Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Theme Story - Road Trip

I sat back, watching the waves slide slowly up and down the beach. The sunrise cast a surreal purple glow over the water. I thought it was odd that there seemed to be very little break in the water itself. Near the shore the waves crested, white breakers charging forward out of the sea, but out in the water the turmoil was completely masked, replaced with simple undulating motion.

I sighed as I stared out into the night. I'd finally made it. Three thousand miles and as many dollars in gas and repairs, just to feel another ocean on my face. A different ocean, one not laden with history. A flash of my old life popped up; a flash that I violently pushed down. That part of me was done. This was my fresh start.

The breeze picked up, and I shivered in the wind. I had expected southern California to be warm, but the weather here so far wasn't that far a cry from the oil-slicked Jersey beaches, covered in oompa-loompa tans and bleached blonde hair. It had been nice watching the snow melt on the way, though. If nothing else, I would hold that new memory dear.

I still didn't know why I'd chosen to drive. I walked through the train station every day. That 9:56 train from Cherry Hill could take me to Pennsylvania, then Chicago, LA, and San Diego. The train was a known quantity. Hell, I'd spent an eighth of every day over the past seven years on trains. Maybe that was the reason.

Out of reflex I pulled my phone from my pocket, and had my thumb on the button before I was able to stop myself. Looking at those messages meant looking back into the abyss, and once that abyss started staring back I'd end up right back where I started. Lonely, bored, disconnected. Stuck. That way lie danger. They'd just have to get along without me. I wasn't even sure they realized that I'd left.

I stood up and walked down the beach, stopping with the soles of my shoes breaking the crawling surf. I reached back into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I thumbed the button, and the first message popped up.

From Sarah: Where are you???

I pulled my arm back and threw, the plastic square sailing out into the night. My old life was consumed by the ocean, a small ripple swallowed up by the rolling waves. I chose the car because I wanted to begin anew. Time to get started.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Theme Story - The Wedding

A single rose petal floated down through the air. Sarah watched its tumbling fall, bright shining white against the burgundy and brown of the ancient chapel’s altar, and tried desperately not to scream. Would nothing go perfectly? She sighed mentally and began counting, and old calming technique she had picked up from her mother. It was bad enough that the priest had been stumbling all over words as though he had been gulping the blood of Christ, and that Rich’s best man had an unexplained bandage on his hand. Did no one understand the gravity of this event?
Sarah sighed internally again and redoubled her counting efforts. Somewhere around three hundred she was finally had enough peace of mind to focus on the ceremony itself. They were halfway through the second reading, and her darling niece Anna was pushing through something from the Letters. She had fought long and hard to keep any of that ‘obedient wife’ crap out of the question, and she smiled as Anna came to the end with a flourish - Anna’s theatrical tendencies finally overcoming her abject horror at public speaking.
The ceremony resumed, and Sarah turned her eyes - and her thoughts - to the man opposite her. He stood awkwardly, a good ol’ boy wrapped in foreign finery for one of the major events of his life. Their life, now. Sarah was still adjusting to that thought. She’d been independent for so long that she’d forgotten how to share her life with others. Indeed just the other night she had been fighting with Rich over finances. To think, he thought she should take on his debts...
No. Sarah shook herself internally. This was the happiest day of her life, and she was not going to ruin it by dwelling on inconsequentials. She looked at his eyes, those piercing green irises consuming her in an emerald pool of light, and felt that part of her deep inside melt once again. Damn his eyes were beautiful. She could still remember her first sight of them, glistening across the fire pit at Aunt Joanie’s Memorial day barbecue. How could she ever grow angry at eyes like those?
The priest was winding up to the big event, the vows. Rich had wanted to write his own, but Sarah wanted to stick with the traditional. She wouldn’t have her day in the sun ruined by awkward attempts at hillbilly humor. The fact that this also got her out of writing her own vows, putting into words that which had indescribably dominated her consciousness, was simply an added bonus.
“Do you, Richard Young, take Sarah to be your lawfully-wedded wife?”
“I do.”
Sarah had expected chills, but she was so caught up in the moment. Hardly any of it seemed real, as though they were simply running lines at a rehearsal for the actual event some interminable distance in the future. The priest was running through the list: sickness, health, richness, poorness, death, life, and so on. Wasn’t there supposed to be more of a sense of gravity?
“And do you, Sarah May, take Richard...”
Sarah was in a daze, simply inserting the appropriate responses at the appropriate times. Was this what shock felt like? Hadn’t she just a moment ago thought that it seemed all unreal? How could she have been so wrong? This was the most real thing in her entire life, and she was on autopilot!
“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Sarah looked into Rich’s eyes, those jewels on a field of white, and all of a sudden she trembled as though it was her first time all over again. She stepped forward and raised her chin, and felt all of her energy dissipate the moment his lips met hers. They kissed for a second that seemed an eternity, and it was a long minute before the roaring in Sarah’s ears gave way to the roaring of the family and friends in attendance.
The two moved down the aisle, hand in hand, leaving the solitary petal on the altar. Whether it was an omen of good or ill only time would tell, but Sarah didn’t care. This was the best day of her life.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Theme Story - Kitten fight!

Mr. Whiskers had his hackles up. The interloper – Mittens – had struck the first blow, a vicious bat across the face. Mr. Whiskers hissed a warning at Mittens, but it went unheeded. Mittens crept forward, ears flattening and jowls tightening to reveal teeth. Mr. Whiskers pounced, and the battle was on.

Mr. Whiskers barreled into the side of Mittens, and the two went tumbling in a ball of furiously flying fur. Mittens began to hiss and spit as Mr. Whiskers scratched him across the hindquarters, but his success was short-lived as Mittens got in a firm bite on Mr. Whiskers’ paw. The two leapt apart, panting heavily. Mr. Whiskers favored his left forepaw, while Mittens was obviously putting less weight on his rear right leg. They eyed each other like two prize fighters, retreating to the corner after a round has concluded.

There was no bell to signal the start of round two. Mittens was the aggressor this time, lunging forward. Just as he was about to collide, and Mr. Whiskers had tensed for the impact, Mittens pulled back and struck with a paw instead, striking Mr. Whiskers right between his namesake. Mr. Whiskers growled in surprise and pain, and leapt forward again. He was going to end this, one way or another.

The two rolled back and forth across the tile, neither gaining advantage over the other. For each swipe Mr. Whiskers landed, Mittens came right back with another. Fur was everywhere – in the air, in their mouths, in their claws. The sounds were horrendous, as though two weary warriors were giving their all in a battle to the death. In some respects this wasn’t too far off.

After a while the two parted. Mr. Whiskers knew his strength was flagging, but he refused to give up any ground over his piece of string. He stared at Mittens, tensing for another strike, and was surprised when he saw Mittens’ face fall. His opponent rolled onto his back, gracefully admitting defeat. Mr. Whiskers nodded, still not believing the turn of events but not questioning it either. He picked up the piece of string in his jaws and sauntered off, triumphant.

Monday, June 10, 2013

On Workshops and Wetware

This past Friday I attended a workshop presented by April Eberhardt and Susan Bearman entitled “Pathways to Publication.”  It was a very interesting workshop, presenting the “current” view of the ever-changing publication landscape as lived by two professionals. There was quite an eclectic group gathered in the conference room of Chicago’s University Center, representing essentially all stages of the production process and most of the phases of a literary career.

I have to say that while I had discovered a lot of the subject material on my own, I still found both the presentation and discussion useful. If you have an opportunity to attend a talk by one of these two women, I highly recommend the opportunity – they are both enthusiastic about their subjects, and energetic and engaging in delivery. Susan is an author as well as a marketing communications specialist, and April an agent with a list of clients at varying levels of the writing process.

My Primary Takeaways 

My primary takeaways from the conference were, in many ways, things I already knew. I am not a published author, nor am I particularly experienced at writing salable fiction, but I am (if I can toot my own horn here) excellent at researching topics and distilling the knowledge down to the salient points. Along these lines, I have done a lot of reading about writing and publication and have read points on all sides of the issue.

I tend not to write about publication and my opinions on the “right” or “wrong” way for two fairly simple reasons:
  1. I am not yet published
  2. I’d rather write than write about writing

There are hundreds of thousands of words out there about the various ways to get published, and they all boil down into the following categories:
  • Individuals who firmly believe that traditional publishing is the only way forward, and any who disagree are heartless blasphemers who will never shake the negative stigma of the self publisher
  • Individuals who firmly believe that indie publishing is the only way forward, and any who disagree are heartless blasphemers who will never earn even a tenth of their self-published peers
  • Individuals (and, most likely, the truth) who lie somewhere in between these two extremes

I use religious terminology in the above because in many cases that is the style that is taken by these blog posts and various discussions – absolutes thrown out with aplomb by individuals wholly dedicated to their particular cause, and god help the poor sap who dares to express a contrary opinion.

These people are not to be taken seriously. At least, not by me. They are informed by their own success, and thus may be biased towards what has worked for them. That is not to say that they don’t have any useful information, but arguments and opinions should always be taken with a grain of salt.

And ultimately, that was my key takeaway from the workshop. There is no right path. There are different paths, suited to different individuals, with different goals. Some people may want to make a living from their writing. An exceedingly small percentage of those people may achieve that goal. Some may only want the cachet of the title “Published Author,” and a small percentage may achieve that goal. Note the repetition of the phrase “small percentage” – the only true reality is that thousands and thousands and thousands of books are produced each year, and only a small number of those obtain publishing deals, let alone any kind of cultural relevance.

So in the end, this is what I gathered (right or wrong) from my time at the workshop:
  • Know your goal – am I looking to hit it big, or do I want the respect of a published writer, or do I simply want to create something that will live after I have died?
  • Plan your path forwards – what are measurable steps I can take towards that goal? How much will the options available to me cost me in time and/or money? How do I know when my goal has been achieved?
  • Do not dismiss any options until you are absolutely sure that they are not viable – the numbers game is already heavily weighted against me, would dismissing an entire market vertical help?
  • Finally, make your own conclusions – the only person with all the data on my situation is me, not an opinionated blogger or a pretentious literary critic, so why should their passion inform my decision if their reasons aren’t applicable?

The Fringe-Benefits, and Why I Will Never Be a Politician 

As any experienced conference attendee will tell you, the knowledge presented is only half of the reason for attending the event. If the knowledge was the only important thing, we could just download the PDF and go on our merry way as newly-enlightened writers. The other half of every conference, expo, convention, party, box social, et cetera, is the social aspect.

When I was a young college student getting ready to make my way in the “professional” world, I had a strong aversion to networking. I was earning a degree in Computer Science, which is based heavily in mathematics. In math, you are right or you are wrong, and there is no real room for in-betweens – that’s what statistics and probability are for. As I of course knew everything possible to know about the world at that age, I firmly asserted that I had no need of networking with potential colleagues. That kind of glad-handing may be necessary for business people and politicians, but I was a programmer. I just had to be the best programmer, and bam – job time for me. I envisioned myself living in a world of true merit, where the most talented were rewarded and the bull-shitters would be exposed and shamed.

We were all so naïve, once.

Some people say that money makes the world go ‘round. However, behind that money is a directing hand. This essentially means that the hand driving the money is just as important to the angular momentum of our planet as the money is itself. Thus, there are two paths to having an effect on the world:
  • Have lots and lots of money at your disposal
  • Connect with enough people with similar goals and work together to achieve what you need

Now this is a simplistic view of the world dedicated to show one fact: the only people who can afford to ignore the social side of the world are people with the fiscal resources to do so. Want to advance in your career? See and be seen. It is not enough to be damn good at what you do – that will get you local notoriety and aplomb, sure. If you want to make it big, though, you have to advertise. Be your own salesperson. Know your upsides and down, and emphasize the up while diminishing the down. Talk to people. Connect. Network. Make friends and find colleagues.

And this is where I fail. I like to describe myself as a quiet person. I have few social skills of which I am aware, and my sarcastic and self-deprecating nature can be off-putting to some people. On top of this, I have… while not exactly a fear of social interaction, I certainly have some sort of mental block against it. I rarely feel confident when introducing myself, and I’m by no means a people-person. To put it simply, I’m not an aloof ass – I’m just shy.

This is an issue that has plagued me for a while, and this past Friday it more or less reached a tipping point. I’m not great at networking (I even forgot to have new business cards made, as I am no longer a graduate student in computer graphics), and I tend to hang back by myself in a crowd. Here I am with a room full of people who can prove great people to know and potentially build a long-term correspondence with, and outside of a few smiles I only really talk to the people who approach me directly. A fantastic opportunity somewhat wasted.

In computer programming we see three phases of every solution: the hardware, with all the lights and sounds, that makes the program run; the software, with the thousands of lines of code, that makes the computer do what you want; and the wetware, with the hair and the appetites and the sporting team affiliations, that directs the entire process. Like far too many computer programmers over time I have focused a large portion of my attention on the two former, and not nearly enough on the latter.

And that’s probably my ultimate take-away from the workshop on Friday. Somehow I need to learn to be a people person, because even though I might be able to tell n interesting tale, nobody will read it if they don’t know who I am.

Long ramble, complete. Shutting down for now

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Theme story - It starts with a whisper

Rick tilted his head, nodding along with the voice that whispered in his ear. He couldn’t discern actual words, of course – the voice didn’t work that way. He knew, though. He knew exactly what the voice wanted. It couldn’t have been any clearer if it had been posted on a shining billboard with a running-light marquee. He nodded so that the voice knew he had heard, and stood up.

It was oddly empty on the bus for a Tuesday evening. Barely a dozen people sat in the vehicle trying very hard to pretend that they were the only person within shouting distance. But the voice knew better. The voice had told him exactly how to get their attention.

Rick spread his legs, bending his knees to absorb the shock of the bus’ rocking as it rounded a corner, dodging through the city streets like a limber rhinoceros. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the knife, running his thumb over the blade in anticipatory glee, feeling the sharp edge press against his calloused hand. Smiling broadly, he rolled up his sleeve and began running the blade down his arm.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. He giggled as the blade sliced his flesh, lines of red quickly appearing – neat, glowing, glistening parallel lines on his arm broken only by the curve of the underlying muscle. He laughed at the sensation – there was no pain. He hadn’t felt pain since the voice entered his life, only a sharp awareness – a chillful tingle of awareness that heightened his senses.

He saw the look of horror on the lady three seats down from him, and begin cackling manically – the voice had identified his first victim for the day. Rick stepped forward, crosshatching the blade across his arm, as the woman’s screams drew the attention of the other passengers. The terrified din rose in a cacophony, blending into a symphony of agony and sheer, stark terror that was more powerful than the most moving composition by any composer. The beautiful red flowed, and the delight echoed throughout Rick’s mind. He loved the voice.