Friday, October 29, 2010

The Skeletons in His Closet

Dr. Carlos Santiago searched his lab coat pocket to silence his Blackberry and found two parking stubs, a test tube, a syringe, and the sharp teeth of a lab mouse. With a scowl, he jerked his hand out of the pocket. As always, the mice fouled perfectly good research or in this case his prank to release it during the second of his two committee meetings. If the mouse had behaved, it would have gotten him out of the endless bickering.

A graduate microbial physiology book slammed to the floor, all 1500 pages including folded up notes that slid across the floor. A redhaired first-year shied away from Carlos. The professor bit his tongue to avoid smiling. He'd have to ask one of the philosophy professors over lunch whether his scowl came first or the fear in the student's eyes.

Carlos continued searching for his Blackberry. He rolled his eyes. Its chirps should be a dead giveaway. As any academic study could prove, he found the phone in the last place he checked and acknowledged the reminder about the Ph.D. defense for one of Dr. Lee's students. A smile cracked Carlos's lips. It might not be research, but at least he could make someone squirm.

Carlos entered the classroom and saw the doctoral student hunched over a laptop. He tiptoed forward. "Do you think your research is sufficient?"

The student twisted at the noise and his hand jerked to scatter a folder of journal papers and a couple plastic cylinders to the floor. One of the vials rolled beneath the professor's foot. The student hastily grabbed the fallen papers. "You... you read the dissertation."

"Of course." The student's dissertation, _Methodology and Analysis of Compulsory Ecdysis on Non-Serpentine Physiology_, was unimaginative. The student had discovered a field-shattering method, but he didn't understand how to use it. Mice. Carlos sneered. "What do you think?"

The student retreated to the far side of the table with his laptop. "I spent much time."

"Time does not equate mastery." The words hissed through Carlos' teeth like the forked tongue of a snake. Students these days thought that since the University pushed them to graduate in under six years, they didn't have to innovate.

"Are you terrorizing Pieter?" Dr. Lee stood in the doorway.

"No," said Carlos. "Just a couple of preparatory questions."

Once everyone had arrived, Carlos stretched his feet in front of him, his eyes sliding to a crack. Pieter introduced his findings on a serum that hardened mammalian skin into a scale-like structure and preserved a specimen's inner organs while allowing the central bone system and certain important ligaments to be extracted.

Carlos' eyes sprang open and his laser-like gaze spit Pieter with vehemence. "Removing the skeletons from mice is a waste of time. Have you tried this on any other species?"

The student retreated from his laptop. "Uh... no. But, the mice don't age while they've been extracted from their bodies."

Carlos raised an eyebrow. "You're dissertation doesn't mention anything about re-associating skeleton and flesh."

"She," Pieter pointed at Dr. Lee, "she thought it best that I save that work to publish towards a tenure-track position post-graduation."

Carlos grabbed a syringe from the pocket of his lab coat and the plastic vial that had fallen earlier. He could move fast when he wanted to. He pressed the needle against Pieter's arm. "I suggest we try a new species and add a little excitement to this defense." Carlos released the ecdysis serum into the student's body. The skin became translucent.

"No," shouted Dr. Lee.

Carlos scratched at the student's hairline and the scalp loosed to expose the skull's white bone. He yanked the bones from the body. The skeleton jerked and go fell forward across the table.

"Interesting," said Carlos. He had another skeleton for his closet. And some interesting avenues for research. Perhaps, the morning hadn't been entirely wasted.

A response to my writer's weights exercise, "Humor Challenge". The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less that uses one of the above techniques to create humor or one of your own favorite techniques. Theme for this week: skeleton.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Disappearance (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 3)

Part three in The Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph squeezed into the kitchen and slipped one of the meat pies from a tray before one of the maids carried it into the dining hall. His wrists hurt from eight days of pounding the pestle into the marble bowl. Too much time wasted on books and the pounding, incessant pounding, of mastic. Kluvenstrom had only let him mix a simple ash powder. He had barely accomplished anything in one week. Merph slunk into a corner of the kitchen away from the cooks.

Katja entered the kitchen and grabbed a handful of fried potatoes and an apple that the chambermaid polished against her gray stained dress. Katja winked at Merph as she joined him in the corner. "Did you make anything today?" She set the apple down and flicked her fingers. "Explode?"

Merph breathed in and tried to sit straight like his elder brother had when describing a new way to till the field. "The healer says I'm a natural expert. We're doing important work making ash powders to heat Lord Calle's Tower this winter." He patted his chest. "I'm learning to read faster than anyone Kluvenstrom's worked with before."

The chambermaid smirked as she reached into her bodice to withdraw a folded piece of paper. "Can you read this?"

The cooks and other maids ignored Merph as he unfolded the paper and traced his fingers over the words. There were too many black scratches and letters, but Merph recognized two words. Powder, and power.

"Well, can you?"

"Where did you find this?" asked Merph.

"In one of the rooms I cleaned." She leaned forward smelling of rosemary and thyme. "Bet you can't read that."

"Can too."

"What does it say?"

