Thursday, July 18, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: Last Lines First

Another Flash Fiction Challenge entry courtesy of TerribleMinds. Last week's challenge was to propose a last line of a story, and this week we were to choose one of Chuck's top ten last lines to be our first lines. I picked, "She closed the book and watched as it turned to dust." For a while I thought about going with a Twilight Zone kind of tale wherein she can't finish any books because they all turn to dust when she puts them down, but then I ended up with something different.

"A Brand New World"

She closed the book and watched as it turned to dust. The parchment paper caught every speck, and she didn’t dare breathe as she picked up the edges and tilted it into a clean Erlenmeyer flask. The dust slid smoothly off, needing only a few light taps to get the last of it off. Then she snugged a cork stopper into the narrow glass neck and set it aside.

Her feet tapped on the rungs of the stool in her workshop. She took a deep breath and blew it out noisily. There was no point in waiting any longer.


Her workshop was a hovel. It used to be a garage attached to a house, but somewhere along the line the house had been destroyed, leaving behind a pile of wood and rusting fixtures. The garage door might have been hooked up to move at the click of a button once, but was now sealed by rust and – I squinted – spells.

When the magic first came to Boise, those that could, fled. Settling in like an inversion layer, the magic took everyone by surprise. Houses like this one weren’t uncommon when a family found out the hard way that a baby had been infected with abilities far beyond reason or comprehension.

Drive a few hours in any direction and it’s gone.

For now.

I knocked at the side door and listened. Metallic squeaks, a muffled hiss of pain, three physical bolts and one alchemical seal presaged the opening of the door. My contact’s hair hung in limp, unwashed strands around her face, the start of dreadlocks that wouldn’t quite come together. Her skin was pale and sheened with sweat. No wonder she'd done it so fast.


I pulled a vial of golden dust out of my jacket pocket and held it up for her to inspect. She reached out and I pulled it away.

“One vial of dragonfly in exchange for one powdered book,” I said. She made a frustrated hum in the back of her throat.

“Come in, then.”

I walked inside, careful not to make physical contact with her as I slid into the crowded room and she resealed the door behind us. I let a part of my mind make a quick analysis of her security and decided I would be able to exit with or without her cooperation. Then I made my way over to her worktable and wrinkled my nose. Too much clutter to tell where my product might be hiding.

She scooted past me and plucked a corked flask from the wreckage. I reached for it, but she slithered away. I rolled my eyes and held out the vial.

She practically shoved the flask at me as she snatched her payment out of my hand.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Check it.”

I could tell she wanted to be alone, but her arm spasmed. Once it calmed, she popped the vial open and used a long fingernail to scoop up some of the sparkling powder. She capped the vial and snorted her fix.

The change was immediate. Her features shimmered, the lank hair acquiring a new sheen, the pocked face becoming clear and smooth. She smiled, and was almost beautiful.

“Don’t know why you wanted that book dusted anyway. It was so old it was practically dust already.”

“I know. It was a first edition.”

She frowned without losing a bit of her artificial beauty. I began to ease my way to the door, and she followed.

“I destroyed a first edition?”

“And you were paid well for it.”

She swallowed. The vial I’d given her would last for months, well husbanded. I’d bet on her squandering it in a week, two at the outside.

I waited for her to unseal the door, which she did with an appearance of grace ruined by it sticking and needing a good shove.

She watched me walk away before shutting herself back inside her own little corner of a world gone to hell.


Like most of the remaining residents, I used a bicycle to get around. Anything much more technologically advanced had stopped working, and a bike gave you a better chance of out-running the gangs of feral, semi-intelligent cats that had taken over the North End.

I took the safest route to my workshop, in the basement of an abandoned building on the outskirts of what used to be Boise State University, before that fateful day when chemistry met alchemy and leveled ten city blocks. It involved going out of my way by about two miles, but I only needed one encounter with a bridge troll to decide a second was not in my best interests.

I ducked through intentionally unkempt brush to the trace that led to my stairs, concealed by a simple lattice of branches. At the bottom of the stairs, the door with no knob served to give visitors pause, if they didn’t know the trick to opening it. I placed my hands on two spots and spoke the key invocation. Handles materialized and I pulled the door open and slipped inside before it thunked close again.

