October 29, 2009

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF MAI LI HASTING 8: Reconstructing a (Haunted) House

CJ Hastings stared at the door to Mai Li’s room. He’d been staring at it five times a day for the past ten days. He stared at it when he came upstairs to shower in the morning, before he went to school, when he came home, while Mom made supper and before he went to bed. A couple times he’d come up to stare at it when he woke up in the middle of the night from the nightmare that was always the same.

Mom walked up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. She waited a few minutes before saying, “Are you as scared as I am?”

CJ shook his head. He hadn’t had an answer for her for the ten days that had passed since she’d been injected with nanomachines that were supposed to reconstruct her brain. This morning he said, “More. Way, way more.”

Mom stepped around in front of him and lifted his chin up. She didn’t have to lift up as much as she had last year. Maybe he was finally going to be normal for a thirteen-year-old finally. She said, “What’s that mean?”

He shrugged. She scowled and said, “The shrink said we’ve got to talk about this or we’ll go crazy.”

He shrugged again but added, “She’s not gonna be the Mai Li we know, Mom.”

Mom nodded and turned away, releasing him. “I know.” She took a deep breath, held it and let it go. “Wasn’t that the point?”

“Yeah, but…”

Mom smiled faintly. “Remember, ‘no more yeah, buts’”

He smiled, too. “She’ll be better, right?”

Mom nodded. “They’ll be here later today to bring her out.” Mai Li had been in a chemically induced coma so that the nanomachines could not only reconstruct her neural pathways, but also map out her damaged brain for research. “I’ll be by to pick you up from school early.”

“Are you going to work?”

“No. I took a…a…paternity leave for the next three months. I’ll be able to stay home with Mai Li while she’s…” she stopped, unable to find the word.

“…changing?” CJ said.

Mom nodded, patted his shoulder and said, “You’d better get going. I don’t want you to miss your bus.”

He nodded slowly then said suddenly, “Mom, I’m been having a dream about Mai Li.”

Frowning, Mom came back to him. “What kind of dreams?”

“Not ‘dreams’. Just one dream. Four times.”

“Didn’t you tell the psychologist?”

He shook his head. “It was too weird.”

“What was the dream about?”

“Mai Li,” he paused, frowning. It was such a weird dream. Another reason he didn’t tell the psychologist was that he didn’t want her to laugh at him. He took a deep breath and said in a rush, “In my dream, I’m standing outside Mai Li’s door and it opens suddenly. She’s standing there, dressed like a model or something. It’s like it’s her but not her. She looks like other people, only she looks like Mai Li, too. She stares at me for a second then smiles, reaches out, takes my hands and we start waltzing together. Through the house, to the front door – it’s wide open for some reason, and there’s no screen door on it – and right out on to the steps. Then there’s photographers and camera people and news reporters and webanchors and everything. Mai Li stops dancing, lets go of my hands, steps back and then points at me and starts laughing. Everybody laughs with her. Then she leans real close and says to me, ‘I don’t need you any more, baby brother. Go away.’” He was trembling and he hadn’t been able to keep the tears from leaking out of his eyes. He blinked fast and squeezed the bridge of his nose, sniffling. Looking up, he saw that Mom wasn’t even looking at him. She was patting his shoulder, but she was looking down the hallway, to the front door that they’d waltzed out in his nightmare.

She took a shuddering breath, patted him one last time and said, “Well, you’d better get going to school.”

CJ blinked a half dozen times then sprinted past her to the front door. He stopped.

Mom called from back in the house, “She’s always going to need you, Christopher. No matter who she becomes after this, she’s always going to need you.”

He ran out the door to catch his bus.


October 25, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 5: Driving the Narrative, or "Lost in the B Plot"

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage: http://jackmcdevitt.com/Writers.aspx)

I read about writing a lot.

I'm also an extremist -- ask my wife and kids.

So when I get hold of an idea, I focus on it almost to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe that's why I haven't been able to give away my writing for the past four years. (And, "no", I don't consider blogging "real" writing. It IS on a technicality -- but I see it more like wishful thinking on the part of the great, unpublished masses (I include myself in that number lately)).

