Month: July 2016

Dragon Boat Festival

So far, one of the major differences I’ve noticed between Colorado Springs and Denver (other than the fact of neighborhoods, which is a concept that’s halfway between a sports team and a social class, who knew?) is that infrastructure is far, far more important.

In Colorado Springs, I went:  Just look at the goddamn roads.  Look at them.

Because, really, if you’re not in the right part of town, the hell with you, your roads, your streetlights, etc.  The city does the best it can with the funds it’s given (as far as I know), but some areas get just a little bit more of the best than others.  Just navigate south Academy, one of the main non-Interstate thoroughfares, and you’ll see what I mean.  If you’re lucky.

If you’re not, say goodbye to an axle.

Denver:  it’s not so much a question of whether the roads are any good (there are, at least, no foot-deep potholes that I’ve had to swerve around…yet) but a question of whether you can go at all.

Example, of a positive nature:

Jennifer LaPointe asked me if I wanted to go to the Dragon Boat Festival this year.  Why, yes! I said.  One of my favorite books ever* has a dragon boat race in it and I’ve always wanted to see one.  It’s just a matter of whether I can manage not to wig out or not, because introverts, stress, and people do not mix.  But knowing that other people will know whether or not I’ve actually gone will help motivate me.

Great! she said.  You should park at Sports Authority Field, it’s five dollars, cash, and they have free shuttle buses from there to the festival.  I mostly go for the food but if you’re interested in the dragon boat racing you should go to the opening ceremonies.  I’ve seen it and am not getting up that early…

Later, she sent me a reminder that also included a reminder about the parking situation.

Okay.  I tend to copy what the person in front of me is doing the first time I do something; I mean, I’m not the greatest person with a hint but this sounded easy enough.  Probably the five dollar fee would go to a good cause.

Drove up, paid, parked, saw a line of school buses, five or six of them.

Huh.

Put on sunscreen (this was another one of her reminders), checked bag for water, put on hat, walked to bus, accepted program from volunteer.

Entered bus and sat in seat behind driver.

The bus pulled away; the bus driver was asking for directions (eep!), as it was her first run of the day.  We lurched through the streets, school buses not being the most elegant of beasts.  There was a normal amount of traffic–but I was glad to have paid the parking fee; it looked like finding a parking spot along the side streets was going to be a pain, and it might be hot in the afternoon, at which point I wouldn’t have wanted to walk back to the car.  Good advice, Jen!  They dropped us off in back of the festival at Sloan Park, behind some fencing.

Once upon the grass, I checked my program, which included a map.  I wasn’t sure where to go to see anything, stuck the program back in my overladen purse, and started walking until I saw the dragon.

It was on what looked like disembroomified broomsticks and was made out of satin and shiny trim–the kind that you put on Old West barmaid dresses, with the long loops on it.  It wasn’t in the best repair and didn’t cover its handlers at all, but was still wonderful.  It had a red ball in front of it that the dragon head chased as it wended this way and that.

The rowing teams were lining up behind a huge drum, which was right behind the dragon, and the word “ready” was being thrown back and forth.  I stopped to take a few phone snaps, then started walking to keep up with the front of the dragon as it began to move.

Dear reader, I chased that dragon through the rowing teams’ area, through the first food court, past the main stage, through the stuff and health area, through the second food court, and then lost them as I noticed that there was a floating pier, upon which several people were watching something out on the water.

I walked out onto the pier:  the races were already set up.  And in fact an announcer from a nearby tent said that they were lined up and almost ready to go…it was going to be a real arm-buster…

And the first race of the day was off.

I couldn’t hear the drummers; the boats were specks on the other side of the lake.  A light haze hung over the water; birds swooped over the surface.  The boats seemed to ripple and I had to blink–for a moment, out of the corner of my eye, it had looked like the boats were dragons, Chinese ones, long and low, hovering just over the water.  As the rowers stroked the water, they bobbed and wove, almost in harmony–the imperfection of it, the haze, the bright sunshine–it looked like there were dragons on the water, I swear.

I teared up.

Closer…closer…finally I could hear the drums.  The boats slid past the finish markers floating in the water.  The winners cheered and the others congratulated themselves on a good try.

Then I saw that the dancing dragon had disappeared, and was nowhere to be seen:  oh shit.  Fortunately there were a number of people in similar shirts standing in line between the tents.  I followed them up to the main stage and parked myself under the awning.  The pale and freckled woman in front of me had a sunburn across her neck; I offered her the use of some sunscreen but it turned out the sunburn was from a previous outing, thank you, she was fine.

