Miss Troublesome

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: Same as before.

As mentioned in the previous post, I want to be able to talk about my characters a bit.

Or, in this instance, one specific character. She is the central character of Artifice. The story is told in third person limited, and significant chunks of the book are going to occur through her perspective, along with a few other select characters. The story starts with her, and ends with her, and is very much about the things that happen to her, so I suppose that that makes her the protagonist.

The problem is that she confuses the hell out of me.

Her name is Sera Bevens, which is, no matter how you look at it, no proper name for a cyberpunk heroine. “Chevette” and “Hiro Protagonist” are good, traditional cyberpunk names. And, no matter how you look at it, she’s not a cyberpunk character.

Well, that’s a lie. She is, but only because she’s trying to be. The typical cyberpunk character is a largely stress-free sort of character, at least in terms of personal identity. They are confident in who they are, don’t worry about looking cool or acting tough, they just naturally do. Especially the female ones. Cyberpunk characters are edgy and cynical and street-wise. They think they know everything and, in the typical cyberpunk setting, they really do.

Sera does all these things, quite effectively. But, at the same time, the entire cyberpunk personna doesn’t come easy to her: she’s got an entire naive and slightly-romantic side to her that she tries to crush down. The typical cyberpunk genre is devoted to a certain amount of cynacism, and it really clashes with certain parts of Sera’s personality. I have to find a way to preserve that part of her without betraying the genre entirely. She’s cynical about her own romanticisim, I know, and it pisses her off.

The most difficult thing is that she isn’t faking the cyberpunk persona. If it was a typical character-trying-to-be-something-she’s-not scenario, then the narrative would flow evenly because I’m used to that one. The issue is that when she’s being punk, she’s genuinely punk, and so not faking at all. It makes trying to capture both sides of her difficult in practice.

Sera is also a very guarded character to get: normally I can get a feel for one of my characters within a couple scenes, but Sera’s been throwing me for a while. It’s not that she’s more complex than some of my other characters, but that she’s more subtle about it. Cyberpunk characters are normally very obvious on the outside, but that’s more of a distraction from subtle character-traits on the underneath. I’m having trouble finding out what those more subtle character traits are.

I wrote about Sera in The Glory of God. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of her behavior in there, but her personality is a much more subdued throughout. Lots of the stuff I write with her in it is this way: the personality is there, but subdued. And if it isn’t, then it’s very aggressive: the loud superficialness of her personality popping out more than the quiet subtlety.

Still trying to work her out. I’m sure I’ll get more done in the coming days.

~DK

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Character Design and Discovery (CHAR 101)

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 2,403

Talking a bit about how I come up with characters today.

I’ve got an agenda here; namely, I want to be able to talk about the characters I’m working with, but in order to do that I’ve got to talk about the process first, so any readership I have isn’t left in the dark.

I’ve heard writers talk before about how they don’t like to think of themselves as creating characters, but rather discovering characters that were already there, and using them. I normally hate this kind of stuff, it reeks of pretentious artsy-types and squishy thinking. But, in this case, there’s definitely something to that way of thinking.

When I create a character, there are definitely elements of discovery to it. Normally, I’ll end up creating a vague outline of what there character is: a very general personality. You can always tell the mediocre fiction writers because normally stop here. Their characters aren’t completely flat, but they don’t have any depth either. They tend to have only one emotional state, and one frame of speaking, and repeat the same things over and over in dialog. They feel like bit characters—they’ve been drawn using only one crayon, with the only degrees of changing being whether the author was pressing down normal-hard of really hard. Another telltale sign is that you’ll see characters pop up that just appear to be there for no reason whatsoever. They’ll typically have their moment in the sun for two pages in one chapter, and then vanish into the background, doomed to float spectrally behind the rest of the cast and pop in for one unimportant line of dialog here and there again. This is because when the author came up with the character, it was just the character—the personality—and not a role for that character to play.

When I come up with the beginnings of a character, I only come up with the vague outline of a personality that I came up with before, and I also come up with a role for that character to play. If I can’t come up with one on the spot, I normally put the character on hold until I have a clear purpose for them. Never include a character that has no purpose in the final product of the book, because the reader will be able to tell. (This is not to say that you shouldn’t create characters spontaneously. A writer’s instinct is a powerful thing, and some of my favorite characters have been throwaway cast that I added into a story on whimsy. Some of them were weeded out as unnecessary. Others turned out to be some of the finest characters I’ve ever made. But be flippant about it in the drafting process; if a flippantly made character is still flippant by the time you’re submitting to publishing houses, nix the poor sucker.)

