While reviewing works of speculative fiction through an on-line writers group, Critters Writers Workshop, I came across a short story that was in need of help.
The writer simple was lost in their own, the world of fiction that lives somewhere in their head, and among the words that strung together on a page.
There are lots of things you see all the time when you are reviewing, like tell vs show, but this one was different. I knew I didn’t like the story as is. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read it, nor does it mean that it was beyond hope.
The story was hard to get through, and it was a simple plot. It was about birthday party at a bar, where two different humanoid species live and rarely love.
The stories theme was good one. It’s a theme that has been used many times, because it is what life is about, transformation.
Such a theme asks questions: Why do we change? How do we change and what impact will this have on us and the world around them? And sometimes, what happens if we refuse to change?
Cinderella transforms from a servant to a princesses.
Some common advice that I gave for the story was:
Start the story closer to where the action is.
Sometimes writers have the whole world in their head and this is a good thing. Trouble comes when we try figure out what do you put into words, and what do you leave out?
It is difficult to engage your readers with a back-story. Especially in a short story. The reader is on journey with you. When you give a history lesson, your story is not moving forward, it is in the past.
This story started with protagonist’s history. To the writer’s credit, they did incorporate it in dialog, making it more than information dump.
The real thing that was holding the story back was all of the bells and bows- all of the details that transform a story from the mainstream to one that is part of fantasy.
BUT… in this case it is largely what was holding the story back, making the story feel blotted.
This needed more than common story fixes.
I thought a long time in what I could say that could be real advice. What I came up with was… strip the bells and ribbons. Write the story straight. Make it character driven, make the transformation personal, and really the center of the story. The add all of those wonderful things.
Remember the story must come first.
Notes on novel: Thank Teller
Small changes. But… over all it all adds to the flavor/tone of the novel.
In a fantasy story, most are going to use the word “magic” or something akin to it. I was using “magics” to imply that it was a thing, that magic came from lots of things.
So I am switching to “conjure”. Why? It not as common, which is often a good thing and… to me, it sounds like a stronger word. It sounds more masculine and for me, the sound of words is very important.
So I found a writing that specializes in fantasy. It’s not a bad site, but it’s not my home base. One reason is that they really don’t encourage you to place your work there.
They want anything you put up there to DONE aka Clean, no spelling or grammar mistakes and are fully edited.
They want you to only put works that you have no plans to ever sell. Well… I write to sell.
Needless to say that most ports are empty. And it hard for me to judge a review from someone, if I can’t read something of theirs.
So I put a question. I was stuck/stalled in my writing. Often times I can get to the objective in several ways and still have the same outcome and it’s the outcome that counts if you ask me.
Here is the question I posed:
In this chapter my wizard is about to whistle up something to aid him to help convert a piano to a calliope.
What do you think would be more interesting?
One: a pair of brother brownies that bicker driving a kart that was pulled by rats.
An out of work banshee.
In this chapter they have just left the city of Passamaquoddy. The Passamaquoddy tribe has folklore of little people called, Nagumwasuk, They are hideously ugly sprites that live near Passamaquoddy settlements. People who laugh at nagumwasuk or are rude to them take ill and die, but they bring good fortune and supernatural assistance to those who treat them respectfully.
*I’ve gone with the last, as it seems to taps into something you don’t see a lot of and it fits the area.
One of our Passamaquoddy volunteers believes that Nagumwasuck are the same creatures as the Wonakomehsok, another type of magical Wabanaki dwarves. Certainly their names sound very similar in Passamaquoddy, so the word “Nagumwasuck” could be one of many corruptions of “Wonakomehsok.” However, our other Passamaquoddy volunteers maintain that these are two different types of little people and that Nagumwasuck lived near town and frequently helped the Passamaquoddy people, whereas Wonakomehsok were wild spirits of the river that people had to take care not to disturb.
Any of which could easily be a thing that helped Teller, my wizard and would serve the plot.
Also, you hear all the time that your plot should be character driven, not plot driven.
I don’t find my character first, I find my plot. In the plot is a world and in the world are people. After all, if all you have is a character, than what are they to do without a plot.
Where does that leave the advice, character first. It leaves in the drivers seat. You have a story you want to tell, great, now tell it through your character or characters.
Lastly, it would be nice if someone in the world gave a damn about this. I can get some to read it and for the most part I get positive support, but what would be nice is someone asking to read, someone asking about the progress.
My trailer is a 1957 Airstream. Airstreams are rounded and have shinny aluminum bodies. Very cool. Well… cool for an RV.
The side where the door is looks like a quilt. The guy I bought it from, a Professor Marvel, was a traveling salesman. Sold a tonic he made himself. Said it cured everything from the common cold to the zoomabooms. He had added the travel stickers, and I had carried on the tradition. My favorites were: Pismo Beach, Albuquerque, Düsseldorf, Saskatchewan, and Kalamazoo, mostly because they were fun to say.
