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.

November 1st, 2003

This is isn’t exactly what I wrote that day so long ago, but it’s reasonably close. I got it from a file dated March of 2004, which is when I had a big first draft and was about to do some serious chopping. The writing here is certainly awkward enough to be a first draft. This scene changed a lot over the years, before meeting its demise this summer. At least, the scene this had become met its demise. After years of revising, it’s interesting to look back on this and see that there are some good things that got lost along the way. There are also some things about this that I am not at all sad to be rid of.

The Monster Within

I watched other patrons come and go as I nursed my beer. You’ve seen a hundred Taverns and pubs like the Crossroads Inn. It was a large room, with a bar at one end, a fireplace at the other, tables in between. Most of the smaller tables were occupied, and one of the two long tables was filled with a boisterous group of mercenaries who were there for the same reason I was. Looking for work.

It was a chilly day; Winter was reminding us that she was waiting for us. There was only one way to avoid her icy breath, and I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. So I sat in a corner away from the heat of the merry fire and people that enjoyed it. “Bring it on, Winter,” I mumbled into my beer. “You haven’t killed me yet.” She had tried, and even come close, but I was still there, with all my fingers and toes, and a room to stay in until my money ran out. Tomorrow.

“Did you say something?” asked the serving girl as she passed my table, laden with crock mugs for the mercanaries.

“Just talking to the Universe,” I said, “but it’s not listening.”

She laughed prettily even though she didn’t understand and went off to flirt with other patrons. Her hips swayed even more as she approached the long table with her cargo of ale. I heard her laugh clearly across the room, ringing high over the rest of the conversation.

The name of the Crossroads Inn is descriptive if not particularly creative. The town of Rinth sits at the intersection of two important trade roads, and prospers by catering to the merchants passing through. There were several inns in town, but this was the favorite among soldiers and free lances, so it was the place merchants came when they were looking for a little extra muscle as they continued east into more dangerous territory. It was also the place where they would drop off unneeded muscle as they headed West. The area to the east was lawless not because neither Landreth or Garadel claimed it, but because both did. Most of the bandits were technically in the employ of one state or the other, although they rarely seemed ineterested in advancing anyone’s interests but their own. They were little more than bandits and petty warlords.

Some merchants specialized in the road east from Rinth that eventually reached Landreth. Some had even made special tarriff arrangements with the bandits. In the end, however, no matter who you paid, you had better be ready to defend your cargo.

Some mercanaries made a living off that road, and had arrangements of their own, but I wasn’t so much a specialist myself. I had traveled that road often enough, but I couldn’t keep doing the same thing for very long. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and I hadn’t been getting much work lately.

There were some merchants at the smaller tables. One group had obviously just come from the East; they were drinking heavily and I watched as the worry of the journey was lifted from their shoulders. They had made it. They had taken a risk and now they would profit handsomely. The local working girls had picked up on their mood and were vying for their attantion. No one that visited the Crossroads Inn and had a little coin would sleep alone if he didn’t want to.

Most of the merchants that traveled the east road were younger, trying to establish themselves and build a reputation. Very few older men took that risk. Traders either died young on the East road or they made their money and moved on to safer, but more competitive, routes.

That made it more difficult for me to get work here. I depended on regulars, merchants who knew me and knew what I could do. Getting a new client was the most difficult part of my profession. Killing I could do, dying I was prepared to do, but approaching a man and asking for work was almost impossible for me. I’m not that much to look at, really, smaller than most other hired swords, with a baby face that makes me look like a boy barely past puberty. People who know me, people who have fought on battlefields and in the caves at Algarth with me, know that I am a capable soldier, and more honest than many. Strangers usually just laugh. I’m not much of a salesman – not much of a talker, really. Sometimes I would try to tell them about my military record, but it would just add to the merriment.

There were no friends or acquantances here tonight, only strangers. Usually in a group of mercanaries the size of the one at the long table I would be able to recognize someone. I recognozed one of the Westbound merchants, but he would be reducing his payroll now that he was through the danger. I knew I should talk to him anyway, just to renew the relationship, but I’m not much at small talk. I looked over the other merchants, trying to spot the one who would need more muscle and would not laugh in my face.

I had one picked out, and was rehearsing my sales pitch, when he got up and went upstairs. I started over. No one looked like a very good prospect. Still, people were coming and going all the time. Maybe another caravan would come in before my money ran out. I’ve been out of money plenty of times, and I am quite capable of living off the land, but when you’re broke it just shows. People prefer to hire people who look successful.

Eventually, as it became obvious which of the prostitutes were going to win the affection – and money – of the merchants, the other working girls began to scout around the rest of the room. Finally one of them decided to give me a try. She sashayed over to my table and I had to admit to myself that she was very pretty. Her shirt – blouse, or whatever they’re called – was cut very low, revealing ample cleavage beneath. Her skirt had a slit cut far up the side, revealing at least one shapely leg.

“Would you like some company for the evening?” she asked sweetly.

“I’m not your type,” I said, trying with only limited success to make it sound like a growl.

“Don’t be silly, kid. Everyone needs a little company now and then.”

For a moment I was tempted. It sounded nice, someone to lie with in the darkness, talking about nothing much in particular, sharing body heat as the night got colder. Maybe even laughing at some little joke that wasn’t really that funny. To not be alone. I had been alone for so long now I wondered if I was even capable of any form of intimacy. I felt a hollowness in my chest that I had almost forgotten. The place where most people have a heart. I had something else there instead. A monster. Perhaps for one night, though, I could pretend.

The monster moved inside me and I came to my senses. “I’m the type with no money,” I said.

The look in her eye said that I had cut her more deeply than I had intended. She had offered comfort, and I had called her a whore. “That’s not always what I want.” She pulled herself together and returned to the warmer end of the hall.

