Unexpected Things

So, yeah. About the roaring silence.

Sometimes the best-laid plans…etc.

Life has sent a few (significant) unanticipated challenges and changes my way recently. And these things aren’t about to go away. So… I’ve had to make the difficult decision to re-direct my energies from this site to the Real Life Stuff.

I’m well aware that the way to build an online audience/platform is through regular, uninterrupted blog posts. And that just isn’t going to happen here. Not for a while. But rather than shutter everything and write it off as a fun three-month experiment, I’ve decided to leave the blog right here. When I have a writing window, I’ll finish one of the many posts waiting in the “drafts” folder and let you know about it through Twitter or Facebook. But… don’t hold your breath. (Well, you can if you want. Just don’t blame me when you expire.)

I’m not happy about this. I like it here. But you know how life works, right? Of course you do – because that’s what you’re writing about. Maybe one day you’ll read all about my current life challenges… in my novel.

Thanks for all your comments and kind words.

Live well. Write often.

See you… sometime.

How Do You Write What You Don’t Know?

[Note: Stephen is currently collecting data on what it’s like to experience a great deal of pain (for use in some future work of fiction, of course), so this post is gonna be short. He’s really counting on a couple of you providing the bulk of the post in the comments section. Bring on your wisdom.]

Okay, here’s the question of the day: How do you write a scene where a character experiences something you’ve never personally experienced? I mean things like shooting an innocent man. Jumping from a speeding car. Standing on stage in front of 100,000 adoring fans. Facing your greatest foe. Kissing someone who is not your spouse. Being told you have a terminal disease. Learning that your teenage daughter is pregnant.

Dying.

Yeah. These aren’t little things. Perhaps you’ve experienced some of them. (If so, you have my sympathies. Particularly if you’ve done the whole dying thing.) But I want to know how you approach the situations you haven’t experienced. And I’m not just talking about how you calculate the number of times you roll on the dusty ground after leaping from the car. I’m talking about the entire experience – especially the emotions that accompany the drama.

Does the loss of a favorite pet give you enough familiarity with ache to write a believable scene about the loss of a lover or a friend? Does the bitterness you felt toward a co-worker who took the last donut give you enough raw material to write a scene about a man who discovers his employees have been stealing from him?

Okay, floor’s yours. Talk amongst yourselves. Tell me what you know.

[Swallows pain pills, climbs into bed, closes eyes. It’s called research, people.]

I’m Good at Drawing Frogs

When I was 10 years old, I liked drawing almost as much as writing. And though I dabbled in the drawing of reptiles, particularly snakes (which are actually a bit more complex than one might assume, despite their limbless design), I became particularly adept at frogs. If you wanted a drawing of a frog, you came to me.

I enjoyed drawing frogs. I mean, frogs are definitely the sort of creature boys ought to draw if they draw at all. Well, frogs and spiders. (Though if you ask me, spiders are more about math that art. Can you count to eight? You can draw a spider.)

But I also liked horses. Now before you accuse me of being all girly (no, I did NOT sew my own G. I. Joe clothes… I manufactured them – please, make note of the distinction), I’d like to add that my love for horses came from watching The Lone Ranger on TV (a totally masculine show because the protagonist is a cool cowboy who wears a mask), and not from falling in love with Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague (although, yes, I did read it – purely for research purposes).

It was only natural that I would attempt to combine my love for drawing and my interest in horses.

Only one problem. I was a frog specialist.

My first attempts at drawing horses were disasters. If you know anything about horses, you know that words like “sleek” and “majestic” define their shape, whereas, frogs are all about “bulbous.”

I quickly became frustrated and disappointed and nearly stopped drawing altogether. I thought that all artists would naturally be able to draw anything they wanted.

Nope.

Thankfully, in the midst of my pre-adolescent pencil-and-paper angst, someone asked for a picture of a frog. I drew it. And it was good. Damn good.

Meanwhile, I bought a book called “How to Draw Horses” or something like that. I studied it. I practiced. And I improved. Had my interests not suddenly shifted to All Things Sports, my horse drawing ability might have soon eclipsed my frog drawing skill.

Okay. Segue here.

When I first started writing, I became quite good at instructional copy. Curriculum, sunday school lessons, things like that. I enjoyed writing instructional copy (in part because I was good at it).

I also loved reading novels.

Do you see where this is going? Of course you do. I wanted to write novels.

My first attempts were pretty awful. They were… bulbous. I almost gave up writing when I realized how far off the mark I was.

But then someone asked me to write curriculum. For money. Real money.

So that’s what I did. And over time, I added all sorts of non-fiction writing to my resume. I became an editor and discovered I was good at that, too. Then I worked my way into editing fiction (which is what I do almost exclusively today). The whole time, I never stopped trying to improve my fiction writing.

