Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Salvation

A bit of flash fiction today from Marlene Moss, a writer from Colorado who is also a "physicist by education, a software tester by trade, and a horse trainer by hobby." She's recently completed a YA fantasy novel, and is sharing Salvation, a piece of flash fiction about wanting to disappear. Enjoy.

Salvation
By Marlene Moss

All he had to do was make it to the fence. From there, he could sneak into Mrs. Panagos’ yard and hide under her porch. He’d be invisible there. But . . . what if they saw him jump the fence? He couldn’t risk losing that hiding place. If they were close, he would have to keep going.

The fence. He drove every shred of energy remaining in his body toward that singular salvation. Why did they pick on him? He wasn’t ugly, poor or stupid. Just little. What power could be gained by smashing the face of a scrawny ten year old? Especially when it took three of them.

Today’s assault started at recess. He swung happily, pumping higher and higher. One day he would let go and fly. Fly away from school. Fly away from bullies. Fly away from teachers who didn’t see, didn’t care. Fly away from parents who refused to believe fifth graders had the ability to hurt each other.

Did he look too happy imagining his escape unfettered by gravity? Something drew their anger. As one, the three husky boys stopped their game of basketball-dodge ball and turned.

No, no, no! Please keep turning, find someone else this time. Just this once.

His inner pleading became a magnet. The boys locked eyes, the basketballs bounced once, twice, then they lurched toward the new target. A moving target. So much more entertaining.

Wham! The first ball hit the chain and careened into the playground. It still had enough force to vibrate the chain painfully in his hands.

I could just let go. Fly right over their heads. Over the school fence. I might be small, but I’m faster than those lunk-heads.

Wham! His head slammed into the swing chain, which momentarily captured a strand of hair. His ears rang with the hollow ping of the basketball.

Keep swinging! Be ready to kick. Don’t be an easy target.
A recovered basketball was drawn back and aimed right at his head. He could see the pebbly surface that would soon force its negative into his forehead.

“Boys. Be nice now, we don’t want anyone getting hurt or losing recess privileges.”

Or heads. Don’t want to lose heads. Doesn’t she see what they want to do to me? Recess privileges? Yes, please, lock me in a classroom.

The bell rang. A reprieve! But they didn’t leave, just stared at him, slowly bouncing their balls. A threat. This was not over.

Each breath hurt more than the previous; a sharp pain deep in his lungs. Finally, he risked a backward glance. They were still there, but back far enough that he might be able to risk aiming for Mrs. Panagos’ porch. Never mind the spiders and the rotten smell of decaying leaves. He just wanted to end the day with his nose where it belonged.

The fence. There. Once more block. From here, the white picket fence was merely a thick white line. But it was so much more. A fence low enough to be jumped and behind it, a dark space masked by a white lattice. He knew one side was loose, in seconds he could disappear.

Half a block. He threw another glance over his shoulder. They were closer! Another burst of desperate speed. The fence was right there, across the street. He had no choice; he could run no further.

He leapt the fence—almost cleanly. Only his left foot dragged and he dropped and rolled through the leaves. He continued rolling to his feet and staggered around the porch. The lattice was just loose enough for someone of his size. He squeezed inside.

He scrambled to the deepest depth of the cave and held his hands over his mouth to muffle his ragged breathing.

Shadows moved past the porch. Was he safe?

Big deep breath through his mouth. Then another through the nose that remained attached to his face.

A beady eye squinted through the lattice.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What The Fudge?

In high school, my AP English teacher gave us the freedom to choose which book to read individually for our final paper. She tried to push Catcher in the Rye by adding "you'll like it; there's swearing in it." (Despite what you may believe, based on the name of this blog, I did not choose Catcher. I had already read it, so I chose Lord of the Flies.) I remember she specifically added the "swearing" bit because when I had read it I didn't even notice those words were there. I was too wrapped up in the ball of emotion that was Holden Caulfield and the journey through New York City to pay attention to things like that. If he swore at all, then it was as natural and as necessary as any other word.

