No, I'm not going all Mufasa on you. Okay, actually, maybe I am. So some crazy shit went down in Paris, France this weekend. And in Beirut, Lebanon. Suicide bombings, senseless violence. Murder. Death. As we've seen when tragedy strikes--be it hurricanes, terrorists or other disasters--these things can bring out the best of us. People coming out of retirement to be volunteer first responders. Cab drivers giving Parisians a free ride home. Hashtags or social media sites that help victims. Tips on how to deal with tear gas shared to people in Ferguson from people in Egypt.
Hey, you gorgeous ones! So, as some of you probably know, this week I launched a Patreon campaign to help fund some of the short fiction I like to write, but generally don't get to for various reasons. One of the perks of becoming a Patreon Patron of your favorite Pajamazon is that you get to have some creative control. I'll write 1000 word stories (flash fic) twice per month and YOU--assuming you're a Patron--get to tell me what to write. Please check out the link, pledge if you can, and get in on the fun.
It's been a long time since I played with flash fiction, but I'm really excited for today.
For those who don't know, flash fic is a short story (1000 words or less) that is written on the fly. My personal rules: shave for word count if necessary, but otherwise, no editing. Write it. Post it. Leave it alone. Part of the art form, to me, is making it quick and in the moment. No fiddling or tweaking. Just raw story.
So here it is, the long-awaited return of Flash Friday here on the Pajamazon blog. Since the Patreon is still getting up and running, this week I decided to go with a favorite prompt mine... I went to Chuck Wendig's blog. Last week's challenge involved random titles chosen from the tables provided (see link). I rolled up a few options with the old 20 sider, posted five of them to the Patreon account, and this is the title that was selected for me. So let's see what happens....
Executioner's Junction by Jamie Wyman
Kade stalked into the saloon after another day's labor. His boots thunked and the wood slats of the floor creaked beneath his weight. The sounds were enough to raise the heads of a few nearby folks. If they recognized him, though, they didn't say so. Just went back to their libations.
Sally behind the bar gave him a half-smile, the only kind of smile to be found in this joint on most days. Kade nodded a greeting before lumbering across the room to take up a stool.
“Usual, Kade?” Sally asked.
“Just so, girl. Just so.”
She poured him a glass of bourbon—two fingers over three cubes of ice. The old saying that there ain't no ice in Hell? Sally made certain to prove that one wrong on a daily basis.
While the barmaid tended to her business, Kade let his eyes drift up to the mirror. It'd been broken in several places over the ages. A spiderweb of seams here. A rippling vortex of circular cracks that indicated a bottle or a skull smashing into the glass. But the thing had never shattered. Much like the patrons of this particular establishment, the mirror was scarred but refused to crumble.
Through the shards and warped images in the glass, Kade started to make out faces in the crowd behind him. Most of them were familiar. Jesse, a good man even if he did wear a star on his chest. The slim sheriff kept a table with the hangman from Essex. Bulky fellow still wore his hood. Never took it off, even among friends as he was.
The sharks were in again. At least that's how Kade thought of them. A tight throng of stocky men in matching gray suits kept to a booth at the rear of the bar. Bulges at their backs or sides indicated that they had their guns tucked away rather than on the table as on some nights. A tiny mercy. Kade hated it when those louts got liquored up and started firing off their mouths. Tonight they kept each other busy with quiet conversation.
Their voices were indistinguishable in the quiet din. Like mourners at a funeral, those who spoke kept to hushed tones lest they disturb those who needed quiet contemplation. And silent ones there were. They always ended up here. The men with skin dark as cinders and eyes like coffee. Scimitars at their sides gleamed with wicked promise. Or the Viking, his blond hair scraping the rafters and his axe dragging on the floor. Or the man who just referred to himself as Black Ops.
All of them came from different places, different eras and creeds. But each of them walked the same path by day and danced with the same demons at night. The sharks called it wet work. Men like Jesse and Essex called it justice. Black Ops called it money. No matter what name you put on the job, the end result was still the same.
“Oh God!” a threadbare voice shrieked over the noise.
Heads swiveled to the front of the room to see what all the fuss was about.
The kid standing in the doorway couldn't have been more than twenty if he was a day old. The camouflage fatigues fit him too loosely, like the boy hadn't been eating much of late. Black hair shaved to nearly nothing, a nose slightly too large for his thin face and a stare of abject horror. He gazed at his shivering hands like they didn't belong on his body. Like he had no control over the acts they committed.
Kade knew that look. Remembered seeing it in the mirror—his own and the one behind Sally—too many times to count.
The boy cried out again, this time without any words.
No one moved. Just watched. This was the cover charge to get into the saloon. Your tab would be paid up for all of time, but this terrible ritual would be the cost.
When he came to some of his senses, the boy realized a room full of motley folks watched him break and crack. His inky eyes darted from face to face, seeking redemption. That was the one spirit Sally didn't keep on hand.
“I didn't want to do it,” the boy called out. “I didn't want to! Oh God! Why did I do it?”
The shakes spread from his hands to his limbs. Soon his whole body quaked. Veins bulged at his temples and in his throat. Tears welled in his eyes. Then the sobs started. They didn't last long but turned into screams.
With a sigh, Kade took to his feet. He downed the rest of his bourbon. A couple dozen pairs of eyes watched as he tracked across the room and stood over the breaking newcomer.
“Sergeant Elijah Kade,” he said, bringing his hand up in a crisp salute.
The boy's Adam's apple bobbed. His eyes focused on the insignia on Kade's shoulder, then he snapped to attention. “Sir! Private First Class Wolfson, sir!”
“At ease. We don't bother with that here.” After a silence filled only with Wolfson's rapid breathing, Kade asked, “Was it your first?”
Wolfson nodded. Sick revulsion twisted in Kade's gut as he watched the raw torment twist the boy's face. “There were...civilians. Children.”
Wolfson straightened his spine, chin rising. “Terminated, sir.”
Kade nodded woefully, then put his hand on the kid's shoulder. “Come on, son. Let me get you a drink. It only gets harder from here.”
So when I--the queen of kicking herself in the head to make you laugh--says you need to quit with the self-bashing, you might be inclined to make a pot/kettle reference. Believe me, I get it. As I write this I'm wondering when I'll make a joke at my own expense.
But seriously, something I've learned recently is too important for me not to share. Now, as I make my case I'll be addressing authors, but really this applies to everyone. Artists, singers, dancers, mothers, fathers, children of all ages...everyone.
I don't know how much you know about what happens between Book Contract and Publication Date. For the sake of brevity, I'm just going to say editing. Lots and lots of editing. And it might be different with other publishers, but my limited experience has seen me doing 5 rounds of editing since July 22, 2013.
Developmental edits (deep plot, structure, story changes) took a few weeks of work and multiple reads through the manuscript. Line edits (word choice, sentence flow etc) were another week or two and two more passes through the book-to-be. QA edits (quality assurance from the publisher), copy edits (proof-reading and continuity type stuff) and galley proofs (the final big proofread that also examines formatting) were all separate ventures of one (or two) passes within 2 or 3 days.
What that means is that I've read this book--at minimum--8 times since July 22. And keep in mind that the draft I submitted to my AGENT in 2011 was draft #9. The one we sent to publishers was #11. This puts me at approximately Draft #20 (I may have lost count somewhere or blacked out during an editing binge)...about half of the revisions taking place in a very condensed period of time.
Don't get me wrong. I love this book. It's fun, it's fabulous. I love the characters and cannot wait for that glorious November day when you can all read it. But right now, in October of 2013 when the book is 2 years old and on draft #20... I'm sick of hearing myself tell this story. I'm sick of my own voice. I'm so tired of listening to myself I would rather listen to Barry Manilow and William Shatner sing Les Miserables. (My husband says this isn't self-deprecation, it's self-flagellation. To-may-toe, to-mah-toe.)
While doing my galley proofs I was convinced that my publisher had been smoking something rockin' and that I would be shredded once they came to their senses. My feelings of inadequacy only deepened when I picked up the CARNIEPUNK anthology (finally!) and sunk my circus-loving eyeballs into it. Now...I won't go into any specifics, but I will say that there may or may not be multiple authors in this anthology who have graciously offered to blurb my book. Reading their work and knowing that they will be reading mine in return? My stomach is aquiver with a thousand carnivorous butterflies. Because they are truly talented--and because I'm annoyed with my own voice--their stories gleam and glisten like the sequins on a tightrope walker's belt.
And this--this, dear reader--is where I come to my point. Don't you dare kick yourself and compare yourself to other authors when you are in a vulnerable state. Don't compare your rough drafts to someone's highlight reel. Don't smack yourself around when you're weary of your stories simply because it's all you've read in months. Go home, author, you're drunk. You're drunk on self-loathing at this point. You've just spent months--perhaps years!--ripping apart your own work to make it the best it could be. You've been immersing yourself in the acidic brine of criticism and editing. You're on draft #20. OF COURSE YOU ONLY SEE FLAWS! OF COURSE EVERYONE ELSE LOOKS BETTER THAN YOU! (And they might be, but this isn't actually about them. It's about you and your perceptions.) You're wearing the world's worst set of beer goggles.
At times like this, do yourself a favor and stuff a ballgag in the mouth of your inner critic. Go read other books and do your damndest to enjoy them. Watch movies. Immerse yourself in other people's stories to cleanse your palate. Slough off the self-loathing and be content that you've finished a good story. A great story. A story people will love.
But, Jamie, you say, this is when other people are reading it and what if they hate it and omg *head asplodes*!
As I said, the book has started going out to other authors and soon review copies will hit the world. People I don't know will be reading this. And I'm scared and excited and terrified and bouncy and and and. Thing is, even those emotions can't be trusted. Because I'm coming from a place of annoyance, I'm somewhat convinced that my blurbers--gracious, beautiful, talented people they are--will hate me and my book. I've snowed my beta readers, my agent, several editors...but now surely they, these other professionals, will see me for the talentless hack I am.
Shut up, whiny head voice. You're full of shit.
It's true that Author McShinypants may not like my book. That's valid. You can't please everyone. But here's the thing. I know this story inside and out. I know all the twists, the turns and surprises like the back of my hand. I know the backstory. I know the future of the story. That affects my thinking. And it will yours, too. See, you know your story so intimately (or at least you should) that you forget what it's like to read it afresh, with virgin eyes. These authors, these editors...they get to see the show for the first time. Your book is a performer all dressed up in make-up and costume. The set pieces are finished and in place. The blocking is done and the orchestra has rehearsed. It's time for previews, baby. And your blurberators are in the front row. It all gets to play out for them for the first time. This is where you get to shine.
Basically what all this rambling comes down to is this: When you're down on yourself, step back. You're too close. Get out of the echo chamber that is your own head and regain your wonder.
And enjoy your work. Other people will not love your story if you don't first. It starts with you.
Edited to Add: As if to prove my point... as I was writing this blog post, my publicist emailed me her thoughts on some of the excerpts I sent her. She loves them. With exclamation points.
So, once more Chuck Wendig has challenged us to create flash fiction. This time we are given 20 movies/properties and we must do a stylistic/thematic mash-up of the two. Standard rules: 1000 words or less, and 1 week in which to write it, post it and link it back to Wendig. Using my trusty d20 I let chaos decide. For me she chose Game of Thrones and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. (My d20 is awesome.)
Now, while I'm a huge fan of Bueller....Bueller....Bueller? I have never read the George R. R. Martin books, nor do I watch the show. But I know enough to get by I think, and that makes this all the more entertaining a project. I will say, this is challenging because the purpose of the exercise is not to create fanfic or mashup the two in terms of the story, but to create a new work that could be pitched outlandishly as "Game of Thrones meets Ferris Bueller's Day Off". Because my knee-jerk reaction was to play with Tyrion Lannister stealing someone's Ferrari. Tempting. Very tempting. But again, not the point of this exercise. I toyed with the idea of parody, "A Sadie Hawkins Dance With Dragons" or some shit like that. Then I just decided to dig down to the very base of both franchises (sex, death and intrigue and capricious hijinks) and let a story bubble up. It's my first foray back into flash after a while...and I've been in my own Etudes in C# 'verse for months now. So getting started was like pulling teeth.
Here's what I eventually settled on. I should also note that the first line of this story came from a Twitter conversation with literary agent Sara Megibow last week. It was my addition to the conversation, but still... Anyway! Without further ado I give you "Bucket List".
by Jamie Wyman
She had everything: a tank of gas, a loaded iPod and a four-day weekend. She hadn’t even bothered to swing by the dorm after class. With her backpack tucked in the passenger floorboard and the top down, Georgia guided the VW around the sinuous curves of the mountain and wailed like Siouxsie and the Banshees. The officer said he’d clocked her at 80 miles-per-hour, but Georgia grinned. “That’s all?” she’d asked. Stuffing that first speeding ticket into the glove box, she waved at the cop and roared back onto the freeway. Get a ticket. One thing to cross off the bucket list.
Soon, twenty miles from home became fifty. Then seventy. Before she knew it, she’d left the state line in her rearview. It was almost midnight when she needed to make a pit stop. While the car sucked up fuel like a hungry newborn, Georgia bounced into the gas station to refill her own tank.
She didn’t notice him at first, she was still lost in the wind and speed of the day. But as she turned into the snack aisle Georgia was faced with the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Skin the color of espresso and eyes like honey, just looking at him made her salivate. Georgia busied herself by pretending to pick out a brand of chips, but kept sneaking glances at him, admiring the way his loose clothes fit his tight muscles. She lifted her stare to check him out only to find him eyeing her. Busted, she bit her lip and smiled. When he smiled back, she melted.
It didn’t take much convincing for either of them to agree to meet in the back seat of her car. There beneath the stars, she let the burning urge in her blood shove her into recklessness. The stranger was every bit as delicious as Georgia imagined. His kisses tasted like cinnamon and his breath against her throat felt like heaven. The leather seats groaned beneath them as they writhed and pumped into one another. Except for primal syllables and ecstatic cries for more, neither of them said a word.
One-night stand. Sex in a car. Check and check.
The pre-dawn air was cool on her moist skin as Georgia draped herself over her lover’s body. While he dozed, her fingers traced the black ink of the dragon tattooed on his chest. Careful not to wake him, Georgia slipped a hand beneath the driver’s seat and retrieved what she would need to take a lasting memento of this perfect night.
As she straddled his hips, he stirred, his hands sliding up her thighs.
“Again already?” he purred.
In answer, Georgia traced her tongue up the black dragon. The stranger sucked in a breath as the knife plunged in. Those lovely, honey-brown eyes went wide with a thousand questions. Georgia covered his mouth with her hand—and a handkerchief of chloroform.
“Shhh,” she whispered. “Don’t spoil the moment.”
The poor guy didn’t have time to struggle. Strong hands falling away to his sides, he went limp between her legs. She placed a kiss on his forehead then continued her work. An hour later, Georgia threw the car into gear and sped off. On the passenger seat, her notebook was opened to her “bucket list”, the myriad of things she wanted to do before she left the world.
Get a tattoo. Check.
She had everything; a tank of gas, a loaded iPod and three more days. She was just getting started.
What did the random generator come up with for me? Several things. Here's the one that I loved most:
"He's a superhumanly strong zombie matador in drag. She's a cynical cigar-chomping bounty hunter who believes she is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian Queen. They fight crime!"
In playing with the ideas for this flash piece, I've come to see that I want to do much more with her, Greyson and this idea. Containing her to 1000 words is very difficult and I think this is just too fun. I've decided to turn this into a serial story. Each will be a flash piece (rough draft, 1000 words or less), but they will be a continuing story.
Cheating? Yes. But guess what? I'm the author. I outrank the rules.
Anyway, here's the first in the Valkyrie Molotov serials. I hope you enjoy it.
With the Greatest of Ease by Jamie Wyman
Greyson snapped his feather-fan shut and crossed his arms over the bodice of his gown. “Well done, Valkyrie,” he sneered. “Once again your tracking prowess has led us straight to the den of evil.”
Teeth tight around her cigar, Valkyrie snarled, “Shut up, rotter. Mobius is here. I can feel it.”
“That’s what you said last month in…Majorca was it? And before that it was a shabby little town in the Italian Alps.”
“My instincts took me there. Just as they’ve led us here.”
“Well, could your instincts please take us to Paris sometime?” Greyson worried at his bustle. “I’m thinking something in an emerald green silk would look fabulous with my complexion.”
Valkyrie spat into the straw beneath her boots. “And here I thought you wouldn’t be caught dead in green.”
“Seasons change, Val. Besides, I’m caught dead in everything.”
She didn’t look at him but sensed the grin on his face and imagined the wink of his long lashes. Valkyrie Molotov had no glances to spare for Greyson when the bounty was so close.
“He’s here,” she growled.
“But where, oh wise one?”
She’d been hot on his trail from London south to the peaks of Gibraltar. They’d played a vicious game of hopscotch across the islands of the Mediterranean, danced up into the Continent proper. But Vlakyrie had always been a step behind. Now, though, she’d caught up to him. No more chasing a ghost. No more dancing with shadows. Her white whale swam in this sea of rubes and circus performers.
However unlikely it might be, this place reeked of Victor Mobius’s greasy presence. The slime of his shadow coated everything: the muddy earth, the pennants snapping in the wind and cars of the train snoozing on the rails. Valkyrie let her eyes sweep over the tattered tents, their squat forms reminding her of mushrooms. Somewhere in that fungal forest lurked a creature more deadly than the most toxic of spores.
Valkyrie closed her eyes, listening. Barkers crowed of bearded women and sword-swallowing men. Games jangled in a cacophony, dissonant with the music of a calliope. As the crowd milled about, they created their own music of rustles, bustles, ohs and ahs. She had to dig down beneath the din of the circus and find the signature drag-thump of Mobius’s awkward gait, the metallic clicking of his clockwork leg and the jingle of his ornate pocket watch.
“Bast,” she cursed under her breath. “Come on, Greyson. Let’s find the bastard before Mobius has a chance to get up to mischief. And keep your head down,” she added. “Wouldn’t want someone to add you to the freak show.”
Valkyrie barged into the crowd, her broad shoulders cutting a swath through humanity as she followed her instincts. The carousel. Was it spinning a little too fast? Over to the menagerie. Would he cause the elephants to stampede? As a child passed nearby with penny candy, Valkyrie wondered if the fiendish doctor would poison the lemonade.
As if he heard her thoughts, Greyson bent and whispered into her ear. “He’ll be where he can cause the most damage.”
From the largest of the squat tents, a brass band blazed a fanfare. The crowd’s current shifted to flow under the big top. Valkyrie eyed the glowing portal ahead of them. The flickering lights within the tent showed the hunter pictures, strange silhouettes of too-large men and gargantuan creatures. Something called to her bones. Perhaps the gods of old whispered to her. She needed no clearer sign than the dancing shadows to know…
Valkyrie puffed once more on her cigar before throwing it to the ground and stamping it dead with the heel of her boot. “Finally.”
She led the zombie out of the sea of people and into the dark recesses of the lot. The stink of greasepaint, manure and grain alcohol grew thick as they edged around the rear of the main tent. Valkyrie slipped in, her gaze alighting up to the center of the big top. Squinting, she could just make out something strapped to the king pole. Something all too familiar. The phantom scent of a charred village outside of Turin filled her nostrils.
“There,” she said.
Greyson gasped with understanding. “He’ll bring down the whole tent.”
“And burn everyone inside,” Valkyrie confirmed.
Valkyrie wrenched off her leather coat and thrust it into the zombie’s arms. Twisting her braid and knotting it at the base of her neck she barked, “Find him! I’ll get up there and see if I can disarm whatever he’s cooked up this time.”
“Isis, grant me your wings!” Vakyrie breathed.
And then she was off, scaling rope ladders and shinnying up the poles. She climbed higher until the audience was little more than a blur below. At the center of the big top, she examined the glass canisters secured there. Amber fluid bubbled and gurgled inside while watch parts ticked a wicked rhythm. She had no idea how much time she had, or what precisely would happen when those minutes expired. Experience warned her, however, that it would be catastrophic if she failed to stop Mobius’s plot.
“My dear friend,” sang an unctuous voice.
Her blood simmered. “Mobius.”
Join us next time for the continuing story of Valkyrie Molotov.