At this point, I’ve got the two of the three most important parts of the character down—purpose and overarching personality. After this comes the discovery. There are any numbers of ways to do this: you could play the what-if game, or write little short stories involving the character, or write an imaginary interview with the character. I’ve heard it all, tried them all, and find all of them useful to varying degrees. But honestly, I don’t necessarily find any of them to be the final answer.  To put what I do in the most succinct way possible, I do on instinct.

An aside: The writer’s instinct is an important part of the process which can’t be ignored but also, sadly, can’t be taught. Having a good sense of aesthetic and character are indispensable to a writer, both in character development and other things. If you don’t have them, don’t despair, they can’t be developed. You’ll find some say ‘read, read, read’ and others say ‘write, write, write.’ I say ‘read, listen, observe, write, sing, speak, do things as well as you possibly can do them.’ Explore other art forms, look at Rembrandt, listen to Mozart, read a Calvin & Hobbes comic. Form and beauty are all around you—if you stop and pay attention to it, you can learn how to emulate it. And don’t be a genre snob, or a form snob. Go outside your comfort zone to see things you don’t necessarily appreciate as much. If you like Bach, listen to some Barenaked Ladies. If you are all into Ghost in the Shell, go read some classic lit. If you like to watch American Idol, go rent an old, black-and-white silent movie. But remember that nothing gets done if you don’t practice either, pay attention, then write while you do it.

Aside over: when I go with instinct, it mostly takes the form of finding out what kind of character is most appropriate to the story I’m trying to tell. The plot will shape the character—if you know what you need the character to do, make sure you’ve created a character that would do it. If your character doesn’t fit your story, you’ll have to fight the entire way through to get the character to behave. But keep in mind that the character will also shape the plot—if you’re having to force your creation to do something directly out of character, perhaps your plot needs to change. There’s a balance here. Eventually, if you’re doing it right, your characters will develop personalities of their own and start guiding you in this process. If they have too much freedom, you’ll never have a story because they don’t cooperate, but if you don’t let them muck about and play, you’ll kill them, and lifeless characters destroy a book faster than a disgruntled review columnist.

It’s much like pruning a tree: you have an image of what you want the tree to look like, but you can’t just force the tree to look like that image. You’ll cut off too many branches and leaves, and kill the poor thing. But if you just let it grow unchecked, you’ll have some monstrosity that doesn’t look good, feel good, or fit anywhere in your story.

Again with the instinct: if you do it right, you’ll know. You’ll be able to work with the character to tell the story, instead of just forcing pieces about on a chess board. Things will start to work, narrative connections will start to flow, and you’ll write better without even having to try. The character will, in as much as a technically non-existent person is able, get to know you, and the vice versa will happen as well. And sometime down the road, probably years after the novel is published and you’ve moved on to other projects, you’ll feel like you finally know the character well.

And, as a final note, sometime in this whole process the character gets a name. Names are important—I’m going to swear by that till the day I die. They help define a character. Not in the artsy way, like, someone named Brian (which means ‘defender’) will be stalwart and strong, but in a much more subtle way. Sometimes the names will just happen, and be built into the character from ground zero. Other times they’ll take forever to nail down, and you’ll have the entire groundwork for a character worked out prior to naming. I always find that I have a name before I the character starts revealing details to me. I’m not sure why, but it always seems to me that it’s when a character first gets a name that they start feeling more alive to me. The name is what lets them talk back.

The name of a character is a character’s life.

No Real Substance

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 1747

It’s slowly going up. This break, I’ve managed to make a post on this blog every day, and write a little bit on Artifice every day. Things are going well, but then again, I don’t have school work or anything of the like to worry about right now.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to maintain this work during the last several weeks of school.

I need to be writing even more though: several hundred words a day doesn’t quite cut it. I’ve been reading on what other writers prescribe as good wordcounts  for a day’s worth of writing, and get different numbers from everyone. I’ve known people to say they go for three, solid pages a day: that’s 1500 words, thereabouts. A little more. My writing professor says that’s entirely too high, and that I should focus more on quality then quantity. But he’s a poet, so I’m not sure his vote counts.

