Tag Archives: short stories

Cancer: one hell of a plot twist

I wish I could say my intentions were altruistic, but that would be a lie.

When I first caught wind of the One Million Project—a charitable organization determined to raise £1,000,000 for cancer research by selling short story anthologies—my first thought was how the One Million Project and One Million Words, my publishing company, might work together.

After all, our brands sound awfully similar, and we both deal with fiction. If I could donate one of my short stories to help secure money for cancer research while gaining some exposure as an author—international exposure—that’s win-win, right?

Besides, I hated cancer.

Cover of the first One Million Project short story anthology

Proceeds from One Million Project anthologies are donated to great causes, including cancer research.

Or, at least, I disliked it in the same abstract way most Midwesterners lament hurricanes and earthquakes. They don’t happen to us, but we don’t like them on principle. I really didn’t have anything against cancer personally because cancer hadn’t affected me personally.

The fact is there is no shortage of causes in the world, no dearth of diseases that kill people or otherwise make their lives intolerable. I gave to the American Cancer Society a while back because a friend who knew someone suffering from cancer asked me to. I donated once and have deleted every follow-up email from the American Cancer Society since then.

Come to think of it, I delete a lot of emails and ignore many social media posts that advocate for activism. Can you imagine if you shared, liked, donated to, and genuinely cared about every injustice in the world? But, honestly, that’s what cancer research was to me when I told the editor of the One Million Project he could publish my short story, “Ghost Mode,” for free: one good cause is as good as another.

Maybe I was more aware of cancer than some of the other sicknesses and social issues sweeping our planet. Certainly, cancer has been around awhile, its presence ubiquitous in all manner of media. As it happens, I chose brain cancer as the instrument of one of my character’s death. I also remember pondering the possibility that cellular sabotage might be a side-effect of our species trying to evolve. Natural selection at work and all that. The premise of a sci-fi story I’ll probably never write.

However, cancer went from being an intellectual concept to a tangible presence when my dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in March.

I won’t go into the ugly details. Anyone who has ever come into contact with any disorder under the umbrella category of cancer knows it’s never pretty. Struggles seldom are. That’s why we use phrases like “the fight against cancer” and talk about sufferers as though they are warriors. Because they are—soldiers in an insidious civil war where their bodies are battlefields and the rebels will never negotiate, let alone surrender.

It’s tempting to portray cancer as a villain if you’ve endured the chaos it sows, especially if it robs a loved one of his or her life. Perhaps that’s why we personify natural disasters. When the enemy has a name, it’s easier to band together to battle against him.

I see cancer more as a plot twist. It can happen at the beginning, middle, or end of a narrative. For the patient, everything changes in an instant. Time splits into two eras: Before Cancer and After Diagnosis. And yet good can bubble up from the bad. Friends and family come together, gaining clarity of what is truly important in life. Individuals overcome.

Hope prevails.

I’m delighted (and blessed!) to report that my father’s prognosis is optimistic. I write this from his living room as he watches a TV show about fishing. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be doing some fishing of his own next spring.

Tuesday used to be a day of isolation for me—a pocket of time in which I could be creative and productive on my own terms. Life intervened with one hell of a plot twist. But all in all, I’m grateful for the opportunity to help my family. For me, this has been a reminder that fiction is fine, but the real world takes precedence.

Of course, I’m still writing as much as I can, when I can…hence, this blog post.

One Million Project’s fantasy anthology is slated for November or December. When it comes out, I’ll still be excited for “Ghost Mode” to reach an international audience, but the release will be much more meaningful than that. And even though he’s not a sci-fi kind of guy, I’m dedicated the story to my dad.

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A different class of writing

Spending time with young people can make you feel old, but it can also make you feel young, too.

I had the pleasure of talking with students at Waupun High School yesterday. My mission: to share my educational background, professional writing experiences, writing advice, and tips for getting published with the fledgling writers—in 45 minutes or less.

waupun-warriors

Despite my best efforts, I might have uttered “when I was your age” at least once.

In all seriousness, it was a very casual environment, and even though I did most of the talking, I couldn’t help but be a little inspired as we went around the circle, and the students told of their current projects and future ambitions.

Because I’ve been up to my (pointed) ears in editing a certain fantasy trilogy, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a shortcut here by repurposing my notes from yesterday’s spiel—quasi-transcripts, if you will.

Hopefully, you’ll find a nugget or two of wisdom regardless of where you are on the path to authorhood.

