Ghosts of the Old City

Reflections in the Rearview Mirror

I remember the day that, as an undergraduate, I realized I could not do everything. I had committed myself to the same kind of activity load that I’d had at UWC. For a semester, it was fine—my first semester at Macalester was lightweight, especially since I wasn’t adjusting to living away from home. Second semester, I had some harder classes, and I collapsed. I spent a day in my dorm room, sometimes sleeping, sometimes crying, knowing I had to quit at least one thing but unable to reconcile myself to—as I saw it—being a quitter.

In between naps, I pored through my yearbooks. At AC, we wrote a lot in the yearbooks, especially our second year. We tried to wrap all the intensity of those two years into our words, knowing that we would soon be scattering literally all over the world (and in the days before social media, that meant even more). That February day in Minnesota, I needed those memories. It wasn’t just to remind myself that I had friends. I needed to read all of the good things people wrote about me (although one of my fellow U.S. students wrote, thoughtfully, about how I was a terrible cynic and ought to respect my country more). I needed to believe that some of those things, maybe most of those things, were true. I was good at things. People liked me.

I needed the past to validate my present, to reassure me that my travails would pass, just as they had there. (I’d had a similar break while in Wales, one that remained the worst I’d had until I was wrestling with leaving academia.) It worked, mostly. I ended my brief career as a sportswriter for the Mac Weekly. I stopped taking on new activities. I started going out with my first real girlfriend.


Earlier this week, my first band director died. Skip Bicknese didn’t bat an eye when my mom, a little confused herself, took me to the band room moments after I’d informed the counselor at my soon-to-be middle school that I wanted to do in band in seventh grade. Mr. B and I talked a little about what I wanted to play. He taught me, minutes after walking into the band room, the basics of buzzing and showed me my first fingering chart. My braces saw to it that I didn’t remain a horn player for long, but I am pretty sure I was a band nerd by that October.

There’s no doubt I was by the time I reached high school. I’d been playing baritone horn for a while. Mr. B invited me to come try the jazz band (which met before school) on valve trombone. Valve trombones are abominations, and I decided I’d better learn to play a proper trombone even as I was falling in love with third and fourth trombone parts and going to all the home basketball games. (The jazz band was also the pep band.) When Mr. B left after my freshman year, I was bummed, but I’d learned enough that, along with other band students, I helped stand up to his replacement (who was terrible and only lasted a year himself).

When I read that Skip had died, I cried. He introduced me to music as practice. I’m not sure he was endlessly patient, but he was endlessly enthusiastic, which made up for it. He told terrible jokes. He laughed at the terrible jokes his students told. He wrote our marching band arrangements and a good chunk of our pep band music. I suspect looking at photocopies of those low-resolution printouts planted the seed that I could create music myself. I know that Mr. B’s love for music and for his students propelled me and many others into music as a lifelong effort. I didn’t think of him when I smiled to hear Rite of Spring on the radio last week, but I should have. I wouldn’t have gotten to Stravinsky (never mind LaMonte Young or Meredith Monk) without the Bicknese arrangement of “American Band.”


Last night, I took my curling printout of Ghosts of the Old City to a coffee shop. I brought a pen, too. That was it. I sat down, and I read the whole draft. I went through it last summer, but had to job hunt instead of starting rewrites in earnest. I spent NaNo 2015 working on the sequel. I hadn’t forgotten the novel, but I didn’t remember it well enough to dive straight back into rewrites.

It’s odd to think that I wrote the first part of Ghosts three years ago, before I’d even considered moving to Texas. There’s not a lot of that early vision left, and where it shows it mostly needs to go away—I still read parts and think “that’s so NaNo.” There were times when I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s the glory and the curse of NaNo, especially for a first-timer. I had to find my story.

The draft had not miraculously improved itself while it sat on my desk. The opening is still mostly good. The following section, the one that leads up to the turn, is still muddy as hell. I noticed a few problems with continuity that I hadn’t noted down before. There’s still not enough Zahra in the first half of the book.

There’s good stuff there, though, which was gratifying to see. There are pieces of music I wrote that I can hardly stand anymore, stories and poems that I look at and wonder “how could I have thought this was insight?” Ghosts has good bones. There were moments that I wanted to cry. I still like the ending. There were characters I wanted to know more about, and guess what? I’m the writer. I can know more about them. I can help you know more about them.

