Tag Archives: Short story

Making the Best of Things

Here’s another story of Davin, the thief I invented a couple weeks ago. I know these aren’t the greatest stories, but if they’re intriguing enough, I’ll try to come up with better ones. Maybe they’ll be collected into an anthology someday. Let me know what you think of them.

 

Davin stood with his back against the wall, listening to the tramp of Nightwatch on the street. He eased forward and peeked around the corner and was rewarded with the sight of the patrols in their black and silver uniforms. The sound of their boots echoed off the close walls, making it difficult to tell where they really were.

He ducked back around the corner and, looking up at the darkened sky, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

How had they gotten onto him?

And more importantly, how was he going to get away from them?

They had the area blanketed with officers as well as local security men. He’d managed to elude them so far, but just getting into this walled neighborhood—the same one his birthday party had been in two weeks earlier—had been tough enough when Nightwatch hadn’t discovered him. But with them all over the place, getting to the walls was going to be a major effort. He’d worry about getting over the walls when he got there.

The sound of the echoing boots faded and he took advantage of the lull. He dashed down the alley—unfortunately a very clean alley, with nothing to hide behind or in—heading in the direction of the neighborhood walls. He crouched low to present less of a target, and avoided the streetlights like the plague.

Two minutes later, he had to draw up again as another patrol approached.

He looked up. Nothing up there, no balconies to hide in, just a blank wall, which was a surprise. People in Calonia liked their balconies.

And the walls surrounding the neighborhood were so close.

He glanced in the direction of the patrol. They were still some distance away. Could he make it, get over the wall before they caught him? He gauged their pace, then eyed the distance to the wall. Getting up it from the inside wasn’t much of a problem. There were stairways everywhere for the security forces employed by the inhabitants to keep watch from up top.

But getting there in time and then making it over… well, that was another trick altogether, wasn’t it?

There wasn’t much choice, though. He was close to the egress point he needed anyway, where he could disappear into the alleyways of the rest of the city. If he could get there, Nightwatch would never find him.

Another glance at the patrol. They came on steadily, but were hampered by searching every doorway and shadow.

He sprinted.

Behind him, one of the officers yelled out, and a moment later, a flare bloomed in the night sky, their way of communicating with one another. Each flare had a different color, which told the others something very basic.

Davin didn’t bother to see what color this one was. He was too busy making his way up the stairs.

As he barreled up, a form emerged from the shadows at the top of the wall—one of the private security officers. He must have been waiting for just this.

Davin wasn’t a big man, and this guy was, but he had momentum behind him. He hit the guard in the midriff, shoulder down, legs pumping. It was like running into a palm tree, except this one gave way after a moment. The guard’s legs hit the low parapet and he pitched over the wall with a yell. A scant moment later the yell cut off with a thud.

With barely a pause, Davin hooked his grapple onto the parapet and rappelled down the wall. At the bottom, he shook the rope to loosen the grapple. Faces appeared above as he was coiling the rope.

He glanced at the guard—out like a light, but still breathing—then sprinted off into the darkness.

Another flare went up.

Down a short alley, then a quick right. This one was longer, and he ran down it full tilt, making as much distance as he could. From behind came the sound of running boots.

Damn, he hadn’t even managed to steal anything. Couldn’t they leave it be, now that he was out of the neighborhood?

He took an alley that ran in a diagonal to the one he was in, running for all he was worth, then jinked left into another one and paused. The pursuing sounds had fallen behind, and he took a moment to regain his breath and take stock of his surroundings.

Unlike the alleys of the walled neighborhood, these were full of refuse, piles of stinking garbage and other, less savory things. Some of the heaps were large enough to hide in, but there was no way he was getting in one, not even on pain of capture or even death. Better to die quickly than suffer from something he caught in one of these mounds of filth. There were balconies overhead, but they were out of reach.

And the Nightwatch was closing in again.

Huffing a deep breath, he took off again, ignoring the rank smell that filled the air around him. Maybe the garbage would discourage the searchers.

He dodged left, then right again, not really paying attention to where he was going, just making yet more distance.

And fetched up abruptly in a small cul-de-sac.

For a moment, he stared in disbelief at the blank wall in front of him. He turned to find another way out, but his pursuers were closer than he’d thought. If he left the cul-de-sac, they’d see him and capture him. They were just too close.

He glanced up.

Another balcony. It was a silly place for it, right at the back of the cul-de-sac, but Calonians would have their balconies, even if they had no view. This one wasn’t that big, and didn’t even have the usual open railing, but was instead hemmed in with boards making up short walls.

Gods, this was not his night. If the balcony had the normal railing, he might be able to get enough of a grip on its floor to hoist himself up. But with the boards blocking access, there was no way. And he couldn’t jump high enough to grip the tops.

He glanced at the approaching patrol. He had to something, and fast.

Then he remembered a trick Amalia, his mentor in the thieving trade, had told him about once. She’d been small and strong, and she’d shown him the trick. It was a way of running up a wall, using a corner to gain admittance to something too high to jump to. He’d never been quite able to do it because of his weight, but he had nothing left to lose tonight.

He backed up, making sure to stay out of sight of the patrol, took a deep breath, and sprinted diagonally down the cul-de-sac, aiming for the corner to the right of the balcony.

You can do this. Just give it all you have.

He jumped, hitting the wall at an angle, and pushed off for the adjoining wall. The moment his foot touched, he pushed up and managed to grab the top of the balcony.

He’d done it!

Another heave and he stood inside the balcony. He took a deep breath, then laid on his side, curling up in a loose fetal position.

Now if only the Nightwatch couldn’t hear him breathing, he might get out of this.

The running boots came closer, then entered the cul-de-sac and paused.

“What the hells?” one of the officers said in a deep voice. “I thought you said he ran in here.”

“He did,” the other man said. “I swear it.”

They stood for a moment, breaths heaving.

“What about that balcony?” the second voice said.

“No way for him to get up that high. Come on. If he came in here, he slipped out without us seeing him.”

They ran off, footsteps receding quickly in the night.

Davin waited a good five minutes in case they came back or more followed behind, but no one else came.

Finally, he rose and stretched. He was going to have to practice this kind of thing more. There were people who did this all the time. Maybe it was time he learned some of their tricks.

He glanced around, saw a higher balcony across the way he hadn’t noticed earlier. It had a large glass in its door, and… was that a glint of something in the dim light?

He mumbled the words to the spell that enhanced his night vision.

Yes, it was. Something gold hung on the wall just inside the door. Even from here, he could tell it wasn’t just decorative.

He eyed the balcony. He could make the leap from here. Maybe tonight wasn’t going to be a total wash after all.

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A Sure Thing

It’s been a couple weeks since I posted here, partly because I’ve just been too busy to write anything, and partly because it’s been hard to think of anything to post. So I started thinking about it this morning and decided to try writing a really short story. And I did. Let me know if it’s actually any good.thief-screenshot-1

Davin paused on the balcony and looked around to be sure he was alone. The alley below was deserted. A warm breeze off the ocean stirred the palm trees, their fronds dark silhouettes against the starry sky. Somewhere off to his left, a cat yowled. And to his right, probably three or four streets over, laughter and the sounds of a party.

Here, it was quiet.

It better be. When Carl told him about this particular job, he’d been a bit leery. A nobleman’s house completely empty this time of year? When the snows blanketed the capital and even the hardiest of court hangers-on deserted Ampistad for warmer climes?

“It’s a sure thing,” Carl had said. They sat at a table enjoying the sunshine and balmy temperatures that winter brought.

Davin smirked. “A sure thing? That doesn’t exist in this business.”

Carl grinned at him. “Tonight it does.”

He studied his friend who also served as his fence. Carl had never steered him wrong before. “I don’t know. It’s my birthday. I was planning on going out tonight.”

Carl leaned forward. “So go out afterwards. I’m telling you, this one is worth delaying your celebration. And he’ll be back by tomorrow morning. This is your only chance.”

“You’re sure?”

“As sure as death and taxes. Diamonds, Davin. Loose diamonds. Untraceable, too. I can unload them for… I’d say sixty percent of market value.”

Sixty percent? Well, considering thirty percent was a good thing, maybe it was time to rethink not working tonight.

“All right. But you be ready. I want to party after. Have the money, because I don’t want to wait.”

Carl had grinned and said, “You got it. You’ll have a birthday in style this year, my man.”

So here he was, crouched on a balcony in the better part of town, about to sneak into the winter residence of one of the most powerful men in the realm, at least according tothief_bank_heist_mission-wide Carl. Davin didn’t pay much attention to politics, so he had no way of knowing.

He eased onto the balcony’s floor, went to the sliding door, a new invention he had little experience with. But a lock was a lock, and less than a minute later, he had it open.

