Heartbreaking, astounding, short

I've got a number of projects going at the moment, but I'm thinking about nanofiction. Over on Twitter, I occasionally write single pieces of fiction. I'm thinking about a serial that would cover a larger story arc. Unlike a preexisting large piece that's merely been broken into 140 character chunks, this would have to be standalone "chapters", each with its own emotional freight.

A challenge, yes. But is it one worth taking up? Is this creative energy better spent on regular material? What can I learn from the exercise that would make me a better writer?

I've always had a problem with brevity, or lack thereof. Is this like a set of windsprints, done purely for the exercise benefit?

Writing and working

Professional writers write. That's their day job. They write, they think about writing, they work out plots in their heads, they think about dialogue and setting and characters, etc.

They also goof off at work, just like the rest of us. Productive days are filled with writing. Unproductive days are filled with websurfing, Tetris, the New York Times, etc. Presumably, they as individuals do as much self-justification about their goofing off as any of the rest of us do.

Successful people generally goof off less than unsuccessful people, but we all have bad days.

I admire people who are productive writers while holding down a demanding day job. By "productive" I don't mean turning out 2K/day of crap. I mean producing work of a quantity, quality and timeliness that will be purchased (if done on spec), that will fulfill contractual obligations and that will inspire, thrill, scare, enrage or seduce readers.

Ultimately, I'm just impressed by someone who can write a steady stream of good fiction while working 40+ hrs/week as a teacher, cop, accountant, systems analyst, puppeteer, caregiver, lawyer, etc. When do you people sleep?

Note to self

First drafts are never really suitable for public display.

Seriously, man. Get some help, OK? Take a class or join a group or do something for God's sake...


Helen of Gyrewend stood silently at the edge of the Great Hall, restless. It had been eight days since the beheading, but she couldn’t clean up the remaining blood until the formalities were finished. The archdeacon was praying to Our Lord for the safety and health of Queen Elizabeth and for the soul of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, whose head and body were to be sealed in the same casket today. Praying, and taking a damned long time about it, to Helen’s way of thinking. She was itching to do away with the last traces of that hateful woman. For three nights running, her dreams had been filled with blood and flames.

As a housemaid, Helen had naturally not been present at the beheading itself; such affairs of state were not a public event like a regular hanging. Her part had been limited to laying the sawdust and arranging the dried timothy and sweet william underneath the block. Afterwards, all of those stuffs, with their load of royal blood, had been gathered up and burned in an oak fire supervised by the Earl and his family. The Earl had read a proclamation afterwards about how every drop of Mary Stuart’s blood had been returned to God. As his lordship said the words, they became the fact that the histories would record.

Or course, it was not really true, as they all could see. When the workmen had removed the scaffold, they’d discovered a double handspan of dried spatter right where the block had been. Helen had gotten a black look and a hard word from Thomas Butler for that. “Shoulda piled the sawdust higher, Helen Slopjob,” he’d muttered to her. It didn’t matter that she’d piled it as high as she’d dared, high enough that Mary Stuart’s sharp nose had practically been in the herbs as she waited for the axe. Who knew the dried up old biddy had so much blood in her? Moreover, how could it possibly have soaked through the stuffs and the wood so completely?

As a punishment for letting some of the royal blood spill, Thomas had ordered her to sweep and mop the entire Hall by herself. Behind the expressionless face she always put on when someone was praying, she was impatient for the archdeacon to finish up. Mary was burning in hell, prayers or no, and that was that. You can’t try to have the rightful Queen assassinated and be a Papist besides and not expect to burn. No purpose in wasting anymore breath on her as far as Helen could see. In her mind, she could see the dead traitor kneeling, her white hair lifted by surrounding flames in a close circle of stones. When Helen closed her eyes, she could almost hear Mary’s suffering. It surprised her that the sound wasn’t what she might expect of someone being tortured, but more like a chant, something half-way between a cough and a hiss. As it echoed, it became more terrifying and horrible than screams or cries, the sounds a human could make. Over and over, it filled the vision … yog-sothoth, yog-sothoth, yog-sothoth…

