Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and this year, because fuck this year, it started early. I’m talking about Christmastime, or as I like to call it, the time Michael figures out where the hell two thousand Christmas lights are supposed to go (hint: at least six hundred of them go on the tree).
I was never a Christmas freak growing up. In Russia, the big family holiday is New Year’s Eve, and even though as “westernized” Russians, Santa Claus did drop by with something in our stockings, it was New Years that took centre stage. And sure, there’s many similarities, for example how our New Years trees are essentially Christmas trees, but the holidays tend to be invasive in different ways.
So it was my wife that ended up infecting me with the stereotypical anglo-western Christmas bug. Our first winter in Toronto, where we moved into a 350 square foot box while I went to law school, one day she came home with a few bags from Dollarama and basically vomited Christmas all over our apartment. Then, over the years, I built up on this decorating tradition, and much like with Frankenstein, the creator quickly lost control of their creation.
I wasn’t kidding about the number of lights. My last tally was a couple of years ago and we were up to three thousand, a good chunk of which ends up on our tree, as you can see from this year’s iteration:
I also have some icicle lights in the corner of the living room, a set of dewdrop fairy lights on a bookshelf in the kids’ room, and this string of white lights running half the perimeter of our unit:
I think it might be a good thing that we live in a Housing Cooperative and not a detached single-family home, because had it been the latter, I think Christmas decorations may have been allotted double-digit percentage points in the family budget. Instead, our housing complex is set up more like a townhouse with multiple units per building. Still, it doesn’t stop me from plastering the railing with as many lights as I can fit:
Every year I make an event out of adding to my collection, usually hopping south of the border for a visit to Target. This year though, the borders are closed, and in any case, I’ve lost quite a few lights to attrition this year so it would mostly just be replacing what I previously had. I was thinking of checking out Canadian Tire’s curbside pickup but I prefer looking at the lights in person, so my purchases this year have been limited.
The best part is that once it’s all set up it’s really easy to maintain. I went from plugging everything manually every evening to using remotes to now setting everything up on two plugs that come with a timer, so it ends up being completely hands-off.
There’s generally been a lot of trial-and-error since I started doing this that makes the setup easier year every year, like taking pictures of the previous year’s lights to jog my memory, installing clear plastic support hooks that can stay up year-round, and figuring out how to place lights on railings in a stable but not time-consuming way. Gotta say I’m very pleased with past year’s me and the tidy work he left for me.
I think it goes without saying that lights are not the most important part of the season for me, but I’ll say it anyway – it’s my family’s happiness and seeing them up and feeling like Christmastime has begun that keeps me coming back to this labour of love year after year. And during this year, we can use all the light in the darkness that we can get.
“Do you have any other concerns, Governor?” Kalirit asked.
“There is also the troubling matter of the Creeper incident we had in one of our major ports last month. One of our docking facilities was reporting an unusually high incidence of absenteeism, and when the security forces were sent to investigate the delinquents, a raid on one of their homes uncovered a den of Creeper users. I’d heard scattered reports of an increase in the use of this drug, but to have it land on my shores is unacceptable. We cannot afford losses of efficiency at a time like this. The Shoaman Kai has cleaned up this particular den, but I’m assuming that Eitherorik has a handle on rooting out the smugglers and dealers.”
“Are we sure it was the same drug? I hear some Hatvan opiates have a similar effect.”
“Creeper is no joke, High Commissary, and this incident shouldn’t be attributed to mere laziness. Perhaps on Varakan you’ve become so comfortable that you can afford lapses in work ethic, but not so here in the Chiartries system.”
“I understand your concerns Governor, but we believe the issue has been blown out of proportion. As you’ve said, the reports are scattered and we have no reason to think that it’s as widespread as some would like to believe. Eitherorik has informed me that the Shoaman Kai had recently intercepted a small shipment of Creeper on Kheim. If this is the scale they’re working on, we needn’t concern ourselves too much.”