My story

I started writing in earnest in high school. My fantasy tales bore a resemblance to the books I was reading at the time: DragonLance, Forgotten Realms…you know, books with dragons on the covers. Mostly, I engaged in world-building exercises and episodic storylines, though there was at least one false start to a novel

By senior year, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. At UW-Fond du Lac, I signed up for an independent study writing course. It turned out to be a one-on-one with a professor, where I delivered a chapter for her to critique each week. This was one of the most valuable college courses I ever took, and I learned an awful lot about the basics of storytelling, the importance of word choice—and how to meet deadlines.

In those two years, I wrote two-thirds of what would come to be Volume 1 of The Renegade Chronicles. When I transferred to UW-Milwaukee, I completed the first draft and then rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch senior year since my writing style—not to mention skill level—had dramatically changed since freshman year.

I submitted chapters of my book for various writing workshops, and peer review also proved incredibly valuable. (Though in one class, I had to convince the professor that genre fiction had merit before we were allowed to present fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc.)

Meanwhile, I took as many literature and linguistics classes as I could. Beyond English courses, I signed up for philosophy, psychology and a ton of history courses. An all-too-common adage dictates one should write what one knows. Ergo, the more you know, the more you can write about.

I somewhat regret I didn’t take any journalism, marketing, or radio/TV/film classes. At the time, I wanted only to write fiction, so none of those related disciplines appealed to me. Then again, I picked up many of those skills later in life.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing, I taught for a year in China, where I had my favorite job title to date: foreign expert. While overseas, I wrote a sequel. I also tried to publish a short story I had written in college (to no avail) and researched agents to represent my fantasy novels.

When I returned to the U.S., I got cracking on Volume 3—while racking up rejections for Volumes 1 and 2.

I was fortunate to find an entry-level position at a newspaper. As a news clerk, I mostly was responsible for formatting lists, such as marriage licenses and school lunch menus. (Have you ever questioned the proper spelling of “tri-tater”?) I typed up letters to the editor, too.

But I also got to do some proofreading and wrote an article here and there. In less than I year, I was promoted to entertainment writer and editor. I picked up a slew of skills in the newsroom—writing and proofing using AP style, headline writing, lead writing, pagination/layout, the basics of photo editing.

Most importantly, I learned the virtues of brevity.

After a few years, I went to the “dark side”—public relations and marketing. At UW-Oshkosh, I wrote press releases, coordinated interviews with faculty and staff, wrote articles for the online news publication and the alumni magazine, became a wiz at Word Press and other content management systems, taught myself project management, and supervised student interns.

I learned even more when I became an account executive at BrownBoots Interactive, including more website skills, search engine optimization (which injects a lot of science into the art of writing), writing for TV and radio commercials, managing multi-channel marketing campaigns, estimating on projects, blogging, and much more.

That’s right, the guy who couldn’t care less about journalism, public relations, and marketing in college grew to appreciate them and, if I do say so myself, excel at them.

But my dream has always been to be a novelist…

About 10 years ago, I joined Allied Authors of Wisconsin. Because I couldn’t get an agent to bite on The Renegade Chronicles, I decided to go outside of my comfort zone and wrote a sci-fi novel that got very good feedback from my beta readers. An agent, who is also a member of AAW, elected to represent If Souls Can Sleep.

And because I didn’t learn my lessons with The Renegade Chronicles, I wrote a sequel before selling the first one.

My wife and I wrote a children’s chapter book to test the waters with self-publishing. (More on that here and here.) But between a full-time career and family obligations, I always felt as though my fiction got short shrift.

Earlier this year, I decided I to take a chance and put my fiction on the front burner. I transitioned to a new role at the agency to allow for larger pockets of time for writing and editing fiction. I created a business plan and am committed self-publishing The Renegade Chronicles in 2016.

My long-term goal—my dream—hasn’t changed remains the same: I want to make a living writing fiction.

Writing advice

There’s no shortage of writing advice out there (and sometimes tips contradict). But here is some advice my mentors gave me “back in the day”:

  • Margaret Weis: “Treat your writing like a job. Write on a schedule.”
  • R.A. Salvatore: “If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t, you’re a writer.”

I’ll add a few of my own observations to the mix:

  • Embrace a variety of life experiences—everything is fodder for your writing.
  • Learn as much as you can about the industry and gain related skills. Even traditionally published authors have to be business-minded marketing experts.
  • Write as many different kind of things as you can because you might be surprised at what you’re good at…and what you might enjoy.
  • Don’t turn your nose up at any writing gig—even if it’s the company newsletter—because everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Get feedback from others (e.g., writers groups, online forums) but realize that not all critiques are created equal. Not everyone is your target audience, and ultimately, it’s your story.
  • Always write what you love and do whatever you can to hold onto that passion.
  • Most importantly, don’t give up.

