Flashfiction: “Movin’ On Up”

Wake up and go to work. Come home for some TV and sleep. Check your accounts to make sure the paychecks go in, and the bills go out, at the right times…

Lather, rinse, repeat…

Hold on a second, something just hit me.

Holy shit, in the time it took me to type that last sentence, this post just changed from a random piece I wasn’t sure was even gonna work into a flashfiction piece (that I’m still not sure is gonna work, just like every flashfiction piece I write)!

I don’t know how it is for others who write, but, well, welcome to my brain and how the idea and creative process works…

At any rate, let’s give this a shot, shall we?  And to illustrate the “one hour rule” I have for my flashfiction pieces, I’m taking the idea that just hit me and starting to envision and write at 9:05 AM.  I’ll (hopefully) be hitting “Publish” no later than 10:05 AM.

{Note — it is now 9:55, and I am about to hit that “Publish” button…}

Movin’ On Up

He went to work every day.  Never late, never absent.  Hard work and dedication had paid off for him.  After four years on the second floor, in a tiny beige cubicle, the call had come.  He was on the way up, they told him.

Up he went, then.  All the way up…to the third floor, where the cubicles were grey.  The walls stood all the way to his shoulders, up there.  Extra space and privacy?  What more could he want?

His pay was up, too.  Oh, the taxes took a bigger bite, but his daily checks of the bank app on his phone were still satisfying.

Four more years, then.  Four years of overtime and vacations to Columbus.  Four years of satisfied little sighs when he checked his phone.  They had even come to know his name, his bosses.  Well, six of them knew his name, anyway, and that wasn’t too bad.

Finally, an extravagance.  Those satisfied little sighs when he checked his phone had grown larger and larger over the years.  They had grown until he felt comfortable enough to step up at home, too.  No more Columbus for him.  No sir, he was on the way up!

He shuffled back into the office after his week-long vacation.  Sunburnt, hungover and exhausted, the week in Sarasota had been everything he’d dreamed.  As tired as he was, he felt ready to face the next year with a renewed vigor.

He had his eye on that corner cubicle down the aisle from his.  It had a view, that cubicle.  A glance out the small window and he’d be able watch those going to and fro on the elevators.  He’d even be able to see the office doors.

They were the Promised Land, those offices.  The dream he never dare mention.  Life with walls and a door!  The ultimate goal.  He would reach that office.  He had confidence; hard work was always rewarded, wasn’t it?

And then, after the office?  All those satisfying little numbers on his phone would grow and grow until he that magic day when the hard work was no longer necessary.  Then he would be happy.  Then the trips to Columbus and Sarasota would become trips to Paris and Tokyo.  Then the drudgery would give way to adventure.  Then life would truly begin.

The years were a blur in his mind.  His wife and kids were a blur, too.  The hard work continued, and he continued on the way up.  Up to that corner cubicle he coveted.  Up, even, to that office.  So what if half of it was taken up with boxes of paper they had nowhere else to store?  It still had walls and a door.  It still was his own space at work.

The demands on his time were up, too, to go with the bigger numbers on his phone.  He hadn’t made the last few trips to Sarasota, however.  He couldn’t go, he’d told his wife, not if he he wanted those numbers to really climb.  

He’d make it up to her, he promised.  When those numbers were up enough, they would go to all of the places they never talked about.  When he was up enough, they would really live.

She had cried a bit, then.  Oh, she had tried to hide it, but he could feel her tears.  He would make it up to her, of course.  In the end, he would make it up.

The kids were gone by the time he reached the fifth floor.  His wife by the sixth.  But the little numbers, they were impressive.  Dreams became plans, then.  Plans for month-long trips to Europe and Asia and Africa.  Plans to see the world…to see all of the world.  This what he had worked for.  This was the way up.

The seventh floor and a new office.  Oh, not a corner office, but still one with windows and a secretary shared only with six others.  They all knew his name now, of course.  They all proved that by speaking at the funeral.

“He was too young…” they all said.  “He’d climbed so far,” they all said, “only to die at the top.”

He never did make those trips.

Musical Note — it’s an older song, and most definitely not one of the greats of musical history, but it still kinda fits…

Unquiet Words

Do you ever get cocky?