Another pause to look around. The cat yowled again, and the party still raged on. No Nightwatch in sight, though, which was good. Just getting into this walled-off neighborhood had been tough, and he was thinking sixty percent was just about right for a job like this.

He stepped inside, slid the door almost shut. Better to leave it slightly open in case he had to make a hasty exit.

It was quiet in here. He stood for a full minute, getting a feel for the place, something he did on every job.

Silence.

Okay. The diamonds were downstairs. Carl had suggested using the balcony because, thanks to their newness, sliding doors were easier to get through than the banded oak numbers on the ground floor. Those would have taken considerably more work.

His feet didn’t even whisper on the carpeted floor. He mumbled one of the few spells he knew, and the darkness receded a bit. Just enough to keep him from bumping into something and knocking it over, but not enough to let him see clearly.

He’d never been that good at magic.

Down the stairs, turn to the right. The safe was kept in the huge hall this guy used for throwing parties. Seemed a strange place, but Davin had seen stranger. The door to the hall opened silently on well-oiled hinges.

He paused. Something wasn’t right. That empty, abandoned feeling that had pervaded the rest of the house was gone. The room felt occupied, and by more than one person.

Had Carl set him up? Had the watch caught him and turned him?

Whatever the case, Davin wasn’t hanging around to find out. He was just turning to leave—as quickly as possible—when light bloomed all around him.

Oh, gods.

Temporarily blinded, he almost forgot to let go of the magic that let him see, but when he did, he found not the Nightwatch, but….

“Surprise! Happy Birthday!”

Thief1Warmth flooded his cheeks. A huge crowd of his friends—and business associates—stood attired in party clothes, holding champagne glasses. Streamers fell from the ceiling, and balloons bobbed in the air.

And right in the middle of it all stood Carl, grinning from ear to ear, raising a glass in his direction.

Davin grinned.

And then he saw the diamonds they’d laid out for him. Not rocks, but tasty desserts that cost plenty themselves.

Carl practically pranced over and put an arm around his shoulders.

“Told you it was a sure thing,” he said, that grin never leaving his face.

Davin laughed, then narrowed his eyes at his friend. “Okay, you got me. But just remember—your birthday is coming up.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Now let’s party.”

The diamonds were all they’d been promised to be.

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Short Stories

I’m posing a question to you this week: what do you think of short stories?

Of course, by posing that question, that means I’m gonna give you my answer, and it’ll make for a good subject because it’s not a simple answer.

Short stories are hard for me, most of the time, though I’ve become much more tolerant of them in that last few years. Maybe because I’ve actually been able to write a few, an ability that mostly eludes me. I get too involved with the story, the ideas, and the characters, to want to give them up in only four thousand words or so. It seems like I’m just getting to know them, really get involved in the story, when it abruptly comes to an end.

And that goes for writing the damn things as much as it does for reading them.

In fact, I’m not sure which is more frustrating.

Thing is, I understand that shorts can help you break into the publishing business. Sell some to regional and/or national magazines—and I include such modern things as ezines in that term—and somebody out there is bound to notice. And even if they don’t, it looks good in that final paragraph of a query letter. If somebody else has already taken a chance on you, that big-name agent/editor you’re trying to hook might be more willing to give you a better than even chance. Publishing credits make you stand out from the crowd.

But they’re so…short.

I think I’ve mentioned this.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve read some short stories I truly enjoyed. And was jealous/envious that Author A could do them so well.

It helped some when I read somewhere that you use ideas to write short stories, while you develop full concepts for novels. Sure, novels usually start with ideas, but you can’t sustain 80,000+ words on a single idea. You have to blow it up into a complete plot, using whatever method you write with.

But short stories are a single idea. You ask yourself “What if…?” and then you answer the question. In as few words as possible. A novel is a long string of what-ifs, whereas a short story is a single idea. You flesh it out and let it stand on its own, without much in the way of a supporting cast. I mean, sure, it can have thousands of characters, even if most of them are background scenery. But it’s a single idea, and you leave it at that.

For me, that can be unsatisfying. And very hard to write. I have more abandoned short stories than I do novels (okay, maybe not, but it’s close).

But getting a couple published sure helped me get noticed, that’s for sure. I came very close to snagging a major agent.

So what do you think? Do you like short stories? Hate them? Somewhere in between? Let me know.

Later,

Gil

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Old Material

I once read somewhere that you should save all your old writings and go back over them occasionally to see what you’ve learned since. I’m not sure where I read it. If I knew, I’d give credit where it’s due. It’s sort of a moot point, though, because others have said it, too (and, naturally, I can’t remember who any of the other sources are, either).

Anyway, thanks to this piece of advice, my documents folder has more aborted mss than I’d care to count. I’m a great starter, but not as good a finisher. John Scalzi, on his blog Whatever, recently posted that he always reaches a point in whatever novel he’s writing where he knows just how it’s going to end and he gets impatient to finish it and move on to the next project—so much so that it’s difficult to complete the current work.

Well, for me, I’d get story idea, think about it a day or two (maybe), and then sit down and write. When you write seat-of-the-pants as I do, most times you need to sit down and write something when you get an idea or it’ll escape from you, never to be seen again. And for a long time, that meant I sat down and started writing the story idea down. I’m very good (usually) at getting beginnings, followed by endings. It’s the middles that usually bogged me down and tended to end all forward momentum.

A lot of these truncated mss have become more rare as I’ve learned to just jot down the idea as a sort of mini synopsis that I can refer to later. That way the idea’s not preying on my imagination—the initial idea, I mean—and my mind’s free to wander on and see if it can develop further ideas to support the beginning. I’ve also learned that just because I have an idea doesn’t mean I’ve got a book—and since I’m kinda terrible at doing short stories, I generally need to give it time to develop and see if it plays out.

I carry a small notebook around with me at all times and jot ideas down if I get them, then transfer them to a document on my computer next time I get a chance. I scoffed for years at the idea of carrying around a notebook when an author recommended it. I actually have to credit my lady love Carolann with encouraging me to carry a notebook—she bought me my first one, though it was so I could remember everyday things I needed to keep in mind. I’m the kind of person who needs to make out a list when I get ready to do things much of the time, or I’ll forget. I need shopping lists, a list of things to look up online when I make it to the library, a list of books I want to read—heck, it’s a wonder I don’t need a list of my lists.

At any rate, I don’t seem to have as many false starts these days, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I switched genres. I still get the occasional idea for a fantasy or sf story, but I rarely jot them down—though maybe I should. And since I started writing crime fiction, the ideas haven’t seemed to come as fast and furious as they once did. I actually consider that a blessing, as it allows me to focus on one or two things at a time.

I think maybe another reason it doesn’t happen is that I’ve learned the difference—thanks to a book by Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit—between an idea and a plot line. See, an idea is good for a short story—you don’t need a fully developed plot for a short, just an idea to explore. A plot, however, is what you need to sustain a novel—a fully developed idea that has more detail than a short story does.

The confusing part can be that they often sound the same. For instance, my Pipeline story started as an idea, but it continued to extend itself as I wrote. Same with Spree. The more I wrote, the more of it was revealed to me. Very much as Stephen King says: it’s like you’re a sort of paleontologist, carefully uncovering the story bit by bit. The more you see, the more of the overall structure makes itself known to you. For me, it seems to do it exponentially, too.

But either way, there’s still all that old stuff I’ve got in my documents file on my computer—not to mention a few old spiral-bound notebooks with handwritten mss in them. A lot of those old handwritten mss have been typed up, though, and reside in my computer.

What to do with them?

The idea behind keeping all your old work, as I’ve stated, is to enable you to look back and see how you’ve improved. I can understand that. Thing is, though, I almost never go back and look at my old stuff, so what good is it doing me? Sure, I can scroll through these old works, some of which are so unfamiliar I have to open the documents to see what the heck they are—and maybe revisit ideas, maybe even entertain the idea of trying my hand at them again.

Of course, there is another aspect to keeping all these false starts: maybe you can take them and make them a section of something you’re working on now. But since I’ve switched genres, I’m not sure how much of my old sf/f stuff I can use. Yeah, we’re all writing the same stuff, it’s just the costumes and sets that differ, but still…when your idea is about the meeting of a vampire and a mage (one of the last things I ever did in the sf/f field, and I finished it, as well), how do you transpose that to a crime novel?

Still, even though I can’t see much use for these things, I’m a packrat by nature and can’t quite bring myself to delete them. Like I said, sometimes I like to look through them and revisit old memories. And you never know what’ll happen when you do. You might see something that’ll work in a different way if you just tweak it a little bit.

What about you? Do you believe in keeping your old writing? Has it done you any good? Or is it just taking up space on your hard drive (or maybe an old filing cabinet)? Is it worth keeping this stuff, or should we empty out our (virtual) closets? Drop me a line, let me know what you think.

Later,

Gil

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Just A Thought

Sometime back in the 90s—I don’t remember exactly when—I took a stab at the Writer’s Digest School’s Writing to Sell Fiction correspondence course. I never finished, never even made it too far into it. I guess I wasn’t ready, or something. Can’t say for sure.

Anyway, the instructor I had was Dean Wesley Smith, who was a science fiction writer at the time. I sent him the first part of a short story about a guy who was a freelance asteroid miner. I was going to have him discover something unusual, but don’t ask me what it was now, cause I’ve slept since then. The story, like so many of mine in those days, never got finished and neither did the course. I still have the course book, found it in my storage a month or so back while I was looking for something else.

I didn’t think to look and see if the first letter he sent me was in there or not, though it would have been neat to’ve found it. See, Mr. Smith—and for all I know, all the instructors at the school—used what’s called constructive criticism. Or, that’s what it was called then. It was all the rage back in those days.

I’m not sure if anyone still uses the technique these days or not, but the way it worked was this: when you critique someone’s work, whether it be creative writing, a painting, a report for work, whatever, you start out by pointing out the good things about it. This works, I like that, and this over here is great. Then, after you’ve built them up, you bring up the bad parts, but even then you do it gently.

As writers, we learn to develop thick skins. We learn to differentiate between someone pointing out the weaknesses in our mss and our own personal faults. Yes, sometimes one has something to do with the other, but not always. Point being, we understand that criticism of our writing isn’t criticism of us. Well, most of the time, anyway. Seems it’s harder to take when you’re submitting to agents.

It seems to me, though, that this idea of constructive criticism has fallen by the wayside. Well, in the group I attend, anyway. I don’t mean that they’re, well, mean or anything like that. And, when you take into account the size of the group, it makes sense that the method basically amount to “If we don’t pick on it, it’s good.”

When you’re part of a group that often has ten or twelve people to read every meeting, you have to make decisions on what to bring up and what not to. For instance, we don’t correct misspellings and typos out loud. We just note them on our copy of the ms. We critique concepts, parts of the story that don’t work for us. You know, “You’re doing an infodump over here, and I think you could reword this part here and it’ll flow better.” Things like that.

And we’re not without praises for our fellow writers either. I don’t mean to imply we’re some dour Star Chamber passing judgment on our lessers. It’s nothing like that.

But still, I think we could take a little more time to point out what’s working in someone else’s story. We do that on occasion, but I wonder if we do it enough. Maybe we do, since it took me this long to even wonder about it (I’ve been in the group for about two years now or thereabouts). That’s why I’m at pains to make sure I’m not dissing the group. It may be a case of we do this more than I realize.

The general point, though, is a good one, I think. Yes, we need to know what doesn’t work. That’s the main point of going to the group, and I’d quit if we abandoned it. Given a choice, I’ll take you pointing out where my writing needs strengthened over where it’s good. I can pretty much figure that, if I get whole pages back with no markings on them and no one has much to say out loud, then I must be doing something right.

Sometimes, though, I’d like to know what that something is, you know?

Okay, so I did a good enough job that all you can really talk about are my typos, and maybe a sentence or two that could be reworded to sound better. All well and good. That means I’m doing my job.

If that’s the case, though, why not point out where I’m doing good. I mean, sure, I can take the ms home and know that a lack of comments means I’ve done a good job. But there are bound to be parts where I did better than in others. What worked for you? What made you so enraptured of my writing that you forgot to note the minor glitches? What about it grabbed you so intently?

I’m not saying we should have some kind of mutual admiration society going on. And, as I said, we do occasionally point out the good parts. But I’m wondering if we might could do it just a little more in-depth.

I’m as guilty as anyone, though I have started—occasionally—writing things I like on my copy (I just hope they can read my crappy handwriting; I have a feeling the typewriter was invented by someone who wrote as badly as I do). But I doubt I do it near enough, especially since I’m the one bringing this up.

Again, given a choice between the two, I’ll take you telling me what the gigs are any day, because those have to be fixed. No question.

But telling a writer what he or she is doing right can be just as helpful, maybe even more so, in a way. We writers are notoriously insecure about our writing. We know everything that’s going on in our heads when we write a story. Goes without saying. And that can be the problem. We know everything, but we know we’re not supposed to write all of that down. It can be deadly for the story.