What if I had said yes? What if I had let down my guard for one night and gone with her? What if I hadn’t been sitting there when the stranger came in, looking for someone to do a job for him? But the man was looking for me, and the monster saw to it that he found me. I was no more able to accept the comfort of that girl than I was able to end my own life.

The monster wasn’t real in the sense that it was a separate creature that lived inside me, although most of the time it felt that way. It’s just a name I gave to a part of me that seemed to have its own life. It certainly had its own goals, and I suspected that my survival was not one of them. We didn’t talk much.

I didn’t pay very much attention to the stranger at first; he wasn’t wearing the outward signs of wealth that traders seem to be so fond of, and he didn’t look like any sort of hired sword. He paused at the door, surveying the room, and, walking very slowly, he eased himself into a rough-hewn chair in the no-mans-land between the rest of the patrons and me. A traveler, weary from the road. No doubt his companions were nearby, and would be joining him soon.

Where he sat, I could not help but look at him further, and the more I looked at him, the more curious I became. Although he was clearly weary from the road, he held himself erect. There was discipline in his posture, and pride. His clothes, too, though simple, were tailored to him and made of sturdy but soft material. Beneath a layer of dust his boots gleamed with fresh polish. The hilt of his sword was finely worked and well-worn.

I realized that he was looking at me, appraising me as I was appraising him. He smiled slightly. “May I offer you a drink?” he asked.

I wasn’t working, so I decided that another couldn’t hurt. I don’t drink when I’m on a payroll, but between jobs I sometimes allow myself to dull my senses a little. Every once in a while I allow myself to dull my senses a lot, a cowardly attempt at oblivion, but they always come back. I had promised the owner of the tavern that I wouldn’t start a fight tonight – this was not my first time in Rinth and tavern owners have better memories than my employers – so there was really nothing to lose.

“Mind if I join you?” he asked after he had ordered our drinks.

“Be my guest,” I said.

He pulled himself up slowly, but with a grace that spoke of training. Either dance lessons at court or combat training. Both, I decided. I shifted my chair to allow him an equal share of space at the table. He stood over me, his dark clothing making him look even taller than he actually was, which was pretty tall to start with. He smelled like horse and money. “My name is Smith,” he said, offering his hand.

I took his hand and shook it, pumping twice firmly, not squeezing so hard it looked like I was trying to prove something. “Hunter,” I said.

“Hunter? Is that the name your mother gave you?”

“That would be a remarkable coincidence,” I said.

He laughed, and sat with a sigh.

“Long road?” I asked.

“You have no idea. Traveling like this always takes it out of me. But I have been in a hurry.”

The serving girl arrived with our drinks. When she set them down the table rocked, causing some of the dark liquid to slosh onto the table and onto me. She didn’t notice; she was flirting with my guest, giving him an eyeful as she bent over to set down the mugs and brushing against him quite unnecessarily as she turned to leave. She could smell the money as well. I was a little jealous of the attention, despite myself.

Smith didn’t seem to notice her at all. Holding his mug so that nothing would drip on his clothes, he sampled the beer. “I’ve had better,” he said with a slight grimace. I had had better ale as well, but not here. There didn’t seem to be anything to be gained by belaboring the point, so I sipped my beer, letting it drip where it might.

“Why do you call youself Hunter?” he asked.

“It’s left over from my army days. You get all sorts of names in the army.”

“What were you called before that?”

I shrugged. “Thomas, usually.”

“But now you’re Hunter.”

I nodded.

“You know how to use that?” he looked meaningfully at my sword.

I nodded. “And I know how not to.”

Smith raised one eyebrow. I had always wanted to be able to do that. I resisted the urge to try again to do it right then. He looked around the bar. “Who do you think the most dangerous person in this place is right now?”

He was testing me, which would have been annoying except that it probably meant he had work of some sort to offer. “Dangerous to your money bag, that little hooker over there with the light fingers. Dangerous to your health, probably the cook in back. But dangerous overall…” I surveyed the other patrons. Some of them looked like they could be trouble, but as I sized them all up the monster whispered in my ear and I knew it was right. “…you.” I said.

This time his smile revealed a neat row of narrow, white teeth. A wolf’s smile. “You could be right. I need someone to do a job for me. Are you interested?”

“That depends on the job, but probably, yes.”

“I have a mesage to deliver to the palace in Garadel. The messenger requires a bodyguard. Discretion is very important.”

I raised my eyebrows. Garadel was the seat of the largest and arguably most powerful kingdom in the world. A delivery to the palace implied that this was royal business. I wondered what rank Smith held in the royal household.

“Where is this messenger now?”

“We can discuss the particulars after you are in my employ.”

“Why me?” I asked. Usually for a bodyguard you hire the biggest, ugliest man you can find. More often than not, his presence alone would prevent trouble. I was better in situations where the fight was already a given.

“As I said, discretion is very important. If the bodyguard looks like a bodyguard, then everyone will know that he is protecting something. What I need is someone who can protect without appearing to be a protector. There is another thing as well. I believe that I am a good judge of a man. Usually when I meet someone I can tell right away what their character is. I believe that you would never betray an employer. Am I right?”

I nodded. “Yes.” I was compelled to add, “as long as he doesn’t betray me.”

He smiled, congratulating himself on his perception more than appreciating me. He put a coin on the table. “This is for the next hour of your time. Do you accept?”

I didn’t even look at the coin. It didn’t matter what it was if it allowed him to describe the job. “Sure,” I said.

“What I am about to tell you is secret. You are not to tell anyone about it, even after our current contract expires. Do you understand?”

I chose not to be insulted. If the guy needed to state it formally, he could knock himself out. “I understand,” I said.

“The messenger will be prepared to leave from Monkham the day after tomorrow. You are to be there before nightfall the day before.”