Terry Pratchett says that writing a novel takes being alive for fifty years, plus four to six months of frantically scribbling words on a page. I like that idea, even if I’m short the prescribed time by about thirty years or so.

I think the simple answer is, at this point, to simply get words on the page, and try to do more today than I did yesterday. That should be a good enough goal.

I’m going to stop talking now, though, and go write something of substance instead of blogging.

~DK

Some thoughts on Cyberpunk

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 1,439

I worked a little more on Artifice today. About the most I can get done in a sitting is roughly a page, because I’m trying to think things through as a type. I’m suspecting that there will be much rewriting of these earlier bits, as well, on account of the world I’m playing in is sort of developing as I go.

I think that each genre presents its own difficulties as the author plows through. I was talking with Cirellio about some of the dangers inherent in fantasy (particularely: the need to overcome cliché). The central concern of the cyberpunk writer isn’t, however, cliché. Well, that’s only true to a certain extent: all writers must always fight cliché, but if you manage to lose that fight while writing cyberpunk, you are, de facto, not writing cyberpunk. In it’s very crux, it isn’t cliché. At least, not the Pollyanna sort of cliché we normally think when we hear the word.

(For those who have no idea what cyberpunk is, I have no desire to offer an explanation it when perfectly good ones already exist).

The central struggle I’m dealing with in writing cyberpunk is to have the knowledge I need to do it well. My central writing professor, Jack Leax, always says that the poets are lucky because they can just write about what they feel. Novelists actually need to know things. I didn’t agree with him when he first said it, but now I do.

Cyberpunk requires knowledge in much the same way that baking requires flour. It doesn’t work without it. Cyberpunk is almost always deeply economic, with hints of politics and other social sciences built in, and that’s just when it comes to the world setting. You also have to know about basic computer technology and infology (I’m not sure if that’s a word, but I’m using it to mean the study of how data flows and functions) in order to write the genre effectively.

One of the best examples of cyberpunk I can think of is Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, and just by virtue of reading that book you are given a basic understanding of information technology, economic theory, and computer architecture. The sequel, The Diamond Age, refers constantly to Confusion philosophy, Victorian sociology, and theoretical nano-technology. And the information it references isn’t just made up willy-nilly, either, but firmly based in science fact or theory, depending on the particular science.

And all this is merged so seamlessly with an excellent sense of character and story crafting that you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. The intelligence of a cyberpunk story is an essential part of the recipe, not just icing on the top.

Have you ever heard of William Gibson? How about the word “Cyberspace?” “Cyberspace,” wasn’t coined by a computer scientist, not did it just fall into vogue by chance. It was coined by Gibson in his cyberpunk work, Neuromancer. Same for the online term “Avatar,” in reference to the little picture people are allowed to assign to their posts in a forum. That was originally from Snow Crash, by Stephenson.

These authors are at the same time both creative and brilliant enough to create terms and scenarios that work not only in the story, but invade our own lives in a real day-to-day sense as well. The computer tech of the future stems, partially, at least, from cyberpunk. Those are big shoes to fill.

My central struggle is to come up with a system that works. I’m reworking America’s political system (we’re up to four presidents at any given time, and an extra representative house in addition to the Senate and the House of Reps, called the house of Lobbyists, designed specifically for the rich). The economic system is still capitalistic, but takes place almost exclusively online—physical shopping is nearly a thing of the past, for everything but groceries. And the entire concept of an i-pod is gone, replaced by the Rig, an entire computer system people can wear on their bodies at all times: monitors built into glasses lenses, keyboards built into big metal gauntlets.

And along with it, I’m having to come up with a whole new slew of social problems and pariahs to make up for the ones that have become outdated. I have to change things enough so that they’re different, but provides some sort of social access point to give the readership a lead in. The trick is to, to paraphrase a review of Snow Crash, to make a future world so twisted and shocking that people recognize it immediately.

I’m still working on it. I hope I get it right.

~DK

Posting from Myrtle Beach

Spring break started yesterday at Houghton. The second classes left out, my parents and I piled in a car and headed for South Carolina. Myrtle Beach.

My brother has a time share, but couldn’t use it. He let us take a vacation. Very kind of him.

