Saturday, September 7, 2019

State of the Schafer: How is it September already?

Man, it's been an awful winter for viruses down here in NZ. My son's been sick 4 times, and I'm currently fighting off my own 2nd round of a cold. Plus, this week I had to get a booster MMR vaccine, as there's a pretty nasty measles outbreak going on in Auckland with almost 900 cases. Auckland is on the North Island, pretty far from our home in Hawea, but I'll be flying through the Auckland airport on my way to visit US family and friends in a few weeks. I don't have my childhood medical records, which means I can't prove I've had 2 doses of the MMR. Better safe than sorry, in my view (and the doctor's).

So anyway, what with all the sore throats and high fevers and headaches (not to mention some chipped teeth, bruised heels, and injured ligaments), feels like we've been living at the local medical centre. Thank goodness medical care for kids under 14 is completely free in NZ. All the doctor visits haven't exactly made for terrific productivity, though, on the writing front or anywhere else. Well, okay, if I'm honest, part of that lack is because on the rare occasions when everybody's healthy, we've prioritized hitting the ski slopes before the snow vanishes again. Gotta take care of our mental health too, right?

Writing Progress:

I'm reeeeeeeally trying to get a complete draft of The White Serpent done before my big US trip in a few weeks. Will I make it? Only time will tell. I'm currently fighting through a particularly tricky setup to the climax scene, with a few more to go after that.

Skating Update:

I'm still playing it safe with my back, which means no sit spins or double jumps. Mostly I'm working on that darn step sequence for my program, which involves a lot of turns known as counters. My precious, we hatesssss them...but arrrrgh, with enough practice, surely I can get my footwork to look decent. I hope. I am just not a naturally graceful skater, so it's hard. On the up side, my back is doing well enough I can safely practice layback spins. I've got a long way to go to regain full back flexibility, but hey. Baby steps:

I'm thinking if the sit spin continues to be dangerous for my back, then I may switch my main combo spin in my program from camel/sit/back sit to camel/layback/back camel. (A "back" spin means you change feet and spin on your non-dominant foot.) The trick to get a good transition from layback to back camel, which is something I haven't ever worked on before. That makes it interesting, and keeps me from feeling too sad about not doing sit spins. (The sit was always my favorite and best spin.)

New Zealand Life:

During the winter term, the local schools run a program where for six Fridays, the kids all go up the mountain for ski lessons. Parents get discount tickets for the day, and are supposed to be on hand to supervise children during their lunch break. Best school program ever, far as I'm concerned. I've certainly made the most of the ski time.

Happy after hauling my skis up to Treble Cone's summit ridge

Mmmm, fresh powder

Walking the ridge

More fresh lines in the Motatapu Chutes

One of my favorite chutes to ski

The long walk out of the Motatapu back to the lift 
I also did a little volunteering for this year's NZ Winter Games, since a friend of mine runs the cross-country events and asked me to help out. I'd never been to the local dedicated cross country area before, so it was neat to check that out and watch all the elite international athletes power through their races. Snow Farm is apparently the one groomed cross country ski area in all of NZ, although of course people do tons of backcountry hut trips and other off-piste x-c skiing all throughout NZ's mountains. I still want to get more into backcountry, but I think I'll leave the x-c racing to those fitter and more masochistic than I am. It sure looked tiring.

Snow Farm's meticulously groomed cross country ski trails

Upon finishing their race, elite skiers collapse exhausted in the snow

Reading Corner:

I just finished Tad Williams's The Witchwood Crown and Empire of Grass, the first two installments in his Last King of Osten Ard series. This is the follow-on to his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, which in my view is one of the great classics of epic fantasy. I first read the MS&T trilogy as a teenager and adored every word of it. Some might complain of slow pacing and over-description, but to me, the leisurely build-up, deep introspection, and detailed settings helped make both world and characters feel rich and real in a way few other fantasy series have matched.

Despite having a good experience with the interval novella Williams released in 2017 (The Heart of What Was Lost), I still worried the new books, returning to beloved characters like Simon and Miriamele and Binabik after so many years, might not match the magic of the originals. It's true that as a more experienced reader I spot more flaws and frustrations. (My goodness, but Williams does love for characters to spend tons of pages wandering lost through forests and caves. And while he does his usual terrific job of writing realistic women of a variety of ages and roles, in the new series he goes frustratingly old-school in choices of plotline for some of them...which is to say, slavery, abuse, and sexual assault.)

Yet as a reader I don't care, because the magic remains, at least for me. As soon as I started, I sank right into Osten Ard and never wanted the story to stop. This is why I didn't read the new books right away, although I've been snapping them up upon release. I was trying to hold out until the third one comes out next year. But in the end I just couldn't. And now I have to wait. Arrrrgh.

Friday, August 2, 2019

State of the Schafer: Starting Up Again

Okay, due to horrible flu viruses and travel and school holidays and various busy-ness, it's been a while. Real confession time, I've also been avoiding the blog because I keep wanting to post big long serious posts about politics and the inexorably changing climate and the desperate need for action. But the time and effort it takes me to create a nuanced, thoughtful, well-researched, persuasive post can perhaps be better spent in getting away from the keyboard to real-world actions, like calling representatives and volunteering with local groups. 

These little State of the Schafer updates are meant to be mostly for me and close family and friends, a way of keeping track of personal things in my life. I decided to stick to that, for now, although if you catch me in person, I'd be happy to discuss at length more serious matters.

Writing Progress:

I've reached the point in The White Serpent (the Cara novella) where I'm counting down scenes to the end. Seven more to go, woo! The draft currently stands at 31,291 words. I expect it'll end up around 50K. Often the words come faster and faster for me toward the end of a story, but I've learned the hard way never to count on any story coming easy. Each one is difficult in different ways; for me, that's part of why writing is such an addictive pursuit. The challenge keeps changing. Anyway, I shall forge onward.

