Snippeting, For Fun And…Well…

I started to write a post today…I started and failed.  It was pretty much on the far side of terrible, and I don’t really have the patience to try and punch it all the way up to “acceptable”.

Ah, well, time for my old writerly fall-back: the snippet.  I posted this one several months ago…but it’s going up again to stay in line with my theory of posting the scenes for Silence in something resembling proper order.  A couple of weeks ago I did the first one, so here is the second.  As ever, remember all the standard snippet-warnings about this being the rough draft, etc…:

The door slid aside and the guard who had silently escorted Connor from Admin motioned him inside with a peremptory wave. He had turned on his heel and was marching away before Connor had taken so much as a single step.

Shit…marching — the guy was literally marching. Connor could all but hear an imaginary band playing some old parade song. Terra Uber Alles, or some such bullshit.

A small laugh, then, cold and bitter, and he stepped through that door. The dirtsiders were even more nuts than the fucking takies.

From the quiet of the corridor, Connor stepped into a completely different universe; a universe of noise and chaos and stench to numb even the most jaded senses. He had grown up on the poorest and most crowded station in all of human space, but even Port Oblivion’s infamous dockside had little to rival an enclosed cell-block on a harsh frontier world.

The sound of the lock sealing behind him broke Connor’s miserable reverie and he moved forward with a snort. Yells and curses all around, fists banging on metal tables, a poor quality holo blaring some idiotic children’s show, the stench of several dozen men of doubtful hygiene confined and competing for everything.

Home sweet home.

A place he hated. A place he resented. A place he had earned. Three times over, he had earned it.

A wave from a table drew his eye. A table off to one side, under the stairs and isolated…as much as anyone or anything could be isolated in this place. Brian and Rahm. The closest thing he had to…acquaintances in here. Not friends, no. Never friends. Connor had a bad habit of getting his friends killed.

He waved back and moved at a jog to his cell on the second level. Cards and conversation could wait, he had something else to do. Something he did every day, without fail. Something he had avoided for much of his life. It was a lesson and a task he had truly understood only once he’d entered Chapman Pen.

A quick change into another of the ubiquitous prison uniforms, this one ratty and worn. Blue, Connor’s were, noting him as an inmate considered non-violent and worthy of trust. New prisoners, still untested and unknown, wore orange. The longtime inmates with no particular standing were stuck with tan uniforms that looked as shitty as they smelled. And the red? The red were for the violent crazies, the cvok: those who raped and murdered, even in prison.

Down the stairs and he was pedaling a stationary bike, as fast and hard as he could. Lifting weights, also fast and hard. Stretching and movement, continuing to develop and hone his impressive speed and agility. Connor had never wanted to workout as a kid, had relied on his charm and his brain. And had been sent to prison for five years. No, Oz had been right, as usual: Connor could never again be the skinny, out-of-shape kid he used to be.

The others in the cell-block’s small gym gave him space. Whispered comments, yes. Strange looks, yes. But plenty of space. Throwing an erojiji asshole over the second-level railing would do that for you.

“No, officer, he jumped, I swear…”

No inmate would disagree with Connor. Especially not after he had cracked the prison’s datanet to erase the automated holo-recordings.

Reputation and respect were life itself in prison. Just like dockside. Just like home.

He would never let this be home, not Connor. No more than he would let himself be a victim. Not again. Not ever again.

A shower, then, fast but thorough. Water wasn’t limited in Chapman Pen, but old habits died hard. Water was precious where Connor came from. Water was life itself. He’d seen people killed for less water than he used in his two-minute shower.

Work: done. Workout: done. Now it was time for school.

He dropped a small jar in the middle of the table as he sat. A grin, then, for the two old men at that table. Both had been inside Chapman Pen almost as long as Connor had been alive. Neither was likely to ever see again the world outside its walls.

It still took thought, and effort, but it was getting easier: the accents and words of dockside were erased from Connor’s tongue, replaced by the still-uncomfortable cadences and slang of Redux’s east side. The poor neighborhoods. The criminal neighborhoods. Connor’s natural habitat.

“Just pulled that shit from the fermenter,” he said with a wave at the plastic jar that once had held soy paste masquerading as peanut butter. It now held something very different: a liquid dark and thick and just slightly effervescent. “I used more fruit this time, so it should be a bit sweeter than the last crap.”

“It better be,” the shorter of the two said with a grimace. “That last batch about peeled the goddamned paint from the walls.”

Short and stout he was, but the fat did nothing to hide the size and strength that even age had not stripped from his frame. The knuckles of his hands were scarred and battered, as was his face. Brian had led a long life before Chapman Pen, a life as dark and dangerous as Connor’s own.

“Screw it, na zdravi!” the other laughed. A reach and a twist of the cap and he took a long gulp. Then he coughed. He coughed a great deal. “Kurva! Boy, is there anythin’ but booze in this? The fruit is about the only thing keepin’ me alive right now!”

Rahm was tall and spare, dark of skin and of eye. His white hair was the barest fringe, clinging desperately to his scalp like some frightened animal. Few teeth remained to him, but he still would never visit the prison’s doctor. “Fuck ’em,” he would answer whenever Connor asked, his voice always full of anger and resentment, “they wouldn’t do shit for me on the outside, why the fuck would they care now? Svine.”

The drink was called pruno, the men had taught Connor, and it was one of the most valuable things you could get your hands on in Chapman Pen. Men with nothing but time and grudges would pay almost anything for the escape of a stiff drink.

If not hard to make, it was challenging to hide from the guards. The fermenting slop that was its base was fragrant, to say the least. These two old men had taught Connor the tricks to use for that, even as they had taught the recipe.

They had, in fact, taught him a great deal more: the language and culture of Redux’s slums, and of her underworld. It didn’t matter where you went in human space — didn’t matter how wealthy and powerful, how perfect, the world — there were always slums and criminals. Always people like Brian and Rahm…and Connor.

Nothing would mark Connor a stranger in those neighborhoods more than the mix of Japanese, Thai and English that was dockside’s everyday language. No, Redux’s poor spoke something very different, and Connor had to learn how to speak, and how to act, if he were to have any hope of survival on the outside.

Strong the drink might have been, but that was no sin. The cards were dealt and the game began, the jar making its own rounds among the three. Connor still had no idea just what were the rules of this particular game; he just played his cards and moved his little peg on the board when they told him how many points he’d scored. Winning wasn’t really the point, anyway.

He’d tried to live in his cell when he first arrived, in the isolation and loneliness of his own mind. Tried to read, and to practice the guitar. Peaceful and quiet, most would have thought. A reprieve from the colossal noise and crowding he had grown up with, a chance to mourn and to heal after the death of those few he loved.

It was anything but.

The constant screaming and cursing, the banging and fighting, the sheer idiocy of the other prisoners. At least three hundred people, a place this size would have housed back home. Here, on this planet, the sixty-four inside made it feel more crowded than even t-deck. And louder.

He’d been going slowly insane, isolated and alone and searching desperately for silence, when the two had poked their way into his cell. There was no hesitation with these two, never any reticence or reluctance. Both were inside for the rest of their lives, so what the fuck did they have to lose, anyway? From his first words, Rahm had started making fun of Connor, laughing and mocking, while Brian asked questions.

Connor’s impatience and anger had not made things any better. They had, in fact, made things worse as the two pressed all the harder.

Connor had started to feel ridiculous, then, yelling at two men so impossibly old they looked ready to die at any second. Then the unlikeliest thing in the world had happened: he’d started to laugh. For the first time since Oz’s death, he had laughed.

It made all the difference.

They weren’t friends, could never be friends, not to Connor, but they were a connection.

Alone was worse…alone was always worse.

“You’re doin’ your time better, Connor,” Brian said as he gathered the cards for a new hand. “That job you weaseled in admin agrees with you. You play this right, you not only live more comfortable but you also maybe squeak a year off your time.”

Kecas,” Connor answered with a laugh that held only a tinge of his usual bitterness, “what in hell I do if I get out anyway? Sure as shit no one here needs a kid who ain’t never lived under a sky.”

A shake of Rahm’s head, then, both at Connor’s words and at the cards in his hand. “You get out, you go look up my boy. He didn’t follow his papa into the dark side of life. Was too smart for that, my boy. He runs a place in the Camp. Nothin’ special, but he knows plenty of folks.”

The old man’s look intensified and his voice turned from his habitual relaxed drawl to a tone sharp and intelligent, “I’ll tell him to give you a hand, but no favors. You take care of him in return, and you keep your ass out of this shithole, rozumis?”

