Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Fosters

Hello everyone. A late night post, but it's a dark story so it seems fitting. The Fosters is a short story by Matthew Bryant, a horror and sci-fi enthusiast from Texas. He teaches English and Art at a juvenile detention center and also write thrillers when he has the time. You can check out his blog after you check out his piece below. Enjoy!

The Fosters – Philip’s Treehouse
By Matthew Bryant

Max leaned his head over the edge of the top bunk. “Hey Philip. You awake?” There was no response from the dark sheets below. “Philip. Hey Philip!” Still silence.

Rifling through his sheets, Max found his sock monkey, one of the few possessions from his life before foster care that he still carried with him. He gripped tightly to one of the legs in his small hand, hung over the ledge and swung fiercely at where he believed his brother’s head to be.

“Hey Philip! You awake?”

The sheets stirred and the silhouette of a head popped up, quickly greeted by hands rubbing across it before turning to look at the red digital letters of an alarm clock across the room. “Christ, Max. It’s nearly eleven. Go to sleep.”

“I can’t! I’m too hyper. Can you tell me a story?”

Philip ran his palms over his face and through his hair before gently massaging his throbbing shoulders. A full day of pushing a mower had awarded him nearly $50, a large sum for a 14 year old. Unfortunately, most of it would end up going to family expenses, the rest would be set aside for buying school clothes and supplies. “No. Go to sleep.” He plopped his head back on the warm pillow and closed his eyes.

“Please! You tell the best stories.”

Philip groaned. “There once was a boy who wouldn’t sleep. His brother fed him to wolves. The end.”

There was a brief pause from above before Max protested again. “That story sucked. I want a real story!”

An audible breath filled the air. “Fine. What kind of story would you like?”

Philip could almost hear the mischievous grin from his brother. “Tell me a story about magic.”

He let out a puff of air as his mind began searching for an acceptable story. “Alright, I got one.”

*****

It had taken months to put the treehouse together. The Wilhite’s were more strict than the usual folks I got dumped with, so everything had to be done while they were asleep. Broken boards and old nails were pilfered from the upcoming housing subdivision only a few blocks down. It wouldn’t be long before all of the woods were bought up and I’d have no place left to hide.

It was my favorite place in the world. The one place I found freedom. The place I was most at peace. The tree I’d chosen was a good ways into the woods. It meant hauling my building supplies further, but it was on the other side of a long, winding creek. The only way across was a worn old wooden bridge several yards across. I used to joke that there was a troll who lived under the bridge that would eat up children if they didn’t bring its favorite snack – Swedish Fish.

This kept most of the other kids at bay unless I’d invited them out, always keeping a supply handy to toss over for show. We’d had many a good time in those woods playing tag, hide-and-go-seek or gambling for nickels and dimes in the treehouse while tossing back sodas or homemade lemonade.

When I was by myself I’d play pirates and bury stolen treasure, or soldiers in search of Charlie. That night I was just relaxing from a long day of scavenging for copper to sell. My meager stash was just a few pounds of stripped wires I’d found scattered at some unfinished houses, the longest being only four-inches.

The coyotes were exceptionally busy that night, howling and yipping at a moon so bright it lit the town on fire, dimming even the city lights on the horizon. I was laying on an old futon mattress I’d snatched from a dumpster and flipping through a stolen magazine, grateful for the illumination and no need to waste the batteries in my electric lantern.

It was getting late and the Wilhite’s had a nasty habit of making me go to school, so I stashed my copper in my hiding place, an old badger den at the base of the tree, and made my way back through the woods.

I was nearly to the bridge when a coyote came barreling straight towards me, making me jump near out of my skin. It stopped and stared wide-eyed at me as if to say, “Run you crazy fool!” then took off again, rushing past me and deeper into the woods.

It was a few minutes before I could unlock my legs and begin moving again. My senses were on edge. Something about the way the air smelled wasn’t right. A mixture between moss and rotten fish. I moved cautiously, looking left and right at the dark shadows cast by the trees, always so familiar before, but somehow seeming more sinister tonight.

I let out a sigh of relief when I spied the bridge, but only for a moment. There, wading in the creek, was a large, hulking figure. It turned to look at me. One eye was sealed shut in a permanent wink, but the other glowed a bright yellow like a firefly caught in tar.

Its skin was course and covered in warts. A thick hand rose out of the water, bits of river-grass dangling from its knuckles. “You!” it called in a deep voice. I didn’t have to look around. I was completely alone with the beast. “Where are my fish?”

I had come out alone that night and had completely forgotten to bring any with me. I could still see the bag resting on my nightstand at home, propped up against my lamp.