Skating Update:

After so easily regaining my axel, I got all excited and started practicing double jumps. That might have been a bit premature. My back got iffy again, so I've had to stop the doubles, and take a break from sit spins, which are the most risky move for my lumbar spine. I won't lie, it's frustrating. Sometimes getting older sucks. More targeted core work may fix up my back enough to handle the doubles, or at least properly low sit spins, but I guess there's no guarantee.

Thankfully, other spins, single jumps, and axels seem fine for my back, as does footwork...and goodness knows I could use some practice on that. I've always loved jumping and spinning best, which means I tend to spend all my practice time on the fun showy stuff and neglect the finicky, more tedious things like choctaws and rockers and brackets. But a complex step sequence is a vital component of a competitive program, and my coach just finished choreographing mine, so now I have no excuse not to practice it. I still have hopes of competing later this year (I don't need doubles for that).

New Zealand Life:

During my son's school holidays, we went up to Auckland to renew his U.S. passport. To make the trip a bit more fun, we headed out to Hobbiton, which none of us had visited before. My son, who shares my love of Lord of the Rings, was quite excited to see the hobbit homes "just like in the movies!" I was a little worried he'd be disappointed in the experience, since the homes are exterior sets only, you can't go inside them (there's nothing in there!), and you're supposed to look but not touch.

But all three of us really enjoyed it. The set designers' attention to detail is just amazing, and the tour guide had a ton of funny and interesting stories about the movie filming to share. It was an overcast, sometimes rainy day, which made all the beautiful greenery seem particularly verdant. It truly does look like Bilbo and Frodo might pop around a corner to say hello at any moment. Behold:

Even in the dead of winter, Hobbiton has plenty of flowers

The kiddo is now too tall to be a hobbit! More than full foot taller than average hobbit height. Goodness, how the time flies.

I loved all the greenery. I think they should make a Hobbiton where the homes aren't just exteriors, but full-on cool would it be to stay a weekend in a hobbit home?

Bag End, with door invitingly cracked open.

The bench where Bilbo and Gandalf meet

I'd live in this one

Sam's house

View across the lake to the Green Dragon Inn

The Green Dragon. You can go inside this one, and have drinks and lunch. My son loved the buffet; they did a great job of marking gluten-free choices and had tons of things he could eat.
Anyway, the whole Hobbiton experience made me want to do a LotR movie marathon and re-read the book yet again. New Zealand sure knows how to do tourist attractions.

In other news, after a horrendously dry start to the winter, snow has finally arrived. This is a huge relief to everyone in town, since the conditions at the ski areas were the worst in a decade. But now at last the powder is accumulating up high, and I'm super psyched to finally enjoy some steep and deep turns.

Snow at last at Treble Cone

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

State of the Schafer, GeyserCon Edition

Well, GeyserCon was a lot of fun. As cons go, it's on the smaller side, comparable to something like MileHiCon in Colorado. (This makes sense, given that NZ's total population and land area are also roughly equivalent to that of Colorado). I rather like the intimacy of smaller cons, which tend to feel like a laid-back family reunion rather than an overwhelming extravaganza.

Granted, the family reunion vibe can be a little nervewracking for an introvert who's brand new to the family. At GeyserCon, like any SFF con I've ever attended, much of the socializing happens in the hotel bar. When you enter and see a lot of tight-knit groups of friends deeply involved in conversation, and you're a stranger to most everyone, it's tough to overcome social anxiety and try to join an existing circle. SF author Kay Kenyon wrote a great post about how to handle con bars as an introvert that I highly recommend to anyone else who, like me, shudders at the thought of starting conversations with strangers.

Another big help is to have friends provide some online introductions in advance. Back when I first moved to New Zealand, SFF reviewer Paul Weimer gave me a virtual introduction to Jo Van Ekeren, who lives in NZ and is a veteran of many WorldCons. She offered to split a room with me at GeyserCon, and proved to be a most excellent roommate and guide to Kiwi fandom. One of my favorite memories of the con is talking about SF books with her until late into the night.

Fellow author and good friend Helen Lowe was working too hard on finishing the fourth novel in her wonderful Wall of Night series to attend the con, but she made sure to ask some of her friends to keep an eye out for me, which they very kindly did. Also, con Guest of Honour Kaaron Warren, who had a story in the Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology along with me, sought me out to say hello, which was really lovely of her. When you're shy, it makes such a difference to have people actively reach out to you. I hope I can repay the favor to other newbies in years to come. 

As always happens at a con, once I got over my initial shyness, I met all kinds of lovely people who were unfailingly friendly and welcoming. Plus, the con programming (organized by award-winning Kiwi author Lee Murray) was great. One of my favorite talks was given by Peter Brownbridge, a Geothermal Inspector from the Rotorua District Council. The town of Rotorua is located within the caldera of a volcano, and an active thermal field lies beneath the streets. Peter's job is to respond to reports of geothermal events, identify damage, and arrange necessary repairs. The surprises range from geysers going off in people's gardens, to deadly hydrogen sulfide gas infiltrating buildings. It was really fascinating to hear about the challenges of living in an active volcanic zone, and how the city manages the consequences. 

I also thoroughly enjoyed Lee Murray's interview with Kaaron Warren. Kaaron is a wonderful storyteller; her writing portrays the eerie, haunting, and unsettling corners of human nature, yet in person she's quite warm and witty. After hearing her discuss her latest novel, Tide of Stone, which is about the keeper of a tower containing condemned prisoners who endure a horrible sort of immortality, I had to buy it. Another con Guest of Honour, Alan Baxter, who's a long-time martial artist, gave a fascinating talk on what it's like to fight hand to hand, and how you can capture the feeling of a fight using various writing techniques. 

It was neat to see the award ceremony for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, which are the NZ equivalent of the Hugos. Congrats to all the winners! And since WorldCon will be held in NZ next year, 29 July- 2 Aug in Wellington, plenty of discussion was had about that. Prices for memberships go up in only a few days, so if you're at all thinking you might come, definitely register. (And yes, if at all financially feasible, you should come! It's going to be awesome.)

