Cooper: A Short Story*

The 1911 Colt Government Model had been peace-tied. Someone had threaded a plastic zip-tie through the gun’s notched hammer and trigger guard in a vain attempt to make it “safe.” Tim ran his manicured hand over the checkered, wooden grips. 

Not many 1911s came through his hands any more. 

This was no collectible, no ornament. 

No perp’s throw-away either. 

Which was strange. According to his records, it had been turned in as part of the federal “Guns to Plowshares” amnesty. Unlike its predecessors–which were actually a golden opportunity for criminals to get cash for allowing the Feds to destroy the evidence connecting them to murders and robberies–this program required a check against the stolen list before the guns were destroyed. Nonetheless, since the program’s inception, Tim had dealt with more Ravens than Edgar Allen Poe.

The Colt had seen a lot of use—slide-to-frame wear and faded bluing from a holster—but been lovingly maintained. It still gave off a scent of gun oil, even in the basement range’s filtered air. 

Time left the barcoded tag hanging off the trigger guard in place, cut the zip-ties and inserted a magazine loaded with three rounds. Then he set the gun on the platform next to the six-and-a-half-foot long water-tank his department used for ballistics testing. He swapped his hipster Ben Folds for safety glasses and slid on protective ear-muffs. They caught on his man-bun, painfully yanking it off-center.

Damn. I’m never going to get used to this stupid thing.

He’d never have grown his hair out if his girlfriend, Rayn, hadn’t insisted. He pulled the man-bun free, sliding the elastic over his wrist, and repositioned the ear-muffs. Tim released the slide and placed the muzzle–and a good portion of the barrel–into the cylinder protruding from the tank.

He pulled the trigger, a slow, steady motion with no hesitation. In his mind’s eye he saw the firing pin strike the primer, leaving its own unique mark. As the powder ignited, the pressure from the expanding gases drove the bullet forward so the barrel’s lands and grooves could scratch their signatures into the spinning copper. The extractor bit and the breech face stamped their own marks into the casing.

Boom!

Theoretically, the scratches, bites, and marks were supposed to create a unique “fingerprint.” It was a worthless feel-good measure and a waste of money and time. He tried not to think about it too much. It was job security. 

Boom!

At another lab, an electron microscope would take pictures of the microscopic markings and a computer would compare them to a database of bullet and casing images from crime scenes. Nothing would probably ever come of the data collected, but some politician out there was probably scoring points and posturing about it.

Boom!

The slide locked back on an empty magazine. 

“Again, again! Let’s do it again.”

What the h—

Tim set the gun down and looked around. It wasn’t that unusual for someone to come in, unheard, and with Tim’s laser-beam-like focus, he tended to be a target for those who liked to see if they could make the lab-rat jump. He donned his eyeglasses and peered around the panels separating the lanes just in case some joker had decided to have fun at his expense. The firing range was as empty as when he’d come in, its three regular shooting lanes filling the space between the door and the ballistics tank.

He picked up the ejected casings, popped the tank’s lid, rolled up his sleeves, and used the tank’s built-in hose to suck the bullets into a basket. Three shiny copper-jacketed projectiles gleamed back at him. He dried them off and dropped them, along with the casings, into a plastic bag.

Once he removed the ear-muffs, he gathered his hair, pulling it up to the top of his head. Twisting the elastic off his wrist, he remade the bun.

A peal of laughter echoed around him.

Tim spun. 

“Guys, it’s not funny,” he shouted into the bays. The cameras—one in each corner of the shooting gallery—were the only things blinking back at him. 

“Are you trying to tell me that the last time you looked into a mirror, you saw Toshirō Mifune staring back at you? Because you, pal, are no Toshirō Mifune.” The voice was male, a bit scratchy and definitely older. It reminded him of his grandfather’s voice with its cigar-thickened undertones. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. 

Tim glared up at the cameras. It had to be a prank, and it was just like one of the older men to pick on him about his hair. Well, this is what it took to get a woman’s attention these days. He’d bet they’d done the same in their day. Mullets they used to be called. Mullets and mohawks and pompadours. 

Never let them know what bothers you. 

He’d learned that lesson on his first day. He put the gun in its case, placed the bag next to it, and snapped the lid shut. 

It was time to send the Colt to its fiery death.

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eARC of Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation available now

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Baen books released the eARC* (electronic advance reader copy) for Tom Kratman’s Carreraverse anthology, Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation, yesterday.

This anthology includes stories by Kacey Ezell, Mike Massa, Rob Hampson. Chris Smith (Christopher L. Smith), Peter Grant, Chris Nutall, Justin Watson
Monalisa Foster, Alex Macris, Lawrence Railey, and Tom Kratman.

