Subplots and Sidequests

For some time now I’ve had a writing project stewing on the back burner. It’s a fantasy novel that I hope to make into a series.  Right now, I have the first two chapters complete, plus a basic plot outline, and—most relevant to my topic today—a chunk of the worldbuilding that has to undergird the story if I want to make it a series.  I’ll talk more about this project as it progresses, but that won’t be today; likewise, I’ll talk more on other occasions about worldbuilding and what it entails.

In the meantime, I have a problem. This story, or perhaps series, is trying to expand!  It wants to become a network of related stories, not necessarily in a linear series.  Most likely you’re familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That shared universe encompasses the movie-based exploits of an A-list of superheroes; the television exploits of the B-list and supporting characters; and even some comic books (which is ironic, as it all started as an adaptation of comic books that are explicitly NOT part of the MCU—isn’t multiverse fiction fun?).  It has a dozen or more character threads weaving in and out from each other, and that’s just the main characters.  It’s a grand project, and for the most part it’s been both ambitious and successful—so much so that Hollywood has collectively decided that this is the wave of the future, and every film you see these days seems to be the seeds of a proposed (and far less likely to succeed) shared universe.  My story would very much like to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it grows up—and that’s a problem.

You see, I haven’t earned it. Marvel certainly has; you may call it cheating a bit, but they’ve earned it with decades of “shared universe” comic book stories. Then, they’ve earned it again with the execution of the MCU onscreen.  How did they do it?  I wasn’t around for the beginnings of their comic book empire (though I am old enough to remember when comic books weren’t cool—I was a bit of a comic book nerd back in junior high and high school, at a time when you could very much get beaten up for it).  I do recall the beginning of the MCU, however: they started with just a few central characters—Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and a little later, Thor.  They put the effort into building those characters long before they put them decisively on a team together.  They gave us substance before they tried to capitalize on its existence.  Every so often, an individual story in the MCU may flop, but when it happens, no one looks at the concept as a whole and says “This is stupid”—because they’ve labored to prove that it isn’t stupid.  It works, even if a minor cog in the machine breaks.

marvel

Pictured: Subplots!!!

Chris Brecheen over at Writing About Writing has spoken extensively about “earning it”, so much so that it’s become a bit of a catchphrase. I’m indebted to him for it, because that phrase sums up something I’d been trying to explain to myself for a long time: you can do anything in your writing as long as you earn it.  When Chris says it, he’s usually talking about reusing established tropes, or breaking one of the “rules” of writing.  Here, I’m going to apply it to the expansion of your story—the subplots and sidequests that we all love to create.

(You might take issue with my use of the MCU as an example. “But,” I hear you say, “the MCU is a collection of major plots, not subplots!” Not so, I reply.  The MCU, as well as any incarnation of the Marvel universe, has room for any plot—but they haven’t opted to INCLUDE just any plot.  Right now, and throughout the next foreseeable phase of the production, they do in fact have an overarching plot, that of the Infinity War.  Everything else is supporting that in some way.  Where it goes after that is anybody’s guess—but for now, EVERY individual character movie and EVERY television series is supporting the Infinity War super-plot.  In essence, it’s subplots everywhere.)

I can’t let my project devolve into subplots that expand the universe, because I haven’t yet earned the right for that universe to even exist. I haven’t finished the first book.  I haven’t yet strung the cord on which the subplots must hang.  Nor do I think that a single book will be sufficient to do so; I expect this to be a series, and so I believe I’ll need multiple entries in place, possibly the entire series, before I can expand on this universe.  Marvel was able to do so from the beginning of the MCU because it had a rich history of comic books—these characters and events were known, at least in a large niche market.  They had a foundation in place.  I don’t have that, and I can’t get by with growing multiple parallel stories at once.  I still have to put in the work on the first one.

“But,” I hear you say again (boy, you’re all so vocal today!), “I’m not trying to write a series! I just want to write one book!” My friend, this is just as applicable to you; and for evidence, I turn to the video gaming world.

I’ve recently been playing Fallout 3 (shut up, I’m never up to date in the gaming world).  It’s a great post-apocalyptic game, with a good, suspenseful plot and a well-developed world.  It even benefits some from its history, being the third canonical game in the series; however I’m going to discount that history for the moment, because this game is the only one so far to take place within its particular setting—other games take place in other parts of the former USA.  I’ve discovered, though, that I get sidetracked from the main plot by the sidequests.    It started small—disarm this bomb in Megaton (a major town)!  Excellent!  Did that within minutes of arriving, got a little achievement trophy.  But what now?  You need me to go find and eliminate the source of these mutated giant ants?  O….kayyy….I’ve got time.  Wait, now what? You want me to go run a simulation of the Battle of Anchorage?!  Well, I guess… Oh, look, here’s an entirely new city to explore and liberate in the ruins of Pittsburgh!  Fantastic!  …Wait, what was I doing again?  Main quest? What main quest?

Fallout 3

Pictured: Sidequests!!!

I get distracted, and then I lose motivation, and then the game never gets finished. Fallout 3 has approximately a million sidequests and achievements, and most are interesting enough to keep you going—but you lose sight of the goal.  The same thing can happen in our writing, even if we’re only writing one volume.  We can include so much that we lose focus.  The readers won’t follow along; and we may not even finish writing it.  There are tricks we can use; an outline, for example, will help us stay on track.  We can better reach the goal if we, you know, know what it is and how we plan to get there.  But, mostly, it takes determination to stay on target.  If you know that introducing this new character or setting will send your story off on some wild, unnecessary tangent, then don’t introduce it.  Save it for when you’ve earned that extra story.  For now, keep earning it by keeping your plot on track.

We’re a lot more forgiving of sidequests and subplots in video games. There are a lot of reasons for that; we’ve come to expect them, for one, and games are so expensive that we feel we have to get our money out of them (by racking up a certain number of hours).  Games are less linear, and tend to have in-game features (such as checkpoints and quest markers) to pull us back on track.  Books have none of those, and as such we have to work harder at trimming out the unnecessary and keeping our stories on track and cohesive.

