December Newsletter: The River Toenail

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In my dream, I was peeling layers of the nail of my left pinkie toe. The nail had flared out from the small digit into a palm-shaped platter, which was worrying. The layers broke of easily, though, without any pain. Just a dull snap, like brittle acrylic. They were surprisingly thick, transparent as mica and eaten through with tunnels.

The tunnels were branching and tentacular, less like trees than the tracks bored by woodworms, less like lightning than the deltas of rivers.

When I woke up, I knew I had to stop playing with that map.

(The church Sveti Sedmochistlenitsi on Shishman street)

Between Christmas and New Year’s, while the girls were playing with their new toys and the family had plenty of leftovers to eat, I went upstairs, plugged in my tablet, and gave myself unlimited time to spend on my new project: a map of the world of Ghost of Mercy.

The plan was in place: build up the terrain in blue for the sea floor, teal for the continental shelves, green for the lowlands, yellow for the highlands, and so on up to purple and white for mountain peaks. Each color/elevation would get its own layer in Krita.1 Using what I knew of the planet’s water and air currents, I could predict where rain would fall, and there I would erase through each layer in succession, creating rivers. It would be easy. Something a computer could do.

In other words, what I was doing wasn’t art. It was something algorithmic and mechanical. Apply the eraser and make. Problems popped up and were easily solved. Eraser, paintbrush, select color. The process ground on, swelling, bloating, taking up all the resources I used to think with. The world became slick, transparent, brittle, and I vanished all together.

I’d only crash out of my fugue hours later, with aching hands and shoulders ached, my eyes  strained and sensitive. I hadn’t eaten or used the bathroom all day. I could barely form a coherent sentence.

And I itched to get back to my map. Problems popped up, and the solutions were easy, but I couldn’t implement them because I wasn’t at my computer. I saw water running down the shadows of rumpled sheets and clothing. I kept tuning out of conversations, erasing through layers in my head. People became difficult to deal with, because they weren’t river systems.

(A good sky behind some panel blocks)

After a week of setting and ignoring timers, scheduling and then bailing on other fun activities, and in general failing to break free of my map, I finally finished it. That is, I posted the map on my Patreon, where my patrons could see it. It’s theirs now, I thought, and visualized folding it up and putting it in a box. The map’s problems were no longer mine to fix.

I wasn’t quite free. The rest of the day and part of the next, I still twitched at the thought of rivers. It took time to come back. I had spent a week rewiring my brain into a machine that drew maps.

And not very good maps, either.

In my fugue, I’d keep forgetting which elevation I was working on, or the climactic zone. I’d see that something was ugly, get rid of it, then add it back in again. Most of all, I’d get caught up in details that worked against each other on the big scale. Those rivers, for example. They look fine until you remember they’re supposed to be on huge continents.  At this scale, they should be irregular, jagged lines, like lightning. It’s only when you zoom in that you see lazy curves in rivers, which is why my continents look more little islands. I’m going to have to do the whole map over.

But not any time soon. Not until I figure out why I’m making the map, and how I will know when I’m done with it. Not until it becomes art, rather than algorithm.

In other news, happy New Year! I didn’t do all that much in December, but (map aside) I am rather happy with what I did. There’s that picture of a giant mouse, for example, which I like not only as a picture and example of speculative evolution, but as an example that I can still draw.

I used the giant mouse as the cover picture for one of the episodes of my Build a Better Monster workshop, which you can see here. I also produced a Quotidian to go with my improved Monumental. And I screwed around with AI-produced mock-up covers for my upcoming books, but you can’t see those unless you’re a Patreon.

In the word-world, I did an interview with Sea Lion Press about The World’s Other Side (currently being serialized on Patreon), “Levski’s Boots” (available here), the joys of exploration, and the pitfalls of writing Alternate History.

Reflecting on the last three months, I see myself as spinning my wheels. According to my sales figures on Amazon, I actually did better in the spring, when I wasn’t giving any interviews or workshops at all. That’s why you’ll see me experiment this spring with marketing. Specifically I plan to renovate my website and revive my mailing list. Do you have any suggestions for me? How can I get people to read my books? I’ll put your suggestions into the hopper and see what happens.

