Short Story: Of Parks and Plots

This short story is a sequel to “New Tricks” and “Of Cookies and Comprehension“.  Enjoy!

golden retriever

“AND WHAT,” the dog said, “exactly, is the purpose of this…thing you’re doing?”

“Swinging,” the little girl answered.  “It’s fun.”

The dog’s head bobbed back and forth in time with the bright yellow kiddie swing.  “I don’t think that you and I have the same definition of fun.”

“That’s silly,” the girl said.  “What’s not to like?  First you go this way—“ as she swung forward “—and then you go THIS way!”  She let out a giggle, and shifted in her seat.

“Marley!”  the girl’s mother shouted from her bench.  She started to get up, then settled back down.  “You stay still!  You’ll fall out!”

“She’s so protective,” Marley confided to the dog.  “It’s cute.  I let her get by with it because I like her so much.”

“I don’t think we have the same definition of cute, either.  She thinks she’s cute when she calls me the wrong name.”  The dog shook his head and huffed in embarrassment.

“What’s wrong with ‘Goldie’? Your fur is gold.”

“That’s because I’m a golden retriever,” the dog said, annoyed.  “I didn’t pick it.  And my name is Buster, not Goldie.  I didn’t pick that either,” he added as an afterthought.  “But I like it.”

“So why don’t you just tell her?” Marley said.

Buster gave it a nanosecond of thought.  “Marley, I know you’re only two, but you’re old enough to understand that grownups think dogs can’t talk.  Every time your mother hears me, she ends up on the floor with a bump on her head.  YOU tell her.”

“I tried.  A bunch of times!  She doesn’t understand me.  It’s like daycare.”  She dropped her legs straight, making the swing slow down, and gave Buster an intense look.  “Every day she picks me up from daycare, and she asks me what I learned, and I tell her.  But when I say “Cack… cackl… uh… cack’lus—“

“Calculus?” the dog supplied.

“Right!  Cack’lus.”  She nodded.  “If I tell her that, she just laughs like a moron.  Like she doesn’t take me seriously at all!”  She grew thoughtful.  “But if I sing the Farmer in the Dell, she understands that!  Maybe,” she added, “I should sing to her about cack’lus.”

“That would be fun to watch.”

She frowned at him, her nose wrinkling.  “Yeah, we have different ideas about fun.  Anyway, if she can’t understand something as simple as cack’lus, how will I ever tell her about your name?  That’s IMPORTANT stuff, you know.”

The dog dipped his head in a doggy bow.  “Your logic is unassailable, my friend.”

Abruptly, Marley grabbed the chains of the swing in both hands, making it glide more or less to a halt.  “Well, look at that.  SHE’S nose deep in a book.  Guess I’ll get myself down.”  Expertly, she undid the safety belt and worked her feet out of the holes in the plastic swing, then stood up.

Buster looked up in consternation.  “Ah, Marley, I don’t think you should—“

“—CATCH!”  She leaped from the swing, sending it bucking, and landed on the dog, sending them both sprawling in a heap.  Several other children in the vicinity looked around in alarm.

“Now THAT,” she said, picking herself up and dusting herself off, “was FUN!”  Buster bared his teeth in irritation, and let out a sigh.

Marley checked to see that her mother hadn’t noticed, then made her way to the sandbox on the other side of the swingset.  Buster followed, but sat down primly at the edge of the sandbox.  She paused and looked back at him.  “Aren’t you coming in?”

“I’ll pass,” he said.  “I’m not big on sand.  It gets down in my fur and won’t come out.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, “more for me.”  Sitting down, she grabbed a handful of sand.

“More for…what?”  Marley studied the sand for a moment, then abruptly licked it.  “Oh.”

“Blech,” she said, spitting it out.  “This is a bad vintage.  I liked the 2015 better.  I’ll have to have a word with the maintenance guys.  Except THEY probably won’t understand me either.”

“I saw a cat using that as a litter box a while ago,” Buster observed.  “I suppose it’s a little late now, but I thought you should know anyway.”

“Well, that explains it!  Silly cat.”  She stood up again.  “But I’m still hungry.  Hey…mom has some treats in her purse!  Maybe we can get those.”  She scratched her chin thoughtfully, looking for all the world like a pint-sized supervillain.  “Now, how to get them…”

“You know, you COULD just ask her for them.  I’m sure she’d give them to you.”

She arched an eyebrow at him.  “Don’t be silly!  OF course we need a plan.  Work with me here!”

“You’re the boss.”  He gave her a doggy shrug.

“We need…” She glanced around.  “We need…a distraction!  That’s it!”  She patted Buster on the head.  “How do you feel about biting someone?”

“What?!”

“Not too hard!  Just, you know, enough to make them cry.  It would be perfect!”

“Marley, if I did that, they would send me back to the pound.  Is that what you want?”  He drew himself up.  “And besides, I am a lover, not a biter.”

“Fine,” she grumbled.  “Well, maybe…okay, I got it!  Go over to my mom, and get the edge of her shirt, and start pulling on it.  She’ll wonder what you want, and then she’ll get up and follow you, and I’ll snatch the treats.  Then you let go, and run around the back way, and meet me over by that tree—“ she pointed “—and we’ll see what we have.  Does that sound good?”

