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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dream Trap

Fourth in my series of story openings. Inspired by a nightmare. Beware!

Hot! by Martin Cathrae

Something was wrong. Very wrong.

She shivered even though she wasn’t cold, feeling a frisson of horror move though her.

The street lights glowed dimly, obscured by a faint mist in the growing dusk. She looked right, looked left. No traffic, even here at a corner. Just the same patched asphalt lined by low anonymous brick buildings and deserted.

She shivered again and stepped from the curb. Why didn’t her footsteps sound as they should, hurried slaps of shoe leather on paving? The world seemed strangely muted.

She reached the opposite curb, stepped up on the buckled surface of a sidewalk in poor repair. Should she turn? Try another route? These soulless streets chilled her.

A drift of muffled laughter snatched her attention. There! Up ahead.

She broke into a run, leaving the humped sidewalk for the more level roadway. A warmer glow of light flickered in an abandoned lot. Firelight? Here?

And where was here? She didn’t know. Only that it was unfriendly, empty, and nowhere known to her. I’m lost.

Five men huddled around the rusted steel barrel, ragged coats unbuttoned, mugs of – coffee? yes, coffee – wrapped in their knobby hands. She couldn’t smell the rich aroma of the brew. Wished she could taste it, real and hot. How did she know it wasn’t liquor? It should be liquor. These were homeless men, warming themselves around trash burning in a barrel.

She approached them, tripping over a half-buried fragment of tire tread, feeling the scritch of brittle grass against her ankles. Why did her body feel so lethargic? Why was she cool, as though blown by the breeze of a ceiling fan, but not cold? It was winter.

She tried to speak, “Please. Please help me,” but nothing came out. The men didn’t see her. They gestured to one another, laughing again at a joke, their pinched faces illuminated by humor and snapping flames.

Please. See me. Let me in.

She was running again, unnoticed by the men, running from their unconscious rebuff.

* * *

For more science fiction samples, see:
Dragon’s Tooth
Fox in the Hen Coop

For a fantasy sample, see:
Witch’s Sweet

 

Behind Troll-magic

Talented fantasy author, Stuart Jaffe, invited me to write a guest post for his blog several months ago. He’s recently migrated his blog to a new web site with stunning visuals. Pay him a visit. It’s worth seeing. And he’s collected quite an interesting bunch of thoughtful posts on how writers create – both his own and those of others.

My post for Stuart featured my perceptions of the artistic influences behind my novel Troll-magic. I thought you might enjoy a break from the story openings of the last few weeks, so I’m reproducing that guest post here on my own blog.

*     *     *

The Twelve Dancing Princesses? Superb, but no.

Rapunzel? Lovely, but . . . also no.

Beauty and the Beast? Getting closer!

Were they favorites? Very much so!

I imagined jewel-themed bedchambers for the twelve princesses and enchanted castles for the Beast. I wondered how the tale might have changed if Rapunzel’s wisewoman never did transform into the wicked witch. Or what if the woodlands of copper, silver, and gold in the underground realm transformed into writhing metallic hydras when the crystal palace shattered?

As beguiling as I found the classics, it was the Norse folk tales in East of the Sun and West of the Moon that evoked my greatest wonder. My copy of the 1914 edition belonged to my grandmother. My mother enjoyed its stories in her own childhood. Eventually the book came to me: a family prize passed down through generations. How bizarre were its villains! How alien its culture! Grotesque crones challenged resourceful young women and men to pursue adventures weird and wonderful. Fascinated, I read and re-read it. If only there were more!

The illustrations by Kay Nielsen were an integral part of the book’s charm. Their strange beauty and elongated style presented a cool landscape of alpine flowers and glacier-scraped rock. I wished I could step right into the paintings to wander the quirky meadows, to encounter the knights on their magnificent horses, to liberate the imprisoned sun from the castle dungeon.

illustration by Kay NielsonLike C.S. Lewis, ravished by a cold clear magic of “northerness” that embodied the sacred for him, I too was seized. I did not chose my re-telling of East of the Sun and West of the Moon (the title story from the collection). It chose me! Troll-magic’s opening scene cascaded into my imagination and out through my pen (I wrote the novel longhand) like a geyser, its flow challenging my ability to keep up.

The landscape, as much as the capable protagonists (and troll crones), was a source for my creative energy. Storm-tossed waves – from “The North Wind goes over the sea” – crashed against the spire of basalt thrusting into a frigid sky where a turreted castle surveyed the arctic expanse surrounding it. Who lived there? And how did she come there? The places captured me first, and then showed me their inhabitants and histories.

In spite of my fascination with setting, it’s the characters that drive my tales. I wrap their lives around me and see what they see, think their thoughts, feel their choices. The moments that really matter – when heroic compassion emerges or grievous mistakes are made or deep wisdom coalesces – arrive as I write the scenes, surprising even me at times.

The first such surprise in Troll-magic occurred with Helaina. She’s an herbalist trapped by a curse in the insubstantial body of a ghost, and she experiments with the wrong remedy to cure her malady.

I knew the results would be poor. But the intensity of her reaction was an astonishment to me. In ghost form, Helaina can see, hear, and touch the world around her almost normally. But her hands pass right through her own body as though it were not there. Her only certainty that she is more than a dream or a figment of imagination comes from her ability to touch things. After inducing a migraine headache, her herbal remedy erodes her sense of touch, starting at the feet and edging upward.

Helaina panics. Totally logical, when you analyze it, but I didn’t arrive there through analysis. I was Helaina, feeling the sensation in her feet disappearing, feeling it fade from her legs. I felt her dread. I felt her mad run for the swimming grotto nearby, where she flung herself into its pool. The water counteracts the disaster wrought by her herbs, and her relief is as strong as her previous terror.

Then Helaina notices that her ghostly body is visible beneath the water, its boundaries delineated where the liquid ends and her incorporeal self begins. She revels in it, ecstatic. And I reveled in the wholly unexpected scene. This was creativity at its most exciting. I’d almost say, “This is why I write,” except that the first inklings of a story are equally fun. And pursuing my characters all the way through their adventures satisfies something deep inside me.

Ancient folk tales, art nouveau paintings, and the magic evoked by the writing process itself all inspired Troll-magic. Other wellsprings of inspiration contributed, but instead of exploring more of what generated my tale, I’ll invite you to experience the story itself. Here’s the opening passage in which we meet Helaina’s foster son, Kellor.

*     *     *

In darkness he touched his nose, felt his ears. Oh Sias! They were larger. More deformed. Horror shook his fingertips. What should he do? What could he do?

Chaotic memory gripped him. Stabbing tangerine light and agonizing pain. His body taken by unfathomable force and twisted, reshaped.

What was this? Where was this? None of it made sense. And the absolute blackness didn’t help. He took a deep breath. And another. There. He was steadier now. Some sort of solution existed. He could sense it, just out of reach. Closing his eyes against the dark, he stretched his mind. He’d done . . . something . . . last . . . night? It didn’t matter when. What was it he’d done? He tried again to call it to mind, pressing against the blankness in his thoughts. Breathing was part of it; patterned breathing. Which reminded him that holding his breath wouldn’t help. Someone . . . a teacher, had told him that tension inhibited . . . something. He sighed. Patterned breathing. Fine, he would do some. He breathed out to a slow count of three, then in for the same.

And then he had it. Patterned breathing and patterning. He was a pattern-master. Or, at least, an apprentice one. And he’d done . . . not patterning, last night, but a forbidden version of it. Something other. He should try it again. It had worked. Maybe it would work again. Could he do it?

*     *     *

There’s more, of course. Most online bookstores, such as Amazon or Kobo, make many pages available for sampling so that prospective readers can decide whether a story is to their taste. And then there’s the whole book! If Norse folk tales intrigue you, if fabulous worlds excite you, and if surprises delight you, give it a look.

Troll-magic at Amazon I B&N I Diesel I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords I Sony

* * *

For more about Troll-magic, see:
Silmarish Magic
What Happened to Bazel?
Bazinthiad’s Fashions

 

Witch’s Sweet

Third in my series of story openings. Is your mouth watering yet? 😉

photo of cake with flowers and butterfliesWhen Esther cursed me, it ruined the demon summoning, it ruined the party, it ruined everything!

The first I knew of it was when the cake – all twelve fabulous layers of luscious cinnamon-spiked lavishness – came out of the oven smelling like roses and rain water and rich garden loam.

Hello? A rain-scented garden is all very well in its place, but! Not as the centerpiece for a midnight ritual tea!

My nose twitched and I sneezed.

It was supposed to smell of vanilla and nutmeg and sweet. That bitch of a witch of a sister of mine! She’d cursed me! All because I’d snitched great-gran’s earrings from her stash – my sister’s, that is, not my gran’s; great-gran’s dead! – to wear to the coven’s festival of the harvest moon, blast her. She’d no right. Those earrings are mine as much as hers.

Or maybe it was the perfume bottle I spilled on her bedroom drugget? Her fave perfume, she’d said – all lilac and violet and lavender and bowery. And her favorite rug as well. (Sad moue.)

Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was because I’d told Benvolio – gorgeous Benvolio – about the time she’d mistaken a vial of dog poo for cleansing mud and massaged the goop into her hair and scalp. Pew! She’d stunk for three days before the funk wore off. But whatever it was – I could think of at least five more reasons – she’d cursed me! The rat!

I’m Callie, by the way, and I’m good at charms and talismans and rabbit’s feet and any kind of good luck conjure you care to name. Which made it all the more galling that a curse got through. Sisters are special that way.

It took me forever to re-do the cake. When it finally emerged – a second time – fragrant and chocolatey and lovely – yes, I switched recipes – the way a dessert of special awesomeness baked by moi is supposed to be – hah! – I thought that was the end of it. Hah, again! Of course you know it was the beginning. But I didn’t. Not then.

* * *

For more fantasy samples, see:
The Green Knight
The Thricely Odd Troll

For a science fiction sample, see:
Last Tide

 

Dragon’s Tooth

This is the second post in a series of story openings. I’m hoping to get my readers’ views on what they’d like to see me write next!

photo of night sky

Her hand hurt. And her wrist. In fact, her whole right arm and shoulder hurt, stretched out to the side like that and angled up. Pulled by some steady and unyielding force. She struggled to raise her gluey eyelids, but couldn’t quite manage it. She was floating, towed by her arm.

The hush of air moving in close confines sounded in her ears. The slight funk of unbathed human made her wrinkle her nose. She swallowed, wishing for water to wash away the sour taste in her mouth.

Where am I?

She tugged against the pull on her arm. It was so uncomfortable, her hand turned like that with its back leading, and something rigid guiding her fingers into an awkward array, digging into the flesh.

What is this?

This time her eyes made it open.

Oh!

The begemmed scarf of a thousand stars spread across the dark of deep space, gleaming in soft reflections on the ceram-glass of her faceplate.

“This is why I . . .”

Why I what? She couldn’t remember.

She looked back past her trailing hand. Darker there, fewer stars. No shuttle. No station. No . . . planet.

Over that shoulder and to her back? Endless space.

Somehow she didn’t want to look ahead. Didn’t want to see what drew her on so inexorably. She struggled again against her trapped arm.

And looked.

Oh, gods! What was that?

A whirl of faintly sparkling dust? A current of shadows? The maw of a star dragon? She hardly knew, but it was power. And danger. And death.

She began to fight in earnest, throwing herself against the alien brace that wrapped her gloved right hand, working to slip her fingers and palm out of the metal’s embrace.

* * *

For more science fiction samples, see:
Fox in the Hen Coop
Last Tide

For a fantasy sample, see:
Legend of the Beggar’s Son