NaNoWriMo X: Half a Million Words

Last night, as my sweetie sang a victory song for me, I submitted for verification my NaNoWriMo effort for the year. Overall, I’d say it was a success; I think the crap-to-merely-bad ratio was better than in several of my other NaNo attempts.

This was my tenth NaNoWriMo. Back in the day there was no word-count verification, and we used Yahoo! groups for the forums – which proved to be mighty inadequate. In 2001 there were about 1100 participants total, if memory serves, and it was the first year that people clamored for some kind of system to verify their word counts. This caught the organizers unprepared, since the whole thing is on the honor system anyway — it’s not like you benefit from lying about it. The thing is, it’s a tangible reward to submit your work and get a “hooray!” message back. It’s not about honesty, it’s about breaking through the ribbon at the finish line. I made a little AppleScript that could take an email, count the words in an attachment and return an “official” count, but I didn’t push it as a real solution.

My, how things have changed. As NaNoWriMo grew and its infrastructure improved, I made a bunch of friends on the message boards. I even found a sweetie there. Then, as NaNoWroMo grew yet more I stopped visiting the boards entirely. It’s too noisy for me there.

But now I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo ten times, and ‘won’ every time. Last year was close; it took a huge effort over the last three days to get me over the line. But I did it. At 50,000 words per year, that makes half a million words typed in November. The actual total is much higher, of course; there was one year where I wrote nearly 100,000 words. Still, half a million has a nice ring to it.

There was a period this year when NaNoWriMo started to feel like a job, like I was doing it this year just to keep my streak alive. I think there were about 100 winners in 2001, so at most 100 other people in the world can have a ten-year streak. But really, is that any reason to write something?

Then, at the end of the month, I wrote a couple of really good scenes, including an actual ending for the story (some of the middle is missing), and while it was not the ending I was imagining, it turned out really good. And sad. But good. It’s an ending that would probably piss off most action-adventure/mystery/detective/crime/whatever readers, but it resonates with me.

Now I’m all stoked about writing again. Sometimes after NaNoWriMo I hit a low spot, but I don’t think that’s going to happen this time. Note to self: Next year, make sure to put on a strong ending.

2

PLENTY Bad Enough!

I’ve been struggling with the excerpts from the bad novels that I am sprinkling though this year’s NaNoWriMo. The thing is, while all of the writing is rough, I haven’t managed to push the preposterometer to the ridiculous levels I was shooting for. I have fallen far short, for instance, of the ridiculous plot of Step on a Crack.

Until today.

As the month closes out, I have finally managed to write a scene that would rival some of the most ridiculous action stories out there. I haven’t quite reached the level of, say that Die Hard movie that takes place at an airport — I honestly don’t think I’m capable of that level of suspension of thought — or the afore-mentioned Crack, but at last I’ve written something that gets me into that general neighborhood.

In the scene our hero:

  • Runs from machine-gun fire, only getting hit in the shoulder.
  • Jumps off a bridge while clinging to a bungee-jumper. (Oh, yeah, our hero is afraid of heights.)
  • Has flashbacks the whole way down until he and the bungee jumper are plunged into the river. (I think I forgot to call the water ‘icy’ in the scene. You can’t be throwing a hero into water that’s not icy.)
  • While hanging there upside-down, sees a bomb on the underside of the bridge
  • Releases the bungee jumper so the bungee flings him back up to the underside of the bridge, right next to The Bomb To End All Bombstm (which gives time-until-detonation updates in a female voice)
  • Uses a piece of debris from an exploding police car to open the hatch on the bomb
  • Defuses the bomb
  • Gets knocked off the bridge to fall into the raging river below when his own car explodes

The “performing well even when you’ve been shot” thing is all the rage in movies these days, and has become one of my new genre peeves; it seems you can’t have a good guy go a full ninety minutes without absorbing some amount of metal. It’s not allowable that the hero’s performance be in any way diminished, however — he still has to kick ass and take names! Apropos of little, I recently read an assertion by an emergency-room doctor that gang kids who get shot are amazed at just how painful it is to have a bullet in your flesh.

I’m not sure whether I’ll post the scene here or not. Tomorrow I’ll try to decide if it reaches so-bad-it’s-funny level or just wallows in the so-bad-it’s-a-waste-of-time-to-read zone.

Microsoft Needs to Run its Grammar Checker on Word

I just saw this in the user interface for Microsoft Word:

“Word found 36 items matching this criteria.”

