Monday, March 22, 2010

Hey, Lookee Here ...

My post on rules of magic in fiction is up today at STET!, complements of Melanie Avila. If you haven't seen it already, go check it out and leave a comment. Make me look good ... :)

Friday, March 19, 2010

You Versus Your Book

I'll warn you in advance, this post won't make any sense at all. I was awakened last night first by a 4-year-old, upon whose floor I slept for an hour and a half, and then by the Zodiac killer, who had mysteriously come back from whatever hell he's in to stand in my living room for TWO HOURS. He didn't do anything. He just stood there. And when I finally got up to go confront him, he had mysteriously vanished. Why the Zodiac killer? Who knows.

So I finished my first draft last week. When I first finished it, I thought, "Yay! Awesome." Then a few days went by, and I swung around to, "Awful. Sucks." Funny how that works.

In the meantime, I've been circulating it around to readers to collect some opinions, including one shiny new reader who will most likely be getting a fruit basket from me this Christmas (if you're reading this, you know who you are ... and thanks). Anyway, she pointed out something that got me thinking: all of my chapters feel like "short stories" because each chapter is approximately 1,000 words, with a discrete beginning, middle and end. The result is somewhat choppy, with a rise and fall to each chapter that doesn't always suit the emotional content of the story.

It really got me thinking.

When I'm drafting, I write every day pretty much. And I write fast. I do about 1,000 words a day. That seems to be the amount that comes naturally, partly as a result of being a journalist and having to write newspaper and magazine stories to fit. At the end of 1,000 words, I start to feel my concentration slip, or I get hungry or itchy or whatever, so I end the chapter. Thus, each chapter roughly equals one day's output.

As soon as she pointed this out, it was like a lightbulb went off. Duh. The basic structure of the book reflects my writing schedule, not the pace of the story. As a result, the flow is uneven, and the emotional timbre swings around with the rise and fall of each chapter. It's like sampling a song 65 times and saying the song is whole.

There was a valuable lesson in here for me, actually: as ridiculously obvious as it probably sounds, you have to be careful not to stand in the way of your own story. Like, for example, it's highly unlikely that chapters naturally conform to one day's output ... To go one step further, if you're angry, watch out that it doesn't bleed into the story. Or don't write half a book drunk and the other half sober (either go all in, or lay off the bottle until you finish). The actual writer is supposed to be INVISIBLE in the story.

I was going to say I don't know how on Earth this is really possible. I mean, we're not robots. But then I realized: that's what rewrites are for. Ugh.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Monsters, By Jon VanZile

I remember everything about that night.

After my parents put me to bed, they stood outside my door and had a whispered argument.

"We should leave the light on," Mom said.

"No way," Dad answered. I pictured his face just from the tone of his voice. There would be lines between his eyebrows, and his mouth would be tight.

"But he's just a little boy!" Mom said. "And seriously, this lightning is even freaking me out. I wouldn't want to sleep alone in a dark room on a night like tonight."

Just to make her point, there was a huge FLASH! from outside that lit up my room with an electric glow. I pulled the covers up to my eyes and counted ... one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand ... until a BOOM! rolled down from the mountainside, over our house, and shook the old windows in their frames.

"That was a big one," Mom said in a far-away voice. "Honey, just for tonight. Let him have his light on just for tonight."

"No way," Dad answered. "We start letting him sleep with the lights on, next thing you know, he'll be in our bed. He'll be running the whole house. He's the original give-an-inch, take-a-mile kid."


"Seriously, if you turn that light on, I'm gonna break out the bulb," Dad said. "I thought we were on the same page about this kind of stuff."

"We are, it's just that ... I don't want him to be scared."

"What's so wrong with being scared?" Dad said. "This is our house. If you can't learn to handle fear in the safety of your own house, where will you?" Mom was silent, and I could tell the argument was over. He'd won.

