FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: FIVE RANDOM WORDS

Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge— a 1000 word story using five words out of the following list–

Whalebone

Foxglove

Djinn

Orphan

Lollipop

Casket

Hermit

Hound

Acid

Topaz

This isn’t going to win any Hugos, but I took a shot.

*********************************************

“Topaz!” Orphan came running up the trail. “Master!”

“Boy, stop yelling,” Topaz said. “I heard you coming minutes ago. What’s the trouble?”

Orphan stopped, panting. “General…Foxglove…he’s coming. With…soldiers.”

Topaz sighed. He stood up from his seat in front of his hut, leaning on his cane. His knees creaked. “Orphan, go find Cassia– she’s by the pond. Take her up to the hut by the falls. A young girl like her will tempt soldiers. Both of you hide until it’s safe.”

“What about you, master?” Orphan asked.

“Don’t be concerned about me,” Topaz said. “I have nothing these soldiers want. If I’m wrong, well, at my age death is always hanging about, anyway.”

“Master…,” Orphan said, horrified.

“But you youngsters are in danger. Get Cassia up to the falls.” He started to turn away, stopped. “You know, if this does go poorly, it occurs to me I should finally give you a proper name. I’ve been calling you Orphan all this time, but you’re nearly a man grown.”

“Is this the time, master…?”

“There may not be a later time,” Topaz said. He studied the younger man. “I name you Arrow, for you have always been swift and true.”

“Master, can’t you come with us?”

“No,” Topaz said. “Someone has to greet our guests. Go.”

Arrow turned and ran. Topaz stepped forward into the clearing. He leaned on his cane and waited.

The jingle of harness, the tread of boots; Topaz glimpsed the riders, and the foot soldiers coming behind. The company wound its way up the trail. Topaz waited.

The soldiers entered the clearing. The riders pulled up short at the sight of Topaz. At their head rode a big man, all in armor, as if he rode to battle, instead of a hermit’s cottage. Suspicious eyes peered out of a scarred face.

Topaz bowed. “I greet you, General Foxglove, Lord and General of the Five Lands. You honor my humble house.”

“Are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” Foxglove demanded.

“Some call me that. My name is Topaz. I greet you in peace, as a guest. If it please you, my lord, there is tea and bread within.”

Foxglove squinted at Topaz. One of his officers turned in his saddle and gestured. Two of the foot-soldiers broke ranks and hurried past Topaz into the cottage. Topaz waited.

The two re-emerged. “It’s empty, my lord,” one said.

Foxglove grunted and dismounted. So did his officers. The foot-soldiers spread out in a perimeter around the hut. Topaz led the way into the cottage.

The kettle was hot, the tea steeping. Foxglove and his officers crowded in; no one sat. Topaz noticed Foxglove’s gaze fall on the small silver casket on the table. The casket was old and battered, but it was bright in the room.

“I heard that you were a man of wisdom and simplicity,” Foxglove said, as Topaz poured tea. “Yet you have that.” He pointed to the casket.

“An heirloom,” Topaz said. “It contains nothing of value.”

Foxglove loomed over Topaz. “They say that no man becomes Emperor without speaking to the Hermit of Blackfalls.”

“People do say that,” Topaz said. “There has been no Emperor in five hundred years, so it’s not been tested lately. Do you wish to be Emperor?”

Foxglove smiled. Topaz shuddered. “I shall be Emperor. I want the Empire, and I will take it. I take everything I want.”

“So this is why my lord favors me with a visit?”

“I came to see,” Foxglove said, “if you had anything that might help me.”

Topaz sighed. “My lord, I’m sorry, but my wisdom is merely that which comes from living a long time. All I can tell you is that, just because we want something, it doesn’t mean it is good for us to have it.”

Foxglove glowered at him. “What is this? Why shouldn’t I take what I want? If I’m strong enough….”

“Strength is no justification for taking,” Topaz said, “and taking without right always ends badly.”