Helen opened her eyes. Fotheringhay Castle was certainly well rid of Mary and her coven of hangers-on. They were a bad lot from head to heel, to be sure. They spoke French among themselves, mostly, though they spoke proper when with the Earl and his family at meals and such. Had spoken, Helen reminded herself. All gone now. Mary straight to Hell, the rest of them soon to follow. With Mary gone, the rest of them had been packed off to London for their own trials, to start as soon as the dead Queen of Scotland was in the ground. They’d be hung for their parts in the treason; no fancy beheadings for such as them.

All their belongings had been packed up as well. She’d lent a hand with the packing, and had seen some of their ornaments. Some strange and troubling things among them. Oddly carved candlesticks and jeweled talismans, velvet bags filled with smooth stones, ancient looking books filled with nonsense words. None was in a proper reliquary, so no one knew what to make of them. Folks said they were stuff from Spain and France, where the Papists held sway. Helen had seen Papist things before, from some of the old churches hereabouts. Mary’s things hadn’t looked like anything she was familiar with, except for the rosaries, crucifixes and breviaries. If Mary had been practicing some form of worship that was strange even to other Papists, then she was doubly damned, to be sure.

Out of the corner of her eye, she looked at the dried blood. She’d been unable to think of anything else since the execution. Three swipes with a mop would clear it away, but there it had been for days on end, a stain on the pavers on her reputation. The execution wasn’t officially over until the burial, so she’d had to endure the sly looks and dull japes from the backstairs maids through two Sundays. Bad enough that it hadn’t been her fault, but the delay made it all worse.

Finally, the archdeacon finished up and all were blessed and dismissed. Helen left with everyone else. She turned right in the outer hallway to fetch the broom, mop and bucket she’d had at the ready since daybreak, then went right back into the Hall. As Helen swept, she thought about what a botched job that beheading had been. The cooks could take off the head of a live and struggling goose with one swipe, but the executioner had to take three strokes at Mary’s neck, still though she lay on the block. Helen had heard all about it. She had always assumed that royalty and the peerage would get the best. The axeman had certainly seemed like he’d known what he was doing when he’d been practicing in the days before. She thought of how, aftertimes, in the servant’s hall, he’d made comments like he’d felt some kind of pull on his axe to make him miss his stroke. Thomas Butler waggled his eyebrows at such excuse-making, but now Helen wasn’t sure what to think.

She swept the whole floor, but worked around the stain. She did a proper job of it, but swept as quickly as she could. Alone in the Hall, she was filled with the memories of her dreams. Her old twig broom whisked across the floor, and the rhythmic, hissing sound made her skin crawl. Finished with the sweeping, she brought the mop and bucket out from the corner and approached the middle of the room. She dipped her rags in the water, lifted and let them drain back a bit, then moved to make use of the sodden mass.

Her arms pause and she stopped as a thought struck her. Why had there been no flies?

She slowly set the dripping mophead down and looked at the blood on the floor. The chopping blocks at the butcher’s and in the kitchen always attracted a cloud of the little devils, even now in February and even after the wood had been scrubbed. She thought about the days since Mary’d been executed, trying to recall if she’d seen any flies over the blood stain when it had been fresh. A beheading was so unusual that everything about it had seemed strange, but as she considered, she could not recall any such vermin. Surely Mary’s blood should attract them, royal blood though it was.

Helen closed her eyes and shook her head to rid herself of the sudden idea that Mary had somehow not been human when she’d died. No, that was madness. Papist and traitor, but still human for all of that. She opened her eyes and firmly shoved the mass of wet rags over the blood. She pressed hard and scrubbed back and forth a half dozen times before lifting her mop away.