The boat teams were introduced and cheered for themselves, with greater or lesser enthusiasm.  The last team was Team Simpson.  I say THEE, you say SIMPSONS.

The speakers on the stage gave speeches; it was remarkably like listening to the speeches at a writers’ conference banquet, except for the Guest Storyteller of Lengthy Exposition that you usually get at these things, explaining how they became writers and You Can Too.  I got to see the mayor in person as well as two congresspeople, Diana DeGette and Mike Coffman.  People were relaxed and funny, except Mr. Coffman, who sounded like he was giving a class president speech from Invader Zim.  He sounded blustery, contentless, and uncomfortable.  Not sure whether that’s normal for him or not.

Then there was a ceremony from the Denver Zen Study Group.  An altar sat at the back of the stage; about eighteen people in black and brown robes took the altar and a celebrant (a sifu) with orange silk over his robes stood in the center, back to the crowd, and they all chanted:  after five minutes I was completely convinced it was time to zone out and sleep.  When they finished, I blinked–it was like the sudden end of a squally rainstorm.  Relaxing.  Good thing I was sitting in the grass by then.

I followed the train of people, led by the dancing dragon (look, doing so hadn’t let me down yet) through the crowd again.  People were giving me dirty looks as I walked behind a couple of the sponsors.  Cutting in line, oh cutting in line, won’t you join me cutting in line, tra la tra la.

We threaded through the park again and ended up in front of the pier.

The dragon boats had been dragged up on shore and were waiting to have their eyes painted in.  Unfortunately, the rest of the crowd was already waiting over there, so I couldn’t see.  So much for following the dragon.

A waft of the breeze reminded me that there was a food court right next to the pier and everyone else was currently distracted.

I ditched the rest of the ceremony and quickly looked over my options.  Upon seeing that the Ethiopian food truck line was sparse, I selected it.  On the advice of the cheerful woman at the window (I kept staring at her hypnotic and beautiful braids; I was hungry and more than a little spacey by that point), I got two delicious vegetarian things that I can’t remember the names of but would instantly recognize on a plate again (red lentils and a potato/cabbage/carrot thing) and lurked past the end of the truck, watching the three cooks working in the back.

Whereupon I discovered a guy behind the truck dealing with huge stacks of perfect injera bread.  I could reach out and grab one.  Or maybe two.  Or maybe like a whole bag of the stuff.

I looked at him; he looked at me; I decided not to try to abduct one of the huge plastic bags stacked with delicious, delicious bread–but it was close.  He looked away and they called my name.

I took my plate over to the one slip of shade at the end of a table, at which point the woman across from me started talking to me in classic Colorado fashion.  Another woman had tried to talk to me earlier, just as I got to the awning by the main stage.  She had a fabulous floppy straw hat and two small dogs, one of which looked like a Jack Russell cross and the other from the fine tradition of ugly off-white shaggy mutts that’ll bite your ankle off.  She said something about my beverage (cafe mocha protein something? from the grocery store), but I couldn’t make out her accent, and that made me sad:  having strangers make random comments to me in public is one of my favorite parts of living here.  This other woman was from Sterling and gave the impression that she was pleasantly drunk.  We discussed having the empty lot behind her house filled with a Zen temple; she said she’d give up smoking and drinking and just listen to them chant all day, which was probably a valid plan, although she might want to keep some chocolate vodka in the freezer, just in case.

By the time I was finished eating, the food lines were hopeless, as predicted.  HOPELESS.  I eyed them with regret but moved on and covered the rest of the festival, getting sucked in by a Totoro mug with a silicone hat (with a teeny Totoro on top) to keep your tea from getting cold.  This may have been an extremely fortunate purchase; I have been drinking the half-forgotten tea of flawed memory for years, a tepid beverage of apathy and sorrow.

I watched a hat dance on the grass by tween girls in neon pink pajama pants, silk tops, and hats so big that a mariachi tourist band would have been proud.  The girls kept rolling their eyes.  Can you believe it?  I’m up here, performing this dumb thing.  I applauded enthusiastically.

I watched a little bit of a martial arts exhibition in which one person threw another onto a plywood floor set on the grass.  Tonk.

I watched another set of dancers, this time on the main stage, that looked more Indian than anything else (but actually I have no idea).  The background track was prerecorded but the drummers were live, right in front of the stage.  The girls ranged from about eight to teenagers, and were all smiling.  Hee hee hee lookit lookit we’re on staaaage!  Maybe the difference was the status of the stage.

I watched kids and a pair of drunk women run around in circles in those floating inflatable tube things on the lake, the kind where you think, Oh I could roll that down a mountain no problem, and then you start wondering what would go wrong if you hit a cactus or a mountain lion or a very sharp rock.