There were a lot of good reasons to be scared in your own house. I knew that, even if they didn't. They still pretended they liked this old house, even though I could already tell that, underneath, Mom hated it just as much as I did. I wasn't even sure Dad liked it. He cursed when he talked about it, and he said it was "probably going to kill him," but when he talked on the phone, he laughed and said he was going to "put lipstick on this old pig and make a fortune."

I didn't sleep. I lay in my bed with my felt blanket pulled up to my nose and my eyes plastered to the window. My room was on the second floor, and my window looked across the overgrown field to the dark line of trees. It was very windy, and the branches tossed and flailed beneath the racing clouds and full moon.

Another FLASH! lit up the sky and I counted to two-one thousand before the BOOM! came and shook my bed. My window was old so cold air rushed around the frame. I felt like I was almost outside, like the skin of the house was thin and brittle like skin on top of pudding.

After the traces of thunder rolled away, I listened for Mom and Dad. I didn't hear their voices. Nothing. So I waited with my eyes plastered to the glass. I knew he would come again tonight. He had come every night for the last three nights, each time inching closer and closer to the house, until once I thought I almost saw his face. Even thinking about it made my throat close around my breath.

I watched the same spot in the woods until my eyes were drawn away, closer to the house. I saw a blacker shadow among the other shadows move slightly, the hulking shape of a man shifting under the cover a dark bush right beneath my window.

I began to scream. I kept screaming as their footsteps drummed up the stairs and Mom flung my door open and turned on the light. I was sitting up in bed. She raced to my bed and wrapped me in her arms while Dad stood in the doorway, shaking his head and frowning.

"See?" she said to Dad. "You're being a major asshole about this. Just so you know." Then she turned to me and nuzzled me. "It's just a storm, honey. Don't worry."

My breathing slowed down, and my crying dissolved into hiccups.

"Did the storm scare you?" Mom said. "It's just thunder. It's just God bowling."

"No," I said, finally working up the courage to tell them the truth. "There's a monster outside. I saw him. He comes closer every night."

"No honey," Mom said. "It's just a storm."

Dad came in a few steps and looked down at me. He didn't look so angry anymore. "She's right," he said. "Listen, I'll tell you what. We'll both be brave tonight. You sleep with your light off like a big boy. And I'll take care of that monster. OK? Any monster comes in here, I'll kick its ass. I’ve got a air-powered nail gun with that monster’s name all over it."

"Trevor!" Mom said. "What kind of message is that?"

"Just the truth, baby," Dad said. "OK?" he said to me. "We got a deal?"

I nodded, but only because I knew they both wanted me to. What good was a nail gun against a monster? Then Mom kissed me and they left. Dad turned out the light, and before he shut the door, he said, "You remember. I'm right outside this door, and I'm tougher than any monster."

But he wasn't.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Open Windows, By Erica Orloff

Sometimes, on hot summer nights, when my mom kept the windows open, hoping for a breeze to float through after dark, I heard it. Hidden in the symphony of crickets and tree frogs echoing across the fields, I could hear Grace’s stepfather raping her. At least that was what I thought I heard.

I’d climb out my bedroom window onto the trellis and scramble down, running across summer grass, cool and wet on my bare feet. When I got close to her house, I’d crouch down and listen. And I swear that’s what it sounded like. Whimpers, grunts, a mattress squeaking, the occasional slap of hand against cheek. Then I’d see his six-foot hulking frame rise up, a monstrous shadow on the wall, and leave her pink bedroom.

And right then and there, I decided one day I’d marry Grace. And one day I’d kill the bastard. I never said anything to her. But in my mind, I’d told her and I convinced myself she heard me.

In August, I heard her cries traveling in Morse code on the backs of a flock of cawing crows. I did the same thing, climbing down, sneaking to her house, sitting on the grass and trying to conjure the nerve to get my granddad’s rifle. Then, like a wild angel in a white nightgown, she came tearing from back door, running straight for me and crashing into me.