Here’s the perfect place in my over-long post to reveal all the amazing novels I’ve written and published. Except I’m still working on that. I think I’m at a place where my novel writing is as good as (or even better than) my non-fiction writing, and I might just be a better writer than editor. I guess we’ll see soon enough (“soon enough” meaning as soon as I finish the current w.i.p. and start doing just what you’re doing – submitting it to agents).

The point of all this? Simple: Find out what you naturally write well; write lots of it; and, if possible, get paid. Meanwhile, keep getting better at what you love.

Someday, you might just become adept at drawing horses.

Well, that’s it for today… I’ve got a few frogs to draw. Gotta pay the bills, you know?

See you next time.

The Last of the Contest Entries

Just in time for the weekend, the last of the entries from the “First and Last” contest. (And, yeah, my short story, too.) Once again, thanks to everyone who participated. If you still haven’t read the winning entries, click here. Next week it’s back to regular blogposts, so be sure to come back to see what wisdom and nonsense I come up with.

Tanja Cilia titled her short story “Time, and Again”:

It was the best of times… no, really, the very best of times.  I’d married the handsomest man on earth, and I was pregnant.  We’d just moved to an old town-house, complete with antique furniture.

Idly, I twisted a knob on the bureau – and something clicked. A tiny drawer sprang open and a stack of old papers, tied with yellowing ribbon, fell out.

Hey!  That’s MY handwriting.   Weird.

The date on the papers is 1984. The squiggles crossing the t and the curls at the ends of the y and j are unmistakably mine. But…  I never use blue ink, because it reminds me too much of the school homework I loathed so much.

In those days, no one had made concessions for my dyslexia.  When, in my very last year at school, I had a teacher who understood what the matter was… it was almost too late.  Almost, but not quite.

She tutored me privately and taught me how to read, from scratch.  Eventually I got a job at an English-language newspaper.  I soon became their top accredited journalist.

The keyboard is the logical extension of my fingers. But for private use, I always use “nice” colour inks like aqua and lilac and preach…. curiosity got the better of me, and I felt compelled to read what’s written…

April 12… The day Ms Debono drove me home after I had twisted my ankle. It was the day before my sister’s wedding, and I was the hobbling bridesmaid!   Hey!  The name of the teacher as given here is Miss Camilleri.  But she could not drive…

I felt dizzy. I took the papers down to the kitchen and cracked open a bottle of fizzy water.  I took one sip, and forgot all about it.

I turned to June 5.  That was the day the brakes of our car didn’t hold, and we ran into the car in front of us.  Yes… here it is, “car crash”.  Oh, no!  It says we were in the ‘new’ Getz Malibu…  but the car had actually been dad’s old Triumph Toledo.

My husband returned from work, and walked towards the kitchen. I began to tell him what had happened – and then I glanced at him.

He was not my husband.  I saw the puzzled look in his eyes. And when I looked down at the papers, the pages were blank, and… The bottle was empty.

Because I am a fan of creative symmetry, the very first entry I received will be the very last one presented here. And it’s a good one from Kelly Sauer:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday.

Maybe it isn’t really Thursday, Annie thought, dragging her aching body out of bed. Maybe it was still Wednesday night. The crash was nothing but a nightmare. The sun had to rise today. It was her wedding day.

She groped in the dark for a light switch, tripping over a pile of clothing and stumbling into the wall beside her closed door. She flipped the switch.

Oh great, the power was out. Of course. Her digital clock wasn’t glowing.

Annie rubbed a hand over tired eyes. The darkness was so thick she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face.

She scrabbled through her bedside table drawer for a flashlight. She tried flipping it on. Hmm. Batteries must be dead.

Frustrated, she pitched the light across the room. It hit the alarm clock off her dresser, clattering to the floor.

The clock radio began to play.

“…80 degrees and clear for you today, with mostly sunny skies…”

Annie froze at the sound, then pitched forward, passing from one black world into another.

———-

Her cell phone was ringing. Where had she left it? Her head was spinning. She opened her eyes into darkness, pulled from unconsciousness by the urgency of the identifying tone.

“Jase?” She croaked into the mouthpiece. Why was she croaking? “I can’t see.”

“I’m coming! I’m here!” She thought her apartment door was coming down in the other room. Her ears were ringing.

Someone burst into her room, hitting her leg with the door. Then he was beside her, his touch piercing the isolating black.

“Please help,” she pleaded. “The sun didn’t come up today…”

———-

She was four months late for her wedding. The sun did rise that Thursday. One of her bridesmaids attended her in a silver frame at the front of the church.

Too many tears, Annie thought, leaning heavily on her father’s arm for her walk into Jase’s arms. But she could see them. The tears. The camera flash. Those who loved them. The look on Jase’s face. The tie he was wearing. She couldn’t quite see the color yet.

She stepped toward him. After weeks of blackness, she’d forgotten what colors she’d chosen for her wedding.

Sunlight streamed through cathedral windows across the aisle, bathing Jase in light, drawing her smile.

Ah. She chose the blue one after all.

And, finally, because I thought it would be fun if I had to write a story, too, I asked you to suggest first and last sentences for my own short story challenge. I chose “The striped cat glared at me” for the first line and “The rain washed it all away” for the last line.

Here it is.

The striped cat glared at me.

Horatio.

That was his name.

He was sitting in a circle of sunlight on the carpet, a statue in a spotlight.

“You want me to feed the cat?” I’d asked.

“Yes, if you would,” she’d said. “You do know the cat has a name, right?”

“Of course.”

“And…?”

“And I prefer to call him ‘cat.’”

She didn’t say anything. But I saw disappointment in the turn of her lips.

***

The next day I was sitting on her couch. She was beside me, smelling of cinnamon and sipping a glass of merlot, her body humming along with Sia’s “Breathe Me.”

We’d been friends for a long time. Shoulder-crying friends. Best friends. But something turned in me and before I could deny it, I realized I was in love with her.

That’s exactly when Horatio jumped onto her lap. Somehow, she kept from spilling the wine. I think she laughed.

I said words I wish I hadn’t. Words that weren’t true. Yet out they came, pressed by panic into an uncertain moment where they could do the most damage.

“I hate that stupid cat,” I said.

She hugged Horatio tighter and he purred.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean that. I love the stupid cat.”

“He has a name,” she said. Then she drank the rest of her wine.

***

After a week without words, she invited me over to watch a movie. Breakfast at Tiffanys. Not our first choice. But we were lazy. Do you know how it ends? The taxi ride. The cat. The engagement ring tossed on Holly’s lap. And all the while it’s raining and you’re wondering if she is going to give up a chance to be with the man who loves her.

“Where’s the cat” Holly asks, frantic.

“I don’t know,” says Paul.

And that’s exactly what I was thinking. I don’t know. Our relationship was at a crossroads. Did she see it too? I was afraid to ask.

As if cued by the closing credits, the night sky began sheeting water against her living room window. When thunder boomed Horatio leaped onto her lap.

“Horatio,” I said, and it was a sigh.

She turned to me, smiling. But this was a new smile. One that would lead to a kiss.

Suddenly, there was no more uncertainty.

The rain washed it all away.

Some of you might be disappointed I didn’t write a science fiction or fantasy story. But look closer. See the ending? It is a fantasy after all.

Okay, kids. Nothing more to see here. Get back to work.

See you Monday.

Revenge of the Still More Contest Entries

My poorly-disguised “original content hiatus” is nearly at an end, but not yet. Today, more entries from the “First and Last” contest for you to enjoy. For those of you who haven’t yet read the winning entries, click here.

If you’re new to the noveldoctor site, take a moment to read this old post on 7 Things that Keep Editors in Business. And then read a bunch more. And tell your friends to stop by, too.

Alicia Gregoire-Poirier entered this fantastical story:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. This came as no surprise to the girl; she had been able to control the stars since quickening in her mother’s womb. The Destroyers were rapturous with the knowledge and each wanted the girl’s power for their own.

The girl’s mother, covetous in her own right, arranged fostering by The Destroyers’ mages – The Arcane Ones. Here, the girl learned of the delicate balance among the universe; how if one planet fell, all others were doomed. They imparted this knowledge to frighten her.

It empowered her.

Her powers blossomed under The Arcane Ones’ careful guidance, surpassing expectations of all. The eve she lost her maidenhead, she held the moon in her thrall until she and her lover were spent. The moon sighed in pleasure and disappeared for a fortnight.

Her lover was enamored of her talents and lavished her with baubles that were so prismatic in their beauty; they reminded the girl of the universe. She named them in accordance of her lessons.

Crimson. Saffron. Cerulean.

After their naming, the jewels rose and transformed before the girl and her lover. Each danced amid the elements they called forth with their lovemaking. Colors tattooed their bodies, an indelible mark of their union.

The girl’s infatuation with the boy was not in The Destroyer’s plans, and the boy foresaw his death in their eyes. The girl, clever as she was, did not have The Sight, not like he. For this, he sent his prayers up to The Deity. He asked for strength to carry his plan forward and that the girl would endure.

She was their salvation.

Unaware, the girl slept on and her lover chanted over her magic jewels. He sealed his life force in blue and death to his adversaries in yellow. He saved red for the destruction of all. Then, with his hand over her already ripened womb, he blanketed her with his parting wish.

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday, the day they sacrificed her lover, because it was her will. Darkness remained while her soul warred with half-imagined murmurings.

Murder was at her fingertips.

The babe stirred inside her.

She chose the blue one after all.

Here’s Jon Freestone’s creative entry:

Somewhere between roof and the pavement, Sam remembered where she’d left her wallet. That distraction was just enough to let her fly. Sam loved the H2G2 series but never thought you could really fly by forgetting to hit the ground.

Sam’s favorite dreams were the flying dreams, she even learned how to lucid dream to be able to control her dreams. Sam soared over the neighborhood, this was way better then any of her dreams.

The hardest part was deciding where to go. Fly home, buzz her boy friends house, or go pick up the wallet. While trying to decide Sam saw a red blinking light to her right and blue light strait ahead.

Why go home, I just want to fly, she thought. Sam started flying between the flashing lights. In the end it wasn’t too hard to decide which light to head for, after all her rival school’s colors were red.

So turning to the left, just to see what would happen, She chose the blue one after all.

Adrian Firth titled his creepy entry, “The Day of Screams”:

The sun didn’t rise on Thursday. Dense fog hid the sky, hanging low across rooftops and power lines, smothering houses and decapitating trees. Diffused light brightened the world gradually, like God was turning a dimmer switch. More likely it was the Devil. Oblivious, I eased my Toyota down the driveway in the half-light.

At the letterbox, I leaned out and opened the lid to find nothing but real estate flyers. Cursing the paperboy, I sat trying to get something on the radio, anything at all. The neighbour’s cat chose that moment to stroll into the street.

Pam Jameson’s black moggy often sat in the road, usually early morning and sometimes at dusk, as if it owned the world. As if it were invulnerable. Top of the food chain. We used to think that way too.

A funnel of cloud spiralled from the sky to the white line in the centre of the road. It oscillated like a miniature twister. From the wobbling point, a smoky tendril formed and snaked toward the cat like a ghostly boa constrictor, engulfing the animal.

Cats can scream like nothing on earth. I still had a hand on the radio band selector.

Ahead of me, up in the fog, a massive shape drifted across the sky. Something like a building-sized shark. It seemed to broadcast fear. I sat motionless and cold until it left. Then I put the car in reverse.

I ran from the carport to the house. Inside, I locked the door and went to the television. No picture. No cellphone coverage. No dial tone. You are not connected to the Internet.

That was Thursday. The day of screams. The power is out, and the water doesn’t run now. The fog wraps all sides of the house, all the way to the windows. I keep the curtains drawn. I cower and cry and piss myself when I feel them overhead.

This is how it ends for us. Not nuclear war, economic collapse, or slow drowning in a rising sea. Not plague, asteroid strike, or a broken ecosystem. It finishes the way we have always feared, since the time we huddled around fires in smokey caves.

Monsters.

And while Robyn D. Stone’s story didn’t open with one of the assigned first lines, it’s does end with one:

If only he could see the future. He would know it would work out. Losing his father was surely the hardest thing he had ever been through in his life. Thinking of him now made him happy and sad at the same time. Happy for all the times they had been able to share. Sad for all the times lost.

Looking down at his own son dressed in his Sunday best, his heart was so full of pain. So full of pride. Would his son remember his grandfather? Would he know how much he loved him? How proud he was the day he was born? Steven wondered what words he could use to make sure this six year old little boy knew all the things his grandfather would have wanted him to know.

With his tie slightly askew and hair more than slightly rumpled, he looked so much like Steven had when he was his age. Everyone had been saying the same thing since the accident. Family from faraway places and out of town guests who had not seen Taylor since he was a baby were all amazed at the strong family resemblance. Strong jaw. Dark eyes. Heavy bangs. It was all there. The strong family traits handed down from generation to generation.

Pushing those bangs to the side, Taylor looked up with a sideways glance and gave Steven the signature lopsided smile. What was he thinking? Did any of this make sense to him? Steven had tried explaining it all to him before the services, but how much would a six-year old really grasp. He was having trouble grasping it all himself.

The wind began blowing softly, which sure helped on this hot August afternoon. Southern heat in August was something you could always count on, but his father had been very firm in not wanting a major production for his funeral services. He was specific in saying graveside services only. They had honored his wishes.

As the last trumpet sounded, he gave Taylor a tight hug and watched him walk away and get in the car with Julia, his ex-wife. He reached for his pocket and felt inside, it was still there. But, he knew, the bottle was empty.

Just a couple more short stories to go and you’ll have seen ’em all. Pretty good stuff, don’t you think?

I’m already planning the next contest, and I think you’ll like it. Much less work, but still loads of fun. And, no, I’m not saying anything else about it until September.