Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Short Story - Final Exam

Inside the envelope was a name and an address – Larry Burrows, 407 Selwynn Avenue.  Dave carefully reviewed the information one more time before heading up the steps.  This Larry was 55 and balding, but unfortunately not fat enough to make things easy.  He shook his head at that; the company couldn’t give him a simple case for his final exam.
            The steps groaned a little as he went up.  The front door was solid oak and looked like it had a sturdy lock on it.  That mattered little today.
            Dave ran through the mental exercises he needed in order to get in, remembering the techniques the HR Director shared with them, and walked through the door.  The oak looked incredible as he passed through, and Dave phased himself back into reality once he got to the other side.
            Looking around, he took stock of the house.  Hard wood floors and some antique furniture attested to Larry being well off.  Someone’s laughter came from the back of the house and Dave followed the sound.
            He rounded the corner to see a tranquil scene straight out of a Rockwell painting – large turkey on the table, family gathered around, and kids playing on the floor with the dog.  Larry himself sat at the head of the table, a large carving knife in his right hand.  He looked right at Dave and paused.
            “Who the hell are you?” Larry asked.
            Nuts, Dave thought.  He forgotten to cloak himself and knew that the boys upstairs would dock him points for that one.  He quickly blended into the background and went silent as the rest of the family now followed Larry’s gaze to the empty space.
            “Who are you looking at, dear?” asked a plump woman who appeared to be Larry’s wife.
            Larry’s brow furrowed and he cocked his head.  “I could’ve sworn I just saw someone standing in the doorway.  Brown hair and a beard.  Looked like he had a black trench coat on.”
            “There’s no one there, dad,” said a stocky young man peering over the turkey.  “I think you’re a little tired from all of this.  Let’s just eat.”
            Larry shook his head and sawed into the bird.  Dave could see the juices run down the side of the turkey and onto the platter.  His mouth watered and he wondered what it would feel like to never eat again.  Sadly, that was one of the things that came with the job.
            Too bad there’s work to be done, he thought.  Closing his eyes to slits, he focused on the moment., on each tick of the clock.  Time gradually slowed and soon everyone was stopped.  Everyone but Larry.
            Larry looked around.  “What’s going on?  Guys, what are you doing?”
            “They can’t hear you.”
            Dave uncloaked himself as Larry spun to face him.  The scene was still; not even the steady hum of breath disturbed it.
            “Who are you?” Larry asked.
            Dave sighed.  He both loved this part and dreaded it.  He loved the power he had, but the initial breaking of the news was always hard.
            “You’ve died,” Dave said.
            “I’m sorry,” Dave replied.  “It’s your time.”
            “But I feel fine,” Larry stammered.
            “You won’t for long.  I was hoping you’d be a little heavier – a heart attack is easy.  Probably going to have to give you a brain aneurism.  Those are trickier, but it has to be done.”
            “I can’t be dead,” Larry protested.  “It’s Thanksgiving.  My family is here.  I need to spend time with my grandchildren and help my wife out with the mess.”
            “I wish I could help you.  I really do.  But I don’t get to decide these things.  Your name came up on our list, and it’s my job to retrieve you.  At least I hope it’s my job to retrieve you.”
            In response to Larry’s quizzical look, Dave replied, “I’m not technically an Angel of Death yet.  I’ve gone through the application process, but they haven’t hired me yet.  This is supposed to be my final exam.”
            Now Larry looked angry.  “You’re going to take me away from my wife and family, and I don’t even rate a full fledged specter of death, just some wannabe?”
            “There’s no need to be rude,” said Dave.  “I’ll be in the club soon enough, but I’ve got to conduct a retrieval first so the boys in Human Resources know that I’ve got the stomach for it.”
            “Isn’t there something I can do?” Larry asked.  “I can give you anything.  Just let me have a few more years.”
            Dave snorted.  “Do you think you’re the first person to try and bargain with Death?  Billions have done so throughout the ages and it never works.  Plus, do you really think I’m going to let you go and blow my shot at this job?”
            Larry’s shoulders slumped.  He calmly put down the knife he’d been holding and got up from the table.  As he did, his spirit shimmered briefly while it left his body.  Dave put his arm around Larry and they walked towards the door.
            Dave snapped his fingers and time started up again.  He didn’t look back, but he could hear a thump as Larry hit the table, then he heard Larry’s wife scream.  He shook his head and thought again about the parts of the job that would be hard.
            Dave relaxed on the couch in his apartment.  Larry had been easy enough to deposit.  Yes, he’d felt sorry for the man, but compassion wasn’t something he could allow himself the luxury of or there’d be no room for new souls on this planet.  Death helped keep things fresh and new.
            The day’s usual events played out on the TV.  The usual murders were interspersed with the usual crimes, with a smattering of the usual sports’ events tossed in.  Dave started to drift off when he noticed the air had gone silent.  The TV picture was still and he couldn’t even hear the hum of the air conditioner.
            He looked over at the table in his kitchen to see a pasty faced man in a long black trench coat.  Dave’s heart jumped and began beating furiously, willing him to extend his final moments.
            “Dave,” said the figure.  “It’s time to go.”
            “Th-there’s got to be some kind of mistake,” Dave stammered.  “I can’t be on the list.”
            “You are.  You know the deal – we don’t pick who gets on the list, we just bring them home.”
            “But I’ve applied for a position with the company.  How could they do this to me now?”
            The figure spread his arms.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what to tell you.”
            Dave’s eyes darted back and forth.  Finally, he said, “I’ll bet it was that shrew in accounting who’s behind this.  She didn’t like me from the moment I got there – I could see it in her eyes.”
            “No one is ‘behind this,’” said the figure as he shook his head.  “The people at the company are professionals, and you know that.  We don’t let petty differences dictate when souls are chosen.”
            “But this isn’t fair!” Dave yelled.  “I’ve taken crap my whole life, and now that I’ve finally found a job that I can get do well, you want to pull me out?”
            “What was it you told Larry about bargaining?” asked the figure.  “Everyone has to die.”
            “You can’t do this.  I won’t let you!”  With energy that belied his age, Dave sprung from the couch and tore for the door, throwing it open and running into the hall.  He sprinted for the exit and ran out into the open air.
            However, the figure blocked his path.  “Now, Dave,” the figure chided.  “You of all people should know that you can’t outrun Death.  The rudimentary powers we’ve given you should have clued you into that.”
            Dave suddenly remembered – his powers!  He summoned all of his strength and shoved the figure across the parking lot.  He then closed his eyes and thought of a far off place, one where he could hide.  Maybe he could go to the bottom of the ocean, or trap himself inside a mountain.  He figured that surely they’d eventually tire of chasing him.
            He felt his body fade from the parking lot and then begin to re-phase back into reality.  He didn’t know exactly where he was, but he knew it had to be better than facing the specter of death at his own home.
            The area was dark.  Dave hadn’t figured on that and squinted into the blackness.  Finally, a light appeared and he heard a deep voice.
            “Hello Dave.  Welcome home.”
            “Mr. Broughton!” Dave exclaimed.  Mr. Gabriel Broughton was the head of the department.  “What are you doing here?  Did you put my name on the list?”
            “Yes, Dave, I did.”
            “But why?  I’d just passed my final exam and was ready to join the firm.”
            Dave could hear the resignation in Mr. Broughton’s voice.  “No, Dave, you didn’t pass – you failed.”
            “I don’t understand,” Dave replied.  “I brought in Larry Burrows.  He came willingly and I didn’t listen to his pathetic bargaining.  I showed I could be counted on.”
            “You showed you could be counted on in only one aspect, Dave.  However, a true Angel of Death knows that to understand death, you have to surrender to it.  Instead, you showed the same fear that most have, believing you had too much to lose.  You failed to set the example in giving yourself to Death, and so how could you ever expect others to truly follow you?
            “Even worse, you misused your powers in trying to hide.  That makes me wonder what else you’d be willing to do if circumstances weren’t in your favor.  No, you don’t have the character to be a member of the firm, so you must return to your life of nothing.”
            Dave’s head began to swirl and he suddenly found himself back on the couch in his apartment.  The TV blared the day’s events again, and when he tried to recall how to use the abilities he’d had, he couldn’t remember how.  The only thing echoing through his head was a warning.
            You’re free today, it said.  Remember, though, Death eventually comes to us all.  We’ll meet again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Original Idea + Storytelling Ability = Good Book

Hollywood is out of ideas.  The stories I see are re-creations of old stories, or the 14th sequel on the one original idea some writer had 20 years ago.  Many books, unfortunately, are the same way, rehashing the same plot over and over again.  This provides a great opening for writers who can truly be original.

Unfortunately, an original idea isn't enough.  Bookshelves are rife with great ideas that never amounted to anything.  I've picked up plenty of books myself that appeared to have great potential, only to toss them aside in disgust because the storytelling wasn't up to par.  Without the ability to convey your idea in a way that makes it interesting to the reader, you may as well just stand up in a crowd and started yelling, "GROOP BLORK MAJENGCA GROB!  YEDDA YEDDA - WEEEEEEEE!"

This is why great books are so rare.  Lots of people have terrific ideas - everyone I meet is writing the next great novel - but their ability to convey that sucks.  Stories will meander and get needlessly complex, or they'll be presented by characters that are wooden and unbelievable.  Readers who got sucked in by a blurb on the back cover will throw down the novel and curse the day the author wasted their time because they couldn't make head or tail of what was being said.

Likewise, I know lots of people who can tell great stories.  We've all seen them - they stand around the water cooler going over last night's Laker game, or they're that goofy grandpa who can take you on a bombing run over North Vietnam.  Folks can become enraptured by such talk...until it turns into the 20th time they've heard the same story.  For all the charisma some can put into a great story, they can't seem to find an original idea.  Maddening.

As a writer, your job is to marry the two.  I feel confident in every novel I've written(Yes, that's arrogant, but I think you have to be a bit arrogant as a writer to think you have what it takes to capture someone's imagination).  That's because the ideas aren't ever present in the world, and I know how to tell them so people stay engaged.  That's not to say I hit on every single thing I've ever done - I've written a few stinkers that have since been discarded - but I never stop working on the craft of writing, and my imagination will go to some wild places if I let it.

And that's what you must do - let your imagination wander.  Follow it and copy down the events it takes you to.  Ask yourself, "Self, how does this stack up to writers I enjoy?"  If you can do those things, then perhaps others will find you just as interesting, and that's where storytelling goes from self aggrandizement to a magical place that people willingly go to with you.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Business Is Business

Everyone who reads this blog knows that I've become a big fan of the indie publishing movement.  In fact, that's how I plan to publish my first novel in May of 2016.  Since doing research into the various forms of publishing, I've grown to love the advantages indie publishing provides - I can keep more of the money I make, I can control my cover and content, and I get to decide which projects to take on.  And given the advances in just the last five years alone, indie has become a truly viable way to make a living as a writer(assuming your stuff sells).
(Let's raise our glasses to indie!)
However, that's not to say I wouldn't grab a traditional publishing deal if the right one came along.  Before you call me a soulless sellout who has no scruples, please remember that writing is a business first and foremost.  I love to write, but in the end, I hope to make money.  If the right deal came along where I could make much more than I projected with indie, I'd jump at it.  Still, the deal would have to be very sweet - I'd have to retain control to a large extent, and there are several red lines I would never allow to be crossed(such as exclusivity for what I write next).  If that proved impossible, I would stick to indie and sleep well at night doing so.

Of course, the only way this would happen would be to have success in indie first.  This isn't as crazy as it sounds.  With the momentum of indie, as well as the dearth of successful newbies on the horizon, indie is being viewed as a sort of "minor league" for traditional publishing.  Fifty Shades of Grey started out this way, and few would begrudge EL James the fortune she has created.  In the right circumstance, such a move would be in my best interest.

No, I haven't been offered any deals recently that brought this out.  I just had a few thoughts about the future that made this course apparent in the right condition.  Some will call me all kinds of names, and that's fine, but most will know that, as a businessman, you never close any door completely.  Where the benefit of indie comes in now is in allowing me to make the jump on my own terms rather than groveling to some New York big shot because I had no other choice.  And if it doesn't work out, then I can continue, happily, in indie and maintain control.  Either way, having fun and reaching an audience are the biggest considerations.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

No Post Tonight

Sorry, folks, but no post tonight.  I have a short story I'm working on, but it's not finished yet, and life got in the way.  I promise to return with more new posts next week on schedule.

Thanks for understanding.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Off The Wall

Sometimes, a change of pace in our novels is nice.  The same rote storytelling techniques can get our work lost in the morass of everybody else's, so changing things up can help you stand out.  I've done this with a couple of different things I've written.  Wrongful Death was the first thing I did like that when I decided to tell a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost.  I tried to break out of the box again with Homecoming, a novel written in a journal format.

However, this doesn't always work.  In fact, it rarely works.  The reason is that most readers need a grounding in something familiar.  The reason storytelling has stayed the same way for the better part of human history is that it works - it takes the reader on a logical journey where the tale progresses in a way easily understood.  Most folks get comfortable with this, and they tend to shy away from the overly out there stuff.

This is why writers need to tread carefully when choosing to do something unconventional.  Alternating between time periods, telling the story from the point of view of a death row inmate, or running a story as nothing but dream sequence may sound cool as you envision it, but you need to ask yourself if people will be able to understand it, or even more, if they'll want to.  The attention span of the average person isn't great, especially given so much more on the market that doesn't take as much to get into.

If you just want to write something off the wall for only you, then go for it.  However, if you want to write something bizarre and have other people read it, it had better be exceptional.  Don't be weird just for weirdness' sake - do it with a goal in mind.  In Wrongful Death, I wanted to be scary in a different way, and the style was necessary in order to maintain suspense.  In Homecoming, the history leading up to that point was extremely important, so it made sense to have it told by a historian.  If the style makes sense to the reader, they'll tolerate and even embrace what you're trying to do, but if it's just because you want to be an arteest, you'll quickly drive them away.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Keeping Up With The Times

I've said it many times, but it bears repeating as often as necessary - writing is a business.  Writers who don't understand this will fail.  Writing is fun, but to do it for a living, you need to treat it like a job.  A fun job to be sure, but still a job.

There are several things I'm doing in my own pursuit of my business.  Er...rather I should say several things I do when I can.  And that's the problem - too little time.  A while back, following the birth of my new daughter, I did a post about wild times beginning in the Meyer household.  Much to my surprise, those wild times haven't fully subsided, and I'm starting to wonder if they ever will.  New job(well, new as of last May) and new child, along with several other things out of left field, have kept me on the edge of frantic.  It can be exhausting, as several other writers I know can testify to.

Fortunately, my books aren't ready for publication yet(that will happen when I return to the US mainland sometime next year).  However, that doesn't mean I can't get ahead of the game now.  The first order of business is getting to be a better writer, as well as connecting with the community.  There are two ways to do this well.  The first is to read.  Read read read.  Pick up every book you can and read it.  Find stuff outside of your comfort zone but which people say is good and read it.  Find award winning stuff you've ignored and read it.  Find stuff you might never have read from the indie circuit and read it.  Once you're done, read it again.  As Stephen King said - if you don't have time to read, then you don't have time to write(well).

Yes, my reading has slackened off in recent months.  That's not to say it's gone away, just that it has diminished.  I used to be able to spend all day in a bookstore, but I'm now lucky to get into one once a month.  Luckily, there's Amazon, but even that's limiting if you can't get around to reading.  I still have a third of Hugh Howie's book I, Zombie, left, and I'm not sure when I'll finish it.  Yet there are so many still out there to get to.

A second way I stay up on things is through the blogs on the right side of this page.  The writers on it are very talented, and they provide both tips for improving and insights into the business.  In an ideal world, I'd open up my morning with them.  Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world, and I'm lucky to get to three or four in a day.  Usually I'll be able to do one or two at night as my wife and children are in bed.  I find myself reading fewer and commenting even less.

And these two tiny things are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to even the superficial part of the business.  There are still bookstore to contact, copywriting editors to interview, and targeting plans for giveaways to conduct.  These things are necessary, if challenging to find time for.  Here's hoping that times may eventually ease up.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Burning Idols - A Short Story

            Some speculate as to what might have happened had a single event in history occurred differently.  In my estimation, the drama I will chronicle in this tome is one of those events.  Had our greatest king made a different decision while in the grip of grief, who is to say whether our precious city would even still stand, let alone have become the preeminent power of its day.

            All children are taught of our triumph in the Greek war, or as it is more dramatically known, the War of a Thousand Ships.  The pair of brothers may have come for different reasons, one for his forlorn queen, one for conquest, but their goal was the same – the destruction of our city and the removal of our influence across the Aegean.

            My name is Hyram, and of all the stories I’ve told, this was our most dangerous hour.  Thanks be to the gods that wisdom prevailed over folly.


            Sand nestled between the toes of young Prince Paris as he watched the sun rise beyond the great city of Troy.  He turned to see a sight not in evidence in many years – the ocean was devoid of Greek ships and their warriors.  The only thing that remained was the idol before them.

            “What do you make of this?” King Priam asked of Herodotus, his chief counsel.

            Herodotus stroked his beard as he gazed into the eyes of the wooden beast.  “An offering to Poseidon,” he said after a moment.  “Something for the God of the Sea to admire and perhaps grant them favor on their return voyage.”

            Archeron, Priam’s chief military commander following the death of Prince Hector, guffawed.  “They need his protection after the shellacking we gave them.  With so many Greek dead, if they do not get safe passage home, they won’t have an army left to protect their cities.  Were some event to befall them, it might provide us great opportunity to finally remove the Greek threat once and for all.”

            “We’ve never waged an aggressive war,” Priam said.  “Yes, we’ve fought brutally against the foes of Troy, but only while attacked.  We haven’t crossed the sea to pursue our enemies.”

            “Yet we were attacked first here,” Archeron argued.  “We’ve taken war to those who showed the folly of striking first.  The cities of Greece struck first.  The only difference here is in the distance we have to travel for vengeance.”

            “This sounds premature, my old friend.  After all, we don’t know if their fleet will meet with disaster, so all of this is speculation.  The Greeks made the mistake of crossing the sea while knowing they couldn’t breach our walls.  What says we would breach their defenses, especially if their army lives to fight us on their own soil?”

            “Then we should send scout ships to their lands to find out.  Our spies can discover if they’re making new plans for war or if they’ve decided they’ve had enough.  But to sit here and rely on Agamemnon’s good will is folly, for they will rise again like the great cracken.”

            Priam stood idle for a moment as he pondered this course.  He looked over at his son – his only remaining son - and said, “Paris, you’ve been quiet.  In times such as these, I would normally have relied on your brother for counsel, but he has given fare to the Boatman, so it falls to you to take up his mantle.  What is your opinion on our next move?”

            Paris strode over to the giant wooden beast before them.  It was easily 50 feet tall, and as he put his hand on the coarse wood, he felt the spirit of Hector running through him.  He’d never been a warrior – that burden had fallen on his much more worthy brother – but a new sense of purpose flowed through him in these last few days, as if the fallen prince was whispering in his ear.  Paris knew that he was now the heir to the throne of Troy, and it buoyed him in ways he never imagined.

            “Father, Hector was a man of reason.  As such, I am striving to be a man of reason as well.”

            “You will wear your brother’s mantle well,” Priam said.  Hector was dead only ten days at the hands of Achilles, and his body returned barely a few days ago.  The King hadn’t yet had time to fully mourn, and his eyes still held tears for his son that wouldn’t fall.

            “Then as a man of reason,” Paris said, “it falls to me to ask the questions no one seems willing to ask.  Why have the Greeks fled?  They’ve suffered no catastrophic defeat in battle.  Why flee after spending ten years on our shores without impetus to do so?”

            “You forget the mighty plague that struck them,” Herodotus noted.  “The soldiers left behind showed unmistakable signs of it.  They knew Apollo cursed them for their arrogance and fled before he claimed the lot of them.”

            “So they managed to load and set sail in the middle of the night while afflicted with plague?  That makes no sense.  Even if they decided that the gods turned on them, an army struck down with plague would require more than a night to flee, yet they’ve vanished without so much as a rear guard in sight of our towers.”

            “What are you saying, my son?”

            “This is a trick of some kind, a ruse to get us to lower our guard.  I cannot believe they’d depart so quickly with no spoils.  They’re biding their time, waiting for us to become complacent before striking again.”

            “But then where have they gone?” Archeron asked.  “It would take more than a day’s travel to hide beyond the horizon, and they risk death on the fierce winds of the Aegean if they sit idle.”

            “Our shoreline possesses many hidden coves, most large enough to hide a significant portion of their fleet.  We don’t have regular patrols on this side of our city due to the security of our walls.  The Greeks could have taken advantage of the confidence we have in that security to wait and hope we would let slip our guard.”

            “But the idle of Poseidon,” Herodotus protested.  “This is their way of ensuring safe passage home.  Why leave it if they have no need?”

            “I don’t know,” Paris replied.  “Whatever its purpose, it’s not here for our benefit.”  He paused.  “We should burn it.  We must throw off the shackles they’ve tried strapping us with and they can watch their beloved offering go up in smoke.”

            The Trojans in attendance erupted in protest.  Everyone accused Paris of going mad and inviting the wrath of the gods, for only a fool would burn such an offering.

            The young prince waited for the uproar to die down before speaking again.  “Father, let your wisdom shine through your grief.  We must destroy this idol and double our guard against the Greeks, or we invite tragedy.  If Apollo truly protects us, he will go to Poseidon and argue on our behalf.  We risk wrath either way, but I’d rather risk it with the gods than on behalf of complacency."

            Priam walked up beside his son and looked at him.  The boy seemed to have gained years of confidence in the short time since his brother’s death.  Priam wanted to take this Greek idol inside the walls of Troy to mock his enemies.  However, he also heard Hector in Paris’ words, and he knew his eldest son would’ve said the same.

            Turning to his counsel, he said, “Paris is correct.  We shall burn this offering and take refuge behind our walls while we prepare for the brunt of Poseidon’s wrath, as well as that of any Greek who lingers.  We will double our patrols facing the sea and make certain the threat is no more.”

            He nodded to one of his guards and the soldier lit a torch.  Priam grabbed the torch and carried it to the base of the idol.  Although it took a minute to dry out the wood, it finally lit.  In seconds, fire crept up the legs and engulfed the statue.  Paris later swore he heard screams coming from inside the belly of the beast, but it was hard to discern over the crackling wood.


            We’ve fought several wars with the Greeks before overrunning their cities and burning them to ashes.  Troy now stands astride the Aegean like a colossus, and no power from here to the Alps in the west and Caucuses in the east challenges us.  We may never know if the Greeks truly intended a trap or not, and many of my colleagues argue that this was but a minor blip in a history of enmity with the Greeks that lasted over two centuries, but I’ve always been drawn to this account.  It feels like there is a hidden meaning inside and that we narrowly averted disaster.

            Perhaps we will never know.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tragic Characters

I've decided to suspend a project I started in January and move to a new project that I'm more excited about.  My new novel is about a young man named David Morton, and it's the backstory to a book I finished several months ago.

At first, I didn't know what attracted me to this story so much.  However, after much thought, it came to me - the main character.  David Morton's tale is so compelling in my head that it has to come out.  Morton starts the novel as a 22 year old kid who was given a commission as a US Army officer, and it follows him to his leading a global resistance movement against a threat to the very existence of humanity.  Over the course of 73 years, we get to see the pitfalls and triumphs in this person's life that make him so prominent to the people in Homecoming.

Still, the more I looked at Morton, the more I saw similarities to other works I've done.  Whether it be Seth Gendrickson from Akeldama witnessing the slaughter of his friends, or the raw emotion Mike Faulkner in Salvation Day goes through when he tries to go on without his wife, my characters, the ones I have the easiest time writing about, have been all but shattered.  Even Christian Gettis in Wrongful Death has to hit rock bottom before he can extricate himself and do what has to be done.

Is there something within me that attracts me to characters that have to go through stuff that would break any one of us?  I think it's because the tragedies these people have to go through makes them deeper.  And in a way, I think it makes them more relatable to all of us.

Of course none of us has had to go through our wife's suicide or the loss of a child, but such things help us empathize with a person.  I know I wonder what I would do in those situations, and the struggles these folks have to endure makes them more real to me.  Sure, I could write about some superficial jock that stumbles into finding the secret to the plot, but I don't find that interesting.  What I find interesting are the incredible odds, both story-wise and from a personal standpoint, that a character has to overcome to succeed.

Further, I just like stories centered around strong characters.  Morton, like several before him, is the focal point of the story.  It's told through his eyes, and it seems the world couldn't exist without him.  I find myself wanting him to overcome, not just in spite of but because of what he has to go through.  Yes, it may be a bit like a soap opera, but if the audience will care about him half as much, the book will be a success.  After all, we watch the news to see what happened to the people in the stories, not just about some random policy or crime.

That's what draws me to these creatures of misfortune.  That, and the knowledge that such misfortune, at least in my imagination, isn't forever.  In the end, the harder the climb, the sweeter the payoff.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Writing Into A Box

I love the beginning of a novel.  The possibilities are endless.  I can see lines of confluence and strange spasms of imagination everywhere.  I've often said that I only outline to a certain point because the story has to remain fluid.  There needs to be wiggle room that allows what you want to say to evolve past the rigid limits of an outline, and that's part of the mystery and fun of writing.

Unfortunately, there can be a downside to this.  If a writer isn't careful, he can write himself into a corner, and getting out of this corner can involve a great deal of pain.

I think this is what happened in Canidae.  I didn't take sufficient care in the work and just allowed it to meander wherever my mind took it.  The result was that I found a story that borders on absurd.  Don't get me wrong - there are many elements that will remain in the final product, but I've got a lot more to re-create than I have to save.

The painful part of this process is that I'm going to have to go back and re-write a bunch of stuff.  I'll need to locate where things went wrong and start from there.  I have a feeling that will happen closer to the beginning of the novel than to the end.

This is why taking a breath to evaluate your work is so important.  Don't get me wrong - I believe in Stephen King's advice that you should write the first draft for you.  However, don't get so caught up in it that you have to spend a good deal of time and angst in rewriting large chunks of it down the road.  Step back and ask yourself if it's working.  It's true that this is much easier done after you've put your writing away for a few months and can look at it with fresh eyes, but that doesn't mean it can't be done at all.  Just look at it from the perspective of a reader and ask, Does the story make sense, or has this jumped the shark?

Remember that weeds grow as quickly as new paths to your book, but if they overrun the garden, you lose anything usable.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Conquering the Night

This is a short story I entered in a contest run by the Hemingway family last year.  It didn't win, but I still like it, so I posted it here.  It's different than most of my stuff - more of a slice-of-life kind of thing that is meant to be symbolic.  I hope you enjoy it.
            "Everyone must face the night," George's father said.
            "But I don't like the night," George replied.  "It's dark out there, and something keeps making strange noises."
            "Those are merely creatures of the night, and you must eventually confront them."
            George was a sturdy boy nearing 16, with shoulder length brown hair and a frame that hadn't yet filled out.  The loincloth he wore covered what it needed to, while a layer of dirt seemed to cover the rest of him.
            He poked at the fire with a stick.  Sparks rose towards the roof of the cave, and George stared sullenly at the flames.  His father had recently been pushing him hard to go out into the night, but the fire was so warm and comfortable that George didn't want to.  It was different in the daytime when he could see what was coming, but the dark made him nervous.
            As it always did, the fire burned until sunlight flooded the cave's entrance.  Now that it was light again, George had nothing to fear.  He could see where he was going, and he could identify all the noises of the forest - sharp chirps were birds, loud grunting came from the apes, and the occasional growl emanated from the jungle cats that roamed for prey.  Yes, in the daylight, he knew what to avoid and how to stay safe.
            The grownups talked a lot about the dark of night.  George's father mentioned it could be cold and contain surprises.  George's own brother had gone into the night a few years back and never came back, so he wondered why anyone would ever willingly venture into such a nightmare.
            Today his father took him fishing by the stream at the base of a nearby hill.  The water flowed freely after recent rain, and the fish proved easy to catch.  The boy felt like he didn't have a care in the world.  In the midst of this relaxation, his father broke the silence with that disturbing topic again.
            "George, your time of ascension is near.  You must venture into the darkness."
            "I don't want to," George pouted.  "I get all I need from the fire and daylight.  Our cave is well lit and I have all I could ever want."
            "Every man must confront that which he fears.  It is not our lot in life to stay comfortable."
            "But Stephen went into the night and we haven't seen him since," George countered.  "What if he was eaten by the puma?  What if he slipped on rocks by the waterfall and plunged into the river?"
            George's father dipped his fishing line back into the stream.  "I have faith that your brother is making his way in this world, and if God sees fit to bring him back to us, we'll see him again.  If he is unable to handle moving around and living in the night, then we can but pray for his spirit."
            "But the fire is warm," George protested.  "It keeps away the predators and lets us see so that we don't fall."
            "Only because your mother and I make that fire for you each night."
            "What does that have to do with anything?"
            "Son, I mastered the night long ago.  I conquered it by building our fire each evening, but I have enough confidence in my abilities that can survive in the night if need be."
            Shaking his head, George went back to his line.  He decided he would never go into the night on his own.  If he could help it, he would never go into the night at all.
            It had been a good haul - the fish tasted fine, and all three of them ate until their bellies were full.  George poked at the fire with his stick and noticed it was growing small, but he got a nasty surprise when he reached for another piece of wood - there was none to be found.
            "Father," he said in a trembling voice, "we're out of wood."
            "Oh, we must've forgotten it this afternoon.  No matter - we'll just get some more."
            George was nervous.  They'd never run out of firewood before, and the sun was already down.  He hoped that his father could return with enough wood to stave off the night before the light died.  That was when the evening's second nasty surprise reared its ugly head.
            "George," his father said, "I want you to accompany me."
            The boy's insides went queasy.  "Why do I need to go?  Can't you just make multiple trips?"
            Stern lines set into his father's face.  "I'm getting old, and my footing isn't as sure as it once was.  I need help to get enough to last the night.  If you won't help, I'll have to wait until morning."
            "B-but the fire will go out," George stammered.
            "You have a keen eye," his father countered.  "Come - it won't take long."
            George's hands shook.  His father walked to the cave's entrance and looked back expectantly.  The boy took a tentative step, and then another.  When he reached his father's side, the older man turned and walked into the darkness.
            He was determined to stay close enough so he could keep an eye on his father and not get lost.  The ground was moist and the footing uncertain, so his eyes darted between the ground and his father's shoulders as they moved into the night.
            After a few minutes, George said, "Where are we going?  There's wood right by the cave."
            "You forget that we had rain two nights ago.  The wood around our cave is wet and unsuitable to burn.  We need to head into the hillside where the clouds never went."
            He hadn't counted on this.  The trip into darkness was supposed to be quick so that he could again be warmed by the fire.  That they would be surrounded by black concerned him.
            The journey took over an hour, and his father held him by the hand as they walked.  George slipped in the mud or on the occasional rock, but his footing grew more firm as his eyes adjusted.  As they reached the hillside above the clouds, his father let go.
            George's fingers instinctively flexed without the firm grip of his father, but he kept his eyes on the older man.  When they reached a pile of dry brush, George's father turned to him and said, "How much wood have you picked up, son?"
            "None, father."
            Even in the dark, George could tell his father's face hardened.  "We won't get near enough if you focus solely on me.  Look around and explore so we can get what we need."
            "Yes, father," George replied, his eyes licking the ground.
            Once he started looking around, George began finding what they came for.  He picked up smaller twigs but soon realized those would serve little purpose beyond kindling.  He began to grab larger pieces, checking for the holes that would allow air flow so the fire could burn longer.
            After a few minutes, he lost track of his father, and as long as he was immersed in picking up wood, that didn't matter.  However, once his hands were full, he looked around.
            The wood clattered to his feet as his heart leapt into his throat.  He squinted, hoping that he could look through the opaque curtain of night and locate the other man.  Although his vision had gotten better, the night overpowered his eyes.
            "Father!" he called.
            The only answer he got was the hooting of an owl.  Things seemed very still.  George stood like the night itself was holding him in place.
            Calm down, he thought.  He's out there.  Just listen for him.
            His stillness now had less to do with fear and more to do with trying to pinpoint his father.  The owl hooted once more, but there was nothing that sounded familiar.  Surely the man would be looking for him, calling out for him as he'd called for his father.
            Seconds wore into minutes.  George became more accustomed to the sounds of the night, but none of them were his father.  He now faced a dilemma - risk facing creatures of the night by staying here, or try to find his way home.
            He broke from his spot and waded through the dry grass.  His footstep were unsure since he was without a guide.  He'd been on this hilltop plenty of times, but those times were always in daylight, so he found it disconcerting to be unable to see much.
            The moon hung in a sliver on the horizon, providing little help.  As George ventured along the edge of the hill, the dark outline of some unknown thing rose in front of him.  George saw spindly arms reaching for him.  Those arms drew back a little before lunging once more.
            However, George soon realized that the figure was little more than a tree devoid of leaves.  The tree swayed in the wind, and he soon laughed about his foolishness.  He ventured on.
            "Father!" he called out again.  Again he was met by silence.
            What is his father had fallen?  Worse yet, what if his father had been taken by the puma or some other creature of the night?  Who would gather the wood and hunt for his family?  George had accompanied the man and knew what to do, but he'd never had to forage alone.  Would he be able to provide for his mother if his father failed to return?
            He searched for another half an hour before starting the journey home.  He'd called for his father several more times and gotten the same silence each time.  Either his father had decided to return home, or he'd fallen prey to something in the night and George would find his remains in the morning...if ever.
            The top of the hill had been barren, except for the occasional tree and sea of dry grass, but the woods he now reentered were a tangled mass of branches and blackness.  A limb he couldn't see hit him in the face and George fell onto the wet ground.
            There was a click-click-clicking noise nearby.  George froze again and waited until it faded.  The night flittered through the trees, giving George very little to navigate by.  Even though he knew the way by heart, his footing was unsteady at night.  Each step felt like a long day's march, and the muddy ground pressed into his feet as much as the night pressed into his eyes.
            George grabbed branches and the occasional tree trunk for balance.  He thought he remembered the way, but he couldn't tell if the misshapen rock he just touched was the one by his favorite reading spot or the one that led to the river.  He pressed on.
            Eventually, the ground became more steep and George stumbled further.  He knew he'd passed the trail leading home and would have to go back up the hill when his feet found water.
            The water came to his knees, and he knew he was in the stream they used for fishing.  It was cold and rushed past him, but he found comfort in knowing where he was.  As he was about to climb the bank and go back up the hill, something silver caught his eye.  Whatever it was darted downstream and out of sight.
            However, another silver flash came towards him, so George stayed still and peered into the water.  It soon became evident it was a fish he'd never seen before.
            The fish glinted in a way it shouldn't have been able to without light.  It was twice as big as anything George had seen in the daytime, and he wondered how long his family could feast on such a creature.
            Absurd, he thought.  Why would anyone want to fish at night?
            To catch fish that big, he thought as he took another look.  He didn't have the tools to grab the fish now, but he made a mental note to come back later.  Wait until his father heard about this!
            Still unsteady, he grabbed a tree branch that hung over the stream and pulled himself out of the water.  As he regained his balance, he felt something odd in his hand.  Whatever was on the branch he'd grabbed was round and hard.
            He stripped the branch of several of these round objects.  Rolling them around in his palm, he finally brought them up to his nose and sniffed.  Berries!
            He loved berries.  They were a treat he enjoyed after a meal of fish or chicken, but his father or mother had always gathered them until now.  George was sure that lots more trees carried them, but he'd never thought to look above his head before.  He'd have to remember this - now he would be able to enjoy berries whenever he wanted.
            Munching on a handful of berries, he strength returned.  Yes, the wet leaves and mud still pressed into his skin, but he felt more able to shake them off.
            There was a low rumble to his front.  He froze again.  The throaty growl warned him it was an ocelot or some other small predator.  Such creatures could be aggressive, and their teeth would rip through his skin with the ease of a carving stone.
            Night continued to hide the animal, but George strained and felt it was somewhere just up the hill.  If he was where he thought, there should be a small cache of rocks up ahead, and they might provide enough cover to hide him.
            He didn't want to move too fast, for he knew quick footsteps would give him away.  It was fortunate there was a cross breeze blowing down the hill down, so the animal shouldn't have been able to catch his scent.  Finally reaching the small field of rocks, George knelt behind one of the larger stones.  If the creature found him, he'd have to pick up one of the rocks and fight it off.
            However, it never found him.  George heard it growl again before heading back up the hill, apparently on the trail of some other thing that wasn't as careful.  He said a silent prayer and headed back into the woods.
            The rest of the way was slippery, and George twisted his ankle more than once, but he finally saw the soft glow of his family's cave.  He moved towards it, brushing tree limbs and leaves aside as he made his way.
            He was dirty and tired, and he knew that only another hour or two remained until the sun broke the horizon.  Still, his mother and father weren't asleep.  His mother sewed a couple of pieces of fur together while his father stared into the fire.
            "I made it back," George panted.
            His father looked up and smiled.  The man stood and looked at his boy.  "I knew you would."
            George trudged into the cave and plopped down by the fire.  "What a night."
            "Yes, but you survived."  His father looked at him.  "Did you bring back any firewood?"
            George looked up at his father, his eyes wide.  "Firewood?  I barely returned with my flesh still on my bones."
            "As might be, but a man must be able to bring things back from the night as well as brave it."
            George's mouth was agape.  Didn't his father realize what he'd been through?
            "I dropped the wood when I couldn't f-find you," he fumbled.  "I thought survival was enough."
            "Enough for now," his father reassured him.  "In time, you'll have to come back with more.  Once you're in a cave of your own, you'll have no choice."
            It slowly dawned on George what had happened.  "You meant for this to happen, didn't you?  Why?"
            "Because each man must face the night."
            "But I could've died!"
            "You didn't," his father noted.  "And there were things you discovered out there."
            George rubbed his neck.  He didn't want to admit he learned anything, but he found his voice betrayed him before he could catch it.  "I saw the biggest fish I ever have."
            "Yes, they spawn at night.  This is the time to bring in the best catches."
            "And the berries - I found berries."
            "A nice treat.  Maybe now you can get your own instead of relying on us."
            "But there was an ocelot!" George protested.  "It nearly found me."
            "If it had found you, what would you have done?"
            "I would've fought it.".
            His father sat down and placed an arm around his son.  "You'd have reacted as I expect any man would have.  Further, it didn't find you - you figured out how to get away and survive to face it again someday.  You learned much on your first foray into the night, much as your brother did.  In the coming days, you'll make another foray, and your confidence will grow with each step.  Maybe next time, you can even remember to bring back firewood."
            George looked at the fire, high and bright.  To the left of the fire was a large pile of branches.
            "Where did all that come from?" he asked.
            "Wouldn't you know it, but it turns out that there was some in the back of the cave.  However, it's getting low, and we'll need more tomorrow."
            "Maybe you can get the wood and I can try to get a fish."
            His father smiled.  "One step at a time, George.  One day you'll own the night.  For the moment, take comfort in simply having survived it."
            George fell back on the fur laid down by his mother.  As firelight reflected off the ceiling, he reflected on his adventure.  His father had been right - the night was a challenge, but one he'd faced well.  Next time, he'd do even better.  The prospect both thrilled and frightened him.  And although he didn't think the fear would ever completely retreat, it would lessen in time, and he would master it.

            He had no choice.