It’s wonderful down here. I walked out on the beach in shorts—I haven’t been able to wear shorts since sometime in September. That’s about six months. Entirely too long, in my opinion. It is warm here, and vaguely tropic. There’s pine trees, at least. It feels enough like vacation that writing more than simple sentences seems a chore.

I’ve brought Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson with me, and have been enjoying it throughly so far. Since my current project is cyberpunk, I feel I have a need to read as much in the genre as I can. I hope to be able to secure a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson as well. Neuromancer, for those of you who don’t know, isn’t necessarily the first cyberpunk novel, but is quintessential to the genre in much the same way as Lord of the Rings is to high fantasy. I need to read it before I can properly write.

(Speaking of which, no word count this post, because it hasn’t gone up in any significant portion. Been busy packing, and I can’t really use my computer in the car—to many jitters on the road to type proper.)

I’ve been thinking about cyberpunk for a while, and the difficulties this particular genre presents to the writer and reader, but I need to ruminate a bit more before I’m ready to share them. I think I might write an essay.

Speaking of essays, I hope my last post didn’t surprise anyone. It was the essay I used to head up the charter issue of The Woven Thread (more about that soon to come). Just some thoughts on the way writers interact with one another.

In any case, I hope to be able to take this week easy enough to have time to think thoroughly about this and that and the other, and then also have time to write about it. I find that if I don’t have time to do both, I end up just thinking a lot, which don’t actually help me at all as writer, now does it. That, I think, is how Philosophers are born, and heaven help me from that fate.

I hope to have some seafood tomorrow. Seafood is always good for the soul, but not always for the stomach. And, I also hope, there will be lots of time for sleep.

Looking forward to a relaxed week,

~DK

P.S. Found another writer dealing with this whole writing-of-the-novel bit. Working on a work of high fantasy, and seems to have a good head for a rather tricky genre. Added him to my blogroll, but figured I’d give a little plug to his blog, Five Circles.

Operation Begin – Artifice.EXE

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 958

The actual writing of the novel has now begun. Only about  two pages worth of begun, but it has started. From here on, all posts regarding the tentatively titled Artifice.EXE will begin with a word count, just so I can map my progress properly.

I wrote, in my last post, about starting another blog devoted exclusively to the writing of the novel, but I decided against that. This blog isn’t updated enough as it is, so splitting the posts between two wouldn’t do any good to anyone. In addition, this blog is supposed to be my literary musings, which by all rights includes my novel-working. So non of my readers (if, in fact, I have any) get to escape.

Once again: I hope to be able to pick up on writing more often again. It seems to be working thus far, but I’m trying to avoid being all resolved about it. A resolution fails pretty quickly, but a habit takes work to break.

In other news, I’m going to be posting a bit about The Woven Thread soon, as well as adding a link to Chase’s new project: Half Pound Poetry. Check it out, myself and a number of other poets are on it as well as Chase, and we get some quality material every once in a while.

Now, instead of writing about writing, I’m going to write for an hour, before class begins.

~DK

Writing As It Comes To Me

Merry Post-Christmas, everybody.

I wonderful couple of days. The entire family was here for a short while (only about 24 hours, really), but I enjoyed it nontheless. We had a good Christmas celebration, with ham and brisket and all manners of wonderful gravy.

I got a beautiful journal from Germany, which I’m almost fearful to write in because my handwriting is so terrible. I also got a digital camera, good for a great manner of things. And, perhaps most excitedly, I finally got the illustrated version of Stardust, which I’ve been waiting for for so long. The illustrations of it are beautiful. I read it in about six hours Christmas night.

I spent all of the next day reading Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, which is a delightful book about an ex-con artists who takes over the royal bank and mint of the largest city in the world. It is, in once sense, an Economics-101 meets Pratchett’s normal humor and stealth-philosophy.

It was good to be able to read so earnestly again. Gave me a little bit of perspective over how I might try and shape my writing these coming weeks.

I have a terrible habit of trying to be to foreign whenever I write. What I mean by that, I suppose, is that I try entirely to hard to be a good writer by being like other writers. Those who know me personally will probably sagely nod their heads and say, “yes, yes, DK tries to write like Pratchett all the time,” but I’m actually not talking about my emulation of Pratchett. In fact, I really don’t try to emulate Pratchett at all, it just sort of happens, and it actually seems to work out fairly well for me. It’s whenever I actively try to make my writing less humorous and more serious, I end up dissatisfied. It seems like my characters start to lack sparkle. It’s odd, but I tend to connect with characters on a much deeper level when I can laugh at them, than when they just make me feel very, very dramatic.

