Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review: "Fractured Light" by Rachel McClellan

When I sat down to read Rachel McClellan’s debut YA book, Fractured Light, I was worried her book would disappoint because I was in the middle of my reading blitz on the books shortlisted for the Mann Booker award. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the end of Fractured Light when I realized that this book excelled in its character development even when compared to some of the giants of modern literature.
Fractured Light follows a 17 year old high school senior, LIona Reese who is almost invisible to her classmates, wishing she had friends like everybody else. But there is a twist; LIona does this by choice. She forces herself to blend into the background as much as she can because LIona is a Aura and has the ability to harness the power of light, and she and her type have been hunted by the Vykens for as long as anybody can remember.
When she learns that the Vyken is close to finding her, LIona must choose between running away to a special school for Auras as others have done for hundreds of years, or face the Vyken threat. With the help of the few friends she reluctantly reaches out to, LIona rejects the safety of the school and becomes the first Aura to take control of her life and develop her powers to protect herself.
One of the strongest aspects of this book is the growth that LIona experiences. She transforms herself from a meek, timid girl to an empowered woman. But it's not just the transition itself that makes Fractured Light unique, it is the space that LIona has to develop her own talents and grow as a character. There is nobody in her life that actively steers her onto the right path, and come the end, LIona is the one who takes action against the Vyken even though there are others willing to fight for her.
Far too often in literature, characters are given mentors that constantly protect them and keep them on the right path because the main character is not smart or strong enough to overcome the obstacle. But at the same time, there needs to be a relational character that assists in the growth of the character. This book has a perfect balance, allowing LIona to gather advice from a number of others, but leaves the decision making to LIona. Throughout the book, LIona is the one in control. This balance allows for a wide, sweeping character arc, making this book comparable with the character development I found in the afore mentioned Mann Booker nominees.
However, there were some things that could have used improvement, but overall they carried little weight when attributed to the book as a whole. The first thing would be the pacing in the beginning, where the plot takes it's time solidifying and the stakes are slow to be established. Some books can get away with this because the characters, setting, or concept is so interesting, but this is not one of them. But when the plot does get moving, the reader is rewarded for their perseverance.  Also, I was able to identify the Vyken half-way through the book which ruined the mystery aspect; however, it inadvertently added to the tension in some of the later scenes. Finally,  in the final confrontation with the Vyken, there was one of those 'James Bond' moments where the villain reveals to the hero everything they did and why they did it. If there were any paragraphs from this book that needed to be cut out, those would be it.
Overall, Fractured Light is a strong book with excellent character development and ends with possibly the best sequel setup I have read. I highly recommend this book to everybody, e.g., adults, young adults, fantasy fans, and literature snobs.
Fractured Light receives 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Masterpiece #FridayFlash

Here is another piece that I put together for #Fridayflash. Please let me know what you think, and as always, feel free to be extra stabby with your critiques. It's the only way to help both of us grow.

Leonard slung a brown blazer over his shoulders and fumbled with his buttons. His warehouse studio with cold, tan bricks and a tall ceiling supported by iron rafters of a bygone era became chilly when the wind picked up; he shivered. Affixing his name badge to his lapel, his eye wandered towards the far wall, where the giant masterpiece he and his wife created nearly five years ago hung above the spot he created his own work.
The dark reds, whites, and brown leathery patches hung off the canvas she herself planned for many months. It was amazing how it slowly changed over the years; the colors fading and bringing themselves closer to the final black of decay. Still, the thought of that day put a subtle shake in Leonard's legs.
He put his hand on the door handle when a voice called out to him, “Don’t leave just yet, honey.”
Leonard stopped immediately and turned back towards the painting, taking a couple steps towards it. “Who is that?”
“Don’t you recognize the voice of your own wife?”
“Is that--” He took one more step forward. “Cathy?”
“I’ve been watching you these last five years, ever since you told the police I went missing.”
“But how?”
“When I planned this work, I told you that it was my attempt at immortality. You didn’t think I had gone crazy, did you?” Her laugh echoed off the solid walls and the browned blood stains on the canvas seemed to revert back to their original red, liquid state.
“It was your idea. All yours. You begged me.”
“I did.” The voice said. “And for that I thank you. You performed your work admirably, oh loyal husband.”
“What...what do you want then?”
“What I want, Leonard, is for you to join me.” From the kitchen, a knife slid across the floor, stopping at his feet. “Join me up here and reveal us to the world!”
Behind him, the deadbolt to his studio door suddenly locked itself. He tried to undo it, but the mechanism was stuck. “Where do you think you’re going?” the voice said.
“I’m going to be late for the opening.”
“Ah yes. I was surprised you finally came around to putting your work out there in public without me there to guide you.” Again, her laugh filled the studio. “Is that what you really want, Leonard? A couple curious college students and a single elderly couple taking a two minute stroll past your paintings?”
“It’s just a start. In a year or two I will have my career back--”
“Nonsense. You need me. You always have. Only I can make you great.”
He picked up the knife, tossing it back and forth between his hands. “Are you asking me to…”
“No, I want you to carve up a Thanksgiving turkey for me.” The window to the studio flung open and a gust of chilly wind burst through, knocking over a couple pieces of stretched canvas that leaned against the far wall. The only one to remain standing was the large seven by seven foot blank square of white. “I want you beside me.”
Leonard took a couple more steps towards the painting. “I’ll never do it. You were crazy back—”
“Shut up. You couldn’t comprehend my genius at the time; nobody could. But if you ascend with me, we could be famous the world over. People will speak our names for hundreds of years--”
“They’ll remember us as that crazy couple who killed themselves.”
“Enough!” she shouted. The power in the studio flickered and the girders ground against their masonry bases. “You were always such a loyal husband, don’t let me down now.” Small bits of mortar dropped onto Leonard’s head. “You will join me, one way or another. I just hope you make the right decision and become immortal as I have.”
He approached the base of his wife’s masterpiece with his knife in hand. “My loyalty ended the day your turned yourself into that.” Leonard stabbed the painting, tearing it down the middle. A river of warm blood gushed from the canvas, soaking his entire body. Ringing throughout the studio, his wife’s screams lasted longer than any mortal's, but they too faded until nothing but an echo remained.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Best #Fridayflash of the Month for November

Back on our schedule of doing one of these each month, I had the privilege to read the story Chances Are by Tim VanSant to whom this award goes out.