“Shit,” I said. Blood spurted from my nose where her kneed landed square on the bridge.

“Shh!” she whispered. Then she squinted her pale gray eyes. “What the hell are you doing here? You spying on me, Joe? Is that what you’re doing?”

I scooted away, wiping my bloody palm on the grass. “No!”

“Come on,” she urged. She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the grassy fields where the old horse owned by Mr. Morris—a sway-backed mare a step from glue—grazed.

Behind us, I heard a screen door crash open, and a man’s voice calling out, “Grace Ann! Grace Ann, you get home now before I bust your face wide open.”

I stared at her in the moonlight. “You going back?”

She shook her head, her face streaked with tears and dirt from our tumble. “I’m not ever going back.”

“What if he was dead? Would you go back then?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m leaving here, Joe.”

“In a nightgown?” Her blonde hair reflected moonbeams. “Where are you going? You got any money?”

“I have a hundred and ten dollars in a savings account.”

“Hmm.” Even I knew that was only going to get her just so far. “What about going to the sheriff?”

She looked at me like I was the stupidest boy in the whole town. Maybe even the whole world.

“Oh. Yeah,” I breathed. Her stepfather was a deputy. “All right then, I’ve got a savings bond for $500. You can have it.”

I heard the old mare whinny. I sat down, out of breath from fear and from being so close to her. She sat down next to me.

“I hate him.”

“I do, too,” I whispered. “You think he’ll come chasing you?”

“Nah. Too drunk.”

“What about your mother?”

“She’s just plain crazy.”

I ran my fingers along the grass. “What if they were both dead? Would you get the house? Would you get their money?”

“I suppose. But I don’t want nothin’ from them. I just want to get away.”

She flopped back on the ground and stared up at the night sky. “I wish I was a shooting star.”

I leaned back. I didn’t know what I wished.

The two of us whispered all night. I don’t even remember what we talked about. Everything and nothing, until a pink-gray wash chased the moon away.

“You better go home,” she said. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Thanks, Joe.”

“Why don’t you come home with me? My mom will help you. I swear she will.”

Grace jutted her chin out. “I’m going home. I’ve got things to do.”

She rose slowly, and gave me a half wave, then walked toward the house.

The next night, there was a fire.

Supposedly, her stepfather fell asleep, drunk in bed, and his cigarette lit the mattress on fire.

He and his wife died, their bodies charred to blackness.

And Grace Ann was nowhere to be found.

Now, on hot summer nights, through the open window, I just hear the sounds of crickets and tree frogs. I shimmy down the trellis and run, barefoot, to the house. I sit on the grass and smile, and I like to think Grace Ann is somewhere else. A shooting star. An angel in a nightgown in a grassy field.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ass, by E. Flanigan

Belief in the Law of Small Numbers: 1. A systematic error in human judgment in which people assume that the pattern of a large population will be replicated in all its subsets. 2. The deep-seated need to see meaning in the ordinary variations that appear in small samples.

We walked up to the house and looked at each other. Actually, I walked and Ray waddled.

“There’s no way it has a bathroom,” I said. “I mean, look at it.”

It looked a million years old.

“This is serious, though,” Ray said, clutching his gut. “I need a shitter pronto.”

“Go for it,” I told him. “I’ll stay out here.”

Ray waddled up the steps with his ass clenched super tight. It was hilarious, but I didn’t say anything. I mean, we’ve all been there.

When he came back out, I was just sitting there chilling. “Did you find one?”

Ray shook his head. “I had to wing it.”

“Man, I don’t wanna know.”

He laughed out loud and sat down in the grass next to me. It was a pretty cold day, but when the sun was out it wasn’t so bad. Things were quiet for a while.

“This is cool.”

“Yeah.” I stretched out and laced my fingers behind my head in the grass. I was seriously considering a nap. But no.

“I can’t believe Doug has a girlfriend,” Ray said.