Two rooms, a closet and a bathroom, all much cleaner than the addict’s I’d just seen. The entry room was my bedroom (the better to greet unwelcome guests at any and all hours). I walked down the hall to my work room and pulled out the flask, popping out the cork and setting it on the spot I had prepared in the wee hours of the night.

How the University had come upon such an edition in the first place, I didn’t know, but when I found it scavenging in the sub-basement of the wrecked library, the spell came to me in a flash of revelation.

The flask sat on a mirror, with four objects placed around it at cardinal points: a rose, a dead bee, a thimble and a gold ring.

The words I spoke were nonsense in any language, but in this new pocket of magic that had burst onto the world, they carried meaning. Meaning guided by my intent.

The dust began to flow out of the flask, coalescing in the air above it as the book it had started as.

“K-saosstt-nsmp-oys-tu,” I said, finishing after half an hour of intense concentration. My throat felt dry. I plucked the new-old book from the air and flipped to the end. I had always wanted it to end differently.

And now it did, wherever magic held sway.

The Savage lives.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Nominee Project

I've been doing a lot of reading about writing lately, from books to blogs, and, partially based on what I've read, I decided to read all of the Nebula and Hugo award nominee novels for this year. A lot of what I read recommended becoming familiar with current writing in one's preferred genre, and I happen to be mostly interested in science fiction and fantasy, so where better to start familiarizing myself than with those nominees?

The Nebula Award nominees for Novel, 2012:
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW; Gollancz ’13)
Ironskin, Tina Connolly (Tor)
The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Drowning Girl, CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan (Roc)
Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

The Hugo Award nominees for Novel, 2013:
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Blackout, Mira Grant (Orbit)
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi (Tor)
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW)

Conveniently, two of the books were nominated for each award, and one of them I had already read. But still, it was a significant undertaking- I began this quest in May and just finished today. When I started the Nebula nominees, I began to despair that I should not be a writer, because, to be honest, I didn't really enjoy reading most of those books, each for their own special reasons. I'm not intending this to be a book review (there may be a few spoilers, but they're mild), but more like a me review. After all, these books were all published, and are therefore better than anything I've ever written. They're also nominated for awards - again, more than I've got.

But that doesn't mean I don't get to have an opinion, right?

I started reading The Drowning Girl first. The cover looked really cool, and the idea of the book was quite appealing to me. Crazy girl writes about her crazy, what's not to like? The question I ended up asking was what is there to like? I can't fault the writing, and there were parts that I enjoyed, parts that made me curious, but- I stopped reading this book the first time before I finished the first chapter. I did finish it, eventually, but I read three other books before I read the last page of this one. I do not think I would have made it through if I hadn't been challenging myself. The conceit of it all being typed on a typewriter, the stories within the 'memoir', and the swirling between using first and third person just did not appeal to me. At the same time, that such a book has been published certainly demonstrates that rule-breaking can sell.

The Killing Moon was one of the books I read while trying to get through The Drowning Girl. I was excited to see that N. K. Jemison was female. Girl power, yay! I definitely had an easier time reading this one, and never wanted to throw the book across the room in frustration, but I felt that I had read the first chapter before. Something about the opening scene was nigglingly familiar to me, and that hidden itch affected my reading of it. I was disappointed by the ending, and I don't feel compelled to read the second book in the set.

Ironskin was read in that same interval, and I think my prejudice against Jane Austen colored my reception of it. I think I tried to read Sense and Sensibility about a dozen times between the ages of 12 and 20 before giving up for good. A college friend told me I had started with the wrong book, but it was too late. She never could convince me to pick up another, and I didn't enjoy the one I had to read for school (which I've deleted from long term storage in my memory). I didn't find the speed with which Jane's emotions developed to be realistic. It's funny how when you're reading fantasy, some things still feel too fantastic, like they fall out of the parameters that were initially set by the author. I'm constantly afraid of crossing that line in my writing, but, based on this book, maybe I shouldn't be.

Glamour in Glass set the rule for the rest of the series books on these lists. It was the first one that I had to make the decision of whether to read prior books when the nominee was not the first in its series. Although this is entirely contrary to my normal book reading habits, I decided to read only the nominees, and not any books that might precede them serially. As a result, I was really confused about the whole pregnancy and magic issue. I thought it must have been something that was mentioned in the previous book, and that's why I felt lost. When I finished the book, I read in the author's note that this was a feature exclusively of the second book - I only felt lost, because I knew there had been something before, but didn't know what that before was. If it had been the first book, maybe that detail would not have struck me so oddly.

Oh, and is there a rule that every female protagonist in historical fantasy has to be named Jane?

I was disappointed when I realized that Kim Stanley Robinson was male, not female. I know Stanley is a guy's name, but I figured it could be one of those things where the middle name is the mom's maiden name or something. But no, male Kim. Once I got over that blip, 2312 was interesting... The excerpts, lists and especially the quantum wanderings were painful to read. They were like modern art - I know it's supposed to be art, but I just don't get why it is art and my abstract scribblings are not. Another inexplicable emotional entanglement surrounded by some neat-o ideas. Meh.

At this point, I found myself wondering if anything that was nominated for an award was something that I would really enjoy reading.

Throne of the Crescent Moon began to restore my faith. I did like reading it. It was a fast read that kept me invested in the story and didn't knock me out of the story with perceived inconsistencies. I'm not chomping at the bit to read more by Saladin Ahmed, but I'd be more inclined to read his other books than any others on the Nebula list.

It was about at this point that I looked into how these award nominees are selected. Essentially, the Nebulas are nominated by professional writers, and the Hugos are nominated by fans. Reading the Nebulas first was probably a good idea, because otherwise I would have ended on a sour note, instead of a sweet one.

2312 and Throne of the Crescent Moon were on both lists, which is part of the reason I decided to include the Hugos in the first place - it wouldn't be that much more work, and surely fans would nominate works more readable than pros, right?


If I had looked at the back cover of Captain Vorpatril's Alliance before starting to read it, I might have been a little more sour towards it. The front cover is cool, kind of a hokey space opera type thing, but the back cover... Okay, I get the nearly naked blue girl is a dancer, somewhat of an exhibitionist, but there is no reason why Tej should be draped over the couch like a sex-drugged kitten. Rear cover art aside, I enjoyed reading this book as well. It made some nice abrupt turns that still made sense in the larger context and the story ended in both an expected and unexpected way - the title really gave away the permanent nature of the supposed temporary alliance to me. I was really glad I'd already decided not to read all books in a series before reading the nominee when I got to this one. I think it's number 19.

Ah, Blackout. Is there any higher compliment that can be given than, "I read this book in one day"? Okay, I guess staying up all night to finish would be a superior compliment, but I can't help that I can read fast when inspired (and I started this one at like 10am). I pretty much couldn't put this one down. Yay! This one was number 3 in a trilogy, and I've got the first two on my 'to read' list now. I thought hard about whether I wanted to read the first two first, because I thought I might not want to read the first two if I already knew the ultimate ending, but I don't think I'll mind knowing the ultimate ending. I feel like there was a lot that I missed by not knowing the whole story, and I actually want to know what it was. I really enjoyed this book, even without having read the first two, which I think may be more difficult for an author to achieve than having a reader enjoy a standalone. I think Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire is my new hero.

And, finally, the one I've read before: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. My husband and I found Old Man's War in a Borders several years ago, and we both enjoyed it enough to buy the other books in that universe. I started reading John Scalzi's Whatever, and therefore learned of Redshirts in a more direct manner. I enjoyed it, both the first reading, and the re-reading I completed today to finish my project. It's entertaining, funny and I'm enough of a Star Trek fan to appreciate the basis. It was also interesting to read it a second time, because I paid a lot more attention to how the story was constructed, what techniques were used to transition from one scene to another, and how the exposition was handled, among other things.

So I read some books I liked, and some that I didn't like, and at least one that I wanted to punch. I am glad to have completed this project - both in the sense that I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad I'm done. I'm going to be shifting my reading focus back to books on writing, though I think I'll make time for the rest of the Newsflesh trilogy before school starts...