I watched another boat race; for some reason it was just one boat, and was far more passionate than the first race I’d watched.  I think it was the drummer; this one was much louder and faster, anyway.

I looked at all the food places again:  had the lines gone down?  No, they had not.  Curses.

I started to feel faint from the sun and the heat and decided to go back to the bus.

Oh, God.

There was a line at least a hundred people long waiting for the bus, politely queued up in a web-strap maze (several people cut in line, the bastards, pulling up the strap and ducking under…one…two…three kids, two grandparents, parents…wave wave wave, you too…Oh Lord…).  I’m not gonna make it.  I’m not–

Fortunately, the line moved quickly.  Five minutes later I was not just on the bus but on the bus with a free lemonade in hand, which was probably a good thing.  I drank most of it on the way back.  The bus parked at the end of a long line of buses (which had to be only half the buses–what with the steady stream of them picking up passengers and bringing them back) and I was released back into the parking lot of the stadium, which damn had filled up considerably since the last time I saw it.

Drove back, stopped at Costco, got home, and collapsed for two hours with a cold washcloth on my head.

Signs of sunstroke:

  • High body temperature. A body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher is the main sign of heatstroke. I was frying.
  • Altered mental state or behavior.  Maybe?
  • Alteration in sweating.  Buckets.
  • Nausea and vomiting.  Nausea.
  • Flushed skin.  Yes.
  • Rapid breathing.  Nope, until I had to go up a small hill at the stadium–then it was almost panic attack time.
  • Racing heart rate.  See above.
  • Headache.  Ow.  Owowowowow.

If it hadn’t been for those buses, I would never ever ever  go back again.  The side streets, where they weren’t blocked off, were absolutely packed, I wasn’t feeling well, and it would have been hella easy to get lost on the way back to the car.

It wasn’t until I got back that I realized how miserable I still was, over an hour after I’d left the festival and subjected myself to the full blast of a/c in the car.

As it was, I had fun.

Lessons learned:

  • When Jen bothers to repeat something, it’s freaking important.
  • Pay attention to parking.  You can’t just go places and expect to be escorted to a convenient parking space, not for love or money.  There are just too damn many people.
  • Hats good.  Sunbrellas better.
  • I just finished my first cup of tea out of the new cup, and it was still hot.

 

 

*The book:  Eight Skilled GentlemenBarry Hughart.

 

 

 

Guest Post: James Aquilone’s New Zombie Detective Has a Kickstarter, See…

Dead Jack Kickstarter with Logo 560

James Aquilone writes fun, fast, funny, and twisty fiction; I’m thinking this is gonna be good.  He’s doing a Kickstarter on the project to a) make sure he raises interest in the series, b) pay for illustrations, and c) streeeetch toward funding an audiobook.  Read a sample of the book below–and check out some of his short stories here.

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James Aquilone has launched a Kickstarter to fund “Dead Jack and the Pandemonium Device,” the first book in a new fantasy/horror series about a drug-addicted zombie detective and his homunculus frenemy. Visit the campaign here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Dead Jack isn’t the best detective in Pandemonium. He’s just the cheapest. In fact he’ll work for fairy dust. But don’t judge. Jack needs it to curb his hunger for sweet, succulent flesh. In “Dead Jack and the Pandemonium Device,” the first book in the series, things go bad for the brain-licker after he tries to score from his old dealer. Jack and his homunculus sidekick Oswald find themselves on the run from angry leprechauns. But they have bigger krakens to fry, because Pandemonium is in danger of going bye-bye — and our duo is its only hope. Lucifer help them!

Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1666154725/dead-jack-and-the-pandemonium-device

EXCERPT

Waiting for My Wee-Man

I reached into my jacket for a Lucky Dragon once the shakes began. The undead aren’t known for their dexterity, so I had a bit of fun getting that hellfire stick. I was like a drunken mummy trying to do jazz hands. I burned off half the skin on my left index finger lighting the damn thing. That made four fingers now that were practically nothing but bone. If this kept up, I’d end up a skeleton inside a cheap suit and fedora. I doubt anyone would notice.

Being a member of the great unwashed undead isn’t all bad, though. I was happy for my dulled sense of smell. The alleyway stunk like rotten cabbage and sour apples.

I took a deep drag on my hellfire stick. Smoke poured out from the hole in my right cheek like exhaust out of a busted tailpipe. I sucked that thing halfway down and it barely made a difference. My hand still trembled like a virgin at a satyr convention. I needed fairy dust. Bad.