Before I went in I called our blubber guy. He was glad to hear from me, and I told him I’d be swinging by and ordered some more for the return.
“Very good, Mr. Teller.”
“How many times have I asked you to call me Murphy?”
“I know Mr. Teller, but I’m old world, and I can’t. Sorry Mr. Teller.”
In the trailer I made sure everything was in place, checked on the medical supplies, and other household needs, plus I gave a first-rate once over to the weapons cabinet and made sure everything was in working order, then checked on the wizard supplies. I wasn’t sure where we’re headed; we could wind up almost anywhere. Who knew what new bumper sticker I could add? I batten down the hatches so nothing would fall out as we drove. Well, as I drove. Frod can’t drive.
I changed into something more mundane and put on my shades. TooLong wanted to go shopping as well. How could I say no? That meant I’d have to spend some time in the yarn section. He liked to ogle.
I was ready to fill up the tanks and swing by our local W. Mart for Coke, M&Ms, duck tape, a couple packs of fresh underwear and socks, some fish sticks, and whatever looked good, mostly things that didn’t require any cooking. I got two new toasters too. They were on sale.
Once everything was put away in the trailer, I cracked open another Coke, and a package of Twinkies, and Red Vines. To round out the meal, I grabbed a Slim Jim-spicy, and a can of Pringles. As I munched I thought, Just like Mother used to make. Mom wasn’t much of a cook either. However she could knit almost anything.
I open the door to my office. I give a quick pat the Maneki Neko. Mine is typical, ceramic calico. On occasion the Maneki Neko will growl. This is a clear indication that whom ever has walked into my office is no good. I got it as house warming/office luck from Leo Lahr. I’d done a job for him in Little Tokyo.
Frod was in his freezer when I got back. I popped in a small portion of blubber and he made a happy sound.
I told Frod, “Fifteen minutes.” I put the keys on the formica, aluminum kitchen table “Damn I forgot the toasters.” They were still in the trailer.
In my parlor is a mahogany China cabinet. On the top shelf, all-alone, is an old mason jar. Inside was a ball of glowing ectoplasm. I took the jar down and placed it onto the kitchen table. The jar of glowing goo opened. Slowly, out came a wisp of glow. I pulled out the chair that was adjacent to me. The glow hovered above the seat of the chair and took the shape of a boy, who looked a lot like the kid from that old TV show. He was once a free-roaming poltergeist and had caused no end of mischief.
I didn’t have the heart to send him on, so we struck-up a deal. Mostly what he did when he was out was watch TV. But… what he did for me was watch the place when I was on the road. If someone came in, he could have as much fun as he wanted, as long as no one died, and he didn’t break anything major. He was out for the holidays, and his birthday, but he really didn’t have a since of time in the jar. I called him Opie, and he called me Jack.
Poltergeist make for good watch dogs. You don’t have to feed or water them and they don’t piddle on the rug.
I never had the heart to ask him how he died. He looked whole so nothing too grizzly. I figured some illness.
Like a puppy he covered me with love. Ectoplasm. I whipped off a bit of slim. Opie bombarded me with questions about the new job and as quick as the questions were fired off, all he wanted was to see what was on TV. He turned on the Talk Show NetWork and Sally Jessie Ralphael was talking to someone about how she and her father…
I yelled, “I got that monster channel you wanted.” Monsters can be more wholesome than talk shows, and I wouldn’t have to answer any questions.
All at once Opie was at my side. “Well bust my buttons! What channel?”
His eyes grew big. “Thanks Jack.” The stripes on his shirt glowed.
The channel changed and The Creature from the Black Lagoon came on. Opie lay too close in front of the TV, elbows under his chin. Tennies swung back and forth. The lights turned on and off in rhythm to his feet. Opie was a happy poltergeist. .
I few minutes I packed my kit.
I banged on the freezer. “Let’s hit the road.” I turned to grab my leather. My leather is tailored, and lined with a special fabric that give protection. I got it from an Arabian elf in Shabowkan.
I went to grab the keys. Crunch.
Sigh. I frowned, and I lifted my foot. “Sorry about that Frod.”
He shook it off and once more everything popped into place. He raised a fist to me and called me more names, none of them Christian.
“If it will make you feel any better I got some more of your tobacco.”
He stomped off in the direction of the trailer. I’d had given him a lift, but if he wanted one, he had let me know. I couldn’t blame for being mad at me. No one likes to be walked on.
“See ya Jack,” Opie said absent-mindingly. The creature was caring off Kay Lawrence to his lagoon. A real woman would poked the creatures’ eyes, punched him in his fish-balls. Anything but faint. Given me a girl with brains and spunk. And a fashion sense.
“See ya Opie.” I shut the door.
Call me Ishmael, just kidding, call me Teller.
We dream of what we will be when we grow-up. For some it is a fireman, a lion tamer, or a vampire hunter. You dream of being a hero, of whips, of gold lapels and brass buttons, and of ridding the world of monsters. You don’t dream of doing dishes for 12 guys, or of losing body parts to cranky loins, or the fact there is no sleep for the vampire hunter.