This particular story really jumped off the page for me, and in particular it was the voice of the character. Right from the opening we are treated to lines such as: "And then for lunch I found one of them buffets for cheap that have real prime rib and crab’s legs and a salad with four beans, not just three. I ate till I was like to bust." Tim does a masterful job here of taking a particular dialect and using syntax, word order, and even specific details to portray it, not mis-spelled words and funny accent marks.

Things like the four beans instead of three really painted this picture in my mind of a guy who is truly simple at heart, and not just some ignorant rural bumpkin. He's surrounded with the glitz of Vegas, yet the thing he finds neat is the number of beans. This story, like I said before, really captures the character's voice beautifully and lays it out in a well structured piece of flash that has a great twist at the end.

So go out in read that story, yes right now, and when you come back, Tim himself was gracious enough to do a quick interview to let us in on some of the secrets of this piece. Again, congratulations and thank you for sharing this wonderful piece of fiction with the world! Now, on to Tim.

There isn't too much on your about page aside from you being 'a poet in academician’s clothing.' Is there anything you would like to add to that to give your readers a better idea of who you are?

What, is that unclear somehow? [laughing] I enjoy writing poetry. I've spent most of my life as a teacher. I'm afraid if I try to add anything the readers will get bored before we get to the second question. I often say that I am not normal. That doesn't mean that I'm interesting though.

Based on your picture, I would suggest you might be quite interesting. But moving on, do you have any big projects that you are working on? If so, could you share some info on them?

I have a few things going. The one I'm having the most fun with is writing stories featuring J.P. Worthett, a private investigator who has appeared in a couple of my Friday Flash pieces. I plan to publish them as a collection. My other projects are top secret.

What style of writer would you consider yourself? (Unless that's classified as well of course.)

By style do you mean pantster versus plotter? I lean more to the pantster side. I usually know where my stories are going to end and I sometimes list bullet points on how to get there or elements I want to include. But I'm quite willing to throw away any of that if the story starts playing out differently as I write. Strict outlining feels too much like what I have to do when writing instructional materials. I'm much more a plotter for those.

With regards to Chances Are, is there anything in particular that inspired this piece?

Well, it's a story of betrayal of course and I won't go into what prompted that. I was working on another piece with a different song when the image of this poor guy popped into my head and I heard him saying, "I ain't never been lucky." Originally he was on the bed watching his reflection in the mirrors on the ceiling slowly fade away as he died with the song playing in the background. The setting felt like Las Vegas to me. At that point I knew where the story was going to end [except he landed on the floor instead of the bed and I changed the song] and I just had to let him tell me how he got there.

Have you ever had any insanely lucky streaks in a casino?

No. I wouldn't say I've had any insanely lucky streaks anywhere, and I've only been in casinos a few times. I don't have the temperament [or the disposable income] that I think is required to take the risks that lead to insanely lucky streaks.

The voice in Chances Are is very unique and different from your other works. How did you get that to work so well?

First, thank you for saying it worked well. It's always risky to deviate from standard English. That voice is based largely on one of my college roommates who grew up in rural Kentucky tempered a bit by a milder dialect common to the area around Louisville, where I grew up. I have used pretty much the same voice in one or two other pieces, but it has to fit the character. More to the point of your question though, I always write by listening to the story in my head. I let the characters tell the story and I write it down. This is especially helpful with dialog because I can usually catch bits that just don't sound right coming out of a character's mouth. I can hear this character's voice clearly and it feels familiar to me.

Is there any particular reason you chose that particular Johnny Mathis song to post at the end of the story?

When I chose Las Vegas for the setting it reminded me of a recent discussion about how poorly most people estimate the odds of any particular event occurring. The phrase, "What are the odds?" gave me the idea to use "Chances Are" as the song and the title. Plus, come on, it's Johnny Mathis!

Were there any particularly difficult challenges in writing this piece?

This piece flowed pretty easily for me. In the first draft he only played at the blackjack table. Having him move to roulette made it easier [fictionally] to win more money in a shorter time and the frenzied excitement around the craps [there, I said it] table was a natural way to bring in the bimbo blowing on the dice. I know that's cliché, but it helped move the story along so I kept it in.

Are there any ‘easter eggs’ or inside jokes in that piece that most people would not have caught?

Not really. The closest to that is when he says he has ten dollars that he's willing to waste in the casino. It's a reference to my only trip to Las Vegas. Due to a series of unusual and stressful events -- I'll save that story for another time -- I found myself standing in a casino after having been up for 22 hours [and only four hours of sleep the night before]. I had a twenty dollar bill in my hand that I had planned to take to the blackjack table. I decided I was too exhausted to have any better chance of winning than if I just threw the money on the floor. I put it in my pocket and went to bed. I wasn't willing to waste it in a casino. But even if you had suffered through listening to my Las Vegas adventure, you probably would not catch that. I put it in just for me.

What do you find most challenging about writing flash fiction?

I think the biggest challenge is making a story complete with a beginning, middle, and end in such a short format. A lot of flash pieces, mine included, are more of a sketch or vignette. In fact, before I learned the term flash fiction I called my short pieces vignettes. But I think it's okay to have some elements implicit rather than explicit.

What do you find most enjoyable about writing flash fiction?

I enjoy stripping a story down to it's basic elements and finding just the right words to convey big emotions in small spaces. Similar to writing poetry, I want to be able to elicit an emotional response in the reader with most of my flash pieces. I can't ask for more than to get you to laugh or cry or even just stop and think about the world in a different way.

What would your ultimate goal as a writer be?