Ever know that something won’t work, but still think you can overcome the universe and make it work for you?

That’s pretty much me right now.

Look, I’ve talked before about how I need life and activity around me to write.  I’ve talked about the sense of release, the sense of freedom, that comes with writing in coffee shops and taprooms.  To write — I mean really write — I have to be out.  And that’s great, as far as it goes.  But sometimes…

But sometimes you’re at home, and the urge hits you.  Sometimes you’re somewhere quiet and peaceful and alone, and the ideas start to come.  That’s when my iron-clad rule #1* can become a problem.

*You always write it, right freaking then.

Now, for most writers a place of quiet, peaceful serenity is probably the best place in the world for the creative process.  Unfortunately, I’m not most writers.  Hell, we established that when I described the fact that I couldn’t write a story in linear order if you held a gun to my head.  I can’t write the scenes in the order they appear, and I can’t write when it’s peaceful and quiet.AF488EBD-3EAC-4D16-942B-85A0EEA3E32F

Yeah, yeah, I know…I’m weird.  You’re just now figuring that out?

So, here I am, sitting at home and trying to put my thoughts and ideas into words.  In the peace and quiet.  And it just ain’t working.

Oh, I can get words onto the page, but they…uhh…they kinda suck.  Do you have any idea at all just how frustrating that is, by the way?  How frustrating to know, as soon as you type them, that the words you’re putting down are a waste of time and effort?  That you’re just going to delete them later?1A69DA5C-BF5D-4E3D-8042-98F1A0E64B9A

Honestly, I feel like I’m in detention, being to forced to write lines over and over.

Screw it, I’m not working today.  I think I’ll just head over to the bar for a beer and a thousand words…

Oh, the crosses I bear to be a writer.  But, hey, I’m doing it so you don’t have to.  Yeah, that’s it!

See, I’m not just a writer, I’m a giver…

Unintentional Snippeting, The Final Scene

I’m not a Halloween guy.  I never have been.  Even as a kid, I wasn’t one of those folks who put hours and hours of thought and effort into a costume.  Nope, instead I was one of those guys who just threw together whatever I could at the last minute…

That hasn’t really changed.

One of the few times of late that I’ve done something for Halloween was last year’s 0.5K* Zombie Doughnut Crawl at the brewery.  Halloween just doesn’t matter to me, other than as a milestone on the trip to that holiday I really do get into: Christmas.

*Yes, you read that right, half a kilometer!

At any rate, today is Halloween and damn if I can be bothered to write a…you know…Halloween post.  It would probably help if I wrote horror or suspense stuff, but I don’t.  I write sci-fi and fantasy. So, unless you want a Halloween story about elves battling invading aliens, we’ll just skip the story idea for today…

It’s been a while since I did a post focused on writing, so I’ll jump back to that.  Plus, I can cheat and make this a music post, too…and I do love to cheat!

I’ve talked more than once about how music affects my writing.  Here is a recent post about how what I listen to helps to create the “soundtrack” for a particular scene.  What I haven’t delved too deeply into is how music impacts the creation of the story itself, how it can help to inspire not just the story, but also the characters and tone.

It’s hard to explain, so I’ll go back to my old “standby” of using my work-in-progress series as a concrete example…

I didn’t start off with a soundtrack, of course.  I started off with a couple of characters, and a setting, and that was about it.  I knew the boys’ backstories, and their current situation, but not much more.  It was those two characters, by the way, who forced me to keep working on the story.  I fell in love with them, and I couldn’t step away, no matter how much I “wanted” to work on another story at the time.

I need three things in order to start really planning and writing a story: characters I believe in, something to say, and the final scene.  Look, I know just how weird it sounds, but until I have that final scene, I don’t have the beginning of the story…and I certainly don’t have the tone or feeling of it.  For me, that final scene helps to make everything real.

