You’ve done your research, worked your mental fingers to the bone, and devoted all your time, energy and attention to detail into nailing the anatomy, structure and formatting of your very first short story/novel/poetry piece/article/screenplay, before sending it out for mass consumption.
And you wait, and wait, and wait, and wait for a response. When it finally arrives, your eyes will skim over the body of the letter and lock in on one sentence:
“After reviewing your work, we’ve decided that it isn’t a good fit for us and we’re going to have to pass.”
Don’t let that sentence shake you. Very rarely is a writer’s first written work good enough to be marketable. It takes experience to craft a truly sellable piece, experience you’ll earn by pressing on. This written piece leads to a second and a third and eventually you’ll find an editor, publisher or what have you that believes in your potential.
“To believe a thing impossible is to make it so.” – French Proverb
Everyone talks about the writer’s toolkit and all the utensils it should contain, but writers also need to have a storehouse equipped with a shelf that holds just one thing:
The belief that anything is possible.
I’m sure you’ve already sussed that if someone has done a thing, you can do it, too, once you’ve set your mind to it. But have you ever stopped to consider that even if no one has done this writing task that’s swimming around in your brain, you still can do it? All you need to do is cut out the middleman. You really don’t need anyone else to prove that your project is possible. You can just go on out there and do it for yourself.
Don’t worry, I’m not gonna sell you a load of universal law bollocks like “everything in life is possible because you’ve been gifted with all the necessary tools, skills, drive and connections you need to make it happen.” If your aim is to do the impossible, you’re gonna have to work at it. Hard. That’s a fact.
Now, you’re no doubt saying. “Okay, I get that it takes drive, dedication, passion and the right mindset, but let’s get to the meat of the nutshell. Just how do I do the impossible?”
I’m glad you asked.
1. Find the cost of your impossible. You know very well I’m not talking about money (cross that financial bridge when you come to it). Failure is the coin of the realm if you don’t reach your seemingly impossible goal, and you pay by taking in the pitying glances from the mundanes that use you as an example of why the impossible must never be strived for. You pay by watching your dreams burn to ash before being scattered by the winds of harsh reality. You pay by having your creative center scooped out of you with a melon baller.
Those, of course, are simply my silly examples. As stated previously, very few things in this world are impossible. Most times the price is just too high. You need to take a moment and truthfully examine what the personal costs to you will be (time, relationships with friends, family, etc.) and if you’ll make the commitment to remit payment should the ferryman demand a toll for crossing impossible waters.
2. Take baby steps towards the impossible. Once you’ve zeroed in on that impossible writing endeavor, start small. Slip on your water wings, dip your big toe in the shallow end of the pool and learn the basics. The impossible isn’t one gigantic thing, it’s a series of things that increase in difficulty or complexity. Splash around in the kiddie end of the pool and get yourself acclimated to the waters before you decide to breaststroke your way into the deep end.
3. Handcuff yourself to inspiration. Some people create a vision board with images, inspirational sayings, and the like. I know, these got a bad rap after Rhonda Byrnes’ book, The Secret, came under critical fire, but having a visual reminder of your ultimate goal is akin to keeping your eyes on the prize.
Others surround themselves with likeminded people or people who have achieved some level of success in the same or similar fields. Buddy up to them, pick their brains—politely and tactfully, of course—and find out what motivated them. Learning from someone else’s experiences, though your own will undoubtedly be completely different, can help you avoid potential pitfalls up ahead.
4. Stop gabbing about it and start doing it. It’s great having a goal to achieve and having done all your knowledge-gathering groundwork and psyching yourself up to the point where you become a one person cheerleading squad, but a lot of people get stuck in that complacency gap between research and action. You’ll know you’re there, if you talk about conquering your impossible task more than you’re acting on conquering your impossible task.
Making it happen is the point where your inspiration gets put to the test because it’s where you’ll begin running into obstacles and roadblocks, where excuses for why you can’t take action start springing up like daisies.
The workaround? Micro-goals. Remember when we talked about baby steps? Get used to them because you’ll be taking a lot of them. Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch. Set daily tasks, give yourself deadlines and milestones and keep in mind that you will have bad days, encounter setbacks, and misstep along the way. It’s all part of the process when conquering the impossible.
And get out of the habit of beating yourself up if things don’t go your way. Things will change as you begin to work towards something new, but the great thing is, your plans are not set in stone. If something doesn’t work, switch things up until it does. You’re a shark from this point on, always moving forward.
5. Celebrate the completion of micro-goals. Why shouldn’t you? You’ve just taken a chunk out of the impossible. You’ve pressed your nose to the grindstone, torn down mental barriers, plotted courses around obstacles. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back.
6. Do it again with the next plateau. Don’t get too full of yourself, you’ve still got a ways to go. The good news is, you now know the impossible is possible. Go get ’em, tiger!
Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. —- Theodore Roosevelt
The act of bollocksing it up, getting it all wrong and falling flat on your literary face is the worst, most evil thing that can be thrust upon the fragile ego of a creative person. No writer ever wants to be standing hip-deep in a congealing bucket of epically proportioned failure. Not only does it cling to you, branding you with the scarlet letter of incompetence, but the fumes from it seep into your pores and attack your confidence, enthusiasm and self esteem.