I dreamt of none of these things. I dreamt of becoming a wizard. Of long flowing beards, grand robs… and of magic. I didn’t dream of isolation, chemicals smells, or of bad food. You never hear about the downside of the “When I grow-up dreams”. I wonder how many of us would chose differently if we knew more of the reality. Would you? Would I? Would it be any better?
No matter. Magic is not something you can turn off and walk away from. No retirement either. At least none I’ve heard of. Sure, some wizard may look old, but there’s no telling. Most of us put on airs, and the airs of wizard could make your nose bleed.
Take Ming. To most of the world he is an ancient Chinese man with intense jade eyes, Fu Manchu whiskers, walks bowlegged, wears silk robes, and a large straw hat. He can eat so fast with chopsticks that all you see is a blur and the occasional stray ramen hit the wall. But if you cleared the air what you would see is a rat. A rat with intense jade eyes, drooping whiskers, and bowed legs. She was from the Bronx too, Northside. She said her burrow was under a noodle shop.
You might think that wizards live in castles with purple dragons for guard dogs. We don’t. Magic is tricky. It all works mostly the same, but it’s different too. I can’t do what exactly what Ming does, and she can’t do what I do. We’re able to conjure an apple, but my apple would be Granny Smith, and hers a Fuji.
Some things seem to be true for all of wizards. One is, money comes, but not real money. You have enough to live off of, but you’ll never be Donald Trump. (Note: A reputable sources says he has a Hatter. He may have gotten his wishes, money and fame, but he’s paying for it: bad hair and he’s going mad. I also hear he passes a lot of wind.) Even if you made a castle of pure magic, it would crumble, catch on fire, or be invaded by wombats.
Limits are good. They keep us, and others from conquering the world. And the universe often has a policy of live and let live, but there is also, ‘well if you die, that makes room for the others, so watch what you are doing’, kind of thing.
I can’t do a healing spell on myself, and I might be able to do one on you, but maybe not. That’s not my talent.
What are my talents? One is I have approximate knowledge of many things. So I can bullshit stupendously. This gets me a lot of work. You come to me and ask for gold, and I can spin hay. Often no one really asks for what they truly want, let alone need. The real magic is finding that. That’s what I do; I procure, . Some of it is luck, plain and simple. Wizards tend to have luck and its now always good. Most of us have marvelous memories, and we’re able to leap, both in faith and in facts. We see connections that others cant, or won’t.
But I degrees… I do that. My brain is like a Chinese acrobat, I always have a dozen plates spinning.
The smoke of burnt toast filled the air. I’m a bad cook. I try, but I get distracted. Boredom overtakes me quickly and before you know it, burnt toast, burnt beans, and burnt eggs. We go through a lot of pots and pans and Tums.
We… what I mean is I have a companion. Not of the shapely kind. Well, he’s not a blob, but he doesn’t have flowing golden hair, nor a milky white, heaving bosom.
My companion is a gnome, Frod. A grumpy one too. He’s from the Antarctic and is endlessly too hot. Our lives joined together when I saved him from the Dead Letter Office. Not the one for the Post Office, but the one connected with the Department of Death. He had been inside a package that lacked enough postage and was now forever sorting deadlines at the DoD. He had managed to get on a conveyer belt and was quickly headed to Haiti.
Many things can affect the magics. When I was doing the magics, somehow he became bonded to me. For better or worse there is nothing either of us can do about it.
Our toaster was on fire. That was the third one this year. I had just thrown open the windows and was trying to turn off the screaming smoke alarm when someone came into the office. I live behind the office. It’s more convenient and cheaper too.
I banged on the freezer. “Do you mind?”
I banged again, only harder. “Get the door Frod.”
“Every time,” a small voice came from the freezer. Frod opened a tiny door to the freezer and made his way on the crossways that zigzagged across the apartment and the office.
I heard Frod conversing.
“Customers,” I said to the teakettle, which did not reply. “Good thing too.” We were short on funds, and out of whale blubber. Frod wasn’t happy with imitation crab. If I had gotten, let’s say a cat bonded to me, she’d be happy with imitation crab. She’d curl up on me and purr.
I fanned the smoke out the window and then dashed to my room to try and find something dignified and reasonably clean to wear. I meant to go to the dry cleaner, but every time I was on my way something came up. I couldn’t ask Frod to, he’s all of 5 inches, 6 if you include the hat. No way would anything make it there and back. I’d have to consider getting an intern again, ya know, someone who works but isn’t paid. But then I’d have worry about keeping them safe, whereas I didn’t with Frod. Gnomes aren’t easily hurt, let alone killed. Can’t poison them, can’t stab or cut them, can’t set them on fire, can’t drown them, and you can’t squish them.