Merph blew at a strand of hair that had fallen into his eyes. "It describes a powder that's used in the fields to make the plants grow." The chambermaid smiled at Merph and her encouragement led him to speak quickly until he stopped. He had begun to repeat himself.

"It says all that?"

"It does." Merph nodded his head solemnly and the strand of hair fell back in front of his eyes.

"You'll teach me to read?"

"One day," said Merph. When she reached out for the piece of paper, he held it away from her. "This must be Healer Kluvenstrom's. I should return it to him.


Later that night, Merph traipsed down the stairs into the tower's cellar holding the torch that he'd taken from the top of the stairs. He pulled the scrap of paper Katja had found from beneath his trousers and rope belt. He wished that he'd had some of the moon powder that he'd watched the healer mix, but the powder had been moved from the workroom. Instead, he'd paged through the book trying to match the words from the piece of paper with the pictures in the book. He'd managed to decode one more word, cellar.

Teetering on the circular stairs, Merph favored his bad leg. Rectangular chests piled one upon the other and leaned against the stone walls. In the center of the dirt floor, a small fist-sized box stood. Black ink stained the top in a pattern that wasn't a letter Merph recognized. Yet, the pattern looked familiar. He looked at the paper and saw it at the top margin. The box must hold the powder of power. Merph wondered what fantastic powers it might yield. He knelt on the floor and cracked open the box.

The room disappeared as darkness spread in every direction. It reminded Merph of swimming underwater in the river. Except underwater, there was a light above you where the sun shone through the river's surface. Merph yelled but nothing answered him. Pinpricks of light twinkled around him but he couldn't move any closer to them. Time passed.

A sound popped behind Merph and he spun to see Kluvenstrom holding Katja's folded piece of paper. The healer opened a palm filled with the pearlescent glow of moon powder. "Do you know what this says?"

Merph took a step backwards away from the healer.

"No! This is an astral plane and one can become lost here. The paper is gibberish. A trap. You should not have come down here." The healer placed the paper in the boy's hands. "Hold this. It'll take you back."

Merph looked up at the healer hearing something in the man's words. The man looked distant. "What about you?"

"Can't. No time. You must rescue us." Fog swirled and Kluvenstrom faded from sight. The man's last word echoed. "Listen."

Merph found himself sprawled on the floor of the cellar and he scrambled to his feet. The floor was empty with no sign of the box that he'd opened or Kluvenstrom. His hands held a dozen grains of moon powder. His skin crawled as the shadows cast by the moon powder seemed to move. Merph ran up the stairs.

Merph burst through the doorway at the top of the cellar and ran into Mortok. The boy stepped backwards. "I'm sorry."

"What are you doing?" asked Mortok. "That powder in your hand is Kluvenstrom's. Where is he?"

The neighboring Lord's son scared and confused Merph who stepped back against the wall. Merph didn't understand why the sun shone into the hallway. It had been night. He whitened. "I... I..."

Mortok yelled down the hallway. "Servant!" He waited until footsteps ran towards them. "Bring Lord Calle here." Mortok turned Merph towards the cellar. "Let us investigate."

Merph lowered his chin. "I have the moon powder, I can light the way."

"Nonsense." Mortok chuckled. "I saw the healer enter the cellar. Some apprentices can become greedy. Has that happened with you?" Mortok withdrew a cube from the pocket of his coat and the black runes on the sides glowed red.

The stairs creaked as they descended. The cellar had the boxes the same as always against the edge of the room. Mortok closed his eyes holding out his arms and sniffing. He stopped and his eyes popped open. "I sense the otherworld here. We need Lord Calle and my master, Tvinnrun to investigate." Mortok turned and his cloak brushed the stone walls leaving marks in the darkness.

As the red light faded, faint moon powder glowed on the floor. The powder hadn't been there before, Merph was sure of that. It created a six letter word, but Merph didn't know what it meant. He memorized the shapes. _Listen._ He bounded up the stairs.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Writer's Weights: Humor Challenge (WW8)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's writer's weights exercise focuses on the writing ensemble. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday. If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome to participate.

With Halloween approaching, I thought that it might be fun to have a break from the horde of gibbering creatures. Instead of HP Lovecraft, this week is inspired by Larry, Curly, and Moe. Attempt to write a scene that includes humor. This can be a leavening of a more serious writing or a slapstick.

A couple of techniques to consider:
  • Brainstorm lots of ideas, the first one you think of may not be the funniest and coming up with several variants may result in a funnier idea.
  • Experiment with placing the punchline (and even the punch of the single sentence) in different places. Many comedians will attempt to place this at the end of the paragraph or sentence, but not always placing the punch in the same place may make that humor sparkle.
  • Make the reader think a little bit to get the humor. This can be difficult to hit that sweet zone where the humor isn't told to them but enough information lies there for them to put the pieces together and that results in potentially someone thinking it is funny.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less that uses one of the above techniques to create humor or one of your own favorite techniques. Theme for this week: skeleton.

Further reading:

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pterodon Drilling

The earth quaked. The sky of the gas giant, Aepa, dimmed as yellow-tinged clouds flared against the purpling sky. Brad closed his logbook, thankful for the archaic system. His logs continued long after the year-batteries of his terminal eked out their final charge.