Does that mean we can never have a subplot or sidequest? Absolutely not! There’s still room for my novella about my principal technomage discovering his own powers two decades before the main story begins.  Just, not yet.  I haven’t earned it yet.  On the way to earning it—or any other sidequest or subplot—we should ask ourselves a few questions.  First, does it distract from the main story? A good subplot or sidequest won’t distract the reader from the main story, even while it may seem to put it on hold.  The main story should still be present in the reader’s mind (and usually this will result in a sense of some urgency to get back to it!).  Second, does it support the main story?  It may not be integral, but it should contribute something to the main story.  Third, why should the reader care?  You still have to earn the reader’s interest via good characterization, good plot, and good writing (which we’ll talk more about in later posts).  Just because your characters are “visiting” this subplot from the main plot, doesn’t mean they will be interesting here!

I’ve given examples from television, film, and video games; let me wrap up with a literary example. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth fantasy series is the story of the struggle to liberate the magic-wielding New World (a relatively small continent) from invasion and oppression by the much larger Old World, which is led by a cult that wants to see magic eliminated from the world.  It’s the story of Richard Rahl and Kahlan Amnell, the leaders of the New World, in their fight against Jagang, a powerful telepath of sorts who leads the Old World.  Most of the books in the series take place in the New World; but right in the middle of the series, it veers off into a “sidequest” (as I’m calling it) into the Old World, when Richard is kidnapped by one of Jagang’s agents.  She takes him to Jagang’s capital, far from anyplace he knows, and he becomes a slave there.  The events of that story, in which he seeks his own liberation and the ideological liberation of those around him, have little to do directly with the fight for the New World.  However, they pass my three tests above: the presence of agents of Jagang is a constant reminder of the main plot; Richard’s actions here will eventually, several books later, serve to undermine Jagang’s power base (thus supporting the main plot); and the characters and their actions are compelling and emotionally intense.  The result is Faith of the Fallen, which is in my opinion the best and most powerful book in the series—and Goodkind earned every bit of it.

Faith of the Fallen

That’s how it’s done, and that’s how you earn your subplots and sidequests. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some earning to do.

You can find Chris Brecheen and Writing About Writing at the link in the text above, or on Facebook.

Short Story: Performance Review

Lately I’ve been giving the lion’s share of my time and energy to the Time Lord Archives, my Doctor Who-themed blog.  As a result, things have been looking pretty dead around here this year, and that’s unfortunate.  Still, I haven’t forgotten this blog or those who follow it; and so, here’s a new short story.  This story, Performance Review, comes courtesy of a writing prompt from Reddit’s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit (although I haven’t posted the story there–it’s exclusively here for now!).  The prompt in question, submitted by user Mistah_Blue, reads: “It’s common knowledge that lab accidents sometimes result in superpowers.  You’re repeatedly trying to engineer lab accidents in order to gain them. Much to your disappointment however, all your accidents just result in monumental scientific discoveries.”  Happy reading!

Superhero

Artist unknown.  Picture borrowed without permission from the website of consulting firm Travois.

 

“John,” the man in the lab coat and tie said, “you know why I’ve called you here, don’t you?”

The man across the desk was younger by a good fifteen years, and his lab coat was considerably more rumpled. He slumped in his chair and gave a half-hearted nod.  “Yessir, Dr. Corbin.  My performance review.”

The older gave him an impassive look, and then glanced down at the floor beside his chair. “That’s right…the dreaded annual review!  Now, don’t be intimidated.” From the floor, he picked up an absurdly large and overstuffed file folder, and set it on the desk.  It made a disconcerting thump, and John jumped in his chair a little.  “Let’s get started, shall we?” He opened the file and perused the top page.  “Now you joined us last year—well, of course—from one of our subsidiary internship programs.  Very high marks, as I recall.  But you’ve, ah, had an eventful year! Why don’t you tell me a little about it?”

John remained sullen and silent. After a moment, Dr. Corbin looked back down at the file, then back up.  “John, I want you to understand that I’m not here to make you nervous.  Your work here isn’t in jeopardy—in fact, your performance has been spectacular beyond anyone’s expectations.  It’s remarkable, really.  You have nothing to worry about.”  He paused and pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “What I want to talk about is how this happened.  Your review is excellent, so we can get that out of the way.  I really want to hear your take on your experiences here.  Fair enough?”

John nodded again, and finally looked up. “What do you want to know?”

That seemed to be the cue for which Corbin was waiting. He flipped a few pages in the folder, and then planted his index finger on an entry.  “Well, alright.  Let’s start with the fusion incident.  This happened, I believe, about a month after you joined us.  What happened there?”

“The experiment failed,” John muttered.

“Failed?” Corbin seemed shocked. “What do you mean?”

John sighed. “It was like this, sir.  Do you remember Jeremy DuPont?”

Corbin nodded. “The so-called Atom Man.  He actually interned in the same program as you, a few years earlier, though he went on to a different employer before his…accident.”

“Right. Anyway, sir, as you know, all of his research notes were famously lost in the lab fire that sparked his new, um, career.  Well, I thought that I could reconstruct his research.  There were certain markers in his statements about the work that led me to a certain path of study—“

“Wait a minute,” Corbin said. “Are you saying you intended to repeat the experiments that turned Jeremy DuPont into…” He trailed off.

“…A superhero,” John said.

“Yes, that.”

“Yessir.”

Corbin gave him an even gaze. “You are aware of the phrase ‘lab accident,’ aren’t you?”

“Yes. I’m aware that it was an accident that gave Atom—that gave Jeremy his unusual abilities.  But I thought that the process could be standardized, and made safe.  Imagine it, sir! The ability to create superpowers on demand!  To give people the ability to—“

“—The ability to fly, but also to constantly emit lethal levels of radiation, such that one can’t have anything approximating a normal life?”

John dropped his gaze. “Nobody’s perfect, sir.”

“No, I suppose not.” He returned to the file for a moment. “At any rate, there WAS a lab accident during your research.”

“Yes. But the experiment was a failure, like I said.”

“A failure? Because it didn’t make you into a new Atom Man?” John shrugged. Dr. Corbin looked incredulously at him.  “John, your accident gave us a stable process for cold nuclear fusion!  That’s one of the greatest and most sought after discoveries of this century.  It’s already revolutionizing the energy industry!”  Seeing that John was unmoved, he sighed.  “Alright, let’s move on.  Tell me about…” He flipped a few more pages.  “The variable-mass experiment.”

“Alright. I had been reading up on the work of Dr. Emilia Nox.  A few years ago she experimented with mass variability through particle acceleration—quantum mass variability, she called it.  She was making very good progress with it, until…well, I suppose you know.”

“A lab accident,” Dr. Corbin said. “Yes, I remember.”

“Right,” John said. “Well, I thought I could expand on her work by incorporating some of the equations about dark matter.  It’s not as though we had access to any, since no one even knew if it really existed, but we know enough about its properties in a mathematical sense.  I figured that I could incorporate some of those equations and overcome some of her hurdles.”

A suspicious look had dawned on Corbin’s face. “Those hurdles you mentioned…those wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that her unfortunate lab accident gave her the power to turn invisible, would they?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it unfortunate, sir. And besides, it’s more to do with her ability to change her mass at will.  That makes her quite a threat to criminals, you know.”

Corbin glanced at the ceiling in a longsuffering gesture. “Superpowers again.  Well, anyway, your calculations must not have worked out as expected, because you encountered the same accident as Dr. Nox—or should I call her by her chosen name, Doctor Night?”

“She’d probably like that, sir. I’ve met her; she seems like a great person.  And anyway, yes, but it was also a failure.”

Corbin consulted his file. “That failure, as you say, resulted in a new, lab-reproducible, commercially-feasible method for not only detecting dark matter, but isolating samples for use.  As I understand it, as soon as the trial phases clear, that discovery alone stands to make you a very rich man, John.  I’m not sure how it’s a failure.”

Again, John shrugged. “It’s a nice accomplishment, but it wasn’t my goal, sir.”

“A nice acc…oh, never mind. Let’s go on.”

“If you insist, sir.”

“Well, that covers your first two months with us. In your third month…” He searched the file.  “Ah!  You switched your focus from physics to artificial intelligence.  It’s good to see a multidisciplinarian! What prompted the change?”

“Well, sir, I thought that since I’d had a few noteworthy failures already, I must be doing something wrong. I figured that if I could set up a workable AI, it could help me with monitoring and troubleshooting on my other goals.  The problem with current-generation AI, as you know, is that it inevitably goes rogue in some way.  There’s that famous case of the chatbot that turned into a neo-Nazi, and those security robots that killed themselves…and that’s just what we’ve seen on a small scale.  Large-scare AI could easily try to take over, so we don’t dare risk it.  Well, I thought I might get around that by keeping a human element in the system.  I wanted the AI to be dependent on a human brain, not for its processing power, but for its existence.  If a human is in the loop, he or she can shut down the AI with a thought if anything starts to go wrong.  So, I started looking at brain-computer interfaces.”

“It’s a novel approach,” Corbin admitted. “What made you think of that?”

“I, uh…well, sir, do you recall a situation where a microprocessor array blew up in a lab assistant’s face? This would have been a Microsoft project, about ten years ago.”

Corbin thought for a moment. “Ten years ago…ten years…oh, yes, I do recall it, it was a very…wait a minute.” He sat up straighter and shot a look at John.  “You’re talking about Technoman!  The processors penetrated the tech’s brain, and gave him the ability to interact with electronic systems by thought alone.  He calls himself Technoman now, and fights cybercrime, right?”

“That would be the one, sir. Anyway, I thought that if I could implant the processors rather than have it happen by accident—“

“But there was an accident.  A processor array did explode, and you were struck by a flying processor.  I remember it now.  You were out on medical leave for a few weeks.” He arched an eyebrow.  “No Technoman?”

“No Technoman, sir. Even though the processor couldn’t be removed.” He scratched at his temple.  “It still itches.”

“But this was a success for you as well,” Corbin said. “When the lab was burning, your AI made the leap to the local mainframe and took charge of the fire suppression system, ensuring that you lived.  It saved your life; and when questioned later, it expressed loyalty to you.  Examination of its code revealed elements that were clearly not designed, but that in hindsight render it both safe and loyal to humanity—elements that could only have come from its brief contact with your brain.  You advanced the science of artificial intelligence by at least two decades.  I suppose you’re going to call that a failure?”

“Yes sir.”

Why?”

“I needed that AI for a lab assistant. But now it’s so busy being examined and studied that I can never get access to it for my work!”

Corbin sat back, unsure how to proceed. Finally he spoke.  “John…I think that you and this company may have different goals.”

John looked up, alarmed. “Sir!  That’s not true.  You’re not…terminating me, are you?”

“Oh, no, not that.” Corbin shook his head.  “John, we’re a research institution here.  We innovate.  We make discoveries.  Usually those discoveries are incremental, because that’s how science works—well, except in your case.  But you, John…I really think you’re just here to get superpowers.”

John’s face turned red. “Sir, I—“

“No need to defend yourself,” Corbin said. “It’s reasonable enough.  We live in a day when there’s an established history of lab accidents granting powers to individuals.  And it’s a good thing too—with most superheroes having a scientific background, they’re more likely to use their powers responsibly, don’t you think?”

He leaned back and put his hands on the desk. “Your goal is noble, John, but it conflicts with ours.  And I have to admit, I’m conflicted about it, because while you’re causing what is frankly an obscene number of accidents, your results are amazing.  Here, look.”  Flipping through the file, he stopped at section after section.  “May of last year, the monofilament situation.  You wanted a way to strengthen your own skeletal structure with carbon monofilaments; what you got—after blowing up the extrusion chamber—was a brand-new method for structuring the atoms in monofilaments, increasing the tensile strength by a factor of a thousand.  June: One of the technicians says that you mentioned wanting the ability to teleport.  Your experiment put you in the hospital overnight, but it gave us the ability to carry out quantum teleportation on the macro scale, albeit only on small objects—but still, that’s unheard of!  July: You wanted to be able to fly, so you worked on manipulation of energy fields in localized areas.  We lost eighty thousand dollars of lab equipment on that one, but we can now generate stable force fields!  Shall I go on?”

“No sir,” John said.

Corbin shook his head. “John, do you understand what all of this means?”

At last, John sat up straight, even defiantly. His face was red, and there were tears in his eyes.  “Yes! It means that none of my theories were true! I haven’t been able to complete a single experiment all year, and besides, I’ve caused lab accidents every single time!”

Corbin gazed at him, and a smile twitched up the corners of his mouth. “No, John,” he said quietly.  “It means you don’t need to look for superpowers.  You already have one.”

That was not what John expected to hear. “I…what?”

“Yes. John, you’re the luckiest man in the world.”  He held up a finger.  “Think about it.  First, you survive accident after accident with little more than a few superficial injuries.  And on the one occasion when your injuries were serious, you survived something that would have killed anyone else.  Moreover, everyone else present for any of these accidents has survived, so clearly your luck is communicable to those around you.  And last of all, you’ve had an unbroken string of amazing scientific discoveries, all quite by accident! Now, what would you call that if not superpowered luck?”

John was silent for a long minute. “Well, when you put it that way,” he said at last.

“I do.” Corbin sat back.  “Now get back to work.”

John’s jaw fell open. “So…you’re not going to fire me?”

“I said that earlier, didn’t I? I’m not going to fire you.  In fact, I’m authorizing a raise.  HR will get with you about the details.  Now, go do some experiments.  Just,” he added, “do them in a different building, will you?”

Timewalkerauthor’s Quick Start Guide to Publication

The other day, I was asked by a family member to help out an acquaintance.  It seems this gentleman is an aspiring author, and he was looking for advice on how to proceed toward publication.  Excellent question!  Although I haven’t made the leap to professional publishing myself as yet, I have worked through the process, and looked into it, and the basics are fairly simple.  I put together a sort of quick-start guide for him, and now I’m posting it here, in slightly modified form.

Two things:  First, this guide is by no means exhaustive or authoritative.  There are people out there who are far more qualified than me to make these recommendations, and you can find any number of blogs that specialize in this sort of advice, with varying degrees of depth.  This is simply a starting point.  Nothing will substitute for your own research, but I appreciate you coming here for a first look!  Second, when I prepared this post, I had very little information as to what the acquaintance for whom I prepared it was looking for, or what he was writing.  Therefore I’ve broadened the scope a bit; this post covers more than just traditional or paid publishing.  As a result, there should be something here for everyone.  Let’s get started!

pencil

Photo borrowed from blog.oxforddictionaries.com

 

 

What type of publishing are you interested in?

“Publishing” is an inclusive term, and doesn’t just mean traditional, print-book, royalty-earning publishing.  There are lots of types and levels to this.  Here are the broad options:

Blogging:  You’ll want a site you can regularly update with new posts as you see fit, which is just yours (not any other contributors unless you choose to have them).  Can be based around an interest, or be general purpose.    Some sites that offer blog hosting for free are:

  • Blogger.com (formerly BlogSpot)—this one is big and versatile and is owned by Google.
  • WordPress.com—I use this one, and you’re looking at it right now. Allows multiple blogs under one email address (most of these do that, but it’s worth noting). WordPress is the granddaddy of blogging sites; it’s big and well-established, (17% of all websites are WordPress sites!) doesn’t often have bugs, has a ton of themes available. Easy to use. WordPress.com is free, and if you ever reach the point where you are doing well and making money on it and want to host it yourself, WordPress.org is the paid service that does that. But really, .com is usually sufficient.
  • LiveJournal.com—getting a bit outdated, but still popular. Has a free and a paid version. One useful feature is it allows video uploading on the free version, which WordPress does not (unless you pay a premium fee).
  • Tumblr.com—Tends to be more visual than literary. Has a comment reply system similar to Reddit. I, for one, found that it isn’t very useful for posting stories and text as opposed to pictures, but you may disagree. Very popular, but a lot of people make fun of it.
  • Blog.com—considered to be a little more professional, but not too much. Tends to have a lot of features that cost premium fees, but otherwise not bad.
  • Weebly.com—comparable to WordPress as far as utility and features. I have a friend who uses it and really likes it. I don’t know much about it personally, though.
  • Penzu.com—I really don’t know anything about this one. Unlimited storage, though, which is very rare.
  • Squarespace.com—Very easy to use, allegedly (haven’t tried it myself). I hear good things, but I don’t know much about it.
  • Svbtle.com—No, that’s not a misspelling, or at least, it’s intentionally misspelled. I don’t know anything about it really, but I hear it’s kind of minimalist.

Blogs don’t generate much money unless you are really successful.  Most platforms have ad services that can monetize your site, but they’ll have rules about how it works.  Just something to look into.

 

Fanfiction or original fiction (without pay):  If you just want to get an audience for your fiction, and aren’t trying to make any money, this may be what you need.  Fanfiction.net is for fanfiction, with a huge variety of categories.  It’s been several years since I used it, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much, though they do have a fairly active administration team.  It’s very hands-off as far as moderation; they might remove something if it’s unrelated to the category it’s posted in, but it’s unlikely they’ll tamper with anything otherwise.  That also means they rarely remove nasty comments, though.  You sort of take what you get.  I’ve found the community to be mostly supportive, though.  When I last used it, their html markup was pretty primitive, but it seems to play well with text from most word processing programs.  If you are writing original fiction, there’s a sister site called fictionpress.com, which works identically to fanfiction.net.

 

Self-publishing:  If you have original fiction (NOT fanfiction) that you want to self-publish, far and away the easiest way to do it is through Amazon.  They have multiple programs for it.  You can publish print books through their createspace.com service (usually these books are print-on-demand, where they are only printed and shipped when someone orders a copy).  Ebooks are through Kindle Direct Publishing at kdp.amazon.com, and are only on the Kindle format; there are plenty of options to check out.  Audiobooks are through their acx.com service.  Truth be told, it’s hard to earn a lot of money through Amazon publishing, at least on Kindle, but it’s a foot in the door, and if it sells well it can also be useful for making the jump to traditional publishing if you choose to.  Other companies that do self-publishing are out there, like xlibris.com and bookbaby.com, but they usually require some cost up front—they’re legitimate enough, but not free.  Bookbaby is especially interesting, in that you can also get single copies for your own library for a fee.  However, with any of these services, I should warn you that one major cost that is probably unavoidable is the fee for an ISBN number.  This is necessary for print publishing if you want to make money, and it runs upwards of $100 for a book.  Most traditional publishers incorporate the cost of the number into their fees, which come out of book sales, so you don’t pay up front; but self-publishing isn’t like that. Your self-publishing company may have a feature for handling the purchase of the number, but you will still be paying the fee.  If you must purchase it separately, without the assistance of a publishing company, you can do so at isbn.org, the website of administering organization Bowker, the only authorized source of ISBNs.  (I have heard that other agencies will sell numbers as well, but it’s a scam, selling invalid numbers.  I have not encountered this personally, however.)

 

Traditional Publishing:  The old-fashioned and time-honored way, in which you publish through a publishing house.  There is way more than I can say here about this, because it’s a deep and well-argued subject; but, here are a few basics.  It’s generally better to start by getting an agent rather than approaching publishers yourself.  First, make your manuscript as good as you think it can be; there are tons of online resources for this (I recommend Brandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses podcast, which is available for free at the linked website, or for free on iTunes).  Then, get yourself an up-to-date copy of Writer’s Market.  They have a  website (which is where that link will take you), but I’ve found it’s not nearly as easy-to-use or informative as the print book, which comes out every year (and can be ordered from the same site, as well as from various retailers).  It is filled with current listings for agents, publishers, magazines, journals, etc.  Pick out agents that you think may be promising, and then check that agency’s website.  ALWAYS MAKE AN EFFORT TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS FOR SUBMISSIONS THAT THEY LIST ON THEIR SITES, and ALWAYS TRY TO CHOOSE AGENTS THAT SELECT THE TYPE OF MATERIAL YOU WRITE.  Agents have a lot of control over what they accept.  Look up some resources on how to write query letters and plot summaries, and send some out (but make sure you do it the way each agent wants it—they’re each a little different).  Proceed from there based on what you hear back.  Don’t get discouraged!  Finding an agent is usually the hardest and lengthiest part of the project—it’s a hurdle I haven’t overcome yet myself.  Once you have one, they will assist you with getting the book revised and edited, and sold to a publisher.

 

Miscellaneous:  In between all these levels of publishing, you’ll find any number of specialty sites, like Wattpad.com for example.  It’s really a matter of what you want.  Also, if you are publishing SHORT fiction, there are many options that are not available to novels.  You can submit unsolicited short stories to many magazines—just google “Magazines that publish [whatever genre, i.e. science fiction, horror, romance, etc.]” and see what comes up, or check the magazine section of Writer’s Market.  Make sure you read the submission guidelines.  You can also submit short work to contests—Writer’s Digest, a companion publication/website to Writer’s Market, keeps a list of these every year, including a few of their own.  Most contests pay a little, some pay a lot, and nearly all of them including some sort of publishing of your story as a part of their prize packages.  Even if contests don’t pay much, contest winners look good on résumés.

 

One last thing to think about:  What software are you using to do your writing?  That’s assuming you’re not writing longhand or on a typewriter.  Those forms of writing are perfectly respectable—I was writing longhand long before I owned a computer—but they’re very difficult to submit for publishing nowadays.  There are a lot of choices for word processing, and they are not all created equal.  Some are better for writers, though most are at least okay.

  • Microsoft Word/Microsoft Office. The current standard for word processing. Word comes as part of Microsoft Office, which can be bought outright for a significant cost (over $100, varies based on which package you want) or can be “rented” via the online Office 365 version, starting at $69.99 a year. I love Word, and prefer it, but expensive is expensive.
  • Apache OpenOffice—free, available online. Very similar to Microsoft Office, and produces documents that are mostly compatible with Office. More streamlined than Office in some ways.
  • LibreOffice—I don’t know a lot about this one, but I hear it’s good, and comparable to OpenOffice or Microsoft Office. Also free and available online.
  • Google Docs—Google is really a package deal these days. Getting a Gmail address gives you all their services for free. Docs is the word processor, and it’s decent, intuitive, and autosaves frequently. Drive is the storage system, a cloud-based free storage. There are also other apps which are comparable to Office’s other features. The only downside is that the Drive storage space is shared by everything, so if you save every email you ever got, you’re going to eat it up quickly.
  • Scrivener—this software was created especially for writers. It costs, and it is definitely NOT intuitive—there’s a learning curve. But it cannot be beat for usefulness. It sorts your outlines, support materials, research, parts of your documents, etc., and has tools to edit, assemble, and export your completed documents. It has so many features, I can’t begin to describe them, and its exported documents are compatible with several other programs. It’s about $50 usually, but frequently goes on sale as low as 50% or 75% off. I really recommend it, but I admit that I haven’t used it a lot yet myself—I haven’t had it long enough to do a lot yet.
  • One more thing: If you have trouble plotting a story, check out storylinecreator.com. Storyline Creator is exactly what it says—a program for creating and plotting the storyline of your material. Based on what you put in, it shows you the progression of every character through the story and how they interact with each other. There are subscription options as low as about three dollars a month, but to just buy the offline version outright is about $22.00 right now.

I’m not getting paid to advocate any of these options, or even asked to do it.  They’re all things I’ve tried on my own, and in the case of Office, Scrivener, and Storyline Creator, I bought them myself, and found them to be useful.  But there are plenty of free options, as I mentioned, and more out there than even I know of, and they work just fine.

 

I hope this is helpful.  Writing is such a satisfying thing when it works out, and getting published—even if it’s for free—is awesome.  Happy writing!

Reblog: Conjured in Gold, continued

I’m opening this entry with an apology to my friend and fellow contributor, Cyndera:  I’m sorry.  I should have done this ages ago.  I agreed to this series of reblogs some time back, but since then it’s been busy around here–with the Doctor Who rewatch, the James Patterson Masterclass, and a few short stories–and I let this project be moved to the back burner.

Well, no more!  In continuing my previous post, here is the rest of Cyndera’s Conjured in Gold!  As before, I won’t repost the entire text here; rather, I’ve linked to her blog, where you can read each part in full.  Here is the link to Part 1 on my post, and the same section again on her blog.  We continue with Part 2 through Part 6 (links are below).  Happy reading!

 

As Arlia stepped into the bright sunlight, she tried to slow down her heartbeat. She was excited. She had dreamt about her incantation day for what seemed to be an eternity. She pictured herself in beautiful golden robes that were customary for this day, her hair framing her face and making her eyes glow. She thought about approaching the magic circle where she would place the items she needed for the spell.

Located in the middle of the library garden, the circle was located on an elevated platform made of white marble, surrounded by lush, green grass. The circle itself was nothing special: A ring of pale golden dust. But once a person started the incantation, the circle would gain in color, density, and intensity, and it was different from person to person. For as long as Arlia could remember, she had heard stories about the incantation and the appearance of the circle.

Continue Reading Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5  |  Part 6 (Conclusion)

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.

Short Story: A Fish Story

Fish

“No, I’m telling you, Bill, it was right there!” He shivered as he said it.  Actually, he hadn’t stopped shaking since he got here, zipping around and frantically checking every nook and cranny in the place until he found me.  It was totally unlike Bob to act like this, so…as ridiculous as it sounded, I had to admit that SOMETHING had happened to him.

I looked around, trying to see how much attention he was getting.  We were mostly in the clear right now.  “Okay, Bob, calm down.  Now, why don’t you tell me what happened?  Give me the details this time.  Take it easy.”

He sputtered a little at that, but I saw him open his mouth wide and breathe a little easier.  “Alright.  Let’s see.  It, it happened…well, Bill, it was kind of like this.

“There I was,” he said, “Mindin’ my own, just like always.  I was down on the sandbar, keepin’ an eye on things.  And, and it was like…I don’t know, it was like I felt somethin’ before I saw anything.  This vibration, you know?  You really didn’t feel it?”

“No,” I said, and truthfully.  “But, I was busy getting a bite to eat, and besides, I’m not real sensitive about things like that.  Go on, tell me the rest.”

“Okay.  Okay.  So, there I was, just hanging out, you know, and I felt that vibration, and then I heard this sound.  It was like a roar, like a wave or something, but so much louder!  I didn’t know where it was coming from.  I felt like it was coming from all around me.”  He swallowed, and then looked me straight in the eye.  “Bill, you don’t…you don’t believe in, you know, …… , do you?”

“Huh?”  I wasn’t  sure what he had said.  “Say that again?”

Bob moved a little closer, glancing around to make sure no one would hear.  “I said…do you believe in…” He dropped to a whisper.  “…Aliens?”

I wanted to laugh, but I saw how serious he was—and how shaken up.  “Aliens, Bob?” I said.  “You—you’re serious?”

“As serious as ick,” he said.  “I…I swear, I think this was aliens!”

“Oh, Bob, I don’t think—“

“Just wait!” he interrupted.  “Wait, I ain’t told you the biggest part yet.  You’ll see!”  Reluctantly, I fell silent again; he took that as a cue to go on.  “So I heard that sound.  It was coming from everywhere!  And then…then…Bill, you’re never gonna believe this…Bill, the sky just started churning up!  And, and then, it split!  Right down the middle, right over my head!”

He was getting loud now.  We were getting some looks.  “Bob, I—“

“—And then that split came right down to the ground, right in front of me!  It was as far as the eye could see in either direction!  It was like a clear wall, right there!  I couldn’t go through it—it was like there was nothin’ at all on the other side!”

“Bob, come on, maybe we should—“

“And suddenly, there they were!” he shouted.  “I saw them!  Saw them with my own eyes!  They were huge, and, and they had these tall stalks that they moved on, two of them on every creature!  And heads that were way up high!  And they had these other stalks on the side, and they were hurrying by!  I screamed, but they didn’t notice—they just kept going by!  Right there on the other side of that magic wall!  I couldn’t believe my eyes!”  His eyes were bugging out as he said it, as though they couldn’t believe it either.  “ALIENS!!” he shouted.

Silence.  Everyone on the reef was staring at us now.  I sighed; it couldn’t be helped.  Gently, I patted him on the fin.  “And what happened then, Bob?”

He looked forlorn.  “Well…well, then I came to find you.  And then while I was on my way, I heard this loud noise, like the same one I heard before…and I looked back, and it was all gone.  The aliens, the magic wall…nothing but water.  Just like before.”  He looked at me again, hope and sadness mixed in his eyes.  “You do believe me, don’t you, Bill?  I swear I saw it.  I saw it all.”

“Sure, Bob, I believe you.  Hey, what are friends for?  Now, you gotta be hungry after all that.  Let’s go find some good kelp before it gets dark.”  He nodded, and with a shake of our scales, we swam off into the reef.

***

The two men stopped at the edge of the water, standing on a rock for a better vantage, and looked back.  Broken bits of chariots and gear floated like branches on the waves; later the bodies of the army that had pursued them would bob to the surface, but for now the water remained mostly placid.  “Well, that is that,” the younger man said, and clapped the older man on the shoulder.  “The Lord is amazing, isn’t he?  Who would have imagined He would deliver us through the sea?”

“Indeed.”  The older man turned then, and gave his companion an odd look.  “Moses…I know this will sound strange…but did you hear a scream as we went through the sea?  Like some small animal, perhaps.”

Moses frowned at him, and then laughed.  “Aaron, the excitement of the day must be getting to you!  Who would have been there to scream?  Honestly, next you’ll be saying the fish were yelling.  Or talking even!”

Aaron nodded and gave him a grin.  “I suppose you’re right.  It IS ridiculous, isn’t it?”  He turned to follow the people, the last stragglers who were now heading up the shore.  Moses turned with him, and they began to walk.

“Just a bit,” he said.  “Really, we get a miracle, and you hear talking fish?”

“You once heard a voice in a burning bush!”

“That was different!”  Laughing, they followed the people.

Reblog: Conjured in Gold

It’s been a while since I had a guest post on this blog; too long, in my humble opinion.  So, today, I have something different:  a short story by my friend and sometime-contributor, Cyndera.  This story (or rather, partial, as it will be posted in serial format), titled Conjured in Gold, is one to which I am partial, as I was fortunate to have some input into the direction it took during the writing process.  Rather than hosting it here, I’ll be linking to it on Cyndera’s own blog; you can check it out there.  Happy reading!

“You can’t be serious, Arlia. We have talked about this. More than once! You know how rare winged souls are!”

The tall, elderly man, dressed in scarlet-red robes, stood in the middle of the town’s library in front of massive wooden shelves filled with thousands of books and tomes, his voice a mix of disbelief, annoyance and amusement. His grey hair, once so short that it barely covered even the highest tip of his ears, was now touching his shoulders, clearly marking him as an Elder. The hair blended in with his pale complexion but contrasted sharply with is his dark-green eyes, which were now fixed on a young woman standing right in front of him. She wore a silken, white robe with delicate embroidery at the sleeves. Her white hair merged almost completely with the flowing fabric. Her arms crossed over her chest, she glared at the taller figure with bright, blue eyes.

Continue Reading

Short Story: Of Cookies and Comprehension

I’ve written a number of stories for specific people before, including my children and some friends.  It’s not often, though, that someone has asked to be the target inspiration for one of my stories; and so, when presented with a request recently, I had to give it a shot.  The child in this story is based on a friend’s child, who just so happens to love cookies, and coincidentally happens to believe she knows everything (don’t they all?).  She was a prime model for the main character here; and yet that wasn’t the full puzzle.  After some thought, I decided that one of my favorite short story creations–Buster, the talking dog from my earlier story, “New Tricks“–had another story to tell.  This story, “Of Cookies and Comprehension”, is the result, and I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

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

retrievers

She broke her concentration long enough to go to the front door.  She may have only been one year old, but she could multitask.

The door wasn’t quite latched, so she worked her fingers around the edge and hauled it open.  The screen door was firmly closed, but the glass was up, and she looked through the bare screen at the golden retriever sitting on the stoop.  It was he that had made the scratching that attracted her.  “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” the dog said.  “I was walking by, and I smelled bacon…would you care to part with any?  I’m quite hungry…”

“No,” she said.  The oddity of a talking dog didn’t register with her; she was, after all, only one.

“Oh, well then, I suppose I’ll be on my way.  Good day—“

“You can’t have any,” she said, “because we ate it all already.  My mom only made enough for the two of us.”  She paused.  “It was very good.”

“Splendid,” the dog said, “It’s a crime when bacon is no good.  Say, I suppose—“

“But you can have a cookie,” she interrupted.

“Cookies are my next favorite food,” the dog said, smooth as butter, “after bacon of course.”

“You have to help me get the cookies, though,” the girl said.  “My mom is in the shower.”

“Certainly!  Ah, now, if you could just let me in…see, I haven’t any thumbs…”

“No,” the girl said.  “Mom says I’m not supposed to let strangers in the house.”

“Oh, really?” the dog said.  “My name is Buster.  What’s yours?”

“Marley,” she said.

“See?  There.  We’re not strangers anymore!”  That seemed like very sound logic to Marley, and so she obliged the dog by reaching up and flipping the tiny lock switch behind the door handle, and then opened the door.  Buster gave her a nod and a toothy, tongue-filled, doggy grin, and then nosed the door open far enough to slip inside.  He was small for a retriever, but tall enough to lick the little girl’s nose, which he did, and very appreciatively.  She frowned and wrinkled it, then smiled and toddled past the dog, toward the kitchen.

“This way,” Marley said, and the dog padded after her.  “The cookies are on the top shelf.”

“Doesn’t it bother you,” Buster said, “that you’re holding a conversation with a dog?”

“No.  Why?”  She tugged on a kitchen chair, inching it across the floor.

“Oh, no reason.”  Buster nosed the chair from behind, moving it a little faster, and together they edged it toward the cabinets. “Just that my last master thought it was odd.  He got rather worked up about it, actually.”

“But did he listen to you?”  Marley paused and looked at Buster before turning back to the chair.

“Ohh, that he did,” Buster said.  “It didn’t go so well.”

“My mom listens to me, kind of.”  Marley climbed up on the seat of the chair, then looked back.  “But I think she needs her ears checked.  She doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying.”

“You don’t say,” Buster said.

“Right?  It’s like she only hears babbling.  It’s so annoying.  I have so many cool things to say!  After all, I know everything.  But she doesn’t get it at all.”  She looked down at him.  “One night, I even woke her up to give her my insights into string theory—she keeps the ink pens, you know, so I needed her to write them down—and she just kept shaking her head and saying “no pattycake, no pattycake.”  Sometimes I think her mind may be going soft.”

“So what did you do?”

“What COULD I do?  I played pattycake with her until she fell asleep again.  She seemed to like it.”

“Of course,” the dog said, and put his paws up on the seat to steady it.

“Thanks,” Marley said, and turned back to the cabinet.

“Don’t mention it,” he said.  “So, what is your mother’s name?  I’ll have to introduce myself, I suppose.”

“Mom,” she said.

“Oh…well…yes, but…well, does she have another name?”

She stopped reaching for the door, and gave him a look.  “Mama?”

“Oh, but she should have another…”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, “why would she need another name?”

“Of course,” the dog said, “just how old did you say you are?”

“I didn’t,” she said, and turned back to the cabinet.  She had the door open in a flash.  “Bazinga!  Cookies, incoming!”  The package sat on the top shelf, one corner stretching tantalizingly over the edge.  “Just…gotta…reach…”

“MARLEY!”  The girl flinched, and so did the dog, who somehow managed to look guilty even while panting. The package of cookies tipped and fell to the countertop, then bounced to the floor.  Buster gave them a longing look, but didn’t move.  The woman in the doorway glared at both of them.  “Just WHAT do you think you’re doing?!”

“We’re busted,” Buster whispered.

“I know!” Marley whispered back.  “What do we do?”

“Don’t look at me,” he whispered, “I’m a dog.”

“I guess I’ll have to talk her out of getting us in trouble,” Marley whispered.  “I’ll give her my most logical and reasoned arguments.  She’ll never be able to resist my rhetorical skills.  Watch!”  She looked up at her mother, who was standing over her now, hands on hips, waiting.

“Well,” the woman said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

Marley glanced back at Buster one last time for courage.  She turned back to her mother, and gathered her wits about her.  Then she raised a hand, and stretched out a finger, and opened her mouth; and in her best and most authoritative voice, she said…

“Cookie, mama?”

The woman laughed, and bent down to hug the girl.  “You know, if you weren’t so darned cute…”  Then she straightened up, and looked down at the dog, and frowned.  “But where did the dog come from?  And how did he get in?”

Buster dipped his head in a doggy shrug.  “What can I say?  I borrowed your daughter’s thumbs.  She’s very helpful, by the way.”

Marley watched as her mother’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she slipped to the floor in a dead faint.  “See?” she said.  “I TOLD you she doesn’t understand me!”

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?

Short Story: It Pays

My first short story to be posted in a while, “It Pays” was written in about an hour.  I don’t often try to spell out the influences on a particular story, but I think it doesn’t hurt an author to give some thought to the things that shaped his writing, both in general and in regard to specific pieces.  At the very least, it makes us aware of our sources–and more important from a legal standpoint, whether we’re unintentionally plagiarizing something.  This story, and in particular the character of the Redactor, drew some inspiration from Neal Stephenson’s portrayal of Hiro Protagonist in the early chapters of his excellent novel, “Snow Crash”, which I referred to in a recent post.  As well, the setting–and I don’t want to give it away here–was drawn from numerous movies, most notably Liam Neeson’s recent “A Walk Among The Tombstones”.  I should also note that this is a writing prompt story; the prompt appears early in the story as the Redactor’s line, “I’m not proud of what I do, but it pays. It pays.”  Read and enjoy, and tell me what you think!

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

 

There was a red dot painted on the concrete floor. It was the only color in an otherwise flat-grey room. Try as he might, the man in the chair couldn’t stop staring at it; his eyes darted back to it over and over, flicking away just long enough to track the movements of the other man in the room. It didn’t help that only his eyes were free to move, strapped into the chair as he was.

He was past the point of yelling. Though he remained ungagged, he knew not to scream. The first time he had raised his voice, a high-voltage current had coursed through him. It was not lethal, but the pain had been tremendous. After the second scream, the other man, the one in the long brown coat, had stopped in front of him, hunkered down, and touched a small stem that was just barely in view beside the head of the man in the chair. “Microphone,” he said. “The electricity is voice-activated. You can talk, but if you get loud, well…bzzzz!” Then he stood and kept walking, circling the chair, checking the devices that were warming up.

“Why am I here?” the man, whose name was Michael Flynn, said. He couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice when he said it. Still, it was a better question than how did I get here, which had only earned him a snort and an eye roll from the man in the coat. This time, the man stopped and regarded him.

“Come on, now,” he said. “You’ve seen the movies before, right? If you’re here, it’s because someone wants you here.” Seeing the look on Michael’s face, he raised both hands. “Oh, not me,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.” He paused, then added, “I’m not proud of what I do, but it pays. It pays.”

“And what do you do?” Stalling for time now, trying to get a glimpse of the machines that were humming just out of sight behind him. He had seen the movies. His fingers twitched against his will, and he couldn’t help noticing that the duct tape binding his wrists to the chair ended above the fingers. Would they be the first site of the torture? Were they going to be cut off, joint by joint? Wounds cauterized with a hot iron? He shuddered.

The man grinned. “You’ll find out.” He started to walk again, then paused. “They call me the Redactor. Or at least, I call myself that. It sounds cool, you know.”

Michael thought it sounded ridiculous, but now didn’t seem to be a good time to say so. “Kind of like a superhero name, right?”

“Sure.” The Redactor continued around the chair, made another adjustment to the machines. “Superhero. I like that. Not so sure you’re gonna like my superpowers though.” There was a click, followed by another, and then a long, raspy susurrus. Michael thought it was the sound of something, a cable or a rope, being unwound.

“The fact is,” the Redactor said, “you know some things.” He stepped back to the front, and squatted down, looking Michael in the eyes. “According to my employer, dangerous things. Things you’d be better off not knowing in the first place. And it’s my job,” he added, raising a finger for emphasis, “to get it out of you.”

“And how do you plan to do that?” Michael was sweating now, fear seeping into his eyes in liquid form.

He stood up and spread his arms. “Oh, I have my ways. A man has to take pride in his work, even if it’s not the kind of work you’d be proud of. You understand what I mean?” He glanced down at Michael. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter. It’d just be nice if, you know, somebody understood for once!” The machines—one of them anyway—let out a beep, and his face brightened. “There we are! Time to get started.” He hurried behind the chair again.

I’m gonna die, Michael thought. This man is crazy. Out loud, he called out—not loud enough for the electricity—“Hey! Can we talk about this? Wh-whatever they’re paying you, I’ll beat it! Just let me go!”

“I thought you might say that,” the Redactor said. There was another sound of cables unwinding. “They always do. But, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I can’t do that. It’s bad for business! If I start breaking contracts, even for more money, it’ll take about half a day before I’m unemployable. And then it’s back to delivering pizzas.” He leaned over Michael’s shoulder. “And I hate delivering pizzas. It’s the smell. It gets into your clothes, your car—I could go the rest of my life without the smell of pepperoni and cheese, and it would be fine with me.”

He grabbed a handful of Michael’s hair and yanked, and Michael felt something cold and sticky against his scalp. He yelped involuntarily, but thankfully the current stayed off. Was this psycho pulling his hair out? And…and was that blood? “Sorry about this,” the Redactor murmured, and Michael felt another stab of quick pain and cold on the other side of his head. “These electrodes are going to pull some hair out when they come off later. But short of shaving your head, that’s the best I can do.”

The comment was so illogical, so out of place, that it took him a moment to follow it. “Wh…what?” He frowned, not understanding. “What kind of torture is this?” The words slipped out before he had a chance to rethink them.

Silence. The Redactor, still out of sight behind the chair, made not a move. Fearing the worst, Michael closed his eyes…

…and opened them a moment later as the Redactor stood in front of him. The man wore a look that was both incredulous and—weirdly—hurt. “Torture?” he said. “Is that what you think this is?”

Feeling surreal, Michael, glanced around, pointing with his eyes at the grey room, the dim lighting, and the chair with its bindings. “Well…you…kinda have the whole torture dungeon aesthetic going on here.”

The Redactor barked a laugh. “Aesthetic! I like that. You’re taped to a chair, and you still have the mind to use a word like that. That’s great!” He shook his head. “You really don’t understand all this?”

“I’m kind of at a loss here, yeah.” Especially with the turn the conversation was taking.

The man looked hurt again. “And here I thought my profession was finally getting some respect. Or at least some acknowledgement. Torture. How could you think that?”

“You said you had to get my knowledge out of me!”

“Right!” Seeing Michael’s blank look, he frowned; and then it dawned on him. “Oh. OH!” He laughed. “I said get it out of you. And that’s what I meant. Don’t you know what it means to redact something?” He put a hand to his forehead, as though it was painfully obvious. “I don’t care what you know. I’m not going to torture you to find out. My job is to make sure that nobody will know. Not even you! I take the memories away. My employer gives me a cue to look for, and I pull all the memories associated with it. The cables, the machines, the dot on the floor…you really don’t know how this works?”

Michael, whose jaw was hanging open, could only raise an eyebrow.

“Well, that’s just…wow. I thought everyone knew. Guess I need to do some of my own PR work. Hey, listen, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. You seem like a nice guy, and I have to say, you made me laugh. Not many people can do that! A job like this, it’s stressful at the best of times. Keep an eye on that dot, will you? Helps to have something to focus on. No, I’m really sorry about all that. I hate that this stressed you out so much, you know? Wish I could make it up to you somehow. Wait, wait, I got it! I can make it up to you! Of course. I’m not even thinking straight. Yeah, I’ll fix this for you.”

Michael felt a glimmer of hope. “You’re gonna let me go?”

“Nah. I’m just gonna take your memories of this, too. Still gotta get paid, remember?” There was the sound of a switch being thrown, and everything went dark.