I’ve been doing this with Artifice.exe, trying to cut down on the humor such that the characters will be more ‘realistic and meaningful.’ I realized, yesterday, that denying the humor of my characters if denying a fair amount of their realism.

I’m going to try just a bit more today, and see if I can’t try something more.

With me luck.

~DK

Establish Thou The Work Of Our Hands (Redux)

I woke up this morning a tad on the depressed side, which is an unfortunate thing to be on Christmas eve.

Mostly, I chock it around to sitting around the house too much. Not doing anything for a while, normally causes me to be testy. Most of the family is visiting—my oldest brother, his wife and my nephew (two years old) have visited, along with my grandparents. I love them all dearly, but I’m not a social creature, and my patience gets tried a little every once in a while, especially in the mood I’ve been in.

I’m feeling better, now, though. I went for a walk through the woods, and managed to soak my feet thoroughly in a frozen stream. Despite that, I enjoyed being outside, and the feeling of my feet actually carrying me somewhere instead of them lying useless underneath me was wonderful.

After I got home, Dad took me down to his wood shop, and I got to try my hand at turning. I made a candle stick, or at least what will hopefully be one. For those who haven’t tried it, making something physical with your hands is a fantastic experience—one I would highly recommend, especially for artists. It feels entirely different to hold the physical being of what you’ve made in your hands when you’re finished with it. There’s something satisfying there. I think every artistic person aught to have a physical hobby. It brings a nice balance to how we spend out lives.

I’m about to watch The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer with my brother, sister, and nephew. After, we’re going to have chili for dinner, and go to a candle-light carol service at church.

I doubt I’ll post anything tomorrow—it’s Christmas after all, and I have feeling I’m going to get the illustrated version of Stardust, which is beautiful beyond all rational thought and measure.

Writing is actually going fairly well, although circuitously. Every time I try to press on in Artifice, I hit a bloc. But I’ve had success with (for the moment), skipping the bits that I’ve been having trouble with, for the parts I have a better feel for. It’s a temporary solution, I know, but it’s getting words onto the page, and it’s giving me more time to figure out the bits where I don’t know what happens.

Going to continue working tonight, and I need to get some presents taken care of, wrapped, and under the tree.

Wish me luck,

~DK

Inspector

          First Draft of this guy: I get to workshop it in class on this coming wednesday. I’ll post an edited version as well, once it is closer to finished. Hope you like it.

————————————————-

            When Officer Rebecca Clives had signed on to the Seattle Police Department, she had been expecting to do something to improve the city. She had wanted to fight crime. Bust bad guys. If nothing else, she had wanted to drive one of those spiffy cars with the flashing lights on.  

            And, for a week, she had gotten just that, but only for one week. The chief took the car away after she had managed to pull the mayor over for speeding and then, after apologizing profusely and tripping over her own feet while retreating away from his Mercedes, backed her car over the curb and into the nearest building so hard that ‘Bank of America’ was imprinted in reverse on her dented trunk from where the metal had wrapped around the a commemorative plaque mounted on the building’s cornerstone.

            After that first week, she was put on foot patrol for some of the harbor-side street markets. That had also ended badly, for she had bought some shrimp from the Pike Place market, gotten food poisoning that night, and when she had crawled out of her bathroom two days later, had rushed to arrest them for assault on an officer. One short and comical trial later, Inspector Clives was taken off of patrol for the remainder of her career, and began doing deskwork at the precinct.

            Today, like she did on most Fridays, Officer Clives arrived at her apartment angry and depressed, with a six pack of beer, a six pack of pudding cups, and a package of Oreos, all of which would be finished (and perhaps thrown up) by morning.

            Bumping the door to her station wagon (which had no flashing lights) shut with her hip, she padded her way to the back entrance to her apartment, which was the upstairs sweet being rented by an elderly widow woman. Rebecca paid a small rent for it, and took care of Mrs. Dinwiddie’s cats then she was visiting grandchildren.

