Keeping Score: September 25, 2020

I can’t believe Breonna Taylor’s killers are going to walk free.

I mean, I can believe it, in the sense that racism is real and cops are killers and they’re killers because they kill and get away with it in this country.

But it’s just…hard to grasp that after all we’ve been through, these United States, in 2020, a group of people could decide it’s just fine to charge into the home of one of their fellow citizens and murder them, so long as the murderers are wearing badges.

It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the President of the United States saying for months that the only election he could lose is a fraudulent one, and there’s no howls of indignation from his side of the aisle. No Senators lining up to condemn his words and ask that the House open a new impeachment investigation.

Nothing. Not a fucking peep.

Meanwhile in my state, in supposedly progressive California, we still use inmates as firefighters, paying them perhaps a dollar a day, which is slave labor by any other name. And once they’ve served their time, if they happened to have been born somewhere else, we hand them over to ICE for deportation.

Oh, and there’s still a pandemic on, so walking around outside to enjoy the air newly-cleared of smoke and ash means constantly dodging people who aren’t wearing masks.

So it’s all I can do right now, when I’m not doomscrolling, to keep editing the novel. One chapter at a time.

I feel like I should be making more progress. Editing more than one chapter a day. Maybe even racing to the finish line.

Or picking up the story I was outlining a few months ago, and starting to actually put words to paper.

But I can’t.

I just…can’t.

The writing spirit is very willing, but the writing flesh, the meaty brain and hands that would summon words from the void, are quite busy right now.

So I press on, one chapter at a time. I’m not stopping, but I’m not able to move any faster right now.

Because this book’s become even more important to me, lately.

It’s about prisons. It’s about all the different kinds of people that get locked up, and why. It’s about exploitation, and greed, and how it’s all kept going by the people that look the other way. The ones that hold their noses so they can benefit.

It’s also about forgiveness, and change. About making yourself vulnerable again, after holding onto a hurt for so long.

I want to finish it. I need to finish, to have this story told. To share it.

There’s not much else I can do, so I’m doing this.

Voting. Donating. Speaking up.

And writing.

Good Economics for Hard Times, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

A frustrating book. One minute, it’ll be knee-deep in the blinders and false-assumptions of economics, the next it’ll flip and call out economists for being too focused on GDP and not enough on human dignity.

That kind of whiplash makes me not trust anything the authors say. They’re too inconsistent for me to be able to piece together a coherent approach or worldview for them.

Or argue with their takes. I mean, how do you approach someone who believes the B.S. that Silicon Valley has been spouting for decades about being “disruptive” (instead of the truth: they’re VC funds chasing the bubble-high returns of monopoly) but also admits that increasing automation can displace people who should be helped?

Or a team that argues that GDP should not be used to measure growth anymore — and even that growth is not that important — but also uses GDP growth in their arguments for other policies (for example, that immigration does not hurt the societies that accept immigrants)?

It’s all over the place.

If anything, this book further convinces me of the limits of current economic thinking. So many times, the authors posit a problem (“why don’t people move around more?”) that has obvious answers as soon as your take your head out of the economic sand.

I mean, so many of the things that make it hard for them to “explain” why humans act the way they do are fundamental ideas in economics that have been debunked.

Amazon isn’t profitable because of its size. Amazon was a business failure for decades, that Bezos kept afloat through his access to capital. Only in the last few years, when it’s become an illegal monopoly and so can flood the moat around its market, has Amazon turned a profit.

The authors swallow the Amazon line because they’re still beholden to the economic idea that bigger means more efficient. But anyone that’s ever worked in a large org knows that bigger organizations are less efficient than smaller ones. They just wield more economic power, and so can remain large.

And they find it hard to explain why people don’t move around more (from poorer places to wealthier ones) only because they rely on the economic model of human behavior, which posits that people always act to increase their wealth, and do so efficiently.

Which is obvious bunk to anyone who has, you know, spent time around actual people.

The authors whiff on basically every issue they address. They find it hard to calculate the costs or benefits of social media, when Facebook’s balance sheet is publicly available (proving social media is big business). They advocate for helping immigrants find their way in a new society, without pointing out that the policies they recommend — job matching, housing, child care — would benefit everyone if implemented universally, not just the displaced (and so be more politically viable).

In the end, I think they themselves sum up the book’s “insights” best:

Economics is too important to be left to economists.

Well said.

Keeping Score: September 18, 2020

I’m turning the editing corner, into the final third of the book.

I’m a little nervous about this section. The middle edits were smooth sailing, but the closer I get to the end, the more things need to line up perfectly. I need to make sure threads are getting wrapped up, that I haven’t skipped any scenes, that everything makes sense.

I need to keep the whole novel in my head at this point, basically, in order to keep it all consistent through the end.

And the end, of course, is the most complicated part of the book. It’s where the main conflict gets resolved, via multiple timelines and a perspective shift.

I hope it works. I hope I can hold it all together.

Because if I can, if I do, then this round of edits will be finished. And I can start sending it out to beta readers, to finally get feedback from another pair of eyeballs than mine.

And maybe, just maybe, have their reviews back in time to make final adjustments, and have it ready to send to agents by the end of the year.

It is…a tight deadline. But we live in hope, don’t we?

Beware the Thirsty Bees: First Time Camping in Joshua Tree

We went camping in Joshua Tree for the first time this weekend.

My last camping trip was over thirty years ago. I was seven or eight, and I spent the entire three days refusing to use the filthy communal restrooms and getting bitten by mosquitoes.

It was not a good trip. I never really thought I’d ever try camping again.

But the pandemic has shifted things there, as it has in so many others.

My wife and I love to travel, but there’s no way we can risk staying in a hotel or taking a plane anymore. She has a clotting disorder, and I have asthma, two of those “co-morbidities” they blame when someone dies of Covid-19. We’ve been social distancing since March: No friends, no family, no exposure. We can’t risk our health staying indoors with other people for any length of time.

But camping’s not indoors! So long as we’re able to drive there — buying gas while masked up and wrapping our hands in a waste-disposal bag before touching anything — we can stay, outside, and keep other people at a distance. Low risk of exposure, high risk of hearing coyotes howl at night (but more on that later).

Beyond wanting to travel, though, we have an emergency waiting to happen, in the form of my wife’s mother. She’s in her upper 70s, and lives 1,500 miles away, in Arkansas. If she has an accident, or any kind of health incident, it’s up to us to get there and take care of her and my brother-in-law (who has special needs). We can’t fly anymore, so we’ll have to drive. And neither of us want to try to drive that whole distance without sleeping.

So camping is the only safe way for us to travel, for any reason.

Being proper nerds, we did a lot of research first. Read blog posts about camping with pups (we have two), how big of a tent to get, where to go for your first trip (close to home, which is why we chose Joshua Tree), even what pants to wear. We bought everything that was recommended, we loaded it all into the car, and we set off.

Ah, what fools we were!

And still, we were not prepared.

Not prepared for how loud the campground gets at night, when everyone returns from hiking and sets about drinking and smoking and cutting up. Long past midnight, we’d hear people singing and carrying on. Both nights we were there, I finally broke down and asked people to keep it down till morning, so we could sleep.

Not prepared for how long it really takes to setup camp. At home, when we practiced, we had everything up and ready in 30 minutes. But out there, at night (once), or in the heat of the day (the second time), it takes longer, and it feels much much longer. Between getting there, setting up the first night, then deciding to switching campgrounds the next day, then packing up for good the last day, I think we spent most of our time just setting up and tearing down.

Not prepared for the, um, toilet situation. I’ll spare you the details, but basically we couldn’t use the communal toilets, so we brought our own. And…let’s just say “leaving no trace” is good for the environment but not enjoyable in any shape or form.

And not prepared for the bees! Those thirsty, thirsty, bees.

They swarmed our water jug. They swarmed our food while we were cooking. They swarmed our toilet (I told you it wasn’t fun). And they were aggressive, too, the little buggers, as if we owed them something. Sometimes the only way to get them off was to run by the water jug, whose sweet smells of moisture would pull them away.

Our campsite, before the bees descended on us.

So after coming back, I’m stiff, I’m sore, I haven’t slept well in two days, and any buzzing makes me clench.

But we’re going back in two weeks! Why?

One, because we have to. We simply have to get better at camping if we’re going to be able to come to my wife’s mother’s aid when she needs us.

Two, because this was just our first trip! We were bound to mess it up, no matter how much we prepared.

And we can fix a lot of what went wrong!

Choosing the right campground from the start (we’ve already reserved it) means we won’t have to waste time breaking down and setting up twice.

The backdrop for our second and final campsite. Unbeatable, right?

Making meals ahead of time and bringing them along (rather than cooking) will mean less water exposed for the bees to swarm on (and less fuss setting up camp).

Taking a pavilion with us will mean we have some shade from the sun, no matter what time of day it is.

Using the rain fly on the tent will keep out smoke at night, so we can breathe.

Packing less ice in the cooler will make it lighter, and easier to find things we pack in there. And that means more room for things like water and soda; we packed water bottles, but left them out of the cooler, which is a thing so foolish in hindsight I want to reach back in time and slap myself for it. No soda meant that my wife’s headache from sun exposure and dehydration joined forces with caffeine withdrawal to take her out for the latter half of our last full day there.

And leaving the pups at their “camp” (an outdoor boarder) will mean we can explore the park this time, taking trails and hikes that they aren’t allowed on (which is all of them, I mean they want to keep it wild and let the animals that live there feel safe, so dogs aren’t allowed anywhere except roads and campsites).

The trail starts just outside our camp, but we can’t go…

So we’re doing it again! Wish us luck; or better yet: Got any tips to share for two tenderfoots who are trying to get this right?

Keeping Score: September 11, 2020

It struck me this morning that the pace at which I come up with new story ideas has slowed down.

Time was I couldn’t go a day without being struck by some story idea, and having to write it down.

These days, I feel like all of my ideas are about the book or the story I’m currently working on. Nothing new, no bolts of lightning, just new ways of looking at the characters or the situation I’m already creating.

And that made me nervous. Like, what if the well’s run dry? What if once I finish these stories, that’s it? Nothing else comes?

To banish those thoughts, I remind myself of two things.

First, it’s a pandemic. Not to mention my state is currently on fire (the evidence of which is clearly visible in the sky outside my window). I’m allowed to feel a bit more stressed, and that means my brain isn’t functioning at 100%.

Second, it’s okay to not be constantly throwing out new ideas. In fact, it’s a good thing. Plowing my creative energy into what I’m working on, rather than dreaming up new work to take on, is exactly what I should be doing. The fact that my brain doesn’t feel the need to go wandering for a new story to work on means this story’s interesting and deep enough to keep it occupied.

It’s a positive sign, not a negative one. And it should be embraced.

As for the novel itself, work continues. I’m still going through a chapter a day, giving myself the time to really look at each scene and fix the things that need fixing. A line of dialog that doesn’t work. Some blocking that no longer makes sense.

Okay, not everything. Some things I’m leaving for another pass.

Like in the last chapter I edited, there’s a shift in one character’s dialog. They go from speaking somewhat formal English to a less-formal syntax. It’s subtle, and it still sounds like the character, but it’s there.

I like the shift, and I think it’s appropriate for the situation in that chapter. But in order to keep it, I need to go through and make sure that shift happens every time that situation comes up, so it feels deliberate, and not like a mistake.

Alternatively, I could go through and make the character’s dialog pattern the same everywhere. That might be easier, but I think there’s something that will be lost if I do that. There’s information encoded in the way they shift their speech according to who they’re speaking to, and I’d hate to lose that.

So yes, even as I go through this pass, I know I’m going to need to do another. But that next pass will be more focused, and thus faster, than this one. At least, that’s the intent.

What about you? When you do your editing, do you tackle everything in each pass? Or do you break it up into different read-throughs?

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

I’m ashamed to say I’m not sure I knew Dinah’s name, before reading this.

I knew parts of her story, from my youth, when I heard the Bible tale. How the sons of Jacob tricked every adult male in a town to become circumcised, just so their king’s son could be granted the privilege of marrying Jacob’s daughter.

How they then slaughtered the town while the men were laid up healing.

In church, the story’s presented as a righteous thing, a sign of their cleverness. How they could outsmart their enemies.

No one said anything about Dinah. How she might have felt about things. Or about the wives and daughters of the murdered men. They were background characters, unimportant to the morality of the tale.

So how amazing, then, that Diamant has put Dinah front and center. Breathed life into her, filling in her story and giving us a complete account of her journey. Of her mistakes and triumphs. Of her hopes and fears.

It’s an incredible feat to pull off. And Diamant covers not just Dinah’s life, but her mothers’ lives, too, starting from the moment they met Jacob, so we get the fullest picture possible of Dinah’s situation, of her time and place.

She gives us a sense of the rhythms of their existence, both day-to-day and year to year, without ever getting bogged down in too many details (or leaving things so vague as to be unhelpful).

And what rhythms! Diamant invokes the feel of the ancient world, the sounds and the smells, the hassles and the joys. And it’s a woman’s world that she brings to life, the rituals of childbirth and the red tent, the offerings to multiple gods, the hard work of cooking and farming and making, well, everything. T

he men are present, but it’s not their story. It’s not their world.

Diamant’s succeeded so well in showing us this world, in fact, that it’s her story, Dinah’s story, that I remember more vividly now, not the ones about her brothers. Which feels…proper. The way it should be.

Better to remember the healer and midwife, perhaps, than the tricksters and killers.

Keeping Score: September 4, 2020

Is it bad to enjoy reading your own book?

I’m still working on the novel, still plugging away at editing one chapter a day. It’s about all I can do, given my schedule constraints.

And so far, it’s…not that bad?

I mean, I’m probably filling in gaps that are there because I know the characters, I know the setting. But I was trying to write the equivalent of an action movie, and while I think I failed at that (there’s not nearly enough stunts or fights in it to qualify), I think I did manage to produce a fast-paced, sci-fi, thriller.

Each of the chapters are short — the longest is maybe ten pages — which makes them easier to edit, but also easier to read.

And I’ve kept the language pretty tight, as well. Not always tight enough, hence the need for edits. And sometimes I wander off into describing a character’s thoughts from the outside, inside of rendering them from the inside (it’s a shift in point of view that I’m still learning how to handle properly). But overall, each scene starts, flows, and then ends without a lot of fat to trim.

Which worries me, of course. What am I missing? What am I not seeing, that I need to fix?

It reminds me of something the write C Robert Cargill tweets about a lot: That when you look at your work, and hate it, part of it is because of the difference between your skills and your taste. Your taste is likely far more sophisticated than your skills, starting out. You enjoy reading writers far better than you. And that’s good! Your sophisticated taste is what lets you see the problems in your own work, which you can then fix.

So I have to wonder: Has my taste declined? Have I been slacking in feeding it new works, so I can be critical of my own?

Or am I just still too close to this book?

Either way, I’m not upset at these chapters. They’re not so horrible that I wouldn’t want to show them to someone else.

Which perhaps is good? And maybe the point of doing all these editing passes and rewrites. To get the book to a point where I think it’s ready to be seen by other people.

Flawed still, probably, yes. But good enough to go out to beta readers, and eventually (after more edits) agents. That should be the goal, right?

And if I’m getting there, I should feel good about it. Not dread.

Note to self: Stop feeling dread.