Reading back through that draft was what I needed, not just to remind myself of what was in it, but that I’m a writer. Blog posts are writing, but they’re not the same. They’ve worn me down a bit over the course of the summer, especially because I haven’t had much inspiration to write about writing. Now, I think I can get back to that.


Three different moments, but these were all moments that the past, my past, buoyed my present. It isn’t always about morale, or about loss, or about learning from past mistakes. Sometimes we just have to remember where we came from, remember who we are. The terrible news of this summer makes it easy to drown in the now. We act in the moment, but we should not forget that we bring our past decisions, good and bad, with us. We bring our teachers, our friends, our work. Don’t forget that.

NaNoWriMo Reflections, 2015

So the semester is done and I finally have a chance to look back on NaNo.


I won this year, but it was so much different than 2013. I’ve spent the last few weeks (and particularly the evening after our local “TGIO” party) puzzling out which of the differences had to do with me and which had to do with my region. There were a lot of changes in both over the two years between my wins.

Back in 2013, finding the community in the Austin region was super-important to me. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I’d only been in Texas a few months and meeting people who were not in my family circle was novel (sorry). Teaching was still just a stopgap, something I was doing on a substitute basis while looking for a real job. I was still pretty miserable much of the time. I’d also, y’know, never written a novel before. (Never mind that I’d started several going all the way back to third grade.)

That year, write-ins were really social. We spent at least half the time doing word sprints and chattering between them. I went to most of the Saturdays and most of the Wednesdays. A really high percentage of my wordcount came from those write-ins, particularly from the sprints. I remember that most of the people seemed to be writing purely for entertainment. We’d get together, overcaffeinate, and hurl words at our virtual pages.

Last year, I hardly made it to anything. I wanted to, but being a first-year teacher at a poorly-funded middle school was as much as I could handle. The commute did not help, nor did my kids’ challenges adjusting to their new school. I don’t know if the changes I noticed this year were in progress last year or not.

The biggest difference this year is that the community seemed much more…pre-professional. Our new municipal liaisons were great at organizing events. Many of those events, though, aimed directly or indirectly at publishing. The focus on writing for the sake of writing seemed diminished. The write-ins were much quieter. One of the regular ones is at a local gaming store. Back in 2013, it was one of the noisiest write-ins. This year, it was an island of quiet in the otherwise busy store. Don’t get me wrong—I still wrote thousands of words at that write-in. I just wrote them quietly. People said hello when they arrived and goodbye when they left, and occasionally chatted with friends they’d already made when they needed a break. Mostly, though, the write-ins I went to were quiet.

This year, that suited me. That’s the other difference—I’ve written a novel now, even though it’s not quite ready for distribution. I knew going in that I could do it, and I had a good idea of what I wanted to get out of the month. Putting my head down and writing was fine. Really, I needed the time with minimal distractions more than I needed the community this year—I like my job (a lot), my home life is fairly stable, and my stress-happiness balance is tipped very much toward happiness. November was about making time to chase the story and the wordcount.

It was a hell of a chase, too. I was at “par” on two of November’s 30 days: the first and the last. Going into Thanksgiving break, I had over 20,000 words left to write. I spent much of the break writing (including Thanksgiving day). On Black Friday, I hiked downtown and got caught in the rain. (It was bad enough that I had my spouse bring me some dry clothes.) I had about 1800 words left for Monday, and wrote almost 3000 because I was not about to stop in the middle of the climactic chapter.

The end product is, I think, better than the initial version of Ghosts. Most of the story for Spires of Trayan is there, and there are fewer of the scenes where I’m using the characters’ fumbling around to try and figure out where the story needs to go. I’m sure that when I open it back up in a month, I’ll groan and wonder what I was thinking. There will be things that are too obvious, things that are not obvious enough, and a few scenes that will be better off incinerated.

But it’s done. Fifty-one thousand words on the page (61000 including the ones I wrote last year). Words that weren’t there before. It was a quieter, calmer, more focused NaNo, but pulling those words out of nothing makes it a win.

The Cleaver and the Needle

Revising can be messy. It’s all well and good to kill your darlings, but it’s often the case that the darlings need reshaping rather than killing.

