#amwriting

Book Review: Kings of the Wyld

Last week, I posted about my nascent querying process. I made reference to Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames as one of my two “comp titles,” because every proper query must include two titles that your book is exactly the same as, but different from. It’s The Cat in the Hat mixed with Debbie Does Dallas.

Sorry, that wasn’t a very good comp. They have to be modern titles, you see. Other than that, the pairing works perfectly. Like Bordeaux and Kraft Dinner.

I struggled with my comp titles throughout most of the first two drafts of my work-in-progress. Part Star Wars, part Game of Thrones. Except it’s neither sci-fi nor epic fantasy. Oh, and set in the real world.

Can’t imagine why it took three drafts to figure out what the hell I was doing. 

I always had an idea for what I wanted to do with it, but when the words hit the page, I couldn’t make them go that way. 

Then I read Kings of the Wyld. Wow.

Forget comp title. This bad boy opened up my world as to what was possible in genre writing. I finally figured out how to fix that major ho-hum in my WIP. Turns out it was what I always wanted to do with it, but Kings of the Wyld finally gave me permission. 

Wait, is that why we’re supposed to find current books to comp? 

So consider this my book review, my book report a year or two late. And a desperate attempt to milk one more post outta that damned Work-In-Process.

Anything to avoid querying, amirite?

Kings of the Wyld and its sequel start with a simple premise that deconstructs an underlying trope of epic fantasy. You know that rough-and-tumble group of adventurers who put their differences aside and origins together to “band together” and save the princess/town/kingdom from the wizard/dragon/demon? Well, they’re basically rock stars. What if they were actually rock stars?

That’s the premise of the series: adventurers act like your standard classic rock band. The front man tunes his axe while the wizard in the background twirls his twin daggers a la drumsticks. The “band” at the core of this book, named Saga, goes through bards like Spinal Tap does drummers. They don’t even remember how certain ones died.

The trios and quartets and quintets go on tours, traveling from city to city to defeat the monsters, then sticking around long enough for the sex and booze before moving on to the next town booked by their agent. 

At least that’s how it used to be. But like our real rock gods, the members of Saga have aged. Retired, even. Nowadays, from their perspective, these glam-rock noobs stage arena shows predicated on flash instead of substance. They even use makeup! Imagine Duane Allmann showing up at a Twisted Sister concert. Or even better, Backstreet Boys.

Except there are manticores and walking trees and shit. 

The inciting incident occurs when one of the old dudes’ daughter joined a band of her own and now needs help. What more do you want from your epic fantasy than an opening salvo of, “Let’s get the band back together.”

So part swords and sorcerers, part music appreciation, with a healthy dose of us old farts adjusting to the fact that we can’t do what we once could. Of course, we have wisdom now, but is the increase in that attribute enough to counteract the loss of strength, dexterity, and constitution all at once?

Ugh, my constitution used to be so strong. The worst part about my school reopening is retraining my bladder and bowels. Ninetyminutes between pees, six hours without pooping.

Sorry, TMI? Well the good news is you probably won’t see that being discussed in Kings of the Wyld. It often toed the line, it often hinted it might go full camp, but it never does. Every time I thought they were going to abandon the fantasy element for the rock motif, it always steered back. 

One part that stuck out was a battle of the bands with one of these newfangled boy bands. The lead up felt about 70% Led Zeppelin vs. NKOTB” and maybe 30% “Roll a d20.” They went to a bar the night before, met fans of the new band, heard all the rumors of their own demise. Some of the patrons didn’t remember Saga, while others told rumors about the old band a la Ozzy Osborne. Pretty much nobody believes they are who they say they are until they damn near burn the place down. 

Do you think David Lee Roth has similar stories from, say, the mid-nineties?

When they show up at the arena for the Battle of the Bands, however, a griffin breaks free from its chain and almost kills everyone. All of a sudden, it’s standard sword-and-sorcery, battle-the-monster type stuff. The band works together like an experienced group of adventurers and save the day, all the while creating a new generation of fans. Even those young whippersnapper adventurers learned a thing or two about how shit was dealt with back in the day, when the circumstance presaged the pomp.

That’s what I meant by always choosing the straight path when given the option. Eames constantly approached the line between campy and serious, but he never crossed it. In fact, as the book went on, once the premise was laid, he didn’t lean into it as much. The second half of the book was maybe eighty to ninety percent something you’d read from Brandon Sanderson or Geroge R.R. Martin, although not quite as wordy. He’d established the premise, he’d hooked us onto the characters, now he was telling their story.

Aas I was reading it, I was continuously surprised at how dense it was. A lot of the fantasy I’ve read the last few years are in the vein of Critical Failures or NPCs, two series that don’t take themselves seriously enough to notice there was supposed to be a line between comedy and prose. They’re quick, fun reads. I kept expecting Kings of the Wyld to take on that pacing, but it didn’t. Two equally gratifying “fixes” to the glut of epic fantasy out there.

So how does this all play into my work-in-progress? I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s intended to be part alternative history, part low fantasy. It was intended to be more of the fomer than the latter, but as I wrote it, it felt more fantasy than history. Writing a “Middle Ages that never ended” lends itself to e Olde Tyme Language. I wanted to sprinkle in a bunch of modern references. The flash fiction from which it was born featured Zip-Lock bags, and while there were a handful of real-life people, as all proper alternative histories must, they were buried in the background. I was afraid to feature them.

As I was writing, the naive POV character trying to make sense of the world took over. When he’s knee deep in profound questions about the nature of feudalism and “the world is not what it seems” seems like a bad time to drop in a “Where’s the Beef?” 

Or maybe that’s the PERFECT time to drop in a “Where’s the Beef!” That’s what Kings of the Wyld taught me. Instead of toning down the tongue-in-cheek, I could lean into it and still not let it take over the narrative.

These toungue-in-cheek moments were always part of the plan, rarely in the execution. Among the first “scenes” that popped into my head, in fact one of the phrases in the original flash fiction, was turning the Prince lyric into olde tyme speeche: “Let us feast, frivol. Let us party like ’tis nineteen hundred ninety-and-nine.” 

But every time it came to dropping one of those into the writing, I got scared. The book must take itself seriously!

Except maybe it doesn’t.

I dabbed my foot into this Brave New World with a campy Spice Girls reference that I’d planned but shied away from. When I sent the first batch to a couple of beta readers, out of 10,000 words of introduction, with at least three bona fide characters to connect with and a myriad of worldbuilding mysteries, what was the one response that everyone had? “I really liked the Spice Girls part.”

Great. The only part they glommed onto was the throw-in that had little to do with the plot. Why should I bother writing the other 90,000 words if I could’ve just gone Spice Girls for 500 pages.

Except, of course, the Spice Girls only works as an accoutrement. Christmas ornaments only work if they’ve got a tree to hang on. 

Nicholas Eames did a great job of toeing that line. I knew when he was being funny and when he was being serious. At least, by the end I did. Early on, I thought there must be some jokes I was missing, and that feeling continued as he phased away from the rock references. In the second half, they became rarer as the conflict and the characters we’ve come to care about took over the plot. I find myself following a similar pattern. The first few drop-ins are lengthier, more developed. They need to hook the reader. In the later chapters they’re only there as a reminder. By then, the reader needs to care about the characters.

That’s what brought me to Kings of the Wyld. If it was reviewed as “old adventurers are forced to fight again when a daughter is in trouble,” I wouldn’t have sought it out. But “In a world where they are treated like rock gods, four retired adventurers decide it’s time to ‘get the band back together!’? Hell yeah! So if my book becomes known for the Spice Girls and nothing else… shit, I’d LOVE for my book to be known for something. Anything.

To be fair, I still worry when I drop in 1990s vernacular. Will the agent/editor/publisher/reader realize that a wee peasant lass dropping an, “As if!” is intentional, and not just the markings of a writer who doesn’t understand that modern parlances shall not grace Medieval literature. Not that “as if” is modern parlance, but you know what I mean. I’ve read far too many “period pieces” only to find myself diving for a dictionary to verify my assumption that that word didn’t exist until 100 years later. Sorry, your Civil War soldier isn’t worried that his life is going into a “tailspin” forty years before the first airplane.

But you gotta take some risks if you want to stick out of the slush pile, to say nothing of the thousands of published works that also found their own way out of it. 

The good news is I now know it can be done.

But it must be done well.

Shit. 

#amquerying (almost)

On this Easter Monday, perhaps I should chat about the Book Eternal.

No, I’m not talking about the bible. I’m talking about my Work-in-Progess that started somewhere in the Obama administration, and is still sitting in about twelve different files, four different versions, on my laptop.

Kinda feels like it’s been around since Roman times. All it’s missing is some divine inspiration.

When I first referenced this work-in-progress, it was a flash fiction I wrote that started a black hole of my brain. The following week, I posted the first draft of the scene in the book that correlated to that initial idea nugget. It was still in EXTREMELY first-draft mode. Not that I understood the difference between first and later drafts back then. I still don’t.

If I ever get an agent, and that agent okays me posting some of my content for free, maybe I’ll pair those with the “final draft.”

Is there such a thing as a final draft?

I’m currently on chapter five of my third work-in-progress (fourth, if you count my first aborted attempt at “autobiographical fiction”). I know it’s a normal reaction, opining how shitty it is compared to the one that’s on its third draft. When left brain takes over, I remember how often that first WIP felt like a smoking pile of dung-heap. All the characters were boring, but especially the main one. The action was plodding and predictable, the writing full of clichés and prone to use five words when two will do. 

Even worse, I think to myself, is that this new book is horribly dry compared to my lightning-in-the-bottle first book, and that first book hasn’t even been accepted by a literary agent, much less sold to a publisher.

Of course, I haven’t actually shopped it to any agents. I’ve heard that helps?

Damn you, publishing world! Why can’t you crawl into my computer whilst I sleep and see the brilliance that I’ve written? Maybe I should ask the dude I send a bitcoin to every month for the alleged pictures he took of me doing certain things on a webcam also get me place my book into a “to be published” folder at Simon & Schuster. Or Simon & Garfunkel. I’m not too particular.

Am I the only one who does this? One time, a writing podcast was reviewing ways to make progressions feel earned, character-driven instead of plot-derived. I’m looking at you, “How I Met Your Mother” finale. Yes, I’m still bitter.

While listening to the podcast, I thought to myself, might’ve even spoken aloud to the empty car, “I fucking did that! Why the hell aren’t I published yet?” Then I remembered I hadn’t actually finished writing the novel. It was still sitting at 60,000 words where I left it when I gave up on it six months earlier. Because it was boring and predictable and full of cliches. 

Damn you, publishing world! Why can’t you crawl into my computer whilst I sleep and finish my manuscript. Maybe I should get my friendly neighborhood hacker on that. Google keeps telling me all my passwords are hacked. All I have to do is make my passwords 100,000 words long and…

Anything to avoid working on that query letter.

I just spent a weekend delving into the querying process, and let me just say that rabbit hole is deeeeeeeeep! I’m talking Fantastic Mr. Fox level, needing a tractor to sift through all the bullshit that rabbit holed through.

My first foray came via Pitch Wars, a made-for-Twitter event where you condense your life’s work, your magnum opus, down to two-hundred-forty characters. Well, you need to throw a bunch of hashtags in, so it’s really more like two-hundred. I thought I had it down pat, at least until I saw it on my phone screen. Yikes! So I re-wrote it, and again, and again. You’re allowed to tweet your pitch three times in a day. My three pitches were as distant from each other as can be while describing the same book. Unfortunately, none garnered a like from agents, so I can’t figure out which one “worked.”

Next up: the query letter. The good news  could use more than thirty words. The bad news was I now had to introduce myself as well as the book. I had to greet the agent like she’s a real-live human being and not a simulacrum, a Twitter bot searching for a specific keyword.

And don’t forget that hook. Like my students do, with a rhetorical question. 

“Have you ever been king of France?” they often inquire. “Looking for a way to control the nobles, all the while owning a plot of land precisely twelve miles from the center of Paris?”

“Why no,” I respond, cursing English teachers for providing only one rhetorical crutch. “What an oddly specific question to ask of a position that hasn’t existed for a hundred and fifty years. Does one often respond yes to such a quandary?”

But what the hell. If a history teacher reading thirty essays gets tired of that hook, I doubt literary agents who get thousands of unsolicited drivel will mind.

“Dear agent,
Have you ever poured five fucking years into a hot pile of garbage and have finally whittled that steaming feces into something your mom describes as ‘better than what you wrote in third grade’?”

Hold on, I need to go check all those manuscript requests flooding my inbox.

I read plenty of how-tos and don’t-dos over the years, so I knew what to expect. I subscribe to Query Shark where we all laugh at atrocious query letters. I follow writers at varying stages of their career, listen to podcasts. I figured I had it dialed.

Until I sat down to write it, at which point I promptly became a third-grader learning to write for the first time. 

In a foreign language.

Seriously, I’ve written over a million words and now all of a sudden, I’ve lost all ability to communicate via written word. Stephen King says that once I pass a million, I’m a real writer. Do I have to write an extra million in business-letter format?

It shouldn’t be this difficult. All you have to do is be sincere, but not drab. Stick out from the slush pile, but don’t say anything outlandish. Follow the formula, but don’t be formulaic. Opaque much?

It doesn’t help that most of the “sample” query letters start with phrases like, “I’ve written seven previous best-sellers” or “I have 25,000 social media followers” or “You asked me for my manuscript at that one writing conference.” If I’d written a bunch of best-sellers, I probably wouldn’t be looking for an agent. And writing conferences haven’t existed for a year.

Ironically, I did write up a little “elevator pitch” for my book back when I was about halfway done. On its own, it kinda pops. Intrigue, a basic establishment of plot and character, a couple of non-rhetorical questions to whet one’s appetite. Yet when I drop it into the second paragraph of a query letter, I’m all of a sudden second-guessing myself. It’s too focused on the worldbuilding, the MacGuffin that sets my 90k words apart from all those other batches of 90k words. 

The query gods say I should focus more on the character, less on the setting. Also, it should read like the back of a book. But most of the book covers I’ve read focus more on inciting incident than on character. The characters are what keeps us in the book, but isn’t the setting what draws us in the first place? Star Wars starts with an imperial cruiser, not whiney Luke.

So let’s see if I got this straight. Introduce the character and the setting and the MacGuffin and the inciting incident. Plus the major plot progressions and other conflicts and themes. Maybe throw in the character’s social security number and mother’s date of birth. All in a sentence and a half. Got it!

With that out of the way, it’s time to find what lucky agent gets my speed dating salvo.

Holy shit! There are quite a few of them thar agents.

Time to pare this down. They suggest looking up the agents of books you liked. Or the books you’re going to use as comp titles. Because we all must have comp titles, published in the last five minutes because after you get your agent, it’ll still be seven decades before the book finds an editor and another three centuries before the traditional publishing houses will put it on the shelf. So you need to prove your book has a market right now. 

Fine. Kings of the Wyld is one of the books I’m comping. It came out in 2017, two years after I started writing my book, and its sequel came out last year. Zeitgeisty enough. Unfortunately, Nicholas Eames is Canadian, as is his agent and agency. Plus they’re not taking submissions. Maybe not the best place to start.

So I went to the “Manuscript Wish List” website to search for agents who liked Kings of the Wyld. Found two. Unfortunately, one of them cited the multi-character viewpoint as her main takeaway. Well shit, that’s not why I’m comping it. Come back next week to see why I’m comping Kings of the Wyld. My first book review in a while and yet another post milked out of the WIP That Will Not Die.

My other comp title is Ready Player One. It shouldn’t surprise that most agents who liked that book are looking for Sci-Fi, not alternative history. Strike two.

What about the agent that actually represented Ready Player One? She’s unavailable, unattainable. She left her old agency to start her own agency, but is taking no new clients. In addition to Ernest Cline, who got a seven-figure advance for his second book to say nothing of movie rights, she has one other huge client, which I imagine is enough for both workload and income.

That’s the problem with querying comp titles and “authors I like.” Those who come to mind are successful, and many an agent retire upon capturing their white whales. Let’s do a rundown of authors who’ve inspired me.

Check Wendig and Delilah Dawson have the same agent. She’s closed to queries.

Kevin Hearne has a private, part-timish agent who only represents him.

I’m not gonna bother looking at Stephen King’s agent. If I were his agent, I would spend all my time updating the lock on the safe that contains my four-leaf-clover-embossed, golden-rabbit-foot horseshoe. Except for the one day a month I get another 2,000-page best-seller from my one and only client.

Harry Turtledove is a prolific alternative history writer, and his agent is, at least in theory, taking queries. But after a gander at his rep list, ain’t no fucking way. There are like fifty names on there, some of which are whipper-snapper upstarts like Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Terry Goodkind, and Johnnie Cohcran. Yes, that Johnnie Cochran. 

On a positive, half those guys are dead, so I won’t have to worry about a huge influx of new material from this guy’s other clients. But sheesh. I doubt he’s devoting his time to explain publishing nuances to some wide-eyed noob.

I guess what I’m looking for is the sweet spot in the middle. A magical agent who has some, but not too many, successful clients. Whose authors I admire, but who I can write as well as. 

Once I find that agent, all I need to do is come up with a pithy sentence that tells him or her that I’m the perfect reincarnation of their best clients, totally worth the time they’d spend reading through my drivel, and that fits perfectly into the publishing world of today, being exactly like countless other books on the bestseller list no more than three weeks ago. But it’s also completely original!

Or I could spend the next few hours adding more agents to my spreadsheet and wait for the hackers to do their work.

Maybe Shakespeare’s agent is available.

Finished Book Two

I just won NaNoWriMo! Woo-hoo!

Unfortunately, it was NaNoWriMo 2018. Do they still have badges for that? 

Whatever. For only the second time in my life, I finished a novel last week.

Writing, that is. If I only finished reading the second novel of my life at the age of 46, I doubt I’d be trumpeting quite so loudly.

Although sometimes, when looking at the drivel I put onto a page, one might presume I’ve never actually learned how to comprehend the English language anywhere beyond “See Jane barf. See Dick dick.”

I could barely contain my giggling in the background while listening to Daughter’s first grade class work on their vocab. “Don’t let the cat <Blank> you.” “Theo and Jana <Blanked> the sandwich.” And my personal favorite, “I decided to <Blank> to the finish line.”

(The answers were scratch, split, and sprint, you sicko!)

In my mind, Book Number One took five years to write, but I never bothered looking at the stats. It turns out I was overshooting. Or undershooting, depending on what one defines as “writing.” 

According to Microsoft Word, I began Book Number One on April 1, 2014. I thought it was a NaNoWriMo novel, but that start date implies it was Camp, not NaNo proper. Not that it makes a difference. I’ve never won any NaNo, whether April or July or November. While I could probably shit out 50,000 words in a month, I wouldn’t consider it “Novel Writing.” Nor would it be be a complete novel.

My daughter, by the way, was born one month later, in May of 2014. If I couldn’t finish a book in a month with no child and Wife mostly immobile, it’s safe to say it ain’t ever happening. One November, I had a student teacher, which necessitated me to  vacate my classroom and sit in the staff room with my laptop every day. It also gave me two fewer class periods to prep and grade. I still didn’t “Win” that NaNo.

To be fair, Book One wasn’t really my first attempt. I started a hot pile of puke for NaNoWriMo in 2013, a “semi-autobiographical” retelling of my trip to Mardi Gras as a wee lad. I say “semi” because said trip happened in 2000, thirteen years earlier, and I can barely remember what I taught yesterday. I was also rip-roaring drunk a substantial portion of Mardi Gras, so even if I’d woken up every morning and written down what happened the night before, it would’ve been half-accurate at best. One morning I awoke with my jaw hurting like hell. A day or two later I remembered taking a punch to the chin while trying to break up a fight. Whether or not I broke up said fight remains a mystery twenty years later.

So yeah, that “book” made it to somewhere in the 30-40,000 word and shall grow no more. NaNoWriMo might consider that 80% of a full book, but it ain’t. Not that any of my books are likely to see the light of day, but that one shouldn’t even grace my computer screen. There’s a reason weed journals aren’t on the New York Times bestseller lists, because none of our lives are quite so hilarious as we are led to believe. 

Still, it was probably a good first attempt. Write what you know, they say. If I was ever going to push anything beyond 5,000 words or so, it probably helped that I didn’t need to plot things out, or get to know my characters. Who knows, maybe I’ll salvage some of it for blog posts some February. After all, “embellished life stories” might as well be the subtitle here.

According to Microsoft, I “finished” Book One on June 8, 2017. So not five years. More like three and some change. But it still isn’t really finished, and it’s now been six-and-a-half years. If I split the difference on those two, it’s five years, give or take.

I remember writing the last line of that book. It was a “planned” book, as opposed to a “pantsed” book, but in reality it ended up being very little like the plan. The character that was supposed to die at the end of Act II lived until the end of Act III, while at least two characters who were supposed to survive the book didn’t make it that far. One because he swapped places with the “planned” Act II death, and another because I got tired of typing all the apostrophes in his accent.

But I knew the tentpoles of the plot. I always knew what major plot point I had to get to, and the next one after that. As such, that final line was pre-ordained for three years. I might not have enunciated it in the planning stage, but by the time I was 10K words in or so, I knew precisely how it would end. The month leading up to it was both exciting and scary. I remember the feeling that June afternoon, sitting in a pub while waiting for Wife and Daughter to meet me at a baseball game, as I wrote paragraphs leading up to it.

Is this it?

One more paragraph.

Is this it?

Nah, make him go around the bend, and then…

Is this it?

Holy shit, I just finished a book.

Now what?

I guess I’ll start Book Two.

To be clear, Book Two isn’t a sequel to Book One. I’ve heard that’s a big-time no-no. Because when the editor tells me not to kill off Character One, make it Character Two instead, that’ll make Character Two’s super-important arc in Book Four super awkward. Not saying you can’t teach an old zombie new tricks, but it requires a fair amount of backtracking. During a NaNo write-in, I once met somebody who was writing the SEVENTH book in an unpublished series. Man, I hope he never has to go back and edit book one. I’m guessing some character motivations have changed in the interceding six tomes. At least I hope so.

One of my characters changed quite a bit during this book. I know that because I wanted the last chapter to mirror an earlier chapter, so I did a bit of side-by-side writing. Wow, did I really start out the character that way? He’s always been crass, but by the end of the book he’s more crude jokester. On the re-read, he’s kind of a dick early on. He also seemed to have a son in Chapter Four, but it’s a daughter by the end. I’m not sure what her name is. I kept writing [Daughter] in the final chapters, certain that I named her at some point, and when I find said name, I’ll fill it back in. This might be the problem with taking six month breaks from writing throughout the course of the book.

Sorry, let’s double back to the statistics. Book Number Two’s file was created on October 10, 2018, but I don’t think I actually started writing it then. That sounds like prime “NaNo Prep” range. The first page still has a little preview blurb, again only covering the start of the book. So I can safely assume I didn’t start the novel proper until November 1, 2018. Oh, maybe October 31, because I’ve been known to fudge a little. If it’s past 9:00 PM in California, it’s already the next day on the east coast. Heck, 4:00 PM nets me midnight GMT. It’s not like I use the extra couple hours to push me across the finish line. I promise, if I ever start at 4:00 on 10/31, I will not accept a win after 4:00 on 11/30.

Regardless of whether I started on 10/10 or 10/31 or 11/1, the fact that I finished it in November of 2020 puts it at just about a two-year novel. Not quite half of my first one, but in that range. Maybe by the time I get to book five, I can cut it to a year. I’ll still never figure out how Michael Connelly and Lee Child (pre-retirement) can churn out 17 or so books per year. It takes me longer to read their books than it takes them to write them.

Writing the ending of Book Two was a lot less cathartic than Book One. I’m sure part of it is the law of diminishing returns. After all, Book One wasn’t only a 3.5-year journey, it was a 40+ year one. Finishing any book would’ve fired off endorphins. With Book Two, it’s a matter of been there, done that. And considering that Book One is still in the editing process, experience tells me that getting to the end is little more than a checkpoint. I feel sorry for Stephen King. Does he get any joy out of finishing a book?

On the other hand, he’s a multi-millionaire who gets a movie deal every time he has a bowel movement, so maybe I should hold off on my pity. It’s like when Billy Joel says he would’ve liked to have been a history teacher. I’m a history teacher, Billy. Wanna switch? 

I also wonder if my lackluster finish stems from the fact that this book was “pantsed,” not planned. I had a couple characters and an opening scene in mind when I started. Instead of wasting another six months creating a plot I wouldn’t follow anyway, I decided to just write that opening scene and see where it ended up. Turns out it ended up at a whorehouse.

As such, the final scene has probably only been in my head for a couple months. I had a vague idea of how the characters were going to get out of their final snafu, but I wasn’t entirely sure how they would get into it. And I sure as shit had no idea of what to do afterward. Y’know, you gotta have the requisite cool-down, level-up scene after the big blowout. I know we all think in terms of “Hans Gruber falls from Nakatomi Plaza, fade to black,” but the consumer wants to see some bullshit hug-it-out scene between John McClain and Al Powell.

The final line? I thought it up a week or so ago. Not convinced it’ll make it past the first rewrite. Instead of that bronze ring I’m getting closer to each time the 500-words-a-day carousel comes back around, it felt more like the decision point after my second beer. Do I add a little bit more or call it a night here? In the end, I decided to avoid the headache waiting for me tomorrow morning if I dragged the scene out any more.

So now what? 

Unlike with Book One, where I let it sit for a year, I think I’m going to do the second pass soon. Make the drapes match the carpet. No wait, sorry. Wrong euphemism. What I meant was “check the pubes for hair dye.” Nope. Still not it. 

Make the ass match the face! That’s it! Turn that son into a daughter, maybe finally discover her name. Decide whether I want to keep the character an asshole to make his growth more astute or maybe take a little off the edge at the beginning so readers don’t hate him before they find out his daughter’s name. I also remember some stuff I wanted to switch around at the beginning. I killed off one character earlier than I should have (again, unplanned, but I found myself liking her way better than the main characters, and I thought my readers might, too, so off with her head!). Turns out her death ended up having a major effect on the main characters. Who woulda thunk that when it popped in my head one day?

Then I’ll wait. It seems like the third draft is where the magic happens. Book One started at 127,000 words. After pass two, I got it down to just over 100,000. I was doing a small amount of ass-fitting-the-face, but also cutting large swaths of inner dialogue that, while necessary for my writing process, added little to the reading process. Then I found a couple of beta readers. Well, I found 7-10 people who said beta reading sounded fun, but only two ever responded to the opening 10K I gave them. So yeah, we’ll call that a couple beta readers. I’m hoping the others didn’t get around to it. If they read it and it was too horrible to enunciate, then I might be progressing on faulty logic.

Originally, I didn’t consider this pass a third draft. I was just cleaning up those first 10K words for the beta readers. I was planning to dump the extra 90,000 words on them all at once, with caveats that I would “clean it up” later. So if I used nicer verbs in the first batch, assume they’ll make it into draft three. Or, hell, if y’all like the shitty words, then maybe next time I’ll query the diarrhea first draft and pretend it’s stream of consciousness. 

Besides, I logicked, I’m going to make changes after their feedback anyway, right? 

Except the first beta reader to get back to me said he’d be fine getting it in more 10,000-word dribs and drabs. Less daunting for him that way. So then I figured I’d “clean up” batch two. Less daunting for me that way, too.

I also wanted to play around with a way to freshen up the book that I was bored with after 227,000 words over six years. Right before sending it off, I threw in  a couple of changes I’d been thinking about, some tongue-in-cheek references to add levity and to make it substantially less derivative. Both respondents liked it, so I’ve continued adding them to the new batches.

I’m now starting my sixth “batch,” finishing up Act II. I originally named this file “2.2,” it’s pretty obvious that it’s destined for “3.0” status once I put all the batches back together. 

Draft one is putting shit down on a piece of paper. Draft two, I’ve been told, is making those words less shitty. At least for my first book, I’m finding the third draft is where I’m actually focusing on writing some good words. It’s on pace to be around 80,000 words, which seems like a good spot for a novel with a little bit of world-building. Even better that the net -20,000 words is more like -25,000 less crap plus an extra 10,000 words of those added accoutrements. 

Who woulda guessed, after cutting close to 30K from first to second, I still had more than 20K to cut. First pass, I focused on cutting full paragraphs. Second pass is taking “He decided it was time to go around the corner” to “He rounded the corner.” Can that reduce the manuscript by 20%? Turns out it can.

Book Two stands “complete” at 110K. I’m a little worried that if it goes through a similar culling process, it’ll be down to 60K or so, which ain’t much of nothin’. But I feel like I need to add some to the first half while chopping the second half. When I was still figuring everything out, I didn’t have as much to say. Once I figured out what made the characters tick, I had to explain what made the characters tick.

So I’m a little in between right now. Finishing the last few beta batches of Book One while working on the reorganization, large swath cuts of Book Two. It won’t be easy since they’re drastically different. I occasionally ran into this problem over the past month. Book One is a fantasy/historical fiction, a hero’s journey with a studious main character. Book Two is set in modern-day Vegas with one main character obsessed with sports while the asshole is likely to bust out a Golden Girls reference at any given time. Did I mention Book Two took a detour to a whorehouse? Not an easy transition from that to a heroic stand of cavaliers in chainmail.

I wrote Book Two in the present tense. Not sure why, but it seemed to fit. One goes to a whorehouse, one has not gone to a whorehouse.

So yeah, maybe I spend the next couple weeks finishing the beta batches, then do the ass-and-face pass?

More importantly, when do I start Book Three? And which book shall that be? I’ve had a few ideas bumping around, one of which started out before Book Two was even a thought. Since I went serious then funny, maybe I’ll head back to a “Very Special Episode” again.

It would also send me back on the “Planned” road. I haven’t written word #1, but I’ve known where and how the final scene will go. I might even have the final line picked out. It’s the first line that’s proven to be a right asshole.

And I could totally fuck future me up by starting Book Three this week. When I post about finishing it in 2024 or so, watch how confused I am – December 1? WTF? Did I finish a NaNoWriMo and decide to keep the mojo going? 

Never mind. I’ll KNOW that wasn’t the case.

Still Editing

I’m still editing.

Editting? Meh, I’ll have to fix that on the rewrite.

I may have used that joke the last time I wrote about editing. But right now it’d take too much damned effort to double check. Kinda like when I really don’t want to look up how I described this character 20,000 words ago. So if it’s the blond she was gonna fuck and the brunette she was gonna marry, then oh well. At least we know she was always gonna kill the redhead. While Rick Astley played in the background.

I still don’t know if I’m technically editing or writing a second draft. Sometimes those are used interchangeably, other times not. I think editing is where you get rid of adverbs and sprinkle out some cliches. Find them crutch phrases and fuck them right in their nose-holes.

Nostrils? Nah, nose-holes has more panache.

I’m not to that part yet. Where I’m writing, there’s nary a nostril nor nose-hole in sight. What I’m doing right now is closer to, “see if you can find your five worthwhile words in this chapter of drivel and then burn the rest of it to the ground.”

I know a number of real authors say they add 10-20,000 words in their second draft. Add a little foreshadowing now that you know how the story will end. Maybe add a red herring. Or make the redhead that we didn’t know she’d kill in chapter 20 back into that party scene in Chapter 2. Ooo, can the redhead be a red herring?

That’s not how I approach my second draft. If I’m not cutting 1,000 words from a chapter, then it’s probably still too goddamn verbose.

I just cut 2000 words from a fight scene. That shit was originally 5000 words. Because, you know, when a trained king’s guard is swinging his sword at you, it’s a great time to have three paragraphs of physics. What the hell was I thinking?

Actually, I know what I was thinking. That I suck at writing action scenes. But 500 words a day, yo! So let’s see, the bad guy started swinging his sword yesterday and I’ve got to move the book along today. If I can equivocate for 490 words, I only have to advance the arc of that sword for 10. The POV character, after all, is in heightened adrenaline mode. Time slows down. We notice everything. When else would he be likely to notice the morning dew condensing on a beautiful chartreuse lily? Then maybe tomorrow, a gentle will-o-the-wisp shall flitter across like a… like a… I’ll figure it out later.

Crap, will-o’-the-wisp only counts as one word. He must encounter a rare Will O’ The Wisp. The O’ the Wisp family certainly has a penchant toward a certain fist name for their male children.

I’m aware of my tendency while I’m writing. It’s the only way I ever get on with the scene. When it’s been a week and I’m still thinking about that goddamn sword, I’m like, “Okay, today I’m going to write where he rolls out of the way.” This happens on non-action scenes, too. Oftentimes at the beginning of a new chapter, especially after a major scene shift, I have no friggin’ clue how much set-establishing to do before getting into the real shit. On the re-read, the answer might actually be none. Does the reader really need to know every detail of the alleyway between dude’s apartment and the pizza place if all he needs to do is order a pizza? Come to think of it, can’t I just start the chapter off with pizza already in hand? Will my non-existent readers be tweeting me screaming, “WHY? What was his internal motivation for procuring a slice of pizza. How can I identify with him if I don’t know how many shakes of crushed red pepper he likes?”

Actually, the red pepper shakes might be some good character info. But not the number of cracks in the pavement outside. And he can still shake the pepper after the scene starts with slice in hand.

Astute readers might note that I first wrote about editing this book back in July. It’s been almost a year. How the hell am I still on the second draft? Aren’t those supposed to take, like, a couple weeks? I thought so too!

In my defense, it took me about five years to write this book, so maybe one year on the rewrite is par for the course. And during that time, the other book I was stuck on got unstuck a couple times. Of course it did. Anything that’s not the story I’m currently working on sounds super easy right now.

And no, I didn’t finish that other book when I abandoned my editing for its sultry seductions. I just made it a couple chapters longer. Chapters that I’ll probably cut in the second draft.

Hey, you know something I’ve learned from this process? One of the things all the professionals say is to let your first draft sit for a while before re-accessing it. That way you won’t remember what you were writing and you won’t be as emotionally vested in it. If you approach it as “this was written by someone else,” you’re more capable of tearing it apart and making it better.

Okay, obviously those people didn’t take five years to write the first draft. Because I totally could’ve gone back to page one the day after I finished page last. It wasn’t fresh in my memory.

But on the flip side, I totally remember writing large portions of this. I remember the major plot points. Sometimes I’ll be rewriting a scene and think “Didn’t I make a reference to xyz here?” only to find it a couple chapters later, but still in the same general area. Oh, maybe I don’t remember some of the metaphors or precise language used, but if the whole goal is for me to approach this as if it was written by somebody else, that ain’t happening. I remember precisely why every beat of the story is in there.

Which doesn’t mean I’m super tied to it. Like I said, if I’m not cutting one out of every four pages, I’m not doing it justice.

Maybe it’s because those real authors burn out a book in three months. Whereas I spent a month on this one chapter, so I remember all its nooks and crannies.

Of course, now I’m hearing that the second draft is actually supposed to be shortly after the first draft, and it’s primarily for “making the head match the ass” or “making the drapes match the carpets.” THEN you wait 3-12 month before writing your THIRD draft, which should feel like it was written while masturbating with your left hand.

Wait, I’m going to have to write this AGAIN? THEN I send it to beta readers and they tell me all the things to change and I write the fourth draft. Followed by another drapes-and-carpets run, then let it sit for… Boy, I can’t wait to start the querying process in 2050.

Here’s the strangest thing about this rewriting process though: I’m giving up at the exact same spots.

When I say it took me five years to write, it didn’t really take me five years to write. Even those long slogs of 500 words a day before I finally got on with it happened for maybe only a week at a time. My normal writing schedule was to write 10,000 words in a month or so, usually around NaNoWriMo, then to muddle through another couple months, writing once a week or so, then get discouraged for three months before rinsing and repeating.

I remember the times I walked away. Sometimes it was right before an action scene, other times it was right after. And it wasn’t always in the “this sucks” vein. Sometimes it was a catharsis. Yeah, I nailed that fucking scene. Let me replenish. The book goes through three or four arcs, as did my writing.

When I started this rewriting adventure last summer, I muddled through the same emotions I had when first writing. This sucks. I’ll never be a writer. If I’m bored by this scene what reader in their right mind would ever sit through it? That usually leads to cutting 1000 words. But then there are those times of, “Wow, this isn’t half bad. This character really seems to be earning his level-up. Awww, people are gonna cry when that character dies. If they make it past that super shitty chapter 3.”

When I approached the first major give-up point, I resolved to power my ass through that rewrite. I took out most of the inner-monologue-while-facing-mortal danger that I tend to fill my first drafts with. And you know what? It took me a week, but I finally made it through that fucker.

Then I took the next two months off.

Now I’m finishing the second major arc, and I’m running into the same general malaise I had at this spot during a first draft. I’ve heard it referred to as the mushy middle. I’m once again faced with a general boredom with the plot and the characters and an impostor syndrome that says Stephen King’s first book was Carrie, and even after I’ve fixed half the shit, this drivel ain’t even on the same fucking continent as Carrie.

I was prepared for this on the first draft. I mean, not prepared in a sense of I fought through it. No, I put the manuscript away for a year at a time. But I at least learned from other sources that the impostor syndrome and the mushy middle were things. So at least when I succumbed to them, I knew it was par for the course.

I wasn’t prepared to go through it a second time.

It might be worse now that I know where the story is going, how many more beats it has. Add to that the fact that, the first time I wrote this, the end was where I ran into more and more of those “just get shit on the page” days. I’ve heard a number of authors say they power through the end because that’s when it’s fun again. Not me. The culminating scenes, where I bring all my chickens back to shit in the woods with the Pope, are a fucking nightmare. That’s where I am on that second book that only looks good when I’m stuck on the first book these days.

Both of my “books” start out with crisp 2,000-3,000 word chapters and end with 7,000-word lardasses. And I don’t know if they’ll be any easier now that I’ve made the ass match the face.

The second give-up point is different from the first. This time, I’m going through the “maybe I should change the entire premise of the book. Maybe I should start over from scratch with a different tone. Yep, almost 200,000 words in (120,000 words on the first go through, and 70,000 words through the rewrite), I’m now thinking “eh, fuck it.” I want to make it campier, funnier. I’ve been reading “Kings of the Wyld” by Nicholas Eames. It’s a refreshing take on epic fantasy by merging it with rock bands. Maybe I should do something like that? Something to differentiate myself from everything else that’s out there.

For those who have been following the travails of this Magnum Opus, it’s a world where feudalism never ended, They’re on the cusp of the twenty-first century, but it’s filled with peasants and nobles and an absolute monarchy, nary an industrial invention in sight. Now I’m thinking of moving it from the late 1990s to the mid-1980s and drop in a bunch of real-world eighties references. Maybe all the peasants wear day-glo? A mixture of “Kings of the Wyld” with “Ready Player One.” Aren’t we supposed to use comparables in our query letters?

The problem is I don’t know if I have that book in me. I turned 15 years old in 1989, so while I remember the 1980s, it’s not like I have a font of knowledge of the decade beyond that of a child. I’d have to do some extra research. It can’t be all Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

I also wouldn’t want to go full camp. “Kings of the Wyld” doesn’t. Every time it has a chance to go more “rock band” and less “epic fantasy,” it doesn’t. Most of the band references are subtle. So maybe moving my story to the 1980s rewrite wouldn’t take a whole rewrite. But what fun would that be? If you wanna burn something to the ground, you don’t decorate it with a doily.

Then again, maybe I’m just going through this whole rigmarole because I’m in the mushy middle. My main character is really annoying when he’s still 20,000 words away from finally growing the fuck up and complete his character arc.

God, my writing sucks. Hey, this is pretty fucking good. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I’ll see y’all back here in 2023 when I hit this spot on the fourth draft.

In the meantime, my other book’s making sexy eyes at me, so I gotta go.

Editing

I’ve started the editing process.

Wait, editing? Editting? Meh, fuck it. I’ll fix that later.

Right after I finish regrouting the tile. Because that sounds more fun than editing.
Man, I thought it was easy to get distracted away from writing. Then I started editing, and hoo boy. Any chance I can sign up for a root canal surgery or something?

I’ll just blog something instead. Nothing makes writing seem more appealing than editing.

It turns out there’s a lot more “how to’s” about writing than there are about editing. Everything’s all like “Yeah, just keep writing. Get that first draft done. If it sucks, you can fix it in the second draft. You can’t edit a blank page.”

So I finished my first draft. Woo-hoo!

Then they say to let it sit for at least a month, better yet two, so that you can edit it with a fresh set of eyes.

So I waited two months. Even though it took me four years to write in the first place, so Chapter One should have Fresh Eyes, regardless.

Then I waited two more months. And another two. It’s now been close to a year since I finished the book. Five years since I started it.

Because every time I started to think that maybe I should get around to editing, I would realize that it’s 120,000 fucking words. Good God. When I’m looking for a book on Audible, I don’t like them going over twelve hours. This polemic I wrote would be twenty hours. And bear in mind these are 120,000 words of mistakes and typos and characters that drastically changed from the beginning to the end.

Ugh.

But I’m finally doing it. Let me dust off Chapter One, written in November of 2014, and see what I can do.

Back to the writer websites and podcasts:

Write the First Draft. Check.

Let it sit (at least) two months. Check.

Hey, here’s a blog entry about sentence structure.

Because nobody wants to talk about editing.

I did find one podcast, Story Grid, but it’s a really boring podcast. They want me to buy their book, so they never actually say how to make a story grid. It’s just a dude talking about his specific book, and it’s a book that sounds like a boring rip-off of Hunger Games. So I make it about five minutes into each episode before giving up.

Then I edit for five minutes and think that this OTHER episode of the podcast sounds super interesting.

Step number one, according to Story Grid, is to read the entire book while taking notes. Don’t touch a thing. Don’t fix typos. Just read the whole fucking thing.

Hmm…. Let me see if I can find other guides.

Allegedly Lee Child doesn’t edit his books at all. He writes from beginning to end, then gives it to his publisher to fix typos. I guess that’s easier to do when you write pretty much the same story over and over.

I once found a “four color” editing process where you print out a copy of your book and you read through it using four colored pencils to mark four different types of things to fix. It promised that it would become a one pass-through process. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what any of the colors were for. All I can think is, holy shit, there are FOUR things I have to fix on my second draft?

That’s what comes after the first draft, right? The second draft?

Wait, second draft? As in, this manuscript that it took me four years to write, I now have to start over from scratch? Rewrite the whole thing? I want to EDIT, not REWRITE.

In my mind, I really just wanted to go through the book once. Move this thing here, delete that passage there, add a little background to that one scene, change a few “teh”s to “the”s and voila, start the super-fun querying process.

But everything I’m looking at says to go macro first. Read the whole thing, then rewrite it all. Write a second draft, then to start over with the third draft.

Does Stephen King do this? Because it takes me two years to read through one of his books, and he publishes seventy-five per year, give or take. George R.R. Martin says he hasn’t finished writing the next Game of Thrones yet. When he finishes it, is he going to let it sit for a season, then rewrite it twelve times? Good God, he’s never going to finish.

So I decided to say fuck it all, and do things my way. Sure, some of these guys are published. But everybody’s different, right? I’ll just fix it as I go and wrap this shit up in a week.

So I started with Chapter One.

Fixed a couple typos. Cut out some of the excessive internal monologue. And does the reader really need to know the layout of the village the main character lives in? No, maybe not. Clean. Polish. And that’s not a bad first chapter. See? I’ve got this. Bite me, Story Grid podcast.

Why is that foreboding music playing in the background?

On to Chapter Two.

Fix. Clean. Polish. And you know what? Now that I think of it… Do I need Chapter One at all?

A lot of the writing advice I’ve seen says that many books start too early. Chapter One is often groundwork, background information that can easily be sprinkled in later. Some books don’t really get into the plot until you’re 10,000 words in.

I also saw an agent say she couldn’t stand the fact that so many fantasy novels start with the main character harvesting crops. Sure, how else can you make a “Farm Boy Saves the World” story without having him start on a farm. Even if it is a moisture farm on Tatooine.

And here’s where I’m going to do what annoys me about the Story Grid podcast. I’m going to talk about my Work in Progress, which you don’t give a shit about. The difference is I’ll do it for a few paragraphs instead of an hour-long podcast.

First of all, the agent’s comment doesn’t apply to me, because this isn’t a fantasy novel. It’s an alternative history.

But it’s an alternative history such that the Middle Ages never really ended. So it reads like a fantasy. Hmmm…..

And you see, my character isn’t HARVESTING crops in the first scene. He’s PLANTING them. TOTALLY DIFFERENT!!!!

Okay, so is the first chapter really necessary? Ask yourself, the pros say, why does the story start here?

Well, you see, they’re about to leave their manor to travel to a festival many miles away.

So what?

Well, on the way to the festival, they’re going to stop at a tavern and meet the guys that introduce them to the rebellion and whatnot.

So why is he planting shit?

Umm… Because he’s a peasant.

Why doesn’t the book start when he gets to the tavern?

Umm… Did I mention I have a mental map of the village?

Okay, so what if I just start it in Chapter Two? And I can move this part about cotton, which will play into the rest of the book, into a conversation with the girl traveling with him. And all of his whining about the state of feudalism? Well, if he’s already thinking all of that stuff, then what’s the point of the guys who bring him into the Rebellion. Okay, I’ll cut that out. And maybe the third important tidbit from Chapter One can be added later when he meets that one other character. I know precisely where it will go.

After all, I just finished poring over Chapter One word by word.

When I was editing it.

Right before deleting it.

Fuck.

Maybe I should’ve, I don’t know, read my whole book first. It would’ve saved me all that time going back over Chapter One. I wonder if that’s why they suggest it?

Okay, so after reading the first 20,000 words or so, the first major arc, I decided that I now knew where the book should start. On the fourth paragraph of Chapter Two. And I’m going to cut and paste some of those parts from the old Chapter One and split the old Chapter Two into two chapters. One approaching the tavern, one in the tavern.

Except I’m not cutting and pasting. Because the wording doesn’t work when he’s standing on a bridge into town instead of planting crops back at home. And while I’m at it, some of his conversations are going to change a little bit. And you know what? That female character needs some agency. Because I know what’s going to happen to her, and it shouldn’t come from out of the blue that she’s got so much inner strength. Plus, if I change her from “The One He’s Always Wanted” to “The Only Girl Around His Age In His Tiny Village,” it’ll make it more pronounced when he meets his True Love later.

So how do I go about keeping most of the words the same, changing a few things subtly, and tweaking a character all at once?

Well, I open two Word Docs. Old one on the right, new one on the left. And then I, you got it…

REWRITE.

THE.

WHOLE.

FUCKING.

THING.

Oh, is this what they call a second draft?

Writing Update

I ended up taking a good portion of April off from writing. Or at least from blogging. But unlike those plebiscite sites that come back from a long hiatus with an “I need to blog more,” followed by another six months of radio silence, I at least had the wherewithal to post a few times before acknowledging the fact that I was mysteriously absent for a while.

This wasn’t my first dearthful April. It turns out April is a bad month for me. I teach an AP Class, and with the AP Test in early May, I spend pretty much the entire month of April buried in essays that really need to be returned on a timely basis. The nagging in the back of my head, which usually says “You should be writing” whenever I’m wasting time, switches to “You should be grading” whenever I think about writing in April. Perfect time for one of the NaNoWriMo camps, huh?

Plus that Disneyland post took a lot out of me.

Oh, and there were at least three weekend-long curling bonspiels over the past two months. I don’t want you to think I’m responsible or anything.

Anyway, what I’m really here to talk about is what else has been going on in the background of my writing. March and April also held the latest incarnation of the flash fiction contest I competed in last year. Each competition has five rounds, which consist of a prompt coming out on Friday evening that is due Monday evening. Last year, I competed twice, making ten full rounds, and I placed twice. One time I came in first, the other time in third. Both were historical fiction and can be found on my Published Works page.

But this time I either figured something out or, heaven forbid, am getting better at this shit. Because how many times did I place this go-around? I’ll quote LeBron James when he moved to Miami and they asked him how many championships he would win there. “Not one. Not two. Not three…”

In the end, I’m better than LeBron, because I won FOUR times!

Okay, I didn’t technically win all four of those. I only won once. Plus two third-place finishes and one fifth. So okay, LeBron, I guess I’m willing to acknowledge you might be slightly better at basketball than I am at amateur writing competitions. But only slightly.

But I’m still thrilled. I made it in the running four times out of five. That means four of the five stories I wrote for this competition will be published. Even more shocking, only one of them was historical fiction. That’s the one that came in first. The others were about a teacher and a game show and a furry convention. Yes, that’s right. A Furry Convention!

I also found out that this competition was bigger than I thought. When I was super happy about winning a round last year, I thought there were forty or fifty entrants. TI have since learned that the number is closer to three hundred. And sure, not all three hundred actually wrote an entry each time, but even if that number is in the low triple-digits, I’m pretty proud of having multiple top-five entries.

The one drawback is those losing entries usually provide fodder for this blog on the weeks I don’t have much to write. Unfortunately for all of you, I won’t have a lot of fiction to post in the near future. And trust me, you don’t want to read that fifth story. It was horrible. The literary equivalent of that dentist who says you shouldn’t chew gum.

But keep your eyes out for “72 Hours of Insanity, Volume 6.” Or maybe “Volume VI,” since Amazon seems to be particular about that. My guess is it’ll be coming out in the December timeframe. I’ll probably mention it then. If I don’t, then I’m pretty shitty at promotion and marketing.

Oh, and I finally finished the book I had been writing for four years. And I’m about 2/3 of the way through another book. And every once in a while I feel like I should do some editing. But then I figure, nah, I’ve got some wonderful European history essays calling my name. Editing sucks, y’all. Maybe I’ll blog about that at some point. It would beat the hell out of… anything else I should be doing with my screentime on a given day.

In the meantime, I’ll try to find some more harmless musings about the world around us to keep the blog updated more often.

At least until next April.

Keep Moving

One more flash fiction and then I’ll be back to my normal musings. I might have other flash fictions, but they’re mostly crap. I know it might be surprising that I have quality control and that these are actually the good mediocre ones, but it’s true.

I think the prompt for this one was a picture of mountainous terrain. It was only a practice rounds, so let’s just assume this would have won and was the best work of fiction that any of the judges had ever seen. Yeah, let’s just assume that.

 

Keep Moving

Breathe in. Breathe out. Move on.

That sounds like a song lyric. Maybe Jimmy Buffett or one of those other wash-ups who middle-aged dudes listen to when they’re going through a mid-life crisis. Regardless, it’s some good advice right now. Focus on what’s in front of you. One step in front of the other. Deep breath. Always forward, never looking back.

Don’t look back.

The top of the mountain is within sight. I mean, not directly in sight. That’s the thing about mountains. There’s always another peak beyond the next one. Your perspective changes. And then, when you finally make it to the top, it’s a kind of plateau. You wouldn’t even know you’re at the tip-top without some sort of sign. The next step is lower than the last one? Okay, if you say so, GPS.

Not that I’ve made it to the top of the mountain yet. But I think that’s what’s there.

So why do you climb a mountain, anyway? Because it’s there? No. Fuck that. That’s somebody else’s answer. My answer’s got to be better. Shit, a river is there. A hole in the ground is there. Why would I want to do something just because it’s there? The losers back on flat land come up with asinine reasons like it’s there. 

Kaitlyn’s back on flat land.

I’m not climbing this mountain because it’s here. I’m climbing it because I’m accomplishing something. I’m not sitting in front of a television on a Sunday afternoon, checking my fantasy football team and thinking I’m king shit because some random football player that I’ve never met is footballing harder than some other random football player that my co-worker’s never met and, whoa-hoa-hoa, how great is that going when we spend the first two hours of work tomorrow rehashing these exploits around the office coffee urn? Fucking losers.

But they’re in the past. Kaitlyn’s in the past. No looking back. Always look forward. Breathe in, breathe out.

It really is a beautiful vista. Little sage brushes dot the landscape. I’m well beyond the tree line. I left that thousands of feet below. It looks like I’m almost past the sagebrush line. Is that a thing? Is there a point where even the smallest plants cease to survive? When the air gets too thin? I mean, there’s a point where humans can’t exist, right? That’s why there’s all those frozen corp-sicles up on Mount Everest. If humans can’t exist without breathing masks, can plants survive? And if there aren’t any plants, what’s up there? Nothing but rocks and snow, I assume.

Only one way to find out. Get past these little bushes and see if there’s another copse ahead. See if there are more plants in another half-mile. Always onward. Always upward. Never look back.

At least those dead bodies up on Everest were accomplishing something. Not like those numbnuts who get stuck on Mount Rainier every April, because twenty feet of snow sounds like an excellent setting for a whimsical day hike. There’s ambition and then there’s impulsive stupidity. There’s trained hikers being led by sherpas and there’s bored twenty-somethings tempting fate after one too many hits on the bong. They aren’t moving forward. They’re just taking a very fucking stupid detour in life.

Maybe I should try Everest someday. Not there yet. This little sojourn will start my training.

Still, those Everest hikers made a vital mistake, too. They didn’t keep moving. They slowed down. They stopped. Life ends when you stop moving. Sometimes it’s not as literal as it is up on Everest, but it’s still true in Seattle or Singapore or Spain. Pretty much anywhere on Earth. I won’t make that mistake when I do Everest. I won’t slow down.

Kaitlyn slowed down. Kaitlyn stopped. She doesn’t think of it that way, but she’s wrong. She’s not on this mountain with me, and there’s your proof. The plan was to pick a new feat to conquer each year. What new feat is she accomplishing right now? Head buried in case files, preparing her seventeenth slam-dunk DUI case in a row, the bane of every first year prosecutor. Can you walk us through hat we see in this field sobriety test? What does that level of pupil dilation indicate? And when was the last time the breathalyzer was calibrated? Thank you. No further questions, your Honor.

That’s not an adventure. That’s not moving on or up. That’s just a quiet resignation to a long, slow fade into obscurity. Have fun listening to Jimmy Buffett in ten years, Kaitlyn. Don’t come bitching to me when you wonder where your mountain went.

Keep moving. Onward and upward. No detours. No complacency. Always forward. No looking back. Breathe out. Breathe in.

The air is definitely thinner up here. A full breath puts stars in your eyes. I wonder if this is part of the rush all those Adderall fiends at law school felt. Probably not. This is a natural high, brought on by my own effort and execution. Those losers wouldn’t know effort or execution if it came up out of their textbook and bit them on their ass-chin.

I could’ve taken the Bar a second time. That’s what Kaitlyn wanted me to do. Only a third of the people who take it pass it their first time. The pass rate goes up to fifty percent for second-timers. But what would that prove? Six more months of standing in place. Marking time, just to prove that I’m, maybe, in the top half. Watching my girlfriend head off to her fancy job each day, dreaming of distant mountains to climb.

And if you’re standing still, you’re actually moving backward. Because the rest of the world isn’t going to wait for you to catch up. How would that look if I was trying stupid DUI cases a year later, while Kaitlyn’s sitting second chair on murder ones? To say nothing of Rebecca in her high-tower law firm and Jimmy’s contract service.

It was time to move on. Life sent me a message, and thank God it did. If I had passed the Bar, would I be up here right now? Getting light-headed with thoughts of Everest? Nah, man. This. THIS. Is the life for me.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Keep moving. Never forward. Always look back.

No, wait a second. Keep looking forward, not backward. This thin air must be getting to me. There’s nothing worth looking at behind me.

Life’s a journey, not a destination.

I know that one’s a lyric. Amazing. Aerosmith. Steven Tyler. Now there’s a guy who doesn’t slow down. What is he, seventy? And he still runs around on stage and screams at the top of his lungs. That’s what I want to be. No, that’s what I’m going to be. Not a rock star, but still doing my thing. Still moving on. Journeying, not destinationing. Not sitting down at a desk reading case briefs. Not sitting down.

Sitting down sounds nice. Not forever, of course. Just to rest. My lungs are killing me. And my legs are… well, to be honest, I can’t really feel my legs. I wonder how high I am? The mountain just keeps on going and going. Life just keeps on going and going. Just a little rest here and then I’ll get up and finish.

What would be the use in taking the Bar a second time, anyway? As far as I could tell, only the girls passed. Except for Jimmy, but he has bubbly writing, so the graders probably thought he was a woman. What am I supposed to do, change how I write? Sure, I could study more this time. I could have studied more the first time. But studying seems so… so…

It’s so hard to catch my breath. Even when I’m sitting here in the cold. When did it get so cold? Probably when I stopped moving. But sitting feels nice. I can see all the way down the mountain from here. Such a long way I’ve come. The past looks so pretty from this vantage point.

I wonder what Kaitlyn’s doing right now. Probably kicking ass and taking names. I wonder if she’s moved on from me yet. She was always good at moving on. And moving up? She… She…

I should probably get up soon. But this is too comfortable. Once I catch my breath, I’ll get up. And then I’ll conquer my next big feat. Then I’ll be able to move on. Find a new mountain peak. There’s always another one just beyond the current one. Find a new girlfriend. Find a new career. Find a new life. Just right after I lie down for a bit.

I don’t think I’ve ever… listened to a.. Jimmy Buffett song. I wonder… wonder  if he’s any… any…

 

 

Ear in the Sky

Time to post another one of my near-miss flash fiction competition entries. The prompt on this one was to have the narrator be an inanimate object. I went through multiple iterations in a short span. I started out writing from the perspective of a rear-view window, and he was going to be in a mafioso’s car and would occasionally see the crimes and fights and whatnot happening behind the car, but he would never see what was in front. Oh, and everything was going to be reversed. Probably woulda been a cool story, but about two hundred words in, I realized there was no effing way I could crank that out over one weekend.

Then I decided to go with a bottle of wine on a restaurant table, because I was listening to a lot of Billy Joel Radio. Then I was about halfway through the story when I decided I actually wanted it to be from the music speaker’s POV. Because I was listening to a lot of Billy Joel Radio…

Don’t forget you can check out the two times my stories actually won here and here.

This one didn’t win. I present you:

The Ear in the Sky

Unmistakable chord. Yeah, I know this song. This is my jam, man.

A bottle of white. A bottle of red.

Billy Joel. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

Fitting. This may not be an Italian restaurant, per se. But we’ve got plenty of pasta on the menu. Pasta goes great with wine. Forget the white. A complex red to go with a meaty pasta sauce, like a Bolognese.

We’ll get a table near the street. In our old familiar place. You and I, face to face.

Jeff and Karla have been here a number of times before. They’ve probably heard this song plenty of times before. The playlist here isn’t too long, standard repertoire of seventies and eighties easy-listening. This song is actually a little upbeat compared to the normal fare. Not this part of the song. This part, the part about the wine and the restaurant, is pretty standard, but it picks up. Turns into a song about a couple getting a divorce. Maybe not the lyrics you want playing in the background at a nice restaurant. More fitting for one of those red-and-white checkered, calamari-appetizer kind of a restaurant. Probably why we do an abbreviated version of the song here. Straight from the beginning to the end. Fits the ambiance better. Fits what people like Jeff and Karla come here for.

Let the bottle breathe a little bit. No need to speed through the wine. It’ll be here all night, sitting in the middle of lucky table seven. The table in the corner with the view of the river. The wine bottle can look out over the entirety of the place. Take the whole scene in. Frankie, the fancy waiter in his white shirt and long blue tie, both tucked into the black apron tied around his waist. He has a white cloth napkin tucked into the back of the tie rope, ostensibly to wipe his hands, keep them clean, but most of the time he just tucks his hands there, behind his back, out of habit. He pulls on the two sides of that napkin, checking to make sure they’re even with each other, more often than he actually cleans his hands. It’s a nervous disposition to stop him from hovering over his tables, of hanging his hands limply in front of his customers. If he doesn’t have pen and pad in his hands, they’re tucked behind him. The bottle of wine knows that about Frankie. I know that about Frankie. We all do.

If you’re going to be a vital piece of an operation like this, like I am, you need to know the idiosyncrasies. Frankie and his hands. Jenny’s worse with her hands. They shake. Whoa to the full bottle of red that she has to pour for a tasting. Many a nice cotton tablecloths have resembled a red-and-white checkered, calamari-appetizer style tablecloths after Jenny’s done a tasting.

You’ve got to know the back of the house, too. Luis, the sous chef, hates doing desserts, so when Luis is on the line, expect the desserts to come out slow. Joshua, the line cook, is dating Katie, the expediter. Well, I suppose you can call it “dating.” Let’s just say that the peppercorn steak might not be the only thing coming out spicy when the two of them are working together. But watch out if there aren’t any tickets up at this particular moment, those two might disappear into the walk-in refrigerator and whoa to the next tickets coming up. Better hope a nice long song comes on to bridge that particular gap in the service. Better hope the wine is pouring well, and not by Jenny.

You’ve got to know the customers, too. You’ve got to be able to read the room. Predict what each table, what each set of individuals with their individual goals and desire for the evening, want. Table three has tickets to the show tonight. They want to go fast. Table twenty-two isn’t quite a bachelorette party, but it might as well be. Raspberry mojitos, all around.

Jeff and Karla are taking their time tonight. They haven’t even sipped from the bottle of wine yet. The bottle senses that. I sense that. Frankie senses that. Jeff and Karla want some time to reminisce. Or at least one of them does.

“We’ve been coming here a long time, huh?” Jeff says.

“We have,” Karla answers. “A long time. Since the beginning, really.”

“What was it, our second date here?”

“Was it? I know it was early.”

Karla looks off into the air. Perhaps in thought. Perhaps absorbing the Billy Joel.

“I guess you’re right. It’s hard to keep track of stuff that long ago.”

Something seems a little off between Jeff and Karla. It’s hard to put a finger on it. Not that I have a finger. But it seems like Karla would usually be the historian in a conversation like this. Maybe they’ve just been traveling a lot. They haven’t been at table seven for quite some time.

Is it too early for a little Barry Manilow? Trick question, of course. It’s ALWAYS time for some Barry Manilow.

Karla’s ear ticks her eyes back toward the table when the piano melody starts. “Speaking of our early dates.”

Jeff looks confused. His brows meet in the middle, then his eyesight follows the direction of Karla’s ear, so that he’s looking up into the ether. Looking right at me.

“Who is this? Barely Man-enough? How would he remind you of our early days? Jason Mraz, maybe. Not Barry Manilow.”

“Not the singer. The song. “Weekend in New England.” About a couple that’s always apart from each other. Always traveling. Missing each other.”

Jeff doesn’t look all that interested in listening to the lyrics, but Karla’s now looking up at me. The conversation is over until the lyrics get to the part she wants to hear.

And tell me, when will our eyes meet? When can I touch you?

Jeff grabs for the bottle of wine. Pours a little bit in Karla’s wine. Turns it back to his. If the conversation isn’t going to highlight the evening, maybe the wine will.

And when will I hold you again?

“I guess I traveled a lot,” Jeff finally opines when the crooner moves into his signature key change. Man, nobody can signal an upcoming quarter-octave change better than the Manilow.

“We spent a lot of nights on the telephone. Me whispering sweet nothings from my heart, you dictating a porn diary of what you’d do to me when you got home.”

Jeff smiles. “Those were from the heart.”

Karla should smile at that. Her last comment should have been said with mirth. But there was a bit of pain in it. Her lips didn’t twitch upward at Jeff’s response. Instead, the muscles in front of her lower incisors contract. Not quite a frown, but a set.

I notice it. The bottle of wine notices it. Frankie notices it. He starts to swoop in, one step forward, hands untucking from his back-napkin.

“A little farther south than the heart,” Karla says.

A retreat. A joke that is not quite a joke, but carries the illusion of civility. I can relax. The bottle of wine can relax. Frankie can relax, which is good because there wasn’t much he could have done. Jeff had just filled their glasses and neither of them have touched the menus. Sure, he could offer up an apeasatory appetizer, list off some specials that neither of the regulars would be interested in. Thank you, Karla, for keeping things civil.

No thanks to you, Mr. Manilow. Maybe it’s time for a change.

“Deperado?” Really? The Eagles? The playlist has a mind of its own tonight. Not sure if it’s the best segue from the travelin’ man in the last song. What’s next, some U2 song about wild horses?

If I had my choice, I’d but out a little Yacht Rock here. Some Air Supply. “Every Woman in the World” or “Two Less Lonely People in the World.” Oh, how about Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song?” Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey.

Not that I have any say over the playlist. I can’t pick the tunes, but I can make you hear them. Probably a metaphor in there.

All I can do is let the sounds be heard. The ear in the sky. Probably closer to mouth in the sky, but I like Ear in the Sky. Closer to a song. “Eye in the Sky.” Alan Parsons Project. And I don’t need to see anymore to know that I can read your mind.

I don’t think Alan Parsons Project’s ever made it onto this playlist. Not sure why. It would totally fit the mood. Maybe not the lyrics, but the tune. Instead, I do my workman’s best to the likes of…

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses? You been out ridin’ fences for too long, now.

Still, Karla tamed the Desperado. Pick up that thread if you know what’s good for you, Jeff.

Instead, he sips a little bit of his wine. Not good, buddy. Not good.

Karla follows suit.

Don’t you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy, she’ll beat you if she’s able. You know the Queen of Hearts-

“Hey, remember the lyrics that the pastor said at our wedding?”

There you go, Jeff.

But Karla is the confused one now. Jeff didn’t get the Barry Manilow connection, and now she’s at a loss. The only difference is she remembers. She makes the connection. She just doesn’t really get it.

“Kenny Rogers?”

Kenny Rogers?

“Yeah.”

Wrong Kenny, Jeff.

“‘The Gambler?'”

Really, Jeff? I don’t know what’s worse. That you used “The Gambler” in your wedding vows or the fact that you think it’s appropriate here.

“Yeah. Every gambler knows,” Jeff is singing nowhere near what The Roaster can do. It would be painful in its own right, but it’s even worse against the Don Henley I’m spouting. Or is this a Glen Frey song? “That the secret to survivin’ is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep.”

Okay, I’ll give it to you, Jeff. Or maybe to your pastor. It’s got a little bit of flair. But you know the gambler, like, dies in that verse, right?

“I suppose he’s right,” Karla says in response.

Oh, damn! Red Alert. Red Alert. Frankie, what are you doing just sitting there with your hands behind your back. Get in there and do something. There’s dead silence down there. All they can do is listen to the Glen Frey. Or maybe Don Henley.

It’s hard to tell the nighttime from the day. You’re losing all your highs and lows. Ain’t it funny how the feeling goes away?

Where’s the Air Supply? I need some Air Supply, stat!

“I was never really sure you wanted to be tamed,” Karla keeps going. “You were always the gambler, the traveler.”

“Until I met you.”

And now Frankie moves in. A verse too late, but Jeff seemed to recover. Sure, Frankie, refill their glasses. Talk about the specials. Ask if they want any appetizers. No? Okay, grab them some bread and butter. Great. At least it’s long enough to get this godforsaken Eagles song off of the Ear in the Sky.

Jimmy Buffett. “Coast of Carolina.”

Kind of a crapshoot here. Buffet wrote it as a sequel to “Come Monday,” yet another song about long-distance love. Man, I never really realized how many of those songs there were. But still, if the couple survived “Come Monday,” this sequel song has to be happy, right? Give these two something to focus on.

I live this dream and still it seems I’ve got you on my mind. From the bottom of my heart, off the coast of Carolina. After one or two false starts, I believe we’ve found our stride.

“What are we even doing here?” Karla asks.

And here it goes. I wish I had a record to scratch the needle across. No Frankie to jump in this time. The wine bottle can’t just tip itself over. And anyway, it’s halfway done its job. That’s a dangerous place, being halfway into a bottle of wine. Just far enough down to yank on the thread, but not far enough down to lose the thread.

“What do you mean? You love this place.”

Jeff just looks dumbfounded. He wasn’t connecting the dots up until now. I guess none of us were. Not the bottle of wine. Certainly not Frankie, who should be swooping in. Save a marriage to save a tip. But instead he’s in the back somewhere, putting little pats of butter in a tiny blue plastic ramekin. He’s probably hitting on Katie, the expediter, totally oblivious to the fact that he’s got no shot because she’s already been into the walk-in freezer with Joshua tonight.

So instead Jeff is here to fend for himself in this world that nobody was prepared for. While Jimmy Buffett does no help in the background.

These days I get up about the time I used to go to bed. Living large was once the deal, now I watch the stars instead.

No fault to Jimmy, really. These words could go either way. If Karla was in the mood to reminisce, if Karla was being her usual self, she’d eat these lyrics up. She’s usually focused on the fact that she’d tamed the wild horse, instead of how much work it was to get him to this point. Most people hear the Beatles sing “When I’m Sixty-Four” and think it’s a wonderful, forever-and-forever tale. But right now, Karla would just say, “Really, Jeff? You want me to wait until I’m sixty-fucking-four before you’re going to be a part of this fucking thing?”

And that’s the problem, really. Their roles are reversed. Jeff is usually the aloof one. He loves her, sure. That much is obvious, and always has been. He always came back. To Karla. To this restaurant. And he was always happy. But he isn’t always emotive. He isn’t always the one who can hear a lyric in a song and use it as a springboard to explain how he’s found his soulmate, his anchor, the one that puts his whole life in order. Bryan Adams. “(Everything I Do), I Do It For You.”

Unless the lyric is from “The Gambler,” evidently.

And so now that Jeff’s in this position, he doesn’t know how to respond. He can’t take the initiative. He’s figured out a way to be Newton’s equal-and-opposite reaction, but Karla needs to be the action. Karla’s not being the action. Karla appears to be done being the action.

 

All he can do is open and close his mouth. Knowing something needs to be said, but not knowing what it is. Open. A sound escapes. A “whuh” sound. Closed. Open. A “Kuh” sound. Closed.

The song changes. Oh no, playlist. Not this. Anything but Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand.

You don’t bring me flowers. You don’t sing me love songs.

FML.

“I love you, Karla. I don’t know what else to say.”

Jeff is trying, I’ll give him that. I think he might’ve even noticed the song choice. Desperation. Hail Mary here. And honesty is a great policy. Especially if you’ve got no other viable policies.

“No, you know what, Jeff? I don’t know that-,”

“Did you guys want to hear about our specials tonight?”

Oh, Frankie. I applaud the effort, but you’re a day late and a dollar short. Actually, with this going on at one of your prime tables, you’re going to be much more than a dollar short.

“Sorry, Frankie,” Karla says, sticking her hand out at a forty-five degree angle. The universal sign for not-being-rude-but-stop. “Can you just give us a minute?”

Frankie backs away, his hands fumbling through the metaphorical tail no stuck in his legs. He’s going to try to be sneaky, slink off to the back to tell Katie and Joshua and Luis and all the others to take a wider berth around table seven. Oh, and to keep an eye on table seven.

“Like I was saying, Jeff.” It used to be so natural (used to be) to talk about forever.“I don’t think you know how to love. I think you only know how to pursue your own interests.” But used-to-be’s don’t count anymore, they just lay on the floor till we sweep them away.“And, yeah, I know that I have, invariably, been part of your own self interests. But the only reason we’ve stayed together this long is because I was always something you could come back to.”

“Dammit, Karla, that’s not true.” Baby, I remember all the things you taught me. “You weren’t just what I was coming back to.” I learned how to laugh and I learned how to cry. “You were the whole reason I was going in the first place.”

Oh, Jeff. I know what you mean. You mean that she helps you experience the world. That she’s what grounds you. That you’ve learned how to love and you’ve learned how to cry. The lyrics were right above you. You only had to grasp them. But instead you said… Are you aware of what you said?

The wine bottle can’t help anymore. Even if Jeff or Frankie had the wherewithal for a pregnant pause while pouring, it wouldn’t do any good. The bottle’s empty. That’s the thing about wine bottles. Everyone considers them quintessential to a dining experience. The first thing you order. But wine bottles usually don’t last the night. Four glasses per bottle. With two people dining, that’s only a couple glasses each. The wine isn’t there when the dessert rolls around. Or when the opposite of a dessert happens.

You know who’s still here? Who’s always here? I am. The Ear in the Sky. And I know what you’re thinking.

I just wish I could do something about it.

So you’d think I could learn how to tell you good-bye.

“Check!”

Karla attempts to flag down Frankie.

“It’s fine,” Jeff says. “I’ve got it.”

The only response he can give. Pay the tab. Slightly misogynistic, but well meaning. Kind of like Jeff. And, to be honest, half the gentlemen that reserve table seven. If they can’t come up with the nice words or the sweet sentiments, they can at least bust out the wallet for the nice view.

But whatever Jeff was hoping for, Karla’s taking him at his word. She stands up to leave.

“I’ll send the paperwork over tomorrow.”

And just like that, one of table seven’s most distinguished couples is done. Jeff is left footing the bill, both literally and figuratively. Frankie’s swooping in to drop off the literal.

Oh, hey, I hear a distinctive Australian duo coming up. Probably a song too late for you, Jeff. Not that I think it would’ve worked, either way for you tonight. But it’s the thought that…

I’m lying alone with my head on the phone, thinking of you till it hurts.

Ouch, playlist. Of all their songs, I feel especially bad for playing this one right now. Sorry about that, Jeff. I’m a speaker. I can only play the music, not pick the songs or when to play them.

Air Supply. “All Out of Love.”

Got Yer Published Work Right Here!

Hey!

So, I know some of you have enjoyed some of my “loser” flash fiction entries. And more of them are coming in the next week or two. But did you know that I don’t always lose? For copyright reasons, I couldn’t post the winners because they were going to be published along with the other winners.

Well, now you can check them out. And if you’ve liked some of my non-winners, you owe it to yourself to see the good ones, don’t ya think?

Although, let me say up front that I don’t get any royalties from these sales. The money all goes to the company that put on the contests so that they can hire interns to be totally wrong about all of my other entries (but totally right twice, just like the blind squirrel on the VCR clock). The main thing I get from being published in these anthologies is that I can now expose myself in public without… hold on, I’m starting to think that’s not what they meant by “exposure.” Hmm. Good thing it’s too cold for me to test my theory this time of year.

The first story, which appears in “72 Hour of Insanity, Vol. IV” is called “Those who Rule the Stars and the Universe,” and it’s the first one with that title. They gave us the title and we had to run with it. It’s a historical fiction. There were a few other options to choose from, such as a sci-fi story called “The Cartographer” and one that I really, really wanted to write, which was a romance called “Beating the Boardroom.” Hoo boy, mine woulda been sticky. But instead, I decided to go with the Trial of Galileo, as the question at its heart was, quite literally, about who rules the stars and the universe. Oh, and there are some distinct nods to “Assassin’s Creed.” See if you can find them.

In the second round of contests, I again placed one story, although this one was only a third place finish. I don’t care. I’ll take it. The story in “72 Hours of Insanity, Vol. 5” (yes, they went from Roman numerals to Arabic – something about Amazon publishing being less user-friendly than CreateSpace was) is titles “Over the Top.” It’s another work of historical fiction. Hey, I’m seeing a trend. We were given five options. My first inclination was the Gunpowder Plot, but then I focused in on the Spanish Flu. This was a major epidemic that started at the tail end of World War I. It ended up wiping out more people than the War did, at least in the United States. So I went with that motif, a soldier who escaped the trenches but couldn’t escape the Flu.

So out of ten events, I won one and came in third place once. They gave out five places for each event, so let’s see, two times out of fifty places. I’m four percent of a writer, now! Although I technically couldn’t place more than once per event, so two out of ten? Twenty percent? But then something, something, third place out of the number of entries, and carry the four, and…

You know what? I think I’ll stick to historical fiction.

Thanks for all of your support, peeps.

Sorry Mario

More flash fiction. The prompt for this week was that the character that the story revolves around can’t appear in the story. Not sure why, but the “Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle” popped into my mind right away. Then it was a matter of getting there.

Sorry Mario

“Are you ready?” Jeff asked.

His wife looked back at him in the darkness.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t go to the police?” Melissa asked in return.

“The note said no police.”

“I doubt an ill-advised rescue attempt is sticking to the ransom, either.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll be in and out before they know what’s going on. You just saw the same thing I did. Three of them left. They didn’t have Daniella with them. That means she’s still inside.”

“I just…,” Melissa trailed off, then changed her tact. “You know you’re not Mario, right?”

“Who?”

“Mario. I don’t know, Luigi. This isn’t a video game.”

“Really? You went with Mario? Not Assassin’s Creed? Not James Bond?”

“Whatever. Isn’t Mario the one who’s always saving the princess?”

“That’s Link.”

“Okay, but Mario is the one that changes direction in mid-jump. You know you can’t do that, right? Hell, you can’t really jump, at all.”

“This won’t require jumping.”

The silence between the married couple stretched on.

“This isn’t a video game,” Melissa finally said, returning to the beginning of her argument as summary.

“So are you in or out?” Jeff asked.

“I guess it’s too late to go back now. It’s not like we have the ten grand they’re asking for anyway.”

“Okay then. Let’s go rescue our daughter.”

Jeff climbed through the hole in the fence and began to tiptoe toward the brick building that he had traced the kidnappers to. Melissa followed behind him, carrying the pistol that they had owned for a decade but never used. Melissa had tried to get rid of the thing when Daniella was born, but Jeff would hear nothing of it. He kept it in his bedstand, but kept the bullets up high in their closet, where a child could not accidentally find them or load them or shoot them. Without its bullets, it wouldn’t offer much protection, but Jeff assumed the sight of a gun might be enough to make a home invader flee. Nobody wants to hang around long enough to see if a gun is loaded or not.

Melissa might be right that this wasn’t a video game. But the vast number of heist movies and Liam Neeson thrillers had laid the groundwork for what lay in front of Jeff. Working for the City Comptroller gave him the rest of what he needed. No need to keep the kidnappers on the phone for ten extra seconds in order to triangulate the cell towers if you can just get a listing of the blocked phone number after the fact. From there, all he had to do was check the blueprints of the abandoned book depository, which were public record and available to any citizen of the city, as long as said citizen knew whom to ask.

Don’t fuck with civil servants, Jeff thought, was the moral of the story.

Once he saw the blueprints, it was obvious how this warehouse could be turned into a prison for a kidnapped child. Jeff knew, without even needing to think, where the bastards were holding Daniella. The old manager’s office lay in the back of the open warehouse, and it had a fortified vault in one corner. It didn’t take a criminal mind, or even a dozen watchings of “Ocean’s Eleven,” to know where he needed to go.

And with the three perps having just left, Jeff and Melissa should be able to waltz right in and save their daughter. Jeff patted himself on the back as he padded toward the door the kidnappers had left ten minutes ago.

The room beyond the door was dark. Jeff was happy. That meant none of the kidnappers were still inside. Everything was going to plan.

The booby traps were not part of the plan.

“Ouch.”

“What’s wrong?” Melissa asked from behind, raising the gun in her two hands, as she had been trained to do in the one class Jeff had made her take a decade earlier.

“Nothing. It’s just that the doorknob is warm. Even through these gloves.”

Melissa laughed to release some tension, pointing the gun back toward the ground. “Do people really use the old hot handle trick? I thought that only happened in Bugs Bunny cartoons.”

Jeff laughed, too, in spite of himself. “Ye- yeah. We’ve gone from video games to Looney Tunes. Let’s hope these guys are more Elmer Fudd than Bow-“

Jeff didn’t finish his thought. As he inched the door open, the subtle heat turned into a fireball. Jeff fell backward as flames exploded out of the doorway. Melissa screamed, dropping the gun as she shielded her own face from the conflagration. Her husband crashed to the ground, losing his wind as his back hit the ground.

It was not a continuous spout of fire. Not a flame thrower, nor a blowtorch. Not the type of sustained heat to make a creme brulee. This was just one explosive flame, a barbecue finally lighting after the fourth push of the igniter button. Perhaps more to frighten people away than to actually harm them.

“Further proof there’s nobody here to guard her,” Jeff said as he rolled over on to his stomach.

Melissa nodded, even though she had not been privy to his internal monologue. They had been married for a decade, and dated for an extra five years before that. She could follow his train of thought better than anyone. And she agreed.

Wife helped husband regain his feet. She wiped the dirt off the back of his shirt, while he did the same to the front of his jeans. Tentatively, Jeff reached forward. He grasped the cooling doorknob and pulled on the door, just enough to open it a crack, while ducking to his left, fully prepared to dive for the floor once again. But the fire was a one-time deterrent. The door opened without a hitch.

A dark expanse faced them. The scant light from outside only showed a few feet near the open door. But Jeff knew this room. The blueprint showed a seventy-foot-by-seventy-foot square. Jeff took a confident step forward. Then another. His eyes could still make out the general shape of the grey-brick, windowless walls from the scant light spilling in through the entryway. This was a convenient reinforcement, as the two into darkness as soon as the door closed behind Melissa.

The last picture Jeff had seen, filed by a construction firm filing a “Use of Historic Building” form, showed the room to be empty. All of the bookshelves had been removed to the school district’s newest warehouse. The old storage room was perfectly suited for the air rifle arena that the construction firm had been hoping to open, or an urban-themed disco, but both of those applications had been denied. The Comptroller was holding out for an artist enclave or some other upscale business to begin the gentrification process in this part of town.

His mind’s eye seeing the blueprint and the picture, Jeff took one cautious step forward in the darkness, then another. Within a few steps, Jeff was sure his eyes had adjusted as much as they could. He walked forward with purpose, his mind focused on the distant door to the manager’s office on the blueprint in his head.

Until his foot missed the floor. Or didn’t miss, per se, but came down on something else. A round object. A group of spheres, (Marbles!) rolling out from under his step, toppling him over once again. He tried to fall forward this time, flailing his arms out in front of him. In the end, he thought he pitched to the right, the brunt of the impact hitting his right shoulder. His head came to rest on his assailant. Not spheres, but tubes.

Not marbles.

Jeff thought back to the marbles on Daniella’s floor. He had almost tripped over them. He was always stepping on Daniella’s toys. The marbles weren’t as bad as those damned Legos. Marbles on a carpeted floor won’t cause any harm. But they had been there nonetheless. Sitting on the floor, as if Daniella had just been playing with them. It was all he could focus on at first. Not the open window, outside breeze blowing the tree outside gently against the side of the house. Not the ransom note on the bed. “$10,000. Instructions for delivery in two hours.” Only the marbles on the floor. And an indentation on the carpet. How long ago had Daniella been sitting there, playing with her toys?

When did the two hours begin?

A light switched on. A faint, LED glow illuminating the area in front of him.

“Not sure why we didn’t think of this before,” Melissa said, her phone having replaced the gun in her right hand.

The glow started to fade. She turned it back to her face and double-tapped the screen. Lumens returned, and she turned the screen back toward to scene on the floor.

“Can you turn on the flashlight,” Jeff said into the picture on her screen. A selfie of the three of them, Daniella’s face smiling between her two parents, the “Welcome to Disneyland” sign hovering behind their close-up faces. Jeff never liked that picture. He never knew where to look on a selfie. The other two beamed straight at the camera and he was gazing off to the right as if something had just caught his eye. A naked lady or a terrorist attack or an alien coming down in a flying saucer. Or maybe he was looking into the future, and a kidnapper taking his daughter from his very house while he was busy looking the other direction.

“Isn’t that the app that the Russians were using to steal your identity?” Melissa asked, but turned her phone back around to see if she could find the app in question. She thumbed the safety on her pistol and tucked it into her back pocket.

“I think that’s just an… ow… an old wive’s tale,” Jeff said, finally feeling the impact on his shoulder as he shifted his weight in an attempt to get up off the floor. Although he hadn’t felt any initial impact, he was pretty sure his wrist had lost some of its structural integrity. “Besides, at this point, the Russians can have my fucking identity.”

Three thumb-clicks later, the flash on Melissa’s phone shone down upon her husband as he regained his knees. Around him lay a scattering of white PVC pipes. Moving the light around, she saw them stretch on for five feet or more. It would have been impossible to avoid them in the dark, no lucky, walk-over bypass.

“Who the hell leaves a bunch of pipes laying around in the dark?”

Whether they had been lain there intentionally or leftover from some random inhabitant or potential owner, it was hard to know. But with the flash of a digital camera to lead the way, husband and wife were able to avoid this obstacle, and another batch of PVC pipes twenty feet further on.

“The positioning looks a little too precise to be there randomly,” Melissa opined, and Jeff was forced to agree. Eight pipes in a row, the last two angled to the right and the left, ensuring the whole batch would roll.

“I don’t get it. Did they want us to pay or did they want us to come here?”

It was a question that hung over the two of them as they made their way to the door near the corner of the far wall. Jeff thought he heard sirens in the distance, but it was too hard to be certain. Everything on his body was screaming. His injured wrist, his bruised shoulder, his scorched face. There was enough ringing in his ears to easily mask any exterior sounds. To say nothing of the thick warehouse brick. So instead of straining to make sense of a distant noise, he focused to the only sense that was working: his eyesight following that single trail of cellphone light to the inner office door.

Once there, Jeff and Melissa only stared at the doorknob. Melissa’s phone illuminated it perfectly. An utterly normal sphere of chrome, a simplistic keyhole in the middle. Jeff reached forward, then stopped himself. Once, twice. He finally reached all the way, tapped it with his finger. It didn’t budge, it didn’t melt, it didn’t morph into a evil maw with teeth ready to snap an assailant’s hand off. It did exactly what a doorknob should do when tapped, which is to barely notice, to continue existing precisely as intended. Slowly, ever so gingerly, reaching through a morass as if the ice age might sneak back into this room in time to rescue both father and daughter, Jeff grabbed hold of the knob and turned.

The mechanism released. The door released from the doorjamb. Jeff pulled on it while his wife removed the gun from her back pocket. Both sensed that, make or break, their journey would end on the other side of this barrier. The sirens from the street rose in pitch, adding a sense of urgency and dread. Melissa moved her phone to her left hand, thumbing the small safety nub into its receptacle.

The door swung open.

Nothing was there. Jeff blinked. Melissa blinked. Melissa shone the flashlight left, then right. The dimensions of the room were correct. Ten by ten. No desk. No furniture. And no vault door behind where the desk should have been.

Jeff took a giant step to his left, in the direction of the phantom vault, the spot on the wall that showed nothing. Straight forward, no variance. No time to think. Had he slowed down, he might have seen the trip wire. But probably not, strung as it was at shin height, as thin and as taut as an E string on an acoustic guitar.

Gunfire rang out. A bright flash to Jeff’s left. Reverberating crashes, a cacophony in an enclosed place. Four shots in rapid succession. Melissa returned fire without thinking. Bullets flew in both directions over Jeff’s shoulder. His knees gave out and he once again plummeted for the floor. Melissa stood stock still for a moment before belatedly realizing she should have ducked behind the wall.

But it didn’t matter. They were alone in the room. The gun that had fired and, blessedly, missed, had been yet another trap. Not another person in the room. And when Melissa shone the light on the wall opposite the muzzle flashes, they saw, to the right of the doorway where one would expect it, a light switch. In his mind’s eye, Jeff saw himself reaching for the light instead of darting to the left as soon as he entered the room. What any sane person would do.

He started to laugh. Quietly at first, then it grew. The entire idea was absurd. And the two of them were making it through not because they were trained, not because video games and movies had shown them the way to do it. But because they were just strung out enough, just impulsive enough, to ensure they were continually doing what no sane person would be doing at this time.

“I’m Mario!” He finally said between his laughs.

“What?”

“A fireball. A pipe. A bullet flying through space at nothing in particular! Hahaha! You were right! This is Mario. I just lost my third life. How many do I have left?”

Melissa only stared at her husband, through the smoky haze of residual gunpowder, laughing maniacally on the ground. She tried to make sense of what he was saying. Her senses were as overloaded as his. Darkness and light and smoke and gunfire. Sirens getting closer and closer. Only she wasn’t cracking, as her husband clearly was. She needed to stay grounded in reality, where neither of them had any extra lives.

“It’s over there,” Jeff continued between gasps. Melissa shone her light back to him, then followed the direction he was pointing. Her phone showed a vault door. “I was reading the blueprint wrong. I zigged when I should’ve zagged.”

Melissa started to laugh now, too. Seeing the vault door, knowing Daniella lay beyond. They were almost to the end. The end was in sight. The emotion that had been pent up for the last twenty hours finally came out.

“You… You changed the direction of your jump in midair.”

He stepped forward to hug her husband. The two of them laughed and sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. Exhausted and delirious.

“This is the police! You are surrounded!”

The amplified voice permeated through the building. Jeff and Melissa looked at each other in confusion.

“The police are here?” Melissa asked. “For us?”

“Did we set something off?”

“Did the kidnappers send them? No police, the note said.”

How many lives do we have left?” Jeff asked again.

The two blinked at each other in the cone of lightness.

“It’s okay. Just get Daniella out of there. Then we can explain what we’re doing in here.”

Jeff nodded. It would be easy enough to explain. They weren’t trespassing, after all. They were saving a captured little girl. Their daughter. They had every right to be in here. The cops would be very interested to hear about what had prompted this whole endeavor. Jeff took Melissa’s phone and walked toward the vault. At the last minute, he worried about a lock. Maybe the cops would be able to open the vault door and save his daughter from the other side.

He heard the distant door open, and footsteps storming into the building, as he reached the padded door. He turned the handle, this one a long metal bar instead of a chrome sphere, and was relieved when it swung freely. The door swung inward.

“FREEZE!” came a multitude of voices from behind.

Bright light blazed behind Jeff, illuminating the office. He raised his hands in the air, wanting to make sure he was seen complying. He hoped Melissa was doing the same, and he hoped her gun was not in her hand.

“TURN AROUND!”

But Jeff couldn’t turn around. All he could do was stare straight forward. Into the vault, now fully illuminated in the police lamps. He could see every corner of the tiny vault. The tiny, empty vault.

Daniella was nowhere to be seen.

Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle.

For the fourth time today, Jeff fell to his knees. He dipped his head as cops grabbed his hands from behind. He stared straight forward as cold steel clasped his wrists.

The room was empty. Jeff was out of lives.