Tips for getting published

A lot has changed since I was in high school. Back then, you were supposed to write and publish short stories (which I sucked at), and you couldn’t hope to publish a novel without an agent. Also, self-publishing was for losers, and vanity presses that preyed on amateur writers made it expensive, too.

Today, self-publishing is both respectable and profitable. Print-on-demand means publishing a book is relatively inexpensive, though there are outside costs like proofreading and cover design. The biggest challenge is getting noticed above the noise.

As someone who is still on the path to publication, I don’t have any surefire secrets for becoming a bestseller. I do, however, have a couple of tips:

1. Don’t publish before you’re ready. After more than a decade between drafts, I’m now hacking apart The Renegade Chronicles, and they’ll be much better for it. And do your homework to avoid wasting your time…or getting sued.

2. Don’t be afraid to take chances. By the time you’re ready to publish a novel or a comic book or your memoirs, a lot is going to have changed. It’s never been a better time to be a writer, but it’s also the Wild West of publishing right now. If you want to get noticed, you have to experiment.

If you follow the crowd, you’ll always be behind.

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Should you care if readers care about your characters?

Once upon a time, I described my fiction as character-oriented.

I’d bandy about that phrase in conversations with friends (or anyone, really) who asked about my writing. I used it in query letters to agents and editors while precociously comparing my early sword-and-sorcery fiction to the works of Margaret Weis, R.A. Salvatore, and other authors of books with dragons on the cover.

“Character-oriented” just seemed to be the logical expression for my work because, at the root of it all, I loved creating characters. Back when I was I writing medieval fantasy—and attending to the world building that went with it—I created countless characters to fill roles from lowly peasant to powerful tyrant across a centuries-long timeline. (Though there weren’t any invincible protagonists, I’m happy to report.)

It was an easy exercise:

Step 1: pick a name.

Step 2: pick a personality.

I spent more than a little time creating character profiles so that the people who populate my stories transcended a mere two dimensions. Because I wanted my readers to understand the characters and to see them as clearly as I did.

I also wanted readers to care about them.

In fact, I’m confident I said this very line at writing workshops in college: “If I don’t care about your characters, I won’t care what happens to them.”

These days, I don’t know if would use “character-oriented” to describe my fiction. I look back at The Renegade Chronicles and some of my other early work, and it’s clear there was a lot of focus on the different personalities. Perhaps that’s inevitable when you write about a motley group of freedom fighters thrown together by fate and forced to get along…or die trying.

But once I turned the page from straightforward sword-and-sorcery fantasy to something more nuanced, I find most of my ideas start with “What if…?” and not “Who is…?” Inklings of the story—the plot, that is—tend to come first, though the types of people who will weather these scenarios come in at a close second.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

The more I think about it, the more a term like “character-oriented” seems superfluous. Characters are but one element of a story. Like setting and plot, they are essential ingredients of a story. But are they any more important than the rest? Shouldn’t a story be character-oriented, plot-oriented, setting-oriented, and so forth?

More to the point, can a reader care what happens in a story if he or she doesn’t care about the characters?

The question haunts me because I’ve been accused of creating unlikable characters. Vincent, the protagonist of If Souls Can Sleep, isn’t the nicest guy. He has a lot of problems. He treats people poorly. And the fact that something supernatural seems to be happening to him does nothing to make him a better-adjusted citizen, particularly in the short term.

Whenever a beta reader would remark how they just can’t bring themselves to like Vincent, I’d argue (if only to myself) that it doesn’t matter. My goal was to make him realistic, and, realistically, people can be jerks.

Yet I also wanted him to be relatable and maybe even sympathetic.

While it wasn’t important for Vincent to be likable, it was arguably important for people not to dislike him so much that they dismissed his fate. Apathy is the enemy of every writer. So I suppose I had a decision to make: either make Vincent utterly unlikable so that my reader roots against him or take steps to make him more likable so that they could root for him.

I confess that I did soften him up a big in the rewrite, and reducing the intensity of his bad behavior not only made him more sympathetic, but also refined his character arc. Maybe he isn’t the most likable guy, but he has enough qualities now to make the reader care what happens to him.

A similar criticism arose for the protagonist of my short story “Going Viral.” A friend and fellow writer commented, “…I didn’t feel one bit connected to Sam by the end.” Also: “As a character, I found Sam neither relatable nor empathetic…the first syllable of ‘character’ is ‘care.’”

Come to think of it, I made Quentin E. Donovan (the Quentin E. Donovan), the “star” of another short story intentionally unlikable…

But in the case of Sam and “Going Viral,” I’m willing to chalk up Sam’s shortcomings to the fact that I struggle with short fiction. I also agree with my friend when he acknowledges that character development is even more challenging within the confines of short fiction.