We often talk about sex in YA, violence in video games, and other things that might not be "appropriate" for our nation's youth. While the question of gratuitous language does come up, it's discussed - on the whole - far less. I should mention that when I talk about "colorful" language in books, I'm not just talking about YA. If anything, teens use curse words way more than adults because, like drinking, adults learn when to hold back, when it's appropriate, and when to indulge.

I bring this up because I was recently reading a manuscript - one that I was excited to begin - and I could not get over how many F-bombs were on the first page. Obviously this narrator was mad. But I didn't know who he was, why I should care, if the person he was angry with really was a "bitch," as he claimed, or even where he was. It felt like I was being bombarded with emotion that I wasn't ready to take on as a reader. The narrator went on to drop this language into conversation, and every time it felt forced and unnatural. Eventually I had to give up on the story because it was so distracting to read.

Certain things are translated differently when they are on the page, which is why, as novelists, you need to be more conscious of the image you project. Writers like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet don't have to worry about that as much. (If you're familiar with their work, you can probably guess why I chose them as examples.) They aren't writing for the page. In the flash of a single image, their world, setting, and even character can be immediately established. As a result, their characters can say whatever the fuck they want.

Novelists don't have that luxury. Yes, their characters can say whatever they want, but when they can say it matters a little bit more in books than it does in movies. It takes longer to introduce your character and establish a connection to your reader - especially if you're writing in 3rd person. First-person narration might makes things easier since you're establishing your main character's voice right from the beginning. Even still, the reader needs to understand his or her POV before they're forced into it. 

Now, lest you think I'm just being prudish about "the devil's words," I'll admit that not all swear words are bad and no one needs to be sheltered from them. Sometimes they need to be added, not taken away. If your character finds himself in some seriously fucked up shit, then he better call it like he sees it. Even the mildest person in the world will let out a quiet "motherfucker!" when they stub their toe. It's natural and sometimes a curse is the only word that can sum up events.

Whether you're writing YA or adult fiction, treat swear words the same way you would any other word. Sometimes they need to get edited out, and sometimes they fit so perfectly that the reader barely notices them. If you're ever in doubt about whether you're being excessive or not excessive enough, just ask yourself two questions: Is this something my character would say? and Does this type of language fit the situation? Like with most things, there are exceptions to rules and ways to bend them, but in most situations, answering these two questions will suffice.

I'm of the mindset that almost everything can be appropriate for all ages if done properly. Why hold anything back if it will resonate with your audience and enrich your story? But make smart choices. Swear words are just words the same way sex and violence are just actions. They each have a slightly heavier weight than their counterparts, sure, but ultimately it's up to you whether your story needs carry it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Rental Heart

I hope you all enjoy this piece of literary fiction today from Kirsty Logan, a writer living in Glasgow. In addition to writing short stories, she recently completed a novel, with the amazing title, Little Dead Boys. The story she's sharing today is from her collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. In addition to writing, she's also an editor at a literary magazine and a book review. After reading The Rental Heart, you can check out her website at http://www.kirstylogan.com.

The Rental Heart
By Kirsty Logan

The day after I met Grace – her pierced little mouth, her shitkicker boots, her hands as small as goosebumps writing numbers on my palm. The day after I met her, I went to the heart rental place.

I hadn’t rented in years, and doubted they would have my preferred model. The window display was different, the hearts sleeker and shinier than I remembered. The first time I had rented it was considered high-tech to have the cogs tucked away; now they were as smooth and seamless as a stone. Some of the new hearts had extras I’d never seen, like timers and standby buttons and customised beating patterns.

That made me think about Grace, her ear pressed to my sternum, listening to the morse code of her name, and my own heart started to creep up my throat so I swallowed it down and went into the shop.

An hour later I was swallowing lunch and trying to read the instruction leaflet. They made it seem so complicated but it wasn't really. The hearts just clipped in, and as long as you remembered to close yourself up tightly then they could tick away for years. Decades, probably. The problems came when the hearts got old and scratched: shreds of the past got caught in the dents, and they're tricky to rinse out. Even a wire brush won't do it.