I haven't decided on an ultimate goal. I have earned money by writing and editing and I want to do more of that. I'm looking into a couple publishing ventures. Through my website and blog I have already joined a world-wide community of readers and writers. I routinely get visitors from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. How cool is that? [Now, if I can just figure out how to appeal to penguins or Antarctic explorers I'll be poised for... TOTAL GLOBAL DOMINATION!!! Cue dramatic theme song.]

I'll see if I can do anything about the Antarctic thing. But in the meantime, do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?

Seriously? Have you forgotten who you're talking to? Oh, I know. My father told me never to attempt vast projects with half-vast plans. [I am his favorite oldest son.] See, if I wrote longer forms than poetry and flash I would have to be more of a plotter.

I want to extend my thanks out again to Tim, and one more round of applause.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Darkness Surrounding #FridayFlash

Here is another piece that I put together for #Fridayflash. Please let me know what you think, and as always, feel free to be extra stabby with your critiques. It's the only way to help both of us grow.

Tim is dead.
At least I’m pretty sure he is. I crawled over to where he sat and shook him; he didn’t stir. His scrawny arm felt cool, not like when somebody gets out of the cold, but lifeless. I lifted his arm again, and it collapsed against his wasted and shriveled body.
I pushed myself away. For the first time in what must have been a couple days, I was grateful for the enveloping darkness and its ability to hide Tim’s body from me. The first week we had our flashlight, but once it died, time became elusive. The last thing he said to me was that he thought we made it to day ten, but I think it was closer to nine.
I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers into my eyelids, revealing bursts of colorful light flashing in front of my pupils. While no light reached the bottom of the mine shaft, it appeared we could create our own. It was actually Tim who first discovered this ‘light’ as he called it. But whatever it was, hunger hallucinations or some sort of physics phenomenon, I enjoyed it. Lately, when we were too weak to talk, Tim and I spent what we thought were hours staring into those lights.
When I opened my eyes, the darkness took over and I realized that my own body approached death. I wondered what it was like to die like that, like Tim. All I knew was that I didn’t want to, but there was nothing I could do, unless I wanted to go down a dark road I dared not think about.
The thought, however, had infected my mind; there was nothing I could do about it now. My own death was imminent, and who would it hurt anyways? Tim was dead. That was a fact, and he wouldn’t feel any pain. Although what of his wife and kids? What if they found only parts of him? But then again, what about my own family? Don’t they deserve their father?
I ran my hand down Tim’s arm and felt the muscular fibers, though mostly eaten by his body, still there and full of life saving energy. I pressed my fingers up against his bicep, and to be honest, a man, even one who is starved to death, has a fair amount of meat on him. Each arm probably enough to keep me alive another day; the legs, a couple more. The question was, how long until the rescue? Would it ever come?
“Tim.” I said into the darkness, not expecting a response but needing to talk to somebody. “Do you think the basketball team is going to make it to state this year?” Still silence from him, but I didn’t care. “Yea, they might have trouble defending the post, but their perimeter--I think you’re underestimating Davis. He’s a good kid--fuck it.”
My hands shook as I pulled out my pocket knife. I had spent the last five years of my life keeping the hinges oiled and the blade sharp, but getting it open in my current state left me out of breath. There was no strength for anything, my time was running out no matter what I did.
The knife sat open in my hand for a good long while. How long, I’m not sure. Time in darkness like that moves like a kid just learning to drive stick, and it was just about as painful too. I closed my eyes and watched the faint colors flash around. Where that light came from, I’ll never know, but it made me feel like there was something coming for me, that there was something out there. I summoned up any remaining strength I had and tossed my knife across the chamber.
I kept my eyes closed, watching the lights. My body made all kinds of strange, gurgling sounds, and I drifted in and out of sleep. I’m not sure how long I was out each time, but whenever I was awake, I didn’t last long. “Tim.” I cried out. “Give my regards to Beth when you see her.” I fell asleep.
Sometime later, I woke up to a light, a real one. I squinted at the brightness. It looked almost like a light from a miner’s helmet, and it was accompanied by the echoing sounds of a man cheering in the distance. I tried to keep my eyes open, but it was useless.
The next time I managed to open them, the light was even brighter. So bright in fact I couldn’t make out anything in my surroundings. But then, for a moment, I thought I saw some sort of monitor glowing green in the distance and my wife in the background. She rushed to my side. Yes, it was my wife. “I love you.” I called out, but my head crashed back into the pillow as soon as I tried to lift it. My eyes closed themselves and brought back those comfortable colors until they too faded to darkness.

Friday, December 2, 2011

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

My #Fridayflash for the week is in a state that I don't like at the moment, so I'm going to see if I can fix it for next week. In it's place I thought I would muse about some of the things I learned while participating in this year's National Novel Writing Month.

First, I will say that I did not 'win.' I only managed about 30k words, foolishly thinking that when I visited my parents I would find a way to make enough time to get a good word count each day. Instead I ended up with 150 words for the whole 5 day visit. So lesson one would be that I'm not good at writing on the road.

But on a more positive aspect, I did find that NaNoWriMo is actually a pretty good exercise in getting your butt in the chair and writing. It helped me I think to really develop some good habits about sitting down to my keyboard when I get home from work and at least getting something down on the page. Now if I can keep that up, I'm going to be quite happy with myself. I mean, sure I didn't get all 50k words, but just 500 words a day gets you 3 novels each year. And for me, that only takes about 15min to half an hour.

Which brings me to my second point. I took a fair amount of time in October going over my novel's structure so that I had a solid plot, with solid characters, solid goals, and solid well everything. So when it came down to doing the actual writing, I got to pour words out of my head and into the story without having to worry about what was coming next, because the little note card on Scrivener told me what was coming next. I had never written anything with that solid a structure before, and let me tell you that it was a joy. Plus, with a detailed outline, I was able to go through it and revise it a couple times to make sure that the story as a whole worked without having to cut out entire scenes and chapters, rewriting them all over again. Instead it was cutting out a sentence here and there. Outlining rocks.