I had tried everyone in downtown ShadowShade, but no one was holding. Out of desperation I came here to Irish Town, in search of Flanagan, my old dealer.

Without dust, the hunger becomes overpowering, and when I’m hungry no one’s safe. I’d eat my own mother.

I had been waiting in the alley behind Finn McCool’s for at least an hour before the leprechaun finally appeared.

Flanagan isn’t your typical lep. First off, he’s not that short. Maybe five-foot-two. He’s broad shouldered, barrel chested, and someone you don’t want to mess with. He also has the saltiest mouth in all the Five Cities of Pandemonium.

As he entered the alley, he sang, rather jauntily:

“There once was a fellow McSweeney
Who spilled some gin on his weenie…”

A large sack was slung over his shoulder as he swaggered past the reeking dumpsters full of what must have been hundred-year-old cabbage.

“Just to be couth
He added vermouth
Then slipped his girlfriend a martini…”

“Sorry to interrupt that charming little ditty,” I said, and slipped out of the shadows as I blew smoke out of all the holes in my face. All nine. Real bad-ass.

The lep stopped deader than my libido. Like I’d caught him bathing naked in his pot of gold. (Leprechauns don’t really have pots of gold, by the way, but they are known to carry sweet, sweet fairy dust, the closest thing to heaven in this godforsaken world.)

The sack jerked and he gripped it tighter.

“What’s in the sack, Flanny? Someone didn’t pay their vig?”

“None of your fookin business. Now if you wouldn’t be minding. I have better tings to do than converse with a brain-licker.” The lep took a step forward, but I blocked his way.

“Look, meat bag, I don’t want any trouble.”

“No trouble. I’m just looking for dust.”

The lep exploded into laughter. He actually placed his hand over his belly. A real guffaw.

“You fookin dust head. Oh, Jackie boy, I thought maybe you were on a case.”

“Just a gram. The hunger is starting to eat through my innards.”

“You have innards? Figured it’s all just sludge inside ya by now. Like your brain.”

“The last time I went cold turkey, it ended real bad for some fairies. I went wilder on them than a pack of werewolves. I’m still not welcome in The Red Garden.”

“You ain’t threatening now, are ya, ya dead dick?”

My hands shook and my bones rattled as I held them up. It looked like I was trying to conjure a pixie spirit. “I’m desperate.”

“Then you’re out of luck. I don’t deal anymore. I have new opportunities.”

There was a clink, like a glass bell, and the sack flew up. Flanagan nearly lost his grip on it but was able to pull it back down.

“What’s in the sack, Flanny?”

“None of your fookin business, ya filthy corpse.”

He drove his shoulder into my crotch, shoved me into the wall, and took off down the alley.

Maybe the hunger had reached its apex or maybe I didn’t like the way he called me a filthy corpse. I didn’t mind the crotch shot. As for my zombie genital situation, let’s not go there. Either way I was on him like a werewolf on a moonpie.

About the Author

James Aquilone was raised on Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, sitcoms, and Cap’n Crunch. Amid the Cold War, he dreamed of being a jet fighter pilot but decided against the military life after realizing it would require him to wake up early. He had further illusions of being a stand-up comedian, until a traumatic experience on stage forced him to seek a college education. Brief stints as an alternative rock singer/guitarist and child model also proved unsuccessful. Today he battles a severe Tetris addiction while trying to write in the speculative fiction game.

His short fiction has been published in such places as Nature’s Futures, “The Best of Galaxy’s Edge 2013-2014,” “Unidentified Funny Objects 4,” and Weird Tales Magazine. Suffice it to say, things are going much better than his modeling career.

He lives in Staten Island, New York, but don’t hold that against him.

Website: http://jamesaquilone.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jamesaquilone/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/jamesaquilone

Rules of Thumb

So I’m forty-two now.  When I turned forty, I didn’t suffer from any extra insight into life or anything; I certainly didn’t have a mid-life crisis, unless you want to count having some random thoughts that I hadn’t accomplished much for my age.  Then I remembered how much time I spent trying to be the ideal wife and mother and “female,” and had to laugh.

Forty-two, though.

have wasted time.

It isn’t just that I spent all that time doing stuff that I was supposed to do for free, it’s that I internalized the logic of it and applied it to the rest of my life.

I believed I had no right to say no.

I could tell my daughter no, but only if she was going to hurt herself, short-term or long-term.  Everything else, I was supposed to be supportive and understanding of.

I could tell my husband no, but only if it conflicted with another duty that I had or was going to be physically detrimental (and even then, I was supposed to drug up and get over it).

I could tell other men no, but only because I was a wife and mother.

