November Newsletter: The Lightning Tree

(There’s a real short story in this newsletter! Scroll down to the *** to read it)

So there I was, dropping my older daughter off at school. The weather was fine, I had at least three hours of uninterrupted writing time ahead of me, there was a very nice statue of a horse right there, but it felt like the end of the day instead of the beginning.

Every Friday I take a break from the novel and spend the morning writing something new. I’d already written a very good short story about general relativity, the first chapter in a collaborative novel set in the Fellow Tetrapod Universe, and one of these newsletters. But what about today? Could I do it again? I was running out of time before my deadline? What if today the words didn’t come?

“I feel like a shaman,” I said. “Every week you walk out onto the taiga and shake your rattles and you hope that lightning will strike again.”
“What’s a shaman?” asked my daughter. So Pavlina and I explained as we dragged that unicorn-donut wheelie backpack along the narrow sidewalk that leads to school.
We got the little girl into the building and stumbled back to the car. “That’s a very passive way to think about what you do,” Pavlina told me. “You’re not just waiting for the lightning to strike. You’re making it happen.”

Willow leaves tumble
Until they find a surface.
Water from a spring.

I thought about that as I walked to Starbucks. By the time I got there, I had an idea for a character who might feel the same way I did. And I thought about a discussion I’d been having with Simon Roy, Artyom Trakhanov , and Jason Wordie about a possible sequel to our comic, Protector.

I got my black tea and a brownie as a special treat and I meditated. I imagined myself floating in a great empty space, curled around my chest, which was burning from the inside out. Was that an espresso brownie I’d eaten?

I tore into my backpack and grabbed my notebook. I wrote diagrams. Triads of characters. The Antiquities Collector, the Archaeologist, the priest of the Inquisition! And locking into that triad, their foils! Yes. YES! The Corrupt Official, the Disgraced Warrior, the Shaman! Who would be searching for an ancient artifact of power? Who would be sent to retrieve it? I visualized the plot beats for the first scene of “Protector,” and I superimposed them over – full disclosure – the opening scene in Disney’s “Aladdin.”

Then I put Mika’s “Underwater”  on repeat, and I wrote this:

The raft rocks on the blood-warm swell of the Cannibal Sea.
Behind the raft looms the sacred timbers of a Bequa caravel, its sails reefed against totem-carved masts. Behind that: the cracked and sun-glazed dome of ancient Mayami. Trapped hurricanes pile like volcanoes on the horizon.
Plonjadò A stands on the edge, his eyes closed, palms pressed to his hips, breathing his prayer.
He is an old man, hair and beard stubble white against very black skin, and he wears only a belt of weights. In the water at his feet bobs a white buoy, marked with the green and gold microchip of House Komèsan.
“What’s he waiting for?” Grumbles the mercenary on the deck of the caravel.
Plonjadò cannot hear her. He curls his toes around the hot sea-bamboo of his raft, barrel chest rising, falling, waiting for God to breathe into him.
When he was a boy and still had his eardrums, Plonjadò A could wait a year for a real breath. As an apprentice, he might spend days fasting and praying, then dive barely 50 meters. Now, inspiration comes to him every day, and still they demand more. Still he will give it.

“They call it ‘Opening the Lungs of God.'” Lady Sardodj Komèsan Nan looks down on the little black figure on the pale raft. Sardodj’s parasol is finest plastic, painted silver and dangling with microchips. “A sacred ritual of my people.”
Her plumed mantel rises about her shoulders as she turns, hands on hips, grinning at her bodyguard. “I think it’s a rather fitting way to begin a war with heaven.”
“Whatever you say, Komèsan.” The mercenary is leaning against the railing on the ship’s far side, face hidden under the shadow cast by her hat. She caresses the barrel of her rifle and spits tobacco juice into the red brine. “Just tell me when to shoot the shaman.”

The breath comes to Plonjadò, and he opens his eyes. He knows the merchant princess plans to kill him. Only now, though, with the breath of God in his chest, does he know why he should not let her. More is demanded of him.
His arms rise and his breath gusts out. Plonjadò dives.
The Cannibal Sea is as warm and red as blood, teaming with jellyfish.
Stings slide off his oiled skin as Plonjadò reaches out. His fingers find the rope that depends from the buoy and thread themselves around it. as he sinks.
The water embraces him. Pain rises in his jaw, a dim memory of the pressure that took his hearing. Soft algae brush his cheeks.
Plonjadò feels the seabed and grips the buoy’s rope to slow his dive. In the red blackness, he sweeps out his arms, fingers splayed to feel for the treasure that the Komèsan princess says must be here.
Blind now, as well as deaf, Plonjadò forms a picture with his fingertips. There is the anchor of the buoy, buried in the fine blanket of dead algae. There is a long, smooth curve – the carbon fiber hull of an ancient ship. Another curve is a skull. There is the jaw, and there the fence posts of ribs. A long, smooth bone…
And the water lights up.
It looks like a heart, beating with light, nested within counter-rotating loops of black chain. Plonjadò squints against it, the blood pounding around his eyes. He reaches past the orbiting chains, touches the heart again, and for the first time in thirty years, he hears a voice.
“Greetings, master. What do you wish of me?”
The voice is high and sweet. A child playing make-believe.
Plonjadò takes up the heart and holds it against his chest. The chains break like smoke and reform around him. Wider, they orbit faster.
My child, he thinks, my only wish is to keep you safe.

The caravel rocks in a sudden upwelling of water. Sardodj grips the rail and narrows her eyes at the blood-colored water. At the contrail of bubbles speeding north, away from her. She glances at the compass, which is now also pointing north. Five minutes ago, it wasn’t.
“Well, shit,” she says.

I was worried about whether Simon, Artyom, and Jason would like it. But they did. We’ve had more good ideas since then. Protector 1 comes out in January followed by four more, one per month, until July, when the omnibus will come out. If you are friends with a comic book store owner, please request Protector. That will make it easier to publish that sequel 😉

Moving continents
Black and clear blue, glowing pink
An amazing sky!

Whew. Well, I also finished Interchange Beta. It’s 80K words, which is still shorter than I’d like, but it doesn’t have any enormous plot holes at least, and I finished it on time. I’m going to let it rest in December, then start on the Gamma revision in January. I hope to have something for you guys to critique in March.

Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen is now out on MangaToon, and it already has a couple of thumbs up and a comment (“wow”). So we’ll see what happens with that.

A tomb’s chartreuse dome
Behind leaves before the sky
I’m grateful for them

And I’ve reconsidered my shaman metaphor. It feels like something falls out of the sky and hits me on the head, but it’s not because of some whim of the heavens. I planted the seed and tended the soil, didn’t I? Should I be surprised that, when I sit under one of my apple trees, it drops fruit on me?

“Lightning strikes once, but a tree grows every day.”

That sounded like an aphorism the Thracians would say, so on my next Starbucks day, I translated it. It even rhymes.

This month I’m going to work on The Centuries Unlimited. Hopefully I’ll be able to get it into shape for Jennie to start selling to publishers in January.

Also, here’s another Thracian saying and a bitter poem. I’ve been struggling with cynicism this month. I’ll get back to you about that.

Rain, birdsong, voices
Drops shudder the yellow leaves
What was I doing?

Some stuff I liked this month…
Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio  – or as I like to call it, “the memoir of a very effective grandpa.” It has some very good advice, especially about the need to talk to people you don’t agree with. I’ll try to work more on that.

Incandescence by Greg Egan – this is the third reread and I finally figured out the relationship between the two plot-lines.

A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett dang, but Pratchett’s short fiction is dark! The one about virtual reality? And the author-who-meets-his-creation story? Yikes! They’re heartfelt, though. I keep uncovering new layers of the Granny Weatherwax story. And as always, I appreciate the hints into his process. I wish he’d kept The Long Earth closer to that short story.

The Warrior Prophet by R. Scott Bakker – I liked The Darkness That Comes Before, but The Warrior Prophet is better. This book has such a lot of insight. “Love is like sleep. It cannot be taken, only accepted when given.” It is pretty gruesome though. It’s a sort of meditation on horrible things and how we deal with them when they happen to us. Since the Crusades seem like a pretty horrible time, it rings true.

The Other Side” – It reminds me of Pavlina’s stories about running an IT company.

Icarus” – I listened to this one while making Thanksgiving.

Brighter” – Sometimes I need to listen to this one a few times.

Greg Egan by Karen Burnham – It collects all of Egan’s (few) interviews together, which gave me some valuable understanding of his process. I got to read me some textbooks!

This book is also at the center of my struggle with cynicism. I couldn’t read any of this book about him except for the direct quotes from Egan himself. I tried to read the literary analysis of his work and it was like I had an allergic reaction in my brain. The same thing happens when I try to read almost any contemporary fiction.

I’ll keep wrestling with this problem and get back to you. Is there anyone else out there who’s just finding it agonizing to read?

And don’t forget the Thracian poem. I put it at the end, because it is getting rather long.

Kipt kipēnon ainē kesa / byźai darsai ypo dēsâ.
Ēbron, aiźē, byźâs kâ  / čalmon, bleptē, bystâs kâ,
As tae uper ve irinkan  / kapâ pe ta ve abbrinkan.

There were at one time / some brave goats under heaven.
A kid, a nanny, and a billygoat / clever, loyal, and strong,
Who wanted to hurry up / the hill for to get fat.

Tans ispilsa strymē nestē / mâd kapō, kâ târkē bystē.
Ypo ûērâ dai iserpsa źērē / źymlē zē udrēnē mērē.
Byźulâs źilmân veson ada, / dâ bolvē kella genta rhoda.

A roaring stream blocked them / between the hills, with a fierce guard.
Under the bridge crawled a beast. /A great water-dragon.
A little goat will happily eat crops, /but a serpent will gulp red meat.

Pečēnon ârźa ēbron do. / Čâčâpton ârźa an nugō.
Źymlē zē ilâ iglâvsa. / “Kis ēs śy?” Neston iglâtsa.
“Manon ēm ēźo – ēbron.” / “Śan abadam samiston!”

First comes the kid. / Chop-chop it comes on hooves.
The dragon heard this. / “Who are you?” She roared.
“It is only I, a kid.” / “I’ll eat up you at once!”

Dâ prâglâs as an ēbre de / eg zi čalmes des ta ibutûe.
“Aiźē ârźa o udrēnin. / Ân ve isźas drâkûēnin,
Kiptas genton abronbar.” / As iē dake gurmonbar.

But the answer of the kid, / it was of the most clever.
“A nanny goat comes to a water-dragon. / If you wait for your meal,
You will have much more meat.” / This she very greedily did.

Whatever will happen next?? Tune in next month.

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