Thursday, January 28, 2010

I Knew Today Stunk

This morning, I got into a knock-down-drag-out fight with my four-year-old. It started small—"NO!"— and ended up with me dragging a garbage can into the kitchen and throwing away toys, one after another, until he saw that he was, indeed, not the one in charge.

Then I had an editor go ballistic on me because they basically hired me to report a story in the middle of a natural disaster. I don't want to get into too much detail, but it was like the lesser equivalent of going to Haiti right now to report on the brick-making business. Just a bad, impossible, stupid, rudderless idea. So he's pissed, and I'm pissed because I've poured enough time into this story that I'll earn about $3 an hour and it still stinks.

And then I just read that J.D. Salinger died. Now, I'm no Catcher in the Rye fanatic, but I suspect like a lot of boys, I read it at the perfect moment, when I was most open to its nihilism. I read it on the train to Chicago, traveling alone and still a teenager myself. I completely related to Holden Caulfield.

So there it is. One. Crap. Day.

When does Happy Hour start again?

The Overlords of Japanese Porn

Seem to have discovered my blog. I looked at some old posts and saw that I had up to 50 comments that appeared to be randomly generated links to Japanese porn. So does anyone know how I can ban certain IPs or commenters on Blogspot? Does anyone else have this problem? Or do some of you not consider it a problem at all?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Type Fast

It's true. I type really fast. At the height of my typing prowess, I once clocked about 90 words per minute. I think I might have been past 100 wpm, but my memory is kind of foggy on the details, so who knows. But anyway, the point is that I type really fast, and it's not at all unusual for people to say, "Boy, you type fast" when they first hear or see me type.

Typing fast makes my job as a freelancer possible. There are lots of times when, as a freelancer, you're not really "writing" so much as copying quotes, reinterpreting data or paraphrasing. In these situations, typing fast is a Godsend. I'm not quite sure how much this little skill is worth to me in terms of hard dollars, but it's definitely worth something.

Here's the problem: I used to think that because I typed fast, I also wrote fast.


Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In fact, I don't write fast at all. I can generate a lot of words quickly, but in terms of finished product? Not fast. I might have to revise 45 times, and lately, I've gotten in the habit of STOPPING WRITING when I hit a scene I'm unsure of and just sitting on it and thinking. Then thinking some more. So before I start typing at all, there might be 3 or 4 days worth of thought in that scene. Not quick when you're talking about 500 words.

This idea that I write fast—persistent as it was—has been a pretty major stumbling block for me because it was all wrapped up in pride and didn't allow much room for revisions. My second novel was 120,000 words. I wrote (typed) it in 7 weeks. Some days I cranked out 5,000 or 7,000 words. Problem was, the novel was dreck. I often say that part of my evolution as a writer has been developing my process, but I think what I really mean is that I've been discovering what kind of writer I ACTUALLY am, as opposed to what kind of writer I THINK I am.

So ... what do you think? Are you holding onto any beliefs about yourself as a writer that might 1) be untrue and 2) actually holding you back? Tough question, right? Because answering that question is half the battle when it comes to becoming a better writer.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Strong Women

They say that every person, no matter the gender, has both male and female energy. I know this is true in my case ... I don't care about organized sports, I don't give a rat's ass about cars or motorcycles, and I do a whole lotta cooking and gardening. On the other hand, I do have a pretty serious crush on power tools and few things give me as much satisfaction as rough carpentry, especially if ladders and eye protection are involved. So you know, I go both ways.

It's a challenge, I think, to write an accurate character of the opposite gender, at least for me. I've said it before—ladies, i love you and all, but you confuse me. I don't understand how anyone can take Oprah seriously. I honestly don't. And the dense, predatory, tearful, supportive, heartfelt, shallow politics of your average cheerleading team or sewing circle would likely reduce me to a quivering mess. You operate on levels of which I'm only dimly aware.

So I'm writing a female now. She's about 15 and she's a thief. She's an orphan who claims she has no parents because all of her early memories are too horrible to confront. As I'm writing her, I'm thinking about what makes a strong female character. She could be a bad-ass—beating up guys, smart and sassy, brash. But I think that's a bit of a cop-out. That kind of ass-kicking Bruce Lee stuff is more a sign of typical male strength than female. The strong women I know are defined instead by consistency in the face of pressure and emotional and moral courage. And I know this is a stereotype in some quarters, but they are not self-centered. They have figured out a way to lift everyone around them, even as they lift themselves.

Maybe that's one of the features of female strength: it's extroverted, as opposed to introverted. By this I mean that male strength tends to be inwardly focused. Guys are strong when they crush the competition, gather tremendous resources to themselves, carve out their niche in the world and defend it against all comers. Women are strong when they are embedded in a complex web of relationships, feeding and being fed by this web and improving the lives of everyone in it (including their own—this cannot be underestimated because it seems that lots of women fall prey to the idea of doing for everyone else what they refuse to do for themselves).

But I'm just guessing ... I want to get this girl right. So I'm curious, what do you think makes a strong woman?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Harvest Begins ...

Some guys post pictures of chicks in the underwear (that's right, Mark, I'm looking at you). I post pictures of firm, rounded ... vegetables.

I call this one "A mixture of beefsteak, heirloom and hybrids in pink, red, and yellow":

And this one is "Still Life With Cabbage":

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thinking Commercial

If you haven't read it yet, there's a very interesting and long profile of James Patterson in the New York Times Magazine. Among other tidbits, the article says that 1 out of every 17 novels bought in the United States since 2006 was written by James Patterson; he writes up to nine books a year with a stable of coauthors who do the actual writing from his detailed outlines; he's had 35 NYT #1 best-sellers and 51 books that made the list; and he's ferociously in charge of his own career—he has been constantly pushing his publisher from day one to approach publishing like moviemaking, as a collaborative, branded business. If you believe the article, he single-handedly invented the blockbuster model that has come to dominate publishing.

James Patterson thinks commercially. His books "are not high art," he says, and he edits them between hardcover and softcover versions to respond to reader feedback and his own ideas. He cares less about sentences and more about stories, and although he himself reads "high brow" literature (he cited James Joyce as a favorite), he aims to write simple, fast stories with short chapter, short sentences, and short paragraphs. His characters are deliberately simple, and the books are heavy on violence, sexual themes, and action in a very conscious attempt to pull people through.

It took Patterson a while to develop this model. His first novel, published in 1976, was a more "literary" noir novel, with more complexity and less accessibility. It had moderate sales and didn't rise above the normal literary chatter. It took him a few books to get the hang of what he calls "popular fiction," by which he means books that are fun, fast, light, titillating, and written purely for sheer entertainment.

I once saw Patterson speaking, purely by accident, at a local bookstore. It was my lunch break, so I was hanging around the bookstore to get out of the office, and he happened to be there for a talk. So I hung around in the back and listened. There were perhaps 200 people there, and I clearly remember one thing he said: "If you want to write what's in your heart, go ahead. But you'll never get published."


So let's say there's a spectrum in the literary world. At one end, there's authors like Patterson, who write purely for audience enjoyment. They write commercial fiction, and they do it well. Millions of people love it. At the other end, there is Thomas Pynchon -- a book every fifteen years, a book so dense and loaded with meaning that it is sure to be studied for generations hence, but it will likely sell mediocre.

As writers, we have to locate ourselves along this spectrum somewhere. Is the goal to write fun books? Commercial books? To illuminate the human condition? To say something? To gain literary respect?

I've struggled myself on this one. I don't like the idea of writing books solely for sales, but I love the idea of writing for my audience. I admire literary books—I'm wild about Moby Dick—but I work very hard to make sure my own writing is simple, clean and quick. I think books have something to say, but I also love to get my hands on a story that rocks along and takes me for the ride. I thought The DaVinci Code was silly and poorly written with outrageous characters; I thought The DaVinci Code was a nearly perfectly executed thriller. I have no problem linking writing to money—I think anyone who does will have a hard time feeding themselves by writing—but I often write for free because I love it.

So ... where are you?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Suspense ...

In the comments to the last post, Jude got me thinking when he quoted Vonnegut's Rule #8 on writing:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I poked around the internets a bit to see what other writers have to say about suspense, and I found this quote from John Gardner, a famous writing teacher:

All true suspense, we have said, is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice.

I've always tended to think of suspense in the bomb-under-the-table sense. In other words, a function of action. There is a bomb; there is a timer. It will explode unless it is defused. But according to Gardner, suspense isn't action based at all--it is moral. Our suspense comes from watching a character make a hard choice, believing in that choice, and living with the consequences.

I see Gardner's point, because let's be honest, in the bomb-under-the-table scenario, is there really any suspense? I mean, we KNOW it's not going to go off or it would kill the main character. Is there really any question in a serial killer book that the former alcoholic cop with a heart of gold is going to catch the bad guy? Isn't it really just about process?

In the books I'm working on now, the real suspense (the moral suspense) doesn't truly come into play until later in the three-book series. My main character has to make a decision that will change the rest of his life one way or the other. Early in the first novel—in fact, in the scene I wrote about yesterday—another main character suspects this will happen, and she says, "You might have a terrible choice to make. You need to be prepared."

From this point, the books are chiefly concerned with outlining and exploring that "terrible choice." It's the point of the whole series.

Will this work as suspense? I don't know. I do know that I'm not completely settled with the choice the character eventually makes because it will close other doors; he will gain a great deal, but he will also lose a great deal. But this is also a book about growing up, and that's what growing up involves: making choices that simultaneously expand and limit our options. It's often painful. I will never be a tropical ecologist, and that still breaks my heart just a little bit.

So, I'm curious, how do you define suspense? Do your characters defuse bombs or make terrible choices? What's the difference?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Show Me Some Leg

All day long, I've been wrestling with this question ... how much leg should I show?

I'm almost halfway into my WIP now, and I'm at a crucial scene. Two main characters are sitting before a fire, talking. One of them knows everything; the other one knows nothing. So I've been wondering, wrestling really, with how much backstory I should let slip here. How much should I give away? How much leg should I show?

It's an important question, not least because, before I wrote this book, I almost wrote a book about this book. That's how intricate and involved the backstory and world is. It's a tightly bound world, with rules and precedent, and a whole history. And I'm more than a little enamored of this world. It's just so ... exciting and big.

My impulse is to spill the beans. I can't help it. Ask my crit partners. Throughout this book, every time they get to the end of a scene, I get all excited and say, "So do you wanna know what that all means? Because it's pretty cool. That's not some accidental slip of the tongue there. There's a whole story there! See, because what's about to happen is—"

And they say, "No! No! Don't tell us!"

Then I tell them anyway.

So all day, I sat around, thinking about how much I should let go right now. And finally I decided: absolutely no more than is minimally necessary, and finally, only the stuff that makes sense to my character. She has an agenda, and even if she knows everything, she's only going to say what's important to her right at that moment.

This question—what to tell, when—has everything to do with pacing. For every question I answer, I want to raise two others. For every mystery I solve, a new one needs to replace it. The books I can't set down—even if they're poorly written—are the ones where I must know the answers to all my questions, when the author pulls me by the nose all the way through. So even though it goes against every strain of my big-mouthed writerly self, I'm hoping to keep this scene short, sweet and simple.

Perhaps at the end of the day, the same thing that makes a striptease effective also works in writing novels: only hint at the good stuff. Leave 'em wanting more.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cleaning Up, by Jude Hardin

By 2:00 A.M. everyone except the enormously-fat Claude Barlow had left the party. Everyone except Claude and me, that is.

Or is it Claude and I? I can never remember. Miss Apel, my seventh-grade English teacher, tried and tried to drill all that crap into my head, but it never seemed to stick. Poor Miss Apel. She would get so frustrated sometimes. Her eyes would bulge and her face would turn the shade of a ripe tomato, and she would say, “Gordon Malicat, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times…” And she had. She had told me a million times. But it still never seemed to stick. It’s not that I’m stupid or anything; I just get preoccupied sometimes. I’m not stupid. She thought I was stupid, but I’m not.

I stabbed Miss Apel to death and threw her body in a dumpster.

I used a wooden ruler, one end wrapped with electrical tape and the other sharpened to a point on the sidewalk. It took some persistence to penetrate the flesh deeply enough, but I was strong for my age. I went at it like a roofer hammering shingles, really putting my shoulder into it. A knife or an ice pick or something would have been easier, but she was one of them, and it had to be wood.

It had to be wood.

Anyway, all that’s ancient history. That was back in seventh grade, when I was still just a kid. I’m eighteen now, and I have my own place and everything.

Claude Barlow owns the Mexican restaurant where I bus tables. Prick. Last night, before the restaurant closed and the private party started, he called me into the bar while I was trying to finish a four-top practically painted with salsa. He motioned for me to have a seat on the stool next to him.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he said.

That was the kiss of death. Whenever Mr. Barlow called you into the bar, motioned for you to have a seat on the stool next to him, and then offered to buy you a drink, it meant he was going to fire your ass. New Year’s Eve or not. I tried to play it cool, even though I knew what was coming.

“I’m only eighteen,” I said.

“Oh. Well, listen. Remember when I talked to you a while back about speeding up your actions? About getting out of here on time?”

“Can I help it if a bunch of filthy slobs eat here?”

“Yeah. Well, Gordon, I’m afraid we’ve decided to let you go.”

“Let me go where?” I was in smartass mode by this point.

“You can get your final paycheck next Friday.”

I untied my apron, wadded it up, threw it on the floor on my way out.

I had my own little party in my apartment, just me and a pint of Jack. I watched the ball drop on TV. I still had that good old ruler from seventh grade, hidden in the bottom of my underwear drawer. I got it out. He was one of them, all right. No doubt about it.

At 1:30 I drove back to the restaurant. The lot was empty except for Claude Barlow’s Cadillac. I parked by the service entrance. The metal door back there hadn’t been secured for the night, and the alarms hadn’t been set. I walked right in.

Claude was on the black leather settee in his office, passed out drunk. It looked like someone had propped him up in a sitting position, maybe to keep him from drowning in his own puke. He wore a silver party hat and there was a helium-filled balloon tied to his left pinky.

I picked up a half-empty flute of champagne and splashed it on his face. His eyes startled open, as if a switch had been flipped.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I said.

He never got the chance to answer.

When I got home I washed the ruler and put it back in my underwear drawer. You never know when you might need something like that. You never know when you might run into another one of them.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lost and Found, by Natasha Fondren

The New Year’s Eve party had grown small. The music rocked on, but the DJ had retired, letting a playlist do his work for a handful of diehards who still danced under the spinning disco ball. A few children were left, screaming and running around the empty tables.

He sat alone in the next room, where the shy and the uncool and the too cool had escaped to, where there was less pressure to have fun.

He should gather his family, make polite goodbyes. But he sat, slumped on the couch, staring at his belly. It was obscene. When had it gotten so big? The music’s vibrations rippled through the mound of fat, and he imagined it wobbled a little with each beat.

It sat on his frame like a blinking neon sign: fat, failure, fat, failure, fat, failure.

Was a time he’d had muscles there. Abs. If he went way back, he could remember a six-pack, back from when he’d broken the school record for discus.

His throwing arm twitched, as if it remembered the sport it hadn’t played for twenty-five years. He closed his eyes, and he could feel the discus tucked under his hand, the step-step-step, spin-spin-spin, and then the exhilaration as he released the discus, watched it fly down the field.

He’d been a winner, then. Second in the state. Silver trophy and everything. The determination had been easy; the focus, second nature. The strength had required little effort.

He looked down at his arm, almost expecting to see the brawny muscles once again, but his arm hung limply from his shoulder, thick and flabby.

If he’d never gone to the bathroom—or the “little boy’s room,” as he’d quipped to those in the castoff room—he’d be having a good time with his kids right now, maybe chasing them around the empty tables as the wait staff cleaned up the party.

After he did his business, he headed towards the doorway, timing his exit so he’d be zipped up before he emerged, but he was still wrestling with it when he walked into the hallway. Damn thing was stuck. He ducked behind an unlit Christmas tree, grunting and puffing and tugging.

“He’s let himself go,” he heard. He froze, somehow instantly knowing his boss was talking about him. His fingers hovered over his prick. Or, as his wife called it, The Man.

“Johnny has no one to blame but himself,” she said.

His co-worker laughed. “Did you see that stupid hat he’s wearing?”

His boss’s boss had put the damned paper hat on his head. Show some company spirit, he’d said.

“Gotta cover that bald head with something. We’re firing him Monday,” his boss said. “I waited until after the holidays.”

As if this were a kindness, now that he’d spent the next two months’ salary on Christmas presents, Christmas parties, Christmas dinners, Christmas dresses, Christmas decorations, Christmas pictures, and even a Christmas outfit for the dog, for fuck’s sake.

Like a loser, he hid behind the tree. Twenty fucking years at the company. Fired. Because he’d “let himself go.”

After they were gone, he stumbled out to the party room, still numb. Stood dumbly as the employees got in a circle and announced their New Year’s resolutions, one by one. Some made it a joke, and everyone laughed. Some made suck-up-to-the-man resolutions, but everyone clapped and cheered anyway.

When they got to him, he couldn’t speak. He’d prepared. He’d planned his resolution carefully.

Fired, fired, fired.

Let himself go.

His boss prompted, “Johnny? What’s your resolution?” There was a mocking tone in her voice, as if everyone was in on the joke that he was getting the ax on Monday.

The pink slip.

The elastic on the party hat dug into the folds of his double chin. His wife glanced up from the game she was playing with their little boy.

What would she think when she found out?

The countdown began. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen, and now everyone was counting and clapping. Three, two, one, and the room erupted into Auld Lang Syne and hugs and cheering and toasting. Confetti swirled through the air; kids screamed and jumped up and down.

He stood alone, his zipper still down.


At one, his wife rounded up the kids, brought them to their father in the cold, bright room. He embarrassed her. He could see it on her face, the way she looked him up and down, then looked away so he wouldn’t see the disgust.

She hadn’t married him. She’d married the athlete she’d met in college. She’d married the ambitious go-getter who’d nailed his first interview and gotten the entry-level position all his friends envied, the man who burned with ambition and had success written all over him.

Now he embarrassed her.

At least he’d finally gotten the zipper up. His belly lifted as he breathed in, round and almost firm. Then he sighed, and it flattened, spilling over his sides.

All the best of himself, all gone.

He glumly stared at his belly. It was like the fat was a cancer, a huge tumor.

Fat, failure, fat, failure, fat, failure.

“Daddy! Daddy!”

He couldn’t even meet his daughter’s eyes. She jumped on his lap anyway, forcing a grunt from him. He absently stroked her hair, tucked it behind her ear.

She poked his belly. She pushed it with both hands, and it shloshed back and forth in wide waves.

He blinked fast, hoping his face wouldn’t crumple. He started to apologize for it. “Sweetheart, I’m—”

She giggled. She kissed him on the cheek, then rested her head on his offending belly, draping her arms in a hug that didn’t even reach halfway around his waist.

“It’s a pillow of pudding!” She laughed and squeezed, making it slosh again.

His son tried to squeeze on, but there wasn’t enough room. “I want Daddy’s pillow!”

“Wait for your turn,” his wife said.

And then his face did crumple. But he was laughing, too.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Balls, By Erica Orloff

“He used to feel my ass.”
“Your ass.”
“Yes, my ass.”
“Did you ever tell him to stop?”
“Look, Detective Garcia or whatever the hell your name is, if you were a single mother with three kids at home and your deadbeat ex hadn’t paid his child support in 14 months even though he bought his new girlfriend a set of 42D boobs, you’d let the jerk feel your ass, too. I needed that job.”
“I’m sorry.”
“You have no idea.”
“You’re right. I probably don’t. Okay, so he used to sexually harass you. Did anyone else in the company know about it?”
“Everyone knew about it. But he’s the president of the company’s son, and his damn sister is head of human resources. And for the record, it wasn’t just my ass. He pinched my boobs, too.”
“Did this happen often?”
“Every day. But only after lunch.”
“Why only after lunch?”
“Because he had a liquid lunch every day. And when he’s drunk? He’s a pervert. And worse than that, mean as a snake, though maybe being mean isn’t worse than being a pervert. They’re both pretty awful.”
“All right, so take me through tonight. The company Christmas party.”
“Well, Darlene from the sixth floor, she comes up to me and says Irv is completely out of control. He trapped her in the conference room, pulled up her skirt, pulled down her panties and whipped it out. I mean WHIPPED-IT-OUT. Disgusting, right?”
“Yes. And Darlene is in with Detective Jones in one of the other offices right now.”
“She’ll tell him. And another thing, I’ve seen it, too. It ain’t much to look at, but it has a distinguishing characteristic, if you understand what I’m saying, so that’ll be proof he really did whip it out. I can identify that sucker.”
“All right. Back to Darlene. Did he rape her?”
“No. She kneed him in the balls. And then he gets all in her face and says he’s going to fire her, even though he knows her husband got laid off. Her Patrick used to work in manufacturing in the other building. Anyway, she says to me that she’s going to fix Irv once and for all.”
“And how was she going to do that?”
“With the little blue pill. Viagra. She was going to slip a couple in his drink, all mashed up, and give him one of those 4-hour erections like they tell you about on the commercial.”
“I see.”
“You’re laughing.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“You’re smiling then. It is kind of funny, when you think about it.”
“So did she do it?”
“I guess it all depends.”
“Look, Detective Garcia, there’s a long line of people who wanted Irv dead. A long, long line. So I guess it all depends on whether that stiff in the hallway has . . . you know, a four-hour hard-on.”
“He’s been stabbed.”
“Then I guess it wasn’t Darlene.”
“Was it you?”
“Me? Nah, if I was going to do it, I planned on feeding him a little arsenic in his morning coffee each day.”
“And did you?”
“Nope. I just dreamed about it real hard.”
“All right then, Carla. Thank you for your time. We’ll contact you if we have any further questions.”
“By the way . . . what kind of knife was it?”
“By the looks of it, a kitchen knife.”
“Hmm. Like from the company cafeteria?”
“It was actually from the display of cheddar balls on the Christmas party buffet table.”
“Why are you laughing?”
“I’m not laughing.”
“You’re smiling then. Do you know who did it?”
“No, Detective Garcia. But let me put it to you this way. Those cheese balls were real popular tonight. I kind of wished I thought of it. Nice pearl handle on the knife, too.”
“And I bet about a hundred fingerprints. They were really tasty balls. Well . . . good night. I sure am gonna sleep well myself.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is That All There Is, by E. Flanigan

Ed stared at the big wooden door.

He rejected the entire premise of this party, but couldn't find a way to opt out. So for the time being, he chose nothing.

He looked around the room at the few people still hanging around, and they were clearly losers. A young woman chewed her cuticles on the sofa in the corner. An old man in his eighties studied a kitschy garage-sale painting on the wall as if it were a Van Gogh.

Ed knew he should already be gone, but each time he checked his internal compass, he found the needle spinning in circles. This place was a joke.

The purple fliers had first come to his attention back when the room was still full. He had noticed a crowd forming as Committee members handed them out, and from a distance the papers looked official. He rushed over to collect his, but the flier just said, “WELCOME!”

He turned to a young man standing next to him. “They needed a piece of paper to say that?” Ed was kidding, but the man looked nonplussed. The man turned the paper over and tapped on the back side.

“This is a party to celebrate you!” the flier said. “Please select a memory from your life. It is essential that you choose carefully, as the choice you make will determine your future placement.”

“Future placement? That sounds serious,” Ed said to no one in particular.

He turned again to the young man. “What do you make of this?” The man only shrugged.

Back when the group had arrived — twenty-five or thirty of them total — the Welcoming Committee greeted them with balloons and hats and noisemakers. Everyone threw confetti and tooted on horns, and someone opened a bottle of champagne.

Ed had been unimpressed. Maybe he’d had too much time to imagine what this would be like, but nevertheless, he’d expected more. It felt like a glorified New Year’s Eve party.

He turned to a lady next to him, a tall 50-something with short dark hair, and said, “Gee, they really pulled out all the stops.” He winked.

“Yes, isn’t this place classy?” she replied, eyeing the cheap wall paneling and 40-year-old furniture.

“It’s better than where I came from. I’ll give it that much.” Ed had laughed, and the lady had laughed, too. She seemed nice.

“How did you end up here?” Ed said.

The lady paused for a long moment. “Oh, breast cancer.” She said the words like they surprised her, and her face suddenly became dark, her thoughts shifting her features. Ed realized he’d made a mistake bringing it up. It was still too raw.

“That’s a rough fight,” Ed nodded. “My wife went that way, too.”

Now, left to his own thoughts on the sofa, Ed enjoyed remembering the lady’s face. The way she looked when she smiled.

Of course, she was long gone now, along with nearly everyone else. She was one of the first to leave. He never even found out what memory she chose.

Ed tried thinking back over his childhood, his years at the shop, his marriage, the days when the kids were little. He got more and more annoyed.

His wife had once complained that Ed didn’t know how to go along and get along, but trying to choose a single memory out of a whole lifetime seemed ludicrous on the face of it.

Is there any moment I can choose to the exclusion of all the others? he wondered. And how will I know I’ve chosen right?

He watched anxiously as person after person exited through the big wooden door at the back of the room. This was a stupid system, but everybody else seemed to be playing along.

In frustration, he approached one of the Committee members and placed a hand on her shoulder. “What kind of memory should I choose? Give me an idea what you’re looking for.”

“That’s up to you, sir,” the Committee member said. “If you don’t know by now, I suppose you never will.” She barely paused to look him in the eye as she walked away.

“If this determines my future placement, shouldn’t I have a better idea of the damned criteria?” Ed called after her. But she was gone.

Sitting on the sofa watching people trickle out, Ed knew all of these people couldn’t be headed somewhere good. He studied them for clues, trying to guess which memories could get him blacklisted. Sunlight dancing on his naked girlfriend’s behind in Korea? The time he won $300 in a hand of poker?

He wished he could throw his cards on the table of this game. He resented the whole damn thing.

When a Committee member strode up to him, Ed hoped it was to offer some help. “Thank you for your participation,” the guy said as he removed the purple flier from Ed’s hand. “The admittance period has ended.”

“I didn’t even make my choice yet,” Ed barked at him. Ed walked up to the heavy wooden door and turned the handle, but it didn’t budge.

As he looked around at the sad little room, at these sad little people, he realized the door was closed for good. Any God this obtuse gets what He deserves from people.

Ed just hoped He knew that.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Clementine, by Jon VanZile

I was in a most unlikely position: surrounded by a girl and two of her friends, in a candy-scented cloud of sweet perfume and vodka martinis. I didn't know the girl's name or where she worked, but earlier I'd watched in shock as she peeled a Clementine orange with her tongue, then smiled at me and said, "Just call me Clementine." So I did.

"C'mon," Clementine said, "I know you've got a passcard. It'll be cool!"

"I don't know," I said. "There are cameras up there. And then Mr. Steele's office, too."

"I know!" Clementine said. Her friends twittered and I became momentarily entranced by the interplay of light along the lengths of blonde hair, brunette hair, and blonde hair arranged around me. This was closer than I'd been to any female since Jane left—and the closest I'd ever been to girls like these.

I was struck with a savage, fleeting wish that Jane could see me now. She would have to eat her words.

"Please," Clementine said. "You'll have a good time. I promise."

Her friends nodded enthusiastically. I couldn't remember either of their names, if I ever knew them, because they seemed to have simply materialized by the bar earlier, when Clementine had dragged them over by their spaghetti straps.

"But I still don't understand—"

Clementine put one of her fingers to my lips, and I saw she had a ring on her pinky that matched the three earrings in her right ear. She said, "Because I have a little surprise." She rooted around in her purse and produced a thin, crooked cigarette.

"Is that marijuana?" I said.

The girls laughed again, and I felt like a fool. "Duh," said Clementine. "Wouldn't it be cool to smoke up in the board room? I wanna get high in the board room. You'll never think of board meetings the same again!"

I hadn't smoked marijuana in twenty years, and the last time I did, I had vomited all over my pants. So it wasn't the marijuana that made me nod and pull out my passkey. It was the fact that my brain had just caught up with the lingering, rounded suggestion in Clementine's words: "You'll have a good time. I promise."

I led them away from the Christmas party, through the marble lobby, and we called the executive elevator. I swiped my card to open it, and the girls went silent as they entered the clubby car.

"Wow," said the brunette. "These walls are, like, real leather."

"Hey," said Clementine's blonde friend, "how come we don't get leather walls in the PR cubes? I want leather walls."

"Uh, I guess it's too expensive," I said. "Cuts into the bottom line."

The girls burst into laugher, and I smiled along. Clementine put a hand on my chest, and it burned a small, palm-shaped hole in my shirt. I hoped she didn't feel the sudden pounding of my heart—beautiful women usually terrified me into silence, but maybe it was the alcohol tonight because it seemed like this whole thing was happening to someone else and everything I said was funny or smart. Then again, I knew how intimidating management could be, and I was management now.

I smiled.

The elevator dinged open and we exited into the hushed foyer of the executive floor. It was dim, except for pinprick lights highlighting art on the walls and potted palms. The secretary's desk was empty, and I had a sudden memory of all the times I waited in this lobby, nervously gripping some report and hoping that Mr. Steele and the others would be happy with my work. The girls had fanned out into in the foyer and were draping themselves over the furniture in the casual, thoughtlessly erotic way that beautiful girls did everything.

"You shouldn't open that," I said, alarmed, as I saw Clementine plop into Marianne's chair behind the big secretary's desk and start opening drawers. "This is the executive floor!"

"Oh, don't worry," Clementine said. "I'm not going to take anything. Besides, it's all boring old-lady stuff anyway."

"I have an idea," the blonde said to me. "Clementine can play secretary for you. You know, you'll be the big boss and she'll be your little sexretary."

"I'm sorry?" I said, my cheeks flushing red as I struggled to untangle her words. Did she say what I thought?

The girls erupted in laughter again, and Clementine got up and came toward me. "C'mon, you guys," she said over her shoulder. "Be nice. Now," she turned to me. "Can we get in?"

I nodded, hoping they didn't see how embarrassed I was. Jane and I had always made love in dark rooms, silently, like we were embarrassed of our own sounds.

I pushed the memory away and got out my passkey again, then went to the big glass door that opened into the main floor. I could picture it exactly: a hallway with doors leading to offices for senior management, ending in grand double-doors that led into the paneled boardroom. There was a map in the hall with all the countries in gold leaf and crystals showing where we did business.

I swiped my card, and reached for the door handle, but then I froze. The light, which should have turned green, stayed stubbornly red. I swiped the card again. Still red. Then again, and still red. Clementine was watching, a delighted, incredulous smile growing on her face, and her friends drifted over to watch the light stay red.

"Uh," I said. "They must have changed the passcards. I guess, um, I can't get in."

"Nice, Clementine," the blonde one said. "He can't even get in."

Now Clementine looked annoyed. "Are you for real?" she said. "You can't get in?"

"They change these every so often," I said, feeling the mood change as the girls watched me. "We could go to my office ... it's just down a few floors ... and—"

"C'mon," the brunette said to her friends, as if I suddenly didn't even exist. "I'm bored with this. I want to get out of here anyway."

"Right," Clementine said. "Bye, dude."

And as they turned, leaving me at the door, I had a final glimpse of myself reflected in Clementine's eyes, as if in a mirror: balding, fat, middle-management, divorced, and old. They didn't even look back as they rode their cloud of sweet perfume back into the elevator.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Anti-Diva

I watch a lot of movies, and I've got a question about something I see all the time. I'll be watching along, enjoying myself, until a certain kind of character shows up. This person has bad hair and dresses one step above homeless. They're socially maladjusted and sexually frustrated. They're sarcastic, smart and bitter, and probably addicted to some non-glamorous drug like nasal spray or Chapstick. The odds they suffer from a nervous GI disorder—usually IBS—are good enough that no sane man should take that bet.

I start cringing right away. "Wait for it, wait for it," I'm thinking, and then someone onscreen asks this character, "So what do you do?"

And this poor sucker answers, "I'm a writer." And the audience nods knowingly, chuckles and "gets it." Of course they're a writer.

I was complaining about this not too long ago, and my son made an observation. "Uh, yeah, but Dad, a writer wrote this movie. So why do writers always portray themselves as losers?"

Indeed. Who else gets to control their image so completely? Athletes, politicians, movie stars ... none of them get to control what gets said about them. We writers literally control the levers of our whole culture. There's an entire industry of public relations people dedicated to influencing what writers say and think. So when it comes to writing about ourselves, you'd think that all fictional writers would all be taut, fresh-faced, nubile, morally flawless, and dentally perfect geniuses. Instead, we get Charlie Kaufmann and Liz Lemon.

So I'm curious: Why do writers always portray themselves as the kind of schlub you warn your kids away from?

Monday, January 4, 2010

January 2010 Prompt

Welcome back everybody ... I hope everyone had a good New Year's. But more importantly, I hope you're ready for the first prompt of 2010. If you're new, this is for the Storytellers flash fiction. Basically, the rules are simple: I post a picture and you write a short story of up to 1,000 words. I'll post the stories beginning next week, one every day until I run out, and commenters are welcome. The idea is to have some fun and get a little writing done—and you never know, maybe a prompt story will spark your next Big Idea. If you have any questions, email me at

And without further ado: this month's prompt ...