Ghosts of the Old City has required some particularly bloody revising. After going through my alpha draft, I realized that almost a third of the book was in the wrong order. Some scenes—and most of two chapters—featured characters spinning their metaphorical wheels, waiting for the next thing to happen. (Really, it was the author waiting to figure out what happened next.) The disappointing thing is that those scenes were not even good character development. I had glossed over some things that should have been interesting challenges for the characters, and I had zoomed in on some moments that turned out to be insignificant.

Starting to implement the necessary fixes has made me feel like a Civil War era surgeon, operating with butchers’ tools and booze for anaesthetic. There’s little delicacy for me at this stage. I ginned up sixteen new chapter files in Scrivener on a fresh storyboard. Most of those will use some existing text. Some will be new. One will require only moderate changes to reflect the altered flow of the plot. “Cut and paste” feels like chop-and-paste, or chop and throw into a bucket for later reattachment. It is brutal and unsubtle stuff.

I find this a little ironic because one of the things that I appreciate about the revision process is the craftsmanship of it. When I’m drafting, I’m chasing the story. I’m discovering things. I am, when things are working well, a damn wizard, conjuring something out of nothing. The revision process, as I was describing it to somebody a few weeks ago, is more like engineering. My friend (who is a research scientist) nodded sagely and said that it’s an iterative process, where you can try things out and see what works. I like that kind of work as much as I do the wilder stuff of creating. There’s something satisfying about each step getting you closer to the beautiful (or functional, or both) thing that you’re working on. I just tend to imagine it like bonsai or playing with Lego.

This time it has inspired the above analogies to butcher work. It’s my first novel, and I think much of the difficulty in revising has been adjusting to the scale. If you’re writing an essay or a short story, you may have to move a few pages around, rewrite a stretch of paragraphs. Even a third of your work isn’t that much. With a novel, there’s just more of everything. There’s more room for things to go wrong. It’s more important to sustain reader interest. I don’t want Ghosts to be one of those novels that sucks people in through the first three chapters then loses them by the seventh. I particularly want to avoid that because I think the home stretch of the novel includes some of the best writing I’ve ever done. (I’m sure my beta readers will explain to me where it isn’t as good as I think it is.)

I want the first half of the book to be worthy of the second. I also want the first half to build correctly to the second, which is why the hatchet job was necessary. Plot relies on conflict. Usually—and in this way my novel is nothing unusual—that conflict should build gradually. In the first-and-a-half draft of Ghosts, the conflict is just kind of there. Drafting it, I had antagonists in mind, but I hadn’t thought of exactly what they wanted or how they were going about their business. Now I know what needs to happen, and it’s not there.


I’ve gotten through the most brutal parts of the corrective surgery. I can put down the cleaver. The next step is to pick up the needle and stitch it all back together with everything in the right place. One of the fun things about being a writer is that if you’re doing your job, your story won’t even show the scars.

Painted Desert

Making Mountains out of Mountains

Painted Desert

On the way home, and not precisely the mountains, but not far from them.

I grew up surrounded by mountains, in the valley between the Rockies and the Owyhee Mountains. The rain shadow meant that what wasn’t irrigated was dry. Getting sagebrush and crops in the same frame of a photograph wasn’t too hard. Most of all, though, I remember mountains lining most of the horizon, especially on clear days. The thing is that I haven’t lived in Idaho for many years. Central Texas is, thank the FSM, far less flat than Northwest Ohio, but I still hadn’t been around mountains for a long, long time.

That changed on a recently-completed road trip. Along with the family, I did a three-day drive from Texas to California. At the end of the first day, closing in on Albuquerque, we reached the mountains. The sun was drifting down toward them. We rose up from the scrub plains to meet it.

A tangle of emotions followed—the sight of the mountains filled me up. They were a homecoming, but there was also bitterness there. It had been so long not just since I had seen mountains, but since I’d thought about them. It felt like I had betrayed my memories. Added to that was recognition of time’s passage. I had to convince my daughter that we were driving into mountains even though they were not pointy and white-capped like they are in her picture books. All this spun out from and coiled around the more usual beauties of mountain sunsets and the fatigue of a long day on the road.

Travel has always been a time for me to write—or at least to think about my writing. During the trip, I managed to (finally!) finish my read-through of Ghosts of the Old City. There is a lot to improve, especially in the first half of the book. It still has NaNo-wrought passages that don’t do anything. There are—well, I could spend a good chunk of time listing the things that need fixing. Mostly, the things that need to be fixed need to be more themselves, to reflect my understanding of the characters, story, and setting at the end of the process rather than what I was making up as I went along.

You never want to make mountains out of molehills. As a writer, though, you need to be able to make mountains out of mountains. The big things in your story have to feel big. The important things must feel important. Even after thinking about it for a week, I’m not sure I’ve done a good job of describing exactly what I felt when I saw the mountains. If it were important to my story, I’d have to find a way: more words, better words, fewer words…more details and less abstraction.

These are all things I’m doing as I work on my rewrites. Much of it comes back to the fundamental: show, don’t tell. If you can’t do that, your mountains will be flat and pointy against the horizon, capped with white that was never snow. And how is that going to make anybody feel anything?

Find and Replace

I am working in feverish fits and starts to get the last few thousand words into my first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. It was supposed to be volume one of “The Fairworth Chronicles.” (That is, in fact, what my Scrivener project is called.) A few weeks ago, I read a blog post about names and languages, along with another about a writer having to rename her protagonists to move them away from stereotypes. The combination of those two posts set the niggling worms of doubt to work at the back of my mind. Sometimes—this time—those worms were simply the precursors of an uncomfortable but necessary change. I have to find one of my heroes a replacement surname.

I loved “Fairworth” as a surname. It sounds great. It has interesting connotations for a character who doesn’t always think of himself as worth much, and particularly for a family that has done some pretty unworthy things. It also just works for a pulp hero. Those characteristics were particularly important for Maedoc’s original incarnation, years and years ago, as a character for a short-lived online game. (The game never got off the train it started on.) The concept for that character—“unlucky dilettante who sees ghosts”—didn’t change much for the novel, but the novel has given that thumbnail a chance to develop into a full character.

More importantly, I’ve developed my own world around him. That game had trains and elven cults fighting the erosion of magic (with dynamite!) and a world vaguely defined by a recent war between magicians and technologists. I didn’t really keep any of that, instead building a culturally divided city, partly made of magic letters. There are humans and, in the background, seal-people—no elves or dwarves or (FSM forbid) gnomes. There are trains but not automatons or dirigibles or other steampunk staples.

…and that world has its own languages. More importantly, I’ve worked hard to avoid it becoming some undiscovered part of England. One language is based loosely on Bulgarian and associated with a culture formerly reliant on horses. The other language features a phonemic rune alphabet. Neither has a place for “Fairworth.” The name makes it too easy to think of the faux-Bulgarian Parukhi as British (and thus substituting France or a vaguely-defined Far East for the opposing Shehru rune alphabet culture). It also just doesn’t fit with all the place names I’ve used. I had, at one point, a half-baked theory about the Parukhi aristocracy all having adjective+noun or noun+noun names: Fairworth, Stormcliff, Briarwood, usw. The Parukhi commoners had one-word surnames drawn from common objects: Wood, Needle, whatever. (Gene Wolfe does a lot with those object-names in his Book of the Long Sun, by the by.) In theory, it’s not a bad idea. In practice, there’s absolutely no spot to explain or demonstrate that in the novel. I’d end up with something forced or confusing. Never mind that even with that distinction, squashing together English words for names just doesn’t fit with all of the other things I’ve created.

So I spent Sunday afternoon playing with Google translate and trying out different surnames. I’m testing one of them now, but am not wholly sold on it. It’s hard to take a name I’ve been living with for over a year and replace it. My initial feelings are that it loses some of the sonic “essence” of Maedoc, but deepens the sense of his family history. Given that the name was originally created for a character with minimal background, this isn’t surprising. I think the change will ultimately help anchor poor Maedoc to the world, make him more a part of his family (not necessarily a good thing for him!) and help the world stand better on its own. Like so many things in writing and in life: necessary, but not necessarily fun at the time.

In the meanwhile, there will be much find and replace. So much find and replace.