Great. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed he’d think I was sleeping.

“Seriously, the guy never washes his hair and he’s like fat and demented. And he’s getting laid. What’s up with that?”

I didn’t answer for a minute. Technically he was correct, Doug was a tool. But then again Ray was kind of a lame-ass.

“And granted she’s kind of nasty, but she’s female,” Ray went on. “I mean, how did that guy get a girlfriend? I can’t get action from anybody. Does it make sense?”

I didn’t want to have this conversation. The day had been moving along nicely before the shitting and things getting all mopey-dopey. But Ray’s a nice kid, he’s got a decent car, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t have a girlfriend. At the very least an ugly one. “Yeah, you’re right, dude,” I said. “Doug is a douche bag.”

Ray got excited and sat up. “I know, he’s a douche bag, right? He’s not even nice to girls, that’s probably why they like him. They’re attracted to assholes.”

He got quiet again for a while. Then, “I just can’t help thinking I’m, like, cursed or something.”

More silence. “I’ve never even gotten a blow job. Just a hand job.”

Damn, I’m not having this conversation. That’s all I could think. I felt bad for the guy, but this whole talk was taking a 90-degree turn toward homo-town, and I don’t live there. Screw that. If he asks for a hand job, I’m gonna kick his ass. So I just kept my eyes shut to look like I was sleeping.

Lying in that position, I actually fell asleep for a minute. When I opened my eyes Ray was still sitting there, hands between his knees and eyes on the ground. Then he looked at me. “This blows.”

“Dude, it will happen for you. Just relax,” I told him. But I knew what he meant. Before I dated Kristin last year, I felt that way—and I don’t even have a car.

Ray didn’t answer me, just kept sitting there all sad.

“You know what, man?” I told him. “There’s no such thing as a losing streak. It’s all just chance. Your time will come.”

He perked up a little. “What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s like when you flip a quarter. You could land tails, like, 10 times in a row, but the very next flip could be heads.” I could tell I really had his attention, so I said the next part super slow like I was predicting the future. “The next chick you meet ... could be the one you nail.”

Ray sat for a while, thinking. “If you flipped a quarter 10 times and they all landed on heads, the next one would be tails?”

“No, man. It’s random each time. So like, every time is another chance to land on tails.”

Ray was quiet again for a minute. “But if it’s all random, doesn’t that mean the next time could be heads again? It could be tails, but it could be heads?”

I thought about it for a bit and realized Ray was right. He might never get laid. Some people die virgins, and he might be one of them.

We both sat there for a while.

I decided to throw him a bone. “Long story short, you’re going to get laid. I mean, you’re not an asshole. So it’s a foregone conclusion.”

Ray looked at his hands for a while. I hoped I’d said enough to change the subject.

“Thanks, man, you’re alright,” he said finally. “I don’t know what I’d do without a guy like you to talk to.”

He stood up and wiped his hands on his shit-smelling pants.

“Let’s roll.”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What A Picture’s Worth, by Melody Maysonet

That Gothic-style mansion with its ivy-covered pillars looks like something out of Amityville Horror, only creepier, if you can believe that, and in a lot worse shape. No one believed I’d seen a girl’s face peeking out of the little round window of the attic, and that’s why I’m standing not twenty feet from the house, pointing a camera at the upper stories, hoping the girl will make a reappearance while at the same time wondering what the hell I’m doing.

I mean the place has a reputation, for god’s sake, and it isn’t a good one. Just a year ago there was this neighborhood dog that went missing. It was a husky, a real pretty dog, and the owner went all out to find it. I mean everywhere you went you saw this dog’s picture on a telephone pole. A week goes by and no sign of the dog, and then out of the blue all those faded color printouts of the dog have been replaced by pictures of the dog hanging by its neck on the porch of that house, its head twisted sideways like a hook and its tongue all black and spilling out between its teeth. I still clench my stomach when I think about that picture. I mean it was disturbing.

