Monday, December 7, 2015

Suspended Fiction Writing Experiment

Frankly, I just don't have the time to devote to this right now. I am actually writing a book with two other authors, but it's not fiction and, since it's for pay, the publisher should get my premium time.

It's too bad because I just thought of an interesting variation to my Arabia Terra story, one that I think I like better than my original vision. Guess it'll have to wait.

I don't know if anyone cares or not. Some of my fiction stories (more like fiction beginning of stories) have gotten some looks, but beyond that, I doubt they have achieved any traction.

I guess I'll postpone any work in this direction until sometime next year, if the bug has still got a hold of me. If not, then I guess it wasn't worth my time.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Am I Dead?

I'm still trying to do exercises about characterization, but none of the tasks in the Novakovich book are floating my boat.

So I'm making this up as I go along. I started this story out with one of the murder scenes in the 1984 film The Terminator (which is why we never find out who the murderer is in my short story below). 

However, as far as the film goes. Sara Anne Connor's story ends when she dies. From my point of view, there's a lot more to tell.

This is just a draft. If it were a "real" story, it would probably be longer. I'd have to "flesh" a few things out, if you'll pardon the unintentional pun (you'll get it once you start reading the story.) 

I'm concerned that I'm having Sara forgive her husband too quickly and too easily, and that she might be seen as being co-dependent by asking his forgiveness, even though he's done his share of wrongs. I think you'll see my point though, once you've read how Sara's tale really ends.

My name is Sara Anne Connor and I'm dead.

That should be the end of my story, but as it turns out, it's just the beginning.

I didn't expect death to be like this. I was always taught that as a Christian, when I died, I'd go to Heaven to be with Jesus.

But I didn't. I just stood there, looking at my body, collapsed at my feet. I was shot six times by a man I'd never seen before. I answered a knock at my door. I wasn't expecting anyone. I'd just put my baby down for her nap. My little boy was playing with his Tonka trucks on the back patio.

I had the security chain on the door. I wasn't expecting anyone and I thought someone like the Jehovah's Witnesses might be coming around again. I opened the door. He asked if I was Sara Anne Connor. I said "yes". I thought it might be one of my ex-husband's friends trying to find him. Since the divorce, he hasn't been easy to find.

But the man with the coldest eyes I'd ever seen, like a fish, like a machine, slammed the door open, breaking the chain.

I saw the gun and I was paralyzed. I knew I should run. I knew I had to protect my babies. But I froze. I don't remember what I was thinking. It was like I was asleep and watching myself in a dream.

After he stopped pulling the trigger, he turned around and left. He didn't say anything. His face never changed from being impassive and emotionless. He turned around and walked out of my house. Then I looked down and saw my bleeding corpse lying at my feet. I opened my mouth to scream but I couldn't hear anything.

I was vaguely aware that Jenny was crying from her crib. Timmy came running in from the back. I could hear the screen door slam and his running feet pounding across our worn, hardwood floor.

"Mommy! Mommy!" He was yelling and shaking me, trying to wake me up. But I wasn't asleep. I was dead. I felt dead inside, too. Then my feelings came back to life and I started crying.

"Timmy, I'm right here. Mommy's right here," I tried to say. I reached down to him but I couldn't touch him. My hands, my real hands, were lifeless and cold. I couldn't console my son. I couldn't tell him everything was going to be alright.

That's because nothing was going to be alright. My children didn't have a Mommy anymore. Their Dad left months ago, giving up on our family rather than his drinking and gambling (and other women). He wasn't going to raise Timmy and Jenny. He wasn't going to get a job to support them. He wasn't going to spend time playing with them or helping Timmy with his homework. He wasn't going to take them to church.

My babies were abandoned and I don't even know why. Why did that man kill me? What's going to happen to me now? Why didn't Jesus save me? Why didn't he take me to Heaven?

I used to make jokes about attending my own funeral just to see what it was like, to make sure my favorite hymns were played at the memorial service, to hear my Pastor recite special psalms over my grave.

I watched my sister holding Timmy's hand as the funeral ended. Her husband stayed home with Jenny. I watched my sister help my little boy into her car. I knew she would drive him back to their home in Los Alamitos. I never thought she cared enough to provide a home for my children. I never thought that, when he found out I died, Jeff, my ex, would realize Timmy and Jenny needed a family.

I pushed my sister away because she and her husband weren't Christians. I pushed her away when, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how passionately I witnessed to her and told her how coming to Christ was the best thing that ever happened to me, she refused to become a believer.

I pushed Jeff out of our home because he couldn't hold a job but he spent every spare dime we had on horse races and his beer. I tried to get him to go to church with us, the kids and me, I tried. I thought if he could make friends with other godly men that it would help turn him around, help him be a good father and husband.

He didn't want to listen to me either.

Of all the people at church, Pastor Bill, Shelly and the other women in our Bible study group, my spirit, my soul doesn't visit any of them. Only Jeff, only my sister Emily, and of course, my sweet little children. Jenny cries missing me and poor Timmy is so heartbroken and mad at God for taking me away from him and his sister to go to Heaven.

It's been five months now and I'm still not in Heaven. What's wrong with me? Why doesn't Jesus love me? Why am I like a ghost haunting my family?

Dear God, I forgive them. I forgive Jeff for all his faults. I still can't believe I'm watching him go to his first AA meeting. Emily's husband Terry, I never knew, he's been a recovering alcoholic for over ten years now, he took him.

Now I'm watching Emily at her house, rocking the baby in her arms and reading to Timmy from his favorite Bible stories book. Why is she doing that? She doesn't believe, does she? She even started taking him back to my church.

She really does love my children. She and Terry never had kids. I never knew she could be such a good...mother.

I forgive Emily for hurting me by not receiving Christ into her heart. I forgive her for loving Terry more than she loved me. I forgive...

I'm dead. I don't breathe. Why do I feel like I'm short of breath? Why do I feel scared? I can't be hurt. Why am I hurting inside?

I'm already gone from this world. I can't touch anything and nothing touches me. I feel nothing...nothing...

Nothing except sorrow and loss...and regret.

Jesus, please forgive me for everything I've done wrong. Please take me into Heaven. Please take me into your rest.

You aren't going to forgive me, though, are you?

Emily's just put the baby down in her crib to sleep, and she's getting Timmy into his PJs so he can go to bed soon. She's reading him another Bible story about Jesus. What's that he's saying? "When I die, will I see my Mommy in Heaven?"

My heart is breaking for the thousandth time.

"The Bible says that if we repent and ask forgiveness from Jesus and from anyone we have hurt, we're saved and we go to Heaven when we die," she says, comforting him in a hug.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you yesterday, Aunt Emmy," Timmy starts to softly cry. "Will you forgive me?" If only I could take him in my arms. I so love Emily for being so sweet and caring to him.

"I forgive you, sweetheart. I always will," Emily smiles down at him, rubbing his tears away with a finger.

"Please forgive me too, Emily." I hear the words but it takes me a second to realize I'm the one who said them.

Oh God. I am so sorry. "Emily, I'm so sorry for how I've treated you. You're my sister. Jesus doesn't want me to not love you. The years I've stolen from you, years where we could have acted like a family. Years you could have been an Aunt to Timmy. He didn't get to know you, to love you, because I was alive. I was selfish. I was wrong."

"Timmy, please forgive Mommy. I love you and little Jenny more than anything. I kept you from your Aunt and Uncle who really love you, too. I am so sorry. Please forgive me. Jenny, please forgive me."

"Jeff, I've been hurt and angry at you for so long. I thought everything was your fault, like God made a mistake giving you to me for a husband instead of a Christian man. You tore my heart out when you walked out on our children...on me. I was too blind to see I'd pushed you away, too...that I stopped loving you when I gave my heart to Jesus. That's not what he wanted me to do."

"Please forgive me, Jeff. Please forgive me for not being a good wife to you. You really were a good husband and father and you would have stayed, I know you would have stayed...would have stayed and not started drinking, not started gambling, if I hadn't changed so much."

I don't know how long I've been crying. I don't know where I am. I can't see them anymore. I can't see Jeff or Emily or Terry. I can barely see Timmy asleep in his bed or Jenny's sweet little face in her crib.

"Good-bye my babies. Mommy's going away now. I'll always love you. But it'll be OK. Uncle Terry and Aunt Emily love you too, they love you so much. Daddy loves you. I'm glad he's visiting you and playing with you. I'm glad things are going to be OK."

I can't see any of them anymore. I've stopped feeling sad. I love my family, and I know Jesus will take care of them. I believe that. I believe it with all my heart.

I feel so peaceful. Bright light is all around me. I feel warm and weightless. I'm letting go. I'm forgiving. I'm forgiven.

My name is Sara Anne Connor...and I'm going to Heaven.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Transformation by Vision

I've now progressed to Chapter Three: "Character," in Josip Novakovich's book Fiction Writer's Workshop. I've found that describing a scene, particularly from memory, is more difficult than I imagined.

For instance, in writing a very short illustration of The Alley as taken from the 1984 cult classic film The Terminator, I had neglected a great deal of detail about the contents of the alley (I'd forgotten how many discarded newspapers there were, water pipes running up the sides of buildings, the shapes of the buildings themselves). I saw the film again over this past weekend, and realized that I had described mainly the darkness and what I remembered about alleys in general, not this particular alley.

How much more difficult will it be to describe a person and to make that person seem convincingly real? What sort of person should I describe? Should I use an aspect of my own personality, someone I know, some famous or historical figure, a mythic being from some ancient tale of lore...a combination?

In the opening pages of this chapter, Novakovich describes the "conversion" of the Apostle Paul, what changed about him and what didn't. Of course, he takes the traditional Christian view of the Apostle whereas, my own internal image of "Rav Sha'ul" is somewhat to drastically different.

So I have my starting point, I think...

For the basis of the following short character piece, please open a copy of the Bible to the New Testament, and read Acts 9:1-19
"I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope."

-Stanley Elkin
His traveling companions gently deposited the Pharisee at the edge of a sleeping mat in a small, rented room just off of Straight street in Damascus. This wasn't how they'd imagined entering the city, nor was Sha'ul the man with whom they had traveled from Jerusalem. Only hours ago, he was a fiery zealot (though not literally associated with the Zealots), breathing murderous threats against the disciples of a Rav named Yeshua, who had died and supposedly been resurrected, vowing their imprisonment or destruction for (supposedly) speaking against the Temple and the Torah.

Sha'ul's once penetrating gaze had dimmed, and wide-open but unseeing eyes had become dulled in the aftermath of the blazing light that bathed their party on the road approaching this city, and a voice only Sha'ul could clearly hear had spoken to him of things astounding and forbidden.

"We will take our leave of you now, my Master," Simeon nearly whispered to the once vital but now strangely shrunken, frail Pharisee. "We need to secure our own rooms." Sha'ul seemed deaf as well as blind for he did not respond. "We'll bring back food."

Without turning toward the speaking man, Sha'ul faintly nodded his ascent as if he could still see the unknown vision from the road. Simeon and his two cohorts quickly escaped the oppressive presence of the now sightless and helpless minister of justice against the religious sect they'd learned was called "The Way." Their once proud mission was reduced to ashes.

Although it was highly irregular, Simeon would send one of their group back to Jerusalem with a message for the High Priest, who, a Sadducee, had consented to issuing letters of authority to the Pharisee Sha'ul permitting him to arrest and remove any disciples of this Rav Yeshua from the local synagogues and return them for trial. Would the Cohen Gadol have any instructions given these disastrous events? What were they to do with Sha'ul now?

"Why do you persecute, me he said," an abandoned Sha'ul muttered to himself in dim light and utter darkness. "Prosecute me? Prosecute him? How was I to know? How was I to know there was substance and power behind these measly group of heretics?" a still crushed and astonished Sha'ul murmured.

"How was I to know that you were the Moshiach, the Son of the Most High, the resurrected one?" Sha'ul abruptly screamed, as much to Yeshua as to the blind heavens!

Hearing no reply nor expecting one, the minutes lapsed and his rapid, ragged breathing slowed. Sha'ul supposed it was the traditional time for the Minchah, the afternoon prayers, and began to daven silently to Hashem, the Most High God, His God, who had abruptly become, if not a stranger, then at least the surprising source of something unexpected, as this new dimension of reality came into focus in the Pharisee's life.

Throughout his prayers, Sha'ul's mind raced in a countering subtext of desperate thought about who he is becoming now that he has been confronted by Yeshua, whose disciples he had condemned and yet how Sha'ul is condemned by the power behind and above the sect of The Way. Sha'ul had always been zealous for the Torah, for the sacrifices, for the Temple. He had kept every Law and tradition of his people in the manner of the Pharisees. He washed up to his elbows before eating every meal, kept all of the precepts so that he was always ritually pure, even when most of the time, he was away from Jerusalem and unable to make Temple offerings.

He was among the greatest of the Pharisees, in spite of his youth. A member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Jew among Jews. He had risen quickly among his peers, but then in those scant few moments of being blasted by the radiance of Heaven, he had fallen from the brightest heights and into total darkness; from the clouds to sheol.

Only his prayers offered faint luminescence, for even now, in his humility and humiliation, Sha'ul's hope was in Hashem, Maker of Heaven and Earth. If indeed this Yeshua is the Son of the Most High...

"How, Oh Hashem? How could I have been so wrong?" Sha'ul's prayers fell in disarray about his feet like wounded sparrows. "How can I put my hope in You when I have been so opposed to him? How could I have been so right and yet discover I've been so wrong?"

Sightless eyes wept bitter tears of contrition and repentance. This is the way Simeon found him when bringing Sha'ul his evening meal, which was repeatedly refused. This is how Sha'ul spent the next three days and nights, weeping, fasting, and praying, until another man who also had a vision, but a much more gentle one, came to Sha'ul's room and introduced himself to the future servant of Yeshua as the disciple Ananias.

Sha'ul was about to receive another revelation, the second among many. The Torah, the Temple, the Priesthood, the sacrifices were eternal. But in Messiah, they could now be experienced in ways Sha'ul had never imagined.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Alley

One of the exercises in the second chapter of Josip Novakovich's book Fiction Writer's Workshop asks the writer to describe a setting from the point of view of someone who has just experienced a death, and another description of the same setting from a person who has just experienced a birth.

As with this assignment and yesterday's project, I decided to adapt the suggestion to something that speaks to me in my own "language."

I'm writing this from memory, although I never let too many months pass between viewings of this particular cult classic. Obviously, I have to develop more of a perspective on these characters than was revealed in the scene from the film I'm about to describe, particularly the first character. I guess that's part of what fiction writing is all about.

The alley reeked of urine, cheap wine, and rotting vegetables as he curled up in the shadows of a doorway behind some garbage cans. Mostly the smell of wine was coming from his clothes, but the majority of the contents of that last bottle made its way into his mouth, to his stomach, his bloodstream, and finally, blessedly, his brain.

His "old lady," the aging widow who occasionally took him in out of pity and sex, locked her door on him tonight because he was too drunk to "perform." "Who does she think he is?" he slurred through intoxication and a mouth missing several teeth. "Why'd she kick me out, the damn bitch?" he whined to himself in undeserved indignation.

This alley near downtown L.A. had been his haven before. If he kept quiet and out of sight, the cops wouldn't hassle him, and neither would the gangbangers who'd have been known to roll a drunk, shove a knife through the ribs, or the really scary ones who were rumored to pour gasoline on a guy sleeping it off, and light him on fire.

But because of wine and apathy, he was beyond being afraid or caring. He pulled the old, torn and frayed Army blanket, the last memento of his service to his country and the catastrophe two tours of duty in Vietnam had made of his mind and his body, over his slight, bent frame, and used his arms for a pillow.

This evening in May in Southern California meant the concrete steps he made his bed were only a little cold to the touch. His thoughts and senses were unfocused and confused, and as he tucked his head under the blanket to avoid the street lights reflecting into his refuge, he felt embraced by a sense of wilderness and familiar comfort.

The blanket held the odors of mold and sweat and mingled with the alley's other fragrances, most of them unpleasant, and while they spoke of abandonment and loss, they also whispered "freedom." No one could tell him what to do or where to go. There were no rules. Comfortably numb, he continued to mutter to himself, occasionally cursing his "old lady," and for one more night, calling this minor corridor off of Pico Avenue his home.

Pain! Bright light! It was like being born maybe. Reese's flesh felt like he was on fire (and he'd been burned once before) as the astonishing illumination abruptly vanished and he dropped into darkness, landing hard on his knees and elbows.

It took his eyes several moments to adjust to the dim light around him after having been blinded by the startling brilliance of his brief but amazing journey. He shook off the pain, disconnected it, even as smoke rose up from his back. Then he looked up and around.

The buildings on both sides of him were whole, not burnt out ruins. Electric lights. Wires between buildings for telephones. The sounds of road traffic drifting in from the street at the far end of the alley. He was in an alley. He stood up and remembered he was naked. "Nothing dead can travel through time," they told him. Anything he needed to complete his mission he'd have to get once he got to the other side, the past, the time before the war.

"Hey buddy, did you just see a real bright light?" wailed a voice to his right. Reese cursed himself for his carelessness. He was a soldier, a veteran of countless battles against the machines, and still he hadn't noticed the frail figure lying in the shadows just six feet away.

Realizing the man was harmless, he looked around again. He'd made it. He was in the past. Reese felt the thrill of success, the thrill at survival, even as he made plans to find Sarah Connor. But first he needed something to wear. The old guy was drunk and wouldn't give him any trouble.

As Reese pulled up the stinking, moist pants he'd just taken from the man still lying in the doorway, a sudden bright spotlight illuminated him. Reese whirled around in time to see two police officers (he recognized them from an old history book he once found in the rubble of a school) getting out of a car and approaching him. He couldn't afford to be detained. They'd have guns. He ran the other way down the alley.

"He's rabbiting," one of the officers yelled as he chased the fugitive, ignoring the other man who loudly slurred, "He took my pants!"

As the two running figures receded in the darkness and the other officer drove away in his car, the older man pulled his blanket up around his shoulders thankful that the cops were ignoring him, and also crushed that he'd suffered yet another insult. He retreated into his despair as if he could melt back into the shadow of the doorway, and the pavement, and the night, and hoped the cops wouldn't come back for him. He just wanted to sleep. He just wanted to feel safe or if not safe, at least isolated from everything. That's what the alley meant to him. But it also meant a dead end, and end of time, at least his time, because a deep fear clawed inside of him, a knowledge that as he slept here he'd probably die here.

Reese's bare feet padded against the asphalt as he ran from the police officer. What was familiar to the owner of the pants he wore was an alien landscape Reese had only heard stories about from the very oldest survivors of the future nuclear holocaust, or seen pictures of in the few books and magazines that had been found in what was left of schools and libraries.

The grey cold light of street lamps, the rocks on the pavement that cut his feet as he ran, the slight chill in the air, the smells of garbage and car exhaust, all spoke of a life and a world that still had hope, that was still alive and free, of a people not yet dominated by the machines. This wasn't home. It would never be home, but if he could save Sarah Connor and somehow stop the Terminator, he could end the destruction of the human race before it ever started. The future's not set. It's just the beginning. All he had to do is survive.

Kyle Reese ran.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Plant

I'm trying to continue to put some good effort into my Fiction Writer's Workshop project and not avoid dealing with "Settings," which is the focus of the second chapter.

I don't think I'll address all or even most of the exercises, and of those I do, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be adapting them for my own use. A lot of what Novakovich suggests just doesn't seem like anything I'd write. I can't explain it, but you wouldn't expect Larry Niven to write woman's romance novels or Dashiell Hammett to write haiku.

Something in a few of the exercises suggests defining the protagonist by his or her environment, as if the person's setting is an extension of the individual's identity or the setting shapes and molds the person...or a little of both.

He was surrounded by a vastness of space and light and sound. "The Plant," as it was traditionally called (United States Postal Service Mail Processing Center, really), could be viewed as one enormous room, like a warehouse, but it was perpetually flooded with light. You could never tell the time of day, which was important since the Plant was in operation all the time.

This is what I used to do for the machine
The machines were always running, and clattering, and screeching (mainly when they were in the process of a high speed malfunction), and hammering, and whistling, and ringing. Some of the workers wore earplugs as a defense, but then that made it hard for them to hear the yelling of their supervisors when something (like the high speed malfunction of a mail processing machine as it turned several hundred first class letters into unintelligible confetti) went wrong.

The space of a football field (he didn't really know it was that size, but it seemed like a good analogy) was consumed with different machines processing different kinds of mail, requiring differently skilled personnel for the tasks, being replaced every eight, to ten, to twelve hours by the next shift in an endless ballet of blue collar precision.

He was where they always put him. As low man on the team, he got stuck with sweeping the mail out of the machine. There were always two people on the machines that processed letter mail, preparing it for delivery the next day, the feeder and the sweeper.

The feeder stood in one spot, pulling stacks of envelopes from bins, neatly and evenly stacking them on the feeder belt, and guiding one stack after another into the machine. The machine was programmed to read the zebra code that had been previously sprayed on the envelopes by another machine and order them in delivery point sequence (DPS). Then, this impossibly long device spit hundreds and hundreds of envelopes a minute into 100 or so slots (he never actually counted them, but they went on forever) up and down the device, and the second person on the team, me, had to quickly walk back and forth across the length of the mechanism, sweeping the slots becoming full into plastic trays stacked on metal wire racks, all containing the zip codes corresponding to the mail.

No wonder he was losing weight. Except for two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch, he was always in motion.

Mail is dry, incredibly dry. His hands were always chapped, cracked, and occasionally bleeding because the paper he was constantly moving from one place to another absorbed the water and oil from his skin like an alcoholic lapping the last ounces of vodka from a bottle. He once tried wearing gloves, but when he couldn't feel the mail, he dropped it, and dropping already sequenced mail is a bad thing.

He arrived at work at 11 p.m. usually, but sometimes sooner if they needed him. They could make him work up to twelve hours a shift, so if he couldn't see a clock (he stopped wearing his watch because he kept breaking it against the metal shelves of the machine or the wheeled wire cages where he stacked the mail trays when they were ready to be loaded onto trucks), the only way he knew it was morning or not was to look up at a skylight fifty feet above his head to see if it was black or blue.

Except for lunch, breaks, or, when the mail was finished being processed and he stacked all the mail in wheeled containers, he never saw anything but the hind end of the machine regurgitating its seemingly unending stream of letters, the racks and trays staged and ready to receive that mail, or the catwalks, support frames, metal ceiling (all white, making the lighting seem even brighter), and the occasional ceiling skylight in those few moments when he dared look up away from the mail, just so he could get a sense of distance.

In spite of the speed at which letters were launched like rectangular projectiles out of the slots and swept into the trays, he had learned to read addresses, recognize locations, and get a sense even of the order in which the mail was to be delivered. When the mail for each zone was trucked from the Plant to their respective local post offices, each carrier could retrieve the mail trays for his or her route and they would be (ideally...occasionally mistakes were made either by people or computers) in the exact order in which each tray and each letter in each tray, would be delivered. All the carrier had to do was "follow the mail."

All the sweeper had to do was run up and down the machine for hour upon hour, moving the mail from slots to trays from slots to trays, back and forth back and forth, ignoring the splitting flesh of his fingers, the maddening clatter of the machine, the paper dust, the dust of unknown origin he sucked into his lungs, the faint small of oil and ozone, and the always too bright flood of lights (light flare generators from every conceivable direction) that made it eternally day in the Plant, regardless of how much his body told him it was night and he should be in bed like normal human beings.

Ready to be loaded onto trucks at the dock
The last envelope was now in the last tray. The machine was silent as a man in a blue coat did something to it at a keyboard. Gangs of people descended upon his racks and he helped them load the trays into the wheeled containers, zone by zone, so they could be pulled out onto the dock and loaded into different trucks destined for different postal stations.

He never saw the docks. The dock people pulled the wheeled racks out to the trucks. His job was done when these containers were loaded. If he was lucky, that would be it and he could clock out and go home. If not, some other job would be waiting, either at a different machine, or maybe some manual sorting of mail the optical character reader (OCR) machines couldn't read well enough to spray paint a zebra code on (he always remembered the one a little girl addressed to her grandpa using different colored crayons).

But today there was silence. Well, not really silence. There were other machines churning, humming, and shuffling. There were people at end of shift shuffling out toward the time clocks, and then the bathrooms, and then out the door to go home. But at least his machine had stopped.

His supervisor gave him "the nod," it was his turn to leave. He looked up. The light from the distant skylight was blue. Someday he would be free. Someday he would walk out into the blue and never have to come back to through the darkness into the hideous bright light. For today, he could at least pretend.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


It's been nearly two weeks since I've written any fiction for my Fiction Writer's Workshop project. Frankly, I've been too busy writing projects for which I get paid to devote time to this "labor of love."

There's another reason I've gone silent, though. Chapter Two in the book is about Settings. In reading the various exercises for the chapter, I really don't find any of them interesting let alone inspiring. I don't remember much about places where I grew up or for the most part, even care about them.

Last Sunday, I was telling a friend of mine about his project, and expressing some frustration at not getting very far. He told me that everything he's read about writing says it has more to do with persistence and developing the habit of writing every day than it does with sudden inspiration or having an idea that "magically" unfolds into a perfect story.

I was reminded of a line from the 1987 film Throw Momma From the Train, "Remember, a writer writes, always." I felt kind of guilty of wanting to "just write" the way some kid who buys a used six-string guitar expects to "just play" the minute he opens his beginner's chord book.

But while I believe setting is important, and a created "world" of one kind or another can take on a life of its own, I'm not sure I can make a setting the main "character" in even a very short story. 

That said, one thing comes to mind. This is the best I can remember of the "incident". It was probably around 1962.

The German soldiers were hiding in a plastic house. It crudely simulated a one room stone structure, but it was clearly plastic. It had been set on fire before, because the roof was partially blackened and melted, with gaping holes showing in several spots.

But that's OK. The soldiers were plastic, too.

Six-year-old Jimmy visited his Grandpa's house a lot now that he and his parents moved back home to Omaha from Spain. Dad was in the Air Force and they moved around every couple of years or so. Jimmy barely remembered living here before they moved to Spain when he was three.  He'd be going into the first grade next month. It would be the first time he was in a school where all the kids didn't have Dads in the service.

He didn't know his older cousin Donny much, but being kids, they played together whenever Jimmy and his folks were visiting Grandpa. Donny played "World War Two" better than anyone.

The plastic house with the toy German soldiers inside was sitting on the cracked, granular sidewalk just in front of Grandpa's house. The sidewalk wasn't smooth like the ones in front of Jimmy's house across the river in Council Bluffs. It was like little rocks had been mixed in with the cement so that it was rough feeling when Jimmy ran his fingers across it.

Tree roots pushed, shoved, and pulled at different places in the sidewalk, so it was cracked and broken, higher in some places, and lower in others. Jimmy's knee still hurt a little because he tripped on a raised part of the sidewalk a little earlier. Mommy put a band-aid on the torn skin, and he proudly wore the rip in his pants as proof he could get hurt and not cry.

Jimmy looked up from the sidewalk as Donny pulled the forbidden model airplane glue and matches out of his back pocket. The two boys whispered like foreign conspirators planning a coup.
"Are we gonna get in trouble," Jimmy whined. "Shut up," Donny commanded. "It'll be fine."

Donny applied a layer of glue from the tube, releasing a nasty chemical stench into Jimmy's nostrils, but he was too scared to complain again. Every warning his Dad sternly delivered about not playing with matches was marshaling his guilt and fear of being spanked. Only the promise of adventure, of playing Americans against Germans with a real burning house kept him from going back inside Grandpa's.

Well, that, and he didn't want Donny to think he was a baby.

Donny smeared the glue with his fingers around the edges of the holes in the dark, gray roof of the toy house. The plastic walls were a lighter gray, almost the same color as the sidewalk, and these bland tones were violently offset by the deep green of the grass on either side of the cement walk.

Donny put the cap back on the tube and wiped the glue left over on his fingers around in the grass. Then he pulled one of the matches out of the match book and scraped the head against the striker. It didn't light, so he did it again, and when it burst into flame, Jimmy involuntarily pulled back a little.

Scene from the TV show "Combat"
Donny's eyes were as bright as the flame as he lowered the match toward the moist airplane model glue glistening on the roof. "Get your soldiers ready to attack," Donny reminded Jimmy.

Jimmy quickly positioned his plastic green "American" toy soldiers in the grass at the edge of the sidewalk facing the front of the toy house, as if they were hiding in a large field.

Each U.S. soldier had a grim and unmoving look in his face. They were posed to attack, but then, they could never change their faces or pose, anymore than they could move their feet from the flat pieces of plastic that let them stand up. Each blade of grass was like an enormous stalk of emerald corn or wheat, offering cover from the enemy who have taken shelter in the abandoned French farm house.

It was like Jimmy was watching his favorite TV show Combat.

The American artillery was firing at the German position. A shell hit the house right on top! Donny lit the glue on fire and quickly dropped the match through one of the holes in the plastic roof. The house was on fire. This was war!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Arabia Terra

This needs a lot of work. It's actually a first draft of the beginning of a much longer story I want to write. It's the first piece of fiction I've written since I've started this project that I'd eventually like to see published. No, it's not inspired by the recent film The Martian (2015) based on Andy Weir's novel (and I've yet to read the book or see the film). I actually got the first germ of an idea for this story while reading Old Mars, an anthology of short stories edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. It's a collection of stories about the Mars I remember from childhood, the Mars that had canals, a breathable atmosphere, and a much greater hope of life on the planet, including maybe intelligent life.

I need to change a great deal about even this small beginning of my larger story. I haven't done a lot of research into proposals regarding human exploration of Mars. Although I'm fairly settled on the landing site, I still need to figure out how many people would likely be part of the crew of the first manned ("human-ed") spacecraft sent to Mars, how many would go down to the surface, and how long they would stay. I know exactly why Amanda is there, what she's looking for, and what she ultimately finds, but the other crew members are only cardboard cutouts so far.

Since I have actual plans for this story, I've added a brief copyright statement to the footer of this blogspot and ask that you respect my right to own what I've created and not copy any part of it for your own use, particularly for publication. I'll probably create a different title for it as I expand the story line, but for now it remains "Arabia Terra."

Oh, in case you're wondering if the following has anything to do with the exercises I've been working through in Josip Novakovich's book on fiction writing, chapter two is about location. Hopefully, I've started to craft a compelling location in the Arabia Terra region of Mars as we may see it a few decades from now. Enjoy.

Commander Amanda Nichols was disappointed as she opened the Mars lander's hatch and saw that her helmet obscured much of her first view of the upland region of Arabia Terra. Major Terry Shepherd, the lander's co-pilot who was standing behind her, always referred to most Martian terrain as "planet Nevada," but for Amanda, the stark beauty and even the romance of Mars far outweighed a more objective observation.

This is supposed to be one of the oldest terrains on the planet, heavily eroded and very densely crated, which is part of the reason NASA chose this part of the Arabia quadrangle as the landing site of the first human mission. There’s a distinct possibility of studying evidence of tectonic activity and even volcanism here, plus previous robot landers detected the likelihood of ice water under the surface.

To Amanda, the landscape before her looked like God had taken the ancient red crust, rock, and dust in her field of vision and etched, crumpled. and then pounded it, creating a texture and fabric that spoke of a life lived long and hard resulting in a face marked with character and and even a hint of majesty rather than merely scars and age.

A disembodied voice mixed with faint static coming from her helmet speaker reminded Amanda that she wasn't there to admire the scenery, at least not exclusively. "Copernicus One to Mars Lander Ares, confirm that you are EVA, over."

Captain Robert McCarthy, the third person on the crew, and the one tasked with staying aboard the main ship in orbit was probably getting impatient. She and Terry only had 72 hours on Mars before they had to return to Copernicus, and with their resources being precious and limited, there was no time for any delays in the surface portion of the mission.

"Acknowledged, Bob," she replied a little louder than she intended. "Hatch is open, I've got a wonderful view looking west over Arabia Terra. Beginning my descent down the ladder."

"Beginning of descent acknowledged, Ares. Everyone back on Earth is waiting to hear about the first human presence on Mars," chirped McCarthy.

Terry didn't say a word but she felt his heavily gloved hand press on her right shoulder from behind. For all his teasing about her over attachment to the planet, he knew exactly what this mission, her being the first person to set foot on the Red Planet, has always meant to her.

Amanda took a deep breath which was no doubt audible to not only her crew mates, but would be heard by everyone watching and listening on the television sets once the video and radio signal made the approximate 13 minute transit back home.

Her sense of wonder had been rapidly replaced with the startling grandeur of this moment and her personal responsibility as first astronaut to walk on Mars. Amanda began her slow and careful climb down the side of the lander, realizing that she was not only on the cusp of fulfilling the human dream of visiting another planet, but also her personal dream; her Grandfather's dream. She swallowed hard at the memory of Pop-pop, (that's what she called him when she was four...before she learned to say "Papa") and found that actually being on Mars made her remember him more than she thought. Of the millions of people waiting to see the transmission from her helmet's camera of the first human bring to step on another planet in our solar system, she wished he could be one of them.

Credit: Mars Lander Ares by David Robinson
Amanda welcomed the return of gravity, no matter how faint, as she neared the scarred and pockmarked red stone just a meter beneath her feet now. She tightly gripped each metal rung as she lowered herself, one hand, one foot at a time. Finally she was at the bottom rung and she extended her right leg and her booted foot, isolating her flesh from the astonishing cold, the near vacuum, the "alien-ness" of the environment, and stepped down onto the Martian surface.

Mission leader and Naval Commander Amanda Juliet Nichols had just made history. She put her other foot on the ground, let go of the last rung of the ladder, and turned to face Arabia Terra as the first living being (as far as anyone knew) to walk on this world.

"As I step onto our sister planet Mars, I am not alone. All humanity is here with me in a spirit of peace and hope as we extend our reach to other worlds, and one day, to the stars." She had rehearsed that statement for weeks knowing a watching and listening Earth would expect the first words spoken by her to be something profound and uplifting. She hadn't been born yet when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, but she listened to the recording of his first words and hoped she could inspire the same awe in the people of her home world as she now carried the same torch borne by the space pioneers from generations before.

But in her heart, she had more to say that the world would never hear and maybe never understand, "I came to Mars for you too, Pop-pop. I wish you were with me. I miss you."

Behind her, to the east and south, as Terry was just starting to climb down the lander and join her, Amanda and the Ares lander were majestically framed by rugged rust-colored ridges climbing four kilometers into the pale blue Martian sky.

A Quiet Tuesday Afternoon at the Chiropractor's Office

My son David goes to a chiropractor's office three days a week. Since we commute to and from work together, on those three days, I drive him there after work. On Monday and Wednesday, my wife is there and after their treatment session, she drives him home, but on Tuesday, I sit and wait for him and take him home afterward.

Since I have nothing to do for the better part of an hour, I usually take a book to read, but this last Tuesday was different. Actually, I did have a book. It's Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop (the first edition, not the second...I checked it out of the local public library). I'm finishing up the exercises from the first chapter, "Sources of Fiction." This assignment had me going to a public place and taking notes on the people present, what they were doing, what I could tell about them from my observations...and particularly what was puzzling or curious about them that might make a story.

The story below is a thinly disguised version of the exercise, the casual observances of a writer who does this sort of thing all the time in order to build up a collection of potential characters for his fiction work. I know writers actually do this sort of thing, but for me, it was amazingly difficult to come up with anything coherent let alone interesting. To the best of my ability, these are the people I witnessed (some of them anyway) and these are the mysteries I came up with.

It was a quiet afternoon in the chiropractor's office as I sat in the lobby waiting for my son to be put into his weekly traction session or, as I like to call it, the rack.

Looking around, I kept thinking about Billy Joel's song "Piano Man," how the song describes not only the appearance of everyone in the lounge drinking and listening to the piano player, but their lives, their losses, and their tragedies.

It's harder to figure out the background or mystery of people in real life just by looking at them in a public place, especially if you need to pretend you're not looking at them, let alone taking notes.

But I'm a writer and that's what I do. I observe people, I listen for useful dialog, I make up stories about people based on not only what they say, but how they stand, what they wear, anything I can see about them that strikes me as odd or interesting.

For instance, when he first walked into the office and casually greeted the two women behind the counter, I thought he was the doctor. He had a thoroughly professional appearance, from his close shorn red hair, to his crisp, white, button down shirt, and his freshly pressed dark slacks.

But then I saw him walking around the side of the counter to use the console to check in. Like any other patient, the receptionist, or technician, or nurse, handed him some paperwork to look over. When he sat down, I noticed a flaw in his otherwise white collar uniform; scuffed shoes.

It's not as if he stubbed his toe in the parking lot and scuffed the tip of his otherwise finely polished dress shoe, these shoes were habitually abused, as if the man made his living walking, not in a carpeted corporate environment, but on the floor of a warehouse.

I had a job once, one I held very briefly, thank God, at the local convention center working operations or "ops". I had to wear black, polished work shoes that scuffed the same way as this gentleman's, but my work clothes were equally as durable and took the same punishment, as I manhandled all sorts of equipment from stage parts, to booths, to partitions, to tables. I spent an uncomfortably long amount of time around large garbage dumpsters.

What sort of job (no one dresses like that at home) does this fellow have that requires he look so good from the ankles up but make him punish his shoes so severely?

By the time I managed to jot all this down, he was called back to one of the therapy rooms and I only saw him briefly again when he left.

Business picked up quite a bit as I was waiting, but not everyone is interesting to me, at least not in a way that makes their descriptions worthy of (literally) noting. The middle-aged women who was standing at the counter as I walked in and wearing variations on the color grey seemed ordinary enough until it was time to pay her bill. Then she walked out, presumably to her car, though I couldn't actually see her, and came back with cash in her hand.

She didn't bring in her purse or her wallet as I've have expected, but just had cash. I could see a ten-dollar bill but I wasn't actually able to hear how much her co-pay for $129.13 happened to be.

Some people were absolutely quiet, such as the African-American girl (she couldn't have been older than 18), who came out of the therapy area and sat directly behind me, never saying a word as she sat, got up, went back into the back, and then returned and walked out the front door.

Others were very loud, such as the fellow, who looked like a construction worker or other blue collar laborer, dressed in a bright orange t-shirt and camo cut offs, laughing and joking with various women on the staff. He showed up from the back just long enough for me to witness this and then disappeared again. He must have still been there when my son and I left.

There was an elderly woman named Rebecca or Becky, who entered the office with the most remarkable smile, a smile like she knew a secret, a dangerous secret that gave her power.

Probably the most mysterious couple I saw was a woman and the girl who I can only believe is her daughter, though they made a strange pair. I know it's getting on towards Halloween, but October 13th isn't close enough to start dressing in costume yet.

But both the woman and girl were wearing replicas of what seemed to be 19th century "old west" dresses, as if they had just been a part of some "frontier days" presentation at a local school or park. Outside of the less than professional quality to their apparel, what ruined the effect was their rather modern casual footwear and the cuffs of the woman's jeans peeking out from below her hemline.

But that wasn't the odd part. The woman entered the office a good ten or fifteen seconds before the girl (I'd guess the girl's age between 8 and 10 years old). The thing is, the girl never went near the woman. The woman sat down a few seats to my left, but the girl moved right toward the water dispenser. Even though the woman told the child she could have a drink, she all just about ignored her and moved away from the dispenser, but never closer to the woman.

The girl kept looking outside, as if she were waiting for someone. When the woman was called to the back of the office, the girl went back outside. They obviously had a relationship but why did they seem so estranged? Had they been fighting? Were the parents divorced and the girl closer to Dad than Mom? Was this a non-custodial parent-child visit gone bad?

Oh, the woman's name is Camille. It seemed to go with her faux old fashioned appearance somehow.

There were a lot more people there, including the all too young Dr. Kurt (who looked much less like a doctor than the man with the scuffed up shoes), and I took notes on them as best I could, but I'm writing about the people who made an impression, who made me ask questions and wonder who they were and what their non-fictional stories were really about.

All things end including my son's traction. I'll never know who these people are or what their lives are actually like. But that's the beauty of fiction. I don't need to know. I can just make it all up.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Fifth Chapter of the Book of Jonah

I was more than interested to find one of the exercises in the "Sources of Fiction" chapter in Josip Novakovich's book Fiction Writer's Workshop suggested reading the Bible and taking a tale, such as the story of Jacob and Esau (which I already did, sort of) or of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, and expanding on it. I especially appreciated Novakovich's mention of midrash, or as he puts it, the "Hebrew tradition of interpreting Biblical stories through filling in the gaps," since my wife is Jewish and I've read midrashim before.

One of the stories in the Bible that's always bothered me is the story of Jonah. The whole book is only four chapters long and it ends on a cliffhanger.

Jonah is tasked by God to travel from Israel to the great (non-Israelite) city of Nineveh and prophesy that if they did not repent of their sins, every living thing in the great city would die. Well, Jonah didn't want to do that because he really wanted Nineveh to be destroyed for its sins, and he was afraid that if he obeyed God, Nineveh might actually repent and be saved from destruction.

So like a petulant teenager, Jonah runs away, hops on the first ship heading out of town, and is soon out to sea.

God is not that easy to get away from though, and Jonah's adventures (you may recall he ended up spending a little time inside the innards of some sea creature) were just getting started.

To get the background for my small missive, read the Book of Jonah first. You can find it online at such places as or, depending on whether you prefer Christian or Jewish tradition.

After you're finished reading the fourth and (formerly) last chapter, read my "chapter five" and let me know what you think.

Now it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was grieved.

And he prayed to the Lord and said, "Please, O Lord, was this not my contention while I was still on my land? For this reason I had hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil.

And now, O Lord, take now my soul from me, for my death is better than my life." And the Lord said: Are you deeply grieved?

And Jonah had gone out of the city, and had stationed himself on the east of the city, and there he made himself a hut and sat under it in the shade until he would see what would happen in the city.

Now the Lord God appointed a kikayon, and it grew up over Jonah to be shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort, and Jonah was overjoyed with the kikayon.

Now God appointed a worm at the rise of dawn on the morrow, and the worm attacked the kikayon, and it withered.

Now it came to pass when the sun shone, that God appointed a stilling east wind, and the sun beat on Jonah's head, and he fainted, and he begged to die, and he said, "My death is better than my life."

And God said to Jonah; Are you very grieved about the kikayon? And he said, "I am very grieved even to death."

And the Lord said: You took pity on the kikayon, for which you did not toil nor did you make it grow, which one night came into being and the next night perished.

Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?

-from Jonah chapter 4
Chapter 5

And Jonah replied to the Lord, "Did the kikayon sin against you and against your people Israel as did the people of Nineveh? Their sin was very great and yet you forgave them and they live. What did the kikayon do to live one day and then die?"

And God said to Jonah; "Consider the words of my servant Job: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' Are you greater than my servant Job who suffered severely at the hands of the Satan and yet did not lose his trust in Me?"

Jonah replied to the Lord, "Did not your servant Job also say, 'I would set out my case before Him, and I would fill my mouth with arguments?' Hear me and I will speak. If you grant life to the people of Nineveh and yet death to the innocent kikayon, please allow me to die as well, for my life has turned to ashes and my tongue to wormwood."

And the Lord spoke to Jonah saying, "My servant Elijah was one such as you, desiring death in the face of adversity and believing himself the only righteous one of my servants. An angel guided Elijah to Horeb where my servant Elijah found me, not in the wind, not in an earthquake, not in a fire, but in a gently blowing breeze. And while Elijah thought himself alone, I had indeed saved for Myself seven-thousand in Israel whose knees did not bow to the Ba'al nor did their lips kiss him."

And the Lord continued to speak to Jonah saying, "You speak of Hashem, Master of Legions as slow to anger, as having much kindness, and relenting of evil. Do you believe that I in My mercy only forgive the people of Israel? Is not the whole world Mine? Did I Myself not create it? Did I not breathe life into the mouth of every soul? If the people of Nineveh would sincerely repent of their sins, even great sins, should I, the Lord, not forgive them, even as I forgive the repentant of My people Israel?"

And the Lord said to Jonah, "My servant Elijah did not die, and he found Me in the stillness of a gentle breeze, and he left Horab and found Elisha, the son of Shaphat. And behold, I took Elijah up to Heaven in a great whirlwind and Elisha succeeded him, even as Joshua succeeded my servant Moses when the soul of Moses departed him on the other side of the Jordan."

"So what should my servant Jonah do?" the Almighty inquired.

Jonah's chest heaved with a sigh. "What can I do, O' Lord? Though the kikayon is dead, the people of the great city Nineveh live just I live. They have repented my God, just as I repent."

God had said to Jonah, "Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?"

The people of Nineveh, more than one hundred twenty thousand of them, though they repented, though they were forgiven by God and they lived, still did not know their right hand from their left. They still did not know God, for there was only one prophet sent to be among them, and that was Jonah, who had not desired that Nineveh should be spared, at least not until now.

One day, long after the time of Jonah, another servant of the Lord's named Simon who is also called Peter, will witness a great miracle and say, "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him."

So Jonah got up and left his hut east of Nineveh and returned to the great city as a prophet of God, and he spoke of the Lord to all who would listen, from the very least of the citizens to the mighty King of Nineveh, and he ministered to the people of Nineveh for many days.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

One Afternoon in Sodom

Continuing with the exercises in the "Sources of Fiction" chapter in Novakovich's book, the assignment is to remember a verbal or physical fight and write a fictionalized version of it. It's supposed to be an easy assignment, particularly the dialog.

When I wrote Jacob and the Angel's Curse, I based it very loosely on a fight between two girls I witnessed in high school (a very long time ago). When I read this assignment, the first thing I thought of was the time I was attacked and beaten by a group of men when I was 16 years old.

In the early 1970s, racial tension was running high all over the United States. I had gone to the Homecoming football game at my high school with some friends and after the game, I became separated from them and attacked, pretty much the same way I describe below. Not much dialog in the story because what I remember most is feelings of panic and helplessness.

Unlike the fictionalized version I've rendered, I've long since gotten past the feelings of being afraid of people all the time, but for a year after the attack, I was very afraid of people of color. I changed the situation from racial gangs to rape gangs below because I wanted to use a somewhat more "generic" group of attackers. Most everything else is pretty much the same. I used Biblical place names just because they were handy. Oh, and I've cast myself as an adult in the story below.

The rape gangs were roaming all over Sodom that afternoon. Rumors had it that affiliate gangs had been shipped in from as far away as Gomorrah and Zoar. The police were everywhere, except, of course, they couldn't be everywhere. That's where my problems started.

A group of us had just left the stadium after the football game and were walking back to the parking garage. It was pretty ballsy to not cancel the game and even more ballsy for the fans to go watch it, but the Mayor was putting pressure on the team owners and stadium managers to keep things running as normally as possible. I stupidly thought that if the Wildcats and Cowboys were playing, it was safe to go with my mates and watch these two rivals clobber each other.

Frankly, I think someone should have declared martial law. I wouldn't have gone to the game that day with my mates, but I also would have avoided what came next and the lifetime of terror that followed.