“It may be a small problem for you, but I don’t believe there’s any small problem that can’t get big.” He was right, Kalirit thought, but she imagined that he was not talking about himself at that moment.
“If I could remind you, Governor, that just last decade we had a brief Hydraflax epidemic, and it was handled swiftly. Our labourers work hard, and sometimes they seek release through avenues that are ill-advised. I sincerely hope that whatever instructions were handed down from your office to the local branch of the Shoaman Kai with respect to how to deal with this problem had taken that into account.”
The recording was about to enter into another head-scratching loop, but Kalirit spared Fainreshlin the pain of standing there mute. “We now have the intercepted shipment from Kheim, and I expect that this will lead us to the source of the problem in due course.”
“It is the least we expect.”
“And we always exceed expectations. Until next time, Governor.”
“Good luck, High Commissary.” The recording flickered out and Kalirit plucked the data pad out of its recess to toss it into the outgoing communication pile on her desk. Even Fainreshlin’s breathing seemed so loud that it made it difficult for Kalirit to hear her own thoughts, but now in the silence of her office she played through the conversation again.
She hadn’t expected the narcotic to arrive on Chiartries quite so soon. Up until a year ago, few had even heard of the ancient parasite eggs known as Creeper, as their supply was confined to reclusive death cults and the ultra-rich. But a synthesized version of the slightly luminescent amber spheres had now made it from its first recorded sighting on Vesh Mav all the way to Chiartries, almost a quarter-span of the Empire. Still, its alleged range seemed to be confined to the periphery of the Anthar Kai, and so even the very mention of it was unlikely to reach the core worlds for a while. It would sooner seep across their borders into the Mraboran Protectorate or even the Hatvan Empire. Kalirit thought it could be interesting to watch how they handled a full-blown epidemic, but having Creeper spread too quickly wouldn’t do anyone any favours. Curiously, despite this far-flung range, Eitherorik reported only one seized shipment, so either the Shoaman Kai hadn’t been doing its job well or, for whatever reason that was probably obvious to the younger generation, he was underreporting.
She leaned over her desk and ran her fingers along the engraved crown of broad leaves above an agitated ocean, the emblem of the Anthar Kai, the “the mother’s mouth”, built to feed and clothe a fledgling empire, now a gaping maw that threatened to swallow her whole, that had grown beyond the comprehension of all her predecessors, all those who were blinded to its power because they never could see the whole picture at once. Men like Fainreshlin relied on it, derived their entire being from it, but at the end of the day they merely suckled at its teat and weren’t able to offer anything in return or to properly leverage their position. For those like the Governor, status and a morsel of power was the pinnacle of their ambition.
She looked at her empty inbox. Every dispatch that required her immediate attention had been dealt with, but the one she was most impatient to receive was conspicuously absent. The in-person audience with the Presidium was turning into a sure thing, and Kalirit was not looking forward to losing her grasp on the certainty that came out of being stationary; where communications times could be calculated to the day and where there was no risk of crossing paths with a message sent from the very destination she was headed to.
She reflected ruefully how she had settled into sedentary work, a far cry from forty years prior when she restlessly hopped to each corner of the Anthar Kai holdings as she ignored the call of the stasis pods. Now she felt as though she’d grown into these walls and the prospect of separation sent arrows of discomfort from her forearms to her shoulders.
The Presidium was the only entity for whom such sacrifice was expected of her. The last glowing orb of power that still sat out of her reach. What her predecessors lacked was a vision of potential, and that any hierarchy, no matter its age, was malleable, and she could prove it. If it meant groveling at their feet a while longer, then so be it.
<Author's note: The Bloodlet Sun will be taking a short break as the next scheduled updates are for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. So I'll be returning for regular weekly updates on January 7.>
Her forearms throbbed as she picked up the Governor’s letter. The prospect of having to comb through Fainreshlin’s invisible branches to get at the fruits she wanted to pluck led her to indulge in a moment of daydreaming – about a future where everything she had been building would come together, and the Anthar Kai would wield the power of near-instantaneous communication, ready to deploy a pliable workforce at a moment’s notice from the High Commissary.
She set the data pad in the recess in her desk with the camera facing towards her, and dabbed the sweat from her cranial bumps. Once the interaction commenced it was treated like a regular conversation, and any expression, pause, or aside was dutifully recorded and sent back with the response. Once she was confident that she resembled her portrait that hung with the other High Commissaries in the cavernous lobby of the tower, she turned on the recording.
Fainreshlin’s somewhat melted face appeared on screen and did a half-turn to face the camera as if he was caught doing something far more important than having this conversation.
“High Commissary, always a pleasure.”
“It’s been a long time, Governor,” she replied, knowing that the observation would hit just the right nerve.
“I trust things are keeping you busy, High Commissary.”
“Toiling under a hundred suns, as always, Governor.”
“I’m sure you must have heard the news by now. I admit it had come to us as quite as a shock. The Governor’s seat out of Chiartries has administered this corner of Thorian space for six hundred years. Under the Treaty of Krevali, we were assigned the former Iastret colonies in this region, and it was our understanding that this would include Krevali if ever the protection order over it was lifted or otherwise handled. To have our latest conquest now go to general Senate rule is unprecedented, and an insult to the Anthar Kai’s status and central role in the Empire. I trust that everything is being done at your disposal to rectify the situation.”
Kalirit kept her face flat even as she cycled through all the things she could have been doing instead of enduring this unnecessary history lesson.
“The Senate’s actions are as much a consternation to us as they are to you. But I think it’s important for all of us to remember that we all ultimately serve at the leisure of the Presidium, and they’re the stewards of what’s good for the Empire as a whole. Vice Commissary Seshathirlin is putting all his not insubstantial experience into resolving matters to everyone’s satisfaction.”
“I would like to know what is being done on our behalf to resolve this crisis.” Kalirit bet that he had assumed she would come out cagey and therefore would have devoted most of his planned responses to badgering her for information, which meant that the reason for this somewhat repetitive response was because he couldn’t imagine that she could be straight with him from the start.
“An audience with the Presidium is a desired outcome. But as I’m sure you understand with the crisis coalescing around turbulent Krevali, the Presidium’s time is in short supply, and our options with respect to that are quite limited.”
“For centuries since this governorship has been established it was understood that the moment the Krevali become a space-faring race they would be ushered into civilization by the Anthar Kai and their territory would be subsumed to the governorship.”
“The governorship would not be in a bad position to have access to the ample resources of Krevali,” Kalirit responded, making an effort to not herself get lost in the negatives and superlative adjectives of her tangled sentences. “On our end, productivity is not at all at a standstill. Preparations are underway to ensure that we’re not caught administratively flatfooted when we discover that Krevali has been brought into the fold and the situation is not unsalvageable, with the resources coming into your disposal.”
“I demand to know what is going to be done.”
“Discounting the significant efforts of Vice Commissary Seshathirlin, and the great burdens placed on my support personnel to resolve the potential rectification of this oversight, in absolute terms, nothing has been approved at the moment.”
Fainreshlin paused, his brow twitching every few seconds as the recording looped while the algorithm tried to process Kalirit’s response. Finally, the Governor spoke, “I will kindly remind you that our voting block was quite instrumental in extending your term as High Commissary and it would be in your best interest to ensure our vote does not change.”
It may have nearly fried her brain, but it worked – the major problem with dialogue trees was that through vagaries of language, you could trespass into branches without legitimately prompting them. Few attempted to do so with the same vigour as Kalirit, because success made the other look like a fool, but failure would have made you an even bigger one. Governor Fainreshlin must have really been feeling the heat if he was willing to so openly threaten the High Commissary of the Anthar Kai, but even if his estimation of his influence over his supposed voting block and its sway was erroneous, having his cards laid bare on the table ought to serve to subdue him.