And then there’s that newspaper story from fifty-some years ago that everybody around here knows about, the one where the owner of the house thought an atomic bomb had fallen and it wasn’t safe to come outside. He was starving so he started chopping off bits of his own body to eat. They say he started with his ear lobes and then moved on to some of his toes and then graduated to bigger body parts, so when they found him dead he only had one foot, no nose, and there were strips carved out of his side like he was some kind of rib roast for god’s sake. Anyway, they found him in the kitchen of that house in the act of sawing off his other foot with a bread knife. That was the picture they printed in the paper if you can believe that. Ever since then the house has been empty and no surprise.

But it’s not empty now. I swear I saw a girl’s face in that window, and she didn’t look like she was a prisoner. She looked like she lived there and was just taking a peek out the window to see about the weather. That was about an hour ago when I saw her, so I ran home to get my camera and here I am standing in front of the house looking up at that window and thinking I must be insane.

I mean that too because there’s no way I’m seeing what I’m seeing. That dead husky is on the porch barking at me and the girl is looking out at me from the other side of the screen door. I find myself moving closer and then I remember about the camera and I stop to take a picture of her and the dog both.

The girl waves to me, and I’m curious as hell so I jog up to her and step onto the porch. The dog comes up and licks my hand and I pat its head and look at the girl.

“Nice dog,” I say.

“He likes you.”

I study her and notice that her dress is real old-fashioned, like something out of Little House on the Prairie. “You live here?” I ask.

“I used to.”

“But not now?”

“I died here.” She looks fondly at the dog. “Me and Canook both.”

Jeez Louise, I think.

“I see you brought your camera,” she says.

I lift it and look at it like I don’t know what it is, and for a second, I don’t because I’m so scared that I’m only thinking Ohmygod.

“Let me take a picture of you,” she says and reaches for the camera.

Screw that, I think, and that’s when I run. I don’t even realize the camera’s in her hands until I trip over the dog and hear the camera’s shutter go off just as I smack my face into one of those ivy-covered pillars. My nose explodes like a squished bug and my tongue feels like someone cut it off with shears, and as the pain blooms to maximum intensity I realize I’ve bitten off my tongue. The girl picks up the piece of tongue and says, “Fred will like this,” and I have enough sense to wonder, “Who’s Fred?” before the dog starts licking the blood off my face while the girl takes another picture of me.

The screen door opens and out comes a man who must be Fred and though he still has a nose and a foot I know this is the guy from the newspaper. I’m laying on the porch trying to crawl down the steps but the dog’s all over me and then Fred grabs me by one leg and starts dragging me into the house. I kick and grab onto one of the pillars, but my fingers are slick with blood and I feel myself being dragged through the entryway. The girl’s holding the door open and looking down at me with a smile and I try to scream but it comes out more like a gurgle.

Inside the house, the flash goes off, and I see myself the way the camera sees me, my body sprawled on the dusty floor like one of those homicide chalk drawings. There’s a mess of bloody meat where my throat should be and the dog’s hunkered over me chewing something and gulping. My face is covered with blood, which is just as well because I don’t want to see what I look like. And then the dog licks the blood clean and I see my face and I realize it doesn’t look that bad even though I know I’m dead.

Monday, March 8, 2010

In My Father’s House, There Are Many Mansions, by Allen

The grass huts ringed the center of the village. The church bell tower stood above the grass roofs, majestically. They were hiding from us, waiting for us to appear in their sights. The only ones left were the young, the rest had been carried off by the insurgents months before.

Mud squished around my boots as I tried to get steady. The clicking of my sixteen-millimeter movie camera set the cadence of my steps. Along the tree line, mix in among the leaves, were the faces of the young boys and girls waiting to attack us. With no experience, they were soon to be massacred.

The lofty sounds of muttered prayer rolled out of some of our men. Others cursed the job and continued with their usual battle rituals. The officers, huddled in the recesses of the rear, pointed to their maps and ate their boxed lunches. This scene had become far too normal.