He pondered for a moment.  “Just one question.”

“What?”

“What’s in it for me?”

She put her hands on her hips and gave him an impatient look.  “She keeps dog treats too.”

“Sold!”  Buster jumped up and trotted off to the bench.  Marley watched as he grabbed the tail of her mother’s shirt and started tugging.  He was very good—he made sure not to rip the material, and he never growled.  She tried to push him away, and when that didn’t work, at last she stood up.  She gave Marley a look—frowned, glanced at the empty swing, then back at the toddler—and then gave in and followed the dog in the other direction.

Marley leapt to her feet and scampered over to the bench, where her mother’s purse sat open.  She pawed through the top and pulled out two plastic pouches—one of gummy fruit snacks, one of bacon dog treats.  “Jackpot!”  Clutching the pouches, she ran back past the sandbox to the shade of the big oak tree, and sat down, hiding the pouches between her legs.

“Dumb dog!” Marley’s mom made her way back to the bench, brushing dust from her clothes, as Buster came running back to Marley.  “Honestly, that dog is so weird sometimes.  I don’t know what he’s thinking.”  She gave Marley a glance, then sat down and picked up her book.

“Mission accomplished!” Marley said as Buster lay down on the grass beside her.  With two-year-old skill, she tore the packets open and tossed a bacon strip to the dog, then turned her attention to the fruit snacks.  “Kinda makes up for those cookies we never got.  Don’t you think so?”

The dog swallowed the treat.  “Something about ‘ill-gotten gains’ comes to mind,” he said, and looked longingly at the bag.  “But right now, I’m okay with that.”

“Yeah,” she said between bites.  “They do taste pretty good.  But you know, this was a lot of work.  Maybe next time we should just ask.”

The dog gave her a look, then shook his head and snorted.  “I have a funny feeling I’ve heard something like that before.”

“See?! I knew you’d understand!”

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Something Better: Or, I’m Not The Writer I Thought I Was

Let’s be honest: Finding something out the hard way sucks.  It’s even more so when the thing you’re discovering is a truth about yourself.  You can tack on another degree of difficulty when the misconception is one you’ve clung to for most of your life.  And that, friends, is where I am this week.

A few days ago, I completed an online writing course. I like to think I know my craft pretty well (and no, Peanut Gallery, that’s NOT the misconception I’m talking about!), and I like to think I don’t need any further training; but this wasn’t just any class.  It was a Masterclass course with James Patterson.  Yes, THAT James Patterson—bestselling author of Along Came A Spider (Alex Cross Series), The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride Series), 1st To Die (Women’s Murder Club Series), and a whole lotta others.  It’s pre-recorded, of course, but that doesn’t mean the class was fire-and-forget on his part, because it came with a nice incentive:  entry into a contest in which Mr. Patterson will select a new author with whom to co-author a novel.

My good friend Cyndera, who also participated in the class and the contest, has posted this article about the lesson she learned from the contest, which, to sum up, is this: she doesn’t write suspense.  Suspense, of course, is James Patterson’s bread-and-butter, and the contest entries were to be within that genre.  It isn’t her thing, though, and that’s fine.  I’ve read her work, and it is definitely more sci-fi and young adult.  Within that area, she’s amazing (and talented in a few others, as well).  Suspense, though, doesn’t come easy for her.

I appreciate the honesty that it took to make that statement. Listen, no one wants to admit that they can’t do something, or put another way, that a certain field is just not for them.  It’s hard to do that, but when we can, we’re better for it.

While I didn’t set out to make this a companion piece to that article, I suspect it’s going to sound that way, because I had a similar moment of acceptance during the class. For me, the genres in question aren’t suspense, though; they’re science-fiction and fantasy.  Speculative fiction, some call them together.  I have, at long last, accepted the idea that I just can’t write in those genres.

It’s not that I lack the tools. I have years and years of reading in those areas under my belt, and you can’t help but pick up a sense of the mechanics.  I understand how elements of fantasy—history, epics, magic systems, and so on—work.  I get how to take scientific principles and the basics of technology and work those things into a story.  I know how to project into the future and get an idea of what might be possible.  No, what I lack is inspiration.  I lack the spark of creativity that is necessary to be truly speculative in my fiction—to come up with something that is, if not new, then new enough.  When I write in those genres, I’m just rehashing old ideas.

It wasn’t easy admitting this. Sci-fi and fantasy are my babies.  I love them like life itself, if I may be a little dramatic.  When I’m reading or watching, I get into those worlds like nothing else.  I’m passionately and unashamedly a nerd and a geek, and it shows (though I hope I’m not the stereotypically overbearing type of nerd).  And my earliest works of fiction were science fiction (well, fanfiction, but you get the idea).  Admitting that I’m not good at it stung more than a little.

I should have seen it coming, though. You can see it here on this blog, if you look in the Fanfiction section.  Megaman Legends: The Traitor is ostensibly a story about cyborgs and androids working to destroy the inhumane system that created them, even while they have to defend it from corrupting influences.  In reality, it’s a story about a broken marriage between two very broken people, who have to figure out what they mean to each other even while they re-establish what it means to be human.  Parasite Eve:  The Other is supposed to continue the story from that novel and game series, in which a human’s mitochondria develop sentience and alternately take over or hybridize with their hosts, creating new powers and lifeforms.  My version is about the ability of loyalty and familial love to overcome evil, both internal and external.  Secretly, my science fiction is actually drama!  (My attempts at pure, short science fiction, such as The Sky Is Burning…well, those are just terrible.)

As it turns out, I’m better with other things. Humor, for one.  I like to think that some of my humorous short stories (New Tricks, Storytime Is Hell, Of Cookies and Comprehension, A Fish Story) are pretty good.  I can do a little romance, though little of that makes it onto this site.  A little drama, as I’ve already said.

And—surprise, surprise—suspense. Surprising no one more than myself, I found that I like to write suspense, and I’m fair at it.  (I won’t say “good”; we’ll wait for the contest results to decide that!).  I like keeping the reader guessing.  I like taking average people and putting them in dangerous situations, then seeing what shakes out.  I like writing about criminals and psychopaths and dangerous people with dangerous intentions (not surprising there, given my background in corrections and mental health care).  I like having a search history that would give a homicide detective pause, because let’s face it, this stuff is fascinating, if darkly so.  I WANT to write thrillers that keep you turning pages.  I do have things to learn, and I need the practice.  But this is something I want to do.

So, we’ll see what happens. My contest submission is a rework of an idea that I  started here on this site a long time ago (and subsequently removed; you’ll find the page with an explanatory note, but the text has been removed), called King of Hearts.  I won’t say much about it now (not sure how any outside work will affect the rules of the contest), but I will keep you posted about any news.  Win or lose, it’s a story I intend to write.

And finally, to everyone who participated in the class and the contest: Good luck!  Everyone has come a long way.  I’m looking forward to see where we all go from here.

Finding the Time

Image by Leo Reynolds, flickr.com  Used without permission

Image by Leo Reynolds, flickr.com Used without permission

I like my excuses. They keep things nice and comfortable. It’s so much easier to fire off a glib answer about why I simply can’t write anything right now, than it is to actually sit down and write. It’s such a time-saver! After all, I need that extra time for…well, um…I knew there was something…yeah, let me get back to you.

Another blogger (Carrie Ann Golden over at A Writer And Her Adolescent Muse—check out her blog here) recently posted a user poll on the topic of what your writing is to you. The answers ranged from a gift to a burden. I was not pleased. It’s not that I disagreed with her choices—no, on the contrary, it’s that I agreed with almost all of them. How, I thought to myself, can I narrow it down to a single motivation? And I couldn’t. My writing is a gift (to me anyway—whether my readers would agree is a topic for another time!), a blessing, a hobby, and—someday, hopefully—a means to make money. But then there was that one choice that just didn’t fit me: My writing is a burden. Meaning, in this case, that it’s a compulsion—I HAVE to write. I have the words or the stories inside me, and I have to let them out. Sometimes I may even wish I never had to write, just to be happy and comfortable. That one didn’t register with me…often I do feel compelled to write, but it’s never been painful. Writing is a joy to me; the only painful thing is that I don’t do it enough.

Which brings me back to excuses, and especially time. Any old excuse will do, but some are masterpieces! They’re unassailable, or so it seems on the surface. And the king of the excuses is my old favorite: I just don’t have the time. It sounds so perfect, because who can question it? Unless you have a significant other who lives in your home with you, chances are there’s no one else who can account for every minute of your day. You can spin it any way you want. Look: I work a full-time job. In the morning, I have to get myself and the kids out of the house, then work for eight hours, then alternate between working out and finishing after-school activities, then get home and have dinner, then spend time with the kids, then handle bathtimes, then get them to bed. There’s my day! What’s left?

Excuse complete!

Except, that’s all spin. I have time. I’m writing this post right now, at 9:23 AM, during a slow stretch at work. I have time after the kids go to bed. They go away to their mother every other weekend, giving me a free Saturday afternoon (or better, Saturday morning). The time is there, and yes, of course, sometimes I’m too exhausted, or too busy, but most of the time I can make it work.

So can you. So can all of us.

While I am fond of clichés in my writing (or fond of making fun of them, anyway), there’s one that I find true. It’s often been said that “if you want something badly enough, you’ll make the time for it.” I believe that one from the bottom of my heart (another cliché—I should install a counter for them on the site). I don’t always live it; don’t forget that I’m the one making excuses here. But I know it to be true, and that gives me my goal every time the little voice in my head says “you really should write something”. (That voice is usually Cyndera…everyone needs someone to push them, right?)

So, how about you? What’s your favorite excuse, and how do you defuse it?

Past and Future Tense

In my spare time, I made the decision to try my hand at single fatherhood. Everyone needs a hobby in the evenings, right? The experiment has gone well; thus far no one in my household has killed anyone else, and most days my kids wear clothing that matches (by which I mean that each child’s clothing matches, not that they match each other. I believe that their collective humiliation would collapse the galaxy in on itself if they matched each other). The only casualties in this family-sized POW camp were last year’s goldfish, who sadly did not make it. We suck at raising pets.

In the wake of the divorce that established this situation, however, I found that I had some baggage to deal with. I dealt with it by letting the physical baggage pile up. When it reached the point that navigating the house required a map, a compass, and climbing gear, I had to take action! That is what has occupied the last several days.

I thought I would start small and simple, by sorting out the kiddie clothes and eliminating the outgrown items (and the damages—my kids can destroy a pair of jeans with the skill of an artisan). It took approximately 45 seconds to discover that the word “small” has fled the premises. The final count stands at nineteen (19!!!) garbage bags of clothes, fifteen of which are going away—Goodwill or garbage, I don’t care, it’s leaving. I found items dating back to 2009, which is approximately eternity in kiddie years.

If I may set the jokes aside for a moment: That’s where things got hard. In 2009 my little girl was three years old, and my son was still in diapers. In 2009, my ex-wife was still my wife, and we were raising these children together. In 2009, things were falling apart—but there were still good moments. In 2009 we lost our home and moved in with family, three hundred miles away. That year, and the ones since, held some of the worst memories of my life, but also some of the best.

Finding those old clothes—the pajamas Emma wore when I first started reading bedtime stories to her, the first Hawaiian shirt my son wore at the beach, and so on—was like a long, sometimes aching look into the past. Those years seem frozen to me now, a time when I didn’t know how things were going to turn out, when they could have gone any direction, and we were both exhilarated at the opportunity and terrified at the possibilities. I wouldn’t give up the memories, even while I wish it could have been better.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with writing?

Everything. The short answer is, it has everything to do with writing. It’s a question of motivation versus operation. You see, I’m motivated by that past. The memories of times with my wife and children, of the way things were, of the hopefulness that we had (and still do)—those things fuel my writing. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have done what I do now. Oh, I possessed the technical skills even then; if you want confirmation, go to the Fanfiction section of this site and take a look at some of my older (albeit incomplete) work. The difference is, I hadn’t lived enough to have something to say. My motivation comes from the life I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced.

That’s the motivation; what about the operation? I may write from the past, but I write for the future. I write with an eye toward having my stories outlive me. I’m not so proud as to think that my writing is grand or epic, or even worthy of memory; but I write in an attempt to become those things. My children understand that, in simplistic form; they understand that I write stories, and that they can’t read them now, but that some part of it is based on them, and it will be theirs when they are older. I write for their future as much as my own.

I call those years frozen, but they taught me how to deal with cold times in the future. I just came off of such a time, when my ability to write at all seemed frozen to me. The ideas were there, but they wouldn’t surrender to the page. And, ironically—or perhaps poetically—it was my children who marked the end of that winter. The first thing I was able to put down on paper was the beginning of a new story, one that’s written for them to read now, while they’re young, written with them in mind. It may not go anywhere—my list of unfinished projects is much longer than my list of finished works—but it was a start, and a change, and so I’ll take it. And who knows? Maybe the past will become the future, and turn out well after all.

Thankfulness in Dark Places

It’s hard to be thankful.

Really it is. Of course, if you live in America today, or any modern country, then that statement is counterintuitive; we have so much to be thankful for! It’s like asking a fish if it is wet; it’s so surrounded with water, so unaccustomed to anything else, that it has no idea what you’re talking about (or anything else, because this is a fish we’re talking about, but I digress). We are so surrounded by things for which we should be thankful, that we just don’t even see them.

But being thankful is hard, because the things that go wrong, the dark places in our lives, take up so much attention. It becomes hard to keep our eyes on the myriad of small, good things when there’s one big, bad thing screaming for our attention. And it does, doesn’t it? It screams for our attention constantly, until everything else fades out.

Here’s the catch: Those are the times when we are meant to be most grateful. You see, gratitude is tied to another, much more subtle character trait: humility. And humility is built—you knew this was coming—through hard times. Through suffering. Through pain and weakness. It’s why we have so many clichés about growing when the rain falls.

I’ve been doing some suffering myself lately. I’ve mentioned it openly on here that I have Crohn’s Disease, and that for the past few months I’ve been fighting off a flareup. I want to say that I stayed strong the whole time, never became discouraged, never stopped being thankful…but that would be a lie. The trees got to be so big that I couldn’t see the forest. It was hard, one of the hardest things I’ve experienced—and of course it could, and probably will, happen again, because that’s the nature of the disease.

It was debilitating. I had no choice but to be humble in every sense of the word. But then I realized, that humility helped me see the things I still had to be thankful for.

I still had my family.

I still had my children, and I count them separately because without their help around the house, everything would have collapsed.

I still had my friends, without whom I would have given up completely.

I still had things to occupy my mind, even when my body wasn’t cooperating. (Shameless Plug for a Friend time: Cyndera’s novel, Rivers of the Mind, kept me going on a few long nights, and you should absolutely read it when it is published. Also follow her blog!)

More than that, all of my needs were met, and I had nothing to worry about except fighting the illness. So, by the end of the ordeal, I found myself counting my blessings over and over.

Easy? No. Good for the soul? Absolutely.

So, as you sit down for your own Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, remember that your hard times are signposts. Remember that there are people who love you, and without whom your life would not be the same. Remember that we have blessings we will never even see, let alone acknowledge. And remember that Thanksgiving is both a day and a state of mind…no, a state of heart.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

*This post was also published on my other blog at Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man.

Back On Track!

I thought this day would never come!

No, unfortunately, it’s not the day I publish my first book.  Nor is it the day I find an agent.  Those things are still firmly entrenched in the “In Progress” column.  No, it’s something less than that, but still exciting to me (and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you take your good news where you can get it) :

It’s the first day of school!

Now, anyone who was with me in May will recall that I split off the family-related content into a separate blog (which you can find here), reserving this one for topics relating to my writing.  I haven’t gone back on that decision; and I promise you that this is not a family-related post.  Rather, I’m as excited about the first day of school as a writer as I am excited about it as a father.  Because now, it’s time!

Time to get back on track!

Time to get some work done!

Summertime, with the kids at home, is a great time—but let’s admit it, things fall by the wayside.  With forty-plus hours a week in the office, and all of the remaining daylight hours spent with the kids (who aren’t old enough to be trusted unattended yet), it’s hard to keep writing, though I made an effort at it (as seen in some of the short stories on this site).  Now, today, it’s time to set things back in order, and I am looking forward to it.  I hope you are, too!

So, with that said, here are some projects I have in the works, and where I stand on them:

  • My novel, The Last Shot, is complete in its third draft. I’m in the process of searching for an agent, which requires preparing and sending query letters—dozens of them, most likely.  I started this before the summer began, but was forced to set it aside for a few months.  The next round of letters will go out in the upcoming 1-2 weeks.  Stay tuned—as things progress, I will post excerpts and other news here!
  • Cyndera and I have a joint project in the works—a volume to be published jointly via Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, in which we will each contribute a novella. These novellas will be works of science-fiction, and are the projects upon which we are each currently working.  More details will be forthcoming as we have them—keep watching!
  • I have a new Facebook page! For up-to-date information about my fiction, check it out at https://www.facebook.com/Timewalkerauthor.
  • I’ll be expanding my posts on Twitter soon as well (after much persuasion—you know who you are). You can follow me on twitter @Timewalkerautho (and curse you, Twitter, for allowing one less character on usernames than I needed!).
  • New stories and posts will continue to be posted here at Timewalkerauthor. As well, for family and spiritual content, you can check out my second blog at Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man.
  • In addition to the items above, I always have several other projects in the background. As I complete more urgent items, those will make their way to the surface.  I’ll post more as they arrive!

Thanks for reading!

Mysterious Characters

fictional-characters

I read a number of writing blogs—that is, blogs in which the blogger gives his or her views on the process of writing.  (For one of the better ones, see Dex-Raven, in the Links section.)  Although the entire process is complex and varied, some themes crop up repeatedly—how to maintain tension, how to write an attention-getting opening, how to revise.  By far the most common, however, is the question of how to construct characters.

It’s a great question!  It’s also one of the most challenging parts of writing fiction.  Why?  Because your characters, essentially, are you.  Your main character, your protagonist, is the character that (most of the time) you, the writer, will identify most strongly with.  He or she will reflect what you see in yourself, or alternately, what you wish to see in yourself; and that holds true even if you bring in the occasional characteristic that you don’t like at all, or can’t imagine in yourself.  The fact is, it’s very hard to write a complex character that doesn’t some common ground with your own experience and your own character qualities.

I often come across statements like this one:

“I didn’t know this character was going to turn out this way!”

Or:

“I had to see what she would do in that situation.”

Or (my favorite):

The character was there, and I had to discover what he would be like.”

Sensing a common theme here?  You should.  It’s this idea that the characters already exist, rather than that they are being created by you, the writer; that instead of picking their characteristics, you’re discovering them.  It’s a common refrain voiced by writer after writer after writer.  I’ve used it myself, many times.

And you say, it’s bullshit.

The part you may not believe is this:  I believe you!  I agree completely.  It really is.  And yet I say it anyway.  To understand why, I have to deconstruct it.

The truth is, you do create your characters.  That is not, however, the same thing as saying that you have complete creative control.  Characters are a result of a wide and varying number of factors, not all of which are within your control.  Yes, in the case of your protagonist (and maybe others, too), you draw from your own self-image; but, what about your life experiences?  Your perception of others?  Your mood at the time of writing?  All of these things factor in.

There are other factors, as well, even more subjective than this, and sometimes particular to the piece of writing.  For example, it’s not uncommon to start a character with a physical impression; and in this visual age, chances are the impression is cribbed from a character from TV or a movie.  It’s very likely that that character’s non-physical traits will also factor into your character’s, well, character.  In my current project, I have a character that was inspired by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in the film Premium Rush (excellent movie, btw).  Almost unintentionally, I gave him some of the traits of that character—his earnestness, reliability, and impulsiveness—and though it wasn’t what I set out to do, I sense that it’s the right direction for that character.  It plays well in the story I’m writing.

This guy.  Minus the bike and the helmet.

This guy. Minus the bike and the helmet.

How about the setting in which you are doing the writing?  Cyndera is fond of saying that she pulls bits of story from her surroundings, which is why she does much of her writing in public.  As I write this post, I’m sitting at the local McDonald’s, my “office away from home”, as I sometimes say.  Snippets of conversations, people you see, current conditions—all of these things factor into your writing in general, and your characters in particular.  And so many of these things are beyond your control.

But I have a theory about why we who write use those terms of discovery—three theories, actually.  Why do we say we are discovering our characters instead of creating them, when deep down we know that it isn’t true?  For one, it really feels as though we are discovering them—after all, not all the pieces will be in place at first, and some won’t come along until the right circumstances occur.  And for two, it’s scary!  It’s frightening to realize that you have a story idea, but it may not work out the way you planned—in fact, your character, whom you love, may end up not being the person you expected him (or her) to be.  That notion, that you don’t know the end from the beginning, is enough to put some writers off from writing.

Don’t let that happen to you.  You see, there’s a third theory.  I believe we do this because it allows us, the writers, to share in the mystery.  Your characters—if well-written—will be a mystery to your readers.  They won’t know what is to come, or what that individual will be like.  When we cast it this way in our own minds and our own speech, we share in that mystery…we, like our readers, come to see our characters as real people.  And real people are gloriously, amazingly unpredictable—that’s why we are so fascinated with them, even in the Facebook age.  So go ahead—let your characters be a mystery, even to you.  They’ll be much better for it—and so will you.

characters4

Short Story: The One

There’s a cardinal rule in storytelling, one that you will hear repeated over and over by countless writers:  “Show, don’t tell”.  It means that it’s far better, and far more interesting, to display action in your story as opposed to simply telling about it.  This includes dialogue, as well.  If your characters have an argument, don’t say “Sally and Joe argued about x, y, and z”; instead, spell out their argument using their words.  It’s not a hard and fast rule–there will be times, usually mixed in with your action sequences, that description works better–but it’s very good advice.  And now, I’m going to completely disregard it!

I am particularly proud of this short story, although I can’t explain why.  It is very different from my usual writing style; I prefer to write action sequences, as I mentioned above.  In my opinion, though, a sequence like this can go a long way toward making a character sympathetic; after all, as readers we identify with our characters, and never more strongly than when we can get inside their heads and see that they, too, are human, just like us.

This is another Writing Prompt story; and I hope that this series will inspire any potential writers to try their hand at this technique!  The prompt for this story was simple:  “Tell Me Why She’s The One.”  From that I’ve drawn the title of the story, which I’ve simply called “The One”.  Enjoy.

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

the one

After dinner, the old man sat across from me on the porch, pipe in hand. When was the last time you saw someone smoke a pipe? I couldn’t recall. He sat and rocked and smoked, and then he looked at me, and spoke the question that he had been waiting to ask. With slow gravity and spry curiosity, he dropped one eyelid, and cocked his head to the side, and said, “What makes you think this girl is the one?”

I sat back in my own rocker, facing him across the porch, and thought about what I would say. What really made me think so? It was a good question.

My mind went back to the day we met. I remember walking into the little room where the other guys were sitting, waiting on the next task of the day to begin, and shooting the breeze. They were laughing as I came in, and talking—about the weekend, about cars, about football and basketball and what did you do this weekend, and of course, about girls. Always about girls. Did it matter that some of the guys were married? Of course not. It’s man talk. It’s no harm, no foul, and on we go. Then someone mentioned the new girl up in the office, and I, well, I put my foot in my mouth and asked who they were talking about.   You kidding me, right? Boy, this is the finest-looking woman to ever walk this place and man, she is HOT. I laughed it off, thinking, no, I know this place, and that’s gotta be exaggeration. Then she came walking by at lunch time, and smiled, and said hey, how are you? And every talking mouth in that room went silent. She was that gorgeous.

My dad used to tell me that a pretty face was nice, but it won’t keep you warm at night. I felt warm enough that spring, though, watching her walk one way and another, and generally not saying anything more than “um” and “ah” and, when it was just the guys, a whispered “damn!” I thought that was all it would ever be, and I was ready for that, even if I found it hard to push aside the occasional memory of that long blonde hair. Halfway through the summer, though, I came in one morning and walked to my new station, newly reassigned…and she came out of the next room. I suppose that it was in the back of my mind somewhere that she worked in that building, but it truly wasn’t for that reason that I sought the transfer; I just wanted off the night shift, where I and the other guys had recently landed. But then she came out of that door, and gave me that thousand-megawatt smile that I’ve learned to love…well, is it any wonder that everything went out of my head?

She told me later, one long and intimate night, that I was the quietest man she’d ever met, back then. She said that she made it her mission, right then and there, to get me to open up, no matter what it took. I asked her, don’t you realize that you’re the reason I couldn’t speak? She laughed it off, but I saw in her eyes that she was touched.

I remember reading once that men form their friendships through common endurance. It’s the band of brothers, the fellow POWs, the ones who have endured hell together—they’re the ones who hold together through the years. She was certainly no man, but I thought of that imagery often that year all the same. I thought of it when the clouds started to gather at the edges of my attenuated life…I thought of it when they broke over my head. I remember long evenings, sitting in coffee shops and in the quiet rooms of our offices, talking things out. I remember arguments and anger, sadness and determination, hope and despair. I remember saying that the details don’t matter, but knowing in my heart that they did.

I remember, most of all, knowing it couldn’t be. She belonged to someone else, and so did I. It’s funny…we each knew that the other’s marriage was failing, and we each knew that it was because of the other partners. Neither of us could see it happening to ourselves.

I remember the night I knew what I wanted with her…and I remember choosing to leave.

The last time we were together, I sat across from her, and told her that she was the one thing I would miss the most. Any other woman would have belittled it, would have told me that I would forget her and move on. She did none of that. She simply looked into my eyes, and hugged me, and said that she would miss me too.

The days that followed, and the weeks, and the months, I had my own problems, and they were all I could handle. Down the road, I would regret that self-centered focus. It was much later that I discovered that, while I was rebuilding my world (only to watch it fall apart once more), hers was crumbling. I would come to hate myself for missing it. When I called her, she was distant; in messages, she was vague. I thought she was forgetting me, and with a heavy heart, I decided that it was probably for the best.

I saw her again, once or twice, but she hid it so well—the circles under her eyes, covered in makeup; the cuts on her arms, covered with sleeves. I think sometimes, if only I had known…but she didn’t want me to know. She admitted that her marriage had broken up; that her husband, whom she had loved so much, had found someone else, had broken her heart into shards. She hid the truth: that she had taken those shards and cut herself with them.

I never knew exactly how it happened, that she came back into my life. It was slow, and yet so quick. One day, we were old acquaintances, chatting over the internet, and the next we were friends again. It couldn’t have come at a better time, because that summer, my life fell apart again. My own marriage, limping along for so long, dissolved in a fury of ash and fire; my family was torn apart.

I know what people would say, but they’d be wrong. It wasn’t because of her. We were still distant, friends or not. We had to be. But all that long fall and longer winter, when things were burning to the ground around me, she stayed. Too far away to hold my hand through those times, she listened instead. And slowly, yet so surely, she pulled me up out of that pit. Coming out of it was like stepping back into the sunlight; and suddenly I could see her clearly.

I saw all the things I had missed. I saw the fear in her eyes, and the hesitation, every time she thought of trying again. I saw how much he had hurt her, and how far she had fallen, and how she had lost her trust on the way down. And yet, in every instance, I saw that she was hurt, but not broken; damaged, but not destroyed. I made it my mission to pick her up from the dust, and bring her back. After all, she had done it for me.

Day after day, conversation after conversation, I reached out to her, and told her the simple truth—about herself, about the past, about the future, about what I saw when I looked at her. I told her that she was beautiful, and so much more. And in her dark moments, when it seemed to her that everything was doomed to failure, and she came close to forgetting who she was, I reminded her. I reminded her of who she was to me, and not only to me, but to so many others out there—everyone for whom she had tried to do good, all the years I had known her. Slowly, I watched the light return to her eyes, and I watched her open up, and embrace life—and the world—again.

And he wants to know how I know she’s the one?

I gave a laugh, and I looked at him. He looked at me with brows wrinkled in puzzled curiosity. And I laughed again, because I knew that what I was thinking would make no sense to him. I knew he wouldn’t understand if I said it—that I didn’t have to know. I didn’t have to know she was the one, because she already had been, all along. We’d been through hell and back, and survived it, and through everything, she had been the one. He may have asked it, but for me, there really was no question.

He was still waiting for an answer. I leaned forward and clapped a hand on his knee, and gave him a smile. “I don’t,” I said, and stood up. “But I think it will be alright anyway.”

There was a burst of laughter through the screened window behind him, then. We both looked, and I saw her there, with the old man’s wife, laughing and talking as they cleared the table. I watched her being radiant, until I noticed him looking back at me again. He nodded knowingly, and I raised a hand in a gesture that was half-wave, half salute. “Yeah, it’ll be alright,” I said. “But, you know, it never hurts to make sure.” Then I nodded, and walked past him, and opened the door, and went to do just that.

Short Story: Responsibility

I seem to be having a tough time coming up with my usual posts at the moment, most likely because it’s the middle of summer, and the kids are out of school, and time to sit and think is at a premium right now.  Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of fiction waiting to be written!  In the middle of a longer project that I and my fellow contributor Cyndera have in the works right now, I’m also working on my short story series, which can be found here.

This story, like the previous entry, is the result of a writing prompt, which says “A murderer kills his victim, but what happens next makes him regret it…”  It’s my shortest piece yet, with the exception of some of the Ridgeline Drive entries, at only 879 words.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

 

I planned the crime for weeks.  You’ve seen those crime shows on TV…man, I always just laugh at those things.  They make it look like just anybody can get away with this stuff!  That’s ridiculous.  What I do isn’t chaos, it’s an art, and like all good art, it takes skill and preparation.

So I stalked the guy.  I made sure that I knew his routines, and I made sure I knew darn well that there was no traceable connection between myself and him.  I’m thorough, you know.  On further reflection, that’s probably where the trouble started…maybe I’m TOO thorough.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, now.

What?  Oh, don’t give me that psychopath crock.  I’m not a psychopath, I just like what I do.  Everybody needs a hobby.

I made the hit late at night on a Friday.  Maybe I was showing off a little, not that anyone really would know it was me.  I followed him into that club, and sat through three hours of bad music, good liquor (but not too much—drinking on the job is like bad karma), and truly pitiful dancing.  Finally he left, and I followed him to his car, with considerably less weaving than he was displaying.  I caught up to him, and spun him around, and put my gun to his chest, and pulled the trigger.  Easy.  One shot, and it was done.  The strip was so loud anyway, no one heard the shot, and his chest took the muzzle flash.  I rifled his pockets for his cash—didn’t need it, it just gives the cops something to think about—and walked away, whistling a tune.

“Hey!”  I stopped.  Wasn’t that…nah.  I started to walk again.  “HEY!  Are you just gonna LEAVE me here like this?”

Slowly I turned around.  The guy stood there, one hand on the car door, blood running down his popped-collar shirt from the truly epic chest wound he was wearing.  “Heh,” I murmured, “Alright, heck of a trick.  Who’s doing this?” I called, before I caught myself and realized I didn’t want to be heard here.  My mind was reaching around for an explanation, though, even if I hadn’t realized it yet.  Little stars peppered the edges of my vision, but I kept a smile on.

“You can’t leave me here,” the guy repeated.  “I’m SUPPOSED to be dead.”

“You…I, ah…what?” I stammered.  I didn’t stammer!  Get a grip, I told myself.

He sighed, blood burbling in his chest as he did.  “Look, man, I can tell you don’t get it.  It’s like this.”  He cleared his throat, a bizarre sound under the circumstances.  “You know how they say, if you save a man’s life, you become responsible for him?”

“Yeah, I got that,” I said, completely disregarding the fact that I was having a conversation with a corpse, that I had just killed.  “Some kind of star wars wookiee life-debt thing.”

He made an impatient face, like a teacher explaining to a stubborn kid.  “Well, there you go,” he said.

“There I go where?” I said.  “Last I checked, I didn’t save your life, I took it.”  Top THAT logic!

“Exactly!” he said triumphantly.

“You’re not making sense,” I said, and couldn’t help thinking that neither was I.

“Urgh,” he said.  “Look, if you save a man’s life, you become responsible for it.  That means you’re responsible for keeping him alive from then on.  With me so far?”  I nodded.  “This is the same.  If you take a man’s life, it’s your responsibility to keep him dead from then on.”

“Oh,” I said, “well, why didn’t you say so?”  I raised the gun and emptied it into his chest.

He jerked under the gunfire—really, if I walked away now without any attention, it would be a miracle—and fell to the ground, slumped against the car.  I gave him a glance, and then smirked, and threw the gun at him with one gloved hand; it made a satisfying thock as it bounced off his head.  “That’s for being all metaphysical,” I said, and turned to go.

I got in my own car, and let out a sigh, not relief so much as tension leaving me.  I put the key in, and I even managed to keep facing forward when the passenger door opened and closed.  “Hey, I never said this would be easy,” the guy said.  “Nice car, by the way.  I’ll try not to get any blood on the seats, but I gotta tell you, you made that a little tough.  So, you wanna try this again?  I know a good bridge you could push me off.  Hey, fire this thing up—I don’t have all night!  What are we waiting for?”

Divide and Conquer!

A year and a half ago, I established this blog to promote my efforts to write on a professional level and be published.  It was my first foray into the world of blogging, and I have to say that the sensation went to my head.  There is so much flexibility in the blogosphere!  A blogger can, within reason, say anything he or she wants to say.  As a single father, it didn’t take long for my blog to become overrun with posts about my children and my personal life, and especially my faith–and while those are pleasant topics, they’re far afield from the original purpose of the blog.

With that in mind, I’ve started a second blog!  Going forward, posts about family, faith, and other life topics may be found at “Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man“, which is up and running with a half-dozen or so posts at this time.  You’ll also find links to family-, spiritual-, and life-oriented blogs and sites there, some of which have previously been linked from here.  Although I will not delete previous posts of that nature from this blog, I want to narrow the focus of this blog and return it to its original purpose of supporting and publicizing my written work.  Posts here will include–as I originally planned–progress toward publication of my first and subsequent novels; observations on the art and craft of writing; and entries into my short-story series.

Readers of one blog are welcome at both, and I hope you’ll take the time to check it out.  Happy reading! ~Timewalkerauthor