Monkham lay to the south, straight down the road. I was between mounts at that time, and Monkham was long way to go on foot in one day. At least I would have a night to rest before the journey started. It would take about two weeks to get from there to Garadel by horse, depending on how fast the messenger could move. “Is anyone likely to cause trouble?”

He nodded. “If certain people find out about the message, they will try to stop it. I have lost messengers in the past.”

And bodyguards, I assumed. I sized him up, and made a guess at what he would be willing to pay. “Thirty crowns,” I said.

He smiled again. “Ten,” he said, “and you can keep the horse.”

Depending on the horse, that would be a fair price. Depending on the horse. “Twenty and the horse,” I said.

“Fifteen,” Simth said, “and you will like the horse.”

I hadn’t had fifteen crowns jangling in my pocket in a long time. It was a lot of money to make for two weeks work; in the army I had earned less than that in two years. I could stretch that kind of money over months, and then I could sell the horse. That would easily get me through the winter, and well into summer beyond. “All right,” I said.

“Good.” He gestured to the coin on the table. It was a gold crown. A lot of money. This had been the most lucrative hour of my life. He handed me another. The way he was throwing money around, I wondered why he had bothered haggling. Probably just for the fun of it.

“Use this to pay for our drinks and you may use the rest for whatever, ah, accomodation you wish for this evening,” he said. “There will be five crowns and a horse waiting for you in Monkham. There will be ten more crowns in Garadel.” He stood. “Ask for Haversham. You’ll find him in the stables just outside of town to the north. Tell him you are the escort. Do not use my name; it would mean nothing to him anyway. The code word is ‘glory’.” He frowned. “Not what I would have picked. If he asks about Bill, Bill is dead.”

He stood so I did too. After all, he was my boss now. “I am pleased that I found you here, Hunter. I look forward to a long and beneficial relationiship. I will see you again after you are finished in Garadel.” We shook hands again and he left the inn without looking back. It was too late for him to start a journey tonight, but I was not surprised to see that he had found accomodation in a different inn. There were other places that offered services more suited to one of his class.

I paid for the beers and had plenty left over. The girl I had insulted was still there. She had seen me pay and now she saw me looking at her. She came back over, proving she was braver than I was.

“Change your mind?” she asked.

“I, uh, no, I mean, I’m not interested.” I felt myself turning red.

Her smile became more genuine. She touched my cheek gently. “I’ll be gentle, lad. You won’t forget it.”

“Look, here, just take this.” I handed her a coin, a ten-heller coin as it turned out. Rather more than it would have cost to have her stay with me all night. But I knew now that was impossible.

She looked at the coin, angry. “That’s all you think I am, isn’t it? That’s all you think I want?”

“No, I -” But she was gone. She did take the coin, though. So she couldn’t have been that badly hurt.

I stood and looked down on my unfinished beer. I wanted it, but I was on the job now. The crown he had given me bound me to his service as much as all the King’s gold would have.

There was nothing left to do but go up to my room and prepare for the trip. I had been camping in a copse of trees on the outskirts of town for the past few days, but I had felt the cold snap coming and had booked a room for the night, spending the last of my precious cash to be more comfortable. I must be getting soft to spend my last few coins just to be warmer for one night. Now I was flush again and glad to be indoors. I heard the wind picking up outside. The worst of the storm would pass by morning, but it was still going to be a cold journey. Fortunately I would be moving quickly and keeping myself warm.

Just Because I Don’t Know What They’re Saying Doesn’t Make it Not Crap

I’m at the Budvar Bar Near Home right now. There aren’t many people here, and the plasma TV is showing an American thriller movie. Tom Clancy was mentioned in the opening credits, and it seems that Ben Affleck is the star.

It could be that Mr. Clancy bludgeons himself whenever he’s reminded of this flick. I hope so. I’ve read several books by him that I’ve enjoyed greatly. But what is happening before my eyes on the television is patently ridiculous.

A pilot is patrolling the desert wastes. He is distracted when the photo of his wife and child comes untaped from his jet fighter dashboard. While trying to recover the photo he lets his guard down and runs into a hostile missile. Words fail me. The photo on the dashboard immediately classified the guy as Dead Meat. But then I am asked to believe that a guy carrying an atomic fuckin’ bomb would be distracted that way. Or even that he would be flying without an escort.

Then I’m asked to believe that those who lost the bomb shrugged and said, “oh, well, we can make another.” Twenty-nine years later, the bomb is recovered by Bad Guys. “It’s warm!” one of the scavengers declares. I am being asked to believe (I think) that the Israelis lost an atomic bomb and didn’t try to get it back. Yeeeeaaaah, riiiight. Tom! Mr. Clancy! That wasn’t your idea, was it? I can still respect you, can’t I?

OK, and as I watch we have the silliest of all action movie conceits. The standoff where each guy is pointing a gun at the other. Only in Hollywood would someone hesitate to pull the trigger. *ahem quentin* Seriously. A standoff occurs when the person who moves first loses. Guns pointed at each other is not a standoff situation – the first to move wins. If I have a gun pointed at someone’s head, and they have a gun pointed at mine, and we’re not old chums from back in the day, I’m pulling the trigger.

It could be that there was dialog to go along with this patently ridiculous standoff to make it make sense. If I was the guard with bad teeth, things would not have got to that point. Here’s the test I give myself as a writer, for every character in every story. Would I have done that? Given that character X has limited information and even less time to make a decision, would any non-stupid human being act the way the author asked this guy to behave? You can’t base a plot on the actions of stupid people.

Nor can you depend on bad driving, but as the movie progresses they have done that too. You can’t make a really stupid driving error a plot point. OK, you can, but you shouldn’t. The car that won’t start should be reserved for crappy horror movies. Please, Mr. Clancy, tell me you’re better than this. I hunger for the reassurance that you were not responsible for what I have been watching.