Foxglove growled. “This is a waste of time. I thought you would pass on some secret of the Old Times, something useful, but I see you are just a weak old man.”

“I am weak and old– some mornings my sciatica is terrible….”

“Enough,” Foxglove said. “I should gut you, hermit, but that would stir up the peasants. So I’ll just show you how I take what I want.” He scooped up the casket, tucked it under one arm. He sneered at Topaz. “Have anything to say about it, old man?”

Topaz spread his hands. “You may take anything you want, my lord. I greeted you in peace, I say farewell in peace. But while my lord may take that casket, I would caution you against opening it.”

“Opening it?” Foxglove said. “Why shouldn’t I open it?”

“You won’t like the contents.”

Foxglove growled. “Come, let’s leave this fool.”

The soldiers stepped back out into the sunshine. Topaz stayed where he was, waiting. Through the open door he saw Foxglove fumble with the latch of the casket, and throw it open.

The sun disappeared; blackness swirled all around. Topaz could see nothing, but he heard screams, howling, and the sound of rending flesh. He felt it– the ravening hunger. The screams faded. Topaz felt the hunger turn on him.

He stood straight. His cane glowed in the darkness. You have fed, he told the hunger. Now, back to your prison, thing. Leave the world of the living to the living.

The hunger fought him, but it could not resist the light. The light grew and grew. The hunger shrank and howled and shrank yet again.

The sun shone; birds sang in the tops of the pines. Topaz breathed a deep breath. Leaning on his cane, he went outside. He stooped and picked up the casket. He shut the lid and snapped the latch closed. There was no sign of Foxglove or of his men, save their footprints.

“Some people just won’t listen,” Topaz said.

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To all the whitewashed sepulchres out there….

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

Matthew 23:27 (NIV)

This post is directed at my fellow Christians, specifically evangelicals. All heathens, pagans, and atheists can disregard or just watch from the sidelines. But I need to get this off my chest, because I can’t see straight right now.

I am torqued twice over about the World Vision retreat on inclusion of LGBT persons in legal marriages.

First, because some evangelicals believe ideological purity is more important than feeding and clothing real children, and second because World Vision beat a hasty retreat in the face of criticism and the potential loss of sponsorship. If World Vision wasn’t ready to stand by its decision to include LGBT individuals in legally recognized marriages in its staff, it should never have made the announcement in the first place.

But it’s my fellow evangelicals I’m really mad at. Those of you who think it proper to pull sponsorship from World Vision over this issue, this is what I have to say to you– you are white-washed sepulchres, you are hypocrites, you are the worst and most self-satisfied species of Pharisee. How dare you deny innocent children what they need to live because you disapprove of some of the hands through which it passes?

Sojourners ran a good article in response (although many of the comments by readers betray just the attitude I’m ranting against). The writer sums up the counter-argument very well, in my opinion– read the article.

Here’s my position– I will continue to sponsor a child through World Vision, despite their caving to political pressure masquerading as the Gospel. It’s the children who are important. And somebody needs to take up the slack for alleged Christians who are too “holy” to be of any use to God.

Reconsider and repent.

Scary stories

Not stories about ghosts, werewolves, vampires or IRS tax audits. Oh, no. I’m not talking about stories you read to make yourself shiver. I am talking about story ideas so big, so ambitious, they intimidate me as a writer.

I have a few of these, some of which I’ve been mulling over in my brain for years– but which I have never had the courage to put on paper or hard drive. Perhaps tellingly, these are mainly mainstream literary ideas, rather than genre.

Among these concepts–

1. A contemporary novel, working title Life in the Abyssal Plain. This is only tangentially informed by my own life (a strictly autobiographical novel based on me would be useful only as a door-stop), but I find its protagonist– a man who has always felt out of step with his universe, reaching middle-age with nothing to show for it– compelling. But, frankly, writing about real life is much more intimidating than writing about dragons and space battles.