Everything else, I was supposed to bend over backward for.

Imagine how well that worked for me as a freelance writer and editor.

RULE OF THUMB:  No means no.

You only get the one chance.  As soon as I say no, and you don’t take that as an answer, you’re out of my life.  I do try to separate whining from trying to get around my boundaries, but only for so long–and then I know it’s not just whining.

Last October I had a stalker client that wouldn’t take no for an answer–fortunately he was overseas.  He harassed me over multiple emails, sending other clients of his to beg me to take him back, and still shows up in my spam from time to time.

I walked after the first time he wouldn’t take no for an answer–and it was January before he let things slow down.  Imagine what it would have been like if I had once said yes.  He never would have given up:  some people are addicted to the possibility that they might get what they want if they try just one more time.  Just ask anyone at a casino.

This was the easiest one to understand, but almost impossible to implement at first.

RULE OF THUMB:  Politeness counts.

Two chances here; it’s not as immediate a threat.  If you are rude to me once, then I challenge you to make sure the rudeness was intentional.  If so, it’s open season, although I generally tend to give people the boot.  They’re always so shocked that their behavior could possibly be considered unacceptable.

The root of politeness is treating other people as if their free will matters.  When you try to control people–or when you run over them because they’re in your way–that’s rude.  You don’t have the right to do what you’re doing.  You don’t have the right to be in my way.  You don’t have the right to feel differently on this issue than I do.  You don’t have the right to exist.

Now, some people like to take the issue of politeness and claim that people who insist on being treated politely are intolerant, because they aren’t tolerating other people’s actions and feelings.

Which is bullshit; “politeness” isn’t about putting up with other people’s behavior, no matter what.  It’s an agreement.  If someone refuses to, for example, stop calling me names, then there’s no reason to continue with the agreement and I am perfectly within bounds to be rude.  Politeness is the social embodiment of a game strategy for winning the Prisoner’s Dilemma–tit for tat.

If you are not censuring the people who are rude to you–you’re not being polite, just passive.

That one took a long time to learn but has been lots more fun.

RULE OF THUMB:  Equal standing

Here’s the new one.

If I have to tell someone to stop doing something twice, or if they try to make me “prove” that they need to stop before they’ll stop, then I gotta walk.  People who see you as their equals stop first and look for reasons after.

This seems to be what I’m working on this year.  Not only have I had to use it in my personal life and business life this year, but I’ve used it as advice for someone else.  It always seems to make more immediate, direct sense if I put it like this, though:

If you were having sex with someone and they hurt you, and you told them to stop multiple times and they didn’t or if they told you that you had to prove that you were significantly hurt (by their judgment, not yours) before they’d stop–you wouldn’t make excuses for them.  Why would you make excuses for the same kind of behavior in “real” life?

People who are interested in working with you rather than using you will work on keeping you happy and interested in the relationship, whether it’s personal or otherwise.  If you aren’t happy, they aren’t happy, and their priority when you express hurt or discomfort is to stop and find out what’s going on–whether it’s something that’s an issue on your end that’s not really their problem (like stress or overwork) or something on theirs (say, for example, a bad contract).

People who are interested in using you will work on controlling you.  Any behavior of yours that interferes with their control will be punished, regardless of whose “fault” it is.  Examples:  “Just suck it up, you big baby,” “Life isn’t fair, get over it,”  “You were asking for it,” “If you didn’t want to get burned, don’t go into the kitchen.”

But that’s not how this works.

Sucking up, in this case, means that you accept that you’re not the equal of the person who is hurting you, making your life harder, making you uncomfortable, etc.

There is no situation in which you are not the fundamental equal of another human being.  There are situations in which you give up some of your standing for one reason or another–but those are, or should be, voluntary, an agreement to be terminated at will, and which should be equitably recompensed.

When someone treats you as less of a human being, and it happens a lot, then you aren’t required to cooperate.*

For example, I just walked away from a client who wouldn’t stop doing something that was preventing me from doing my job, and who otherwise showed a pattern of taking advantage of me without providing equitable recompense.  I told him to rethink what he was doing twice; I gave him options.

He didn’t take them and tried to push me into accepting the same kind of treatment all over again.  To him, I was being irrational and he was being generous.

I walked.

Every time I put up with that kind of bullshit, it’s a waste of my time.

Forty-two.

I gotta wonder how much of my life was sucked down the drain over that one thing, the belief that I wasn’t worth as much as the people who were telling me what to do.