Although, honestly, I know you’ve already sold out. You flog your name shamelessly, unconcerned with quality. There’s the whole series of crappy airport novels with your name on them that you can’t feel good about. But there they are. You’ve earned your laurels. Just… don’t insult me like this.

Hopefully, when I sell out, I will do it more gracefully.

End of an Institution

Saxová Palačinkarna (rhymes with Sax’s Creperie) is under new ownership. There is still a resident pup, but rather than Sax the golden retriever, we have a little dog with a fancy haircut. The dog seems all right, but it’s not the same as being greeted by Sax. (Sax remains in the logo, flipping a palačinky, his other paw resting on a big stack of yummy treats.

This was my second visit since the changeover. First visit: Cool! Things are still working here and the old guy with the bushy beard (who I hoped was the new owner) is a hoot. Second visit: Ehh… The food lacked magic, and they had an easy time forgetting they had customers to take care of.

This could be growing pains, just people who thought owning a restaurant would be cool (and rightly figuring grandpa would be great), who still need some time to get used to how much work even a small restaurant generates. I hope they grow into the job and find success; they seem like a good bunch of people.

November 1st, 2002

I’ve decided to put an excerpt of each of my previous NaNoWriMo efforts here. Sorry in advance. The first year’s excerpt was a no-brainer; day one of novel one. Since I haven’t actually read the story that was also the easiest to find. This installment of NaNoWriMo hit parade is a little tricker. I spent the next eleven months of my life on this story as well, adding more than editing, letting the story sprawl. There are many parts much better than day one. The thing is, I have no idea what day they were, or even what month they were. So I have gone back to my earliest version of chapter one. This is not exactly what I wrote on November 1, 2002, but it’s pretty close.

I’ve edited this chapter a lot since then. A lot. (The reason I have such old versions is to test the format conversion for newer versions of Jer’s Novel Writer.) So while this isn’t exactly what I produced that lovely November day, as I sat in Callahan’s on day one of “30 days, 30 bars, 1 novel”, it’s reasonably close. I think the only major change after day one is that I experimented with giving people pretty heavy dialects. I wanted to differentiate Jane’s speech, but the result is some hard reading.

Also, this is pretty wordy. That was the point, after all.

My current version of the chapter is a total rewrite from the ground up; it may be that no phrase at all from this version survived. While the new version is definitely better I think this first spew of words did a decent job setting the tone of who Jane is. (I was tempted to give you chapter two here instead, it’s tighter and introduces the world better and is overall a better chapter one than chapter one is, but then I got tired of thinking and just decided this will be a series of November 1sts.)

A side note I discovered as I worked on this story: one of the most difficult things about world-building is inventing a good system of cursing. I believe that one day I will come up with a vocabulary of epithets so integrated and natural that they will give me both the Hugo and the Nebula, with a Pulitzer for garnish.

The Test

Jane was just a little girl when her mother died of the shakes. Her mother had tried to shelter her from the truth, that she was dying, but Jane knew something was wrong. Late at night she would awaken to the sound of her father giving futile reassurance to her mother as she silently wept.

It wasn’t until Jane overheard a neighbor talking that she knew what was wrong.

“Such a shame,” the woman had said, shaking her head. “The shakes, and her so young. Such a sweet girl. And she with them little ones, too. An’ thet lass a queer duck, ‘erself. Gives me the shivers when she looks a’ me. She’s a touch o’ the dark blood in her, I’d nae be surprised.”

“It’s thet way she talks,” another agreed. “Like a steamin’ princess.”

“Thet’s ‘er Ma’s doin’. She thet it might ‘elp ‘er rise in station.”

The first woman clucked. “Jest made the lass odd, is all she did. Jest talkin’ like a steamin’ richie don’t make yeh one. Jest look at ‘er with thet book.”

They hadn’t realized that Jane was listening, or they would not have mentioned the shakes. There had been a careful conspiracy to keep the truth from Jane, as if that would change anything. Nobody ever got better when they had the shakes. The disease was as inexorable and unforgiving as it was painful and humiliating. Jane had seen someone with the shakes once before, a neighbor in the crowded row house, another woman who worked the wonders down at the factory. Her screams had echoed up and down the hallway. By the time she died, the whole building let out a sigh of relief.

Jane pretended she did not hear. She just sat quietly, forming the letters in her most treasured possession, a reading and writing primer she had found on the ground outside the school where the children who didn’t have to work went to learn. Nobody paid any attention to her as her tears smeared the lines where her fingers passed over the inscrutable shapes. The corner of the room where she sat had markings all over the floor, from the times she had a scribbler and she practiced making words. Jane fancied that it was a spell she had placed on that corner of the room, that the simple words were actually powerful runes to deflect any evil that might try to reach her there. She didn’t mind when her mother made her clean them, for it gave her a chance to replace the simple words with longer ones, and now even whole sentences.

Jane’s mother never made her clean the markings if she didn’t have a writing stick to make new ones.

She wished she had a scribbler now. She wished that her mother had let her practice her writing in other parts of the house, to create words that could keep the shakes away. She reminded herself that they were just ordinary words, not the mysterious symbols used by the Great Ones, but she wanted to be able to do something, and that was all she had. No one would stop her from writing wherever she wanted right now, but she didn’t have a scribbler and there was not going to be any money to buy one.

After a few weeks her mother’s tremors were undisguisable. She started to forget things, and remember things that had never happened. The tremors started in her hands and slowly spread throughout her body. For a few weeks there was no other indication that anything was wrong. When mother slept they would look at her and fool themselves that everything was as it had always been.

