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.”

Here Comes November Again

It’s that time of year again; NaNoWriMo is fast approaching and as usual I really don’t know what I’m going to write. I’d better write something, though, because I really, really need to get back in the habit of punching out words every day.

I’ve had a few vague thoughts of possible novel ideas, but none has taken root. On the science fiction front, I have a time travel idea that’s intriguing, but falls short of qualifying as a plot. I could combine it with some ideas that are set in the asteroid belt, and maybe get things rolling. But there’s a reason those ideas have been bouncing around in my skull for a few years now — there’s not a real story attached to them.

I could always write a sequel to The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy, which would start immediately following Bixby recovering the Important Thing and discovering that the Evil Guy is not his father after all (much to the Evil Guy’s surprise). Perhaps it could be called The Quest for the Operating Instructions for the Important Thing.

Sometimes I wonder if the Tincaniverse is a good place to set a novel. My last few attempts at short stories in that world haven’t had the same vignetty yumminess as the successful ones of days gone by; maybe it’s time to use a novel to get deeper inside the spacer psyche. Once again, I’m not sure what the conflict would be.

There’s another short story I’ve never quite got right, that maybe I could succeed with in a different format. It’s a deal-with-the-devil thing, that has our main guy installing air conditioning in Hell, and using the heat of Hell to run a power plant to solve humanity’s energy woes. The story could include many chances for humor as the main dude has to convince people to do things that make no sense at all. It’s the only idea I have so far that includes a story arc and a try-fail cycle that can steadily increase the pressure on the good guy. One false step and his soul is forfeit.

But maybe it’s another story entirely. None of those ideas have really taken fire in my heart.

But I gotta write something, dammit. Maybe I’ll just have a guy walk into a bar and see what happens. Any suggestions from y’all are certainly welcome.

Different Planet, Same Sky

As I try desperately (and occasionally despairingly) to cross the 50,000-word mark for the thirteenth year, I’ve been pondering the world my story takes place in, and the following question: Is this our Earth or some other Earth? How many stories have you read that take place on a world with completely different geography, but the same moon as ours? Is it Earth or not?

My story takes place on a world that has been blasted to ruin. The civilization before the cataclysm was very different from our own (at least on the surface), but there’s that big ol’ moon lighting the way for Wolf and Joe as they cross the wasteland. Is that riverbed the former course of the Rio Grande? The Vltava? The Nile? Or is this some otherworld that just happens to have a big, fat moon like ours?

Or maybe I should just stop thinking so much and get to typing. I have a lot of words to go.

November 1, 2013

NaNoWriMo returns, and with it the public airing of my first night’s work. Thanks to all y’all who suggested ideas for me to write this year; it may or may not be obvious which one I chose from the following excerpt. Had a chat with my sweetie after I wrote this bit and I’ll be going back and inserting a fairly disturbing event, but here’s the first two chapters of what I did last night.

The usual disclaimers apply: I haven’t even reread this, so errors likely abound. I’m about to take this setting and try to turn it into a story, but so far I have no story in my head, just a regular superhuman guy and his daughter getting by in a harsh world.

The End

Chapter 1

By mutual consent they paused to rest beneath the tree that separated their dusty fields. Dot leaned the plow against the tree’s rough trunk while Joe shrugged out of the harness, sweat staining his tattered shirt where the straps had lain across his skin. Dot sat carefully, cradling her gravid belly with both hands. She sighed heavily, her cheeks puffing out, and closed her eyes. Beneath a sheen of sweat her face was gray. Her loose tunic blended with the bare earth between the tortured roots of the tree.

They didn’t talk about her sickness. There was a lot of things they didn’t talk about. The race between the malignancy that would destroy her and her unborn child. Who — or rather what — the father was.

Joe stretched his back, flexed his shoulders. On her side of the creek, the dirt was turned and ready for planting, the soil almost white in the unforgiving sun. On his side, stubble from the last crop limp and dry. Beyond the fields, nothing. Poisoned soil dotted with stumps and rocks, impossible to till. It had been a mighty forest, once.

He wondered why they were doing this. Plowing their fields, as if either of them would be around when harvest-time came.

“Water?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

Joe stepped cautiously down the embankment to the edge of the stream. The water moved sluggishly, weighed down by green scum. The swarms of insects left him alone as opened the pouch on his waist and extracted his water kit. He put the fine mesh filter over one of the cups and scooped water with the other. It took two minutes or more to pour the water from the first cup through the filter and into the second, but there was no reason to hurry. There was never a reason to hurry anymore.

He took the water back to Dot. She drank it down in one go. Joe took the cup back from her and returned to the stream. When he got back, her eyes were closed. He put the water near her, but no so close she might knock it over by accident, and returned to the stream to refill his deerskin water bag.

Fifteen minutes later he returned to find her watching him with haunted eyes, her sandy-brown hair shifting with the listless breeze. He sat facing her, and took a sip.

“How are you going to feed her?” she asked.

Another thing they didn’t talk about. Not until now, apparently. Dot was certain her child was going to be a girl. Joe had no reason to doubt her.

“I’ll find a way,” he said. “Don’t worry.” As if he could say anything else.

She was staring at him now, and he was sure she was going to say something else. Something that demanded an honest response.

“Do you regret it?” she asked.

Joe thought for a while before answering. He almost didn’t answer at all. He wasn’t sure what she was referring to—probably the night they had slept together, after she had learned she was going to die. The night they had created a new life they had no means of sustaining. But she might have meant a thousand other things, large and small. “No,” he said, and it was mostly the truth. “Unless you mean the time I let you cut my hair.”

She smiled, showing gray teeth, then her face went slack again, as if exhausted by the effort. She made a listless effort to push a stray lock of hair away from her face. “That didn’t turn out well, did it?”

He passed a rough hand over his close-shorn scalp. So much easier than the long, black waves of hair he had worn back then. “It turned out OK, in the end.”

“She’s going to be all right.”

Joe nodded, wondering where she had found that confidence and wishing he could share it.

Dot pulled her feet underneath her. Joe jumped up and helped her stand. “That field’s not going to plow itself,” she said.

Joe hefted the plow and harness and stepped carefully over the creek. He went back to help dot across and up the slope, then shrugged into the harness. They probably shouldn’t have rested so long; now they would not be able to finish before nightfall.

Chapter 2

“Wait a second,” Dot said.

Joe relaxed in the harness. He twisted around to look at her, but couldn’t when bound by the hardened leather straps. “You want to take a break?”

“We hit something. Huh.”

Something about the huh made the hair on the back of Joe’s neck stand up. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, but…”

Joe tried harder to turn around, partially shrugging out of the harness. Dot was crouching, knees far apart, one hand under her belly, the other holding a perfectly spherical object.

Joe’s heart tied in a knot, refusing to beat, and his lungs became stone. He dropped to one knee as stars danced at the edge of his vision. “Shit,” he said.

The artifact—there was no doubt, this was an artifact—lay in her palm, the size of an apple (Dot had never seen an apple), black to the point that it was an absence in the world, rather than a presence.

“It’s warm,” Dot said.

“Put it down!” The scream tore from Joe’s throat, edged with hysterical panic.

She flinched and dropped it, pushing it away from her. Joe dodged as it landed right in front of him. Dot was pushing herself away from him, her eyes wide. She stopped when she was about ten feet away. She swallowed and collected herself. “What is it?”

Joe took a ragged breath and regarded the orb. He didn’t recognize it, but that didn’t matter. “Trouble,” he said.

“It’s an artifact?”

Joe nodded.

“What’s it doing here?”

Joe shrugged, hoping he wasn’t betraying the churning in his gut. How far into the future do you have to see to arrive at the blade of a plow here, now? Long ago someone dropped this thing here, and it stayed buried until circumstances suited it. But had the artifact reached its destination or were the two—three—of them just the next step to get it where it wanted to be? “You can never tell with these things,” Joe said.

“What do we do?”

Joe stared at the thing, tried to look through its perfectly-black surface to see what purpose it might conceal. Run away! some prudent part of his mind shouted. “I don’t know,” he said to Dot.

“I—ugh” Dot’s face contorted.

“What’s wrong?”

She smiled, and for a moment her skin flushed pink and healthy. “It’s time,” Dot said. “She’s coming.” Joe had seen that look before, on the faces of soldiers who lay dying after a victorious battle. Dot would not survive childbirth, but her daughter would.

Joe lifted her in his arms and carried her to the hut that served as her home. He laid her on the straw-filled mattress that served as her bed and dripped cool water on her forehead. She was burning up. She clung to his hand. “I’m frightened,” she said. Her face contorted with pain again.

“I am too.”

“You’re supposed to tell me I’ll be all right, you idiot.” Another wave of pain hit her and Joe could hear her teeth grinding together.

“You’ll be all right.”

She was breathing fast and shallow now. “Too… late…”

Joe wanted to stand, to pry her hand off his, to get the hell out of there. To be anywhere else. Dot was about to be dead, and nothing was going to change that.

“Bring it,” Dot said.

“Bring What?”

“The…” she grimaced again. “The thing. Out there.”

“No.”

“It can help her.”

“No.”

“It came to find her.”

“To use her. It might just want her blood. Tomorrow I’m going to dig a very deep pit.”

She contorted as the next spasm tore through her. “Bring it.”

“No.”

“I…” Dot moaned and words were done. In the terrible hours that followed, the baby arrived, Dot departed, and Joe wondered what he might have done differently.

NaNoWriMo Coming! (Your help needed)

Yep, November is barreling down upon us, and it’s time to write another crappy novel in 30 days. I don’t think I’ve ever needed it more. I’ve also never felt less inspired. Those two facts are, of course, related.

Usually by this time I have ideas fighting in my head to become The One. This year, cue the crickets chirping. I have never felt so empty of ideas.

Which brings me to any readers who might happen by here. (Yeah, I know I haven’t given people a reason to be regulars lately.) Leave a suggestion in the comments. Don’t be afraid to be outrageous, or silly, or deep and heavy if you want. If anyone posts a suggestion, I WILL WRITE IT. Just like that. If more than one person leaves a suggestion we can have a quick vote, or I’ll let an impartial third party decide, or maybe I’ll just mash them together if the result would be amusing.

I’ll let the person with the winning suggestion read the result, though it’s NaNoWriMo — that may not be much of a prize.

1

Oh, Yeah, that NaNoWriMo Thing

Welp, it’s December, and that means another NaNoWriMo under my belt. It was pretty obvious early on that my goal was simply getting my butt into a chair and writing every day, rather than entertain any hope of creating something worth reading. I thought it might also be a chance to interact with some like-minded folk here in the South Bay, and I did a little of that, but not much.

There might be a writing group coming out of it, however. I got a few people worked up on the local message board before I vanished from sight. I need to follow up on that.

I averaged 2500 words a day while I vomited up my November novel. The paragraph that took me over 50K was one in which Cliff Brooks fell from an improbable height, bounced once, and lay still. Killing Cliff Brooks is a local tradition. Before his body was even cold I had turned my attention back to Munchies, and a 600-word-per-day productivity.

Last few days, I haven’t been executing on that. Tonight I’m dedicating my hours to the written word, and I’m still not making progress. But as soon as I’m done with this episode, I’m on it. Really.

Progress Report from the Pits of NaNoWriMo

I had set a goal for myself to cross the fifty-thousand line tomorrow. It’s going to take some serious typing to make that happen. I’m not optimistic. A couple of days ago I told the light of my life that when I crossed the 50K threshold I’d drop this steamer in mid-sentence and get back to what I should be working on.

My pace has slowed the last couple of days, and it’s a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that this is still a steaming pile of verbiage and I should be dedicating myself to words elsewhere. Slowing down means another day or two writing words that no one will ever read. The good news is that I finally wrote a scene that measures up to the opening. It needs to be tightened, but I like it.

If you read the little starter bit I posted some time ago, you will recall a character who is lost and alone, known only as Jane Doe. She has no memory of who she is or how she came to be in the hospital. All she knows is that she’s somehow different than the people around her, although common sense dictates that she’s not all that different.

One thing I surprised myself with was how little of the story I’ve told through her point of view. I think the alien is sometimes best expressed through other’s eyes. By moving the frame of reference she becomes more of an enigma. (I don’t think this applies so much in movies; in film we are always observing from outside.)

A couple of nights ago I grew tired of the blah blah blah as people yapped about what to get at the store tomorrow just in case the spinach wasn’t satisfactory (not really but close enough), and I thought about the key moment of the story, when our strange specimen must make a choice. It turns out she was the architect of her own dislocation, so she could be bait and trap both to kill the Really Bad Guy.

But like all elaborate plans, this one doesn’t work out quite the way is was drawn on the chalkboard, even as she must admit that the Really Bad Guy has some valid points. So the other night as I grew weary of steamy Angel-on-Demon sex (actually, there is none of that, despite my best intentions – and now I think I need to have ADD sex and cut away in the middle) and thought about just how this choice Jane must make would manifest. I got an idea that made me happy (it takes about 60 seconds to fall 14,000 feet) an off I went, writing (at last) a scene I could be proud of.

There’s a pretty major gap in the narrative right now, what with them being imprisoned in a house in a nice suburb of Hoboken one moment and falling to their deaths the next, but that’s how things go sometimes. Oh, yeah, there was a dead body on the floor back in Hoboken.

Now I just have to wrap it up with a sweet metaphor and go back in and add 7000 words of steamy sex (or grocery shopping) and 50K is in the bag. Maybe not by tomorrow, though.

The Attraction of the Procedural

There’s a general rule in writing, one that probably should go without saying but it is violated regularly. It’s simply this: Everything you write should advance the plot and build your characters. When I criticize my own writing on this metric (which I should do more often), I chunk things by paragraph. Did that paragraph move the plot AND develop character? No? That paragraph’s not working hard enough then.

If Robert Jordan had had a decent editor or some ability to see his own work objectively, his Wheel of Time series might not have spiraled into unreadable disaster, filled with entire chapters of fluff. As the books got thicker, the number of things that actually happened decreased.

Of course, during NaNoWriMo, that metric is thrown out the window. This is about quantity, not quality. It’s perfectly all right to have non-performing paragraphs in a first draft; that’s what revisions are for. Over the last week and a half, I’ve written a lot of non-performing paragraphs. I’m even giving Jordan a run for his money.

I had no intention of writing a procedural, but it turns out I’m writing a lot of scenes that fall into that category. In a procedural, the author liberally sprinkles long passages through the book that are merely lists of things people did. In my case, the procedures are usually medical. First the doctor did this thing, then that thing, then another thing. It’s all very technical and makes the author sound like an expert, but it doesn’t move the story. It’s filler. Filler that procedural fans may enjoy if done well, but the only thing the story would lack without all that detail is page count.

(I’m pretty sure my long scene in which the doctor inserts a tube into the lung of a pneumonia sufferer is ludicrously inaccurate.)

In my limited exposure to procedurals (mostly on TV), all that stuff is used to make a story fit in the expected size. A novella becomes a novel (with a novella-sized plot), a 30-minute drama becomes a 44-minute drama (with 14 minutes of test tubes and music).

Or, in the case of my NaNoWriMo effort this year, 10% plot, 30% procedures, and 60% aimless drifting and tedious conversations about things not germane to the story. (Some of the conversations are interesting, I think, they just aren’t connected to anything.) Not my best November effort. Not by a long shot.

NaNoWriMo Update

Lately it’s been a tradition for me to post the first batch of words I excrete in pursuit of NaNoWriMo glory. I don’t think I’m going to do that this year. For one thing, there’s already a similar story beginning in these pages (although I rewrote it), and, well, it’s just not gaining traction.

I had decided to do Topstar, a lo-tech adventure on an exotic planet, but at the last moment I switched to Gravity, the story of a woman with no past, who just knows she is not like the people around her. At 11:59 Halloween night, it just resonated better. So off I went. The problem with the latter, however, is that although it’s got one really good character, that’s all it has. I’m ahead on word count, but I’m still circling the plot like a prizefighter who has yet throw a punch. Not so great for the audience. So far I’ve been making up characters and throwing them in there to see if magic happens. Nurse: nope. Team of three doctors: nope, nope, nope. Private investigator: nope. There’s still an outside chance for the quiet and thoughtful latino gang leader, but in the end all hope rests on the Biker Cliché Who is Not What He Seems. Because there’s never been an urban fantasy with that guy before.

Words are flowing, however, at a pretty good rate, and that’s the point of this exercise. Get writing momentum back and turn it on Munchies. I’m writing scenes I normally would have trashed mentally before committing them, with a “see what happens, you can always delete it later” attitude. So after 50,000 words I can set this jumble aside and turn my new-found energy back onto the target that really deserves it.

Last night the beer was flowing as well, and I realized at the end of the night that my stacking instincts had kicked in. This photograph may be the most artistic thing I did last night, though the placement of the bottles is too symmetrical for my taste.

Perhaps the most artistic result of NaNoWriMo so far.

1

Here Comes November

My current novel is stalled, overwhelmed by the domestic upheaval caused by the loss and reconstruction of a kitchen, a work crunch, and, coming off the crunch, spending too much time playing a computer game that has grabbed my brain.

November is drop-everything-and-write-something month. The timing is either perfect (regaining the write-every-day habit) or terrible (another thing between me and finishing Munchies). I’m taking the optimistic view; at this time last year I was seriously considering bagging NaNoWriMo. It seemed more like a chore than an opportunity, and let’s face it, although there are few out there with longer winning streaks at NaNoWriMo than mine, ultimately it’s not that important.

This year, though, I’m really looking forward to it. I need to get back in the habit, and I need to loosen the hell up and just let the words flow. I need November.

My employer has generously added three paid days off in November, making Thanksgiving holiday an entire week. It’s tempting to travel that week, but really all I want is to bunker in our (hopefully by then) reconstructed house, without construction guys (however friendly) visiting every day, without planning how to shift all the stuff from one room to the next, without having rain change dinner plans, because right now our stove is the barbecue in the backyard. Note that all these inconveniences affect my sweetie much more than they do me, so I can only imagine how frazzled she’s feeling. So, probably ‘no’ to the traveling.

Which means, instead, perfect timing for going 100% literary. Getting my head into story-space, developing characters and maybe even coming up with a plot. And then throwing the fruits of November away and taking that momentum back to Munchies.

I have two ideas tickling my brain, both extensions of little pieces I’ve posted here. Two story seeds. The first is a more developed idea, a solid foundation for an action-adventure yarn on an interesting world. The second is little more than a character sketch, but in my head she could be a really empathetic character. While I have pretty much no idea how the story would go, I do know the final decision she must make.

Both have room for compelling bad guys, which is always a plus. They both have world-building; the first is on a planet entirely unlike our own, while the second would present our world through different eyes. One is about survival and doing what is right, the other is about identity and the nature of good and evil.

Dang! I can’t decide. I don’t have to make up my mind just yet, and it’s a nice problem to have. Last time I had this problem I ended up choosing option three, something that hit me just as October faded into November.

But I’m curious what you guys think. Did either of those two snippets resonate? I read the ‘Gravity’ bit now and mostly see missed opportunities, but the soul of the thing is there.

Happy November Twoth!

November twoth is a big day on the Muddled Calendar, the day I (and tens of thousands of others) wake up and realize we’re already behind our word counts for NaNoWriMo.

In years past part of the tradition has been for me to publish the product of my first night of scribbling here. This year, I’m not going to do that. The product of my first night was more like sketches of three scenes than any sort of coherent narrative. The scenes aren’t even sequential; one is from the first act and two from the second. Alas, the elusive third act remains too ill-defined even to sketch a scene.

So, no excerpt this year. I know you all are devastated at missing out on the prospect of reading a long rough draft of a scene with no hope of ever finding out what happens next. Lost is off the air, after all.

Good luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMo participants, and I’ll see you on the other side of 50K!

1

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.

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 clichés 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.

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.”

3