It raises an important question: if the rest of the story is successful, does it matter whether the reader gives a damn about Sam?

A storyteller’s only job is to con the reader into turning one more page. We can’t directly control how anyone feels about anything, though, yes, a fair amount of manipulation comes with the territory. Writers have a handful of devices at their disposal to capture and keep a reader’s attention.

I already mentioned plot, setting, and, of course, characters. We also have themes, backstory, subplots, tropes that comes with various and sundry genres, tension, pacing—in short, anything and everything that could possibly compel a reader to travel from front cover to final page.

One could argue whether or not characters are the most important aspect of a story, but few would content that it’s OK to skimp on character development. If a writer neglects the work that enables the average reader to form a connection with the protagonist in particular, the rest of the literary elements are going to have to work that much harder to hook and hold the reader.

So how exactly can an author make his characters “connectable”?

  • Make us like her.
  • Make us hate her…or love to hate her.
  • Make us pity him. (A creative writing professor once told me you can instantly make readers pity characters by putting them in denial.)
  • Make us root for him because he’s an underdog.
  • Make her relatable…just like somebody we could meet on the street.
  • Make her utterly exceptional…someone we could never meet in our real lives.
  • Make him have big problems.
  • Make him have depth.

For more advice, there’s a nice, in-depth look at how to make readers care about your characters at novel-writing-help.com. And here’s five more tips at writersrelief.com.

Now it warrants mentioning that not every character will resonate with every reader. We all have different preferences and unique backgrounds. You can’t please all of the people any of the time, but as a writer, you should aim to please as many as possible.

And even if characters on the whole aren’t your strength, just make sure they aren’t a weakness.

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An old short story for Throwback Thursday

Back when I worked in a newsroom, a colleague of mine was wont to say, “Everyone loves old photos.”

A (sneaky) monkey

“In his mind, there was but one rule: survive.”| “Mantelpavian female 2 db”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

While the accuracy of any absolute statement is debatable, I don’t remember readers complaining when the newspaper printed black-and-white photographs. On the contrary, we tended to get positive feedback from folks who then took the opportunity to wax nostalgic about yesteryear.

I believe the Throwback Thursday (#TBT) trend serves as further proof of mankind’s fondness for looking back.

Why do we do it? To remember the Good Ol’ Days, I suppose. To laugh at our questionable taste in fashion. And to take measure of how much has changed.

In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I’m sharing a very short story I wrote in college. As I reread it, I can’t help but wander through the scenes of my young adulthood, chuckle at my cumbersome loquaciousness and overt penchant for alliteration (OK, some things haven’t changed), and to marvel at how much my style has evolved.

If you want to indulge in a bit of frivolity with me, read on or download a PDF for your e-reader.

Monkeys

By David Michael Williams

The chorus of a popular R&B song rent the morning, ripping me from my blissful slumber. Motor memory launched me from my mattress, across the cluttered hardwood floor, and over to where the alarm radio blasted its musical message at a mind-reeling volume. After turning various knobs and fiddling with a few buttons, the dream-destroying decibels were banished back to the black and brown box.

The bedroom door was open, as it always was. I lived alone and had no need for privacy. Still half asleep, I proceeded into the living room, where I began to search for the remote control in all the usual places. When the clicker could not be found lodged in the recliner or atop the computer desk, I wandered over to the couch.

That’s when I saw it, a baboon regarding me with more than a passing interest. He sat there, perched on the middle couch cushion, following my every movement with those brown eyes of his. Eyes that looked as thought they could have belonged to a person. Eyes that harbored intelligence without the burden of conscience.

I couldn’t move.

I hated monkeys, secretly feared them. Their very existence is a sick parody of humanity. I knew the little brute, despite his diminutive size, had in him a barbaric strength that could easily overpower my best efforts. In his mind, there was but one rule: survive. No social mores or rules restricted his behavior.

He was capable of anything.

I began to back away slowly, but that only seemed to earn his ire. I recalled that dogs could sense fear in people and wondered if all animals shared this skill. In spite of my growing fear, I took another step backward and practically fell on top of the recliner.

At this point, the deadly primate rose from his crouched position into a more-or-less upright stance. I considered making a break for the apartment’s only exit. How fast could the little bastard be? Would one kick send him reeling into the television, causing it to explode and, at the very least, render the hairy fiend unconscious? Or, would my desperate flailing only provide him a limb to sink his yellowed teeth into?

Monkeys have little concern for personal hygiene. They only groom their fur in order to find insect snacks. This baboon represented everything mankind left behind in climbing up onto the throne in the Animal Kingdom. Humans are at the top of the food-chain. Not only do we possess opposable thumbs, but we have the intelligence and integrity to use our skills responsibly. Homo sapiens are the rightful owners of the planet, the chosen genotype.

