Occam’s Phaser: Simplicity in Fantasy

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Photo from wikipedia. Text from the sick depths of my soul.

Occam’s Phaser

Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!

All right, people, I want you to take a moment and appreciate the fact that, after long practice, I may have just typed the nerdiest letters of my career. Occam’s phaser. Sheesh. Shove me in a locker, somebody, cause I ain’t makin’ it to senior prom.

With that out of the way…

(Occam’s phaser! Hurr!)

I want to have a serious talk.

You guys have all heard of William of Occam, right? Born in…well, probably Occam. A mendicant friar and a logician of the 14th century, who posited, among many logical principals, the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. There’s more to it, but that’s how we non-logicians usually express it.

And a bunch of people took offense to that. Wouldn’t you? I mean, you’ve got this fancy theorem that took you like five years to embroider into factfulness, what business does this punk monk have coming around and going naw, simpler is better, dawg, and then you’re all like my name is Immanuel Kantstopdis, and I think nature is diverse as hell. And then, they see you whip, and possibly nay-nay, and by God–

Okay. Overcompensating. I’m going somewhere with this, I swear. Or I’m trying to.

Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. Occam’s phaser, which is my idea, is the same general principal applied to your fantasy novel: the simpler you keep it, the more your story is likely to work.
We’ve all read those epic fantasy novels. You know, those ones. Where there’s a thousand pages of scenebuilding before you get to the plot, where you need the Cliff’s notes to keep up with the list of characters, and where everybody, everybody, gets paired off with either a romantic partner or a small country by the end of the novel.

When you write your Amazon review for this novel, it probably features the phrase ‘excellent worldbuilding’, mostly because, well, somebody did spend a lot of time, and that much literary real estate has to be worth something. Trick is, you can sell an acre of swamp and call it ‘real estate’. You can sell a shotgun shack (doors and windows not included) and it’s still fricking real estate.

But that’s not what you want real estate to be, is it? You want your novel to be in Beverly Hills, to have a midcentry modern dream house on it. You want lights to turn on when you clap. You want Jennifer Lawrence next door, and you want her to bring you casseroles when you move in. (Or organic cruelty-free parsnip chips. Or whatever hip people eat now).

My point is, you only need to:

1) Have a character in your story if that character is necessary to the plot,
2) Describe the setting in detail if the setting is plot-crucial or particularly unique,
3) Add in a plot twist when that plot twist is natural, and doesn’t take a lot of work to fit in.

That’s it, baby. That’s Occam’s phaser.

It’s easy to get carried away with your own descriptive powers whilst in the throes of composition. Problem is, it isn’t readable to do so. We don’t need to know the name of Lord Aston’s squire if this is the only scene she’s in. And a few descriptive terms–surly, for instance, or sunny–will probably suffice, if you need them at all. When you spend a paragraph or two describing this squire, you’ve indicated to the reader that she’s going to be important later on in the story. That’s what description does. And when you make that promise too often, and don’t stand by it, your reader doesn’t know what to pay attention to anymore.

Same goes for settings. As an adult human being, I know what a field of grass looks like. I know what an oven looks like. Now, unless there’s something important about this oven–the main character’s mother has cooked every dinner he’s ever eaten on it, and it represents his sadness over leaving home–or something unique–it’s a magical oven that only cooks children–I don’t need more than a little bit to know what I’m looking at. Woodstove might tell me enough, or gas oven, or big white oveny bastard brooding in the corner.

And plot twists? Oh, Jesus, plot twists. There is nothing, nothing more annoying than an unneeded plot twist. Ask yourself, always: is there some question here that hasn’t been answered by the course of the story so far? If there is, twist the night away. If there isn’t, hold off. It’s just going to throw your reader off balance, and leave him expecting a major shift in the plot…which, since your plot twist doesn’t go anywhere, you’re not going to give him.

So. Only have Bertie the Bertblandished carried off by the dragon if it’s going to change your plot. Does it make him see the importance of fire-proof wizard’s robes? Does he become friends with the dragon, take him back to the castle to help them win the war? Does he realize, uncomfortably, that the dragon is actually his mother, and maybe that’s why everyone he has a burping contest with seems to spontaneously combust.

If it does one of those things, that’s great. But even then, it better do one of those things because that question has been raised in the natural course of your plot. Maybe this annoying wizard-chickie has been harping on him about fire proof robes for the entire story, and now he gets the reasoning, and starts to talk to her more–and it turns out she’s just awesome, an incredible person, and she has a lot of really good ideas for defending the castle, and he winds up marrying her or something. You get the idea: a plot twist has to answer a question and move the plot forward. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time going retrograde. Remember Ptolemy? Time waster. Yeah, you heard me.

(If you got that joke, please join me on this schooner full of people who aren’t getting dates for prom. It’s warm here, and we have twelve-sided dice.)

So, when you write, consider the beauty of simplicity and pare accordingly. But remember: even William of Occam didn’t mean something had to be bare bones to be correct. Embellishment can be beautiful and effective, too–as long as you keep it in moderation.

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Ten Imagination-Building Exercises

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Think Differently: Ten Excercises For a Better Imagination

I don’t have much truck with writing exercises. I think your main writing exercise is, and should always be, writing something. Just ‘doing an exercise’ is essentially giving yourself homework, and it’s giving yourself homework with the automatic assumption that what you’re doing is just an exercise, so it doesn’t really count for shit in the first place.

Success will never be had, in these circumstances. Most of us have a limited amount of time to sit down and write anyway; using some of that time ‘just for exercises’ isn’t helping you. Your aim, every time you sit down to whatever it is you sit down to, should be to create something you can eventually publish.

This is not, I note, the same as saying you should never experiment. Want to try writing a story with no adverbs in it? Be my guest. Want to do one of those cheesy ‘your character writes a letter to X’ things? Letter onwards. But only do it if you have an idea. Only do it if it’s something that strikes a chord with you. No good story was ever begun with the phrase ‘I’m going to write something today that never uses the word ‘said”. It was begun with an idea: ‘hey, what if there was a monk who lost his rosary?’, and then, if you please, you can shout, whisper, murmur, and belt your way to the conclusion.

Had to get that off my chest. The reason being, of course, that I’m about to offer you some everyday writing exercises. Ain’t I a hypocrite?

Not really. Very few of these involve actually putting pen to paper. What I’m offering, instead, are more thought exercises–ways to expand your mind, man. Imagination is key in good writing, and I see few ‘writing exercises’ that flex those particular muscles.

Because, yeah, you need inspiration to write. If you try to just churn it out, what you’ll churn out will be page after page of drivel (if you haven’t been keeping up with my NaNo experiment, I proved this to myself last month).

Here’s the deal with inspiration, though. You can’t just sit there and wait for it to come to you. You have to set out manfully into the West and find your inspiration, and lasso your inspiration, and drag it back to the paddy and break it like the wild motherfucking thing it is. There are a lot of thoughts floating around in your cranium bubble, and recognizing a good one–catching it as it passes you by on its gossamer wings–is a lot harder than all our talk of muses and inspirational writ suggests.

To find your inspiration, you have to start thinking differently. We’re humans–we’re hardwired to focus on our own survival and happiness. And that’s not a bad thing, when you aren’t doing something creative: when you are, though, it’s time to expand your fucking mind. A good idea doesn’t capture some great universal truth, it captures the little daily truths, which, if arranged correctly, might echo something that resonates. It’s why we show, not tell. Which is more powerful: the phrase ‘everyone died but me’, or the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with five life vests still in factory ties?

These exercises are intended to help you find life’s little truths, the details we miss when we start thinking about How The World Is Today. Imagination is limitless–which is awesome, yeah, but also kind of terrifying. Here’s me helping you use your imagination.

1) What coins do you have in your pocket? Look at them, examine them. Some are old and ugly, some are shiny and new. How many other people have touched these coins? What situations have they been in, to give them the scars they do (or don’t) have? Got an older coin that’s still in shiny shape in there? Why do you think it is that way?

2) Find one thing in the course of your day that doesn’t work. A cooler at the convenience store, an out of order vending machine, that sort of thing. Speculate on why. Speculate on how long it’s been that way.

3) Notice ten people of different ages and backgrounds. Now ask yourself: what kind of underwear are they wearing? If you feel like getting arrested today, go ask and see how close to right you were.

4) Read a book by an author from a different country. The less you know about that country, the better.

5) When you overhear two strangers arguing (and trust me, you will if you pay attention) pick an arguer to side with. Then, justify the point of view of the arguer you disagree with. (Handy dandy note: don’t do this out loud.)

6) When you’re watching TV: pick a scene. Imagine what went on when the camera wasn’t rolling.

7) Name three ways in which you have been lazy today, including why they are lazy. (I’ve already got one for you. I’m all rainsplattered and damp because, in the long run, it was easier to walk in the rain and get wet than it was to use my umbrella. Yes. I am that lazy.)

8) Take the first two words that come out of this random word generator. Now, write an eight hundred word flash piece using both of them. Don’t go over the word limit. (For extra credit, share your creations in the comment section.)

9) Take those same two words and write a second eight hundred word story. Don’t reuse anything–characters, setting, plot, theme–from the first one.

10) When you pass a building under construction, take a second. Imagine the amount of money that went into building it. Who’s putting up the cash? Why is it being built? Did anyone really not want that bulding to be there, and if so, who? Is this building some architecture student’s first job, or some world-weary master’s triumph?

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.

Affordable Christmas Gifts for Writers

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A NOTE: There are a lot of links in the post. Mostly because, after writing it, I got curious if some of these things actually existed. Lo and behold! Internet magic! You can buy plot dice, an E.E. Cummings tshirt, AND a stupidly expensive fountain pen all in one fell swoop! I don’t necessarily encourage you to buy these things–hell, it’s me, I encourage you to buy as little as possible. Links are included fo’ yo’ edification.

Affordable Christmas Gifts for Writers

We’re coming up on Christmas.

I know, I know. It doesn’t feel like it. But the Santa Seepage has already begun–the craft stores have Christmas endcaps, and Target has its oblique we-know-it’s-not-time-for-this-yet-but-buy-stuff back Christmas wall up, lurking like a hungry red and green shadow behind the current commercialized holiday section, Thanksgiving. For those of us who work retail, the nightmare has already begun. I’m basically getting this post over with early, as resident Grinch.

For those of you who DON’T work retail, and therefore like Christmas, you can start humming ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ under your breath. What’re those lyrics, again? Does anybody actually know the lyrics to Jingle Bell Rock?

Anyway.

I see ‘Christmas lists for writers’ a lot online, but y’know what? A lot of times, they’re things like t-shirts with ‘I’m a Writer’ written on them, which is pretty much useless in the art of writing, except possibly to blot your blood, sweat, and tears on (or, alternatively: if you hit your head pretty hard on something, and forget who wrote all those half-finished stories on your laptop). Or, it has the Hemingwrite on it. Because gadgets. I mean, who doesn’t like expensive gadgets? Who doesn’t like to buy them? Everybody has the money for a twenty dollar coffee mug and a Hemingwrite.

So I wanted to take a minute and give you guys a useful (and, hopefully, slightly more affordable) list of things you can get your pet writer. Here we go:

1) A Coupon Book.

Broke this year? Saving all your money to buy Granny that five-speed blender? It happens, buddy. And, when it happens, the homemade coupon books appear.