I was stuck, then.  I had two stories — one I “wanted” to write, and one demanding to be written — but I couldn’t make progress on either.  I couldn’t make progress until…

…until…

…until I found the “soundtrack.”  Until I found that one key song that encapsulates what the story is.  It was quite by accident, by the way, that I found that one song…the one that led me to my final scene, and to what eventually became Somewhere Peaceful to Die:

Ah, hell…I wasn’t gonna do this, but when have I ever really stuck with my “plan” for a post?  Err…never, to be honest.  A bit of unplanned snippeting for you: the final scene to Somewhere Peaceful, written roughly nine months before I got the story to the point where it actually needed a final scene:

It was a heavy hatch, rusted and decrepit.  Just like the rest of Dockside.  Outside the compartment, there in the lowest levels, the air was fetid and foul.  The slime farm was considered one of the worst places you could go Dockside.  No one went there if they could at all avoid it, even the workers whose domain it was.  It was the perfect place for two boys, two ikiryo, to use as their hideaway.

The stench of mold and rot was overpowering.  The hatch was old, dating all the way back to the days when Dockside had just been cargo-cans full of the equipment and belongings to colonize a new star system.  That hatch squealed in rusty protest at Connor’s frantic efforts, resisted any movement.

Nothing, however, would slow him down.

He wasn’t sure he believed Sonthi, or the note.  He didn’t want to believe.  Oz was the strongest person he’d ever known; he kept Connor going, not the other way around.  Never alone, that had been their promise to each other.  And Connor had failed that.  Spin it however he wanted, color it with whatever guise of doing right he could fool himself into, he still had left Oz to face the consequences alone.

Connor’s arms surged and the seals popped.  He would not fail, not this time.

Inside was a tangled forest of massive tanks, convoluted piping and heaving pumps.  All were bubbling and gurgling as the life-giving algae — Dockside’s main air filter — was cultivated and cared for inside.  It was all automated, of course, all monitored from afar.  No one wanted to work down there.

The slime tanks made it hard to see, and the piping created a chaos of background noise that almost drowned thought itself.  Just a step inside and Connor was lost in that maze-like tangle.  He knew the compartment’s layout — he and Oz would come here to laugh and drink, come for the closest thing either had to privacy, and to quiet — but still he could barely see, could barely move.

A look around and he shuddered with dread.  There was barely any light.  The vast compartment was all shadows and shapes.  Kazuo’s goons could be inches away and he would never know…until they put a bullet into his head.

His breath was ragged and heaving.  He slowed: step, listen…step, listen.  He couldn’t hear shit, and could see even less, but he tried anyway.

Was that a sound?  A breath?

He pushed his head around a three-foot-wide pipe and looked.  There was a shadow huddled at the base of one of the massive tanks.  A small shadow.

Oz.

“Oh fuck…” Connor moaned.

Hard-won caution was lost.  Thought and concern were lost.  A single glance and he knew, that was his brother laying there on the ground.  Alone.

He sprinted through the cramped compartment, blind to everything but that small shadow.  He moved as fast as he could.  In a blink, he slammed to his knees and was turning that body onto its back.

The first thing that registered was the blood.  The blood was everywhere.

Oz’s face was pale, and his body almost cold.  Connor screamed in wordless rage and pain.

Those eyes opened — the eyes so often the source of the strength and comfort Connor needed when life was at its worst — and a blood-soaked hand reached up to touch his face.

A knife on the ground, covered in blood.  A fucking knife.  Oz hadn’t wanted a clean death, Connor realized.  He’d wanted to suffer, to pay the price for everything he’d done.

A dull clatter as Connor threw that knife away.  He tore off his shirt and gathered his friend into his arms, tried futilely to stop the flow from Oz’s wrists.  He could feel his brother’s life ebbing away.  A stifled sob and he managed to speak through the block in his throat, “What the fuck are you doing in here alone, bozu?  This ain’t what we always talked about.”

Oz was so cold, so pale.  Connor couldn’t stop the sob.  “Fuck…please hold on, Oz…don’t leave me.”

Oz pulled one hand free from Connor’s efforts, reached to touch his face again.  The stream of blood from his wrist was slowing.  “Spog?  No, Spog…go…get out, run…they’ll find you.”  The tears on Oz’s face were washing away the blood.

As small as he was, Oz had always been vibrantly alive, always full of energy and life.  What Connor held in his arms was cold and lethargic, barely recognizable as his friend.  “Alone is worse…” he whispered, choked.  “I’m sorry I’m late.”

“I’m sorry,” Oz said, his voice barely a whisper.  Too much blood had fled, too much life had ebbed.  “I fucked you over and you never knew.  I’m sorry.”

