Writing Practice 2/24/2018

Write about irritation…

You know how sometimes you get that little bit of raw spot on your butt because you’ve been wiping too hard, too long, right on that same spot?

You know how your little brother is always singing that same chorus, over and over, an dover and over again?

You know how your partner, whether you’re in a fully recognized, legal-status relationship or not, has those little quirks that just get under your skin and bother you? It’s not like it’s really offensive enough to throw you out of the relationship – not a deal breaker or anything – but it is something that just makes you say, “Oh, no, not this shit again?”

You know how your parents are getting on you to clean your room, even though you don’t see why it should be clean, you don’t mind it like that, it seems perfectly fine to you that there are clothes and books, and candy wrappers, and old tags from the shirts your grandmother bought you three months ago, and Monopoly money, and your viola, and your homework , and your best friend’s harmonica, and your sister’s glasses case, all on the floor, you don’t really mind it, it just takes a couple of steps, a little bit of extra concentration,and you’re good, you can lie down in the bed and read a book and you don’t even notice the extra socks and hangers and the old burned-out light bulb that’s there, and since it’s your room you don’t even know why they bother trying to understand or make you clean it up, because, sheesh, it’s not like they have to sleep there, anyway, they have their own space, dammit, they have enough to do to keep a job and hold down a place to live, and why are they wasting their time wondering about you anyway?

You know how your parents are always annoying you with their insistence they’re not going to move to a nursing home? That they’re totally fine and capable of taking care of themselves, except that in the past month there have been: (1) small fire in the kitchen, and (2) falls, one for each, and (3) instances of forgetting to put the trash out to the curb on Tuesday morning, and (4) examples of forgetting the neighbor’s names, and (5) calls from the library, to You, to ask you what the password is for logging on to their account so they can renew their books. Yeah, none of those things, by themselves, are bad enough, but on the whole they make a good case for Assisted Living, and while you know they’ve got the money for it, your sister out in Nebraska doesn’t want to see them go, she’s just beside herself with worry, and yet you can’t help but fear it’s less about the care (or lack thereof) they’ll receive, and it’s more about the $$$ in her eyes, trying to angle for that inheritance to help pay off her own law school debt (currently in applied as she awaits Tommy and Angelina’s graduation, she absolutely must be their mom, they just can’t get on without her).

So, yeah, that’s a bit irritating, don’t you think?

Extremely Bad Advice – Unhappy at Mealtime

Dear SJ:  I’m 8 years old. My parents are giving me really bad food and I don’t like it. Like mushrooms and onion soup and stale bread and whole milk. They say it’s good for me, but I don’t believe them. I think they are lying. Should I believe them? How do I get them to give me more of the things my friends have that I like, like pizza and macaroni and cheese and hot dogs?

HANGRY IN HARRISBURG

Answer:
 I’m so glad you asked this, HANGRY. I’ll go out on a limb and say that you’re likely not the only one wondering the same thing.

Who gives a fuck whether you eat your vegetables, right? It’s not like that has any bearing whatsoever on your future life. We all know obesity comes from just eating too much, so I’m sure you’ll figure that out on your own in a couple of decades and be just fine. [Yes, I wrote “fuck” to an 8-year-old. I’m sure he knows that word already. I mean, the kid goes to public school, so he’s probably had that on his spelling list for 2 years. And even if not, you think that pandering YouTuber trying to get past the last level of Super Mario Clitlicker really gives a flying one how old or innocent his audience’s ears are?]

Anyway, here’s what you have to do. You probably don’t remember it, but a few years ago, there was a sure-fire way for you to get any goddamned thing you wanted. It’s called a “temper tantrum”, and by age 2 you had mastered it.

When you want something, just start shouting the thing you want really, really loudly, over and over at the top of your lungs. Don’t bother asking, just demand from the first offense. When they put down a bowl of rice and veggies, but you want pizza, it goes like this: PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! PIZZA! Don’t stop till you get it. Or pass out trying. If that happens, take a lesson from your future college self: wake up, throw up, and get right back at it.

Want mac & cheese? That’s easy. MAC-AN-CHEE! MAC-AN-CHEE! MAC-AN-CHEE! MAC-AN-CHEE! MAC-AN-CHEE! You didn’t mention popsicles, but what fart-sniffing booger-eater like yourself doesn’t want one every day? PA-SICKLE! PA-SICKLE! PA-SICKLE!

Accentuate your demands by demonstrating your complete contempt for what they’ve already provided. Dump whatever swill they tried to pass off as food on the floor. Stale bread? Wipe your ass with it and dump it on their plate. Onion soup? Looks great in their bed. Mushrooms? Try this: put one in your mouth, swirl it around to get it good and slobbery, then just drool it right into Mom’s purse. Shouldn’t take more than two or three of these incidents to train them in the new order of things.