This criteria. In a product that is supposedly created by professional writers for professional communication. Interestingly, when running the above sentence through Word’s own grammar checker, the sentence is flagged. Use these criteria or this criterion, the software advises.

This isn’t the latest version of Word, so there’s a chance it has been addressed. But still, this doesn’t reflect well on the Quality Assurance team at Microsoft.

Incidentally, my sweetie and I discovered this while comparing to see who had the most f-bombs in their story. It’s been one of those years. (It would be premature to declare a winner, as she will be adding a lot more words over the next three days.)

Not Bad Enough?

My story this November is about bad writers getting murdered. One of the things that makes this an excellent NaNoWriMo idea is that I can include excerpts of the fictitious bad writers’ fictitious bad novels. Which means not only can I just let fly with the prose, I don’t even have to cringe and tell myself that I will fix it later. I can revel in the mediocrity, even add things that normally I would never do.

Except for the complete absence of structure, however, even this draft of Step on a Hack is ahead of some of the crap out there.

Occasionally I will write a scene specifically intended to showcase common crime story clich├ęs and blunders. Paragraphs of exposition and loose-end-tying while the protagonist and antagonist are in a burning building, for instance. It is a fun world to write in, where all the good guys are named ‘Buck’ or ‘Dirk’ and all shoot with far better accuracy than a bad guy ever could, where they live a solitary existence, all girlfriends and partners murdered, and are tormented by demons from the past. And out there somewhere, a criminal mastermind seems to have it in for that one detective.

Yesterday I thought, “I need a scene with cars and guns,” so I wrote one. Such freedom! As I wrote it I had several opportunities to include details that are personal peeves of mine (car doors stopping high-velicity bullets, for instance), but I didn’t. Instead I let the scene play out the way I would do it. It’s still mildly preposterous, but I think it scores in the acceptable range on the preposterometer for a story of this genre.

Were I to go back and tweak it, I can see several ways I could make it better, especially at the start, where I still had word-inflation and bad prose as goals. Overall, however, this scene scores a “not bad” from the not-as-dispassionate-as-it-should-be part of me that judges everything I do. Which, ironically, makes it unsuitable for Step on a Hack. Not enough for the cop reading the story to mock. Oh, well.

Here, for your amusement, is a scene with cars and guns. And swearing. If the occasional f-bomb is going to sour your stomach and cast a pall over the rest of your day, then you probably should stop now.

Ace Martingale shifted into fourth as the sleek black Dodge Charger roared up the ramp and onto the highway, a steel shark in the night. Ace lit one cigarette with another and threw the smoldering butt of the first out the window. The speedometer crept upwards, 70 then 80 then 90. He let it settle in at 100 miles per hour. A good speed. Fuck kilometers.

The mighty engine purred and the hot desert air blew Martingale’s hair and dried his sweat instantly. He punched in an eight-track tape to help him think. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Free as a bird now. Free as a fuckin’ bird. Maritngale smiled for the first time in five years.

He was out, he was in a fast machine, a twelve-pack of corona blondies in the passenger seat, bolt cutters, pick and shovel in the back seat. In the trunk, the last of his problems. Life didn’t get any better than this.

“Fuck yeah!” he shouted into the night. “Fuck yeah!” he threw his empty out onto the road and reached for another. By the time the glass bottle hit the pavement he was long gone. He was a spirit, a shaman, a god of the desert and he was going to live forever.

At Desert Center he left the interstate highway, turning north on state road 177, past a couple of industrial sites and into the breathing desert. Two lane blacktop. The way it was supposed to be. He slowed it down to a safe and sane 90 per and popped open another brew.

For the next hour he floated along the highway, in harmony with machine and road, alone and unencumbered. Past mile marker 239 he slowed. There it was. Martingale’s heart sped up a bit as he pulled into the primitive rest stop. Nothing more than a table and what had once been a sun shade. A rusting barrel overflowed with garbage.

He turned off the music and rolled gently to a stop, his tires popping over the gravel. Behind the table his headlights splashed on a gate adorned with a rusted, bullet-riddled “No Trespassing” sign swinging on a piece of wire. He left the motor running and reached back for the bolt cutters.

He opened the car door and stood, stretched his spine. The desert’s hot breath kissed his face. “I missed you, baby,” he whispered into the darkness. The gravel crunched under his boots as he walked to the gate. Before he even reached the gate, he froze.

The chain was already cut.

He dropped the cutters and ran back to the car, dove back in the waiting door.