Friday, July 5, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: Down the TV Tropes Rabbit Hole

This week's challenge from Terrible Minds was to randomly select a TV trope from this website, using their Random button. Multiple clicks were allowed if a non-story item was selected. I went cycled through Time-Shifted Character to Psychedelic Rock to Fuku Fic to what I ended up using: Sinking Ship Scenario.

"The Spore"

The spore had been traveling for a long time through the void of space, hitched on a speck of rock, tumbling at random, one of many, many such travelers sent in the hopes of growth. It did not mind. There was no hurry. The spore survived the cold and airless space in a dormant sleep, with no awareness of its journey.

Until it hit the metal skin of a ship with a plink that would only have been audible to someone inside with their ear to the hull within a few feet of impact. No one heard.

The difference in temperature was slight, but it was enough to wake the spore from dormancy. Feeding on the rock, it began to explore its new surroundings. There was heat nearby, and moisture, and the spore yearned to find them and grow.


“I can’t believe you didn’t go see Tommy Galaxy- he really had tickets for the live show?” Makayla asked.

“And VIP passes,” replied Alex as they ambled down a utility corridor on the way to the Undine’s galley.

“What? Are you insane?” Makayla ducked under a protruding air vent and grabbed Alex’s arm.

“The guy was a creep, no way I want to be in debt to a guy like that. He’d want to collect, you know?”

“Who cares? Tommy Galaxy… you could have touched him…” Makayla sighed.

“Ms. Torrence, acknowledge?” Makayla giggled. Alex shoved her.

“Shut up, I have to answer that.” She flicked her comm line to respond. “Alex here, what’s up Gregor?”

“Up? There is no up on the Undine, Ms. Torrence, as while it is engaged in an artificial gravity-”

“Sorry, G, I know about the gravity, I’m the one who fixes it, remember? Just tell me what you called about, okay?”

“Right. Sections 409-13a through f of the hull sensors have gone dark in the aft cargo hold. No alarms, no indications of pressure loss or breach, just dark. Could you please conduct a visual inspection as soon as possible?”

Alex rolled her eyes for Makayla’s benefit. Sensors died all the time on this heap, she thought, I don’t have to inspect every little thing.

“Right away, thanks Gregor,” she said, and flicked her comm back to receive only.

“What a dink. D’you think he’ll ever get that he’s not in the military anymore?”

Alex shook her head and waved. “Catch you later. And don’t you dare drink my coffee ration this time, I’ll be back for it soon.”

The aft cargo hold was mostly empty. A few brace containers were still locked to the floor, casting shadows in the sparse unoccupied status lighting, but nothing was on the manifest. Alex had less trouble navigating its spaces than the tight confines of the utility corridors that no one seemed to have planned for people to actually walk through in gravity. She grabbed a multi-tool from her belt and flicked a beam that both illuminated and scanned the 409-13 section of the hull.

The light reflected off metal until she hit the affected section. She stepped closer. White fuzz patches littered the wall. She flicked her comm to contact Makayla, who, as the ships supercargo, would have a faster answer than if Alex tried to access the data banks herself.

“Hey, Mak, when’s the last time we had organics in the aft?”

“Organics? Two weeks, give or take. But it’s been vacuum scrubbed three times since the last time we transported anything live. What’s going on Alex?”

Alex stowed switched the beam off. The scan had revealed no lack of hull integrity, but nothing else. She pulled out a screwdriver and scraped at the white stuff.

It puffed, whooshing particles into the air that Alex helplessly inhaled as she gasped.


“Alex?” Makayla didn’t bother waiting for a reply before switching to general broadcast. “Alex is in the aft cargo bay and out of contact, stand by for updates, I’m going to check it out.”

“This better not be a joke, or you’re both fired,” replied Brin, owner and captain of the Undine, in a sleep-roughed alto.

Makayla left her comm on and made her way to the aft hold as quickly as she could without bruising or impaling herself - a lot slower than she wanted. She knew it wasn’t a joke, that Alex wouldn’t just cut off like that. Alex was reliable, always. This has to be something simple, she thought, otherwise Gregor would be setting off alerts like the good little sailor he isn’t anymore. 

