Busker For The Dead (Part 1)

I don’t have that look. Some people do, but I’m not so lucky. I don’t look like my profession. I’m a busker. Don’t laugh, it’s a living. Problem is, when you shut your eyes and picture a busker in your mind, be they small or tall, slight or portly, I will never fit the bill. I have the unfortunate appearance of someone whose job title is preceded by the word man. Milkman. Mailman. Garbageman. Just not a streetmusicman.

You may be asking why this is important. Fair enough question. When you’re panhandling for money—come on, let’s face facts, street performing is begging with a musical accompaniment—having the look of a starving artist plays as much a part in getting people to part with their hard-earned cash as talent.

“Oh, look at the poor wretch having to sing for his supper, let’s toss him a pittance, shall we, dear?”

Some of the others have nailed the look down from the hair that refuses to be tamed to the ragged clothes just over the borderline from being hip and trendy. Me? I look like a well-fed blue-collar worker trying out a new hobby. That’s why I have to work twice as hard to earn half as much as my compadres. My audiences tend to be tight-fisted, self-absorbed philistines that expect blood for the bits of copper they toss my way.

Oh, I should probably mention that I busk for the dead.

Not the kind of job you rush out and apply for. Me? I kinda just fell into it. Turns out a friend of a friend knew a guy who used to work for the cousin of a woman who lived next door to a guy who was complaining that his employee just up and quit on him. Seems he couldn’t handle the stress of performing in Perdition, which I can plainly understand now.

What? No, I’m very much alive, thanks for asking. My work ID acts as a sort of day pass and allows me to mull about in Hell without experiencing any of the torment and damnation. Kinda cool, but it takes some getting used to.

Although it’s a paying gig, it ain’t enough to cover rent and bills—minimum wage in Hell is murder, no pun intended, so I rely heavily on the gratuity chucked into my hat. And yes, the dead have real money. Don’t ask me how that works. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the day pass into Hell thing.

My spot is the corner of Abaddon and Wretchedness, and while a part of the overall design of Hell, it’s technically Limbo, the waiting area where souls are processed and dispatched according to assessment. And as time moves differently in Hell, the wait can be an extensive one, so you figure folks would jump at the chance to experience anything that takes their minds off the situation at hand. That is so not the case. When facing damnation, the furthest thing from their minds is to listen to anyone sing. This is made evident from the contents of my hat. Today’s take so far consists of three dollars and eighteen cents in coins, a stick of chewing gum, a balled-up snotty tissue, and a punch card from some boutique java spot with one punch away from receiving a free coffee. The coins stay in the hat, the gum in my mouth, the tissue—ick—in the trash, and the punch card in my pocket. I’m not one to go in for designer coffee but like The Police sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”

“Not what I expected,” a voice says from behind, nearly startling me out of my skin.

I turn to see a woman in her sixties, seventies, maybe—I’ve never been good at guestimating people’s ages—all done up as if for a night on the town. “You’re not the first person to say that.”

“And is it just me or is it chilly here?”

She was right, you’d figure being so close to Hell there’d be some sort of radiant heat, but there was a constant wind that blew shivers down the spine. “Not just you.”

“You’re not half bad, you know.” the woman said, looking into the hat. “You deserve more than that.”

I look up and down the avenue, We’re the only two people on the street at the moment. “It’s like they say, it all comes down to location, location, location.”

The woman opens her purse, a small clutch bag that’s a throwback to a classier time, and produces a two-dollar bill. “I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of carrying cash, so this is all I have.”

“It’s the biggest tip I’ve received in a long while.” I smile as she places the bill into the hat.

“Not that I’ll have much need for it anymore.”

“Not unless you were crossing the river Styx.”

“You mean the ferryman doesn’t accept the card?” the woman pulls out an obsidian credit card. “I was told never to leave home without it.”

It’s an outdated reference, but we both chuckle at it.

“If you’ll pardon the intrusion,” the woman asks. “How did it happen?”

“How did what happen?”

“How did you die? Peacefully, I hope.”

“Oh, no. I’m not dead, I just work here.” I show the woman my day pass.

“How interesting.” and she appears to actually find it interesting but her expression drops.

“What’s the matter?”

“It would be my luck that the first conversation I strike up in the afterlife would be with a living person. I was sort of hoping to find a travel companion for what lies ahead. I’ve always dreaded doing things by myself.”

“I’m not sure that’s how it works here. I think isolation is part of the torment process.” I realize what I’m saying just a smidgen too late to pull it back.

“Torment. I hadn’t considered that.”

“Sorry.”

“Not your fault. You’re not responsible for my sins.”

“I know I’ve just met you but it’s hard to believe you’d have anything to worry about.”

“Kind of you to say, but we’re all sinners in one fashion or another. I just wish there was a way for me to plead my case. I believe my sins were righteous.”

“You can always try.”

“No, no. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.”

“Maybe if you practiced, rehearsed what you want to say? You can try it out on me and I’ll give you my honest feedback.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“What have you got to lose? If you botch it up, you’re still being condemned anyway, at least this way you’ll have had your say.”

“Like my final words?”

“Exactly.”

She contemplates it long and hard. “All right then, if it wouldn’t be a bother.”

I gesture up and down the block. “Not like I’m doing anything else. Ready?”

“No, but go on.”

I straighten my posture and assume an authoritative voice. “You stand here accused of the sin of…”

“Murder,” she adds, sheepishly.

“Murder,” I repeat, stunned. “What say you in your defense?”

“I don’t deserve to be here. I was sent to the wrong place. I did what needed to be done, what no one else had the courage to do and now I’m being punished for my actions.”

“And whose life did you take?”

“My own.”

“Why?”

“Others would have died if I didn’t.”

Not The End…

Do You Blindside Yourself With Your Writing? If Not, Why Not?

“Surprise yourself.  If you can bring the story—or let it bring you—to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader.” — Chuck Palahniuk

Has your writing ever blindsided you? Have your characters ever caught you off guard by saying or doing something clever or revealing a bit of information that you yourself didn’t know? When re-reading a piece that you set aside to cool, have you ever wondered where the ideas, voices, and speculative elements came from and if you have any more of that inside you?

The answer is: Of course, there’s more.

Writing is a journey of discovery, and one of the great pleasures of storytelling is that you discover the amazing things that dwell in your brain, things about yourself and your thought processes that you might not otherwise uncover. And besides self-expression, isn’t that the major point of writing?

So, how do you blindside yourself with your talent? You simply let go.

Get out of your own head and write on instinct. Park the perfectionist on the soft shoulder and write your ever-loving heart out. This is part and parcel of learning to be kind to yourself as you write. Your genius can’t flow steadily with someone backseat editing the entire trip. You can always swing back around and pick up the bugger when you’re ready to begin the rewrite.

And don’t begin your story fretting about how it will end. Your story is smarter than you give it credit for. When it’s done, you’ll see the pop-up timer.

It’s essential to keep in mind whenever you pick up a pen or touch fingertips to keyboard that you’re doing it from a position on the shoulders of the literary giants who came before you, the ones who surprised you with their words, so every time you write, you should follow their lead and surprise yourself.

Until next time, sally forth and be surprising yourselfingly writeful.

PS. If you have roughly an hour to kill—I know, it’s the internet and you’ve got memes to see and threads to troll—you could do a lot worse than lending an ear to Ray Bradbury’s 2001 “Telling the Truth” keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea.

Not only does he counsel aspiring writers to spend their time writing lots of short stories—even if they’re mostly bad, there’s gotta be a couple of good ones in the bunchbut he also suggests to write with joy and for fun, and to let yourself be surprised by your writing and by life.

Tiny Stories: The Million Dollar Choice

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

The cloth bag placed over her head not only prevented her from seeing where she was being taken but also blocked out all sound. Erica had no idea technology like that even existed. When the bag was removed, she found herself seated in a small nondescript room with a high-end tripod-mounted camera trained on her.

On the table before her sat an open attache case filled with twelve stacks of $100 dollar bills, eighty-three used and non-sequential notes to a stack. Beside the case were two glasses of red wine, one untampered with and the other laced with a deadly toxin.

Erica heard about things like this, private rooms on the dark web where people with money, people to whom a million dollars wasn’t life-changing like it was for her, but merely pocket change, wagered on the lives of the desperate and destitute. There were Russian roulette rooms, perverse puzzle rooms, and deadly escape rooms. She had gotten off lucky, she supposed. Hers was a simple fifty-fifty choice.