And remember: when they try to object, you’ve got leverage. They’ll try to say something like “Now, HANGRY, stop misbehaving or we’ll give you a spanking.” Your best, first, and only response is simple, since you’re now old enough to read a phone book and, I presume, have achieved the hamster-level IQ to use a phone: “Do it and I call Child Protective Services on your lazy asses, you bastards. Now where’s my raspberry Ring Pop?”

Composing a Story: Part 1 of X

Recently I have been writing a new story. Fantasy-horror, I suppose, though much more fantasy and not much horror. This is my first completed genre story in a while. I edited one in January, and have written some smaller things here and there, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to “THE END” of a story on my “potential topics” list in a while.

I won’t say much about it, but I will use a few posts here and in the next couple of months to chronicle how I’m going about crafting this story, how I’ll revise it, how I’ll plan to submit it. So: since I just completed the first draft and now plan to let it sit, I’ll just give a few thoughts right now.

Working title: Death at the Door

This will certainly be changed. “Death at the Door” was just a way for me to name it so I’d have something other than just a story number to remember it by.

Word count: About 11,400

So this is “long short story” or “short novella” length. But I like what has gone into it so far. My plan will be to cut at least 10% of the words for my next draft, then get some feedback, then rewrite as necessary. Sometimes this adds words, sometimes cuts. My expected final word count is somewhere between 9,500 and 13,000.

Writing days: 16

Started January 29, finished February 18. Skipped 6 days in the middle. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t writing. Most days I was working on something else.

Writing sessions: 17

I was aiming for 500+ words each day. Got that on Feb 13 with 2 sessions. Two days, on Feb 15 and 16, were 330 and 220 words. I was dealing with some other crap those days and didn’t make quota. All the rest were pretty solid. Today I made a big push for the end and got 1,900 words to finish it out.

Next Steps

I’ll let this sit for a while. I think in the rest of February I’m going to do a lot of writing practice (exercises, free writing, etc.) and also look back through some of my older, unsubmitted stories and see if I can pick out one to edit and finalize. Probably won’t come back to this until the end of March. After my revisions I’ll throw it out to a couple of review groups – maybe my Odyssey friends, maybe an online forum. Maybe by then I’ll have a local writers group who can critique for me.

After revision, I’ll start submitting. Because I would be thrilled to win, I’ve found myself submitting to Writers of the Future first for most of my stories recently. This one is no exception. But since I don’t expect to win, I’ll then send this on to Fantasy & Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, etc. Watch for updates later on this process.

Writing Practice – 2/17/2018 – Bad Date

Write about a bad date – on the calendar:

You see it coming from far away. The anticipation begins to build well before. It’s like it is hunting you, stalking you, lying in wait to ambush you as you creep along the forest path. It is a panther, large, sleek, terrifying, destructive, waiting for you, and you are helpless to stop it.

You see the beast ahead – you recognize the telltale signs of its lair, or its path, or its spoor, mocking you, teasing you, berating you for days, weeks, a month ahead. “Ha, ha,” it says, “You’ll be here soon enough! Can’t avoid me!”

And as much as you hate it, it is right. You cannot avoid its presence. You cannot avoid the memories it contains. Whatever happened, way back when, will continue, through our collective conscience, to surface, time and again, every year, like clockwork. April 7? March 24? January 30? These happpen. All. The Fucking. Time.

You cannot ignore them. You cannot go out of your way to ensure they don’t happen again. We don’t get the option to jump from May to July and totally skip June, forever avoiding that date on the 24th that reminds us of when dad died, when mom left, when our heart was broken, when we broke another’s heart.

We don’t have that luxury. Our path through the forest is one way, and there is no deviation from it. We see our enemy, our predator, our anti-joy lying in wait for us, and it fills our hearts with dread, with desire to turn, to run, to flee, to scream “No! Not this time!” And take to our heels, crashing through the undergrowth and breaking free of its inevitability. We long to separate, to dissolve whatever unimaginable bond it has over us; to rid ourselves of the mental & emotional shackles it somehow still holds – but we cannot. This is an impermeable chain. The metal binding us is of our own making – we have forged these bonds in the fires of our own emotional turmoils, and so they come with the strongest tempers of all – those of the heart. As much as we may wish to break free, we know we cannot, and we resign ourselves to press forward, one day more, one day again, one more day, creeping towards that midnight maw waiting, waiting, waiting to devour us. We go. We go. We go.