And even worse than failing? Atychiphobia:
From the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear” or “morbid fear” and atyches meaning “unfortunate” atychiphobia is the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure, often leading to a constricted lifestyle, and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness to attempt certain activities.
But “fear of” is getting kicked to the curb in this post because—if you haven’t sussed it from the title—I’m actually advocating for failure, which in my insolent opinion, gets a bad rap.
When you first begin to write for an audience, or writing in a genre that’s new to you, or in a different format, etc., your first attempts will most likely not be optimal. No two ways about it. No getting around it. Why? Because your life isn’t a movie, wunderkind wasn’t conveniently inserted into your backstory, and greatness isn’t DNA-encodable at this point in time, it still has to be strived for.
You. Will. Fail. Fail to connect with your audience. Fail to notice logic issues in your plot easily spotted by a reader. Fail to end a story properly (if you even complete it at all). Fail in your use of words to convey the intended images. Fail to make a sale. Fail to impress your literary heroes. Fail to please everyone (always), the majority (on occasion), and anyone (trust me, it happens).
The only surefire way to avoid writing failure is to either never commit your ideas to paper–let them swirl around in the magical kingdom of your imagination, living their Peter Pan existence, as you vegetate in front of the TV–or never put your writing out into the world. If either of these sound like a viable solution, good on you and go for it. I’m not here to judge.
If, however, you’re not satisfied with letting ideas fester in your gray matter as you wait for the opportunity to unleash your genius in that perfect moment that never ever seems to swing around your way, you’ll need to look disappointment square in the eye and accept the fact that the outcome of your writing endeavors will not always line up with your expectations.
And though I’m not here to judge, should you actually consider never committing your ideas to paper, one possible adverse effect is that idea can metamorphosize into a bloated squatter that takes up an unnecessary amount of mind space, thereby blocking the arrival of new ideas. If it were me, I’d serve it an eviction notice and make way for a new tenant. But that’s just me. Still no judgements.
Once you’ve wrapped your noggin around the simple truth that you will fail and have given up feeling hopeless, weak, and belittling both yourself and your talents, you’re finally ready to accept the fact that failure plays a very important, incredibly positive role in your writing life. In fact it offers you a chance to grow and learn.
The first step in learning how failure breeds success is to let yourself fail a few times. Experience it in it’s totality. When you discover that it does not, in fact, destroy you, feel free to brush yourself off and climb back on the horse. All successful writers have experienced failure (and a great deal of the time the success/fail ratio favors the negative) but what made them successful is they weren’t afraid to fail and if they did, they just learned from their mistakes and moved on. They didn’t allow themselves to be defeated by rejection, hurt or disappointment.
There will be those of you who poo-poo (yeah, I said poo-poo, deal with it) the notion of getting accustomed to failure because you personally know someone whose first ever novel made the bestsellers list, whose first draft screenplay became a Hollywood blockbuster, whose tweets became a TV series, blah-blah-blech. There’s a professional name for that phenomenon. It’s called a miracle. Right place, right time, all the planets fall into alignment. This is great when/if it happens, but you shouldn’t factor it into your overall game plan. It’s akin to being dirt poor and signing the deed on a mansion just because you’re sure you’re gonna win the lottery.
Well, writing calls, so I must be off–I’m sure I’ll speak more on this topic in the future–but before I go, let me leave you with a list to help you on your way to palling up with failure:
Somewhere between the synopsis and the treatment lies the plot outline, also known as a one page. Typically one-to-three pages in length, the plot outline is the bare bones of your story before it’s fleshed out with action description and dialogue.
Although there are no hard and fast rules on the level of detail that should be included, a standard plot outline generally contains:
The protagonist and their goal.
The antagonist and their goal.
The supporting cast and their main wants.
The five major plot points (as mentioned in a previous post)
The order of events and sequences.
A list of scenes that properly convey the story.
And if want to keep the anatomy of a plot outline in mind but you happen to be the forgetful type, have I got just the t-shirt for you: Plot Outline Tee (Hey, don’t even @ me. There’s no point in having a blog if you can’t indulge in a little shameless promotion every now and again).
“Show, don’t tell” is one of those bits of advice that gets handed to aspiring writers in writing courses, advice columns, blogs, seminars, and while it may seem simple on the surface, many scribes can’t differentiate the two in their own work.
Telling a story is the blunt delivery of facts. “She was pretty.” “He was hungry.” “They were angry.” Yes, it does get straight to the heart of the matter, which makes it ideal for journalism and academia. But for prose it’s too antiseptic and puts distance between your work and your audience. Your goal as a writer is to immerse the audience into the world and allow them to experience things, people and places for themselves.
How does pretty look on this woman? Is it in the way her terracotta hair carelessly cascades over her delicate shoulders? Or do her eyes have a certain indefinable sparkle to them, making them alluring and sensual, with a touch of mischief? How would you describe hunger? The growling of a stomach and salivation in response to the Pavlovian stimuli of the school lunch bell? And anger, believe it or not, offers you a larger palette to paint from when you explore the other emotions—hurt, fear, grief, exhaustion—at play within it.
So, how do you bring the “show” into your writing?
