THE BETTER SPY – Release Date Announced!

The_Better_Spy_Cover_for_KindlejpgIt’s official! My newest collection of short stories about the globe-trotting U.N. spies Alexei Bukharin and Mai Fisher, The Better Spy, will be released as a paperback and an eBook on July 28, 2015!

You first met Mai and Alexei in Blood Vengeance, Spy Flash, and My Noble Enemy (a Spy Flash novella). The Better Spy isn’t exactly a continuation but, rather, another piece in the mosaic of these two characters’ lives.

What is it about?

“The defining mission of UN covert operative Mai Fisher’s career came in the mid-1980s when she went undercover in the IRA. It was a mission she barely survived, when a shipment of Semtex she intended to destroy before the IRA would distribute it to various cells exploded too soon. Nine people, including a man she’d come to love, died, and she carried the guilt for the rest of her career. Nearly three decades later, a dying soldier has a secret he wants to tell her, one that will change everything.”

You can pre-order The Better Spy starting today. Click HERE to pre-order. Enjoy!

 

Interview–Debut Romance Author Margaret Locke

MLHeader2Debut romance author Margaret Locke has a great novel out, A Man of Character. I’ve reviewed it, and you can click here to read the review or click on the “Book Review” tab above and select it from the drop-down menu. Below is a refreshing interview I conducted with Ms. Locke. Authors of any experience level can relate to her experience–and her joy at seeing her first novel in print.

PD: You’ve spoken in other interviews about your agent-querying marathon, so we won’t go into that here, but what was most appealing, artistically, about indie publishing for you?

LOCKE: I did want that brass ring, you’re right. I wanted it desperately, as “proof” I was good enough. But I realized the brass ring came with encumbrances that seemed more detrimental than beneficial, especially after I listened to other authors share their experiences. The idea of not controlling my publishing schedule, of not having final say over edits, over cover art, over the title of my book—I couldn’t imagine it. Many traditionally published authors also told me they have to do nearly all their own publicity. Not as much control, smaller royalties, and still having to do all the promo? Indie publishing suddenly sounded much more appealing.

I’m so happy I chose this path. I admit, I felt I’d failed, at first, in not securing an agent, and that publishing on my own was somehow lesser. I’ve come around on that idea 180 degrees. Now I relish being completely in charge of my own career—for better or worse—and the creative freedom that comes with that. If I want to write a series in which the first book is a light paranormal romantic comedy, the second a time-travel romance, the third a straight Regency tale, I can. And, uh, I have. It’s a joy to have such freedom.

PD: Regency is a popular setting for romance writers. What’s your strategy for making yours stand apart in a crowd? And, without using the words, “Fitzwilliam Darcy,” what appeals to you about that era as a setting?

LOCKE: Oh, gosh. I have to have a strategy? I do hope my sense of humor brands my books as mine. I’m also partial to quirky, flawed characters. But those things don’t mark me as special; most authors incorporate those these days. Most authors also write series in which characters are interlinked, so I’m not treading new ground there. However, I plan to take familiar tropes and spice them up a bit, do a few unexpected things, have fun with the genre and its expected conventions.

As for what appeals about the Regency—I wish I had an answer. I think that era is a period in time that feels at once familiar and distant. Familiar, because it’s not all that long ago, relatively speaking. Many people, I’m guessing, can more readily envision Regency England than, perhaps, ancient Greece or medieval Germany. And distant, because social structures and social mores have shifted over the last two hundred years. With the Regency, we get a society we can understand fairly easily, overlaid with the whole fantasy element, that romantic idea of Once Upon A Time, especially since the Regency period is known for its grand balls and dukes and barons—all elements familiar to most modern folk from fairy tales we heard growing up.

PD: Describe your writing process. What do you keep around you for inspiration?

LOCKE: My writing process is erratic and not what it needs to be. Random thoughts, plot points, character ideas, snippets of dialogue, hit me at the most inopportune times (just before drifting off to sleep, while out running errands), and I’m frustrated that I don’t capture more of those thoughts (although I am finally using the iPhone’s voice memo option!).

I wish I had a more structured schedule to which I adhered. I always plan on that, but life (and social media) get in the way. However, I’ve long known I work best in the morning, and I work best when I can have a two-hour (or more) time period in which I know I won’t be interrupted. When that happens, I can ensconce myself in the Writing Cave and write—sometimes with inspiring instrumental music playing in the background, other times in silence. When I’m in the zone, I don’t need anything around me for inspiration, because I’m so lost in my own alternate reality that I don’t notice my real life, anyway.