Restaurant Review – The Tenderloin Room

The Tenderloin Room is an independent, family-owned restaurant in the middle of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. It has that old-style city steakhouse feel: dark wood, dim lights, white linens, and an overly-aggressive waiter in a tuxedo scooping your breadcrumbs off the tablecloth every three minutes.

My girlfriend treated me to dinner there for my birthday. It was certainly an experience. 

First impressions: Knowing that there is still a dress code, even if it is “business casual”, is refreshing these days. So many places just say “come as you are”, that having to put on a collared shirt for dinner made it a step up, which enhanced the sensation that this was something special. And as we walked in and took in the dark wood paneling that’s been there since the beginning in the 1940s, the soft lighting, and the wall of wine accented by the stained glass above the bar, it really felt a step up.

Source: Tenderloin Room

Settling in: Our waiter was Mick, a New York-sounding gentleman who we learned is actually a St. Louis native. He was professional, well-attired in his tuxedo, and competent at what he was doing. However, I felt like he was either in a hurry or somewhat dismissive at times. He would not quite finish his sentence before turning to move along. This was the only negative from his otherwise high-quality demeanor.

The food: We chose not to have wine or cocktails, nor any of the appetizers. Mick presented them well, with full knowledge of each option and a great style. However, we really just wanted the steak, so we chose not to indulge.

She had the Cowboy Ribeye. I chose the Pepperloin a la Tenderloin, their signature preparation of filet. Both came with mashed potatoes and a steamed broccoli bunch.

The steaks were well-seasoned and quite tasty. However, I believe they were slightly undercooked. She ordered medium-rare, and it was plated more like rare. I ordered medium, and mine came out more like medium-rare. Not a bother, as we both would rather have it less done than more. The steaks were very good, but not out of line with any other fine steakhouse dinner I’ve had before.

It’s hard to mess up broccoli, and they didn’t. We both agreed the best part of the meal, though, was the mashed potatoes. I believe they were red potatoes, twice-baked, and there was some skin left. In combination with copious garlic and seasoning, this portion of the meal made an impression on the both of us. We felt that the potatoes were far above anything comparable; and that’s what really set this dinner apart.

Full by that point, we couldn’t even take a look at the dessert presentation. Perhaps another time when we have a bit more room.

The $$$: It’s a steakhouse, and it’s inside the Chase Park Plaza hotel, so it’s going to be on the expensive side. However, I received this dinner as a treat, so I didn’t have to pay! From the menu prices, though, I suspect that the meals are  on the  high end of reasonable. 

Overall rating: While the evening was excellent, I give the Tenderloin Room 4 stars out of 5. The food was top-notch; the host, as I said, was just below that with his attitude. I would have only been able to rate the Tenderloin Room 5 stars had we gotten our steaks cooked more to our request. Otherwise, I heartily recommend it for a special evening.

Book Review – Gravity Box and Other Spaces

Mark W. Tiedemann is a St. Louis, Missouri native and current resident. He’s been professionally published in various markets over the years, and had a couple of novels shortlisted for awards.

Stephan James is a Wooster, Ohio native, transplanted to St. Louis through Indiana. He’s been paid only a few dollars from his speculative fiction, despite racking up an impressive rejection catalogue. What audacity would he have to have in order to write a review of a book by a working author?

Well, to be honest, I think anyone can write a review. Isn’t that the point of literature and of storytelling? That we make it accessible to anyone, and we don’t require them to be exactly on par with us in order to have an opinion. Should he take my comments to heart as strongly as his editor’s or his agent’s or his writing group’s? Clearly not. But does that completely disqualify me from judging how I feel when reading these stories? Not at all.

Therefore:

Gravity Box and Other Spaces, by Mark W. Tiedemann

I picked this up from the library based on the title alone, not knowing that Mr. Tiedemann is from St. Louis, so what a happy surprise it was to learn that I’m in pretty close proximity to a man who has made his living from writing the kind of stories I like to read and write. I began to read, then, with earnest.

As stories go, then, the 11 tales within this volume are complete stories. They have characters, in places, doing things. They’re clearly speculative – a pretty even split of fantasy and science fiction themes. No horror, that I could tell. Space travel/time dilation, artificial intelligence, dryads/land spirits, fossil “awakenings”, etc.

I skipped around a bit, so if there was any intended continuity from reading the stories in the order presented I missed it. There are two, “Miller’s Wife” and “Along the Grain”, set in the same world. They have different sets of characters, though, which allows for independence between the two. And in the second, “Along the Grain”, Tiedemann did a good job of not assuming that the reader was familiar with the world. He provided enough details and descriptions that the reader never felt out of place or confused.

Pros:  As above, these feel like full stories. The characters are fully fleshed out, with names, backstories, desires, needs, and flaws. The places are described enough that we get a feel for the setting, without overkill that would otherwise distract from the flo. And these are all character-driving stories, rather than sci- or fae-driven. That is, the stories are about the people in them, not about the technology or the magic of the world. As such, this was a good way to organize these stories.

Cons:   Many of the main characters in these stories “lack agency”, which is just a fancy way of saying they don’t really do much. That is, they may be the main character, but the climax of the tension often does not revolve around such characters and their actions. For example, in “The Disinterred”, Thomas Auerbach is searching for his departed wife. She is with a traveling band of religious fanatics protesting the excavation of dinosaur remains. And yet, at the end of the story, Thomas didn’t really do anything. He went to the dig site, he observed, he argued with a few others, and then just sort of… watched the events unfold around him. It’s hard to feel like he either triumphed or failed in his quest at the end of this story, and at the end of most others.

Perhaps this is why most of these stories were previously unpublished. A few were, with appropriate credits. But maybe the lack of main character power to decide their fate is why the rest were not.

And this may be picking a nit, but I noticed a style convention that eventually rubbed me the wrong way. In almost all of the stories (9 of 11), the first sentence begins with the main character’s name. “Egan Ginger pulled into Saletcroix…” “Bruce held Ro-boy tight against his chest…” “Jen Cable awoke before the alarm sounded.” While it is always better to name characters early, so the reader can begin to picture him or her in the mind sooner, this felt like too much all the time. I would have preferred some variety in how the stories began. Because once I noticed it, I couldn’t not notice it again, and that may have distracted from my reading pleasure.

Favorites:  Because these two had characters taking charge of their situation, I found “Along the Grain” and “Forever and a Day” to be the strongest stories. Their main characters didn’t just watch; they tried. They strove for something. They may have failed, depending on the definition, but at least they didn’t just sit and watch as the world passed them by. For that reason, I would put these two at the top of the collection.

Rating:  Overall, I would give this one 3 of 5 stars. Enjoyable read, but nothing I’ll want to pick up again or have in my permanent collection.

Extremely Bad Advice – Sloppy Neighbors

Dear SJ: My neighbor has been inviting us over for dinner for months. We went once and were quite disgusted. The place was a mess. Pizza boxes on the floor, dirty clothes all over, old newspapers and mail covering all the counters, and the cat’s litter box is right in the middle of the room with little pieces scattered in front. We had to move decades-old piles of food trash to sit at the dinner table, and even then I could barely see my wife on the other side. I can’t imagine that these people raised two children in a house like this. I am not interested in going again. So far we’ve been able to have convenient “plans” every Friday with my wife’s teaching schedule. However, the semester has come to an end so they know we’re no longer busy on Friday nights. How can we politely decline this invitation?

Yours, CONFLICTED IN CHICAGO

All right, here’s the deal, Conflicted. It’s clear from the situation inside the house that these people don’t give a shit about themselves or you. If they’ve let the place go half as much as I imagine it’s probably just a month away from being featured on a Hoarders: Special Edition episode. In situations like this, remember: It’s not about the stuff. It’s about the imbeciles behind the piles.

This couple is so dense they can’t see the feces right in front of their faces. [Hahaha! Made myself laugh with that one.] Instead of building a better future for the next generation, people like this and their progeny are lowering the average IQ of their community, the state, and, unfortunately for the rest of us, the nation. This couple puts paid the adage “Some people shouldn’t breed.” And the sad part is they’ve most likely trained their children to do the same. Thus, since you and I have a vested interest in making this world better, the solution is obvious.

You need to take a Molotov cocktail to their place when they’re sleeping one Saturday night. Now, I say Saturday, because, just like anal sex, I’m going to ask you to take one for the team soon. It’s not great in the moment, but you know the outcome is going to be totally worth it.

The next Friday they invite you over, you need to accept their invitation. Go, have that dinner of expired kibble with the side of dried-up roach wings. Wipe your mouth with the cum-stained sweat socks they offer you as napkins. Excuse yourself for a minute after dinner, and that’s when you and your wife have the most critical task: find and disable all their smoke detectors. It’s not enough just to remove the batteries – you’ve got to get in there and cut the wires. And you’ve got to be good – we don’t want any unfortunate misses on this one.

Then, on Saturday, make sure to call those kids and remind them how much mommy and daddy miss them, want to see them, and really, really, really need them to come home for the night. If you can do that, we’ll all owe you a debt of gratitude. And don’t worry – your conscience will be clear as a forest stream for all the good work you’ve done. Good luck, and happy snipping!