Thursday, February 28, 2013

Wilfreds Rest, an alien invasion sci-fi story...

The story title is supposed to have an apostrophe, but my blog appears on Amazon, Goodreads and probably a half dozen other locations, and a lot of the RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds turn title apostrophes into alien Wilfreds it must be.

By the way, you guys are amazing! I've had more visitors (thousands) in the last few weeks than I ever thought possible. Your conversations, readership and friendship are the reasons that writing is NOT a solitary job. Sure, I do have to slug it out to create a story...but then I get to share it with all of you. This 9-page story originally appeared on the Mistress of the Dark Path website as part of a monthly story contest. If you haven't checked out the site, you really ought to give it a peek: Focus House Publishing (a small press a couple of hours north of me in Central Maine, run by my brother) is debating whether to add it to my current "Distilled Shadows" short story anthology or maybe to create a new anthology with a sci-fi theme.

Regardless, I hope you enjoy this little tidbit. Of course, it was written to contest guidelines with exactly a 2200-word limit. I might enlarge and tweak things before it moves onto its next stage in life, so please let me know what you'd like to see expanded, changed, deleted :-)

Happy reading!
Wilfred’s Rest

a 2200-word short story

by Tim Greaton


            If she hadn’t met Wilfred and been taken in by his over-the-top and ultimately fake charm, Ethel wondered if she might ever have had a chance with the silver fox on the TV screen. It’s true she had never met him, but who knew where her life might have taken her had marriage not tied her down so young. She watched as Walter Cronkite reported how more than 25 people had died when their freighter ship the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior.

Those poor people, Ethel thought, suddenly feeling foolish for fantasizing when real tragedies were taking place in the world. Having heard enough, she heaved up onto arthritic legs and shuffled over to shut the TV off.

Suddenly, a horrendous roar vibrated the entire house. As quickly as old legs would allow, she hobbled to the kitchen and peered out the window at brilliant lights glaring down from the forest behind her house. The roar dulled to a loud whooshing sound. The floor ceased to quake.

 An emergency landing!  

It wasn’t unheard of for Coast Guard choppers to pass overhead on their way to the Powell River Inlet. This would, however, be the first time they had pit stopped behind her house. Had Wilfred been alive, he would surely have found some way to sue someone over this.

The intense lights came from a spot well above the trees. The Whooshing sound turned into a deep growl. She debated phoning the police, but since anyone injured would need help now, not when Seattle’s finest managed to spare the time, she grabbed her walking cane and shuffled outside. Leaves and twigs swirled violently in the air.

She shielded her eyes. “Hello! Are you all right?”

Unfortunately, the machine growl and wind were louder than her eighty-three-year-old voice. Having no choice, she limped out into the gale and somehow managed to reach the shed. Her property line ended just beyond the small ramshackle building, but she had no neighbors. One of Wilfred’s lawsuits had bankrupted the landowners behind them and, even though Ethel had offered to sign anything needed, no developer had had yet been able to clear the title.

The whirring stopped. Leaves and bits of sand made a soft hiss as they dropped to the ground all around her. Then everything fell silent. Ethel crept past several evergreen trees and nearly tripped on a blueberry bush her grandson had planted a year earlier. By the time she unraveled her cane and aching legs from the tenacious shrub, only one steady light close to the ground remained on. Two thin silhouettes stood in front of it.

“You must be with the Coast Guard,” she called out.

“Ghoost Caard,” came a high pitched reply.

“Is everyone okay?” Ethel asked.

“Evraayne kaaay.”

Fearing the woman had a head injury, Ethel said, “My house is right back here. Please, come inside where you can get warm and use my phone.”

She waited long enough to see the figures coming her way before turning and limping through the dark toward her house. With all the spotlights and commotion earlier, she hadn’t thought to turn her outside lights on. Finally, out of breath, legs throbbing, she made it up the two rear stairs and flipped the switch to illuminate the yard. She turned back to look and, suddenly, all of her aches and pains faded to insignificance.

Though probably no taller than six feet, the aliens’ extra-long legs and slender bodies gave them a towering appearance that was enhanced by their protracted necks and tiny heads. Their large, yellow eyes glowed under the spotlight. They didn’t seem to have noses or ears, but each had a large open mouth with no discernible lips. In the dim light, their pale skin seemed to glow in contrast to their gray uniforms.

Ethel knew she should have been terrified, but she had enjoyed eighty-three good years on this earth. If the Heavenly Father wanted to take her now, she would be satisfied to go.  

The broader alien motioned with a many-fingered hand to the slender one. Apparently the male of the two, it seemed to be saying, ‘Let me handle this.’  

Ethel stiffened. Wilfred used to do that all the time. Taking charge of everything, controlling her life every chance he got. Now she could see there was sexism even in space. Well, Ethel was having none of it.

“Nonsense,” she said, addressing the slender female. “You come right in. This is my home and you’re welcome to come inside.” She glanced to the male. “You’re both welcome.”     

The female blinked in what Ethel interpreted as a friendly gesture then nodded her long neck and moved in spider-like strides toward the house. The male followed. Ethel felt the smallest tinge of fear as the tall creatures gracefully slipped past, but she ignored the feeling and went inside.

Minutes later, she was readying hot tea for the two aliens who were seated awkwardly in her kitchen. Their extended legs made it impossible for their knees to fit under the table, and short torsos meant small heads peered out between their knees. Ethel placed the floral china cups at the edge of the table so her guests could see them more easily. After offering crackers and several other snack foods, she gave up on finding a suitable alien cuisine and sat down to rest sore legs.  

The aliens were cautiously sipping their tea.

“I never expected anything like this,” she said, “but I’m thrilled to meet you.”

The male stared wide-eyed but the female blinked several times in what Ethel interpreted as a smile. She again pushed her fear of the unknown away, and recognized the male’s similar reaction. His cup trembled each time it returned his saucer.

“I’m guessing your ship is broke,” Ethel said. She motioned with one hand as though it was flying then brought it quickly down into her other palm. “You crashed.”

“Crayeesh.” The female mimicked the fallen ship hand gestures, and pointed toward the backdoor. “Crayeesh.”

“You’re welcome to stay here with me,” Ethel said. She gripped her hands together and hoped they understood friendship.

The male studied her for a moment then gibbered a series of long-vowel squeaks. The female shook her head and made the ship gestures again. This time all nine of her fingers wiggled as she showed the ship taking off.

“You can fix your ship,” Ethel said. “That’s great.” Already she worried what the women in her Yahtzee Club would say if she canceled their Wednesday games. And what about the weekends with her grandchildren and her eldest son’s impromptu stops for morning coffee? Keeping alien guests a secret would not be easy.

The female got effortlessly to her feet and crossed to the stove. She turned the knob and pointed at the amber light. “Yeet aw.” She turned it off. “Yeet da.” She did it again, repeating the words. “Yeet aw. Yeet da.”

“On, off,” Ethel said. I understand.

The female mimed her flying ship again. As it rose up, she said, “Yeet aw.” Then she crashed it into her pale white palm. “Yeet da.”

“Your ship shut off. Yeet da.”

The female blinked her yellow eyes in agreement. Then she showed her ship taking off again. “Beenay oh yeet aw.” She wiggled her fingers as the ship took off and pointed to her wriggling fingers. “Beenay.”

“Fuel,” Ethel guessed. “You can only take off if you have more fuel.”

“Fooweel.” The alien pointed to her wriggling fingers and the ship taking off. “Beenay oh fooweel.”

Ethel smiled. Somehow they were communicating but they needed something more. She fetched her entire set of encyclopedias. The aliens spent hours leafing through the pages with their many fingers speeding the job along. The female pointed to a page about evolution. She pointed to the picture and to Ethel.

“Yes, I’m a human being.”

“Huuman beeeing.” The female pointed at herself then the male. “Kreeloown.”

“Kreelown,” Ethel said. “You’re Kreelown.”

After scanning thousands of pictures, the Kreelowns finally made Ethel understand they needed methane. More specifically, they required a way to manufacture the gas for the duration of a long trip. Unfortunately, a retired bookkeeper, Ethel had no knowledge of chemicals or how to manufacture them.

It was after two in the morning when the female helped her to her feet and followed her to the bedroom. Ethel removed two clean blankets from the closet and pointed to the bed. She tried to explain her guests should sleep there, but the alien woman wouldn’t hear of it. She helped Ethel into bed and stroked the sides of her cheeks.

Ethel fell into a deep, luxurious sleep.

The following morning, she literally hopped out of bed and hurried to the living room to see the aliens curled into a single ball in the center of a nest of cushions scavenged from the couch, chair and kitchen chairs. The female was first to open wide amber eyes which immediately crinkled into what Ethel felt certain was a smile.

She smiled back.

“Ooga reefla,” the female said, getting gracefully to her feet. She led Ethel into the bathroom and pointed to the mirror over the sink.

Ethel took one look and nearly fainted. Her stringy gray hair had been replaced with the silky black hair of youth. The skin on her face, forehead and neck had smoothed. She didn’t look a day over thirty. She glanced down to see the ugly splotches and blue veins on the backs of her hands were also gone.

“You made me young again!” she exclaimed.

“Ooga reefla,” the female said, stroking Ethel’s cheek.

Suddenly, Ethel felt terrible for not having learned her name. She pointed to herself. “My name is Ethel.”

“Eeethel,” the female said, blinking large yellow eyes.

Pointing a slender finger at her gray uniform, the alien said, “Avaraaay.” She gestured out towards the living room. “Benara.”

“Avaray and Benara,” Ethel said. “Ava and Ben.”

The female blinked. “Ee, Ava oh Ben.”

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Ethel said.

“Neece to meet, Eeethel.”

Realizing her vision had improved along with the rest of her body, Ethel glanced around the tiny bathroom until her eyes settled on the toilet. She suddenly knew what the aliens needed.

“Cows,” she said. “Cows make methane, a lot of it.”

“Cooows,” the alien said.

Ethel hurried out to the kitchen and started searching through the encyclopedias. Soon, she found a picture of a cow. After an embarrassing explanation about how cows create waste products, including methane, she rushed outside on thirty-year-old legs and pointed to the grass.

“They eat grass and drink water. Can you create those things on your ship?”   

The male said, “Ubda go cooowd?”

“A farm,” Ethel said. “You get cows at a farm.”

It took a dozen calls but a few hours later a truck pulled into Ethel’s yard with six cows on the back. She used the last of Wilfred’s life insurance to pay for them, and was glad she’d kept the cash stashed in the closet. It seemed unlikely the bank would have allowed a thirty-year-old to remove money from an eighty-year-old’s account. She didn’t want to think about the complications ahead—oh, what a problem to have!

After the farmer left, they herded the cows to the spaceship, which looked like a three-story ice cream cone standing on its head. When a large door retracted near the bottom, Ben led the cows inside. Ethel would have liked a tour but Ava made it clear they had a different atmosphere in the ship.

Ethel hoped the cows could survive.

Ava followed her back to her house. On the way, Ethel lept over her grandson’s blueberry bush. She felt wonderful. Ava stopped beside a row of six crosses where Ethel had buried her beloved pets. After Lacey died three years earlier, she had opted to avoid further heartbreak and now lived alone.

Suddenly, Ava dug into Lacey’s grave.

Horrified, imagining her tiny dog’s remains being sucked into the lipless mouth, Ethel grabbed Ava’s shoulders but it was too late. There was a familiar yelp and her beloved dog shook dirt from her fur and jumped into her arms. Ethel was so busy hugging and being licked by her poodle, it was several seconds before she realized other paws were reaching up for her. Three cats and two more dogs. All her pets were now alive and clamoring for her attention.

Ava squinted in laughter. She pointed toward the house.  

“Weelfreed,” she said.

Ethel understood. The ashes of her husband sat in an urn beside the TV. He hadn’t liked pets and would never let her keep all six of them now resurrected. But how could she deny him a chance to live, to be young again?

She suddenly remembered the countless restless nights alone during their thirties while he’d been having an affair with his boss’s wife. Then there was the tall blond coworker he dated throughout their forties. And the string of cocktail waitresses he saw well into their fifties. It hadn’t actually been until he got too sick to slip away before he became a one-woman man.

“That’s okay,” Ethel said. “Let’s let Wilfred rest.”


The End

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Rigging Bestseller Lists: Should Indies learn from this or demonize it...

Hi, everyone:

A friend of mine recently blogged about the spate of articles working their way around the news and blogosphere.  I stumbled across one on The Verge called "How authors are buying their way to the top of the bestseller lists" by Carl Franzen. I'm not going to link to my friend's blog, because on this rare occasion she and I disagree, and I would never want to use our differing opinion as a point of discussion. Rather, I'd prefer to point out the issue itself.

In Carl Franzen's article, he points out that some well-to-do authors and many publishers often arrange large purchases of their books upon release. These purchases can happen through corporate contacts, other private parties, the authors themselves or even companies that specialize in getting books a position on the NY Times, Wall Street Journal or other popular bestseller lists. One such company "ResultSource" will accept payment to then go out and buy up books all around the country in whatever quantity they have determined will get that book on one or more particular bestseller lists. My friend pointed out that this is "cheating" or gaming the system, and she is of course right. However, when it comes to marketing there really aren't a lot of rules.

I think we indies are at a disadvantage specifically because we somehow imagine that publishing is different than any other industry. That we somehow imagine there is such a thing as fair in the world of marketing. For an author to be successful, she or he must first be noticed and then turn that notice into a ton of book sales. Big publishers and wealthy/connected authors, like John Locke, absolutely do have an advantage in that they can afford to use "self-purchases" to buy themselves notice via bestseller lists...but in the end they only make money if they can hold an audience.

I read a part of the original article a day or two ago, and it went on to say that many of these "purchased" bestseller spots go from thousands of copies one week to basically nothing the next. What that means is that many of those rigging the system are losing money doing it. Only those books that earn word-of-mouth sales actually go on to establish themselves in the long-term.

So, what I fail to understand is the outrage. Celebrities also rig the system with their name-recognition as do the subjects of news and crises stories. What about Aaron Ralston, the man who cut of his arm after being pinned by a boulder while hiking? He has book and movie deals stretching from now to the end of time. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger is another prime example. He crash landed his US Airways Airbus A320-214 plane on the Hudson River, saving all 155 people on board. Though obviously not intentional, he became an instant celebrity with more book offers than most of us could ever dream of.

What I'm saying is that I think we automatically lose by assuming that any author launching pad is "cheating."  Wouldn't it be much more constructive if we accepted that getting a large audience to notice us is part of our job? Wouldn't it be more advantageous for us if we chose to learn from all successful methods of getting that notice? Rather than demonizing those wins, maybe we should share ideas on how we could achieve the same thing with lower budgets and less connections. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to earn our stripes, as most of us are currently doing, but I don't begrudge any author who has found a way to leap to the top by an alternative method.

Maybe we could all use a dose of "how can I replicate that" rather than "that is cheating."  I have no doubt that some of us are good enough that if we found an alternative launching pad, our work would hold an audience thereafter. Of course, I absolutely respect alternative opinions.

'Hope the comments are helpful, even if only to secure the opposing point-of-view :-)


Thursday, February 21, 2013

How to write: tragedy is the secret...

Thanks for stopping by once again, everyone. I still can't believe that hundreds of you are visiting my blog daily. Please know I really do appreciate it.
What follows is writing advise coming from a guy as suspect as the rest. In every single case, please trust your own judgment, instinct and voice. But maybe the following will give you something to think about.
Today, I got an interesting request from a nice person who wants to be a professional author. To clarify, "professional author” probably means something different to everyone, so for the sake of our discussion, I mean this person wants to make his living as a writer, wants to be paid strictly and solely for stringing words together on a regular basis. In short, he wants to be like me. I write for corporations, and over a quarter million of my fiction books have been downloaded in the last 18 months. I work from my home, surrounded by 7 acres of lawn, a pond, a brook and a few hundred ducks that hang around this time of year. When I need a break from the keyboard, I lean over the rail of my sixty-foot porch and feed a dozen loaves of bread to my feathered friends. It's hard to believe, but I can actually exist for days, even a week at a time here with my family, without leaving my property. And, in large part, I owe that to you, my many readers. Thank you.
So this very nice person with the goal of making a living as a novelist forwarded a manuscript via email earlier today. I took thirty minutes to review two chapters that may well have taken months to create, and each subsequent page made me sadder than the one before. Not because the work was total crap. No. I was sad because the writing was actually pretty good. Strong logic, great descriptions, realistic dialog. Honestly, this author has a lot going for him...except the ability to recognize or create interesting story.
I sent an apologetic email explaining the problem and was surprised when the author asked if I could blog my answer so more writers could benefit. Though he gave his permission, I’ve opted not to include his name. I figure he deserves a chance to be known for his polished, corrected work, not for his early naivety. So, what exactly was the problem?
It’s short.
It’s simple.
And too many of us never get it.
Fiction writers are paid to torture their characters.
And I don't mean the antagonists, though it's okay to beat on them, too. No, the protagonists are the ones who need to be stomped on, spit on, beaten up and then left for dead. In the old days, the Brady Bunch had a few challenges, but modern fiction cries for pain a thousand fold from those innocent days. The sooner something terrible happens in your story, the sooner readers will be hooked. Consequently, the longer you take to create tragedy for your character(s), the longer it will take to hook readers...and if you don't hook them early, they might just close their book or shut off their e-reader.
You have to catch them before that happens!
So what did I read? I can only describe it as two days in the life of one of the most boring men I ever met. And I do feel like I met, let’s call him Bob Mackswell. Bob had a good job, a sweet family and no financial problems that I could discern. He also slept pretty well, seemed to get along with his coworkers and had an uncanny knack for noticing poetic landscapes on his way to and from work. I can even assure you that Bob ate a satisfying breakfast of three pancakes topped with patties of real butter on the last page I read…before shooting my e-reader across the room!
Okay, that was a dramatic exaggeration, but I did want to throw it.
From the first page, you MUST throw your protagonist(s) into the deep water and make sure they do not know how to swim. The more you abuse your main characters, the more your readers will love you for it. They want to live through a crisis with their fictional friends. They want to feel the pain, the anguish and the hopelessness of these characters. And, from my school of thought, only after a long and uncertain battle, they want their fictional friends to succeed.
What about the writers who say, “but I have to introduce their normal life first; I have to make my readers like them first; I have to…I have to…I have to…”
Not true. Wrong really. There is a reason that everyone stands in the street when a violent crime has happened. It’s the same reason that news channels focus 90% on wars, murders and injustice. We want tension. We want tragedy. And if we don’t get it on one channel/in one book, we will find it on or in another.
Am I suggesting that every writer should toss out their breathtaking sunsets and beautiful cloud scenery at the opening of every book?
Absolutely, yes!
Unless that sunset signals the end of a life or those clouds are hovering over a murder scene, those flowery openings should be gone. I would also suggest you get rid of small talk, coffee breaks, long uneventful car rides and family banter. A few words is all it takes to invoke everyday life. The rest of your work should be focused on the systematic and unyielding destruction of your main character(s).
So what happens then? What happens after you’ve beaten these wonderful characters into a fictional mush?
I’m not sure, but send me the manuscript because I’d love to read about it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ice Cream John, an urban fantasy, paranormal Valentine's Day story...

Hi, Everyone:
I was going to post the next section of "Deadly Weight Loss," my Pod World novella here today...but given that this story just became available for reposting and we're only a day from the holiday, I thought you might enjoy seeing it here. This story was written for the Valentine's Day Writing Contest on the Mistress of the Dark Path website. If you haven't been there yet, do yourself a favor and check it out:
Ice Cream John
Tim Greaton

“Tell her to go screw herself!” John said to the pale boy. “My price is my price, and I ain’t taking ten cents off for nobody, not even for the mother of a gimp.”

Eyes wide and lips quivering, the little boy struggled to move his crutches away from the ice cream van.

A beautiful redhead sidled up to the stainless steel counter. The black flower clipped in her hair might have been a rose, but the petals had a ragged look, almost as though they had been chewed. The girl could easily have passed for early- to mid-twenties, but something about her suggested late-teens instead. She leaned in suggestively to peer at the menu on the further wall. John’s eyes slid down to her ample cleavage.

“You were tough on that kid,” she said, leaning away abruptly.

His attention snapped up to meet dark eyes with amber glints, like a cat John used to have…in another life.

“Ain’t nothing easy in this world, missy.”

“Rosie,” she corrected him.

“And it won’t hurt that kid none to get the message early. ‘Sides, his welfare mother was probably pitching that ‘can’t afford’ crap long before he was born.”

 Two young girls rode up on their bicycles.

“Do you have slushies?” the brunette of the two asked.

“Yeah, pink ones…for Valentine’s Day,” the blond added.

“I got ice cream,” John snapped, “just like it says on the truck. Chocolate, Strawberry or Vanilla. That’s it.”

“No slushies,” the brunette said.

John glared at the pair of them, then reached down into the cooler and pulled out three paper-wrapped treats. “Do you want ice cream or not?”

“Not, not, not,” the two girls chimed, riding away.

“You’re not exactly a people person, are you,” Rosie said, pursing perfect red lips.

“I try not to let my winning personality stray too far,” he said, dropping the snacks back in the cooler. His eyes scanned the prim houses that lined his side of the street. An attentive observer might have noticed how he focused on a blue house with black shutters longer than on the others. His gaze shifted back to the pretty teen. “So, what’ll it be?”

Rosie flipped red curls from her forehead and glanced at the menu again. “How come there are a dozen treats listed but you have only three to choose from?” Her hands went to nicely curved hips.

He refused to let his eyes linger.

“Chocolate, Strawberry or Vanilla?”

Rosie ran a graceful hand across the counter. He should have pulled away, wanted to pull away, but his hand remained where her fingers just missed his.

“How long you been driving this truck?” Rosie asked, a grin playing across her face.

“Long enough,” John said. “Now are you here to buy something or are you just a loiterer?” He glanced at the blue house. The shades were still closed. Not surprising, given there was still an hour to sunset.

“It’s Valentine’s Day,” she said, “and I just…ended things with my last boyfriend.” 

“Poor slob’s probably crying in a corner someplace,” John said, “so how come you don’t look too broken up about it?”

“There is a difference between boys and men.” Her eyes traveled up and down his athletic frame. “I could never give my heart to a boy. Are you a man, John?”

*I never got the chance,* he thought, wondering how much interest the girl would have had had she seen the masses of scars hidden beneath his clothes. He reached into his pocket and rubbed the toe nail clipper that his mother used to short across an electrical outlet to start a fire, a fire that had scarred him but had ultimately also saved his life.

“Missy, you are probably all the rage with the local school boys, but I’m not a boy and I’m not interested so how about you choose something and go. You’re interrupting my business.”

Rosie gave him a knowing smile. “And what is that business, John? We both know you can’t make a living selling only three kinds of ice cream.”

Her eyes scanned the inside of the van.

He forced himself to remain calm. The wooden stakes and crosses were safely hidden behind the passenger seat, and the Holy Water was in standard water jugs on a shelf beside the cooler. There was nothing for her to see.

A teen boy with a mild case of acne approached. He loped like a rapper in a music video.

“What’s up, homes?” he said to John. Then after a sideways glance to Rosie, he added, “Yo, mamma.”

“T’cha eyes off me!” Rosie snarled.

“Tricks must be hard today,” the boy said with a wink to John. “What you pitchin, man?”

John pulled out all three flavors of bars and spread them across the counter.

The teen slid the strawberry his way. “Beautiful, just like this fine thang’s hair.” The boy reached over to stroke one of Rosie’s orange locks.

For one split second, John was tempted to intercede, but Rosie’s face had already twisted into a look that said there was no need. She reached out to grip the boy’s cheek. His eyes bulged and veins swelled along his forehead. She leaned close, as if to kiss him, and stared deep into his eyes.

“Go play in traffic, now.”

Like an automaton, the boy turned and strolled away, toward what in three blocks would be a busy intersection.

John suddenly realized that Rosie wasn’t just some alluring teen, she was a bodyguard for the nest of vampires he had come to destroy.

“Stop him,” John said.

The redhead stared at him with eyes that may have been hundreds of years old. He now recognized the flecks of brimstone for what they were.

“Why would I do that?”

“So we can be together,” he told her, “forever.”

“You know,” she said.

 John nodded.

“Boy,” she called out.

The halting teen turned. Shoulders slumped and mouth hanging open, he stood there.

“Go home and forget you ever saw me.”

The boy changed directions and trudged slowly away.

John pointed toward the blue house where a family of vampires nested. They had killed his parents and two brothers when he was just seven years old. It had taken this long to find them.

“You’re protecting the suckers?”

“In my way,” she said with a flirtatious pout. “But that doesn’t change anything. You and I do still have a deal, don’t we?”

“That we do,” John said, moving to the back of the ice cream van and opening the door for her.

She climbed in, but before she could touch him he drove a silver knife into her slender stomach. She slumped against the wall, where he tied her wrists and ankles behind her with Holy Water-soaked rope. He left the knife in place.

“You can’t kill me, you know,” she croaked.

“I know.” He took one last glance at her gorgeous, pain-filled eyes before grabbing his bag of stakes and other vampire-killing equipment. The vamps were weakest just before sunset. “I’ll be back.”

And he meant it. There were worse ways to die than in the arms of a succubus on Valentine’s Day.   


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How to write actions and reactions, stimulus and response...

Following is a letter I recently emailed to friend and peer, the talented novelist C.J. Martin. His friends call him Clay Boutwell.

The Temporal
A Temporal Trust (The Temporal)


Hi, Clay:

Thanks so much for sending me information from your notes about “Rivet your Readers with Deep Point of View” by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. Really great stuff. I think I might either contact her or paraphrase some of her advice in an upcoming blog.

 Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View
In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few thoughts I picked up originally from Jack Bickham, a novelist and creative writing professor at the University of Oklahoma's H.H. Herbert School of Journalism in Norman, Oklahoma. Though he passed away more than a decade ago, his lessons live on through the work of thousands of his students  who have successfully built careers on his encouragement and advice. Several of his “how-to” books are still in print.

Writing Novels That Sell

Jack was a stickler for adhering to logical actions and reactions in fiction. He called it the law of “Stimulus and Response.” I hope I can do the theory justice, but please assume any errors or failures in the message are due to my interpretation, not his sage advice.

Stimulus and Response:

A.      Make sure your character doesn’t jump, smile or scream until you have provided him or her with the stimulus to do so.

a.       John smiled at David’s stupid joke (wrong).

b.      David told a stupid joke. John smiled (right).

c.       The only exceptions—to be used sparingly—would be to draw out tension, i.e. the girl turns and screams…then you describe what she sees. Use of this incorrect reaction before action can, however, ultimately break stimulus/response and weaken your novel. Readers won’t know why exactly, but they may start to feel the story is not believable.
B.      Make sure your stimulus follows your response closely in most cases.

a.      Driverless, the car rolled back and picked up speed, straight for Suzie. Thinking about the D she got in Algebra and wondering if David really liked her, she leapt out of the way (wrong).

b.      Driverless, the car rolled back and picked up speed, straight for Suzie. She leapt out of the way (right)

c.       To insert other actions or information between the cause and corresponding effect tends to mute and lessen the response.

C.      The easiest way to build a scene is to think of it as a tennis match of stimulus and response, i.e.:

“You’re a jerk!” (Stimulus)

“No, you’re the jerk.” (Response) Brent threw his open Pepsi can at his friend. (Stimulus)

Darrin ducked (Response), laughed and raced up the stairs. (Stimulus)

Brent bolted up the stairs after his friend. (Response)
Many cases of writer’s block are caused by too much stimulus being stacked up, so the author has a difficult time knowing what his or her character should do, i.e.:

“You’re a jerk, and I want you to tell me what you did with my Play Station game!” Darrin threw Brent’s science report into the puddle and spit in his face. “I know you are dating my sister!”

So what happened here is that poor Brent has too many choices to convincingly react to any of them. Should he respond to the jerk insult, answer the question about the video game, grab his report before it’s ruined, wipe the spit from his eye or tell Brent that his sister is too ugly to date? There is no good choice because the author stacked up too much stimulus. And many writers stall trying to figure out their self-created conundrum. This is especially common in action and group scenes. Several characters take simultaneous actions and make it hard for other characters in the scene to respond to so much stimuli. It’s always better to play a metered game of tennis so that the reader and the author can understand a straight forward stimulus and response. Things can still happen quickly, even with many characters, just in their proper and understandable order.

I’ll probably toss a version of this up on my blogJ

‘Happy writing, Clay!

End email.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. If you have writing, music or art advice that you'd like to share, email me. I'd be happy to post it as a guest blog!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

How to blend story ingredients…

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. Today, I’m posting an email I recently sent to a friend who asked how I decide which ingredients to include in a story. I thought the information might be of help to others.

Hi, Belinda:
Thanks so much for touching base; it’s always great to hear from you. I appreciate your kind comments regarding my February 2nd blog  “unique descriptions in story.”

Regarding your question about which ingredients I include in a story, I would first ask that you trust your own judgment over everything else. Every writer should tell her or his own style of story. After all, that is the only way you can truly stand out in the market. Your voice is your signature, so you should always strive to tell your story your way. However I, like you, prefer to learn as much as I can so that I’m at least aware of my options before I make any final decisions. I do have a few thoughts, but please keep in mind it’s all opinion and that I fail to follow my own advice a fair amount of the time. Those things said, here goes:
First and foremost, I like to use a point of view so tight that story is seen ONLY through the eyes of the point-of-view character. If I want to change the point of view, I jump to a new section or chapter then switch. Please keep in mind that oodles and tons of authors use much broader points of view, with some being fully omniscient, and they do it well and successfully. I have heard, however, that the modern trend does tend to agree with me and be very narrow.  

The advantage of telling a story from a one-person, close perspective is that most of the storytelling decisions are made for you. What I mean is that if you can imagine yourself as the character in any given scene, it becomes easier to realize what she or he would see, hear and say. It also becomes easier to know what she or he would do next. For instance, in an early scene from my novel “Under-Heaven,” five-year-old Jesse is describing his father’s expression in the middle of a McDonald’s restaurant. Putting myself in Jessie’s frightened mindset made it easy to describe his father’s expression: “Anger was scribbled like red crayon across his face.” Most of my other descriptors in Jessie’s scenes were also described in childlike terms. In other words, my narration echoed his age and personality. However, because my narration was not first person and my narrator was NOT Jessie, I was also able to use out-of-character descriptors when I thought they were better.
I know that I have traveled far afield of your question, but I’d like to make two remaining points about close vantage points-of-view. Even when you’re telling the story in first person, past tense—like I did in “The Santa Shop”—you can stray slightly away from your character because the presumption is that the narrator is more experienced and worldly and therefore knows more than her or his past self. In other words, it would be okay to use a higher vocabulary for an uneducated character as long as he or she became educated before writing the story. I would still keep a flavor of her or his ignorance, however, so that the reader can more closely relate to the scenes. That brings me to my final point about closely reflecting your characters: it’s easy to overdo anything. Let’s say you have a character that lisps—as I did in my Zachary Pill fantasy series—it’s important to keep the lisping to a minimum. In other words, flavor your story but don’t make it hard to read. The same thing is true of a character who swears, uses slang or foreign phrases. It’s much better to gently salt your story with those terms than it is, for instance, to use the F-word in every sentence. The former provides atmosphere while the latter is just plain irritating. In short, I think your descriptions and dialog should echo your characters but not be overwhelmed by your characters.

So, to get back to your question, I would first advise you to see what your character sees, hear what your character hears and smell what your character smells. Then write those descriptions in that order and in that way. As your character enters a room, write what she sees, feels and hears as the door opens, as she takes her first step, as she walks fully into the room. When I’m writing first draft, I’m often oblivious to the world around me because I’m actually inside the scene and experiencing it while I’m typing. It is not uncommon for me to cry or laugh as the scene dictates.
Additionally, I do think that it’s important for most stories to be told with visuals being the largest ingredient, and with strong references to the moods and feelings of the characters being second. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. For instance, in a thriller you would downplay emotions, but in a romance you might actually raise their importance above visuals to be the focal point of the story. 

What other ingredients are there? Basically, I’m referring to all five senses. Most readers tend to be either visual or emotional, which is why I advise most writers to use those descriptions the most. But a linguist, for instance, would not typically pay attention to “sights” as much as to sounds. Kinesthetic people would focus on tactile senses (an ingredient I fear I might not project enough). There are also two small groups of readers who focus on tastes and smell more than anything else. Those are the readers who love big meal scenes or lengthy descriptions about a character’s perfume.  Because those groups are small, I tend to include those descriptive details least of all. The best writers, however, manage to insert a few of all the above ingredients all throughout their stories.  In short, I think we all need to strive to create a fictional scene that will satisfy most personalities.
In closing, I might also note that as my stories progress I tend to reduce the visuals. This is because my readers will already have established their own mental descriptions for the main characters and places, and any lengthy repeats are redundant. Instead, I use tags for those people and places toward the end of the story. In my Zachary Pill novels, for instance, I often reference Zachary’s green hair and Robin’s red hair. I also refer to Bret’s coughing, thin frame or pale complexion simply to remind readers that he is weak/sick.

I hope the information is of help, Belinda, but I again would suggest that after you stew on my list of ingredients, your own instincts are the best guide to your story.  
I look forward to seeing your finished novel!

End email.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. If you have writing, music or art advice that you'd like to share, email me. I'd be happy to post it as a guest blog!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Some thoughts about "unique descriptions" in story...

Hi, Everyone:
Usually a few times a month, I receive an email from writers who are seeking feedback about a work-in-progress or who are curious about my take on how I put together a story or a novel. I thought it might be helpful to share one of my most recent emailed responses:
From Tim G. to Sherrie S.:
As always, it's great to hear from you, Sherrie. 
Regarding your request for feedback, please keep in mind I’m only a guy with an opinion, as flawed as any other, so please only put as much weight on my thoughts as your intuition suggests is proper. Also, keep in mind I’m not on any bestseller list and don’t seem to be heading for one anytime soonJ

I really did enjoy your story but thought the opening visuals could be improved. Below are two of your early paragraphs and my thoughts regarding a possible different approach. By the way, I’m not at all advocating that you change your story, I’m simply using real examples.

Before I do that, however, I should mention that there are three rules of thumb that I subscribe to:

1.) For someone to learn to write well takes 10,000 hours of practice. You do write well, so either you’re naturally talented or you’ve spent a lot of time writing over the years.

2.) Most fiction writers do not come into their own until their 15th novel (which a few years back meant 15 unpublished novels before one was publishable). In short, you're doing really well compared to a lot of us. Keep up the great work.

3.) No one can tell you how to write a bestseller until they have done it; and most couldn’t even tell you then because the market is fickle and literary stew is hard to replicate. Needless to say, that renders my feedback particularly suspect :-)

Okay, regarding stronger visuals, I like to provide a few “unusual, not generic” details for every scene. I also often embue every new character with a visual and/or personality quirk that makes them stand out.  Readers will fill in the blanks, but if we present them with a sprinkling of memorable details throughout the story, those are the tiny things that make it real and make it stand out. For instance, I did enjoy your extended music/forest analogy at the beginning of your novel. However, you never described any buildings, any people, any colors, not even the color of the cab Lillian was getting into. I had absolutely no sense that Bejing, New York or any of the places were different from any other places. A few words could have made each one stand out brilliantly in comparison to the others.

Here’s one of your early paragraphs:

Moments later, the driver stopped at the hotel, mumbled something in Chinese and crooked his meter so Lillian could see the fare. She paid the man and entered the hotel.

I get what happened, but you failed to differentiate this place or these people. Here’s my off-the-cuff retake:

Moments later, the driver swerved across the rain-swept lanes and slid to a stop at the curb, coming dangerously close to hitting the hotel’s blue awning, which extended from the ten-plus story brick building to the street edge.

“I am honored to deliver you,” the balding driver mumbled in Chinese as he crooked his meter toward Lillian. The bored look on his face suggested what he meant was “You’re here so pay me already.”

Lillian glanced at the missing middle finger on the man’s right hand and wondered if it might have been caused by a military accident or possibly he had overcharged someone from the Triad. She had heard the Chinese mobsters were ruthless. She paid the man, who easily accepted the bills with four digits, and barely had time to close the door before the small blue cab dashed back into traffic.  The hotel had no doorman, but an elderly Chinese beggar greeted her with a rusty tin cup. She normally would have walked past, but the man's wet hair was plastered against his forehead like an aging St. Bernard just back from a difficult swim. She dropped a handful of coins into his can then pushed through one of the double, swinging glass doors.

Obviously, description like this can be time-consuming and slow up a story (possibly a problem with my writing) but you’ll note that one scene is generic while the other is at least a little more memorable. I tend to do that throughout most scenes.

Here’s one of your scenes from shortly after Lillian wakes in the hospital:

The doctor flipped the light switch, illuminating the room and causing Lillian to squint her eyes slightly.

One possible concern might be that you provided only a generic reference to a ceiling fan and bare walls. I have no idea what this room or this man looked like. I might have done something like this:

Lillian saw the doctor’s shadowed arm reach for the wall and heard the mechanical snap of the light switch. Illumination washed over her. The white walls, ceilings, even her white bedding were like an arctic, sunlit landscape. Only the lack of stainless steel and the bright pink curtains hanging over what seemed to be a doorway suggested she was not in an American hospital. She squinted  at the doctor, whose dark hair had light patches of gray at the temples. There were also grays mixed with his thin mustache. Maybe in his late-forties or early-fifties, the man seemed timid, possibly having something to do with the cut on his lower lip and the painful-looking bruise on his right cheek.

Obviously, Sherrie, I’m just riffing with the scene, but when I strive for “unique details” I often find that it adds whole new dimensions to my stories. Again, keep in mind I’m just a guy as full of crap as all the rest. Your project is already impressive, and I'm looking forward to seeing it finished J

‘Hope the comments are of some value.
End email.
Thanks for stopping by, everyone. If you have writing, music or art advice that you'd like to share, email me. I'd be happy to post it as a guest blog!