So much for normal

It seems odd to look back at my previous post, uploaded on March 8th, and think how different things were. Content warning: if you don’t want to read about the pandemic, this is where you move on.

I want to put down some of the things that have happened, in a kind of timeline, before I forget all the details.

Thursday, March 12th, was our last ordinary day at work. I don’t usually write much about my day job, so just to fill you in, I’m an air taxi pilot in Northwestern Ontario. I fly these. Mostly I take people from Kenora to remote northern communities, spend some hours there while they do their jobs, and then fly home again. On Thursday, the weather was poor, with fog and freezing drizzle. We cancelled all our trips.

Friday, March 13th, was nice and sunny, and I flew some people to Cat Lake, Ontario. On the way up, I was speculating with my co-pilot about how vulnerable these northern communities would be. Cat Lake has had a housing shortage for some time, made worse by widespread mould in buildings there. Houses are crowded. Self-isolation would be impossible. If Covid-19 were to get into Cat Lake, it would spread like wildfire. Diabetes is common, so many people would get very ill. At lunchtime, we chatted to some construction contractors who were assembling prefab homes to ease the shortage. As we talked, the foreman got word that the Cat Lake Band Council was thinking of putting the whole community into quarantine. No unnecessary visitors from outside.

By the time we got home to Kenora, things had changed. Schools were closing for Spring Break, and it was announced that they would not reopen until two weeks after the break was over, in order to protect the school population from anyone who might get infected during vacation travels. The city of Kenora announced the closure of the Museum, Libraries and Recreation Centre.

Over the weekend, things got tighter. Large gatherings were banned. The hospital and seniors homes imposed restrictions on visitors. People were advised to stay home if possible. Toilet paper got scarce, but we didn’t need any.

On Monday, March 16th, I went to work. Although we had no revenue trips, we had hired a new co-pilot, and I was to train her. When I got there, the administrative staff were gathering up their things to work from home. I was permitted to commence the training, but we tried to stay a meter apart for groundschool. Our mechanics were working, and at lunchtime, we all sat apart.

There was talk of restaurants removing half their seating to separate their customers.

On Tuesday, March 17th, it was announced that all restaurants would close, except for take-out and delivery. Caroline’s restaurant was already closed for Spring Break, but this meant she would not be going back to work the following week. I should clarify. She worked for many years at the Clarion, but the fire there in January led to her getting laid off and filing for Employment Insurance. She was picking up some lunch shifts at an Italian restaurant, and that’s the place that was not going to re-open.

Flight training continued for the week. An hour or two in the plane, plus debriefing, paperwork and groundschool. Further restrictions took place. I’m not sure of the exact days, but the Vet Clinic said we couldn’t bring our cat in for his annual rabies shot. They were only open for sick animals. Hair salons closed. A fire downtown led to flooding of basements along nearly a block of Main Street. It was eerie to see all the businesses closed when the street re-opened. Then the province declared a state of emergency, and non-essential businesses were ordered closed.

Toilet paper still scarce, but not unobtainable. Limit two packs per customer. We bought one.

Many of my pilot friends, especially those just newly hired at airlines, were laid off as routes were cancelled. Vacationers were being brought home, but you couldn’t fly south anymore. I think this was the week that a million Canadians filed for EI.

On Monday, March 23rd, I went to the hangar. We got as far as pulling the plane out of the hangar to go training, before the Chief Pilot asked us not to. Training flights are expensive. Another plane went out to pull some staff out of a northern worksite, ending a contract. We did some groundschool.

On Tuesday, March 24th, I got a heads-up from the Chief Pilot that an email from headquarters was announcing layoffs. The company should survive because our sister division does essential work with forest fire management, but our base was doing zero flying, and would close. Two or three of our people were offered transfers. Our new copilot was offered work, but not a flying position. She took it.

On Wednesday, March 25th, the expected layoff was announced. We got two weeks notice. Many people at other companies weren’t so lucky.

In over thirty years of marriage, we’ve never both been unemployed at the same time. The worst was when I had to go on long-term disability for about a year. We cancelled a bunch of things like satellite TV and our landline. They’ve stayed cancelled, and it took years to recover. The lesson I learned was to start economizing early. Don’t wait until the money runs out. We’re fortunate that our mortgage is paid off.

I went to the bank, to scale back some payments. I don’t visit in person very often, but I had been in a few days earlier to replace a cracked debit card. What a transformation. The door was locked. They were letting in only one or two customers at a time. Before entering, you were asked if you had been out of the country. The tellers wore masks and gloves, and were separated from the customers by a sheet of polythene plastic. I have to say, it felt very foreboding. Pre-apocalyptic.

I also called another bank to see if we can defer payments on our car loan. I got through after half an hour, and the guy said I was wise to call in the morning. The previous afternoon, he had over a thousand people in his queue. He forwarded me to the right department for my situation. I spent another hour and a half on hold, with some soothing but rather tinkly muzak. I will never open a music box again. They put me on a call-back list. It’s going to take days to hear back. It’s a zero-percent loan, so I’m optimistic we can get some relief, but a deferral will almost certainly run out before I return to work.

Worked up the nerve to post on Ice Patrol (my other blog, much more popular) that there will be no flights this spring.

The bottled water company is operating, but you cannot go in. You can pre-pay and pick up, apparently. No cash. The rest of that strip mall looked closed. The doughnut store next door is closed, even the drive-through. One supermarket has plexiglass barriers, the other has them coming. No cash. Both have markings on the floor to indicate physical distancing. So does our drugstore, and they’re restricting the number of customers in the store to fifty. Our favourite pet store is open, but the owners are distressed. One was close to tears when we said we’d support them as best we can.

I think we’ll be okay. I did get paid for a magazine article, and another was accepted, so I can invoice for that. But I guess I better fill out my tax return.

I hope you’re all doing okay.

 

 

 

 

Belated Update

It’s really easy to procrastinate on blogging. It’s been most of a year since I posted about my new steps.

I apologize to all my out-of-town friends who check my blog to see if I’m still okay, still writing, etc. I’m fine, and I’m still writing, but there are some changes with that. More later.

One of the reasons I didn’t do another post after the steps-building one–they’re fine, by the way, thanks for asking–was that the next interesting thing I did was another carpentry project, and I didn’t want to turn this into a DIY blog. I mean, I already did that bookshelf thing, too.

Nonetheless, let’s get this out of the way. Long long ago, my wife gave me a Black and Decker Workmate. I’ve used it a lot, mainly because I don’t have an actual workshop with a real workbench. I tend to do carpentry jobs outdoors, on the deck. That means the Workmate gets exposed to the elements. Kenora has all the elements.

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So, umm, there’s been some wear and tear. You can click on the picture to see the full horror. A few years ago, I tried to buy replacement boards, but Black and Decker has moved on: the Workmate 200 is obsolete, and parts (especially the particle-board jaws which are popular because of see photo above) are no longer in stock.

No probs, I said, I’ll just make some. Out of some nice solid hardwood. Nope.

The boards need to be precisely one inch thick. One-inch thick hardwood planks are only nominally an inch; on an actual ruler, they check in at three-quarters of an inch, so the cute little plastic clamp thingies wouldn’t fit even if you could get the other hardware to go together. This led to a delay.

Fast forward to the front steps project. The Workmate spent a fortnight outdoors. I’m so sorry. How can I make it up to you? How about I make you some new jaws out of, oh, I don’t know, plastic cutting boards or something? Nope.

That teflonny plastic they make cutting boards out of is A) stupid expensive, at least in retail form, and B) really hard to glue together to make material an inch thick. But.

Whoa, wholesalers SELL high density polypropylene in slabs an inch thick. In different colours. And, among other sizes, two feet square, which is just right. I wanted to do black, because Darth Vader vibes, but chickened out in case I needed to make pencil markings on it. I settled on light grey.

I left the protective skin on while I cut two boards from the slab and drilled them for the mounting hardware. They were fun to drill: the wood-boring bits went through the plastic easily, but instead of handfuls of wood shavings, they produced continuous long spirals of thin plastic that spun around the drill in huge tangled threads. Mostly easy to clean up.

I used a router to cut the grooves in the jaw edges that hold pipe and so on.

When I was done, and put everything together, it looked like this.

Hardwood would have been prettier and hopefully more sustainable, but the plastic will be very weatherproof, and the old Workmate won’t end up in a disposal bin for a long time.

Speaking of disposal, our trusty old 2005 Honda CR-V had to be put down this summer. To be honest, we were thinking of replacing it anyway. It had 354,000 kilometers on the odometer(!), and there were some broken sub-frame components. Then we took a huge rock to the windshield, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Also, a third airbag recall may have been looming on the horizon, and there was a good chance Honda would have bought the vehicle rather than do a job that expensive.

In the end, it was moot. On Canada Day we had a collision at the Harbourfront roundabout. A pickup truck from BC failed to notice we had the right of way and went through the yield sign to T-bone us. The Silverado gouged up the whole right side of the CR-V. No one was hurt, there was barely a scratch on the Silverado, and the whole aftermath was amicable. But with damage to both passenger side doors and the front and rear fender panels of the Honda, repairs were worth far more than the vehicle.

While we were waiting for the insurance company to settle up, we went shopping. The new CR-V felt too big, so we ended up with a Hyundai Tucson.

The payout from Economical Insurance was better than I expected. Which is not to say it went far towards a new SUV, of course, but it paid for nice winter rims and tires with a bit left over.

Earlier, I said I was still writing. That’s true, but Bandits, the sequel to Avians, has not progressed much. A course last January left me feeling that some challenging changes were needed, and although I have mapped out some of that, I have not done much of the actual rewriting.

I want to revise “Fermi High.” It’s a short story about a new kid in school on the moon, and it won a little contest, but has never been otherwise published. I’d like to give it a more exciting ending, and it would probably be best to downplay the main character’s awareness of his female co-students bodies. While what I wrote was true to how I remember grade seven, and not at all explicit, it skews the story away from a middle-grade market.

I’m also still pondering changes to “Ill Wind.” This story about an AI has some good worldbuilding, but I’d like more character development and a subtler plot.

One bright spot: my short story “Far Gone,” which was published by NewMyths.com a while back has been selected for their second anthology: Twilight Worlds is now scheduled to hit bookstores in late spring. By the way, “Far Gone” is something of a prequel to Avians. It predates Raisa’s adventure by some two hundred years. NewMyths also published “The Emperor’s Dragon,” in which I speculate on how China could have had powered flight a thousand years before the Wright Brothers.

Side note: the original contract for “Far Gone” included the option of non-exclusive reprint rights (in case it was selected for an anthology) for the modest sum of $20. (US) They must have raised their rates in the meantime, because they upped their offer to $30. I’m not complaining. Reprint rights are along the lines of money for old rope. The story’s been sold once at it’s best price, anything more is a bonus.

I mention these numbers just to illustrate how Science Fiction–and probably most other types of fiction–don’t pay a ton of money.

Magazine articles are apparently in a different league. I won’t give details, but let’s say there’s an order of magnitude at play.

I had an article published in Kenora Stuff Magazine this winter, I have one coming out in the next issue of Lake of the Woods Area News, and quite likely another one with them a little later in the spring.

Three magazine articles will net me more money than all the short story payments, royalties, reprint rights and appearance honorariums for every work of SF I ever wrote combined.

For the first time, I turned a profit last year. Mainly because I didn’t go to any conventions. I love them, but they’re expensive.

To be fair, I’d sell more science fiction if I was more dogged about querying. After making about three enquiries, I usually shelve something. Many other authors, when they read that, will be surprised that I’m published at all.

But even in this regard, non-fiction is doing better for me. I didn’t have to approach those magazines, they contacted me because my other blog, the Lake of the Woods Ice Patrol, is well-known.

So forgive me, but I’m prioritizing non-fiction at the moment. If it helps, I’m sad that it pays so much better. I wish creative writing, and creative arts generally, paid better than simply explaining stuff. The idea that I might have the skills to be a decent writer of technical manuals fills me with dread. And don’t worry: the stories in my head won’t leave me alone. They will find their way out eventually.

I continue to do flash-fiction narrations for the Antipodean SF Radio Show and podcast. I’ve done about forty of them so far. Antipodean SF is home to two of my own flash fiction short stories: “Freezer Burn,” another prequel to Avians, and “Zeta Series,” light-hearted horror about lab rats.

One last thing. My friend Lindsay Kitson, a fellow writer of Sky-Fi, has advanced her aviation career to the next level. After a stint as a bush pilot, she is moving over to the medevac biz. I’m very excited for her.

Lindsay is also the prime mover of our critique group, so our meetings may be infrequent in the months to come. The whole flying for a living thing can make actually having a life difficult.

 

I Built New Steps

As my spring blogging frenzy ended*, I decided to tackle a home maintenance project that needed doing.

*Starting in March, I wrote 56 blog posts in 58 days for Lake of the Woods Ice Patrol.

I took several hundred aerial photographs and also received pictures from many other contributors. I edited and posted about 200 photos to document the lake’s spring thaw.

Ice Patrol hit new highs for numbers of visits, shattering the old mark of 10,000 visits in a week by hitting 14,000 and 16,000 in consecutive weeks.

This is more traffic than Timothy Gwyn Writes by several orders of magnitude, so thanks for visiting!

When we bought this house, it had crumbling concrete front steps. I jack-hammered them out long ago and replaced them with wooden steps. However, those  began to fail last year as rust weakened the little metal brackets that supported the treads.

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I made some temporary repairs last fall, but it was time for an overhaul. I figured a professional could do this in a weekend. I am not a pro, so I booked a week off work.

If I was going to do a major rebuild, I wanted to make one important design change. The old steps were steep, and one winter I took a nasty fall when they were icy. I wanted steps with big enough treads for secure footing. After much pondering, I decided the best way to achieve this was to raise the height of the landing. That way I could make the lower flight stretch out closer to the sidewalk, and the upper flight could keep the same run over a smaller rise.

The old landing sat directly on the concrete slab. Here you can see the frame of the new landing, raised about fifteen inches. This is now the fixed position from which the other stairs will rise to the front door and descend to the sidewalk. Because the sidewalk is steeply sloped, I don’t have to worry about getting the bottom step at the correct height, and there’s some wiggle room at the front door, too.

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I had to redo part of this because I forgot to double the joists on the two sides that would support the flights of steps, but it wasn’t hard to correct.

Next was decking the landing to make it easier to walk back and forth to where my stack of boards and saw were located.

To gap the boards, I used a fistful of shims, pushed in the same distance to get the spacing even. This works even if the old boards are a smidge out of square.

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Here’s the beefed up landing with the stringers for the lower flight attached. I used steel stringers because I could get the rise and run I wanted. Positioning and leveling the concrete paving slabs was simply a matter of being patient and picky. I have these qualities in abundance.

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The treads went on, and the lower flight became usable, allowing us to reach our back door from the street. I moved the mailbox back to its regular spot. But my week off was half over, and there was still lots to do.

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In the picture above, note the upper landing by the front door. It was worn, and I wanted to rebuild it before the upper flight went on, so that all the steps would be the same height.

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This shows the revised landing at the front door. It’s just quarter of an inch higher than the old one, but it’s also extended by several inches to mate up with the stringer for the upper flight of steps.

Decking the upper landing would be next. It’s wider than I thought, (either I forgot to measure it, or I didn’t remember it correctly) so I had to go back to the lumberyard for some longer 2×6’s.

I got the steps finished before my week off was over, but not the handrail, so I built the railing on the following weekend.

The old rail was awkward. Not only was it too low, the wide cap on top didn’t offer a secure grip. Inconveniently, the house siding was put on after the rail was attached, so I had to cut and patch some of the siding.

Here’s my design, with double board posts, a 2×4 cap, and a 2×6 railing to hold on to.

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I did this whole project with a hand-held Skil-saw. A miter saw or radial-arm saw would have made some of these angled cuts easier.

The picture above doesn’t really show the corner post. It’s built up, herringbone style, from different width boards.

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Because of the corner post’s doubled L-shaped cross section, and because the lower handrail is anchored to the massive wooden retaining wall near the sidewalk, the whole railing is extremely sturdy.

I’m happy to say the new steps really do feel easier and safer to climb, and I’m proud of how they look.

 

 

Taking a Course

I’ll be taking an online writing course this winter.  Odyssey is probably best known for their intense six-week summer workshops on writing science fiction, fantasy and horror, but they also offer online courses that don’t require you to take so much time off from your day job. In January of 2015, I took Jeanne Cavelos’ Showing vs. Telling and found it immensely useful in polishing the manuscript for Avians, so I’m coming back for more.

This winter, I’m enrolled in Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising Your Novel with Barbara Ashford. My goal for this course is to get a better handle on Bandits, the sequel to Avians. The first draft is complete, with a coherent plot, but I’d like the characters to feel truer and more consistent, and for the story’s developments to feel more integrated.

It happens to work out well that the course begins while I’m on holidays, so that will help with the required reading. To my delight, The Hunger Games is the principal course reference. I loved this book when it came out—partly for the wrong reasons*—and I’m looking forward to picking it up and reading it again, with a more studious eye.

*at the time that Hunger Games came out, I was working on Avians, and I was troubled by the need to kill off a young character, but I felt that it was essential to show how much danger the heroines were in, and that the flying they did was so important that the deaths of teenagers were an acceptable price. Then I read Games, in which children are killed off by the dozen for entertainment, and I was, like, “Oh well, then, permission granted.”

Let me tell you a little about what these courses are like, in case you’re interested. There are four online sessions, conducted using your computer and webcam, spaced out at two-week intervals. In between lessons, there is homework. A lot of homework. The course guide, I think, says to allow a minimum of five hours a week to do the assignments. A swift writer might manage it in that, but it took me more like three times as long. Naturally, there are writing assignments, but there is also the requirement to thoroughly and professionally critique the work of your classmates. You upload your assignments and critiques as you complete them, and you read your classmate’s critiques of your own work between classes, too. And that’s on top of the reading list.

Since many of the students are of the mature/returning to education variety, there is an atmosphere of “I’m here to work hard so I get my money’s worth.” Incidentally, students enroll from all over the world, and some rearrange their schedules to attend class in the middle of the day, or night. I’m lucky to be only one time-zone away from the school.

Part of the course takes place while I will be on vacation in Mexico. That’s okay, it’s only for a week, and it falls between two of the online sessions. I write well there; it gives me something to do in the hours before Caroline gets up. (I’m an insanely early riser, usually getting up before 4:00am.) Last year I wrote in a grand resort’s all-night coffee bar, where I was always the only customer for the first hour or two. Actually, sometimes even the staff weren’t around, so I taught myself how to use their fancy coffee brewer. I read and critiqued a novel manuscript for a friend there, and I have fond memories of laughing out loud at the funny parts.

This year, we’ll be at Villas San Sebastian, a tiny property in Zihuatanejo with just a handful of suites, and I plan to do my writing homework on a little patio overlooking the pool.

021 Our palapa

These pictures are from a visit in 2004. Note that my “office” will not look like this while I’m working, mainly because it will be dark at the time I’m writing. I’m pretty sure no-one will be tanning at five in the morning.

014 Caroline & Linda at our pool

Remind me to pack some ground coffee, in a sealed pack to go through customs, or I’ll have to go grocery shopping on day one.

The hardest part of the course for me will be later in January, when I’m back at work and not only doing my regular trips, but also fitting my annual flight training into my schedule. That involves at least twelve hours of ground school, plus two training flights that eat up most of a day each. Not looking forward to that workload so much, but I may be able to get some of the ground school or course homework done on the days when I’m sitting up north.

I’m excited to take a new approach to revising Bandits, and I’m really looking forward to meeting my classmates.

AVIANS is now an audiobook

The audiobook of Avians is finally here, and Grace Hood’s narration is excellent. I know because I proofed it on the way to Calgary this summer, in my spare hours there, and on the flight home. I’m sure the WestJet flight attendants thought I was the weirdest passenger, because whenever they’d offer me a drink or a snack, I’d have to pause my phone, wipe the tears from my eyes and take my earbuds out before answering.

Anyway, I figure the audiobook format is great for Avians, because the scenes are fairly short, so you can listen to one or two, or you can listen for an hour or more.

AVIANS First Edition Cover

Actually there’s nearly eleven hours of entertainment here, and apparently you can have it for free through Audible’s 30-day trial offer.

Links: Audible   Amazon   iTunes will be coming soon, and I’ll update when I have a link.

Oh, and if there’s anyone out there who reviews audiobooks, I’d love to hear from them, especially if they specialize in SF.

Fall Photographs

The seasons are changing, and here are a pair of recent photographs that show it. You can click on the pictures to see them in higher resolution.

 

Icy Pond

The little pond by the Sandy Nook trail on Tunnel Island froze over the other day. It’s in a shadowy hollow that makes it hard to get the morning light to shine on the ice, so my first batch of pictures were a bust; the ice was barely noticeable. An hour later, I passed by again, and by including the reflection on the small unfrozen portion of the pond I got the ice to stand out better.

Closer to home, Caroline spotted this magnificent fungus on one of the trees by our driveway. It’s bigger than both my fists.

Tree Fungus

I’m amazed at the macro capability of my smartphone’s camera, (a Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo, if you want to know).  I shoot mostly landscapes, where everything is in sharp focus, so it’s nice to see the limited depth of field come into play for a change.

If you know anything about tree fungus types, I’d love you to comment on this one.

A note on my photographic preferences: I prefer to show the world without people or their constructs. I try to avoid power lines, contrails and so on unless I’m specifically taking pictures of a bridge or something. The pond in the first picture is plagued by utility poles, so I did a lot of walking around to get a vantage I liked. Scrutinizing the fungus picture reveals the rooftop of one of my neighbour’s houses, but mercifully, it is so blurred as to be ambiguous.

As to the seasonal theme, I can’t resist bringing up my position that Kenora (and much of Canada, for that matter) doesn’t really have four seasons. We have two: the one when the temperature is above freezing, and the one when it isn’t. Sure, there are a couple of shoulder periods where the daily highs and lows straddle the line, but when it comes right down to it, the mean temperature is either one or the other.

It snowed a little last night—although nothing like as much as our first snowfall on October 10th—so I took down the Halloween decorations from our front steps, and put up the winter ones. I’m going for a walk soon, and I’ll be looking for beauty, but squinting grumpily.

Bigger Better Bookshelf

After I came home from When Words Collide, I had the remainder of the week off to unpack, do laundry, restock the fridge, and all that stuff that’s a giant hassle if you have to fit it in around a full schedule of work.

I also had a carpentry project in mind. My main bookshelf is an odd thing. It was built out of 2×8 planks, and it was originally a sort of room divider in the kitchen. Just over three feet wide, it reached from floor to ceiling, with a mixed layout of shelves. When we remodeled the kitchen, I moved it to the study and used it for books and stuff. As you can see, stuff fit better than books. Although it had a few spaces tall enough for an atlas, as a bookshelf, it wasn’t very deep.

I didn’t take a proper before picture. This was snapped after I began. The part that is stained is the original unit. Note the brackets fastening it to the wall.

The new part is framed in pale wood, fresh from the lumberyard. The second lumberyard. The first one didn’t have three ten-foot 2×8 planks that were straight with smooth edges. So that took all day. On the bright side, I paid less than $50 for the lumber, and about $20 for a pack of deck screws. Any other materials I used were leftovers from previous projects.

Large books hang over the edge of the original design, and many of the shelves are too low to hold books standing upright. So the next step was to take out all the small shelves. These were robustly attached with 4″ twist nails. A claw hammer wouldn’t do it. I had to loosen the nails by pounding with a massive steel mallet (and a scrap board), then lever them out with a pry bar.

So here’s the empty frame. You can see the row of holes in the bottom shelf for the dowels that will connect the new part to the old.

…and here it is with the new section stained and fastened on. I used a gel stain because I am bad with drips if I use a liquid. I do not own a table saw, so cutting the shelves to a consistent length took much measuring and clamping down of guides for the skill saw.

I do, however, own a dowel jig, a legacy from my father. The double-depth shelves are doweled together, including the bottom shelf, where the new wood meets the old. This helped with alignment. None of the planks are perfectly straight, but you can’t tell by eye.

Here it is with the four original full-width shelves reinstalled in the upper portion. Those are spaced at 10″ to hold hardcovers and trade paperbacks. On the new part, the bottom shelf is 16″ high for oversize books, then the next two up are 12″ for reference books and one of my surround-sound speakers. The shelves are now secured with 4″ deck screws, on account of I suck at driving nails.

This is the completed project, with books installed, plus a carbon monoxide detector. The revised layout gobbled up all the books from the old version, plus every book from a second bookshelf, and still has space for more.

It’s shimmed in one corner because the floor is not level. The whole thing is also secured to a wall stud with a sturdy bracket.

This bookshelf is much more rigid than any particle-board shelving unit. Those planks are strong enough for me to stand on; they will never sag. If you have a ton of books, shelves made from cheap but sturdy lumber might be the way to go.