I remember one of the first ideas was "Write like a shark", which meant that I should just bull my way through the story and polish it later. That's the philosophy of National Novel Writing Month (which I joined this year). You write and don't look back until you're done. I did that with great gusto and verve -- and the result was very little success.

Then it was The First Five Pages and how everything had to be on those first five pages because that's what the reader and agents wanted to see. That methodology was the object of my writing focus for several months with no notable success.

After that, I read Donald Maass' book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and I distilled that book to its essentials and made up an anagram which I slavishly followed for two years. And the result was very little success.

Following on the heels of Maass, I began the practice of writing short articles on a blog (I called them flashicles at first...ouch) and as you can see, I've continued that process. I currently get about 100 hits per article and 25 hits per story flash -- so that's been a GOOD thing for me.

Then it was the Bransford Plot. Agent Nathan Bransford wrote about plotting novels and stories and gave some sterling advice (which I wrote about here in "A First Report on the Flash Fiction Experiment" on October 28, 2008).

Now I abruptly realize my problem -- I've ignored the root of story for all the shiny flowers and leaves of the writing tree. The root of story is what McDevitt is talking about in this writing blunder. I haven't written about "what's important".

Comparing my published work: "Mystery on Space Station Courage", "Pig Tales", "Dear Hunter" and the others, I see now that when I wrote them, I had a "message" -- there was a purpose. I was trying to "say something" important. Propaganda is ALSO writing that is trying to "say something" but it tends to be heavy-handed and not very interesting. (Every good story is well-written propaganda though, putting across the writer's ideals and ideas...) McDevitt points out: "...we have to get the reader on board, enlist their sympathies in the pursuit of whatever objective the protagonist hopes to achieve." I have to ask myself WHY is my story important? What do I want the reader to take away? I have to examine the work of other writers -- if only from my own perspective. I have to ask: What stories have stayed with me through the years? I can think of several and all of them precipitated a sense of my emotional involvement in the story line. In fact, as I think back to my own writing, I was emotionally involved with the stories of mine that were published...

Hmmm...WITHOUT becoming an extremist, maybe I've learned something here!

October 21, 2009

Non-PIE blog up!

I have a post up at THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE at:


about how I think the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies should become the archetype of ALL time travel movies!

October 18, 2009

Slice of PIE: Editorial Slush Piles, the Disciples of Jesus and a Taste of Truth

Here’s one of the strange-association-train-of-thought I try to save for Slices of PIE…

This tasty fruit began as a seed in my fertile imagination gathered from an online writer’s group I frequent. A group of CODEXians (http://www.codexwriters.com/) were discussing the slush pile an editor has to wade through to get to stories or articles or novels that they want to publish…

Hmmm. Perhaps I need to do a definition here for those of you not “in the know”. A slush pile is the pile (electronic or paper) of manuscripts any editor of any publishing venture (from the hardcovers of Harper & Row in New York City to Bob’s Online Magazine of Tractor Trailer Fiction in Muskatoon, Falkland Islands) has to go through to choose the writing they want to pay to publish (“pay” is a relative word here. It can mean anything from millions of dollars down to “braggin’ rights”). Anecdotally, that pile is filled with pathetic attempts at authorship. Ridiculous submissions become legend and are bandied about on the internet, even giving rise to the Bulwer-Lytton Award (http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/).

Strangely, there are editors and writers who cry “Foul!”, decrying the anecdote as a myth worth busting.

Edmund Schubert of the online magazine, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show points out: “The vast majority of what I see is perfectly competent, but ‘competent’ isn't going to do the job. In fact, because there is so much that is competent, it gets tedious pretty quickly. I pray for anything to break the monotony. Great or awful. At least with awful you get to laugh; competent just gets a yawn and a 'yeah, whatever...’”*

In a different article, writers Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold point out: “90 percent of everything isn't crap. A lot of it might even be pretty good. Rather, it's the reverse that applies — only a tiny percentage of anything is excellent. And one of the big secrets of the slush pile is that the editor is looking for excellence, not "pretty good." **

How does all this connect with Jesus and His disciples?