 

*And yes, I get that I’m saying this from a position of privilege, and that people are killed all the time for not cooperating with someone who thinks they’re better than they are.  Sometimes you do what you have to, in order to survive, and it sucks, and I’m sorry, and it shouldn’t be this way.

Defining Story.

So I’m only writing this down because my subconscious is insisting on it; I’ve been struggling with my actual, pays-me-money writing for the last two days straight, trying to fight off the urge to blog about this.

Because it is so supremely nutty.

(Don’t say that, you can’t say that, people will think you’re even more nuts than they already do.)

I’ve found a definition of story, though.  And it isn’t even mine, except that it is, because I went on an epic quest to find out something I already knew, and when you do that with something, it’s yours, like a smelly, matted-fur cat with bloody cuts on its paws and a missing tooth, which you have invited in your house with tuna.  Even if you kick it out, it’s coming back and peeing on things.

And so here I will claim the idea as my own (it isn’t) and let it move into my writer-brain, and move on with my life.

I’m pretty sure it’s the case that there’s no teaching people what a story is; you have to find out for yourself.  And you can’t just look it up; there are no sources that can accurately tell you what a story is.  Zeeeee-ro.   It’s not that it can’t be told; it’s that we don’t have the ability to hear.  Believe me, I’ve tried.

I mean, I just talked to a writer who told me about a session at a recent writers’ conference taught by the guy who writes the Dexter books.  He had this exercise where the students would take one story–I don’t know, The Da Vinci Code–and change it from one format to another (fiction to songwriting to a poem, etc.).  The idea, as far as I could tell, was that you were supposed to extrapolate story by noticing what fell by the wayside, and what remained.

But no:  that doesn’t define story.  That exercise, while possibly helpful, would never get me where I wanted to go.  I’m too analytical for that.  I don’t actually trust that kind of intuitive bullshit–you’re just supposed to know, and if you don’t, it’s because of some flaw in you, not the exercise.  Jeff Lindsay.  That’s the guy’s name.

(Personally, he struck me as a Conquistador who had found the Fountain of Youth quite some time ago and has been screwing around and bilking people out of money one way or another ever since.

(I was pressed into telling him that–he didn’t care for it, not one bit.  I may have turned him off to me personally, though, because before that I was talking to him with a rather conservative writer who went off the deep end with conspiracy theories earlier in the conference, and I suspect he had me labeled as a neo-Nazi after that.  I forget what the theory was exactly, but it left a ghastly frozen smile on my face at the time, the kind you get from whatever the Joker gasses you with when he wants to leave an amusing corpse.

(Anyway, no blood no foul, Jeff Lindsay.  And South Dakota is a real state, by the way.  If it weren’t, then the government couldn’t store all their quasi-mystical crap in a warehouse out in the Badlands.)

So what is story?

I don’t like to come right out and say it; you can’t get there from here.

I’ll give you one of those “what it ain’t” definitions:

It is not a diagram.

If you can diagram it, it’s plot.  Or narrative tension (whatever the hell that is).  Or emotional arcs.  Or character arcs.  Or timelines (a.k.a. plot).

Whatever.  It’s not story.

Like every single tool you could hand to a writer, diagrams are both a help and a hindrance.  At first they help you sort out the mush in your head.  But they can only take you so far, and then they start holding you back, and you either ditch that kind of thinking or stay in one spot, forever, like some kind of Greek demigod who got in trouble with the celestial CEOs.  Diagrams are hubris, I tell you, hubris.

If it’s a tool, then it’s not story.

Let me tell you, since I’m still not willing to come right out and say the definition, how I got here:  my epic quest.

It went like this.

First, I was a kid who ran around and made crap up.  I would walk and talk to myself (and anyone who would listen) for hours.  I made up some terribly vain things–for some reason, I would spend hours designing dresses in which only my main character would be featured in her adventures; I didn’t care how anyone else was dressed.  I thought they were so original, but of course they all happened to have broad shoulders, a v-shape somewhere in the waistline, and a somewhat-poofy skirt.  Ah, the Eighties.  Those dresses would make me look tough and yet still attractive, and I would have silver hair and silver eyes, because what I really was, was a dragon (let’s not pretend that I thought my parents weren’t my parents, here; it was more that I knew that we were all dragons and they were just too scared of revealing themselves to the outside world to risk telling me).

Instead, my eyesight got weaker and weaker.  I have terrible eyesight.  No silver involved.

And then, in high school, I ran into a teacher who kindly dragged me kicking and screaming into a writer program in which I was driven to the other side of a state with a group of teenagers who were all more interesting than I was, including the guy with the tan hair and skin, who was a communist and had sai that he brought with him on the trip.  Oh, God.  I was a boring, introverted kid.  Why they even bothered taking me I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine.

I had written a perfectly awful story.  When I got there, the coolest person there was a poet, who was also a dancer, who had long, curly black hair.  I wanted to be her.  Unfortunately, no.  Just no.  At any rate, I was stuck in a short story workshop when clearly where I needed to be was in the poetry workshop, with my Muse.

I survived that travesty and started writing poetry, typing it on the school typewriters and printing copies on the school copy machines.  It wasn’t great, but I got a couple of things published, and at least the school didn’t make me pay for making copies.  It was better than the fiction I was writing, at any rate.

Jump ahead:  I’ve written so much poetry that turns into some kind of tale that I’ve decided to break down and switch to fiction.  I don’t care what anyone says.  Fiction is harder.  (I’m up in the air about plays and screenplays and comic book scripts.)

Jump ahead again:  I’m deciding to stop screwing around, get serious about this writing thing.  I vow to write a hundred words a day.

Jump further:  I’m publishing an ebook on how the really important thing is to get the words done.  A hundred rejections, that’s nothing.  Your first million words, that’s nothing.

Jump even further:  I’m taking a ton of classes from a couple of professional writers, Kris & Dean, and eating increasingly large (and yet always insufficient) slices of humble pie.

Jump even further yet:  I’m at a backyard concert with my husband, I’m a full-time freelance ghost writer who can barely pay her bills, and I’m listening to a singer who’s pretty good but isn’t great, and I’m working out why he’s not great, and I come down to these three principles:

–Stories want to be retold

–Stories want to resonate

–Stories want to be remembered

But I still can’t put a finger on why the guy isn’t moving me, not the way some singers do.  He’s good at tapping into existing melody and song structures; the songs sound almost familiar.  And yet I can barely remember the song before the current song he’s singing, the songs are pretty to listen to but don’t give me any feels (that’s the current slang for “resonate,” by the way:  all the feels).

I’ve been putting together my list of Rs for stories for a couple of weeks now, maybe a month.  I threw some other items out, both because they didn’t start with Rs and because I wasn’t getting any juice out of them.  When I came up with the “retold” rule of thumb, new things started popping out at me:  here was a Cinderella story,  there was a high-fantasy Deadpool remake with less cursing.  As you do.

The “remembered” rule I came up with a couple of years ago, from reading the submissions pile (slush) of a couple of online magazines.  I had forgotten it for a while, but appropriately remembered it.  It seems self-evident, although no writer wants to admit their work is forgettable.  Forgettable work can be sellable…but it’s gonna get beat down by memorable work every time.

The “resonate” rule is the latest one, which I came up with at the concert–I just wasn’t feeling all the feels.  It’s not that I lack empathy, either.  (Although I definitely lack tact, which people seem to get confused for empathy a lot of the time.)  I was tapping my toe, nodding my head, and enjoying every aspect of the songs.  I just couldn’t remember it.

Until the guy got to his last song, and sang something about his goddamn bicycle getting stolen, time and time again.  At first he simply complained.  Then he admitted it was probably happening because he was kind of an airhead and a dreamer.  But finally he really just wanted to know who’d taken his goddamned bicycle.  It’s been days now, and I still remember that song.

It also happened to resonate with me:  I’ve been an airhead all my life.

Is the song “retellable”?  I don’t know.  I, personally, have no urge to retell it.

But what, I wondered, made that one song stick out?

It came to me.

Wait…that can’t be right.

I listened to the rest of the song, walked around in a daze, and babbled to my poor spouse all the way home.  Yes?  No?  I remembered that there might be a reference somewhere in the Sandman graphic novels to the same idea, the one I was chasing.  I knew who the character was who said it; I even knew the particular storyline and sequence where he said it.  (I was right about the character but not the sequence.)

I could tell you now; you wouldn’t agree with me but you might be able to see the rough direction that I was coming from.  But let’s wait.  Not to build up suspense but to note a caveat:

Human beings can take things that don’t go together and stick them together in such a way that they are a) completely plausible, mentally, and b) compelling, emotionally. So when I say something like “stories want to be retold,” I’m giving an example of that.  Stories don’t actually want anything.  They aren’t alive.  They have no free will.

They’re something, though, that appears to live and appears to have free will–because of how our minds are built.  “Rumors have a life of their own,” I can say, and that will resonate.  You know it’s true, even though it literally can’t be.

So before I get to my definition, let’s stipulate that a good story takes on a life of its own.  That life isn’t  like the lives of other stories, not really.  Bad stories are a lot alike; good stories–really good stories–are all different.