With a faint smile, she responded, “I could exert my finest efforts to pretend that a conversation of this nature had never occurred, I’m sure that would suit you well.”
“That would be a start. But we expect an appearance by you in front of the Presidium to be most influential.”
“Of course, that is an option that can be considered. I could appear personally in front of the Presidium and inform them that there are some sovereignty concerns in the Chiartries governorship , that I’m sure could be resolved with an increased military presence and a reconsideration of the appointments at the highest levels of the governorship. They would be happy to hear it and I would be happy to deliver it.”
Fainreshlin’s face returned to the twitching loop, as Kalirit kept the rising emotion from her face. Did she push it too far walking into a rebuke, or would the recording spit out a response that would all but legitimize this conversation? Her anxiety had begun to morph into regret, a feeling that was a rare visitor in Kalirit’s mind, when Fainreshlin’s recording responded, “I am glad we are in agreement.”
Swallowing a sigh of relief, Kalirit could feel the throbbing recede from her forearms. Even if Fainreshlin thought that this was all put together to embarrass him, part of him would wonder how just how serious her threat was, which should keep him too preoccupied to make any lasting damage while the interstellar navies of a half-dozen species congealed around his territory.
Alright, real talk.
Never in my history of my writing have I felt burnout about writing in particular, and wanted to throw up my arms and just say “fuck it, I’m never going to make it”.
It’s not like anything particular happened, more like perfect storm of consecutive punches: the pandemic in general, the holidays coming up where lockdowns have basically took a giant dump on usual plans, the sleep deprivation of having a newborn, stress eating, not exercising due to lack of sleep and therefore not counterbalancing the stress eating, reading about writers having a “barely productive” year with six publication when I haven’t published squat in two years, having a spark of hope during #pitmad and finding out it’s essentially a self-publishing scam, failing to find an audience for my web serial after three months, blah blah blah sob story that most writers go through.
I’m jus tired. Tired of trying with absolutely no promise of success; of putting in hard work where the only fuel is hope and the only reward so far has been self-doubt. When does one ask themselves if they’re good enough? Almost constantly. When does one decide to answer the question in the negative?
Not now. Not yet anyway.
That doesn’t make what I’m currently experiencing feel any better though. Watching the yellow blips of pending submissions in my spreadsheet all flicker to red. Seeing absolutely no traffic on my blog or on my Royal Road page for my web novel.
I love writing. This summer, when I had hit the best groove of my life it made me feel good, even though my success landscape was pretty much identical to what it is today. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I’m just not writing enough, which is what’s leaving room to get distracted by the failures instead of enjoying the journey. Eventually, I will get out of this funk, and will regain my ability to see the big picture – that I like creating stories and playing with language and sharing my work with people no matter how few of them there are.
Apologies for being a downer, I just needed to vent, and firmly believe that bottling it up certainly won’t fix anything, and I for one like seeing that I’m not the only one who sometimes feels down in the dumps about their writing, so hopefully I can do the same for someone else.
Right, that’s my excuse.
Anyway I’ll make it up to you all with my next post which will be about Christmas lights.
Someone with a complete lack of filter like Seshathirlin was a useful barometer into sentiments that could shift abruptly – a swelling reaction carried almost instantaneously through the aether, well ahead of any news dispatches. A Thorian all the way out in the Imperial borders of Dead Space could be waiting for two weeks to find out why they’re feeling elated or why a sinking dread is has taken residence in their stomach. Kalirit would be able to tell by the movements that surrounded her that something was amiss but she would have no way of knowing what it felt like. Without a good eye into the storm she felt most vulnerable, most likely to get exposed as a netkarthi.
Her first experience with this had been at university on Kai Thori, when she was blind to the initial exhilaration and the eventual devastation at the end of the Last Gasp War. It was the first time in two thousand years that a Thorian military conflict resulted in a net loss of territory. The had succeeded in cutting deeper into the Iastret Dependency, including the space around Krevali but lost large swaths of their Vaparozh colonies, and almost surrendered Nabak to the Mraborans. When news of the Treaty of Krevali started spreading through Thorian space, the sheer force of it caught Kalirit by surprise.
She remembered waking up late at night and finding her roommate, Nirtaren, sitting at her table with the light on and her hands hanging limply at her side. When Kalirit whispered “hey”, Nirtaren turned in her direction and Kalirit found her friend ashen, eyes sunken in, each bone illuminated harshly by the desk lamp. “What’s wrong?” Kalirit couldn’t stop herself from asking and was met with a look on Nirtaren’s face that made it clear that her question was as foolish as asking someone who had just lost both her parents why they were so upset. Fortunately, in her distress, Nirtaren didn’t seem to register Kalirit’s reaction that night and didn’t mention it again. For Kalirit, it was almost a costly lesson to never let her guard down or forget that she’s moving blind through a world of seers.
The gloom that hung over Kai Thori that winter was palpable even for a netkarthi, but while her classmates drowned in a mire of defeat by wars fought and lost light years away, she rose to the top of her class. These days she scoffed at the foolish years spent lamenting this missing link to the rest of the Thorian species, when she had believed that being a netkarthi would stand as an impenetrable boulder between her and her success. It took her a long time to learn that anything can be forged into a weapon. Where in other Thorians the sense of duty to their people lived inexorably in their gut, Kalirit was free to make every decision with her head. And sometimes what was best for the Company was not what was best for Thorians as a whole.
Some, like Vice Commissary Seshathirlin, understood this in principle, though their nature would never permit them to act on it. And those like Eitherorik were a particularly irksome lot, growing in discontent as the species-wide mood slowly soured throughout the course of their lives. They were especially sensitive to the preservation of Thorian-wide happiness, which is why the more time Eitherorik spent on Vesh Takar coordinating the next fist-shaking endevour, the more freedom Kalirit had to govern the Company as she saw fit.
With that thought, Kalirit pulled up the pirate activity report that Eitherorik had sent. For someone who had entered every room with the bluster of a seasonal gale, he seemed to be having difficulty replicating the same effect for the pirates that had plagued the outer rim of the Empire. Perhaps a subtle reminder about this was overdue, though in Eitherorik’s defence, ever since the pirate clans amalgamated several years earlier, their attacks have become exceedingly coordinated, relentless, and focused almost exclusively on Anthar Kai assets. Hatvan luxury liners cruised unmolested and Vaparozh trade had flourished, while the Anthar Kai diverted valuable resources to fighting off this new pestilence with little apparent success.
Perhaps something marginally less infuriating required her attention, so instead she pulled up the dispatch from Governor Fainreshlin.
Fainreshlin chose to send his communication as a branching dialogue tree, which he preferred because of his firm belief that he could think five steps ahead of anyone and predict every twist and turn a conversation could take. This method was only slightly less crude than simply sending a long-winded monologue, and far-removed from using a well-trained proxy, something that took countless hours to hone and for which Fainreshlin lacked both the discipline and foresight.
Thorian collective empathy moved through the aether instantaneously, but conventional communication was afforded no such luxury. While information travelled faster than any available transportation, depending on the distance and the position of relay satellites a message could take up to a month to cross from one end of the Known Reaches to the other. Sending single one-way messages often ground communication to a halt, and while some Thorians liked to blame their perceived decline of the Empire on the increased respect afforded to non-Thorian sentients, Kalirit was convinced that if there were any fingers to be pointed at anything, it would be squarely at the decrease of the use of AI proxies. Either people now had too many secrets they couldn’t risk their electronic counterparts blabbing, or nobody had the time anymore to craft a near-perfect replica of themselves that they could send to any corner of the Known Reaches to have a fulsome conversation in their place.
Kalirit believed a lot could be discerned about a person based on what method they used to find efficiency within this technological limitation. Every day Kalirit set aside dedicated time to her messenger, and as a result, whenever she had the need to review older recordings she would sometimes have a difficult time discerning her personal conversation from her alternate’s.
As I spend a Sisyphean eternity editing my first novel, I’m busily working on my second one. It went over the threshold from “idea I’m toying with” to full on project sometime in 2018, but overall it’s been slow going since.
As a result of my weird pandemic productivity boost that I experienced in the months before our third baby was born, it more than doubled in word count and is now at a respectable 40,000, though I recognize that a sizeable chunk of it is first draft bloat. I’ve been enjoying this particular project immensely, and a little while ago I talked about how I was using Google Street View to explore the city of my childhood.
Despite the level of enjoyment and how well it’s been progressing, I have run into some growing pains, which I think is an important subject for writers to be able to talk about freely. Sometimes there’s this tendency to subscribe to one of two extremes – either you’re a writer to the core and enjoy every aspect of it because it is the essence of your being, or you’re a tortured artist’s soul who is but a vessel for your writing, which rips you to shreds as it crawls out of you. Cute, but not the way things work.
I think there’s nothing wrong in recognizing the stumbles we all experience. Writer’s block isn’t a sign of weakness or a disease to be cured – it’s a natural part of the process. It also comes in all kinds of variations from writer to writer and within writers themselves. Not every case of writer’s block is a 100% stupor where no amount of internal turmoil will bring even a single word onto a page. Nice for relatable writer comics, but hardly ever happens.
What I’m going through right now with Maple Vodka (placeholder title, so bear with me) is something I like to describe as a “working” writer’s block. Kind of like “working notice” – where you’re fired from a job but stay on for the duration of your notice period. So in my case, it feels like writer’s block, but it’s not stopping me from actually continuing to write, or rather, I’m not letting it. The symptoms I’m currently experiencing are the following:
The current chapter is overwrought: I feel like the section I’m writing is entirely too long for the pacing of the novel and how much it actually brings to the plot. It started with the protagonist going to work and then moves into him remembering the long journey that led him to this dead-end job. Sure, it’s important to establish that his career stalled, but is this the best way of doing it? I’m not sure. I’ve certainly found the character exploration fascinating, but will it fall flat with readers?
There’s not enough here for a novel: this fear is closely related to the first one – because this particular fiction feels like it’s padding word count, I’m wondering if there’s even enough idea here to stretch into a novel length, or is it all just filler? Sure, it looked good as a synopsis, and then as a full-blown outline, but sometimes when I put meat onto the skeleton I quickly run out of material and end up with a half-dead being of abject horror. Is this the fate of this particular work, or are my perceptions suffering from recency bias, and I just need to get through this stretch to greener pastures?
It’s poorly written: hardly any of us do their best work when we’re forcing ourselves. So the last dozen or so pages haven’t felt like the kind of writing that I should be doing. Maybe that means the whole work is utter garbage and I shouldn’t subject anyone to the final product. Equally likely is that I’m too close to this particular piece of writing, and need some perspective in order to properly assess its merits.
As I’ve summarized them, these might seem like fairly sizable problems. On a bad day, it’s enough to discourage someone from continuing their work, throwing it in the discard pile, and moving onto the next project hoping this will be the perfect fit. As much as I do think sometimes you do just need to cut ties with something you’re working on, a technique practiced even by the most seasoned authors, I think it’s too early to do a post mortem. Like I said, difficulties are a natural part of the process, and it’s an intricate balancing act to learn when those difficulties are truly insurmountable.
In this case, I don’t think the threshold was crossed. Why? I’m not sure. There’s no bright line test here so at the end of the day, I have to trust my gut and believe that the solution to all three of the stated misgivings is: keep writing.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.