1. Dialogue – This is the easiest way to let your audience experience a character’s mood and emotions. The catch is to avoid “on the nose” dialogue (I’ll get more into this in another post) which simply means having a character say exactly what they mean. Not only is it bland and boring, it’s unrealistic. In real life people speak in subtext, hinting and beating around the bush, secretly nudging conversation toward what they want to know and even then have to decipher the other person’s true meaning.
2. Sensory language – Using words and details to add color and depth to writing by appealing to your audience’s senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell, emotion) in order to let them fully experience what you’re writing about.
3. More descriptive, less adjectives – The tendency of most fledgling writers is to slap a string of adjectives together to describe an action or scene. But being descriptive is actually about selecting the right words and using them in moderation to put your meaning across. Remember: Adjectives tell. Verbs show.
4. Be specific – Want to frustrate your audience? Try using fuzzy language. Offering up vague sentences like, “It was a pleasant night”, “She was a strange-looking girl”, “His life was a mess”, doesn’t serve you as a writer. Why not invest the time and effort into describing the feeling of a scene and working out the best way convey it to your audience?
Does this mean everything you write should be “showing”? Of course not. Especially when you’re dealing with the dull bits of the story such as travel, transitions, unimportant characters, etc. Instead of boring your audience by expounding on necessary but not particularly interesting details, just say it and move on.
Speaking of moving on, I’m out of here. Sally forth and be writeful.
In a previous post I mentioned keeping the demons at bay and decided today I’d explore that in slightly more detail because there will be days, despite all the brilliant advice you’ve collected up to this point and your very best intentions, when you will not be able to write a single word. I just need you to realize:
You. Are. Not. Alone. In. This.
Every writer falls victim to these pesky writing demons at some point, but what marks your ability as a serious writer is how you rise to the challenge and get your writing back on track, secure in the knowledge that you have the power to keep the negative mental beasties at bay. As always, I offer a few tips for you to stuff inside your writing rucksack for a rainy day:
When you pluck an idea from the ether, jot it down immediately. Ideas arrive without warning and evaporate from your mind like a dream upon waking. When you’re hit with an idea, you’re always sure you’ll remember it. Foolish mortal. How many story ideas have you lost relying solely on your overtaxed memory? When an idea hits, take a moment to put it in writing–we tend to remember things we physically write down–or carry around a digital voice recorder or use that recording app on your smartphone that you forgot you have.
Don’t start on a blank page. La página en blanco. La page vierge. Die leere seite. Lamalplenanpaĝon. Den tomma sidan.Built entirely of writers blocks, the blank page is the fire in which writers burn. The abyss that stares back and makes us overthink committing words to the page. The way to combat it? Don’t start with a blank page. Put something at the top of the page. Anything. A random sentence, the story’s mission statement, or ask a question. Better yet, have a character ask a question and then set out to answer it. Whatever you put there isn’t set in stone and can be altered or eliminated entirely once you work out what you truly want to write.
You don’t always have to begin at the beginning. Sometimes you’re hit with a juicy dialogue exchange, or a powerful scene, or an intense interaction… but it belongs somewhere in the middle of a story that you haven’t quite sussed out yet. That’s all right. Take what you have and get it down on paper without worrying about the order in which scenes are written. Once you have that, you can begin fleshing out other connecting scenes and when your basic draft is done, you can go back, reshuffle the order and polish it.
Stop waiting for the perfect word. When you sit down to write, write. Flipping through your mental thesaurus is not part of the creative process of capturing your ethereal ideas and solidifying them on the page. Keep writing. Don’t let anything take you away from the act of committing words to the page. Write first, show your brilliance later.
Cheat on your favorite writing spot. Yes, yes, cheating is a bad thing and I would never condone it anywhere else, for any other reason (honest), but sometimes you can become so comfortable writing in one particular place that it ends up being the only place you can get your writing done. By venturing out and writing in new locations–the park, public library, coffee shop, public atriums–you’re training yourself to put words on paper wherever you are. The ideal location doesn’t make you a writer, your ability to write no matter where you are situated does.
Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. There’s only so much revision, re-editing and perfecting a story can take. There comes a time in each story’s life when you’re going to have to accept that your baby is all grown up now and it’s about as perfect as you can make it. Also, continuously reworking a story is a little mind game you play with yourself. It’s an excuse for not starting on the next story, the one that really needs your attention. Stop holding yourself back. On to the next one.
Develop agitation towards procrastination. It’s not your friend, really, it’s not. Despite how clever you think you’re being by justifying your reasons for not writing, you’re only hurting yourself because writing doesn’t get easier the more you fob it off. It simply means you have less time to do it. Writing isn’t the enemy here, time is. Make time to be heard.
There are many other writing demons and some time in the future I’ll address the more serious ones–insecurity, self-doubt, jealousy–but I will leave you with two parting thoughts: 1) Part of maturing as a writer is coming to the realization that your writing will never be the perfect little darling in the real world as it is in your mind, and 2) Writing something that’s acceptable (but not quite perfect) is a damn sight better than not writing anything at all.
You write for yourself. More daydreams than proper stories, your writing at this point appeals to you more so than other people. These stories tend to reflect your desires and fantasies and may contain in-jokes and references unfamiliar to a general audience.
