Writing as an Act of Faith

As I said in my last two posts, I’m on a writing retreat to work on The Reefs of Time. There’s an interesting faith component to this retreat. While the act of writing is almost by definition a leap of faith (Will this book I’m spending years writing actually turn into something good?) there’s a little more to it this time. As part of my church’s annual Leap of Faith experiment during Lent, I have been praying for a creative breakthrough, and also in particular that my writing wouldn’t just sell, but would touch readers in meaningful and uplifting ways. I mean, really, if it doesn’t do that, is it worth all the work and mental anguish? (Yes, aspiring writers, sometimes it definitely feels like anguish.)

Well, on my first night I settled into a comfortable chair with my laptop, in front of a crackling fire (I have a really nice room at this B&B), to begin writing new material. Not moving stuff around, not taking notes, but doing the hard thing: new stuff. No sooner was I settled in than an email came in. Really, I should have been ignoring emails at that point, but I caught out of the corner of my eye, in the little notification window, something about The Infinity Link. Now, The Infinity Link was one of my early novels, not much noticed nowadays, but in my writing career it was a breakthrough novel in many ways. (Not the least of the ways was that it started small, grew large, and took me bloody forever to write—not unlike the book I’m writing now.)

So I read the email. It was from a reader new to my work. He’d found The Infinity Link in a used bookstore a while back, and read it. He’d just read it again, this time via the Audible audiobook. And he was writing to tell me how profoundly the story and some of its images had touched him—and he just wanted to let me know, and to thank me for writing the book!

Before answering the email, I sat there for a few moments, dumbfounded. I don’t know how you would take it, but that sure felt like an answer to prayer to me.

The writing came easier for the rest of that night.

Two Views of My Novel

I found this rock on the first beach walk of my retreat, a sea-scoured nugget of quartz. It seemed to me a perfect metaphor for my first draft: a gem (or crystal, anyway) in the rough, all of its facets and inner beauty temporarily concealed. I probably won’t polish the crystal, but I will polish the novel. (In fact, I’ve made good progress on a couple of thorny problems while down here.) So, here are two different views of my work in progress:

And while I ponder the book, here’s the Landshark scanning the sea for signs of its marine brethren:

First Writing Retreat of 2014

I’m on Cape Cod for a few days, to clear my head and try to get some traction in the rewrite of The Reefs of Time. I’ve got the whole book loaded into Scrivener now, with notes all over the place, and Scrivener has already proved its usefulness in letting me move the chapters of different subplots around like chess pieces. I think I’ve got them lined up the way I want them, though of course I might feel differently as the rewriting proceeds.

Part of what I love about coming to the Cape is a chance to walk along the beach and the dunes, and refresh my brain with ocean air. Whenever I do that, I seem to see patterns in nature that somehow connect with what I’m writing. The tide coming in over the sand, for example, creates little ephemeral rivers that remind me of the starstream, a cosmic structure of my own imaginary design which figures prominently in the new book. (See From a Changeling Star and Down the Stream of Stars for more about the starstream, which was born of a supernova and a long cosmic hyperstring.)

I’m not sure what these vistas of sand dunes remind me of, but I felt strongly that they symbolize something in the story I’m writing. I guess I’ll find out what, later.

In case you think I just stole these pictures off the internet, here’s one of me standing where the dunes give way to the beach and the water. (Would you trust this guy with your daughter? Hmm.)

How about this guy? (He claimed to be rollerblading. But it was way too cold to be rollerblading. What was he really doing?)

Writing Retreat Report

This retreat has been one of the most productive ever. I’m getting good pages written every day, and more importantly, I had a conceptual breakthrough that showed me what I was doing wrong in several chapters as we approach the end. The realization meant I had to back up and go at those chapters differently, but that’s how these things go sometimes. This change will affect how I write much of what is to follow. I feel so confident of this that I’m going to give you a sneak look at a crucial scene near the end of the book. Here it is. Don’t tell anyone what happens, though. This is probably about 850 manuscript pages into the book.

I’m also getting outdoors and exercising—alternating between rollerblading and biking on some of the excellent bike trails around here. I rode for the first time on the lovely Cape Cod Rail Trail, which winds through the central part of the Cape. It was on this ride that I saw my dream setting:

House by a lake (okay, a pond), with private floatplane drawn up to the shore. Does a dream house get any better than that?

Several times now, I’ve taken to the Cape Cod Canal bike trail, which is about the most scenic and relaxing afternoon/evening outing ever. It’s also an outlook of choice for the Cape Cod Central Railroad’s excursion trains. Here’s where they stop to turn the trains around for their return to Hyannis. And by that, I mean that they uncouple the engine from the front and take it around and attach it to the rear, making it the new front.

Here they are, hitching it up.

And away they go. I don’t know what that E-unit locomotive is doing on the back end. It looks like it’s acting as a booster. But I wouldn’t have thought the train long enough to need it. Anyway, it’s a nice-looking engine, grumbling farewell as it moves off.

I didn’t think until too late that I could have taken a nice movie of its departure. Oh well, maybe next time.