            There was a stairway in the back that Mr. Dinwiddie had made with warped two by fours and already-used nails before he died. Once, there had been paint, but that had come up, leaving the wood blotched green and pale with water stain.  

            Rebecca made her way up it, tripping, as usual, over the third and sixth steps, which were badly warped and never where she expected them to be, no matter how many times she went up and down the stairs. She dropped her Oreos each time, and by the time she fumbled her key from the side pocket of her black police slacks to let herself into her one-bedroom, she could feel through the plastic that they had been reduced to chocolate crumbles coated in smudges of the white stuff.

             The inside of her apartment was spare: She had a sofa and a television in the living-space/kitchenette, along with a vintage 1960 oven-stove and a fridge so old that it had rounded corners and no water dispenser.

            The Oreos had been smashed too much to dip in milk, so she took a small handful, mixed them in with her pudding.

            Rebecca had a nice set of China, for two, and she normally scooped her pudding into one of the bowls, added a little whipped cream on top for elegance, and ate it at the table, after her supper.

            Today, she flopped herself on the sofa like a drowning fish on the basin of a canoe, clutched her beer in one hand and the pudding in another, and slurped it with her tongue straight from the plastic tub while The Daily Show with John Stewart played on the television.

            It wasn’t just that earlier in the day, she had spilled the chief’s afternoon coffee all over that morning’s paperwork, or that she had gotten a ticket—getting a ticket in a police uniform, how embarrassing—going into work that day. It was that she had been doing the same thing and tripping over the same steps heading up to her apartment for the past two years, and had yet to bust a single drug lord, or even arrest a drunk, or even give a suburban soccer mom a ticket for speeding to her precious Tommy’s ball game.

            Somewhere between tongue-fulls of pudding, the beer paused halfway to her mouth, and she watched, with chocolate and Oreo crumb clinging to the corners of her mouth, the television flicker.

            In a daze, she put down her beer and pudding, and turned John Stewart off. Then, just inebriated enough to have an excuse for her clumsiness, she made her way to her bedroom.

            It was small, but with a full size bed and room enough for a bookshelf besides. The book shelf was littered with classic Noir—old beta tapes, mostly, and a few of the fifties books—and the complete set of Sherlock Holmes novels and fictions, along with an entire shelf devoted to penny-book store mysteries. Tucked on the bottom shelf, where they were hard to see, and could easily be hidden should visitors come calling, were most of the Nancy Drew mysteries, with their covers well worn.

            Above her bed was a poster of Daffy Duck in a trench coat, proclaiming that, wait a second, he was Dick Twacy, and on her bedside table was volume three of the ultimate collection of the actual Dick Tracy comics,

            Officer Clives paid no heed to these things, because they’d be waiting for her when she had cheered herself up. Instead, she stalked directly to the single luxury that her apartment afforded her, which was a walk-in closet.

            In the back, past the spare police uniforms, slacks and skirts, was a full-size mirror covered by a charcoal-grey trench coat.

            She pulled the coat off, and slipped it easily over her shoulders, and it fit perfectly. She tied the belt, enough so that it still showed off what figure she had, and mussed her hair just a bit. By itself, on a shelf just above her head, was a grey fedora hat, which she lifted reverently and placed on her head.

            Then, reaching into one of the front pockets, she pulled a carved wooden pipe, and jabbed it into the corner of her mouth. She puffed it experimentally, and then gave a fetching smile to her reflection.      

            “Clives,” she said. “Inspector Rebecca Clives, Private Eye.”     

            Then, as if to make sure there was nobody watching, she backed out of the closet and glared suspiciously around her room, and returned to the mirror.

            She smirked at herself, and said, in a gruff, low voice. “Well, Inspector Clives, it seems I’ll have gotten rid of you at last.”

            Then, in her normal voice, “I don’t think so, Kingpin. You think you can get away with your crimes?”

            “I think I already have, Inspector. Here you are, in the middle of my headquarters, surrounded by dozens of the most skilled assassins in the world. How do you plan to escape?”

            Slowly, with great satisfaction, Rebecca brought both arms up to her sides. The index fingers of each hand were extended, and the thumbs sticking straight up perpendicular to them.

            “I thought you’d never ask, Kingpin,” she said, and flung her arms out to the sides, hands ratcheting with nonexistent kickback, spitting out little kshew, kshew sounds as she mowed down imaginary opponents on either side of her.

            With surprising agility, she danced back in the closet and darted behind a denim dress for cover as twin thugs with machine guns darted in, opening fire on her.

            (“Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh,” said Rebecca, as they fired.)

            Then, when they paused to reload, she dodged out, with an impressive sideways roll from the denim dress to her ceremonial uniform hanging on the other side of the other side of the closet, firing off two shots, kshew, kshew, as she did so. The machine-gun jockeys fell, and all at once it was just Inspector Clives and the Kingpin again.

            “Not bad,” said the Kingpin, in Rebecca’s man-voice. “But not good enough, Inspector. You haven’t caught me this time.”

            Inspector Clives leveled one of her finger-pistols at her reflections head. “Oh no?” she said. “I think I have, Kingpin. You’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars you… you…”

            Rebecca’s imagination failed for a moment, trying to come up with the most odious thing imaginable.

            “…you criminal.”

            She fired a shot, but so did the Kingpin, and they both dodged in the same direction—backwards.

            At the entrance to the closet, Inspector Clives glared at her opponent over her shoulder, and the Kingpin did the same.

            “I’ve rigged this building to blow up, Inspector,” the Kingpin said. “I suggest you run for it. Perhaps you’ll have better luck next time.” And then, at the same time, Inspector Clives leapt for safety, the Kingpin disappeared from view.

            Rebecca landed on her bed, breathing heavy but smiling.

            There was a sound pounding in her ears, and it took her a moment to realize that there was someone knocking at the door. Entirely unsure as to why, Rebecca did not take of either her trench coat or her hat when she went to answer.

            It was Mrs. Dinwiddie, who was possibly the cutest old lady in the world. She was a short woman, and stooped over a can always. She had a long, banana nose upon which rested half-moon spectacles which made her eyes look several times too large for her face. She wore a red kerchief on her head, tied neatly underneath her chin.

            “Rebecca, dear,” she said in a way that suggested that just because she wasn’t Rebecca’s real mother didn’t mean she wasn’t allowed to try. “How are you today?”

            “I’m well,” she said, pleased to find it wasn’t entirely a lie.

            “That’s wonderful dear,” Mrs. Dinwiddie said, and toddled inside, placing a plastic-wrap-covered tray on the entrance-way table. It looked like it had cookies or perhaps scones on it. “You’re eating well?”            

            Rebecca hopes she didn’t notice the pudding cup and the half-empty beer can, and said, “Yes ma’am.”

            “I’m so glad,” Mrs. Dinwiddie said. “Rebecca, dear, I was wondering. Would you be able to watch my cats next weekend? I have another great-grandchild coming, and I’d like to be there.”

            “Of course,” said Rebecca, who know that cat duty was much more important to Mrs. Dinwiddie that punctuality in rent payment. “I’d be happy to. Just Saturday and Sunday then?”

            “Monday too, it it’s not too much. And if I stay longer, I’ll call.”

            “Certainly,” said Rebecca, bobbing her head just a little.

            Mrs. Dinwiddie patted her shoulder. “That’s wonderful dear. I brought you some cookie-bars, to help you eat better.”

            “Thank you very much,” said Rebecca.

            “Well, I should let you get off, then,” said Mrs. Dinwiddie. “I wouldn’t want to keep you.”

            Rebecca—who never went out on weekends except to buy groceries and, sometimes, if it was confirmation Sunday, to Mass—said, “Keep me?”

            “Not a costume party?” Mrs. Dinwiddie asked. “I’m sorry, dear, I saw you wearing that dusty old thing, and just assumed…”

            “No,” said Rebecca, quickly, snatching the fedora from her head and wringing its brim in front of her. “No, ah, no costume party. I just found it at a thrift store. I thought it might look okay on me,” she added hopefully.

            Mrs. Dinwiddie looked at her, and said, with the terrible innocence of old people, “I would take it back, dear. I don’t think it flatters you.”

            Rebecca stared at the hat. “No, I don’t think so, either.”

            “Well, I hope you have a good day, dear. Goodbye.” Mrs. Dinwiddie waddled her old-lady waddle out the door, and down the rickety, warped stairs.

            “Have a good day,” said Officer Clives, without much enthusiasm, and closed the door.