You strive to break free of your narcissistic writing shell and communicate with a broader audience, but your reach exceeds your grasp. You’re aware of what you want to write but you’re caught in that in-between space of partially-developed and fully-fleshed-out stories. This is usually where you begin receiving your rejection letters. Keep these. Sure, they’re crushing at the time but they’re great to look back on once you’ve sold your work.
Your stories have begun to flesh themselves out but they’re still not where they need to be structurally and/or technically. This is also where you begin to work on improving your character development.
You’ve acknowledged and tackled all the problems in the previous stages, and though you haven’t totally mastered them yet, you can compose stories competently enough to jam your foot in the doorway of the professional writer field.
Are there other stages? Sure, and I’ll address them in a later post (this should be more than enough for you to gnaw on for now), so until next time…
Hate to be the one to break it to you, but solid writing skills don’t suddenly blossom overnight. Like any skill, it has to be learned before it can be mastered. Your writing ability is a weapon unique to you, no one else has your voice, but raw talent isn’t enough to help you wield this weapon effectively. First it needs to be honed by patience, determination, experience, and the 10 practical tips listed below:
WRITEEVERYDAY – Writing is a muscle that needs to be exercised to get stronger. The blank page is that jogger’s path in the park you walk past everyday, the treadmill tucked in the corner of the garage, the exercise DVD that never quite found its way into the player, the dusty and unused gym membership you purchased at the beginning of the New Year. It’s the thing you need to show up for everyday in order to get it to work for you.
DON’T PROCRASTINATE – Sometimes you can be too smart for your own good. Knowing how difficult and painfully agonizing writing can be, you begin hearing the siren call of all the things that attempt to lure you away from planting your hinder in a chair and committing words to the page. Sometimes you justify it with useful endeavors (housework, laundry, errands, and the like), other times you hide behind the white lie of doing research on the internet, or you flat out vegetate and do absolutely nothing at all. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of these activities… you simply don’t do them when it’s time to write.
FIGHTTHROUGH WRITER’S BLOCK – I’ve already addressed this in a previous post and since I’m not in the mood to repeat myself, you can read my thoughts on writer’s block, as well as some possible solutions to get you back into the flow here.
LEARNFROMTHEMASTERS – You may have noticed (head to the back of the class if you haven’t) that I continuously post lists featuring the thoughts, rules and writing habits of famous authors. The reason should be obvious. They’ve been where you are now, handled what you’re currently struggling with… and they made it through. Who better to get advice from? It’s like that old story:
A man walks down the street, not paying attention where he’s going and falls into a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you. Can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, “Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. The man is dumbfounded, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”
FINDYOURMUSE – If you haven’t found your muse yet, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. And woe betide the scribe who only seeks inspiration online. There’s a time to interweb—truth of the matter, you can overload your brain to the point of creative blockage or total shutdown—and a time to get back to basics by venturing out into the world to experience things that catch your attention and identify the things that motivate you to be creative.
KILL YOUR DARLINGS – You love your stories to the point of looking at them through the eyes of a proud parent. Nothing wrong with that, you should be proud of them, they’re your creation, after all. But are they healthy? Are they at the right weight or are they unnecessarily bloated? Editing is the balance in your writing, the order in chaos, and it’s every bit as grueling as struggling through writer’s block. But once you master this, you’ll be amazed to discover how your writing style changes.
ASKFORFEEDBACK – Don’t even fix your mouth to ask me why. You know the reasons (you’ll become a better writer, writing will become a less painful process, blah-blah-blah). When you might need feedback is probably a better question to ask. Maybe you’ve just plotted out a story and want to run the idea past a family member or friend? Or perhaps you’re halfway through a draft and you’re unsure about the direction you’ve decided to take. Essentially, asking for feedback helps you break out of the isolation of writing and you’re no longer working in a vacuum, wondering whether or not you’re making yourself understood. Seeking feedback from others is taking positive, constructive steps to improve your own writing and develop as a writer. And develop a tough skin because not all of the feedback you get will be positive.
READ, READ, READ – Stephen King once wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” and if you don’t believe that and don’t like to read, you shouldn’t pursue writing as a profession. Reading good writing can teach you about structure, dialogue, pacing, plot, using symbols and imagery to convey a point. Reading expert writing gives you something to strive for, as well as keeping you humble; there will always be writers out there who are better than you, just accept it. You can even learn lessons from reading bad writing (Why doesn’t the dialogue flow? Why are scenes dragging? Why don’t i care about the characters?).
STUDYTHERULES, THENBREAKTHEM – Learning to be a more efficient writer can be a chore—it’s always daunting trying to adopt a new way of working. Stepping outside your comfort zone is never fun and rules generally tend to seem restrictive. But before you ask, “Why can’t I just pick and choose stuff that suits me?” consider that in order to be able to choose the bits to use and the parts to leave behind, it’s necessary to first learn all the rules before you can go cherry-picking through them.
KEEP THE DEMONS AT BAY – That brainbox of yours is a Pandora’s Box jam-packed with surprises and miracles and as-yet-untapped genius… and the counterbalance to that are the demons that nurture that tortured writer’s spirit you possess. They feed on rejection and whisper fear and doubt in your ear, but since they’re a necessary evil, it’s important that you develop the ability to silence them while you’re writing. Nothing gets between you and your writing, especially not some crabs in a barrel mind demons.
Sally forth and be writeful… and enjoy honing your craft.
He looked wild and unhealthy in the most horrible way possible for someone on the living side of the grave. His light-skinned thin face was a roadmap of scars and lesions, some old and scabbed and some fresh, moist and pink. The skin that circled his storm-gray eyes was a sickly brownish-purple color, that lent him a dark psychotic appearance. Even his hair was in bad shape, being matted in places and choppy and uneven in others. The interface sockets drilled into his temples and wrists seemed out of place; shiny buttons of chrome spit-polished to perfection. Like a beautiful new brass doorknob on an old weather-beaten door.
“Hate to say ‘I told you so’, but—” Marv flashed her a smile. Yellow, ragged teeth clenched around the cigarette butt. He adjusted the rumpled clothes that hung off his anorexic body like a tent. In his current condition, he looked more like the national poster boy for The Euthanasia Campaign, rather than one of the Eurasian Alliance’s Most Wanted.
Talitha watched his eyes take her appearance in. Her hair was cropped short, reddish-brown, curly. Her skin was a beautiful copper color. She recently lost a few pounds which brought her down to 121, which she considered to be her optimum weight.
“Are you alone?” Talitha asked, letting her eyes quickly dance around the room but always snapping back to her target, in case he decided to make his move. The only move he made was with the cigarette hand, bringing it to his lips for a quick toke.
The studio, stripped of the cheap grandeur it once laid claim to, was small. There was barely enough space to fit the little table and two stools that sat across from the stove and sink. To the right was an alcove that held a toilet, no sink, no shower, and no door. To the left, where Quinton stood, was an unrolled sleepmat. Atop the little table was an ashtray made of foil, an open can of Albanian beer, a dusty and scratched cybermodem with connecting interface wires, and some half-melted candles. Come to notice it, there were candles all over the room, on the stove, the sink, the floor.
Most importantly, on the floor, by his right foot, was a pistol. She brought her own gun to bear and targeted the spot between his eyes, her lips skinned back from her teeth. “Slowly kick the 9mike-mike my way, now!”
Marv hesitated a moment, looking at his Browning and its distance from his hand in relation to the slamtracker’s finger to her gun’s trigger. He sighed and complied, kicking his pistol across the wooden floor.
“Turn around and assume the position,” Talitha said.
He took a long last pull on the cigarette, crushed the butt in the ashtray, turned quietly and leaned against the wall, hands flat, feet spread apart. Talitha bent her knees and reached for the Browning, never taking her eyes off Quinton, and tucked it into the waistband of her slacks. She moved to her bounty and patted him down. Nimbly reaching into the largest of the advantage belt’s compartments she produced four very thin metal bracelets, two with green markings and two with red.
Talitha turned him to face her and Quinton obediently held his fists in front of him. She gently but firmly took him by one shoulder and pulled him down vertically, knees and back bent in a crouch, his hands positioned close to his ankles. With a series of clicks his wrists and ankles were cuffed. The bracelets had no chains or bars linking them. The slamtracker stepped away and triggered a device. Dim green and red lights emanated from the bands and they homed in for their counterpart. Two sharp clinks resounded when magnetized metal rings touched. She had arranged the bands so that his left wrist was shackled to his right ankle and vice versa. Unable to keep his balance in the awkward position, Quinton landed on his butt, knocking over his stool.
She did a quick scan of the toilet. Quinton was alone. In the periphery of her vision, she could see him sitting on the floor testing the magnacuffs.
“Forget it,” she said, holstering the Glock and examining the Browning. “To separate the cuffs you’d need to exert five hundred pounds of pressure in both directions.” Marv continued testing the cuffs anyway.
“Why didn’t you shoot me when I first walked in?” she asked, holding up his gun as if to say it’s loaded and functional.
“Not my style,” he looked up from the cuffs. His eyes, although weary and bloodshot, were sharp, intent, intelligent. “When I aim that gun I don’t shoot people, I shoot obstructions. I shoot aberrated ideologies. I shoot the future that has no place for the individual, only the corporate. The things that hit the ground when I squeezed that trigger were definitely not human. Maybe at one time, but not when they came to me.”
“You can’t glamorize killing. I do enough of it to know.” Talitha sat on the stool nearest her. “There’s nothing poetic about what you did. Nothing justifiable.”
“Since when isn’t freedom justifiable? Who decides that?” There was a twitch in one of Quinton’s jaw muscles.
“The survivors of murder victims.”
“And if you murdered me right now, could my survivors claim your freedom? Your life?”
“See this face? Not impressed by your word games.”
“They’re only word games, Ms. Slamtracker, if you’re on the losing side. When you’re winning, they’re indisputable facts.”
“Secure that crap, okay?”
After a long silence, Quinton said, “Murder me. Give my people a cause.”
“Your people? You mean—what is it you call yourselves now—The Midnight Raiders?”
“That’s what you call us. The media spoon-fed you a label and you lapped it up like a good corporate doggie. I’m talking about the hapless, the wretched, the destitute, the impoverished, the indigent, and unprovided for. All the underdogs are my people. They’re the stuff of lore. The kindling that keeps the flame alive.”
Talitha stared at him through slitted eyes. “Underdogs? How can you say that with a straight face? You’re part of the largest terrorist organization on three continents!”
Quinton’s intensity seemed to spark around his shoulders like electricity. “Since when is it terroristic to fight for freedom? When the movement first began, we held anti-corporate law protests, which was our right, to have our voices heard, to demand justice and equality. The response? They passed laws against us, claiming we were a menace to the EA Nations.”
Talitha glowered at him. “There are ways of fighting that don’t violate the law.”
“These corporations you work for, whose values you uphold and defend, siphoned billions of dollars from public programs that should have been used for food and shelter, creating a homelessness problem, which they sought to solve by rounding up the homeless and turning them into unwilling human subjects. They carved up the brains of public assistance recipients to implant software, wetware, data and storage chips, at first just to test the effects and later to create nonvoluntary data couriers. They connected toxin sacks to these people’s vital organs to force their cooperation. How can they expect us not to fight back?”
“Spare me your recruitment propaganda,” Talitha said and placed Quinton’s Browning in her waistband at the small of her sweat-stained back, adjusting it for comfort.
“Did you know the very first ‘Rinthjock, the guinea pig that was fitted with prototype interface sockets, was a woman on welfare?” Marv didn’t wait for her response. “Documented fact, look it up. In order to receive benefits for herself and her four children, she had to agree to submit herself for testing. The techies who created the method of downloading data directly into the mind without having to constantly slice open a skull and install datachips, devised a way to patch the human nervous system into a direct computer link via the major nerve trunks in the wrist and base of the skull. The process placed her in a vegetative state and to get a better understanding of what happened, they vivisected this poor woman, whom they considered intellectually inferior, and then had the nerve to rename the internet after her in tribute.”
“Her name was Labyrinth?”
“No, they weren’t interested in making a martyr out of her so they hid their tribute within a longer word. Her name was Arinthia Simpson.”
“You know, I let you go on to see if I could make some sense out of what you’ve done,” Talitha said. “But this dump is a sauna and I’m not in the right frame of mind to listen to zealotry at the moment, so be quiet, while I call this in.”
Double-tapping her right temple, Talitha activated her comm implant and held her thumb to her ear while speaking into her pinky. She called in the bounty and arranged for a wagon to swing by for the pick-up. All there was to do now was wait.
They sat in silence for nearly a half-hour, each with their own thoughts, until Marv said, “I read in a news article about a torture gadget the Eurasian Alliances Science Guild makes to sell to foreign countries that are still run by military dictatorships. Our own police agencies help by selling them torture equipment like this headband I saw. It’s worn like a skull cap and clamped on tight. Tiny pins on the inside of the band pierce the forehead, through the skull and into the brain. When activated, the headband selectively fries the forebrain with a jolt of current. Most of the victim’s memory is eradicated, leaving enough to implant an easily controlled pseudo personality into the empty brain, creating a killing machine.
“Our corporations manufacture these headbands. It’s made here, mass-produced in sweatshops that employ poor people at slave wages. Most of them don’t realize they’ll be wearing that cap eventually for some minor infraction that a rich person can simply buy their way out of. Mind you, I’ve only seen photographs of the headband; not the torture, just the results.”
“What did I tell you about—”
“Not spewing propaganda. Just making conversation to pass the time,” Marv said. “That wagon sure is taking its sweet time getting here. You positive it’s on the way?”
“It’ll be here, so why don’t you just sit there and reflect on your life choices.”
“Can I just tell you about this chair I saw?” he asked but didn’t wait for an answer. “It was a picture of an ordinary wooden chair bolted to the floor in a room in Chad where people had been tortured. There were no people in the photograph, but you knew from looking at the chair, from the blood-soaked back and seat that people had been tortured there. Women and men, light-skinned and dark, rebel and scapegoat, sane and crazy. In Chad, in Nova Scotia, in Cuba. And if it’s there for foreign dissidents, you know it’s here for native ‘Rinthjocks.”
“Of course, because you’re beset on all sides by the tyranny of evil corporations, blah-blah-blah.”
“Do you know the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist?”
“I’m sure you’ll enlighten me,” Talitha rolled her eyes.
“It’s what side of the line you stand on. I’m on the freedom fighter side. How about you?”
“I’m on the side that upholds the law, the side that has to listen to your lies and whiny nonsense about being forced into a way of life not of your choosing. And when I don’t subscribe to your bullshit, then I become the enemy and that gives you the right to kill me.”
“That’s not what we—” Marv started.
“You weren’t born a rebel with interface sockets and firearms, it’s a choice,” she said. “You made a conscious choice to live outside the law and enforce your own brand of justice and you don’t even have the decency to explain yourself and own up to your crimes. Why is that, Mr. Freedom Fighter?”
Quinton squirmed a little to get comfortable in his crouched position. He was used to the heat so it didn’t bother him much but he noticed Talitha could not say the same. She had tied a rolled handkerchief around her head to keep the sweat out of her eyes, but was helpless to stop the dark crescents that grew under her armpits. “I’ll explain it to you, the way my mother did to me,” he said, keeping his tone even, gentle but not condescending. She was the one with all the weapons, after all.