PD: You’ve indicated A MAN OF CHARACTER is book one in a series of five (or six?) What are your plans beyond that, or is that thinking too far ahead?

LOCKE: I don’t know exactly how many books will be in the Matters of Love series. I suppose I should nail that down, but every time I decide I’ve thought of all the characters and stories I want to include in that series, something else pops up, and I think, “Oh yeah, I could write a story about that!” I do have eight potential books loosely sketched out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if secondary characters from those novels demand their own stories. After that, we’ll see. I recently discovered some ideas I’d written down years ago, when I was in my 20s, and a few aren’t half-bad. Then there’s a whole flip-the-fairy-tales-on-their-heads set of ideas that I’ve loosely planned out. I could be writing for a very long time.

PD: What would you say to someone who doesn’t normally read romance to get them to try A Man of Character?

LOCKE: I’ll bake you cookies. I’ll massage your feet. I’ll clean your house for month. No, just kidding. (You wouldn’t want me as your housekeeper, anyway, given the state of my own house.)

I do claim AMOC is not a typical romance, and yet I don’t want people to think I’m trying to distance myself from the genre. Exactly the opposite. I love romance and would love to encourage people to give a well-written romance novel a shot. They’re so much more than the stereotypes. Is a relationship at the center of a romance? Sure. Is the Happily Ever After a requirement? Absolutely.

But romances are no more formulaic than any other genre fiction. (Can’t write a mystery without solving it, right?) Romances tell women’s stories (or gay/lesbian/transgender stories—there are subgenres for everyone). The hero is crucial, of course. You can’t have a decent romance without an enticing (albeit flawed) hero.

But it’s the heroine with whom we as readers most closely identify, I would argue. It’s she we want to see overcome a variety of obstacles, she we want to achieve self-satisfaction—within and outside of the central relationship. Romance (most of it, at least) provides that. Much romance is much more feminist than most people realize: a story in which the woman’s journey is central? In which her emotional and sexual satisfaction are legitimate, worthy, and expected goals? Yes, please.

I don’t know if that answers the question, so I asked my husband what he would say. (He read the whole book in one day.) His answer? “Tell them they might just enjoy the story and might learn that some of the things they thought about romance were wrong.”

Yup. What he said.

PD: What are some words of encouragement to would-be authors out there, in any genre?

If you want to write, write. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study the craft and learn the ins and outs of your intended genre. You should—if you plan to put your work out for public consumption, at least. But don’t let the Eeyores drag you down. Keep writing. Keep reading. Join a critique group. Find some beta readers. Go to conferences. Get to know authors on social media.

OK, well, those are all the things I did. I don’t know if they work for everyone else. I think the biggest thing is, write if you want to. It might take a while to find the right writing community for you, but keep seeking one out. Sabrina Jeffries told me, “Don’t write in a vacuum.” I 100% agree. Find your groove, and find your group, and don’t give up.

PD: Describe your book launch day, i.e., for those who’ve never experienced it; the emotions, good and bad. Was it everything you expected and hoped for? What will you do differently next time?

It was amazing and surreal, exhilarating and exhausting. There had been some build-up: the first time I saw my book’s listing on Amazon, the first time I held a copy in my hands. (Yes, I shrieked and hopped up and down both times.) But to know on launch day that my baby (warts and all) was out there for all to see—and potentially criticize—was terrifying and elating, at the same time.

If I had to do it all again, I would’ve done more promo prep before launch day. I probably should have contacted book bloggers. I could have created more visual memes. I might have had all the potential excerpts and quotes and promo posts already drafted. I didn’t. But I had fun anyway. And I’m doing some of those now, hoping that “better late than never” still applies.

Confession: I also don’t want to be strung out on chocolate on my next release day. It was such a whirlwind week, I’m not surprised I fell face-first back into the sugar. By actual release day, I was a mix of exhausted and over-sugarfied. Not really a good combo, on Launch Day or otherwise.

PD: You’re barely taking a break, in that your next book in the series comes out in the fall. Give a brief sketch of what it’s about, and dare we hope it involves Eliza and her duke?

LOCKE: The only reason the “break” is so short is that I have the second book already written. (Thank you, NaNoWriMo 2014!) It needs heavy editing, but the basic parts are there, so I think (I hope!) my late fall deadline is workable. And yes, it most definitely involves Eliza and her duke. In it, I introduce you to the Mattersley family—the family around which all my original story ideas were based, before Cat leapt into the picture. I hope y’all have fun reading about Eliza’s struggles to come to grips with what it actually means to live in a different era and to deal with a man who doesn’t necessarily agree that he’s her soulmate.