But the man in the rental place had assured me that this one was factory-fresh, clean as a kitten's tongue. Those heart rental guys always lied, but I could tell by the heart's coppery sheen that hadn't been broken yet.

I remembered perfectly well how to fit the heart, but I still read the leaflet to the end as a distraction. A way to not think about how Grace looked when she bit her lip, when she wrote the curls of her number. How she would look later tonight, when she. When we.

It was very important that I fit the heart before that happened.

*

Ten years ago, first heart. Jacob was as solid and golden as a tilled field, and our love was going to last forever, which at our age meant six months. Every time Jacob touched me, I felt my heart thud wetly against my lungs. When I watched him sleep, I felt it clawing up my oesophagus. Sometimes it was hard to speak from the wet weight of it sitting at the base of my tongue, but I would just smile and wait for him to start talking again.

The more I loved him the heavier my heart felt, until I was walking around with my back bent and my knees cracking from the weight of it. When Jacob left, I felt my heart shatter like a shotgun pellet, shards lodging in my guts. I had to drink every night to wash the shards out. I had to.

A year later I met Anna. She was dreadlocked, greeneyed, full of verbs. She smelled of rain and revolution. I fell.

But the parts of me that I wanted to give to Anna were long gone, down the gutters of the city, mixed with the chemicals of forgetting. Those shards had dissolved, washed away forever, and there was not enough left that was worth giving. The edges of my heart were jagged now and I did not want to feel those rough edges climbing my throat; I did not love her enough to cough blood. I kept what was left of me close, tucked under the long soft coils of my intestines where Anna wouldn't see.

One night, still throbbing, Anna opened her chest. Her heart nestled, a perfect curl of clockwork.

This is how, she said.

I could hear its tick against the soft embrace of her lungs, and I bent close to her to smell its metallic sharpness. I wanted.

The next day she took me to the heart rental place. I spent a long time pressing my palms against the polished metal until I found one that felt warm against my skin. I made sure that the sharp edges of the cogs were tucked inwards, kept safe from the just-healed rawness of my throat.

Back at Anna's, she unwrapped the plastic, fitted the heart, closed my chest, took me to bed. Later I watched her sleep and loved her with every cog of my heart.

When Anna ran off with my best friend I took the heart back to the rental place. Nothing choked or shattered or weighed me down. It looked just as sleekshiny as when I had first taken it out of the wrapping, and the rental guy gave me my full deposit back. I deleted Anna's phone number and went out for dinner.

The next year, when I met Will, I knew what to do. The heart this time was smaller, more compact, and it clipped into place easily. Technology moves fast.

Will taught me about Boudicea, the golden section, musical intervals, Middle English. I soaked him up like I was cotton wool.

Sometimes, pre-dawn, I would sneak into the bathroom and open myself to the mirror. The heart reflected Will back at me, secure in its mechanics. I would unclip it, watch it tick in my fist. I would put it back before sliding into Will's arms.

On our first holiday, I beeped through the airport barriers. I showed my heart and was waved on. It wasn't until the plane was taxiing that I realised Will had not beeped. I spent the whole flight wire-jawed with my paperback open to page one, unable to stop thinking about the contents of Will's chest. We never mentioned it; I could not stand to think of his chest cavity all full of wet red flesh.

When I left Will, I returned the heart again. I couldn't sleep for the thought of his heart, shot into shards, sticking in his guts, scratching up his gullet.

After that I rented hearts for Michael, and Rose, and Genevieve. They taught me about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and how to look after a sausage dog. They smelled of petrol and hair oil and sawdust and honeysuckle.

After a while, the heart rental guy started to greet me by name. He gave me a bulk discount and I got invited to his Christmas party. Soon I found that halfway between sleeping and waking, the glint of the rental guy's gold incisor would flicker at the corners of my eyes. I wondered if he licked the hearts before renting them to me, so molecules of him would be caught down in some tiny hidden cog, merging into my insides.