“I forgot the fish tonight. I’ll pay double next time,” I called back in a quivery voice.

“You’ll pay me now!” it screamed. Much to my horror, its lumbering form began moving through the creek towards me.

I took off like a grasshopper tied to a bottle-rocket, tearing blindly back into the woods. My mind too frozen with fear to plan anything beyond escape, I rushed this way and that, hoping to lose him in confusion.

For such a large thing, it was surprisingly quick and managed to match my pace. I was nearly out of breath when a bright white light appeared in front of me. With no better options, I rushed towards it with all the strength my legs could muster.

As I approached it, I realized it was hovering in the air right next to the tree I’d built my house in. It was a tiny lady, the most beautiful I’d ever seen as far as tiny ladies go. In retrospect, I almost wish I was four inches tall and could’ve run away with her and made miniscule babies together. But back to the point.

“Philip,” she called in a voice as sweet as twinkies. “You must be brave. The only thing that can hurt a troll is copper.”

“You want me to pelt it with wire?”

She smiled at me, shaking her head sadly. “You must believe, Philip. Reach your hand into the hole.”

I looked up to see the troll gaining on me, could feel the ground shaking with each trembling step, could feel the heat of his one eye bearing down on me. With no other options, I thrust my hand into the hole, wrapping it around something cool and smooth.

When I pulled my hand out, I found that I was holding the oak-wood grip of a long knife. The sheen off the blade was almost golden. Not having time to admire it further, I bit the blade between my teeth and began scaling the ladder I’d nailed into the tree.

“My fish or your flesh!” called the troll, now only yards away.

I reached the tree house and looked out the window, only just now realizing that I was eye-level with the beast.

“Believe!” called the fairy from below.

With a sharp pain in my heart and absolute terror fueling every part of my body, I climbed out on the window sill and faced the troll. Just as he began to swipe at me, I pulled the dagger from my teeth and leapt towards him as far as I could.

With two hands tightly gripping the hilt, I slammed the blade of the knife into his one good eye.

It screamed and shook violently, tossing me clear twenty feet until I hit a tree and passed out.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Writing What You Know

This post is not going to be about the new HBO show Girls because that's the last thing this world needs. But I suppose I should it some credit for today's post because it relates to what I've been thinking about, writing-wise, lately. "Write What You Know" is a maxim taken straight out of Writing 101, but I think it's been getting abused.

I've long been an advocate of writing what you know, and I've written about it before (way back in 2009) when I discussed a young writer, Nick McDonell, who wrote his acclaimed novel Twelve when he was seventeen. Like Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, McDonell is from a privileged New York upbringing and used his limited worldview to his advantage (he's now 28 and has three published novels with protagonists that aged along with him). The similarities between McDonell and Dunham end there, and I actually feel guilty even putting them in the same sentence.

What Nick did that Lena doesn't is that he drew from what he knew rather than recreated it. In Dunham's 2010 movie Tiny Furniture, she writes about a college graduate who moves back in with her mother, an artist (like her real-life mother), and deals with being a post-Gen X twenty-something. Girls is not much different. The situations she and her friends get into are very specific to being an educated twenty-something in post-recession America who consciously ignore the huge safety net beneath them.

Some will relate to this, others won't. For me, it was beside the point. What it came down to was "was I interested in this story?" and the answer was no. Then (always relating back to writing), I said to myself, "this is why I'm not excited about New Adult."

I've spoken about New Adult before and why I don't think it's marketable yet. Even so, I still get queries for it, even if they don't label it that. Many college and just-graduated writers send me "literary fiction" that seem remarkably similar to their bios. Write What You Know is what they were taught in all of their creative writing classes, so this is no surprise. What bothers me about what writing programs have been churning out is that they don't seem to be showing the writers how to use what they know and still create an interesting story.

When you don't have much life experience, writing what you know should be what you write. It's a great starting off point. But the trend I'm seeing with young writers is a literal interpretation. If every aspect of your storytelling is a mirror of your personal experience, you risk alienating readers who don't have your exact background.

I get a lot of submissions for literary fiction from young writers who compare their work to The Graduate, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and Bright Lights Big City, and then when I request them I quickly realize that they are lacking in one major area: a standalone story arc that could be enjoyed by a larger audience. Writers should use what they know to enhance their stories, not diminish them.

Take The Graduate. An older woman seduces a younger man. What if that man was 33 instead of 23? We would have had a very different experience watching it. What makes The Graduate such a funny, poignant story is the fact that Ben is younger than "young." He's internally struggling with all of these New Adult things when - bam! - a plot line hits him.