The first shot echoed across the open field. Then another. Screams and hollers catapulted the kids, fourteen at most, from behind the barn, their eyes fixed on the enemy ahead. The distinct rattle of an AK-47 preceded the bolt slapping sounds of a Ma Deuce stippling a line of bullets through the boys along the tree line. The thunder from a grenade covered the shrillness of a lone soldier screaming in pain, all captured in brilliant color.

I lost my place in this mess, unable to tell where my camera pointed. The richness of the brown and camouflage scenery melted into the iris, swallowing the background of blue so that I didn’t know how close to the fighting I had wandered. Even in the fog of my thoughts, I found a place to hide, a small recess in the ground where I would be safe. Trembling as the film rolled, I continued, steadfast in my duty.

An explosion rumbled across the open field. The staccato sounds of shots bouncing around me were like musical triplets. The bass line rang from the thumps of the tubes on the hill, scattering shrapnel in the midst of the boys held behind the barn in reserve. I stood to capture the moment on film when, in an instant a single shot rang out from the bell tower. After the echo left, I found myself engulfed in utter silence, devoid of my senses except for my sight.

The sun’s rays shone on the field as I viewed the whole process from above. I drifted past the bell tower window and saw the girl, no more than sixteen years old, ratchet another round in her rifle. She pulled the trigger without emotion, killing my sound man. I watched his soul rise above his body until he crashed through the clouds and out of sight, followed closely by the dead boys of the field.

The ragged clothes and unkept hair of these kids somehow made the whole situation more palatable to us. The girl was too young to know about killing someone, to not feel anything as she watched someone die. She was a throw away child in a useless country, the victim of some far off dictator whose quest was for power was at the expense of those young children. For the child’s lost soul, I was sad.

I felt strangely safe as I rose through the clouds, hovered over the earth still draped in a blue hue. Crashing into space left me speechless. I was floating, but not at my will or my direction. I was drawn to that place, dark and murky, as if pulled along the way. The darker it got, the less I felt until I know I slept.

Waking on a lawn, I looked across the green, lush field of freshly cut weeds. In the foreground stood a stately old mansion, one like my father restored for our family to live in. The wrought iron rails were entangled in vines and weeds, and the English boxwoods had grown high enough to cover the first floor windows. The whitewash on the bricks was faded and failed to cover the bricks behind it. The woodwork had lost its charm as the bare wood rotted in place. All manners of critters roamed the rooms as the missing windows allowed them access. I thought I was in heaven, but I must have found hell.

My camera was still around my neck so I filmed the building. It may be disheveled, but no one could deny its majesty and beauty. Perhaps, for my sins, I was sent to hell to reclaim this house. Perhaps if I did, God would reclaim me. I didn’t know, but it felt good to film something so beautiful. Not the least of my joy was filming something devoid of blood and guts.

As I stood in the rough grass, my camera to my eye, a man placed his hand on my shoulder. "This is your mansion, Son, but it is not ready, yet. You must return home so that I can prepare this place for you."

I lowered my camera so that I could meet this man, but all I saw was a Navy Corpsman frantically working on my chest wound. Flat on my back in the blood-soaked mud, I felt the cold prick of fear climbing up my spine. I held my camera tight to my side as they rolled me onto a litter. The bouncing trip to the Huey sent bolts of pain across my chest with each step until they racked me in a bunk.

They returned my camera to me several weeks later, untouched by others. I often watch the footage of the house when I am down or blue. Just knowing there is a restored mansion waiting for me is comfort enough. But I often wonder what happened to that girl.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Magical Me (Sorry Mr. Lockhart)

As you might have heard, I've been closing in on the end of my book for about two weeks now. So far, this has been the Book that Won't End. I'm 10,000 words over my expected length so far, and I still have several chapters to go. I'm actually having a hard time letting it go ... I don't want to say goodbye to this story yet, and since it's part of an intended series (fingers crossed), the story won't be completed even after I write The End.

Before I started writing this book, I spent a lot of time thinking about magic. The book is paranormal, so there is magic ... and as I thought about it, I realized that I have strong feelings about magic in books. So keeping in mind this is just my opinion, here are the "rules" I unofficially developed for using magic in a fantasy:

1. It must have a cost. This is a BIG ONE. Strong magic shouldn't be effortless, without any strain or cost. If I wanted to get all literary, I'd say that magic is actually a metaphor in literature for strength, and strength of any kind often requires development. Monks aren't born meditating; body builders aren't born bench-pressing twice their weight; and Olympic sprinters aren't running a 100 yard dash in a blink when they're ten. In each case, the potential is there, but it requires work and sweat. So it goes with magic. I think it should require something of the users.

2. It must have limits. I read that JK Rowling's greatest challenge with magic was deciding what WASN'T possible. Three cheers for that. Impossibly powerful magic is either boring to read about because it's impossibly powerful, or the author is cheating by not using the magic to its full potential. If the hero can lift 100 million tons in one hand, why pretend he struggles with 10 tons at a crucial scene?

3. It must have a system. This is harder to explain, but I'll try. I generally dislike magic that simply IS. I like magic that has a system of rules. Again, this mirrors real life. Ultimately, the magic has to come from somewhere and there should be discrete steps that are used to make it happen. If these steps aren't followed precisely, the magic fails. In a way, this relates to #2, because the system imposes limitations. If a spell takes 10 minutes to cast, that 10 minutes is a limitation (and huge potential plot point).

4. It should escalate. Again, just my opinion, but in a paranormal book, it's important to first establish the world and set up the story. Magic should make a slow entrance, because you first need to convince the reader of the authenticity of your world. If you drop magic into a normal setting, all at once, then obvious questions abound: "Why isn't someone calling the news?" "Why is this the first time that's ever happened?" etc., etc., etc.

5. The reader learns about magic at the same pace as the characters. Many books with magic are actually, subtly about a magical EDUCATION, in which the character slowly learns the cost, the system and the limitations of magic, gradually moving from simple spells to more complex spells. Again, like real life. Mastery is only possible once the reader and the character have learned all their lessons the hard way and earned the right to use magic.

6. Finally, magic is only a tool, not a value. Magic isn't necessarily inherently good or evil. It's like electricity. The same power that we use to fire up our computers and brew our coffee is also used to electrocute prisoners to death and deliver shocks to the genitals in Third World dungeons. So the point of the story isn't the magic itself, but how it is USED, which is actually a reflection of character.

The thing I ultimately realized was that magic is cool, but it's also a literary tool that reflects the acquisition of any knowledge (and growing up). Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So when I'm writing about magic, in a way it's the same as writing about the construction of a nuclear reactor or space ship—it's about discipline, ambition, study, sacrifice, and finally mastery. But more important than all this, in the end it's about the choices the character makes with his or her power, which is really the same dilemma we all face every day.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Writer's Revenge (or Roasted Pigeon)

We live in a fairly urban area, where no one has much land. My yard is bordered on three sides by a 6-foot privacy wood fence, over which we can sometimes hear the goings-on of our neighbors. We also live in a very ethnic area, so our neighbors are an interesting lot.

One of them is an avid home plumber. I noticed the other day that he had attached a small plastic pipe to the outflow from his washing machine, then run that pipe around the side of his house so his soapy water emptied into the little area between our houses. Very classy. I have no idea why this is a better idea than the normal way of connecting it.

Another house appears to be occupied by about 10 Brazilian 20-year-olds. These boys are mostly quiet, but sometimes, they'll have their friends over and spend the day listening to George Michael at 120 decibels and jumping off the roof into their pool. I didn't know George Michael was still cool among Brazilian kids, but I bet he'd be thrilled.

