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The Complete Writer: Telling the Story *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part III

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 14. Telling Story

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears at our here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

My boss, grumbling unhappily, handed me an article we’d assigned to a freelance writer. Reading through it, I thought it seemed competent enough: the language was clear and literate, the facts were decently organized, and the writer had covered the subject comprehensively.

“This story looks all right,” I said. “What’s wrong with it?”

“It is all right, he returned. “That’s what’s wrong with it: I don’t want a story that’s just ‘all right.’ I want a piece that makes me sit up and shout wow!

What makes an editor sit up and shout “wow”? One sure bet is a nonfiction piece that shares some attributes with good fiction.

Accomplished storytellers never bore the listener by unloading the bare facts, by divulging the punch line before the joke is over, or by revealing the key to the plot before the story’s climax. Instead, they unveil the story a piece at a time, by drawing a series of word pictures full of engaging details. The storyteller introduces people, makes them seem real, and involves them in emotions and predicaments that move the listeners. A strong nonfiction writer uses fictional techniques for the same purpose: to hold the reader’s interest.

The elements of fiction are plot, point of view, characterization, theme, and setting (for more on these, see this book’s section on writing fiction). Each corresponds to a nonfictional technique.

Plot is roughly the same as structure, which we examined in the last chapter. You’ll recall the feature article’s classic architecture: a lead, often containing a capsule statement or nut paragraph; development of the facts; and a wrap-up.

Most fictional plots have a similar shape. Think of a movie or television show: if the story hasn’t caught your interest within the first five or ten minutes, you’ll probably leave the theater or turn off your device. A piece of short fiction must win over the reader in the first third of the story. After this equivalent of the lead, the fiction builds toward a climax or resolution of its problem and then falls off in a dénouement.

Plot involves conflict. Not all nonfiction stories lend themselves to this—the only conflict in a new-product roundup, for example, may take place between the editorial and the advertising departments. But many articles do contain this element. Conflict may occur between human beings, between a person and an obstacle or handicap, between an individual and Nature or an animal, between large groups, or within a single person’s mind. Anyone who faces a problem is engaged in a conflict.

You often can set up a kind of opposition within a nonfiction piece that will move the action forward to a resolution, just as a fictional story builds toward a climax that resolves the plot’s conflict.

For example, you might write about a coalition of your city’s small neighborhood associations. Such groups usually form to fight city hall. Leaders may say they exist for local beautification or to sponsor block parties. But sooner or later, they involve themselves in zoning questions, highway development, taxation, crime-stopping programs, or whatever. Knowing this, you would focus on some problem the local groups took on, and you would use that conflict to show members in action. The story’s body would move toward the disposition of the issue, and in doing so, would cover the coalition’s history, function, and methods. For a “dénouement,” the story might wind up with a quote or two on the group’s effectiveness or a mention of plans for the future. An approach like this allows you to hold forth on the issues while you show how they affect real people.

Even when no conflict is inherent in your story, you should present your facts so that they build to a logical, satisfying conclusion. In other words, you should avoid either dumping all your information in a single pile or stringing the facts out at random so they go nowhere. The story should open on a captivating note, move toward some meaningful high point, and leave its readers feeling they have caught its significance.

Point of view, in nonfiction as in fiction, has to do with the perspective from which the story is told. The most obvious approach to nonfiction is to report the facts from the journalist’s equivalent of the omniscient point of view. But that’s not always the most desirable choice. Sometimes it’s better to tell the story through the eyes of one of the people involved, even if that person is yourself.

The trick to relating a story from a specific point of view is to maintain the same perspective throughout. Once you’ve begun to narrate the story from one person’s viewpoint, do not waver by inserting someone else’s observations or your own comments.

Note the difference between point of view and the grammatical term person. By first person, we mean the subject of a verb is “I” or “we.” In the second person, the verb’s subject is “you,” and in the third person, “he, “she,” or “they.” Narrative is most often written in the first or third person.

Marguerite Reiss, in a Reader’s Digest story,[1] reported a bear attack from the victim’s point of view, but writes Rollin Braden’s story in the third person: “Rollin didn’t relish crossing tracks with [an Alaskan brown bear]. . . . The only sound he heard. . . . He knew. . . .” Although she never uses the first-person “I,” the story is told from a single perspective: Rollin’s. Everything that takes place is experienced through him: we hear, see, and feel what he hears, sees, and feels as the events happen to him. We never see any of the story from the bear’s viewpoint, nor through the eyes of his companions on the hunting trip. Had Reiss allowed the focus to slip, the story would have lost its impact.

Good characterization presents a believable word picture of a human being. As soon as you introduce an individual into a story, you should describe and characterize him or her.

Whether the person is real or imaginary, any ink-on-paper portrait is an abstraction. You can never present another human being as he or she actually is; the best you can do is show how you perceive someone. For this reason, John McPhee’s Thomas Hoving is as much a literary character as John Updike’s Roger Lambert. The fiction writer must provide enough detail to convince readers that the characters act as they do for believable reasons. As a nonfiction writer, you have an added problem: you cannot manipulate or re-imagine a real person’s motives or words to make them fit the story.

We perceive a person on several levels. One is superficial: we see her clothes, her physique, the color of her hair and eyes; we observe her mannerisms and hear the cadence of her speech; we sense the mood of the moment. As we come to know her better, we discover a second level of her reality: what she does for a living; where she grew up; how she was educated; what her parents, spouse, and children are like. The deepest level is psychological. She feels; she thinks; she responds to her environment in special ways. Key factors in her life have changed her: divorced parents, perhaps, or an accident, an abortion, a lost lover. These elements need not be dark—they might include a chance to study art coming at a moment of indecision, a special teacher, or a meeting with an admired role model.

Writers draw people just so. A one-dimensional or flat character is lightly sketched—usually with one or two physical characteristics or an allusion to some habit. In describing a courtroom scene, for example, you would fill the spectator’s gallery with one-dimensional characters. The danger in picking out a single trait, of course, is the lurking cliché. Try not to populate your story with good-old-boy businessmen, liberated grandmothers, macho truck drivers, and similar stage figures.

Two-dimensional characters are more carefully drawn, with allusions to their personal background, tastes, and aspirations. You often find them in the standard 1,000- to 1,500-word magazine profile. We meet a young tycoon who at the age of 17 decided he could buy fast cars sooner by selling houses than by attending college, and voilà! Now he heads a multistate real estate empire. The story may interest the reader in passing, but it offers little real insight into the subject’s personality.

Three-dimensional characters result from fleshed-out, fully rounded portraits. They happen when a writer knows a subject intimately, the result of long conversations and much time spent together. This picture tells us what the person looks like, where he grew up and went to school, who are the most important people in her life, and whether in an Italian restaurant she’ll choose spaghetti over veal saltimbocca—and then it tells us why. New Yorker profiles provide outstanding examples of fully drawn nonfictional characterization.

Another literary technique commonly used in nonfiction is dialogue, or, in the language of journalism, quotes. Direct quotation gives life and spirit to a narrative—but only when handled with some grace.