From the glistening pool of rewetted blood, the face of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, looked out at Helen, her wild, pleading eyes filled with tears. Helen’s knuckles cracked and whitened as she gripped the mop handle. Mary’s lips formed a spill of words that the maid could not clearly understand. Mary cried out regret and sorrow, fear and pain. There was something about stones and a book, and a terrible mistake she had made with them. From the depths of flames and blood, Mary desperately wanted Helen to do something, to open a door or gate of some kind. Helen could neither hear nor understand. All was darkness around the blood, the fires within its wetness the only light in the Hall that reached Helen’s eyes. She saw Mary suddenly jerked downwards, away from the surface. The dream-sounds from Helen’s visions of hell came up from the blood and filled her ears … yog-hothoth… yog-hothoth… yog-hothoth…

Helen stared into the bloody pool as it expanded in front of her to fill her vision entirely.


Almost an hour later, Thomas Butler passed by the Great Hall. He saw the bloodstain gone and saw Helen standing staring at the spot where it had been. He walked up and cuffed her aside the head for standing idly. Her dead body fell forward, eyes fixed wide open. Her head struck the lip of the bucket, spilling its contents to splash and spread across the stones.

Too long for Twitter

A little ode to Grapevine, Texas:

Flew into Dallas, got lost in Grapevine.
Made an acquaintance, and made his date mine.
Hello Bowie knife, he wasted no time.
Yellow tape flutters, “Do Not Cross This Line”.

Silly little doggerel, isn't it?


I got a lot of good feedback on my zombie story. Different people liked different parts. I don't want to turn this into something bland and universally acceptable, written by committee, but one of the universal comments was, "needs more plot, man".

How to get that? Suggestions went from one end of the spectrum to the other. I think I have an idea of how to make it work. I don't have any idea of where I would send it, though, so I'll just have to cross that bridge when I get there.

I could always just post it here, but I think that would prompt me to keep fiddling with it. Once it's in print somewhere, it's frozen.

How many ways can you say zero?

Installed Google Analytics for this blog.

Because I'm a glutton for ego punishment, that's why.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.
Like it? Tweet it!

Words of wisdom

From Anthony Pacheco, Hack writer:

"A lack of self-esteem will hork (and hork is a technical term) writing. It is an automatic fail. If a writer sits around thinking of perceptions of what people think of her, how she is or was treated, or other such deviations from the core of her center (and they are deviations), she is wasting time putting words to paper and wasting time showing them to other people."

and more words of wisdom:

"If you fail to get an agent, forget about how that makes you feel. Do you want to finish the book you are writing on, indeed, must finish it because it is a burning need? Yes? Congratulations. You are a writer. Your passion for writing is boundless. You are an artist comfortable with her craft. Writing is what you do for fun. It is enjoyable. Someday you may see your book in print, but then again not.

If there is no passion at this fork in the road to continue, simply take an objective look—do you feel like you are wasting your time? Is something more interesting to you? If so, writing is probably not your thing. Go find your thing.

But if you simply don’t want to go on because you are afraid that you’ll get rejected yet again—but the passion to write is still there—you have problems. Your problem could be your writing sucks. And well, we can all learn to be better writers. That problem is fixable and by the continuation of writing, you can improve."

OK, pretty lame of me to quote someone else's blog post so extensively, but what the heck. Thanks, Anthony.

A pebble thrown into another universe

Twitter seems to have deleted this tweet from the timeline, since it doesn't come up anywhere. Somebody call Harry Turtledove! In the meantime, here is the text of this no-longer-extant tweet:

Contract bending, deadlines pending.
Coffee vending, garments rending.
Concepts blending, emails sending.
Homeward wending, Tweeting ending.

It was all about how I really, really need to stop tweeting and get back to work, since I have three deadlines looming. Ironic that I took the time to make up a whole blog post about this lack of focus, isn't it?

How to do a critique

Doing a critique for a writer is much like being a beta-tester for software, which is why the term "beta-reader" is commonly used. Once the author has finished rough draft, first draft, then final draft, it's time either screw in a fresh set of eyes and re-read it again (which many authors can do), or to let someone else read it.