 In any case, GeyserCon was a blast, but all fun has to end sometime. The day I was to head home, I woke up with a sore throat, which only worsened as I traveled. By the time I got back to Queenstown, I had to accept the truth: the virus that had made my son miserable for 5 long days had caught up with me at last.

I've spent the last week flat on my back in bed, too sick to write or do anything much useful. My husband had to take on an unexpected extra week of solo parenting, poor guy. (Because he is a wonderful husband, he rose to the task.) 

At long last, I'm recovering. All I've got left is laryngitis and a slowly disappearing cough. I'm back to writing, and hopefully very soon back to skating and hiking and everything else, because boy am I sick of lying like a slug in bed. I did at least read some great books, and watch the best TV miniseries I have seen in ages (HBO's Chernobyl), but I'll leave discussion of those to another post. Much like my illness, this one is long enough already. I'll leave you with some I took while wandering around Rotorua. 

Lake Rotorua--water fills much of the volcano caldera.
Geothermal steam rising from behind the con hotel
Dead zone beside a hot spring
According to Geothermal Inspector Peter Brownbridge, this area behind the hotel was created when a manmade geothermal bore "went rogue" 
Rotorua Museum in Government Gardens, which are also known as Paepaekumanu
Steaming hot spring near the museum
View on my flight home to Queenstown. Alas, I was on the wrong side yet again to see Aoraki / Mt. Cook, but there's no such thing as a bad view of the Southern Alps.

Friday, May 31, 2019

State of the Schafer, Vol 6

Yikes, what a week. My son came down with the flu and was absolutely miserable for five very long days. (And nights. The high fever gave him screaming nightmares. Good times for all.) His head and eyes hurt so much he couldn't read or even watch TV for very long, which left me as his main source of distraction from pain and fever. It's always heartbreaking as a parent to see your child in pain yet be helpless to make that pain vanish; I'm just glad my son is still young enough to find some comfort in my presence. But needless to say, I did not get much writing or anything else done. I have never been so glad that I'm not facing any deadlines.

Happily, the kiddo has at last recovered, and my own immune system seems to have held out against the virus, with the help of lots of hastily snarfed vitamin C. I was terrified I'd get sick and have to cancel my planned trip to GeyserCon. But hooray, I am healthy and typing this in Auckland airport while waiting for my puddlejumper flight to Rotorua.

Writing progress:

I've only managed about 2K more words on The White Serpent since my last update, but I'm hoping to carve out a decent chunk of writing time each day in Rotorua. I always need a little down time anyway at cons, especially when it's my first time at the con and I don't know many people. I love meeting and making new friends, but the extra social effort required is always a bit of a challenge for an introvert like me, so it's nice to schedule myself some quiet time each day when I can write and recharge.

Skating update:

I did manage to squeeze in a skating session before flying out of Queenstown, which was a huge mood lifter after a very long time stuck inside the house with my sick kiddo. I was so delighted to be on the ice again that I even summoned the guts to try my axel.

The forward "leap of faith" take-off for the axel makes it the most intimidating of all the skating jumps. If you don't fully commit to the jump, it's likely to end badly. (How badly? There's a reason for the old stress fractures lurking in my lumbar spine.) You need to kick your free leg through and then instantly shift your weight from take-off to landing side, while simultaneously yanking arms and legs in to generate the required rotation.

All that can go wrong in a whole lot of ways. The axel is the only jump I've ever learned where sometimes, long after you think you finally have it down, you jump and your body suddenly says, "NOT TODAY, SATAN!" and bails mid-air. (This is so common a failure it's got a name: the "waxel", seen on occasion even in Olympic programs.)

So, yeah. Trying the axel again for the first time after 4 years off the ice was a nerve-wracking experience. I kept worrying that my body had completely forgotten how to do the jump and disaster would result. (I do wear gel pads over tailbone, hips, and knees when practicing, but still. No such thing as gel pads that can protect the spine.)

I comforted myself that I'd taken at least one hard fall already on footwork the other week, and my back survived. After some deep breaths, I went out for some axel attempts...and LANDED THEM, HALLELUJAH! Or rather, landed most of them. But even on the axels I didn't cleanly land, I didn't fall. And those I did land nice and solid on one foot...the elation was immense. I still grin wide just thinking about it. Even my coach was delighted, doubtless thinking of how much time it'll save if she doesn't have to re-teach me the jump.

It's only a single axel, sure, not a double or anything really impressive, but still. I came off the ice feeling like a superhero. That seems weirdly appropriate as the start to a science fiction/fantasy convention weekend.

Reading Corner:

I finished Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire, which was just as good as everyone said. The story reminded me of C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner, with an ambassador struggling to navigate complex and deadly politics in a culture they can never understand as a native does. I liked Martine's protagonist Mahit more than Cherryh's Bren, which helped make the reading experience much more engaging. If you're looking for science fiction with a lot to say about issues of culture and colonization, or if you just enjoy SF with interesting worldbuilding and character interaction, this one's for you. I'm eagerly looking forward to the sequel.

I then devoured Rachel Neumeier's Door Into Light, the long-awaited (at least by me!) sequel to her 2012 novel House of Shadows. I adored House of Shadows for its lyrical, atmospheric prose, mythic magic, and interesting characters, particularly the bardic sorceror Taudde, who struggles to navigate questions of morality and honor while living in an enemy country. The story in House of Shadows stands well alone, but leaves plenty of room for futher intriguing developments--and ever since reading the opening snippet of the sequel on Neumeier's blog, I have been absolutely panting for more. I'm happy to say Door Into Light did not disappoint me. I thoroughly enjoyed being back with Taudde and Leilis and all the other characters. I think I'll be re-reading both books again soon, just to savor the experience once more. I particularly recommend the duology to anyone who loves Patricia McKillip; it reminds me of her work in all the best ways.