I suppose it's ironic that YA has had more time to mature than New Adult, and - after a rocky start - has found a way to make itself relevant in the marketplace. The reason why it was able to become relevant, I think, goes back to Write What You Know. No matter how authentic the voice, YA comes with an adult perspective. While there are exceptions, most YA is written by adults. They use what they know about growing up to capture the essence of being a teen without getting consumed by it, allowing for non-teen readers to appreciate the actual story.

New Adult, however, remains exclusive. Their stories tend to ask "doesn't it suck being 22?" or "isn't it great being 22?" and leaves outside readers saying, "yes, but what is your point?" There's also a theme - not just in my submissions, but in various "Gen Y" pop culture I'm seeing - of the main character being self-aware of his or her role as a twenty-something. The writers usually seem pleased with themselves for being so astute. Gen X set the precedent for "the listless twenty-something," and now Gen Y is using it to wink at their audience and roll their eyes at themselves. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. But - and this is important - 

Being self-aware is not the same as having perspective.

For the same reason the best memoirs aren't about events that happened a month ago, knowing you're in a certain situation and being able to objectively assess that situation are two different things. That's why instead of getting the next Bret Easton Ellis, we're getting people who reference the fact they've read Bret Easton Ellis and hope their audience reads between the lines. 

Self-awareness vs. perspective is a distinction that many young writers are failing to grasp, at least from what I've seen in my submission pile. It's also, I believe, why many Gen Y writers take Write What You Know so literally. They don't yet realize what they're writing isn't universal. This doesn't make them wrong or shallow or bad writers (on the contrary, I've turned down far too many talented writers solely because their stories weren't developed enough). It just means they need more distance from the thing they are writing about in order to get their point across.

(Note: I realize I am generalizing a bit, so let me reiterate that there are very talented young writers who do get it right. And trust me, when they do get it right, it is brilliant and often leaves me seething with jealousy.)

I know I've picked a little too much on young people in this post, but that's only because of the types of submissions I've been getting lately (and, ya know, Girls didn't exactly disprove my theory). But "real" adults - you are guilty of this too. When you draw on what you know about falling in love, getting divorced, burying a parent, or having your character "find themselves" on some journey, be careful that you don't cast yourself in their role unless you've gained the necessary perspective about it. Understand that your audience might look and think and act differently than you, so don't expect your personal story to translate the way you want it to without the appropriate context. Like all good writing, it's not always about making your reader like, relate to, or even understand your character all the time. But you do need to make them care.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Farewell

Welcoming the return from my vacation (and slightly extended vacation from the blog) with a story called The Farewell. I didn't do that on purpose, but I suppose you can think of it as ironic if you'd like. Today's story is a piece of flash fiction from Christine Autrand Mitchell, a writer "raised across four countries" who's also acted as script writers, producer, director, and casting director, and currently heads Entandem Productions. Enjoy The Farewell.

The Farewell
By Christine Autrand Mitchell

The sea held its breath, meekly lingering like a dragon watching the resigned virgin await her fate. He silently poured her ashes into the tide pools, among the tiny purple crabs and button snails, the supple anemones and drifting seagrass. The wall of sons and daughters, lovers and siblings hid him away from the view of tourists who scrabbled joyously and indifferently among the cliffs on the promontory. It was a perfect day after all, the fog had cleared and the sun warmed the cool steady Pacific breezes that murmured past our ears. 

No sooner was it complete, when the sea exhaled and the tide surged to claim his mother’s ashes as their own, to impatiently whirl them away into the depths as a dragon might show the virgin its secrets before the unimaginable – where darkness barely conceals bones and a ray of sun bending through a calcium rich puddle may reveal the glitter of a stalactite. But, there, the pulse of the ocean returned as the mourners watched the ashes remain pale, expand and disappear in the rush of a dark cyclone, one his mother might have seen cutting through a trailer park as a child in the Midwest. 

His hand bore her remnants, almost white, as if he’d donned a pallbearer’s glove and thus she held his hand as she had not accomplished in life, finally showing her gratitude and pride in him. He was a strong man because he had to be, learning those cruel lessons of adolescence directly from the absence of her guidance, through her acts of selfishness. She’d been caught in a deep rut of habit that was easier to follow than climb up its rough and crumbling sides to pursue bravery. Her younger son wept silently, no longer able to rely on her to rescue him from self-propagated disasters, and this is the lesson she taught him.

The gusts off the cool Pacific waned so we could hear the ebb and surge crash spectacularly white in front of us, a last goodbye perhaps, as she dispersed through the vastness and mystery of the sea. Now she had a place to be, to call her own, a rhythm to her existence never before present.