Iepeac Kup, the pterodon priest, fidgeted outside Brad's lean-to wearing a drab cape knitted from the moss that grew between the pterodon's scales. Brad recited to himself using the mnemonic techniques he taught himself to capture the cape's shape as it draped over Iepeac's shoulders and the formal sash criss-crossing his body.

"Come. You must." Iepeac spoke in Brad's language, the tongue of the stars and not spoken in the cities on Aepa.

Brad followed Iepeac away from the native's lean-tos nestled in the scales of the pterodon's shoulder and towards the mile-wide expanse of the wings where the natives grew the food-shrubs on the back of the muscled membranes. Brad asked in Iepeac's own language, "What has happened?"

The priest refused to speak in his own language. "Come. You see. You must stop Athotia."

They climbed over a bone knob above the winged plains. A cluster of natives gathered where the spine lie shallow beneath the membranes. Jerry-rigged hollow bones scavenged from baby pterodons, too small to sustain a city, stacked against each other to create a platform. A weighted bone spike hung from the platform's center and a counterweight suspended it above the pterodon's carapace. Athotia released the counterweight. The spike dug into the scales. A breeze ruffled across the scrubs as the ground beneath their feet dipped for a second before righting.

"Must stop Athotia," repeated Iepeac. "Only you can. They listen to star wanderer." The priest pulled at the vestments rubbing against his neck.

Brad couldn't. His hair stood on edge as the natives reattached the counterweight and pulled it towards the ground to raise the spike again. Didn't they realize that they lived on a sentient creature? Brad shook his head. The Academy had stressed that the pledge was more important than his life. "You are the priest, a leader of your people. Ask them to stop."

Iepeac's face became blank. An eye twitched. The spike fell again and the ground shook. The priest ran down the bony knob, his cape catching on the branches of the shrubs leaving bits of moss behind him. He ran beneath the spike.

His voice rang pure. "You must not do this. The drilling will harm our host."

The crowd stepped away from the release on the counterweight leaving Athotia standing by himself. He placed a hand on the counterweight's release. "Our priest's faith is misplaced. The host's blood will make us strong. Iepeac Kup fears our strength." Athotia released the counterweight.

The bone glanced off the edge of Iepeac's shoulder. The priest fell to the ground his own blood mingling with the black liquid emerging from the pit where the bony spike had clawed into the pterodon's membrane. The ground tilted beneath them as the pterodon dove. The makeshift tower crashed onto its side before the ground leveled again. The pterodon's blood clotted.

"Help me raise the tower," shouted Athotia. "One more blow."

The natives retreated from the tower except for one man who knelt beside the priest and pushed one of the bone shards away so he could lift the priest from beneath the tower. The man looked at Athotia. "The priest is right. We will not drill."

My attempt at this week's writer's weights exercise to make writing efficient by doing multiple things. Comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Craft Analysis: Differentiating Characters and Rinne Groff's "Compulsion" (CA5)

Welcome to another entry in my ongoing craft analysis series (more about it here -- in particular, note that this analysis is not necessarily correct but my attempt to understand). Several weeks ago, I watched the Berkeley Rep's production of Rinne Groff's "Compulsion". I talked a little bit about the play earlier.

This play centered on a single main character and several satellite characters around that character. What I found interesting was that the main character spent every scene on stage as if the other characters were merely figments of that character's imagination. Making them seem even more like figments, only two other actors (one male, one female) played all the other characters. However, I hadn't noticed that the main character's editor and wife were played by the same woman until my sambo mentioned this during the intermission.

I'm interested in how the actor (and playwright and director) made these characters seem different. In writing, the characters come from the author and therefore the author needs to develop ways that characters exhibit different traits and personalities. To do this well, one can use multiple techniques to create this experience.

In the play, this was accomplished through four different mechanisms. The first was a change in physical attributes of the character. The primary difference was a medium-length, curly, blonde wig worn by the editor that contrasted with wife's short, straight, brunette hair.

The second mechanism was the difference in dress. The editor wore business attire with boxy shoulder pads that shaped her body differently than the sun dresses worn by the wife and resulted in the body types of the two characters appearing to look different beyond just the hair.

The third mechanism was in the body language. The editor expresses confidence and acts as if she has power over the main character. Her body language is dominating and done in a way to emphasize the aggressiveness of the business place. The wife plays a very sensual role and takes a more pleading role towards the main character and importantly in the first half of the play is largely overlooked by the main character.

The last mechanism is the voice. In particular, the wife is French and because this is a play you hear her accent with every word that she says. However, it's more than just this. Her word choice uses specific words that indicate that she is French and she remarks on one of the large English words that her husband uses in a way that foreign speakers might and turns it into a joke about the language.

I enjoyed the way that this play used these four different mechanisms to differentiate this character. What ways do you differentiate characters?

Monday, October 18, 2010

New Friends (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 2)

Part two in my Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph pushed the mortar and pestle across the stone table in Healer Kluvenstrom's workshop. His wrists ached from the constant pounding. Two days since the healer's wagon had arrived at Lord Calle's tower. Outside the window, clouds skipped across the sky. Merph had thought magic would be more fun than playing in the fields. Merph mumbled under his breath and dropped his head to rest on his crossed hands on the stone table his head drooping to meet the support of his hands.

Kluvenstrom rested his book on a bench. "You can't be done with the grinding yet. Do you have a fine powder like the sand you'd find on the banks of a river?"

"Done," grumbled Merph.

The healer licked his finger and dipped it into the mortar where it picked up a layer of dust. He stuck his finger in his mouth and the eyes watched Merph. The boy felt uncomfortable under the healer's gaze. He didn't want to do anymore grinding.

The healer wrinkled his nose. "The mastic needs to be finer or it won't dissolve in the tincture that you need for the next step."

"Why am I doing this? It's makework. Worse than staying at home while they work the fields."

Kluvenstrom ruffled Merph's hair. "It's the first stage of making your own powders."

The way Kluvenstrom's fingers stroked through Merph's hair reminded him of his father. "I want to know about the magics."

The healer tapped one of the two books on the table. "This book describes how the powders work and the magic." Kluvenstrom smiled.

Merph set his elbows on the table and let his face sink into his hands. His voice sounded muffled. "Can't read."

In the courtyard outside, a wheeled carriage bounced behind the staccato hoofbeats of two horses. Merph looked out the window and saw a young man nearly as old as his oldest brother. The man wore all black and tossed his reins to one of the servants before hurrying towards the Lord's tower.

"Who's that?" asked Merph.

The edge of Kluvenstrom's lips turned downwards when he looked out the window. "Don't bother thinking about Mortok. He's a noble's son." Softer as if he didn't realize what he was saying the healer continued. "The man should know better than to study with a runeworker."

Merph didn't know why but something about the way the man walked -- a self-confidence -- made him want to speak to the man. Merph exhaled. The sons of farmers didn't get to socialize with nobles.

Kluvenstrom tapped the other book. "We were talking about reading. This book has pictures with the words underneath. If you want to become a master of the powders, you must learn to read."

"Why? Can't I be smart?" Merph tapped his forehead. "Keep all the knowledge in here."

Kluvenstrom laughed. "Too much to know for even the wisest prodigy. Each book contains the wisdom of dozens of powder workers." Kluvenstrom paused and seemed to notice the frown on Merph's face. "Don't worry, it will become easier."

"But I want to learn about the magic now."

Kluvenstrom pushed the mortar and pestle in front of the boy. "I'll make you another deal. If you work on grinding that powder, I'll tell you about mastic."

Merph eyes gleamed. "You will?"

Kluvenstrom nodded. "Mastic resin comes from Bakha trees overseas. They speak a different language over there. The word Bakha in their language means weeping tree and it is this resin that forms the underlying power of the magic. But not the form."

Merph pounded the resin crystals as he listened to the healer's words. A lot of it didn't make sense to him. Why would people speak different languages, but he tried not to let his thoughts wander too much tried to concentrate on what he said. Magic. He imagined the smiles and pleasure on his dad's face when he'd return home and show his Pa the magic powder he'd created.


Merph's stomach growled as he waited in the hallway outside the kitchens. A girl with blonde hair tied into pigtails walked down the hallway. She wore a simple dress and the front of it was stained gray. She smiled at Merph and his stomach growled. "Hungry?"

Merph looked down at his shoes. "He said I'm supposed to wait until after the Lord and his guests finish their meal."



The girl tugged on a curl at the end of one of the pigtails. "You must be the healer's apprentice. I'm Katja, one of the chambermaids. Come on, my Ma works in the kitchen. We'll snitch something so you don't interrupt the Lord's meal with your rumbling."

Merph's eyes widened. The healer would never invite him to the tower again to study after this one time.

"I'm kidding. Come on, get some food while it's hot."

A Knack for Powders, Table of Contents

I've written several shorts about Merph and Whitey and decided to write about how Merph learned to work his powders and discover that he had a knack for powders. I'll be posting an episode in the Knack for Powders series once a week. For the curious, I've planned 14 episodes, but I might be off by one or two. Check the table of contents below to catch up.Hope you enjoy!

P.S. Older Merph and Whitey stories from the archive:

Writer's Weights: Efficiency Challenge (WW7)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's writer's weights exercise focuses on the writing ensemble. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday. If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome to participate.

In society today there's often too much to do and too little time. As writers, we struggle with balancing our work, family, life, and writing. We're always left wanting more time in our day and to be able to do more than one thing at the same time. Some people believe in multitasking, I don't (or more exactly I believe it can be done like computers where they focus on one specific subject and every time they switch to a different subject there is a context switch cost of inefficiency). However, I believe that my writing should do more than one thing.

Stuart Jaffe wrote an article on the Magical Words writing tips site about creating characters in small spaces. I recommend this article because it does a good job of demonstrating how one can make their writing to more than one thing. In particular, he breaks down the first two hundred words of one of his short stories and describes what he was trying to achieve in each part. Importantly, most of his example has two or more purposes.

A recent comment about dialogue on Nevet's post on the necessity of art not being realistic reminds me of this sense of efficiency. I don't like dialogue that's cheating to provide backstory. I like dialogue that does multiple things at the same time. Dialogue that: heightens the conflict between two characters, demonstrates a character's traits, distinctively differentiates two characters, and/or moves the plot forward.

This doesn't just apply to dialogue but applies to description and action. The reader will fill in many of the details in the description and so the pieces that are provided should be the important ones that capture not just the image that is in my mind but are important for understanding the characters and the story.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less (I'll probably try for significantly less) that makes every sentence do more than one thing. Theme for this week: scales.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Minister of the Eyrie

Da halted a precise bāzhǎng, or palm-length, behind Lanying as was proper and expected of a Gaquan Warrior. He breathed measured breaths to smolder the flames. The two Imperial guards standing outside the chamber of celestial peace would see Da's failure written on Lanying's blood-scratched cheek. Da watched their hands, loose in a way he could not afford.

Lanying's cerulean silk robe, embossed with golden feathers, rustled as she bowed to the guards. "I must have an audience with Emperor Shenzihao."

The guard took one step forward. "He sleeps."

Lanying looked through an arch on the pavilion's edge at the Celestial Palace. "The Emperor rarely sleeps."

In Da's peripheral vision, he saw mud-yellow light illuminate the heaven-most floor of rooms. Lanying's proper words danced around treason as smoothly as a courtesan. Everyone knew the guilds supplied Shenzihao with refined sacred dust to smoke, extending his life.

"I shall ask if he will deign to grant you a personal audience." The Imperial guard bowed to Lanying.

"No," said Lanying. "A full audience."

The junior guard, the one who hadn't moved, grunted. "Most of the court sleeps."

"They will come." Lanying touched the scar on her cheek. Blood stained the tip of her finger. "An attack on the Minister of the Eyrie is the same as an attack on sacred Fenghuang, the August Rooster."

Lanying walked along the stone steps to wait with a hand on one of the pavillion's pillars. Beyond her, empty streets glowed with the yellowish-green light of liquid fire. Her soft voice didn't carry. "Far to the east in the hills where the liquid fire rises, there is a wu tung grove."

"No." He grabbed her upper arm. A proper Gaquan would not refuse the commands of the one he protected, or touch her in this way. She had not spoken to him since refusing to accept his sacrifice for his failure. He owed her his life. Her life. "We can leave the city undetected."

She laughed. A sad sound that tore at his heart. "And go where? An army has risen in rebellion and claims that a false Fenghuang roosts in the palace of terrestrial tranquility. It is better to know one's enemy."

"But if you're right about the emerald ring." The ring the masked man had worn. The ring that had scratched Lanying's cheek.

"Then remember the wu tung grove," said Lanying.

"But --"

Lanying brushed a finger soft like a feather across Da's lip. "What happens in the fires beneath the wu tung grove?"

Da turned away and saw the square filling with members of the court. A red-robed priest of the river dragon sect strode towards them. The ways of the Gaquan Warrior failed to answer how one dealt with a shattered heart. "The Fenghuang comes to the field to be burned to ashes."

"And reborn. Have faith, my warrior." Lanying walked forward to bow to the priest. Pleasantries. She wouldn't answer the questions until the audience had begun.

A gong rang and the assembled court moved to enter the chamber of celestial peace. Lanying waited until the assembled ministers and generals had entered the chamber. Holding her head high, she walked forward with Da a bāzhǎng behind her. Both of them performed the triple obeisance as they knelt before the Emperor.

"Please rise. Why have you interrupted our night?"

Da glanced at the Emperor's finger. No ring. He prayed the Emperor did not sanction the warning. Torches assembled along the walls flickered across the faces of those sitting to either side of the Emperor. Dengxin, the Emperor's third son and heir, sat to the right. The heir flaunted his father's emerald ring with dried blood clinging to the edges.

"Men attacked my rooms. Wounded my Gaquan warrior and delivered a message."

The Emperor's voice carried across the chamber. "Do you know who attacked you?"

Dengxin squirmed in his chair.

"No," said Lanying as her head turned to stare at the Emperor's son. "They asked me to flee. To accept banishment as a false minister of the eyrie. I believe the rebels have infiltrated our city."

"What would you have us do? I can protect you with my Imperial guard."

Standing behind her, Da saw her shoulder shiver.

"No. You must deal with the insurrection. The fastest way is to remove the one they hate. Burn me in a pit of liquid fire."

The chamber exploded with whispers. Shenzihao raised a staff and pounded it against the floor. He could not contain the murmurs. A single word repeated more often than the others created a hiss. "False."

Outside, priests of liquid fire brought urns and poured them into the ceremonial square a crevice carved into stone, which filled with a half bāzhǎng of viscous fluid. Imperial guards approached Lanying. Da moved to intercept them.

Her hands felt cool on him. "No. It would be a pointless waste of life. Remember what I said."

She walked before the soldiers as if they were an honor guard. She stepped down into the black liquid and a guard dropped a torch. Flames spread across the surface. White light flying into the heavens. Sparks.

After the smoke dissipated and the crowds returned to their beds, the Imperial guards left Da alone with his grief. The depression where she'd burned was empty. Bone ash should have remained. The sun rose while he stood vigil. Light reflected off a scrap of metal. Da picked up a pendant engraved with an image of Fenghuang. She'd asked him to remember her last words.

An entry in my writer's weights challenge to create tension through a scene. Comments and constructive feedback appreciated.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Knack for Powders, Pt. 1

Merph grimaced as the pain flashed across his body and he ground his teeth to keep from screaming out. The healer's face stretched as a haze stole over the room. The healer slapped him on the cheeks and the room returned to focus. "Hurts," grunted Merph.

"Yes, I'm sure it does," said Kluvenstrom. He smiled at the boy before him with one leg splinted and the other leg rocking back and forth. "If you'd stay off your leg like I asked you to, it would have time to mend. You may be a growing boy, but bones take time to knit together."

Merph looked around his parent's hut at the three rooms before him. He sat at the dining table where they ate their meals. During the late summer, the pot bellied stove sat empty with its dried logs behind it. Chairs and beds filled that room. A jail for a growing boy, especially with the sunshine pouring down outside and he knew how much work they had to do in the fields. "Can't you use magic? Can't you make it faster?"

"Everything takes its time." The healer picked up one of the birch logs from behind the stove. He tapped the end of the log with its growth rings. "Feel how solid the birch has grown. It grows at its own speed over years. I could speed it up, like your leg, but it takes time for things to grow whole."

The healer removed a vial of ocher powder from his satchel. He lifted the cork stopper off and removed a pinch of the powder that he sprinkled over the log. The healer braced one edge against the table and then smashed his free hand against the point where he had left the powder to break the log into two splintered pieces. "If they made it grow fast, it would be weak like this log." He pushed the pieces of the log with their jagged edge together and handed it to Merph. The pieces came apart in his hand.

"What is the powder?" Merph pointed at the vial.

"Magic as you said and not as simple as you think."

"Can you teach me?"

Kluvenstrom paused as he put the twine and leftovers splintboards back into his satchel. A glint caught his eye. "It's hard work."

Merph recognized the way the healer looked at him. A little more subtle than his parents feeble attempts. He wondered if the healer caught the twitch of a smile on the edge of his face. "I've done hard work. Pa lets me work the fields."

The healer placed both hands on the table and leaned over so his face was right before Merph's. "You must make your own powders and it's slow work. You must have patience and sit still."

As long as Merph had something to do, he imagined he could sit still. "I can do that." He hadn't managed to mask the excitement in his voice.

The healer nodded. "I must talk to your parents, but if they approve, you shall come and visit the Lord's tower where I stay and I'll train you for a fortnight."

That afternoon Merph waited as he tried to be good, but he paced the porch of the house and looked towards the fields where his parents and siblings worked. The light began to fail, falling earlier every day as the crops neared completion and people toiled to finish the harvest before the fall rains began.

At the top of the hill, a man walked with a scythe swinging at his shoulder. Merph limped towards his father.

"The healer says you're supposed to stay off your leg."

Merph looked at the ground. His father walked over and ruffled his hair. Merph looked at his Pa's face and saw the smile there. "He said he'd ask your permission for me to study with him."

His father laughed. "Yes, you can go with him as long as you let your leg heal."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Writer's Weights: Tension Challenge (WW6)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's Writing's Weights challenge focuses on plot. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday. If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome to participate.

The goal of this week's challenge is to create tension. My dictionary defines tension as: mental or emotional strain; a strained political, social, or personal relationship; a relationship between ideas or qualities with conflicting demands or implications. In writing, I see tension as being one of the forces that drives the reader to read what happens next. One way of looking at this is that tension is the act of creating questions and uncertainty.

The questions in the writing can take a variety of different forms. And some of this will be different types of tensions and including more than one tension can help to contrast and play amongst them in different ways so that the writing feels less episodic and more like it is moving overall to the climax. Types of questions can include:
  • Why does a particular character act in a certain way? This is potentially because of something in that character's history that drives that trait and will build tension until we understand that part of the character's history.
  • Will the main character achieve their goal? It is important that the antagonist appears strong. An additional aspect of tension may be to add time constraints to the goal said not only does the character have to do a particular activity but zie has to do it in a limited amount of time.
  • How will two characters resolve their misunderstanding? Instead of immediately addressing a conflict and resolving the conflict two characters may hide their conflict and therefore build tension as their misunderstandings continue to linger and create worse problems.
  • Can they avoid situation X? This is often used in suspense where the reader sees a logical progression and is left wondering how this will resolve. For example, Jimmy might enter a warded house and break the wards, which may put the occupants in danger.
One danger when creating tension is that it must be done in a way that does not feel manipulative of the reader. The questions that are created needs to be done in such a way that it doesn't feel like the author unfairly withholds information.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less that uses two or more methods to create tension. The theme for this week is: silk.

This week's participants:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lena's Fledgling

Lena drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. The car drove itself in a pack and she didn't really need to pay attention, her thoughts centering on her friend Mirjam. She calmed her fingers, surprised at her nervous twitching. She wondered if matchmakers usually felt this way.

Lena parked the bubble car on its landing wheels in between two Fiats and clambered out the front bubble hatch onto the Östermalm sidewalk. Lena was impressed with Mirjam's east side row house. Outside the building's front door, a candle in a tin cup nestled in a snow drift. The higher end housing associations had begun copying the restaurant's fashion of burning candles outside their doorways during the winter's long nights.

Lena knocked on the door of the eighth floor flat. Impressive. The elegance of Mirjam's virtual avatar hadn't been all gussy. Lena waited as the sounds echoed within the room. She glanced at her phone and doublechecked Mirjam's address card. She had the right address. She knocked again.

Dust spewed into the air as the door opened a crack stopped by a chain. A pale face, dark hair on the other side.

"Mirjam? It's Lena." The blue eyes, like whirlpools, matched Mirjam's avatar. "You agreed to see my new bubble car."

"I... I thought you meant virtually." Mirjam's voice cracked and her words were barely audible over the thrum of the hallway. Mirjam slid the chain and the door opened. "Tea?"

Lena grabbed her friend's hand and pulled her forward. "How long since you've left your flat?"

Mirjam held a hand up to block the blue-white LED lights in the hallway. Her pupils dilated. She waved a hand at her simple Acne blouse and H&M slacks. "I can't go out."

Lena closed Mirjam's door and pushed her friend towards the elevators. Her friend wouldn't impress the skin-deep crowd, but Håkan would look deeper. Especially, once he'd seen her whuffie score. "You must see the car."

Outside, Lena patted the clear bubble of the car. "How do you like it?"

"Nice. I'll go back inside."

Lena curled her lip and pouted. "You haven't even looked at the car."

Mirjam walked around the car. A foot slipped on the ice and she reached out to the car to balance herself. "Why only two wheels?"

"Smaller, fewer moving parts. It uses dynamic stabilization to balance."

"How can it run on that?"

"Get in, we'll take it for a spin," said Lena.

Mirjam's whirlpool eyes spun to a single dark point. She opened her mouth, closed it, and climbed into the bubble car.

They crisscrossed town until they reached the wide boulevard of Sveavägen. The street was still marked with two lanes for the old-style cars, but this was a bubble car only thoroughfare now. Bubble cars four across weaved through the city. Lena turned to sit Indian-style in the seat facing her friend.

Mirjam placed a hand against the dash. "Lena! Don't you need to drive this thing?"

"All automated. Don't you watch the ads?"

Mirjam grimaced. A car jerked between the lip of their bubble and the bumper of the car ahead of them. "My personalized ads know that I don't go out. You should know that too."

Lena chewed her lip. She'd gotten this far, and she couldn't stand Håkan up. "Let's stop at the bar for some food." Lena waved her hand towards one of the rowhouses on the right side where a few smokers hunkered in the red glow of heaters hanging from a yellow awning.


Lena smiled. "You don't have a choice. You come with me, or you walk home." Lena didn't like the wounded look she saw on her friend's face. This was all in her friend's interest. She shouldn't live her life holed up in her room, living virtually.

They sat at a heavily stained table. Håkan hooked a chair with the curve of his leather boots and leaned on it over their table. "Hi Lena, who's your friend?"

Mirjam looked at her friend and then at the man with the propeller beanie, white tee-shirt, and jeans. "You set me up. How dare you." Mirjam snagged her coat off the back of the chair and pushed her way through the bar's patrons.

Lena shook her head. Håkan could've dressed better. "Give her a ride home." She tossed her keys to Håkan.

"What about you?"

"I'll find a ride." She winked. "You know me."

Scene seed from my writer's weights challenge on using character foils to show traits and on the economist's "The Bubble Car Is Back" article on the EN-V bubble car prototypes that GM is exploring with a company in China.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Craft analysis: Thinking Twice and Rinne Groff's "Compulsion" (CA4)

Welcome to another entry in my ongoing craft analysis series (more about it here -- in particular, note that this analysis is not necessarily correct but my attempt to understand). Last week, I watched the Berkeley Rep's production of Rinne Groff's "Compulsion". The play is a fictionalized history and character study of one of the writers who dramatized the Anne Frank story for Broadway. At the content level, this story has a lot of interest to the writer. Early in the story we see a Jewish author, his travails getting published by the New York publishers and his resorting to self-publishing. Yet, the main focus of the play is a story that is in the author's head and the need to get that story out and have others read or see it.

In this week's analysis, I study how one respectfully approaches a subject that is controversial and many people have conflicting views around. This analysis is somewhat prompted by Nevets advocation to think twice about what you blog, agents influence over writers, published writer's influence over unpublished writers, and unagented author's advice. However, I'm interested in what you're fiction has to say either directly in the text or metaphorically.

