Inspiration is All Around Us

lrgGRA214747220_MLP_twilight_sparkles_twinkling_balloon_3_1000Riding from home to work along a well-worn groove, I get to know some of the debris that builds up along the side of the road. For the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed a My Little Pony doll in the gutter — underneath a layer of road grime its plastic body is in that pink-going-on-purple range of hues, while the nylon fibers of the tail are more aggressively purple, and still shimmery-sparkly.

This particular little pony has been decapitated; it lies mutilated and forgotten, waiting for the street sweeper. When I see it I can’t help but think of a sketch you might see on Robot Chicken: A mash-up of The Godfather, My Little Pony, and this slightly disturbing story by Kij Johnson. In my “research” for this episode I see that at least some MLP’s even have unicorn horns, making Kij’s Nebula-winner even more appropriate.

The sun rises to find BITCH PUDDIN’ waking from her slumber. She doesn’t look so good; last night’s hard partying has taken its toll. The camera pulls back and… MY LITTLE PONY’S head is in the bed next to her, bleeding sparkly rainbow-blood into Bitch Puddin’s satin sheets…

Practically writes itself.

November 1, 2014

You probably didn’t notice that I didn’t put my first night’s NaNoWriMo effort here on November 1st. It’s not like people wait all year to glimpse the unedited, unplanned, product of my imagination. It is rarely sparkling prose. My first sketch of a story (not even a draft, really) often turns out to be conversations between people about what they could do, and not a whole lot of people doing things. Kind of an outline-the-plot-with-dialog technique. They are also rather light on description. Periodically in this year’s effort, I put great emphasis on description, and was pleased with the result. But not on November 1st. Maybe some other time I’ll post my description of a breakfast diner in rural North Dakota.

But even though I’m less proud of this month’s first chapter than I have been of others, it does set the scene for the action that follows. (Well, the action that is subsequently discussed.) So, here it is. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Note that as usual, I didn’t spend time doing silly things like proofreading or correcting errors or (God forbid) tightening up ambiguous pronouns. I’ve still got to finish my NaNoWriMo effort this year, and there’s only six hours left.

A Cool Breeze in Hell

Harper pulled out the last of his crumpled wad of bills and smoothed them out on the fake woodgrain of the bartop. His backpack sat at his feet, containing everything in the world that he could call his own. Two extra pair of socks, one pair underwear (in need of cleaning), blue jeans (the pair with smaller holes in the knees), a toothbrush, a few toiletries, and a t-shit for a band he’d never heard of all shared space with an ancient laptop whose battery really didn’t hold a charge any longer. In his pockets huddled some loose change, a pay as you go phone (unpaid, going nowhere), and a pocket knife that had attachments to do almost anything… poorly.

When his little pile of greenbacks ran out, things were gong to be tough. He scratched his four-day beard and held up his finger to catch the bartender’s attention.

“Another one?”

Harper nodded.

“Happy hour ended five minutes ago. I’m going to have to charge full price.”

“That’s fine,” Harper said. He hadn’t been that happy anyway.

He watched as the balding man behind the bar wiped his hands on his apron and stooped to get a glass out of the freezer. The bar was almost deserted; there was no reason for the bartender to hurry. The barkeep straightened with a moan and slid the glass under a tap and pulled the long handle emblazoned with the logo of one of the local microbreweries. The blessed liquid gushed forth and before long a pint of deep amber liquid rested on a tiny napkin in front of Harper. “Five bucks,” the bartender said. Harper counted six off his stack and gave them to the man. He tried not to see how much was left. Better not to know, sometimes.

The television behind the bar was muted, but grabbed his attention anyway, with amateur video of explosions and car crashes. Harper decided he liked the world more before every damn thing that ever happened was recorded and put on the Internet. Still, he watched.

He didn’t see the man come in, was only peripherially aware when he sat two stools down from Harper. When he sat he exhaled heavily, as if he had taken off a backpack full of stones. “Beer,” he said, “Give me the IPA.” Harper was taken by the man’s smooth baritone voice. Though he spoke softly his voice carried, bearing a tone of authority. Harper turned and studied the man’s profile as the other waited for his drink.

He was tallish, on the thin side, darkish hair swept back, narrow straight nose. Dark eyes, thin lips pressed together, creasing his face. He seemed to be in pain, concentrating on not letting it show. His suit was probably a nice one, Harper thought, though he wasn’t sure exactly how to tell suits apart. The stranger’s navy tie with yellow stripes was loosened and his top button was undone. His right hand tapped the bar in impatience, the left he kept clenched in his lap. The other man’s beer arrived and he turned to Harper and raised his glass. Guiltily Harper returned the gesture.

“Long day?” Harper asked.

The man nodded. “I’m not even sure what a day is anymore.”

It was then that Harper knew he was talking to the devil. There was no one thing to tip him off, no weird glimpse of horns or red skin or cloven hooves for feet. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the guy at all, except that he was the Prince of Darkness, loose on Earth to spread torment and damnation.

Up until that moment, Harper had not considered himself a religeous man. He still didn’t, he realized. The bartender went about his work, pausing for long stretches to watch TV, seemingly unaware of the Dark One sitting on one of his vynyl-topped barstools.

“What brings you round here?” Harper asked.

“The beer,” the devil said. “Not the conversation.”

Harper took the hint and turned back to his own beer. He tried to nurse it, but far too quickly it was gone. “Another?” the bartender asked when there was half an inch of beer left in his glass.

He nodded. “And one for this guy.” He pointed down to where the devil sat. He counted out twelve dollars and saw that there would be no more beers tonight, or ever again until he got a job.

The bartender pulled the two beers and set them in front of the two patrons.

The devil regarded his beer with narrowed eyes and turned to Harper. “What’s this?”

Harper shrugged. “You looked like you were having a tough day.”

“And now you’re going to ask me for a favor.”

Harper blinked in surprise. “No.”

The devil rocked back on his stool and looked Harper up and down. “Everybody wants something.”

A job, a place to call home, friends, a purpose for his life. “Not so much. You just seem to be having a rough time right now.”

Somehow now the devil was on the stool next to Harper. He couldn’t remember it happening. “Have you ever said, ‘it’s hotter than hell in here?’”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“You were wrong. Hell is really fucking hot.”

“Well, at least you can get away for a beer sometimes.” Harper raised his glass to illustrate what a fine thing that was.

“I am in hell right now. I am always in Hell. I always will be in Hell.”

“Oh, I get it. So it’s not like a physical place then? More like a state of mind?”

The devil drained his beer and set down the glass. “Oh, it’s a physical place, all right, just not in this space-time continuum. I’m what you might call extra-dimensional. I can exist in both places at the same time. And that means I’m bathing in liquid sulfur and having my flesh boiled off my bones at the same time I’m sitting on this stool being annoyed by some guy who didn’t pay attention in Sunday School.”

Sunday School was a distant memory, to be sure, and indeed Harper had not paid attention, but he was pretty sure the phrase ‘space-time continuum’ had not been used.

“So how hot is it, exactly? Sulfur boils at 445 C, so it’s cooler than that, right?”

“There are areas that are much hotter than that. I avoid them.”

“You should air condition,” Harper said. He discovered his glass was empty, which ruined the fun of his little joke.

The devil scowled. “Don’t mock me, human.” To Harper’s ear, though, he didn’t sound angry.

“I’m not mocking you at all. It’s a straightforward engineering problem. You need to move heat from one place to another. All that takes is energy, and you have tons of that. Possibly you could use sulfur as the refrigerant.”

“I am skeptical.”

“You’d be making some parts of Hell cooler, at the expense of making other parts of hell much hotter. Of course, it would be much more efficient if you had a cooler place to pump the heat to. Maybe…” An idea was taking shape in Harper’s head. A brilliant solution to the devil’s problems, made all the more beautiful through the haze of the five beers doing the rhumba in Harper’s brain. “So, you can cross dimensions, right?”

“Obviously.”

“Could you open up a hole from here to there? You could use hell like a geothermal source, pump the energy over here, generate a shit-ton of electricity, and cool things down a bit on your end. Not a whole lot, maybe, but enough you might notice a cool breeze. Meanwhile humanity would benefit from a cheap, clean power source.”

“The benefit of humanity is not my concern,” the devil said. “Although I do encourage technological progress where it will result in more humans on earth. More souls.”

“You must love nitrogen fertilizer, then.”

“Yes. It will be a shame when its overuse leads to the destruction of a large amount of the world’s farmland. It will be a busy time for me.”

“So, you like for there to be more people, so you can lead them astray?”

“I suppose you could put it that way. Think of me as a farmer.”

“Then this should be a no-brainer for you, don’t you think? This could mean a lot more kids growing up to be sinners.”

“You amuse me, Mr. Harper. You think you’re tricking me into making life better for humanity here on Earth.”

“I’m not stupid enough to think I can trick you.”

“In fact, you’re fooling yourself. You still don’t believe, deep in your heart, that this project could result in countless more souls in eternal torment.”

Harper didn’t have a good answer for that. “I guess I don’t. Modern agriculture made it possible for me to be here. So if you were behind that, then thanks.”

The devil smiled, showing two neat rows of narrow teeth. “Very well, Mr. Harper. I will provide you with the necessary resources and technical advice. You will install a cooling system for hell, and you will use the energy to provide clean power to humanity.”

“Uh, me?”

The devil’s smile grew. “Of course. Who else?”

“But I’m not even remotely qualified. I don’t know anything about power stations, or drilling a hole across dimensions, or getting a permit for… whatever I need permits for. I suck at that stuff.”

“Well, Mr. Harper, I think it’s time you started learning.” The devil reached into his pocket and pulled out a smart phone. “Here. You will need this. You will be getting calls from some of my people.” He set the phone on the bartop between their glasses.

Harper reached out, then hesitated. If the stories were true, accepting a gift from the devil seemed like a bad idea.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” the devil said. “Not every gift incurrs an obligation. This is just a tool I’m providing so you can do your job. You can return it when you’re done if it will make you feel better.”

Harper picked up the phone and held it like it might bite him. It had a satisfying solidity. No lightning came from above. He set it back down. “You have the wrong guy,” he said.

“I’ve been around for a long time, Mr. Harper, and you are one of a handful of people in all the history of your miserable race that has surprised me. So shut up and take the phone before I get angry. You are going to air condition hell. It is not for you to decide.” He reached into his pocket again, and pulled out a credit card. “I will pay you, of course. Fair compensation for your labor. Once again, no additonal obligation.”

“How much?”

“You decide. That card has no limit. None at all. Soon you will be hearing from my money people to arrange financing the project. In the meantime, I’ve asked the bartender to make sure your glass is never dry tonight. You have a new job, after all. It’s time to celebrate.”

Moonlight Sonata

A stranger in a Prague café brings a message from a dead Bluesman.

[podcast]

I’m getting the hang of this podcast thing, I think. Despite the fact this is a longer story the recording and editing went quickly. Cowboy Bob’s voice softens over the course of the reading, reflecting that my voice was getting a little tired, but other than that I’m pretty pleased with the results.

Naturally there are a few lines I think I could have done better, but my reading was helped by the fact that a couple of years ago I coached someone else through the words, and realized that Bob speaks staccato, while the narrator likes to roll with long vowels. I cleaned up the language just a touch, as I’m not sure just where “the line” is at the iTunes store.

Recently I linked to a fellow blogger’s post about the life cycle of blogs; I can see the same tendencies for podcasts. This is my fourth episode, and, well, according to the numbers from PowerPress (the plugin that simplifies publishing to iTunes), the popularity of the series is trending, if at all, downwards. Taking a two-month break didn’t help anything, I’m sure, but I think my expectations may have been a touch on the unrealistic side. So, more work than expected to produce plus no instant celebrity probably kills a lot of podcasts early in their careers.

Then I remind myself that I have a blog which I spend too much time coding on and hasn’t earned me any recognition either, even after nearly a decade, and I’m still plugging away here. Um… wait, was that supposed to be encouraging?

3

Round Two: My Fake Entry

As I thought about this prompt, I thought of the scene in the the classic movie Get Crazy, when Reggie Wanker emerges from a dressing room filled with naked women only to discover that the girlfriend he’s been ignoring (and who saw him in the room filled with naked women) is now with another guy. Said Reggie: “Betrayed! Turn your back for half a second and they stick a knife in it right up t’hilt.” As he goes back on stage (this has all occurred during a drum solo) he says. “I’ve finally found the meaning of the bleedin’ blues. Ol’ Reggie can take the pain… but can they?

Classic stuff. Malcolm McDowell makes a great Mick Jagger.

Anyway, I pondered for a while about what to do for my scene, but because I didn’t want to work too hard at it, I borrowed characters from a story I’ve already been fiddling with, called The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. Tatra is a new addition, and hey, what high fantasy story can’t be improved with a smart-mouth goth chick? Once again I’m heavy on dialog without much physical action.

EXT. FOREST - NIGHT
Tatra (17, Goth - black hair and nails, black dress with metallic accessories) is staring into the campfire flames. She has a blanket wrapped over her shoulders. Nearby she can hear Bixby snoring gently. The rest of the party are arrayed on the ground, all asleep.
Kitty jumps up into Tatra's lap, purring softly.
TATRA
Hello, Kitty.
Kitty settles into her lap, and Tatra strokes her fur gently. Kitty's purring intensifies.
TATRA (CONT'D)
So pretty...
Tatra's fingers stop at the base of Kitty's skull.
TATRA (CONT'D)
I could snap your neck in half a heartbeat.
The purring stops. Kitty looks up at Tatra in surprise.
TATRA (CONT'D)
Can you talk like that?
Kitty shakes her head but doesn't try to escape.
TATRA (CONT'D)
I should probably just kill you.
Kitty tenses, and Tatra tightens her grip. They freeze that way for a few heartbeats, then Tatra relaxes slightly.
TATRA (CONT'D)
If I let you go, will you kill me?
Kitty shakes her head no.
TATRA (CONT'D)
Can I trust you?
Kitty shakes her head no again. Tatra smiles. She releases Kitty's neck. Kitty jumps down from her lap. Space distorts and standing before Tatra is a woman, slender and lithe, with long black hair poorly protecting her modesty.
They both look around nervously to make sure the others are sleeping.
KITTY
Crap it's cold.
TATRA
Where the hell are your clothes?
KITTY
Which do you think looks better on a cat, an evening gown or a tutu? Of course I'm naked.
Tatra tosses her the blanket.
TATRA
Put this on. You're grossing me out.
Kitty takes the blanket but hesitates before putting it on, posing, smiling at Tatra's jealousy-fueled discomfort.
KITTY
There's still time for you. You might still develop a body like this one.
TATRA
Oh, goody. Then I can be a slut, too.
Kitty wraps the blanket around herself and stares down at Tatra.
KITTY
Be careful, Tatra.
TATRA
If I was careful I would have killed you already.
Kitty hesitates, then sits on the log next to Tatra.
KITTY
I guess I deserved that. So, what is it you want?
TATRA
What's your real name?
KITTY
Dacia.
TATRA
Who do you work for?
KITTY
What do you mean?
TATRA
What the hell do you think I mean? Who do you work for?
KITTY
I work... for The Master.
Tatra stifles a laugh.
TATRA
Who?
KITTY
The Master. Surely you've heard...
Tatra's face is blank.
KITTY (CONT'D)
How can you be here, now, with us, and never have heard of The Master?
TATRA
The Master? That's the best he could come up with? Oooo... The Maaaaaaster! Scary!
Kitty looks around in alarm.
KITTY
Quiet! You'll wake someone up.
TATRA
Or what? You'll tell the master on me? Oh, no!
She makes her eyes round with mock alarm and puts her hands to her cheeks, then starts to laugh - but quietly.
TATRA (CONT'D)
What are you doing here?
KITTY
The Master—
Tatra snorts.
KITTY (CONT'D)
My people have a great interest in the outcome of your quest. There are prophecies.
That gets Tatra's interest.
TATRA
No kidding? Like what?
KITTY
For instance, in the great tome "Insane Ravings of Hu'upman and other Vague Pronouncements", it says that if the elf marries John the Smith, then The — my master's designs will be thwarted.
Tatra looks stricken. She speaks past a lump in her throat.
TATRA
Lada and John...?
KITTY
IF, my dear. I would prefer that not to happen.
Tatra stares at the ground.
TATRA
I would prefer that not to happen, too.
Kitty sighs and pats Tatra's knee.
KITTY
You like him.
TATRA
He doesn't even know I exist.
Kitty begins to say one thing, stops, then says another.
KITTY
No, I don't think he's capable of seeing anyone not of royal birth.
TATRA
Like Princess big-boobie bitch-face? Ugh! I just want to strangle her sometimes.
Tatra looks around now, alarmed by her own outburst. Kitty smiles and moves closer to Tatra on the log. She puts her arm around the girl.
KITTY
I agree. What would you say if Princess Skoda ended up with your friend Bixby instead?
Tatra puts her hands around her throat and makes a gagging noise.
KITTY (CONT'D)
He might become prince...
TATRA
He'd be better off with Elf-Lady.
Kitty smiles. Her teeth are white and even, her eyes gleam in the firelight.
KITTY
Then we are in complete agreement. Lada must not mate with John the Smith.
TATRA
Ewww. Thanks for that image.
KITTY
Tell me, why did you not kill me?
TATRA
Because... because I think you want Bixby to live. And I thought maybe you could help me. You know, with magic.
KITTY
Help you what?
Tatra turns away, suddenly shy.
TATRA
You know.
KITTY
Will you help me in return? When we find the Important Thing?
TATRA
Sure.
KITTY
"Sure?" That's all? You're OK with allowing The Master to plunge the world into darkness and despair?
TATRA
Pf. Welcome to my world, cat-lady.

1

Cyberspace Open: Immortal Flesh

Time’s up, pencils down! The writing part of round one is over; now the waiting part begins. As I did last time, I have posted my entry below. As with last time, there are a couple of lines I’d like back. One of them I tweaked about a hundred times, read out loud in Igon’s voice, fiddled, twisted, and never got right. In the harsh light of morning I realize that when that happens it’s not usually the words causing trouble, but the idea they are trying to represent. Igon’s just not saying the right thing just then.

There are a couple of places where I flirt with As-You-Know-Bobs — things people say to each other that they both already know as an artificial way to inform the audience. They wouldn’t be necessary if this scene had the context of the larger story around it, but I think here they work to provide needed information about the core ideas in the story.

For your remindification, here’s the prompt that all challengers were to write to:

Your protagonist is crushed. His or her plans have been dashed; his objective now appears impossible. And yet if he throws in the towel, bad things will happen. Write a scene in which a mentor, friend, love interest or enemy rallies or provokes your protagonist in an unexpected way. Be sure to give us your best dialogue here as your protagonist comes around and rises – or falls — to the occasion.

And here’s what I did with it. Enjoy! (Warning: there’s a bit of foul language ahead.)

INT. DIVE BAR – LATE NIGHT
DEEK (26, slender, scruffy) slumps on his barstool, toying idly with an empty longneck. The bar is dim, neon lights splash reds and blues about. There is no one else sitting at the bar.
Deek catches the bartender’s eye and raises a finger. The bartender shakes his head.
BARTENDER
I think you’ve had enough.
DEEK
I’m not even buzzed.
The bartender glances at Deek’s tab.
BARTENDER
Dude, you’ve had ten beers.
DEEK
Then you better bring me something stronger.
BARTENDER
Tough day, huh?
Deek is starting to lose it, holding back tears, clinging white-knuckled to his empty. The bartender nods.
BARTENDER (CONT’D)
OK, gimme your keys and I’ll let you have another.
Deek snorts and reaches into the back pocket of his jeans. He pulls out a card and slaps it on the bartop with a bang.
BARTENDER (CONT’D)
What’s this?
DEEK
It’s my fuckin’ bus pass. I’m a fuckin’ superhero and I don’t even have a fuckin’ car.
The bartender steps back; the camaraderie he was trying to foster is broken.
BARTENDER
What’ll it be?
DEEK
You got any rat poison?
The bartender laughs nervously and wipes down a section of bartop.
DEEK (CONT’D)
Probably wouldn’t kill me anyway. Just gimme another beer.
The bartender pops a longneck and sets it in front of Deek.
BARTENDER
And for you, sir?
Deek wheels and discovers a man sitting next to him. A vampire. Igon is withered but healthy, impeccably dressed. Deek leaps off his stool, landing gracefully while the stool clatters to the floor.
BARTENDER (CONT’D)
That’s it, buddy, you’re done.
Deek is trying to control his breathing, never taking his eyes off the vampire. Igon touches the bartender’s arm. He looks directly into the bartender’s eyes.
IGON
It’s all right. I’ll have whatever passes for Scotch in this place. One for my friend as well.
(to Deek)
I’m just here to talk.
DEEK
I think I should be going.
IGON
Don’t be foolish. If you leave, you force me into actions we would both rather avoid.
Igon takes the two highballs and heads to a table in the corner. Hesitantly Deek picks up his stool and retrieves his beer. He follows to where Igon is seated. He hesitates.
IGON (CONT’D)
If I wanted you dead, you would be dead already.
Deek nods and slides into the chair opposite Igon. He accepts his drink, sets his beer next to it. They sit in silence for a moment.
DEEK
So, talk.
Igon smiles apologetically. His tone is grandfatherly.
IGON
Forgive me; it is easy to forget how you mortals hear the ticking of a clock in every heartbeat.
He sips from his glass, finds the Scotch adequate.
IGON (CONT’D)
I have two problems, Mr. Kramer. You are one of them.
DEEK
You have my sympathy.
IGON
You are also a potential solution to my other problem.
DEEK
Is your other problem a vampire?
Igon smiles. Deek has seen right to the heart of the matter.
IGON
Yes. A very old, very powerful vampire. My only true rival. I would like him dead.
DEEK
Why don’t you do it yourself?
IGON
We each have an aura, Mr. Kramer. A vibration. A smell. When you absorb the power of another vampire you inherit traces of that aura as well. I can hardly appear in council reeking of a vampire who has gone missing. I can already smell that French bastard Henri on you, and you still have a lot of him left to consume.
Igon leans in, a dangerous fire in his eye.
IGON (CONT’D)
Vampires believe they are immortal, Mr. Kramer, but you and I know the secret. We have taken the power of others and made it our own.
Deek’s eyes widen as he realizes that Igon has eaten the flesh of other vampires.
IGON (CONT’D)
Don’t look so shocked, boy. This is about power.
DEEK
If I kill this guy, what’s in it for me?
IGON
I will allow you to live.
Deek stares down at his hands on the table.
DEEK
You’ll have to do better than that.
IGON
Well, then, let us haggle. What would you like? Wealth? Power?
(pause)
Sex?
Igon grins and lowers his voice conspiratorially.
IGON (CONT’D)
Fernando has an impressive harem. Very talented. You could choose one for yourself, with my compliments. Your very own vampire concubine.
DEEK
I want Jody back.
IGON
The girl you killed?
DEEK
It was an accident!
IGON
It was careless.
Igon narrows his eyes, measuring Deek.
IGON (CONT’D)
How would you feel if your girlfriend were a vampire?
DEEK
You can –
Igon raises his hand, forestalling Deek’s question.
IGON
I don’t know. It has never been done before. But I am a man of science. The idea intrigues me.
Igon thinks through the intricacies of the operation.
IGON (CONT’D)
It would probably kill the vampire who attempted the conversion.
Deek’s new hope is crushed. Igon smiles and pats his arm.
IGON (CONT’D)
No cause for worry, my boy. I always keep an extra vampire or two around for just such contingencies.
DEEK
You would still have one problem.
IGON
A cogent observation. Luckily for you, I have many enemies. As long as I can trust you to kill only the vampires I specify, I can make sure you have plenty to eat.
DEEK
And Jody? You’ll help her?
IGON
What if I did? If your friend were hungry, would you help her hunt? Would you murder a human to help a vampire?
Deek swallows but finds the answer.
DEEK
Yes.
Igon leans back and smiles warmly. He raises his glass.
IGON
To a long and productive partnership.
Deek picks up his own glass, gestures, and drains it.
1

November 1, 2009

Yesterday wasn’t as prolific as day ones have been in the past, not nearly so, but overall I’m pleased with the quality. Here’s the first chapter, which represent a large fraction of my day one output. Now I need to forget about quality for a while and get the dang story out.

Be warned that this episode contains profanity. Deek is not a terribly genteel guy.

Immortal Flesh

Deek lay in his bed, his thin limbs tangled in the sweaty sheets, his skin pale in the light of the moon splashing through the small window high on the wall of his room. His breathing was shallow, his eyes open wide, dark rings beneath them a testament to many sleepless nights. His shortish dark hair poked out at all angles, stiffened with dried sweat and grime. On the apple crate that served as a night stand sat a clock radio, empty beer cans, and a hatchet, its blade rusted and dull in the moonlight, its cracked wooden hand grip poking out toward him, so he could grab it in an instant.

There was a monster under his bed.

He closed his eyes, held them shut, tried not to hear the faint scratching from the Band-Aid box (sealed with Band-Aids), where a severed finger twitched, whether reflexively or guided by a desire to escape its confinement Deek did not know. A sighing sound as a Hefty bag with a slab of thigh in it settled in a new position. A rattling as teeth tried to escape the Altoid box that held them. Furtive sounds, patient, like they had all the time in the world.

There must be fifty fucking containers under there, Deek thought. Fifty pieces of vampire. Probably more. He had tried cutting the pieces into smaller and smaller slices, but no matter how small the pieces, they still remained animated.

How? The energy must be coming from somewhere, some power source unknown to science. There was a fucking Nobel prize under his bed, for someone who could crack that mystery. Probably a lot of Nobel Prizes. Scientists would shit over shit like this.

There would be no Nobel prizes for Deek, however. For him the boxes under the bed meant nothing except a slow and painful death. If there was one vampire, there would be others. And they would be pissed. No doubt they were already wondering about their missing buddy, checking the places he had last been seen, asking about who he had gone home with. Deek needed to get rid of the thing, soon, and he had to make sure it never came back.

Schwik-schwish. Deek jumped. He hated that sound most of all, when the heart in the zip-lock bag decided to beat, even though there was no blood for it to pump.

There was plenty of blood down there under the bed, though, pooling, clinging to the surfaces of the containers that held the rest of the parts. It had a musty smell, a little sweet, that made Deek’s throat tighten.

Deek’s own blood stayed where it had fallen, staining the oval rag throw rug. Mom was going to be pissed when she saw that.

Something in a shoe box—a foot, in all likelihood—started to bump against a milk crate filled with tupperware containers. Bump, bump, bump. Deek could move the boxes and gain peace for a while, but eventually the bumping would begin anew.

Once more Deek put in his earphones and turned up his music. For a moment it helped, but the only thing worse than hearing the shuffling and scratching beneath his bed was not hearing them. What if something got free? Every sound that came from outside his earphones made his stomach go sour with fear.

Deek sat up grabbed the hatchet. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed. Nothing reached out to grab him. He stood and felt safer after he took two steps, over to the microwave and hot-plate his parents had given him when they agreed to let him rent the basement. Not that he ever paid rent.

He opened the fridge, pulled out a can of beer, and popped the top. He took a long drink and started to feel a little better. He drained the can. In the corner was a plastic bag filled with empties; he balanced this one delicately on the pile before getting a new one from the fridge. Almost out. No way I’m going to the store with this thing here, though. No telling what I’ll find when I get back.

Something thumped under the bed, one of the larger pieces. Deek spun and held the hatchet out in front of him, but nothing more happened.

On top of the microwave was a cereal bowl. Inside a thumb twisted and writhed like an earthworm on a sidewalk. Before Deek had gone to bed he had chopped the thumb into a puree. Now it was whole again. Eventually all the pieces stashed under his bed would find a way to come back together, no matter what Deek did, no matter how far apart he could separate them. Then the vampire would find him. It would not be so careless next time.

There had to be a way to kill it. There had to be some way to disconnect the atoms of the undead flesh from whatever force it was that preserved it and gave it the energy to move. Was there intelligence guiding that force? The vampire’s brain was in several pieces, some clinging to the fragments of the shattered skull, others in their own containers. A quarter of the head was in a mayonnaise jar at the foot of the bed, the eyeball popped free from its socket, dangling by the optic nerve. It seemed to be watching him. For a moment Deek thought he was going to puke again. He took another gulp of beer.

How do you kill something that’s not alive? Not alive like he was anyway.

Deek pulled out the big kitchen knife he’d borrowed from upstairs and put the thumb on the stained wooden cutting board. He chopped off a section, the knife severing the bone with a crunch. A drop of blood, almost black, escaped and then oozed back into the larger piece of the thumb. Nothing he had done so far had robbed the flesh of the power that quickened it.

He picked up the smaller piece, a disk of grey flesh with a circle of bone in the middle, and nearly dropped it when he felt the flesh move between his fingers. Mincingly he set it back down, farther from the rest of the thumb.

Tears welled in Deek’s eyes. He was fucked. Well and truly fucked. They would come for him, the vampire’s friends, they would take him and they would exact their revenge and when they were done with him his mutilated body would be discarded some place no one would ever find. No one would even look for him; his mom and step-dad would just breathe a sigh of relief and wonder where he’d got to. His friends might miss him for a while, but then they’d just get stoned and soon he would be forgotten. As if he had never existed.

“Fuck!” he shouted. He stabbed the larger part of the thumb with the knife, pinning it, preventing it from wriggling over to connect with the section he had sliced off. Tears ran down his nose and made dark circles on the cutting board. With an incoherent scream he threw his empty beer can against the wall as hard as he could. It clattered impotently against the unpainted cinder block and rattled down behind the fridge, coming to rest on the condenser coils. A thin stream of foamy backwash drained down onto the floor.

His anger gave out. His knees couldn’t take his full weight anymore; he clung to the microwave with shaking hands, his nose filling with snot, his vision blurred. “Fuck,” he sobbed. “I didn’t ask for this.”

Mojo. Juju. Magic. Deek thought about something he had read once, something about warriors absorbing the strength of their enemies. He looked at the cross-section of thumb, mushroom-colored, quivering slightly, smelling of damp earth. The earth of the grave. An idea took root somewhere in his cerebellum, spreading tendrils through his mind before finally blooming in his consciousness. A laugh escaped his lips, edged with hysteria. “Hell,” he said to the specimen. “What do I have to lose?” He laughed again, a deranged giggle that sounded like a horse whinny.

He opened the fridge once more, pulling out the next-to-last beer, and a bottle of ketchup.

Bad Judgement

I wrote this scene over the course of two days, and I stopped myself before I edited all the fun out of it. (At least, I hope I did.) Lenore and Tommy seem to be in a heap of trouble, but can they even trust each other? The scene that comes after this one is awesome, if unwritten.

As a reminder, here’s the premise:

Your PROTAGONIST is in a jam. He (or she) had been relying on deception in order to further his objective, but his ENEMY has figured out the ruse. Write the scene in which your protagonist’s LOVE INTEREST confronts him with this information acquired from the enemy – while in staging it in a tricky or dangerous situation.

I learned a few things while writing this… but let’s cut to the chase.

INT. GETAWAY CAR
LENORE (26,) a willowy blonde, is behind the wheel of a souped-up GTO, her hair blowing in the wind from the sunroof. She is grinning maniacally as she flies down a two-lane blacktop. Abruptly she cranks the wheel and the car goes into a sideways skid, kicking up a cloud of dust as she comes to rest by the prison wall. Sirens blare. She leans over, pulls the handle on the passenger door, and TOMMY (28,) tall and angular, jumps in. He is wearing orange prison overalls and his dark hair is buzzed short. Lenore stomps the gas pedal with her bare foot and the car leaps away. Up on the wall a few of the guards shoot at the fleeing vehicle.
Lenore is so excited she can’t sit still; she is bouncing in the seat.
LENORE
Hey, baby!
She leans over to kiss her boyfriend, almost driving off the road in the process. Tommy sits with arms folded, staring straight ahead. Lenore hesitates, then looks up barely in time to straighten the car before it goes in a ditch. Her enthusiasm is diminished.
LENORE
Ain’t you happy to see me?
TOMMY
Surprised you bothered to come.
LENORE
What?
Lenore slams on the brakes and the car comes screeching to a halt. Tommy bounces off the dash. Lenore glares at him.
LENORE
Just what are you insinuatin’?
Tommy glances back behind them. In the distance are the flashing lights of pursuing police cars.
TOMMY
Can’t we talk about this later?
LENORE
I’m not moving one inch until you explain to me what that remark was supposed to mean.
TOMMY
The cops are coming!
Lenore sits back and sets her jaw. A tear leaks from one eye.
LENORE
I don’t care.
TOMMY
You want to talk? Fine! Judge Hastings come down to visit me the other day.
Lenore pounds the steering wheel.
LENORE
(to herself)
That bastard!
TOMMY
He says you two been gallivanting all over town.
LENORE
Gallivanting!
TOMMY
That was the very word he used.
Lenore smashes down on the gas and the car rockets forward in a cloud of burning rubber.
LENORE
(under her breath)
I’ll gallivant his sorry ass…
TOMMY
So what about it?
Lenore picks up a pistol and puts on a bright smile.
LENORE
I got your favorite gun in the back seat.
TOMMY
Is it true? What he said?
The cars behind open fire, but with little effect.
LENORE
Can’t we talk about this later?
Lenore holds her gun out the window and fires a few shots. She pops the magazine from the gun and, driving with her knee, loads in another one. The car hits a bump and skids wildly. Tommy bounces off the head liner.
TOMMY
Dammit! Watch where you’re going!
LENORE
Tommy, we need drivin and we need shootin, and I got the only steering wheel.
Tommy sighs dramatically and reaches into the backseat and pulls out a wicked-looking automatic rifle. He caresses the finish.
TOMMY
Hello, baby.
LENORE
You two can cuddle later. It’s time to go to work.
Tommy works the bolt and takes a breath. He sticks his head out the sunroof and fires a few bursts with increasing glee. One of the pursuing cars skids off the road. Tommy laughs and sits down.
TOMMY
Whoo! Yessir! Tommy’s back!
He pops up and fires off another burst, spraying bullets behind them until he runs out. Return fire punches holes in the trunk. He sits down to reload. Lenore holds her gun out the sunroof and fires randomly. She swerves a little just for fun. Tommy looks over at her, grinning.
TOMMY
I love you, Sugar Pie.
LENORE
I love you too, Hunny Bear.
He leans over and kisses her hard, then turns back to the job at hand. He hesitates as he’s putting a fresh magazine into his gun, and pops out a cartridge. It has a dull gray case.
TOMMY
What’s this?
LENORE
What’s what?
He holds a bullet up in front of her, an inch from her face, blocking her vision. She swerves as she bats it away. He bounces off the dashboard again.
TOMMY
These cartridges have steel cases! You know Black Beauty here only likes brass.
LENORE
But the steel’s so much cheaper. Money’s tight right now.
Tommy stutters, trying to make sense of what she just said.
TOMMY
Money’s… what? Tight? We have thirty million dollars!
Lenore cringes and occupies herself with driving and shooting. A bullet come through the car, shattering the rear window and spidering the windshield.
LENORE
It’s just… not available right now.
Tommy is beyond words. More bullets hit the bodywork of the car. Tommy reaches up through the sunroof and fires, but his heart’s not in it. Lenore looks over at him and tries a feeble smile.
LENORE
It’s… invested?
Tommy points his gun at Lenore. He is shaking with rage.
TOMMY
Invested where.
Frightened, Lenore points her gun at Tommy. Ahead two police cars are blocking the highway; Lenore and Tommy don’t see them. After a momentary standoff the two begin to shout simultaneously, jabbing at each other with their guns.
TOMMY
Where’s the goddam money?
LENORE
Don’t be this way, Tommy. Don’t get all crazy on me now. Remember what the doctor said. You’re scaring me, baby.
TOMMY
Does Hastings have it? Hasting’s got our goddam money, don’t he? You gave Hastings our goddam money!
LENORE
No!
Lenore pauses and realizes that Tommy has handed her a convenient scapegoat. She “confesses” through her tears.
LENORE
Yes! It’s Hastings! He… uh… he tricked me, Hunny Bear. He said… We have to get our money back!
Tommy nods, suddenly calm.
TOMMY
You shoulda just said.
He gestures up the highway.
TOMMY (CONT’D)
Road block.
Lenore keeps the gas to the floor and braces herself. The engine is roaring and starting to smoke. The speedometer climbs. Tommy puts his seat belt on; ahead, police begin to scatter. The two face forward, their calm faces shiny with sweat.
LENORE
I’m sorry about the cheap ammo.
TOMMY
We’ll talk about it later, Sugar Pie. You got some drivin to do.
Lenore scans the scene ahead, concentrating, then cracks a little smile.
LENORE
Roll down your window.
Tommy works the window crank.
TOMMY
I love it when you smile like that.

A Perfect Match?

I am complimented on my dialog now and then, and that makes me feel good. However, I am constantly reminding myself to be more descriptive of the surroundings. Often I’ll put characters in an off-the-shelf setting and let the reader fill in the details. Lazy, and plenty of missed opportunities. (“Furniture”, on the other hand, is all about the settings. One of the reasons I like it so much.)

Yesterday I spent some time looking for writing contests with minimal or no reading fees which may fit things I’ve already written. There are a lot of writing contests out there, but almost all of them smell much more literary than most of the stories I’ve written. (Maybe this makes up for the relative scarcity of markets that consistently pay good rates for the literary genre.)

While I was poking around I found this contest, which in part reads:

The Rules: Compose a short story entirely of dialogue. You may use as many characters as you want. Your entry must be under 3000 words. Your entry does not have to follow standard rules for writing dialogue. Your entry cannot use any narration (this includes tag lines such as he said, she said, etc.). These are the only rules. Manipulate them however you see fit.

Interesting! While I don’t have a story that fits that (and in fact I just went back and added a great deal of descriptive text to a story that had some nearly all-dialog scenes), this seems like a contest that might play to my strengths. Like I have the bandwidth to take on another story right now…

The Preposterometer

Suspension of disbelief is an important part of fiction. As fiction, a story is inherently unreal, and the reader knows it. Yet the reader is willing to pretend for a while that the events in the story could or even did happen. Readers become like the Thurmians in Galaxy Quest — treating the story as if it were a historical document.

Yet some stories make that nearly impossible to do. They cross the line from incredible to preposterous, and the story is broken. Enter the Preposterometer, a tool for rating just how far credulity must be bent to stay in the novel.

The rules for the preposterometer are not simple. For instance, some genres of literature have long-accepted preposterous ideas that the reading community has decided to overlook. In Science Fiction, a writer can travel faster than light and ignore the relativistic consequences. Physically, that’s preposterous, and to base an entire novel on it would break everything if the reader insisted that science fiction conform to science. But faster-than-light travel is fun, and everyone does it, and so we have culturally pushed that problem way down on the preposterometer scale. For science fiction, the preposterous is acceptable as long as it’s consistent.

Every genre, even literary fiction, has it’s culturally-acceptable preposterosities. Literary Fiction has the exquisite coincidence and the inexplicable connections between people (I just made those terms up). I was about to say that the only preposterosity that is unforgivable across genres is human nature – people still have to behave like people. Even aliens have to behave like people most of the time. In my poor, negelected novel The Monster Within the part that recieved the most critical feedback was when two characters who did not get off to a good start together became friends rather abruptly. Magic? Sure, no problem, but don’t let Hunter be such a pushover. It wasn’t realistic.

Romance novels might be the exception to that. There is a specially-modified range of human responses that only applies in Romance-world, where (for instance) sex with the right woman can transform a rogue into a protector. Preposterous? Of course. Acceptable? Absolutely.

So, then, when measuring a story on the preposterometer, context matters. Internal consistency matters. How the preposterous event is set up matters a great deal.

A little preposterosity (such a better word than ‘preposterousness’, though I’m still debating the spelling with myself) is good for a story. We have a word for stories where nothing unusual or amazing happens. We call them ‘boring’, or perhaps ‘blog entries’. So as we undertake to rank stories on the preposterometer, we must recognize that scoring a zero is at least as bad as scoring a ten. Somewhere in the middle is a happy, believable-yet-enjoyable range of preposterosity that turns a story into a good yarn.

It’s also worth noting that humor and satire are almost expected to push the preposterometer into the red. That’s why we have the phrase “so bad it’s funny.” So-called serious stories that over-preposterate wind up as humor quite by accident. (Not always — sometimes they’re just bad.) I’ve been thinking about my story Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy, and I don’t think it’s preposterous enough yet. When you’re parodying an inherently preposterous genre, you really have to pull out all the stops.

preposterometer

Here is a rough sketch of the preposterometer, but it’s not in a useful form yet. What’s lacking is a benchmark for the various levels. (Do we need a separate benchmark for each genre?) While I have plenty of ideas for the middle- and upper-preposterous benchmarks, I couldn’t come up with examples off the top of my head for the low-preposterosity examples. I’ll keep working on fleshing out the scale, but any suggestions you have would be welcome. Spread the word! Together we can quantify this elusive metric.

1

Need a Little Background for a Story

I’m writing an eclipse-inspired very short story, and I need a city in Mexico. The requirements are:

  1. Good view of the 1991 total eclipse (long totality and had good weather that day)
  2. Populous enough to have bad neighborhoods (bonus: name the neighborhood!)
  3. Bonus: humid enough to have lots of insects

It’s a silly little piece, but I like to get my facts straight. Currently I have it in Cabo San Lucas, but a larger city would be preferable, as long as the first two criteria above are met.

Thanks in advance!

Step on a Crack

On a cruise ship books can make the rounds, passing from one reader to another fairly quickly. Two others in my group read Step On a Crack by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge before I did. They both agreed that the book was not very good (to paraphrase their summaries as gently as possible), so it’s fair to say that my expectations were low when I picked up the book.

My expectations were met. Had I something else to read, I would have put this thing down around chapter four and never looked back. (The chapters are very short). The first sentence is a confused and awkward bit of imagery (the back of a jacket turns away…) and that sets the tone for the whole book. We start with a murder, the untimely demise of one of the finest people the world has ever known. Her highly-trained bodyguards, who have been protecting her for several years now, are apparently unable to respond to what should be a routine medical emergency. It seems no one told them that their charge was deathly allergic to peanuts so they weren’t able to do anything about it. Oops! (The bad guy knew about her allergy, however, well enough to execute a months-long plot to infiltrate a fancy restaurant in order to put peanut oil on her dinner. Wow.) On top of that, somehow on this particular night the woman forgot to pack her own medicine. And so begins the work of the greatest criminal mastermind of the century.

But wait! Before we go any further with tales of murder and mayhem, it’s time to meet a whole bunch of Perfect People. These people do nothing to influence the plot of the story; they’re too busy being perfect. Perfect children. A perfect stranger to take perfect care of the perfect children in the time of crisis. Perfect people everywhere, doing the perfect things with perfect consistency. Bleeargh. Did I mention they have nothing to do with the plot? They are there, in fact, to perfectly NOT encumber the detective we will be following as the threadbare story develops.

Begin the crime of the century. A crime so big and so audacious it must be the work of a criminal genius. How do we know? Because the authors tell us so. With exclamation points! And occasional nonsensical italics! The NYPD is starting to look like a bunch of incompetent fools, and the press is going to have a field day. If hostages are killed, the press will rake our hero over the coals.

Only, hostages die, and for a long time it looks like the bad guys are winning, but the authors can’t be bothered to portray the actual coal-raking. In fact, the stakes for the good guys never escalate. There is no heat. (One reporter does criticize our hero in her paper, but then immediately expresses remorse and stops her persecution — taking her own step toward perfection before she can cause too much trouble for the authors.)

Then there’s the time the detective walks in and finds his grandfather dressed as a priest! (That’s their exclamation point, not mine.) Wow! what a shock! Only, it turns out that Grandpa has been a priest for years, everyone knows it, and seeing him dressed that way was no shock to anyone. The authors were just yanking our chain a bit. Whee.

Meanwhile, most of the hostages experience life-changing revelations. The perfect hostages become perfecter(!). The imperfect ones get better! For instance, the ‘fashionista’ resolves to go to rehab and stop being such a bitch all the time. Once she makes that decision, that’s it for her in this story. She makes a promise to herself to undergo a complete personality realignment and we believe her and move on. Well, the authors seem to believe her. I’m skeptical.

I hate to spoil it for you, but the good guys win in the end. In fact, they don’t have to work very hard to defeat the brilliant criminal mastermind. Sure, the bad guys got away at first, but just a little routine investigating and bam, there you have it. To avoid the authors having to get too clever, the criminals conveniently explain all the loose ends for us.

I finished the book. It didn’t take long; the type is big and there’s about fifty pages worth of blank space between chapters. One-third of what is left is a sentimental parade of sap that does nothing for the story. I set the book aside and decided not to review it here. There’s plenty of awful prose out there; you don’t need my help finding it. Then I read the back cover. “THE STUNNING #1 BESTSELLER” it says right across the top. Then it lists several newspapers who listed the book as a top-seller. What!?! This book?

I’m stunned, anyway. I decided to write a little review after all, not so much to criticize the book as the system that allowed it to attain such stature.

Usually, even with books or authors I don’t like, I can understand at least to a certain degree how they became successful. Dan Brown’s not very good but he has excellent pacing and managed to anger the right people. This book leaves me baffled.

Some guy at Booklist says, “Totally gripping and downright impossible to put down.” Gripping? No. No it isn’t. The characters are boring, there is no escalation of the stakes (unforgivable in a thriller), no character growth, not a breath of humanity anywhere to be found in these pages. The criminal plot depends on the incompetence of the good guys. Potentially gut-wrenching scenes are glossed over so we can get back to the Perfect People for another dose of sentimentality. Not gripping. USA Today chimes in as well, along with Publisher’s Weekly and a handful of book-review Web sites. Did they read a different version? One without so much suck in it? Are these people even literate?

Don’t waste your time with this book. In fact, just to be on the safe side, stay away from Patterson entirely until he proves this was just a fluke. Probably best to stay away from books published by Little, Brown, and Company (responsible for the hardcover version of this fluff) or by Vision. Somewhere there is an editor who approved this book, and I want to make sure I never encounter anything else that crossed her desk. As long as we’re learning from the mistakes of others, it’s time to take Booklist a lot less seriously as well.

The only explanation for the sales that I can come up with is the name: James Patterson. Apparently he’s pretty famous. Bookstores will pre-order a lot of copies, which drives the rankings up, which drives sales by people who won’t even read the first sentence of the story before taking it home. If it weren’t for the big name, not many people would have read the second sentence of this thing. The few that were carried through the first part by the suggestion of sex would have bailed out soon thereafter.

Is Mr. Patterson concerned about protecting his name? It doesn’t look like it. This book can’t be good for his reputation, no matter what the sales were. (I am assuming that at some point he wrote good books to establish his reputation.) He can read, I’d be willing to bet; he must know this novel is junk. Eventually, people are going to hesitate to pick up his next title, after getting insulted by a previous purchase.

Ooo! Or maybe — just maybe, mind you — Michael Ledwidge knows something. Something James Patterson would rather not become public. You see where I’m going with this? Ledwidge wrote the book but somehow coerced Patterson into putting his name on the thing as well. Farfetched? It’s a lot more plausible than the story in Step on a Crack.

And can someone tell me what that title had to do with anything?

Note: if for some reason you ignore my dire warnings and use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Night of the Avenging Blowfish

The first thing you notice about Night of the Avenging Blowfish: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat by John Welter is the humor. The book is downright funny, and not just a one-note sort of funny. At the start we are with a group of Secret Service agents who may (or may not) have been challenged to a baseball game by the CIA. The game will be played at night, in an unknown location. The challenge on the bulletin board may be a prank. The Secret Service men are eager to form a team, primarily because their boss doesn’t want them to. Silly? Perhaps, but no less silly than living your entire life ready to shoot anyone who looks like they might want to harm the president. No less silly, but a lot less painful.

Doyle is one of those agents. He and the other bachelors in the service sometimes go out drinking, to look at the women in the bars they will never meet. It’s hard to have a romance when you can’t even say where you work. Doyle has another secret, one all his own, to share with no one. He’s so desperately lonely that he’s starting to crumble. He’s also in love with a married woman whom he can never, ever tell about his feelings.

He’s also in a bit of a pickle at work. One night during a visit to the White House kitchen, he finds the chef preparing Spam for a state dinner. The president, it seems, made a comment that the chef took personally. The chef also tells Doyle that tonight’s paté will actually be cat food. Doyle decides that Spam poses no threat to the President so it’s not up to him to interfere. In fact, he’s amused by it all. Unfortunately, the Spam is exposed (though not the cat food), the chef is fired, and Doyle’s inaction angers important people. Eventually (with Doyle’s help) the episode develops into a political scandal (“The president is an elitist!”) that leads to the Chief Executive eating all sorts of awful local dishes, which in turn leads to protest from animal rights groups…

It gets complicated. Meanwhile, the baseball team, dubbed the Avenging Blowfish, continue to practice playing in the dark, and Doyle learns that the object of his unrequited love might — just might — return his affection.

The dialog in the book is crackling sharp and very funny, even when dancing around dark subjects. People speak almost in code, conversations twisting with deliberate misinterpretation of others’ words, layers of negatives, and an understood agreement to not understand. This is particularly true when the Secret Service and the CIA talk to each other. I was reminded of Joseph Heller several times while reading, and then noticed that Heller was quoted on the cover, endorsing the writer.

For all the silliness, the book has a heart. It’s a love story, and Doyle, speaking privately with us, feels emotions with a force that threatens to break him, and he can never, ever tell anyone about them. Occasionally I thought the author went a bit overboard with Doyle’s private expressions of hopelessness, but the language was powerful enough to pull it off. Doyle is a good man, and he’s in a tough place for someone who has emotions.

One thing I can say for Welter: He ended this novel really well. Progress made, understanding reached, but life is still complicated, the way life is. Doyle does his job, supports his friends, and hits a home run.

Or does he?

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

City of the Sun

This will be a quick review, because there is another book I have a lot more to say about. So it goes. I picked up City of the Sun by David Levien in a bookstore in the Atlanta airport after spending many hours on a plane with no reading material at hand. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I grabbed three books (one for fuego, two for me in case one blew) as we waited to board. On the flight I made it perhaps ten pages in before falling asleep.

I did read the book once I got to my new home in San Jose, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a detective novel, and it does have some good action and there is suspense, but the story really revolves around two fathers, both dealing with the tragic loss of a son. It is the chemistry between the two that drives the story, and the gradual healing we see (or at least coming to terms with their losses) is the real payoff of the story.

As far as the writing itself goes, the style annoyed me at first. There is a lot of present tense and some shifts that didn’t take me with them. I thought about that later, as I was tearing through the pages, how I wasn’t annoyed anymore. Then I realized the author had stopped doing that stuff and had just settled down to write the story. As soon as he did that I was along for the ride. Hopefully in subsequent books he won’t feel the need to start out fancy. Once he got rolling his prose was almost invisible. There was a story going on, not words on a page. Now that I pay so much attention to the mechanics, it’s really refreshing when the story just takes over.

As interesting as the progress of the characters and how they dealt with their loss was, I found the plot payoff at the end of the story to be rather annoying. I won’t go into detail, but there’s one bit of good fortune that doesn’t belong and actually undermines much of what came before. It would only take a small twist to provide a chance to really get inside the guts of these two men and provide a powerful finish. As it is, we really don’t get the detective’s take on the final events.

It’s a quibble, but often the detective seems a little too perfect — there’s a bit of superman to him that a few demons can’t hide. Maybe in the sequels his former drinking problems will resurface, he’ll hit someone he shouldn’t have, or something else will jump up and blindside him. Here’s hoping. The sequels will certainly be worth checking out.

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

Writing I Read When I’m Feeling Bad About My Writing

There are times I look at the product I’m putting out and there’s just no pretending. It’s not that good. Other times I read something I used to think was good and it turns out to be a disaster of poor communication. At times like that, it’s easy to think I suck. Not just think it, to know it to the core of my being. I suck. Suck, suck, suck! Nothing I write is any good and I’m just wasting my life trying to make a living at something I suck at.

It’s not a pretty thing.

It’s hard to work when you are absolutely certain you suck. What I need at times like that is some glimmer of hope that maybe, sometimes, on the best of days, a brief moment of not-sucking is possible, a fleeting flirtation with not-so-bad that can fuel the hope I need to create the next hyperbolic, rambling train wreck.

A long time ago, on one of my first-ever golf outings, I hit a magically beautiful shot. Now I think of that shot as I search through the cactus for my wayward ball. Most of my shots end up in painful places, but there’s always that one… Likewise, when I’m scrounging through the rough trying to find any reason to keep working on a story and by extension keep working at being a writer, I think of the good shots I’ve hit in my day. Those are the stories I go back and read when I need to get myself back to the happy place.

I’m nervous when people around me are reading my work, but last year I was with my dad as he read “The Tourist“. “That’s really good,” he said. I’m not sure it stands alone; it’s better I’m sure if you’re familiar with other Tin Can stories, but I read that and it still gets me. I really like that story. Oddly, I have a hard time putting my finger on why.

The story that started the series, that the good folk at Piker Press had to call to my attention, was “Tin Can“. It’s a simple story, but subtle enough it fooled me for a while.

Then there’s Crazy Blood. It’s been rejected, so maybe others don’t see what I see in it, but I read it tonight and I have to say that I am on occasion surprised at my own word choice. I haven’t the slightest idea who might pay me money for this story. Crazy Blood might appeal to no one but me, which begs the question of whether it’s an example of writing that demonstrates that I have what it takes to be a professional, but that’s OK.

A user of Jer’s Novel Writer sent me a message after reading “Serpent“. The title of the message was was “Holy Crap!” I was already happy with that one, but that unsolicited feedback didn’t hurt. It’s a cool story, a little clunky in spots I think now, but with a sweet conclusion. It will definitely and appear in my “Piker Years” anthology, after a couple of minor tweaks.

And the novel, The Monster Within, awaiting the latest set of revisions to make it something others can love as much as I do. I wrote the damn thing and I’ve never got tired of it.

Usually, when I’m feeling that every word I write is worthless drivel, I can read some of the above and tell myself, “no, only most of what I write is worthless drivel.” That seems to be enough to keep me going.

The Three Books I’ve Read Written by Dan Brown

As another big-budget movie based on a Dan Brown novel rolls out, supported by a massive marketing push, I’d like to share my thoughts on the three Dan Brown novels I’ve read, in the order I read them. I’m a bit surprised I’ve not mentioned them in this blog before.

I first encountered Dan Brown in a cluttered living room in San Diego. Angels & Demons was the title of the book, and my friend recommended it highly. I had free time, and reading is part of my job, so I sat down to consume it.

I’ll say this for the story: It was paced well. Events happened and knowledge was gained at a rapid pace but there was time for characters to reflect and for readers to catch up. It’s why I finished the book. The two main characters weren’t bad. And… that’s about it.

On the other hand, the science the entire story was based on was preposterous. The whole plot is driven by a battery that lasts twenty-four hours to the second, and it never seems to occur to anyone that a) battery life is not that predictable and b) even if it were possible to create a battery with a charge that lasted an extremely precise amount of time, there was no motivation here for the people who created the battery to worry about stuff like that.

That’s really a minor quibble, but everything else depended on it. People base decisions that could lead to the destruction of Rome and the death of millions of people to a blind faith on the 24-hour timer. It was the clock that drove the plot.

If that one seems ticky-tack, there were many worse errors in the grand parade of downright stupidity as far as science and scientists were concerned, creating an overwhelming wrongness that ruined the story. Things start off with a ride in a jet that can’t take off and go downhill from there. Then there was the tension between religion and science, which certainly exists, but the ability to create antimatter (which has been going on for decades now) certainly hasn’t created new rifts between science and religion. Unfortunately, this rift is another key plot driver. And the location of the secret lab at CERN? Nope. Antimatter as a world-changing power source? Sure, until you consider the ungodly amount of energy it took to create it. I could go on and on.

There was lots of information about some of the great works of art around Rome and the men who created them, and I found some of it fascinating. (Or was that stuff in the Da Vinci code? It’s a blur, now.) But was Brown’s research on art history any better than his science? I don’t know, but his credibility was shot long before the story even reached Rome. I just hope I’ve forgotten all those facts, in case they’re wrong.

And as far as the process for selecting a new Pope, I’m pretty skeptical that what is portrayed here – even if we allow that a bunch of senior church officials could be so utterly stupid – would be legit.

The ending is simply preposterous. Ridiculous. Eye-rolling, head-slapping stupid. But it’s dramatic, I’ll give Mr. Brown that.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I don’t remember who convinced me that The Da Vinci Code would make up for my disappointment with the previous read, but I was reasonably optimistic as I started in on the most famous of Mr. Brown’s novels.

To be honest, I don’t remember that much about the book anymore. It just didn’t stick. I remember rolling my eyes a few times, and thinking “that would never, ever, happen,” but overall I was not as annoyed by this book as I was by the other. How’s that for a ringing endorsement? “Dan Brown’s least annoying work to date!” Some of the characters are reasonably credible, but others are cartoons at best.

This book was controversial, which ironically is probably why we’re being treated to multiple major films based on Mr. Brown’s work. Remind me to write an otherwise innocuous novel that says Jesus had children. (I think that was the controversy – I suppose I’ll have to come up with my own.) There is a “huge” revelation in the story that begs a large question for anyone who can count past thirteen.

Still, I read the book, and once again I think the pacing had a lot to do with that. Dan Brown, for all his faults, kept me turning the pages.

Fool me three times…

Then there’s Deception Point. A steaming pile of suck from beginning to end (yet, once more, I read it all). This book was off on so many levels there’s no point trying to list them here. Let’s just leave it at: I’ll never read a novel by Dan Brown again.

Note: if for some reason you actually want to buy one of these books, and you use the above links, I get a kickback.