Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 2

Whew! I seem to have created a really mean character. I didn’t realize just how mean she was until I typed the longhand draft into a computer file. When I finished, I wondered if I should maybe keep this lady under wraps!

I will tell you that I cheated while writing her scene.

Instead of putting myself in Zelle’s shoes, I put myself in the place of her victims and then had Zelle say things that would hurt me most.

Guess it worked! Because I cringed while typing.

So what have I been up to? Why the nasty character? What’s going on?

For those of you who missed last week’s post: I’ve been working my way through Lawrence Block’s awesome “seminar in a book,” Write for Your Life.

In the chapter “Your Most Unforgettable Characters,” Block assigns two writing exercises. The first, in which one creates a character, I shared last week. Check it out here, if you wish.

The second exercise goes as follows:

• Take a walk or do something similar that refreshes you and clears your mind.

• Then come home and sit as though you were going to meditate—comfortably. (I think comfortably is the key here.)

• For 10 or 15 minutes, envision your character going through an ordinary day. What do they eat, wear, do?

• Then grab pen and paper (or your computer keyboard) and write about the character for 15 minutes.

This writing can take any form that appeals to you. It might be a story, a letter from the character, a letter to the character, a poem, a scene fragment, whatever.

Don’t worry about style. Turn off the critical voice who likes to squelch you when you’re writing.

I felt drawn to writing a scene. I considered writing the arrival of the foreign caravan, but didn’t quite feel the pull.

I contemplated writing of an interaction between Zelle and the crone mage, in which Zelle was being her covertly annoying self and also struggling against her growing affection for the old woman.

That possibility did draw me. It still does, actually. But it felt more demanding than I was ready for. If I were to write the novel in which Zelle would appear, then I’d write this scene. For a writing exercise, I wanted something more straight forward.

I decided to write a scene in which Zelle ensures that someone is annoyed and discommoded.

To prepare, I made a list of things that I would find annoying. Here it is:

    item lost
    item misplaced
    item damaged
    reporting someone’s gossip to another
    food mis-flavored
    tripping hazard
    bed short sheeted
    locked out
    sent on false errand or to carry a false message
    instructions wrong
    supplies low or gone
    sink dirty
    dishes dirty
    picture crooked
    sandal strap broken
    talking behind someone’s back

The list inspired me, and I said to myself: “I think I will show her dirtying the washbasin of the crone mage, and then steering a novice to where she’ll overhear people discussing her unfavorably.”

Once I started writing, it got darker than that. Zelle is mean! Take a look at the scene as it evolved.

To Bruise the Soul

Zelle untwisted a kink in the topmost of the gold chains holding her vest closed and shook the cuffs of her bloused pants to a more graceful position on her ankles. She checked that her tail of red hair, falling from her crown to drift forward of her left shoulder, lay untangled.

Then, tray in hand, she breezed into the sleeping chamber allotted to the two junior-most of the crone mage’s handmaidens.

The youngest of the pair, Gasha, just fifteen, sprawled on the salt-silk banquette where she took her rest. Her vest and pants were rumpled. She lay scowling down at her toes.

“You’d think the crone mage might let me at least apply some healing salts to my own face. It’s not fair that any girl in the community, if her mother be provident, can have clear skin. While I go around with a face like a pox victim.”

Gasha was indeed much troubled with adolescent acne. Which would serve Zelle’s current purpose well. Adolescent vanity was exactly what she intended to trigger.

The dark-haired girl to whom Gasha spoke turned away from the chest into which she’d been stowing folded shifts of bright pattern. “You know you aren’t skilled enough yet to practice healing magery on anyone, let alone on yourself, which is far more demanding than casting on someone else.”

Miyla was two years older than Gasha and known for her serene demeanor. Zelle doubted the girl was so serene beneath that surface appearance however.

Gasha rolled onto her side to meet Miyla’s gaze, her jaw abruptly pugnacious. “Don’t you wish you could use magery on yourself?” Gasha demanded. “If your cheekbones were higher and your chin squarer, you could be the most beautiful girl in the domicile! In the community!”

This was true. Miyla’s eyes were an amazing ice-blue with a surprising intensity beneath dramatic brows like dashes of ink. Her nose was short and straight, her lips beautifully formed. But the excessive flatness of her cheeks and her receding chin removed all possibility of loveliness. Zelle suspected Miyla would have handled ordinary plainness much better than the potential for extraordinary beauty scuttled by a few problematic features.

Miyla’s mouth thinned. “Shut up!” she snapped.

Her lips parted to recriminate further, but then she noticed Zelle’s arrival, and her angry eyes went flat. She curtsied, murmuring, “Salt mother.”

Gasha’s sulks disappeared, too, and she lurched off the banquette to her feet to echo Miyla’s knee dip. “Salt mother!” she gasped.

Zelle ignored the girls’ discomfiture, handing a crystal vial from her tray to Gasha. “Here you go. The crone mage has approved your request.”

The vial contained the very mage-infused salts the girl had been complaining of. Her request had been approved with no resistance once Zelle conveyed it. But Zelle had delayed such conveyance for six moons. She’d needed Gasha feeling discontented and rebellious.

“Oh!” exclaimed Gasha. “Thank you! I thought—I thought—”

Zelle smiled. “You thought the crone mage desired your humiliation.”

“Oh, no!” protested Gasha. “I was humiliated. I am humiliated—”

“Don’t be,” said Zelle, and then added, her tone light, “Such a shame that your skin is not clear like Seliya’s. But no matter. These salts will take care of it, and when they are gone, you shall have more.”