As time passed, however, Jane’s mother slept less and less. The last two weeks were marked by the catastrophic loss of bodily control and sanity. When her voice gave out she continued to rave in a hoarse whisper, seeing things that were not there, speaking with people long dead, and crying piteously in terror as unseen demons tormented her.

It was on a quiet morning that she died. The sudden stillness in the building was unnerving. The entire block paused, took a breath, said a prayer for the departed, and after a moment moved on.

The stillness continued in the room that Jane’s family called home, however. They all just sat, Jane, her father, and her brother. Her brother was still too young to understand what was going on, but he took his cues from the other two. Finally he asked, “Is mama better now?”

Jane’s father took a moment to answer. “No, John, she’s passed to the shadow world. The spirits came and took her by the hand and showed her the way to somewhere where she doesn’t have to suffer anymore.” To Jane’s ears, it didn’t sound like he believed what he was saying.

“I want to go there, too, Papa. I want to be with Mama. I want to go to the shadow world.”

The neighbors who were visiting then all sucked in their breath. Some of them made motions in the air to ward off bad luck or worse. Even Jane’s father seemed alarmed. “Nae, lad, Yeh mus’ nae ever say a thing like ‘at. Nae even breathe it. Nae even dream it. Yeh nea ever know the dark ears what may be listenin’. Yeh will be goin’ to see yer ma anon, boy, long hence, I pray, but if yeh go tae soon ye will nae be ready, so the dark ones will take yeh for theyselves, to eat yeh or worse. The dark ones alway be lookin’ for the little boys they can fool into followin’ them, but yeh must not listen to ‘em. Yeh have to work your whole life to earn yeh place there, so yeh can be in peace there.”

“When will Mama come back?”

“She’s nae comin’ back tae’ us ever, little mon. ”

John’s face started to cloud as he began to understand. “I want mama tae come back.” The tears were coming.

“Aye, I know.” The big man gathered his son into his arms. The hard man was crying too. “I know.”

Jane watched them cling to each other from across the room. She wanted to go over to them, to share their sorrow and comfort, but she did not know how. She watched as Father’s big, gnarled hands took in her brother and built a fortress to protect him. Her father looked up and his eyes met hers, and she felt that he wanted to cross the gulf as well, he wanted to give her comfort and protection, but he was just as lost as she was. When a neighbor came to the door, it was Jane that answered.

The visitors had become a procession, bringing food and words of condolence to the most recently grieving family. A display like this happened every week in the building, it seemed. Everyone pitched in, because they knew that it might be their family next. Jane often had carried the offering to the bereaved; for some reason the gift was better received when delivered by a child. Perhaps it was without the taint of obligation when it came from someone who didn’t really understand what was going on.

Jane did not take comfort in any of her father’s platitudes. She did take comfort in the knowledge that her mother was no longer suffering, but she did not believe they would be together again in some happy place some day. While she allowed that there was a remote chance her mother was in some improbable better place, she was confident that was a place she would never go. She didn’t believe, and the place she didn’t believe in was a place only for believers. So even if she was wrong she was out. She knew that there was a shadow world, she just didn’t believe the descriptions of it that she heard, since no one had ever come back from there.

Days passed, and slowly the sympathy visits dried up as new tragedies supplanted the old, and gradually life settled into a new routine. There were still some women who would call, women who had lost husbands to the lumps or to the blood cough. They would bring food and dote over the children, praising them and giving them sweets. Their own children would never come over with them.

This parade, too, slowly petered out as Jane’s father began to drink more and more.

The first time had been about a week after Jane’s mother had died. He had been sitting in his chair, quiet, brooding. Suddenly he had jumped up, startling both children. “Look after the lad,” he said to Jane. “I need tae get some air.” He didn’t come home until the middle of the next day. He had staggered in, disheveled, reeling, reeking of vomit, and had gone straight to bed. Hours later he called out “Breakfast!”

Jane did her best to make him something, but there was almost no food in the house. Her father had been angry at the thin broth she had given him. “Yeh air the goddam woman innis house now, and I expec’ yeh tae act like it. There’s nae mon will want yeh like this, sniveling and whining. Get down to shop and bring me some proper kip.”

She was relieved to get out of the house. She went down to the shop that her mother had always taken her to, and walked in as if everything was normal. She selected her bread and eggs the same way her mother had, and approached the counter. She had to stand on tiptoes to see the butcher over the counter. “A pound of bacon, please.”

“Well, bless me if it isn’t Jane! She’s been a far time since I’ve seen yeh, lass. And now yeh be grown up and doing the shopping for the family.” He paused. “And how is your lovely mother?” He asked the question casually, but Jane could see that he was very interested in the answer.

“Mama died. She had the shakes.”

The butcher’s face lingered briefly on sympathy before resting on caution. “The shakes, eh?” He shook his head and made a gesture to ward off bad luck. As if he could catch it. He recited an old proverb. “The spirits are greedy, always taking the finest ones. And how will yeh be payin’ today?”

“On the account, just like Mother did.”

“Ah, darlin’, do yeh know what thet means, account?”

“No.”

“It means that yeh’ll pay me later. Yeh already owes me quite a pile o’ money. For yer ma, I was willin’ teh wait ‘til she could pay it, but if she’s gone I’m afraid thet I can’t be lendin’ yeh any more coppers until I have the silvers yeh already owe.”

“But I don’t have any money.”

“Nae anyone has any coin, Miss Jane, but if I gave everyone free food then I would be theh one starvin’. Yeh unnerstand?”

Jane nodded solemnly, although she didn’t. She didn’t want him to explain any more, though. “I need to bring breakfast for my father,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Miss Jane. I wants to help yeh, I do. But I’ve got enough problems of me own. I can’t help yeh with yourn.”

She fought the urge to cry. She pushed that part of her back inside herself until she couldn’t feel it anymore. “But I have to bring him breakfast.”

The butcher was becoming less sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but nae wi’out money. Yer pa is working. ‘E must have some coppers. Go and get some coin from ‘im and bring it back. Then I can give yeh ‘is bacon.”

Jane wasn’t sure why she was confident that would not work, but she couldn’t think of any other plan. She dragged her heels as she walked back home, not sure of the reception she would receive.

Her father was sitting at the table when she came in, head cradled in his hands. He wasn’t wearing any trousers, and he smelled bad. “Did yeh get me kip?” he asked.

“No, father. The man said I had to give him money.”

“Well, of course yeh hae tae give im money. ‘ow the ‘ell dae yeh expect tae buy tings wi’out money?”

“But I don’t have any money. He said to get money from you. He said we already owe him money for the account.”

“Account? Account? Weh don’t owe thet goddam shyster a goddam bean! Yeh get yer goddam arse down there and bring me me goddam breakfast!”

Jane scampered from the house and started walking back down to the shop. Listlessly she avoided the puddles of filth and worse in the street. There were few others out in the lane, and they moved like animated corpses, which some of them were close to being. She passed a man with oozing sores on his face. He stood staring directly at the weak sun, muttering unintelligibly. Most of the families on the lane knew each other, but she was not surprised that she did not recognize this man. When they had the sores they tended to drift about in the tide of traffic, finally washing up dead in some lane far from home. No one would take in one of these – a simple act of charity could wipe out an entire family. Jane passed as far from him as she possibly could. She hoped he would move on before he died. Sometimes it was a long time before anyone would come to this neighborhood to remove the corpse.

She still had no money and she knew that there was no way she was going to be able to come home without her father’s breakfast. She followed her feet, with no particular destination.

Some time later she realized the day was failing. She watched the sun sink in the west, chased by the fat, lazy, river, which rose and fell with the tides of the mysterious sea beyond. Jane had never seen the ocean, but she wondered about the vast water that was alive somehow. It breathed, its great watery lungs rising and falling, pushing the river back on itself and lifting the ships anchored there.

Jane was not supposed to go down to the docks, but she found herself there now. She was far from home. She turned and started walking quickly back the way she had come.

Without the sun, the autumn air turned cold in a hurry. Jane walked as quickly as she could, which helped keep her warm, but slowly the cold crept into her fingers and toes, stabbing her with tiny needles. Still she pressed on. Eventually the pain in her extremities was replaced with a welcome numbness. She imagined she was walking on pillows; it didn’t seem like she was touching the ground at all.

That is how they found her, floating dreamily on frozen feet, pretending her light jacket was a set of wings, flapping it and feeling it carry her away over the rooftops. It was not her father who found her, but one of the neighbors he had pressed into the search. By the time she had been delivered safely home her father was there waiting, along with some of the women who had come over to look after young John while the men went searching.

As she came through the door Jane’s father rushed forward and swept he up in his arms. “Oh, my wee one, my sweet, I thought I hed lost yeh, too. Yeh’re all thet I have left of me dear Shannon.”

Jane rested in the warm embrace of her father’s hands and felt his strength, protection, and love. She felt far away. Somewhere down below her knees sensation was returning, the promise of agony to come. Her mind felt fuzzy and detached; she was watching herself being held. It was just like watching her brother sitting in her father’s lap; somehow the love he was showing was directed at someone else. She watched as he wept and promised never to do wrong again. She watched him promise to be a good father, the way he always had before she died. She listened to him promise that he would support them all and they would never want for anything. Even from far away she knew he didn’t believe the promises himself, but he felt the need to make them anyway.

He held her in his arms while she slept, and massaged her feet and hands to restore the circulation. Neighbors came visiting again, bringing hot food and contradictory advice. Jane drifted through it all, knowing she was the center of attention for the first time in her life, and liking it, but also knowing that the situation was fleeting at best, and hating the world for that.

Eventually she recovered with all her fingers and toes, and not long after that father disappeared again. His absences got longer and more frequent until one day he didn’t come back.

November 1st, 2001

What follows is my first day’s output from my first NaNoWriMo. It’s rough. It’s the first draft of the first day of my life as a novelist, day one of a story that I have not bothered going back to read. It was tempting to repair the obvious errors, to tweak the repetitious phrases, and to generally smooth things out, but that would not be in the spirit of NaNoWriMo. Even the flagrant misspellings remain. I’m not entirely certain that I have the right end point for day one; seven years later it seems like the loss of the umbrella girl was more poignant back then. There is another moment later, but that’s a hell of a lot of words in. In any case, there’s no point inflicting any more than this on you guys.

Rio Blanco

The plane banked sharply as it made its way through the clouds. I was generally nervous when I wasn’t the one flying the plane, and descending into the airport, knowing there were mountains out there, and not being able to see the ground was nerve-wracking indeed. Down, down, we went, and I wondered how close we were. It seemed like we should be below sea level by now.

Suddenly we broke through the deck of the clouds and I could see the lights of a small town about 1500 feet below the belly of the plane. Although the sun would rise soon, the clouds kept the land below dark. By the layout of the town I guessed that it was Ciudad de la Santa Fe del San Domingo, or San Domingo on the map. We were almost to the airport at Rio Blanco, my destination. If anything, I noted, we were coming in high. The pilot began to drop more quickly, scrubbing off as much speed as he could on the way in. The attendants defied reason and continued to move about; had I asked, I probably could have had another tequila. I didn’t ask.

A few minutes later the last stewardess strapped herself in moments before the wheels of the plane bounced once off the runway and settled back down to stay. The engines roared as we slowed to taxi speed and pulled off onto the taxiway. As we approached the terminal, I noted that there was one other plane, smaller than ours and apparently deserted. With a lurch we rolled to a stop just as the clouds opened up and the rain started to fall with vigor. Beyond the airport the lush greenery of the rain forest bowed and waved under the buffeting of the gravid raindrops.