Avenue B was crowded with petty consignees who made their living as best they could. DNA, RNA and organ banks. Barter firms. Boosterware outlets. Gambling holes. Hotels. Bars. Trixiepens. Bodegas. Prosthetic surgeries. Hockshops. Each animated with the cadence of people turning profits, the murmur of small enterprise, the barbed aroma of sweat and adrenaline.
Talitha Manchand inched her way out of the vendor clutter and holographic psychedelics of the avenue and jetted down a hotel-lined sidestreet. Three quarters down the block, she hooked a sharp left and spun the ’13 GeoPlymouth Cloudburst into a convenient alley. Guided by its lasertracking system, the hovercar maneuvered effortlessly through a maze of dumpsters and garbage cans, kicking up a mini-storm of grit and paper trash. The Cloudburst stopped a few feet from the back entrance to the Forgotten Realm Hotel, gently lowering itself on its flexible skirt. When she killed the engine, the skirt deflated and retracted into the car’s underbelly housing. She flicked on the dome light and slipped the Glock 19 out of the holster secured under the glove compartment and checked the load.
Flicking off the dome light, she climbed out the car, checked the alley, holstered the Glock in her advantage belt and walked over to the hotel’s back door. The sonic padlock was ancient; she picked it with a high-frequency whistle normally used to stand off attack dogs. With a soft click and a push of the door, Talitha stepped into a cluttered urine and sex-scented stairwell that used to be a service entrance and ghosted her way through the lobby.
The lobby loiterers were pretty much what she expected: snuffheads, scavoes, jonniegirls. Each in their little cliques, dialoguing. Except for a rail-thin stimfella, who was dealing stims to a skud, she might have gone unnoticed. The skud looked so hard up for a fix he probably would have snorted potassium cyanide. Behind the stimfella were two husky goons on the lookout. Definitely his billyboys.
“HEY!” the skud yelped as the stimfella pushed him to the side and walked away. “I slid you cash, so where’s my stash, man?”
Talitha knew there was no way the skud was up to going toe to toe with the stimfella but jonesing muscles sometimes made a weak man strong. And judging by the way he was listing and clutching the left side of his torso, he probably sold a lung or kidney to enjoy the uncollected stim.
“I’m talking to you, man! You deaf, or just stupid?” His answer came in the form of sledgehammer fists. The billyboys beat him to the ground and all he could do was bawl out in anger against their fury, trying to protect the recent surgery stitches.
The stimfella swaggered on an intercept course with Talitha and his billyboys, having made short work of the skud, weren’t too far behind. All three men stopped directly in front of her, blocking her path.
“Name’s Trent, jodie. Whatcha doin’ in the Paradise?” the slump-shouldered stimfella brushed blond locks out of his eyes and rubbed a blemish on the side of his aquiline nose. “Your man not servin’ you right? Lookin’ for a jock to rock your box? You found ‘im. I promise you a screamin’-and-creamin’-yabba-dabba-good-time,” he said, licking his thin dry lips.
“Fuck off,” Talitha said, before her brain could catch up to her mouth. There was no way this was going to end peacefully.
“Best put some speck on the way you talk to me, ‘fore I have to do it for you, the hard way,” The stimfella said, grabbing his crotch.
The billyboys exchanged glances and laughed. This was a game to them, Talitha realized. They were out for shits and giggles. Their laughter faded when Trent, sporting a lime green weasel-suede leisure suit, reached into his breast pocket, came out with a yellow plastic inhaler and fired a round up each nostril. He absently passed the inhaler over his shoulder for his billyboys to divvy up the dregs. Talitha studied the stimfella. A full head taller than she, confident, tough and tanked up on some stim that probably boosted his reflexes and gave him an adrenaline buzz. Someone was going to get hurt.
Talitha considered it might be her, so she tried to sidestep. Billyboy one and two flanked their boss left and right and circled her, smiling, Trent lashed out at her face with the back of his left hand, a bitch-slap, what real men used to keep their women in check. This punk regarded her the same way he did his stimmed-out trixies. Someone he could slap around one minute and get them to go down on him the next.
That was all it took.
Talitha’s body went wild. Blocking the slap with her forearm, she snagged his wrist with one hand and slammed the heel of her other palm into his elbow. The impact forced the elbow joint to bend the wrong way with a moist, popping sound. Trent’s scream trailed his collapsing body to the floor.
Billyboy One came in from behind and tried to get Talitha in a headlock but before his arm locked around her throat, she slammed the back of her head into the biliyboy’s face, smashing his nose. At the same time, she hooked her foot behind one of his knees and forced it to buckle while shifting all her weight against him suddenly. They toppled backward. When his head struck the tiled floor, his grip loosened and she rolled out of his arms and drove her elbow down into his solar plexus.
The remaining billyboy was over her suddenly, shifting his weight to his right leg so he could kick with his left. Talitha ducked inside the kick with her arms close to her chest. Then both arms shot out one after the other and her tiny rock hard fists slammed into the billyboy’s testicles like pistons from an ignited car engine. The quadruple punch doubled the man, forcing him to topple over Trent’s body and crash to the floor in a fetal position.
Talitha rolled to her feet and brushed herself off. She glanced around the lobby, her expression explicit. It said, simply: Next?
