Sunday, January 31, 2010

Short Story: Assumptions

I think this is the first short story I've ever written.  (Anything I did in English classes has been forgotten.)  Felt like I should try it.  Super-short, may qualify as flash for all I know.  Enjoy!

* * * * *

by R.C. Lewis

Gunfights and car chases, that’s what I needed.  Maybe some gratuitous, reality-defying explosions, too, if I was lucky.  The more action, the better.

I’d like to say it had been a good day until I arrived at the movie theater.  Until the sneering minimum-wage teenager asked if I meant diet when I clearly asked for a regular soda.  I’d like to say the day to that point had been a shining example of why it’s wonderful to be alive.  But that would be a lie.

The implications of the greasy-haired adolescent didn’t help, though.

My usual seat, third row up from center, ensured maximal viewing pleasure, taking in the whole screen at once.  This showing was popular, but not quite sold out.  As the theater filled, the seats to either side of me remained vacant.  Surely someone would be joining me, right?  Or maybe they worried Crazy-Lady-Who-Goes-to-Movies-Alone Syndrome was contagious.

Speaking of which, was that …?  It was.  A blind date from three months ago walked in with two friends, laughing about some recent sporting event.  Big upset in the college rankings.

I instantly thought of those crime dramas, when the cops make the arrest and the guy shouts, “It’s a set-up!”  I knew how that guy felt, because blind dates were the same thing – set-ups.  Friends said they were doing it because they cared, because they were certain the guy was just right for me.

Invariably, the dates ended with me alone in my apartment, resisting the urge to scream, “I’ve been framed!”

I prayed the latest accomplice wouldn’t look my way.  He’d tried to enlist himself among the few repeat offenders by calling a week later.  Since I couldn’t recall his name now, the results of that phone call were obvious.

Not that he wasn’t good-looking.  Far from it.  If I had a type, he was it, but only as far as appearance.  I think he lost me when he spent most of our date detailing how he was God’s gift to the philosophy department at the local university.  I would have enjoyed a nice discussion about any of the topics he mentioned, but he was too busy convincing me everyone else was wrong to hear anything I had to say.

It was still an improvement over the set-up prior, who clearly hadn’t expected me to be educated and reasonably intelligent.  Maybe I could blame my accent for that one, but it had almost disappeared in the past few years.  No great loss, though; the friend who’d done the framing later told me he’d gotten back with his ex.

Mr. Neo-Nietzsche remained too occupied with the failings of basketball referees to notice me, so I relaxed.  The previews started, and I got my promised violence and mayhem.  Plenty of explosions, too.  I particularly enjoyed one involving a propane tank and a mime.  You had to be there.

The credits rolled as everyone filed out around me, but I stayed put.  An odd habit, maybe, but I always stayed until the end of the credits.  I had this image of the poor gaffers and score wranglers and every soul in the second unit who went utterly unknown.  They worked hard and didn’t rake in the obscene paychecks for it, so the least I could do was remain in my seat as their names scrolled across the screen – their singular moment of glory.

A bonus was seeing the song credits near the end.  Yes, that was Incubus.  Thought the voice sounded familiar.

When the lights came up and the cleaning crew rolled in, I was the only one left.  More teenagers, but the aggravating soft drink vendor wasn’t among them.  They were polite as I passed, and I offered a smile, not envying their task of sweeping popcorn and scraping smashed Milk Duds from the floor.

Out in the lobby, I looked at my watch – too late to think about cooking dinner.  My favorite bistro was on the way home, so I stopped there.  Not especially swank, but nice and cozy.

I glanced briefly at the menu before ordering one of my favorites.  The waitress was new – not one of the girls who knew me as a regular – but she was friendly and pleasant.  She brought my raspberry lemonade with a smile and left me in peace.

If any disease was more dreaded than the single woman at the movies, it was the woman sitting at a table for one in a restaurant.  I felt the glances of a few other diners, but it wasn’t my first time.  The way to avoid scrutiny was to look busy, so I pulled my notepad from my purse.

When the waitress brought my food a few minutes later, I noticed something more than a glance.  A few tables away, a male diner – also solo – caught my eye.  Tall, dark hair … my usual suspects for distraction, he had them all.  Before I could feel self-conscious about staring, he winked and went back to reading a novel.  Crime thriller, but one of the better authors in the genre.

Throughout my meal, I compulsively glanced his way.  He caught me looking a few times, but I also caught him.  The little thrill when he smiled at me … how long since I’d last felt that?

Dinner couldn’t last forever, though, and soon the waitress brought me my check.  When she looked at my credit card, though, her eyes widened.

“You’re her, aren’t you?  The romance writer!  I have all your books.  Oh, and wow, today must be your favorite day of the year, huh?”

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have rolled my eyes at such an idea.  Today, though … today I looked toward the mystery man across the way and smiled.

“Sure,” I answered.  “Who doesn’t love Valentines Day?”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Just for Giggles: Character Transplant Exercise

In a fit of randomness, I started thinking about my characters and how they would fit into the real world.  Maybe other writers (especially of fantasy) do this all the time.  It's kind of fun, and has made me think about my characters in-depth, particularly the more minor characters.

I wonder how much you can tell about my book from reading this silliness cold.  Hmm ...

Raina would front a rock band, drawing comparisons to Paramore's Hayley Williams, except Raina would mouth off to the press more than she should.  There would be a rumor about the paparazzi and electrocution, which sensible people would shrug off.

Taz would make major breakthroughs in computer science and linguistic programming, specifically in the development of signing avatars.  She'd be a guest lecturer all over the world, and her company would be puzzled over why she never asked to be reimbursed for her airline tickets.

Niko would take online courses in philosophy while hanging out with Raina on tour, driving his professors to madness with his ability to beat them in any argument.  He'd turn down the opportunity to go to top medical schools and become a writer instead.

Vota would be a MythBuster.  She loves blowing stuff up, so she'd fit right in.

Genno would be a negotiator, but not in any kind of business sense.  Probably law enforcement, hostage negotiation, that kind of thing.  His co-workers would think of him as the nice guy, kind of quiet, but they'd also know not to mess with him.

Willet would be a contestant on Survivor.  He'd be the guy who tries to win by flirting with all the girls.  There would be nasty fights during and after tribal council, claiming that using his shapeshifting to impersonate other tribe members constituted cheating.

Pashti would be a student at the Art Institute of Chicago (sculpture, mostly).  By all appearances, she'd be sophisticated and avant-garde, but secretly she'd spend her Thursdays watching Survivor, rooting for Willet.  (She'd never tell him, though.)

Anyone else ever tried something like this?  Other favorite character exercises?  Feel free to post links in the comments.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Author's Skin: Part 2

I wrote previously about how writers respond to criticism of their work.  There's another reason to make sure our skin is thick enough, though: If you're in the public eye, people might go after more than your work.

Think of all the things about you or your personal life people could make fun of or attack.  Your appearance, social status, ethnicity, religion ... I've got a mental list of "easy targets" ready and waiting.

I could save the late-night talk show hosts some time and money by writing the jokes myself.

Where do we draw the line between standing up for ourselves and ignoring people who just want to get a rise out of us?  How do we keep ourselves from taking it personally when it is personal?

Since I halfway expect it, I think I'd just brush it off as ignorance.  I'd also want to try to educate people, to counteract that ignorance, but it's tricky.  Of course, I won't really know unless I ever get into that situation, though online communities have given plenty of small-scale practice.

Last thing I want is to become known as the author who blew up over a supposed personal affront.

I'd rather be known as the author who wrote great books and conducted herself in a classy manner.  Anyone else?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Name Soup

How many characters can we absorb at a time?

In working on query letters and pitches, I've become conscious of the "name soup" that can happen when too many characters are crammed into that tiny space.  Like a party in a tiny apartment, there's no elbow room and no way to keep track of who's who.

What about in the novel itself, though?  How many new characters can we introduce before the reader needs time to breathe and process?

I suspect part of the answer lies in how we introduce them.  Don't start a ticker-tape parade for a minor character who serves a limited function for a few pages.  Conversely, if the character is important, they need to stand out.

I wonder how much genre and audience play a role.  Do readers expect a large cast of players in certain books?  Readers of sci-fi and fantasy will be more prepared for strange names than readers of a modern-day crime thriller.  What about the number of names to keep track of?

Speaking of strange names, we can make up the craziest names we want, but let's make them pronounceable.  Even if the reader might assume a different pronunciation than we intend, it needs to be possible to come up with something.  Too many fantasy novels evoke my "Pat, I'd like to buy a vowel" reaction.

Now that I've posed the question, I'm going back to check the first scene at the foster home.  Have I thrown too many names in too small a space?  Hopefully not.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


What is it about our own work that makes it so hard to see problems?

Granted, it's not always the case.  I'll often write a sentence and know immediately that I hate it.  If I can't figure out a better way to word it at that moment, I'll let it stand, knowing I'll be able to hash out something better when I return.

Sometimes I read others' work and wonder, "How could they not spot that doozy?"  Yet I'm sure I overlook similar problems in my own work.

Nothing brings you down to earth like having one of your fifteen-year-old students spot a typo for you.

The scientific part of me wonders exactly what's behind these authorial blinders.  In matters of typos and missing words, I'm sure our familiarity with the material causes us to fill in the gaps.  What about those big gaps in logic, though?  Or glaring inconsistencies?

How do we miss those?  And how can we help ourselves by taking those blinders off?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Looking for Logic

There is some debate about whether any unpublished writer is qualified to critique the work of another.  When it comes to genre-specific conventions or highly technical aspects, maybe not.  But other areas are fair game.

I know not every writer is also a math teacher.  (Okay, hardly any are.)  Still, any literate person should be able to identify where logic fails -- things that make you go, "Huh?"

If these show up in my writing, I hope someone would point them out for me.  All examples have been made up by me, though I've seen similar in my own writing and others'.

Continuity Errors
With an effort, Grandpappy lowered his aching bones to sit in the comfort of his rocking chair.
[5 lines later, during which Grandpappy does not stand up]
The doting granddaughter supported him by the arm so he could sit in the chair his father had lovingly crafted so many years ago.

Being unemployed was doing a number on Stella's self-esteem.
[a chapter later, during which Stella does not get a new job]
Stella supposed being kidnapped by aliens was a satisfactory reason for missing work.

Contradictory Language
Before he even began considering alternate transportation, Trent developed a variety of jetpacks, maglev skis, and hovercars.
[Pretty sure Trent was considering alternate transportation when he came up with those Jetsons-style contraptions.]

"If you want this done right, I'm your man," Freddie said humbly.
[Do I have a different definition of "humble" lying around?]

Any other examples of things that make you go, "Huh?"