Gasha’s delight fell from her expression. She looked confused, trying to reconcile her pleasure in receiving her desire with the pain of the gratuitous reminder that her acne was severe, while the newest of the crone mage’s handmaidens—Seliya—possessed naturally flawless skin.

Zelle concealed her inner amusement and turned away from Gasha, focusing instead on Miyla, who stood nervously twisting her fingers together.

“I accidentally overheard you talking with the herbalist yesterday, and I think the wish you expressed to her is reasonable.” It hadn’t been a wish. Zelle was well aware it had been an expression of frustration.

But hearing the girl’s frustration had inspired this entire scheme in Zelle’s imagination. Now that she was putting her plans in play, it was working beautifully, judging by the tension in the room.

She took up the stack of face veils from her tray, handing them to Miyla. “I think that you are quite right that if you assume the zavoj of an ascetic, you’ll gain a more favorable response from the people around you. If all they can see are your eyes . . .” Zelle trailed off, smiling kindly.

Miyla’s expression congealed. She looked a though she’d been punched in the stomach, but she accepted the face veils.

“I shouldn’t be surprised if strangers imagined you to be as beautiful as Seliya, and even your friends will forget in time that you aren’t.”

Miyla curtsied. “Salt mother,” she whispered, not meaning the respect the courtesy conveyed, but not withholding it either.

“Salt mother,” echoed Gasha.

Zelle breezed out as she had breezed in.

The next step was to fetch Seliya. She’d have the girl wait in the corridor outside Gasha’s and Miyla’s chamber, ready to accompany Zelle on an errand to a ague-stricken household on the edge of the community.

Seliya was wonderfully uncertain of herself, trying to fit in, trying to make friends. She should get an earful, listening to Gasha’s and Miyla’s verbal storms in the aftermath of Zelle’s provocation.

Zelle nodded.

While Seliya listened and grew even more lonely and unhappy, Zelle would have just enough time to weaken the buckle strap on the crone mother’s favorite sandals—it would break on her next sojourn outside the domicile. She could also pour dirtied water into the crone’s washbasin. The chamber maid should have just finished cleaning the crone’s water closet.

Zelle repressed a sigh of satisfaction. People were so simple-minded. They always assumed others meant well. Zelle never did. It was delicious.

*     *     *

For the first character assignment (that produced Zelle), see:
Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 1

For more flash fiction, see:
Ribbon of Earth’s Tears
Mother’s Gift

 

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Ribbon of Earth’s Tears

Long he slept. Centuries and millennia of years he slumbered.

The age of creation had demanded hard labor, and he had given freely of himself, cooling the lands made molten by his sister Gaia, collecting the rains of his brother Ouranos, and wielding the gathered waters to shape plains and shores, valleys and deep, deep ravines.

At the end of his work he retreated, claiming a lesser portion of himself.

Let his sister’s son Poseidaon rule the oceans and the seas. Let his half-brothers—a multitude of them—dwell within other streams, other rivers, guarding their clarity and guiding the speed of their flow. He would reserve for himself just this one important ribbon of earth’s tears. Its headwaters sprang from the river traversing the underground realm of his brother Plutonos. Bursting through a cleft in the rock of a high place, the spray fell free, down and down—its drops a crystalline thread in the air until they crashed into the cauldron below, a raging vessel of froth and fury. From there they leapt merrily over boulders and down slopes, a young river at the bottom of a ravine, broadening as it ran, calming, until—where the cliffs sank to form a rich vale—the waters proceeded serenely, limpid and green in the sunlight, grey and opaque under cloud, but always lifegiving, despite their source in the underworld.

This was the river Morvarag—Blackbourn—black for its peaty soil in the valley, black for the dark cliffs along its upper reaches, black for its dark birth among the dead.

Morvarag was its name, and Morvarag became his name, too, as he slept. For in his slumber, he dreamed. And as he dreamed, the people on his banks—his people—dreamed his dreams with him.

They dreamed of the labor he had done, mirages of molten earth shining in crescents and seas of shimmering heat, visions of spraying lava and hell-lit skies. They savored reveries of present fecundity—schools of gleaming fish, rich tillage, violet-scented glades, summer breezes, feasts of roasted meats and sweet mead at the end of the day. They embarked upon trances of future glory, starlight and a long, long journey into mystery.

The people dreamed his dreams by night and named him guardian of the night watches, mediator between them and the powers of darkness. But by day they were busy. They made tools of knapped flint, they hunted deer and aurochs, they built huts of reeds and river mud. Their children splashed in the shallows, while mothers washed stone vessels and hunters speared great river sturgeon in wild boat hunts.

Their toolmakers learned to cast bronze. Their kitchen gardens expanded to become fields of grain. They prospered.

All the while, their god dreamed, keeping them safe through the night.

Their days grew less safe, not because of their neighbors, the tribes who fished and traded along the great flood of the river Danouvios, into which the Morvarag flowed. No, it was a more distant people who posed the threat.

The foreigners were men of pride and spirit, with a desire to possess and rule all the lands to the horizon. With each valley they took, the farther their horizons stretched. On and on they marched, helmets bright under the sun, their lorica segmentata clanking—armor stronger than a gorgon’s bones—and each gladius thirsty for blood.

They torched villages, put women and children to the sword, and defeated the warriors whose fishing spears were nothing to the invaders’ heavy pilums, whose bronze blades were battered ragged against the iron of the invading legions.

The river dwellers cried out to their god, begging that he extend his nighttide protection into day, praying that he rise and confront the trespassers, demanding that he take vengeance for their slain.

But Morvarag slumbered on.

The invaders built a bridge to carry their legions across the river to the richest fields and the most prosperous villages.

Wicker crates shaped like pyramids and filled with stones were lowered into the waters to kiss the riverbed and sink deep.

Morvarag felt them in his sleep—like bruises against his shins.

The crates of stones anchored barges, a whole series of them, floating at careful intervals from bank to bank.

Morvarag felt these, too, each an oppression upon his skin.

From barge to barge, the invaders laid a wooden roadway, its timbers stout to bear the tread of marching men. And Morvarag felt the weight of the dead trees as a suffocation, a thickness to smother fire and dreams. He stirred, but still he did not wake.

The soldiers began to cross, their sandaled feet heavy on the span, their voices loud in answer to their herald’s cry—are you ready?

“We are ready!”—a thundered reply.

“We are ready!”—louder still.

We are ready!”—to break mountains.

Morvarag woke.

The bridge bound him. As an iron band tormenting his ankles, it bound him. As an abrading rope around his knees, it bound him. As manacles on his wrists, it bound him. As braided linen at his elbows, it bound him. A hangman’s noose about his neck, it bound him.

He was bound, but not powerless.

“My brother! Loose your might!” he roared.

He might have done it himself. He’d shaped rock with his waters, cooled fire, flooded seas. The cracking open of a cleft in a cliff must have been nothing, even bound as he lay. But he would be courteous of the rights of others; the underground river was not his.

“Plutonos! To me!”

And the lord of the dead answered, not with breath and voice, but with the thunder of rock shattering. The cliff burst open and the water of the dead king’s river spewed as a maelstrom of jagged wavecrests pocked with rubble, raging down the ravine, scouring the clifftops, a churning fury of destruction against which no legion could stand.

The floating bridge transformed to splinters in an instant, and the soldiers?—on the bank waiting to cross, arrived on the far side and debarking, or marching the fraught span itself?—pulped dead men carried downstream for the river dwellers to witness, and be grateful.

*     *     *

For more flash fiction, see:
Blood Falchion (The Old Armory, Part I)

 

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The Odd Prompt Game

This past week, I played a writing game with 14 other writers. Gotta say…it was fun!

This is how it worked:

• each writer created a writing prompt
• we sent them to our fearless organizer
• she randomly matched each prompt to a promptee
• on Wednesday, she posted the table of matches on the More Odds Than Ends website
• I claimed my prompt on Thursday and started thinking

(Each writer must write something inspired by his or her prompt—a poem, a vignette, a short story.)

• I wrote!
• before midnight on Tuesday, each writer publishes his or her creation somewhere it can be read—a website, a blog, social media—and posts the link on the Odds site

I’ll post my short short here tomorrow. I hope to post a link to my promptee as well. He goes by the moniker of ’Nother Mike, and I’m eager to read what he came up with!

His prompt?

“The king selected only warriors with living sons, but Lysander had not yet learned of his only child’s death.”

Edited to add: Here’s the link to The People’s Inheritance by ’Nother Mike. He took it in a unexpected direction, which delights me! Go check it out!

My own prompt?

That would be telling, but I’ll share it after my story is posted. 😀

*     *     *

My story is live now. Here’s the link:
Ribbon of Earth’s Tears

 

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What Is Curtain Fic?

I’d never heard of the term “curtain fic” until this Monday, when I encountered it in a tweet from M.C.A. Hogarth.

She was giving her fans a head’s up about the first book in her Dreamhealers series. Mindtouch was on sale for 99 cents for the rest of the week, and then it was going back up to its regular price.

In her tweet, she said: “People call it curtainfic with space elves and centaurs.”

I was intrigued. What in heaven was “curtainfic”?

I googled, wondering if I would discover anything at all. Maybe it was so obscure that if you didn’t already know, you wouldn’t be able to find out.

But I was in luck. Google delivered many pages of results, and the first link on the list told me what I wanted to know. Fanlore.org defined the word as describing “fan fiction that focuses on ordinary domestic situations (such as the characters in a romantic pairing shopping for curtains).”

Since fan fiction involves fan writers playing in someone else’s world, strict curtain fic would be something like the story of how Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, made renovations and improvements to their first home at Thornton Lacey.

Or how Allan a Dale and his Fair Ellen – from The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood – visited the shops of Nottingham to procure the needle and thread that would allow Fair Ellen to keep her husband’s minstrel’s garb in good repair.

But clearly one need not borrow another writer’s world and characters in order to “focus on ordinary domestic situations.” In fact, the instant I read the definition of curtain fic, I realized that all my favorite authors include at least some elements of curtain fic in their stories.

When Bren Cameron settles in with Jago at his country estate of Najida (C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series), we hear about the beautiful stained glass window that graces the new wing.

At the end of the fourth Sharing Knife book by Lois McMaster Bujold, we get an entire long epilogue in which a few loose ends are tied off and during which we come to understand the domestic arrangements of Fawn and Dag quite thoroughly. (I love this epilogue!)

In Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, we learn every last detail of the wedding preparations, as well as of the ceremony itself.

One of my favorite chapters in Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion is the end-of-summer interlude in which Cazaril teaches Iselle and Betriz how to swim.

It’s always a little startling when I discover something about myself – in this case, my reading tastes – that is fundamental and yet has gone unsuspected by me for years. But the illumination shed by learning the term curtain fic shone further than the books I read.

Because my first thought upon perusing the definition was: “Ah, ha! So this is a thing! People like stories with this quiet, mundane focus. Which means that my longing to write a story with a quiet, non-epic scale is not just a strange oddity possessed only by me. I could gratify my wish to write in this way. And there might even be a few people who would read it and enjoy it. Wow!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like stories about life-and-death situations. I love stories in which everything of importance lies at risk of being lost, where all is on the line. Both as a reader and as a writer. But my tastes are quite broad. And I’d believed (falsely) that I was only allowed to write about big and sweeping events. Sometimes those momentous happenings are tightly focused on my protagonist. Sometimes they intertwine with the fate of a nation or a people. But the big-and-sweeping-and-momentous must be present.