But today's blog entry is really about the three power lines that run between our houses and connect us all. It starts last spring, on a mild night when we were sitting in our backyard and heard a few flat splats!

"What was that?" asked my mother-in-law.

"I don't know," I said. "Could be anything around here."

Then a pigeon fell into our yard from where he had been perching on the power line. The pigeon had been shot in the neck. A few minutes later, a Brazilian kid pops up on his roof, looking down into our yard. I waved at him. He smiled (as a rule, Brazilians are very, very smiley people). Then I said, "Did you just shoot that pigeon?" He smiled again and looked like he didn't understand English. I have my doubts ...

Now, I'm not exactly loaded with sympathy for these pigeons. See, a third neighbor has gotten in the habit of feeding pigeons in her yard. This is a very nice family of Ecuadorians who grow mangoes and avocado. Although they don't speak English, I trade produce across the fence with them sometimes. Apparently, "mango" is the international word for "mango." We make it work.

But I could do without the pigeon feeding. My neighbor has trained a whole flock of pigeons to sit on this wire. It's a little cruel, I think, because it provides easy target practice for the Brazilians—who have since shot a handful of more birds and missed many others—but more importantly, it creates a mess for me. Ever scraped pigeon poop off a wooden fence after it's been cooked by a subtropical sun? I have. A lot.

So last night, I'm sitting outside, enjoying a beer after work and watching the pigeons sitting on the wire. There must have been 60 of them up there. All looking at me. Mocking me.

Then one of them pooped right on my fence. He didn't even have the decency to look away while he did it.

I got mad and a sudden vision went through my head. What if, I thought, what if I flung some kind of wire up there that connected the power wires? They're only a foot apart. It wouldn't be hard. All at once, the whole thing was as clear as a dream in my imagination. I saw the arc of electricity, the surge of power as the two electricity cables connected and shorted out my whole neighborhood, and the satisfying popping sound of 60 pigeons being flash roasted at once.

I would never actually do such a thing—even if I'm convinced the birds wouldn't be wasted. They would probably be eaten. (I suspect another of my neighbors is raising chickens in his yard.) But I'm just saying ... if you're neighbor's a writer, don't poop on his fence unless you want to die a gruesome, imaginary death.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why I Love Cilantro

It has recently come to my attention that a thriving web community exists of people who hate cilantro. They have (or had) websites (www.ihatecilantro), Facebook pages, letters to editor in major cooking magazines, and even a blog devoted to hating cilantro.

It might be tempting to write a blog entry about how cool it is that the Internet can bring together the most unlikely people ... that MIGHT be tempting if they weren't picking on cilantro. Instead, I think this is a prime example of why the Internet is evil.

First off, and most importantly, cilantro is delicious. I LOVE cilantro. It improves virtually everything to which it is added. I throw handfuls of it in Mexican and Indian food, I find ways to slip it into salads, I sometimes munch on handfuls of it like a cilantro-scented cow.

Second of all, cilantro is delicate. Ever noticed when you buy it that the fresh herb only lasts a few days? You can't keep cilantro around for long. And if you want to grow it ... ha ha! It took me two years and many tries to grow cilantro successfully. It hates heat, needs just the right amount of water, and even then, only lasts for about two months. Like all excellent things, cilantro needs to be babied. It takes a careful, skilled hand to nurture its pungent delights.

There are a lot of features of modern life that I think are very cool. I can video chat with complete strangers wearing only a shirt and tie and boxer shorts, and somehow this is "professional." I can join any number of tribes from a thousand miles away; I can reach across time and space with nothing but a keyboard and three cents of silicon. I can access any piece of information, any piece of media, at almost brain-speed.

But I have a message for you cilantro haters: step off the herb. Go pick on something else that truly deserves to be described as "the pubes of a demon."

Like parsley.

Monday, March 1, 2010

March Prompt

Here it is ... the prompt for the March Storytellers: