Weekly status update [0041/????]

This one’s a day late, but there’s a reason for that.

  • I did it!  My sixteenth(ish) NaNovel, Ex Urbes, is done, as of about three minutes ago.  I wrote 50,214 words according to wc, and a few more than that according to the official NaNo word counter.  (They actually used to use wc as well, so it kinda bugs me that they don’t any more.)  It was an interesting experience, writing while retired, quite different from the way I’ve written NaNo before; I didn’t feel a lot of time pressure, so found it hard to do much more than 2-3K a day.  Yesterday put me at 38K, though, and I decided that I was gonna finish this weekend come Hell or high water… and when I woke up this morning I went, no, I’m finishing today, dammit.  And so I did. 12,369 words in one day is less than half of my peak, but it’s a pretty sizable chunk, roughly fifty pages or so of a typical book.  Not bad.
  • What is bad?  The novel.  It’s terribad.  But I’m glad it’s done.
  • Ways I’ve wasted time this week while not doing NaNo:
    • I continued to watch an episode of both Last Man on Earth and Brooklyn Nine-Nine each day.  I’m almost at the end of the first series and the end of the last released season of the second, so that’ll be over soon.  I… should probably watch more Sabrina, but as an hour-long show it felt like too much of an indulgence this week.
    • I also did a bunch of puzzles.  I got another order in from Japan on Monday, and it included the latest Nikoli “Penpa” magazine, a superb variety mag they put out once a year that’s always my first recommendation to anyone who says they want to branch out and try things that aren’t sudoku.  I’m doing the book in round-robin format, doing the first puzzle of each type, then circling back to the start of the book to do the second, and so forth.  It’s been a nice variety.  (I skip Numberlink, though.  I hate those puzzles.)
    • Lastly, I’ve been watching Twitch sporadically.  I no longer really watch Landail, due to some creepy sexist stuff that goes on there that I decided I couldn’t really be part of any more, but catsonurhead is still awesome, and I’ve started watching some native Spanish-speaking streamers who also manage English better than I ever will their language.  The number of watchers on their channels are low, so it’s got a nice community vibe.
  • We also had an extended game night this week at Fercott Fermentables.  We played Antike II, and I won, although for most of the game I was strictly mid-pack.  That game is absolutely fantastic, and it sang with five players.  I look forward to bringing it home for the holidays and playing it (along with Spirit Island) with my next-door neighbors.

I still have a stack of books to read, many of which are close to being unrenewable, so I’m going to get cracking on those tomorrow.  But for the rest of tonight I plan on vegging out and watching Twitch.  I think I’ve earned it.

Rolling down that hill

As of last night, I’ve written a bit over 25,000 words on Ex Urbes.  That’s the halfway point in terms of NaNoWriMo, although I don’t feel that I’ve reached the halfway point of the story itself at all.  Given how… not very good the story is, though, I’ll probably be pulling it to a stop at the 50K mark, wherever that ends up landing story-wise.

I’m not much of a plotter or outliner, and so my stories tend to be written very much “in the moment”: this happens, then this, and oh, this other thing as a consequence.  This style of writing has its upsides and downsides.   First, a few of the negatives.

  • Complicated plots are hard.  If there are a bunch of stories interacting, with characters moving between them, you’re going to want to have at least an outline to work with, tracking where everyone and everything is so that you don’t have massive continuity issues.
  • It’s easy to get lost in the weeds.  My stories have a bad habit of turning hard into tangents, as some idea takes me away from the actual thing that is happening for a while, until I fumble around and go, “oh yeah, I’m supposed to be writing about that.”
  • Length ends up being pretty random.  Sometimes what feels like an epic story gets told rapidly, because I haven’t thought up enough detail to make it the length it should be; other times, what should be a short bit of detail ends up a rambling diatribe.  (See above.)

There are quite a few positives, though:

  • My stories surprise even me.  For example, I thought this particular one was going in a very specific direction; I even “stacked the deck,” so to speak, in an attempt to make that happen.  But as of this most recent chapter, the main characters involved basically told me: No, that’s not what’s going to happen here.  Instead, this.  Which is fascinating.  There are several stories I’ve written where I put something in early, for whatever reason, and then it ended up vital to a later part of the tale through no conscious planning on my part.  That feels like magic when it happens.
  • The plot tends to feel organic.  Oftentimes the parts I have planned beforehand have to be tinkered with because, once you get to them, it turns out that they don’t fit; characters have revealed their motivations to be different, the world is turning out slightly differently than that particular beat needs, and so on.  Because I do as little of that as possible, though, the path through the story ends up feeling very natural on rereading.  Which makes a lot of sense, because it matches what I was doing in the moment when I was writing: following the most natural path for the story itself.
  • It is very well suited for NaNoWriMo.  I expect that I can write a well-plotted lengthy story, but that sort of thing takes care and effort that I don’t really have to give during a month-long sprint to the finish.  Making it up as I go along?  That I can do.  I’ve only ever managed to write one heavily plotted NaNovel in the 14 years I’ve been doing this, and it was terrible.  The plot also ran out less than a third of the way through, so I ended up having to wing a huge chunk of the story anyway.

Every writer is different and every story is different.  I mostly write for myself during NaNo; I know that the quality of my output is hampered by the constraints, and so don’t concern myself overmuch with how consumable the end product is.  I think that’s a smart decision, but I can also see how it’s holding me back.  I really need to work on a story without those constraints, one that holds together from the start, and NaNo just isn’t the place for me to do that.

Maybe next year.

Weekly status update [0040/????]

Writing, huh?  This is writing, right?  This is gonna be a short one, given what’s going on.

  • It’s NaNoWriMo.  As of just a few moments ago, I cracked 16,000 words on Ex Urbes, the cyberpunk thriller I’m writing instead of Sharp because I had a lot of trouble with that story, as I wrote about.  Ex Urbes isn’t any good, but it is easy to write, so that’s been working pretty well.  I haven’t yet had one of my typical “amazing days” that help me knock out the novel sooner rather than later, but I’m ahead of the standard month-long pace, and am likely to continue pulling ahead even if I never have a burst-writing day.
  • One of the problems with NaNo, though, is that I feel like I can’t do the other things that I like to do, because I should be writing.  I still have a big stack of books that I need to read, but I can’t read, because I should be writing.  I’ve barely touched my puzzle books, because I should be writing.  What that actually means is that I end up watching Twitch and browsing too much stupid stuff on the Internet, because those are lower commitment, but wasting more time than I would if I allowed myself the other things.  Ugh.
  • have been watching a bit of TV, though.  I finished up Orange is the New Black, and intentionally haven’t added another drama to the list.  I also haven’t watched Sabrina past the fourth episode.  Mostly I watch a single episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man on Earth each day, plus The Good Place on Hulu the day after it airs on TV.  That feels like little enough to be messing with NaNo.

I need to finish up this novel so I can put books back on the agenda.  I’m going to aim to do that over the next week, but we’ll see if that happens.

Dull the blade, busy the city

I’m afraid I won’t be sharing Sharp,

I started it on the first, as I almost always do.  The writing was in a heightened literary style, which made it extremely slow going, and after a few paragraphs I realized that it just wasn’t going to work.  I re-read them, and they came off as juvenile, a kid trying on their parents’ clothes rather than something worth reading.

(Side note: I should have known better.  My attempted Banksian novel several years back had the same problem, although I found that tone a lot easier to imitate than the one I was attempting with Sharp.

On the second I rewrote the few paragraphs I had written in my own style, and it seemed a whole lot smoother.  I finished off the first chapter, happy to have found a bit of a groove.

That died on the third.  I’m not sure what it is; maybe Sharp

On the fourth, I decided to start all over with a different story, one that had been tickling the back of my brain for a while.  And I wrote over 3000 words with almost no effort, and another two thousand and change yesterday.

Ex Urbes is not good; it’s full of infodumps and sidelines that go nowhere.  But it’s easy to write.  I won’t be sharing it either–because it’s terrible–but I’m also no longer worried about NaNo.  Disappointed, sure, because I still really like the core idea behind Sharp and was looking forward to sharing it… but c’est la vie.

Anyhow, sorry to those of you who were wanting to read along.  Next year, perhaps.

Weekly status update [0039/????]

Oh, hey, it’s November.  Gulp.

  • I kept reading aggressively through November 1st.  I wrote about The Orphan Master’s Son here; it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.  I also knocked out another Christopher Priest novel, The Separation.  I still like him, but I feel that he really basically writes the same novel over and over again.  Each one has begun to feel a little too same-y compared to the rest.  Timothy Zahn’s Spinneret was the last book I read; I finished it on the morning of the 1st.  Some of you may recognize his name from the Thrawn trilogy of Star Wars novels that really kicked off the Extended Universe back in the ’90s.  Spinneret was fine, if slight.  I’m taking at least a brief hiatus, even though I still have way too many books sitting on my sofa to read.
  • November started, which means NaNoWriMo started as well.  I began writing Sharp on the evening of November 1st, and after getting ~300 words into it I stopped.  The literary style I was affecting simply wasn’t working.  I should have known better, honestly; the last time I copped a style that wasn’t my own, it was for a Banksian pastiche, and I had similar troubles putting words to page at any reasonable rate.  This time, though, the words weren’t just slow.  They were awful, as I discovered when I reread it.  So: I tossed it and started over today.  I’m a little over 1500 words in now, and those words came at roughly 6-10x the rate of the original 300, so that’s good at least.  I’m not sure yet if the story is any good, though.  I’ll keep you posted.
  • The first of November was also the first day of open enrollment for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (AKA “Obamacare”).  I had to finish on the phone, because COBRA is complicated, but the end result is that I should have insurance next year… and it should be free.  That was a surprising discovery, but it’s because I make a lot less money now that I’m retired.  On the one hand, it feels kinda weird and wrong that there isn’t means testing to go along with raw income.  On the other hand, government stuff like this never, ever breaks in my favor… so I’ll take it.  I’ve still got to contact my COBRA coverage company and get it to terminate on December 31st, but that can wait until I get at least the beginning paperwork for the ACA stuff.
  • Let’s just say the diet didn’t hold and leave it at that.  I’ll try harder this coming week.
  • I’ve been trying to actually stay on top of TV for once.  Last Man on Earth and Brooklyn Nine-Nine continue; I’m in the last season of LMoE.  I just finished season 2 of Luke Cage tonight (it was fine but not great) and am close to finishing season 6 of Orange is the New Black.  I started watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Hallowe’en, for obvious reasons, and that’ll take the place of Luke Cage for the time being.  It’s cheesy but fun.
  • Boy, this was a down month for the stock market.  And there’s likely more on the way.  Those numbers used to be a lot more hypothetical in terms of affecting my continued financial health than they are now.  Gulp.

I’m gonna keep cracking on this novel for the next few days, at least, to see if it’s got legs.  If so, I’ll try to assess whether the writing is worth sharing or not.  If it is, well, I’ll be linking it here, which should provide something a bit different to read, horse story notwithstanding. 

Here’s a book thing: “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson

I had never heard of Adam Johnson before.  The local library had a display of short story collections, as part of their year-long reading challenge that I somehow missed signing up for; I had already grabbed Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman, but something about the cover of Fortune Smiles appealed to me.  It seemed pop-art-y, for some reason evoking my memory of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay even though they don’t look very similar at all.

I liked Fortune Smiles

From that, I learned that the book that put Adam Johnson on the map was all about North Korea.  I put it on hold and added it to the enormous pile of library books that are currently sitting on my couch; I’m tearing through them as quickly as possible in anticipation of NaNo, knocking out all the novels before I dive into the dauntingly-huge short story collections that remain.

Come Sunday evening, it was The Orphan Master’s Son

The book is dark, depressing, haunting.  It paints a vision of the DPRK that is unrelentingly awful.  My understanding is that it was painstakingly researched, that life there is really just as terrible as the book shows, and even if it’s only a tenth as bad as the book makes it out to be, the North Korean regime’s iron grip on its populace is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.  This is something I knew in the abstract, of course, but reading about it–even in fictional form–makes it much more visceral, much more real despite the irreality of a story.

And, more than anything else, this is a book about stories.  The DPRK is a place where everyone lies as a matter of course, from morning until night when the power goes out, because to tell the truth is to implicate yourself in doings which officially never happen, even though they absolutely do.  The ability to lie on demand, to concoct a tale that cloaks events in such a way as to satisfy your interrogators, is just as critical a survival tactic as knowing which flowers are edible, or how to set a snare to capture a swallow and eat it.  (Both of these acts are illegal, of course.  Everything is, other than worship of the Dear Leader.)

The Orphan Master’s Son questions the meaning of identity, both personal and national, when survival requires that identity to be made of lies.  It does not look away from horror, from the everyday evils of a brutal despotic regime that starves an entire nation to death while convincing them that their demise is righteous and just.  It had passages that actually forced me to look away from the book for a bit, utterly defeated by the hopelessness and depravity.  And it also finds hope buried deep within that unblinking despair.

Like the stories that the characters have to tell in order to survive another day, the story of The Orphan Master’s Son has holes, problems, issues.  And like those stories, it is not about being true, it is about being convincing.

I am not sure I have ever been so convinced.

Weekly status update [0038/????]

As promised (and expected), a comparatively peaceful week.

  • I read eight or nine more novels in the pre-NaNo rush.  Five of them were The Long Earth and its sequels, a collaborative effort by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.  They were… fine, I guess?  The setting was neat, but none of the books really had a plot, per se, other than the fourth.  Mostly they were picaresques.  Easy reads, though.  Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net was much more interesting, a pretty obvious reaction to the typical cyberpunk stories that the man had popularized with his Mirrorshades compilation.  I’m currently in the third (of four) “Okie” novels by James Blish.  The compilation sorts them chronologically rather than in publication order, and it shows; this third one was the first written, and feels a lot rougher than the others, in the weird sort of way ’50s sf often does: absolutely crazy stuff happens (like sending a planet out of the galactic plane as if it’s no big deal), and the book treats it as a fait accompli.  It’s weird, but a nice change from the headier modern stuff I’ve been reading otherwise, so I’ll finish it up in the next day or two.
  • That said, I’m still going to have a ton of books left on my sofa at the start of NaNoWriMo, only four days away now, which means I’ll have to keep reading throughout the month.  It’ll be less of a problem than usual, I guess, since I don’t also have a job sucking up the oxygen (and time), but it’s going to be something of a first for me.
  • Speaking of NaNo, I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about my upcoming novel, including thoughts about how it’s likely to end.  I think I have a pretty workable (if very rough) outline of the main body in my head.  That sort of thing often changes with the writing, and I’ll definitely let it if it needs to, but it’s a good start.
  • As part of the prep work for said upcoming novel, I had to look into the modern state-of-the-art for Google Web Fonts.  (You’ll see why… hopefully.)  I think I’ll be able to do what I need to do with a minimum of pain, although I’ll have to write a custom text-to-HTML translator for this novel so it’ll look right.  I’m… actually kinda looking forward to that?
  • Still watching a bit of TV.  I manage an episode of Last Man on Earth and Brooklyn Nine-Nine most days, and Luke Cage and Orange is the New Black every other day or so.  I’m looking forward to finishing both of the latter shows, mainly because I want to bump The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina up on the queue for timeliness/thematic reasons.
  • Other than my usual free-to-play gaming, I’ve put quite a bit of time into video pinball in the last week or two.  Pinball FX3 has the Williams licenses now, and those tables have been fun to mess around on, but I’ve mainly been grinding Sorcerer’s Lair, which I still think is the best table Zen’s ever made.  I find it really strange that it’s their free-to-play table, particularly given how many hundreds of dollars I’ve sunk into all the other ones… but that’s fine.  It was interesting watching a Twitch streamer play the table for the first time, having the same dawning sense that I did many years ago of “oh, there is actually something to this whole pinball thing!”  Yes.  Yes, there is.
  • The diet’s been pretty much derailed for the last couple of weeks, at first due to the visit and then later because it’s always easier to say “tomorrow” than it is to actually buckle down and do the right thing.  I’m typing this up as a bit of public self-shaming to, you know, buckle down and do the right thing.
  • On a meta note, the new Gutenberg editor for WordPress is horribly buggy; it tends to eat anything after italics in a bullet point unless you do some stupid shenanigans, as one example that I had to deal with several times while writing this update.  I may go back to the classic editor for a while until they fix more of the bugs.

In the middle of next week begins the month-long adventure of NaNoWriMo, which will be… interesting, for sure.  I look forward to it with no small amount of trepidation every year (and wrote about it earlier this week), but I do look forward to it.  I don’t know how it’ll mess with my posting schedule here, though.  We’ll find out together, I guess!

(Also, Gutenberg ate the last couple of sentences of this post three times because of that stupid italics bug.  Ugh.  Back to the classic editor I go.)

Certainly not showing

NaNoWriMo approaches, and I grow more and more apprehensive with each passing day.

I’ve been doing NaNo ever since 2004; see this earlier post for a breakdown of what I’ve written over the years, but basically it amounts to a novel a year, two each in 2005 and 2006, and failure in 2012 when I was getting ready to move cross-country for a job.

As time goes on, the actual act of writing has gotten easier, which isn’t too surprising.  What hasn’t gotten easier is writing something good, something worth reading.  NaNo operates under a tight time constraint, so my default response when the first story I try to write in November starts to stumble is to write something else, something easier, something that I know I can bang out over a week or two.

It’s, inevitably, garbage.

In the past I’ve had the excuse of, well, life. I had a full-time job.  November is never exactly a calm month with the holidays approaching.  There were other distractions, other events, that made taking the easy way feel less like a cop-out and more like a reasonable coping mechanism.  It’s either garbage or I don’t write anything

This year is different, though.  The excuses are much more evidently just that: excuses.  I’m not going anywhere next month.  I don’t have a job to distract me.

If I fail, I have no one to blame but myself.

It doesn’t help that I’m actually excited about this particular story idea, in a way that I haven’t been since I wrote Rewind

The readership of this blog is tiny but non-zero, and I feel some level of obligation to that readership, an obligation to provide something interesting to read.  NaNo seems like it could be an excellent source of that material… but it could also be an excellent way to watch my attempt crash and burn.

It’s not that I’m worried that I can’t pump out 50,000 words over the course of the month.  It’s that, this year unlike all the previous ones, I feel it’s important that those 50,000+ words actually be somewhere in the vicinity of good.

So: I worry.

I still plan on sharing the story here, but I’m going to wait until I’m far enough “in” that it doesn’t seem like I’ll be tossing it aside.  That seems like a reasonable compromise, to me, and it’s still no promise that it’ll actually get finished.  Or be any good.  We’ll have to see.

Wish me luck.

Weekly status update [0037/????]

After several quiet weeks, this one ended up pretty much jam-packed from start to finish.

  • But first: the deluge of words doth continue.  I read my first Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) and enjoyed it enough to make an exception to my “no more holds before December” rule so that I could get… well… The Prestige.  John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, about the Theranos debacle, was a sobering (and fascinating) read.
  • Most of the week, however, was spent with my cousin from Louisiana, who was visiting the area.  She stayed in Asheville through Tuesday, then headed my way Wednesday until Friday.  It was a pleasure hanging out with her, driving around to the various sights, eating a bunch of food I probably shouldn’t have had but, y’know, guest!
  • Monday I rode a horse for the first time in my life.  I wrote about it here.  We also visited downtown Asheville–yes, I made the obligatory stop at The Chocolate Fetish, although I forced myself to only get one thing there, a single dark chocolate and sea salt caramel–and I spent time going over a bunch of puzzle types with her, as she’s new to the whole paper-puzzles thing.
  • Tuesday was game night back home, but I took the opportunity to write up the horseback outing.  I decided to do something different stylistically, treating it as a story rather than the looser form of a blog entry, and inasmuch as that sort of thing “works,” well, it seemed to work; a couple of people were surprised to learn that “Along for the ride” wasn’t just a short story of my own devising.  Which, I mean, I guess it is?  Just not a fictional one.
  • Said game night was spent playing Spirit Island, which was fun and frustrating and fascinating in roughly equal measure.  We lost, although I feel we hung on considerably longer than I felt we would after a terrible start.  I’ve already decided that it’ll be making the trip back home for the holidays; I want to get more plays in.
  • Wednesday was mostly spent in and around town, starting with lunch in Hickory (Vietnamese, yum) and including a stop at a local antiques store so that my cousin could pick up some knick-knacks to bring home.  We went up into the mountains for a bit, hiking a scrap of the Green Knob Trail before the sun got too low.
  • An early start Thursday had us back up in the mountains.  We hiked Linville Falls and Mount Mitchell, which was… perhaps a bit more than we should have done, given that neither of us are at peak levels of stamina.  But it felt good exerting myself in a way that I basically hadn’t done since I retired, and my cousin was duly proud of her own efforts.  The day closed out all the way down in Charlotte at The Glow, which was fine if a bit underwhelming.  The carvings were amazing, but they had to all be at a distance behind ropes to keep kids from messing with them, which made the experience feel rather detached.  Still, it was the sort of thing I never would have done on my own, and I’m glad my cousin dragged me to it.

I slept like a rock most evenings this week thanks to high levels of physical exertion, and although I had a great time, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to next week being a quiet one.

Along for the ride

Sun shone through the shifting leaves and dappled the stony path ahead.  That same breeze pushed against us, inconstant, cooling rather than cool.  I had dressed for chillier weather than this, had already shed my undershirt back at the car, and the wind through the trees did a perfect job of keeping me balanced, neither hot nor cold.

Babe was recalcitrant.  Ten feet ahead of us, she balked again, stopping in the middle of the path.  I pulled gently on the reins, said “whoa” in a low voice.  Unsure as to whether Echo responded more to the sound or the motion.  My cousin kicked once, twice, on the sides of the large brown horse, which was enough to get her moving again.  I had already lowered my hands, and after a moment Echo stepped forward, continuing our slow progress through the forest.

A thing I had noticed: Echo wasn’t fond of mud.  The lead horse–I never caught its name–tromped through the soft patches that regularly crossed the stony path with no particular regard.  Babe seemed to follow it precisely; I never quite figured out whether that was the horse’s doing or my cousin’s, although I suspect the former.  Echo, though.  Echo wasn’t fond of mud.  She nosed around, looking for a different way through the patch.  Horses don’t mince, really, but she clearly preferred ways around the muck that involved getting less dirty than her compatriots.

I approved.  I’m not big on mud either.

A thing I had noticed: Echo wanted to be in the lead.  Or, at least, ahead of Babe.  Whenever the other horse stopped in the middle of the path–which was depressingly often, usually halfway up a mild slope–I had to pull back on the reins to keep Echo from passing the large brown horse (and my cousin) up.  We had been told to keep a horse-length between us, and to stay in the same order, and I was doing my best to follow those instructions.  My ride would come to a halt after a moment, waiting patiently while my cousin kicked Babe’s sides once, twice, to get her moving again.  This happened at least ten times over the course of the ride.

A thing I had noticed: Echo never needed to be kicked.  Not once.  Whenever Babe decided to actually move along, Echo would start again as well after a moment.  After the first ten minutes or so, her desire to be in the lead had mostly quieted down, and she kept herself at a distance from my cousin’s horse without me having to guide her.  The same happened whenever we made our way across one of the several streams on the trail.  I would bring Echo to a halt, and she would wait patiently until Babe crossed, and then would make her own way across without my guidance, without me goading her to move.

A thing I had noticed: I was, in effect, completely superfluous.  The horses knew the route, knew the process, knew how to behave.  The stony sloped path would occasionally shift under their feet, but it was clear that it bothered me and my cousin way more than it troubled the horses.  This was well-trod ground for them, literally and figuratively, and I was there merely as an overweight accoutrement, tolerated by the tan mare rather more than being needed by her.  Every time I tugged her head left or right to return to the center of the path–which was not often–it was because of a low-hanging branch, or a tree on the side of the trail that I might rub up against.  None of these affected Echo, only the gangly lump sitting inexpertly on top of her.

She did want to stop and eat grass, though, and I had been explicitly told to not allow that, to pull up on the reins and keep her moving.  That happened twice in the hour-long ride.  That was the sum total of my contributions to the process: stopping a horse from feeding itself.  Twice.

We saw a fawn, nibbling on the underbrush.  It eyed us warily but did not flee.  The horses, after all, were a regular occurrence there.  This surprised my cousin.  It did not surprise me.

I could barely hear the guide when she spoke–Cara?  It was only yesterday, and already the name slips from memory–thanks to distance and my troublesome hearing.  I didn’t mind.  What could she be saying that was very important?  Well, one thing: I wasn’t letting the reins down far enough for Echo to drink easily from the water when we crossed.  I finally figured that out, leaning far down the horse’s neck as she lapped at the burbling stream.  But the ride was the sort of thing better passed in silence, in the non-silence of any living forest, birds and animals chittering in the distance, the rustle of the canopy overhead as the wind swirled around us, the steady clop-clop-clop of the horses on the stones a contrapunto to the white noise of nature.

I had never ridden a horse before.  Cara (if that was her name) complimented me on how well I did, and I silently replied: how could I not do well?  I barely did anything.  Echo knew the way.  I was just along for the ride.