Where Does Magic Live?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future

Well and good. As a fantasy writer, though, I usually have to approach the question from the other direction: what (if anything) makes magic distinguishable from technology? Is it just a different kind of science, a matter of formulae and experimentation? Is it part of the fabric of the universe (or worse, midichlorians)? Is it an element of special souls? Of words? Of music? Is it woven into objects and made permanent, or is it ephemeral? If it’s any or all of those things, how magical is it? How does it defy expectations, and when should it fulfill them?

Over Memorial Day weekend, I reread large swathes of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. I have lots of reasons to love those books. One is that LeGuin’s writing of magic—especially prominent with a wizard as her protagonist—is probably the best I know. LeGuin integrates magic seamlessly into the world, but also into her characters and stories. Magic is never just a prop or a trick. (More on this below.)

Well-written magic makes fantasy stories shine. Poorly-written or poorly-conceived magic can keep stories dull. Magic is an easy place to go astray. It’s too easy to slip towards a gaming conception of magic: wizards (and maybe priests) casts spells that mostly do big, obvious things—quantifiable things. There’s a spell for healing. A spell for fireballs. A spell for turning an orc into a newt. There’s not much magical about that, especially if you steal D&D’s Vancian fire-and-forget approach.

Broadly speaking, magic’s qualities depend on where you put it—the mind, the soul, the world, divinity, or in things.

Dungeons & Dragons: I cast magic missile at the darkness.

The early Dungeons & Dragons took its inspiration for magic from the works of Jack Vance. Vancian wizards basically wrote spells in their brain in some metaphysical equivalent to temporary tattoos. Casting a spell took it out of their minds. (Zelazny’s second Amber series uses a similar approach to “hanging” spells.) There was little fuss in D&D about where the magic came from. It was just sort of out there…unless you’re playing a cleric, in which case it behaves with identical rules but the power source is your deity of choice. It isn’t until you get into the higher levels of magic that the rules begin to bend away from a patchwork of the quasi-mundane.

Brust: Twists of Mind

In Brust’s work, magic is a series of tricks of the mind. You can manipulate energy directly (pre-Empire sorcery), through something called the Imperial Orb (sorcery), or through symbols (witchcraft). The energy is out there to be manipulated. Some characters have genetic predisposition to certain kinds of magic (particularly pre-Empire sorcery), but most can be learned by people with the resources to get training. Mostly, magic does what the plot needs it to do; hardly anything is codified. The interesting thing about the Dragaera books is that magic is pervasive. Brust has incorporated many of the little things you’d expect magicians to be doing that are often left out of other settings (keeping track of time, warming up coffee). Magic is not mysterious until the gods get involved (and Brust’s gods roughly approximate entities that are just really, really good at magic).

Tolkien: Things (and People) of Power

Tolkien’s an interesting case. Instances of D&D-esque spellcasting are few and far between—Gandalf throwing lightning in the goblin caves, spells of opening and closing in Moria. Magic in Middle Earth instead comes in two broad forms: that which inheres in artifacts, and that which moves men’s wills. Artifacts, from the Rings of Power to Sting, are the products of knowledge. It’s secret knowledge, too, often described as “cunning” in usage that echoes the Norse and Germanic myths that inspired Professor Tolkien. Those cunning elves (and much more rarely men or dwarves) discover secrets.

Tolkien’s relation of magic to divinity and influence on men’s wills is more idiosyncratic. I don’t recall anything quite like it. Yes, the Witch-King of Angmar knows spells. He’s deadly, though, because his will works on his enemies. The Nazgul are terrifying beyond reason. Saruman’s voice eats away at his listeners’ resistance. Gandalf and Aragorn are pillars of strength that prop up everybody around them. It’s metaphysical rather than psychological, some quality that seems to belong to certain great souls. I feel perfectly reasonable calling it magic.

LeGuin: Names and Words

The Earthsea books feature my favorite writing of magic. Wizards use magic mostly to do the things people would want it to do in a low-technology setting: mend pots, cure goats’ infected udders, conjure wind for ships. Unlike Brust’s stories, though, this is the main function of wizards. (LeGuin isn’t dealing with Dragaera’s hierarchies, mind.) The magic itself relies on true names, the language of the making of the world. In one sense, it’s not far removed from the cunning of Tolkien’s artificers—there are secrets that a prepared mind can use to influence reality. The power of those secrets, though, manifests in words, especially spoken words. Magic is a dialogue with creation. That’s what makes it so convincing to read.