Sure, they can be retellings of other stories–Shakespeare ripped off everyone.  But West Side Story is not Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which is not Dire Straits’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  Not even close.

They share tropes; they share plot and other elements.  They’re memorable, they resonate; people rewatch and relisten to them all the time.

And yet they aren’t the same–and not every story based on the same lovers has the same appeal, plot, emotional arc, or even ending.  These elements are not the sum total of story.

So when I tell you, keep in mind that people sometimes credit intention and motivation to inanimate objects, like cars, and even nonexistent things, like Justice and Love (which are, by the way, both blind).

…and yet I still don’t want to tell you.  I want to listen to covers of the Dire Straits “Romeo & Juliet” and close off here, so that you’ll never know what I figured out, because it’s still not going to mean to you what it means to me, not unless you go on your own epic quest, and then you’re still likely to come back and say, “That’s not it, that’s not quite it…”

But no.  The cool thing is that I get to tell you what a story is, and it will still be a mystery.  (I think that would please at least one of the characters in Sandman.)

Here it is:

Story is a point of view.

Not, you know, like first person or third person omnisicient.  Story is a way of seeing the world.  That’s why people say things like “Stephen King could write a grocery list and I’d read it.”  Because it isn’t about plot, or character, or theme, or…whatever.  It’s about a guy who believes in scaring himself first, a guy who has a serious thing about Maine, a guy who plays guitar in a writer band, a guy who loves baseball and who bought the van that hit and almost killed him, so it wouldn’t show up on eBay.

point of view.

So while you’re shaking your head and pretending to ponder that (good grief, all that leadup, and that was it?), let me leave you with two things.

First, a link to a great version of Mark Knopfler playing “Romeo & Juliet” with an orchestra.  Because I don’t want this self-indulgent blog post to be a total waste of your time.  And second, the panel from Sandman (spoiler alert):

I think I finally get it.

(It’s okay, Abel.  I first read that line in 1997 and I didn’t get it then, almost eight years after I started my quest, and I didn’t get it for another nineteen years after that.  I’m not spoiling anything.)

You and me babe, how bout it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction: The Sixth Extinction

The fluorescent lights sound like bug zappers up and down the hallway. Everything smells of chlorine bleach and lemon-pine cleaner, so strong your eyes sting and your taste buds shut down. The floor shifts underfoot. Your husband tells you, jovially, that the constant sensation of feeling the ocean moving underneath you will eventually go away.

The door of your cabin has a key card reader. Okay, that makes sense. But next to it on the wall is a round door with a lock you can only open with a key. The door’s made out of metal and doesn’t match the wallpaper. At all. Nobody else’s door has a round…thing in the wall like this.

On the inside of the cabin there isn’t anything, no mark, no dent or bulge showing that there’s a locked, round, and hingeless panel in the wall on the other side.

The wall isn’t even that thick.

The matching luggage is unpacked and it’s time for supper, one of those buffets that start out as inviting and end up as a special kind of horror, the kind of thing you have nightmares about in which you can’t stop eating, no matter how uncomfortable you are, no matter how much everyone else is laughing at you. 

Your husband says it’s time to go.

You start to follow him, pretend to remember that you’ve forgotten something, and tell him you’ll catch up with him in a minute. You bat your eyes at him and he laughs.

You retreat to the bathroom in the cabin, a tiny space that resembles an alien testing facility more than anything else. You turn on the fan and wait for five minutes. He knocks on the door and asks you if you’re all right, then laughs when you tell him just one more minute. After another five minutes, he laughs again and leaves. You hear him close the cabin door. 

When you were unpacking you saw the key in the drawer. You palmed it, then shoved it in the minuscule pants pocket in your culottes that nobody ever uses. The last place, you’re sure, that anyone would look.

You step into the cabin, then check the corridor. Empty, except for a man in a crew member’s polo at the far end. The lights flicker.

You put the key in, eyes locked with the distant shape waiting at the end of the corridor.

The ship moves underfoot, your eyes sting, everything wavers.

Then the door opens.

Later, you ask for a refill on your green tea, which looks like swamp water.

“I paid for all this booze,” your husband says. “Aren’t you going to drink any of it?”

You rub your stomach. “Maybe in a day or two,” you say. “On shore.”

The Captain passes your table, pats your shoulder, gives you a smile.

—THE END—

Note:  I just finished The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert.  I’ve also been working on subtext lately.  Then came Becky Clark’s invitation to write a short story (at 200 words max) based on a photo she posted on her Facebook author page…as you can probably guess, I ran overlong and wrote a story she’s probably gonna hate 😛  What are ya gonna do?

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