2. An unnamed Vietnam War novel. Although I have thought about it a lot, this one is so intimidating I will probably never write it, at least as a novel set in Vietnam. I lived through the Sixties, but I was never in Vietnam. I was in the Army, but my service was years later and I never saw combat. If I tried to write a novel about the war in Vietnam, I would almost certainly commit a thousand errors. It would also take a particularly rank sort of hubris for someone like me to write, as a non-participant, about a subject for which there are so many books– If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, Fields of Fire, and Matterhorn as just a few examples– by people who were there, and who are still around.

But I did live through the Sixties, and I was in the Army after the war, serving with men who were in Vietnam (by-and-large damn fine people), and I can say something about that. I have an unpublished novelette based on my time in the Army, but I need to rethink it pretty thoroughly before I try to recreate it as a novel.

3. A Civil War novel, working title Leaves in the Stream. Yeah, probably a little too close to Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, but it captures the concept I have of the war sweeping an entire set of families, white and black, downstream through history, with the characters unable to resist the current. Its protagonist is a young Southerner fighting for the North. I relate pretty strongly to this character– I come from a southern family proud of its Confederate heritage, in which I was the only kid impertinent enough to remind everyone about the inconvenient fact of slavery (funny, I’m also the only one who now lives north of the Mason-Dixon. Hmmm…). My novella The Peach Orchard was actually a first essay at telling this story, as well as my first real attempt at historical fiction. It will probably serve as the jumping-off point for the novel when I write it.

This novel is close to my heart. The Civil War in general hovers over Southerners in way it does not for Northerners. More than that, this is family history for me, as well as the history of my nation, and I think there are important things I can say about it.

The problem is that this concept scares me witless.

This is the one story I have to get right (above and beyond just getting it right as a story). More than the overwhelming historical detail (and that alone is staggering), I absolutely don’t want to turn out yet another pot-boiling soap opera (and there have been so many Civil War pot-boilers, starting with that gold-plated turd, Gone With the Wind). That sort of failure would kill me. The terror of doing this wrong has been paralyzing. And then there’s the scale of it– if you do it right and don’t restrict your focus to one battle or one section of the country (as with Across Five Aprils, for example), you’re almost sure to turn out something longer than War and Peace— and length is not necessarily an indicator of quality.

Writing The Peach Orchard was confidence-building, but in the scheme of the whole novel it would be only about one or two chapters. I’ve been reading historical fiction on the war, including The Killer Angels and The March, but in some ways that’s counter-productive– reading works by masters only serves to remind me of far short I fall.

Which is probably what this all boils down to– my sense of inadequacy as a writer. I’m not formally trained, and I feel that most keenly when I contemplate projects like these. The sad truth is that I am far more confident handling science-fiction and fantasy (although Princess of Fire has lately been causing me to question even that) than in making everyday life interesting– which is probably a pointed comment on my writing abilities in-and-of itself.

At some point, however, I will have to screw my courage to the sticking point and just do these stories. Or, to put it another way, close my eyes and think of the book covers. Because, frankly, these projects represent something of a bucket list for me as a writer. And I ain’t getting any younger.

SUNDAY PHOTO FICTION– The broken bridges

Photo Copyright Al Forbes
Photo Copyright Al Forbes

Flash fiction based on a photo.

Pretty sure this doesn’t work, but I thought I’d give it a shot, anyway.

******************************

“The bridges are down,” Sebae whispered, horrified.

I looked. The fog dispersed into a low-lying layer ahead of us. Over it I saw the Salt Island bridge– except it was no longer a bridge. On the eastward side of the River the upper deck had collapsed into the lower. Metal filaments and broken chunks of plasticrete alone remained of the towers that had supported it.

To the west, the bridge was simply gone. Water rushed about pilings and ruined pieces of bridge deck protruding from the water. Far beyond, I saw only a wrecked tracery of metal that had been the Tulland bridge.

“All gone,” Sebae said, still whispering, as if he could not believe it. “The settlements….”

He didn’t have to finish the thought. I leaned for a moment on my paddle. Five thousand years— that’s how long the bridges had stood– built by the Ancients to endure. And the Firebringer had destroyed them in a night, with less thought than a child might have for a toy they did not want.

“What do we do now?” Sebae said, sounding lost.

I breathed deep, put my paddle in the water again. “Row,” I said. “The messages won’t wait.”

Speaking of Ripley…..

Made this–

ripleycatharsis2

Original is here (somehow the link won’t attach to the picture itself).

It is entirely possible I have too much time on my hands….

On a positive note, tomorrow I have my first face-to-face job interview in three months. If you’re of a praying persuasion, I would not look askance at that sort of support.

Films that inspire me– “Aliens”

Once more, I need you to join me in the Wayback Machine. We’re returning to a distant historical era– the ’70’s. Specifically Fall, 1979, in a small movie theater in a US Army kaserne in Germany. The geeky kid in the Army-issue glasses, about midway down the auditorium, is me. I’m about to watch Alien for the first time.

I didn’t go into this movie cold– I had intentionally spoiled myself at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England that summer, where there were exhibits and people from the production. (Yes, I am a spoiler junkie. It doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of a movie– or a book, for that matter– and it has saved me from some notable catastrophes). I was therefore forewarned going into a movie I might not have seen otherwise.

Oh, by the way–

***SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS***

I have mentioned before that I do not like horror, and I might have skipped a film that was set up as the sort of horror flick in which a cast of colorful characters gets picked off one-by-one, but its space setting, and the production values associated with it, got my butt in the theater seat. Ridley Scott, in his second directorial effort for film, and the producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill, all made a serious effort to create a believable, workaday science-fiction universe in which to tell their story, and discussions about it at the convention had persuaded me this was a film I wanted to see.

I found myself drawn in and held tight by a story that kept you guessing, despite a few flaws in its logic and some actions that did not make complete sense. I was particularly mesmerized by the young actress playing Ripley, who seemed to be the only character who had her head on halfway straight. It was the first time I had ever seen Sigourney Weaver, and I’ve been in love ever since.

(If by this you construe I like skinny, dark-haired women, I would have to say “yes” and ask you what your point is).

I liked the movie so much I watched it three times in a week, no mean feat when movies in the military theater system were usually there and gone before you could blink. I enjoyed the gritty feel of the film, the interactions between the crew, the derelict alien ship, and the spooky Space Jockey. The alien itself was refreshingly, well, alien, and I found I could deal with the horror elements without open weeping (yeah, I’m a wuss). Ripley was largely responsible for that– I was rooting for her from about the seven minute mark in the film. I am so very glad Ridley Scott was talked out of killing her off at the end of the film– the ending in its final form was just about perfect, and was the perfect setup for Aliens.

Fast forward seven years. I am out of the Army, working in California as a baker in a health food bakery (with a cockroach problem– go figure). When I hear that a sequel of Alien is being made, I am interested. When I see the trailers and realize that the second movie has a military flavor, I am very interested.

Aliens opened on July 18, 1986–

Personally, I have to count that date as one of the watersheds of my life.

It is hard for me to overstate the impact this film had on me, and continues to have to this day. It pushed just about every sci-fi action-adventure button I have. Once again the story centered on Ripley, now overwhelmed by the memories of what happened in the first film. At the end of Alien, Ripley is in an escape pod, in suspended animation, hoping to get rescued. Instead, she drifts right through human space and is only found fifty-seven years later. Her story of the destruction of her crew by a supremely vicious alien is not believed, particularly as there have been colonists on LV-426, the planetoid where her crew found the first alien, for many years.

Then contact is lost with LV-426 and Ripley goes with a platoon of Colonial Marines to investigate. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse to utterly catastrophic, except that this time there is visceral satisfaction in the discovery that these aliens (most definitely plural this time) go to pieces quite nicely under heavy munitions. It’s military stupidity and corporate cupidity that get Ripley and the Marines in trouble this time.

In the process Ripley connects with a young survivor of the colony, a shell-shocked little girl called Newt, and their relationship becomes the emotional linchpin of the whole story. When things go really bad, and Newt appears to be lost to the aliens, it is Ripley’s irrational refusal to accept that fact that pushes her, and the story, into a cathartic, and climatic, confrontation.

I enjoy action-adventure films, but I have never been a fan of the sort of action film that seem to exist primarily to showcase explosions and things going fast– I have had zero interest in The Fast and the Furious franchise, and do not get me started on 300 and similar trash. I prefer adventure movies in which something is at stake, and which possess some heart. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Fellowship of the the Ring), Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander are all examples of the sort of adventure film that holds my interest.

For me Aliens is supremely this type of film. Ripley’s struggle to overcome her demons (figurative and literal) is where we start. Slowly she becomes part of an extended family of Marines, and then comes her connection with Newt. At this point Ripley once again has something to lose, and something to protect, and it forces her out of her fear into courage. That’s the best sort of adventure film– not populated by super-beings, but ordinary humans who struggle to overcome obstacles far greater than themselves to preserve something precious, or forestall a horrible evil.

It does not hurt at all that Aliens is one of the most tightly written action films ever, basically keeping you legitimately on the edge of your seat and/or hanging on to the back of the one in front of you the whole way through. To this day, when the second drop-ship is heading straight for the atmosphere processing plant to rescue Newt, I simply cannot sit still.

Looked at another way, Aliens is almost the only great sci-fi military film, for my money the closest anyone has ever come to adapting Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (Verhoeven’s abortion does not count. Uh-uh, sorry). James Cameron, in fact, asked the actors portraying the Marines to read the novel during preparations for filming.

A special edition of the movie, released in 1992, restores seventeen minutes of footage that had been cut from the theatrical release. It’s not an unmixed blessing– it telegraphs things about the colony on LV-426 that had been left as spooky mysteries in the theatrical version. But the special edition works for me because it critically expands Ripley’s character and deepens her relationship with Newt. In the extended version, when Ripley is willing to go into the bowels of her personal nightmare to save Newt, you understand exactly why.

Now, let me balance this all out. I don’t believe Aliens is the greatest science-fiction film ever. There are films with more profound themes and deeper examinations of human nature and the meaning of the universe. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (particularly the director’s cut) is certainly a contender for that title. Nor is Aliens absolutely perfect in its execution– some of the characters are not fleshed out (let’s face it, they’re there to be alien-fodder) and some of the plot points don’t quite make sense (if the second drop-ship was available the whole time, why didn’t they call it down at once, instead of waiting for the processing station to start going into overload?). You don’t really notice, though, because the film as a whole just pulls you along and enlists you in the fight these people are waging to survive.

This film is probably a good portion of the reason why I am spoiled for lesser action flicks. When I want to remember how to structure a story that you can’t put down, built around people you give a damn about, I think of Aliens. The first movie script I ever bought (during one of my delusional periods in which I thought I could be a screenwriter) was for Aliens. This film taught me a lot about story and action, and it’s a personal touchstone of quality. I’m almost tempted to say they don’t make movies like this anymore, but I keep hoping….

As for the Alien franchise, it took a nose dive after Aliens with the two subsequent sequels. Re: Alien 3— wretched trash. Do not bother. Alien Resurrection— its got some cute moments, but mostly meh.

(By the way, if the folks who own this property happen to be reading this, I have a concept that will reboot the franchise. Call me. Seriously).

The worst first draft EVER….

I’ve been AWOL for a few days, dealing with employment issues (still got none), personal issues (you don’t want to know), health issues (nothing serious, but yucky) and general morale issues (running on fumes). You don’t know how important it is to be gainfully employed until you’re sitting at home watching the same YouTube video for the fifteenth time.

You would think that I would get at least a little lift out of the fact that I have cleared 90,000 words on Princess of Fire. The problem is that I am increasingly convinced that this draft is quite possibly the worst first draft ever. In the history of Western literature. Maybe in the history of world literature, right back to Gilgamesh. It’s even worse than the first draft of Princess of Shadows, and that was a nightmare. So far I’m hanging on to my resolution to keep pushing ahead, but I’m fighting the urge to call this thing good-enough and start Fire 2.0. In truth, though, I really want to write at least another twenty thousand words to cover major gaps in the narrative. I would much prefer to have those gaps filled in before I start thinking about remedial action.

The silver lining on this cloud, the one happy thought, is that I now have a very good idea how this story needs to be structured. Kathy is faced with two simultaneous series of events that keeps her bouncing from crisis to crisis, while she battles intransigence close at hand and her own doubts. I now have a very good idea who the characters are, good, stupid and indifferent. I am also getting a fair idea what’s surplus. And it has been the act of writing that has revealed all this. Once I do start Fire 2.0, there will be a tremendous amount of work to do restructuring and re-writing, but I’ll be on much firmer ground than when I started this whole project. All of my original timelines for this project are probably junk at this point, but I’m used to that.

Now if I could just make money at this…. 🙂

Sunday Photo Fiction: March 9th 2014 – The Enchanted Grove

Sunday Photo Fiction— 100 to 200 words inspired by a photo–

Copyright – Al Forbes
Copyright – Al Forbes

(Okay, this is getting out of hand– two poems in one month. It’s probably because I don’t have a day job…. 😉 ).

************************

The pond
a still ocean
the distant traffic noise
the music of the spheres

In this enchanted grove
dragonflies are X-wings
and tadpoles
are submarines

A trout breaks the surface
doubtless, it is
the awful and fearsome
Kraken, writhing in rage

The trees round about
the pool the forest primeval
not yet sullied
by the tread of man

The far shore
is a misty,
mysterious foreign land
barely to be seen

There dwells a lady
sad and proud
whose call for aid
echoes among the sun-lit leaves

To heed the call
a hero must brave
the sea, the Kraken
the enemy submarines

Perhaps
the lady will be patient
as the hero
is not yet ten

I ain’t no screenwriter….

….and occasionally the universe rears up and smacks me across the face with the wet mackerel of reminder about that fact.

Progress on Princess of Fire appears to be coming in fits and starts at this point– one day I’ll do a thousand words, and the next I’ll do two hundred, which wouldn’t be so bad, except the day after that I’ll do nothing. Picture an icebreaker in Antarctica….

Yesterday while I was not writing Fire I started doodling on a synopsis of a screenplay idea I’ve had for some time, and was pleased that I resolved a piece of action that had been hanging me up. When complete, this synopsis– which, in my innocence, I have dared to call a “treatment”– may be about six pages long.

That’s when I made a big mistake– I googled “film treatment”, found the Wikipedia article on the subject, and discovered that James Cameron’s original treatment for Terminator is available for free online. I downloaded it.

It makes my effort look like a first-grader’s mud-pie.

We’re talking forty-eight pages of awesome. Camera directions. Scene settings. Dialogue. Even in the treatment the unforgiving pace that makes watching Terminator an activity that requires a safety harness comes through.

My synopsis doesn’t do that. It sorta flops over and lies there, gasping.

Sigh. I should have known better– I love film, but I have no training in screenwriting, and it shows. I’ve made one or two efforts at writing a screenplay– I’ve even got a copy of Final Draft– but my efforts are weak tea, at best. I seem to do better with prose. Not incredibly better, but some.

Is there a moral in this? I don’t want to go on record telling people they shouldn’t work at something outside their comfort zone. Absolutely do so if there is something you’re burning to achieve. But it is a reminder for me that I should not dissipate my energy on things that have little chance of success– I don’t have enough time left on this Earth to be engaged in the pursuit of non-domesticated water-fowl.

Besides, that film idea would probably make a dandy novel…hmm.

Later.