Right now I'm partway through Sangu Mandanna's A Spark of White Fire, which is YA space opera inspired by Indian mythology, with meddling gods and magic and sentient spaceships. I'm really liking it so far. Hooray for great reading streaks!

Pic of the Week:

Sunrise on the way to GeyserCon

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

State of the Schafer, Vol. 5

Oof, it's been a busy 2 weeks since my last post, with some not entirely happy events. My son broke a finger at school while playing "rippa rugby" (kind of like flag football, for all you Americans). Thankfully it's only a hairline fracture and not a bad break, but it's still been pretty painful, and he's frustrated about having to be careful of his hand for weeks as the finger heals.

Meanwhile, I've been having a bit of a flare-up of carpal tunnel, despite wearing wrist braces while typing and using a reasonably ergonomic work desk. Not sure exactly what set it off, but the best cure is to minimize typing and phone scrolling for a while, so this week's post will be on the short side.

Writing Progress:

My draft of The White Serpent is sitting just shy of 25,000 words, and I finally got another chunk ready to send off to both my local writing group and my more distant critique partners. I'd say I'm about halfway through the story. Often I find that the words come faster and faster as I get closer to the end. I'm sure hoping that's true this time...but I won't count on it.

In other writing news, I finally got around to asking the Wanaka library if they'd like to have a donated copy of my Shattered Sigil trilogy. They responded with enthusiasm, hooray! So soon there will be at least one library in New Zealand that has my books. I'm pretty sure there aren't any others, since the books were never released in Aus/NZ. Some Australian libraries ordered them through international channels, but I'm pretty sure nowhere in NZ carries them...until now!

I'm also excited that next week I'll be heading off to Geysercon, this year's iteration of NZ's national SFF convention. (The con moves around NZ; this year it's held in Rotorua, which has lots of geysers and hot springs and other geothermal features, thus the choice of con name.) I'm not doing any panels or anything, but I'll bring some books to sell through the con bookshop, and I'm very much looking forward to meeting and hanging out with fellow SFF people. Plus, I've never been to Rotorua, so that'll be cool. Hopefully I can squeeze in a little sightseeing/hiking.

Skating update:

My back is holding up and I'm having a great time on the ice, woo hoo! Right now I'm working on speeding up my camel spin, so I can have a good strong start for the camel-sit-backsit combination spin in my program. I haven't tried my axel yet, but after fixing my single jump entries, the time has now come to regain it. So I have to decide: suck it up and commit despite the risk of hard falls, or wait until I can get time on the jump harness? The harness can't be used on a public session, and the only freestyle sessions the rink offers are at hideously early hours of the morning, which is a pretty daunting prospect with an hour drive over a potentially icy pass. Decisions, decisions.

Pics of the week:

As cooler weather sets in, Lake Hawea gets really calm, which makes for beautiful reflections

Fall colors in our yard

Snow on Cardrona Valley peaks...the ski season is coming

I spent a lovely day hiking in the Flat Tops Conservation Area near Roxburgh with some friends

Reading Corner:

I finished The Bone People, and I still feel uneasily ambivalent about it. The imagery is beautiful, the style is unique, the depiction of the terrible cycle of child abuse, and how abusers are enabled by their communities, is devastating. Yet like this reviewer, I was not a little horrified by the book's seeming insistence that abused children should not be taken away from their abusers. In talking to Kiwis about it, I realized I am lacking some cultural context; Maori today are still fighting to keep their children from being removed by NZ authorities. One person said something I found particularly interesting: a culture's greatest strength is often also its greatest flaw. According to them, one of the great strengths of Maori culture is the emphasis on acceptance and forgiveness and inclusion for community members, yet in the case of domestic violence and abuse, a tendency toward forgiveness can lead to terribly sad outcomes. On the flip side, that made me consider how individualism has always been heralded by Americans as a great cultural strength, and yet now that focus on individual gain instead of societal good might well destroy us entirely. So anyway...I guess I can at least say The Bone People is quite thought-provoking.

My reaction to Laura Gilman's novella Gabriel's Road, in contrast, was purely positive. I'd been hoping for a satisfying conclusion to Gabriel's arc, and yep, that was nicely done. Plus, the story helped clarify some bits of the Devil's West trilogy ending that I had found a bit confusingly muddy. Most of all, it was pure fun to be back in the Devil's West world. I love Gilman's portrayal of intertwined magic and nature.

Now I'm on to Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire, which I have high hopes for, after seeing a lot of praise from reviewers I trust.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

State of the Schafer, Vol 4

Writing Progress:

With the kiddo back in school, this week was a bit more productive than last week, though my dreams of "serious progress" didn't quite pay off. The White Serpent is sitting now at 22,388 words, which doesn't seem like much increase from last week, but that's because I ended up rewriting one scene a bunch of times before I felt happy with what's in the draft.

You'd think outlining scenes would prevent this, and in many cases I believe it does. Yet I sometimes find I have to actually write a scene in full before I realize it isn't working the way I hoped. And then rewrite it, rinse, repeat. Argh, this is why I am not a fast writer. Oh well, onward ho! My motto at times like this comes from Dory in Finding Nemo: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming..." So long as I don't stop, I will finish the draft.

Skating Update:

I drove over to Queenstown for another practice session, this time carpooling with another adult skater from Wanaka, which was a lot of fun. The trip over the Crown Range doesn't seem half so long when you can chat to a friend on the way!

At the rink, I had my first lesson with a local coach, and she was great. She worked on cleaning up my take-offs for my singles, which have gotten awfully sloppy after all these years. On a single jump, you can do all kinds of things wrong and still haul yourself around in the air and land okay. Not so with double jumps, which are a lot less forgiving.

Even in the short half-hour of the lesson, I could really feel the difference in height and flow for my singles with the corrected take-offs. Now I'm all excited that maybe with this kind of work, I could not only regain a double or two, but make them consistent enough to land in competition. But first I've got to put in the time to cement the newer, better habits, so they become reflex, in advance of trying any axels or doubles. Doubtless my back will be grateful.

I'm also excited at the idea of competing, period. There's an old program of mine from 2006 that I always wished I had skated better; I'm thinking I'll use that program again, so I don't have to spend precious ice and lesson time on learning a new one. Ha, though to remember all the footwork and everything, I had to dig up an old VHS tape of me skating the program at Adult Midwestern Sectionals back in the day, pull the video off the tape to a computer, and watch it a whole bunch of times. It's always kind of cringey, watching yourself skate. Every little error and moment of awkwardness seems tremendously magnified. But now I'm all the more motivated to achieve my goal of skating that program clean, with no mistakes.

New Zealand Life:

The house staining continues. My goodness our house has a lot of exterior wall. At this rate the job may take us all winter. Perhaps I can make it a race: what will become a beautifully polished, completed project first? The outside of our house, or my novella?

In parenting news, I've been fascinated by how many toys, TV shows, etc, from my own childhood in the '80s are still a thing today, albeit sometimes in updated form. My son has loved the modern versions of My Little Pony and Voltron and Pokemon. And now, for a real '80s classic, he and his best little buddy at school are super into Rubik's cubes. I guess in this modern era it's a heck of a lot easier to solve them, thanks to the internet. After mastering the original cube, now he's on to the Rubik's Tower. (I myself spent a fair chunk of time yesterday working through the solution to that one. Even with some internet help, it's not always easy the first time through.)

Pic of the Week:

Moody autumn day on the bank of the Clutha River

Reading Corner:

I'm not yet done with The Bone People, since I didn't have time for more than a scant few moments of reading this week. But I know what will be up next once I finish: Gabriel's Road, the brand new Devil's West novella from L.A. Gilman. Gabriel was my favorite character in the original Devil's West trilogy, which are weird westerns with a fascinating premise and some really cool nature-based magic. I loved Gabriel's struggle to confront and accept his ties to the Territory, and I'm hoping this novella will provide the satisfying resolution to his arc that we didn't get in the main books, where he wasn't the protagonist. I'm really looking forward to reading his story.

Monday, April 29, 2019

State of the Schafer, Vol 3

Writing Progress:

Between my son's school holidays, a skating camp I attended for my birthday, and a family trip to Invercargill, I didn't get a whole lot of new words onto the page--but I got some. The White Serpent (Cara novella) is sitting at just over 20,000 words, and better yet, I've got outlines for most of the remaining scenes all laid out, ready to write.

I don't like to outline a story completely ahead of time, but I do like to outline scenes ahead of writing them, especially the parts with dialogue between the characters. I find dialogue the hardest to write, so working out the conversations without worrying about internals and descriptions and body-language tags and all the rest of a finished scene can be a big help to me. That way I don' t waste time agonizing over words that would get deleted and rewritten anyway as I adjust the conversational flow. Once I have the conversation feeling "right", the rest is relatively easy to add.

The kiddo heads back to school today, so it's my hope I can buckle down and use those outlines to make some serious progress this week. We shall see...

Skating update:

As mentioned, I went to an adult skating camp that happened to take place on my birthday--talk about perfect timing. The camp was held at one of the few year-round rinks on the South Island, about 3 hours away in a town called Gore. (The town thankfully does not live up to its name. It's a perfectly pleasant country town with an excellent athletic center, including multiple indoor pools, basketball/netball courts, ice rink, and more. Someone on the town council must have really liked playing sports.)

The camp was short, only a few hours, but a lot of fun. About 20 adult skaters from Dunedin, Invercargill, Queenstown, and Wanaka came to participate. Everyone I met was so friendly and welcoming, it was lovely. As an introvert, I find it so much easier to meet new people when you all share a common interest/passion! We did a bunch of stroking drills together, then split up into groups based on ability levels to work on jumps and spins, and finished off by doing freeform interpretation to different styles of music. I've always been better at the athletic side of skating than the graceful artistry, so I'm terrible at making up interpretive moves on the spot, but hey, it's fun to try.

The adult camp gang
But speaking of athletics, I confess I totally chickened out when the coach handling the advanced group asked us to do axel jumps. I have not tried an axel yet since returning to the ice, and I wasn't wearing the gel pads I use to protect hips, tailbone, and knees when working on more difficult jumps.  The axel is notorious for having the most terrifying of take-offs--if you blow the jump, you'll take a nasty fall. Every time I started the push into the take-off, my brain was all, NOPE NOPE NOPE, and my body stopped dead before I could even get into the air. It's okay, though. Next time I skate, I'll put on all my padding and see about reclaiming my axel. For now, I was just delighted that my back didn't have any trouble with everything else I did.

New Zealand Life:

After the skating camp, my husband and kiddo and I headed down to Invercargill, the southernmost city in New Zealand. Invercargill has great cafes, tasty oysters, and all the big homewares, furniture, hardware, and electronics stores not available in our tiny little rural town. We needed to buy a bunch of stuff relating to staining our house, but since none of us enjoy shopping, we livened up the day with a trip to a boat factory.

Stabicraft manufactures aluminium-hulled power boats in a small factory just outside of Invercargill, doing everything from initial design through to final touches. In classic friendly Kiwi fashion, they're happy to take you through the factory and explain the whole process. They still build boats the relatively old-school way, with human workers using ordinary tools and standard machines, no fancy automated assembly lines or robots. As an engineer, I always love seeing how stuff gets made, and this was no exception. Apparently it takes about two weeks to manufacture a single boat, and about 40 are in various stages of progress at any given time.

Hulls being shaped

Bending the aluminium in a press

Ready for welding

Waiting for paint and other final touches
We then took a trip out along the southern coast of NZ to Gemstone Beach, which friends had told us is a neat place to visit. The beach is aptly named; the black sand is dotted with shoals of colorful rocks. You can apparently find real gems there, like jasper and even sapphires. I doubt we bought back any actual gems, but our son lugged home an entire bag of ocean-smoothed pebbles in all shades of the rainbow. The largest ones are streaked and striped and look like they could be dragon eggs. The rocks weren't the only attraction; the wild waves were amazing to watch as well.

Windswept bluffs and wild waves

Pebbles on Gemstone Beach

Black sand and blue sky
On our way back to Invercargill from Gemstone Beach, we stopped past Colac Bay, a famous surf spot (although you need a thick wetsuit! The southern ocean is frigid). The contrast of the gentle waves in the sandy, sheltered bay with the wild breakers at Gemstone Beach, only a few minutes' drive away, was fascinating.

Colac Bay

Standing at the southern edge of New Zealand, looking toward Antarctica (it's still 3,000 miles away...there's a lot of ocean in between)

Reading Corner:

I'm partway through The Bone People, which is...interesting, so far. Very artsy and literary in style, not just the prose itself but the physical spacing on the page, and intriguing in its character work. I'm not sure how I feel about the protagonist being a semi-idealized self-insert for the author, though. (The author makes no bones about this; the similarities between herself and her character are evident, right down to the names.) Guess I'll see how the story plays out. I hear it's quite dark, focusing on child abuse, so I'm braced for that.

I didn't take my physical library copy of The Bone People with me to Invercargill, so instead I read on Kindle a recent SFF release, K. Chess's Famous Men Who Never Lived. It's a quiet, melancholy, thoughtful SF novel about refugees from a parallel-universe New York struggling to adjust to life in our world and accept the tremendous loss of what they've left behind. If you like literary SFF like Emily Mandel's Station Eleven, E.J. Swift's Osiris, or Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni, definitely pick this up. Heh, and it made me want to rewatch Fringe, although that will have to wait until I finish catching up on Arrow. (I'm slowly working my way through season 5. Why did nobody tell me S5 is nearly as absorbing as the excellent S2? It's getting awfully hard to stop after one episode.)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

State of the Schafer, Vol 2

Writing Progress:

I managed to keep to my 500-word per weekday goal, despite a 3-day trip to Queenstown, plus scrubbing and prepping one side of our house for staining. My draft of The White Serpent is up to 18,503 words, including some very hard-won words on one troublesome argument scene which I had to rewrite a couple times before I felt happy with the interactions between Cara and the other characters. Onward to the next scene, which I hope will be a bit less tricky to get right.

My son, however, is quite miffed that I haven't done any work on HIS book, the middle-grade science fiction adventure with magic and lasers, since finishing the first chapter a while back. I told him I'm not good at working on multiple projects at once; he pointed out sternly that I managed it with my engineering job, so why can't I learn to multi-task with writing?

Kids, man. They cut you no slack. Maybe I can try adding in a 100 word goal for the magic-and-lasers on top of my 500-word goal for The White Serpent.

Skating update:

While visiting Queenstown, I spent another hour practicing on a public session. This time the kiddo came with me to skate, which is always extra fun. Best of all, I had no back soreness afterward: hooray! I think low sit spins are the riskiest move for my back, even more so than jumping, so I avoided those and I think it paid off. I haven't yet dared to try an axel or any doubles yet, but I sure had a good time.
The kiddo snapped this picture of me enjoying life on the ice

New Zealand Life:

As mentioned above, we're working on staining the house. It's actually not so much the staining that's hard, as all the prep work. Mix up a tank of moldkiller, spray on, wait 48 hours, pray for a sunny day, mix up washing fluid, spray on, scrub until arms fall off. Plus our house is two stories, with a funky steeply slanting metal roof in between the lower and upper level, which means we'll have to get creative with our climbing gear to safely work on the upper portion. Oh well, I always love a challenge.

It's Easter this weekend, and Kiwis seem hugely into Easter in a way they aren't with other holidays. Not so much the religious aspects, but the CHOCOLATE. Every grocery store (or should I say, supermarket), is absolutely buried in displays of every type of bunny-shaped and egg-shaped chocolate you could possibly imagine. White chocolate and mango eggs. Passionfruit and kiwifruit bunnies. Marshmallow eggs covered in sprinkles. Chocolate bars as long and thick as my arm, containing the same goo inside as Cadbury's creme eggs. (The Kiwis turn up their noses at Cadbury, by the way. Whittaker's is where it's at. Having tried their white chocolate flavors, I must agree.)

Yet the one Easter treat NZ doesn't have is the one my son always loved best: PEEPS. I had to look it up for him: apparently they're only sold in the US and Canada. It doesn't entirely surprise me they haven't caught on here. They always tasted pretty darn nasty to me, like a mouthful of Styrofoam coated in stale sugar and pumped full of preservatives. I think my son loved them because he can't eat gluten and doesn't like chocolate, and they're pretty much the one GF non-choc treat readily available in America for Easter. He plans to stock up the next time we visit the US. Assuming the biohazard folks at NZ customs let him bring peeps into the country, I look forward to watching his Kiwi friends' faces when they try one.

U.S. Politics (the horrorshow continues)

Welp. The Mueller report is finally out. While I'm genuinely glad to find that the more far-fetched theories about Trump's relationship to Russia aren't true, even the redacted version of the report is pretty savage in its portrayal of the President's corruption, lies, and disregard for laws. To quote from the report's conclusion, "The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests." But honestly, anybody who didn't already know Trump doesn't give a damn for laws or country or anything beyond his own personal gain, is either willfully blind or has been living under a rock.

The worrying part is that most of the aides and appointees who refused to carry out Trump's illegal orders have resigned or been fired. Since Republican voters continue to signal that they'll excuse or ignore absolutely any horrible or even criminal behavior on Trump's part, I don't hold out hope the Republicans in Congress will exercise their constitutional duties and hold him to account.

Prior to now, I'd shared the pragmatic view expressed by Democrats like Pelosi. If the Senate will refuse to act on any impeachment, why waste time and effort on a fight you can't win? Why not focus effort on one you can: the next elections. But since reading the report and seeing Mueller spell out very clearly his reasoning why Congress should be the ones to act on the evidence he collected, I've come to feel differently. Even if impeachment doesn't result in removal, it's still worthwhile to take a stand. To show voters and the world that at least some Americans aren't turning a blind eye to corruption; that speaking up for what is right is more important than worrying about political cost. I hope the Democrats of the House have enough courage to take that stand (which, realistically, will only happen if enough voters call or email them to say as much. So hey, if you feel as I do, call your representative.)

Pic of the Week:

Autumn colors in Queenstown

Reading Corner:

I finished The Luminaries, which I found absorbing but sometimes frustrating. (I thought the author prioritized cleverness of structure over depth of characterization.)

I then tried The Gutter Prayer, but stalled out about 30% into the book--I think I'm just not in the right mood. The worldbuilding was wonderfully imaginative, but I wasn't connecting with the characters in the way I wanted.

So now I'm continuing my investigation of New Zealand authors with Keri Hulme's The Bone People, which I've heard is powerfully memorable.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

State of the Schafer, Vol 1

They say nobody reads blogs anymore, and in a weird way I find that freeing. I haven't posted here in ages because I thought I should preserve all my time and effort for working on my actual book drafts. Yet recently I've been hankering to keep some sort of journal, a way to record progress and the small events of life without all the dismaying downsides of Facebook and other social media platforms. Ha, and then I remembered personal journaling used to be the entire point of a blog, once upon a time, before so much of the internet became about clicks and likes and pageviews and ways to monetize.

So, I'm going to try a little experiment for myself. A weekly update, about writing and life and whatever I feel like recording, mostly for my own benefit. Something I can look back on to trigger all the deeper memories, plus a way for distant friends and family to check in and see how our lives are going.

Writing Progress:

I'm still revising and reworking my Shattered Sigil novella, The White Serpent (this is the one from Cara's point of view). The revised draft currently sits at 15,973 words (out of an estimated 30-40K). I recently set a goal that every weekday, I want to end up with 500 more words than the day before.

500 words may not sound like much, but I find I work best with small goals that aren't hard to reach. Setting a small goal means I don't stress out about reaching it; I feel good when I make it, and better yet if I surpass it. If I have a day where getting words on the page feels like ripping out teeth, or else a day where a ton of unexpected tasks/issues eat up all my usual writing time, well...500 additional words isn't too hard to manage. I can still get that much done on a difficult day, even if the words are a terrible mess that will get deleted and rewritten the moment I have proper time and brainpower.

But the real test approaches...can I keep adding at least 500 words a day to the draft during the next 2 weeks when my son is on holiday from school? Fingers crossed.

Sad book news:

A little while ago I got an email from Thomson-Shore, the company who prints and sells the physical editions of The Labyrinth of Flame, saying the company is ceasing all print & distribution operations immediately and filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Gosh, doesn't this seem familiar. At least Thomson-Shore doesn't hold any of my rights. Sadly, it does mean the illustrated physical editions of Labyrinth of Flame will no longer be available. I guess the few boxes I have leftover from the Kickstarter print run have become rare collectibles!

Skating: The Return

It's been years since I last skated regularly, thanks to injury recovery and then moving to NZ. The nearest rink is in Queenstown, an hour away over a mountain pass, and only opens for half the year. But upon seeing the rink open for the season this past Monday, and reading all the happy posts on Facebook from US skater friends celebrating at Adult Nationals, I could not deny how deeply I still miss the sport. My lumbar spine has been doing pretty well these days, so I contacted the Queenstown Ice Skating Club to ask about freestyle sessions and coaching, and headed over the pass for a trial hour of practice on a public session.

I tried to be very, very careful of my back. No axels, no double jump attempts, no layback spins, only a few low sit spins and change-foot camel spins. I concentrated on easy single jumps, upright spins, and footwork, and I stopped as soon as my back felt tired. The outcome: no sciatic pain (yay!), although my low back muscles were a bit sore the next day. There's just no other type of exercise that works the back in quite the same ways as skating. Yet my soreness didn't feel like squished nerves, more like, "oh gosh I haven't used these muscles like this in ages."

So I am...tentatively hopeful. It was lovely to be back on the ice, and yet also frustrating to see how rusty all my old skills have become after so long away. Oh well, lots of room for improvement, if I can keep my back healthy!

The good news about the rink being so far away is that it'll stop me from pushing too hard. I'm diligently working through core & back strengthening exercises from my old conditioning manuals, and I'll try another skating session next week. The Queenstown club secretary, who's also an adult skater, put me in touch with a bunch of friendly and very helpful skaters--the adult skating community here seems just as close-knit and supportive as the one I left behind, which has me all the more excited about returning to the sport. Fingers crossed my back can hold up to it.

New Zealand Life:

After a very warm start to autumn, cooler temps have definitely arrived. I'm wearing my super thick hoodie-footie pajamas at night again. I look like a giant Ewok, but I'm WARM, darn it.  (Seriously, those pjs are the single most useful thing I brought to NZ.) We've had to use our woodburner for heat in morning/evening, and we've glimpsed fresh snow on the highest peaks. Ski season is coming, albeit slowly. The resorts here don't usually open until late June.

Yesterday was the final day of Term 1 of my son's school year. In addition to all the usual reading and writing and maths, my son's class learned knitting and swing dancing, both of which he hugely enjoyed. I have to say, so far NZ seems to have way fewer hangups over gendered expectations for kids. The little girls here play just as roughly as the boys (which is, um, pretty rough...much rougher than was ever allowed at my son's Colorado school), while the boys are happy to learn knitting, dancing, cooking, etc. It's refreshing to see. As for me, I've never knitted or sewn anything in my life, so my son is quite excited that he can teach me how.

We should have some time for knitting instruction, since the kiddo is on holiday for the next 2 weeks, until the second term of his school year begins. My husband is too busy with his work to take a long break, but we've got some fun short excursions planned.