However, for your writer, you might want to consider going above and beyond the standard free back rubs and Netflix n’ chill night ideas. Here are a few authorial coupon concepts for you:

1) One FREE night of you telling me all about your novel. I’ll ask questions. I’ll get into it.
2) One FREE night of locking yourself up in your room to write. I will not ask you why dinner isn’t ready. I will not ask you why you aren’t keeping me company.
3) One FREE dinner left obliquely by the door of your room while you’re writing. I won’t complain about making it. I won’t ask you to join me at the table. I know you’re writing.
4) One FREE read-aloud. Read me your story!
5) One FREE accompaniment to the convention/signing of your choice. I’ll stand there next to you and be super supportive, even if I don’t know what’s going on and I had to take the day off work.

2) Services Rendered.

No, not sexual services. You dog, you.

Do you have a skill that might help your writer buddy out? Are you a graphic designer, a photographer, an editor, have a job in marketing, etc? (Even if you’re none of these things, you could always be a beta reader).

If your writer buddy is trying to self publish, or publish through a small indie press, he or she could probably use some help, and they may have been too shy (or too introverted, whatever the popular term du jour is) to ask. So this Christmas, if you’re broke but want to still make somebody smile, offer aid.

3) Kindle Unlimited

Does your writer read a lot? If he or she doesn’t–are you sure he or she is still alive? Poke this person a few times with a stick. Whisper the words ‘Fifty Shades or Grey’ or ‘E.L. James’. If this doesn’t provoke a strong reaction of some variety, your writer friend has passed on, and your Christmas gift should probably be a mourning bouquet and help with the burial.

If your writer friend is still alive and vociferous about Shades, you might want to consider a Kindle Unlimited subscription. KU is a great program on Amazon by which certain ebooks (a lot of solid bestsellers among them) can be ‘borrowed’ for a month. It gives your Kindle-possessing writer the chance to read whatever kind of books, and as many of them, as they please.

A note: Amazon now has a reading app for all smart devices. So, yeah, your writer doesn’t even need to have a Kindle for this one, though it is recommended.

4) Supplies.

Writing isn’t a profession that requires a lot of stuff. You don’t need a two hundred dollar leatherbound notebook to write. You don’t need a pricey fountain pen. And, honestly, if a lot of us had these things, we wouldn’t use them, or probably look at them ever. (PS–if you haven’t reached your ‘humanity is ridiculous’ quota for the day yet, check out that fountain pen link).

But your writer does use something to write. Moleskine notebooks? A tablet? A laptop? You can buy a passel of Moleskines for pretty cheap. A keyboard case for a tablet. Long story short, if you want to buy your writer an actual writing related item, make sure it’s something this person will use. I’d recommend staying away from plot dice and Hemingwrites and clever t-shirts with E.E Cummings jokes on them: these items are more or less useless (unless, of course, your writer has expressed a desire for one of them. For instance, no E.E. Cummings t-shirt for me, but I’d love something with a quote or two on it from A Confederacy of Dunces. Or this Henry Miller Library poster: ohmigod, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life. I get what they were going for, artsy bastards, but this has to be one of the FUNNIEST accidental truisms ever manufactured about Henry Miller. Look, the gal in the picture is even asleep). 

5) Support.

Did I mention love and encouragement? No? Well, they’re cheap, and in the end they’re the best gift you can give anybody.

Note, I’m not suggesting you give your writer a Christmas card with ‘You Get My Love For Christmas!’ scrawled on it in Sharpie. That’s kind of an asshole move, man. At least make a coupon book, or something. But, nevertheless:

Self and small press publishing is pretty horrible. It’s difficult to build a following, difficult to keep a following once you’ve built it, and almost impossible to make money (at least, in the golden way your writer dreamed of before actually self-publishing). So the best gift, and the best way to keep up the spirit of the season? Be there. Be supportive, be a fan, be a friend. Like stuff on social media. Leave a glowing review of your writerbuddy’s book on Amazon. Help out. For all you know, you might be helping somebody keep their dreams alive.

6) Money.

You have enough to give it to other people? Oh, man. What’s that like?

If you do, money is pretty much appreciated across the board by everybody. And, for your writer buddy, it might be your best option, if they haven’t given you any hints on what else to buy. Money’s such a cheap gift, you say? Really? It’s worth exactly what it’s worth. How the hell can it be ‘cheap’?

Sorry, that expression’s always bothered me. Anyway. Money can buy a writer advertising, listings, a five pound sack of gummy bears. Whatever this writer needs–which is something you might not necessarily know.

Or, if you just can’t bear to be that awesome friend or relative who just gives out money: does this writer go out to a certain coffee shop frequently? Perhaps a gift certificate to that coffee shop. Is there a conference he or she wants to attend out of town? Plane tickets, or a gift certificate to a really good restaurant you know there. Just published a book? A gift certificate for framing, maybe, so that book can go up on the wall where it belongs. An Amazon gift certificate is always awesome, too.

Long story short, give your pet writer a gift just like you’d give a gift to anyone. Listen to that person. What do they say they want? That’s. Um. Probably what you should give them. People don’t usually lie about that stuff.

Last words: just because someone makes a percentage of their income from writing doesn’t mean you have to give them a writing related gift. Maybe what your writer friend really wants is Granny’s five speed blender. In which case: skip the glittery pens and get this person a blender. After all, do you get your architect friends a t-shirt with ‘I’m an Architect’ on it?

See, kids? It ain’t half hard, nor does it have to cost you an arm and a leg.

NaNoWriMo: The Tough-Love Pep Talk

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NaNo Pep Talk: Tough Love

I warn you, NaNo brothers and sisters. This isn’t the pep talk you want. This isn’t the pep talk your fifth grade teacher gives you, along with a certificate for participating. This isn’t the pep talk Coach gives you, when you might not win the championship but thanks to Jesus, you’re learning all about your community and how to be a winner at life.

This isn’t the pep talk your girlfriends give you, when you feel like you’re fat but you’re such an amazing person ohmigawd don’t EVER talk down about yourself, like EVER.

Oh, no. This is an Emily pep talk.

To rephrase, for those who don’t know me as well: if I don’t lose followers on this one, I’m doing something wrong.

We’ll start at pissoff level and work our way forward from there. Here we go:

NaNoWriMo is not hard.

I know. You’ve already smashed your coffee cup against the battered edge of your writing desk. There are tears in your red-rimmed eyes.

You’re making this harder than it has to be, and that’s one of the prime reasons people fail at things.

Nano is 50,000 words in thirty days; or, roughly 1,667 words a day. Thousands look scary, right? I mean, if words were dollars, I could just take December off. However, look at it this way:

This post, so far, is 220 words. (Which, for the record, is utilities. So if words are dollars, I’ve paid my utilities for the month already). 

It’s taken me, like, ten minutes to type. So, if I do that eight more times–about eighty minutes, or 1780 words–I’ve done it, and a little extra.

Eighty minutes isn’t a lot of time. That’s lunch break time plus a few minutes while you’re waiting for dinner to cook in the oven. That’s two cigarette breaks at work and that hour you spend around seven on Facebook. I take a bus to work, so I use my time there to write, and guess what? A lot of times, I make my word goal on the fricking bus.

Some people’s daily word count takes longer to type than others. Some people take two hours to my hour and a half, some people take four hours. Some people take forty-five minutes.

You know yourself. You know about how fast you write. Can you do 50,000 words a day? Ask yourself honestly. Think of your day to day life.

Can’t make the time? Don’t do NaNo.

Maybe that sounds cold, but it’s true.

I’m not saying what folks’ll be assuming I’m saying with that: it has nothing to do with how serious a writer you are. It has nothing to do with how good you are, how dedicated, how strongly you’re bound to your Craft, or whatever faux-artiste chicanery you want to spread on the NaNoWriMo Wonderbread.

If you make a commitment, it needs to be a commitment. If you can’t make that commitment, you need to figure out a commitment you can make. But you knew that, right? You’re an adult.

For those who feel it’s a possible commitment:

NaNoWriMo isn’t a fun game, and it isn’t just a chance to finally blorp out that novel you’ve been swishing around for twelve years (though it can be that too, if you’re serious about it). It isn’t another badge on your Girl Scouts sash. It isn’t an artistic endeavor in which your plot needs both arc and trajectory. It isn’t Mount Everest, and you don’t need core training and special gear to climb it.

It’s learning to write a reasonable amount of words, every day. It’s learning to move past perfectionism and into the desert of the word-cruncher. I see a lot of happy blorping on the NaNoWriMo website about your ‘inner editor’, and, while that’s a very cute metaphor, let’s not personify our problems, shall we? Putting faces to our hangups just makes them more human, and Jesus, isn’t that the last thing you want them to be?

Your ‘inner editor’, much like your ‘muse’, comes from the same place as everything else you think. It comes from you. So turn it off. Learn to write slush, if that’s what gets you through. Writing slush is an important learning experience, too: your mind will run places you never thought it could run. And in that slush, after several hard months of editing, are unexpected gems you wouldn’t have come across any other way.

NaNoWriMo isn’t a heartfelt epic quest. You don’t pit your powers against an evil wizard, learn something about yourself, have a heartwarming denouement with medals and wine and dancing. You’re not throwing the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo. You’re just writing a novel. Not even a real novel: you’re writing a first draft of something that might someday become a novel. Think you’ve done something special? You haven’t. Unless you’re in a graveyard sitting between two tombstones, or in a preschool, the person to your right or left could do it, just the same as you.

Why do it, then?

Because not everyone cares enough to do it. You do.

Because you made the commitment: to finish the story, to get the rough stuff out of the way. To try. There are no trophies for participation (well–no real trophies) but there is the trophy of having that finished first draft at the end of the month, and knowing, should you decide to do something with it, that all it’ll take is some tweaking and editing. And, also, there’s the power of knowing you did it, and could do it again.

So don’t even ask yourself if you’re going to finish. Jesus, stop worrying about that. It’s only day eleven, why’re you freaking out about failure already?

Don’t worry. Just write.

Get into it. Write something stupid. Write five straight pages of dialogue. Take a scene to its ridiculous utmost limits. Who cares if it’s twenty pages before you hit your next page break? It’s just NaNo. The writing world’s ultimate freewrite. Enjoy yourself.

The more you enjoy yourself, the more you’ll find your wordcount doubling.

The final draft might be crap, but that’s what NaNoEdMo is for. (Don’t do National Novel Editing Month? I don’t blame you. I’m not sure it exists for anyone other than me, but it’s what other folks call January.) Just enjoy yourself.

I can’t say it enough. Just enjoy yourself. Writing is what you do, right? You’re not getting paid for this, you’re doing it for fun.

So why make it harder than it has to be?

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 VII: The Alternative

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Photo by joe burge at freeimages.com.

We’re ending Fright Week on a spooky yet blackly funny note–and we’re talking about the scariest thing in our modern world, student loan repayment. Ooo-wee-ooooo. Might not be the most startlingly original story in this collection, but it’s my favorite.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the week of spooky flash fiction. Have a happy Halloween.

The Alternative

“If your loan goes into default, your paycheck could be garnished up to fifteen percent,” the nice lady on the phone tells me, concern infused in every syllable. “If you get refund money at tax time, the government can take that, as well.”

I stare at the wall. I know I need to do something–something–but what can I do? I have rent and utilities to pay, just like everybody else. My parents won’t give me a cent. I’ve pissed off just about every friend I have.

I need to pay off my loan. I know I do. But I also need to eat.

“I just…I don’t have any money,” I mutter. This conversation is probably being recorded–don’t they record them? I want to scream, and curse, and throw things, but she’s a thousand miles away in some cubicle, and besides, she’s just doing her job. And it’s probably a shitty enough job already. I’m sure a lot of people do scream and curse.

“Times are pretty hard,” the lady says. God, that concern. Do they train them in the precise inflection necessary to make us scumbags feel like total wastes of breath? Do they play recordings of someone’s mother to them, educate them that way in disappointed sighs?

But what she says next catches my attention. It’s something no one has said before.

“Of course,” my loan lady says, “there’s the alternative.”

“What alternative? Bankruptcy?”

“We’re starting a program. It’s called A Pound of Flesh–you can look it up on our website, if you’re curious.”

“I’m curious.”

“Well, it’s one of our charity initiatives. If you’re lower income–if you make less than 15,000 dollars a year–you can donate a part of yourself for forbearance time. A piece of your liver earns you six months, an eye or a lung earns you a year. If you’re interested in loan forgiveness, you might want to look up our Kindly Kidneys initiative. The parts go to your local hospital, where they’re donated to a lucky person in need.”

I’m glad she can’t see me. I can feel my jaw hanging open. “You’re kidding me,” I say at last. “You people are accepting body parts in lieu of payment? Is that even legal?”

“We want to provide everyone the opportunity for good credit,” my loan lady says. Which isn’t exactly an answer.
I shake my head. I know she can’t hear me do it, but I imagine she’s had this conversation enough times to know it’s happening.

“Shit,” I say at last. I don’t care if they’re recording. They deserve to hear someone cuss over this–deserve to hear how ridiculous it is.

“I’ll email you one of our Pound of Flesh information packets,” my lady says, voice cheerful and carefully modulated. “It’s a good option, for someone young and healthy such as yourself. You won’t be disabled by the loss of one kidney, or one lung, or one eye. And the organs, I promise you, do go to a good cause.”

“Wait–how do you know I’m healthy?”

“Medical records.”

I don’t think my jaw can sag any closer to the floor without falling off. Hell, I kind of wish it would–then I could just give it to them and get some money back.

“I’m not interested,” I manage to say at last. “I’m–holy shit. I’m so not interested.”

And, for the first time, I hear a hint of personality in my loan lady’s voice. It’s sly, and amused, and I don’t like it one bit.

“That’s what they all say,” she tells me. “At first.”

“I’ll call you back once I’ve looked at all my options,” I tell her. I hang up.

For a while I just stand there, phone in hand, looking around my apartment. Dark, this late–I try to save money by only turning on one light at a time. Blank walls, unmade futon, empty mac n’ cheese boxes lined up like dead soldiers on the kitchen counter. The steady drip-drip-drip, from the bathroom, of a leak maintenance hasn’t been by to fix for two months. I hear money in that drip. With every liquid splatter against the sink, I hear a penny clinking, never to be seen or heard from again.

I sigh.

I open up my laptop.

*****

A few week later, I wake up in my own bathtub, surrounded by ice. Someone has placed a Sandy March Loan Company bathrobe on the toilet seat for me, next to a chocolate bar and a big glass of water. And, of course, a stack of papers. Seems like there’s always a stack of papers.

I can feel the stitches, like burrowing worms, in my abdomen. The ice has a pink tinge to it, a strange antiseptic smell–when I breathe the smell in I’m reminded of the medical personnel who filed in here a few hours ago, green scrubs bearing the Sandy March logo, full of smiles and good cheer and reassurances.

“You’re doing a great thing,” the doctor tells me. “Thanks to you, some kid’ll have kidney function for the first time in years. He’ll have a future away from hospitals, dialysis machines, doctors. He can go to college like a normal person. Now just sign here. And here. And here.”

Going to college, I want to tell him, is what got me into this mess. But I sign all the papers, I shake their hands.

What else can I do?

What other choice do I have?

“Enjoy your year of forbearance,” the doctor tells me, smiling. He slides the IV needle into my arm and there’s a little pinch, a few moments of waiting, and then–

–well. Then, I’m here. Strangely peaceful, lying in my tub of ice.

And the worst part about it is, the doctors were right. It doesn’t hurt so much, and I don’t feel any different.

And I’ve still got most of my liver, a lung, and a kidney to spare.

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.”