Every other word Frod said was impolite; thankfully these guys didn’t seem to care. Wizards have keen hearing, but that doesn’t apply here, I could almost always, tune into what Frod was hearing. I could even see if I wanted to. At times I felt things he did as well.
In the back of my wardrobe was something from a Halloween many years ago. I tossed it on the rumpled bed. My Linkin Park t-shirt was now on backwards so the lettering wouldn’t show and I put on pair of plaid pants; they have deep pockets, excellanent for carrying whatnots. We don’t want meet any new clients in your boxers, now do we? On went my vest with the stars and moons. That dash of traditional wizard wear.
Then I quickly brushed off the dust from the gold lapels and left the brass buttons un. There I stood in front of the dressing mirror. I looked much as you imagined, like leftovers from a second hand store.
With a quick snip off went the lapels. I slicked back the wilds of curls into something more tame. As I was about to dash up-front, it occurred to me that shoes always said class. No socks, so boots it is. There are these thigh-highs from yet another Halloween costume that I liked far too much, but wizards often like to stick out from a crowd.
I gave another glance at my appearance.
With a quick stroke to my jaw line I tided-up my Van Dyke, making the edges clean and my short beard end with a point.
The three part earring picked-up on the colors I wore but the center stone always matched my eyes, whatever color they happened to be. There were days when they were purple, and others brown. Today they were almost orange. A side affect from a casting I did a few months back. I made sure that I had a pair of sunglasses. Some don’t care for it when they are looked at with kaleidoscope eyes.
The magics have an unpredictable factor. The more magics you do, the greater the odds that some thing is going to have a kink.
There are three types of the magics. Little stuff, such as lighting a candle, or finding your keys. The mid stuff such as causing a potted plant to come to life, or changing bee to a bird, or calling calling a object to appear. A lot on the last one depended on how common something was and the size. And big stuff, bring the dead back to life, calling up demons. Some of it depends levels of casting depended on what kind of wizard you are, where talents lie, and some is experience.
Little stuff you can do with little to no thought. Mid stuff that requires focus. And last, took something from you. What that was might some time off of your lifes clock or your left nut.
“You’re missing something,” my reflection noted. “How could I forget?” It was my signature. I called, “Toolong.” From under the bed snaked my scarf. It had enough strips of color to pull everything together, and you’d be surprised at how often such a thing comes in handy.
The door to my small office opened as if by magic, and I appeared in cloud of smoke. I bowed, with one hand in front and the other in the small of my back. Showmanship, given then what they want.
Frod was on the verge of a meltdown. He paced the length of my desk and was about to toss a sharpened pencil at thug 2 in the back.
“Ah, there you are Mr. Teller.” Thug 1 and thug 2 tried suppressing coughs, the smoke I guessed. The scent of burnt toast floated in the air.
I extended my hand with a flare. “Please call me Starbuck.” I then quickly dropped my hand. Fish even when they are blue and floating don’t have hands to shake with. He did have a mean underbite that gave him a primeval look. A look that said he could swallow you whole and that he had done so to many others.
The blue fish spoke, “I’m Mr…”
“Yes.” His fins kept moving as if he were in water. His gills expanded and contracted. How that fish out of water managed, I didn’t know.
Rarely did Goby venture outside of his club, The Sand Bar. Class joint. Not that I’d ever been inside it. Two reasons. The first, I couldn’t afford to park there, let alone have a drink. The second, there were runes cut into the marble, which put the whammy on a lot of the magics. I didn’t care to find out what affect it would have on me.
“I require your services Mr. Teller.”
“Call me Starbuck.” He ignored me. I took a seat behind my desk and gestured with my hand for him to have a seat. Foolish. Fish don’t sit. He ignored me.
“Would anyone like some coffee?” Frod shot me a cold look. He didn’t like making coffee, even when it was instant. I looked around the room, no one seemed to want any. Just as well, Frod would have pissed in the coffee before he served it. You’d be surprised at the amount in which that little bugger can pee.
“How about a Coke? Glass of course, none of that canned crap.”
“Frod, if you would be so kind.”
“Right,” he said, tipped his pointed cap, and spoke in a manner not fit for mixed company, and if a wizard, a floating blue fish, gnome, and two thugs weren’t mixed…
Goby explained that he needed someone found, a dragon someone. He didn’t say why or what for. I asked, but his mouth a gapped, his fish eyes a blank.
The unmistakable sound of glass rolling along the crossway came; I held out my hand and caught the bottle as it hit the air, and then tapped the glass to calm the carbonation. Screwed in on the side of a drawer is a bottle opener.
I drink a lot of Coke. A lot. That said, alcohol doesn’t affect me, nor does it have any real taste.
While we’re on subject of “bad habits”… Wizards aren’t allowed to gamble, bad things happen like earthquakes, and tsunami. Smoking makes me see spots. And ladies, I like ‘em but wizards don’t make great husbands. Too much on the road, and there was an element of danger. This comes from a couple of places. Like you build up enemies and others who want to use parts of us for casting. Ground wizard toe for casting travel, eyes for casting divination, and so on. Gruesome, but some used eyes of newt, and I am sure that’s gruesome for newts too. I tried to not use anything that was once living other than plants.