If you recall, they weren’t exactly the “cream of the crop”. At least they didn’t look that way to the rest of the world. Fishermen, prostitutes, the poor and downtrodden as well as the wealthy and corrupt; these were the people Jesus called to Himself. Yet in the end, every one of them proclaimed His holiness, forgiveness and salvation to the Roman, Jewish…and all the rest of the…world. In assembling them, Jesus was in effect the editor of Christianity. Where others might anecdotally talk about the “crap” He accepted, Jesus saw excellence, chose it and put it together to make an issue of men and women so powerful that their witness birthed a religion worthy of the name “World”.

The take away for me here is if editors like Schubert and writers like Lake and Nestvold say that much of what comes across an editor’s desk ISN’T crap – and that those editors are looking for excellence, or even for a chance to edit a story into excellence – then this is illustrative to me of the possibility that Jesus probably doesn’t think that the “rest of us” (non-disciples) are crap, either. This should bring me to my feet to rush into his arms so that He can make of me an award-winning story; the tale of a life lived for Him; something readers of humanity will return to again and again for a taste of truth.

Because after all, aren’t the very best stories the ones that bring us a taste of truth?

*http://www.codexwriters.com/forum/discuss.asp?discussionid=1293&LastViewed=10%2F16%2F2009+9%3A17%3A02+AM#newposts (not accessible unless part of CODEX, for details re: membership, go to: www.codexwriters.com/ )

** http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10208

October 11, 2009

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Reflections On [not] Becoming An Astronaut

Picture in your mind the movie, INDEPENDENCE DAY.

Picture the scene where Will Smith, in the character of Captain Steven Hiller and his buddy, Captain Jimmy Wilder are kidding and goofing around and walk into the locker room area in front of the lockers just before the grand assault on the Aliens. Stuck in the gap between his locker door and the locker bank is a letter clearly addressed to him with the huge NASA logo on it.

Of course, we all remember what it read. “Dear Captain Hiller, Loser:...blah, blah, blah, blah…that despite your excellent qualifications we regret to inform you…” The disappointment on Captain Hiller’s face is deep. Heartfelt. You almost feel like he might have once actually wished he was an astronaut. Seems like EVERYONE has “wanted to be an astronaut when I grow up.”

Skip backward from 1996 ten years. It’s 1986 and we’re all watching the space shuttle CHALLENGER launch into the clear, blue Florida sky on January 28. The image is either etched in our mind’s eye or we’ve seen it enough times to remember it well: the single column of rocket exhaust suddenly twisting crazily into a pair of columns ending nowhere…

I’d been a teacher for five years, hadn’t yet met the woman of my dreams and had talked to my high school astronomy class often about the Teacher In Space program. I have in my Life Box in the basement, a 23-year-old, yellowing copy of the lesson plan book every teacher in the country got just before Christa McAuliffe went up in CHALLENGER to be the first teacher and one of the first civilians ever to go into space. After the disaster, my students asked me if they ever started the program again, would I go?

I responded every time, “Without pausing for a breath, ‘yes’.”

Even so, I never really pursued the dream; certainly not when I was young enough and healthy enough for it to be a “real” possibility. Certainly not through a military career – because after CHALLENGER exploded, no one BUT soldiers were going to be going into space for a long, long time. (Ever wonder if the military did that on purpose – just to keep civvies out of space? Hmmm. Nah.)

Skip ten years ahead of time to 1996 then skip twelve years to 2008. Spring. I was surfing the Net and came across the advertisement for NASA on USAJOBS.com – NASA wanted to put teachers into space again! My heart skipped a beat. Maybe I could be an astronaut!

Then I came back to reality. What would NASA want with a big, old, fat, white guy like me – ballast for an underwater astronaut training facility? Hmph. No way. Not a chance. Why even bother?

Except, if I didn’t actually try, I would never know for CERTAIN that I couldn’t be an astronaut. If I didn’t apply, I would never be able to say, unequivocally that “I can’t be an astronaut.”

So I applied. Really. All out. The whole kit and caboodle. Forms, references, questionnaires and letters. All of it. Online and in paper. It took me about a month to get everything together and send it, but when I was done, I confess I was suddenly on pins and needles. What if NASA actually said, “Yes!”? What would I do? Would I go to Houston and start training? What about my family? (The pay was good – a third again as much as I’m making now.) So we might actually be able to do it! The kids aren’t little any more. My wife and I had talked about traveling. Why not to Houston to get training for an astronaut?

I waited tensely. And waited, and waited and waited. I emailed NASA to find out when they planned to announce the new astronaut candidates. They emailed back that it would be “soon”.

Then, on the day after INDEPENDENCE DAY 2009, I got the letter I was both hoping for and dreading:“Dear Mr. Stewart: Thank you for applying for the Astronaut Candidate Program. Blah, blah, blah…Regrettably, we were only able to select a small number of those with potential to make a contribution to the nation’s space program…We appreciate the opportunity to consider you…and wish you success in your future endeavors.”

Now I knew for sure that I could never be an astronaut. *sigh*

I suppose though that I am in good company. They said that there were 3500 applicants for 9 positions. The fact that 3491 others had been turned down just like I had been sort of made me feel better. But my biggest comfort is that I knew that Will Smith wasn’t going into space any time soon, either.

image from: http://l.yimg.com/eb/ymv/us/img/hv/photo/movie_pix/twentieth_century_fox/independence_day/_group_photos/harry_connick_jr_1.jpg

October 9, 2009


CJ Hasting would have probably been creeped out by the sterile, pale-green walls and the odd, not-echoey hallway if he hadn’t fallen instantly in love with the lady who had picked them up from the lobby. She’d started talking the second the elevator doors had opened.

“The Moos Health Sciences Tower here at the University of Minnesota is the world’s premier research center in nanomachine neural reconstruction procedures. Thousands of people are walking, playing tennis and living normal lives after suffering accidents that severed limbs or the spinal cord,” said the cute nurse or doctor or physician’s assistant or whatever she’d said she was. CJ Hastings thought she was major track no matter what her job was.

“Nanomachine neural reconstruction procedures – we affectionately call them nano-nurps,” she smiled at Mom and then at CJ. His insides did a flip flop. “— have been in use for nearly two decades now and we’ve done extensive research regenerating damage done by brain tumors and impact injuries with excellent…”

Mom stopped walking. Mai Li fell forward a bit into the chest straps of the wheelchair. They wanted to give her a tranquilizer as soon as they came into the hospital and she started shouting, but between Mom and listening to CJ’s heartbeat, she’d calmed down enough to get to the elevator. Once up and once down was enough to almost put her to sleep. They’d gotten out in a sub-basement and the physician’s assistant had started talking.

Mom said, “We know all that. How many complete brain reconstructions have been done?”

The PA stood with her mouth open, blinked then turned around and started walking after muttering, “Maybeyoubetterfollowme…”

Mom shot a glance at CJ. He knew that look: she was getting ready to go thermo. CJ hurried after the PA, hoping to calm Mom down. But she turned into a smaller office before he could tap her shoulder or yank on her surgical shirt.

Doctor Chazhukaran had a surgery cap on and a mask dangling around his neck. “Ms. Hastings. Mai Li. Chris.”

CJ rolled his eyes. The guy insisted on calling him “Chris” even after he’d told him not to. Mom said, “CJ, step aside,” as she pushed Mai Li into the room. She looked at the doctor and said, “I asked your assistant how many complete brain reconstructions have been done…”

“And she said, ‘none’?” he cut Mom off. He turned and glared at the PA who took a little step back. CJ wouldn’t have even seen it if he had been drooling over her. He doubted either the doctor or Mom saw it. He moved closer to Mom.

Mom scowled, pursed her lips then said, “Actually, she told me that I should ask you,” she paused. “So, that’s the truth? You’ve never done a complete brain reconstruction?”