Here’s the opening to my story, “Bellona’s Gift,” about Mitzi Carrera, the rebel Belisario Carrera’s daughter. Readers of the series will remember the crucial moment when Mitzi delivers much-needed arms and ammunition to her father. This is the story behind that crucial moment.

It was an honor and a privilege to write in this universe. Thank you, Tom.

***

Mitzi stood on the lookout’s cliff, right up against the ledge, sandaled feet solidly set atop the rock. Her boonie hat, with its broad, drooping brim and dark green, military mottling eased the late afternoon glare as she kept watch.

Hundreds of meters below, the crash of the waves wasn’t quite right. Even after more than a decade, she could hear the difference of rhythm, like a song played on a piano with a missing key. Terra Nova’s three moons rivaled Earth’s only when they were properly aligned. Even then, the tides weren’t as strong, and for some reason, it was the wrongness of those crashing waves that still stood out. Not the color. Not the smell. Her memories of those things had faded enough that these colors, these scents now had the familiarity of home.

Insidious progressivines had crept right up to the ledge. Like giant snakes or the tentacles of some vile monster, they would eventually choke out everything around them. An odd species, more parasite and man-trap than weed, the result was always the same: a slow blight of destruction in need of constant pruning. She stomped a vine into the soil. Within moments, her feet and ankles were stained with an oozing, oily green-black. Taking a deep, cleansing breath she cast her gaze back out over the Shimmering Sea.

The breeze shifted with the clouds darkening the horizon. The line separating water and sky blurred. It hardly seemed worth making the climb, but there was something about all that unbroken water, that ever-changing sky, that beckoning vastness that made her volunteer to make the climb twice a day. She blinked the wind- sourced moisture from her lashes. Out there, a white speck separated the seam of water and sky.

She raised the binoculars to her eyes and adjusted one eyepiece and then the other. The speck was still a speck, albeit several times bigger. Shaped like a megalodon’s fin, it rose peacefully from beneath the horizon rather than slicing through the water.

A mast and the hint of a sail. Definitely not a meg. Nevertheless, her stomach hardened, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose.

Calm down. They swoop in from the sky.

“They” being the enemy. The UN cowards. The thieves, murderers and rapists that had uprooted her family and sentenced them to “transportation.”

Such an innocent word. Much better than exile or deportation or being forever torn from everything and everyone you’ve ever known, profound loss the only certainty in your life. Much better than being shoved into a coffin and frozen, not knowing if you’d ever wake up, your life now in the hands of the same people that took your lands, your home, and your innocence. Much better than being a troublesome piece of meat.

Even after all these years, memories of waking up on the Amerigo Vespucci colonization ship made an arctic chill seep into her soul. Despite the tropical heat, goosebumps rose on her body.

It had been years since anything good had come to Cochea. Uprooted once again, her people had fled the tiny settlement they’d come to call home: the women, children and elderly to the caves; the men to the jungle. Mitzi’s father, Belisario Carrera, and his men were now scattered across two hundred square kilometers on the other side of the isthmus, their numbers dwindling by the day, but not as fast as the ammo for their captured guns. For lack of ammunition to feed them, their best fighters had resorted to burying even their prized sniper rifles.

Her father had been known to say, “The war goes on until we are, all of us, free.”

The dead are free, aren’t they?

The binoculars quivered for a moment, then steadied. The main mast was joined by two others. At the bow, four-stacked sails swelled and billowed with the wind.

There was no flag, at least not that she could see.

She shoved the binoculars into her knapsack, and carefully looked down. Nine-year-old Diego had climbed down onto a sliver of an outcropping about ten meters down the cliff-face. The boy was like a mountain goat, spry, sure-footed, and fearless, whereas it took all her will to just stand there. She called down, describing what she’d seen and told him to warn the others. He nodded and jumped to another ledge.

Mitzi took a step back, no longer able to bear the vertigo. She drank the last of her water from the battered canteen at her waist, and resumed her watch. It was nearly sundown when she left the cliff and headed down the trail. A cooling westerly breeze tugged the boonie hat off her head, sending her hair down in a tumble. She gathered and twisted it back into a sweat-soaked bun, reseated the hat and tightened the chin strap.

The muddy, well-worn footpath snaked into the perpetual twilight of the jungle’s triple canopy. The vegetation intertwined so closely that by the time light reached the jungled floor, it lost to darkness.

Sandals sloshing, she raced past pools of fading light. She turned at a fork marked by the rusting, crumpled remains of an enemy vehicle. The cowards had abandoned it to the jungle.

Covered in slime and moss, it was slowly blending into its surroundings. The not-so-native trixies had claimed it as their own. One of the red-and-gold flying reptiles, its bony tail swishing back and forth, preened atop the barrel of the vehicle’s roof-mounted mini-gun. The trixie screeched, revealing razor-sharp teeth.

“I know, I know.”
Mitzi wasn’t exactly small, or old, or weak, but she was alone, and the venom-less, septic-mouthed moonbats that came out at night could still take a bite out of her. Unarmed, she couldn’t fight them off, and even one bite would debilitate her enough to allow the vile creatures to feed on her at their leisure.

They’d take their time too, the nasty things. They preferred the taste of still-living prey, and barring rescue by a flock of ravenous trixies—the moonbats’ natural predators—well, it’d be a long, unpleasant death. She quickened her pace.

As much as she liked running, it hurt to keep up any sort of momentum for very long, even if she crossed her arms. And how well can anyone be expected to run with her arms across her chest?

Back on Earth there might have been a chance to do something about the stupid things that had sprouted from her chest, but here . . . Not that it was all bad here, or at least hadn’t been until Kotek Annan and his thugs had decided that young Balboan women and boys made desirable slaves.

Maybe one day she’d look back and laugh at the irony of it all. Had one Robert Nyere, UN bureaucrat and maricón, not suggested that “something can be worked out” to her father—that something being Mitzi herself in lieu of taking their ancestral land for redistribution— they might have never been “transported” to Terra Nova in the first place. She wasn’t supposed to know that it was Nyere’s death—it wasn’t murder to defend the life or freedom or safety or chastity of one’s child—that had landed them here. Even at thirteen, men had found her sexy. Well, the assets on her chest at least. And those assets had only grown in the years since. Not that there’d been anyone to appreciate them. That was the downside to being el jefe’s daughter.

By the time Mitzi made it to the beach, Hecate, the largest of Terra Nova’s three moons, bathed the cove in silver light, giving everything a ghostly cast.

Even the jungle canopy—so green it had hurt her eyes when they’d first landed here—looked gray.

The ship—a caravel, she was sure now—had anchored in the cove, its sails stowed. A dinghy sat on the beach, rocking slowly with the paltry tide, almost in time with the sway of the black palms.

Two unarmed gringos—those light of skin, eyes, and, frequently, hair—knelt on the sand, their fingers laced behind their heads. Sweat stained the fine, if wrinkled, fabric of their shirts. Beads of moisture pooled to run down their faces, and tensing muscles strained with the rigid postures. They sported short hair darkened by perspiration.

Even in Hecate’s light, one was still identifiable as blond. The other had dark hair like her own.

These weren’t the big, strong men with red cloths around their heads that had come to Cochea with their curved knives, their tanks, and the reek of never-washed bodies. These men were little more than boys, clean-shaven and soft under their unusual clothes. She’d seen such well-made clothing before, in the big cities. The kind of stuff rich and leisurely UN personnel—or transportees who’d sold their souls—wore to be comfortable in the unforgiving heat and humidity of the Balboa Colony.

Mitzi’s mother, Helen, had mounted her escopeta, and had it squarely aimed at the leader’s head. Rather, it was aimed squarely at the young man who was at the front. Whether or not he was the leader appeared to be in question. They didn’t seem to notice Mitzi as she trudged across the beach, kicking sand in her wake. Two cholo boys—Felix, aged ten, and Rafael, who had just turned eleven—both still too young to join the fighting men in the jungle, stood off to her right, bows drawn and arrows nocked. Their loincloth-clad grandfathers covered the kneeling men from the other side.

Would the gringos be so scared if they’d known that the muzzle loaders the old men had on them were probably loaded with too-wet powder? Or that her mother’s shotgun likely held her last two shells? At least the boys were good with their arrows, as a number of wild turkeys and other tasty birds could attest.

“We’re here to help,” Golden Boy said.

“Sure you are,” her mother said, leading with the escopeta. “We’ve heard that before.”

Golden Boy stared into the double barrels. Whatever he was about to say caught in his throat.

“Mostly from those who say they come to do good,” her mother continued, her voice full of menace. “Somehow they’re the only ones who come out doing well, and it’s by helping themselves.”

For an overlong moment, only the sound of pounding surf, stirring wind, and the occasional hoot of a distant monkey could be heard.

“Ma’am,” the tall, dark-haired gringo said. “We’re from Desperation Bay. The Lansing Colony. Let me show you.” His hand drifted from behind his head.

Her mother took a step back, placing herself out of Golden Boy’s reach, and swung the escopeta toward Tall and Dark. His hand shot right back, lacing itself tight.

Without taking her gaze off him, her mother said, “Mitzi. Check the boat.”

Mitzi circled wide, keeping her distance. She caught her mother’s gaze as she crossed into the surf. And I thought Mom was scary when she was pissed at me.

Froth and a frond of Terra Novan seaweed tugged at Mitzi’s feet as she pushed an oar aside and cautiously leaned over to get a better look. A single wooden crate rested within.