Note: wizards don’t really use a lot of potions. It’s messy and you have to have all this stuff on hand. If you want that kind of thing witches are better.
From my pocket came a bag of M&Ms, original, not the peanut. I filled my hand with the colorful candies, picked out the gross blue ones, and extended my filled hand. “Care for an M&M?” No one seemed interested. I was, M&Ms are corner of any sound diet. Not enough red number 5 and you get the kat-soups. Don’t want to sneeze ketchup everywhere or smell of vegetable soup all of your life.
I told Goby that I would need something personal if at all possible to help me focus on what I was suppose to find.
“But of course.”
Thug 2 who stood in the back stepped forward and presented me with a bauble. Dragons are partial to such things, but then again so are many. I held it up to the light. It was as big as a fist and shown like starlight. Moonstones aren’t as pricy as some other stones, but they are far from plastic trinkets, and, in the right hands, or paws, could be useful.
Goby said, “That should work. She slept with it every night.” I raised my eyebrow, he must have know her pretty well.
Frod stood in front of the moonstone and made faces on its shinny surface.
Goby spoke again, “After she is found, there’s an emerald just as big, and a ruby. That should make it worth your while.”
“Yes indeed.” I finished off my Coke.
“What’s her name?” Kind of a silly question, no one but a dragon could pronounce her name. You need to be a dragon.
There are several kinds of dragons, but even so, in my travels, and I’ve traveled a lot, and in all of my years, and I had many, got the scars to prove it, I’ve met one. He was partnered with Barnum. His name was Bailey. Barnum would ride in to the main ring on Bailey’s back dressed a knight. Folks packed in to see a dragon. He snarled, and gnashed his mighty teeth, blew fire, and puffed smoke shaped animals. Barnum even stuck his head into the jaws of the fearsome dragon. It was a piece of humbuggery. No one could tame a dragon. Bailey had joined the circus and Barnum was smart enough to make him a partner. Dragons are many things, but they aren’t dumb beasts. Any creature that can enter your head isn’t to be trifled with. Dragons communicate telepathically.
“The dragon’s name is Pruina.”
Goby swam closer to me, so close I could smell the tarter sauce on his breathe. “Mr. Teller, don’t think about cashing the stone in, or cutting it. You’ll activate a nasty curse and you’ll be…”
Frod stepped away from the stone.
“Sleeping with the fishes?”
He ignored me.
“Here is something for your expenses.” Thug 2 stepped forward and the other stepped back. He placed an envelop on the desk. Frod went to investigate.
I didn’t count, and I didn’t ask how much. That would be bad form. Whatever he gave would be fine. And besides Frod looked happy, and he rarely looked happy. The gnome placed the envelope on his back and made his way to the safe.
Goby spoke, “I expect updates daily. And I’ll know if you’re lying. You have until the next full moon, and then the dragon won’t be the only thing with a price on its head.”
That gave me close to 30 days. It should be enough, unless she had gone into another plain, or another time. Doubtful. I hoped.
Thug 2 who stood in the back opened the door and checked the hall. As thug 1 backed up, he stepped squarely onto poor Frod. Thug 1 threw a quick look of sorry at me and raised his foot. A small boot, a tiny hand, and the tip of the cap could be seen on the edges of the still envelope.
Goby ignored him and made his way out of the office. Thug 2 followed.
I made my way over and picked up the envelope. Frod was pretty flat but soon shock it off, everything popped back into place.
“I should have bit him,” Frod said. His eyes glowed, intense and dark. Arctic gnomes bites are more than a mosquito bite. At first it’s a speck of cold and given enough time, the frostbite can spread throughout your body.
“Next time.” I quickly counted the money. We could afford blubber for Frod again. From my pocket came my compass, Rose. I think Frod had a thing for her. Too bad for him she’s made of plastic and only active part of the time, like when she was on a map.
I spread out a map of the area, put her by the moonstone and let her do her thing. Frod watched and followed her steps. I noted the route she had indicated. Frod said something to her, but it was gmonish. She was cute. I think she was a princess from a video game; at least we called her Princess Rose.
I packed. In my kit bag went a few clothes, and a book I thought we might need, but most of what we would need was already in the trailer.
I put the kit down near the map, a clear indication I was ready to go. Rose wasn’t moving any more, but Frod seemed to still be talking. I waited a couple of moments for him to finish up.
With a quick whistle, she stepped forward. I think Rose might have said something to Frod before she was back in my pocket.
I grabbed the stone, folded the map and picked up the kit. “Close up the office and the apartment. I’ll ready the trailer.”
“Right ya bastard.” He didn’t say it with any malice, but he never called me by my name or anyone by name, only Rose.
“Leave me do to all of the hard work.” Frod stepped into the tiny elevator that brought him level with the window. He grumbled as he did the lock. “Off on another fine mess.”
I’ve committed to writing a novel. Not part of one, a whole novel. I’ve been writing short shorties and flash for a few years, and now I hope to move up to a novel.
The suckie thing is most write at least 5 novels before they are published. King wrote 4 before Carrie. But there are lots of first time writers making it so, why not me. Lots of reasons: I am dyslexic. That’s kind of like wanting to be dancer and having bad knees. And what’s huge is porn, and YA. I’m not writing either.
Another new thing I am taking on is writing a detective story. Now I watch them, almost every day, and have read some, but writing… not.
I am about 13000 words in. That’s about 6 chapters, which is pretty far for me.
So what’s the story about? A wizard, who is good at finding things. His name is Teller, he is a foodie, even though all he does is burn everything he cooks, and clothes horse and then there is TooLong, a very long, stripped, animated scarf.
Teller has been hired by a blue, floating fish to find a dragon, “his dragon”. Teller and his sidekick, Frod, a grumpy, Arctic gnome hit the road in a 1957 Airstream. They pick up a gypsy, Amber, as an intern. That jackass of a County Magic Inspector is out to take down Teller.
There are three witches who are trying to find the same dragon, and if they can rub out Teller, well that’s great. Parts is parts. Wizard and dragon parts are good for making potions. Plus someone killed a friend of Teller’s, and well, that’s not right.
Teller and his merry band of misfits, encounter the Coke Cola goddess, with her court of soda, and bottle cap fairies, fling gremlins, three witches: Kat, Rin, and Hep- the Burn sisters, Newt a fellow wizard who is missing parts, Ming a Chinese rat, and vampire hunter with loose scruples.
Time is running out. That fish wants his dragon, or else. But at least that gypsy girl, she is working out just fine, may be too fine. Too bad she isn’t what she seems.
An interview with writer Nicole Cushing. She is the author of “The Orchard of Hanging Trees”.
First: It would be nice to have a quick biography.
I was born and raised in Maryland and moved to the Midwest about ten years ago.
When did you start writing?
That’s a little complicated. My experience with writing has been one of stops and starts. It’s not something that has come to me easily.
Like most authors, I enjoyed creative writing assignments in elementary school. The earliest that I can recall was a story I wrote in first or second grade about a haunted house. My brother and I also used to work together to write satires of popular television shows (for example, “Sanford & Son Meet the Werewolf”). I was probably eight or nine at the time we started writing those sorts of things together.
As a teen, I wrote really bad, self-pitying poetry (which is, I suppose, a rite of passage). I tried writing fiction after my graduation from college, but failed miserably. I tried writing fiction again for a few years, from 2000-2002, but again…for a variety of reasons, failed. It wasn’t until 2008 that I really started writing, in earnest. I took a short story workshop from Gary Braunbeck at Context (a convention in Columbus, Ohio). To me, that workshop was the turning point. I had matured enough to become teachable. Since that time, I’ve been writing pretty much each day and steadily improving. I count 2008 as my “real” start.
What draws you to horror?
Horror had its hooks in me from a very young age.
Case in point: when I was six years old my grandfather died. I attended the funeral and even touched his cold, dead hand in the casket. Several months after the funeral, my family sat around the living room discussing the process of decomposition and debating just how much of old grandfather was left intact at that point. I also had a relatively early introduction to traumatic events such as domestic violence, addiction, and suicide.
So, given all my early life experiences, I think that I really didn’t have a choice.
I’m drawn to horror because horror looks unpleasant things in the eye and doesn’t blink, and this is the perfect fit for my own temperament. Nothing annoys me more than the idea that unpleasant things are being swept under a rug or ignored. I want the monsters out where I can see them. Horror fiction enables this (if only in a roundabout way).
The horror fiction of writers like Gary Braunbeck, Jack Ketchum, and Glen Hirshberg helps me look at trauma, death, grief, and loss. The horror fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (especially stories like “The Black Cat”) helps me look at decay – not so much decomposition of the body as the decay of moral character, the descent into a sort of crude, almost animal-like, madness. The horror fiction of Thomas Ligotti helps me look at a godless, nightmarish, hideously mutable cosmos in which humans are insignificant and lack true free will.
I want to explore these sorts of experiences and ideas because I couldn’t stand myself if I ignored them. This probably explains why I’m something of a wallflower at parties.
Can you tell us what was the inspiration for “The Orchard of Hanging Trees”.
There are a lot of different things that inspired that story. So many things, in fact, that if I discussed them all it would require several pages. I’ll try to be concise.
I was just daydreaming one day when the image of the hanging trees popped into my head. I thought the picture was a particularly sadistic one, one that had a lot of potential narrative energy attached to it, lots of grisly implications.
When an editor invited me to submit to a themed anthology about demons, I considered writing a story about the hanging trees and setting it in Hell, because the hanging trees seemed to fit a certain Hieronymus Bosch -style vision of the afterlife. The more I got into the story, the more pity I felt for the “fruit”. This, in turn, led me to think about various social psychology experiments from the ’50s and ’60s that examined the human capacity for blind obedience to authority and the inherent sadism of prisons. (I’m thinking, in particular, of the work of Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo). I liked the idea of the demons being indistinguishable from the damned. Add a pinch of Zen Buddhism and a dash of Thomas Ligotti, and you get the inspiration for “The Orchard of Hanging Trees”.
Unfortunately, the editor didn’t feel the story was a good fit for the demon-themed anthology, but it ended up with Pseudopod (a podcast I’m proud to be associated with). So all’s well that ends well. In any case, the prompt to write a story about demons and Hell led me to write the sort of story I probably would never have written, otherwise.
What is your process for writing?
I use a laptop. I try to write about 500 words each day, Monday through Friday. I find that’s a pretty realistic goal for me, these days. Some days I do more, some days less. Sometimes I write on weekends, too. I used to do some rough outlining of stories, but I don’t anymore. I feel like I discover my stories as I write them.
Can you give any writing tips?
I’m still early in my career, still far more student than teacher – so I’m afraid the best I can do is parrot the advice that I’ve found helpful.
One of my favorite bits of writing advice comes from Nancy Kress, who once made the comparison between becoming a writer and becoming a professional basketball player (the point being, basically, that if you wanted to be a pro basketball player, you wouldn’t only practice when you were in the mood to practice – you’d practice every day). Ms. Kress made the point that a lot of newer writers only write when they’re in the mood, or when inspiration strikes them (which is, of course, a poor way to approach things). Writing is like any other art or craft. Getting better takes hard work. Constant work.
The other pearl of wisdom that’s helped me is the advice to read every night (which, I think, I originally heard from Brian Keene…but has also been said by a number of other authors). About a year ago I made a commitment to read a short story every night. I think this has definitely improved my skill as a short story writer.
What is/are your favorite classic monster/monsters and why?
Hmm… it depends on what you consider “classic” and what constitutes a “monster”. Despite their poorly thought-through plots and propensity for cheesy car chases and gunplay, I happen to enjoy the Phantasm movies. There’s a surrealism to the films that can, at times, be genuinely intriguing. So I guess I could say that The Tall Man is my favorite classic monster. Now, if you want to go back to the Universal studios horror films of the 1930s and ’40s, I enjoyed Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Ygor in Son of Frankenstein. (But then again, it’s unclear if Ygor counts as a “monster”.)
Can you tell us about your muse, if you have one?
I don’t buy into the notion of the muse. Here’s how I think the whole creativity thing works: when I’m reading each day and writing each day, my brain becomes immersed in stories and starts to pay more attention to what makes a good story idea or a bad story idea. For me, it’s that simple. The more I stories I feed to my brain, the more it thinks in terms of stories and starts to look for them.
What’s your favorite podcast and/or story at Escape Artist?
Horror is my first love, so I have to go with Pseudopod.
Thank you for sharing your time and stories.
You’re welcome. Thanks for reading and listening to them.
I See the Moon and the Moon Sees Me
Scouts of some kind, (Not wizards, werewolves, vampires- although any of those would be great ) but in a fantasy world go camping. There is an area that is off limits and of course one of the scouts goes there. He finds the ghost of dragon. There are other ghosts; those who tired to kill the dragon.
I don’t think there is a writer out there that hasn’t received a rejection letter. Every time I get a reply back from a submission, I assume it will be a rejection. Sometime I am wrong; not this time.
A few days ago I sent out a poem where I used bits of Heinlien’s characters, places and titles to compose a poem about travailing in space.
Pseudopod 277: The Orchard of Hanging Trees
April 13th, 2012 12:01 am
by Nicole Cushing
This story is previously unpublished. The story is also available to read online at The Repository forum of Thomas Ligotti Online.
The anthology Werewolves & Shapeshifters: Encounters With The Beast Within includes Nicole’s short fiction (alongside stories by Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin). Her work also appears in the Cemetery Dance Richard Laymon tribute anthology In Laymon’s Terms.
Your reader this week is Jonathan Sullivan, who regularly reads for ESCAPE POD.
“It’s another cool April morning in Hell, and the hanging trees (just saplings, really) are starting to sprout fleshy, strangled buds that look like choking fetuses caught up in tiny, umbilical nooses.
Their embryonic faces haven’t yet developed features, but I know as the days get longer their lips will grow into a grimace; their eyes will ooze agony. I have already been warned that their first cries (when they can utter them) will be those of breathless suffering. Their first words, pleas for help. The curses will follow shortly thereafter.
But right now, as fetus-flowers, they only emit shrill, staccato mews. But even this meager vocalization makes me shudder. I lower my glance from the entire orchard, feeling disgust for the day ahead. I whistle a tune to distract myself from the noise of thousands of semi-sentients who exist in a state of more-or-less continuous suffocation; those to whom full-sentience will bring only misery.
I am not, after all, a monster – even if I am in the employ of Hell. Even if (as my fellow laborers predict) some of the fruit will grow up to call me “Demon”, this is an absurd epithet. I do not want to be in this position. But my cares, my wants, my sense of being an individual with free will – these are things of the past. Shams more easily harbored during a lifetime marinated in the sweet sauce of ignorance.”
Most of my reading is for Critters Writers Workshop. I try and squeak in something more substantial but not nearly enough.
One of the ways I up my fiction is by listing to podcasts. Above is the podcast I listed to today.
The story speaks of perhaps the greatest sin, one that is not among the 7 deadly sins.
We find ourselves in hell, more exactly an orchard therein, where the fruits of the tree are humans. The story’s Dante, AKA our narrator, tends the orchards. He was giving the job because in his life he failed to take action, even take pleasure in others sufferings.
Among the trees was a snake who spoke truths that sounded like sweet lies. Or was it the other way around?
The fruit that trees bare are humans; in agony they beg for release. Will he release the fruit? Does he go where it was forbidden; if so what might happen, freedom, death, or worse, and in hell there is always worse.
The story was descriptive, with touches of poetry.
I’ve bought a bunch of books on how to write. One of the ones I am currently reading is Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly.
I really like Ella the Enchanted which Gail Carson Levin wrote. It’s a wonderful reinterpretation of Cinderella.
When looking for books on “how to write” I not only tried to find well-reguarded books, but those written by folks who written speculative fiction.
One of the things that made me want to move from Writing.com to Critters is that I feel that speculative is of course fiction, but it’s more. Sci-fi has words and rules to its own, along with fantasy and horror.
Back to Magic. It was a bit of blind buy. I looked at the title, the ratings at Amazon, and I knew what she had written. Foolishly I thought she would write about creating a world in which magic is real. I am not finished with book. I’ve only read 6 very short chapters. So far nothing about magic.
The book feels like it is directed toward the younger writer. A young person who dreams about some day being a writer. Not what I was looking for.
Chapter 1, Running Start
—-She gave some prompts. She gives several in every chapter.
Write a lot.
Read a lot and go ahead read something you love all over.
Save all of your writing because chances are you wont recall what your life was like way-back-when and it could be helpful later.
She asked us to take an oath:
“To write and as often and as much as you can.
To respect my writing self.
To nurture the writings of others. “
Chapter 2, Getting to It
You have all the power when you write.
Write to share your stories.
Write to tell an old story the right way.
While we write, we discoveries things about ourselves.
Her first novel was rejected several times and she moved on to write Ella the Enchanted. When her first novel was rejected by that editor, she read it again and understood why. With another revision, it was published.
In this writing prompt she shows how you can change an idea into something new that strikes your fancy. Change a person into a cat. Kansas to France, and so on.
Chapter 3, Shut Up!
This chapter deals with that nagging critical voice. It comes for someone who is giving constructive critism, but criticism that meant to hurt: You’re not smart enough, You’re not talented, etc.
Tell the Demon of Creative to shut up. It works for her. This goes toward building self-confadence. I think you need more than that, and I wish I could tell you what it is. However, some of it is practicing the act of trusting yourself.
Chapter 4, Eurka
—-Gail Carson Levine is living proof that a successfully write doesn’t have to have tons of ideas.
It is important that when you get an idea to not let it slip away. Write that sucker down. Don’t stop whatever it is that you are working, finish it, but stop long enough to write down the core of the idea.
A lot of ideas come to her where she is relaxed and doing repetitive task.
Not me, I get them because I look for them. They come from what I read, from conversations, from dreams, from driving past a cross on the side of a of a highway and ask, what would happen if I took that cross? And yes, I wrote that story and sold it too.
She goes on tells us to simply write. Even if you have nothing and fill pages of bitching about not having anything to write it will come. I don’t know if this one would work or not. Maybe.
Another suggestion is to simple write down what kind of story you want to read. I agree with this one.
That said, an idea isn’t enough. You need so much more. You need a place, characters and that hunt for the RIGHT words.
She suggests to write adjective that describe people. To me it comes across as doodling. Just bits of this that.
Chapter 5, Getting into It
The begins of stories are tricky. For her she writes info that a reader may not need to know, but she does.
If you want to start at the end, then start at the end. Or anywhere else.
And lastly, when you finish, you may have to redo your whole beginning because she allows the story to go where it wants to go.
I have come to the conclusion that the first few pages or paragraphs are something that should be worked and reworked. They have to be facetted in way that shine and that it is solid.
Chapter 6, Noticing
This chapter is about paying attention to the all of your senses and writing them down.
I try and include sensory details in my fiction as well. I think it helps to make your story more three dimensional.
So far pretty good advice.
What have I learned? Nothing really. However it is good to have conformation about things I believed to be true. More on the pile of TRUST YOURSELF. Not a bad pile stack high.