CJ saw him bite the inside of his lip – he knew the look, ‘cause he did it all the time himself. Dr. Chazhukaran said, “A total nanomachine cerebral cortex, medulla, pons and cerebellum reconstruction – a NCMPC – has never been attempted before.” He’d made fists and held them at his sides. Just like a kid getting ready for a fight.

Mom looked at him and put her hand on Mai Li’s shoulder. His sister snored softly. CJ moved even closer to Mom. He knew he couldn’t actually stop Dr. Chazhukaran if he tried anything. But he’d try. Then Mom took a deep breath and held it. And held it. And held it.

CJ glanced up at her. He saw Dr. Chazhukaran’s eyebrows twitch down. He’d have been creeped out by the doctor if it hadn’t been for Mai Li, the PA and Mom. Instead, he jumped when Mom said suddenly, “Do it.”

October 4, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 4: Get the Narrative off to a Slow Start…

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage: http://jackmcdevitt.com/Writers.aspx)

This bit offers the subtitle: “But I have to introduce my characters first, set the scene, and establish the mood.”


I will be the first to admit that I am not a huge fan of fantasy. I’m picky about what I read and it has to totally engage me if it wants to carry me to the end. Few books or series have done that: THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, UNBELIEVER; THE LORD OF THE RINGS; the first nine DERYNI books; THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA; JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL; the BARTIMAEUS trilogy; WAR FOR THE OAKS…this pretty much covers it for me.

My love for series science fiction is also limited: the PERN books; David Brin’s UPLIFT; all three of Julie Czerneda’s series TRADE PACT, WEB SHIFTERS, and STRATIFICATION; DUNE (Frank Herbert’s original six); and Asimov’s FOUNDATION books.

All of these series have one thing in common: they start the “real” story line immediately and with a bang, they don’t let up – and all of the fascinating history and relevant past experiences are woven into the forward-moving narrative. None of them takes any time as they begin to “take me on a tour” so-to-speak, of their nifty, authorial creations.

That is both as it should be and what Jack McDevitt is talking about.

If these multi-book series made of hundreds of thousands (perhaps even a million) words don’t take the time to wander around in the author’s painstakingly constructed worlds before launching into the story, then anything SHORTER has absolutely no time or call whatsoever to start with “history”.

I’ve experienced this meandering walk through fictional histories; the character who lovingly peers over the parapet of the castle at the magical land or through the forcescreened observation post at the alien world; the description of the magical sword or the newly designed laser death dealing flesh liquefying light saber of blaster beam destructo gun of doom too often and then found out that my investment in the story was for naught because ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENED AFTER THAT…

I won’t endure it again. So when “The writer babbles on, instead of getting to the action”, I put the book down and move on to the next.

I also stopped doing that in my own writing about three years ago. I still don’t have the concept down, though, as several critiques I’ve received recently have read in whole or part: “This is a fascinating world…but the story didn’t grip me”.

Jack McDevitt puts it succinctly this way: “Does that mean we have to start every story with an explosion? Or a gunfight? The answer is a ringing ‘YES!’ Not a literal detonation, of course. But something to pique the interest.”

HOWEVER, please note that just because you start with the end of the world (or its beginning), doesn’t mean you’ve captured the reader. The rest of the story has to be there too: goals, obstacles and emotions.

But more on that later!

October 1, 2009

A SHORT LONG TRIP NORTH 2: July 2 – July 3, 1946

(This series is a little biography and a little imagination. The biography will detail a month long trip my dad took in the summer of 1946 when he and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, Minnesota. The motivation, names and details all come from my imagination though. For example, I don't know if Dad ever made it to the Lake Calhoun in the picture above...but I'll bet he did! I plan on interviewing Dad for more details as time goes on...Enjoy.)

“Nothin’s gonna happen if we go to Calhoun. Besides, your dad said he didn’t care if you went there, right?” asked Tommy Hastings.

Freddie Merrill shrugged, shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and kicked a rock on the sidewalk that ran alongside Loring Park.

“I thought you said that would be OK?” Tommy said.