The glint of the rental guy in my dreams started to make me uncomfortable, so I switched to a new rental place. There were plenty to choose from, and I preferred the ones that didn't gleam their teeth at me. They never gave me back my security deposits, but always kept their stares on the scratched glass counter when I returned the hearts. Their downturned eyes were more important than the shine of coins.

I got older, the hearts got smaller. After Genevieve I moved away for a while, to an island where I knew no-one and nothing, not even the language. I lived alone. I did not look anyone in the eye; I did not need to rent a heart. My empty chest made it easy to breathe, and I filled my lungs with the sharp air of the sea. I stayed there for a year.

*

Back in the city, back in the world. Among words and faces I knew. One night, many drinks, and Grace's number scrawled tiny on my skin. Then the downturned gaze, the scratched glass counter. The sleekshiny new heart.

I swallowed the rest of my lunch and went home to fit the heart.

Three years later, autumn afternoon, curled on the couch with newsprint on my fingers and Grace's dozing hair in my lap. I stuttered on a small notice in the corner of the page:

Product recall: Heart Model #345-27J. Defective.

I pressed my hand – the hand holding the dark length of Grace's hair – against my chest. I hadn't opened myself in years, trusting the tick of the heart. I'd kept it for so long that I knew I'd have lost my deposit, but I hadn't wanted to return it, to lose the image of Grace coiled in the centre of it. I'd forgotten the face of the rental guy; had forgotten the warm weight of a new heart in my palm.

I slid out from under Grace. She mumbled half-awake, then quietened when I slipped a cushion in under the heat of her skull. I tiptoed into the bathroom and opened the rusted hinges of my chest.

The heart was dusty and tarnished and utterly empty. In the centre of it was no picture of Grace, no strands of her hair, no shine of memories, no declarations. The rusting metal squealed when I pulled it out.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Things You Didn't Do

Writers who are ready to query can be overzealous sometimes. In their excitement and in their quest to have the "perfect" query, sometimes it's the simplest things that make an agent scratch his or her head. While these things are rarely make-or-break for the query itself, you might want to re-think saying you did the following:

1) Enclose a SASE with your e-query. I'm sure you read all over the internet that agents won't even respond to queries that don't have a SASE enclosed. Going down your check list of what you need in a query, it makes perfect sense to remember your SASE - but remember which method you're sending the query.

2) Write "(sign)" after your name as if you wrote your signature. You didn't do this. We can see that you didn't do this.

3) Write a fictional novel. Well, maybe you did. I mean, who hasn't mapped out an entire novel in their minds? But you really shouldn't query unless you put that idea down on paper.

4) Write a non-fiction novel. "Novel," by definition, is a work of fiction.

5) Write a 10,000 word novel. This does not work in any genre or age group.

6) Write a 200,000 word MG. If you did, then chances are it's actually a four-book series that you combined into one. Or you're George R.R. Martin trying to mess with people.

7) Send a query letter to "Mr. Curtis Brown." This one is specific to my agency, I know. But I see it all the time. Yes, there was a real Curtis Brown. No, he is not still alive. No, I am not "Mrs. Brown," let alone Curtis himself.

Have any of you ever made any "common sense" mistakes you care to share?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How to Get an MFA in Five Steps

This week, GalleyCat promoted New York Writers Workshop’s free ebook of Portable MFA in Creative Writing. While I have nothing against the existence of this book as a writing guide (the people over at the New York Writers Workshop are successful, well-known, and respected in their fields), I was skeptical of it proclaiming to give writers the MFA experience. A GED does not have the same weight as a high school diploma, and a certificate from the University of Phoenix is not a college education. So how could a free ebook come close to substituting a Masters degree? [Note: I don't think the writers of this book believe it can either. It's just a catchy title. But, it's one that implies "an MFA is too expensive, so buy this book instead."]