Quotes serve several purposes. In exposition—where you are explaining a subject—quotes allow voices other than the writer’s to comment. This adds interest or authority to what is being said. You might use an expert’s remarks to support a generalization, or have a witness to some event speak about what she saw, heard, or thought.

Expository quotes should do more than simply repeat the author’s assertion. They must add some fact or give insight into the characters’ emotions. Try to avoid constructions like this one, for example:

Fitts, however, [said] he had reservations of his own regarding a constitutional challenge to his indictment because he wanted the opportunity to prove in court that what he wrote about the two politicians is true.

“I want to prove my case,” he [said]. “If this motion is accepted, the case probably will not go to court. I need to go to court.”

Redundant and boring: the writer has Fitts say the same thing three times. By contrast, a quote in Ralph Backlund’s July 1998 Smithsonian story about the Dance Theater of Harlem[2] works well:

People contrasted the energy of the company with the lethargy that sometimes overtakes performances of the Bolshoi Ballet. At a dress rehearsal the afternoon of opening night, there were many dance students. They said that not only could they not maintain the speed and precision demanded by the company, they never imagined anyone else could. Julia Kazlova a student at the Moscow School of Ballet, said, “These are techniques and talents we have never seen.”

That quote emphasizes the point without repeating it, and it adds a fact. Another quote in the same story demonstrates a different use of quotation: to characterize.

Robovsky shouts , stamps, and gives a convincing display of what we think of as Hungarian temperament. He scolds the boys for landing too audibly. “Do I hear noise? Oh, the noise is killing me! You are landing with thuds.” Then he laughs and everyone relaxes.

In writing dialogue, novice writers often stumble over attributions, those words that tell who said what. In “‘I find Paul appealing and Peal appalling,’ said Adlai Stevenson,” the word said is an attribution.

Ordinarily you should start a new paragraph for each new quote, unless the quote supports a point you are making within a paragraph. When two or more people converse, begin a new paragraph with each change of speaker. Attribute as often as is necessary for clarity: you need not attribute every utterance, as long as the speaker is clear to the reader.

Attributions normally fall at the end or in the middle of a quote. If the quote is several lines long, place the attribution where a comma would naturally occur. If it is short, place the attribution at the end. Only when you wish to emphasize the speaker should you begin with the attribution: “John Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .’”

Newspapers often invert the normal word order in attributions: “said Adlai Stevenson,” rather than “Adlai Stevenson said.” Some editors dislike this style. Do not feel you must use one or the other. Listen to the rhythm of the prose and use the order that best pleases the ear.

On most newspapers, too, reporters put attributions in the past tense. This does not hold true for magazines, or on some papers, for the feature pages. If a speaker says something that he clearly means as generally true—that is, he’d repeat it right now if asked—use the present tense: “‘I personally despise them,’ he says.” But if the remark applies only to something that took place once, use the past tense: “‘Hey,’ Darrel said quietly, ‘It’s your moose.’”

Setting reveals the story’s time, place, and social milieu. Drawing a setting requires skill, both as observer and as writer. Description may be vivid, but it must never be purple—that is, florid, overblown, or gaudy.

It’s vital to let the reader grasp early on where the story takes place and how the surroundings look. In establishing the setting for “The Big Dry,” Time’s July 4, 1988, cover piece, Hugh Sidey demonstrates the show-don’t-tell principle:

John Malard sat at a small kitchen table covered with a blue plastic cloth, and with strong, thick fingers stroked the stubble on his chin. His black hair was cropped to its roots, his glasses coated at the edges with the grit of a morning of tilling in his stunted cornfield, which hugs a bluff above the Missouri River between Bismarck and Cannon Ball, N. Dak.

The 93ºF wind scoured the boards of his tiny home, gusting and swirling up to 30 m.p.h., drying, loosening, lofting, trying again to blow him away. The big prairie sun, without a wisp of cloud to soften it, hammered the land as far as a squinted eye could see, which is a long way out there.

Rather than flatly saying Malard is a farmer, Sidey shows us a man who tills a cornfield. In this lead to a story about a drought, Sidey does not use the word “drought.” Instead, he draws a picture: grit, stunted corn, 93º winds, the sun, the squinted eye.

Note how specific the details are and how they add up. We see Malard, who is immediately named. His small kitchen table covered with a blue plastic cloth signals a man of modest means with middle-class, pragmatic tastes. His black hair is cropped to its roots, suggesting middle- or working-class conservatism—he wears his hair like a U.S. Marine’s The words “roots” and “cropped” are connotative. He has strong, thick fingers: a working-man’s hands. The stubble on his chin says he didn’t stop to primp on the way to a hard morning in the fields. That he has been tilling tells us he farms. He raises not just any crop, but corn, the quintessential American grain, and the cornfield is stunted, a sign something is wrong.

In the second paragraph, Sidey uses a literary device known as “pathetic fallacy,” in which Nature is imagined to reflect, sympathize with, or be capable of human actions. The thirty-mile-an-hour winds try to blow Malard away. Of course, the wind has no motive, nor can the sun consciously hammer the land like the Norse God Thor. Other verbs also carry faint suggestions of human behavior: scoured, lofting.

The entire setting is allusive. A man speaking from his small kitchen table in a tiny house hugging a bluff in the harsh vastness of North Dakota evokes a favorite American folk image: the little guy who stands up against massive, primal forces.

The strength of this passage lies in its restraint. Add any elaboration at all—one more windy verb, an extra adjective about the sun, a whiff of pity for Malard—and the writing would turn mauve. But because the details are carefully chosen, very specific, and concise, they paint an effective, convincing picture.

A story’s theme is its sense of meaning: why do the things you’re writing about matter? An article, like a novel, short story, or play, expresses its author’s perception of life. In rare cases, you may communicate your view of the facts explicitly, through direct comment. Usually, you work it into the story through allusion and symbol, and by showing believable characters in meaningful action.

Barry Bearak, in his profile of comedian Sonny Sands,[3] uses a sophisticated literary device to let us know why his subject matters. He manages, through the use of language, allusion, and subtle comparison, to make Sonny a kind of symbol. More than an aging comic, Sonny represents the decrepitude that all of us face, and at the same time he stands for an entertainment era that has passed. Bearak suggests this in his choice of quotes (“Life is like a composition. . . .”; “How much time you think you got in this world?”); by placing Sonny in a historic context; by suggesting that most of Sonny’s audience now live in condominiums for the elderly; and by contrasting the old pro with a young part-timer whose life is radically different from Sonny’s early life. In the stratospheric realms of literary criticism, this technique is called iconography. To find it in journalism is so rare as to be startling—Bearak won a Pulitzer with it.

For many kinds of nonfiction, mastery of the techniques of suspense and foreshadowing is vital. In learning to write for Reader’s Digest, for example, Marguerite Reiss was taught “to get the reader on the edge of his chair.” The magazine’s editors call this “nail-biting,” she reports. “You have to hold him there until he can hardly stand it, and at the very last minute, you give him a little relief.”

Several expedients can help bring the reader to the edge of the chair. Most obvious is withholding information until the end of the story. We know, for example, that Rollin Braden will survive the bear attack—otherwise, the story wouldn’t appear in Reader’s Digest. But we don’t know how he will escape or what will happen to him before he does.