Ground crew members rolled the stairs up to the plane and a flight attendant opened the door. A breath of the air outside replaced the stale air around me, and I inhaled deeply, savoring the clean, damp air. A good rain can even make an airport smell good. The ground crew undertook the task of getting the tourists off the plane without getting them too wet. The efforts to escort passengers down the stairs while holding umbrellas over them was the culturally correct thing to do, but was laughably ineffective. They were escorting the passengers in stages, first getting them under the shelter of the wing of the plane, and from there another crew was escorting them to the terminal building. I declined escort down the slippery stairs, and dashed under the wing of the plane. From there I intended to jog to the terminal unprotected, and save everyone the trouble of keeping someone dry who didn’t really care that much about it.

I was in no hurry to depart that place, however. I have an affinity for machines and was distracted inspecting the engine, now quiet except for the tiny pings the metal made as it cooled off. Over the sound of the rain, I was probably imagining those sounds as well. As so it was, so it was meant to be, that it became my turn to be escorted to the terminal.

“Sir, if you will come this way,” she said politely.

I hade been vaguely aware that one of the ground personnel escorting passengers through the rain had been a smaller woman with a nice figure, but contrary to my usual nature I had not really paid her any attention. My, but I had been distracted by the air, and the airplane. Now, suddenly, those things vanished. She was beautiful. She was small, but had a nice figure. That paled in comparison with her round, brown smiling eyes and her sweet, almost-sincere smile. “I’m going wherever you’re going,” I managed, and I meant it. I realized that I had responded in Spanish.

Her smile grew a little more (white perfect teeth lined up like dominoes, red lips full) and her eyes crinkled at the edges in a way that suggested playfulness. “Well, I’m going to the terminal,” she replied in credible English. With a suggestive swish she turned and raised the umbrella over our heads. I picked up my bag and we headed towards the terminal. Her perfume added to the smell of the jungle close by, and it was perfect; a blend of the exotic and the alluring, with just a hint of the cheap. She was the goddess of Rio Blanco come down to Earth; she was all that the town promised, all that the town dreamed of. I was in love with my umbrella girl.

I tried to walk slowly, to prolong the moment, to cheat one extra breath of the perfume, to feel her hip brush mine once more as we walked under that tiny shelter, but mostly to earn one more smile. I needed something to say, anything, to get her to smile once more, to turn towards me with that swishing motion, to give me a glimpse down into her blouse just before swishing away again and looking at me over her shoulder in mock scolding for how I teased her.

That’s the way it would have happened, had I thought of the right thing to say. I did not.

As we reached the building, I touched her arm, the one not holding the umbrella, smiled at her and said, “Thank you.”

She returned the smile with one that made mine seem like a horrific grimace (but a sincere horrific grimace, I hoped), and said “You’re welcome.” Before I could ask her if she was going to be at the festival she turned, making my heart stop for a moment with the pure grace and sexual suggestion of the motion, and headed back to retrieve the next passenger. I watched her for a moment, and I hoped she knew I was watching, hoped that she liked the idea that I was watching her, but just standing there waiting for her would be too obvious, too lame.

The interior of the building was much like the perfume my umbrella girs had been wearing, filled with things you have never before seen or smelled, but somehow cheapened by the entrepreneurial spirit that is America’s primary export. The airport had been built in a different time, by people with different priorities than the airports of the States. I stood under a wide roof, next to a building whose walls served as doors and were currently wide open, letting the tropical air move through the space unhindered. People also moved about the space; there was about an even mix of travelers and those whose purpose was to separate the tourists from their money. Sprinkled here and there were police in neat uniforms, carrying serious-looking weapons in their white-gloved hands. In two hours, after the plane had finished exchanging its passengers for a new set, most of the businesses here would pack up and head back into town. I picked up my bag and moved into the flow of people.

Near the opening that I entered the shelter through, there was a folding table staffed by three middle-aged women with a full set of teeth between them. On the table were some bottles of the local rum and a stack of small paper cups. There were several cups arrayed on the table, each filled about 1/3 full with the booze, and a sign, neatly hand-lettered, which read “Free Rum. Welcome to Rio Blanco.” There was no sign that said the same thing in Spanish.

I paused to sample the local drink, testing it as if I had never had it before. It had been a long time, but the stuff still didn’t taste very good. Still, there is something to be said for supporting the local industry, especially if that industry is a distillery. At the behest of one of the women I had another sample. She didn’t realize that she had already closed the sale. I allowed her to offer me one more before I bought a bottle. I didn’t want her to think I was easy. The bottle cost three times what I could get it for in town, but I wasn’t in town. Location, location, location. It’s the key to a successful business.

I looked back towards the plane, and it seemed that all the passengers had finally been safely ferried to the terminal. I looked for my little umbrella girl, but I couldn’t see her. I convinced myself that could feel her nearby, but people can convince themselves of just about anything, and I’m no exception.

The Descent – ongoing commentary

If you’ve been here recently you’ve seen my review of the first four chapters and the beginning of the fifth of The Descent by Jeff Long. To summarize: Tiresome pages of backstory, cheap writer’s tricks, and really frickin’ cool stuff.

I don’t know what it was that prompted me to set down the book and write the previous review, what instinct warned me that it was time to record my impressions – there was no time break or anything like that – but the very next paragraph announced a new narrative direction that almost made me put the book down for good. After spending four chapters introducing four interesting people, the point of view is wrested away from one of those characters and we are subjected to a series of anecdotes of only passing relevance to the story. We learn about the mobilization of millions of people, from dozens of countries, in absolute secrecy. Unlikely as that is, the secrecy turns out not to matter. The bad guys counterattack in a coordinated, lethal, downright evil fashion. Panic in the streets leads to great (but ultimately irrelevant) destruction. Our guy? The one this chapter started to be about? Oh, yeah, the author says (well, he practically does), probably should have mentioned – Branch is delirious with a fever in a hospital safely out of harm’s way.