“I didn’t say it was OK,” Freddie replied sullenly. “I said he wouldn’t say nothin’.”

“That’s practically like saying ‘yes’. Let’s get suits and towels.”

“I have to use yours. If Dad catches me, he’ll think of some reason for me to stay.”

Tommy shook his head, “Nothin’s gonna happen. Let’s go.”

It only took them a half hour to walk from Loring to Calhoun and they were both dripping in sweat. Dashing to the changing rooms, they shed their sweaty shirts and long pants and slid into cool pairs of bathing trunks and sleeveless, white T-shirts. Bundling their clothes, they raced out to the beach. “Last one in’s a rotten egg!” Tommy shouted, kicking sand on the backs and in the lunches of other swimmers and picknickers, he sprinted for the water and dove in.

Tommy was right behind him, though he stopped to apologize for his friend to a couple of red-headed, freckled girls who smiled and told him to not worry about it.

Tommy came up, water streaming from his water-dark hair. “What took you?”

“I had to tell some people you were a slob and to please excuse you,” Freddie said, shaking his head free of water. He waved at the girls on the beach who waved back enthusiastically.

Tommy’s angry come back changed into a leer as he saw the girls and looked at Freddie. He promptly dunked his friend and waved at the girls himself. His happy wave was cut short when he disappeared under water, his legs cut out from under him by a not-so-mysterious deep lake monster.

What followed was a free-for-all that pretty soon included all of the youngsters in Calhoun in a dunking spree that turned into two dozen chicken fights that eventually spilled everyone up on the beach panting, laughing, shrieking and exhausted to collapse on their towels and roll over in the sun.

When they finally plopped down, Freddie was pouting, “Why couldn’t we put our towels over by the girls?”

Tommy slugged him in the shoulder, “If you can find a square inch we could sit on, lead me to it! It figures you’d flirt with the prettiest girls on the beach!”

Freddie rolled over on to his belly, grinning. “Yeah, they are, aren’t they?”

An older boy strolling by in dark swim trunks and no shirt at all stopped nearby and said, “I know a better beach where there’s way better girls.”

Tommy shaded his eyes from the bright sun and looked up at the older boy – he looked like he was only a little younger than Earl. “Yeah? Even if there was a place, how’d we get there?”

The boy leaned over and held out his hand, “Leo Hartkopf, and I got a car.”

Tommy was on his feet, tugging at Freddie’s shirt. “What you got?”

“1938 Ford pick up,” Leo said proudly.

Freddie climbed to his feet, glanced at the redheads then back at Leo, saying, “That’s a piece a junk.”

Leo shrugged and said, “It runs. You game for a trip out to Minnetonka?”

Freddie exclaimed, “Minnetonka! That’s like a million miles away!”

Minnetonka!” Tommy exclaimed, “I’ve never been there before! That’s sounds great!”

Leo grinned and jerked his chin toward the parking lot, looking right at Tommy, “What say we leave your party pooper friend behind and head out to ‘Tonka?”

Tommy turned to Freddie, stricken. “You can’t stay here; we’ve never even been close to Minnetonka before! Dad said it’s huge and all the rich people run their boats out there and stuff. Wasn’t I just saying we should hitchhike out there?”

“But it’s a million miles away! My dad would kill me if I went that far!” Freddie said, bending over to scoop up his towel and clothes, letting Tommy’s things fall free. “I’m gonna go home. See ya.” He started off on the walk back to Loring Park.

Tommy ran after him and grabbed his arm, lowering his voice, “Come on, Freddie. Please? It’d been keen to go out there. Besides, with Leo, we could be out there in ten minutes and back in ten after we had a great time! Maybe even pick up some girls cuter than your redheads!”

Freddie looked doubtful, but he wasn’t walking yet. Finally he said, “You sure we’d be back at the same time?”

Tommy crossed his heart, “Cross my heart and hope to die!”

Freddie held his breath and finally let it out. “OK.” He offered Tommy a little smirk, “I bet I can get a date before you do.”

Tommy slapped Freddie on the back. “I’ll take that bet! Besides, what can happen between then and now?”