If she chose correctly, Erica stood to walk away with enough tax-free money to pay off her debts and do things the right way this time around. The smart choice would have been to ignore the invitation in the first place and find some other way to repair her damaged life, but she was inflicted with a serious gambling disease, something she inherited from her mother, and the opportunity was simply too good to pass up.

The catch? She was a lousy gambler, notorious for making bad choices even when she second-guessed herself, and her fatal flaw was that she could never pass up a dare or a bet.

Erica wasn’t allowed to touch the glasses before making her choice, so her eyes darted left to right, from one to the other, looking for the slightest discoloration between the two, and she even sniffed the air above each glass, which was pointless. These people were professionals and whatever lethal venom they used was no doubt undetectable by sight or smell.

She had a feeling in her waters that the one on the left was the dead cert unpoisoned wine glass, but was it strategically placed just a half-inch closer to her to make her select it subconsciously? Then she opted for the one on the right but suspected she was outfoxing herself. Then there was the possibility that both glasses had been tampered with. No, she couldn’t allow herself to think that way. Morty, the guy who set up this bet, had always been a straight shooter. He looked out for her whenever he could. Even when you made a habit of dealing with less than reputable people, you had to place your trust in someone. So Erica girded her loins and went with her initial instinct.

Was it her overactive imagination playing tricks on her or did she feel a static shock of electricity as she lifted the glass on the left by the stem? She tilted the snifter slowly, praying to the gods of luck and good fortune, and the moment the chilled wine touched her trembling lips, she knew…

The Island of Misfit Posts #2: No Enemy But Time

Like its predecessor, Discouraged by Discouragement, this pesky fella here is another one of those posts that didn’t quite turn out as expected and ended up on the cutting room floor (though a part of its sentiment made its way into You’re Where You Are). Caught somewhere between my musings of growing older while still struggling with the craft and my intent of advising impatient writers to slow down, the post started taking the shape of something neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring:

“Do you think, I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable!” — Julius Caesar

When you reach a certain age, you become acutely aware of time, how much you’ve squandered on things you swore were important at the moment, and how little you still have left in your account. Whenever I get the time brain bug, I’m always brought back to the line from Delmore Schwartz’s poem, Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day (quoted in that horrendous film Star Trek: Generations), “Time is the fire in which we burn.” I love that line. It resonates within me.

But I digress.

Many aspiring authors feel the pressures of time, either believing because of their age that they’ve gotten a late start in the writing process and need to play catch up, or simply haven’t got the proper time to devote to a writing regime, so they attempt to bang out herculean writing tasks without bothering to first learn the rules. They assume because they’ve taken on board the advice to write everyday that their skill set automatically improves and mistakes auto-correct themselves. They read, as instructed, but fail to apply storytelling rules—plotting, story goals, scenes and sequences, the purpose of characters, effective use of dialogue—to their own work.

That’s not to say their writing is bad, it simply lacks a consistent quality. A beautiful bit of prose or a dynamic character can easily get lost in the quagmire of weak grammar, poor pacing, and a meandering plot. Recognizing it can sometimes be hard to turn an objective eye on your own writing, here are a few questions to ask yourself, to see if you need to go back to writers boot camp:

1. Do you tell a story?

I assume you’re familiar with the phrase, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” This applies to your writing as well, especially when you’re concentrating on your piece at the word choice and sentence structure level. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and get a big picture view of what you’re attempting to do, what it is you’re really trying to write about. The answer isn’t always as clear cut as you’d imagine.

2. Is your writing concise?

This one’s a toughie, because it calls on you to chuck out everything you learned in school about the proper way to write an essay. Well, this ain’t about writing essays, bub (or bubette, no gender discrimination here) and the rules of pacing language are different in fiction. The first rule you need to learn is: Never use a long sentence when a short one does the same job.

3. Are you addicted to adjectives and adverbs?

Adjectives and adverbs are among the more hotly debated issues in the writing community, and while opinions vary, the common rule of thumb is less is more. It can be hard to spot over usage while writing so when you’re done with your piece, look for chains–a string of adjective and adverb two or greater—and whittle it down until you’re left with one or two essential ones. Also worth bearing in mind, when you feel the need to modify a noun or a verb, make sure they need to be modified. If they do, select the best word to convey your meaning.

