Sunshine Awards

I don’t usually do these, but Dan Alatorre over at this blawg here said I had to, or…

…or.

Actually, I don’t know what happens if I don’t do it. But Dan said I had to. So.

I got nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award. When you guys are done laughing at the idea of me getting nominated for Sunshine anything, I’m supposed to do three things:

1) Thank the Dan who nominated me
2) Answer Dan’s eleven questions
3) Nominate eleven (!!) bloggers to take my place in the eleventh sunshine circle of hell, and provide eleven questions for these eleven bloggers to answer.

Is that clear? It has numbers in front of it. Numbers are clear.

Without further ado, thanks to Dan Alatorre, for forcing a ray of sunshine into my ghastly-gloomy blog, directly after ALL that horrorflash. 🙂

Dan’s Questions:

1) Where is the strangest place you’ve ever made whoopee?
Now, Dan. My mom reads this blog. If whoopee means what I SUSPECT it means, I am unwilling to answer this question, because MOM I AM TOTALLY A VIRGIN.

If, however, it means farting (which is what I secretly REALLY want it to mean) then the answer is church. Oh, buddy. Church. See also: funerals. The stench-gas of sadness has eked out of my black-clad buttocks at more than one graveside service.

2) Share a blog post you wrote that meant a lot to you and tell us why you picked that one.
Here recently, it would probably be this underappreciated baby about the importance of proper word choice. I don’t see a lot of writing posts that deal with the actual mechanics of writing, save as pedantic grammar chicanery, and I hate to say this, but the basic mechanics are precisely what a lot of us need help with. I’m working on a post or two now devoted to metric feet, and the SOUND of metric meter in prose, to address more of these issues: it isn’t enough to simply look at good writing, say ‘that sounds good’, and move on. There are reasons good writing sounds good, and a writer should be able to pick out what those reasons are.

3) Kiss a stranger or eat a Scotch egg?
This is actually an incredibly complicated question for me.

On one hand, I hate touching other people. Does that sound antisocial? Yes? It probably is. But when a stranger touches my arm, or tries to hug me, my stomach does a sort of tribal knot-dance of terror and agony.

On the other hand, as per Scotch egg? I’m vegetarian.

I might have to go with kissing the stranger here, little though I want to. I think I’d actually prefer a kiss to full hug-contact, and if I initiate I’ll probably make it through alive.  Scotch eggs are, however, delicious, and if I still ate meat it would unquestionably be the Scotch egg.

4) Rob a Wal-Mart or wear a bikini at the beach?
Wal-Mart, I’m comin’ for you. All the paper towels I can wipe things down with sounds awesome.

5) What is your deepest fear about your writing?
I think this is the same thing for most people, in the end. I worry I’m not as good as I think I am.

6) What is your best book?
You know, I think folks expect to hear Aurian and Jin here, but actually? I’m going to go with one I’m working on now. Which no one else has read. Therefore: no one can disagree with me. I feel like I get a little bit better with every story I write, and that’s important.

7) Do you get manicures, and if so, when was your last one and what did it cost?
I’ve NEVER gotten a manicure, actually. Again with the people touching me. Especially pedicures—augh! How can you let someone that close to your feet? You walk on those.

Also, it’s a silly thing to spend money on.

8) Jacuzzi or dry sauna?
Getting drunk in a hot tub is one of the Five Greatest Pleasures of Winter. The other four are:
2) Getting drunk in bed
3) Getting drunk in a sweater
4) Getting drunk on New Year’s
5) Getting drunk at Christmas.

9) Who is your favorite author ever and who is your favorite that you’ve read this year?
My favorite writer ever is probably Ursula K. Leguin. The Left Hand of Darkness is a masterful novel, and the language is simple but elusively beautiful. Some of her other stuff verges on seventies woo-woo to me, but Left Hand makes up for all of it. If I could work with half of her skill and simplicity of phrase, I would be so happy I’d let strangers hug me.

Other favorites of mine, in poetry and prose: Dostoyevsky, Margaret Atwood, Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks, Pablo Neruda, Kasuo Ishiguro, Andrei Codrescu, Umberto Eco, T.C. Boyle, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Bukowski, Wilkie Collins.

Best thing I’ve read this year has probably been Dan Simmons’s Drood, as long as we’re talking about Mr. Collins. I love Wilkie Collins, in spite of all advice to the contrary, and I can’t read his novels without thinking about the picture of him presented in this book now. Whether it’s a good or a bad thing I’m not sure, but it was damned effective, obviously.

10) What author or blogger would you like to sit down and have drinks with?
I’d like to buy a drink for my first creative writing professor in college. Just to say thank you, and to tell him that, in spite of me being an insufferable pain in the ass, a piss poor student, and full of absolutely undeserved arrogance, I heard him. The things he taught made a difference to me, and I’m forever grateful for his class, even if it looked like it was falling on deaf ears at the time.

11) If you have one piece of career advice to share with the readers here, what would it be? Lame as this sounds, and as often as this advice gets shared: keep the fire burning. You should have a passion for what you do, and even if you fail by the rest of the world’s standards that fire will keep you alive. I don’t advocate Hamsen-style starvation, but you need to do the things that make you happy with yourself, and not the things that sell. Having passion won’t get you money, necessarily, and it won’t make you famous, and it won’t sell your books. But you’ll have it. And if you think there needs to be some justification other than that, then you aren’t in the right line of work.

I’m not going to nominate anyone specifically here, because shyness. So you’re all nominated. All of you. Especially Dave Koster over here at On Writing Dragons and Chris over here at The Opening Sentence. Because I like you guys.

My Questions For You:

1) If you had to survive on one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
2) What’s more important in a story: character, plot, or voice?
3) What’s the first book you remember being deeply affected by?
4) How important is good grammar in a novel to you?
5) Would you rather get blackout drunk in front of
A) Your mother-in-law, or
B) Your boss?
6) In honor of the season, tell me one good memory you have about Halloween as a child. (The first year I was diabetic for Halloween, my dad traded me my candy for a guitar. My dad is, obviously, very cool.)
7) One word or phrase that really annoys you.
8) Give me five single words that describe your writing style.
9) What’s the best part of an average day for you?
10) If you’re writing, somebody somewhere encouraged you to do it. Who?
11) What makes you decide a story is bad?

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Yet Another Author Invite

Chris writes vampire stories. Or maybe they’re musical biographies. Or maybe they’re a mixture of the two, with an excellent dash of dry humor and witty voice thrown in…if you write outside the box, this could be a good opportunity for you. Also, Toten Herzen might be my favorite band.

The Opening Sentence

I’ve done this twice before and on both occasions been overwhelmed by the lack of response. All authors need help, a word in the internet’s ear and I don’t like taking without giving. In the past I have laid down a few rules, the intention being to give authors who write ‘outside the box’ a chance to get their work noticed. There obviously aren’t many authors writing outside the box, and I’m still not prepared to allow romances on a blog predominantly themed towards heavy rock, vampirism, black magic and weirdness!

But in spite of previous attempts I’m going to have another go…

Authors, would you like to have a feature here at The Opening Sentence?

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Writing: The Wrong Word

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Writing: The Wrong Word

Something I need to tell you, for this story to make sense–in the real world, in my ‘real job’, I frame pictures for a living.

I know. I know. I’m the only person you know who does that, probably. But anyway.

A few years ago, a lady came into my shop. She had an oil painting with her, and wanted to get it framed fairly quickly. It was a nice painting–a landscape, I think. We chose a nice frame to go on it.

“Just to warn you,” she told me, “I only finished it a little while ago. It’s still wet.”

I touched one of the edges lightly. Sure enough, the paint was still gummy, as it is on a half-dry oil painting.

“Okay,” says I. “Thanks for letting me know.” And I wrote a few words on the ticket to let everybody else know, too.

I didn’t think anything more of it until I handed her a copy of the ticket. She looked it over.

Her eyebrows went way, way up. She was looking at the title I’d put on the piece: and, under it, at the condition.

Oh, shit, my brain said to me, as I realized what I’d done. She opened her mouth.

“…tacky?” she said. “You think my painting is tacky?”

Luckily, she was a nice woman, and once I’d explained it to her she thought it was pretty funny.

Why am I mentioning this? As a lesson, writer friends.

‘Tacky’ was, absolutely, the most accurate word to describe the condition of the painting. When an oil painting is half-dry, as that one was, the texture can hardly be described any other way.

However, in that situation, the most accurate word wasn’t the right word.

Why? Because no one wants to see a ticket with the word ‘tacky’ scrawled on it, describing their own artwork. If I’d taken a second and used my person-brain I would’ve figured that out. But I didn’t–I used my framer-brain instead, which is slow and socially inept, but really good at fractions and things like how to apply gold leaf. And my framer-brain, touching the picture, said tacky.

I got lucky. If I’d been in that lady’s place, a framer probably would’ve died that morning.

Some words, no matter how accurate they are, aren’t the right words in a story, for reasons your social-brain will tell you, if you give it a second. Tacky is probably never a good word to describe someone’s artwork, even if the texture fits that description perfectly. It’s better, in such a case, to say the painting is ‘wet’, even though it isn’t, strictly speaking. People will understand what you mean, and you don’t run the risk of misleading them with your word choices.

Another example: I’m writing a story which features twin brother exorcists (I know, I know). I wrote a scene recently in which they were debating a bunch of lies someone had recently told them, and this sentence happened:

“Oh, brother,” Deacon said.

Deacon is, of course, interjecting due to the ridiculousness. To his brother, Derek.

To his brother.

Is it an interjection? Is it a call for help? If I used that phrase, who the hell would know?

It’s exactly the phrase he would use in that situation. But it’s not the right one.

I guess what I’m saying can be summed up thusly: when you’re debating word choice, spare a moment of thought for the audience. The right word is, after all, only the right word if everyone understands you, and situational circumstances can affect whether people will understand you or not.

In a scene where someone is pooping, no one should stub a toe and say shit.

In a scene where two SeaWorld employees are feeding killer whales in a tank, neither one of them should talk about how they’re drowning in something plentiful, or how difficult it is to stay above water.

Sounds easy, no? It’s harder than you think. (A phrase which, in turn, shouldn’t be used if your geologist MC is cracking through rock strata).

The exception is, of course, when you’re going for a deliberate pun. I leave you guys to figure out when that’s applicable, as puns usually speak for themselves.

But there is nothing–nothing–more painful on this Earth than an unintentional pun.

There isn’t an easy way to avoid it, sadly–except to be on your guard, and have a beta reader or two. Other people tend to notice pretty quickly when an explorer makes ‘no bones about’ the skeleton he just found in the ruins.

Excerpt: Hedge Apples

Part III of this story for you. I’m well past this part, actually, but I’ve had to rewrite it again and again and again: it’s challenging to say what you want to say, deal with something fairly technical, and try not to debunk every single great illusion ever at the same time. I feel like the first part STILL drags on, but hell, what’s a girl to do?

If you like it, lemme know.

III

ESCAPE

It was show night.

Russell combed his hair in the bathroom, climbed into his dusty black suit. He collected his handcuffs and thumb cuffs and card decks and sponge balls and tinctures and trick coins in a duffel bag and loaded it into the back of his Cavalier. He secreted a few lock picks about his person, one in a sleeve cuff and one Houdini-style under the skin of his upper arm. He was very conscious, as he made the little incision on the inside of the bicep, of how crazy this looked–a pale young man, long haired and wild-eyed, inserting what was not at all a thin piece of metal into is own body.  It hurt like a bitch to do, and he hated doing it, but it had saved his life on more than one occasion. He might have had a death wish, but it wasn’t an irrational one: he blotted the blood where he had made the incision with a piece of toilet paper and put a band-aid over it. It would continue to bleed for a while, but that was quite all right with Russell. It could bleed as long as it wanted. Blood made for a better effect, in the tank.

He grabbed his dove jacket from the spare room closet–black on black, tailored to him and more expensive than the rest of the closet put together, smelling faintly now of birdshit and feathered nests.

He thought of his little doves, tame and good-natured, in their cages at the workshop. He had tried to learn dove magic, had seen enough good dove acts to understand the value of it, but when it came time to shove the fat little birds in the jacket he simply hadn’t had the heart. They accepted it too easily, accepted the close, black space inside the jacket sleeves too easily.

He had felt like he was betraying them. Doves never died inside a dove jacket, unless you fell or sat down or got punched in just the wrong place, but he didn’t want to take the chance. They could still suffocate, be crushed. He did tend to get punched. The doves were more like pets now, studio pets: their cooing soothed him while he worked. The jacket, however, had been too expensive to merely abandon, and he often wore it as a suitcoat for cold-weather shows. Its bulky shape, at odds with his thin frame,  had been one of the reasons people assumed his suits were all secondhand.

He put the dove jacket on. It was November, it was cold enough for it. He combed his hair one more time, the red-brown strands that had given him his childhood nickname crackling in the dry air and clinging like staticky silk to his neck.

Perhaps he would wear the jacket into the tank tonight. It would ruin it, but he almost thought he would like to ruin it: he derived a strange pleasure from ruining his most expensive props. It was one of the reasons he never made any money, one of the reasons he clipped coupons and was sometimes late on the rent.

(No, his common sense told him. People don’t like to see a fully clothed man in the tank. They like him half-naked, defenseless, vulnerable. You’re still a showman. Actually: you’re nothing but a showman.)

He checked the time. Might as well head out, he could have a beer before the show if he left now.

The drive was five miles–Russ couldn’t afford to live closer to downtown. He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel, running them up and down like a crowd of ten doing the wave at a football game. His fingers were thickly muscled, strong and dexterous. They had to be. He could pull a nail straight out of a wall with them. He could push his thumb through an apple or a plum.

They were magician’s hands. Of course they were; he was a magician.

Why did he have to keep reminding himself? Why did it feel, in some way, like a lie? When he told people what he did for a living–told them, I’m a magician–some little part of him looked around with nervous eyes, waiting for someone to contradict him. You’re a fake, he thought.

But of course he was. It was part of his job, to be a fake.

Wasn’t it?

The Pissed Pig’s parking lot was already full when he passed by. His name on the marquee was missing an s: The Astounding Rus ell A. When you were booked at The Pissed Pig you learned to expect certain things, and working lights weren’t one of them. He pulled into the back entrance and parked next to Howie’s SUV. Employee’s and Performer’s ONLY, read the peeling sign on the back of a piece of cardboard. ALL OTHERS TOWED STRAIGHT TO HELL.

Inside, in back, Howie and Tenko were waiting for him. Tenko had her toolbelt draped over the giant motheaten boar’s head that had, before some long-ago remodel, been the Pissed Pig’s only sign. The glass eyes glittered in the dark, as did the beers they were both holding. The backstage area bristled with props, not all of them Russell’s own.

“There’s the man of the hour,” Howie said, sipping his drink. “Oy. We almost got the tank filled without you. Want to check everything, make sure it’s as it should be?” He dragged another beer from the plastic rings, popped it and handed it to him.

“Thanks, Howie. I trust you guys.” He swilled. He watched their eyebrows rise.

“So,” Howie asked at last. “Where’s your girl? Mimi or Katie or whatever.”

“She left.” He gestured, mutely, to nowhere in particular. “Apparently, I’m an asshole.”

“You are,” Howie agreed. He patted Russell’s shoulder. “‘S all right. We love you.”

“Sure you do.”

“Of course we do,” said Tenko. His stage hand and sometimes assistant, a four foot ten girl with a perfect pointed little face, was wearing a diaphanous black evening gown and a pair of silver maifa sticks in the long dark mass of her hair. She was also toting the biggest tool belt Russell had ever seen, short of softcore porn. Her real name was Natalie. She was from Hoboken, New Jersey. “Boss, I was wondering. We’re doing a production of Romeo and Juliet at school, and I don’t quite have the room I need to build the balcony scene. Could I use your studio, maybe? And the truck?”

“Sure, sure.” Actually: “That’s perfect. I’ve got to go out of town for a few days, maybe you could look in on the birds too? Just feed them, touch them, talk to them a little. You know what I do.”

“Okay.” Tenko grinned.

“Just put the tools back in the right places afterwards.” He stripped the spare studio key from his keyring and handed it to her. “And don’t work after three in the morning. It annoys the drunks who sleep it off in the unit next door.”
“Okay, okay! Whatcha doing? You got a new lady already?”

“My father died. I’ve got to attend the funeral.”

There was silence. The cheap canned music filtered back from the bar, the sounds of evening drunks getting loud and rowdy.

“You okay, Boss?” Tenko asked at last.

“I’m fine.” Russell shrugged defensively. “I didn’t get to know him, you might say. Ma wants me there, though.”
“Oooh. The ma.” Howie imitated his faint southern drawl, the accent Russell couldn’t entirely kick no matter how hard he tried. “All right, mama’s boy, say no more.”

“Sorry about your dad, Boss.”

“Don’t be.” Russell looked around him, looked through the rising smoke and the rising dust and the faint smells of vomit and sweat from the main bar. “He was more of an asshole than I am. How long until showtime?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“All right.” If he strained, he could hear the murmurs of his crowd out there. “All right. Tenko, would you get my stuff set up for me?”

“Sure, Boss. Rings, then fire, then cards, then water, right?”

“Right. And one last thing. The tank?”

“Already on stage being filled up, Boss.”

“I know that. Put a lock on the sliding door.”

“WHAT?”

“You heard me.”

Tenko blinked incredulously. “Boss,” she said slowly. “That little trapdoor is your lifeline. If everything else goes wrong, you can still slide that door open and get some air. Nobody in the audience will ever know if it’s there or not. Why the fuck would you want to do a stupid thing like that?”

“I’ll know it’s there,” Russell said. He was surprised by the roughness of his own voice. “I’ll know. C’mon, Natalie. I know we have a lock for that thing somewhere around here.”

But Natalie, alias Lady Tenko, was shaking her bemaifa’d head. “No,” she said flatly. “Hell, no. That’s suicidal, Russ. You’re not a real magician, you know. You can’t magic yourself out of there once I lock you in. I won’t kill you. I won’t feed your stupid pigeons forever.”

“I can force the door. Those hinges are shitty anyway.”

“Like hell you can force the door! That tank’s taller than you, what’ll you push off of?” Lady Tenko, Mysterious Illusionist of the Orient, was now fully Natalie Ng, Hoboken-born bitch. It showed in every line of her crossed arms, the maifa sticks bristling like two hedgehog quills from her hair. “Give it up, Russell. I’m not gonna do it. I won’t kill you.”

“You and Howie’ll be right there timing me.”

“Which just means we’ll be the ones who have to pull your drowned corpse out of the tank. No, Russ. No fucking way am I locking that door. What is all this about, anyway? Is it because you broke up with your stupid fucking girlfriend?”
“I need to do it,” he said quietly.

“God, that’s it, isn’t it? Some trashy peroxide whore dumps you, and you want to drown yourself in front of a live studio audience. You’re insane, Russ. You are one hundred percent insane. I don’t even know if you need to be doing your show tonight. You’ll probably try to strangle yourself with the fucking silks, you deadbeat full-of-shit piece of…”

“If he says he can do it, I believe him,” said Howie.

Even Russell stared at him. Unperturbed, Howie finished his beer, wiping a few errant droplets from his multiple chins.
“He’s the Astounding Russell A, right? When has he ever been wrong before? If he says he can do it, he has a plan to do it. Remember the pirhanas, Nats? You said the same thing about the pirhanas. And not a one of them touched him.”
“This is different,” Tenko said hotly. “Even with the pirhanas he had a trap door. Right now, the Astounding Russell A is making A stand for asshole. And making a decision like that fifteen minutes before the show goes on–fuck! Russell, I’m worried about you. I am really and truly worried.”

“Just do it,” said Russell.

It must’ve been something in his voice, or the rising sounds of the crowd outside. She locked eyes with him, and for a minute it was just the two of them, magicians, and then the rest of the world. Could she see, he wondered, some little glimpse of what he was thinking?

It wasn’t the crowd’s reaction at all. They didn’t know about the sliding door on the top of the tank; they’d think the same thing either way. It was about the challenge. It was about doing something impossible.

It was about magic.

“I’ll want a two hundred buck bonus,” Tenko said at last. “Consider it stress pay.  Howie gets another hundred too, straight from your pocket and not through the bar. And you’re going to do what you always say you’re going to do and buy me a drink after the show, because you’ll be alive and well and I will be, trust me, so fucking happy I’ll be unable to order myself one from nervous laughter. And if you are one second–one second–later than two minutes in getting out of there, we come in after you. I don’t care about your death wish, Russ. You aren’t going to die with us right here.”
She stood on tiptoe, kissed his cheek. “Russell the Astounding Asshole,” she said fondly. “I hope you have a plan. I really do.” She grabbed her toolbelt from the boar’s head. “Gimme five minutes.”

It left Russell and Howie alone in the half-dark, staring at each other.

“You do know what you’re doing, right?” Howie said.

“Oh,” said Russell. “Fuck, no.”

****

The first part of the show blurred by, dreamlike. Russell appeared and disappeared his rings, shuffled his cards, turned the cards into roses and the roses into silks and the silks into walking sticks. His fingers made the gestures almost naturally, he stood at the right angles almost naturally. This wasn’t what his audience was here for. He knew it and they knew it. It was a prologue of sorts, a gentle introduction. Their faces, clustered around the Pissed Pig’s always too small stage, were politely appreciative. Their applause was equally polite.

The hadn’t come for illusion, for flash cotton and red silk. They had come for the water escape. Houdini’s water escape, really, just like he had Houdini’s lockpick in his arm. The tank, covered by a huge black cloth, loomed behind him. It was waiting for him.

It knew what he was going to do.

Could they feel it, he wondered? The tank’s heavy presence, its brooding, its casketlike properties. Its locked lids and doors.

He could feel it.

If there was one sort of real magic in the world, he thought, it was magic between people. Your audience could sense what they were seeing in some way that went deeper than the mere visual. They could sense your sincerity, your honesty. And this particular audience could sense that he was about to do something stupid and dangerous. They longed for it, like a fifteen year old girl longed for a boyfriend. They were impatient with his usual toys, with the rings and the canes and the cards. They wanted what he, through gesture or stance or telekinesis, was promising. They wanted his skinny ass in the tank.

It was almost sensual. Almost erotic, this longing.

With ten minutes left in the show, he caved. He signaled Tenko out: she took his table and his rings. He produced a bouquet of roses for her from behind his last silk and handed that over as well. She accepted with what must have been the phoniest smile in show business.

“Are you sure about this?” she hissed out of the corner of her mouth. He nodded. He kept up his own showman’s gloss.
Tenko raised the bouquet up high, Howie’s signal in back. The velvet curtain hiding the tank cranked up.

“If you die,” Tenko hissed, “I will haunt you in hell.”

Russell kept smiling. He removed his jacket and handed it to Tenko. The crowd, sensing the thing they had come for in close proximity, gathered close to one another. He unbuttoned his shirt and removed it. He dropped his pants. He stood, in his plain black boxers, in front of a live audience.

“Two minutes,” Tenko hissed.

Russell knew he was pale. Pale in the way only a natural redhead could be: ice-pale, milk-pale, the deathly freckled pale of a corpse or a freshly laundered sheet. He knew he was skinny, the muscles from years of training standing out more like tumors than sleek bodybuilt health. He knew a good effect when he saw one and knew, the first time he had seen a tape of his show and watched his own deathly white figure silhouetted against the black backdrop, that he would never do a water escape clothed again.

The audience oohed and aahed as he folded up his pants and passed them to Tenko. Behind him, the backlit tank cast a sepulchral blue-green light over the scene. The lockpick from his jacket cuff, which he had palmed and slipped between his fingers while removing the jacket, was a single sliver of cold against the warmth of his tense body.

Tenko left his clothes in back for him, returned laden with handcuffs. She locked him in the first set, the second, the third. She pressed the thumb cuffs over his flexing thumbs. His arms felt heavier. He knew from watching the tapes he was bending over a little with the weight. When she added the chain around his arms, locking it as they had agreed right above his heart, he sagged a little more.

The audience was stone silent as he ascended the stairs to the top of the tank, guided at the elbow by the diaphanous Tenko, who was, out of the line of audience sight, glaring at him like he’d just killed a family member. She was still glaring at him as she helped him into the water. It was tepid, smelled chlorinated. He felt his boxers ballooning up around his ass.

“Don’t die, please,” said the diaphanous Tenko. She sighed. “You about ready, Boss?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Breathe.”

He emptied his lungs. Took a deep breath, several small breaths.

She rested a hand lightly on his head. “All right. One, two. Go.”

He submerged. He heard, reverberating through the water all around him, the sound of the top door locking. The curtain came down.

The curtain had been Tenko’s idea, and it was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. He would never stop telling her how brilliant it was. A semi-sheer curtain, ombre dyed dark red to cherry blossom pink. His figure, he knew from the tapes, was perfectly silhouetted by backlighting on it–a womb-curtain, the escaping Russell broadcast in a crepuscular haze of organ-pink. The crowd could see his large movements, but not his smaller ones–not, for instance, the shrugging off of the thumb cuffs, the movement of the lockpick from between his fingers to his palm.

His lips pursed in the pounding silence of the water. The handcuff lock was an old lock, familiar. He could pick it in his sleep. He picked all three of them with barely a pause.They must’ve done it five hundred times, in water and out of water, naked and fully dressed and drunk and sober.

The handcuffs fell to the bottom of the tank. He felt rather than heard them, in the flow of the water. His heartbeat was a deafening drum, was a funeral march, was a frenetic adderol roar. He picked the band-aid from his upper arm with his teeth, caught the head of the pick inside him with his teeth. He ripped it out.

The water took on a faint pinkish quality. He knew, when the curtain raised, the murmurs this would get from the audience. The audience would be roaring right now–roaring and murmuring, standing up, craning their necks. They had seen the thumb cuffs drop, the handcuffs drops. But the chains?

What did he have left? A minute? His head was starting to ache. His lungs screamed at him.

He went for the chains, heavy lengths of metal purchased at a local hardware store where Russell, enterprisingly cheap magician that he was, had a discount card. He felt the lock’s teeth, felt the pick inside them. He knew what Howie, voicing over the crowd, would be saying outside of his blank watery prison:

The stunt that killed Houdini! The classic of modern magic! Can Russell escape a watery grave?

Can he? Russell wondered dryly. The lock gave, the chains fell to the floor of the tank. Ordinarily, he would have stretched his arms at this point, but he knew better than to expend the extra energy underwater. He could hold his breath for two minutes without movement fairly easily, but with the energy expenditure of picking all those locks, and the shock of the small wound in his arm now bleeding pink ribbons into the water, he was pushing it.

He readied himself to push open the trap door. He braced his legs against the sides of the tank. He imagined the scene outside–the audience whispering, his own ghostly silhouette climbing up the walls of its womb. Wasn’t this taking longer than normal? Tenko looking theatrically at her watch, shaking her head. Howie, backstage, his hand on the axe. Russell was very proud of the axe, had found it himself on Craigslist. It was ancient, chipped, massive. A businesslike looking axe. The sort of prop that built serious suspense.

His arms were beginning to tremble. He braced himself, pushed.

The door didn’t budge.

He pushed again.

Nothing. His feet slid downwards along the glass sides of the tank.

Russell began to panic.

What the fuck–what in the blue fuck–had he been thinking? He was an illusionist, a performer, a sad latterday Houdini. He wasn’t a fucking wizard. How on earth had he thought he was going to get enough purchase to push open a locked door from inside a water-filled tank? What had possessed him?

Tenko had tried to warn him. Hell, Tenko had tried to force him to not do it. She knew about magic, knew what he was doing. Howie was just a stagehand for The Pissed Pig. What the fuck had he been thinking?

He banged his fist against the trapdoor. Nothing happened. He might as well have been banging against a brick wall.

A minute left, probably less by now. His vision was blurring. He could feel pain all the way to his kidneys.

Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Howie would be onstage, with his stupid fucking theatrical axe. The audience would be on tenterhooks.

This, Russell reflected, was how magicians died. Stupid magicians. Stupid magicians, he appended, who forgot they were just fucking performers, who forgot they couldn’t actually do magic. Which didn’t, in all actuality, exist.

His vision was narrowed to a thin and ragged gash in reality. Things were going red, then going grey. Oh, God. What a stupid way to die.

The thing he felt most, he reflected, was shame. Well. Shame, and incredible pain and pressure. His lungs were screaming inside him. His eyeballs were probably about to explode.

He pushed, and pushed, and pushed. His pushes were getting weaker. His feet were losing their purchase on the inside of the tank. Things were, incredibly, seeming less urgent. If he could just breathe.

Just breathe.

He was deep inside the wood, the trees making their crisscross ceiling of green and brown over him, the underbrush tickling his ankles. It was cool here, and quiet. Delightful.

The grey-haired man was glaring at him.

“Granddaddy,” he said. “What’ve I done?”

“You know damn well, boy. Be glad I’m the sort of gent who likes to break rules. Be very, very glad.”

“But Granddaddy.”

“Shush,” he said, scowling. “No buts. You best be buying that girl a drink, son.”

“But–“

But, but. The trees rose, blurred. Disappeared.

He felt–felt, rather than saw, because as deeply wrapped as he was in his own pain he saw nothing–the lock give.
He felt the trapdoor open.

He burst to the surface, just at the moment he should have done so–just as the backlighting, cued by Tenko to the side of the stage, flickered and went out.

It was incredible how fast the pain went away. How fast his vision returned, his sense of hearing. The crowd was shouting, screaming his name. There was only one answer to that.

Russell breathed deeply. He breathed greedy lungfuls of shitty bar air. He ducked behind the tank, back behind the curtains. He made his way through the backstage area and staggered through the side wings. He slipped out, through a service door, into the main bar area.

Lights. Sounds, murmuring, smoke.

And God, what timing. What incredible timing. He could see Tenko and Howie on the stage, Howie with the big axe over his shoulder, Tenko gripping his dove jacket as though, if she wrung it hard enough, he would appear inside it. He must’ve just made two minutes. Just made it. A second earlier and the backlighting would’ve still been on, the audience would’ve seen him duck behind the stage.

“Raise the curtain,” Tenko screeched. “Raise the goddamn curtain.”

There was nothing in the tank, of course. Nothing except pinkish water and abandoned chains. Tenko climbed the steps so fast she tore a great piece of netting out of her gown. He could feel the tension in the audience like a string pulled taut in front of him. His heart was starting to beat normally again. His breaths were no longer deep gasps.

Okay.

“Holy shit,” he heard Tenko whisper hoarsely.

He stepped closer to the stage, hoisted himself back up on it.

“AHEM,” he said.

Eventually, the lights found him.

The audience didn’t know exactly what it had just witnessed, how it had been different from the other minor escapes he had pulled for them. But they could sense it. Maybe it was Tenko’s tears–genuine tears. Maybe it was the way Howie rushed down the steps, picked him up like a pale bedraggled doll and spun him around in the air. Maybe it was the ribbons of blood still dispersing in the tank.

Tenko kissed him full on the lips. The crowd exploded. Some of them were climbing on stage to touch him, their fingers brushing his fingers, his shoulders, his dripping hair. Howie had to push them back, had to raise his axe even.

“Holy shit,” Tenko whispered. She wrapped the dove jacket around him. He was shaking. As feeling came back to his extremities, he realized he was freezing cold. “Russell, holy shit. How did you do that? How?”

“I guess the door gave,” Russell said. “Hey. I owe you a drink.”

“Like fuck you do,” Tenko said. She smiled at him through tears and runny mascara. “I’m buying you one. I’ll buy you fifty, if you never put me through something like that ever again. That was the most amazing thing–the most incredible magic–fuck, Russ, I wish we could tell everybody what you just did and have them appreciate it. I can’t for the life of me figure it out. “

“The door gave,” Russell repeated. “Why is that so amazing?”

Tenko laughed. “Fine, fine, if that’s how you want to play it. Keep your secrets. You forget, Russ–I looked at the lock.”

“Sure,” Russell said, frowning. “And?”

“And how did you do it? God. It’s almost like real magic. Did you have that door rigged somehow? Some sort of hidden latch?”

“What’re you talking about?”

Her laughter was a little crazy. “Russell,” she said, magician to magician. “I’m not an idiot. You picked that lock from the inside.”

****

For the rest of the evening, time was slippery. Russell got dressed and came back out to the bar to chat with his fans. He bought Natalie a drink: in return, she bought him four. He gave three of them away. Strangely, he didn’t feel much like drinking.

You picked that lock from the inside.

Even once the band started–and this Mala was indeed Mala Engelhoff, whom he had been in freshman English with in college–most of the people stayed in the main bar. Around him. He was touched, caressed, made much of, photographed and chatted up. A chubby Goth girl with a snakebite piercing more or less forced her tongue into his mouth. She got a picture of it and seemed happy, so Russell supposed that was all right.

He sat, numbly, and let things happen around him. He drank one or two of the thirty or so drinks people bought for him. The rest went to Tenko and Howie, who by the middle of the night were both curled stuporously on the old leather couch by the door with a plastic bucket in easy reach beside them.

You picked that lock from the inside.

When the Maenads’ set was over, Mala Engelhoff came and sat next to him. Yes, she remembered him from college. Boy, had his act been incredible. She was beautiful, just as he remembered, like a punk rock statue carved from warm amber. She was wearing a t-shirt with holes slashed in all the right places. When she kissed him, her lips warm and smelling faintly of cherry chapstick, he felt nothing, nothing, nothing.

From the inside.

It was impossible. Tenko had missed something. After all, she had been worried and afraid when she looked.

Nobody could have picked that lock from the inside of the tank.

He had forced the door, just like he had planned. He knew this because it was the only thing he could have done. Anything else just wasn’t possible.

Well, maybe Tenko hadn’t locked it all the way.
Maybe she was fucking with him.

He looked over to the couch, where Tenko and Howie were leaning saggily against one another. Neither looked capable of ambulatory motion, much less great fuckwithery. The plastic bucket, he noticed, had a thin layer of grey vomit inside it.

From the inside.

Oh, God.

At some point, he kissed Mala Engelhoff again. They held hands outside the bar, her hands cool and lotioned. She asked where he was living these days, which he knew to be an invitation. He ignored it, for once in his life, for maybe the first time. He left the sweetly sleeping Tenko a note, reminding her to look after the birds.

He climbed into his car, his suit smelling of smoke and bar and Mala’s hand lotion, and started driving home. After all, he had a funeral to go to. And he was already wearing a suit.

Excerpt: Chapter One, Time Two

Okay, this is the last time I’ll do this to you guys. Thank you so, so much. Especially Matt and Al. You guys are editing superheroes, and in a very short amount of time!

A BIG thank you as well to Chris at Modern Fantastic. I forgot this earlier because I’m an ass. Your edits are tidy, sir, and your skill set complex.

Added some description, calmed down the pace a little, destroyed some but not all passive verb use. Don’t worry about the lute, it comes into play at the end of the chapter. Using it as an object-lesson for Aurian’s comfort in the inn, way better than all the town dialogue for it.

ONE
ERSATZ WIFE

Aurian gazed down the length of the blade to the knotty hand grasping it, and beyond there to the dirt-streaked face of the bandit currently holding him up.

“I said,” Aurian repeated patiently, “what money?”

“Don’t get yourself killed, laddie. There’s got to be some money in this shitheap. Couple coppers socked away, antique glassware–whatever you’ve got. If you ain’t got nothing, we’ll just slit your throat and sell your corpus to the necromancers down the road. All the same to us.”

The bandit pressed his sword a little deeper into Aurian’s throat. Aurian swallowed with some difficulty.

“Look where this inn is situated,” he said. “It’s a shit location. We haven’t seen a traveler in months. We’ve got a few pigs in the yard and a few chickens. About half a barrel of ale. That’s it.”

“Don’t lie to me, now!” Spit flecked Aurian’s face, as well as a few droplets of red–the bandit had finally worked up enough nerve to break skin. Aurian ignored the pain, took deep measured breaths. Certainly this wouldn’t be the amateur holdup that got him killed. Certainly.

To calm himself, he looked around the inn–the trestle tables his father had built, ungainly legs evened by bits of folded paper and spare checkers. The rows of thick-bottomed glasses, hibernating under their blankets of dust. The painted lute over the fireplace, blue and garish yellow, which Aurian knew logically was a musical instrument and not just a decoration, but which it had never occurred to him until right now could actually be played. Hells, he wasn’t even sure where it had come from.

It would also, he thought wistfully, make a rather excellent bludgeon. Fortunately, he had a better one waiting upstairs: best give his assailants a few moments of silence, though. He knew from long experience not to seem too eager.

The bandit’s two friends, every bit as dusty and mustaschioed as the bandit himself, were looking nervous. Aurian was willing to bet none of them had ever killed a man before–hells, if the weather had been better, they’d probably still be on their farms with their fathers, and the nasty-looking machetes at their sides would still be used for clearing brush.

These times made men desperate, they did.

Which was none of Aurian’s business. They had chosen this, not him. And there was always a choice.

“Look,” he said at last, making his voice quaver slightly. “All right, you’ve got me. My wife keeps a sack of coppers on her–supposed to last us the winter, they were. You’re welcome to ’em. Just leave us in peace.”

“Maybe,” the lead bandit said curtly. “Maybe not. Where’s the lady?”

“She’s upstairs.”

The bandit resheathed his sword. “Call her.”

“Jin,” Aurian called. “Oh, Jin! We have visitors.”

“Fuck off,” said Jin from above. Her voice sounded thick, fuzzy. Aurian was willing to bet she had been sound asleep.

The bandits chuckled, perhaps recognizing the same thing. “Right proper and obedient, that one,” one of the two lesser bandits said. Aurian phrased his request carefully:

“Jin. These gentlemen are interested in some of your coppers.”

“Are they now? Goody.” Jin now sounded positively cheery, which was frightening enough even to Aurian. A door swung open, followed by a familiar lithe step and a series of creaks as Jin took the stairs down.

Aurian was not facing the right direction to see her, but he could tell from the guffaws of the bandits when she was in view.

“Aithar’s hells, laddie, that’s your wife?” said the lead bandit. “Where’d you find her, hanging in a butcher’s shop?”

“Oh, now,” Jin said pleasantly. “You shouldn’t have gone there. I was going to leave you alive.”

He heard the sliding ring of drawn steel, a few soft rushed footsteps. The bandit currently antagonizing Aurian choked on something distinctly vital. He jerked, made silent fishlike movements with his mouth, and slumped. A red puddle grew on the floor around him.

With a vicious kick, Jin slid him off her sword and onto the bodies of his cohorts, who had fallen in almost perfect silence. She wiped her sword on his tunic and turned to face her husband.

‘Hello, my darling dingleberry,” she said cheerfully. “My precious puking pearl. My salubrious swine. My–”

“Enough!” Aurian shook his head, barely able to repress a smile. “I truly thought we might be fucked, this time. I thought you’d really gone to sleep up there.”

“I did.” She bent, began to rifle through the purses of the deceased. “What, you don’t think I’d rise to the dulcet tones of my husband in distress?”

Aurian laughed in spite of himself. “Of course you would, my pumpkin. Of course you would.”

“Don’t do it to me. Makes my skin bloody well crawl.” She found a purse that jingled, poured coins into her hand. She weighed them with the aplomb of a master moneylender. “Good take on these bastards. Fourteen copper.”

“About time somebody beat ’em at their own game. Toss it in with the rest, I guess.”

“Which board is it, again?”

“Somewhere around the welcome mat. Step on it, it’ll sound hollow.”

As she stepped, listened, and cursed, Aurian took the moment to stretch, blot the small wound at his throat with the back of his hand, and look at his wife.

Jin Koch, neé Grewler, was nearly six feet tall, thin as a rail, and possessed the blanched complexion and sharp profile common to the Imperial south. In addition to a haggard face, she had a braided mat of ivory hair that hung unbrushed and unloved to the small of her back–the sort of hair that, with about a year’s proper maintenance and a good shearing, might have curled in attractive ringlets around her face.

But her face was the problem, really. For, in place of one pale grey eye, Jin wore a patch–a patch big enough to cover some of her forehead and most of her gaunt cheek. Even so, the patch was not large enough to cover the scars that extended like mountain ridges from her empty socket, or the healed-over shiny burns that clustered around it.

There was a thin film of filth on Jin and everything she touched. Her nails were black, her smile crooked, her baggy tunic a color Aurian could only think of as ‘crusty’. She might have been beautiful once or she might have never been; through the filth-curtain it was impossible to tell. Aurian suspected she rather liked it that way. Suspected, in fact, that she did it on purpose.

It had occurred to him to wonder whether this behavior, abnormal as it was, wasn’t a cloak for other, deeper issues. It probably was. Anyone who needed a name change badly enough to marry Aurian probably had a Chequered Past and a half. But if she didn’t want to talk, twelve demons and a horde of stampeding cattle couldn’t drag a secret out of Jin. So she smiled, and stank, and remained cheerfully incommunicado on the subject of anything deeper than the weather or feeding the pigs.

Aurian liked her. For reasons he couldn’t begin to fathom, it was difficult not to. Especially since she was so damn useful.

He was not an opportunist. Not in any conventional sense, at least: he had been starving at this gods-forsaken inn on the side of this gods-forsaken minor road for long enough to know that. But when he saw a chance to get back–at the bandits who stole the few coppers he managed to make, at the townsfolk who told him he’d never amount to much–by marrying a woman willing to trade her blade for his name, well, he’d have been a fool not to take it. She may have been ugly, and crass, and a drunk, but this strange Imperial swordswoman had made him in six months about double what he’d made in the past ten years.

And all for the price of his hand, and free beer. There was no sex in it–of course there was no sex–but then again, Aurian had heard semi-reliably about sex from the necromancers, and thought it sounded like the sort thing that, when done with Jin, might be likely to spread plague.

“Dearest,” he asked. “You don’t by any chance know how to play the lute, do you?”

Jin rolled her eye. “Of course I do,” she said. “As you can see from my smooth pretty face, I possess all the courtly airs and graces. I keep them up my arse, along with my royal pedigree.”

“So no, then.”

“Resoundingly.” Her last step sounded hollow. “Ah. Here we go.”

Jin found the board’s edge with her toe, kicked it up and over. The eerie light of all their stashed copper shone on her face, making it angular, a sculpture in reds and oranges. Aurian smiled at her affectionately.

“How much, d’you think?”

“Don’t know. Four hundred–five hundred, maybe. A little sack of it’s in gold.” She scowled, fingering the offending sack. “We could afford a place in the city with this, you know. ”

“Aye, but then we couldn’t do our civic duty.” He gestured to the fallen bandits. “We keep it up, dear heart, and Sohoban’s Way won’t have any more bandits on it at all. We’ll be heroes. They might even make me mayor.”

Jin snorted. “Mayor of the midden heap, maybe. Need I remind you that these people hate you?”

“They do now. When they find out we’re rich…” he left his thought unfinished. He could buy some new trestle tables, some glasses that didn’t strain your arms going from table to mouth. Maybe hire some help from town: a pretty girl, moderately saucy but good-hearted, to get folk coming in and keep them coming back. Aurian would pay her well, treat her well. She would tell all her friends, and the townsfolk would see at last that he was a decent person, nothing dark or mysterious about him in the least. Just a young man with a shitty inn. They would maybe start stopping by for a drink, a little conversation.

Money could do so much.

In one easy motion, Jin grabbed a dead bandit and slung him over her shoulder. “Speaking of midden heaps,” she said, “what should I do with these scumbags?” She sniffed, made a face. “Ugh. I think this one’s soiled himself.”

“We’ll burn them tonight. Say a few words over them.” Anticipating her look, he added: “Come on, Jin. They’ve suffered enough for their crimes just by trying to rob us. Don’t feed them to the pigs.”

“Would save us a bundle on pig feed.”

“We don’t need to save a bundle. Remember the pile of copper under that floorboard?”

“They’re dead. They don’t care if they’re pig feed or in a crypt. Might as well use what you have, says I.”

And that was Jin: practical, no-nonsense Jin. Aurian, who had been born and raised in this area and had never seen adventure so much as shake a stick at him, couldn’t help but admire her attitude. He would never feed a dead man to pigs–whether or not he believed in an afterlife didn’t even enter into it. It just wasn’t the done thing.

But he could see how it made sense.

“No pigs,” he said at last. “Have some respect, dearest. Just pile ’em out back–I’ll get around to the fire presently.”

“Pile ’em yourself,” Jin shot back. “And think about your priorities, while you’re at it. You want to stay in an inn with no traffic and drink your days away, that’s just fine. I’ll do it with you. But you can’t go taking things for granted like you do. Someday you’ll be sitting here with no fodder for the pigs, thinking ‘oh, if only I still had those bloody bandit corpses…'”

“Taking things for granted like I do, eh? You’re the one who sits day in and day out. At least I sweep. Hells, your arm gets more muscle moving tankard to mouth than it does swinging that sword of yours.”

“Aye,” Jin spat, tossing the bandit back down on the floor. “Perhaps it does. But I’ve been in worse places, places you can’t even imagine. You’d do well to listen to me.”

She stalked off. Aurian counted to ten.

Before he hit seven she came back in, grabbed a tankard from under the bar, filled it at the barrel, and walked back out again.

“Think on it!” she called. She slammed the door behind her. The door-bar, which had been loose for years, dropped into its slot with a meaty thunk.

Aurian sighed, bent down, and heaved one of the dead bandits over his own shoulder. Something under all the leather and chainmail squished slightly, and a distinctive ripe smell joined the old food/woodsmoke aroma of his home.

He debated throwing some cedar chips on the fire to freshen the air, but what was the point? No one new was coming through that door. Not now, not later, probably not with all the copper in the world.

He caught himself yearning, strangely, for someone new to appall.
*****
Aurian had been trying to play the lute on and off, but nothing good was coming of it–the strings were, he supposed, over twenty years old, and even to his inexperienced hands they felt more like wet noodles than proper musical accoutrement. He was finding it much more productive to stare at it vaguely while scrubbing the bloodstains off his floor than to actually strum it: the few sounds he could eke out of the thing had frightened the wildlife. It was lying on the bar now, useless and garishly cheerful, while he took to the floor with a vengeance, a pumice stone, and lye. Every now and again, as though daring it to become a better lute, he’d glare at it.

Around five, a necromancer from the coven down the road entered. Glad for some non-instrumental company, Aurian stuffed his lute and his bottle of scrubbing lye back behind the bar and raised a hand in greeting.

“Horis,” he said. “Welcome back.”

“Aurian.” The necromancer took his usual seat at the bar. He looked dried-up, sunken in, and, in the way of necromancers worldwide, freshly dead.
For Horis, this was the pinnacle of health and good cheer. His voice was, as ever, roughly a hundred pounds heavier than he was. He sounded, in fact, far more like a jolly country innkeeper than Aurian did. Aurian had always found the effect rather disturbing: it was like being wished good morrow by a corpse.

“Good to see you still about,” Horis said. “Bunch of blokes through the coven yesterday, telling us they would bring us an innkeeper’s corpus in return for a sheaf of hexes. I take it your woman took care of them.”

“With her usual speed and skill,” Aurian said. “Cor, but I like to think I’m worth two sheaves at least. How goes the gathering of knowledge?”

“Fair, fair. I’m close to reanimating mammals. Found a chipmunk skeleton in the woods, got it to stay alive for a full thirty minutes this time.” The necromancer rolled back his black sleeves, revealing forearms covered in the snaky blue tattoos of his profession. “Augar and Denis might be by tonight. They’ve been in the trials all week and they’re starved for your beer and a friendly game of cards.”
“How’d they do?”

“They’re full-fledged now, aye.” The necromancer smiled widely, even white teeth splitting his cadaverous face in two. “Reanimated a dead salamander each. I’m very proud.”

“You should be. This round’s on me.” Aurian poured two tankards, and the two of them clinked them together. “Ah, Horis. What’d you do to deserve such talented students?”

“Not a damned thing, mate. Not a damned thing.”

The two men sat in companionable silence for a while, listening to the breeze shake leaves loose from the trees outside. They had existed together, often, in this sort of silence. It could stretch out for hours before either one of them bothered to break it.

At last, the necromancer took a swig from his tankard and grimaced. “By the way, boy, your beer’s getting sour.”

“I know, I know. But I want to drink up what’s left before we put in the new barrel.”

“Any of the good stuff left?”

Aurian grinned. “And there I was thinking you were too drunk last time to remember it. Aye, there’s a bottle left.”

He rummaged under the bar, coming up with a rounded glass bottle and two dusty shot glasses. He poured them both a shot.

“You know,” he said, “I never understood how my father got stuck out here. Why didn’t he at least move into town?”

“Stuck? He chose to live out here, lad. Some people like it.” The necromancer raised his glass. “Sun’s rising, moon’s waning.”

“Sun’s setting,” Aurian replied, raising his glass automatically. “Moon’s waxing.”

They both drank. The berry liquor left a warm glow in Aurian’s belly. He leaned against the bar, looking out the windows to the leafy green depths of the forest beyond them. It had rained not long ago, and Aurian could hear the twin reassuring dribbles of runoff coming from the gutter and the crack in the roof he kept forgetting to fix. He moved a bucket under the leak, and the comfortable silence of a gloomy day was heightened by the soft metallic pings therein.

“Why here?” he asked at last. “On this out-of-the-way road, near this out-of-the-way town. Why would anyone choose this place? Even I can tell it’s a terrible location. ”

“I couldn’t say–never knew him as well as I know you. I suspect he was born hereabouts. When you’re older, you’ll understand the power your birthplace holds. Or perhaps he just wanted a decent quiet life for you.”

“I’ve got a decent quiet life,” Aurian said, a little bitterly. “It’s boring the shit out of me.”

The necromancer chuckled. “Oh, my boy. If you told anyone in town what happened here–or what you have piled out back, for that matter–they would call your life anything but decent and quiet. Certainly not boring.” He reached over, patted Aurian’s shoulder with one of his tattooed hands. His knuckles, Aurian noticed, had daisies on them. “Where’s that harpy you live with, anyhow?”

“Out,” Aurian muttered. “I pissed her off this morning, I think. She’ll be back before sundown. She always is.”

“Like a bad copper,” the necromancer agreed. He burped. “You’d do well to listen to that woman more than you do. She’s far wiser than you. Seen more, too–still no idea where she’s from?”

“None. Nor do I care. Somewhere Southern, obviously–and coming into town wanting a name change? I thought it was better not to ask. She’s a good woman, she couldn’t have done anything too awful.”

“A sensible attitude to take.” The necromancer handed Aurian his tankard. Aurian filled it again, and topped off his own.
“To Jin,” the necromancer said. They clinked glasses.

“To Jin.”

“Sun’s rising.”

“Sun’s setting.”

They drank.

State of the Union

Okay, guys. Let me explain to you why there is no writing post up yet.

I am pretty sick. My throat is on fire. I am typing this, painstakingly, after paying several very expensive bills all at once, on my Kindle touchscreen keyboard, because the regular clackity-clack keyboard I use to write and such things was drowned last time it rained. I have thirty bucks in my pocket until payday. Which is, by the way, NOT this Friday. I have a headache. And my fucking phone just died.

Jesus Caribbean-cruising Christ, but this is not my week.

So, Writing Wednesday might become Thematically Appropriate Thursday this week. Anything I popped out for you today would be mostly bitching, and nobody wants that. And no, touchscreen keyboard, I absolutely NEVER mean ‘ducking’. Like, never.

I’m going to go eat my ramen and grouse now.

BONUS: Cover Reveal

Oh ma gerd. Ohmagerd, OHMAGERD.

Just looking at this makes me feel like a real writer. A big thank you goes out to this talented and dedicated graphic designer, Cissy Russell –otherwise known to me, yes, as Mom. I’m not ashamed.

image

The best part is, without a doubt, the severed head in Aurian’s hand, and the displeased expression on its face. Will anyone see this cover large enough, ever, to notice it? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s THERE. And then there’s that crappy-looking sword (which is, indeed, magical. AND shit as a sword. I mean, what do you expect, from mages? The closest they ever came to personal combat was mobbing a guy who sang the last verse of ‘My Bonnie Wee Lassie Alight in Her Cups’ out of tune. And when somebody told them they’d need a smithy to forge a magical weapon, they said: “well, there are plenty of Smiths. I’m sure, if we borrow a phone book, we can find a Smithy or two as well.”)

For the two or three of you who’ve expressed curiosity, here’s what I’ve got for my bookblurb so far:

Aurian Koch, professional innkeeper, has a pretty easy life. He drinks beer with the necromancers down the road, scrubs tabletops, swabs glasses, and robs bandits. In the company of his wife, the mysterious ex-soldier Jin Grewler, he’s–well, maybe not respected. Maybe tolerated is the right word.

Things change when Jin’s past comes to call in the form of a Bonedancer, fighting scourge of the Imperial South. Before they know it, Aurian and Jin are burning their inn and running for the woods to flee from the consequences of whatever the hell it is Jin has done this time.

But what has Jin done? As they flee, Aurian begins to realize there’s more to the story–and to his wife–than simple crime. Their choices will affect not only their own fortunes, but the fortunes of the entire Imperial South.

TAGLINE: A novel about magic, the nature of power, and a disembodied head with a lovely singing voice.

Mrf. Mrfphlfrrhurr. IT IS DONE. I’m a real girl now.

BONUS: Kill the Muse

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Via unsplash,com. Guess what? You don't need this place to write.

Okay, here’s a nice little bonus post for you. It’s not long, but boy is it EVER from the heart.

I’ve been paging through my Twitter feed, through my blogs and my writing pointers and my whole little virtual writing world. My fingers have been tappity-tapping, my brain running. Note the lack of adjective there; ‘running’ is about all I can say.

I see a lot about the writing ‘life’. Articles with grandiose titles such as ‘facing the blank page’, ‘obeying the muse’, ‘living in the world of your story’, etc. I even found tools–special plot-point dice, prompt books, so on–especially created for writers. And my question is–when in the HELL did writing become a lifestyle choice?

There is no ‘muse’. The blank page is just a piece of paper. While the world of your story should be concise and well-explored, and your characters close to you, you should, at no point, be ‘living’ in an imaginary place. (I think I’ve been guilty of this cliche too, I have to say. But still.)

Writing, like any arts-related activity, is a profession for some, a passion for others. I hope, for those lucky enough to make good money doing it, it’s both. But at the end of the day, it’s putting words on paper. It’s a mechanical process, and if it’s done well it’s a lot of sweat and labor and painstaking decision. Writing isn’t some vaunted mysterious art, there’s no burning incense or augury reading involved. Being sensitive, prone to exposition, and artsy doesn’t make you a writer.

What makes you a writer, in fact, is an assload of hard work. It’s seeing the word ‘agonized’ in a sentence and KNOWING, because you’ve studied what words sound like and their precise meanings, that really, you want ‘stressed’ there. It’s seeing a blank page and not giving a shit, because you’re over all that self-aggrandizing prove-yourself bullshit and you know, KNOW, that what you put down on it will either work or it won’t.

And it’s reading. Boy, is it ever a lot of reading. It’s reading in ‘your genre’ and outside of it. It’s recognizing good work when you see it. It’s reading SO MUCH that your grammar is awesome by reflex. After all, if you have a young dentist, wouldn’t you hope he’s learned something from other, older dentists, who might do things differently? You can learn, my dears, from the strangest places, in the strangest times. Whether or not you want to write LIKE Dostoyevsky, you should still read him. Because he did something good, and maybe he’s got some habits you’d like to steal.

So don’t piss your words away on things like ‘feeding the hungry Muse’ or ‘writing from your heart’. Inspiration will either strike or it won’t, and writing from your heart would be awfully messy.

Write with your two hands, as much or as little as you please. If you keep doing it, you’ll get better. If you don’t–I hear there are some marvelous opportunities in telemarketing.

Badass does not equal Badass Characterization

We’ve all seen this, I know we have. There’s a woman, usually young, usually beautiful. Or a man, young and handsome: we’ll go with a woman here because I’m a woman, and I write a lot of female characters. This woman has a sword, an axe, some daggers, whatever. And she kicks ass. She kicks attitudinal, full-blown orgasmic ASS.

But that’s all she does.

This character (who we will call, for the purpose of this post, Griselda) has a smart mouth, serious skill, level-headed cool. You can count on her to deliver a pointed remark (or a pointed object) to a much-needed destination. She often falls in love with (or, worse, IS) the main character of the story. Her backstory is traumatic in some way–family killed cruelly, husband/wife murdered, sexually abused, raised by a press-gang of flesh-eating priests, you name it. She has ‘grown strong’. Whatever happened will never happen again.

Cue my problems.

While it’s certainly interesting in a movie to watch the bloodbath boil, it gets a little boring in a book. There are only so many fight scenes I’m prepared to read per chapter. And Griselda–well, Griselda kills a lot of people. For justice. Because that’s what makes a strong character, right? Killing people for justice.

And this justice-killing bombshell, who has some adorable flaw tacked on for the sake of salving the writer’s conscience (“it’s all okay if she’s clumsy too, right? As long as it doesn’t affect the plot, or that feast scene where she has to dance…”), well. For some reason, she’s otherwise lovable and kind, and not at all bothered by the fifty or so people she’s ended this chapter. She’ll be a great Queen someday, whether she knows it yet or not.

I know Griselda’s type. That type, in reality, is called a sociopath.

Don’t get it twisted, this isn’t just a girl thing. People do this to men all the time too. (Usually, okay, minus the dance scene). But characterization, my loves, is all in the consequences. There are some things that have happened in Griselda’s life, some things she’s done, that would have an impact on her character. Badasses aren’t usually the most pleasant people to know.  And they certainly aren’t the prettiest.

Some things to think about, before you decide your character is a badass warrior motherfucker:

1) This is probably not a pretty person. Unless your badass is just starting out at Badass University, there are probably a couple of scars here and there. I imagine armor leaves some pretty interesting tan lines, and I imagine spending any time in armor in semi-tropical climates leaves you sweating like an ice cream bowl in a sauna. This person has been knocked around, kicked, punched in the face. This sort of thing leaves marks. It just does.

2) Why the hell is this person the way they are, anyway? Sure, Griselda’s husband/wife/child whatever was taken away in a murder most foul some years ago. This is horrible, and if I ever saw it played out convincingly I might believe it. But it’s also cliche. What on (insert name of fantasy land. here) could make this otherwise ordinary person bend to a life of camping on hard dirt, constant weapons maintenance, and wading through foetid puddles of liquid effluvia after a battle? Is it a desire for heroism? A need to be different? Otherwise unattainable sums of money? This is probably a grey person, a grim person. Or, if not, tell me why not. Better: show me why not.

3) All that killing to do, and you’re also a Prince/ss? If you are ruling the realm, and not just figureheading it, I imagine a lot of your time is spent in council rooms, shuffling around exciting things like zoning ordinances and building permits. Or learning to shuffle around building permits. You probably don’t have a lot of free time in which to pillage, murder, and otherwise raze the countryside. Sure, you might ride in a campaign or two. But if you’re out heroing it up constantly, why? Are you a shitty prince/ss? Do you have an inescapable longing, which your mother the Queen most definitely does not approve of, to see the Harkening Hills? Or maybe you’re just shy, and killing is easier than state dinners. At any rate, I need reasons. Characterization always needs reasons.

To put it simply–characterization is a string of cause and effect, in which the fantasy badass is caught up just as firmly as any other character, even in real life. A fantasy writer must be, of all the ironic things, a realist. If you’re not a realist, your world exists in the realm of smoke and mirrors, and that is precisely where fantasy should not exist. A believable world exists in a net of believable actions, even if those actions involve three-headed dragons and a duchess whose finest weapon is an enchanted tongue depressor. For example, if Griselda is Princess of the Realm of Forgotten Asafoetida, here’s how it might go.

A) Griselda is a warrior princess, and she is very pretty. This is feasible because:
1) She is still very young, which implies that
2) She probably isn’t all that good yet, so
3) She feels the need to prove herself on the field of battle, which is NOT going over well with Queen Mum, so
4) She’s been shirking her Princessy duties to practice, which both scares the hell out of mum and means she’s just THAT much worse at being a princess.

And you can see how, out of that, all sorts of questions jump out at you. Is it common to be a warrior princess, in good old Forgotten Asafoetida? What happens to Griselda when she finally princess-fails so hard her mum disowns her? Would the queen do that–or is the queen hopelessly doting? Maybe Griselda, following her warrior princess dreams, has to disown herself.  And what happens, anyway, when someone finally knocks out one of her front teeth? Is she embarrassed? Or could she care less? Maybe her father, the King, played around with a sword in his youth before he was tragically murdered by whoever. Maybe this is part of the reason Griselda’s so fixated on it. Maybe it’s part of why her mother hates it.

This is how you craft character. Character isn’t a matter of blue eyes or brown, position in society, identifying powers. It’s a matter of situation and reaction.

Characterization, worldbuilding, plot, are all interconnected. If you start to do one well, the rest will follow, because everything makes sense together.

Here’s to your warrior. May he or she win a lot of fights, in and out of the arena.

First post, yay whooptee.

So I keep hearing I’m a writer, so I should do one of these things. Whooptee doodle. Yippie-kai-ay.

I imagine we’ll mostly be tackling issues like adverbs, dialogue-driven characterization, and various common fantasy tropes. Should you listen to me? Maybe. If you want to. It’ll be a lot of ill-educated whining about writing (which I think I know a lot about), grammar (which I can say with some certainty I do know a lot about), and occasionally my personal life (which I know far, far too much about). There may also be periodic recipes, mostly things covered in bacon. Because bacon makes everything better.

Yes. Anyway.

This blog will accompany me, like a pretty-but-not-quite-as-pretty-as-me handmaiden, on my journey through the doubtless entertaining swamp of self-publishing. Do I know what I’m doing? No! Hell, no. But you can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. There are enough experts online these days, anyway. Think of me more as that kid who sat in back of your chemistry class in tenth grade, whose nostrils were always caked in white powder and whose blood alcohol content was so high that he, beyond all expectations, pickled his own liver. Could he help you study for midterms? No. But you did learn something from him. It was even, in a roundabout way, something about chemistry.

More educational posts to follow. This is just me saying hello.

UPDATE: Here’s my generalized listing of what will happen when, just to keep myself sane and keep you guys from pissing yourselves in excitement.

WEDNESDAY: Writin’ Wednesday. Here there be posts. About writing. And how I do it. And stuff.

FRIDAY: Friendly Friday. On Friday, I’ll post a review of something I’ve read lately that rocks. This’ll be mostly indie, because I believe in giving a leg up to people who deserve it. If you want me to review you, you’re welcome to shoot me a message, but be warned–I’ll only do it if I liked your story.

SAT/SUN: Wallowing Weekend. On one of these days there will be a spare post, about writing/food/me wallowing in self-pity over the shattered but interesting wreckage of my personal existence. Or maybe more writing stuff, because writing also works with weekend.

This is, of course, bare bones. I have an infinite amount of words at my disposal, and am only too eager to vomit them all over the internet.

Love,
E