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.
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.
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.
While Google Glass never really caught on, cell phones are finally poised to bring augmented reality (AR) into the mainstream thanks to a certain catch-’em-all mobile game. By leveraging GPS and overlaying computer-generated images on a real-world environment, Pokémon GO has taken a big, bold step forward in a technology that, prior to now, had taken a backseat to other advancements like 3D and virtual reality.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg, folks. Even as I write this, developers, executives, and marketers are seeking out new ways to exploit AR.
Perhaps ironically, a game populated with brightly colored and sometimes cute creatures has already raised serious concerns—from at least one automobile fatality to insensitive Pokémon destinations. Then there are instances of trespassing, distracted pedestrians, and lures that attract human victims in addition to the in-game prey.
It’s not all doom and Gloom (Pokémon pun intended), but as with any new technology, the good will inevitably be accompanied by the sinister…and the silly.
While pondering the Pokémon GO phenomenon—and admittedly participating in it—I was reminded of a short story I wrote a while back about a future where AR has penetrated every facet of society, including entertainment, commerce, and even face-to-face communication.
For all of our sakes, I hope “Ghost Mode” turns out to be an inaccurate prediction of what is to come. It could be a cautionary tale. Or maybe it’s just the musings of a closet technophobe. In any event, I hope you enjoy this story of a near-future star whose search for excitement goes horribly, horribly wrong.
Back when I worked in a newsroom, a colleague of mine was wont to say, “Everyone loves old photos.”
“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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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”
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 becauseof 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.
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 theybegin 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?
It all started with a boy, a girl, and a valentine.
Well, technically it was the absence of a Valentine’s Day card that triggered the friendship that—after years of being good friends, then better friends, a summer fling, “just friends” again, then (for all of a couple of days) not friends at all, following by years of if-not-best-friends-then-the-next-best-thing-to-it—eventually evolved into a real romance.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. And that’s not how these kinds of stories—love stories—are supposed to start. Let’s try again…
Once upon a time, there were two teenagers who had met through mutual friends and who happened to have a conversation at school on Valentine’s Day. The male…OK, you know what, let’s name these characters: David and Stephanie. There. Not the most whimsical of names, I’ll admit, but this fairy tale has its roots in reality. Anyway, look at Jack from Jack and Beanstalk. A common name to be sure. We can’t all be Rapunzels or Rumplestiltskins.
Where was I? Oh yes…
On that fateful (and hateful) holiday, David learned Stephanie had given a mutual friend of theirs a valentine. So David, who didn’t have a romantic bone in his body but did so enjoy teasing people (especially those of the female variety), affected hurt feelings at having been snubbed.
At the time, David and Stephanie shared an inside joke about a ring. Not a piece of jewelry, but one of those rings you use to keep hole-punched sheets of paper together. Technically, I could have written, “It all started with a boy, a girl, and a ring” to be intentionally misleading, but that ship has sailed.
The origin of the ring reference is unimportant; the details surrounding that particular inside joke are recorded in a series of notes—some in folders, some in notebooks—safely stored in a waterproof tote in someone’s basement closet. (More on that later.) What is important about the ring is that it made an appearance in a belated valentine Stephanie eventually delivered to David, perhaps out of guilt or perhaps out of amusement. It wasn’t so much a card as it was a folded-up pencil sketch of a boy who looked suspiciously like David holding the aforementioned ring.
Not to be outdone, David drew a comic strip about ninjas battling over the ring—now a mystical artifact, not a mundane office supply. The sad excuse for a valentine he handed back to Stephanie was less sophisticated in its artistry and certainly less personal in its subject matter, but it was the best that the boy—hopelessly unromantic, remember—could muster.
Apparently, it was enough to pique Stephanie’s interest because those two untraditional valentines led to two-and-a-half years of exchanging notes…notes that first went into a folder and, later, filled single-, three-, and finally five-subject notebooks from sophomore to senior year of high school. These notebooks—called The Notebook by their mutual friends—were looked upon with suspicion and scorn. Nevertheless, the two friends-who-were-a-boy-and-a-girl-but-not-boyfriend-and-girlfriend-(except-for-one-summer) continued their clandestine correspondences undaunted.
The subject of those notebooks are myriad and miscellaneous, covering the mundane and often melodramatic happenings of high school life, philosophical debates about just about everything, and some of the first samples of David’s fiction. The fact that Stephanie not only tolerated those early stories, but also encouraged him to write more is a testament to the true nature of her feelings for her perpetual pen-pal.
She like liked him.
The Notebook served as a chronicle of their friendship—an increasingly complicated arrangement, given Stephanie’s not-so-secret interest in taking the next step—but when the two of them were tragically separated because they opted to attend two different colleges, novella-length emails took the place of hand-delivered missives. The emails were supplemented by many phone calls and visits.
Despite a series/cycle of ups and downs—which is perhaps inevitable when unrequited love enters the equation—the two remained quite close. Then there came the day when Stephanie made it clear that she was over David and that she was completely OK with the platonic nature of their relationship. She was dating other people, and he was trying to the same (though less successfully).
And that was the end of that.
Just kidding. This is a love story, remember?
Shortly after the two came to this mutual agreement, David started having second thoughts. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh sure, now that he can’t have her, he wants to date her.” There’s some truth to that, I’m sure. If nothing else, it forced him to think about the future—their future. She would find someone else. That was a given. She’d get married and have a family, and his only chance of dating her again would be if she got a divorce. “Yeah,” he thought. “We’ll probably connect again at some distant point in time, and we’ll start dating, and it’ll all work out…”
“…unless it doesn’t.”
If you ever read David’s entries in The Notebook (which you haven’t, and you won’t), you would know that he always prided himself on being incredible logical and unfailingly rational. How, then, could someone so allegedly self-actualized have been blind to what so many others clearly saw: that they belonged together? And how could he have missed the fact—up until then—that if he didn’t act in the present, he might not have the chance in the future?
He had always cared for her. Ever since those non-valentines of 1995. Stubbornness, immaturity, the delusional belief that love always strikes suddenly and passionately as in the movies (or romance novels)—whatever the reason for his reluctance to give them a second chance as a couple, David finally got his head out of his hindquarters in 2001 and asked her out on a date. And one absolutely ordinary day (not Valentine’s Day, mind you), he was riding a bus and realized out of the blue that he loved her.
What happened next (like what happened before) isn’t really the stuff of fairy tales. They graduated college, moved in together, and then moved to China, where they taught English for a year. Remember when I described David as “hopelessly unromantic”? That’s not quite true. He must have learned something along the way because when they visited Beijing, he surprised Stephanie by proposing at the Great Wall. And she said yes (though they had to review the video footage to make sure an affirmative answer was given between the tears).
When they got back to the U.S., they got married. They found jobs, bought a house, had a couple of kids, and bought a new house when the first one got to small…one with a basement closet to store the many iterations of The Notebook.
Their relationship isn’t perfect (whose is?), but they have an extremely good life together, even if their love—built on a foundation of friendship, respect, and mutual interests—won’t inspire any Hollywood blockbusters or bodice-rippers.
Their love must be pretty powerful, though, because even though David has…you know what? I’m done with referring to myself in the third person. It’s creepy. Let’s try that last part again:
Our love must be pretty powerful, actually, because even though I have always hated the way Valentine’s Day mandates that members of a couplehood must demonstrate their love on a specific date in culturally acceptable (and predictable) ways, I forced myself to come up with a way to show Stephanie just how much I care for her, deciding to combine my passion for her with my passion for writing.
It’s not a traditional valentine, but you have to admit, that’s fitting given how this all began.
OK, I’m going to end this before I give into the temptation to spout such platitudes as “You make me a better man” and “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here with you” or “I don’t know how/why you put up with me” (though all are true). Even though our story isn’t over, I think it’s safe to prescribe an optimistic ending. So if you’ll indulge me one final cliché:
It’s a piece of advice I’ve heard on many occasions: At writing workshops in college. In an enrichment session with book editors at Gen Con. During conversations with accomplished authors. While perusing countless website articles on the ever-popular topic of how to get published:
Short stories first, then novels.
There’s an undeniable logic to this “start small” progression. Agents and book publishers are bound to take a writer more seriously after he or she has writing credits from journals and magazines under his or her belt. Anyway, perfecting a story of a few thousand words must be easier than whipping a full-fledged novel into shape…right?
Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been much of a short story guy, not as a reader or a writer. In both instances, I prefer the extended opportunity to get invested in a group of characters (make that “people”) and to become infatuated with a wide-scale world, as opposed to sampling a bit-sized plot.
Call me ambitious—or maybe naïve—because I decided early on that I was going to skip the short story phase of my fiction-writing enterprise and jump right into a novel. No, make that a trilogy. Better yet, an epic series that could spawn ten or more volumes!
When Book 1 didn’t get picked up, however, that brought me back to the drawing board.
But did it stop me from pursuing book-length fiction? Nope. Even as the first installment of a new series was (and still is) being considered by a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy fiction, I began work on the sequel. Meanwhile, I created a website (even though I hated blogs), started following other writers’ blogs, and made Facebook and Twitter accounts for David Michael Williams, the author. In short, I did everything I could think of to give myself a leg up in my quest to become a published writer of fiction.
Everything except for writing short stories.
To be honest, a lack of interest in short fiction is only half of the reason why I seldom dabble in the medium. The fact is I’m not very good at it—in part because of a lack of practice and in part because it’s difficult for me to think small. My stories are seldom self-contained. The conflict is consistently complicated; the stakes, always higher. Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself I couldn’t write a good short story because of my penchant for complexity.
Instead of continuing to try to be the exception to the so-called rule, it was time for me to do as I’d been told time and time again…
Last week, I made my final edits to a sci-fi short story I had written just for fun a while back, a tale I’ve found myself tinkereing with and updating every year or so. “Going Viral” is the best of my handful of attempts to write a simple, straightforward story. Therefore, it was the prime candidate to accomplish my ongoing mission of getting something—anything—published in the fiction arena.
In up to eight weeks, I’ll know whether the good folks at Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine will be the ones to give me my first break. If not, it’s on to the next publication.
Ironically, even as I’ve been researching possible publications to submit my short story to, I’ve come to enjoy reading short fiction more than ever before. Maybe it’s because my leisure reading time is sporadic at best, and indulging in a handful of pages in a single sitting is more satisfying than letting days pass in between chapters. Or maybe I’ve come to appreciate the unique and creative challenge these writers face when stripping a story down to its essential parts.
And just maybe I’ll find the inspiration to further hone my skills at writing short fiction.