And finally, I used Scrivener to write my NaNoWriMo novel, which was pretty cool. I learned a lot about it and will be purchasing the full version when my trial eventually runs out. It has a lot of neat tools that let me organize the story better then when I just used my own note cards for instance. I liked having everything in one place and so easy to change. So for the $40 or whatever it's going to cost me (Windows version, not sure about the Mac one quite yet) I think it's quite worth it.

I may not have gotten to 50k words, but I think I won in my own little way.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: "A Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series has taken on the status of ‘Must Read’ with the constant critical acclaim, the HBO series, and prime real estate positioning of his books at the local brick and mortar. I succumbed to the marketing pressures and decided to check out what all the fuss was about, so I purchased a copy of “A Game of Thrones” the first book in the series.
“A Game of Thrones” is founded on a solid base with a medieval type kingdom in turmoil, and all the big players in royal politics end up duking it out when the ascension of the prince to the throne is questioned. As far as fantastic elements, this book does not go over the top, but rather has it layered in nicely with magic not being front in center, but hiding underground with only a couple people with access to it. This makes the book accessible to those who are usually turned off by the elves, dwarfs, and wizards in traditional high fantasy. Martin also paints a very complex and vivid world that includes seasons (like winter or summer) that can last for decades on end as well as tribes of horse-riding warlords with a rich culture.
It is also clear that Martin is a master of weaving a complex plot that twists and turns through the lives of a vast array of characters that range in age from about ten to fifty, male and female, and gives the point of view of all sides of the conflict. Further more, each character is well developed to the point where they all have traits that both make them strong and weak at the same time. It’s refreshing to see somebody in the fantasy take the time to so diligently flesh out his characters.
However, there are too many characters and far too many character viewpoints to really get the reader fully invested in the book. By page 50 of the first book, I had read eight different points of view from different characters scattered across the world without once having the same viewpoint twice. This made it very difficult to get invested in the book when I wasn’t sure who the main character was, even though it turns out this book has about eight main characters.
And this leads to another problem. With eight points of view and 704 pages, we only get on average 88 pagers per main character. This book was essentially the first quarter of eight separate novels. For most novels, it usually takes about 75 to 100 pages for the first major plot point to hit and the story begins, and each of these separate story lines is no exception. This makes the book then lack much of a (or any) story arc for many of the characters as the journey has just really begun.
As a result, most of the characters undergo little or no change, and the plot really becomes almost like a listening to a history lecture (This book is said to be loosely based on the War of the Roses.) from an eloquent professor. It has it’s entertaining moments and there are a couple times when I found myself wanting to read another couple pages before I went to sleep because the story drew me in, but for the most part I kept going only because I wanted to get to the point where the story became good enough for an HBO series, but that never came.
Perhaps in book 2 or 3 or 4 it gets good, but I will probably not read those. While each of the 8 separate stories started out fine, that’s about all they managed to do. Martin just proved to me he knows how to open a novel 8 times and not that he can finish one. I for one and not about to read another 2600 pages to find out if his epic is going anywhere, and I do not recommend you invest your time in this book.
“The Game of Thrones” receives 2 out of 5 stars.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Inheriting a Legacy #FridayFlash

Just a little something I came up with today. Please let me know what you think, and as always, feel free to be extra stabby with your critiques. It's the only way to help both of us grow.

The library annex in her mother’s home was as organized as a regiment in the heat of battle: The book shelves had the correct labels, and some of the books were properly shelved, but the majority were scattered about the room. The tables were full of pots and bowls with sticky residuals from when her mother cast her last batch of spells. And wax from candles, long since burned down, dotted the carpeting.
The one thing always in the same place, a beacon of order in the chaos of the library, was her mother’s prized spellbook. The large, black, leather-bound tome rested on the marble book holder, closed with the lock holding it tightly shut. Zelda ran her hand over the cover and tapped the golden lock. She took one of her mother’s ornate daggers and pierced the tip of her finger, letting a drop of her blood fall onto the ancient metal, still polished and shiny.
The lock unlatched and the book opened itself. A faint green glow emanated from the pages accompanied with a tingling feeling running up Zelda’s spine. The magic from the book sparkled throughout her whole body.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The door to the library crashed open with her sister Victoria standing on the threshold.
“I’m going to become a witch, continuing our mother’s legacy.”
“I can’t let you do that.” She said, stepping into the library.
“Victoria, it’s what mother would have wanted.”
“Our mother was a bad person. I can’t let you descend into that world as well. Let me get rid of that book for you.”
Zelda wrapped her fingers around the edge of the book’s while marble stand. “She wasn’t a bad person, and I too will stay good. The world needs people like her, whether you agree with our methods or not.”
Victoria rolled up the sleeves of her blouse. “Then you leave me no choice.” She conjured up a small cyclone in the middle library. “Give me that book.”
The wind sucked up the contents of one of the tables and swirled towards Zelda. She ran to corner of the room and hid behind a chair. Peeking her head out, a small block of wax hit her in the head. She tried to stand, but her legs wobbled and she fell back down. As the cyclone came closer, she tried to get up once more, this time stumbling out towards her sister.
Victoria pulled her hands down, extinguishing the cyclone. She wrestled with Zelda and tried to pin her to the ground, but she broke free. “Zelda, I know it’s hard to resist. It’s in our blood to become witches, but I can’t let you. Sometimes we have to let our heritage die.”
Zelda backed away towards the spellbook, running her hands once more over the open pages. Victoria, bringing her hands back into the air, restarted the cyclone. But before it could get started, Zelda hovered her hands over the ancient pages and chanted one of the incantations.
Around her, the wind stilled, even as the room turned into a massive torrent of circling matter, banging up against the walls and shattering the windows on the far side. Once the spell was finished, a green column of light shot forth from the book and into the ceiling, dispersing the cyclone entirely. On the opposite side of the room, Victoria’s eyes turned red and a small ball of fire grew in the palm of her hand. “You have no idea what a book like that is worth do you? It is the key to unlimited wealth, and I’m not going to let you waste it like mother did.”
The ball of fire shot forth from Victoria’s hands, smashing into Zelda’s chest. She grabbed onto the book, but the impact knocked her back against the wall; a single page torn from the book remained in her hands. She noticed the smell of burning flesh even before the pain registered in her mind, collapsing her to the floor.
Victoria strolled towards the book and ran her finger around the edges, but it slammed shut with the lock clicking back into place. “Looks like I’m going to need you alive after all, sister.” She said, looking out the broken window. “At least until I can permanently unlock this damn book.”
Zelda rolled onto her side and scanned the torn page still in her hand. Despite the pain, a slight smile crept across her lips. She whispered the first part of the incantation, shouting the final word as loud as she could. Victoria spun around but it was too late. Blue light with crackling silver sparks swirled around her as she shrunk down, hands turning into sticky, webbed feet and a tail growing behind her.
Zelda staggered to her feet and dabbed some blood from her forehead onto the lock, opening the book. A small brown newt crawled up along the pages as Zelda searched for spell to heal magical burns. “I might as well keep you around too, Victoria. You might be useful as a pet.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Best #Friday Flash of the Month for Sept/Oct