I don't remember how I got separated from my group. All I remember is that I'd been lagging. Half a block behind us at the intersection were five or six cop cars and a bunch of officers trying to keep the peace. Crowds of people were milling everywhere, and the rape gangs were mixed in with the rest of us, attacking innocents at will.

I was scared and confused by everything happening around me but figured with the police so close, I'd be OK.

About six or seven guys moved in front of me, blocking me so I had to stop. I was still hoping they just wanted to threaten me. I was still hoping the police were looking up the street at us.

One of the guys in front of me very gently touched my right hand and softly said, "Hey."

That's when the sky fell in. I don't remember any pain, just a feeling of helplessness and almost weightlessness, as if I had been wading in the ocean, been caught by a wave and pulled underwater.

My glasses sailed into the air and were gone. It was the last thing I saw. I tried to curl up into a fetal ball with my eyes closed and my arms crossed over my head.

Then everything stopped and a new crowd surrounded me, police and ambulance attendants. Another guy with a camera ran in front of me, stopped briefly to snap a shot of me being scooped up out of the gutter, and ran off (my bloody face would be plastered all over the front page of the morning and evening editions of the local newspaper the next day).

A steady stream of blood poured out of my nose. As the ambulance guy tried to lift me out of the gutter, I felt a sharp stab of pain in my lower right back. Later, I found out one of the gangsters whipped me with a bicycle chain.

The gang bangers didn't have time to get my pants off, so they didn't get to live out their name as a rape gang, not with me anyway.

It doesn't even make sense to me why there are rape gangs and why they're so open about it. They used to only roam at night in bad neighborhoods, or that's the way I naively thought about certain parts of town. Now, they want to take over whole cities, making their own law or just taking apart the ones we're supposed to live by. Chaotic anarchists who want to run the world.

For the next week or so, I was in a lot of pain (well, the drugs helped). I couldn't bend at the waist and either had to stand straight up and walk very gingerly, or lay flat on my belly. My mates came over to say hi but they didn't want to stick around much. Maybe they felt guilty that I got hurt and they got away.

The police interviewed me while I was being put back together at the hospital, but I couldn't remember what any of the gang members looked like. I really wanted to identify them, too. I wasn't scared to say who they were, not then. But it all happened so fast. I didn't remember seeing any faces. I didn't feel any of the individual punches or being whipped by a chain. I didn't even remember being afraid.

I just knew I had the results of being beaten all over my back and face and the pain to go along with it.

I suppose if it had happened today, someone would have recommended counseling but back then, psychological treatment for assault and trauma victims wasn't common.

Eventually, the police rounded up the gangs and they either ended up in prison or deported. The streets were "safe" again, but not for me.

I'm not just terrified of groups of people but even of being alone with stranger. I remember I was riding on a bus to my job across town a month after I was attacked. There was only one other passenger so I wasn't too scared. Then the bus driver stopped at a transfer point and left to use the bathroom.

I can't really describe what it's like to be that afraid. I wasn't trembling or sweating, but every muscle in my back and shoulders was stiff and painful. I kept watching and waiting and planning how I'd curl up into a ball and hope I didn't get hurt too bad. The four or five minutes the driver was gone and I was alone with this guy seemed like an hour.

But nothing happened. The other guy probably didn't notice me. In fact, he completely ignored me and kept reading his newspaper. But being alone with him for even a tiny march of minutes was a nightmare. I have a lot of nightmares, especially when I'm awake.

I don't go out much anymore. I go to work because I have to, because I have to live, but that's about it. Shopping for food and a few other things I need. I watch TV now instead of going to the movies. My mates have lost interest in visiting me since all I want to do is stay in and play cards.

A lot of time has passed but I still think about the others like me, the other victims. I wonder if they're still as afraid and alone as I am. I wonder if they still hate their attackers and rapists as much as I do. I have violent fantasies of what I want to do with each of them, but they're just fantasies. If I were alone with even one of them, I'd be too paralyzed to do anything.

Nothing will be normal for me again. Sodom will never feel safe. Sometimes I wish the whole place would be wiped from the face of the earth.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Improbable Rescue

This first chapter exercise from the Novakovich book is supposed to be longer than what I've written, but it's also supposed to be based on the earliest childhood dream I could remember. I can't remember very much of it. Also, I'm supposed to write it as if it isn't a dream. I suppose I should have kept that from you, but it's pretty hard to pass off a six-year-old's imagination for anything resembling real life, even the "real life" of fantasy or science fiction. Oh, I don't have an older brother. I just made one up to embellish the story a bit. EDIT: One last thing, I was this young in the early 1960s.

His massive frame was a black silhouette against the gray dust swirling in the dim light as he effortlessly carried the little boy across his left shoulder. He could have been the model for the ancient golem or even the Fantastic Four's Thing or the Incredible Hulk. His basic shape was blocky, as if he had been assembled from bricks or stones, a rock for a forearm, another for his hand, thinner rocks for each finger, a small boulder for his featureless head.

He was as silent as a stone, impervious to the struggles and screaming of the child in his invincible grip.

In spite of his apparent weight, his footfalls were deathly silent. There was no vibration as he took each ponderous step. No dust exploded from under his soles as they collided with the ground.

They were in a city, monster and boy, but one without life and light. In spite of his panic, the boy could barely make out the shadows of tall buildings all around. It was like a post-apocalyptic scene from one of his older brother's science fiction or horror comic books. It was like a burned out city, ravaged in an atomic war where there were no winners...

...except the monster that had somehow stole into the boy's bedroom late at night and spirited the child away to this other world.

What is the answer to the proverbial question, "If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear, does it make a sound?"

If a little boy is crying and screaming for help and straining against unyielding stone sinews with all his tiny might, and his captor, the only thing living or at least moving under it's own power is the only one present, can the terrified child be heard?

No sound from the monolith on two legs tramping down the streets of a city of ash. The child didn't hear anything the stone monster did and he could barely hear even himself.

Then a rush of wind like a cyclone from above, and a brilliant bright streak of red and yellow light appeared in the sky. Abruptly, the little boy could now hear who he had been calling to for help all along. He remembered that at the end of one of his favorite cartoons, the main character had said if anyone watching needed him, just call for help and he'd come.

So the boy called, he called with all his might. And his hero came.

"Here I come to save the day!"

Six-year-old Jimmy Winters didn't need to see or hear anything else to know he was about to be rescued by Mighty Mouse. In a few minutes, the silent animated sculpture would be a pile of rubble and Jimmy would be back in his own bedroom at home safe and sound. He couldn't wait for his parents to wake up in the morning so he could tell them all about it. Now his older brother Billy would have to admit that Mighty Mouse was a lot more cool than those other dumb heroes in the comics.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Jacob and The Angel's Curse

I took some liberties with the first assignment from chapter one in Novakovich's book and I really took liberties with my source material. This is only a first draft and I'm sure it could use some polishing, but I wanted to get something "out there" while my enthusiasm is high. Let me know what you think. It's the story of something that should have gone right but ended up being terribly wrong.

Jacob held fast to the Angel of God all the while begging for a blessing. This wouldn't have been unusual if it was happening just after Jacob crossed the ford of the Jabbok or if I were reading my Bible, but I saw this just outside the admin building at my high school.

It was a really ugly fight, not just two guys punching or swatting at each other, but vicious clinging, clawing, and scratching, Jacob was ripping the Angel's shirt right off his chest.

"Why are you doing this," cried the Angel. "Let go. I don't want to fight."

Jacob had never been a well-wrapped kid. I can't say that I know him, but he's one of those guys everyone knows about and tries to avoid. This isn't hard since he's a loner, spends most of his time studying in the tents of Shem, a private if somewhat shabby library on the other side of town (although there's some dispute as to whether the proprietor of this "study hall" is really the original Shem).

And Jacob's a chronic liar. He lied to his Dad, he lied to his brother (bad mistake, Esau has a terrible temper), he lied to his uncle. You just can't believe a single thing he has to say.

In fact, I wouldn't have believed he was actually wrestling with an Angel unless I, and a bunch of other students (the fight was drawing a pretty big crowd) weren't seeing it for ourselves.

But while the Angel kept trying to escape, Jacob was clinging to him like a maladjusted toddler clutching at his Mommy while throwing a tantrum.

"Bless me! Bless me!" demanded Jacob.

In the next day or two after the fight, I tried to find out where the Angel came from or why he picked that Monday afternoon to visit Jacob, but nobody was sure. The prevalent theory is that Jacob found some ancient tome Shem had been hiding that let this crazy kid summon up the Angel.

Who knows? Jacob's life is a mess. I can see why he'd want a blessing from an Angel of God. The thing is, the Angel didn't want to give.

"I will not let you go unless you bless me," Jacob's ultimatum seemed sincere.

By now the Principal and some teachers were trying to break the fight up, but this being a supernatural affair, the closer they got to the two combatants, the more they looked like they were being pressed down, as if something invisible and pretty damn heavy were pushing them onto the grass.

The Angel was weakening. He wanted to get out of there and back to Heaven in the worst way, but Jacob's grip was unbreakable. The Angel's chest was covered with bruises and scratches, although the Angel managed to land a wicked punch on Jacob's thigh.

"Alright!" the angel gasped. "What is your name?" That caught me by surprise, I figured being an Angel, he knew just about everything.

"Jacob!" yelled Jacob excitedly, probably thinking his blessing was just around the corner.

"Well, your name is going to be 'Mud' in just a second if you don't let go," snarled the Angel. "I'm late for an appointment with the Big Guy, and He doesn't like to be kept waiting."

"Tell me your name," replied Jacob, apparently mistaking a schoolyard brawl for a networking session at a cocktail party.

"Oh now you've done it," the Angel's tone was increasingly threatening. "My name is hidden! 'Mud' is too good for you."

Then, quicker than you could say "Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt," the Angel pushed Jacob, making him shift his weight to his injured leg. Off balance, Jacob lost his grip of the Angel and then the Angel was gone.

The Angel was right. Being called "Mud" for the rest of his life might have been better than being turned into stone, which is what happened to Jacob. No one said a word. All of us who had been witnesses were taken over by shock or astonishment. Like a ring of iron filings surrounding a magnet, we were silently, slowly drawn closer to the stone statue that used to be Jacob.

It was a very realistic statue, especially the facial expression of exquisite horror mixed with just a hint of disappointment that his desired blessing was delivered as a curse.

As our fascination with Jacob's statue wore off, I realized that the police had arrived because of the strobing of red and white light I caught out of the corner of my eye as their cruiser pulled up. But what could they do?

They took statements from all of us. Said they'd follow up by interviewing Shem (I heard that when they got to Shem's place, they found the old bugger had already pulled out taking every last arcane scroll with him).
Jacob's parents were heartbroken, especially his mother Rachel. Old, blind Isaac, Jacob's Dad, always liked Esau better, but even he was sobbing.

For his part, Esau, who I always thought would end up killing Jacob someday, was torn apart by Jacob's death, if you can call being turned into sculpted art "death".

The Abraham family wanted to take Jacob's body for a proper burial in the cave of Machpelah, their private cemetary plot, but being a spiritually created statue, it was unmovable by people or machines. So Las Vegas High School was granted a new if macabre piece of stone artwork just in front of the main administration building.

That was six months ago, but I still get kind of startled when I come come around the corner of the building forgetting Jacob is there.

His parents and brother visit him every weekend, laying flowers by his feet. His Mom especially thought that Jacob was going to grow up to be someone special, to have a unique legacy.

That's not going to happen now, at least I don't think so. On the other hand, we got a new student transfer in from the other side of the Jordan last week. His name is John, and the other day he said he could raise up children of Abraham from stone.

Friday, October 9, 2015

I Want to Write What I Don't Write Well

Allen Steele: Credit: Wikipedia
So I just finished reading a collection of short stories called Tales of Time and Space written by Allen Steele and I discovered I've been bitten by the bug again.

Don't get me wrong, I've been a published author for over a decade and at my "day job" I'm a technical writer for a software company, so I'm writing every day. And although I don't contribute to this blog very often, I'm frequently seen or at least read at My Morning Meditations and The Old Man's Gym, so again, I write very frequently.

But the one thing all of the works I've ever produced (or almost all, but I'll get to that in a minute) have in common is that none of it is fiction.

The first writer who ever made me want to write fiction was Harlan Ellison. I don't know what it was, but something about his style and how easy it was to believe his characters were real human beings you could talk to, touch, and connect with, made me want to create people and worlds, too.

The first (of two) creative writing classes I took was in high school. I think I was a senior. It was for an English credit. We were assigned to write all sorts of poetry, trying to learn the styles associated with, among other things, Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets. We even got to try our hand at haiku.

But when it came to writing fiction, my big problem was that the characters and the situations I created were too derivative. They were always some variation of something I'd read or seen on TV.

My second creative writing class, the one I took because I'd been reading Ellison, was a UC Berkeley extension class which, interestingly enough, was held in San Francisco. I was living in Berkeley at the time, little income, and few friends, and consequently, I had a lot of time on my hands. You'd think that in my early 20s, being more mature than I was in high school, would make a difference.

So I took this class. I don't remember very much about it except that I had the same problem I encountered in High School. I didn't even believe my own characters were real. How could I expect anyone else to?

I should say at this point that I took another UC extension class from cartoonist Dan O'Neill at about the same time, and this class also addressed fiction writing, but from a very different perspective. I still have an unused copy of The Big Yellow Drawing Book which was the "textbook" for the class (I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to learn how to draw or for teaching your kids to draw).

But while I drew cartoons for family and friends over the next several decades (I only do so occasionally now), I never was successful at professionally writing or cartooning or being published in any sense whatsoever.

The bug that originally bit me in the 1970s buzzed off and only rarely visits its old haunts, probably because it knows it won't overcome my inertia, not for long anyway.

A few years back, reading a self-published online comic strip called Westward resulted in me coming up with a plot line and drawing a series of comic strips I planned to put online. In the end, I realized my story idea and drawings weren't very good and I abandoned the project (and unfortunately, Westward's creator eventually discontinued producing new material for the strip).

I've read two science fiction anthologies before Steele's, one about robots/artificial intelligence, and the other on Mars, but science fiction about Mars that could have been written before the mid-1960s, before we knew that there were no canals, no atmosphere that could sustain animal life, and no hope of finding a "lost civilization" on the Red Planet.

Only these stories were written in the past several years by science fiction writers working in the 21st century.

I could hear the bug buzzing around my ears.

So I finished Allen Steele's collection of short stories earlier today and returned it to the library.

It wasn't just reading Steele's stories that got to me, it was the paragraph or two he wrote to introduce each one. Steele presented the background of each tale, what inspired it, and what (if any) portion of his actual lived experience he injected into his creations. He gave me a taste of how a science fiction writer writes and where it all comes from (at least for  him).

Since I was at the library anyway, I decided to look up "how to write fiction" in their catalog system. The catalog number for books of that nature is 808.3, so, being quite familiar with the layout of the Boise Public Library, I took myself over to the northwest corner of the second floor, found that section, and looked around.

Sadly, books like Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy weren't immediately available, but the first edition of Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop caught my eye (not literally, of course). On an impulse, I checked it out (as well as a copy of Steele's novel The Jericho Iteration which, now that I look it up on Amazon, may not be his finest novel, but I didn't want to wade into his "Near-Space" or "Coyote" series just yet).

I may or may not use this blogspot as the platform for trying out some of the writing exercises in the Novakovich book, but just publicly (to the limited number of followers of this blog) declaring my intentions may push me a little bit farther along this path than I might otherwise go.

I've started and quit a lot of projects over the years, and as far as I know, this is just one more of them. After all, just because I'm reading a book about fiction writing and practicing writing exercises is no guarantee that I have any actual talent at writing fiction.

I'm a writer. I want people to like my writing. I like it when what I write is deemed "good" or otherwise appreciated (I get paid). I've probably got too much on my plate right now to take on anything more, but the bug has once again bitten and until the venom wears off (or it doesn't), I'll go where my low-grade fever takes me.

I just wanted to let someone know.