A critique is more than just a response e.mail saying, "It was great! Keep up the good work!" Your work could be lousy, and a polite friend would congratulate you on your efforts. If it truly stinks, they may just remain silent. If you persist in asking your beta-readers to read really crappy stuff, they will start to refuse sooner rather than later.

So what is a good critique? It's feedback that lets you know what worked and what didn't. You might have great characters, but a lousy plot. A good critique will give you that information. If you CONSISTENTLY have good characters but lousy plots, then that gives you a clear indication of your strengths. (It also gives you something to weep in terror about about late at night as you contemplate yet another rejection from yet another editor who probably demands good plotting above all else, but that's another issue.)

Writer's workshops offer critiques as a selling point. The people in the workshop/writing group/class/etc. are not your friends, and so have no social capital invested in their relationship with you. They will be honest. The truth hurts, but if you don't know what's wrong, you'll never be able to fix it.

Theoretically, a friend will be honest too, but don't push it.

Experienced critics will know what to look for. This is a set of general critique questions developed by MarFisk, posted on the Forward Motion website. A variation appears here. This is not necessarily a checklist-type activity, but these are the things to look for.

Initial Reaction:
Plot elements (in each chapter, things to be developed which are central to the plot and/or subplots):
Overall story:
What I liked in the story:
What I didn't like in the story:
Technical part:
Nit Picks:
Final comments:
A link to the story of mine I would like comments on: (if applicable)

Notice that last item. Critiques are like anything else... if you want it, you should only ask for it if you are willing to return the favor.

Not now, not ever

If I ever did find my "voice" as a writer, I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't like what I would find.

I can't write happy and fulfilling stories because I'm not happy and fulfilled. The best I ever get is to have my frustration and dissatisfaction temporarily smothered in busy work.

I can't write exciting stories because I am so damned ponderous and full of admiration for my own damned prose. Everything comes out reading like a stump speech by the seventh-place candidate.

I don't want to write autobiographically-based fiction because I find myself a subject not worthy of close examination, except as an example of how NOT to be a happy, fulfilled person. Any character I write who is clearly not me suffers from that fact that I am practically sociopathic in my inability to understand and connect with other human beings. I feel as thought the only things I understand are the negative emotions of life, and writing characters with such a relentlessly flawed perception and experience would just give readers a headache. I get a headache just living my own life... why would anyone else want to see anything through my eyes? What is it like to be faithful? To be happy? To be secure? To be truly and completely in love, with no doubts or hesitancy? To know what you are doing, where you're going? To know what you want?

I have plenty of things started, from back when I had bursts of enthusiasm and energy. Now, I have no enthusiasm for anything. These false starts, which ground down into page after page of long, boring crap, do not represent the first fingerpaints of a neonatal artist. They are, in fact, the short-lived half-sparks that are the only possible product of muddy flint.

This is a waste of time and energy. I will never be a competent writer of fiction, let alone a successful one.

I feel every failure a thousand times over, whether anyone else sees them or not. At this point, I don't want to write anymore. I just wish I could stop needing to.

Trying not to think

The hardest part about delusions of grandeur is that they seem so darn reasonable when you are in the thick of them. Why wouldn't someone say that this is the best thing they've ever read? Of course someone would ask in a beseeching tone if I had any more material they could please look at, purely for the joy of experiencing my prose. Why not?

So foolish.

Looking for readers of a zombie story

My zombie story is finished. Or at least I think it is. It's ~3500 words.

I'd like to get a couple of opinions on it. Comments on the pacing, the action, the language, etc. would be welcome. Something like this.

As with everything I write, I'm concerned that the story's merits are outweighed by its flaws. That is to say, I'm afraid it stinks. If it does, I'd like to have a clearer understanding of why it stinks, so I can do better next time.

If I thought that anyone reads this blog, this would be the point at which I would ask for volunteers, offer a critique in return, etc. Since this is an isolated backyard, facing the old freight tracks adjacent to a depopulated cul-de-sac, I'm going to have to find readers somewhere else.