(the Sofia Synagogue)

And here’s what I read in December:

The Armies of Daylight by Barbara Hambly — a flawed but tasty portal fantasy

Sometimes I’m in the mood for Barbara Hambly. Her world-building is always tasty (Darwath was founded by King Dare. Mmm mm!) and her characters are superb. The king is toweringly tragic, and the air fairly thrums between the main character and the attractive older wizard. And yet I don’t remember any these people’s names. Also I came in at book three of the series and didn’t feel like I’d missed much. There should have been tension, especially over whether our heroes would go back home to Earth, but there just wasn’t. Maybe I should be happy that Hambly entertained me for a couple of weeks.

At Home by Bill Bryson — a generous tour around Bryson’s house, as well as yours

I read a sample chapter of At Home at the end of his African Diary, and was charmed right out by this sweet, dorky book. Our kindly host Bryson guides us through the rooms of his house in England, pausing in each to gently lecture us on where such things as chairs, pepper, and windows, and where they came from in the first place. From these digressions, he digresses further into the personalities and foibles of the medieval and early modern people who shaped our homes, and presents snapshots of their lives. At Home is most of all about the evolution of comfort, and it is a comfortable book indeed.

Power Your Profits by Susie Carder — a no-nonsense set of instructions for would-be entrepreneurs who know nothing about money (like me)

Money is less of a blind spot for me and more of a hot spot. It’s uncomfortable to think about, which means I try to ignore it, which means money is a mystery, which causes problems, which are uncomfortable, and around we go. It’s fortunate my entrepreneur wife isn’t scared of money, so when she recommended this book, I bought it. Carder goes from the absolute basics (what depreciation is) to advanced (the signs your accountant is skimming your funds). Most importantly, she forces you to stare at your motivations and mental blocks. This is a book I will have to return to many times in order to digest and implement. But I am convinced that I should.

French Lessons by Peter Mayle — a funny, gentle waddle through a few of France’s regional food festivals

Mayle guides us through his long affair with French food, notably his most recent bouts of gastro-tourism. He hits the major experiences – frog’s legs, truffles, escargot, wine tasting – with a balance of wit that makes you wish you were there and feel a bit relieved that you’re not.

Atlantis by Carlo Piano — an Italian journalist and his architect father sail around the world, searching and reflecting

I have to admit this book isn’t much for me. I was interested in the stories of architect Renzo Piano and how he saw and solved the engineering problems that came up in his work. The bulk of the text, though, was written by Carlo, who annoyed me. Aside from his real and vulnerable description of his experiences in New York on 9/11, Renzo doesn’t have much to say. I wished he would make his father talk more.

Cesar Millan’s Short Guide to a Happy Dog by Cesar Millan — a very surprising guide on mental health

I’m not a dog person. I picked up with book because I was doing research and it was included in my Audible subscription. I was totally unprepared for Millan to pour his heart out onto the page the way he did. He talks about sneaking across the American border, divorcing his wife, and very nearly committing suicide. And dogs, yes, but also people. Over and over I was struck by how well Milan’s animal husbandry mapped onto mental health. We should all treat ourselves as well as Milan treats his dogs.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot — the sweet and joyful life of a vet in 1930s Yorkshire

I watched and enjoyed the BBC series way back when, but the book is even more charming. Herriot describes the people and animals of his 1930s veterinary practice with humor and compassion. He also has some vivid things to say about fulfillment. When he says the best moment of his life was when he poured cold water over an ox on a sunny day, I believe him.

The Chair — an uncomfortably clear look at pre-Covid American academia

I loved Misaeng and wished someone would write something so honest about the US. Then, when somebody did, I was too scared to watch it. I couldn’t watch Misaeng after 8pm because it got me so mad I couldn’t sleep, but I’ve been making progress since then and anyway I watched the Chair around lunchtime. My recurring thought during this series was “thank god Covid crashed down on this broken system.” I hope that things have and will continue to change.

See you next month. Have some ballerinas.

1 Technically, it’s Photoshop that has “layers.” Krita calls them “nodes” for what I presume are copywrite reasons, but I have to say “layers” because otherwise it’s not thematic otherwise. I wasn’t peeling nodes off of my toenail, for god’s sake.

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