I'll be the first to admit that an MFA in creative writing is a luxury degree. No one needs it. That doesn't mean that, even after my accumulated $60,000 debt, I regret getting one. I'd recommend an MFA program to anyone who's serious about writing, but I can see why some might not think it's worth the price of admission. The good news is there are ways to cut costs and achieve (relatively) the same results. You just need to be willing to put in the work, and realize it's not going to come from one source or happen overnight.

So here goes - my MFA in Five (Not-Always-Easy) Steps:

1. Buy the following books:
On Writing by Stephen King
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

There are a million writing guides all proclaiming to be the only one you need. Do you ever only need one book though? Besides, if you found this blog you're already savvy enough to know the internet is full of free advice that comes directly from agents, editors, and published authors. The three books I mentioned, however, are what I consider "the best" of many, many books on writing. You want to pick them up, trust me. And hey, buy the Portable MFA while you're at it (or download it for free!) because it sounds like they have some good people over there. (I realize that sounds sarcastic, but I promise I'm being sincere!)

2. Read Literary Fiction.
Rarely will you find an MFA program that teaches genre fiction, and the reason is not because it's "looked down upon." My former colleague Nathan Bransford summed up what he called "the reverse snobbery" of literary fiction quite nicely (here), and I could not agree more. There seems to have been a backlash against literary fiction - that it's too high brow, that they want something "real," and that it's not accessible. The thing is, sometimes those things are true and sometimes none of those things are true. Like with every genre, the stereotypes attached to it give it a bad name.

"Accessible" literary fiction like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jonathan Lethem are what I tend to fall back on when I'm able to read for fun. We all have our favorite genres. But if you're trying to give yourself an MFA-style education, you need to push yourself. That's why they teach the uber-literary in MFA programs. Reading the same book you'd read while commuting or at the beach is not going to help you learn anything you don't already know. So pick up something you'd never buy otherwise. Pynchon maybe? Nabokov that's not Lolita? Personally, I'd recommend some post-modern Barthelme. Sometimes you need to read something that will make you scratch your head, stretch your mind, and remind yourself that you're a scholar.

3. Go to readings at your local bookstore.
This is something all the advice in the world can't replicate. Seeing established authors in person reading aloud from their published work. Then, if you're lucky, speaking to them - whether in a Q&A session or during a quick handshake before they sign your book. Witness what writing is when it's off the page.

4. Give yourself "in class" assignments.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and write as many words as you can. It doesn't matter what the topic is or even that they make sense as a cohesive idea. Just move your pen. Or type - whatever your preference. The goal isn't to develop a story, but just to see where your mind takes you.

Another favorite in-class assignment of mine was to take a famous writer, study their sentence structure, and then try to replicate it. You'd be amazed at how hard this is. Pick literary writers, or the classics, for this task. Stretch your limits and go beyond your comfort zone. I once had to mimic Proust and produced a long, lyrical sentence about Wal-Mart. Like with the previous assignment, the importance isn't placed on what you write, but rather how you're writing it. 

(Although once you deem yourself ready to graduate and want to focus on publishing your work, I recommend taking authors within your genre and studying their structures. While it won't be as "artful," it's a good way to learn what they're doing, how you'd compete, and what you'd add to the market.)

5. Join a writer's group or take a creative writing class at a local college.
Again, physically being near other writers is something you can't find in a book. The most important aspects of an education is experiencing, learning-by-doing, and meeting people. Specifically, meeting strangers. Cheat on your beta readers and workshop your manuscript with people you don't know, and maybe aren't even sure you can trust. Sit uncomfortably and optimistically while your classmates tell you every single thing that is wrong with your work directly to your face. It's wonderful and horrifying and makes you a stronger person. Their word isn't bond, but how you interpret their advice will make you a smarter, more prepared writer.

This Five-Step Program will not, and should not, take less than one year to complete. Diplomas will be awarded upon graduation, though I cannot guarantee they won't just be photos of corgis in party hats.