“The crate’s not locked,” Tall and Dark said. “I can—”

“Shut up, Juan,” Golden Boy said.

Mitzi grabbed the hull and vaulted into the boat, landing with a thud that barely rocked it. Two metal latches held the crate’s lid in place. She popped them both and lifted.

The scent of gun oil billowed upward, overpowering the saltiness of the sea, the stench of fear, the earthiness of the jungle. Six bolt action rifles—honest-to-God-as-far-as-she-could-tell modern arms—rested on carved wooden supports. With trembling hands she touched one. Small boxes lined the crate. She pulled one up and fumbled it open.

Ammunition. Thousands of rounds by the look of it.

A treasure trove. Life. Freedom. Liberty.

“We have more,” Juan said. “Dozens of crates. A thousand rounds for each rifle.” Eager blue eyes and the hint of a smile sent a wave of heat right into her face. She said a quick prayer, thanking God not just for the crate and its contents, but for masking her blush with Hecate’s silver light.

“Mitzi, what is it?”

“Umm, Mom, you’re going to want to see this for yourself.”

***

Excerpt, “Bellona’s Gift” by Monalisa Foster, Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation ed. by Tom Kratman, Baen Books, Available 8/6/19

*eARC are advanced copies, issued before the final round of copyediting. They are not full versions of the final product.

Story and Characters: Love-hate affairs across cultures

Earlier this month I was introduced to the most successful German-language musical of all time, Elisabeth das Musical.

This fictionalized account of the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria has been translated into seven languages and seen by over ten million, although apparently never in the United States. It made me wonder why, since it has been successful not just in Germany, but Hungary, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. In fact, the cross-cultural adaptations are worth a study in themselves. Here is a multi-language compilation of the prologue. I’m particularly fond of the Japanese costuming. And here is the international trailer with an English introduction.

Personally, I love a good anti-hero and in this case that would be Death, not Elisabeth, the heroine of this story.

Having grown up in a culture similar to the one that Elisabeth grew up in, I’d like to share my take on this story.

Know then, that for most of history, people did not marry for romantic love. Most of those who ruled didn’t (I’m sure there were exceptions). The peasants, shop keepers, and nobles didn’t either, although they had, perhaps more freedom in that regard, depending on the time period, etc.

Today, we live in a culture rich enough to allow us to casually enter into marriage based on romantic love, with less thought given to the economics involved, than in the past. All it takes in most places in the US, is a drive down to City Hall or a Justice of the Peace, the payment of a fee, and you are married. Most people are free to fall in love and marry just for that. Whether it lasts or not is another matter. So, go into this knowing, that that was not the case in Elisabeth’s time, and it is not the case in most of the world even today.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generation in Communist Romania certainly thought of marriage in terms of economics, despite it being the 20th Century. Nobody cared about love. What did they care about?

Does he have a good, stable job?
Will he be able to support a wife?
Will he be able to support a family?
Is he husband material in other ways?
Is she wife material?
Can she have children?
What kind of mother will she be?
Do undesirable traits and behavior run in his or her family?
Can the families get along?

Living as part of an extended family that were always in your business, did not allow an unmarried man or woman the freedom to just fall for someone and call it done. Even if the respective families couldn’t stop you from marrying, they could certainly withdraw and refuse support, and often did. It was also not that unusual for the older generation (the grandparents’) to be responsible for child-rearing, and for younger cousins and sisters to be involved as well (as nannies and baby-sitters for girls must learn how to be mothers themselves some day), since the concept of a nuclear family was unknown.

And I can tell you without a doubt that the idea of living only for oneself, for one’s own selfish desire was not praiseworthy, was not encouraged, much less celebrated. In contrast, today, there are plenty of young men and women who pursue “their bliss” well into their thirties, often as a result of parental generosity.

Elisabeth (as portrayed in this musical) is in many ways a contemporary embodiment of what we so often see today. She is raised in an ideal environment, which, while desirable, does not reflect the reality of the world. One moment she swears off marriage for the freedom to do whatever she wants. The next, she’s fallen in love (at first sight no less) with the Emperor of Austria (a man intended for her older sister).

Then when she does have children, they are taken away from her to be raised by her mother-in-law. She fights to get them back, but then abandons them in retaliation for her husband’s unfaithfulness. Now, I realize that some of this is being done for story reasons, and that’s fine. Conflict, shattered expectations, and a character arc all demand it. Otherwise we’d have no Story, or at least not this story, and it is THIS story that is compelling.

Elisabeth sacrifices everyone (including her beloved son) for her own freedom, while at the same time enjoying an unearned material wealth. Audiences are drawn in and cheer on her declaration that she belongs only to herself.

While it’s interesting, and entertaining to watch the character arc, the love triangle between Elisabeth, her husband, and Death personified (and yes, I enjoyed the heck out of this play–I watched the German and Hungarian versions–and it’s in the “watch again” bin) there were so many times when I wanted to reach out and strangle her and shout “You are such a selfish, silly <insert expletive>!” Then I take a deep breath and remind myself that it’s a Story, it’s meant to be entertainment, and I should just enjoy it.

Which leads to “Why am I willing to watch this again, when I don’t particularly like Elisabeth as a person?” Yes, Mark Seibert as Death makes up for a lot, but he’s not on the stage that long. And it’s not just Seibert’s portrayal of Death, even though I’d jump at the chance to go see him on stage even if that meant actually going back to Europe. Kim Junsu’s portrayal of Death in the Korean version is just as good, if not better.

It’s the characters, stupid! Plot, logic, and inconsistencies matter not when the characters have you in their grip, just like with a book you read again and again, even though you know not just the ending, but every plot point along the way. It’s why I’m on a mission to watch the Japanese and Russian versions as well, provided I can find them.

Even the language barrier was not enough to dampen my enjoyment and I’m not a fan of theater in general. The fact that it was in a foreign language made it more interesting. I really admire the translators since they had to translate not just the words, but make the syllables fit, and oh, by the way, some of it still rhymes. Think of it this way. In English, “I” is one syllable; same in German, Hungarian, and Russian. But in Japanese, “I” is “watashi(-wa)” which is three or four, in Korean it’s “naneun” also three. From what I saw of the subtitles, they did it while preserving context in most cases. It’s shown particularly well here, in a multi-language compilation featuring several of the actresses portraying Elisabeth during the 20th Anniversary Tribute. Notice how the song smoothly flows from one language to the other (I identified German, Dutch, Korean, and Japanese. Finnish might also have been in there, although I didn’t verify it).

As a writer, I also appreciate how well the Story (not the plot) delivered a highly satisfying ending.

When it was all over, I asked myself, was this a romance (i.e. it had a happy ending) or was it a tragedy? And the answer is, it was both. The climax was a tragedy, but the denouement was a happily ever after. Yeah, that’s right. THIS and the compelling characters is why Elisabeth das Musical is such a hit.

Now I’m off to add “learn more about the Habsburg Empire” to my ever-growing list of stuff I’ll probably never get around to. I really do wish they’d have spent more time on this part of history when I was going to school.

One final thing. The story shows the rising nationalism of the time period. I believe it is historically accurate. If you’re going to get offended by the appearance of National Socialism and its anti-semitism (slogans, symbols, etc), despite their portrayal as the bad guys, you might want to skip this.

Random musings on Romance and The Terminator

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I know it’s only January. But I’m nowhere near as bad as the grocery stores that were selling Christmas candy alongside Valentine’s candy and St. Patrick’s day candy, so bear with me.

I wouldn’t say I’m a huge Romance reader, i.e. it’s been some time since I’ve read a Harlequin novel of any kind. So, some of what I’m about to say comes from distant memories of it and some of it comes from the excellent material from the Genre Structure class I took (Psst, it’s really great and if you want to learn more about genre conventions, I can’t recommend it enough. In fact, all of WMG’s classes are top notch).

A lot of writers take pride in pushing the boundaries of genre, refusing to be constrained by it. Indie publishing has turned genre mixing into some sort of bloodsport though, where anything goes, which is fine to an extent.

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Characterization and Word Choice

One of the gripes I hear most from writers is about the challenge of making characters sound different, i.e. giving them each an individual voice. Let’s explore the subject, shall we?

One way of making your characters sound different is to give them an accent. And this can certainly work, as long as you use their brogue or twang sparingly, like you would spice. Add too much and it becomes distracting gibberish that’s hard to parse out.

The other way is to change their syntax. But don’t go all Jar-Jar on us. One of the best examples of syntax usage is R. M. Meluch’s character Dr. Mo Shah.

Dr. Shah’s voice sounded again from the intercom. “Captain? May I be having a word with you?” Confidentially, Mo Shah’s tone added.

“Oh. These are not being signs of slaughter. These are being medical communications. Physicians conferring with each other, I am believing.”

“He did not pass the drug scan,” Dr. Shah reported.

Farragut pursed his lips. Spoke at last: “What’s he doing?”

“The whole pharmacy,” Mo answered. “And the R&D lab.”

The Myriad: Tour of the Merrimack #1

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Movie Cheats: A Perfect Getaway (Spoilers Included)

A Perfect Getaway is a 2009 movie starring Milla Jovovich, Chris Hemsworth, and Timothy Olyphant. I was also promised Gerard Butler.

The storyline reads:

For their honeymoon, newlyweds Cliff and Cydney head to the tropical islands of Hawaii. While journeying through the paradisaical countryside the couple encounters Kale and Cleo, two disgruntled hitchhikers and Nick and Gina, two wild but well-meaning spirits who help guide them through the lush jungles. The picturesque waterfalls and scenic mountainsides quickly give way to terror when Cliff and Cydney learn of a grisly murder that occurred nearby and realize that they’re being followed by chance acquaintances that suspiciously fit the description of the killers. (Source: IMDB)

It took $14M to make and grossed $15M in the USA. Despite the eye candy (there is some breathtaking scenery, and yes, I mean both kinds) and a lot of potential, it is a mediocre movie at best.

It’s been out like nine years. Why bother?

Well, someone suggested that I watch it and just before I got around to watching it, some of us were having a discussion on Facebook about how it’s easy to spot writers that are NOT prolific readers, but rather prolific movie watchers. So it seemed apropos to take this mediocre film and demonstrate what that means, i.e. when a writer is first and foremost, a movie watcher, rather than a reader.

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Equality:A Short Story (warning: graphic content and dangerous ideas)

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“You call that a dick?” a strange, distant voice said.

A flash broke through the veil of crimson pain. The smell of hot metal, burning sawdust and dirt scorched its way down Libby’s throat. An awful ringing swelled in her ears. And then … silence. Silence and darkness.

***

February 25, 2036

Libra Baingana adored the beauty of the sweeping arches that circled this part of “The South’s Most Romantic City.” Despite the lack of lighting and the lateness of the hour—it was past midnight—the arches gave the perimeter of this heavenly little district a distinctly positive and empowering atmosphere. Much better than walls or fences.

The cab came to a stop in the turnabout, alongside the “Welcome to Clinton—A Peace Enclave” sign. The brand-new, exclusive, inclusive community boasted a plan optimized for walking and cycling. The cab driver could take his vehicle no further. Only electric vehicles making deliveries that benefited the entire community were allowed on the few streets wide enough for cars.

Libby swiped her watch across the billing scanner. Ordinarily she prided herself in giving drivers a generous ten-percent tip if they went above and beyond. Sometimes she’d add a bit more if they were willing to listen to her sing the praises of the Enclave. But she’d not opted to sing tonight—the driver, a man with the boring name of “Joe” looked about as MAGA as they made them. Had she had a choice, she’d have called for another driver, but her app said none would be available until morning. It would be better for everyone if she invested his tip in some carbon credits instead. Besides, with gas as cheap as it was nowadays, there really should’ve been a discount, but greedy people like him insisted on overcharging those who needed their services.

She slammed the door shut and stepped away, expecting him to peel out and leave her choking on a cloud of carcinogens. Instead, he eased that criminally oversized four-seater into gear and drove the five-mile-per-hour speed limit all the way out as if he didn’t care at all, which he wouldn’t if he habitually overcharged. Not tipping had clearly been the right decision.

She took a deep, satisfied breath and started walking. It was an easy twenty minutes to her cottage even in heels and a dress. She set out across the community park with its exercise-encouraging footpaths. When the motion-activated solar lights failed to keep up with her pace, she slowed.

The glass of the framed certificate in her bag rattled a bit so she pulled it closer. She couldn’t wait to get home and put it on her wall, right above the ranking belts. They were like a rainbow—white, yellow, gold, orange, green, purple, brown and red. The final rank, black, was the reason she was out so late. She’d gone out to celebrate with the rest of her karate friends. But none of them lived in the Enclave. And her Enclave friends didn’t care for her karate friends’ violent ways. Which was completely ridiculous. There wasn’t a violent bone in their bodies—or hers. Karate was about discipline and conditioning. She loved moving through the forms. She’d even sparred. It wasn’t that hard and she’d only been bruised a couple of times. Karate had shown her the power within her own body. It had shown her that she was as strong as anyone else. Fierce. Independent. Equal.

Something caught the edge of her vision as she passed the communal composting drums. The small building that housed one of the park’s restrooms was up ahead, its blue, police call-box shining like a beacon. Usually she loved the Enclave’s energy-consciousness—it felt a bit like celebrating Earth Day every day—but the stupid path was so poorly lit, she’d have felt safer with a pair of light-up shoes. The hairs on the back of her neck stood, insisting that something was wrong.

Stop it.

Libby took a deep breath and shook off the trepidation. That MAGA cab driver had really gotten to her. She walked faster. In just fifteen minutes, she’d be in her own cottage, enjoying the—

A hulking silhouette stepped out of the dark and into her path. She spun and bolted without thinking.

The blow to the back of her head sent her reeling.

She dropped to her knees. Her palm scraped the sidewalk as she pushed up with one hand and drove her elbow back. It connected with a meaty thud and bounced off a wall of muscle and bone. There wasn’t even a grunt.

Fingers bit into the back of her neck, shoving her forward again as her voice caught in her throat. Freshly laid sod cushioned her landing.

She twisted and kicked under the pounding of piston-like fists.

They just kept coming, driving each and every breath from her body.

“Stop.” Blood gurgled into her throat.

Her arms were a meager shield. Pain exploded from her cheek. Her nose. Her jaw.

She fumbled for the watch with its SOS app, but it was gone.

His grip nearly yanked her scalp off—

“Don’t.”

—as he dragged her across the grass.

Light seared through swelling eyes.

She’d lost her heels. Her hose had torn. And then they were off and she was bare against the tiles.

Crimson dripped into her eyes, blurring her vision.

Straddling her hips, he looked down at her through a black morphmask.

She flailed under him going for his face. It was out of reach.

His hands wrapped around her throat.

She tried to break his hold, wedging her arms between his, but he was too strong. She punched from the side. He blocked with his elbows.

Adrenaline-powered knees pounded into his back. Once. Twice.

He didn’t buckle.

He didn’t budge.

The morphmask closed in until the reek of his breath was all she could smell.

He smacked her head into the tile. The world swam around her. Something wound around her neck and then the smell didn’t matter anymore.

All that mattered was air. The air she wasn’t getting. She could no longer feel the harsh unforgiving tile beneath her, could no longer see the uncaring light around her.

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Smashwords Interview

Want to know what makes me tick? Why I write? Smashwords asks thirteen questions about me and my writing.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
What is your writing process?
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
How do you approach cover design?
What are your three favorite books, and why?
What do you read for pleasure?
What is your e-reading device of choice?
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
When did you first start writing?
What’s the story behind your latest book?
What motivated you to become an indie author?
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

Click HERE to see the interview answers.

If you haven’t done so already, SIGN UP for my newsletter and get announcement of new publications and a free short story that I’m releasing on 11/5/18.

The 10,000-hour Rule

I had two questions a while back from an aspiring writer. The first one was, “I’ve got thirty-thousand words written. Should I start looking for an agent?” I hate these kinds of questions because I can’t tell them what they want to hear. So after giving them what I figured was the correct answer, the follow up question was, “Okay, so once a writer finishes the book and gets an agent, how long before they can quit their day-job.” I admit, I was a bit dumb-struck and while my brain was going “Let me break out my divination toolkit” and refusing to come up with something encouraging, I finally settled on “I have no idea.”

I still don’t have an answer (that fortune-telling kit I bought is pure bunk; don’t waste your money), but I do have some thoughts on writers, writing, and their expectations.

So here goes…

Probably like most people, I was introduced to the 10,000-hour concept via Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. (If you haven’t read it, it’s a pretty quick read and well worth the time).

To condense it to its most basic form, the premise for the 10,000-hour rule is that it takes ten-thousand hours of work/practice to become an “expert.” The specifics of what constitutes “work” or “practice” or an “expert” seem to have inspired a bevy of criticisms since the book came out in 2008.

I ran a quick search on “ten thousand hours rule” this morning and was surprised to find the links “debunking” the concept preceded a link to the book itself. My understanding is that search results are ordered by popularity which suggests that people have been far more interested in the articles “debunking” the concept than not. To be honest, I’m not surprised. Who wants to be told they’ll have to put in 10,000 hours of work on anything.

Yet, the articles didn’t so much debunk as get into the nitty-gritty of what constituted practice, work, and expertise, as well as pointing out that there are physical traits and aptitude that will skew the results (No duh, experts, thank you. Honestly, where would we be without you.)

Ten years after the book came out, I still recall the example given, in that if you work a 40-hour week (and spend all 40 of those hours actually doing your job, rather than in meetings, travel, etc.) it would take 250 weeks, or FIVE years (50-week year) to become an expert at your job. I remember this because it paralleled my own work experience. It’s about how long it took to unlock that “expert” achievement level, and if you switched jobs you usually ended up resetting the clock or moving it back a bit.

Then Gladwell wrote about what it would take to get to the 10,000-hours in FOUR years: an extra ten hours per week (50 hours x 50 weeks x 4 years=10K). Again, these numbers stick with me because working as a salaried engineer, it seemed that we were always working 50- or 60-hour weeks. Problem was, of course, that those ten or twenty extra hours weren’t always “work” in the sense that we were doing our jobs. Mostly I’m casting the stink-eye at meetings that could have accomplished their goal by memo and various time-wasters like mandatory company training, i.e. HR meddling and getting in the way of doing work.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, I’m always stunned by the number of people who proclaim that they’ve been writers for N years, as if that means something. It’s a totally meaningless number, unless “year” in this case means 2000-work-hours, and each one of those work hours represents actual writing or something directly related to improving your writing skills.

It does not include research, except when you take said research and figure out how to use it in the actual writing process. It does not include marketing (which is promotion of your writing, but isn’t writing). I would argue that it includes editing, if we’re talking about editing that involves implementing editorial requests (in this case an editor NOT being a person YOU pay, but a person who your publisher pays). I would also say that includes any activity that goes towards developing your writing skillset, such as continuing education. This could include a class, a book related to the craft or skills of writing, taking a book you enjoyed and studying how that author did what he did.

Most writers are part-time writers. They have day-jobs. There’s nothing wrong with this. It does however mean that if you only have ten hours a week to devote to writing, that it’s going to take twenty years to get to that 10,000 hours. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, well-connected, or already in the industry in some other form, you’ve set yourself on a long, slow path to success.

There’s a faster track, a ten year one, if you double up to twenty hours a week, stick to it, and don’t veer off of it.

Most writers veer off the path at one point or another. Life gets in the way. Things happen.

You’ve won the lottery if you can devote forty to sixty hours a week to developing your writing skill set. You could actually achieve that four- or five-year plan as if you had a job. But it’s still a four- or five-year plan. It’s not a one-year plan. It’s not 30,000-words and “Should I start looking for an agent now?”

Hard work is key. So are realistic expectations. Becoming a writer is a marathon, not a spring, although sometimes it does feel like you’re sprinting the entire time.

 

My writing life: August 2018

August turned out to be a busy month. Far busier than I had expected.

On August 17th, I found out that my story for Tom Kratman‘s upcoming Carreraverse anthology (Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation) made the cover. Call me whacky, but the donkeys are my favorite. When I was researching mule trains for “Bellona’s Gift” (my story) I learned that mule trains actually consist of a bell mare (who leads the train, because all mules have a horse as a mother and will instinctively follow her), the mules, and a donkey. Unlike mules, donkeys stand and fight. They are the equine version of a guard dog and I just couldn’t resist having one, not just for the sake of realism, but because any animal with strong protective instincts has a special place in my heart.

Also on the cover, several elements from the Carreraverse–a trixie chasing a moonbat, and progressivines. What a fun universe to play in. It was such a great honor to be included.

It was an even greater honor–and shock–to find out that I will be making my Baen debut with my name on the cover. I found this out at the Baen Roadshow at DragonCon. Even with a photographic evidence (snapped in haste) it’s still hard to believe. Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation is set for release in August 2019.

On August 20th, I released my first self-published work of fiction, my hard SF novella, Promethea Invicta. It’s available not just on Amazon, but on Kobo, iBooks, Scribd, Nook, and Smashwords.

Shortly after releasing Promethea Invicta I got a request for an audiobook version of it. One of my writer friends (and a great sci-fi author), Karl K. Gallagher, who had recorded his own audiobooks, was kind enough to point me in the right direction. I devoured Making Tracks: A Writer’s Guide to Audiobooks (and How to Produce Them): Second Edition in a day and started experimenting with Audacity (software) via some YouTube tutorials. I found out that the best place to read was my closet.

And you guys thoughts that writers just wrote, didn’t you? I wish that were true. We wear many hats. Thinking back, I had to learn how to do layouts for my manuscripts, write ad copy, sales copy, blurbs, and use several platforms to sell my books. So there are definitely times when marketing eats up a lot of your precious writing time. Then there’s self-promotion and the introvert’s kryptonite–networking.

On August 28th, a wonderful writer’s milestone happened: I got another rejection for my novelette-length female space samurai story, called Featherlight. The reason this is a milestone is because I didn’t even blink. In fact, I’d even forgotten I’d sent it out or where. Rather than feel disappointed, I was looking at it as an opportunity to expand it past the constraints of most pro-rate magazines which tend to limit the word count to between 15K and 17K words.

Then as I was preparing for DragonCon I found out that eight outfits was nowhere near enough and packed another. Or two. This was my very first DragonCon and while I had a vague idea for what it was, it turned out to be far more intense. Only 80K people. No problem. My goal for next year is to attend as a pro.

Several other wonderful things happened at DragonCon, but I can’t yet tell you what they were. Not yet.

Which brings me back to why you might want to subscribe to my newsletter. First, I won’t flood your inbox with a ton of useless stuff, just relevant updates, maybe 2-3 times a month. Second, the social media platform I’m most active on, Facebook, suppresses content. Just because you’ve liked my author page on Facebook, doesn’t mean that you’ll see the latest updates in a timely manner or at all, since Facebook makes its money selling ads. If you only occasionally use Facebook, chances are you’ll miss my posts. So, opt-in to my newsletter (it’s really easy; just fill in the newsletter opt-in in the upper left hand corner). To quote a memorable movie line, “It’s the only way to be sure.”

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