Why Money Matters in Fantasy

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One evening, I fell asleep. The next morning, I didn’t wake up.

Well, that’s not quite true. Obviously, I woke up eventually. Just–not by natural means. I woke up with a syringe in my arm and four strangers looking down at me.

The syringe was full of glucagon, and the strangers were EMTs. They saved my life. They were at my house because my boyfriend called 911 when I wouldn’t wake up to his usual morning poking and prodding. I’m a Type I diabetic, and I was having what the fancy folks up on the hill call a hypoglycemic episode: my blood sugar was in the teens (normal range 80-120), and my body had, in an effort to keep me alive, shut down most of its higher functions.

This is, obviously, a serious thing. Four EMTs sort of serious. If a hypoglycemic episode continues long enough unchecked, it can result in brain damage or death. And the worst part was, I had no idea why it happened. I hadn’t been drinking or eating anything unusual the night before. I had taken the right amount of insulin at the proper time. So, when the nice people who just saved my life asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, I said yes.

Now here’s the part I’m not proud of. Saying yes only happened after I thought about it for a few minutes.

You see, I was pretty broke at the time. And my first thought wasn’t about saving my own life, or making sure that this never happened again. My first thought wasn’t Definitely Not Dave’s peace of mind. It wasn’t even that we were short at work, and my boss would need me (I think I was off that day, actually).

No. My first thought, ignoble though it may be, was:

I can’t afford this.

That’s right. I could have died, and my first thought was about money.

It was horrifying to realize. Just as horrifying: should the zombiepocalypse happen, the first thing I’d probably do is go rob a pharmacy of all its insulin. I’m not an evil person, and I certainly don’t think crime is the proper solution to anything. But when you suddenly need a decade’s supply of an expensive medication or you die, crime starts looking much more viable. You don’t have the money to live, otherwise, and your insurance certainly doesn’t cover extra vials in the event of flesh-eating manbeasts.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Because I want to talk about money in your story. Especially your fantasy story. You see, all those years your parents told you money didn’t matter were cruel, cruel lies.

Money does matter. Money matters more than anything.

It’s one of those unpleasant truths we realize early on in adulthood. Somewhere in your mid-twenties, at the latest, you stop being able to get away with the shit you got away with earlier. You’re no longer young and inexperienced. You’re no longer going to school. You’re no longer living with your parents, paying nominal rent whenever you can afford it and sneaking Mom’s Triscuits out of the pantry when you want a snack. When you get your first three hundred dollar heating bill, you realize why Dad always guarded the thermostat like a national treasure. When you get your first two hundred dollar water bill, you realize why Mom always shed a solitary tear every time you washed your soccer uniform and just your soccer uniform.

Now, my dear, starts a long, grey adulthood. Enjoy plugging all your appliances into the same surge protector so you can unplug them easily when you leave the apartment. Enjoy taking baths and not showers because of the four dollar difference on your water bill. Enjoy not washing your jeans until they stand up without you. Enjoy never visiting your friends in the country because it costs ten bucks in gas just to get there and get back.

Unless you’ve led a very privileged life, some of these things sound familiar to you. Deprivation and conservation are the story of being a grown-up, for most people. You’ll make more money and get out of it, eventually–hopefully. But when you don’t have a lot of cash, your own poverty rules everything you do.

Which is part of why it surprises me–even shocks me–that people in fantasy world never seem to be poor. Even when the author says they’re poor, money just kind of materializes. Stuff just kind of materializes. And the possessions these supposed ‘poor’ people have: well. They don’t always match up to the poverty described.

Consider, for instance, a family of subsistence farmers in a medievalesqe village within a make-believe Arctic Circle. These people obviously have a hard life, and most of it is probably lived in several feet of snow. So, two things they probably won’t be doing, that your silly ass might try to make them do:

1) Living in wooden houses, and
2) Owning horses. 

At first, a wooden shack and a Shetland pony seem pretty in keeping with what we know of a classic Anglo fantasy-type world. But if it’s really cold, you need to think about such things twice before you do them. If they live in wooden houses, where the hell are these trees coming from? Not a lot of timber, within the Arctic Circle. (You might want to, likewise, consider what they’re making fires and tools from. Hint: it’s probably not wood.)

And the horse? What are they feeding this thing? A big animal like that is expensive to keep up and would be difficult to keep warm in a frosty climate. You could trade the horse in for oxen or reindeer, but you’ve still got the upkeep problem. These subsistence farmers more than likely run that plow by themselves, and, for that matter, probably can’t do too much crop-growing anyway. Breaking up the almost permanently frozen ground would be a toughie. Their diet is probably heavily meat based, and they probably have all the health problems you’d expect from that (or would they? Many Inuit cultures didn’t.).

I think the place where we get confused is the idea of value versus actual paper/metal money. Just because a society doesn’t have a lot of gold pieces floating around doesn’t mean things have no value: a cow, for instance, might be worth three gold coins, but in a tiny village on the outskirts of the world, the likelihood of someone having those coins is low. They might, however, have two goats, or thirty yards of fabric, or a winter’s supply of firewood. Therefore, the value of a cow is a little mutable, but oh buddy, it is still value.

So please, when you’re writing a fantasy world, do consider your monetary system. Consider what things are worth and why. Consider that our cow, plenty valuable in green pastureland, might actually be less valuable in a desert or the Arctic, where no one has the necessary resources to use said cow for its true value. And consider that a young person starting out in the world is going to actually need money, and will probably make some decisions based on funding (or lack thereof).

Fantasy has this tradition of treating the mercenary as a figure of questionable moral fiber. But sometimes, my friends, to go on the quest, you need to raise money to buy the horse. And then, once you’ve bought the horse, you need some money put aside for feed, and a good saddle, and a horse blanket, and stable fees. Your peasant-turned-princess doesn’t just need a gown to go to the ball, if she wants to blend in: she needs a footman, and a carriage, and etiquette lessons, and dancing lessons, and a hairstylist, just to name a few.

Money is the blood in the veins of your fantasy world, just as it is in this world. There’s no escaping it, and you shouldn’t try. If your character is of a lower class, you can’t simply forgo the realities of living in that class. People do things solely for money all the time. (Be honest with yourself, boo boo. Why do you go to work every morning?)

Adventures are expensive. If nothing else, you wind up using a ton of vacation days.

(A note: for a great example of how to use money in a fantasy story, check out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, if you haven’t already. There is, to be honest, a lot I don’t like about Rothfuss’s writing, but this is one thing he gets spot on. And, in spite of having to think about money constantly, Kvothe has plenty of fun adventures. The way he learns to get around his own poverty is, in fact, one of the chief character-building themes in the novel.)

More Poetry For Poncy Millennials

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Well, guys. Sorry I’ve been so little in evidence this week. I’ve had a lot of rush to deal with at work, and some editing stuff to do as well–this blog totally took second, possibly even third, place.

I know. I suck.

In the meantime, posting a few more happy little poems about The Millennial Condition–namely, being a Millennial parent. (What’s so special about this? I don’t know. But plenty of people seem to think it is.)

We’ll be back next week with heartfelt articles and all that shit you expect. For now, CLEVER RHYMES. (Dear hipster moms of the world–I deeply look forward to you being indignant at me saying Thieves relieves stress. Long story short: I don’t KNOW what it’s supposed to do. I don’t care.)

LITTLE JIMMY

Poor little Jimmy’s come down with a cold!
Hope these antibiotics aren’t too old.

Coconut oil. His hair’s a mess.
A dab of Thieves to relieve stress.
Ginseng for focus, he likes shiny lights,
And don’t forget the multi-vites.
Fish oil in his morning tea:
We think he’s low on Omega-3.
For energy and steady will,
A timely dose of clorophyll
And carotene, for better sight–
He only takes one? That can’t be right.
Vitamin D for healthy skin,
A fistful of A to let life in.

What else could be wrong? He still looks slightly ill.
Just give him a fistful of nutritive pills.

Oh no! He’s convulsing! Somebody, please save him.
It must be something the doctor gave him.

REASONS YOU’RE A SHIT PARENT

My child says your child
Gets cookies every lunch.
My child says your child
Still drinks Hawaiian Punch.

My child says your child
Got vaxed for the flu;
My child agrees that your child
Simply won’t do.

He’s never known the luxury
Of kale chips salted light,
Or cupcakes made with free-trade flour.
How do you sleep at night?

A gender-neutral nursery
And carseats ’til they’re twelve:
Right-themed novels into which
A little mind can delve.

These are the things that make a child
As good as he can be:
A moralistic member
Of our great society.

You say love’s more important? What?
Sit down, shit mom, and can it.
Child-rearing ain’t about the child:
It’s all about saving the planet.

How to Critique Correctly

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How to Critique Correctly

At this point, as an indie writer, I’ve done some critique swaps and critique groups, and I’m going to be honest: nobody likes doing them. Constructive criticism is a necessary evil, and nobody likes receiving it or giving it. Doing it well takes time and effort, and you pretty much know you’re ruffling somebody’s feathers a little if you have a lot to say. And, of course, then there’s the end where YOUR feathers get ruffled: I feel like the emotions involved there pretty much need no introduction.

Here’s the thing, though: there are right ways and wrong ways to critique, and knowing how to do it right will serve you well. The members of your critique group are, after all, your allies–they’re not trying to hurt you, and you aren’t trying to hurt them. Handling your critiques carefully can save time AND animosity, and is a necessary skill in group editing situations.

1) The Compliment Sandwich

I learned this–and you’re going to laugh–at creative writing camp as a kid. Yes, they have creative writing camps. But, kid or not, it’s a very useful and painless strategy, and simple to employ:

Sandwich your criticism in between two breadslices of positive feedback, the first complimentary and the second constructive.

It’s that easy. For instance:

This was a great story, and I enjoyed your dialogue especially: it flows well, and you pass important information along with no stiffness or hesitation. However, you might want to back away from using so many emdashes: after a while, all the emdashes made it difficult to tell who was speaking. If you want characters to seem like they’re interrupting each other, emdashes are a good way of making it happen, but you might want to consider adding more speech tags to denote who’s who.

See how that worked?

You begin with an undisguised, unabashed compliment. Even if you’re NOT feeling it, do it. It’s just polite. You’d want others to do the same for you. (‘Why do I need to possibly lie to make some thin-skinned writer’s ego happy?’ some of you might ask. My answer: ‘is typing ‘that was a great story’ really so goddamned difficult? Are you betraying your core values that much? You don’t belong in a group critique.’)

Now, find a SPECIFIC thing you liked about this story. Compliment it honestly. Come on, there’s something.

After that, narrow down to your critique. ‘I really enjoyed your dialogue, BUT.’ Remember, as you critique, that you’re trying to be helpful here. State your problem specifically, and, if you can, offer a constructive solution. If you don’t have a solution for the problem, it’s best to mention it anyway: you can’t have all the answers, after all, but if you think it’s a problem then it probably is. (‘I don’t know how to tell you to fix this, but I really feel like Castor and Pollux sound out of character in the fifth chapter.’)

2) Consider the Writer.

An established writer, or, really, anyone who’s been doing this for a while, has a certain style. Consider, as you critique, whether or not your critique is style related. A writer who’s been writing short, terse sentences since 1978 probably isn’t going to expand into flowery page and a half long sentencegasms just because you advise it, and, furthermore, is probably going to get a little bit pissy over you suggesting they try.

Even if you think it’s an issue, basic style concerns aren’t going to change. Only comment on these if it directly affects the clarity or effectiveness of the story: for instance, if your page-and-a-half sentencer is writing a noir novel, it might be time to mention something.

3) Do YOU understand what’s going on?

Also: before you critique, please Jesus, make sure YOU understand what the author is saying. I’ve gotten a lot of critiques in my time from people who plainly only read the story once, and then not too carefully, and lemme tell you, I mostly just throw these out. The critique writer hasn’t made the effort to read my story, why should I read their critique?

A few years ago, someone criticized a story of mine pretty strongly because a girl was running, jumping, and climbing trees in a petticoated dress. This would have been absolutely fair criticism, if I hadn’t devoted the better part of a page to the girl changing her clothing early on in the story. Guess the critiquer just skipped around a little, eh?

A note: if you read the story carefully and still don’t get it, then yeah, the problem isn’t with you, and you need to mention it. You might not be the sort of person the story was written for, but, hell, any sort of person can read a story, and the author would probably like to know what makes sense to whom.

4) Watch your language.

Don’t curse at your writer friend, obviously. But, more specifically: choose the words in which you give your critique carefully. Avoid accusatory statements, such as ‘you didn’t —” or “you shouldn’t have —“. Actually, I’m tempted to tell you to avoid second person as a form of address altogether, except I don’t think that’s quite right, either: referring always to the writing and not to the writer can leave your critique sounding cold and impersonal, and besides, you know how it is. You insult a writer’s baby, you insult the writer anyway.

My final thought: try and employ second person more in the compliment parts of your critique than the negative parts. Just…try. It also helps to emply first person often: ‘I felt that —‘, ‘when reading the second chapter, I noticed–‘. I’m not sure why this is, maybe it just adds in a personal element, but it makes the medicine go down a little easier for me.

Long story short, avoid accusative statements, and loaded generalized words such as crazy, bad, mistake, stupid, lazy, etc. Comments that include these words aren’t constructive, and you can put in better feedback without using them. (For instance, instead of saying ‘first person was a poor choice for this story’, try saying ‘I think this character’s motives would be a lot clearer if the story was written in third person’. Not only is your point more concise and reasoned, but it comes across as a lot less negative).

5) Remember your goal.

Your goal in criticizing a story is NOT to tear someone down, or prove how great at giving advice you are, or just get through it so you can get your own critiques. Your goal is to HELP. It is to provide useful, directed advice that will, in your mind, make this story better. And, to that end, you want to be as clear as possible, without offending. After all, statements like ‘this story needs a lot of work’ don’t help anyone, do they? If it needs a lot of work, list the things that need to be done. As you’ve agreed to provide critique, this is quite literally your job.

Angry critiquers, who feel like this is ‘pussyfooting’, I would like you to note the things I have NOT asked you to do here:

1) Hide your opinion.
2) Lie, except in the most innocent general way.
3) Cover up your problems with the story (in fact, my method allows you to state them more completely).

The fact is, a proper critique should NEVER leave a writer with even an eighth inch of skin thinking their story is bad. (Yes, there are some super-sensitives out there. They don’t belong in group critiques, either).

How, you might ask, is this possible, if I have ten pages of negative critique to bestow?

My answer is, no critique should be downright negative. Constructive, yes. But not negative. It costs you very little to let the words ‘good story’ escape your lips, and it might make your ten pages of critique slide down a little easier. It might, even, be good for the story to compliment–a writer who doesn’t feel mortally offended is more likely to take your advice.

Next post, we’re going to do the version of this on accepting criticism with grace.

Yours,
E

Fantasy Worldbuilding: How-To

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Worldbuilding: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why

I don’t talk about worldbuilding much on here. A lot of that is because I one hundred percent don’t believe in the traditional fantasy worldbuilding approach: I don’t think you need your whole lineage of kings written out, I don’t think you need a map, and I don’t think you need to pause and describe every landmark your characters pass. I think, if you do this, you’ve essentially written a travelogue for an imaginary place. And, trust me, I don’t even like to read travelogues about places I’m going.

What you need to do, instead, is flesh out your world. That sounds simple, right? Surprise, surprise: it’s not.

The first thing you need to do, when building your fantasy world, is consider this question: what constitutes ‘flesh’?

The ‘flesh’ of your built world is a series of details that perform a double purpose. ‘Fleshy’ details–the good, meaty stuff–do more than show the world around your characters as you picture it. In addition to showing, they also explain: for instance, if there’s a statue of four soldiers made up of lapis and granite at the gates of the city in which your main character lives, your MC has been passing those statues every time he goes into/out of town his whole life. What do they mean to him? Did he meet a girlfriend at the foot of the statues once a week for a whole summer, until her father found out? Do stonemasonry students from the city university attach expertly carved penises to them every Fool’s Day? Do your MC and his father bet every time on which statue will be gifted with the largest set of bait and tackle? (I told you these details were fleshy).

(A note, about ‘fleshy’ details: the very best ones are bombastic. They are memorable. If you’re just going to drone on about Ghern heir of Kern heir of Bernie, I’m not interested. Why should I be? I’m not a history major. Mention in passing, instead, the great rule of Ghern the Incontinent, followed by that of his son Kern the Bladderblaster. And why are we hearing about them, anyway? Is this story about bathroom humor? It better be. Otherwise, I don’t want to know at all).

The building blocks of your world aren’t just static things, to be removed and changed at your convenience. Gods, statues, customs, clothing–your characters interact with these things. They have opinions about them, inclinations towards or away from them, friends who have been helped by them, friends who have been hurt by them. Women disappointed in love might traditionally drown themselves in a river outside of the village called Talia’s Tears: do you think this would make people of the village less or more likely to draw water from that river?

Recapping: your characters live with this stuff. They don’t just hate the Empire or love the Empire, believe in the gods or not believe in them. People are more complicated than that. Even a character who believes firmly in the grace of Plougtagh the Magnificent is going to have his faith tested every once in a while. And why does he believe so firmly, anyway?

Which is going into my main bit here. Cliched as it sounds, if you want to worldbuild, you need to ask these grade school questions:

Who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Because your religion, your economy, and your lineage of kings don’t exist in separate vacuums. They’re shaped by one another–they build one another.

Let’s start with an idea I had the other day. I was reading some articles about freediving (which is, actually, fascinating) and came across some stuff about the Ama of Japan, women who dove as deep as thirty feet underwater with no gear whatsoever, in the early days. They were able to hold their breath for two minutes, and would often dive near-nude in below freezing water in search of pearls and food.

Badass, right?

I started to think to myself: what if I wrote a story about a freediver in a pre-mechanical era where the climate was extremely cold?

I started picturing it: a woman in a hand-stitched skin suit caulked up with some sort of pitch, probably, diving through a hole in the ice. She’d only have a small amount of time before the shock killed her, and how would she see, and who the hell is she anyway, so I had some questions, and where did I turn?

That’s right. Who, what, when, where, how, why.

I’m going to try and verbalize this process, just so you can get an idea of how to answer these questions yourself. Look at the way I do this–there are rules to the way I answer my own questions.

Who?

A young girl, obviously. Strong, agile, small, but probably with a good insulating layer of fat on her. She’d have to be trained to do this–by whom? There must be a lot of people doing it, if there’s training. It isn’t the sort of thing you just learn to do on your own, without great need.

So who are these divers? Are they some sort of archaic first responder, saving shipwreck victims? (Maybe there are fjords. Lots of wrecks around fjords). Are they diving for something valuable–a food item, or something worth a lot of money? (It would have to be expensive and/or a great delicacy. These dives obviously take up time and resources for this community). Or–maybe there’s a religious reason. Maybe their god is a grey whale, or something, and these girls leave him offerings (in which case, why THESE particular girls?).

What?

Let’s talk about this suit. This is a premechanical society, so it’s not a fancy manmade fabric. The best thing I can come up with is skin–leather of some sort. Now, they’re in the far north, so where does this skin come from? Maybe it comes from the same thing she’s diving for. I don’t know. Hell. But they’ve stitched it together somehow, so they’ve probably
pitched up the cracks, or put wax of some sort in them. How does she get into this suit, anyway? It isn’t like they have zippers. I guess she puts it on with buttons or eyehooks as fasteners, and someone else caulks that seam up.

Which means there’s more than one person involved in this dive. Well, I already knew that, she’s got to have a trainer. I’m starting to think this is an Ama-style dive for valuables more and more–it sure is taking up a lot of time. Maybe their economy is centered around whatever she finds underneath the ice.

When?

I’m picturing Vikings. Well, not exactly Vikings, but something Vikingesque–so these folks won’t have much in the way of technology yet. I’m picturing Dark Ages shit here. Honestly, I imagine this society is kind of isolated anyway, a la early Icelandic settlers in Greenland, so when doesn’t concern me too much yet. However,

Where?

Is a pretty big issue.

This isn’t civilized society, though there is some sort of society in place. I picture a cold and horrible place, a small village isolated from the rest of the country (maybe it’s a colony, or an outpost). Life’s obviously pretty hard here, which is what makes me think this girl of mine is diving for something of physical value: perhaps what she’s diving for is the only dependable food source for her people. (Which reminds me–there are all sorts of health complications possible with freediving. Do these girls usually die young? Do they do it of their own free will, even?) Maybe there’s a heat vent on the ocean floor, and the water’s warm enough to support life on the rocks just under the ice. Maybe she harvests some sort of scallop-y creature for her people to eat there.

I think it’s unlikely she’s diving for religious purposes, given this cold barren location I’m picturing. I imagine the gods don’t get that sort of sacrifice, when people are so hard up. And ships? There probably aren’t many. So it’s either food, or something they use to procure food. Though, if that’s the case, where the hell did she get the skins for the suit?

How?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Maybe the women dive under the ice, while the men take boats out and hunt seals. Sealskin would be pretty good for that sort of thing, all the blubber and stuff. Though, god, that would mean the skin was uncured. She’d smell awful. Rancid blubber. Hell yes. I know I’m on the right track when there are smells involved.

And, as you might have noticed, all of this leads us to the most important question, the one you really want to answer.

Why?

Why, why, why would a small village exist in this location? Why would these people go to so much trouble just to get food, when they could move?

It’s not like the Icelandic settlers. Those guys thought they had a pretty good thing going, and then a mini ice age set in, and poof, time to die out or move. Why aren’t these people doing the same? They’ve obviously got a system worked out for living here. Why?

Well. If they have to stay there, they’re either exiles, or they’re trapped.

I like exiles. Maybe this is like a fantasy Siberia of sorts, where people guilty of some crime in the kingdom proper are sent to live out their days. In which case, why are they sent there? Was our girl sent there, or was she born to people already living there?

I like the idea of a long-ago banishment. Maybe these people took place in an uprising or a rebellion, a hundred years ago, and they and their descendents have been doomed to live in this awful (but probably very pretty) place for the rest of their days. But–oooooh, here we go, we like buts–maybe the new king is young and of a different kind. Maybe, though these people don’t know it yet, the political climate is ripe for their return.

And with that, we have a story. The action opens when a messenger comes from the capital city with news of the old king’s death, and the rule of the new king. It doesn’t mean much to them at the time–they’ve lived through a few kings–but the arrival of the messenger would be an event. They don’t get many events.

So they send their young girls diving, to get food for the feast. Scallopy creatures, seaweed, etc. The men are out hunting seals, hoping for a whale maybe. And when our girl dives, she finds something that might change the course of history for her people.

What does she find? I have no idea. But I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, see how that works? Not far along at all, and I already know some things about these people. I know they’re resourceful, and tough, and hardy. I know that, at some point, they were rebels. They live in a place of stunning but inhospitable wonder, and they probably love it more than they hate it, since, after a hundred years of exile, they don’t know any other life.

And I know their king, or grand vizier or whatever he winds up being, is a decent guy.

Or maybe he just has a use for them.

Either way, progress has been made. We’ve got some sensory details, some answered questions. Now, to write.

Finishing NaNoWrimo: Last Thoughts

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Finishing NaNoWriMo

So I just, less than an hour ago, finished NaNoWriMo.

I wrote 50,076 words, at final count. I had to fluff a little to get the last bit out and make it 50,000 words. With how I write, this’ll some day turn into a 100,000 word novel, so I’m not too upset about it.

But I feel a little funny.

Y’see, after all that effort–after all that work–I’m not sure it was worth it.

I know. Betraying the cause, etc.

But here’s the thing. I’m a professional. (If I keep chanting that to myself, it’ll one day feel like it’s true). I’ve written over 50K in less than a month before, and it wasn’t during NaNo. So the wordcount honestly doesn’t mean much to me. I already had proof of my own productivity, long before I did this.

The hard truth of it is, I don’t know if this is a story I would have finished, if not for NaNoWriMo. And I don’t mean that in an ‘I would’ve fucked off because I never finish anything ever’ way.

I mean it in a ‘this was not my best story idea’ way. In the last 25K, it lacked inspiration.

Editing can cure a lot, but I don’t know if it can EVER cure a lack of inspiration.

There’s a lot of talk on writing blogs about inspiration not being a real thing, but I think, deep down in our hearts, we all know that isn’t true. Inspiration is what happens when you write the good stuff, and yes, some of your stuff is better than other bits of your stuff.

You can still write without inspiration. I think I just proved that for about 25K words. The question becomes: should you? Really–should you?

I’ll be honest, I usually pick up the pen whenever I have that ‘a-ha!’ moment. Whenever I’m sitting around, thinking about that scene I left my characters in, and I suddenly know what should happen next. This isn’t to say I’m not a productive writer–I’m plenty productive. I know how to force the in-between moments when they need to be forced. In addition to my NaNo novel this month, I wrote two 6K stories, about 5K worth of blog posts, and, oh, we’ll say about 10K on a beloved side project. I can make the numbers add up no problem.

But, in the end, I don’t think NaNo quite leaves you enough time for those ‘a-ha!’ moments. And, while I think being able to force out 50K in a month is a good exercise, and might help folks who have trouble with it with productivity, I don’t know that it’s the right way to go about things for me.

Creative writing isn’t about cranking about copy. That’s an element of it, sure–but it’s an element in the same way composition or perspective are elements in the artistic process. Is it important to understand these things, and be able to use them? Yes. Undoubtedly. You wouldn’t get very far without them.

But a simple understanding of perspective does not a masterpiece make. Like good writing, good art is extremely subjective–and illusive. Long story short, if you don’t think you’re going to paint a masterpiece, don’t stretch the goddamn canvas in the first place.

Because, trust me. If you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got a masterpiece in you, you sure as hell won’t fool anybody else.

With the last half of this one, I haven’t fooled myself, and that is NOT a good sign.

So we’ll take our sad little NaNo novel, and we’ll let it rest for a month. And then, when the holidays are over, we’ll see if we can edit it into the story it should have been. More likely than not, it’ll have to be rewritten: but there’s the germ of a good story in there, and Rome wasn’t built in a day, etc. etc., aphorism aphorism.

So I won NaNo, but I don’t FEEL like I won. And all the chirpy little automated NaNo messages in my inbox–‘OMG u finished! Wow! We’re so proud of you for some reason!’–wind up ringing false.

I’m hard on myself, a little. But what I’ve done WASN’T an incredible thing, and writing isn’t about wordcount.
And that’s just how it is.

See you on Friday, kids. Happy Thanksgiving to my American followers.

NaNoWriMo: Biting the Bullet

NaNoWriMo: Biting the Bullet

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Writers tend to fall into two camps, this time of year: pro-NaNo, anti-NaNo. Everybody writes blogs about it (including me, apparently, hmm.). People who are doing NaNo write posts about how exhausted they are already, and how rude it is to not like something they like, and they’re totally writers omg. People who don’t do NaNo write about how irritating it is to see their pastime/profession turned into a sort of writerly social media feed one month out of twelve, how it encourages you to write crap, how they’re the ones who are totally writers, no really.

I roll my eyes and, like most years, decide to take a pass. I don’t know what makes someone a writer, but I’m pretty certain it isn’t arguing vociferously that, yes, you’re a writer. (Actually, on an aside–I’m pretty sure it’s writing that makes you a writer.)

But a few days ago, I thought again. I had a novel I’d started on the second, with a decent NaNo word count. Why not? If writing makes you a writer, I’m failing pretty hard at being a writer at the moment. I could use the boost and the competitive excuse to write. I’ve done NaNo before, when I was a kid–2003 and 2004, I think–and I won once. It was fun. I got all caught up in it. I talked to other people who wrote things. I was thoroughly proud of myself.

Of course, I was also like fifteen. I had no job, no car, nothing to do but sit around at my parents’ houses, splorting my daydreams out onto a keyboard while hoping, hoping, my boyfriend would get on AIM so we could talk even though he was grounded. Those were pretty prime conditions for writing–prime in a way that November could never be for me, as an adult.

Allison Maruska wrote this post about NaNo that sums up a lot of rock-solid reasons not to do NaNo. Chief among them, of course, being why November, why, why, why. November is a busy month. There’s stuff to do, people to see, houses to clean. If NaNoWriMo happened in, say, March, it’d be easier to deal with.

But here’s what made me stop and decide to do it.

I need to make writing a commitment. And I need to make good on that commitment.

I’m pretty prolific. Always have been, always will be. The recommended 1,667 words per day is probably about what I write anyways. But I’ve always had trouble finishing stories. I get distracted, I lose the plot, I lose interest. I come up with another idea that’s so much better.

The first real novel-length work of fiction I ever finished was that 2003 NaNo novel. And it was crap–I mean, total crap–but I was also fifteen. I had no idea how to edit anything. And rough drafts are always crap, especially if you leave ’em rough.

I was super proud. I told all my friends and family members. They said, “that’s nice”. I didn’t make anybody read it, because I think even at fifteen I recognized what total crap it was, but I sure did carry a printed out version of it around for a while, wrapped in writerly twine, and made red marks on it judiciously whenever I thought anyone was looking.

And, in that paragraph, you can see the reasons I posit for doing (and not doing) NaNo.

For Doing It:
–A greater commitment to your craft. Specifically, to finishing what you stared.
–Fun chance to meet other writers in your area
–Possibility, with months of editing afterwards, of producing a novel someone might actually want to read.

For Not Doing It:
–#NaNoWriMo twitter feed updates incredibly annoying
–Not particularly sure I understand what doing NaNo has to do with being a writer or not, or that I care if it does,
–Might make young writers a little too dependent on head pats and trophies, and not dependent enough on their own ability to keep a story going,
–There IS a lot of other stuff going on in November.

This year, I’ll do it. Some years I have, some years I haven’t. I’m not particularly interested in the rah-rah-lookit-you-you’re-writing aspects of NaNo, but it’s a good exercise, and it’s one I could stand to take part in again. The hard truth of the matter is, to make it writing, you need to be able to churn out a finished story sometimes, and it doesn’t hurt to do it fast. Do I think it needs to be your entire reason for living during the month of November? No. That’s sad. But that 1,667 words per day is, roughly, two hours of writing. Two hours a day. If it’s something you love to do, you can and should make that kind of time.

Much as the miniature NaNoSplosions all over my twitter feed might annoy me, it’s good to see people get excited about writing, even if I feel like it’s more the word count than, you know, the actual story. I guess as long as folks are happy, I’ve got no cause to complain.

This has been your account of an anti-NaNo writer doing NaNo, because putting your money where your mouth is is fun.

14,000 words and some change so far. Wish me luck.

Fright Week Flash Fiction V: Pearl

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PEARL

It’s a pearl and it’s not a pearl. I was fooled at first, just like Miranda–it’s round, after all, and white, and it has a pearl’s milky smoothness. We found it in an oyster, albeit one that had already been cleaned. All signs, Miranda would say, point to pearl.

But it’s something else. I know it. I feel it most strongly late at night, after Miranda’s gone to bed–when the lights are all out, and the house is silent. I can see it glowing. I can see the projections it casts: faces, indistinct, on the bedroom wall. Sometimes the faces are human faces. Sometimes–most of the time–I simply think they want to be.

Come play with me, the faces whisper. Play with me. Come play.

I stare at the ghostly shadows until the rising sun divides them. Until the morning comes, and the pearl is once again just a pearl. Four days, it’s been. Four nights without sleep.

We found it at the Shuck’n Shack, where we go every year for our anniversary. It was just sitting there, on top of one of our oysters–a bed of gray snot underneath, tasting of the sea. The servers denied putting it on there, but one of them must have–we come there every year. A gift, maybe, from an anonymous donor. I tip well, and they know us here. It didn’t seem so unlikely at the time.

We took it home, and the shell we found it in. Miranda wants to get it mounted, put it on a ring–our anniversary pearl.

It was odd, looking back, how nobody said anything about it. Nobody came forth. A pearl that big–a pearl that round–it’s a kingly gift.

Even when I’m awake–when I’m at work, stretching at my desk, plugging numbers into a spreadsheet–I can hear it.
Come play with me. Come play.

Tonight it glows especially brightly. Lurid and pulsing, washing Miranda’s sleeping face in the fluorescent glow of a laboratory, or maybe a morgue.

I need to sleep. I haven’t slept since we brought it home. And there’s only one way that’s going to happen.

I get out of bed, as quietly as I can. I tiptoe over to the dresser. I take the pearl in my hand.

The light is almost blinding–how it doesn’t wake Miranda I’ll never know. I roll the pearl across my fingers, feeling the odd softness of it.

Come play with me.

I have a vision. Momentary. A schoolyard, brick walls and green grass and the laughter of children. A yellow tire swing, brown with dirt. A boy, standing in front of me, grinning. Look what I found.

Woah, I say. Cool. I feel the weight of the pearl, like the weight of ripe fruit, between my fingers.

In the throes of my vision, in the dark bedroom, my hand clenches. I crush the pearl.

It pops like a berry, and incandescent slime oozes out over the top of my fist. For a moment, I see Miranda’s face: sleeping, sleeping. Far away.

Things expand in a bright fluorescent bubble. The world rushes upward around me, the ceiling draws farther away. I’m in a rocky grey prison of some sort–the shell. I am in the oyster shell.

I try to move. I can’t.

My own face, bathed in the glow of the pearl, is bending over me. My lips open–have they always been that cracked, that ragged? Or is it only because they seem huge now?

“I’m really sorry,” I whisper to myself. Those giant lips are moving, the teeth inside like yellowed boulders.
My voice is the voice of a little girl.

“I had to get out. I’m bad. I know. I’m really sorry.”

I can feel the shell of the pearl around me. It’s soft–even inside, I can feel it give–but it’s unbreakably soft, like a thousand layers of paper pressed together. The glow of my prison fills me.

Desperately, I whisper.

Come play with me. Come play.

Across the room, a million miles away, Miranda’s eyes open.

Fright Week Flash Fiction IV: The Last Bus

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Image by Joao Guilherme Del Valle, on freeimages.com.

THE LAST BUS

I barely–barely–catch the last bus of the night.

It’s nine thirty, and I’m already out of breath from tuba lessons. I know I cut a pretty sad figure. Huffing and puffing, my heart hammering, cheeks flushed, wheezing: an asthmatic whippet, was my gym teacher’s description.

I plunk my tuba down on the nearest seat and search in my pockets for change.

“We ain’t got all night, now,” the bus driver says. She cracks her gum and turns back to the windshield.

I drop my money. Of course I do.

“Just sit down,” the bus driver says.

I hurry to do so, and she shifts into gear as soon as my butt hits the seat. I don’t even pick the quarters up off the floor of the bus–what would happen if I did? Would she have taken off with me bending over?

I grab the ones I can reach without leaving my seat. A dollar. I can maybe get a burger on the way home from chess club tomorrow.

I hear snickers from the back of the bus. Oh, god–that sounds like Gavin. Multiple snickers–probably Gavin and Steve.

Of course they’re out this late. Why wouldn’t they be? Probably smoking and drinking cheap beer and doing drugs, or whatever it is the kids in remedial English do. I heard Gavin knocked a girl in Mrs. Holsen’s home room up last semester. Laura Brinkley, really pretty, one of the drama club kids. Nobody’s seen her since April, and her friends won’t say where she went–Katie Levarr said she’s staying home with the baby, but Katie makes things up sometimes.

I heard the ominous creaking of leather in the seat across from mine.

“Hey, Terrence,” says Gavin. He’s got a big stupid grin on his face, and you can see the gap in his teeth from where Mark Mackey punched him in the mouth last year.

“Hey,” I mutter.

“You doin’ okay? We were hearin’ a lot of wheezing back there.” Gavin pokes out his lower lip. “Does poor baby Dickles need his inhaler?”

“It’s pronounced DickLAY,” I mutter. I can barely hear my own voice. Please, please, please, let them not be getting off at my stop.

Gavin guffaws. “DickLAY,” he says. “Holy shit. That’s even better. Terrence DickLAY. Ain’t you fancy. Fuck. Hey, Steve. How d’you think Terry here was conceived?”

Steve Arlen moves up to sit beside me. He smells of cigarettes and cheap beer and not brushing his teeth. “I dunno, Gav. How?”

“In a DICKLAY,” Gavin says.

They both laugh like it’s the funniest thing in the world. The bus rockets on, bumping and crashing and clashing along over cracks in the road. The bus driver keeps her eyes glued on the road.

And me? I can’t think of anything to say back. I’m not good around people. And Gavin and Steve–they block up my mouth like nobody else.

Gavin punches me in the arm, much harder than he has to. “Hey, DickLAY,” he says. “Whatcha got in that case?”

“Tuba,” I mutter, and this time I can’t even hear myself.

Gavin reaches across me for the case. He flips open the catches, peeks inside.

“Owee,” he says. “That’s worth some money. Whaddya say to me borrowin’ this, you little freak? You can tell your mama you lost it.” He punches me again, in the same spot. I can already feel the bruises forming.

“No,” I say. And it’s weird–I can hear myself. The bus must’ve hit some better pavement.

Unfortunately, if I can hear myself, so can Gavin and Steve.

“Oh, now,” Gavin says. “Don’t be like that, Terry. It would be real stupid to be like that.”

For just a moment, I catch the bus driver’s eye in the rearview mirror. It’s funny–it’s like she was looking at me already.
“That’s my tuba,” I say. “I bought it with my summer money. You guys can’t have it.”

And there it is again–the guffawing. Gavin puts a hand over his chest, like it hurts him how funny my defiance is.

“Listen, you little shit,” he says, almost kindly. “We’re taking that thing. And if you try and stop us, I’m going to hold you, and Steve here is going to break both your arms. All right?”

“No,” I say again.

“You kids settle down,” the driver calls.

I know it’s stupid. I know all the stuff they tell you in school–that bullies are cowards, that you just have to stand up to them–isn’t true. I know I’m probably about to get seriously beaten. I know the bus driver is driving. I know there isn’t a thing she can do to stop them.

But it’s my tuba. I bought it with my money. I saved up for it, and I got a Holton, and it’s mine.

Two things happen at once:

Gavin and Steve launch themselves at me.

The bus driver, scowling into the rearview, pulls a slender red cord hanging right beside the seat.

The floor in front of me opens up, two doors sliding out to reveal open space, the asphalt whizzing by beneath in a grey blur. Gavin and Steve weren’t expecting it–they didn’t see her pull the cord–and they tumble through. Their screams are a lot higher-pitched than their laughter.

The back wheels of the bus roll over something squishy, and large, and hard and soft at the same time. There are two bumps, and there is no more screaming.

I look out the back window, my mouth suddenly dry. On the asphalt, trailing behind us, are two perfectly even parallel scarlet lines.

I can’t swallow, I can’t move. I can feel my tongue in my mouth, sticky and dry.

“Thanks,” I croak out at last. “I think.”

“Don’t thank me,” the bus driver says. She shifts gears, spits her gum out into the trash can by the driver’s seat. “I was planning to use it on you.”

Fright Week Flash Fiction III: The Chair

Definitely Not Dave, my magician manperson, wanted me to write one of these about a massage chair. So I did.

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THE CHAIR

The kiosk is disgusting, a deserted island of cracked leather chairs in the middle of the empty mall. On a folding chair, an old man–from somewhere in Southeast Asia, or maybe Mexico, hell if I know–sits snoozing, a paperback book loose in his lap. Lucky for me, I don’t need him: though I have to say, it might be worth a complaint to whoever management is. You put your money straight into the chair here, but still. Attendants should attend you. It’s what they’re paid for.

The sign by the old man reads ASSAGE. There’s a slightly cleaner patch of sign backing where the M once rested. I read the sign’s smaller letters, scrawled in Sharpie:

5 MIN=5 DOLLAR
10 MIN= 10 DOLLAR
30 MIN= 20 DOLLAR SPECIAL PRICE

I plunk my purse down by a chair and try out the surface with a tentative palm. It’s springy, and maybe I’m crazy but I could almost imagine I feel a little vibration in there already.

Lana from HR said I need to try it. She said I looked tired. I don’t know why the hell that’s okay now, telling another woman she looks tired–and Lana’s not the one to talk. She hasn’t gotten her hair done in months, and last time I saw her her panty hose had runs in them. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking to Lana in HR. Maybe I should be talking to HR about Lana. She’s a blight on the office environment. Not me. I just work hard.

But I took a long lunch today anyway. And I don’t have time for a real massage, but the mall’s right across from the office, and this, maybe…

Lana recommended the stupid chairs herself. And it’s so cheap! she said. And that giggle. That stupid airhead giggle. I don’t care about cheap. Doesn’t she know that?

I take off my jacket, fold it over my purse where it’ll maybe keep it hidden from purse-snatchers. Mall like this, you never know who’s around.

I sit down in the chair. I slide my money in–ten dollars. I don’t have all day. 

I close my eyes and lean back. It’s the funniest massage chair I’ve ever sat in, but it’s soothing–a faint prickling pounding, like millions of little pistons are wearing themselves out against my back. I should’ve brought some disinfectant with me. Woken up the Chinese guy, asked him for a towel. Who knows who sat in this thing before me? Some fat old housewife, probably. A hoarder, out at midday, puttering around the mall. Ugh. I don’t want the shit from some filthy house all over my skirt.

But I can’t help it. I press myself deeper into the chair. The feeling–it’s an interesting feeling. I like it. I wish it was just a little bit stronger, but there are no adjustment controls on the chair–no space-age technology, this.

I press in deeper. Christ. It’s almost working. I can almost feel the knots in my back releasing. Whoever designed this thing was an evil genius–I’m going to put another ten dollars in, I can tell it already. Maybe there’s a market for this, a product that almost works. Something people have to buy over and over again. Like cigarettes, but without all the bad PR.

I press. I can feel the cheap crappy leather against my hose, my skirt, my nice new work shirt. Probably going to wrinkle. I don’t care. I want more.

I press in as hard as I can, clutching the tattered chair arms and forcing myself backwards. That feeling, Jesus. It’s almost working, almost perfect. Like an itch you can’t quite reach.

Something in the chair shifts, and I feel an opening, slotlike, where the back of the chair joins the seat. Whatever. Come on. Just give me a massage. A real massage. Come on, chair.

The opening widens, and there are sudden needles of pain along my back. I don’t have much time to feel it before the opening gets wide, wide, wider than it should be, wider than it can be.

I see something on my way in.

Teeth?

*****

Out in the deserted shopping mall, in a lonely kiosk filled with shabby leather chairs, a sound rings out.

It’s a single burp. Low, sinister. Satisfied.

The man on the folding chair drops his book, jumps. He looks at the chair for a few seconds, stands up, stretches.

“Are you happy now?” he asks it. “Did Lana send us a good one?”

The chair burps again. A tiny bit of blood, fresh red, seeps out between the backing and the seat.

“Eh,” the old man says. “You fatty.” He chuckles.

He takes a towel from his pocket, wipes the blood away. He picks up the purse and the jacket, balls them up with the towel. He throws the whole mess in the trash, and returns to his book.

Fright Week Flash Fiction II: Prince of Darkness

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Original image by jason aaberg, on freeimages.com.

PRINCE OF DARKNESS

“Very well,” Satan says, flipping the final page of the contract and neatening the stack. “All seems to be in order. It’s an unusual request, writing up your own deal, but I can’t say I see anything in here I’m unsatisfied with.” He winks one blood-red eye. “After a few aeons of torment, I might consider asking you to work for me. It’s getting harder and harder to find good lawyers in Hell these days.”

“So you’re satisfied with all the terms and conditions?” I ask. I wipe the sweat from my palms off on the sides of my suit jacket.

“Sure, sure. It’s the standard deal, ain’t it? My power and wealth and fame, your soul. Pfah. You people are never original.” He looks down at the stack again. Maybe I’m imagining it, but there’s almost a hint of sadness in his big red face. “Just once,” he says, “I’d like someone to sell their soul for a loved one’s life. Or the ability to cure cancer, ebola, AIDS. But I guess that kind doesn’t come to me.”

There’s no mistaking the sadness now. “They never come to me.”

I haven’t been dealing with Satan very long–just the same old contract, as he’d say–but he’s not what you’d expect. He’s getting old, I guess. Weary. The Light-bringer, remembering the color of sky. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard him wish for love in the world, health, kindness.

It makes me a little uncomfortable, to be honest. You should know where you stand, with Satan. You should be terrified, grovelling, subservient. A guy like me should maybe be a little opportunistic.

But sorry for him? Never.

I clear my throat. “I’ll go ahead and sign now, shall I?”

“Sure. Sure.” Satan produces a wickedly serrated fountain pen from the depths of his own coat pocket. “You know the deal. Sign in blood, forfeit your soul, et cetera. Then I sign. I’ll send you a hellhound or something. We’ll keep in touch.”

I take the pen in hand, run the nib over my finger. The blood wells up, dark and deep.

I do the deed.

There’s nothing. No feeling, no fear, no crackle of hellfire, no demonic cacophany.

Nothing.

Satan takes the pen after me, changes the nib with all the persnickety care of an old woman. Blood is, as I’ve come to understand it, very important in the legal proceedings of Hell–should he use the same nib as me, should a trace of my blood wind up in his signature, his power over me is lessened.

Guess it’s good he’s still careful about some things.

He signs the same way he’s signed all my friends’ contracts: a simple red X, smoking and bubbling with all the foulness of the demon blood that created it. He looks down at the X for a long time, and perhaps this is how I’ll remember him: the great red body stuffed into a suit that doesn’t quite fit it, black hair combed back, cuffs damp with yesterday’s blood. A used car salesman in Hell. A has-been, focused on the past.

Which is why I’m here, to be honest.

“Lucifer,” I say, almost gently. “Satan. Buddy. Do you realize what you’ve done yet?”

It’s at the sound of his own name–Lucifer–that the knowledge comes into his eyes. “I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” he murmurs. “And, now that you mention it–I didn’t see it anywhere on that contract.”

“Nope.” I can’t keep from grinning any longer. Hell–if you tricked Satan, would you? “I just made a totally legally binding deal with the Prince of Darkness. My soul for neverending power–same old deal, Luke, you always make. There’s just one little catch.”

The flames flicker across the blade of my new-drawn knife, send lines of pulsing orange neon dancing down it. I look Satan in the eyes. There’s fear there, surprise, and maybe–just maybe–a little bit of relief.

Simp. Stupid simp.

“The Prince,” I whisper, “doesn’t have to be you. It might as well be me.”

He carves up beautifully, like a big red Thanksgiving turkey. You’d think there would be more fight in him, but I guess sometimes folks just know when it’s time to exit stage left. It’s been time for him for a while.

I should feel remorse, staring at the gobbets of unresisting red meat steaming in front of me. I don’t. I feel like a stranger, looking out across the surface of Mars. I feel like a warrior, bathed in the blood of my enemies.

I feel like the Prince of Darkness.

I feel fine. Just fine, just fine, just fine.

I pick up my contract. I tear it in two.