Good forth and learn, you bright young things!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Dogs Are on Facebook

Glass Cases is back! And what better way to summarize the absurdity of my summer than with an absurdist story? The author, Barry James Hickey, is a writer from Colorado who has completed three novels, in addition to working as an actor and singer. After you check out My Dogs Are On Facebook, visit his website at http://www.barryhickey.com. Enjoy!

My Dogs Are On Facebook
Barry James Hickey  

Georgie Girl and her accomplice Portia are rascal mutts. I know they take me for granted. I used to wonder what they do around the house all day while they send me to fetch money to keep them living in doggy heaven. Then I stumbled across something very disturbing this week.

My dogs are on Facebook.

Are dogs intelligent? I suppose. I know dumber people. But dogs are also cunning master manipulators. My girls always wake me before sunrise to feed them. They force me to walk them at least once a day. They eat dinner before I am allowed. I had to give up Sunday church services for the dog park. And why do I have to chill their water bowls?

Sure, they let me sit on the couch sometimes. After all, I paid for it. That king-sized bed has my name on it, not theirs. But they don't care. They think they have me trained. But this Facebook business… I feel like I lost my best friends.

I should have seen it coming. There were early signs, dire warnings. But I can't smell or see or hear like a dog.

The hole I found dug under the fence last week? It turns out Georgie Girl and her live-in girlfriend Portia were dragging coaxial cable from the empty house next door, stealing the land line signal for their secret lair tucked in a corner of the garage behind stacks of old boxes.

Last week several UPS boxes arrived c/o "Ladies of the House" from Dogs-R-Us. It wasn't Christmas or their birthdays. Dogs don't celebrate Easter or Mother's Day (at least I don't think so). Inside were behavioral toys, peanut butter biscuits and a yard clean up tonic "for a sweet smelling yard".

I discovered that Georgie Girl hacked into my old laptop computer in the garage while Portia swiped my credit card from my wallet when I was sleeping. They bought $200 worth of junk. (That's my credit card limit - I'm not a rich man - two female dogs are expensive upkeep.) When I confronted them they smiled and barked, "It's a woman's prerogative." (Whatever that means.)

I threatened to seal up their doggy door but they know I won't go through with it. I'm not Alpha enough. Besides, when they poop in the house they always make me clean it up.

Now this Facebook business behind my back. They posted over 200 profile pictures and I'm not in any of them. They describe themselves as voluptuous, rather than pudgy. I discovered their interest in "men" and that Georgie Girl likes "romantic walks in the rain," while Portia enjoys "romantic dinners by candlelight." They're such liars. Georgie Girl whines when it drizzles and Portia's idea of a romantic dinner is gorging herself on sweat socks.

I sat them down and spent a fruitless afternoon talking to them about the pitfalls and dangers of social media between strangers. But they don't care. They want what they want when they want it.

I checked into other social sites. They opted out of MySpace. There are no videos of them on YouTube yet. (I returned the digital camera they ordered.) One of them saved Twitter as a favorite site. I'm sure they'll have something to bark about in 140 characters or less.

I went into my Facebook account and posted on their wall, telling their "male friends" that the two of them are just two fat lazy bitches in heat and that they don't look anything like their pictures in real life. The next day they had over thirty hits. Males looking to "hook up" with females on the plump side.

And just how did they get more friends than me on Facebook? It's a dog's life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We Interrupt This Break...

So, I'm still on my sort-of-in-New-York/sort-of-busy/sort-of-out-of-the-office-for-the-next-week blog break, but I just signed into my Glass Cases email and good lord!

I'm taking a break from my break to let you guys know that (clearly) I am behind on submissions. I don't know why I thought they'd also take a hiatus this summer, but that is definitely not the case. This doesn't mean I don't want you to keep sending (please keep sending!). Just be aware that I'm a bit backed up (some even from June!). This is all part of the reason I need a break. Must catch up on life!

Thanks for your patience, guys and gals.

As a reward, this: