Monday, December 31, 2007

Snarky Weather

The New Year is coming in snowy here on the Maine coast. One storm just brought us six inches or so, and another's coming in tomorrow with about the same amount.

It's gorgeous out there, but my attitude could be described as "modified rapture." (That's a quote from Gilbert & Sullivan's "Mikado," which means, yes, I am a dork.) Winter on the New England coast can break your heart if you're a snow-lover. For every storm that brings lovely, fluffy, skiable snow, there's another that turns to rain, sleet, or falling slush. It just doesn't do to get your hopes up.

Twenty-three years ago, when we moved here, Rob and I bought each other cross country skis for Christmas. (Actually, we waited for the after-Christmas sales, but we had holly in our hearts so that's what counts.) (That's almost a quote from "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. Dork, dork, dork.)

We bought cheapo plastic skis because that's what we could afford. This turned out to be a good move for several reasons. Because the skis were nothing to cherish, for the next two decades we could gleefully head off into the woods when there wasn't quite enough snow, and scrape our way across rocks and roots without wincing.

A couple of weeks ago, my cheapo plastic boots finally came apart. I'd been nursing the skis along for several years. They have oddball bindings that probably won't fit any other pair of boots in the world, so the death of the boots means the end of the skis, too. Considering that I paid about $100 twenty-three years ago for skis, boots, and poles, they don't owe me a thing.

I have my mother's skis and boots, but the boots are a full size too big and I don't feel safe wearing them into the wilderness, thanks. So if I want to ski in the woods, I have to buy another set of cheapo skis, boots, and poles. (The poles I'm using now are mismatched-one of them mine, one of them my father's-and close to breaking. Do I know how to pinch a penny or what?)

Here's the big, existential question: Do I live for Myself Alone, or do I sacrifice myself for Others?

It is a fact that New England weather loves to break hearts. It is a fact that the universe has a mischievous streak. Therefore it is a fact that, the minute I spend money on new skis, the snow will melt. And from that point on we will get only rain.

And if I don't buy skis, of course, we will have the best snow we've had in ten years.
So, do I get the skis now and condemn everyone to a lousy winter? Or do I delay the purchase until spring and content myself this winter with skiing around the yard in my too-big boots while everyone else enjoys the snow in the woods?

I'm afraid I know what I'll end up doing. My rational side will say cheerily, "Oh, don't be silly, the universe doesn't care whether you buy skis or not." Which is true. Of course. Right?

Enjoy the snow, coastal Maine. While it lasts.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Freelance Ne'er-do-well

It's never too late.

I’ve been a paid writer for 33 years. But I'm on my third attempt at becoming a novelist. It might be working this time.

When you’re the child of Depression-era New Englanders, willfully leaving the paid workforce is the eighth deadly sin. I feel even uneasier about this because of how hard it was to land my first writing job in 1974, the early feminist era. (For example, an advertising executive told me in a job interview back then that the best way to become a copywriter was to start as a secretary. “Yeah,” said Idiot Girl. “I noticed all the male secretaries on my way in.” End of interview.)

That’s why, every time I quit a perfectly good writing job for no good reason, I always tell everyone I’m “going freelance.” This sounds much more dashing and grown-up than the truth: “I’m going to sit and stare at a keyboard, and after an hour or two of that I’m going to eat cookies. Then I’ll take a nap. After several months, I’ll panic and look for paying work.”

The two times before this one, when I was in my 30s, I panicked almost immediately. Both times I actually did end up freelancing. But instead of fantasy freelancing — writing for impressive national magazines while turning out fiction on the side—the first time I wrote employee newsletters for corporations (by my low standards, fairly lucrative) and the second time I wrote for tiny local newspapers in Maine (not lucrative by anyone’s standards, but a real hoot).

The second attempt involved moving to Downeast Maine just when hippies and yippies (my generation) had been replaced in the popular imagination by “young urban professionals,” known as yuppies. My partner, Rob, and I decided we were orfans—“older, rural freelance ne’er-do-wells.” One of my new friends in Maine made us T-shirts saying that, so we felt like a trend.

In 1984, just after Rob and I moved to Maine and just before I panicked, I managed to write a dreadful, 60-page kids' fantasy called Medford and the Goatman. Thrilled to have actually finished something, I “copyrighted” it by mailing it to myself—the local postmaster cheerfully stamping the date all over the envelope—then stuck it in a desk drawer and forgot about it.

(Sociology note: The postmaster was a woman. There’s no such thing as a postmistress, at least not in Maine. They’re called postmasters, male or female. Same with selectmen. One time, a rogue typesetter at my tiny local newspaper took it upon himself to change “selectman” to “selectwoman” where applicable, ignoring the stated preferences of the town officials themselves. The community thought we were idiots—well, they already knew that, but this confirmed it. The typesetter got fired.)

I ended up working full time as managing editor for one of the tiny local newspapers, and later as arts editor for the much larger county weekly. I was perfectly content, without even a nudge of a thought about that envelope in the desk drawer. Then, out of the blue, in the spring of 2003 I decided to take a dialogue workshop offered by Cynthia Thayer, a novelist who lives in the same county I do. I had a great time, and was shocked to find that I wasn’t as rusty as I’d expected to be.

Two months later, with no cooperation from my brain, I heard my mouth giving the county newspaper three months’ notice. I was going freelance, I told everyone. And I would write a kids’ book.

Imagine my surprise when I actually did write a book, with characters and a plot and everything. It was a brand new version of Medford and the Goatman, four times as long and at least twice as readable.

Even more shocking, local summer residents Genie and Bill Henderson liked the book (he’s the founder of the Pushcart Prize and they’re both published authors) and sent it to Kate Schafer, a colleague of Bill’s agent at Janklow & Nesbit. Kate took me on, and eventually sold Medford and the Goatman to the patient and inspired Kathy Dawson at Harcourt.

Three re-writes later, Medford is called The Unnameables and scheduled for publication October 1, targeted for ages 10 and older. I’ve written another, smaller book for younger kids, which is seasoning in a drawer at the moment, and am about a chapter away from finishing the rough draft of a third book for the same age group as The Unnameables.

I can’t believe I keep finishing books. I can’t believe one of them is getting published. No T-shirt could capture this experience.

I never felt younger. In fact, I have a zit forming.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

How to Get Things Done

By Robert Benchley, 1949

A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. Hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country are wondering how I have time to do all my painting, engineering, writing and philanthropic work when, according to the rotogravure sections and society notes, I spend all my time riding to hounds, going to fancy-dress balls disguised as Louis XIV, or spelling out GREETINGS TO CALIFORNIA in formation with three thousand Los Angeles school children. "All work and all play," they say.

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.

The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

Let us see how this works out in practice. Let us say that I have five things which have to be done before the end of the week: (1) a basketful of letters to be answered, some of them dating from October, 1928 (2) some bookshelves to be put up and arranged with books (3) a hair-cut to get (4) a pile of scientific magazines to go through and clip (I am collecting all references to tropical fish that I can find, with the idea of someday buying myself one) and (5) an article to write for this paper.

Now. With these five tasks staring me in the face on Monday morning, it is little wonder that I go right back to bed as soon as I have had breakfast, in order to store up health and strength for the almost superhuman expenditure of energy that is to come. Mens sana in corpore sano is my motto.

As I lie in bed on Monday morning storing up strength, I make out a schedule. "What do I have to do first?" I ask myself. Well, those letters really should be answered and the pile of scientific magazines should be clipped. And here is where my secret process comes in. Instead of putting them first on the list, I put them last. I say: "First you must write that article for the newspaper." I sometimes go so far in this self-deception as to make out a list in pencil, with "No. 1. Newspaper article" underlined in red. (The underlining in red is rather difficult, as there is never a red pencil on the table beside the bed, unless I have taken one to bed with me on Sunday night.)

I then seat myself at my desk with my typewriter before me and sharpen five pencils. (The sharp pencils are for poking holes in the desk-blotter, and a pencil has to be pretty sharp to do that. I find that I can't get more than six holes out of one pencil.) Following this I say to myself "Now, old man! Get at this article!"

Gradually the scheme begins to work. My eye catches the pile of magazines, which I have artfully placed on a near-by table beforehand. I write my name and address at the top of the sheet of paper in the typewriter and then sink back. The magazines being within reach, I look to see if anyone is watching me and get one off the top of the pile. Hello, what's this! In the very first one is an article by Dr. William Beebe, illustrated by horrifying photographs! Pushing my chair away from my desk, I am soon hard at work clipping.

One of the interesting things about the Argyopelius, or "Silver Hatchet" fish, I find, is that it has eyes in its wrists. I would have been sufficiently surprised just to find out that a fish had wrists, but to learn that it has eyes in them is a discovery so astounding that I am hardly able to cut out the picture.

Thus, before the afternoon is half over, I have gone through the scientific magazines and have a neat pile of clippings (including one of a Viper Fish which I wish you could see. You would die laughing). Then it is back to the grind of the newspaper article.

This time I get as far as the title, which I write down with considerable satisfaction until I find that I have misspelled one word terribly, so that the whole sheet of paper has to come out and a fresh one be inserted. As I am doing this, my eye catches the basket of letters.

Now, if there is one thing that I hate to do (and there is, you may be sure) it is to write letters. But somehow, with the magazine article before me waiting to be done, I am seized with an epistolary fervor, and I slyly sneak the first of the unanswered letters out of the basket. I figure out in my mind that I will get more into the swing of writing the article if I practice on a few letters.

This first one, anyway, I really must answer. True, it is from a friend in Antwerp asking me to look him up when I am in Europe in the summer of 1929, so he can't actually be watching the incoming boats for an answer, but I owe something to politeness after all. So instead of putting a fresh sheet of copy-paper into the typewriter, I slip in one of my handsome bits of personal stationery and dash off a note to my friend in Antwerp. Then, being well in the letter-writing mood, I clean up the entire batch.

I feel a little guilty about the article, but the pile of freshly stamped envelopes and the bundle of clippings on tropical fish do much to salve my conscience. Tomorrow I will do the article, and no fooling this time.

When tomorrow comes I am up with one of the older and more sluggish larks. A fresh sheet of copy-paper in the machine, and my name and address neatly printed at the top, and all before eleven A.M.! "A human dynamo" is the name I think up for myself. I have decided to write something about snake-charming and am already more than satisfied with the title "These Snake-Charming People." But, in order to write about snake-charming, one has to know a little about its history, and where should one go to find history but to a book? Maybe in that pile of books in the corner is one on snake-charming!

So, with a perfectly clear conscience, I leave my desk for a few minutes and begin glancing over the titles. Of course, it is difficult to find any book, much less one on snake-charming, in a pile which has been standing in the corner for weeks. What really is needed is for them to be on a shelf where their titles will be visible at a glance. And there is the shelf, standing beside the pile of books! It seems almost like a divine command: "If you want to finish that article, first put up the shelf and arrange the books on it!" Nothing could be clearer or more logical.

In order to put up the shelf, the laws of physics have decreed that there must be nails, a hammer and some sort of brackets. You can't just wet a shelf with your tongue and stick it up. And, as there are no nails or brackets in the house, the next thing to do is to put on my hat and go out to buy them. Much as it disturbs me to put off the actual start of the article, I feel that I am doing only what is in the line of duty. As I put on my hat, I realize to my chagrin that I need a hair-cut badly. I can kill two birds with one stone, and stop in at the barber's on the way back. I will feel all the more like writing after a turn in the fresh air. Any doctor would tell me that.

So in a few hours I return, spick and span and smelling of lilac, bearing nails, brackets, the evening papers and some crackers and peanut butter. Then it's ho! for a quick snack and a glance through the papers (there might be something in them which would alter what I was going to write about snake-charming) and in no time at all the shelf is up, slightly crooked but up, and the books are arranged in a neat row. There does not happen to be one on snake-charming, but there is a very interesting one containing some Hogarth prints which will bear closer inspection.

And so, you see, in two days I have done four of the things I had to do, simply by making believe that it was the fifth that I must do. And the next day, I fix up something else, like taking down the bookshelf and putting it somewhere else, that I have to do, and then I get the fifth one done.

The only trouble is that, at this rate, I will soon run out of things to do, and will be forced to get at my newspaper articles the first thing Monday morning.

More on Fantasy Maps

Illustrator/Mapmaker Ian Schoenherr and 14-year-old man-about-town Nolan Ellsworth said things about maps in fantasy books that I couldn't fit into my December 14, 2009, post at The Enchanted Inkpot. So here they are, plus a few comments from Diana Wynne Jones.

Ian Schoenherr (email interview)

Details of Ian Schoenherr maps, left to right: Fincayra from THE LOST YEARS OF MERLIN, and two of the Smoking Cliffs from THE FIRES OF MERLIN, both by T.A. Barron. The detail below left is from a map of Kugisko in COLD FIRE by Tamora Pierce.

EB: Do mapmakers recognize certain "types" of maps that appear in fantasies (or books in general)? Does an editor call you up and say "I need a _____ map for a book I'm working on."

IS: Usually editors and art directors don't fill in that particular blank - they just tell me they want a map for a fantasy novel and later we sort out how detailed or spare and how serious or whimsical it should be.

EB: What information do you generally need from editor and author in order to create a map? Do you need to read the book, or is information you get from editor/author enough?

IS: Authors generally include a sketch and other notes with their map "dossiers" - for want of a better word. And the more information they give me up front, the better. I admit that I haven't read all the books for which I've made maps, but I usually like to have a copy of the manuscript on hand in order to look up descriptions of unusual details - and so I can avoid badgering the editor, art director, and author - and/or having to make time-consuming or costly alterations to the finished artwork.

I like when the author has a clear idea of what they want and where they want it on a map, and when my job is, in essence, to "translate" their rough ideas into something more finished or aesthetically pleasing. I'm not so fond of extensive Legends or Keys on maps: I'd rather have the place names and other notes be part of the picture, not part of a list in a box along side - the latter approach is too "dry" for me and not much fun to draw or to look at. It helps, too, if the map is on the endpapers as it can get lost or overlooked when it's wedged inside the pages.

Now some slightly off-topic background:

My most satisfying mapmaking experiences came when I was working on T. A. Barron's Lost Years of Merlin series. The initial assignment came from Patti Gauch, my editor at Philomel, who liked the way my sketchbook pages looked: lots of tiny drawings and hand-lettered notes to myself. She thought I'd like to try making a map, so Tom Barron sent me his sketch of "Fincayra" and I made a pencil drawing of the correct proportions of the book and then I looked at - and swiped many elements from - drawings by Howard Pyle (his banners in particular) and engravings by Peter Bruegel and Albrecht Durer (especially his clouds), since I wanted to emulate Renaissance-era maps.

After my preliminary drawing was OK'd, I used a lightbox to trace the drawing with permanent ink onto thin, white scratchboard and then I developed the drawing as much as possible before refining it with an old lithographer's scratching tool my father used to use. Scratchboard is still my surface of choice because I can make corrections easily and get a wood-cut or engraved look. I did three more maps for the Merlin books and all were fun collaborations as Tom liked that I would add little creatures and things, and he was happy with my more whimsical, kitchen-sink approach.

Since then I've accumulated a bunch of books on old cartography. Two of my favorite map makers are Sebastian Munster and Martin Waldseemuller - I like their line quality and the way they incorporated typography into their maps. I also stare a lot at Thomas Bewick's wood engravings for his funny details and the comic maps of John Held Jr..

EB: When do you consider a map in a book to be a success?

To me, maps - and illustrations in general - are best when they capture the spirit of the text and evoke the world that's described in the book.

My absolute favorite maps in books are the ones Ernest H. Shepard made for "Wind in the Willows" and "Winnie-the Pooh". They're completely different from the style I've fallen into, but what I love about them (and what I look for in other maps) is how they hold my attention - they make me want to go to the places depicted and, most importantly, they make me want to read the books.

EB: How do you envision a reader using the maps you create?

When a book comes with a map, I'm always referring back to it as I read (which is another reason why I think an endpaper map work best - it prevents constant page-flipping), so I envision the reader doing that, too. I think "Geography is History" even in made up places: how can you understand what happens in the world if you don't know where things happen? So I hope my maps will help readers picture the setting and feel more invested in and connected to the author's world.

Nolan Ellsworth

I like fantasy maps primarily because they look cool. A fantasy map should be hand- drawn and fun to look at. If a map of a magical land is some mass of computer-made, perfectly straight black lines and symbols, it kills the feeling of a fantasy book and just takes up space on the page.

A really good fantasy map doesn't just give the locations of important places in the story (like "This is where the Edmund met the White Witch," or "This is where the beavers live") but give labels for all the important places and landmarks of that world (this way the reader can figure out where the story happened themselves).

The interesting thing about fantasy maps is that, unlike maps of our world, we do not use them do find out how to get somewhere. We don't need to go to Rivendell, so a map won't help us in that respect. We use them to track our character's course, to orient ourselves within our character's world, and to feel connected and a part of that world.

I have three books beside me; one is THE HOBBIT, one is THE LAST OLYMPIAN, and one is this very strange book called THE UNNAMEABLES. All of them have hand-drawn maps in the beginning.

As for THE HOBBIT, a map of Middle Earth is perhaps the ultimate fantasy map of all time. From the vast forest of Mirkwood, with every tree individually drawn and spiders hidden throughout, to the Lonely Mountain, this map is Tolkien's way of saying "I know everything about my fantasy world! Top that, C.S. Lewis!" THE HOBBIT is the story of a journey, and since the journey takes place on one road that spans from The Shire all the way to Mordor, it's easy to follow Bilbo's progress by flipping periodically to the map and comparing how far the Ford is from Rivendell, and so on.

THE UNNAMEABLES map is cool because it's an island, so the map can encompass the complete world that the characters live on, giving a feel for the scale of the story.

THE LAST OLYMPIAN is an interesting one because its story takes place in the real world, in New York City. In the book the characters have an all-out Greek battle in Central Park and the Empire State Building.

Thankfully for those of us who aren't familiar with the layout of NYC, there is a map to help. The author could easily assume everyone knows New York, but I would have been a little lost in some of the scenes without the map. One scene involves blocking all entrances into New York from monsters, and it was helpful to know that there are eight bridges leading into the city, all of which must be guarded against minotaurs, hell hounds, etc. The little drawings of sea serpents in the Hudson River were cool too.

Oh, and compass roses should be on all maps. And lastly, I think a map of Hogwarts castle, grounds, and surrounding areas should be included in all future editions of the Harry Potter books.

Diana Wynne Jones (from the "How to Use This Book" segment of A TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND)

Examine the Map. It will show most of a continent (and sometimes part of another) with a large number of BAYS, OFFSHORE ISLANDS, an INLAND SEA or so and a sprinkle of TOWNS. There will be scribbly snakes that are probably RIVERS, and names made of CAPITAL LETTERS in curved lines that are not quite upside down. By bending your neck sideways you will be able to see that they say things like "Ca'ea Purt'wydyn" and "Om Ce'falos." These may be the names of COUNTRIES, but since most of the Map is bare it is hard to tell.

These empty inland parts will be sporadically peppered with little molehills, invitingly labelled "Megamort Hills," "Death Mountains," "Hurt Range," and such, with a whole line of molehills near the top called "Great Northern Barrier." Above this will be various warnings of danger. The rest of the Map's space will be sparingly devoted to little tiny feathers called "Wretched Wood" and "Forest of Doom," except for one space that appears to be growing minute hairs. This will be tersely labelled "Marshes."

That is mostly it.

No, wait. If you are lucky, the Map will carry an arrow or compass-heading somewhere in the bit labelled "Outer Ocean" and this will show you which way up to hold it. But you will look in vain for INNS, reststops, or VILLAGES, or even ROADS. No--wait another minute--on closer examination, you will find the empty interior crossed by a few bird tracks. If you peer at these you will see they are (somewhere) labelled "Old Trade Road--Disused" and "Imperial Way--Mostly Long Gone." Some of these routes appear to lead (or have led) to small edifices enticingly titled "Ruin," "Tower of Sorcery," or "Dark Citadel," but there is no scale of miles and no way of telling how long you might take on the way to see these places.

In short, the Map is useless, but you are advised to keep consulting it, because it is the only one you will get. And, be warned, if you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.