Less fun is the looming chore of staining the house. Without much of an ozone layer over NZ, the sun here is insanely powerful. Wooden siding will quickly warp and crack if you don't slather protective stain onto it every few years. Our house is in desperate need of restaining; probably we ought to cough up the massive amount of money required for professionals to mold-spray and scrub and stain, but with me not earning much income at the moment, it seems a good time to learn some good old hands-on skills. Besides, that's the Kiwi way: they're very big on self-sufficiency.

Pic of the week:

Glorious sunset viewed from our upper balcony
Currently Reading:

The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton)--award-winning literary historical novel by NZ author, set in the coastal town of Hokitika during the 19th century gold rush days

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

2018 in Retrospect: settling in and sea changes

So, 2018. What a year. I'm typing this in mid-January because it's taken me this long to even figure out what to say. On a global and political level...yeah, let's not even go there. I don't have much to say that doesn't sound terribly pessimistic, and I don't think pessimism is helpful at all. Instead I'll just keep this a personal recounting, which is a happier tale. 2018 was far kinder to me than to many, and I'm aware of how fortunate I am in that regard.

I do think of 2018 as the Year of the Never-ending Move, because so much time and effort was devoted to completing our transition from Colorado to New Zealand. Obtaining my resident visa, selling one house long distance, buying another one here, ugh, I don't want to talk about all that either. I'm just glad all the stress and work involved with those tasks is over. The final step on the path came in November, when our household goods arrived and I was at last reunited with my book collection (hooray!):

So it turns out I have a lot of books
Unpacking and sorting through all our boxes (and selling/donating what we no longer needed) felt like a second job for a while! The hardest part was figuring out where to put all my books in a house that doesn't have any bookshelves (ack). I'm currently using some tool shelves in the garage, combined with creative stacking in various closets.

Our garage has become my library
Speaking of jobs, another big change for me came just before Christmas, when I said farewell to the company where I've worked for nearly 21 years. That's my whole adult life since leaving grad school! I knew when we decided to stay in NZ that I might need to leave my job--I'd originally assumed I'd be resigning when we visited Colorado back in April. My department thought they had found a way to keep me on as a remote employee, but alas, it couldn't be maintained long term. I can't stay working as a remote but regular employee for reasons related to NZ tax law, and since I'm now a resident of a foreign country, I can't easily be hired as a contractor or incorporated company, thanks to US technology export regulations.

Though I had plenty of time to prepare for my exit, the final day when I delivered my last project and said goodbye to my co-workers brought me a whole tangled mess of emotions. On the one hand, I'm not sure I'll ever work for a better company. The projects were always super cool and challenging, my co-workers were amazing, the work environment was flexible and friendly, and the company treated me well. I mean, heck, not only did they support me working part time ever since the birth of my son, I still had a full pension plus a 401(k). How many US companies even offer pensions anymore?

Yet after so many years spent working in one corner of the aerospace industry, it's also exciting to contemplate seeking out some new horizons. New Zealand has a young but rapidly growing space and technology sector, with some creative applications and approaches. What I'd love best is to contribute to climate change mitigation technologies, since at this point I feel it's our best hope for any kind of reasonable future. That kind of work is happily a lot easier in a country like NZ where the government is 100% on board with the need.

This is the view outside my window as I type. What I'd love most is to ensure sights like this never disappear from our planet
So despite my sadness at leaving a great workplace, I'm excited about what new opportunities I might find. The happy news for those of you who enjoy my books is that I don't intend to jump into another job straight away. As part of moving to NZ, we downsized our spending so we can live on one salary. Since my husband has secured a good full-time job, that gives me a gift of time which I'm terribly grateful to have.

For so long now I've been juggling engineering, parenting, marriage, and writing, and feeling like I'm constantly dropping the ball on one role or the other. In these last few years, the casualty has mostly been writing. As demonstrated by the fact it's been an embarrassing number of years now since I put out Labyrinth of Flame, and I haven't yet finished a new novel, or even the short stories-turned-into-novellas I still owe as a bonus for Kickstarter backers. I wince every time I think about it.

Well, no more. While I take time to consider the future direction of my engineering career, now is my chance to finish the writing projects that have been languishing on my hard drive for so long. Well, okay, first I mean to seize the opportunity to spend the last few weeks of my son's summer vacation focused wholly on having fun with him, without ever having to say, "Sorry, I can't play, I've got to finish this code." If 2018 has made me aware of anything in life, it's how swiftly time slips past, especially as kids grow older. My beloved kiddo isn't little anymore, but he's still young enough to love spending time with me. I don't know how much longer that will last, and my first goal of 2019 is to make the most of it.

Already working on priority #1: silly faces and smiles
But summer breaks, like childhood itself, don't last long. When my son returns to school in a few short weeks, it'll be time for my next goal of 2019: Finishing All The Drafts. Yes, allllllllllll the drafts! In addition to the Shattered Sigil short story collection, and my still-in-progress adult fantasy novel The Dreaming Sea, my son also asked me to write him a middle-grade SFF book that has "both magic and lasers." I've got my work cut out for me, I think!

I suspect that even without a day job to juggle, I'm not and never will be a fast writer. But I'm curious to see what I can do when I have the chance to really buckle down without as much interruption and division of focus. Fingers crossed for a far more interesting list of personal accomplishments by the end of 2019!

In the meantime, I'll leave you with some pics from our recent trip to Australia over the holidays, since one of my favorite ways to herald the new year is by enjoying some of nature's beauty. Best wishes for 2019, everyone. May we all end up in a better place by the year's end.

Sea cliffs and sunlight
Roiling waves

The coastal bush, echoing with the deafening lovesongs of a million cicadas 
Hungry lorikeets

This is my husband's preferred amount of crowd at a beach

I found the sea's stony heart...
Cormorant or sea-dragon? You decide
Sand and fun

A different kind of beauty: Sydney's Darling Harbour on a rainy night