A hole appeared in the windshield, nice and clean, matched by a larger, more ragged hole appeared in the rear window. The round passed his head with a supersonic crack and vanished into the night.

Martingale stayed low, cranked the wheel and mashed the gas. The car slewed and jumped forward, slamming the door shut. The passenger door made a booming sound like someone had kicked it, and a slug tore into the upholstery.

“What the fuck!” He screamed. Killing another man was one thing, but this car was a classic. It was art. You don’t shoot art. He lifted his head a little to guide the car out onto the blacktop, pointed north. The spinning tires screeched when they hit the pavement and thrust the car forward. The engine roared as Martingale went through the gears. The car started to float at one hundred twenty miles per hour, and Martingale held on for sweet life.

Two lights stared back at him on the road ahead. The eyes of an animal, reflecting his headlights. He hit it before he even had time to wonder what it was. Night insects flashed in his high beams, there and gone faster than a prayer.

More lights ahead. This time, a car. He hurtled toward it. Motherfucker had his brights on. Martingale pushed his speed up to 140. Holding the wheel with sweaty hands, twitching to keep it in his lane.

Just before the other car flashed past he hit the brakes. Flame burst from the other car, the muzzle flash of an assault rifle on full-auto, spraying the space he would have occupied had he kept a steady speed. The enemy flashed past as Martingale punched the gas again and heard bullets tearing into the rear of the car. Then he was away, and, for the moment at least, he was alive.

In the rear view he watched as the other car hit the brakes and began to turn around. Martingale was going to be a long was down the road before they even got turned around. They’d have to be driving one hell of a car to catch him.

He took a deep breath. Time to stop reacting and start acting. They had men and guns, he had a fast car and the desert.

This was his desert. Whoever those people were back there, they had missed their chance.

They knew about the rest stop, and that meant Olaf had spilled his guts. Which meant he was probably dead. Anybody with the means to make Olaf talk wouldn’t be the type to keep him around after they got what they wanted from him.

Martingale slowed to take one white-knuckle turn, then another. He checked the rearview. Nothing. Just before the next corner he switched off his headlights and slowed. He pulled off the road, over a cattle guard concealed by a boulder. He stopped the car and ran back to the road, brushing over his tire tracks with his boot. It didn’t have to be perfect, as long as they weren’t obvious.

In the still night he heard the hiss of the car as it approached, augmented by the roar of a large engine. He ducked behind the rock as the pursuit car screeched around the corner, then around the next curve and out of sight. He jogged back to his car. He’d be easy to spot by anyone coming back the other way.

He stopped short when he saw the bullet holes in the trunk, the metal shining silvery in the moonlight against the black paint. He put his hand on the trunk lid, afraid to open it. “Fuck!” he said, but there was nothing to do now except get well down this road before the others doubled back. He thumped the trunk twice with his fist and jogged to the door. He drove slowly, lights off, steering by moonlight but wishing it was darker.

Cool Stuff on the Internet

Hey! Are you familiar with Hyperbole and a Half? Now would be an excellent time to check it out. Perhaps those already well-versed in hyperbolic lore could recommend particularly choice archival stories for newbies to peruse.

And as long as you’re looking at other sites that don’t take six years to load the way mine does, the November 24 Astronomy Picture of the Day just reinforces the growing urge inside me to head north in the next couple of years. APOD is awesome more often than not – I’m tempted to write a little program that turns each day’s picture into my desktop image. Not sure how that would fly on days like this one, however.

1

Well, THAT Sucked

The last few days my Web host has been having a tough time. I don’t know the exact nature of the problem and I doubt I ever will, but this site has been broken. For a while it would not load at all, and then it was in ‘read-only mode’, Which meant that it was still performing terribly and I couldn’t even put up a notice that I knew things weren’t going well but the solution was out of my hands. Not a good situation when my credibility as a programmer is an important asset.

I couldn’t even make a backup.

Things seem to be getting back to normal (though they are not there yet – the site is still quite slow). There’s even a chance that I’m running on a brand-new server that is not being shared with as many other people. Or at least a brand-new server. Unfortunately, however, while I have come to appreciate iPage the company, which was very helpful and patient getting me up and running, iPage the service has not been so great.

I have vowed that the next move I make will be to a server that I control completely, so I can choose who shares it with me. I’m looking at Co-location deals now, though I might wimp out ant take the middle road. A VPS (virtual private server) gives me all the control of having my own machine, but in fact it’s an illusion — I still share physical hardware with an unknown number of others.