“I knew, Oz.  I knew…and I don’t give a damn.  Please hold on.  Who’s gonna keep me from fucking up if you leave?  Don’t go away…please.  We were gonna get off this shit heap, we were gonna find that peaceful place together.  I can’t do it alone, bozu.”

The body was so light in his arms, the face so grey.  Connor knew his friend had no time left.  The light in those eyes was already flickering, fading away.  With every faltering heartbeat he became more the ghost people named him than ever he had been in life.

Oz’s voice was almost inaudible.  “I’ll hold…I’ll hold as long as I have to, just as long as you promise we’ll be okay.”

“You dumb son of a bitch!  We’re okay…of course we’re alright.”  Connor could barely manage the words as he held his friend ever more tightly.  “Nothing you can do will fuck that up.”

Oz shuddered and grabbed at Connor’s shoulder even as his eyes closed.  “I fucked up…I’m sorry,” he mumbled.  “You never saw how fucked up I was.  You always thought I was just like you.  I’m sorry.”

“Just stay with me, Oz.  I don’t give a damn what you did, or what happened.  If you go, I got nothin’.  Don’t leave!”

“Go…run…get out.  They know where I am, you idiot,” Oz’s voice was the ghost of a whisper.  Then, even softer, fading, “Promise we’re alright, Connor.  Oh shit, why is it so dark?”

The hatch behind was still half-open.  Even over the pipes and pumps, Connor could hear noise, could hear the price he would pay coming nearer.

Connor tightened his arms and held Oz to him.  He stroked his friend’s hair and whispered, “We’re alright, goddammit.”  His shirt was already blood-soaked, had done nothing to help.  The flow of life from Oz’s wrists had slowed to the barest trickle.  He was almost gone.  “You’re scaring the shit out of me, Oz.  Please stay with me.”

“I love you, Connor.  It’s getting light again…so damned cold…I’m sorry I fucked up again…I didn’t want to die alone…oh, shit…”

The commotion was close now.

Connor held tight, offered what comfort he could.  Through the tears, “You moron, you fucking moron…you’re not alone…”

That slight body was still.  The blood stopped.

The hollow echo of boots on the metal deck.

Connor moaned, aware of nothing but pain and loss.  He rocked slowly back and forth with Oz’s body cradled close, remembering a friendship beyond thought and word.  It dominated everything in his mind, a friendship like no other from the day they had met.  The day when Oz had saved him from the life of pain and degradation that Oz himself had never escaped.  Through times both the best and worst, Oz had been his only family.

Connor screamed.

Voices barking…shouts…the squeal of the hatch.  He had no idea what was happening, and he didn’t give a damn.  His best friend, his brother, was dead.

The echo of boots…then a hand grabbed Connor’s shoulder, the grip painful and harsh.

By the way — on the topic of soundtracks — I have one in my head, as I’ve mentioned, for the scenes I write.  Weirdly, the soundtrack for the scene above is NOT “Ghosts That We Knew”, it is a song called “Be Still”:

Killin’ Characters

I read a news story the other day about funerals. Specifically, it was about how the wealthy — especially the super-wealthy — were turning their own personal funerals into final statements about power and excess.

Now, there is a lot that could be unpacked from that story, and from its subject. Things like privilege and power … things like the growing disconnect between the wealthy and, well, everyone else … things, even, like morality and responsibility and common decency, and how folks will truly be remembered … but I’m not going to get into all of that. Frankly, I don’t have the energy or desire at the moment to dip my mind into the slime and sleaze that would lead someone to want to brag and show-off even after they’re dead. They have their own demons to deal with, and I’ll leave them to it…

No, what that article got me to thinking about is death in our stories. It especially got me to thinking about how we use those deaths: did we kill a character for a reason? Or just because we were “done with them”? What were the effects on our other characters? Did that death cause them to change and grow? Did it spur some action or event? Or was it simply another item on your “things that had to happen” list?

One of the things that bugs me as a reader is when a writer “wastes” my emotional investment in a character. Even a minor character — especially one that has been around a series a long time — can get such an investment, and their death needs to reflect that. It should have weight and meaning, and it certainly should affect the main characters of the story. Too often, unfortunately, such deaths are treated simply as necessary events.*

*One example that comes immediately to (my) mind is the almost trivial death of Barrett Bonden in one of the later books from Patrick O’Brien’s “Master & Commander” series…

A death may be necessary, of course, even the death of an important and beloved character. There is no event so “efficient” at driving our plots or protagonists as a(n) (un)timely death. Hell, I kill characters all the time — characters I like, and would prefer to keep around — because that death has to happen. It has to happen, mainly, to move the character development and story forward. But it also has to happen, sometimes, when a character has “run his course,” when he or she has no more role to play. Indeed, stories & characters can sometimes reach a point where the very presence/existence of a supporting character takes away from the main characters…*

*Think Obi Wan in the original “Star Wars”…he HAD to die for Luke to move forward.

But that character’s death still has to have meaning. And the reaction of, and effect upon, your protagonist has to have even more meaning.

Try this exercise on for size: for every significant character in one of your stories, envision their funeral. Who is there? What is it like? What is said about them? Hell, if you’re like me, you’ll even write the damned thing. It doesn’t have to be long, it just has to have weight. Most likely, you’ll never use what you create for this exercise, but the act of envisioning and understanding that character’s legacy will change how you think & feel about them…just as it will change how you write them.

Oh, and when the time comes to actually kill them in a story? Yeah, you’ve already thought about their mourners and their eulogy, and your going to — hopefully! — give that death scene the weight and attention it deserves.

Addendum:

I’ve mentioned more than once that the very first thing I write for any story is the final scene.  That includes death scenes.  Until you’ve actually done it, you have no idea just how tough it can be to come to love a character you’ve created when you KNOW the death that waits for them (thanks, Oz!).

As an example, I’ve put below one of the background prep pieces I wrote for Somewhere Peaceful to Die…an “after death” note from a character (my protagonist’s father) whose death and legacy is a major catalyst for both plot and character. I’m re-posting it here not because it is good (you have no idea how badly I want to editor and revise!), but because the few minutes I spent creating it fundamentally changed my main character. It also changed how I handled the story in a many, many ways.

Riot Memories

The biggest crime of it all is that I’m not there to tell you this myself. I’ll never forgive myself for that. You and I have had our problems, but in spite of disagreements and arguments, in spite of my failures and the ruin I have made of your life, you are still the only good thing I have managed in this miserable universe.

I went to the Market that day just looking for a few drinks. I was off work, and our visit the day before was eating at me — my last words to you were pissed off Through all eternity, I can never make up for that.

I should have known something was wrong. The atmosphere was too tense, the voices too quiet and the tempers too short, for it to be a normal day. A couple of beers over lunch was enough time to see that atmosphere grow worse and worse.

Finally, I could hear a commotion at the hatch to the transit dock. Not really shouting, but voices raised in question and answer. Anger and stress everywhere.

I should have left.

Instead I went to see what was happening. That decision changed everything. That decision ruined your life more than everything else I fucked up, and that’s saying something.

You know the Market — that area around the door is pretty tight. It might be just the stairs coming down from the entrance, and a bunch of stalls and tables, but it is packed. Nothing really substantial, but more then solid-enough for a semi-converted cargo hold.

Johnny had told me the takies were coming; he said he’d heard about about some kind of raid. I guess the Council assholes decided it was time for another crackdown. Can’t leave dockside alone…no, we can’t have the poor bastards just getting on with life and business. Not when there’s money to be made from taxes and fines.

No one knew what the fuck to expect. Everyone I asked figured it would be a few stationside cops and a Council agent or two. Roust the stalls a bit. Confiscate some shit. Harass people for not having implants. The same shit they pull every few years.

An assault? Nope, not a fucking soul saw that coming.

Guy next to me had a buddy workin’ the slime farm. Got a flash over his ‘screen that the universe was goin’ ape-shit. Then the message just stopped. The last words were something about cops and guns. Dude musta been in a hurry, ’cause his message made no fucking sense at all.

Everyone knows the Council would never put a gun anywhere near Dockside, there’s just too much chance of shit spiraling out of control. No one wants blood on their hands, not when us poor-ass scumbags are nice and isolated a thousand clicks from their perfect little Station.

I guess shit changes.