            She sat down on the couch again, and didn’t move—not to sip the beer, or to try to get the last smidgen of pudding from the cup, not even to lift the now-bent fedora to her head.

Sitting in Panera, August 10, 2007

I’m in my Panera again. It seems very familiar to me now. It is odd to think that I’ll be going home in two weeks. I’m exited, but a little sad about it too. I bought another overpriced cookie, and once again, didn’t much regret it.

As I was getting water from the fountain machine, one of the workers looked at me, and said “Oh, you’re back!”

Because she was young, female and (honesty demands I mention) attractive, I assumed she wasn’t talking to me. But there was nobody else around, and she was waving at me in a friendly manner, and so I cautiously waved back. When she didn’t give me creepy-eyes, I was emboldened enough to say hello. And then, because this didn’t seem like sufficient conversation, I asked her how she was. She said she was doing very good, and I said I was glad to hear that.

Then I sat and ate my cookie, and she went about her work. I don’t know her name, and unless I have forgotten about a conversation that would, in my book, be significant, she doesn’t know mine. Even so, I am much happier for it.

In Houghton, everybody knows one another. Everybody smiles, everybody waves, everybody says hello. This summer, the thing that has dragged me down more than anything is the unspoken rule to avoid eye contact, to not speak to anyone you don’t know, and to avoid getting too close to strangers.

Earlier this summer, I couldn’t wrap my mind around why anyone would want to be so isolated. In the spirit of fellowship, I nodded hello to the first person I met on the street, and even waved a little. He was drunk, and asked me for money. I told him I didn’t have any, and went on walking. I didn’t talk to the next person I passed; I didn’t even look at him. I held my eyes stiff, and I walked past him without acknowledging his existence. It has become a habit for me: I don’t know who my neighbors are, I don’t know many other people in the office, really. Sitting in Panera, if my gaze lingers on one person too long, either in curiosity or just out of idleness, I turn away quickly when they look my way.

So, when someone says hello in a restaurant, or gives me a two fingered wave from around a steering wheel, I feel somehow refreshed. I wonder how far I—we—have fallen when it is a bit of friendliness that strikes us as odd, and we expect people to be mean or, at the very least, aloof. What are we, when we’re all terrified to say ‘hello.’

The words that have passed my lips the most for the past month have been “excuse me,” whenever I bump into people, and even then it seems like I’ve broken some sort of etiquette my saying so much.

In any case, within two weeks, I’ll know my neighbors again, and be able to smile at anyone I meet without fear. I’m looking forward to it very much.

Last night, I started the formal writing of Artifice.exe. The Blurb I posted just prior to this post was a good exercise, even though I’m already going to have to change just a bit of it. I actually ended up using a fair amount of the short story The Glory of God in the opening passage, because it was interesting and effective, and I think I have a good twist to use down the road using the same idea.

It has been almost six months since I last worked on a fiction of any length. Since February, I’ve been taking time off to write poetry and reflections (which have eventually turned into these Journal entries) and short fiction. I feel I’ve gotten the benefit that I’ve needed from the break, and now it’s time to start work again. Otherwise I’ll forget what it is to write something that isn’t self contained to a single blog page—a danger that I do fear actually.

I saw Stardust today, like I intended. It was far better than I was dreading, although not quite as good as I had dared to hope. They’ve made some obvious changes from the text of the book, but only one of them really annoyed me, and that’s a good record by anyone’s count. I’ve read what Neil Gaiman himself thought of the thing, and he didn’t seem displeased, so I don’t feel I have much of a right to be either.

In any case, I also happened to get the novel read before now, as well. It was fantastic. One of the things Neil does best is… Well, I was going to say is fairy-tale based things, but then I realized he’s also ‘best’ at doing just about everything else. Neil Gaiman is one of the best writers I’ve read in a while—every bit as good as Terry Pratchett, and for those who don’t know of my love affairs with the works of Mr. Pratchett, that is one of the highest compliments I give.

Stardust the movie is very good. Stardust the book is much, much better–if you have twenty bucks to spare, buy the book, and then go see the movie. If you have only ten, buy the book, and go see the movie when you are richer.

I’ll be signing off now, because Panera will be closing soon. I hope you all have a good night—say ‘hello’ to someone, sometime. It might be a drunk, true, but it also might be someone like me, who really appreciates it.

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