1

Return of the Cyberspace Open

Time keeps passing, turning on mighty gears toward the future, and like clockwork with a tired mainspring the Cyberspace open has returned once again. The “fall” iteration of the contest has become the “fall/winter 2010-2011” version, with “fall” and “2010” being more of a marketing thing, since the contest is actually in January and February, with the final round running through late April.

I’ll be participating again as well; I haven’t done that well in my previous attempts, but I still have fun and I still learn a lot. Not a bad deal for eleven bucks. One of my favorite parts about the Cyberspace Open is hearing from other participants here on the pages of Muddled Ramblings. I’m looking forward to hearing back from a few of the folks who graced these pages last time around.

The format for the contest will be similar to last time: Participants are given a weekend to write a scene. The top 100 scorers from that round move on to round two, roughly six weeks later. (The delay is because the judges have to read and score a lot of entries, and provide meaningful feedback for each. Not a small job.)

Round two is different than in previous incarnations, and reflects a shifting emphasis for the competition as a whole. In the past, writers only had twelve hours to complete their second scene. (In the distant past, when there was a third round of writing, it was ninety minutes!) The competition has moved from being a test of writing under pressure to writing the best possible scene, and this year round two is an entire weekend, just like round one. I don’t think that works in my favor – more on that later.

Round three, like last “spring” (um… summer), is a competition between the top three scripts of round two. The scripts are read on video by aspiring actors, and folks are then able to vote on them. I’m not sold on this part of the competition, as the performance of the actors can make a big difference when people are supposed to be judging the script. I think it worked out pretty well last time, though, so I’m probably worrying too much. It’s what I do.

My own participation in the contest is a little different, as I have never made it out of round one. (You can see my earlier entries elsewhere in this blog.) Getting knocked out early hasn’t stopped me from participating in round two as a shadow contestant, however, and posting my work here as well. Interestingly, I think the scenes I’ve written with less time available have been better. We’ll see if I can break out of that this year.

I’ve made a few observations about what the organizers say they want, and what actually wins. As we get closer to the actual contest I’ll post some musings on that subject here.

For me, my mantra this time around will be ‘montageable’ (a tip given by a reader when critiquing one of my previous entries). Does the scene contain those moments that would go into the preview trailer and make people want to see the whole movie? That’s what I’ll be shooting for this time.

This really is a fun contest, one that is different than most of what you find out there. It costs a bit of money to enter (less if you act soon), but if you need something to kick your butt and get you writing this winter, you could do a lot worse. Check it out!

The Drupal Attitude

I’ve been doing some geekery with Drupal lately. Drupal is a free, open-source server application that makes it easier to build really complex Web sites. It allows you to create complex data types and establish relationships and do fancy database stuff… without actually touching the database. That’s not too shabby. Drupal is rapidly becoming more popular, but there are a few things standing between Drupal and world domination. At the top of the list is the Drupal Attitude.

I will illustrate with an example. Things will get geeky for a while as I set the stage, then mellow out as I focus on the human interactions between various groups.

From a technical standpoint, Drupal’s biggest flaw is that it sucks when it comes to many-to-many relationships. Imagine I have a data type called “shirt” and another called “color”. It is very easy for me to set up “shirt” so that it can have several colors. So, when I look at a specific shirt in my database I can see that it has red and yellow in it. That’s all pretty straightforward.

The catch comes when I want a list of all shirts with yellow in them. If I had direct control over the database, many-to-many relationships like this are trivial and do not diminish the performance of the server. Drupal has no built-in way to get a list of all shirts with yellow in them.

But wait! Drupal is open source, and better yet has been built to be easy to extend by outside programers. Into this glaring hole in Drupal several folks have stepped forward with modules that solve the problem in a variety of different ways. Some of these methods are clever (one uses the indexes built by the search engine, for instance), but all have trade-offs and weaknesses.

So, you’re a Drupal developer, and you want a list of shirts with yellow in them. Which module do you use? Each module works differently, each requires some installation and fiddling to get working. Then there are the two modules by the same guy that are for similar but different purposes, yet the actual differences are not spelled out very clearly. What would help a lot would be some concrete examples of when to use which.

Now we’re getting closer to the Drupal Attitude. Remember as I rant about this that all the modules I’m evaluating are free, posted by geeks who wanted to contribute to make Drupal better. So, some slack-cutting is in order. BUT…

I had already spent more time than I had available trying to figure out which module to use, when I found a question posted by a guy asking “can I use this module for x”, where x was very similar to what I needed. “Aha!” thought I, “Now we’ll get a definitive answer!” Except that the response to the question was, “In this discussion (the article was about the differences between two modules) we want to focus on generalities, not specific applications. You should download both modules and fiddle with them for a few hours to determine which is right for you.” Or something like that. Notably absent from the answer was a pointer to where specific questions would be answered.

The guy who asked the question responded a bit harshly, pretty much saying, “Would it kill you to just answer my question? I don’t want to spend hours learning something you already know and could tell me in fifteen seconds.”

Well, this is just the sort of uppity user that the Drupal community loves to hate. Several people piled on in defense of the developer who had refused to answer the question. “He’s doing this for free, he’s helping the community, you should be grateful, blah, blah, blah.” None of them deigned to answer the original question either. There is a real, entrenched cadre in the Drupal community that says, “we learned things the hard way, and you should too.” Who needs documentation when you can read the source code?

Let’s step back for a moment and ask ourselves, “Why did the developer give this code back to the Drupal community?” The obvious answer, the one everyone talks about, is that he wants to make things easier for other Drupal users. That is a noble motivation and one I wholeheartedly support. He wants to be useful. Perhaps he just isn’t aware that a huge part of utility of software lies in the documentation. Perhaps he isn’t aware that a few choice examples of what his modules are meant to accomplish would have cost him an hour of his time and improved the acceptance of his work dramatically. He’s a coder, after all, not a marketer or a technical writer.

Even with all that, however, when someone, in the form of a question, contributes to the documentation by providing a specific example, he didn’t answer the question. No light came on that even if that was not the place for the question, then spending five minutes creating an FAQ would have helped the community far more than adding a new feature to his software. So an opportunity to spend just a few seconds and make his contribution to the community better went completely ignored. His supporters congratulated him for not capitulating to the demands of his potential users for more clarity.

Any of them could have stepped up and helped the newbie, probably in ten words or less, but none did. None of them wanted improved documentation. “We had to learn it the hard way, so you should too,” with a side order of “we make lots of money because we’ve figured all this stuff out.” Ladies and gentlemen, the Drupal Attitude.

If the guy posted his module but doesn’t seem interested in making it useful, then why did he post it? Well, he’s certainly getting lots of love from the people who figured out his work the hard way. They can all feel good about how smart they are.

And in the end, should I be thankful this guy shared his work with the rest of us? Actually, no. In my case, the presence of his modules ultimately had negative value. They cost me time, and never getting an answer about which was appropriate for my task, I went with a module developed by someone else.

So, Drupal contributors: If you don’t want to document your module, and you don’t want to answer straightforward questions from people who need to get a job done in limited time, don’t bother posting your fucking module at all. I don’t have time for endless fiddling and I sure as hell don’t have time for the Drupal Attitude.

1

Night of the Busy Brain

I couldn’t sleep last night. My brain just wouldn’t quiet down. Kept thinking of stuff. Sometimes those times are productive, however. Last night I thought of:

  • Why my algebraic attempts to calculate the point on a sloped line where the two halves of the shape had the same area were turning out so complex
  • How to make money off PeoplePost (ten years too late).
  • What to call my next version of PeoplePost
  • One of the reasons Tomcat won’t run as a daemon on my machine
  • There was a WordPress thing, too. What was it?
  • Sometimes a weasel with a hammer… um… maybe that wasn’t so productive.

Anyway, eventually I fell asleep. That was about two hours ago. I’m more convinced than ever that alarm clocks are the bane of our civilization.

1

November 1st, 2010

Well, another NaNoWriMo is under way, and this year my mystery/comedy (with action and adventure!) is off to a roaring start. It’s become a tradition for me to put my first day’s output here, and this year my novel’s prologue has guns, cars, hookers, explosions, and profanity! Not bad! Chapter 1 loses some of the momentum, but there’s no time to go back and fix it.

For those new to these parts, National Novel Writing Month is an event where participants are challenged to write an entire novel in a month. Quality is optional and often counterproductive.

There are a lot of ironies here, but I think I’ll discuss them in the comments thread.

Step on a Hack

Prologue

Benny Hamwich regained consciousness slowly, as if his brain knew something bad was out there and didn’t want anything to do with it. Someone was slapping his face, he realized.

“Benny.” The voice was low and gravelly and came from nearby. Another slap. Benny’s tongue was sandpaper against the roof of his mouth. The air tasted like hot metal.

“You really doped him up good.” That was a female’s voice, to his right, a little farther away.

“Benny!” Another slap, harder. “I know you can hear me.”

Benny blinked with sandpaper eyelids and tried to focus. He was sitting upright in the driver’s seat of a car. Convertible. Big. Beyond the long hood the city lights stretched before him. They were pretty high up.

“Benny.”

Benny wheeled his head to point it at the man crouching over him. He was a big guy, his lined, pale face divided by a thick dark mustache. Under the brim of the man’s hat one eye was squinted almost shut. The man’s smile revealed perfect, white teeth.

“Hello, Benny. Are you ready for a little science project?” The man’s adam’s apple bobbed as he talked, drawing Benny’s attention to a scar there.

“A… wha?” asked Benny.

Behind him a woman cackled. He turned to see her sitting in the passenger seat, her short skirt revealing long, slender legs. Her outfit was business sexy, and it worked well on her. She laughed again. Her teeth were not as straight as the man’s. “You should see yourself,” she said, and made a stupid face.

“Now, Marybeth,” the big man said. Benny turned back to meet his cold gaze. “Benny here’s been drugged. It’s hardly fair to judge.” The man reached inside his overcoat and pulled out a slender paperback novel. “Do you recognize this, Benny?” The man’s voice was cold and hard.

Benny nodded, too afraid to speak.

“Look, it’s got your name on it.” The man held out the book so Benny could see his name on the cover, near the bottom. At the top was another name, Penn Jetterson. In between, there was a picture of a rugged-looking man and a sexy woman in a massive white convertible. They were airborne, and she was kneeling in the passenger seat (showing a lot of leg), firing a wicked-looking assault rifle at unseen assailants behind them. He was gripping the wheel like a man possessed, grinnig. “TWO TO TANGO” the title screamed.

“You wrote that?” Benny turned back to the woman in the passenger seat. He was going to hurt his neck wheeling back and forth like that. She looked a bit like the woman on the cover of the book. “Really?” she prompted.

Benny nodded. “Yeah.” His voice cracked. He swallowed and tried again. “I wrote that.”

The woman smiled. “That’s terriffic.”

“That remanis to be seen,” the man said. Benny turned back around to face him. It was much more pleasant to look at the woman. The man tossed the book into Benny’s lap. “Thus, our little experiment.”

Benny forced himself to look around. He was in a white Lincoln convertible with red leather seats. A mighty piece of Detroit iron from back when big really meant big. The same kind of car Dirk Freemont drove in Two to Tango. They were on the roof of a building half a mile from downtown. In front of the car, rails stretched to the edge of the roof. Behind him a machine hissed with escaping steam.

“We are going to do a little reenactment,” the frightgning man said. “Have you memorized your lines, Marybeth?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Since you haven’t had time to prepare, Benny, we’ll let you read from the book. Chapter one, as you have no doubt surmised.”

“Wait, what’s—”

“It’s like this, Benjamin. I have a difficult time accepting that chapter one is, well, possible. Which sort of undermines the rest of the story. So we’re going to reenact some parts of it and see. Perhaps I am mistaken, in which case you’ll have my most sincere apologies.”

“What about all this?” Benny indicated the rails.

“It’s like a flight simulator. We’re going to make it feel like you’re flying while you go through the dialog. We’ll plug that back into the computer to see just how far you actually would have flown.”

“This is bullshit.”

“Benny, I’m afraid I must insist.”

“Come on, Benny,” the woman said. “Just say your fuckin’ lines so we can get out of here. If you’re fast enough I’ll throw in a blowjob.”

The scary man smiled. “Most of Marybeth’s acting career involves less clothing,” he said. “You two have a lot in common.”

Benny opened the book with fuddled fingers and found chapter one.

“I highlighted where we will start,” the man said.

Benny scanned ahead until he saw the mark.

 

“We’re cornered!” Marybeth cried out.

“Hardly,” Dirk grumbled. He mashed the gas pedal down to the floor. With a throaty growl the 455-cubic-inch engine thrust the Lincoln toward the edge of the parking structure. With a roar the mighty beast crashed through the rail and out into space. Directly ahead an office building loomed.

Marybeth flipped down the visor and inspected herself in the little mirror there. With her little finger she fixed a flaw in her lipstick. “I think you should know that I’m sleeping with Steve,” she informed him.

“What?” Dirk growled. “Steve’s my partner!”

Red-tipped tracer bullets streaked past, leaving burning trails of magnesium and strontium nitrate…

 

“Ready, Benny?”

Benny glanced up from his writing. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

“All right, then. Marybeth, you start when I say ‘action’. Really go for it, all right? Show me what you can do.”

“You said this was an audition.”

The man indicated a video camera on a tripod nearby. “It is. If this works out, I’ll be optioning the screenplay rights. This is your chance to be a real actress.”

“You’re going to make a movie out of Two to Tango?” Benny asked. It was the opportunity he’d always dreamed about — only, in his dreams things were… different. Less scary.

The man patted his shoulder with a gloved hand. “Whether the movie gets made is up to you, now. Let’s see if we can’t resolve some of these pressing questions.” The man stepped away from the car. The night hung dead still around them, the city below lay quiet. The man glanced around, assured himself that all was ready, and pulled a stopwatch from the outer pocket of his coat. He practiced with the buttons a couple of times. Satisfied, he looked up and said, “Action!”

“We’re cornered!” the woman shouted, her voice an icepick in Benny’s ear.

“Hardly!” Benny said, and grabbed the steering wheel for effect. He mashed the gas pedal even though the engine wasn’t running.

His head snapped back againt the seat’s headrest and he was pressed into the leather upholstery with such force the air was driven from his lungs and spots appeared in his vision. He stomped on the brake but that had no effect as the car was launched into the air and sailed over the edge of the building.

On the rooftop, the man stood in the steam washing out from the catapult and watched the car float through the air, slowly rolling over and going nose-down. He could hear the prositiute screaming. Damn her voice was annoying. After a few seconds the white streaks of tracer rounds flashed up from another rooftop, slowly converging with the the sailing car. Would Benny appreciate the bullets’ red tips? It seemed unlikely. If Benny survived, as his protagonist had, the scary man would be sure to ask.

The Lincoln was no longer right-side-up but still a bullet found the gas tank. The car didn’t explode but a nice gout of flame erupted from the back just before the land yaht slammed people-first into the side of a building downtown. The man stopped his timer.

There was a delay before the low whump reached the man’s ears, followed by the crunch of metal against concrete, and the crash of shattered glass. The flaming wreckage bounced to the side and fell out of sight to the street below. The surrounding buildings were lit by the yellow glow of the fire.

The man looked at his stopwatch. Thirty-five seconds. Not quite enough time for the dialog as it had been written, but he thought he had made his point.

Chapter 1

Penn Jetterson stared at the book lying on his polished oak desk. Kissed a Snake, the title read in bright red lettering, underneath that, A Jake Marten story. The type arched over a glossy drawing of a man in the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Behind him a hot nun stood in the entrance to a cathedral. She held a gun, and was poinging it at the man’s back. Or was she aiming at the man holding the rifle?

As covers went, he’d seen worse. This particular book cover had two real problems, though: His name across the top and the name of Andrew Zen across the bottom. The name at the bottom meant the book would be awful. The name at the top meant he would be blamed for it.

#1 BESTSELLER! A banner in the corner said, although the book had yet to sell a single copy. That didn’t matter; his name was on it. Reviewers would rave in exchange for advertising dollars. Jetterson would make a lot of money. Preorders were strong, but not as strong as they had been for the previous book. Still, lots of people would read it. A few of those would never pick up a Penn Jetterson book again. People were starting to realize the Emperor had no clothes.

He lifted his whiskey glass and found it empty. Seemed like he’d just filled it. He knew he shouldn’t, but some days there was no helping it. He pulled open the large, lower desk drawer on his right and pulled out his bottle of Ardbeg, his beloved Islay single-malt. He poured himself a couple fingers of the amber liquid and paused to let the earthy smell fill his sinuses. He put the bottle back, noting that there were only two left in reserve. He closed the drawer.

The book sat in front of him, waiting.

Before he could stop himself he reached for his phone and dialed a number he knew by heart.

“Penn! Darling!” Emma Coe’s voice gushed down the line. “How’s my favorite writer?”

“I haven’t been a writer for a long time.”

“Poppycock!” Somehow it didn’t sound ridiculous when Emma said words like that. “You’re at the top of the best-seller list. Did you get the book?”

“Yeah. I’ve got it right here.” He picked up the object in question, gazed at the brightly-colored cover. “Looks nice.”

“Wonderful! I’ll tell them we’re ready to go.”

“Uh… hold on a sec, Emma. I’m not sure I’m going to approve this one.”

“Don’t joke with me like that, Penn. You’ll give me a heart attack.”

“It’s not very good, Emma.”

“Have you even read it, Penn? You can’t have had it for more than half an hour.”

Not that it would take much longer to read this fluff. “No, Emma, I haven’t.”

“Well then, there you go. What makes you think it’s so bad?”

“It’s a Jake Marten story, written by Andrew Zen. They’re all bad, and each is worse than the last. I think Zen is unlearning his profession. And seriously, what the hell kind of nom de plume is Andrew Zen?”

“Oh, Penn, let me be the judge of what’s good and what’s bad. Didn’t I help you when you were a struggling writer?”

“Yes, Emma.”

“Really, Penn, Andy may not be as good as you, but he’s plenty good enough.”

Penn flipped the book and looked at the back cover. His heard skipped a beat as he read the description. An asp in a copy machine? Had that really been his idea? He vaguely remembered an outline he had tossed off one night, maybe three years ago. Paper Jam, he’d called it back then, but the publisher never kept the titles Penn gave the stories. “Emma, I don’t think that was one of my best ideas. And after seeing what Zen does with my good ideas, I’m afraid to even open this one. The stink will kill me.” Jetterson took another healthy swig of whiskey to fortify himself against such an occurrence.

“Penn. Honey. Relax. The reviews are in, they love it.”

“They’re paid to love it.”

“We’ve got a big signing scheduled, we’re bringing in busloads of people from nursing homes to pack the place. Blockbuster! Lines out the door. New York TV coverage. Great buzz on the blogs.”

“For this?

“For Jack Marten. He’s huge. They’re talking about Schwarzenegger for the movie. People want this, Penn. Look, you and I both know that the books aren’t perfect, but they sell. And that’s what matters.”

“But…”

“Now, Penn. It’s your name on the book. Jack Marten is your creation. If you tell me to kill this book, I’ll kill it. I’ll kill myself, but I’ll kill the book, too. So. Do you want me to throw away millions of dollars and kill this book, or do you want me to push the hell out of it and get us a sweet movie franchise?”

Jetterson felt one of the last remaining bastions of integrity crumble in his soul. He’s sold out long ago. He lived on a farm in the country, drove a nice car, traveled the world, entertained mistresses. All he had to do was produce two outlines per year for each of six series that bore his name, along with the name of some talentless English major that Emma met at a party somewhere. He had no doubt that the hacks actually believed they were good.

“All right. Publish it.” He put down the book and emptied his glass.

“Fantastic. I’m sure you’ll feel better when the checks start arriving.”

“Yeah.” He reached for the drawer and stopped himself. At least wait until the end of the phone call.

Emma’s voice dropped and became breathier as she moved her mouth closer to her phone. “They found out who was with Benny.”

“Who’s Benny?”

“Benny Hamwich, of course. It was a prostitute.”

“I see,” he said, even though he didn’t. It didn’t surprise him at all that his co-author couldn’t get laid on his own. The only mystery was why anyone else would care. “I don’t pay attention to gossip.”

There was a pause. “You didn’t hear?” Emma asked.

“About Hamwich and a prostitute? No. I couldn’t care less about his personal life.”

“Benny’s dead, Penn.”

“Oh? Really?” Jetterson made a half-hearted attempt at sadness and failed. The man had actually used the phrase “As you know, Bob,” in a story. There were times his stores grew so preposterous that Bennie Hamwich made Andrew Zen look like Shakespeare. “What happened?” Jetterson asked to fill the silence on the line.

“Oh my God, Penn. You will not believe this. He ran into a building in a car.”

“What an idiot.”

“Three stories up, Penn. Three stories up. Just like in Two to Tango. No one has the slightest idea how he did it.”

“When did it happen?”

“Three a.m. this morning. They say the car just came out of nowhere.”

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Christmas Cards Ready to Ship

Yep, the cards are printed, they are here, and now all we need is a bunch of folks to buy them. Remember, this is to raise money for Salvation Army and Pinup Angels, a group dedicated to adding holiday cheer for our troops overseas.

The cards came out great (though a little heavier than our shipping calculations assumed), so order a bunch! Get your friends to buy them too, and you might earn yourself a special thank-you gift.

Order now! Remember, our boys ‘over there’ are counting on you. It sure seems like we have a lot of cards in the living room right now, but there’s no telling how long they will last.

Want to donate but don’t need the cards? I’m sure we can work something out. Honestly, though, you’ll like the cards.

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