Thursday, January 31, 2013

Short Story: One Good Deed

Here's a short story I wrote for a contest a few years ago:

“Aunt Lila, don’t say ‘queer’. People will think you mean ‘gay’.”

Aunt Lila looked down at her paper plate where a piece of angel food cake soaked in the mixed juices of coleslaw and Boston baked beans like an absorbent boom in a hazardous spill. “Yes, Gay is queer, isn’t she?” she answered seriously, looking at Aunt Gay through horn-rimmed glasses, “but we love her.” Then she turned to me and asked, “Have you seen Carole yet, Dear?”

“Yeah, they got here about half an hour ago. Parked behind me.” I took the last bite of my hotdog.

“You’ve spoken with her?” Aunt Lila persisted. Aunt Gay looked away and busied herself with her chicken.

“Not actually spoken with her yet, no,” I answered.

“You’ll get a chance now,” said Aunt Gay after dabbing her lip demurely with her napkin. “We all will. She’s coming to us.”

Aunt Lila brightened. “Delightful!” she chirped.

Carole walked up the slope of the rough lawn, making her way between the tables, followed by someone I didn’t recognize. When she arrived and had kissed us all, she introduced the stranger as “my nephew Jack” and immediately apologized that she couldn’t stay “or Vern will burn my steak for sure.”

Aunt Lila rose and began making faces at Aunt Gay. Aunt Gay smiled politely and went back to her chicken. Aunt Lila’s faces became increasingly exaggerated. Jack watched with unmasked amusement while I played with my empty plate. Aunt Gay continued smiling and eating her chicken, until Aunt Lila shook her head and walked away.

“Aunts, sometimes!” Aunt Gay burst out in a whisper.

Jack laughed and sat down.

“I’m an old maid, you see,” I said to Jack. “I’m twenty-five years old, and if I don’t get married soon, Aunt Lila and Carole will turn into frogs. Sorry they dragged you all the way out here.”

“No, it’s lovely,” said Jack, scanning the old farmhouse, the newly-mown hayfield, the hardwood forest and the horizon of little pine-topped mountains. He turned to Aunt Gay and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

Aunt Gay’s hazel eyes twinkled. “I’m Gay and my sister’s fruity.”

Jack looked puzzled.

“My name is Gay,” she explained, “and my sister Georgia, we used to call Peaches.”

“So she’s fruity,” said Jack. “I get it. And you’re Rain,” he said to me. “Georgia is your mom, so Gay must be--your aunt?” He pronounced ‘aunt’ like ‘ant’.

We nodded.

“Place really is something,” he said, looking around again.

“It’s been in the family for five generations,” I replied proudly.

“You’re kidding.”

“My grandfather had this dream of a place where the whole family could get together," I continued, "Sort of give the kids some roots, a feeling of heritage, and no one would be turned away. His definition of family included pretty much anybody who wanted to be part of it.”

“And here it is,” said Jack in a congratulatory tone, but I thought I saw a frown on his face.

“We almost lost it to the bank in the Thirties,” said Aunt Gay. “The Depression, you know. But we managed, with everyone pulling together, and it’s still here.”

“Oh, this is terrible,” Jack muttered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, and Aunt Gay touched him lightly on the shoulder.

“I work in real estate,” Jack began hesitantly, ”and I was asked to come and look this place over.” He was darting shameful half-glances at our faces.

“Look it over?” I repeated stupidly.

“Please don’t shoot the messenger. I’m supposed to assist in putting this property on the market.”

“No...” Aunt Gay whispered, blinking hard and staring at the red-stained table top. Her hand on Jack’s shoulder had tensed into a grip. She swallowed. “No,” she said softly, “it’s hardly your fault.”

No one spoke for a long time. Breezes blew at the plates in our hands, rustled the branches of the nearby trees.

“We can fight this,” said my mother’s voice. We all looked up and saw her standing behind me.

“You heard?” said Aunt Gay.

Mom nodded. “I’m Georgia,” she said, extending a hand to Jack.

“Jack Neri.”

“Bertrand’s got the deed,” said Mom, sitting down next to me, “but that’s all he has. The family will come together again. I know they will. We just need to start by planning.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guest Post: Occam's Razor

Please help me welcome today's guest blogger, Terry Stenzelbarton:

“Lt. Nog, we’re running out of time,” the young Ferengi heard from his combadge. It was Capt. Benjamin Sisko and Nog could tell the station’s commander was reaching the limit of his patience.

Slapping the badge, he said hurriedly, “Five more minutes, Captain. I know I’ll figure it out.”

“We may not have five minutes, Mister Nog. Chief O’Brien says heat sinks are at maximum on that spar. The secondary coolant has run out and the temperatures are rising quickly. If you can’t bring the coolant lines back online in three minutes, we’ll be forced to blow the spar, and you with it.”

Nog didn’t spare the time to answer. He felt he was close to the answer and the Captain, for all the respect he deserved, needed to just shut up and let him work.

The war was over, but there was still so much work to be done. The Founder had been transferred to Starfleet custody earlier that day, ships that had been taking part in the final Dominion War battle were in orbit around Deep Space 9 awaiting repairs, and soldiers were still being transferred through DS9 to other facilities for advanced medical care.

Tomorrow there would be parties and goodbyes. Chief Miles O’Brien had announced his acceptance of a teaching position at Starfleet Academy. Commander Worf was headed to Qo'noS to fill his position as Ambassador. Odo was going home with Col. Kira. Sisko would be away to Earth with his son Jake for two weeks of debriefings. Nog himself had scars and an artificial leg, but he had survived when hundreds of millions had not. He and Bashir and Ezri would remain on Deep Space 9, cleaning up the mess the war had wrought and continuing the medical support for the ships still limping to the station.

But the war was behind him and he’d have the rest of his life to deal with it - if he could get the coolant lines to the heat sinks flowing. The heat sinks on the spars of the six pylons of Deep Space 9 were instrumental in keeping the station’s attitude and location stable in the area of the wormhole. They were part of the station’s stabilization network and bled off heat from the reactors which powered everything from the artificial gravity to the environmental equipment onboard, to the station-keeping thrusters and six rudimentary impulse drive engines.

The coolant that was supposed to flow through the sinks was in the pipes, but not cooling anything.

In all the excitement with the end of the war and the signing of the peace treaty, beta shift hadn’t noticed the increased pressure in the coolant tubes running up the pylon to the docking clamp spar. The automatic equipment hadn’t shut down the sinks or re-route the super-heated plasma from the reactors to one of the working spars or pylons.

Only when Nog had signed on duty and began handing out assignments did he see there was an issue, and by then it was quickly becoming a problem. He sent the rest of gamma shift on to their assignments, and pulled one of the multi-tool cases and another diagnostic case from the rack. It was his first night as gamma shift supervisor.

Just before leaving the engineering offices he'd reported to Lt. Ayava, the Bajoran Gamma Shift bridge officer, that he’d noticed a problem in Pylon 3 and was on his way to effect repairs. She'd acknowledged and logged the communication, flagging it for Captain Sisko and Chief O’Brien’s attention.

That’d been 42 minutes ago.

Things had not gone well. What should have been a simple matter of shutting down the heat sinks and shunting a few valves had turned into a battle to save Pylon 3 and, in the last ten minutes, his own life.

There didn't appear to be any damage to the control circuitry for the machinery that should have been shunting the plasma. Nog opened his diagnostics case and began running the troubleshooting routine. It took less than a minute to complete, but the computer was only able to tell him something was wrong, not what was causing it.

Still confident he could keep the heat sinks from going critical, Nog began removing panels along the corridor. The piping looked right at first glance, so he concentrated on the circuitry.

Twenty-two minutes into the circuit tests, the first alarm sounded. The temperature in the heat sinks had reached maximum and the emergency coolant tanks were pumping 500 liters of Ever-Kool across the heat sink baffles. Deep Space 9’s Ferengi engineer had about 10 minutes to shunt the plasma flow to another group of heat sinks, get the primary coolant flowing to the sinks again, or blow 25 meters worth of spar off the end of Pylon 3. The station would be unbalanced and the other engineers would have to manually compensate to keep the station from tearing itself apart, but it would survive.

Nog, however, would not. He knew his time was running out when the pumps for the secondary coolant wheezed silent. The backups were now empty and the sinks would begin heating again.

The corridor he was working in was in the 25 meters that would be blown free of the station. It wasn’t just a few explosive bolts. The blast doors had slammed down with the first alarm. It was a cruel fact, but one engineers understood. Sometimes you had to sacrifice a few to save the whole. The corridor he was in would be blasted free of the pylon and, hopefully, clear of the station. There would be no place for Nog to take refuge. He’d be blown into space.

There had been some hope for a transporter lock, but 15 minutes after the emergency bulkheads had slammed shut, Ensign Polk in Ops started explaining why he couldn’t get a lock.

“Just keep trying, Mister Polk. If I don’t give up trying, you can’t either,” Nog told the young Ensign.

“Excellent advice, Mr. Nog,” Sisko added. “Is there anything we can try beaming in to you?”

“No, sir. I can fix this. I know I can. I just need to concentrate.”

“Have it your, way, Lieutenant. The Defiant has cleared moorings and is maneuvering into position to tractor the spar clear of the station. You now have three minutes,” Sisko told him.

“My way, your way, any way I can make it work,” Nog muttered to himself, looking at the piping and wiring in the corridor wall. “My way is the right way. What is the right way for this work?” he slammed the computer diagnostic tool against the main coolant pipe. The sound was wrong. It should have been filled with cooling fluid, but to Nog’s hyper-sensitive ears, he could tell the pipe was only mostly full, and not moving. He looked to the far end of the corridor and realized the valves had been worked on recently. They seemed to be installed correctly except for the arrow on the main valve. It was pointed to the left, but it should have been pointing to the right.

“The right way is right!” he shouted, grabbing the tools in the work box.

It took 20 seconds and Nog suffered freezing burns to his hands and face, but with the valve re-installed correctly, the fluid started moving through the pipes and up to the heat sinks.

He was sitting on the deck plates, hands stuffed inside his uniform, when the emergency bulkhead opened and alarms ceased. Dr. Bashir got to him first, followed closely by O’Brien and Sisko. Three other Gamma Shift engineers started work on cleaning up and putting the spar corridor back together.

“Well done, engineer,” Sisko told him. “Well done.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Fiction Writer Spotlight: Carlos Robson

About a year ago, I went to an appearance by poet Carlos Robson and became a fan. I was impressed by his talent in writing and delivery, and especially how he seemed to transform himself into his characters. But what turned me into a fan were his message of empowerment and how deeply he connected with his audience. 
Here's what his publicist, Bass Schuler, has to say: 
Carlos Robson is an award winning spoken word poet, playwright, and teaching artist.As a competitive “slam”poet, he’s competed in local, regional, national and international competitions, winning the National Poetry Slam championship in 2007 and again in 2008 as a member of the North Carolina based team, Slam Charlotte. He has performed in all corners of the nation and on Broadway, and is a co-founder of the Charlotte based artist collective The Concrete Generation as well as one half of the live arts project The Indoctrination Experiment. Twice nominated for APCA Spoken Word Artist of the Year, Carlos has performed at over (50?) colleges and universities.In 2009, Carlos co-wrote and appeared in the play “Miles & Coltrane:blue(.)” directed by Quentin Talley, which appeared off-Broadway and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
If you'd like to see Carlos perform, here's his schedule:
IL         MORTON COLLEGE                                 CICERO                   February 4, 2013
GA       MIDDLE GEORGIA STATE COLLEGE   MACON                   February 14, 2013
NY       SUNY DELHI                                             DELHI                      February 22, 2013

NY      CAYUGA COM. COLLEGE                       AUBURN                 February 25, 2013

NY      MOHAWK VALLEY COM. COLLEGE     UTICA                     February 26, 2013

NY      UNION COLLEGE                                     SCHENECTADY    March 1, 2013

TN      VOLUNTEER STATE COM. COLLEGE   GALLATIN              March 27, 2013

Monday, January 28, 2013

Short Story: The Magic Number

Here's a short story about the difference between age and maturity:

She pulled her cargo pants out of the bottom of her drawer and put them on. She had made them herself. They didn't sell good work clothes for kids in the stores, and even if they had, she wouldn't have been able to afford them. People under fourteen weren't allowed to get jobs. Mowing lawns had been outlawed as too dangerous for young people, and even lemonade stands were no longer allowed, as they involved talking to strangers and preparing food in an unlicensed facility. Of course sewing wasn't allowed, either, but a needle was tiny and easy to sneak, and she'd managed to teach herself by examining the seams of her jeans. She hadn't made them from scratch, just taken a pair of comfy jeans and sewn them full of pockets. Same with her coat.

She got into a workout shirt that was like a sports bra only longer, layered a big yellowish silk blouse over that, and tucked it in. She threaded a web belt through the cargo pants, stopping at intervals to add her gear: a coil of rope, a short chain secured on both ends to keep it from whipping around, Mom's machete, the nice US Army canteen she'd found on the side of the highway, and a pair of cheap binoculars. Then she put on her coat, concealing it all. It wasn't a warm coat, but she hoped it would do for a blanket at night. And she'd rather wear a coat than a backpack, anyway: it was more comfortable and less obvious.

She sat on the floor and pulled on a pair of white cotton socks, then grabbed her right boot, but it was laced up too tightly, wouldn't go on. She began pulling impatiently at the laces. They were a nice pair of hiking boots, and she'd gotten them the way kids were supposed to get things: she'd whined until her foster parents had given in. There was a knock on her bedroom door.

"Just a minute," she called, standing up. She buttoned her coat, glanced around the room and opened the door in her socks. Her boots were still in the middle of the floor.

It was her foster sister's boyfriend. He'd just gotten his driver's license, so that would make him eighteen. There had been too many auto accidents involving sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, so they'd raised the driving age. Now there were too many accidents involving eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, and they were thinking of raising it again. It seemed they still hadn't found the right age, that special birthday when people became safe drivers.

He looked at her, looked at her boots. "You running away?" he asked.

She stifled a gasp. Was it really that obvious? Would he turn her in? Should she appeal to his humanity, tell him she was tired of the drunken violence?

He laughed. "Look what I got. I just bought it. I wanted to show you." He had a plastic bag with him, and he set it down on her bureau, pulled something out and unwrapped it. It was a knife.

"Nice," she said.

He waved it around, tried to twirl it like a parade baton and lost control of it. It clattered to the floor and landed near her boots.

She jumped back. "Careful!"

"It's okay," he reassured her, "I'm old enough." He retrieved it, tossed it up in the air and reached out to catch it. It landed neatly in his palm almost up to the hilt, most of its blade protruding from the back of his hand.

He screamed.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Meteors, Mariners and Monkeys

It's been a while since I told you what I'm up to, so here's a quick update:


I'm currently reading Behind the Ruins by Michael Lane. It's about life in southern Canada after meteors destroy life on earth as we know it.

Next in line is Walker, a horror story by Steven Ramirez, then a historical novel written in Spanish, La Muerte de Los Trece Bomberos (The Death of the Thirteen Firefighters) by Dante Romero Siña. 


Progress on my novel, An Analysis of the Cardassian Language, has been slow for the past month, but I'm starting to pick up the pace again. One part I'm looking forward to writing is a series of short stories the main character writes for her children, about a race of lab-created humanoids who live at the bottom of the ocean. 

Other Things:

Along with M. Joseph Murphy, I'm working on starting up Suckers Guild, a way for indie writers to barter for the expert services we need, to produce truly professional books. For more on that, see these posts, and please help make the guild better by taking the survey. Thanks!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Short Story: Medical Gown

A snippet of the chapter I'm writing:

"Hey!" I yelled, without thinking, and shoved the doctor away from me with both hands. Then I stopped and just stood there, clutching my blouse and waiting for him to hit me.

Instead, he laughed. It wasn't a mean, sarcastic laugh, but the good-natured, spontaneous laugh of someone who's just been surprised by something so funny it can't be contained.

"We have a nervous one," the other doctor remarked.

"You do realize, I hope," said the first doctor, stepping toward me again, "that we can't do this with your clothes on."

"Perhaps she doesn't know why she's here," the second one suggested. "Do you know why you're here?" he asked me.

"No," I admitted, still holding the front of my blouse, "I have no idea why I'm here, actually. If you could fill me in, that'd be great."

"You're here for a medical exam."

"Oh, I knew that part. I just don't know why I'm here - on this station."

"That, I don't know, either," he said. He nodded to the first doctor, who quickly grabbed the back of my blouse with both hands, tore it from top to bottom and tossed it on the floor.

"Why--" I sputtered, "what did you do that for?"

"We need to remove your clothing for your exam," he answered, starting to reach for my shorts.

"Wait," the second doctor ordered.
The first doctor gave him a quick bow, then stepped back from me and said, "We can't examine you properly without access to your body."

"That doesn't mean you have to rip them off me!" I spat out.

He just stood there and looked at the second doctor, like he was waiting for permission to proceed, and the second doctor gave him a quick glance and looked back at me. His eyes were smiling like he was watching a puppy chase its tail.

I placed my hands in front of me on the exam table and straightened my shoulders. "I don't know how you do things here," I said reasonably, "but where I come from they give you a gown and leave the room, and you take your clothes off and put the gown on."

"Is the gown transparent?" the first doctor asked.

"Transparent?" I said. "No, the gown is not transparent."

"Then how do your doctors conduct medical exams," asked the first doctor, "if they can't get to your body?"

"They get to your body."

"They don't get to my body," he snickered.

"They get to the patient's body," I clarified. I wondered if they were wearing out my patience by design, or just having some twisted fun with me.

"I don't believe I understand you," he said, turning serious. "If you're wearing a gown during the exam, then how do the doctors get access to your body?"

"They move the gown out of the way."

"Then why wear the gown in the first place?" asked the first doctor, looking genuinely puzzled.

"Well, will you at least let me take them off, instead of ripping them?" I asked.

"Go ahead," the second doctor shrugged. "But I don't see what difference it makes. You're only going to recycle them anyway."

I bit my lip and mentally counted to ten, forced a smile and said, "I would like to have something to put on when I get out of here."

He shook his head, like I was the one being difficult. "I gave you permission to remove your own clothing," he said. "I should think you'd want to take advantage of my indulgence while you still have it." He gave a brief nod to the first doctor and turned and walked away.

I nodded to the first doctor and waited for him to leave, too, but he just stood there with his arms crossed, staring at my shorts. "Can you let me get undressed, then?" I asked him.

"Go ahead." The fingers of his right hand rose from his left bicep for an instant and settled back again, in rhythm with the rise and fall of his hairless eyebrows and the movement of his lips. Otherwise, he didn't move.

I undressed.

Friday, January 25, 2013

My Review of New Hampshire Indie Film The Sensation of Sight

Here's the review I wrote some time ago or the movie The Sensation of Sight, by New Hampshire's own Either/Or Films:

The opening shot thrilled me--for a rather personal reason. I recognized the scene as the one that's been fascinating my brother and me since we were kids. It's an old stone barn we used to drive past on the way to visit our grandfather.
Photo: moosedog studio

After admiring the barn, I realized that nothing was really happening. Nothing much, anyway. I waited while the movie's dawn turned to daylight around the barn and the morning mists burned off. I began to wish I hadn't bought it.

But it gets better. We meet a man named Finn (David Strathairn) and watch as he tells his wife he's going away. Finn seems to be tortured and have a driving need to search for some sort of answer. His message is ambiguous and almost confusing--as it should be.

In another scene, two guys come together to wash cars, and they're discussing the fact that one is working and the other is not. But there are three guys there, and the third one isn't working, either. And he's wearing a suit. I wondered why. And I wondered why, in the age of the internet, Finn decides to go-to-door selling encyclopedias.

Eventually I learned that the third guy is a ghost. It's not that this is a `paranormal' movie. It's just that Finn's burden of unresolved tragedy is as real to him as any physical presence could be. The people around him can't see the ghost--most of them, anyway. What they can see, can touch, are the encyclopedias.

Finn is not glamorous. He's not fabulous. He's not even successful or collected or sexy, at least in the classic sense. He's real. In fact, he's so real, so imperfect, so nakedly human that I relate to him. I identify. I feel.

"The Sensation of Sight" contains no pat answers. It depicts life, complete with anxieties and uncertainties. But it leaves us with a sense that we need not be its victims: we can be its participants.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why Indie Writers Should Blog

One thing most literary agents seem to have in common is that they want authors to have blogs. Some of them won't even consider an author's work unless he or she has a blog and updates it regularly, on the theory of 'If you don't bother promoting your work, then why should I?'

It seems to me that as indies, we should do no less. It seems to some other indie writers I talk to that it's a waste of precious writing time. We don't have to cater to those agents, after all.

Here's why I think we should blog:

Readers get enthused about authors, not just books: Ever wonder how some truly awful books climb to the top of the Amazon lists? I think you'll find it starts with charismatic authors connecting with readers, who buy the books because they like the authors so much. I'd like to say this doesn't matter if your book is good, but I'm afraid experience tells me there are just too many books out there, and yours isn't likely to be noticed without a personal introduction.

Google Adsense: Blame the economy if you want, or compare it to the decline of the horse and buggy, but the old buy-a-copy-for-twenty-four-fifty model is going away. A great alternative: offer valuable content consistently, sign up for Adsense and make your money like they do with television. It takes time, but it works.

To build a fan base: It's one of the nicest feelings in the world, knowing there are people out there - not just my family and friends but people I'd never heard of - who visit this site regularly to see what I've posted today, and are impatient for the next installment of my current novel.

I stumbled about quite a bit before I hit on a successful strategy. I'm sure the 'right' method varies according to your personal style and who your ideal audience is, but here's what I've found works for me:

Be yourself: Your unique personality is your most valuable product, and everyone has to come to you to get it. When I started this blog, I was very concerned with keeping up a professional image, to the extent that I kept my experiences, my feelings and my struggles as a writer out of it. As a result, I had very little to say that wasn't already being said on more popular websites. When I switched to a more personal approach, I found that I had plenty to say, and plenty of people wanted to read it.

Be professional: Drama may be great for your fiction, but it has no place in your blog. If you're mad at your husband, you hate the President or your daughter's a &%@#!, tell that to your husband, the President or your therapist, but please don't tell us. It may be tempting, especially at first when 'nobody will see it anyway', but giving yourself a reputation as a whiner and a gossip will only hurt you.

Showcase what you love: It's part of what makes you unique and interesting, and enthusiasm is very contagious. Subjects that interest you will probably show up in your fiction at some point, anyway, so don't worry if your enthusiastic post on football or crannogs seems a little off-topic. It won't stay off-topic for long and it will help your readers get to know you.

Consolidate your online presence: I used to have two blogs and a website. I could never seem to keep them up-to-date, not to mention promote them, and readers who did stumble across one of them missed out on the other two-thirds of the content. When I discovered that Blogger would let me integrate my website with my blog by adding static pages, I was delighted. I combined them, directed my domain to the blog, and so far, the marriage has been very successful.

Post regularly. I have to shake my head when people tell me, "I don't blog that often because nobody reads it anyway." That's like saying, "I don't bother job-hunting because I don't get a paycheck." It may not be a pleasant thought in our instant-gratification culture, but writer loyalty has to come before reader loyalty; you have to earn your following. That doesn't mean you have to post every day, but you should post predictably and keep your blog fresh.

Keep your nose clean. Soliciting clicks, signing up for dubious link-exchange programs and spamming other websites will only hurt you in the end. Doing things the ethical way may take longer, but when you're enjoying the income from ten years of a solid reputation, you'll be glad you did.

Remember that blogging's only part of it. A blog is a social media tool, and by itself it's about as good as a one-legged chair. Integrate it with your ideal mix of Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Google+, LinkedIn and whatever else.

Join the Communist Party. Oops, I mean the community party. Talk about your fellow writers and other people you admire. Trade guest posts and include lots of links. And have fun. Nobody wants to read a grumpy blog.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

An Untitled Poem

This poem is actually true, except that I wrote it after I'd grown up and moved out, because I missed the place. I never gave it a title.

I live in a house that is musty
And always is hopelessly dusty.
The rug there is stained
Where it leaked when it rained
In the house where the rug was before.

The view out the window is pretty.
The floor that's beside it is gritty.
The cracked up cement
Is pretty well spent
But it's all that we have for a floor.

The house wasn't built for a dwelling
(It's perfectly true what I'm telling),
It was simply a shack
That was built out in back,
But it still is the home I adore.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fiction Writer Spotlight: Michael Lane

I'm delighted to say that Michael Lane, indie author of the thriller Behind the Ruins, has consented to an interview:

Jae: Why do you write fiction? What got you started and what do you think influenced you to take up fiction writing?

Michael: I wish I could remember who said this originally, but the gist was that writers write fiction to tell the truth and write nonfiction to lie. Which sounds mean and horrible but I think the underlying concept is that “great truths” – emotional, philosophic or cultural – are best tackled in fiction, where you can set up your morality play to best illustrate your point. In a weird way working as a journalist returned my interest to writing fiction, since I can examine concepts in fiction that can’t be touched in print or broadcast media. I got to do that in Behind the Ruins and really enjoyed it.

Jae: What are some of your favorite books?

Michael: Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, Glen Cook’s Black Company books, anything by Gene Wolfe, Leviathan by Paul Auster, Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the first Gunslinger volume by Stephen King.

Jae: What's your career background, and do any of your work experiences show up in your writing?

Michael: I am a print journalist by training and work experience, which affects my grammar and word choice while writing. I tend to stay as lean and minimalistic as I can, avoid adverbs and minimize extraneous description or dialogue. Shorter is better.

Jae: Is Behind the Ruins your first novel?

Michael: It’s the first I finished. I can’t count the false starts, but that’s the norm for writers I’ve talked to. Making the mental commitment to finish is the tricky part. Writing is cake in comparison.

Jae: What's Behind the Ruins about?

Michael: It’s about a man trying to recover some sense of his humanity in an extremely violent post-apocalyptic world. I wanted to explore how violence as a tool can ensure your survival while emotionally and psychologically killing you. That the learning process is also a violent one hopefully makes people ask some more involved questions.

Jae: What setting did you choose for the story, and why?

Michael: It’s post-apocalyptic only because the desperate struggle for survival is integral to who the main character had become. It could have been set in the old west or the Crusades, I suppose, but that brings in some cultural, historical and genre baggage I wanted to avoid.

Jae: Do you think in concepts, pictures or words? If words, are they spoken or written?

Michael: When writing I think in both pictures and words. I tend to read (and write) in a spoken meter and try to “hear” the language. My early thinking on a story is almost pure imagery and visualization.

Jae: Tell me about your writing process.

Michael: I usually make a set of rough notes that are largely limited to character names and notes, a few brief notes on major locations and environments and that’s it. Then I write. I find that if I do a detailed outline I’ve told myself the story and won’t want to do it again in the initial draft. It sucks a lot of the life out for me. Behind the Ruins had a one-page character listing and a second sheet of location and technology notes. Those grew a bit over the course of writing the novel. When I’m writing, I religiously do 3,000 words a day.

Jae: How is the fiction process different from journalism?

Michael: It’s less deadline oriented, but it’s certainly similar in many ways. You have to get work done, get it done on a schedule, and it has to be clean, so speed and accuracy are both shared goals. The difference is the freedom to make your own story and tell the truth as you see it, rather than as four cited authorities see it.

Jae: What were your worst moments writing Behind the Ruins?

Michael: The first draft edit, which is the hairy one with major revisions, lots of language alteration and hair-pulling.

Jae: What were your best moments?

Michael: Finishing the first draft edit and realizing there was a good book in there despite all I’d done to it.

Jae: What important lessons have you learned as a writer that you'd like to pass on to others?

Michael: Set a daily word-count and meet it, even if you’re writing absolute garbage that day. If you do that, you’ll finish, and once it’s done there’s no passage so bad you can’t go back and fix it. Keep moving forward.

Jae: What's next for you? Is there another novel in the works?

Michael: There are. I have two started. One is a fantasy novel in its earliest stages, and likely the first of two or three in a series, while the other is a stand-alone thriller that’s about eighty pages in at the moment. I do want to revisit the world of Behind the Ruins, as well.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Short Story: The Dancing-Huts

A poetic short story:

A soft and summery hum was the bumblebee's song of praise. The iris worshiped in blue and yellow silence. Together they danced before the Light.

And they were not the only dancers. The whole meadow was alive with other bees on other blooms, with waving grass and laughing brook, with bluebirds and rabbits and lambs and little children. Together they danced a tribute of joyful thanks before the Light.

No sun shone on that meadow, nor was any moon to be seen. So bright was the Light that the sun would have looked feeble and cold beside him. And everywhere the Light shone, life grew and praised him.

At the edge of the meadow, and all around it, stood alabaster pillars, and joining the pillars were alabaster arches. There were no gates in the arches, for the arches were always open to all who would enter to worship the Light.

Some of the children carried bags of precious seed, and as these children danced, they left the meadow through the arches. Other children returned with their bags empty, but they did not return alone. They brought other children, skipping and playing and joining the dance. They brought grown men and women, counting aloud as they struggled to keep in step. They brought white-haired elders, walking stiffly and carrying many books of rules for how to dance before the Light.

Some of the men and women picked up bags of precious seed, and others did not. Those who did not soon grew weary of dancing. Their hair became white and their bodies old. But those who picked up the seed began to dance without counting, began to skip and began to play. And as they played, they grew younger. When they had fully grown into children, they danced out between the alabaster pillars to sow and to reap for the Light.

Dotting the meadow were many small huts. In the walls of the huts were no windows. Inside the huts no bees hummed and no flowers bloomed, no birds sang and no children skipped. Each hut had one door, and it was tightly shut. To these huts the elders marched with their heavy books, entering as quickly as their feeble bodies would let them and shutting out the joyful meadow of the Light.

In every hut the elders huddled in the dark. And from every hut came the same tired and tuneless singing, as the elders intoned, "What mercy is given to us, that of all the huts, we have been drawn to the one hut where shines the Light."

Sunday, January 20, 2013


An excerpt from my novel Resist the Devil:


I am of the mujihadeen.

My father was a traitor and now he abides in the fire where he belongs. I will not be like him.

I am of the faithful ones and my day will come. The unbelievers will be surprised, and I will secure my place in the Garden.


My mother is a fool.

She listens to the lies of the unbelievers. 

But I am of the faithful ones and my day will come.

I will secure my place in the Garden, and my mother’s eyes will be opened and she will be saved from the fire.

I am Jibril: Mighty One of God.

My day has not yet come, but it will come.

Perhaps my preparation will take longer than I had thought, but it will come.

I will be diligent and study, and I will secure my place in the Garden, and save my mother from the fire. 


My training has taken longer than I ever imagined.

I have studied, I have researched, I have developed discipline,
endurance, strength and skill.

My day draws near.

I am of the mujihadeen.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Is Writer's Block? #3

I had a terrible time writing Tuesday's post, "Book Review: Kisses of an Enemy."  Yes, that one: the quick and easy one that almost didn't take any writing at all. Type a little intro, paste the review, a couple of links, a picture and it's done. But I spent the bulk of Monday morning struggling to write the introduction.

No, I wasn't trying to make it perfect. I wasn't afraid of failure. And I knew what I wanted to say; I just had no idea how to say it.

Obviously, the post ended up being written. And, yes, I wrote it myself; I didn't get a ghostwriter. So how did I cure the block?

I took a nap.

Turns out I was too tired to be productive and too tired to realize it until I'd wasted half the day. Or maybe I was just too stubborn to admit it.

I know that for a lot of people writer's block is caused by an irrational fear of failure. This Monday, mine was caused by an irrational fear of laziness.

I have a lot to do today, so maybe I'll go lie down for a bit.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Why I Write

Sometimes people ask me why I write. I'd make more money in an office job, they say. Or I could train to be a nurse or something.

"Jews are not served here"
I try not to laugh because I know they mean well. I bet some of Shakespeare's friends tried to help the poor guy out with a lead for a blacksmith job.

But it's more than that. I write because a lot of my fellow-humans are regularly being harassed, oppressed, killed and even tortured. I write because it's us ordinary English-speaking Westerners who can stop these atrocities - but only if enough of us choose to do so. I write fiction because most English-speaking Westerners would rather be entertained than educate themselves.

One of my biggest heroes is Harriett Beecher Stowe.

In 2013, we quite rightly see 19th-century slavery as a terrible and very obvious evil that no decent person would tolerate. But in Stowe's world, 'decent' people ate slave-produced molasses and wore slave-produced cotton. And besides, she was just one ordinary woman, so what could she do?

What she did, of course, was write a novel, and her Uncle Tom's Cabin helped America see slavery for the evil it was " a way that political speeches, tracts and newspapers accounts could not." (

Our issues are different now, but no less real. A quick look at the headlines makes me think that maybe I've got the most important job in the world. I know I wouldn't trade it for anything.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Short Story: Abortion

Here's a short story I wrote a few years ago for a flash-fiction contest:

The cruel blade glinted in the sun and cast a splotch of light on the face of one of the soldiers beside my bed. More truthfully, the blade wasn’t cruel. It wasn’t even sharp. Okay, it wasn’t even really a blade. It was tinfoil.

My sister Gay had made it, twenty years before when she had been my age. It was hideous, but I admired it anyway. For a fifteen-year-old girl in 1930 to learn the language of heraldry, research her family crest, then give those strange old words new life in the form of an accurate model, was something worthy of admiration, if not wonder.

“How are you feeling?” asked Gay, swirling into the room in the wake of her skirt.

“Swell,” I lied, then recanted. “I think I’ll be alright as long as I don’t smell food.”

“The door to the kitchen’s tightly closed, and the children have all been strictly charged.”

“Gay, I said, “I believe you are the only woman your age who wears bobby socks.”

“Oh, do you know a man my age who wears them?” Gay asked, throwing me one of her signature impish eye-twinkles. “You’re as young as you feel, and I feel fifteen.”

“We’ve switched, then,” I replied, “because I feel thirty-five.”

“Oh, that’s the morning sickness. It goes away.”

I stared at the spot of light on the soldier’s face on the wallpaper, and said, “I spoke with Mother yesterday.”

“Oh yes, I heard she telephoned while I was at the butcher’s.”

“Gay,” I began, swallowed, took a deep breath and said again, “Gay.”

She stopped tidying up the room and stood beside the bed, quite close, watching me patiently.

“Gay, she’s not--they’re not--not going to let me keep the baby!” Tears came like a river in springtime.

My sister sat down and hugged me. She didn’t say anything but “Shh” and “There, now,” at first, while I sobbed into her blouse. Then she said, “Look at me, Peaches.”

I laughed, in spite of myself. “You haven’t called me Peaches for a long time.”

“You may be big, grown-up Georgia now,” she answered, “but you’ll always be my beloved baby sister Peaches. Listen, she may think she’s not going to let you keep the baby. But that’s just her plan. She’s not the baby’s mother; you are. You’re the one who’s responsible to make this decision.”

“But I’m underage, and...” I didn’t want to say the awful word ‘unmarried’.
Gay supplied a less embarrassing word. “Yes,” she said, “you’re underage and her daughter, but we can still fight this--if you want to.”

“I do,” I answered. “I want this baby more than anything. I know it will be hard work, but I’ll work hard. I feel my baby inside me. I love my baby!”

“You don’t need to convince me,” said Gay. “You don’t need to convince anyone. If you’re sure of your decision, then that’s all you need to say.”

“I’m sure of my decision,” I said, like it was a recitation, “but what about Mother’s plan?”

“Mother’s plan,” said Gay, “is going to be aborted.”


“Oh, heavens, I’m sorry!” she said, turning red and covering her mouth with her manicured fingertips. “I should have chosen a different word.”

I laughed again. “It’s okay. I like that word.”

I lifted the bedcovers and bent my head toward the roundness under my nightgown. “Did you hear that?” I said, “We’re going to have an abortion. We’re going to abort your grandmother’s plan and stay together forever--or at least until you go off to college.”

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Cardassian Language

Fantasy writer B E L Forsythe recently posted this question on her Facebook page:

Thanks to Paramount
There seems to be a debate going on about whether creating a language for your stories is a waste of time...Do you agree...? Do you think making up a new language will hold you back from writing more books? (January 5, 2013)

My answer is a resounding "No." I think a good novel immerses the reader in the richness of its context, and language has to be part of that. You could write about a culture with no music, or a culture with no furniture, but try to write a whole novel with no language at all and you'll run into serious trouble. Even if the characters never speak, how do you describe their thoughts and emotions? Maybe they don't think in words, but your readers do, so it's your job to figure out how the characters think and translate those thoughts as faithfully as possible into English (or Chinese or Amharic, if you prefer). 

I was never comfortable with the idea of saying, "Oh yes, my aliens have never had any contact with Earth so of course they're speaking some other language, but I'm not going to worry about it." Studies show that even here where we all share a planet, language is a huge factor in shaping how we think. Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and symbolic systems at Stanford University, gives this example:

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."
The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English). Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don't end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.
To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role. So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don't use words like "left" and "right"? What will they do?
The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. 
("How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?" at

When I read B E L Forsythe's question, I couldn't help but think how much thinner and cheaper Star Trek would feel without its Klingon and Cardassian languages. Of course I would: my main character's a linguist who copes with being thrown into a hostile alien society by analyzing their language, which happens to be Cardassian.

When I started doing the research for this book I was surprised how much work has been done already to develop the Cardassian language. And don't make the mistake of thinking it's silly or arbitrary just because it's fictional. Like Klingon, Cardassian is an ideal expression of its culture, set on solid linguistic ground.

Sure, studying Cardassian and working it into my novel means it's taking about five times as long to write, but it's more than worth it. I don't think there's any other way to really see Cardassian culture, and more importantly, to see our own culture through its lens.

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