They musta hit the Ops center first, because they definitely had control of all the major systems. The hatch just popped. No warning, none of the usual shenanigans, just popped open to let in a flood of assholes in black.

They weren’t storming in with guns pointed, which I guess is a miracle, but they were still ready for trouble. They were pretty fucking free with their clubs, and they used their riot shields like battering rams. I was in the back of the crowd, so I didn’t get hit, but fuck-me if I didn’t get half-trampled by people trying to turn and run.

I was thinking about getting the hell back to our pod when the shit really started. I know the hold is forty feet high, and sound echoes like mad, but fuck if that wasn’t the loudest fucking few minutes of my life. Insults and threats were everywhere. Mostly I remember the screaming…the fucking screaming was the worst. I almost pissed myself. It was definitely time to leave.

Trouble was, more and more people kept pushing in. Everyone wanted a piece of the fucking mappo goons who were trying to beat us down. All those cops musta had the same bullshit fantasy about being bad-ass special-forces types, because they came in wearing all-black fatigues and tried to look like some fantasy version of a bad-ass assassin. Fucking idiots. Everyone wanted a piece of them. I’m not small, but fuck if I could push back against all the bozos who wanted a go at those cops.

Then I heard shots.

Well, I didn’t so much hear the shots as what came after: dead silence.

I haven’t heard silence since I left Mars. You haven’t been on a planet since you were like six months old, so you have no idea what it’s like. To hear the Market go absolutely still and silent, even just for a second, was the oddest, worst thing I’ve ever heard.

Then all hell broke loose.

I thought it was bad before, but that was nothing compared to what happened next.

I’ve been in riots before, and what we had going was a normal, garden-variety riot. Some broken bones, a shit-ton of damage, and nothing more than funny stories and bad feelings. That shot changed everything. It went from riot to full-fucking battle real fast.

“Push back the mappo” became “kill the mappo” almost instantly. It’s Dockside….I think the Stationside assholes sometimes forget what that means. They’re used to being the only ones with guns in their safe, quiet Station. Well, half the Market was armed…and all of it was panicked. Shots came from everywhere, but you could barely hear them over all the screaming.

People were pushing and shoving, trampling each other to move around. No one was going the same direction, no one knew what the fuck was happening. All we knew was that it was time to get out.

The place was a nightmare. All the stalls had been turned over and everyone was panicked as fuck. Everything as far back as Snug Harbor was just a mass of chaos. I don’t know if most folks were rioting or running, but no one was gettin’ anywhere in all that shit.

I’m not much for brains, you know that better than anyone, and I’m even less for bravery. When I smelled the smoke, I gotta admit I joined the panic. A fire. A fucking fire. In the Market. That place is a death trap at the best of times. In the middle of a fucking gunfight? Anyone who didn’t get out was screwed.

I didn’t get out.

I looked back and saw the last of the cops backing out through the hatch, then the fucking thing slid shut. Even over the noise and chaos you could hear the locks seal. That left only the one way out, the hatch back into the res-holds. The Market is only three hundred feet long, but it might as well been three hundred miles. With everyone screaming and panicking, there was just no fucking way out.

A minute later the lights snapped off. I can barely make my way through that place at the best of times, but in pitch dark? We were all fucked…then fucked times two when the air-system shut down.

You don’t think about that very much, that hum of blowers and filters. It’s just part of life, literally. When it shuts down, however, you can’t hear anything else. Shots; screaming; shit crashing; none of it was loud enough to drown out the silence.

There was no air, and the only light came from a fire that was growing fast.

Yeah, we all know fire’s a possibility. We all know the only safe way to deal with a fire is to completely cut off the affected hold. But who the fuck expects that to happen to them?

The smoke was the worst. There was no circulation, so the air just sat there and let the smoke build. I musta been near the heart of the thing because it was only a few seconds before I couldn’t breathe.

Then some big bastard knocked me down as he ran for the door. I tried to pick myself up, I really did, but I just couldn’t. I was already half in the bag, and all kinds of random assholes kept stepping on me.

I looked over and some girl was in the same boat. She had a baby with her. I don’t how or why I noticed, but that kid looked exactly like you did the day your mother bugged out on us.

The last thing I saw was that kid’s blue eyes, and his hand reaching out to me for help.

Fuck, I can’t even die right.