Off to Do Some Writing

By the time this posts, Lord willing, I’ll be on Cape Cod beginning another writing retreat. Among the things I like about the Cape, besides the chance to leave daily cares behind and focus on my book, are the great seafood, local micro-brews, and wonderful bike paths for exercise, fresh air, and positive reinforcement for making progress, whether it’s getting words on the page or thinking through some stubborn plot or character problem. This time I’m taking rollerblades and my recumbent bike. I hope to have good things to report, a few days down the line.

Nature’s Reset Button

Amazing how the writing mind can bounce back with a little time away, and some exposure to nature.  The last two days have been great.  Here are a few pix I took of, and around, Quechee Gorge in Vermont.
That bridge you see way down is Vermont Rt. 4, but was originally the bridge for the Woodstock Railroad. 
Downstream of the gorge. 

Another shot downstream, but this one with accursed Japanese bamboo weed in the foreground.  I hope it hasn’t taken over by the next time I visit. 
Forest along the gorge.
This sculpture replicates the movement of an eagle’s wings when maneuvering in a steep bank prior to diving.   If you walk between the two bars and glide your hands along the metal with arms outstretched, your arms move in a reproduction of the eagle’s wing motion.
  
A cool wind sculpture near the nature center, caught in three different positions. 

And now I head home, with hopes that I can keep some of this lodged in my forebrain for a while.

After Bread Loaf, a Retreat

The New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf was a tremendous success. It always is, but I’d been away from it for five years, and felt pretty rusty going in. Though I arrived frazzled, and was exhausted most of the time (we had a very busy workshop schedule), it was an enormously rewarding experience. This conference selects over two hundred talented and motivated high school-aged writers, and they were a wonderful bunch of kids. One of my students came all the way from Paris for the workshop—a half-French girl with an Aussie accent and a great sense of humor. Another turned out to be the son of a horror writer I once did a bunch of book signings with. As always in the past, I enjoyed getting to know the other writer-teachers (there were about twenty of us), who were of all stripes and genres, but all very friendly. And my reading of an excerpt from Neptune Crossing to the whole conference was very well received.

Allysen, meanwhile, put her foot down and said she wasn’t letting me come home until I’d taken a few days for myself. Thanks to her diligent research, I am now holed up at an inn near Woodstock, Vermont and Quechee Gorge. First goal, to rest and decompress. Second goal: start wrapping my head around The Reefs of Time again, and start finishing that sucker.

Harwich Writing Retreat

I’ve actually been on Cape Cod for the last couple of days. First the whole family came for a family retreat, and we relaxed and brainstormed about some things we want to pursue in the future as a family. Then wife and daughters went back home, and I stayed holed up in the nice little B&B here, working on the Julie/Ik subplot of The Reefs of Time. (For those of you who are waiting to see if Julie and John will ever get back together, no, that’s not a spoiler about a romance between Julie and Ik; however, they do embark on a challenging time-travel experience together. The logic of it has been driving me a little nutty. The Bandicut/Li-Jared subplot, meanwhile, is drawing toward its resolution. And Antares? Well, she has her own problems, but at least she has Napoleon for company.)

And that’s all I’m giving up in the way of plot hints. The main takeaway here is that I’m indeed marching this book toward its thrilling, multi-part conclusion! (And then, on to rewrite!)

The Last Day

For the last day of my writing retreat, I opted to spend the afternoon at the Cape Cod National Seashore. Communing with the ocean where the waves meet the shore has always been, for me, a great way to center my thoughts and find perspective. A great way to remember that I am something small (not unimportant, but small) in a reality much greater. A great place to listen for the whispers of God.

When I’m away from the ocean, I forget how beautiful it is! And today I found possibly the greatest beauty in a place I’d seen before—stopped and looked at briefly before—but never taken the time to walk around and absorb. That’s the salt marsh estuary behind the National Seashore Visitors Center.

There’s something about the peacefulness of a salt marsh that’s almost spiritual. It’s God-breathed, teeming with life, a biologist’s dream, and a remarkable buffer between land and sea that has elements of both. Grass, fish, birds, amphibians, fresh water and salt, the open ocean just beyond the protective spit of sand. You can almost close your eyes and see the millions of years of geologic change and biological evolution that brought you this place of quiet ferment, this thing of beauty that helps clean the sea and protect its young, and at the same time shields the land from the sea’s fury. On this occasion I didn’t see any charismatic birds or other animals, but in quiet contemplation I did feel the hint of divinity, and of the deep works of time.

Interestingly, I also perceived more clearly some things that have been eluding me, details that might well be important to The Chaos Chronicles, and to the story behind The Reefs of Time. In the salt marsh I saw some things I needed to know about the translator (this will make sense only if you’ve read at least one of the books), and even about the enemy that makes life in the galaxy so fraught with danger in this new book. I also realized I probably need to add a couple of new chapters in the next draft, chapters set way back in deep, deep time. So you see, sometimes the quiet, personal times like standing and contemplating the ocean’s edge are exactly what the writer of far-flung futures in space needs. I’m grateful to have had the chance.

Here are a few more pictures. The open ocean over the dunes was pretty wonderful, too.

(And considering that I was holding my cellphone camera at arm’s length and aiming blind, I thought the “self portrait of the artist” came out pretty well.)

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