Compulsion writes about an author who both used legal means to try and stop other people publishing works and also had other people using the law against him as well because of his fictionalization of the Leopold and Loeb over which he was sued. The playwright, in her notes, observes that she was concerned about these aspects while writing the play even though the law has changed somewhat since the Leopold and Loeb case that ensnared the author. Even so, the tale told delves intimately into the relationship between the author and his wife and includes scenes that are an extrapolation of possibilities.

Compulsion also touches on the Jewish Holocaust and events afterwards including Holocaust deniers and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Not pleasant topics and particularly interesting since the author accuses the New York publishers of crossing HUAC and employing communist screenwriters. A view that seen from history is difficult to tolerate.

The play uses two primary techniques to approach this subject. The first technique is to use a different name for the author in the play. Although, the events of the play and the main character closely correlate with history it is separated by the device of using a different name.

However, more importantly, the play respects the character and creates a sympathetic vision of this man who is driven by his art so that he drives himself into tragedy. Showing that it's this respect for the tale of Anne Frank and his vision of what that means that drives the author and causes him to fight with the New York publishers and tears at his family and break the law in the name of his art.

Do you write about controversial and dangerous things? How do you approach the topic?

Image source from the Compulsion press photos and courtesy of

Monday, October 4, 2010

Writer's Weights: Foil Challenge (WW5)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's Writer's Weights challenge focuses on character. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday. If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome to participate.
There are several ways to show a character's traits. They can be shown to the character's actions, thoughts, and dialogue. However, an additional technique can be used to contrast the character's traits against another character. Using a character as a foil is a common method of showing this contrast where the foil is selected where one aspect of the character's behavior differs significantly from that of another character so that the reader sees the difference between these two characters and that difference becomes more obvious. This does not mean that those two characters need to be flat, the character can be well rounded yet have this difference in a particular aspect of the personality.

Foil characters have been used in many stories from Shakespeare (Hamlet and Laertes) to movies such as Star Wars with Han Solo and Chewbacca. Chewbacca's loyalty to Han Solo (occasionally with a little bit of complaining) contrasts with Han Solo who is willing to abandon the rebels to deal with his own needs.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less where two characters are used as foils. The theme for this week is: antenna.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Walter hiked with Callie through the Cumberland Plateau's wooden shoulders. They both wore headlamps that emitted spikes of light to illuminate their path through the laurel and oak forests. They passed a glade where moonlight splashed across the blades of grass. Silence surrounded them. Walter thanked the absence of words. His thoughts were too pure, too poetic, and better left unsaid. He stopped and pointed at a shortleaf pine tree silhouetted against the stars. Callie smiled.

They followed a spur trail to Virgin Falls where they stood at the base. Walter thought about what he would say, careful to avoid being profound. "Turn your head lamp off."

Callie nodded. Their eyes adjusted to the gloom of the moon that floated over the rise of Virgin Falls above the cave where water emerged from the cliff to splash the blackened rock reflecting in the moonlight. A silvery rainbow reflected in the mist's veil that floated over their head. "It's --"

Walter grabbed Callie's hand in his. It felt cold. "No." Profoundness threatened.

"It's beautiful." Callie lifted her hand held in his and pirouetted underneath, her hair catching the moonglow. "You should savor words. Let them dance upon your tongue. Your joy must vanquish your fear."

Walter had relaxed at beautiful. Empty imagery, empty words. But her final sentence stabbed at him like icicles. He squeezed her hand as if that would keep her here. "Don't say that. I'm not ready to lose you."

Droplets of water, miniature prisms, clung to Callie's hair. "You've lived in fear of your words, we all do. Yet, drink this scene with your eyes. Think. Absent words this ephemeral image will fade when we return to the trailhead."

"Shh. You mustn't let your words kill you." Walter knew she was right. Without words he would be unable to encompass the babbling of the water pouring down the cliff face.

"Nonsense. I believe our words earn us a place in a world where beauty walks like a cat over bookshelves." A reflection twinkled in her eyes made dark by the night.

Walter had lost too many others this way. He recognized the way her eyes looked, the expression on her face. It worried him. "We don't know that. There may be nothing after this world."

"Sometimes you must take a risk. Open your eyes to the sheen that reflects off the hickory leaves as if the moon's light pours from the sky in a poor imitation of the water. The two streams, light and water, merge in a rainbow marriage."

Callie's hand became insubstantial in Walter's grip. He moved to slap her, but her body had already jerked above him to float in the air. Sand streamed down, empty particles reflecting in the moonlight as her words became higher pitched.

"Walter, the light shines forth like a ribbon, a joy bursting forth. Hurry, say the words. We will ascend."

He cupped his hands catching the sand from Callie's body, the parts sloughed off during her ascension. "It's beautiful. Green trees. River. Light." Walter was solid. His feet pressed into the thick loam of the earth. "Don't go." A tear ran down his cheek. He'd lost another one. He still didn't have the words. Didn't know if he wanted the words.
My attempt at my writer's weights exercise "Dialogue Challenge" where two speakers have distinctively different voices. Also, the story responds to an image in Rinne Groff's play, "Compulsion" where marionettes of Anne Frank and other characters ascend into the rafters.

Image credit: Brian Stansberry