In “Nightmare Hunt,” Reiss builds suspense by dropping hints in the first few paragraphs.

“Thought you told me I’d see some bears,” Darrel chided his friend. . . . Alaskan brown bears forage intensely before holing up for the winter. Rollin didn’t relish crossing tracks with this one. . . . Suddenly Rollin sensed something. . . . there was a rustle. . . . Before long he was 300 yards into the woods, then 400 yards. A chill rippled through his body. He knew that whatever animal he had heard was probably watching him right now. . . . A branch snapped. . . .

All these details foreshadow something ominous. Later in the piece, the suspense resumes when the enraged animals back off momentarily during their attack.

Rollin could hear the bears nearby . . . the seconds ticked by . . . the heavy panting subsided. . . .

Telling the story from Rollin’s point of view also helps create a sense of tension, because it builds empathy. “I learned to put myself in the person’s shoes, in interviewing as well as writing,” Reiss says. “Rather than being objective and standing away, like I used to do in newspaper work, you have to actually get in and almost hurt with the guy.

“You look for tiny bits of suspense, and then some little flavors that aren’t so openly suspenseful,” she adds. Reiss once interviewed a young Air Force sergeant who was accidentally caught on a helicopter’s basket litter above the Bering Sea. He assumed a macho pose about the incident. “I asked him, ‘Did you look down?’ He was being sort of light about it. But when I asked him that, he said, ‘No, I didn’t look down. Once I glanced a little bit, but I didn’t want to look down.’ So he was giving me just a little tincture of what I would call fear. But of course, he wouldn’t call it that.”

Details like this make the story.

A fiction writer may invent details. In nonfiction, you must be absolutely factual. But there’s a reason articles are called stories: that’s what any good writer tells.

[1] “Nightmare Hunt,” June 1986.

[2] “From a Garage on West 152nd Street, a Ballet Company Soars to Moscow.”

[3] “Old Jokes Never Die, Just Retire, Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1986. http://articles.latimes.com/1986-09-13/news/mn-11685_1_piano-player

If You’d Asked Me: My Left-Handed Kid…

This book is a work in progress. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. See the collected chapters so far, FREE online at If You’d Asked Me… For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

To follow the progress online, click on the little orange icon beside the P&S Press feed, over there in the right-hand sidebar. ⇒ ⇒ ⇒

SECTION 1, Continued:
God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

16. My son is a four-year-old leftie. My parents so much want him to use his right hand that they are resorting to threats. What do you think?

Threats? What kind of threats? Are they threatening to strike or otherwise abuse him? If so, then you need to keep the child away from them.

As a matter of fact, if I had parents who tried to dominate me and my child to such an extreme extent, I would move out of the city or possibly even out of the country to get away from them. Do not allow people in your life who bully you or the children.

Forcing a child to use her or his nondominant hand can have adverse effects on the child’s development. It is, in a nutshell, a kind of abuse. As a parent, one of your many roles is to protect your child from abuse. Stand firm on this matter.

Elle’s Story: Chapter 11 *FREE READ*

This is a story about people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

11.

After her shift one evening she wandered over to the lounge where the great arm of the galaxy sparkled through the clear domed roof. She’d missed the chow line’s last full meal of the “day,” but she could get a hearty snack at the lounge’s food bar. If she wanted an alcoholic drink, which she did, she’d have to pay for it from the pennies she was given for consistent good work, but that was fine. She had quite a few such pennies.

Plenty of other workers were sitting around, taking in the slack. Formless music and relaxed chatter filled the air. Stars like sand scattered across black velvet glittered overhead. She sat at one of the small bars intended for singles or small groups, nursing the remains of a bowl of stew and a mug of dark ale. Tired, she wasn’t ready to go to bed but neither did she feel like socializing. She just wanted to eat and sit quietly for awhile.

No such luck.

She felt him come up to her before he pulled out the chair next to her and sat down.

“Hello, babe,” he said.

She looked at him, surprised. “Hello there, butch,” she replied. “Do I know you?” She did, of course – everybody knew who he was. Everybody knew who everyone was: the colony was like a small town.

“Well, we haven’t had a formal introduction. Your name is Eliyeh’llya, right?” He spoke Samdi with a smooth NorthCity accent. “They call you Ella here.”

“Mm hmm,” she gave him a vague smile and an assenting nod.

“My name is Lo’hkeh jai-degh Inzed Mafesth. ‘Lohkeh’ to the overseers.”

“I’ve heard the name,” she allowed. “Good to meet you, brother.”

Handsome fellow, this one. Sandy hair spread a golden late-afternoon shadow across his sturdy jaws, his green-flecked brown eyes framed with black lashes under dark brows. He wore a red gem in his ear-stud. Whether it was real or not, she could not tell, though she assumed it was glass.

She wondered at this. The blacksuits took away every piece of jewelry or decoration on a newly convicted felon, especially the ear stud that marked a Samdi man’s coming of age. Once in service, he could buy another one – if he managed to earn enough…if his owner agreed to it.

So…sure, he bought himself a stud. But did they – the overseers, the management here – know what the red jewel signified?

Depended on the shade of red, o’course. His had some deep orange overtones: imitation garnet, she figured. That would make him…what? A midlevel boss in the Syndicate’s transport and communication business. Way over her head, that much was for sure.

But why would they let him make a statement like that, about his past life? They must not know, she thought. The blacksuits and the overseers where always dumber than you expect, Teryd used to say. Once again, he was right.

“Would you like another drink?” he offered.

She would. Careful, she thought…take it slow. “Thanks,” she said. “But I’m pretty beat and it’s getting late – don’t think I should.”

“Next time, then.” He smiled and leaned back in the chair, displaying a finely muscled torso.

“All right.” She returned the smile, trying not to look over-eager.

“So, Ella. You’re pretty well settled in by now, no? You’ve been in-colony for awhile.

“Yeah… I’ve kind of lost track of time, without real days or months.”

“Mm hmm. It’s been a year or so, give or take. Samdi time, that is. How are you getting on? Service suiting you all right?”

“It’s good enough,” she said. “I’m getting used to it. They treat me pretty well.”

“Yeah, they do. If they like you.”

She made no attempt to answer this odd remark.

“The work’s decent. The bed is warm. The food’s edible. What more could you want?”

He laughed. “What more?” He raised his mug to her.

He continued, after a swallow of beer. “I understand you were a lieutenant in the Tullsta Band. Back on Samdela.”

“Well, yes. I worked for the Zaïn. For B’jadaram.”

“Mm hmm.”

“How did you find that out?” she asked. One’s past life, as she had been firmly instructed, was to be left in the past: dead and buried. Never mentioned again.

“I know a guy who knows things.”

“Nobody has any secrets, hm?”

He smiled and allowed as to how that was so. After some small talk, he said, “I’m going up to Takrai in a couple of days. Would you like to come along?”

The mining colony was at Takrai, and Ella had also heard there were some exotic extra-planetary geological features near there. “Sure,” she said. “If we do some sight-seeing, too?”

“Absolutely. That’s the whole idea.”

“I’ll have to get time off from my boss. And I guess I’d need to clear it with my overseer, too.”

“Don’t worry about that—I’ll arrange it. Ask Vighdi for a pass tomorrow – wait till after mid-day. I’ll meet you here first thing, next day after tomorrow.”

He had noticed her.

So…How’s the FREE READS publishing scheme working out?

Not bad, thank you! I’ve now been slinging a chapter a day from one of three books — Ella’s Story, If You’d Asked Me…, and The Complete Writer — which has put up a fair amount of content over the past three weeks.

Results?

  • It’s kept me amused.
  • Readers have expressed enthusiasm.
  • It provides copy to post at the Facebook writers’ forum I frequent.
  • It seems to be attracting traffic to the P&S Press Facebook page.

That’s nice. It also is

  • …wearing me out!

Trying to get five of these things online every week while also operating a monetized blog and trying to write the rest of Ella’s Story and keeping up with client work and having a life (of all things) is a little much. Lately, because of a health issue, I’ve had to go so far as to get up off my duff and exercise every day, which consumes a couple hours of nonrefundable time.

So, instead of posting a chapter a day of each book, in rotation, I’ve decided to publish just one chapter of each book per week. In the case of a matched set, as it were, sometimes I’ll post two — as in today’s smart-ass offering of If You’d Asked Me. But most of the time: one chapter/week. Thus:

§ Monday: Ella’s Story
§ Wednesday: If You’d Asked Me
§ Friday: The Complete Writer

After just two postings this week, I can see that several benefits instantly kicked in.

  • Major de-complication! Trying to rotate three topics over five days in a seven-day week created a passing dizzy schedule. Now, instead of having to consult an involved calendar, I know that Monday is Ella, Wednesday is Asked, and Friday is Writer.
  • Slower, more manageable schedule. Not only is keeping track of this stuff a lot simpler, it also means the (formerly) frenetic posting has stopped impinging on the other tasks I have to do in any given day. Delaying the Ella’s Story publication schedule by about 30% takes the pressure off, since that story remains to be fully written.
  • More time to write. Even though two of the three MSS are easy to post, one is not: Writer contains a lot of graphics, meaning I have to chase down JPEGs in now-forgotten computer subdirectories and fool around with trying to translate a complicated design into HTML. Among the several things in life that I hate, coding ranks pretty high. So, getting five chapters online every week has consumed more time than I planned on. The three-post-a-week schedule frees many more hours to work on the Ella tale…and that is much needed.
  • More time to hustle up readers. I’ve been trying to post this blog on Kindle Blogs, as Barbara Grassey suggested at her site. But of course, nothing is ever simple: Amazon won’t let me just start a new account, as instructed. It demands that I sign in, because of course it recognizes my computer. It has forced me to create new passwords and then will not accept the new PWs. So that has created yet another damned techno-headache…and so now of course I need the time to disentangle that mess and try to get this stuff posted there.

😀

So it goes. Watch this site, for much more is to come.

 

Ella’s Story: Chapter 4 *FREE READ*

This is a story about people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

4.

She’d been on the sale floor about four days—seemed like four years to her. She never saw the blacksuit woman again. Not that she was surprised at that.

Sleep came only with exhaustion, for all the good it did. The lingering pain from the punishment inflicted in the cooker would wake her as often as it blocked her from dozing off. The only place to pee was a bidet in the floor, fully exposed to the glassy eyes of cameras in the ceilings and walls—and of the miserable souls around her. Food was just barely food, but she had no appetite anyway.

A couple sat on one of the four platforms nearest to hers, on display like herself to any and all prospective buyers, of whom there was an amazing dearth. The woman wept on and off – more on than off, really – for no reason that Ella could see. The man sat in surly silence, never making the smallest effort to quiet her or even to speak to her. Why they were being sold as a pair escaped Ella. Only later did she learn that separating a married couple for the purpose of selling one or both of them violated some Varn law of service.

Others around her tried to sleep or sat staring blankly, bored. Carrying on a conversation would have been next to impossible: the racket of children screaming, carts and robot observers rattling around, ventilator motors grumbling bounced off the windowless cavern’s flat, unadorned glow walls. Nor, for that matter, did Ella care to speak to anyone.

§

She saw, eventually – what time of the day or night it was, she had no idea — a blacksuit making his way up the aisles ahead of a visitor, obviously a free man. Tall and long in build and in face, he was; once no doubt slender but now, in silver-haired middle age, a little pot-bellied. From a distance, she could see the blacksuit chattering away while the other ma

They were coming in her direction. As they approached, she heard the blacksuit going on, “…no track record…fresh out of the cooker. But other than that she pretty much fits your needs. You’ll need to train her, but she won’t cost you much.”

The man approached, stopped, and looked her over blandly. If he was interested, he wasn’t advertising so.

“Her health is excellent. She’s had all her inoculations, a year’s worth of contraceptive… She’s 26, still plenty young and strong but not a kid, and.…” The blacksuit barreled on in a sales pitch that quickly faded out of Ella’s consciousness. She looked at the gray-haired buyer and he looked at her. His expression, to the extent that he could be said to have an expression, was utterly unreadable.

But Varns. . . who could read anything about a Varn? Still seated, she backed away as far as the leash they’d tied around her ankle would allow.

“Hey, girlie!” The blacksuit reached for her. “Stand up and let us look at you.” She stared at him, unmoving.

“Get up!”

“Enough of that,” the other said. “Leave her alone.”

She turned her level gaze on him. He looked into her eyes, and a ghost of a smile crossed his long, sharp-planed face.

“Will you please back off?” he said to the blacksuited salesman. The guy fell resentfully silent.

He put a foot on the platform and hopped up onto it. But he didn’t move any closer. He just held a hand out toward her. “Let me help you up,” he said. His voice was calm and gentle. “C’mon.”

She hauled herself to her feet, declining to take his hand, and stood as far from him as she could get.

“That’s good,” he said. “It’s all right now: I promise not to bite.”

She wasn’t amused. Her expression said so, much as she tried to keep her face blank.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Her name is Ella,” the blacksuit said.

“I thought you were going to shut up?” the man replied. This elicited another surly silence.

“What do you call yourself?” he turned back to her.

“Eliyeh’llya,” she said, pronouncing her name in the Samdelan mode.

“Ah. Well,” he smiled a little ruefully, “do you mind if I call you Ella?”

She shrugged. Did she have a choice? “It’ll work.”

“All right. Ella. My name is Bhotil. I work for DOW Enterprises. We’re looking for someone we can train to help out in our offworld operations. And . . .” he leafed through a binder of papers he had in hand, “it looks like you’ve had some experience in managing some kind of shipping. Is that so?”

“You could put it that way,” she replied, wondering what he was talking about. She’d dealt with Distributed Off-World on Samdela, but not in ways one of its employees would want to know much about.

“What exactly did you do in your work? Can you describe it?”

What did I do . . . that I wouldn’t be arrested for? She grasped for something to say. “Well, I . . . scheduled deliveries and checked with customers to be sure they got made. On time. And just . . . sort of rode herd on things.” And kept the books for three under-the-table businesses, using coded math and my mother’s northern Samdi dialect that not very many cops were likely to understand, and reported any violations to the bosses, and did their bidding and kept their orders private, and forged government and financial documents as needed, and located girls when the bosses wanted a change or had cronies in town and saw to it that their wives didn’t find out and ran money through the “laundry” and . . . What do you want to know?

“Rode herd”?

“Did the bookkeeping and kept the records. And saw to it that anything that wasn’t about to get done did get done. Just…made sure everything got done, and got done right.”

“That can be quite a chore.”

She shrugged. “Sometimes.”

“Think you’re up for another job that’ll keep you busy?”

“If it’ll get me out of here. Sure.”

“Oh, it’s a long way from this place.”

The longer, the better, she thought.

“You’ll have to work pretty hard,” he added.

“I earn my way,” she said.

“We’ll see.” He glanced in the direction of the blacksuit, who was watching them in blessed silence. “I’ll take her. Set her loose, if you will, please.” He seemed, she thought, like a man who was accustomed to cooperation from those around him. She knew men like that. From before…

The blacksuit acted like his sun had just come out from behind a cloud as he moved to release her from the bond around her leg.

She could kick him in the face while he was kneeling by her foot…better not, though. Better not.

They followed him up to a set of offices on the building’s second floor, where they were parked in a waiting room.

“This will take awhile,” Bhotil said. “We have to fill out a lot of forms and then listen to enough lectures to fill your ears for the next week.”

“Fine. As long as it gets us to the door sooner or later.”

He smiled. “That it will.”

“That guy looked like you’d made his day,” she remarked after a moment of silence.

“Well, yeah. He gets a commission on whatever sales he makes.”

“Oh.” Follows. I’m a “sale” now. Well, she’d been a “sale” before…but that, she hoped, did not appear in her record. She imagined she’d find out soon enough…surely the blacksuits would go over all her sins with the prospective new master. Those they knew about.

The two sat in the silence for a more minutes, he staring into the distance and she covertly studying him. He must have been a handsome man in his younger years…she guessed he was pushing 60. Still good enough looking, his features distinctively masculine and his gray eyes thoughtful-looking, if absent with boredom. She wondered how often he’d been through this slave-purchasing process.

He spoke: “You look a little tired.”

Understatement. “It’s not easy to sleep here.”

“No. I’m sure not.” She having nothing to add to that, he continued, “When we get back to the ship, you can have a warm bath and something to eat, if you’re hungry. Then you can go to bed and sleep as long as you like. You’ll have your own quarters there, while we’re in transit.”

Ship? Transit? What “transit”? “What ‘ship,’ Mr. Bhotil?” she asked.

“They didn’t tell you? I’m sorry, I thought they had. We’re based on Zaitaf. We’ll be going back there tomorrow morning…that would be in about eighteen hours.”

Her breath stopped. Her chest wouldn’t pull in any air. “Zai… You mean the moon?”

“Well, the larger one. There are two.”

“No!” She couldn’t breathe. She jumped to her feet and managed to gasp in enough air to yell another NO! “I’m not going! You can’t take me there! No!” She stumbled away from him.

“Ella! Calm down!”

“No! No, I’m not going! No way!

He stood and reached for her. She dodged out of his grasp. “No! Leave me alone! You can’t take me there!” She started to sob, still trying to catch enough air.

A blacksuit approached, brandishing a billy club.

Bhotil glared him down. “Back off! She’s mine. I paid for her. I’ll handle this.”

The man paused, uncertain.

Now Ella was weeping uncontrollably. What was that he said? He already owned her? They already owned her? “No!”

In the instant she was distracted, Bhotil reached out and set his hands on her shoulders, exactly as the woman blacksuit had a few days before. He pulled her toward him.

“Ella,” he said. “Ella, will you please stop? Be quiet. No one’s going to hurt you.”

Sobs came in waves. She was beyond stopping them. All the fear and pain and anger and despair poured over her like a river of lava.

He held onto her and spoke something; what, she couldn’t make out over her own weeping, but he kept talking to her, low and gentle. How long this went on, she did not know. She felt the blacksuit nearby. She felt the eyes on her, other people in the waiting room staring. She felt Bhotil speaking. But what all that meant escaped her.

Then she was in his arms, weeping into the jacket covering his chest. He held her, for how long she couldn’t say. Finally, when she couldn’t draw another breath to sob, she stopped. He held her for a few seconds, a few minutes longer, she didn’t know.

“What in the Gods’ heavens is the matter, Ella?” he said. “Why are you carrying on like this?” He held her by the shoulders again, stroking the muscles between her shoulderblades.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life breaking rocks,” she wailed.

“What?”

“Don’t send me to the mines. I haven’t done anything to deserve that.”

“Oh!” The light dawned across his face. “Is that what you think is happening?”

She tried to seek shelter against his chest again, but he held her in place. “No. Ella, woman. That’s not what’s going to happen at all.”

“What else would people do on some godforsaken moon?”

“Ella. Will you please pay attention to me?”

She nodded, but the tears flowing down her face gainsaid her.

He held her back away from him and then lifted her chin. “Listen to me.” She shook her head. “Yes.” He tightened his grip on her shoulders. “You’re not going to any mines. Are you an engineer? Is there anything you could do for us there?

“Mining is just a small part of what the colony does. Ethra…it has so many other jobs. Hardly any of us work at the mines.”

“What else is there to do?” If she choked out the words, still she could not help gainsaying him.

“Well… Freighting, for one. None of those big deepspace ships can land on the planet. They dock at Ethra, where they offload their cargo. Because the gravity’s lower. And we ship it all to the surface. Don’t you remember? That’s how you got here.”

“What?”

“You were offloaded on Zaitaf and loaded onto a local surface lander.”

“I don’t think so. They just dumped us into some sort of…garage. Here. On the planet.”

“Well, you would have been in a pod. You couldn’t see out, could you?” She shook her head, no. “Your pod would have been moved over to a surface-bound ship – like the one that will carry us back to Ethra Port. You probably didn’t even know it. From Ethra Port you would have been carried down to Varnis, and from Cinorra Port they would have brought you here.

“Everything – and everyone, free or slave – that comes into the Varn system by deepspace carrier is laid off on Zaitaf and reloaded onto vessels that carry cargo to the surface. Same is true for whatever and whoever leaves the planet.”

“Oh.” She looked at him, amazed. With his fingers, he wiped the hot tears from her cheeks.

“And we have a research station there. More scientists and mathematicians than you can count. And a communications station. And a power station. And an agriculture pod that raises fresh fruits and vegetables and grain to feed us all. And a survey system studying the planet. And there’s a big, fancy resort. Believe it or not, rich people think it’s a fine place to go for vacations.”

“No.”

“Yes. You want to see some famous Great One? Sooner or later they all show up on Zaitaf.”

“Seriously? Like the Kaïna?”

“I’ve seen the Kai and the Kaïna myself. In person.”

“She goes there?”

“She does. They all do.”

§

The Kaïna Djitti. No, Ella never saw her on Zaitaf, not in all the years she spent there. Who would have thought she’d end up in her service?

No one. Least of all Ella.

 

Ella’s Story: Chapters 2 & 3 *FREE READ*

This is a story about people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

2.

She lay abed, wide awake long after curfew. The rest of the day had gone according to routine: long, busy but pleasantly satisfying.

She’d organized the next day’s house and field chores and then assigned them to her women and couples. Checked the schedule for the contract workers who had jobs off-campus. She had a chat with one pair who had hit a rough patch; listened to them argue, advised, reassigned tasks, tried to discern what the real issue was, or if there were one. Did some bookkeeping. Rode herd on the little kids for awhile, long enough to give their teacher an afternoon break. Tended the atrium garden, tidying flowers and turning over soil – for her, its own break. Inspected the manor’s housekeeping from basement to third story, chatted with the head housekeeper over hot tea. Put in orders with several suppliers for the provisions the housekeeper said were needed; entered these in the records. Counted workers returning from off-campus, checked them all off the roster. Listened to Sigi, the carpenter, explain why she should take two or three days off from her contract job to do some repair work at Skyhill. Put off agreeing to this. Helped shepherd small children to the dining hall to reunite them with working parents; silently checked attendance over dinner. Spent part of the evening socializing with (and watching out over) brothers and sisters around the patio firepit. Shooed a pair of moonstruck teenagers back into the light. Herded all her charges to their sleeping quarters and then, at lights-out, checked each cubicle to be sure the occupants were present and bedded down.

She should be plenty tired. But where the hell was sleep?

Somewhere down the hall a woman snored. Jeenan, Ella guessed. Remember to remind her to take her meds. Yet in the darkness, the bass tchida-ditta-tchitta-tida serenade of a lonely male tittlebug sounded louder than Jeenan’s eloquent breathing. From up toward the married couples’ quarters came a muffled giggle. A baby woke and cried briefly, then quieted. Outside, a ring-tailed tree bat emitted a distant squall, as if in reply to the infant human.

Feeling too warm, she kicked the covers off. A few minutes later, she pulled the blanket back over her shoulders. Damn!

It brought it all back, this Darl thing.

3.

She was only 26 when the bastards reeled her in. Truth to tell, she’d had a fairly good run. She’d started with the Syndicate at age 17 and had been in the life since she was ten or twelve, depending on how you looked at the “life.”

She was good at what she did. Always good at it. That made a point of pride for her. And for about anyone who employed her. At 26, she was doing the hiring, a mid-level lieutenant for the Band that ran the Galilu and Janan districts in the northern part of Tahana.

Never killed anyone though.

Well. Not directly, anyway.

Watching that man groan and squirm in pain, the burnt bands the cooker seared around his wrists and heaven only knows what unholy damage going on inside his body… God! It made her own muscles tense and twitch, just thinking about it. About him. It made the scars around her own wrists sting.

Holy Gods, how it hurt. How long it hurt! She would have given anything to make the pain stop. She would have given over her life to stop it.

And how did Dorin and Bis get him all the way out here, in a little hovercar, from the government slave market – way to hell and gone on the other side of the city – with him in that condition? How did they stand it? How did he stand it? How did it not kill him?

She couldn’t imagine.

She couldn’t imagine what would possess the blacksuits who ran the whole torturous process to have put him out for sale on the floor of the main market after…what? Did Dorin really say two days? No, less than two days? She wasn’t sure how long she’d been kept cosseted in a Recovery Center bunk, watched over and tested and washed and watered and fed and even sometimes comforted. But she figured it was at least a week. Probably ten days.

The faint ghost of Dorin’s desk light, bouncing off the walls and polished stone floor of the hallway that ran across the long side of the family quarters between his room and her own, at the top end of the women’s quarters, glowed dimly under the door drapes. She saw it go out.

He must have had paperwork to do before he could go to bed. Or maybe he lay awake, too, trying to unwind.

Time to go to sleep, damn it.

She burrowed under the blanket and determined to close her eyes.

Moonglow shimmered through the window. It spread across the bedcover and poured onto the floor.

Now that she was old, no one expected her to act like a vulnerable young girl. She wasn’t vulnerable back then. But now sometimes she felt that way.

§

She still ached all over her body that morning when they marched her out into the market. A vast, high-ceilinged room, glaringly lit by acres of overbright glow-walls, spread out below her and the blacksuited guard who pushed her forward. Rows of raised platforms, each about ten feet square, stood in files, line on line. Narrow aisles divided these on all sides, tracing pathways at right angles throughout the building. Each platform had a cot, a small table with a pitcher and a mug, and a stool. About half to two-thirds of the sites were occupied, most by a single person, some by couples, a few by one or more adults plus a child or children. Each was secured to his or her platform with a loose, rope-like line locked to an ankle cuff. The air resonated with the racket of voices echoing off hard surfaces from all directions.

Ella balked at the sight.

“Come on now,” the woman behind her said. “Let’s go—it’s not much further.”

“Oh, Gods…no,” Ella breathed.

She felt a hand squeeze her shoulder and heard a voice speak into her ear, so quietly she had to pay attention to follow the words: “Don’t worry: you won’t be here very long.”

“I can’t do this,” she said.

“Of course you can.”

She looked at the woman, who was watching her calmly. “How long does it take?” she asked. “I mean, before someone…gets you?”

“Depends. On who comes along, I guess: a few hours, sometimes. A few days. Maybe a few weeks.”

“Weeks! No…I can’t…”

“You don’t have to do anything. You just wait. But trust me. You’re young. You’re healthy. You have skills. And you don’t have any kids in tow. People will jump to buy you.”

“Don’t put me in there. I’d rather die. Right now. Right here.”

The hand tightened on her shoulder. “Stop that.” The voice stayed low but firm. “You’ve been through the worst of this and you’ve done just fine. Will you be my good woman now, please?”

Hot tears welled up in her eyes. She blinked them back as she shook her head, “No.”

“Yes. Be good. Just once at a time.”

“What? Just once this time?” She pushed back the tears with the crack.

A smile crossed the woman’s broad, unvarnished face. “Sure,” she said.

Even if she couldn’t speak, Ella couldn’t resist smiling back. The other woman’s grip softened and she felt the strong fingers rub sore muscles between her shoulder blades.

“Come on, then. We’ll find you a quiet place where you’ll have a little peace. And I’ll check on you a couple times a day. You’ll get through it all right. Trust me.”

Never trust a blacksuit. It was a fundamental rule of life.

§

Zaitaf, just now in its fullest phase, crept higher into the dark, clear sky. Bright, gold-tinged white light shone in through the cell’s small window and laid a square on the floor like a luminous glow-wall. A shining rug, as it were.

Zaitaf. Weird, how she missed it, that claustrophobic, air-tight settlement the Varns called Ethra. She wondered how Vighdi was doing – did she get the promotion she’d been angling for? Did she have a new lover yet? No…how long had it taken Vighdi to find someone to take her place, that was the question. And Bhotil. Was he still there, running the show? Or had he also moved on? Maybe he was on Varnis by now, who knew?

Certainly not Ella.

Dorin, in his position as the Kaïna’s overseer, no doubt could break into the colony’s personnel records. If he couldn’t do it himself, he knew the right strings to pull to get someone else to do it. But Ella, a step below him in rank as steward, didn’t have that kind of authority. Or access to government databases. She wouldn’t think of asking him. It wasn’t any of her business, after all. Nor, for that matter, of his.

Creative Process: Becalmed

Been awhile since I posted here. That’s because it’s been awhile since I’ve written any creative work worth mentioning.

Lots of clients’ papers and books: good. Lots of socializing: fine. Lots of goofing off: hmmm…

So I’d gotten several chapters into the current novel — let’s call it the Varnis Book, after the name of the fanciful planet where it takes place — but suddenly…just came to a dead stop.

I’d turn on the computer, stare at the screen, and…could not write a word.

Open a notebook, pick up a luxurious fountain pen, stare at the paper, and…could not write a word.

Huh. I knew what the characters intended to do. I knew (at least vaguely) what awaits them. But NOTHING that I tried to do would make the words flow.

This led to quite a lot of idle time. And quite a lot of pointless self-distraction (which also did not work). And finally to a general sense of frustration.

At one point as I was daydreaming while driving through the city’s homicidal traffic (I distract myself from the pain and terror of driving by dreaming up plotlines), it occurred to me that the character who was occupying most of my attention — the one I seemed to be finding most attractive — was one who was not central to the main story. She was not a main character; she was not even a central character in her sub-plot.

But for some reason, she was more interesting than any of the characters I probably should have been working on.

After I had wasted (so I thought) more than enough time dreaming up this woman, Ella, and imagining her life story, a radical thought coalesced in the Magic 8-Ball that is my mind:

What if the story is really not Rysha’s story? What if the story is really Ella’s story?

Hm. Not to say whoa! What would happen if I tried to write the narrative from Ella’s point of view? Or…since I seem to find Ella so fascinating, what if I simply wrote Ella’s backstory, just to get that out of my system?

If I took the time to put the story of Ella’s life in little glowing letters on a computer screen, what would I have then?

Nothing?

A chapter or three for the novel?

A short story that might stand on its own?

A highly developed set of notes that could be used to inform the novel’s progress, if I could ever get the novel to progress again?

Well… “Nothing” was what I had at the moment. None of the other three options looked any worse than that.

So, thought I, let’s send Ella to the moon, and then let’s have her tell us what happened to her after that. Opened a new file, saved it as “Ella’s Backstory.docx,” and started typing.

And…

and…

and KEPT ON TYPING.

Amazingly, it worked.

Yes. Apparently I’m far more interested in the subplots than I am in the main plot of this proposed novel.

At 5,025 words, I’m ready to launch Ella into a new scene and from there to tell the reader a whole lot more about her.

Might the new scene be a new chapter? Or might we be looking at something that is NOT a novel? Could we be looking at a series of short stories or novelettes that occur around the ongoing action of a place and a period in the planet’s history?

Maybe this is not really any one character’s novel, but several stories of several characters?

Whatever…that remains to be seen.

Where Is the Grass Greener?

So, in the grass-is-greener department, here’s the question of the day: Can you earn more money cleaning house than you can editing copy?

Well, the lady who came to my house during the Year of the Surgery charged $80 a hit. But apparently she undercharged. Women I talk to at choir say they expect to pay $100. I had her come in every two weeks, but more affluent types will have them once a week. And one lady I talked to, who was working for a woman who farmed her out to others, discovered the woman was charging $120 for her services.

So let’s say you cleaned one house a day for the supposed going rate of $100 a hit: you’d be earning $500 a week. I’m not earning $500 a week.

My co-editor and I have never calculated how much per hour we’re getting paid to put together an issue of the journal we contract to. I spent most of the day on an article that looked like it had never been through the peer review process—but it’s hard to tell exactly how many hours I racked up, because I work on-again, off-again, with a lot of interruptions. But…22 pages of really difficult stuff? Let’s suppose you can get through a page in 10 minutes, on average: that’s 220 minutes, or 3.6 hours.

I’m sure I spent more than 3½ hours on that thing. But suppose each of us allowed it to absorb that much of our time: it’s an entire day of time wasted on producing a piece that in a rational world would never see print. Did we each earn $100 on that effort? Or even $50?

We get a thousand bucks per issue… Each issue has several full-length articles, some creative pieces, a long-winded editorial statement, and a set of self-aggrandizing authors’ bios. Many of the authors are ESL writers or people who grew up in homes where another language was spoken, and so the copy has language challenges as well as the usual academic ones. If we were to work on only that, full-time, we could probably turn it out in a week. Maybe less: but say five to seven days.

So let’s say you had five women, for whose services you charged $120 to clean five McMansions, each woman taking one house. You’d have to ride herd on them, but most of the time you wouldn’t be doing much cleaning yourself. So each of these women brings in $120/day; you pay them $60 (the lady who told me this story was being grossly underpaid), so you pocket $60 — less the amount you have to pay in your share of the FICA taxes, assuming you report the income. $60 x 5 is $300 per day for your crew. Now, $300 x 5 days a week is $1500 a week, or $6,000 a month. And you’d never have to read another plagiarized student paper or another polemical “research study” whose author insists on replacing every third letter with “x.”

You would have to hustle: marketing would be the key. And managing these women would be a challenge. You’d be riding herd constantly. To field a crew of five people five days a week, you’d need to have more than five on the string. You’d have to do a fair amount of training, too, since many cleaning ladies don’t know how to clean.

Check this out, bearing in mind that one of our mentors thinks we should be getting $60/hour for our time: http://www.homeadvisor.com/cost/cleaning-services/

We most certainly do not earn $1500 a week, either individually or between the two of us. Nor do we earn $120 x 5, $600 a week: the amount one of us could earn cleaning house five days a week.

On the other hand, we don’t work 8 hours a day (regularly) on editorial. My cohort teaches full-time at the University of Phoenix, which just now entails juggling twenty-eight sections of 35 students apiece. You could not get me to do that if the only other choice were starvation. I earn some cash blogging, and rather more reading math, business, and biosciences papers by Chinese scientists. Editing, like teaching, is not what you’d call handsomely paid.

if I’m teaching the largest number of sections the community colleges will farm out to adjuncts, I earn all of $1100 a month. On average. Some months, of course, I earn nothing.

When a profession that requires at least one advanced degree (preferably two) and substantial experience makes cleaning house look good…Houston, we’ve got a problem.

Mysteries of the Creative Process

This week has been one long nightmare, what with my son’s dreadful experience on the road, way, way out in rural Arizona with his dog:

Day One
Update
Homeward Bound
Back in Town
Home at Last

While my poor son has been wrestling with what may yet have a sad outcome, I’ve been virtually catatonic with worry: unable to go up to help him in the small town where he’s been stuck, because two people could not drive two vehicles and nurse the desperately damaged and sick Charley all the way down the Mogollon Rim.

I’ve found myself unable to work. Fortunately no paying jobs were in house. But I had planned to scribble another chapter in the time-killing entertainment that is the current novel. Instead, every time I sat down to work on it, I found myself killing time, all right: on Internet games!

🙄

But nevertheless I also passed a fair amount of time — mostly while driving around — imagining what my characters were getting up to and how they would interact and react.

And once again these people — these wholly imaginary people (where do they come from?) — surprise me.

Our heroine Rysha and her friends, all young and restless aristocrats of an interplanetary empire far far away and (etc.), are planning some mischief. To pull it off, they have to weasel Rysha out of the control of the team of bodyguards whose job is to keep an eye on her every living, breathing moment. In specific, they must evade the attention of the redoubtable Merren, who did not get to be head of her father’s security team by putting up with any shenanigans.

She schemes:

Parked before the mirror while Dita arranged her hair in one of the less elaborate configurations that marked a high-born woman’s status, Rysha did a quiet calculation.

This evening Merren would be standing guard outside her father’s suite. The Snowman, as Treykhan had dubbed the Michaian creature, would be with him. So: two of them out of her face. Bis was assigned to the front gate, leaving Essio and Nehdo to watch her or to take a few hours off, at Merren’s pleasure. She had asked for Nehdo and, to her mild surprise, gotten her wish. Merren had his own ideas about what the guard would do, and about half the time he’d gainsay her.

Nehdo was a good choice for this evening’s get-together. Pliable and a shade on the lazy side, he was easy to deflect.

“Ouch! Dita!” Her scalp stung where Dita’s comb snagged on a braid.

“I’m sorry, my lady.”

“Be a little more careful, will you, please?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

They would need to dispense with Nehdo for the evening if they were to lay plans for the Great Night on the Town. Of the five members of the Kai’s guard, Neddy would be the simplest to dispense with. If any part of the plan got back to Merren or—Goddesses forfend!—to Ella, she’d never hear the end of it. And if her father found out, none of the young lordlings and ladies would ever escape the dog house.

Ella, grandmother to the world. It had become a standing joke: almost nothing got past the woman.

A whisper of a smile crossed her face as she thought of Ella and watched the ebony hair sculpture take shape. It was good that Ella had been there after her mother passed. Though she surely was no aristocrat and had little understanding of the challenges Rysha would face in preparing to step in as kaïna, Ella had done a lot of mothering for her over the past few years. It wasn’t until recently that Rysha learned Ella, like Dorin, was trained in psychology and social work. That seemed obvious to her now, given their position as overseers. Even though it wasn’t advertised, she wondered why she’d not known it sooner.

Whatever. If it had helped her deal with a motherless girl, so much the better.

Dita applied a layer of shining lacquer to the last coil of braid and pinned it in place.

“That looks very good, dear,” Rysha said.

Dita glanced up at her in the mirror. “Thank you, madame.” She smiled modestly.

“You don’t need to wait up for me tonight. It’ll likely be late by the time we get back. And I’m sure I can get this down enough to sleep on.”

Dita looked pleased to be relieved of after-hours duty. “Yes, ma’am,” she replied. “There’s just three clips you need to undo.” She tapped each of the hidden snaps with a fingernail to show where they were. “I’ll take the braids apart and wash your hair in the morning, as you please.”

“Good,” Rysha replied with some finality. “If you’ll hand me my tunic, you can go for the rest of the evening. And tell Merren to have Nehdo meet me downstairs, if you will.”

“I will, madame.” She bowed her head briefly at the dismissal. “Have a good time tonight.”

“Thank you, sweet.” Tonight’s get-together would be routine enough. But the next time the friends met, she expected, would be fun.

§ next scene is really draftig §

PachiLu’s doorman showed Rysha into his lord’s sitting room, where a half-dozen friends were chatting and drinking. Those who weren’t already standing rose to their feet when the young kaïna entered.

Well, here’s our lady,” the young lord Pachi exclaimed. Emarr’, heiress-in-waiting to the title of Lady [name], embraced Rysha in a welcoming hug, and Lord Naretal’s son Treykhan offered her a favorite drink.

Cheerfully lit, between the ubiquitous glowalls and bright though redundant sconces perched between night-black windows, the clubbish room with its deep burgundy flooring and vast hide chairs and ottomans always seemed dark and heavy to Rysha. Some of the tables, she knew, had been built by one of her father’s people, the carpenter woman whose woodwork graced rooms at Skyhill, too. Others were pieces that had been in Pachi’s family for a time, some for a long time. It was hard to guess which were new, which were old, and which were older.

None of the company was old, though. The cherub-faced PachiLu; Treykhan, blocky as her father but barely a year older than Rysha; smokey-eyed [name], beautiful with a panache beyond her years. Here, too, was [name], a honey-haired thing rather too obviously intoxicated by a crush on Pachi. Ghemmeh and Tand, brother and sister handsome in the classic dark Varn manner, had in tow Eestom and Dade…were those two attached to the siblings or to each other? In her secret heart, Rysha wondered.

But she made no sign of it. She sipped the tart-sweet liquor and then raised the glass in greeting to her friends.

Nehdo discreetly took up a position by the door. Pachi’s valet passed a tray of finger foods and shortly retrieved from the dumbwaiter several bowls of snacks and sweets, which he placed on tables around the room. Then he took up a position next to Nehdo. [ADD music in the background!!]

“Thank you, [name].” Pachi didn’t make the man wait long. “You can go now. I’ll call you if we need you.”

[Name] bowed subtly and turned to leave.

“Nehdo, would you like to join him?” Pachi added.

Nehdo glanced hopefully at his mistress. Perfect: he hadn’t a clue. She shot a mildly surprised look at Pachi. “I think that would be all right,” she said, “as long as he doesn’t leave the house. Will you be in the kitchen or downstairs lounge?”

“My lady,” [name] nodded affirmatively.

“All right,” she said to Nehdo. “You’d better come back up here at curfew time.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Nehdo visibly tried not to look unduly enthusiastic.”

[more to come]

§

Getting rid of that one was pretty easy. Now to see what kind of trouble this bunch can cook up…

 

Duotrope?

So, here’s something interesting: a platform that helps you scope out something over 6100 markets for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and photo essays. It’s called Duotrope.

The intriguing aspect of this resource is that it goes well beyond a simple Writer’s Markety listing of potential publishers for your golden words. It provides access to a database of statistics that can tell you, for example, the acceptance rate of given publications, markets most liked by Duotrope respondents, and search statistics showing what other people look for.

It also has a tool to help you keep track of submissions (you don’t have a calendar on your computer??), a collection of editor interviews (always useful for getting a sense of the readers targeted by a publication and how the editors try to reach them), and market listings showing what editors are looking for, acceptance rates, and pay rates.

Unfortunately, it has a paywall: a $5/month membership fee. But that’s not unreasonable: all you’d need is one paid article to more than cover that. In reviewing Duotrope over at Juggling Writer back in 2012, Bartleby Snopes founding editor Nathaniel Tower concludes that its statistics are reasonably accurate, and, if you intend to use the site seriously as a tool to locate markets for your literary maunderings, it’s worth the cost.

There are some free alternatives, BTW, but none seems to cover the number of publications listed by Duotrope.

New Pages Literary and alternative magazines
Ralan Speculative and humor
Every Writer Literary journals
Fiction Factor Wide range of genres; e-publishers & print

Me? I think I probably will subscribe to Duotrope, after taking advantage of their seven-day free trial. Funny about Money, my main blog, occasionally emits something that might interest a wider audience — this morning I found about a half-dozen posts that could be reworked and sent to various small journals. Why not?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Image: Depositphotos: © ginasanders