Putting it Together

Many writers combine these concepts. Some concoct new systems. David Farland’s Runelords books, for example, have elemental wizards but also a system whereby a man can transfer his “attributes” to another via runes—“the strength of ten men” becomes literal through magical brands. Whatever rules (or “rules”) you create for magic, the trick is making it seem magical. The more  quantifiable magic is – the more it resembles technology – the less special it feels. (That’s a generalization and an opinion. Some authors have created fanatically-detailed systems of magic, bending fantasy toward hard sci-fi with swords.)

For Ghosts of the Old City, my model of magic is probably closest to Brust’s. Maedoc does magic (a bit)—it’s a manipulation of finite energies that he couples with a family talent for seeing dead people. I muck things up by including alchemy on the side. Alchemy’s my “speed of plot” bit of magic, one that I use sparingly and mostly for patching up my busted protagonists. Importantly, alchemy is necessary for making permanent changes. If the fabric of reality is a bedsheet, magic can put wrinkles in it. The greatest wizards with access to the right sources of energy might be able to fold it. It takes alchemy, though, to make any stitches. Eventually, even the greatest magic-forged wrinkles and folds will lapse back towards flatness. That combination lets me have magic do flashy things when I need it to without worrying about the complications of people running around with magic flamethrowers. Hopefully, it keeps the magic suitably magical…you know, distinguishable from technology.

Droughts and Drafts

Central Texas is dry. Right now, it’s spectacularly dry, in the grip of a years-long drought that has climatologists talking earnestly about a repeat of the Dust Bowl. We had a storm dump four inches of rain about a week ago; the ground soaked it all up. The reservoirs are 27 feet below full—instead of having nearly four years’ worth of water in them, they have about a year and a half. It won’t be long before the landscape reverts to its sere summer brown.

My own drought isn’t as severe or as far-reaching. I’ve been working and busy with chores and working on behind-the-scenes grownup stuff. I’ve managed to keep my blog updated. What I haven’t managed since April is much work on Ghosts of the Old City. My reservoirs are running low. When I go to work on it, I enjoy what I see. I can wring out a few paragraphs at a time. Then the well is dry and I have to wait until opportunity and desire again intersect.

Two things have been missing: reading and sleep. Sleep is probably the one with the most import, simply because it colors so much of my days and my mood. Lack of it makes it easier to sink into wasting my waking hours and suffering mood swings. It’s also contributed to the resurgence of my cold, which hasn’t helped.

I’m missing reading more, though. I’ve read plenty, but most of my reading these last few weeks has been internet stuff: newspaper articles, blog posts, usw. As metaphorical rain, they’re barely enough to keep the grass from dying. Replenishing the reservoirs takes sustained reading, away from a screen, away from habitual clicking over to a game or social media every few minutes. It takes the energy to focus on something once the kids are in bed.

Writers constantly tell their aspiring counterparts to read. There’s a practical level to that: the more you read, the more tricks you learn to spot and pull off yourself. The more you read, the better sense you develop for the subtleties of language. You find stuff to steal and build into your own style. Those are all good reasons. None of them are enough to make the absence of reading a drought.

It’s not the how that needs renewal. It’s the why. Lack of reading dries us out because reading makes us feel. It makes us think. When we read to replenish our stores as writers, we’re replenishing our love for words and stories. We’re remembering what it means to be transported, for doors to open and stars to align. That’s the stuff that feeds us at the root.

The skies are grey this morning. The clouds aren’t dark enough to hold much threat of rain. The trees don’t stir. The forecast for the long weekend is much more amenable to sunscreen and swimming pools than drought relief. Schools—both my kids’ and the one where I teach—are descending into the whirlwind of end-of-year events. There’s a birthday party to go to on Saturday. There will be laundry and dishes and another attempt to deal with some broken blinds.

But there will also be sleeping in and reading and breakfasts that don’t come as a prelude to prying my kids out of bed. By Monday, maybe I’ll be ready to grow my writing roots again and get back to my draft of Ghosts of the Old City.