Back in August I decided to start this Friday Flash of the Month award, but I neglected to realize I was going to be gone for a couple of weeks in the middle of the second 'award cycle.' But I started it and had to deal with missing September. So I decided to combine both September and October into one super month, and hopefully I will be able to move forward with a monthly award from now on.

So this award spans two months worth of worthy flash fiction and made my decision pretty difficult, but I was able to pick out what I felt to be the best piece of that span.

Now for the drumroll...And The winner of the 2nd Friday Flash of the Month Award goes to John Wiswell for one particular story in "Possible Origins for Him" series: Number 18.

There were a number of things that really stood out to me about this piece, even though I am nearly illiterate when it comes to comic book characters. There were a number of really great moments when I could really feel the character's pain with some details, and some of them were so good they felt like they could have been placed in there by the ghost of John Updike.

I highly suggest you go over to the story and read it through really carefully because it is quite beautiful and has the most sympathetic voice I have ever heard out of a villian.

John graciously agreed to continue the tradition of me interviewing the author of the piece, and so without further rambling by me, John Wiswell!!!

Could you help our readers understand a little more about what a Bathroom Monologue is?

You’re at your computer, doing your taxes, or writing the great American novel, or having a midnight fight with your Iranian lover over instant messages. Eventually you have to go to the bathroom. As soon as you get up, start thinking about anything other than what you were just doing. No Iranian lovers. Now on your way to the bathroom, try to spin a small narrative out of whatever comes to mind, and complete it by the time you get back. Most often these will emerge in the form of monologues, because it’s easy to rant about the weather or the chauvinist nature of bear/bull iconography on Wall Street. Hence, bathroom monologues.

You seem to have piled up a number of awards and publications for your flash fiction. How long had you been writing shorter pieces before you began to get critical acclaim for your work?

I invented and began regular practice of bathroom monologues in college. I took such an intense course load that I was only reading and writing to order. Eventually I feared I’d lose my creative drive entirely thanks to all these assignments, so when I got up from the keyboard, I’d spin such ideas. It kept my mind limber, and still does. That would have been 2002 or 2003. It wasn’t until 2006 or 2007 that I began submitting anywhere, and 2009 before I got a decent acceptance rate. I’m still waiting for critical acclaim, though.

Where did the idea of the Origins for Him series come from?

It began very strongly in the idea for the original. There’s a disturbing trend in the arts to marginalize happiness, to see it as generally stupid, naïve, and essentially less valid than sadness, seriousness and melancholy. This attitude disgusts me. The notion of The Joker always appealed to me in many ways, including that he represents happiness as well as the forbidden; his heroic nemesis represents severity and good. One night I was driving home and meditating on how clowns are almost exclusively depicted as scary, sad or dangerous, and latched onto the idea of defending them. That morphed into a violent Joker assailing unhappiness. Before I got into the driveway it mushroomed into not just one Joker story about that, but three others embellishing more of his elements. This one is a love story, while this one is about law, while this one is about inevitability; a sort of Calvino’s Invisible Cities for a supervillain. DC’s The Joker has had many origins, sometimes rebooted, sometimes simply overlapping. There’s even one Possible Origin about continuity rebooting. Given how much I loved the guy and enjoyed playing him, I tried to let him come out in as many ways as possible. Especially after Christopher Nolan released his Dark Knight, in which Ledger’s Joker brazenly mocked having an origin, and the convention of origin stories in film adaptations, it felt really ripe to play with as a series. 

For people like me, who know very little about comic book heroes/villains, who are some of the characters you have done in this series, and in particular who was the character in "Possible Origins for Him 18"?

It may surprise you to learn they’re all about The Joker. He’s the “Him” in the series title.

Are you an avid reader of comics? If so, which ones would be your favorite?

I’ve been a fan of comics for most of my life. Being a short kid, Wolverine was my hero. In recent years I’ve read more trades than individual issues, and sometimes starkly miss being subscribed to a story. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead was entirely worth getting monthly. So was Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil and J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor, until they left those titles. The last comic I deeply loved was Jeff Smith’s Bone, an all-ages quest that blended so many classic American cartooning styles in mere black and white. It had such heart. Almost as far away from Possible Origins for Him as it gets. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is also just wonderful, a great use of sequential art for autobiography. Oh – and Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal. I actually read a few more volumes of that saga every year, and every year it’s some of the best material I experience from any form.

Were there any particularly difficult challengers in writing this piece?

Nothing outrageous. I was a little concerned over whether the references to his basement could fit in, and if they’d click with readers. Otherwise, at this point in the series, I have a decent idea of how to put together most of the elements for each chapter. This was the eighteenth; there are six more to come. It’ll end at twenty-four chapters, the same number as the pages in comics when I grew up.

I probably didn't get any of the references aside from the face paint and squirting flower, but it was actually some of those details that I really liked out this piece and gave a sense of completeness to the story. Now, for those of us who are DC ignorant, like me, what were some of those references? I'm particularly curious about the box of pens.