Connor did understand. Nothing for nothing. No matter where you were in the universe, that rule never changed. Rahm’s humor and relaxed old-guy attitude were an act, just as much as was Connor’s play at naivety. He could never allow himself to forget that this man had once run the biggest, most violent gang in the Haze. This was no soft old man, and definitely no fool.

He nodded, then, but deliberately did not match the other’s intensity. No, better to play it soft and easy. Better to always let these two feel they had the upper hand; Connor needed what they had to teach. “Crap, Rahm, I got four more years in this hole. What was it you told me back when? ‘Do your own time and live in the day.’ That’s me, jus’ doin’ my time.”

A joke from Brian, and the game continued. And Connor continued to lose. He could count on one hand the number of games he’d won in the eight months he’d been playing cards with these two.

The big door by the guard station opened and all eyes turned, as they always did when that door slid aside. It was a necessary habit in prison, a tool of survival ignored only by the terrified new inmates — the fish, as they were called — and the crazies who had lost themselves.

All were expecting the dinner cart, pushed by blue-clad inmates. The younger, and stupider, prisoners were already lining up, eager to receive the shit-filled-trays the prison called food. Only the colors and textures on those trays changed, the taste never did.

But it was not the cart, not the blue-clad kitchen workers.

Instead in rushed a group of guards. A lot of guards. A godawful lot of guards.

“Shakedown!” the watch sergeant bellowed. “Into your cells! Move it!”

Connor wasn’t one of those screaming curses and abuse at the guards as the inmates all moved to their cells. No, he had bigger things to worry about…like where to hide a gallon of illegal prison wine.


When Writers Don’t (Have To) Write

A short post today — it is, after all, an important day…

Merry Christmas, y’all!

I bitched about no one taking time out just to relax and live in last year’s Christmas post — well, the post from the day after Christmas — so I suppose I should take my own advice this year.

Still, that concept makes me wonder…  Okay, okay, it makes me kinda semi-wonder in the most general, unfocused way: does that rule apply to writers?

Is taking an hour or two to write on a holiday actually work?  I mean, c’mon, we’re writing, it’s not like we’re actually working

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the self-directed jab.  Not even I can be all dark and cynical today.  The sun is out, there’s several inches of snow on the ground…and I didn’t have to take twenty-three hours to drive all of two hundred miles in a snowstorm the other night, as did a family member.

I considered trying to come up with some profound, serious post for today.

I considered it, then I got better.

Have a great holiday, everyone — wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, take a moment to smile and just enjoy things.

I will, of course, be back to the regular programming of writing and snarky, bitter cynicism later this week!

Fixing Things

You ever have that nagging feeling that you forgot something?  Your keys…your wallet…your cond…ahem, never mind.

Nagging feelings, that’s what I was talking about.  Yeah, that’s it, nagging feelings.

I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt ’em, or something like them.  Shit, I know it’s a pretty regular thing for me — mostly because I usually did forget something.  There was this time I was going to the airport for a flight to Japan, and I forgot my passport…

That sucked.

You know what sucks worse, though?  That nagging feeling that you forgot something in your story.  That feeling that the 68,000 words you’ve already written don’t include something important, something fundamental to a major character.  And I don’t mean an idea you came up with recently that you have to go back and insert…  No sir, I’m talking about a subplot that is crucial to the development of that character, a subplot that was supposed to be included from the very beginning.

I hate myself right now…especially since this whole subplot was an effort to make right some of the wrongs I did to this particular character in the first story.

I’ve mentioned before just how much I dread the editing and rewrite process, as necessary and valuable as it is.  Now I’m not even going to wait until the damned story is finished!

Plot-wise, however, it is a good time to take a break.  I have some planning and thinking to do about the rest of the story, and a great deal of prep-work.  Oh, and some cutting…definitely some cutting.  Finishing out at 135,000 (projected) words is not a particularly good idea, I think.

Maybe that’s what sets writers apart from “normal” folks: we (usually) get do-overs.  We get to go back and fix our mistakes.  We get to excise what doesn’t work, and to develop and emphasize what does.

If we — well, if I — could do that in our “real” lives, things would be a hell of a lot better!

The caveat I will give to the above goes back to my photography habit.  In this “digital age,” there is a tendency to say “I can fix it in post.”  Beginning photographers often use the ability to edit and modify images after they are taken as an excuse to “spray and pray” in order to get a few semi-decent pictures that later can be “fixed.”

That is, to be blunt, bad photography.  It’s bad technique, it’s bad art, and it leads to bad development as an artist and a photographer. When I shoot pictures, I do my best to get everything right in the lens.  It’s a challenge I have set for myself, and it does a great deal to make me better.*

*Sadly, I don’t generally apply to this the “snapshots” I take with my cell phone.  I’m not a huge fan of using the thing as a camera, anyway, so I don’t spend a lot of time getting “everything right” with it.  Although, I should add, it IS a hell of a lot better to haul around when hiking than a full size DSLR.

So, here’s my question: given that I have to go back and do some editing — fix some things in post, as it were — is that habit any better for a writer? Or is it just as bad form, just as bad technique…and just as bad for development and improvement as an artist?

Shit, I hate questions like that. They make me uncomfortable, and I don’t particularly want to be uncomfortable.

I do, on the other hand, want to be better as a writer…and the only way to get better is to set yourself a higher bar.  I’m jealous of those folks who can get a story right on the first (or even the second) try.  I’m jealous of them, and I pretty much hate them, but goddamit, would I love to be like them (in that regard, anyway)!

Rolled Along The Unbroken Song*

*Hey, it’s a great freakin’ line…I had to use it at least once!

When you get right down to it, the church drove me out of established Christianity, but it didn’t kill my faith. It wounded it…it drove it into hiding…but it didn’t kill it. I still have my own version of faith, and Christmas is still a time of year that means…well, everything to me.

Now, my favorite carol is a semi-nonsense song: “Little Drummer Boy”.  If you listen to the lyrics, however — and I mean really listen — it is a song about the poor and broken, about those who have nothing to offer but themselves.  As an artist, that song resonates more than I generally like to talk about.

To that carol, I want to add another.  Err, two more.  This post was, in fact, intended to be about only one of those, but I’ve always been given to excess, so you get two.

The title above comes from the first of those, comes from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*.  It would be hard to find a song that better mirrors the bitter despair that so characterizes…well…just about everything nowadays:


And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

That pain and despair, and the hope that arises at the end of the song…well, Ray Bradbury described it best: “immensely moving, overwhelming, no matter what day or what month it [is] sung.”

Much as I like that carol, however, that is not what I set out to write about.

No…for a number of reasons, I am not ready to unpack that song. Nor am I ready to truly embrace the hope with which it (and the Longfellow poem from which it was created) ends.

The song behind this post is very, very different. It channels that one sin I have so often sworn does not afflict me: the sin of nostalgia, and of memory.

It doesn’t afflict me because I don’t let it…except at this time of year. This time of year starts a chain of memory that, for me, runs unstoppably from the bittersweet of Christmas to the still-raw pain of New Year’s Eve.

There has been a lot of water under my particular bridge. I’ve felt some of the highest highs you can imagine. And the lows…they’ve been there, too.

In all that has gone on in my life — from success to depression, and everything in between — I have built and strengthened that armor we all wear…the armor of the adult. We insulate ourselves, we protect ourselves…and we forget what it means to feel.

Think back to when you were ten…

The world was a very different place to a ten-year-old. Now, in many ways, the act of “growing up” is as good as it is inevitable. But, no matter how good, we lose something in the process. More than lose something, we sacrifice something…we sacrifice a very great deal, in fact.

We sacrifice not just the magic, and the honesty, and the imagination, of childhood…but also the hope, and the ability to lose yourself. To lose yourself in the excitement of a special time of year…to lose yourself in the simple pleasures of the world around you…to lose yourself in the closeness that comes only from those who share the imagination and dreams of the young…

I want to feel Christmas how it used to be
With all of its wonder falling on me
This season has felt so empty, oh, for quite a while
I want to feel Christmas like a child

I want to see snowflakes fall to the ground
My brothers and sisters all gathered around
Singing “away in a manager” as we sit by the fire
I want to feel Christmas like a child*

Part of this, I have to admit, is because my family is not whole…and has not been for years. I miss my sister…and, for whatever reason, that loss is just more real on Christmas. I want to be able to laugh and love — to play and live — the way it was so many years ago.

I want, in the end, to go back to when it was all so easy…and so happy.


* “Christmas Like A Child” — Third Day, 2006, Essential Records