She burst into the hold and saw Alex sprawled on the floor. Was she breathing?

“Tani, get down here, Alex needs medical attention like five minutes ago!” Makayla stepped over to her friend, and leaned down, putting her hand in front of Alex’s mouth, hoping to feel a breath.

A blizzard of white specks erupted from Alex in a cough, enveloping Makayla.


Tani found the door to the aft hold locked.

“What’s going on? They’re both down, I need to help them.”

“Do a remote scan. You’re not going in there until you can tell me why they’re both down,” said Brin, walking up behind Tani. “Gregor, has the sensor deadening spread?”

“Yes, Ma’am, sections 409-13 through 18 are now unresponsive-” the lights flickered in the corridor “and I’m starting to lose some other systems as well.”

“Other systems? It isn’t like you to be so imprecise.”

He cleared his throat noisily. “Is this the sort of thing that should be announced over general comm?”

“Damnit Gregor, how many people do you think are on this damn ship? You’ve got enough fingers to count them on one hand so just tell me what other systems, now.”

“Electronics, propulsion and primary life support. Secondary life support is full green,” he added quickly.

Brin turned to Tani, “Well?”

Tani holstered her scanner. Her eyes glistened. “No life signs.”

“Captain, the engines have failed. We’re drifting.”

“Tani, why didn’t I pick up more crew at Alabaster Station?”

“Because you never saw such a sorry scum-sack of freeloader wannabes in your life, or at least that’s what I remember hearing. I might have missed a few choice descriptors.”

“Gregor, isolate the aft hold as best you can. Tani and I are coming to the bridge.”


“Tani, what do you know about engines?” Brin asked, spinning back and forth in her captain’s chair on the bridge. Tani barked a laugh.

“You’re kidding, right?”


“I navigate, ma’am. All I know about engines is how to direct them.”

“Seriously? I should have picked up some of those lazy scumbags at Alabaster. I could at least throw them out of the airlock to influence our drift.” Brin put a hand to her forehead. “I’m going to assume that both of you know how to read. Read the goddamn troubleshooting instructions for the engines and follow them Gregor. Tani, evaluate the life support situation and report. I’m going to verify the seal on the hold.”


The spore enjoyed the intense warmth inside the metal box, because it allowed the spore to multiply and grow. The organic heat sources approached it with appropriate diplomacy at first, but when they attacked, it had no choice but to defend itself.

The organic medium was an ideal location for growth.


“The secondary life support systems are still green, Brin. I’ve run the diagnostics, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing wrong with them. Primary has blank spots. There’s no indication why or whether that means they’ll drop.”

“Thank you, Tani. Gregor?”

He threw up his hands. “This is impossible, ma’am. The instructions for troubleshooting are predicated on the idea that the sensors are responding, a few of them at least, and I’ve got nothing!”

“Then you’re gong to have to do it the old-fashioned way. To the engine room with you.”


“Oh, now you feel you can disobey orders, sailor boy?” Tani said.

“Go with him, Tani.”



They both grumbled as they left the bridge. The lights flickered again. Brin swore under her breath and continued to swivel in her chair.

The door clunked open and then shut behind her.

“Damn it, I know you haven’t had time to get down there and back. Did you forget your blankie, Gregor?”

There was no response.

Brin turned to see Alex standing in the doorway. Her eyes were shut, white fuzz hazing her eyelashes, nostrils and ears. Brin swallowed and went still in her chair. A hand drifted to the holstered electro gun on her chair.

“Stop.” Brin’s hand froze. Alex’s voice had thickened, grown echoes within itself, but it was still her voice. “We wish to talk.”

“Who is ‘we’?” Brin was afraid she knew the answer; Alex’s body was not breathing, not reacting as if a person was still in there.

“We. Us. This host.”

“Is your host alive?”

“What the host was is held in memory.”

“And the other?”

“Both are cherished.

“We require transportation. You will cooperate.”

“Your host knows better than I do how to fly this ship. Make her do it.” Brin leaned back in her chair.

“This host no longer has the fine motor skills to operate machinery.” It raised Alex’s arm, and Brin could see that the hand was stiff with the white fuzz. “You must cooperate.”

Gregor and Tani opened the door.

“You tell her.”

“No, you tell her, I’ve got seniority.”

Tani screamed when she saw Alex standing. Alex turned jerkily. Gregor saw the white fuzz on her face and, acting on instinct honed from years of bar fights, swung a fist and struck Alex in the face.

A cloud of spores flew into the air.


The ship drifted for a long time through the void of space…

Monday, July 1, 2013

Breaking My Rules: Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude. Let's say it again, savoring each syllable this time: ver·i·si·mil·i·tude.

I believe that I first read that word in a book by Piers Anthony, The Color of Her Panties. One of the nice things about the Xanth series of books is that they were excellent for building vocabulary. Large and unfamiliar words would often be used and defined in the same paragraph, or at least the same page either directly or through excellent context clues. No matter how un-literary those books may be, I have to thank them for helping to build my vocabulary.

The publication date for that particular book was 1992, and I remember buying it before there were too many more in the series past it, so I doubt I was older than 12 when I read it the first time, and may have been as young as 10. It could be twenty years, then, that I've had this idea of verisimilitude dancing around in my head, probably encompassing the entire time in which I've desired to write.

In another book, The Four Agreements, the idea of breaking old agreements that you have with yourself is presented (in favor of making new ones, the four, of course). We all have agreements with ourselves, our self-definitions, and sometimes, those agreements can be hurtful or detrimental to us. I used to agree that I wasn't athletic, for example, and it prevented me from even trying. While I've made strides to apply this sort of agreement breaking to some aspects of my life, I had not really thought about what they might mean in terms of writing until I woke up early this morning with a burning need to use the bathroom.

I had been dreaming. In the dream, I was talking with my brother over the phone, and he was referring to some photos he sent to my phone earlier, which I blithely thought I could pull up on my computer. Then I remembered I had to transfer them, so I told him I would call him right back once I was done, wouldn't take more than a couple minutes. But my phone, the one I really have, is not a smart phone. It's not a flip phone or anything, but it isn't latest/greatest or even last year's model, and in order to get pictures to my computer from it, I would have to individually email each one as a picture text message, which, with my phone, takes a lot longer than a couple minutes. I realized that I wouldn't be able to call him back when I said I would, and I woke up.

The dream hit a dead end, because my brain wouldn't get around the fact that my actual phone can't send photos to my computer at a reasonable speed. I found that concept, early this morning, sitting on the toilet, ridiculous. I couldn't even dream myself a better phone, a better computer, a neater way to transfer photos? What kind of purveyor of fiction could I be if even my dreams get stopped by such trivial practicalities? Sure, the reality for me, with my current phone, is that it would take a long time to do what I wanted, but in dreams, as in writing, I don't have to follow those rules.

So why do I?

Perhaps because of a misguided agreement with verisimilitude.

Sure, I'll write about magic, space travel, aliens, mind powers and superheroes, but only in realistic ways. They've got to pass the verisimilitude test, right? So I let my critical mind box me in. I build walls that define reality and don't let myself run into them. I stay in the middle and it isn't working.

I wrote a story for a workshop class that included a scene I took from real life. In that scene, a woman had climbed on to a rock, and then, not knowing how to dismount, slid off. Her lanyard caught on a lip of the rock and caught and held her by the back of the neck. This happened to me. Exactly the way I wrote it, it happened. I still got comments that it was not believable, because one person's experience with lanyards was that they wouldn't take the weight of a full grown woman.

But it did. It really happened. I had a nasty rope burn on the back of my neck for weeks, because the lanyard wouldn't break.

I took verisimilitude to mean that I had to write things that felt true to me; things that were woven through with real life enough to convince people they were real, even though they were about aliens. But dealing with only things that I feel are true-to-life is limiting, just like trying to get photos from my phone to my computer. And, as I learned, some people don't believe it anyway, so there's no point in cleaving so strictly to my personal experience.

After all, I first learned the word verisimilitude from a pre-teen flying centaur, who was explaining it to a goblette who would be Chief and their Elf Quest cross-over companion while they were in the process of trying to steal the Simurgh's egg from a roc.

What was I thinking?