Micro-Fiction Friday

 

1) Blue Eyes

He’s falling apart.  He’s late, and he hates it — late because the work never stops, and because the traffic is nothing but worse.  The stress makes him reach for a cigarette, even as he stomps the accelerator.

This is too important to be late.

The car’s controls are worked like a maestro.  If he’s late, he’s ruined.

A screech of the tires, and a winded sprint up the stairs.  His heart hammers as he runs.

He bursts through the door, flustered and sweaty and mouthing apologies.  The others simply shake their heads — his foibles are well known.

The job at hand is thrust at him, a package to be unwrapped and tended to.

He hesitates, afraid.  Afraid to touch, afraid to commit.  The “what ifs” wrack him, the visions of everything that could go wrong.  But the package won’t wait.  Not for him, not for anyone.

A twitch of his fingers and the wrappings are pushed aside.

The eyes open, tired and confused…oh so confused.

He is frozen, dominated.

Those blue eyes hint at everything in the world: at commitment, and at the pitfalls and emotions to come.

The eyes close, and he is released.

“Welcome, son,” he whispers.

 

2) Crossing the Line

Dozens of tattoos, Agwe had.  Every single one was a memory, a moment in his life.  And with every one, he’d felt the pain of the needle and ink as it marked his flesh. Drunk or sober, every tattoo was a memory that included the suffering of its creation.

Except this one.

This one was different.

For this one, he’d sweated and worked.  He’d suffered and been shaved.  He’d been covered in oil and sludge.  He’d kissed the Chief’s belly.  He’d earned his citizenship in King Neptune’s court.

The outline of the turtle on his arm was simple: incomplete and basic.

He remembered sitting on his bunk, remembered the hard-won pint of moonshine he’d paid to Schwartzie to memorialize the crossing.

The klaxon sounded, then, in his memory.  The pounding of feet, the sprint from his bunk to the gun.

A plane…grey and green and far too fast.

The noise, and the flame.  The frantic scrambling for Schwartzie’s arm.

His tattoo would never be finished, now.

 

3) Better

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Desperation and hopelessness.  The bitter taste of failure. It was supposed to be better than this.

Wearing a cap and gown, he was told it would be better.

When he put the ring on her finger, he thought it would be better.

When he signed the divorce papers, he hoped it would be better.

When the layoff notice came, he prayed it could be better.

In the news, he heard all about how it was better.  Better, he knew, for someone else.  For everyone else.

It was supposed to be better than this.

 

Behind-the-scenes stuff:

1) “Blue Eyes” came from a one word challenge, to write about “elation” in 200 words. I wanted to play with expectations and characterization, especially given the darker microfiction pieces I’ve posted before. It’s hard to do a concluding “surprise” in under 200 words, but I did want to TRY.

2) “Crossing the Line” was a challenge from someone who knows my passion for naval history. Most folks hear the title phrase and think of doing wrong. But to a sailor…to a sailor it means something VERY different. I had 150 words to talk about pride, and tradition, and the camaraderie of those who sail grey-hulled ships in harm’s way.  Agwe’s story is stuck at 170 words…so this one, I failed. I still like the story, however.

3) “Better”  doesn’t really belong here, but…what the hell.  It doesn’t belong because, well it’s not a story…not really.  That being said, I wrote it in response to something I was given for this microfiction challenge, so I figured I would include it.  In this case, it was in response to a photo of a homeless guy.  What stood out to me in that photo was not the dirty clothes, nor the sign the guy was holding.  No, what truly stood out was his wedding ring.

 

Inspiration And Influence

C6ucM8rU0AI0vbtI’m pretty sure anyone who writes, or creates, can sympathize with this!

As an aside: greatest comic strip ever.  No, really…Calvin & Hobbes had it ALL: art, writing, humor, and the right touch of feeling and honesty.  Even more than the next two on my list — Bloom County and The Far Side —  Bill Watterson was a freaking genius.

Today’s strips?  That’s harder…Dilbert comes to mind…but that’s about the only one that really stands out at the moment.  Some of the web-comics are interesting, but nothing out there comes anywhere near those “top three”.

[Note – apparently Berkeley Breathed is drawing Bloom County again, via Facebook and GoComics … I haven’t yet had a chance to check it out, but that might very well be enough to get me to create a Facebook account…we’ll see.]

At any rate, due to lack of anything resembling coherent thought at the moment, I decided to call out some things that, well, just plain work for me.  Not necessarily things that are groundshakingly amazing, but things I admire…and learn from.

Simple, powerful prose is a wonderful thing, especially when it has a sense of humor.  From Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere:

“Richard found himself imagining the earl sixty, eighty, five hundred years ago: a mighty warrior, a cunning strategist, a great lover of women, a fine friend, a terrifying foe. There was still the wreckage of that man in there somewhere. That was what made him so terrible, and so sad.”

Dammit, but I love that passage.  As a character description? It is incredibly evocative, and paints a picture in a mere fifty words that well and truly nails the character.

Writers, they say, write.  Well, writers also read.  And in reading, they study and they learn…and, hopefully, they improve.

To stay on theme, here’s another passage*…one that nails its setting (London) in an equally effective way (actually, this quote is pulled from the single longest run-on sentence I can think of — don’t try that at home…not, at least, until you are as successful and well-known as Gaiman himself):

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces…”

*Can you guess what I’m re-reading right now?

Books are not the only thing from which to learn…not by a long shot.  I’ve talked enough about my love of music, even quoted from a few songs.  Well, there are some lyrics out there that are, quite simply, powerful.  As with good prose, good lyrics evoke and inspire…they make you think and question, and bring to mind thoughts and feelings far in excess of their few words:

“With everything discovered just waiting to be known,

What’s left for God to teach from his throne?

And who will forgive us when he’s gone?”

—The Gaslight Anthem, National Anthem

 

“With nothing left but a chord to stretch

And a word to get on by

Sometimes you reach for the bottle before the sky”

—Chuck Ragan, Nothing Left to Prove

There are dozens of additional examples I could give…an entire iTunes library, in fact, from which I could pull quotes and lines.  That’s not the point of this.  No, the simple point is this: words have meaning, and power.  Poetry and music just as much as prose.  Give yourself the time, and the reason, to study and to learn how others have harnessed that meaning, and that power.

Read the good and the bad, the new and the old…read to enjoy, but also to understand, and to learn.  There’s an old saying about “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Well, that applies to writing as much as to science: read what has been done, read what has worked, and take it onboard*.  Pull it all in, mix it around, and feed your own style…

*An interesting writing exercise I’ve heard about a few times (but have never done): instead of reading a story you truly admire, transcribe it.  The thought is that, by writing, you will internalize the structure and words in a way you would not through simply reading…  Hand-cramps and time aside, that is an interesting thought. If anyone out there has actually done the exercise, let me know how it worked!

The Silence Of Snow

There’s something about the forest – the deep, untrod forest – in a snowstorm. It is one of the quietest, most still places you will ever experience. The feeling isn’t one of death, or even of the wildlife seeking shelter. No, rather it is one of anticipation.

It’s almost like everything, like nature itself, is holding their collective breath.

I went hiking through the forest today…hiking in a snowstorm. A place that, just yesterday, was alive with elk, and with the predators stalking that herd. A place of noise and life and a certain amount of chaos.

Today it had that profound magic, that still silence…that anticipation. I loved it.

That hike got me to thinking. Thinking about the metaphors I am using in the current story, and about the messages I am trying to send. The Silence That Never Comes, to give the story its full title.

What would that wood feel like to someone who had never heard silence?  Who had no conception of peace, of quiet and still anticipation?

That is getting to the heart of the story…and to the scene that is building in the back of my mind. The scene of my protagonist – that kid who has known nothing but violence and cynicism and despair – in the middle of just such a storm, in just such a wood.

The vision is there…the knowledge of what I want – what I need – to include is there…now it just has to be executed.

That, by the way, is one of the reasons why I write: the challenge. The challenge of putting into effective words a feeling, and an imagination, so initially vague and formless.

And, more importantly, the feeling that comes when you get it right.

I’ve said before, but it bears repeating: to get it right, to nail a scene, is a feeling that has few peers. The closest I can come, at this moment, is that feeling when I summit one of the more challenging mountains here in Yellowstone.

Is it the view? Is it the effort? No, it is the elation that comes when you do something you know so many people have either failed at, or have refused to even try.

There is a drive to that, and a certain joy…and, to put this in terms of the underlying theme to all of Silence, a certain meaning.

Connor still has yet to really discover, let alone understand, that theme, that understanding…but there really is more to life.

Note – just to put everything in context, I figured I would offer some proof…would show just what Yellowstone looks like in late summer:

WARNING! WARNING! DANGER! COMPLETELY STREAM-OF-CONSCIOUSNESS WRITING AHEAD!!

I’ve already hiked-out a pair of boots. No, really: I bought brand new Timberlands last October, and I noticed today just how destroyed and falling-apart they have become.

I’d make some joke about things not being made like they used to be, but let’s be honest…I’ve put those boots through a metric ass-ton of abuse over the last three months. There are A LOT of pretty hard miles on them…

The more hours I spend in the backcountry, the harder it gets to think of Connor and his world. I find myself thinking more and more about the two or three fantasy stories/series I have floating around the back of my mind. Hell, I’ve written six or seven snippets for those stories, if only to explore the main characters, and their world/society.

It’s amazing just how much your surroundings impact the work…hell, how much they impact the vision and imagination. When I’m “home”, working on sci-fi isn’t all that hard: I can see and feel Connor and his world. Okay, so, in all honesty, I’ll admit that I don’t exactly write hard-sci-fi. My college physics experience was most definitely proof that C’s do, indeed, get degrees…I couldn’t write hard-sci-fi if you held a gun to my head. My stuff is as soft-sci-fi as it gets…and as character-centric: Connor’s bitter, cynical world of contrast and strife is fairly easy to come to when I’m surrounded by people and concrete.

But what happens when those give way to trees and dirt? Different story. No, literally: I have a completely different story in my head. Different tone, different meaning, different message. When I’m bushwhacking through spaces that haven’t seen a human in years – if not decades – I can’t help but imagine what life must have been like a millennia ago.

Hell, hiking-out those boots illustrates to me one of those concepts that has really changed over time: that of distance. 8 miles is nothing to us, it’s a trip to the convenience store for beer and munchies at midnight. 8 miles is also, however, about the maximum that your basic, out-of-shape tourist can walk in a single day. Put Betty the Cubicle-Dweller on the trail, and after 8 miles she is completely done.

Hell, even I struggle to do much more than twenty miles in a day, and I hike more in a month than most people do in several years.

Just to offer a contrast: the Roman legions marched thirty miles a day, rain or shine, road or no road, just outside of Rome or in hostile territory. Then they built a fortified camp at the end of that march. Every single night.

THAT is the concept we have lost: just what a day’s walk really is.

You think London and Canterbury are the same place? Walk them. No, honestly: get out and walk the road…your understanding of distance will change rapidly. And, no, horses don’t really change the math. Sure they can run, trot or jog much faster than us…but only for short distances. For a long-haul journey, it’s time to walk, and a horse walks only about one mile an hour faster than a human.

Okay, that’s enough of this entire digression…

Maybe I should point out that I, literally, just got back from my hike. Instead of laying down for a nap, I decided to try and pound out a post (since I didn’t have one ready for this morning). That may have been a mistake…

On the other hand, I have another huge load of pictures for later this week. Yay!