At this point I started getting annoyed not only with the author but with the editor as well. If I had been the editor, much of this chapter would have been cut, and the story would have benefitted. Twenty (give or take) pages of blah blah blah in the omniscient point of view – “then this happened and then that happened” – while Branch, the interesting guy this chapter is supposed to be about, is mentioned now and then and winds up watching the worst of it on TV. Branch could have been in the middle of it, bringing us the events viscearally, which also happens to be the author’s strength. If I’m his editor, I say to Jeff, “ok, you’ve written a synopsis of events. Now put it in the story. Some of it won’t fit, and we’ll just cut those bits.”

This is a lesson I would do well to remember.

I did not put the book aside. I plowed through all the blah blah blah. Why? Because when Jeff Long gets to the parts he does well, he does them really well. Eventually the story starts again, with our man Branch down in the caves, and there’s horror and fear and holy crap there’s Ike. Ike was interesting before, but now… yeah, Ike has some stuff going on in his head. He gets full credit for my continued reading of this story.

And that’s what’s driving me crazy. Why couldn’t someone have gone over the manuscript before it got to me? I need William Goldman’s dad to say, “what with this and that, two years passed.”

So three quarters of chapter five is crap, but then it ends strong. There follows some maneuvering to get people in the right places to allow the adventure to truly begin. Fifty percent blah blah blah and a parade of names I sure hope don’t matter. And then a really cool encounter between Ike and Ali, a quiet meeting that shows Ike’s humanity, and his almost magical understanding of what it means to pass from the light into darkness. It’s a moment that will have repercussions, and just like that I’m back on board.

I just want to grab the author by the lapels and say, “Do you see the parts you do well? Yes? Just do those. Leave the rest.” At the end of my last review I thought I had gone through the introductions with the characters and now the story was going to get under way. It was time. A lot of pages later, I still have the feeling the story is about to get under way. Hopefully I’m right this time.

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

My NaNoWriMo Bibliography

This year I will be participating in my eighth National Novel Writing Month, which is something not many people can say. My first year, 2001, was the first year the event started to gain traction; about 1100 people participated, if memory serves. So now I’ve written seven piles of words, and I’m getting a little vague on what they all were. Indulge me, then, as I climb into the way-back machine and try to excavate my NaNoWriMo career. This is mostly for my benefit; I’ve been trying to reconstruct my history for a while now. Hopefully I’ll get it right.

2001: Rio Blanco – a spy vs. spy story set in Central America. When I bogged down I wrote sex. I’ve never read the result, but I think it had a few good moments, and the narrator had a strong voice. It was the voice that convinced me that maybe I could write something good. On December 2th I started my first serious attempt at a novel.

2002: The Test – This was the year of 30 days, 30 bars, 1 Novel. I have some documentary remains of that time, but my plan to keep a running log of my adventures was overwhelmed by the task itself. The novel I’d been working on for eleven months, While God Sleeps, has been languishing ever since. I plan to pick up The Test when I put The Monster Within to bed for the last time. There’s some really good stuff in here (if I do say so myself), and Jane might be my best character ever. She is managing to survive in a very ugly industrial-revolution world. Some scenes are so gut-wrenching I’m surprised I wrote them.

2003: The Monster Within – Holy cow, has it been that long? I hated to set The Test aside, but I recognized that this story was structurally a lot stronger and would be easier to get into a publishable state.

2004: Worst Enemy – A techno-thriller that has some problems with the techno. There’s a lot of chase and a clever idea – the guy on the run can never get ahead because the people he is running from have an AI that is based on the guy’s personality. He is his own worst enemy. To escape he must do something that is completely against his nature – forgive. (Alternate title is Unforgivable.) This one might turn out to be better as a screenplay. As it stands, two good characters stand out in a field of poor storytelling. This story has a lot of my road trip in it. It was an excerpt from this that first attracted That Girl’s attention.

2005: The Stan Man Plan – Previously excerpted in these pages. I reread it a few months ago and chuckled the whole way through. It’s a long, long way from publishable, but it was funny and even had a heart.

2006: Untitled – A very heavy subject and extremely high literary ambitions (along with real-time publication) doomed this project from the start. I might try it again someday, but the constraints of NaNoWriMo, which seemed perfect for the idea on paper, turned out to not work at all. I got the word count, but the result was a total mess.

2007: Math House – intended to be a near-future social satire and adventure story, it quickly bogged down and I turned to the story of one of the secondary characters, which turned out to be a whole lot of fun. Beth’s story had a Tim Robbinis sort of feel to it, and might be worth revisiting some day. One thing about NaNoWriMo, it’s taught me a couple of times the sort of story I should not be writing. It’s a good lesson to only lose a month to learn.

2008: I am almost giddy with anticipation for The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. Since my last post about it, I have added a carp.

It’s Not Too Early to Start Begging, Is It?

You know what I’d like for Christmas? I like a version of Adobe Flash that is actually designed to run on my computer. My old, old version of Flash (old enough to be made by a different company) works – mostly – but is slow and crash-prone. Anyone got a used version of Flash that runs in Intel-based macs they’re not using anymore?

Note that this would be a highly impractical gift, allowing me to waste time with greater efficiency than ever before. Flash is also very expensive and there’s no way I can justify paying for a new version based on what I do with it. But if someone out there bought Flash thinking they were going to take over the Web and then discovered what a pain in the butt Flash can be, think of me.

On a related note, I am making slow progress on the next animation, a much more ambitious follow-on to the ducks animation. I’m sure I’d be done by now if I had the right software…