I just wish someone would have explained all that to the monkey.

I couldn’t have told him even if I had thought it might do me some good. I couldn’t even manage a scream as he vaulted off of the low-riding couch, long baboon arms swinging, and shrieking like a banshee on a sugar high.

I reached for the nearest weapon—my lava lamp. I always wondered what the mock-magma actually was and whether or not it would burn on contact with skin. Now seemed as good a time as any to find out. The monkey-turned-missile sailed through the air, honing in on his human target. His eyelids all but disappeared as his unfeeling eyes bulged out. A stream of saliva trailed from his lower jaw.

He was probably hungry, as there was no food in my refrigerator.

I swung the lava lamp, bludgeoning the baboon, bashing in the side of his hairy little head. He was too stunned to counterattack, so I pressed my advantage. Dropping the lava lamp, which was unwieldy and hadn’t even shattered, I reached for my left shoe. I had to finish the job. It was Man vs. Beast, and I didn’t intend to let my species down.

As I brought the black shoe down upon his huddled, unmoving body, I went into some sort of frenzy, experiencing a bloodlust that the Neanderthals must have felt as they brandished their clubs against their rivals for survival. By the time I finished, it was 9:52 A.M., and I was in no mood to go to work.

The baboon’s body was an unrecognizable mass of blood, entrails, and dirty hair. I ended up throwing the dripping carcass off my back porch. Then the gravity of the situation hit me all at once. I fell into the recliner, shaking, terrified of the animal I had had to become in order to defeat the baboon.

And what if there was another one tomorrow morning?

Now don’t you dare feel sorry for the monkey. They are not the cute, innocent little creatures you want to believe. They are wild. Dangerous. Capable of anything. But you won’t believe me. You’ll continue to write children’s stories about them, continue to visit the zoo and wave to them. Only when one sneaks up on you, on some unsuspecting Tuesday morning, will you admit your err in judgment. But by then, it might be too late.

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REJECTION!

Nothing is certain except death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin.

But if you’re a writer, you can add rejection to that list.

I received my first rejection letter in 2002.  I had submitted a short story I wrote for an assignment for a college course called Development of the Short Story.  By studying short fiction penned by successful writers and approaching the craft strategically, we students set out to produce publishable short stories of their own.

After discovering my main character, Elaine, through a series of writing exercises—such as cataloguing the contents of her car, writing a scene from her childhood, drafting a present-day interaction from her and another character’s points of view—I was ready to roll up my sleeves and take a stab at real-world, contemporary short fiction, as opposed to the sword-and-sorcery stories I typically gravitated towards.

Folder bearing an image of a cat and a piano

What…another rejection? Piano-playing kitty will make you feel better.

The final result, “Dime Story,” was a series of slice-of-life vignettes strung together through a peculiar device: the passing of a random coin from one character to the next.  (And, yes, I know that’s a horrible name for a story; titles are tough!)

It was something of a nonstory.  The only character with any semblance of a story arc was Elaine because she alone carried the coin not only in the present, but also again in the future.  The rest of the cast provided contrasting viewpoints—including conflicting perceptions of one another—and supplied thinly veiled social commentary.

In hindsight, “Dime Story” was probably too experimental for the journals I solicited.  Since it was my first attempt at publication, I shouldn’t have been too surprised when eleven of eleven magazines passed on it.  I still had a lot to learn about writing and editing.

And it didn’t help that I had a typo in the very first sentence!

Since then, I’ve collected more than a few rejections from literary agents and, after that, from various editors my agent has contacted about my novels.  Now that I have a couple of short stories making the rounds (no, not “Dime Story”), the rejection population has risen significantly in my house.

While no one likes to see that “Thank you for submitting, but…” form letter arrive in the mailbox, I tend not to fret too much about the implications.  At the end of the day, it just means the story didn’t strike a chord with one particular editor (or assistant or apprentice or intern) who read it.

The well-adjusted writer ought to have thick skin.

I save all of my rejection letters.  I’m not sure why I started doing this, though I suspect it was to help track of my contact with The Publishing World.  Or maybe, having heard so many stories about how Mr. Bestseller received a bajillion rejections before his book sold, I wanted to see how my track record would compare.

Regardless of the reason, I continue to keep all of my rejection letters in a folder given to me by my mom many years ago.  It has a picture of a cat on it.  In all likelihood, I stashed my rejection receipts in there because I couldn’t think of another use for the strange, sappy portfolio.

I like it because it adds a little levity to what could be an otherwise sour experience.  I mean, it’s hard not to smile when I reach for that ridiculous folder.  “So what if Such-and-Such Digest passed on my short story?” I say to myself.  “On to the next!”

Fortunately for us writers, stories have far more than nine lives.

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Building a better book title

I’ve stumbled upon something more challenging than writing an ending: choosing a title.

Titles represent anywhere from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of words.  They have to be worthy of all that hard work you put into your short story, novella or novel.  And they must be marketable.

I’m almost never satisfied with my first stab at a title, so I slap a placeholder at the top of the page and move on.  For those short stories that don’t inspire a second draft, what started as a temporary solution becomes permanent.  (I’m looking at you, “Of Men and Monsters” and “The Unholy Grail.”)

Two of my better tales started out with very generic titles: “Dime Story” and “Virus Story.”  The latter eventually became “Going Viral,” with which I’m reasonably satisfied.  For a short time, I titled the former “Between Twilight and Dusk,” but at the end of the day (pun intended), the name didn’t really mean much.

I never got around to tweaking the title of “Dime Story” not only because I like that it sounds like “dime store,” an anachronistic reference to the main setting of the story, but also because I don’t think it’s publishable.  Why bother wracking my brain for something better?

If short stories prove difficult to title, then naming novels is downright impossible.  I struggled for a long time with the titles to the first three books of The Renegade Chronicles.  At one point, I even considered naming them Genesis, Exodus, and Revelation.  (Ugh.)  The most recent drafts bear these labels: The Road to Faith, The Keepers of Faith, and Defenders of Valor.

Not horrible, but the first two still come off sounding like spirituality-themed nonfiction as opposed to sword-and-sorcery fantasy.

The best I could do for my fourth book—a prequel of sorts—was Magic’s Daughter.  Surprise, surprise, there’s already a book (or two) by that name.  And even if it weren’t unoriginal, I don’t find it especially inspiring.  It lacks…verve.   Of course, the fact that book titles can’t be copyrighted leads to a lot of books sharing the same or very similar names.  Type in “Nemesis” on Amazon.com, and you’ll find books by Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie, Phillip Roth, and plenty of others.

Personally, I strive for novelty wherever I can, titles included.  I also find that with books and movies with names borrowed from abstract emotions or situations don’t stick in my brain.  I want to see the title.

So what comprises the perfect title?  Well, it has to be appropriate—that is, make sense in some context with the story itself.  It should be memorable (so that your reader can tell his/her friend about it…and preferably where he/she bought it).  And, I daresay, it should be creative.

Oh, it doesn’t have to be frightfully clever, and it certainly shouldn’t be too cute.  Take Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.  Is there anything more ordinary-sounding than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?  And yet we instantly want to know more about her.  Why does she have a tattoo of a dragon?  Where is this tattoo?  And what’s this I hear about her kicking a hornet’s nest and playing with fire?

We already see the titular character…or at least we think we do.

My problem is I overthink things.  There’s probably nothing inherently wrong with “Magic’s Daughter,” as far as titles go.  Perhaps picking the perfect title requires a bit of magic.  Maybe it’s more instinct than science.   While writing (and rewriting and reworking and…) a recent novel, I wrestled with the title every now and then, ultimately pushing off the Big Decision for another day.  I flirted with Adrift for a while.  It tied into one of the sleep phenomena featured in the book and also served as homage to one of my favorite TV shows, Lost.

Adrift?

Eh.

Then one day while reading a random passage, I came across a key quote penned by one of the characters: “If souls can sleep, then why not dream?”  If souls can sleep…

Bingo.

Not only does If Souls Can Sleep summarize an underlying philosophy in the book, but also I love how the hypothetical nature of the “if” clause adds a hint of suspense.  In hindsight, it wasn’t so much a “eureka!” moment as a “hey, this could work” thought.  But the more I considered it, saying it aloud and pitting it against the test of time, the more convinced I became that there could be no other.

Now I find myself with a short story I intend to send to market.  The working title—“The Villain”—still presides over the first page.  I don’t hate it, but maybe there’s a better option…

That’s where you come in.  Please take the poll below, and let me know which one sounds like a winner.  And if you want a glimpse at what the story is about (or at least, the first part of the first draft): go here.

—Editor’s note: Thanks for the votes.  “Ghost Mode,” it is.  Interested in reading the whole story?  Go here.

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Choose your own adventure (please!)

Remember those old Choose Your Own Adventure books?  The ones where you controlled a character’s destiny and guided the direction of the narrative?

I’m conducting an experiment that brings that old series of children’s books to mind.  Below you will find the beginning of three short stories.  Please read them all and then vote for the one you’d want to read in its entirety.

Pick your favorite, and just maybe it will get enough votes to earn an ending (despite my ambivalent attitude toward short fiction).

* * *

Option 1: “The Villain”

Quentin E. Donovan—the Quentin E. Donovan—sidestepped into an alley, closed his eyes, and did something he hadn’t done in a decade or more: He went into ghost mode.

A deliberate twitch of his left thumb, and the twin IRIS mods went offline.  A whispered password triggered the auto-transcript program that fueled half a dozen different Lifefeeds to quit.  Finally, he removed the sleek, pearlescent PAM—an eighth-generation iCoin Pro—from his pocket and thumbed the command to repel incoming V-captures.

No feeds, no casts, no signals whatsoever.  He was officially grid-locked.

Without the translucent menus and scrolling text in his periphery, the world seemed impossibly simple.  And slightly pink.  It took him a moment to realize his eyes were compensating for the absence of the green tinge that always coated the corner of his vision, notifying him that the ocular implants were successfully uploading his sensory data to the Sphere.

He shivered, as though losing the subtle, soothing tingle of info-exchange between his bioware and the local hotspots had reduced his body’s temperature.  The air around him even tasted dead.

No wonder they call it “ghost mode,” he thought.

Quentin turned back to the street and saw a woman approaching.  He smiled politely—no, eagerly—but she never acknowledged him, her blank stare undoubtedly combing through a number of feeds only she could see.  He just stood there for several heart-pounding seconds after she passed, until finally he identified the foreign, long-forgotten feeling called loneliness.

He pressed his palm against smooth surface of the iCoin and flirted with the idea of rebooting all of his AR apps.  But he found courage, then, in the thought of what glory lay ahead.  A shame, he thought, that his millions of fans wouldn’t be able to enjoy the thrill of this clandestine meeting he had arranged only hours before on the Darknet.

Releasing his hold on the offline PAM and rubbing his eyes (though that did nothing to restore the reassuring green glow of the IRISes), Quentin stepped onto the street, walked into a FaceCafe, and—without the aid of any tech—scanned the place for someone who looked out of place.

Closest to the door, a middle-aged woman fished a wire out of her purse and connected one end to the table’s powerport and the other end to an oversized, blaze-orange PAM.  The infant in the highchair beside her wailed until the woman returned to the device to his eager little hands.

Across the room, a guy talked to an invisible partner across the table, laughing suggestively as he adjusted the crotch of his trousers.

A few tables away, a woman furiously swiped the air with her fingers and frowned at what Quentin could only assume was bad news.

Nope, nothing out of the ordinary, he lamented.

Disappointed, he sat down and keyed in his order for a plain-taste, half-stim coffee.  He would just have to trust that the Darknet stranger he pinged—the professional Villain he had promised to pay half a million Cs to make his life more interesting—would recognize him.

No worries there, he thought.  After all, he was the Quentin E. Donovan.

* * *

Option 2: “The End”

’Twas no secret a sinister shadow had fallen o’er the realm.  Matthias had been warning neighbors and sojourners alike for as far back as he could remember.  So often had he spoken of the myriad harbingers of The End—the rising number of refugees from faraway kingdoms, the tales of war they brought with them, and other rumors of unnatural creatures roaming the countryside—that his discourse on dire omens had a practiced elegance.

He would daresay none could make the encroaching cataclysm sound as poetic as he.

Then, one day, he realized something truly was amiss.  No, an army of demon warriors had not arrived to ransack his favorite inn.  Much to the contrary, the Satyr’s Horn was empty but for Old Llew, the stout barkeep, and two patrons Matthias saw most every day but whose names he had never chanced to learn.

There were no travelers to bequeath a coin for courtly verse or bawdy ballad.  Nary an adventurer in whom to confide ominous words in hushed tones.

Nay, the room was frightfully quiet.  Though it was his custom to take up his lute hitherto the midday meal, he could not.  Likewise, the three other men in the common room exchanged no pleasantries with one another.  Matthias might have stood there, a scarcely breathing statue, forever had Rosalyn, the barmaid, not entered from the kitchen door.  She seemed not at all disturbed by the alarming lack of patrons as she made her rounds, distributing foamy flagons of mead to unoccupied tables.

Matthias took a single step away from his spot by the fireplace and trembled.  Surely his eyes betrayed him, for his clothes—aye, his very skin!—seemed to crawl in a most uncanny way.  He might have attributed the abnormality to having imbibed too much of Old Llew’s bitterbrew, except the day was still young, and any gleeman of good repute knew better than to partake in intoxicating drink afore his day’s work was done.

Judging by the sparse state of the common room, he’d not have cause to sing a single verse of “Sir Ceridwyn the Clever” nor the melancholy chorus of “Lady Winter’s Lament.”

His legs felt as stiff as broadswords as he quickly crossed the common room, the cadence of his boots against the floorboards the only sound in the place.  Rosalyn seemed not to notice him as she unburdened her tray at another empty table.  Forsooth, she walked past by him without a greeting or a hint of the saucy grin that had sent many a man to bed with impure musings!

He reached for her but thought better of it.  When he called out, the syllables tasted strange on his tongue, as though he had never spoken the lass’s name before.  Despite the room’s grave silence, Rosalyn surely hadn’t heard him.  She disappeared into the kitchen once more.

And was it his imagination making a dupe of him once more?  He would have sworn to the Benevolent Lords above that the kitchen door had opened and closed without Rosalyn’s touching it.  Aye, he would have wagered two and twenty golds on the truth of it!

He hasted to the bar, his hurried steps sounding like thunder.

“What goes on here?” he demanded.  “Has the curse come at last to the Glens?”

Though Old Llew looked up from the cup he was forever drying, he seemed to stare through the bard rather than at him.  “Dark times call for dark beer, stranger.  If ye will hear gossip, speak with Matthias Manyroads.”

“I am Matthias Manyroads, and well you know it, Llew!  What—?”

The barkeep’s vacant eyes blinked.  “Dark times call for dark beer, stranger.  If ye will hear gossip, speak with Matthias Manyroads.”

* * *

Option 3: “The Anthropologist”

Godspeed.

The word surfaced amid her whirling thoughts and the nervous energy that tickled her skin like an invisible feather.  Godspeed.  An expression of good fortune in a new venture.  Like a journey.

No one at Indigo Academy had used that word while saying farewell to her and the other two discovery team members.  She supposed no one in Settled Space would have seriously employed such a clearly superstitious expression.  Idioms that evoked any deity had surely died off millennia ago.

The capsule-shaped stasis chamber shuddered as some subroutine or another powered up.  In a matter of minutes, the vessel’s atmosphere would adjust for the long voyage and trigger the nanites in her blood to put her body in a suspended state.  It was a painless process, but she always dreaded it.

Spaceflight was a rare delight for most but an even rarer distress for her.  She might have stayed on Indigo for the rest of her life—which, if the other scholars’ tenures were any indicator, would be another four hundred and fifty years at least—and forever eschewed the discomfort of maximum velocity if this had been any other mission.

But how can one say no to the chance to pioneer the only other planet in the universe known to harbor intelligent life?

Godspeed.  Somehow the antiquated notion seemed absolutely appropriate in light of the undeveloped and arguably barbaric planet that was their destination.  The societal and technological advances the three emissaries brought with them mimicked and even rivaled the supposedly supernatural abilities of the aliens’ sundry deities.  Yet despite her mere two hundred thirty-seven years, she wasn’t so naïve as to believe the aliens would revere them as gods.

More likely, the New People would defy them precisely because of their superiority, which threatened not only many long-established religions, but also the aliens’ egocentric belief that they lived at the center of the universe, metaphorically speaking.

A sentiment she herself had held until the day a wayward drone revealed the existence of a second sentient species on the far end of the galaxy.

“Are you ready, Anthropologist?”

She flinched at the sudden voice in her ear, and her heart rate spiked.  But then the nanites synthesized whichever hormone neutralized unnecessary anxiety—well, more of it, considering how long she had fretted earlier about the astronomically small probability her stasis protocols would fail, causing her to lie awake in the capsule for the months-long voyage.

“Anthropologist?”

Ysa never called her by her real name.  Maybe the title amused her.  Or maybe Ysa, who ranked among the most gifted physio-biologists in Settled Space, thought learning the name of such a young scholar was beneath her.

“I am,” she replied at last, though she wondered if anyone could be fully prepared for the first face-to-face contact with a new race.  Yet she knew better than to express any doubts to Ysa, who had never made a secret of her cynicism for the New People or the mission.

“Your attitude might change when they begin studying you in return, Anthropologist.”

“We will see.”

She was thinking about how good it would feel when Ysa saw how wrong she was about the aliens when the vessel began its countdown to the unprecedented journey to Earth.

* * *

—Editor’s note: as of 11:59 p.m. April 3, “The Anthropologist” had the most votes and will, therefore, get an ending…which is not to say I won’t circle back to one or both of the other contestants at some point.  Thanks to all who helped with this experiment, which has indeed taught me a few things, including this: once you give others a choice, you suddenly realize which option you really favor.

—Another editor’s note: while “The Anthropologist” edged out “The Villain” by a single vote, I ended up pursuing the latter.  I simply couldn’t figure out how to write “The Anthropologist” as a short story.  It got too big too quickly!

—Yet another editor’s note: “The Villain” (now called “Ghost Mode”) has been submitted for publication consideration.  Want a sneak peak?

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