Missed it by That Much

I’ve been working on a really cool (in my opinion) story, and for once I knew exactly where I was going to submit it. City Slab is a very pretty quarterly that shows up in major bookstores, and they specialize in urban horror, where the city is almost a character in the story. My story, “Haunted City,” fits that bill nicely. While the pace may be a little slow for some editors, I’m quite pleased with the result.

Last week I was at City Slab’s Web site, and I got all the required information and even wrote my cover letter. There were still a couple of things I wanted to check for the story, however, so I did not submit. Good thing.

Today I went back to the Web site to double-check the address, and this is what I found: http://www.cityslab.com

Bummer. If they’d only held on long enough to publish my story, I’m sure their financial woes would be over. Instead, there is one fewer magazine paying real dollars for quality fiction, and therefore another twent-four good stories will go unbought each year. The best stories (or the ones by recognizeable names) will find a home somewhere else, but life on the bubble just got a little more precarious.

The venerable Weird Tales now has my manuscript. I hope they like it. They published Lovecraft, so a slow pace shouldn’t bother them.

Two More Short Excerpts

One of my favorite things about this story is that there are times when two people are having a conversation but utterly failing to communicate, leading to perplexed blink-blink moments. I thought I’d share a couple of them with you.

The first comes on McFadden’s first morning after arriving in Ztrtkijistan. He has been told to report to the secret police headquarters, but he overslept and now he is late. The invitation itself was frightening enough, but now McFadden imaginies that there is a price on his head.

Fear bubbling in his gut, McFadden paused long enough to speak with the manager, the same man who had greeted him the day before.

“You said you would wake me,” Robert said.

“Yes, yes,” the manager beamed.

“But you didn’t.”

The manager paused, aware that his guest of honor was unhappy about something, but not sure just what it was. “Of course not.”

“But you said you would.”

“Yes. You asked me to, so I said I would.”

“But you didn’t.”

The manager spoke with pride. “I would never do something like that.”

“But then why did you say you would?”

“Because you asked me to.”

Robert stepped back and looked at the man, knowing the futility of pressing forward with the argument, but unable to resist. “So you knew I wanted you to wake me up, but…”

Light dawned on the face of the manager. “It’s all right. They can’t hear you now.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s not like in your country.” The manager shrugged.

The second conversation occurs when McFadden has moveg into his own apartment, but the heat is on uncomfortably high. He can find no way to adjust the radiators in his room.

Robert stepped into his new place and set down his suitcase. The place was a sauna. he stripped off his coat and sweaters, and he was still hot. This would even be considered warm in America, he thought.

Tjnka also took off her coat. “The landlord has old joints,” she said. “He likes to keep it warm.”

Robert examined the radiators. “How do you turn these down?” he asked.

Tjnka looked at him quizically. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t need it so hot. I’ll just save the energy.”

“But you can’t.”

“Why not?”

She furrowed her brow. “Because if everyone in the building could control their own heat, they would take more than their share. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“But I want less.”

“Yes, but that’s not fair either, is it? Then the landlord would have to turn down his heat.”

“Why?”

“You would be paying for some of his heat.”

“But if I turn down my heat, and I am more comfortable, and I’m still happy to pay the same rent, isn’t that all right?”

She shook her head. “I don’t understand you Americans sometimes. You never think of the other person.”

November 1st, 2005

I’ll be honest with you, I intentionally chose to present you with an edited version of this story. The only differences are the name of the country and an improved transition to the cocktail party. I know I had decided to give you the raw prose from that day, but the original country name was close enough to an actual country in the area that it might have caused confusion among those who know geography, or it might have cheesed the residents of the actual country. This fictitious country is in some forgotten pocket in the mountains somewhere around Tajikistan. Proximity does not breed similarity, however; in fact when Ghengis Kahn swept through the region, he took one look at Ztrtkijistan and decided not to bother with it. It’s not much of a place.

This was my first November 1st in Prague, and it was with great anticipation that I dug into this story. I hadn’t planned it much. I had the idea that an American bureaucrat gets dumped into the remotest corner of the Earth as a spy. When the locals discover he is a spy be becomes a minor celebrity. Of course there is nothing worth spying on, so the bureaucrat has taken to drink and he starts sending back dirty jokes as “state secrets”. He is hoping to get fired, but Washington “decodes” his dispatches and discovers that dire events are taking place. Hijinks ensue, and the bumpkins from the backwater country prove remarkably adept at intrigue. (In fact, forgery is a national pastime.)

In a previous episode I published a set of excerpts from the parts of the book where the Americans, the Russians, and later the Chinese spring into action. It was a good use of copy and paste.

This isn’t my entire output on that fateful November first; I ended up cranking out a lot of words that day. I think this is enough, however, if not more than enough. On occasion I’ve tried to come up with a better title. I know there’s one out there.

The Stan-Man Plan

The bus lurched and wheezed its way up the hill, leaving a cloud of black smoke behind. The driver made no effort to avoid the potholes and ruts in the once-paved road, jarring the kidneys of the passengers, their children, and their livestock. Robert McFadden was bounced and jostled with the rest of them, but he seemed to feel it more. The others, even the livestock, had been on this road many times before.

The pitch of the engine rose, making it impossible for Robert to hear the steady stream of profanity issuing from the driver. He suspected that in the coming weeks and months he was going to need to know those words.

The bus reached the crest of the hill, and after a moment of roller-coaster anticipation went careening down the other side, trying to build momentum for the next climb. Robert tried not to think about the sheer drop just to his right. There was no guard rail. No one else on the bus seemed to notice that pain and death were only a meter away.

He pulled out his map and studied it. By his best guess they were in Ztrtkijistan now.

They crept up through a cleft between two snow-capped peaks and the bus shuddered to a stop. There was a shack there, and a uniformed guard wearing a fur cap and carrying an AK-47 sauntered over to and spoke to the driver through the open door.

“Anything I should know about?” he asked the driver.

“There’s a foreigner today.”

“Huh.” The guard stepped up into the bus and immediately spotted Robert. He paused, his brows knit as if he was contemplating something perplexing, then came to a decision. “Can you come with me for a moment, sir?”

“Certainly,” Robert said in Ztrtkijistani. He stood and the other passengers made way for him, watching him with the same open curiosity they had shown for the entire trip.

“You speak our language?” the border guard asked, surprised.

“Yes, I do. That’s why I’m here.”

“Huh.”

They climbed off the bus and Robert was grateful for the opportunity to stretch his legs and rest his backside. The cold mountain air was thin and bracing, only slightly tinged with the smell of the overheating bus engine. Inside the shack a small oil stove produced more heavy, clinging smoke than it did heat. McFadden wondered why the soldier even bothered. The massive soviet-era desk barely left enough room for the two chairs.

“Please, sit,” the guard said, unconcerned for the busload of people who were waiting. Close up, Robert could see that his uniform was faded and worn almost through in places. “May I see your passport, please?”

Robert handed over his passport and his visa paperwork. The soldier looked at the visa, nonplussed. “You intend to stay here?”

“Yes.”

The guard set down the papers and scratched his head while he regarded his guest with open confusion. “Why?”

“I am a professor at a University. I am studying your culture and traditions.”

This seemed to raise more questions that it answered in the mind of the soldier. “Study us?” he asked incredulously.

Robert understood his confusion. This was not a country famed for arts or sciences or even any sort of military tradiditon. The Soviet era had efficiently erased what little unique culture the country might have had.

If Ztrtkijistan was even a country at all. No one seemed quite sure whether the isolated people were an independent nation or an autonomous province of neighboring Kyrgyzstan, least of all the Ztrtkijistanis themselves. The ambiguity could have been cleared up by the two countries easily enough, Robert thought, but neither side had gone to the trouble. In the end, no one cared enough either way.

Robert hesitated before answering the soldier’s question. In all truth he was no more interested in the culture of these isolated people than anyone else in the world was—which was not at all. Still, he needed some story to make it plausible that he would be there, and the options were few. Tourism was not going to work. This gray, rocky country was goverend from a dusty, gravelly city of block buildings that utterly lacked charm. The city lay in a pall of smoke from countless wood fires and greasy oil stoves, a haze thick enough to bring tears to the eyes of visitors. Even the mountains surrounding the country somehow lacked any sort of soaring grandeur. The guide book Robert had studied for this trip had tried gamely to come up with interesting things to say about the country, before throwing in the towel. “There are more goats than people,” it pointed out. “In the market square one can find a variety of handicrafts.” “The mosque in the center of the capital had a lovely mosaic on the floor, which can be seen at the XXX museum in Moscow.” “The hotel has running water.”

Telling the truth about why he was there was out of the question. Robert McFadden was a spy.

Had Robert McFadden known how he had come to be assigned to Ztrtkijistan, it would not have made him feel any better.

It was a particularly tedious political coctail party, and General Harold Martin was on his third martini in the last hour when he fell into the trap. One more drink, he thought, and I’m out of here. He was almost to the bar when an analyst he recognized from the office struck up a conversation with him.

Always important to treat the troops well, he thought, as he signaled for another martini. He watched the analyst’s lips move and idly tried to remember his underling’s name. My God, this man is boring. I need to say something, and get the hell out of here.

“… the gross domestic product of Ztrtkijistan,” the analyst concluded.

The general had already opened his mouth to break off the conversation, but he stopped short. “Where?”

“Ztrtkijistan.”

“That’s a country?”

“Of course,” the analyst said, pleased to catch the general in his ignorance, even though the analyst had not known Ztrtkijistan was a country either, until two weeks previous when a coworker had trapped him at another coctail party.

The general chewed on that for a moment. That smug bastard is going to spread it all around the office tomorrow that I didn’t know that Zert-whatever was a country. Not acceptable. The best defence, he knew, was a good offense. “Has the situation there stabilized?”

The analyst balked. “Situation?”

The general smiled inwardly. “Of course the situation. Why the hell did you bring up Ztort… that place if you don’t have more information about the situation?”

The analyst backed up a step. “I—”

Got you! Nobody was going to make the general look like a fool. He turned to the aide standing patiently at his elbow. “Who do we have on the ground there?”

The aide scowled, pretending to be in deep thought for a moment. “No one, I think, sir.”

“No one? We don’t have a single person in the entire goddam country?”

“I think not.”

“You mean the people of the United States of America are relying on us to keep the world safe for democracy and we’re letting entire countries slip through our fingers?”


I don’t think Ztrtkijistan qualifies as a threat to democracy.”

“You don’t think so, eh? Well, that’s the difference between you and me, Chumley.”

“It’s Crumley, sir.”

“Don’t interrupt me. Ever. The difference between you and me is that I’m not satisfied with just thinking a country is not a threat. I have to know. It’s the one you’re not watching that will put a knife between your ribs. I need someone on the ground there to infiltrate their institutions and see what’s really going on, and I want it yesterday. No stan is going to catch me with my pants down.”

“Stan?”

“Tanjistan, Uzbeckstan, all them stans. I want a man in every stan.” He barked a laugh. “Ha! Man in every stan.” He took another swig of his martini and glared at the retreating analyst.

The next day the general had forgotten the entire conversation, but Crumley had not. With a malicious glint in his beady eyes he combed over the agency’s personnel records, looking for the ideal person to send. Someone who was qualified on paper but would be difficult for the general to explain later. Crumley would enjoy watching the general squirm when he had to explain why a resource needed back home was rotting in some piss-hole country no one had even heard of. “The difference between me and you, general,” he muttered to himself, “is that I’m competent.”

Crumley’s eye scanned down the list and came to rest on Robert McFadden. A desk jocky, a slacker, and one of the few people in the western hemisphere who could speak Ztrtkijistani. He spoke a lot of languages, and was currently working on translating Iranian communications. He would be sorely missed. Perfect.

Crumley smiled and began to type the orders.

Robert McFadden shifted uneasily on the wooden chair. “I’m here to catalog the idioms and mannerisms in everyday speech. The language here is not like any other in the area, or anywhere for that matter.”

The guard still looked skeptical, but with a grunt he shrugged and rooted around in his desk for his stamp, and having found that, some ink for it. “Don’t use it so much,” he explained. No one else in the world is dumb enough to come here. He carefully stamped Robert’s passport, inspected his handiwork, and returned the papers. “Welcome to Ztrtkijistan,” he said. His forced smile revealed a gap where his front two teeth should have been.

“Thank you.” Robert stood to leave. The guard put his fur cap back on and walked over to the bus with Robert.

“It seems like on my map the border should be a few kilometers up the road.”

“Which map you got?”

“Fremming’s.” Robert held it out for inspection.

The soldier dutifully studied it for a moment, then said, “That map’s no good.”

As they walked toward the bus Robert blew into his hands, envying the heavy gloves the other wore. It was October, and things were going to get much colder, he knew.

“What map should I use?”

The soldier thought. “They’re all no good.” He shrugged. “Enjoy your time here,” he said skeptically and moved to raise the gate.

Robert climbed back onto the bus and surveyed the other passengers as they watched him frankly. He moved back to the seat he had been occupying for the last few hours and settled in next to a middle-aged man who was also missing his front two teeth. The man was shorter than Robert – these were not a tall people, they were thin and small, like the sparse vegetation once again flashing past the windows of the bus. This was not a place for towering trees or rich jungle, it was the place where toughness was the only dominant gene.

“You are from America?” the man asked.

“That’s right,” Robert said, and wondered what question he could ask the other man in return. He had difficulty enough conversing in the US, where at least theoretically he he had something in common with the people he was talking to. The man had spoken occasionally during the trip, saying things like “The bus crashed here once,” and “I have a cousin who raises goats up there.” Each time Robert tried to think of possible replies, but beyond “Oh, I see,” or “You don’t say,” he came up empty.

“Yes, I’m American.” He tried to expand. “I live in Washington, but I’m from California originally.”

“The man nodded. Ah, California.” Robert suspected he had no idea where California was. Not even Hollywood had penetrated these mountains. Not, at least, as an actual place that people could be from. “Why have you come here?”

“I’m a professor…”

“You have come to teach us things? How to speak English? Some people think we should teach all our children English, the way we all learned Russian.” He didn’t look enthusiastic about either. “I am not so sure…”

“No, I’m not here for that. I’m here to learn about your culture.”

“Why?”

“It will help the Americans to understand you better.”

He shrugged. What’s to understand? We’re just regular people. “Maybe we should send someone to study the Americans.”

Robert laughed and the other man smiled at his apparent joke. “Maybe you should,” Robert said. “In the meantime you have me to study.” He gestured vaguely at all the others watching him on the bus.

The other nodded solemnly at Robert’s joke. “Yes, yes, we will study you, too.” Suddenly he laughed and slapped Robert on the shoulder. “We will all be professors.”

Saturday Night

If I could be doing anything at all here in Prague tonight, it would be curling up on the couch under a blanket, drinking wine from the bottle and watching A Fistful of Dollars with the volume up too loud. That will be difficult, logistically speaking, as I don’t have the movie.

The writing is going well, too.

The Descent – let’s wrap this up.

Part three of my review of this book.

OK, to start, if I was editor of The Descent, I would have put a big message on the top of the manuscript, that just said, “Hey! Who knew what when?” Then I would have tagged a few choice examples and sent it back to the author. People are nearly simultneously theorizing that the bad guys are extinct and lamenting that there are no good specimins to study because mobs tear them apart.

Eventually, I gave up on the details. I was able to just shrug off the inconsistencies and enjoy the ride. It wasn’t so much suspension of disbelief as a conscious choice to just let the details slide and get on with the story. Resupply in the tunnels? OK, whatever. For some reason the ocean chooses not to come down the holes. For some reason people in an unmapped labyrinth can reach prearranged locations. Fine. I’ll tolerate it because other strange things are happening that are really interesting, and I’ll focus my attention on those things. Why do the bad guys hold Ali the Hot Nun in such high regard? Is Branch nuts? Holy crap! A doomsday device! (It says something about the intricate world this takes place in that those are NOT spoilers.) And the bad guys themselves – they are awesome.

Normally I wouldn’t put up with the crap. When I find myself in a book like that I can easily set it aside. It’s a compliment to the writer, then, that I still found the story worth reading. It’s got the Devil in it, and he’s not a nice guy. When he murders someone, he makes it poetic. Yet, as I mentioned above, he’s got some competition this time around. There are good guys hunting him, and bad guys hunting him too.

I’m glad I read this book. Do I recommend it? I guess that depends on you. Are you one of those people who sits in a movie and annoys your friends pointing out the technical problems? Then no, this book is not for you. Are you the one who wants to hit the guy who’s talking about the technical problems and says, “Who cares, asshole? The hadals are coming!” then this story could work for you.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

November 1st, 2004

Considering how much action there is in this story, there’s not a lot happening in this chapter. I went back later and wrote a chapter before this one, but I’m pretty sure this is my output from my first day of writing in 2004. The grafted-on opening chapter isn’t terribly actionitious either, but it adds to the suspense at least. So when you read this, just remember that all is not as it appears, and someone’s going to get hurt.

I’m not sure anyone else is finding my November 1st’s interesting, but I’m enjoying the memories. If you don’t want to read a big pile of unedited words, then these episodes probably aren’t for you. That’s OK; I understand. I’m trying to intersperse my normal style of blog episode (whatever that is).

Worst Enemy

The bar sat at the top of a rickety staircase, the surrounding vegetation giving it the feel of a treehouse. It was quiet, still offseason. The breeze carried with it pungent tropical smells, somehow overcoming the human smells from the town below.

On the patio four tourists were getting drunk, two couples drinking the house rum concoction. They were probably staying at one of the resorts to the south of town and had decided to come into town for a change of pace. This bar certainly qualified as that. They didn’t ask what was in their drinks, and that was fine with Rose.

On the TV at the sheltered end of the bar the Steelers were playing, brought live by satellite from a cold-looking Three rivers Stadium. Rose was idly cleaning things that weren’t dirty as she wacthed her team.

“Oh, Jesus Christ!” she shouted at the TV. The tourists stopped their conversation to see what the commotion was about. “You worthless piece of shit!” she concluded.

“Nice to see you, too, Rose,” the man at the bar said.

Rose wheeled. “Jesus, Jake, I didn’t see you.”

“I am a sneaky bastard.”

“Shit, Jake, It’s great to see you.” Rose came around the bar to give the man a hug. She stepped back from the man and said, “You’re early this year.”

“I thought if I got here before the hurricane season was over I could have you all to myself.”

Rose laughed, reverberating out over the town. There was a saying in Cruz Bay, “When Rose is happy, everyone knows.”

“Saint Pauli Girl?” she asked. That was the onofficial beer of the island, and Jake liked to respect tradition.

But there were other traditions. Jake put on a hurt expression. “Rose, how can you forget?”

“Oh, shit, Jake, I’m sorry. It’s the fuckin’ Steelers. I can’t concentrate.”

“If I’d known it was Sunday, I would have waited until tomorrow to come in.”

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“You’re right.”

Rose had poured generous portions of Scotch. She handed one to Jake. They held their glasses up, tapping them gently together, making eye contact. Rose threw her whiskey back, Jake sipped his. “Here’s to ya, Rose,” Jake said belatedly.

One of the girls from the patio cam over for another round. Rose started pouring booze into plastic cups. While she was fishing for the pineapple, she asked, “So how’s Rosie?” She turned to the girl waiting for the drinks. “He named his boat after me,” she said.

“Really?” asked the girl.

“Not exactly,” Jake said. “The real name is Rosinante.”

“What a great name!” the girl exclaimed. “Does that make you don Quixote?”

He chuckled wryly. “Hardly. My nake is Jake.”

“He’s got the most beautiful boat in the bay,” said Rose. “What’re you working on now, Jake?”

“One of the winches is sticking, and I want to do a little woodwork while I’m here.”

“You ever get those electronics figured out?”

“Yeah, there was some weird wiring. I ended up rebuilding the whole harness, pretty much.”

“Damn, that’s a beautiful boat. I love all the wood.” Rose turned back to the girl, who was lingering to listen in on the conversation. “You should see her. She’s fast, too.”

“You don’t know that,” Jake said.

“Oh, come on, you kicked Cap’n Steve’s ass two years ago.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

The girl asked, “Is it the boat or the captain that wins a race?”

Jake hesitated. “Longer boats go faster.”

“How long is Captain Steve’s boat?”

Jake glanced at Rose. “68 feet?” he asked. Rose nodded.

“How long is your boat?”

“52 feet. Longer when she’s heeling. I beat him because I’m rigged to sail shorthanded and his crew wasn’t much.”

Rose butted in. “You kicked that guys ass.” To the girl she said, “Cap’n Steve’s been trying to buy Rosie ever since.”

Jake shook his head. “I think I’m going to sell, Rose.”

“What?” both women asked in unison. “You can’t!” added the tourist.

Jake shrugged. “The tub’s too big for me,” he said. “I don’t need so much boat.”

“Crap, Jake,” said Rose, “You’ve put everything you have into Rosie.”

“She doesn’t need me so much anymore.”

“Jake, you love that boat. You can’t sell it. I won’t let you.”

“Man’s gotta eat, Rose.” It took a moment for Rose to digest that. When she had Jake continued, “There’s not enough for me to fix on her anyway. I need a new challenge.”

“You don’t really think that. You just don’t know what to do when it’s easy is all. Crap, Jake, fight for it.”

“Can I see your boat?” the tourist asked.

Jake finished his scotch. “Not tonight,” he said. “But congratulations.”

“What?”

“Congratulations on your engagement.”

“How…”

“You keep fiddling with your ring, so I know it’s new. It takes some getting used to.”

“Oh.” She looked at the impressive rock as if she was surprised to see it there. “Thanks.”

The tourist took her drinks back to her friends. Rose slid Jake a beer and said, “You still have your way with the ladies. She was almost starting to like you there for a moment.”

Jake took a long drink. “Can’t have that,” he finally said. “She’s not happy about her engagement. I don’t want to get in the middle of that.”

“You always find a reason, Jake. Blondie’s pretty cute, and she liked you.”

“Really, I’m just saving ther the trouble of learning later what a messed-up motherfucker I am.”

Rose shook her head. “Jake, any woman would be glad to be with you.” She held out her hand to forestall comment. “Not me, of course, but any other woman.”

“Thanks, Rose. That’s just what I needed to hear from my favorite bartender.”

“Ah, Jake. I know you’ve got a favorite bartender in every port in the world.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Rose. I’ll lie to them, but I’ll never lie to you.”

“You say that to all of them, too.”

“Not quite. I tell them all they’re my second favorite bartender.”

First Person

I was reading a short story the other day, and for the first two pages I was entirely frustrated. I was trying to form a picture of the scene, and while I had a couple of descriptive comments about the narraror, I was missing a really, really important fact. I didn’t know the narrator’s gender. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, but this time it did. Of course, to cause that confusion one must write in the first person.

I habitually start new stories in the first person. Many of the stories I submit are still in that voice. I have yet to sell a story for actual cash money that is told in the first person (not that I’ve sold much in third person, either). I don’t think this is a matter of editorial bias, and I’m skeptical about many of the reasons editors and other writers cite. For me, it boils down to this. I can write “I” and save myself a whole lot of work on characterization. I know who I am. The problem is that you don’t. That’s surprisingly easy to overlook. While I think I’m getting intimate, the reader is saying, “who the hell is this?”

Most of the time first person is just the author being lazy.

Not always, I must hasten to add. The Monster Within cannot be told except in first person. In this case, however, the narrower perspective is all about establishing character. It’s about learning who Hunter is as Hunter does.

Tonight I’m working on a story I’m supposed to be holding until I get my almost-done work sent out. It’s in the first person. The first paragraph makes sense in first person, and as planned the end will justify first person as well. But the story is expanding, and the benefits of first person are getting lost in the story. That’s the trap, I think. As storytellers, we want to speak directly to the audience at the start of the story, to set the stage, and again at the end, a debriefing of sorts. For the rest of it, the reader can benefit from descriptions of our main character from outside. By getting away from the narrator’s perspective we can see the narrator much more clearly.

So, here’s my humble advice for writers everywhere, should you choose to accept it. Always use third person unless: 1) It is fundamentally necessary to the story that it be told in the form of a journal. 99% of all stories told this way don’t have to be, so if you think this applies to you, you’re probably wrong. 2) The narrator MUST speak directly to the audience. See Princess Bride. 3) The narrator is a liar, or at least you want the audience to consider that possibility. This can include self-deception. See Catcher in the Rye. 4) Your name is Emma Bull, and your novel is called Bone Dance.

First person does not make the story more intimate, but it definitely narrows the perspective. Use with caution.