The cliques slowly scattered, loiterers making their way towards the exit. They recognized the fighting style and pegged her as slamtracker.
“Now that they know what you are,” said a voice from behind the front desk. “They’re probably planning to bum-rush you when you leave.”
“The least of my worries,” she mumbled.
The desk clerk, who’s nametag read: ADEL, was a nondescript beaker-bred hermaphrodite who looked as androgynous as they claimed Bowie did in his heyday. Adel seemed mildly amused, glancing past Talitha to the three moaning men on the floor.
The skud picked himself up unsteadily and began rummaging through the stimfella’s pockets. Trent made a weak grab attempt but the skud stomped down on Trent’s broken arm. The stimfella shrieked, eyes rolling into the back of his head, and the skud returned to his scavenger hunt, taking all the stims and money he found.
Talitha thought, maybe, if he hurried to the organ bank, the skud could get his old lung or kidney back, or even buy new ones. More likely, he would forego the organs and buy more stims. He was visibly bleeding from where his stitches popped, but he seemed rather pleased with his ill-gotten gains. He pocketed his goods and on his way out the door, he kicked both billyboys in the face, obviously the icing on his satisfaction cake.
Talitha turned her attention back to Adel, flashed her credentials and said, “You know why I’m here.”
“I’m the one who called, but don’t go thinking I’m some sort of snitch. I just needed the finder’s fee for an emergency, that’s all,” the clerk said and pushed a slip of paper toward her. “That’s his room number.”
“Not my concern how you justify it, as long as the information is accurate,” Talitha started for the elevator, spotted the OUT OF ORDER sign then made for the stairs instead.
The Forgotten Realm lived up to its name. Calling the place low-tech would’ve been high praise. Most of the mechanix here were decades old. Still, Talitha had to admit she was slightly impressed that the whole place was put together from salvaged materials. Shame no one here jerry-built an air conditioning system. She was on the nervous side to begin with, add that it was the last night in July, and it made for a woman who gave off enough sweat to cure the Delaware drought. Walking up twenty-three flights of rickety stairs didn’t help the matter any.
Talitha heard the stairwell door close behind her. Her left hand adjusted her advantage belt to put the more suitable compartments in her reach. The Glock 19 mini 9mm trembled in the grip of her tense right hand. She debated whether or not to leave the safety catch on. Her index finger rested near the trigger.
Cold fear poured down her spine as she started down the long, empty hallway. She licked her lips, trying to taste some courage. The Glock grip itched her palm. Her breath was quick. She paused outside the door number scratched on the slip of paper. Standing off to one side, she tweaked the doorbell and waited. Nothing. She put her mouth to the apartment’s intercom, ‘Marv Quinton?” Still nothing.
The locks on the door were electronic; finger-idents that were programmed to the renter’s fingerprints that could only be overridden by special 4-digit codes. Child’s play. From one of the smaller sections of her advantage belt she pulled a device roughly the size of her thumbnail. It looked like a tiny calculator. She placed it on the lock panel and it took all of fifteen seconds to tumble the locks.
As soon as the pneumatic door opened, her stomach quivered. “Mr. Quinton?” Talitha called into the doorway of the jet apartment. No answer. Not that she expected one. If he felt up to having company, he wouldn’t have made her pop all three of the finger-idents on the door.
Her weapon readied, she stepped inside. The door hissed shut behind her, the locks snapping closed. Darkness swallowed her like a hungry animal. The heat was three times as severe inside, made worse by the stale air. “Lights on.” she spoke to the ceiling, but nothing happened. Either he had disconnected the light mechanism, or this dump wasn’t fitted with voice activated halogen strip lighti—
To the left, the tip of a matchstick scraped along the warped wooden floor and burst into life. The barrel of the Glock swung left, her body following and she planted her feet firmly apart, slightly bent, thumbed the safety off and braced herself to lay into that corner of the room.
Laughter. Man’s laughter, as the match rose to light the tip of a cigarette. She couldn’t see his face clearly, the flame played eerie shadow games with his features. He sat on a stool in the corner, looking like a gargoyle on a precipice.
“You should be more careful when you violate someone’s space. If I was as mental as most make me out to be, I would’ve flatlined you at the door,” the gargoyle said. He blew out the match and was devoured by the shadows again, all except the fiery tip of his cigarette.
“Marv Quinton?” she tried becoming less of a target, stepping away from the spot he saw her at, but the floorboards creaked, giving away her movements.
“Depends on who’s asking,” the cigarette tip bobbed up and down as he spoke.
“Talitha Manchand, ‘Rinth police.”
“You mean slamtracker, don’t you? ‘Rinth cops don’t come this far out when they can hire local.”
“Fine. I’m a tracker, okay?” she swiped at the sweat on her forehead.
“Not in the dark, Mr. Quinton-“
“Not in the dark, Mr. Quinton!”
“I have my reasons.”
“NOT IN THE DARK, MR. QUINTON!”
“The years haven’t been kind to me.”
“Did I ask you all that? I just need to viz you, okay? It’s regulation.”
Quinton stood up and reached over to hit the old fashioned manual lightswitch. Two dusty fluorescent rings flickered on and Talitha squinted until her eyes adjusted to the light, and it took all the self-control she had to keep from flinching.