-out of Robin. She has found a one-bedroom apartment just down the hill on 2nd Street--two buildings away from the apartment we all lived in back in 1985-86. She has a suite facing south across the harbor to the city, just as we had back then. So to be in that apartment and look out is nostalgic--and also very beautiful, one of the great views in Vancouver, available in an old, woodframe, low-rent apartment building.

So that occupied us. Kimmie, saddened by this (second) departure of her daughter (who is now 25), has been throwing herself into the work of helping with the move, and now into transforming Robin's old bedroom back into the sewing-room it was before Robin returned to it last year. While I read in the livingroom yesterday, Kimmie thumped up and down the stairs, lugging up our central-vacuum hose and buckets of water with ammonia to clean and scrub the vacated room. Then she started ferrying cardboard boxes of stuff from the basement room where she now has her sewing-room. Her capacity for work is extraordinary.

In the evenings we've been watching (again, after a gap of a couple of years) the 1974 British TV production of The Pallisers, a 24-part miniseries based on the 19th-century Palliser novels by Anthony Trollope. The show, adapted by Simon Raven, stars Susan Hampshire and Philip Latham. I remember first watching this on TV in the mid-70s. I enjoyed it quite well then, and more when I saw it a few years ago; but now I (and Kimmie) find ourselves liking it even more.

The story takes place among the social and political elite of English society at the zenith of the Victorian era (Trollope died in 1882). While I admire and enjoy Trollope's flair in dealing with the political issues of the day and people's strong attitudes toward them, what really commands my attention now is his depiction of character, and especially his portrayals of women and their relationships with men in that period. I find that he cracks my preconceived ideas about Victorian England, and, like other excellent writers of the period, such as Thomas Hardy, shows people to be just the same then as they are now--the universal appeal of the classic.

In short, his fame is deserved--even though I haven't read any of his actual books, only seen the TV show. But it's very good. More on this later perhaps.

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