Problem is, that means we sometimes leave out important stuff and don’t realize it. That’s what the critique group is for: to point out things we’ve left out.

The same can apply to the good things we do, though. Because of our insecurity, we don’t always realize—hell, I don’t think I ever realize—when we’ve written something especially good. I can’t count the number of times people have reacted quite well to what I thought was a pedestrian bit and not said a word to passages I thought were worthy of Shakespeare (yes, I’m exaggerating).

I say let’s take a little extra time to point out what we like about something and why we like it. Maybe that’ll help us all to focus on improving, perhaps even perfecting, our strengths. I bet if we do, it can’t help but improve the parts where we’re weak as well.

Just a thought.

Later,

Gil

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I Wanna Be A Writer

NPR is in the middle of Round 8 of their Three Minute Fiction contest, which my daughter and I are both entering. If you’re not aware of it, the basic idea is to write flash fiction: a story that can be read in under three minutes. That translates into 600 words or less. While the basic rules don’t change, each round features a different way to write the story. For instance, Round 7 had to have a story where one person came to town and another left. There was a round where a photo was the prompt. This time around, your story has to start with the sentence She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

I don’t usually do well with short fiction. My ideas are too big. Even my “short” fiction isn’t very short. My first attempt ended up at over 11,000 words, a novella entitled “The Voices of Angels.” Subsequent stories have ended up shorter, but 600 words? Man, I’m just getting started with 600 words. Getting wound up, setting the atmosphere for the next scene.

But I digress. The reason I’m bringing up Three Minute Fiction is something that happened over the past weekend. On Saturday’s broadcast, when Weekend All Thing Considered reached their Three Minute Fiction segment, they talked about an eleven-year-old girl who’d emailed them, asking why you have to be eighteen to enter the contest. She’d written a story that met the standards, but because she isn’t eighteen, she couldn’t enter.

So, they brought in one of NPR’s legal eagles to explain that, by entering the contest, you are also engaging in a contract—I believe they called it a continuous use contract—with NPR, and that state laws specified someone under eighteen couldn’t do that. If a minor enters a contest on a cereal box, that’s different. It’s not a continuing use contract, and therefore is perfectly legal. But, because you can go to npr.org and read the winning stories from past rounds, you are entering into one of these contracts with NPR. (As an aside, I’m curious to know if you can resell the story later, or if you give up all rights.)

NPR interviewed the girl, and I have to say that she sounded awfully mature for an eleven-year-old, but so many of them do these days, at least to me. I don’t remember any of my eleven-year-old contemporaries sounding that way, but then, I don’t remember a lot about being eleven years old, either.

The girl—and I wish I could remember her name, but I’m horrible with them, can’t even remember my own characters half the time—said that she wrote the story in about half an hour, that she’d been writing since she was “young,” but that she mostly wrote stories for school assignments and that was more or less it.

NPR decided that, even though she couldn’t enter the contest, they’d go ahead and give her a signed copy of the latest book by the author judging the contest (can’t remember his name, either. I’ve never heard of him before), and they read an excerpt of her story on the air. The grand prize, besides being able to put the win in a query letter, is a signed copy of the author’s book, an interview, and having your story read on-air. So, in essence, this girl got the grand prize already—and the contest doesn’t end until this coming Sunday.

At first, I was a little miffed at this. Sure, okay, she’s eleven, she wrote a good story (I guess—I haven’t been able to read the entire thing), and it’s a bit of a rip that she can’t enter her honest effort because of her age. But, c’mon, man. This is the kind of thing I hate to see: letting someone get something just because they complain.

But I’ve thought about it since (I’m writing this on Sunday the 18th), and now I have to agree that it was the right thing to do. Why? Well, the girl, while she made it clear that she thought she should be able to enter the contest, wasn’t actually complaining. She was asking why she couldn’t enter. She just wanted a good explanation for why she couldn’t submit her honest effort. And when it was explained to her, she accepted it without complaint.

Bravo. Means she’s not a spoiled brat who’s been getting her way with everything. She sounded like a young lady who’s been encouraged by her parents without being coddled. Of course, I’m basing this off a two-minute or less segment. For all I know, she’s a perfect terror most of the time.

But here’s what made me change my mind about what I thought: my daughter has been writing stories since kindergarten. I haven’t had the privilege to see any of those early efforts because I wasn’t in her life then. I won’t go into that story. It’s not germane to this post. But, I have to say, when your kid wants to do the same thing you’ve always wanted to do, and she wants to do it with no influence from you, that’s…gratifying? Amazing? I’m not sure how to describe the emotion I feel. Proud, I guess, is the closest.

Even though I’ve wanted to be a writer for a long time, I can’t claim that I’ve wanted it since kindergarten. I’ve admired good writing for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t become a serious reader until I discovered The Hobbit in fifth grade. And I didn’t entertain the idea of telling my own stories until sometime in my teens. That’s just how I developed. Jesi figured it out sooner than I did, but I’m also convinced she’s quite a bit more intelligent than I ever was or will be.

For instance, when I critiqued her ms for The Doc is In, there were times when I’d suggest a way of rephrasing a sentence. I thought that, even though my suggestions were made off the cuff and never edited (except for typos and clarity), I made pretty decent suggestions. No, I didn’t want or expect her to write them exactly as I did—last thing I want is for her to turn her writing voice into mine. And she knows this. But when I got the edited ms back for another going over, I was flat-out amazed at how she’d made her changes. She took what I’d suggested and made the sentences somewhere around 1000% better than what I’d written. I know cause I compared my suggestions with what she’d done.

Thinking about that and about the girl from the NPR story, I had to rethink my original opinion. Jesi is a great writer, and I say that without fatherly bias (well, mostly). I give her my honest opinion on her mss, because to do less would not be true fatherly love. Writing is her dream. I have to be encouraging, but I’m one of her few critics who’ll give her an opinion tempered with love. I know her, and I want her to be the best she can be. I just won’t do it in as cold a manner as editors and agents will as she goes through the submission process.

But what if it had been Jesi, at age eleven, who’d wanted to enter this contest? And what if NPR had ignored her? Would she give up? Eleven can be a tender age, and the age where you can get thrown off pursuing your dream. Jesi is twenty-three now, and she’s handling the rejections pretty well. Not perfect, but who does? It’s discouraging to get rejected time and again, and anybody who tells you different is either lying or pulling a get-rich-quick scam.

Possibly, by acknowledging this girl’s question, NPR has played a part in nurturing a young writer. I can’t tell from her interview if she wants to be a writer the way my daughter and I want it. We want to have writing as a full-time job (and I’ve achieved that, in a manner of speaking, even if my only pay so far is one contributor’s copy), not just as something we do occasionally. This girl sounded like writing is more hobby than occupation, but there’s nothing wrong with that, either. God knows there can be worse hobbies than writing. John Wayne Gacy and Henry Lee Lucas had some pretty bad hobbies, you know. So did Charles Manson.

But maybe, because of what happened, the girl will go from being a casual writer to one who loves the craft and becomes one of our next great writers. They really liked her story at NPR, and whether I agree with their standards of what constitutes a good story or not (they have a very literary bent, to say the least), that should say something about her writing. And it might be the factor that turns her into someone passionate about wordsmithing.

And there ain’t a thing wrong with that.

Writing is a lonely art. We all know that. It’s not self-pity that makes us say that. Most of us long for more solitude to write, even on the days when the last thing we want to do is pound the keyboard. Any encouragement is a good thing for us, because, while we look at our writing as a good thing, at the same time we often doubt if it’s good enough for anyone else to read. We’re our own worst critics.

So Support Your Local Writer. He or she needs it. If they’re published, buy their books, even if they seem expensive (printing costs are crazy). Who knows but what some kid might pick one of our books and become a writer because of it? And that kid might just be yours.

Later,

Gil

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Storytelling

Though I don’t know this for sure, I believe most of the people who read this blog are also writers. Yeah, that’s probably a grand total of like four people (I know I have three who subscribe, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they actually read the posts), but still…you take fame where you can get it. Or, in my case, maybe it’s notoriety.

Anyway, the point being, I don’t have to tell you how hard writing can be. Some days, you sit down at the keyboard (or take pen in hand) and it comes easy. It’s like dictation, or being a court reporter: the characters speak for themselves, and you don’t have to figure out what they’re gonna do next cause they do it for you. All you have to do is manage to keep up and get it all written down (the major reason why I don’t use pen and paper; I have enough trouble keeping up when I’m typing).

But then…there are those other days. The days when you pound your head on the desk—for starters—stare at the blank monitor/paper (or monitor that looks kinda like paper, if you use Word like I do. Thank God I don’t have to feed real paper into a roller anymore. I never could get them straight first time), and wonder what the hell you were thinking.

Write? A novel?

What a laugh! You can’t even string two words together, unless it’s some version of I go. And even that feels like you’re pushing it and brain cells might well catch on fire if you keep it up. You think and think, you try out different things in your mind, you consider just giving up on the current story and moving on to something new and maybe even entirely different. (That’s not always a bad thing. It’s basically how I got started writing crime fiction.)

Maybe you even consider trying to invent something like Ex-Lax for writers: something that’ll make the thoughts come out a lot easier (isn’t that a tasty visual?).

But nothing works. The page taunts you, and when you think about the 4,000 words you wrote the day before, the frustration level goes into the red. Something’s gotta give or, in the immortal words of Montgomery Scott: “I can’t hold her together, Kepten. She’s givin’ all she’s got!”

Water boarding? Puh-lease. Bring it. That ain’t nothin’ compared to sitting in front of a demanding blank canvas. You wanna see some renditions to object to, bring your bad self over here and partake in this.

So, why do we do it?

Well, I can’t answer for anyone but myself. That’s not me being PC, it’s just the honest-to-God truth. Different people do it for different reasons, but I suspect that it all boils down to this: we can’t help it.

What that means for me is that, if I go for a while without writing, I literally can’t go to sleep at night.

Oh, sure, I do eventually. But I toss and turn with sentences and even snapshots of scenes running through my mind. It’s the creative urge, and I suspect it’s why cavemen started scaring the crap out of each other around the campfire at night: good ol’ Ug, he’s just gotta tell us the one about the mammoth that got away. Again.

Okay. Same old story, told for the umpteenth time. Ug’s audience could probably recite the thing word-for-word. Ug saw this, decided to tell about the time he escaped a saber-tooth tiger. Voila! A series is born! Centered around a man of action, even if that action was to run screaming from the big, toothy kitty-cat until it happened to fall in a nearby tar pit.

That’s storytelling, man! The fire gleams in his eyes as he tells it, and he has a captive audience. Of course he does. They’re not going out there in the dark. That cat has cousins.

Of course, not everybody liked it, and you gotta wonder if Ug killed the first critic. Maybe that’s how critique groups got started: killing the critic gets even worse reviews from other critics, so let’s polish that sucker up before we tell it again.

And stop repeating some of those words. It sounds…um…repetitive.

We’ve been telling stories probably for about as long as we could, well, string two words together. Maybe the first one was the original Quest for Fire: “We go. Get hot thing.”

Okay. Maybe that one’s got too much description and needs a little editing, but you gotta start somewhere.

Sometimes it didn’t work out so well, but Ug kept at it, because he had to. Cave floors aren’t that comfortable to being with, even when you throw down a couple of animal skins, so anything that kept him from going to sleep had to be taken care of.

That meant a new story.

It’s not different today. Well, a little. We have to wrestle with a larger vocabulary, but it really doesn’t change things. Sure, we know more words, but stringing them together the right way is still a bitch.

There’s also the fascination with your subject matter. The last thing in the world I want to do is lead a criminal life, but the mindset of someone who does is fascinating to me. Partly, it’s in that rubbernecking, car wreck kind of way, where you know you won’t like what you see, but you gotta look anyway. I get that with the serial killers, a subject I’ve followed for years.

But I don’t truly know what spurs someone to live outside the law, so the character I write best is Lyle Villines. He’s pretty much a criminal against his will. He started out just for some extra cash, but once he was drawn in, he discovered it’s kinda like stepping off into quicksand: the harder you try to get out, the deeper in you sink. That’s what’s happening to him in the third novel (which I wasn’t sure I would ever write, but I think I’ve got enough of an idea to go to a fourth novel with him, and a good Ledbetter novel to boot): something that was a subplot in the first book has now come back to bite him in the ass. And he’s gotta do something about it.

I tell stories because I have to. No, nobody’s holding a gun to my head or even twisting my arm. At least, not anyone external. But, if I don’t tell my stories, it drives me nuts, and I lay there in bed at night wondering if I’ll ever get to sleep.

I guess it’s the adult version of having a story read to you when you were a kid, except in this case, I have to tell myself stories so I can conk out. And, despite how tortuous it is when the words won’t come, those sessions when I’m getting finger cramps from trying to keep up make it worth it.

Later,

Gil

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