The box of pens is actually just flavor, not a reference. Now I wish it were. The purple garbage can that follows is one, for its color. Purple and green materials are natural themes of the whole series. Beyond the face-paint and squirting flower, there is also a bulletproof tuxedo he’s been working on, and his obsessive returns to jokes failing. While it’s not a reference, The Joker having a connection to materials that were almost SciFi felt appropriate, too, based on some of the insane plots he’s produced. For world-references, three of his early costume description fit major villains in Gotham. “A bikini made from leaves” is Poison Ivy. “Green long-johns punctuated with question marks” is for The Riddler. “Straw bursting out of seams and sleeves to form a scarecrow” is, naturally, the Scarecrow. And I’m sure you guessed the bulletproof material that winds up being a cape is part of Batman’s origin.

Are there any ‘easter eggs’ or inside jokes in that piece that most people would not have caught?

Easter eggs emerge naturally every couple of entries or so. This one has about the most obvious: the closing words, “Long Halloween,” are the title of a great Batman story by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Loved using it as the send-off.

What do you find most challenging about writing flash fiction?

Writing for a specific audience is the worst. If I obsess over how one particular person will react, be it a girlfriend or editor or person begging me to use a prompt, it never turns out comfortably. I’m much better leaving it up to my internal, and quite arbitrary, artistic barometer. Seeking to do the piece justice internally, rather than having it serve something extrinsically, always works out better. Statistically, more editors have agreed with that than girlfriends.

What do you find most enjoyable about writing flash fiction?

The niches of haiku, microfiction and flash fiction allow for any idea on the short-end of the spectrum to be put to use. Nothing’s too long in the canons; Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Stephen King and company have ensured that you can allot as many words to a novel-sized idea as you want. But the proliferation of short forms means things that only have the meaning-bang or entertainment-bang for a page or less can have merits and audiences. It prevents me from discarding ideas. I cherish that allowance.

What would your ultimate goal as a writer be?

To finish whatever it is I’m working on right before I die, or to not mind that I can’t finish it. By then I hope I’ll be earning a comfortable living making people happier and better with my words. Lots of novels to go. But really, it’s whatever I’m doing right before I die.

Do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?

Thank you for every paragraph you've read, every comment you've left, every e-mail you've sent. The little-expressed wisdom is authors survive more on receptions than they can express.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Excerpt from "An Echo Remains"

I have not written a piece of flash this Friday as I'm slightly behind on my NaNoWriMo project. Anyways, I decided to post a quick scene from my NaNoWriMo project, "An Echo Remains" for your enjoyment (hopefully.)

The gray brick building sat in the middle of an old industrial park, surrounded by rusted barbed wire fencing. Old grain towers next to the rail yard loomed overhead, covered in graffiti up to the point where humans with spray paint could reach. Thom stepped out of Mark’s car and said. “Looks about like what I expected.”

“What do you mean?”

“For some reason I figured it would be in some abandoned industrial park with all kinds of rusted crap all over.”

Mark glanced over his shoulders at the grain towers. “You know they still use those right? Just because something’s been tagged a couple times and all the metal work isn’t freshly painted, doesn’t mean it’s abandoned.”

“I suppose.” Thom reached into the car and fetched his notebook and pen. “Shall we?”

Inside, the building was no less impressive. The oak-like laminated front desk showed its years in the fading of its color and many chips. Behind it, a woman sharply descending into her early 50s sat at a computer. She looked up from the screen and said, “You here to see Leonard?” Mark nodded. “Have a seat and I’ll let him know you’re here.”

Mark remained standing as the couple ripped leather chairs didn’t succeed in luring him in. The walls were painted a faded yellow and there were no framed gold records on the wall like he had imagined. A couple old newspapers sat on a small end-table. Him and Thom traded glances for a moment until Leonard emerged from the back.

“Hey guys.” said the large, balding man wearing a wrinkled polo shirt. “So I hear you’re looking to record your first record. Well, I think you’ve come to the right place.”

He motioned for them to follow him into the back. Mark and Thom hesitated for a moment before reluctantly . Lingering behind Leonard, Thom whispered into Mark’s ear, “I have a bad feeling we’re about to be taken into a basement, tortured, and never seen again.”

“You’ve been watching too many horror movies.”

“Still, this shit’s creepy. I don’t care how good they are. I couldn’t play well in this place. My anxiety is already spiked.”

They caught up to Leonard who stopped at their mixing board. It was slightly older looking than the other ones they saw that morning, but at least it didn’t look as dated as the waiting room. Through the glass, a moderately sized recording space was filled with guitars and amps for some band that must have been taking a break.

“So this is it. We’ve got this space, a big drum room with a twenty foot ceiling, and an isolation room. The acoustics we have here can’t be beat. Now, we may not have every bell and whistle that you may have seen downtown, but all our equipment is top notch, plus I’ve been doing this since the early 70s. And one thing I have learned in that time, is that having a good, experience engineer is the most important thing you can do to make sure your sound is solid.

“Our mastering engineer Teddy isn’t here either, but he’s been doing this with me for just as long, and he’s just as good. I know when you see our hourly prices are a bit steep, but me and Teddy, believe me, we’re worth it.”

He sat down on his chair at the console and clicked a couple buttons. “All I ask is that you listen to the last thing Teddy and I finished from a local metal band. Now, I know it’s not your style exactly, but I always want to show guys like you our latest stuff so you know just what we will typically do.”

The studio monitors came alive with the crunch of the heavily distorted guitars and pounding drums. But the sound was solid and full. After the opening bars of the song, the singer came screaming in with such ferocity that the hairs on Mark’s arm stood on end.

After the song finished, Leonard turned around and explained what they had done with that particular band to get their sound, the microphones they used, the signal processing they did to extract every bit of crunch that they could out of their guitars.

“So now what can I do for you guys?” said Leonard, before answering his own question. “I’ve got a selection of high quality microphones that goes back since I started this business that can give you just about every imaginable sound you want. And if you don’t like what your amps or even guitars are doing, I’ve got my own equipment that, again can allow us to do whatever you want. Do you have any questions?”

Mark scooted forward in his chair. “I’m going to state the obvious here. Your location and waiting room don’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in me that you guys are very successful. So why should we put this much trust in you?”

“Wow, you’re direct. To answer that, Studios that pander to your creature comforts over sound quality disgust me. I’m all about sound here, not fancy leather couches and cappuccino machines.”

Thom asked a couple more questions about the amps and microphones he had, plus some of the processing effects. Mark got a list of references and a couple high-profile bands that he had worked with and they left after about an hour.

Back in the car, Mark threw his head back on the headrest and said, “So, what do you think?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know if I’d be comfortable there, and their rates, holy shit. I don’t drink it, but for that price I would want access to a fucking cappuccino machine.”

Friday, November 4, 2011

Get Out of My Head! #Fridayflash

I thought I would share with you a quick flash inspired by my ability to come out with work similar to @Fear_In_Words at about the same time. As always, I encourage you to let me know what worked and what didn't for you. It's the only way I get better. Oh, and enjoy the music.

Doug Foster stood up on stage in front of the shareholders; I watched through the eyes of another who sat next to the aisle Foster would later walk down. The man was a business genius and could acquire the mineral rights to vast tracts of land seemingly on a whim. And even then, he would run horizontal bores into areas he didn’t have the rights and extract whatever he was after. Once in a while they ran into problems with regulators and paid them off or took the fine. Either way was less expensive than getting the rights. Profits soared and shareholders got rich.
He blathered on about their new fracking methods and assured everybody in the crowd that they were safe. It was partially my fault for believing his engineers when they came to me, but then again the dollar signs they throw in your face look so good until you’re lying in your death bed.  “Doug Foster needs to die.” I whispered
Oh god, get out of my head. Not now, please not now.
He wasn’t going to be easy to win over, but I had worked over my host for months on end up until this point. “You know how many people he has killed, and the good lord only knows how many more if you don’t kill this evil man.”
Don’t you use the Lord’s name you spawn of Satan.
“The only person approaching Satan's level of evil is finishing up his speech. You know what to do. Reach into your pocket and see what I mean.” I smiled as I whispered those words into my host’s ear. put a gun in there? But how?
“I have more power than you can even imagine.”
Then do this yourself.
“I want to see you take care of this. This is your destiny. Kill Doug Foster!”
He threw his hands over his eyes and blocked my view. The room erupted into applause; Foster must have finished. “Get ready! Get ready to kill that bastard!” I shouted as loud as I could. If I had vocal chords, they would have been wrecked. “Kill him before he kills you! This is your chance your only chance. If you don’t listen to me now, I will get somebody else, like your wife or your daughter.”
My host opened up his eyes. You can do that?
“Of course I can. I can get into them as easily as I got into you, and their minds are nowhere near as strong as yours. You have no choice. NOW DO IT!”
Foster made his way down the aisle; he was only a couple steps away. I dove deeper into my host’s head and made him grab the gun.
What are you doing.
“I’m saving your wife and your daughter. If you don’t do this, I will be forced to destroy them.”
The man who killed me and ruined my family was only a couple steps away, within range of the small handgun. My hosted lifted it up. The look on Foster’s face delighted me, tickled me deep inside. I waited for the bang and the splatter of blood, but as soon as the crowds began screaming, my host turned the gun around and put the barrel in his mouth.
Get out of my head!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fixing Amazon with 6th Grade Math

I've read a number of posts over the last month or so where people complain about how pretty much everything on Amazon has a 4 or 5 star rating despite how good a book actually is. A lot of people are giving up on the rating system, and actually wading through all the reviews to find out if a book is good or not. Without an effective means for people to sort out what books are good, the reading public will abandon mid-listers and especially those Indy/Self-pub writers for whatever the New York Times or Oprah recommends.

But I say I still have faith in crowd sourcing...even if people are far too generous with their ratings. And I say lets bring some simple 6th grade math to the rescue.

First, we need to understand that the problem is people who give a 5 star rating to pretty much everything they read and only give a 4 star if they hated know, don't want to hurt the author's feelings. I don't suggest trying to change the people who are giving the review; however, what I do suggest though is that we start to weight the reviews from each reviewer based on their history.

This is what I'm talking about: Say Mary Sue rates literally everything she reads 5 stars because she is in awe of anybody who puts pen to paper. Right now, she would tend to skew books up towards 5 stars, when in reality, 5 stars is essentially "average" for her. What I propose Amazon should do is take that info and weight Mary Sue's ratings so that when she gives say my book (whenever I get one published) a 5 star rating, Amazon actually computes it as a 3 star review.

The same thing would go for Dick Cheney when he is on Amazon giving everybody a 1 star review, then goes and reviews my book (Again giving it 1 star even though it may have reached in and touched him where his heart may have been.) Amazon treats that review as a 3 star as well.

Now if Joe Smith is running around giving 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 star reviews pretty evenly, well then when he gives my book a 5 (or 1) star rating, it actually registers as that.

This is not a new idea either. has used this same basic idea for the last probably 10 years. And when you go there (yes, admit it, you visit that site from time to time) you'll notice that there is a pretty good range of ratings that everybody falls under, and never will you see somebody with a 9.0 or above rating that makes  you want to gag. Amazon on the other hand generally has a range of 4 stars to 5 stars with plenty of 5 star (average) train wreck books that would give you a migraine just trying to get past the first chapter.

Amazon, it's time you broke out your 6th grade math books and apply some of those principles of weighted averages to your ratings system.

What do you think? Is the ratings skew on Amazon a problem? Why or why not? What do you think can be done?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: "Guns of Retribution" by Icy Sedgwick

I am a bit saddened as I post this review, as I have followed the author, Icy Sedgwik, for quite some time now. Her flash stories that she posts on her blog every Friday showcase her immense talents. So when I picked up “Guns of Retribution” I had high hopes and expectations. Unfortunately, the book fell short.

This novella follows bounty hunter Grey O’Donnell as he tries to make a living, bringing outlaws to justice. He is assisted by another gun-slinging cowboy and a mute Apache as they work to keep Gray’s family safe from the crooked Sheriff of the town of Retribution.