No doubt I’ll continue to write stories of that character. But I’m also going to allow myself to explore this concept of curtain fic.

Which is fortunate, since I’m realizing that my current work-in-progress has a decidedly domestic slant. Of course, for the protagonist, it’s all pretty momentous. But it’s an interesting mix of the quiet, the internal, and the domestic blended with a change that will turn my protagonist’s life upside down.

In any case…thank you, M.C.A. Hogarth for opening my eyes to a whole new genre. My writing life just got more spacious, and I am grateful.

Speaking of Hogarth…what about her books?

I’d read her Spots the Space Marine and really loved it. Then I read her Blood Ladders trilogy, and enjoyed that as well. Although, the latter starts off with a group of college friends meeting in a coffee shop, and I realized as I read that I’d really wanted the story to be a college story – and it totally wasn’t. It was good, just not what I was in the mood for at the time.

So, when I understood that Mindtouch was about grad students (alien grad students) in grad school, I was ready to click the buy button for that alone.

As it chances, I did click the buy button, and I’ve been happily reading Mindtouch for the last two evenings. It really is curtain fic. But I can also see the story building, slowly showing me exactly how these two unlikely friends came to be friends, and setting the foundation for how they came to accomplish something amazing within the healing disciplines of their civilization. (At least, I’m guessing that’s where it’s going.)

I’m not sure how much longer Mindtouch is on sale, but if you think you might like curtain fic, I urge you to pick up a copy and give it a try. 😀

 

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Read-Only Beauty

Read-Only Beauty started as an assignment in a writing workshop on how to develop ideas for stories. I wrote a story opening inspired by three words chosen at random from a dictionary: read-only-memory, number cruncher, derelict.

The assignment was limited to 500 words, but I couldn’t bear to stop there! I turned in the required word count, but kept writing to finish a piece of flash fiction, included in its entirety below.

photo by MyheimuUzuri woke as from a nightmare, suddenly, horrifically, slamming down on the platform from on high, arching to sitting so fast it gave her whiplash. Her throat was too dry to loose the scream. She swallowed down bitter bile, blinking. It was too soon, too soon, and all wrong.

Someone whimpered. It was her. “Stop, stop it,” she whispered.

Her tongue felt stiff inside her mouth, and the light hurt her eyes, indirect, but gleaming from polished white panels. She swung her feet to the floor. Fine flakes of charred dust, like black sand, gritted between her bare soles and the white floor. She stared bewildered at the silvery gown draped over her bony knees, fluttering down to the brown skin of her slender ankles. She inhaled, painfully. What had burned to produce that acrid scent? And why? And where were . . . ?

There should be people around her, steadying her, here in the stasis room. Where were they?

She could remember the hood coming down, her sight dimming, the surgical unit approaching her head. But not here. It was in a hospice suite. And then nothing. What was she doing in this stasis chamber?

Abruptly, she stood. Ran out through the open doorway and along a curving hall. The black cinders scritched under her swift steps. Faint metallic taps sounded from her knees banging her gown, its fabric slightly stiff, slightly silken. The white panels of the walls blurred, but not with speed. Her memory didn’t hold them, couldn’t hold them.

Where am I? Where am I?

She stopped. Came to herself before an aquarium. Bright golden fishes swam behind the expanse of glass, so calm, so peaceful. The water filter hummed softly, bubbles murmuring as they ascended from its conch-shell housing. A vivid blue beta darted through the school of goldfish. Uzuri’s gaze fell to the white pebbles lining the tank’s bottom. A fine black ash speckled their pale smoothness.

Oh, god! Oh, god! That fine ash meant something dreadful. She knew it was so.

She ran again.

The grand foyer was still beautiful. Green, twining vines climbed the white support girders. The air smelled fresher. Mosaic murals showed scenes of far-off earth – the sun-drenched isle of Mykonos dreaming amidst ocean, its canopied market, its ruined temples. Uzuri waded in the foyer reflecting pool. The water was cool, chilling her calves. Flat coins pressed the balls of her feet. Coins and the grit of ashes. She fled, splashing down amidst the money, scrambling up, hair dripping and skin slick, her gown still strangely dry.

What had happened? Oh, what?

The Calaeno II was an outpost, so far from 16 Tauri that the blue-white primary burned as merely one star amidst many. Uzuri remembered arriving at the station, watching the revolving spokes within its wheel flash past the star field, wondering if she would see the spectral effects her hypothesis proposed for her observations of the Melotte 22 Open Cluster. She’d been excited, her first trip out from the mother planet, her first posting out of university. She remembered. She remembered that. But . . . what came after?

The hood came down. Her vision dimmed. The surgical unit approached. Oh, god!

She was standing in front of a wall monitor, gesturing with one hand: page down, page down, page down. The records flickered by.

Patient: Uzuri Beleza. Human female. Standard mods: joint enhancement, collagen longevity, memory capacity.

Flick.

Diagnosis: Memory circuit malfunction. Read-only, functional. Read-and-write, inoperative.

Flick.

A sprawling and obscure circuitry diagram.

Flick.

Treatment plan: Stasis, followed by surgical replacement when supply ship arrives with microcircuit #THC313.

Flick.

Treatment administered: Stasis initiated, 8*6*2787

Flick, flick.

File Accessed: 11*6*2791 user UBeleza
File Accessed: 11*7*2791 user UBeleza
File Accessed: 11*8*2791 user UBeleza
File Accessed: 11*9*2791 user UBeleza

She sank to her knees, cinders grinding between bone and floor tile, denting the skin, ashy gray with dryness and unattractive. She bent. Her tears fell, flushing her dry knees to rich brown with their wetness. Oh, god, oh, god! Please help me, please help.

The hood descended. Her eyes grew blind. The surgical unit approached.

She fled down corridors of unformed memory. What has happened? What’s wrong? Where am I?

She stood in the observation lounge. Gritty cinders rendered the plush matting uncomfortable, the chairs and divans, likewise. She reached out to touch the transparent wall before her, spread her fingers against the clear ceram-glass. The vast dark of night cloaked infinity, a well down which Calaeno II – and Uzuri – fell endlessly. The stars wheeled, a begemmed veil of blue and white and red sparks, unwinking save for the Crab pulsar, throbbing violet near the center of rotation. Beautiful. It was beautiful. But, oh! She needed more.

The hood came down. Her blindness commenced. The surgery began.

When had beauty proffered succor?

She was running, seeking someone, seeking help.

Another monitor confronted her gaze. With images out of nightmare. Was it this from which she’d woken?

Flick, flick.

There was fire without flames. Incandescent. A sea of plasma. How was it that the water never boiled, the leaves of the grape ivy did not char?

The fire glowed, then ebbed. And there were ashes, everywhere ashes, falling through the air, falling to lie on the water and sink, falling to coat the floors. “My people, oh, my people,” she whispered. They were ash, only ash, and would never live again.

The hood. The blindness. The approach.

How much time passed between that moment of read-only memory and the next? It was blank, and blank again.

She stood watching stars. The pulsar winked within night’s robe. A streak of silver rent its breast. And her eyes were dry, so dry. She was scared.

* * *

For more flash fiction, see:
Mother’s Gift
The Old Armory: Blood Falchion
The Old Armory: Hunting Wild

 

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Last Tide

This feels like a good week for a story opening. It follows!

Kelp Forrest at Anacapa Island

One minute it was hot terror and noise – the creature’s roaring – and the sick sweet smell of blood.

The next, James thrust her through the portal into water and the strange rippling quiet of water-plugged ears. She’d swallowed the small of mouthful of bitter brine forced through her lips in the abrupt transition and kicked out, grateful for the lungful of air she’d brought with her.

Sunlight filtered down through cool turquoise liquid and fronds waving from the vast columns of a kelp forest. The slippery brush of fish tickled her shoulders as she stroked forward through a school of goatfins.

She was counting: two massive pillars of leafy green on the right, bend around one on the left, then another straight ahead. Her lungs were starting to ache. I can do this, she reminded herself. I’ve done it before.

One breath was enough.

Enough for her, that is. Sam could swim; liked to swim. But there was a reason beyond the inconvenience of getting wet on their way to the dig that her cohort of XT archaeologists took the longer route through three portals to get to Eridani Four.

She kicked around the last column of kelp and angled downward, down along a coral bluff toward the cave that . . . wasn’t there. Shit!

She drifted one heartbeat in stunned amazement, then curled to let her feet swing around and push off the rough cliff face, propelling her back the way she’d come.

Jesu-Yosef-Marie! How could it be gone?

And how could she be swimming back toward the cavern she’d just left? The others would be gone. James too. Before her head followed the rest of her through the water portal, she’d seen him scramble under the creature’s rusty fangs, snatching Nonsin from the rocky floor as he dove for the other portal.

But she needed air. Even she couldn’t go for much more than half a minute.

She stroked steadily, ignoring the growing ache in her lungs, counting again. One straight ahead, one on her right, two on her left. Shit!

Shit, shit, shit!

The bluff on this side of the underwater ravine . . . wasn’t. No bluff, no hollow in the coral, no portal. The ache in her lungs shaded into pain. Cristos! In another heartbeat she’d gulp water, convinced it was air, anything to feed her screaming need to breathe.

She kicked again. I won’t breathe. I’ll swim. And swim and swim. Her eyes began to burn from the salt. Or was she crying? How could you tell underwater?

Pull, kick, glide. She could hear her old swim teacher in her head. “Glide, Samantha, glide!”

A shadow darkened the water around her.

What?

She looked up. Blessed Marie, yes! An outcropping of coral loomed over her with a dimple on its belly and a swirl of rainbow dust in the dimple: a portal. An unmapped one.

She kicked upward frantically, fighting her body’s imperative to inhale.

Just. One. More. Kick.

And she was through. But where? And into what?

* * *

For more science fiction samples, see:
Dragon’s Tooth
Dream Trap

For a fantasy sample, see:
The Green Knight

 

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Where Should a Paragraph End?

I always thought I knew.

I’d be writing along, feeling the rhythm of my story, and the impulse – to end my paragraph and begin another – struck.

Bingo! I’d hit the hard return on my keyboard.

And write some more, until the next same impulse blared.

Pyramids at Giza

It turns out I was not “hearing” all the calls for hard returns that were actually coming my way.

Here’s a case in point.

Check out this passage. Or, I should say, try to! You may not find it to be readable!

(Extenuating circumstances caused it to be a very dense package of prose indeed.)

But here it is:

Abruptly she returned to herself. Where had she been? The desert spaces of a dream, hunting as a lioness should? She didn’t know. But this dim-lit vault looked different through waking eyes than dreaming ones. Why didn’t they sweep the floors? Sand lay on the flat stone expanse in patches or dusty sparkles. The whole complex cried out for a scouring. Rust coated the iron bars of the cages, from their tops, anchored in the granite ceiling, to their bases, sunk into rock. Dung decorated the corners. And the carcass of her last meal rotted against the bars separating her from the jackal next door. That black-coated beast gnawed at the bloody remains, his snout poked through a gap. Fah! She lifted her forepaw fastidiously to lick it clean. Movement diagonally across the broad corridor caught her eye. Another feline – a cheetah, not a lion – paced. Back and forth. Back and forth. Prowling restlessly. This is no place for me and mine. I, who carry the sun in my eyes by night.

Bottom line?

This is way too much to put in one paragraph. Most readers won’t put up with it! With reason on their side.

I was convinced that I’d never naturally stray so far. And I’m still sticking to that claim. 😀 But, nonetheless, I err in that direction.

The old truism that a paragraph should consist of ideas that hang together is largely correct. My problem is that I’m good at seeing the connections between things. So I tend to think more ideas go together than most people do. And that can result in unwieldy paragraphs.

I was scribing the above passage for a workshop. And my assignment called for one paragraph describing a scene via the visual sense. To strictly abide by the instructions, I needed to prune, creating a sparser paragraph.

Thing was…I could hear Bastet’s voice so clearly in my head. And I couldn’t bear to cut her off! My storyteller self warred with my student self, and the result was not pretty!

Pyramids, Cairo Egypt, April 2006

When the workshop teacher chided me on my quadruple-chocolate-mousse-tort of a prose passage, I apologized. And offered up a more reasonably paragraphed version. Which I’ll show you below. Check this version out:

Abruptly she returned to herself. Where had she been? The desert spaces of a dream, hunting as a lioness should? She didn’t know. But this dim-lit vault looked different through waking eyes than dreaming ones.

Why didn’t they sweep the floors? Sand lay on the flat stone expanse in patches or dusty sparkles. The whole complex cried out for a scouring. Rust coated the iron bars of the cages, from their tops, anchored in the granite ceiling, to their bases, sunk into rock. Dung decorated the corners. And the carcass of her last meal rotted against the bars separating her from the jackal next door. That black-coated beast gnawed at the bloody remains, his snout poked through a gap.

Fah! She lifted her forepaw fastidiously to lick it clean.

Movement diagonally across the broad corridor caught her eye. Another feline – a cheetah, not a lion – paced. Back and forth. Back and forth. Prowling restlessly. This is no place for me and mine. I, who carry the sun in my eyes by night.

Better, right?

Defintely more readable. And closer to my natural paragraphing tendencies.

But! Still too much. Because…check this out!

Pyramid of Khufu seen from the western mastaba field at Giza

My teacher agreed it was indeed better, but showed me how he would have broken the paragraphs, if he were writing those very words for a medium pace. My words. Not one changed, but the paragraph breaks added. Here it is:

Abruptly she returned to herself.

Where had she been?

The desert spaces of a dream, hunting as a lioness should? She didn’t know. But this dim-lit vault looked different through waking eyes than dreaming ones.

Why didn’t they sweep the floors?

Sand lay on the flat stone expanse in patches or dusty sparkles. The whole complex cried out for a scouring. Rust coated the iron bars of the cages, from their tops, anchored in the granite ceiling, to their bases, sunk into rock. Dung decorated the corners.

And the carcass of her last meal rotted against the bars separating her from the jackal next door. That black-coated beast gnawed at the bloody remains, his snout poked through a gap.

Fah! She lifted her forepaw fastidiously to lick it clean.

Movement diagonally across the broad corridor caught her eye. Another feline – a cheetah, not a lion – paced.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Prowling restlessly.

This is no place for me and mine. I, who carry the sun in my eyes by night.

Karnak, photo by Christopher Michel, used under Creative Commons license, Flickr

When I read this, fireworks went off in my head.

This. This! This.

Yes. It was right. It conveyed what it was meant to convey. It conveyed what I wanted it to convey.

Can’t you hear Bastet’s voice in your head now? So much more clearly than before?

I hope so! Because I’m now paying a lot of attention to my paragraph length. And hearing those muted calls for hard returns that I was missing before. Seeing the point where I’ve left one idea – Bastet noting her disorientation – for another – Bastet remembering a dream.

And, yes, I will be writing Bastet’s story.

Soonest! 😀

For more writing tips, see:
The First Lines
Writing Sarvet
What is the Worst Thing?

For tips on writing marketing copy, see:
Eyes Glaze Over? Never!
Cover Copy Primer

 

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Fox in the Hen Coop

I must apologize for the lack of a new post here last week. I was sick. So sick, that even posting to say I was sick seemed beyond me. I’m on the mend now, but still not well enough to write the post I had in mind. Maybe next week! In the meantime, here’s a story opening, one of the bunch I listed under the popcorn kittens post. 😀

Stars by Brandon Davis

Mary cursed. Then cursed because she cursed. Cursing was symptomatic of the whole problem. She shouldn’t be able to do it, but Farmer Braun had replaced two corroded cybernetic chips in her temporal lobe last week with cheap black market knock-offs. New shades of meaning, along with new vocabulary, were the result.

She decided against a third round of blue – this was too serious for venting – and engaged the spooler again, heard its anti-grav whirr uselessly, followed by an ominous ka-chunk. Damn! That spooler needed to go out. The repulsion fence had to be deployed. The chickens must emerge to scratch.

Mary was only one of a thousand mobile avian robotic eyries – model MRY97 – in this meadow, the dirty system of Eridani78. But even one gap in the orbital shield would be too much. The Eridani primary generated plutonium and uranium nano particles in quantities immense enough to read as geysers of debris from far-off ancient Earth. A leak through Mary’s field . . . would poison an entire continent on the planet spinning lazily below. Her chickens must scratch.

She engaged the photoreceptor inside the housing that formed her body. The chickens – TCHQN49’s – clamped onto their roosting bars, indicators all go: internal checks performed, cleansing cycle complete, repair cycle complete. Mary permitted herself some sarcasm on that repair. No thanks to Braun. Why couldn’t the astro-shepherd keep the supply bays in Mary’s dorsal spokes stocked?

She threaded her photoreceptor through to the spooler’s hutch. And cursed again, unnoticing of herself this time. Black carbon soot mottled the spooler’s ceramic carapace, concentrated around the ejection module. Mary unfurled her molecular probe to analyze the vacuum. Yep. Bitter scent of burnt copper. Sweet taste of almonds. Damn, damn, damn! She’d noticed the older repulsor beads growing ragged and scratched. One of them – she launched her internal palp – was fouling the ejector mechanism. The carbon scorching felt gritty under her palp, the jammed bead, sharp where its hull was delaminating.

Damn! This was the rat that ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built. Except her rats, the TCHQN’s, wouldn’t eat. And her cheeses – the plutonium nanos – were deadly.

* * *

For more science fiction samples, see:
Dragon’s Tooth
Dream Trap

For a fantasy sample, see:
Fate’s Door

 

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What Genre Do I Write?

When I attended a publishing workshop last summer, my teacher said that the writer was usually the last person to know what genre he or she was writing. I laughed along with everyone else in the class, and filed that tidbit away as largely irrelevant to me. After all, I write fantasy. How could I be wrong about that?

workshop class

Wondrous setting? Check.

Fantastical creatures? Check.

Characters possessing extravagant powers? Check.

Fantasy. Yes.

Then I remembered my struggle when I released my second ebook, Troll-magic, on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. I needed to specify my story’s “category,” and the options bewildered me. I could select “fantasy & magic” under the broader category of “juvenile fiction.”

cover image for Troll-magicOr I had options from six categories under “fiction, fantasy”:
• general
• collections & anthologies
• dark fantasy
• epic
• historical
• paranormal
• urban

Other e-tailers included “sword & sorcery” under the fantasy umbrella. And YA or young adult under the juvenile category.

But I hadn’t known which category to choose. I knew I shouldn’t chose “general.” The whole point of the categories is to help readers find the types of stories they prefer. “General” would do nothing toward that goal.

My novel was clearly not a collection or an anthology. So I could rule that one out.

Nor was it a dark fantasy. I hope my readers feel uplifted and inspired when they finish reading one of my stories, more able to tackle the challenges that confront most of us humans here on the planet. The mood of my works is, I hope, anything but dark and despairing. (I learned later that my idea of dark fantasy was not correct, but let’s not debate that right now, ‘kay? Actually all my ideas on genre were wrong, but we’ll leave that aside too! 😀 )

Epic? Isn’t that stuff like Lord of the Rings? Incredible quests across impossible terrain, big battle scenes, and the fate of a world in the balance? My story focused more intently on the fate of one person and her friends and family, although her actions do impact her greater community. But, not on an epic Middle-earthian scale.

Historical? Surely not. I wasn’t writing stories set in Tudor England or America’s pioneering west or any recognizable time period in our world. In fact, I wasn’t writing in our world at all. So, no. Not historical fantasy.

Paranormal? While some of my characters posessed magical powers which might be classified as “paranormal,” my heroine emphatically did not. She’s a musician trying to find a way to pursue her art.

Urban? Lorelin lives in a decidedly rural setting. Gabris, another POV character, lives in one of the biggest cities in my North-lands, but none of his scenes involve running through scary urban streets with bad guys after him. Nor is his city modern. It’s steam age.

Sword & sorcery? Well, there’s plenty of magic or “sorcery.” But no swords at all. And the only true battle is one of will and “troll-magic” versus “patterning” near the end.

Spindle's end by Robin McKinleyYoung adult? I’m sure there are many older teens who enjoy my stories, but I’m really writing for adults. So, no.

Do you see my problem? I’d ruled out all of my options!

I did some digging. Among all the authors whose work I love and read, whose stories do mine most resemble? I’d have to say Robin McKinley. So how are her books categorized on Amazon?

Well, Spindle’s End lists out like this:

• Books > Children’s Books > Fairy Tales, Folk Tales & Myths
• Books > Children’s Books > Literature & Fiction > Historical Fiction > Europe
• Books > Teen & Young Adult > Historical Fiction
• Kindle eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Historical Fiction
• Kindle eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Literature & Fiction
• Kindle eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Myths & Legends

O-oh! Oh!

Those results were not entirely self-explanatory to me, but they certainly gave me food for thought. Apparently I’d been defining category or genre too narrowly. Perhaps Troll-magic was paranormal fantasy. Or historical fantasy.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw that my book might fit in several categories: paranormal or historical under the fantasy umbrella. Or even literary or fairy tales-folk tales-myths under the larger fiction umbrella.

Historical fantasy seemed the closest fit. Apparently the “historical” meant anything in a setting with a technology level or cultural mood similar to that from a period of our own world’s history. It didn’t have to be an alternate history actually set in our world. So you might have medieval fantasy or prehistoric fantasy or steam age fantasy or Norse fantasy. And so on. In the end, I chose the categories of “fairy tales, folk tales & myths” and “historical fantasy.”

And I was wrong! Proving my workshop teacher to be utterly right. The writer is the last one to know!

So how was I wrong?

First the YA or young adult label. It does not mean what I thought it did. I thought it meant you were writing specifically for teens. Well, it can. But no. The relevant factor is: what age is your protagonist? If she is 16 or 17 or 18 years old, then you are writing YA.

Really? Yep. In fact, half the readers reading YA fiction are well out of their teens. Lorelin is 17. By definition, Troll-magic is YA. Who would have guessed it? Not me!

Indeed, the writer is the last one to know.

I went back to my Amazon KDP dashboard and made the categories for Troll-magic “juvenile fiction: fantasy & magic” and “historical fantasy.”

And, guess what? I was still wrong. Or half wrong.

The bottom line is that my workshop teacher had touched on a very real difficulty. Categorizing a book’s genre is hard. He suggested asking your readers which genre they thought your book was. They probably know. But you, the writer, don’t. And your readers may not volunteer the information. Go ask!

Did I put this excellent advice into action? Of course not, because now I thought I did know. I wrote historical fantasy and YA fantasy. So I selected those categories for all my stories with protagonists in the correct age range, and swapped out the YA category for “folk tales, etc.” when the protag was older or younger. Done.

How did I find out my mistake? I got lucky and a reader in my writer’s group called Troll-magic epic during the course of some writerly feedback about the book.

Hmm. Interesting.

Did that make me realize that Troll-magic was epic fantasy? Of course not. Like any writer, I’m dense about these things.

Sarvet's WanderyarI didn’t sit up and take notice until a reviewer called Sarvet’s Wanderyar epic fantasy. What?! Sarvet’s Wanderyar is epic fantasy? How can this be?

Finally, I turned my analytic brain on.

Sarvet does, in effect, go on a quest. It’s personal, but a quest nonetheless. Her journey does not cover vast distances or varied terrain, but it does involve a profound transformation of scene: from her grand-but-prosaic mountain milieu to the fantastical plane of the pegasi. And finally, her heroic actions profoundly change her culture, the insular world of the Hammarleedings.

All the elements of epic fantasy were present, and I never saw it.

The key facets of epic fantasy are not miles traveled, battles fought, or the size of the “world” transformed. Epic fantasy is characterized by the stature of its characters or the scope of its themes. I am drawn to stories of profound transformation, impossible odds, and numinous wonder. I like a close, very personal focus, but consequences both deep and far-flung. My ultimate scope is large, epic, if you will.

Did I go change all my books’ categories?

I’m working on it. On the e-tailers that permit three categories for each story, I’m good. Because I am writing historical fantasy. It’s just that epic fantasy is an even better descriptor. Ideally, I would categorize all my stories as epic fantasy, historical fantasy, fairy tale, and (for about half) YA fantasy. That would give all my potential readers the best chance of finding my books.

But most e-tailers permit only two categories. For the non-YA titles, I can use epic and historical. But for the YA titles – and there are a ton of YA readers, so I don’t want to skip the YA moniker – I have to chose either epic or historical. It’s a judgment call which is better. Some of my stories fall on one side of the divide, some on the other.

And, as we probably all know by now, my judgment is likely wrong! So readers, if you have an opinion on the matter, I’m all ears. 😀

For more thoughts on communication between writers and readers, see:
Eyes Glaze Over? Never!
Cover Design Primer

 

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The Green Knight

This tale of a reluctant nymph and her unlikely helper tickles me, but it feels like a full novel. It will be some time in the writing, when I tackle it. I will tackle it. Too much fun to allow it to linger unwritten!

Neptune drawn by hippocampi

Glauce pummeled the massive green shoulder under her hands. Slick as an eel and slimy to boot. Great gods and little fishes, how she hated it!

She looked around her a little wildly. Echoing grotto with the generous rocky shelf where she knelt. Check. Rushing waves plowing in through the opening to the sea. Check. Posing, preening nymphs awaiting their master’s whim. Check. But no way out for Glauce.

Salt sweat dripped down her nose, fell through the briny air, sparkling, and plopped onto a colossal bicep.

“Lick it off!” roared Neptune.

Glauce winced. Ugh! And bent her face down toward the smelly green flesh of her liege. She hesitated.

“Now!” he growled.

She licked. It was fishy. It was salty. It was yuck. She exchanged glances with Xantho beside her, working rather lower down. Xantho’s duties were more intimate than Glauce’s. How could she stand it, letting this vengeful despot between her legs? But Xantho looked amused, not disgusted.

Glauce moved to the other shoulder.

“Not there, nymph! Lower!” insisted her lord and master.

She sighed and joined Xantho on his gluteus maximus. Thank Zeus he was lying on his belly, nasty immortal! Her hands dug into the mass of muscle, taking more and more of her weight in order to generate the pressure Neptune preferred.

“Harder!”

Clouds above and waves below! She was practically in a crane pose. What more did he want?

She allowed her legs to rise from the god’s couch – balanced a half heartbeat on her palms – then skidded down the slope of Neptune’s hip, pinching his left love handle as she went.

“Aaaugh! Out!” yelled Neptune.

Well, Glauce was fine with that. She went, pondering ways and means while pattering down the tunnel that led from the god’s cavernous hall to the chambers of his harem. “I’ve been planning escape too long,” she muttered. “It’s time to stop planning, time to start doing, blast it!”

Head down, she rounded the curve by the marina and ploughed smack into Psamathe, the demi-goddess who managed Neptune’s sea palace.

“Oofa!”

“Sorry!” murmured Glauce. Could she get away with the apology and then scurry on down the passage?

No. Psamathe’s hand secured her elbow; another tipped Glauce’s chin. The sea nymph looked up, perforce, trying to hunch back down.

* * *

For more fantasy samples, see:
Fate’s Door
Hunting Wild

For a science fiction sample, see:
Last Tide

 

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