Sometimes It’s Just Filler

It’s October, and time to start writing again.

I knew it had been a while since my last post; I didn’t realize it had been six months. Time flies when you’re in college.

It’s been an interesting journey. I’ll finish the Health Information Technology program in December, if I pass the proficiency exam. I should pass, but it’s hard to be confident about a single test that decides whether I’ve been wasting the last two years of my life. My grades are good; I’ve still got an 87.38 GPA, but…if I don’t pass this exam, with a 70 or higher, I don’t pass the program.

After the proficiency exam comes the national certification exam—another opportunity for stress related ulcers.

The pace has been grueling. I’ve written some flash fiction, and a few outlines for bigger stuff, but mostly I’ve been saving my brain for classwork. It’s worked so far.

But now it’s October, and time to start writing again.

I don’t have a formal diagnosis, so I won’t claim “to be OCD” about anything. All my little tics and rituals…That’s just part of what makes me my wonderful eccentric self. But when October rolls around, I find it impossible to resist the lure of NaNoWriMo. I don’t mean, “Oh, goody! I can’t wait!” It’s more like “I have to do NaNoWriMo. It’s the only way to silence the sound of all of those keyboards clicking in my head!” Even when I don’t plan to participate, I find myself writing my 1667 every day, and getting antsy when I can’t make time for it. The few times I’ve tried to ignore the event I wind up enrolling sometime around the 10th of the month…

I haven’t had time for NaNo for the last couple of years. That hasn’t prevented me from participating, with varying degrees of success. This year is worst of all. I should be spending every waking moment studying for those exams. Instead, I’m going through my plot files, looking for something to develop.

I’ll probably end up proclaiming myself a NaNo Rebel this year. Instead of trying for the magic 50K in a single coherent story, I think I’m just going to work on shorts stories, maybe a novella. Less pressure.

Looking back at this post, it’s just filler. Sorry about that. Maybe I’ll have time for something a little more substantial soon. Maybe a piece of flash fiction.

So That’s Where Ideas Come From

Normally I’m not a fan of fan fiction.  My attitude has been, “If you want to write it, fine, but don’t expect me to read it. ” (Okay, a lot of the time it’s been “If you want to write you should do the work and create your own world, your own characters.” I tend to be an elitist snob.) But there is a story thread in a popular series that has always bothered me; earlier this week, as stress relief from end of term studying, I started thinking about how I would resolve the problem.

After a couple of days of random ideas at random moments, I realized that I really wanted to write the story that was developing. I had fallen into the fan fic trap.

This morning I shared the idea that I had with my daughter, who has been troubled by the same story arc. We bounced ideas off one another,  going deeper and deeper into our idea.  Eventually we decided that over the summer we would collaborate on the story,  which had developed enough to either be a series of linked short stories, or a novella.

As we continued to talk happily, ideas that wouldn’t work began to occur to me; ideas that were unsuitable to the world and characters of the “broken” story arc, but still very interesting. 

It happened quickly.  The ideas that were unsuitable swirled in my head, attaching themselves to story fragments, free-standing characters, and scenes I had written without knowing where they belonged.  Suddenly I saw MY story, my world.

Obviously it’s influenced by the series that inspired the fan fiction.  But the influence is in the theme, not the characters or setting.  Many other books, movies, and even current events are influences, too, It’s a story from my world, influenced by the things that matter to me.

I still plan to write the fan fiction with my daughter; it’s a fun idea and doing it together will make it more fun. But the best part is that when I gave myself permission to play with favorite characters and scenes from my favorite authors I unlocked my creativity, and found a story of my own.

My Adventures in Procrastination Swamp

I live just a stone’s throw away from Procrastination Swamp. It’s a nice little house, the latest in emo-morphic design, so it’s a vine-covered cottage, sun-drenched villa, stark, brooding castle or whatever else best suits my mood on a given day. True, there are always odd shadows in the corners, but that’s on me. Everybody has a closet they simply Don’t Open, so I don’t suppose it much matters whether it’s stuffed with outgrown winter coats, poor fashion choices from the last decade and abandoned sports, or gaunt drooling monsters, phobias and neuroses. Equally scary either way. But I digress.
Lovely house, just a stone’s throw from Procrastination Swamp. I settled down on July first, eager to write. I had a story I was pretty excited about; it was inspired by a short story I wrote for my writing class, which had been well received. I was excited about the story, and had a good idea where it was going to go.
On July first I managed less than six hundred words. On the second, I had time to write all day. Instead I surfed the Internet and wasted time with games on my phone. Today (the third) I had a short evening shift and had a few chores around the house, but there was time to write. I didn’t.
About three hours before my shift started I realized something was wrong. I looked out the window, and sure enough, the waters of Procrastination Swamp had surrounded the house.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened. I have a plan for when it does. The first thing to do is figure just what part of the swamp has claimed the house. I was fairly confused about this; usually I get caught up in water from Self-Doubt Slough. I was pretty confident of this idea, and felt like I had a strong voice for the story. I asked myself what the problem was, why was I avoiding something I’d looked forward to, something that stood a good chance of being the best thing I’d ever written? It was like I was afraid –
There is a sinkhole in Procrastination Swamp, and it is named Fear of Success. It’s often omitted from maps of the swamp, because nobody wants to admit that they fell into a big ole hole while they were paddling around where they shouldn’t have been in the first place. I’ve been here a few times.
Once I realized where I was, I set about getting out. I had to address why I was so afraid of the idea of writing well, of being successful. For me, it goes back to my folks. Writing, anything imaginative, was belittled, deemed a waste of time. Which is odd, because both my parents loved to read. They’re gone now, so there’s no chance of getting their approval for my writing endeavors. They’re gone now, so why does it still matter so much, anyway? This usually isn’t an issue, Why the Heck has it suddenly become such a problem with this story?
I thought about my issues with my folks; I thought about my story. After a while I realized that I have a situation with two characters, a father (the primary physical antagonist) and his daughter (a supporting character, but important) that mirrors the tension I often felt with my father. Their relationship affects the story fairly strongly, even though I’m still not sure how strong a role the daughter herself plays in the story. Their conflict had, on some level of consciousness, knocked me into that sinkhole. And after I realized that, it was easy to climb out.
I spent a lot of my time at work thinking about the situation between those two characters. Could I make things better between them? If the daughter was stronger, how would she deal with her father? Maybe I needed to change that part of the story entirely, get rid of the daughter and bring the antagonist into the story another way entirely? I’m not sure and there are a few scenes I’ll have to write before I decide where I want to go. When I finally got home I found that the waters of Procrastination Swamp have receded again, and now it’s just a matter of getting enough sleep before tomorrow’s shift.

We all get stuck in Procrastination Swamp sometimes, even if we don’t belabor the metaphor to the extent I did here. The trick is to recognize when we are procrastinating and then identify why. Sometimes it’s because we have too many other demands on our time, sometimes we just aren’t excited about the idea. Sometimes, though, it’s because the writing is deeply personal, and we would rather avoid the emotions it evokes. Whether we choose to address the issue or not, identifying it lets us stop procrastinating.
BTW, the story I’m writing is a weird western. That’s supernatural, alternative history, and horror genres. The situation between the antagonist and his daughter is not one that I experienced growing up. The emotions and the dynamics of the situation were the same as situations with my father. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out when the story is touching on a personal issue.

Acampin’ I Will Go

For the last few weeks I’ve been writing flash fiction in response to challenges from Chuck Wendig’s blog. In general I’ve been happy with the results. The first challenge gave me an extremely complex character and a story that refused to be limited to 1500 words. I’m still editing that story, and there are more waiting to be written. The next two challenges were fairly easy; one was a randomly generated title, the other simply started with a dead body. Both times I was surprised by the finished product, but pleasantly so. The hard part was hitting the word count. I learned to believe in my writing by doing NaNoWriMo, and Camp NaNoWrIMo. Brevity is new to me.

Now it’s July, and Camp NaNo is here again. I don’t know if I’ll be doing the flash fiction challenges because I’ll be spending the month expanding a story that I wrote for my creative writing class. It was an easy story to write, and very well received. Before I finished it I knew that it wasn’t really a short story, but the first chapter of a novel. I’m not sure of where it’s going, exactly, which is a bit odd; normally I’m a detailed plotter. I’m looking forward to the adventure.

Here’s the first scene from the short story, soon to be the novel, “Silver Springs”

The girl crouched behind the granite boulders, looking down at the campsite. Between the light from a first quarter moon and the campfire she had little trouble making out the features of the men camped there. There was no doubt; these were the same men that had been following her since she’d left Carson City a month ago. She thought she’d lost them when the wolf attacked, she’d gone almost two weeks without seeing them on her back trail. Somehow they’d managed to pick up her trail, and today they’d closed the gap.

She closed her eyes and concentrated, listening, identifying and sorting the sounds of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She wished the wolf would come back and attack them again. She knew it was close, but she couldn’t control it. She opened her eyes and returned to watching the men. There were five of them, of varying ages; to her teenage eyes they all looked old. They sat around the campfire, finishing a meal.  Her stomach growled. She’d been living on a roots and berries for the last week.

“I just want to go home,” the girl whispered. “Why cain’t they just let me go home?” Home was Silver Springs, Nevada, and still three nights of hard walking lay between her and that refuge. She was on foot, starving, shoeless and not entirely sure of her route. The men below were mounted on strong, well-cared for horses; even after nearly a month of pursuit the horses were in good condition. The girl knew that she wouldn’t make it back to her home unless something stopped these men from following her.

She sat back, thinking about her situation. There was no way she’d escape capture for another day, not with them this close. If they caught her they’d take her back to Carson City, and once there…she thought there was a good chance she’d never see Silver Springs again, if that happened. She looked up at the moon, near full and bright in the sky. “It’s a matter of survival,” she told the moon. “If they take me back there, I won’t never get home again. And if I cain’t get home, I’ll die of loneliness, if they don’t kill me outright.” She looked around, saw nothing but dirt and rocks, and a few branches blown from a lightning–struck pine. Nothing that could be used as a weapon. She looked down at the camp. They had guns, supplies, horses.

It was no use. The men down there had every advantage; she was stuck on a hillside, afraid to move for fear of sending pebbles skittering down into their camp. She caught her breath. What if she did send rocks down on the camp, good sized rocks, instead of just a few pebbles? She looked at her surroundings. Some of the boulders were nearly three feet tall. The dirt seemed loose; if she could get a few of the bigger rocks started, she might be able to send a landslide down on top of her pursuers. She doubted that she could injure the men, but if she could send the slide down on the picket line, she might stampede the horses. If the horses got loose she might be able to regain her lead and get to Silver Springs before they caught up with her again.

Moving as quietly as she could, the girl gathered a few of the larger pine branches. She studied the position of the boulders, trying to find one she could lever free and use to start an avalanche. After only a few moments, she shrugged, and moved to a tall boulder. There were only a few of the larger ones that she could move, and she didn’t know how to direct them to create a powerful landslide. She looked up at the moon again and whispered, “I’m sorry. I know killing’s wrong, but I got no choice. It’s them or me.” She maneuvered the limb under the rock as best as she could, and pushed down. At first she didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Even though she managed to lift the rock out of the depression it sat in, it wouldn’t tip forward. She slid the limb farther under the rock, and tried again. At first there was no difference, then a few pebbles from the base of the rock started to roll. She pushed the branch as far as she could, and the rock tipped, rolled free and headed down the hillside toward the camp. As it went it dislodged other, smaller rocks and debris, and soon a sizeable amount to material was sliding toward the camp below.

As she watched, the men looked up and first one, then another yelled. Three of them headed for the horses, picketed close to the slope of the hill. The others scattered, away from the path of the tumbling rocks. The trio reached the horses just before the leading edge of the slide. The men struggled to free the horses from the picket line, sawing at the ropes. Finally, the rope parted and the horses bolted, still tethered to the lead rope and one another. One of the men looked up at the rocks and dirt bearing down on them. He cried out.

Bonnie looked away. She hadn’t expected the men to work so long to free the horses. “I just want to go home,” she whispered. She turned to watch the horses as they galloped eastward, out of the canyon. She had bought herself some time. Staying low, she began to make her way northward again, toward Silver Springs.

Flash Fiction Challenge: A Fist Full of Hearts

Chuck Wendig has a flash fiction challenge on his blog. (No matter how I try to keep up, I always miss the release date for these things, but at least this time I found it before the challenge expired.) This challenge was The Random Title Jamboree. Rules were pretty simple: use a random number generator to pick an element of the title from each column. 1500 word limit. Addition of “The” allowed. I cheated a bit on that last bit; I added “A” instead. Guess I won’t win the trophy.

My numbers were 4 (Fist Full of) and 18 (Hearts) and I added that illegal article, A. Oddly, I got the story I wanted in only 1154 words. ENG 246 would be shocked that I came in under word count. Since I’ve been on a western kick lately I was pretty surprised with what the little voices in my head dictated.

Anyway, here it is.

A Fist Full of Hearts

Inquiry into the Creation of Artificial Humans, Vol. I
A scientific record by Amanda Stevenson
June 30th, 1887
The creature struggled against its restraints, but they held. After so many failures, one of the few things I am sure of is how strong my creations are. I placed the syringe next to the thing’s neck. “This is your fault,” I said. “I told you the rules. You chose to ignore them.” The creature roared its defiance as I slipped the needle beneath the skin, into the carotid artery. I pushed the plunger, sending the amber poison into the creature’s bloodstream. It jerked, and roared again, this time in pain. The massive body jerked against the restraints, then sagged limply. Its hands clenched spasmodically, once, twice, then stilled. I replaced the syringe on the instrument tray, rinsed my hands with a sterile wash, and left the operating theater.

I inspected myself in the mirror of the antechamber. The last time I terminated an experiment the creature somehow managed to get blood on the hem of my dress. I hadn’t noticed it until later, when I was preparing to receive guests for tea. This time, however, there were no unwanted fluids on lab coat or frock. I spent a few minutes adjusting my lace cuffs, and tidying my hair, and then left the lab for the day.

The afternoon was devoted to social calls; they are a dreadful waste of time, but necessary. Papa warned me when I announced my intention to follow him in the practice of medicine; society would not approve if I deviated too far from normal, and without society where would I find my patients? Unless I want to spend my time ministering to the poor, I would do well to attend to society’s demands as much as possible. At times it seems that I might do better to work among the lower classes; it might afford me more subjects for my research. Unfortunately, that research requires a great deal of money, and so I continue my career as a doctor among the pampered wives and daughters of society, who are so willing to pay a hefty fee to someone with a sympathetic look, who “truly understands how they suffer.”

The first few households I visited were a complete waste; I spent a few minutes listening to the latest gossip while trying to avoid dispensing free medical advice. It’s a delicate balance; I must be willing to listen and make small, helpful suggestions, but nothing that will allow “my friends” to avoid a professional visit for very long. Midway through the afternoon, though, I visited Mrs. S—. This was the social call which I most dreaded; Mrs. S— has children.

She isn’t the only member of my social circle with progeny; indeed, for a woman to be married for longer than a year and without children means that if she is not under my professional care it is because her husband prefers the services of one of my colleagues. Mrs. S— is unique among my acquaintances in her treatment of her children. Normally, when one calls on one’s acquaintances the children aren’t a factor. Nanny may, on occasion, lead the little darlings in for a quick inspection and then whisk them back upstairs, but for the most part one only sees the girls when they are being prepared for their introduction into society, and the boys, not at all.