You would never know from the vivid descriptions and world building that Icy Sedgwick lives in the UK. Instead, you might assume she owns a ranch in southern Arizona. Her depiction of a team of riders chasing down a train and the towns of the old west are colorful and very believable. But what makes Guns of Retribution unique is that it does not just use the stereotypical saloon, main street, bank, and jail towns. Instead, the setting is sprinkled with general stores, churches, and even a public bath.

As far as the plot, it was solid, and it really seemed to grow organically from the opening scene, which grabbed my attention and brought me right into the story. There were a few minor problems though that I think could have easily been fixed. For instance, there are two towns, one full of good, moral people, and the other full of evil, immoral outlaws. By my estimation from the context, they must have been less than 10 miles apart in frontier Arizona, which doesn’t seem plausible to me. But those nit-picky things aside, the story of Guns of Retribution is good and entertaining.

However strong the setting and plot was though, I felt like the characters we far too black and while, with the good guy being all good and the bad guy being all bad. I know this is a western and the characters in westerns are usually pretty polar, but I’d like to see the hero doing something morally questionable at least once in the first half. Tell a lie or punch one of his buddies. I want to know he is human. The same goes for the antagonist who is the epitome of evil. Again I just want to see a hint of mercy in him to know we are not dealing with the spawn of Satan.

Another thing that bugged me was the overarching Freudian themes in this book. The hero runs into the sheriff’s trap to save his mother, and the sheriff himself is primarily bad because his own mother ran away. I like that there is a reason the sheriff is not the greatest guy on the planet, but two mother motivations in one book was a little hard to swallow.

There was also some bits of dialogue that literally got me shouting at the book, repeating what one of the characters said. Grey is about to charge into danger and tells his sidekick that he doesn’t have to come along if he doesn’t want to. The sidekick of course says that he wants to. That’s fine and all, but Gray does this about five more times. The last time, when the sidekick pretty much says to shut up and let him come with, I shouted out with him for Grey to shut up and ride to Retribution.

It’s little things like those that pulled me out of the book enough to where it was not enjoyable to read, and this was not something I expected from this author.

Overall Gunds of Retribution was like eating a really tasty pudding embedded with grains of sand. Most of the content was really good, but the abrasion of a couple parts was enough so that I didn’t want to finish it despite the good things it had going on.

Unfortunately I can’t recommend this book, and it receives only 4/10 stars. What I can do, however, is recommend you read the flash fiction Icy Sedgwick posts on her blog. Hopefully the next book is more representative of Icy’s skill and those grains of sand are filtered out.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


John rested his hands on the hospital-standard, white porcelain sink. Sweat dripped down his face and soaked the collar of his shirt, yet his mouth remained dry. He searched for something to drink out of, but the only thing in sight were the urine sample cups stacked neatly on the shelf. Considering it for only a moment, he spun back around and collapsed on the toilet.
In his pocket, John’s phone vibrated. It’s Kurt again. He placed his hand on the bulge his phone made from under his jeans and held it there for a moment. I should tell him I won’t be going tonight, but... His thoughts drifted to the game. His favorite baseball team was embroiled in a pennant race with their most heated rivals, and Kurt had paid nearly double face-value for the tickets so they could go. I should have him just sell the damn thing, but what if we get out of here soon? Couldn’t I just sneak out for a couple hours?
Once his phone stopped vibrating, he pulled it out of his pants and shut it off. I can’t even think about leaving. What kind of a man, what kind of a husband, does that make me?
He stood up and looked down at one of his own legs. How the hell could could something this important to human life be so fragile. He shifted his weight to his right and started to fall before he caught himself on the wall of the bathroom. Tears ran down his cheeks once again.
What kind of life is she going to have? How will we hike Yosemite next summer? Our apartment doesn’t even have an elevator. How will she come back home? We’ll have to move out, and that’s going to cost more money. God only knows how much this is going to cost in the end. The ambulance ride alone was probably more than either of us makes in a week.
“I can’t do it.” he whimpered. “I can’t let them take your leg.” John slapped his hand against the tile wall and looked up at the motivational poster on the wall. It featured some guy in racing wheelchair. He scoffed at it for a second, but took a step back and read his number bib. He was racing in the Boston Marathon.
“She can still do it. Her dream doesn’t have to die.” he whispered. John faced the mirror, and stared at his reflection with the wheelchair racer behind him. “It will be hard, but we can do it.”
He walked out of the bathroom and towards his wife’s bed. Two of the doctors were still attending to her. She was unconscious, as she had been since the accident. They didn't notice John, even after he said, “I have an answer.” He spoke louder. “I said I’ve reached a decision.”
The older doctor looked up from his chart. “What did you decide?”
“If you amputate, like you said, will it really give her a better chance of surviving?” He nodded. “And she could use one of those racing wheelchairs?”
“Of course. There is a whole range of athletic opportunities for her, even with one good leg. We might even be able to fit a prosthetic.”
“Then do whatever you think is best.”
John leaned over to his wife’s bloodied and swollen body, kissing her on the forehead. “I think this is for the best. I hope that someday, you’ll understand.”

Let me know what you thought in the comments below. As always, I appreciate constructive criticism MUCH more than the basic 'good job' one...but those are still nice too :)

Greece Photos

I finally got around to posting some pictures from my trip in Greece earlier this month. I have to give credit to my wife Kelly for all of these photos (except of course the one of her...that was me.)

Anyways, I hope you enjoy them, and I will be resuming business as usual on my blog starting today. I've got some reviews, articles, and flash stories in the pipeline coming out in the next week. So I hope you enjoy!
Gotta have a picture of the Parthenon

The stadium they held the 1896 Olympics in. 68,000 person stadium comprised entirely of marble!

My wife Kelly on our balcony in Mykonos

The windmills in Mykonos

The Red Beach in Santorini

Pretty sunset in Santorini

  © Blogger template Brooklyn by 2008

Back to TOP