4. Are you familiar with the word “subtle?”

Your audience is smarter than you realize. There’s no need for you to spell everything out in exacting detail. And, believe it or not, some folks actually enjoy interpreting things for themselves.

5. Should you be shifting viewpoints?

Hopping from one character’s head to another without causing audience confusion requires a certain level of skill, and I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t be doing it (and if I told you not to, you’d rush out and do it anyway) but why not baby step your way towards it? Work on mastering the one character viewpoint first.

6. Do you show too much?

Yes, the standard rule is “show, don’t tell” but you don’t need to show everything. When in doubt, refer to Elmore Leonard’s rule,”Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

7. Do you create apathetic characters?

You’re an artist, your work is all about the truth, even in fiction. I get it. I’ve been there. But creating a realistic character based on your current bout of apathy, depression, or (heaven forbid) suicidal thoughts, often doesn’t make for good reading. Your characters must have wants and needs to push the plot forward. Audiences have no need to read stories where the characters have no desire to live or accomplish something.

8. Is your antagonist one dimensional?

Villains that are evil for evil’s sake are boring. Flesh them out with wants and needs like you would your main character. And remember, every villain is a hero in their own mind.

9. Does your dialogue matter?

Yes, leaving white on the page is a good thing as no one like slogging through dense blocks of description, but are you breaking up paragraphs with bits of meaningless chatter? Dialogue should be used as a communication between characters that evokes reaction. One characters says something that another character reacts to, which sparks a reaction, and so on, until the scene concludes. If you have no idea what your character has to say, then you don’t know your character well enough.

10. Can you write an ending?

Some people excel at writing beginnings, and that all they’re good at. Each chapter is a new beginning, with no middle to be found and as for an ending? I’m sure you can work out the answer to that. Other people get off to a slow start in the beginning, come into their own in the middle and peter out at the finish line. Let’s face it, endings are tough. Not only must you keep it clear and simple while you deliver on the promise of the premise (without being didactic), but you have to tie up all your story’s loose ends, and if you’re planning to surprise your audience, it shouldn’t be with an inappropriate twist, added for shock value. Keep in mind that writing the words “The End” doesn’t finish a story if it has no resolution.

In truth, I couldn’t finish it because I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind at the time. Although it might not be visible in the post, that damned time brain bug kept nagging at me, not with words, but with a feeling — the feeling of being left behind in the race for achievement. Before you say a word, I know better. In fact, one of my favorite quotes on this matter comes from the now-famous commencement speech, Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:

“The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

But we’re human, aren’t we? And sometimes knowing a truth doesn’t prevent you from feeling the exact opposite.

Sally forth and be time-ignoringly writeful.

Tiny Stories: Muse For Sale

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

I know the original classified ad read:

WRITER’S MUSE FOR SALE: Well-worn around the edges. Ridden hard and hung up wet. Can handle whining insecurities. Willing to trade for a large meat lovers pizza and a domestic 6-pack.

but I have to be honest with you, I like my muse very much but my super-jealous, super-insecure girlfriend does not, so I am forced to rehome her.

She’s fashion-forward and we’ve been together for 10 long years. She enjoys playing board and card games, is a nite owl, has acquired a taste for expensive meals, is double-jointed (hey, you never know when that might come in handy), knows how to distill beer, grows her own pot (for medicinal purposes only, of course), has constant access to free concert tickets, has an open-minded twin sister (hey, you never know when that might come in handy), knows how to handle herself in a bar fight, has absolutely no interest in learning about your fields of interest, and has a tendency to be a bit of a jerk at times (time-out step not included…you’ll have to build your own).

She also receives occasional visits from her shady brother, Gronte, who, once invited inside your house, is the thing that will not leave. He’s a griffulous, groffulous grue. Nobody likes Gronte. Not. One. Solitary. Soul.

So, if anyone’s bored, lonely, or desperate enough to take a petty, spiteful, and controlling girlfriend off my hands, come and get her. My muse and I want her rehomed as soon as humanly possible because we’ve got some serious work to get back to.