Mrs. S—, however, has several small children of whom she is inordinately proud. When one calls upon her, instead of lengthy discussions of the latest scandals one receives a brief sharing of the highlights, and then Mrs. S— calls upon the children to entertain. One daughter sings, another plays the pianoforte; the boys, at their mother’s direction, recite, perform gymnastic feats, and on one memorable occasion, unsuccessfully attempt to demonstrate the various tricks they have taught the family dog.

Today was no different; over tea we exchanged news of the most trivial sort, and then “You must see the children!” Mrs. S— said. “It’s been so long since you last called, and they have all made such progress.” In short order the children were called, and the exhibition began. It was obvious, from the children’s expressions and attitudes, that they no more relished the ordeal than did I, but they made no complaint. In order, oldest to youngest, each child demonstrated some perceived skill or talent on maternal command. They were quiet, biddable, and even when fiercely embarrassed, they were obedient.

As I watched them I reflected on how Mrs. S— was able to command each of these, her creations, as it were, while I, who have brought forth vastly more complicated life in my laboratory, struggle and ultimately fail to control a single creature. So intent was I upon the problem that after all of the children were finished, and were hopefully awaiting the reward of a teacake and dismissal, I asked if they could repeat various bits of the performance. Mrs. S— happily agreed, and though I received dark looks from the children, they each reenacted their parts with the same obedience, and apparent enthusiasm.

When at last the children were released, I asked Mrs. S— how it is that her children are so exceedingly well behaved. She seemed surprised at the question and after a bit of thought said that it was due to love. “They know that I love them, and they love me. Because of that, they are willing to do things they dislike, just to please me.” We talked for only a few minutes more, then I apologized for taking up so much of her afternoon and left. So excited was I with what I had seen, I dispensed with the rest of the afternoon’s calls and returned home to consider.

Inquiry into the Creation of Artificial Humans, Vol. II
A scientific record by Amanda Stevenson
July 7th, 1887
I have at last solved the problem of how to control my creatures. Always before I have demanded their obedience through duty; after all, without me they would not exist. Each creation has, at some point, rebelled against this obligation and forced me to destroy it. If I replace obligation with love however, they will, as Mrs. S—‘s children do, obey me at every instance. For a while I was puzzled as to how to command the love of my creations, but again, I found the answer in Mrs. S— and her children.

The hearts that I designed to power my creatures do not love, but it took only a small modification to make room for a second, smaller, heart, one capable of love.

Tomorrow I will announce the opening of a free clinic, serving the needs of the city’s poorest children.

Love is, after all, the product of an innocent heart, and who has a more innocent heart than a child?

Flash Fiction Revenge

Thursday in my creative writing class our professor asked if anybody knew what flash fiction was. To my chagrin, nobody answered. Tentatively I raised a hand. Tentative not because I wasn’t sure, but because it was the first class meeting and I had already answered a couple of questions. I try not to be that woman in my classes. So I explained what I could about flash fiction. Then my professor told us to use the last fifteen minutes of class to write a piece of flash fiction. To be turned in. As the first piece of writing this man has ever seen from us.

My mind went into overdrive. Screaming, crying overdrive. I’m a confirmed plotter and the idea of writing something for review in only fifteen minutes…well. I started scribbling, with only the faintest of ideas. Five minutes into the assignment I got a much better idea, but there was no time to reboot. After ten minutes an even better idea occurred to me and I had to ignore it as well.

As expected, I didn’t finish. I managed about two hundred fifty words and a half-finished work. I was miserable as I left class. On the drive home-I have a commute of about an hour-I kept turning over ideas and rejecting them. I couldn’t shake the assignment. Twenty-four hours later I finally sat down to write the piece I wish I had been able to submit to my professor.  Re-reading it, I want it to be longer and more detailed, but after I had it (mostly) plotted I only gave myself fifteen minutes to write it. Anyway, here it is, my flash fiction revenge.

The scenario he gave us: two men are having coffee in a diner (or a Starbucks.) One of them finds a dime in bottom of his cup.

As he drained the coffee cup something clicked against Bill’s teeth. He spit it into his hand. A coin. Bob recoiled. “What IS that?” he asked in a tight voice.

“It’s a dime,” Bill answered. “Specifically a Mercury Dime.” He turned it over, looked at it a bit closer. “1942. It’s in pretty good shape for its age.”

Bob looked ill. “Those are—who would put such a thing in somebody’s coffee?”

Bill looked at the girl behind the counter. Young, auburn hair, dark eyes watching them intently. “It could have been a mistake. Fell into the cup when she was making change.”

Bob’s thick brows drew together. “You think that’s it?” Nervousness roughened his voice.

Bill shook his head. “No. She put it there deliberately.”

“But why?”

“I can think of a few reasons why a pretty girl would spike a coffee cup with a silver coin. Maybe she recognized you, my fine lycanthrope, and was hoping you’d swallow it and die.”

Bob shot a glance at the girl behind the counter and growled, a deep and rumbling sound. She looked around nervously, noticing for the first time that the diner was empty except for the three of them.

“But I prefer to think that she recognized me and offered the coin as tribute.” The interior of the diner rippled, the air shimmering as with intense heat. A lithe reptilian shape replaced Bill’s somewhat dumpy human form. He unfurled his wings and stretched his neck over the counter. “You must have meant it as tribute, didn’t you, my dear. You couldn’t have thought such a tiny bit of silver could harm a dragon? Or perhaps it was a bribe?”

The girl stood transfixed, staring into the gently swirling eyes of the dragon as he delicately took her head into his mouth and bit. He swallowed, ran his tongue daintily over his face to clear away the blood that had sprayed him as the corpse crumpled to the floor. He looked back at bob and said, “Stupid wench. The silver totally destroyed the taste of the beans.”

November Is for Writing

I’m in a peculiar place this year. I’m back in college after years away, and between classes and study that’s 30-40 hours a week. I also am actively  looking for a job–in my area that most likely means seasonal retail, with erratic scheduling and ridiculous managerial expectations–finances require it. So there’s another 25-30 hours a week. Add in important stuff like needlework, cooking, laundry, supporting a cat with severe anxiety issues, and sleeping and there’s not a lot of time left over for NaNoWrimo. As you may have noticed, there hasn’t been enough time left over even to blog lately.

But I get obsessive, and November is for writing.

In the past, with fewer demands on my time and energy, I’ve failed to meet a 50K word count. I have no reason to believe that this year will be easier. Most of the people I’ve talked to have told me that I shouldn’t participate this year because of the demands on my time. Normally I’d look at the amount of free time I’ll have and say “There’s no point in trying…I can’t possibly win.”

I’m planning on participating anyway, to see how much I can accomplish.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is a national writing event, in which participants attempt to write a fifty thousand word (or more) novel in the month of November. One of the key factors in achieving this word count is to simply write, without editing. In NaNoSpeak, it’s called turning off your inner editor.

In addition to turning off my inner editor, I’m turning off my inner competitor. I still plan on writing daily, and that magic 1667¹ will be my goal, but I’ve given myself permission to write less. For the first time it will be less important that I write a certain number of words a day, and more important that I write something each day that moves the story forward.

It still won’t be easy; I’m going to get stressed because of my coursework. I’m going to get stressed because of my job, or continuing lack of one. I’m going to get discouraged because I’m not producing enough words to “win.” But not writing will be worse.

Since August, I’ve been focused on school, and rightly so. Any spare time I’ve had, I’ve used for quick needlework projects. And since August there’s been a story brewing. Saying it’s in the back of my mind would be misreprensenting it; it’s right there in the middle of things. School is an hour commute each way; when I’m driving, I’m thinking about this story. When I’m not sleeping–happens a lot, chronic insomnia–this story is what’s playing in my head. For the most part I’ve managed to keep the writing compulsion at bay by promising to write later. Consciously, I meant December, between semesters. Subconsciously…well, November is for writing.

Follow me as I try to balance school, work (hopefully), and writing from now until the end of November.

¹A word count of 1667 daily for thirty days yields 50,010 words.