PD: In your “Acknowledgements” section, you included your writers group, Shenandoah Valley Writers. How are writers groups important, in general, and, specifically, how did yours help you?

LOCKE: How did it not? To be a part of a writing community, to put myself out there and call myself a writer, was one of the greatest feelings ever. I was doing this. And I was doing it publicly! To hear about others’ struggles, successes, strategies, systems…all have helped me grow in my own process. I’ve met amazing people and developed incredible friendships. We’ve gotten together in person. We’ve cheered each other on, helped each other up, told the world about each other.

In fact, it’s hard to remember life without all these writer people in it, and yet that was the case just, what, two years ago? Three at most. Surrounding myself with people who love what I love is amazing! (Even if it bores all my other friends to hear me talking writing all the time. Sorry, guys. I’m trying to find balance.) So thank you, Maggie. Thank you, Rebekah, Annika, Tamara, Foy, Taryn, Allison, Sydney, Morgan, Lindsey, Josette, Christy, Sara, and Audrey. (Eek! I’m sure I’ve forgotten people!) Thank you to the Flash Friday community. Thank you to the writer friends I’ve met online. Y’all are amazing. And you brought me to this place. I’m sure that if I were going this alone, I would not be published.

The first time I joined a critique group, I was terrified. The first time I put myself in the hot seat and let people critique my work, I thought I was going to throw up. And yet I could see how valuable it was to get multiple sets of eyes on my work, to hear from them what worked and what didn’t, whether or not I was on the right track, etc. So find a writing group, find beta readers, but also find a critique group. It might take a few tries to find a group of people with whom you click, with whom you feel safe, a group that has the same approach when it comes to critiquing (I value positive, uplifting interactions, even when giving suggestions for improvement). But it’s worth it.

PD: Finally, what would you like to say–anything at all–on becoming a published author?

It’s surreal and exciting and…surprisingly not all that different from my life before I was a published author. Am I part of the club yet? It doesn’t feel like it. I still wrestle with self-doubt, still wonder if I’m good enough, still fret over whether I’m doing it right (whatever it is: writing, editing, promo). Sadly, I haven’t made a bazillion dollars. I still have laundry to do and meals to cook. My kids still squabble. I still have to grocery shop and serve as Taxi Mom and deal with my own character faults.

Rats. I was kind of hoping once I was published, I’d hit glamour status. Nope. Now I’ve got the pressure to write the next book, and the fear it won’t be as good as the first.

I guess that’s all normal.

But what do I also have? The unbelievable, nearly indescribable feeling of accomplishment. I said for years I was going to write romance. I finally did. I really did it.

You visit Ms. Locke’s blog and sign up for her newsletter by clicking here. You can purchase A Man of Character on Amazon.com

Post-Workshop Let-Down

It doesn’t take long. A weekend, in fact. You spend five solid days and nights immersed in writing with other writers, and the workshop becomes a routine, something you wake up and look forward to each morning. Then, the week comes to an end, you pack the car, turn in your room key, eat the final meal with people who’ve become family, and go home to face the reality of day-to-day writing.

In the midst of a scene, you turn to ask one of your workshop-mates if something will work, and you realize you’re all alone now, in your writing cave, with only The Google for company. And, well, you miss hearing how great your writing is.

Let’s face it. You learn a lot in a workshop, mainly how other people perceive the words you’ve decided are golden and untouchable. When the emphasis is a positive experience, as it is at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, you definitely get the praise, but you also understand what you need to work on to improve your writing. You come away feeling good about yourself and your writing, no matter your level of experience. That daily dose of “I really liked how you…” becomes addictive, and you crave it once you’re home and don’t have anyone telling you how good you are.

And that’s a good thing, because as with anything, complacency will ruin your writing.

 

Post-workshop, you feel as if you’re writing in a vacuum without those voices saying, “What did you mean here?” You know, the questions you never ask yourself while you’re in creative mode. A workshop goes beyond beta readers or a critique group. Your betas and your critique group members become accustomed and somewhat inured to your style, your characters, your writing. A workshop puts fresh eyes on your work, scrutiny that can put a spotlight on weaknesses you’ve missed.

Now, it does require a leap of faith to put what you’ve sweated blood over in the hands of strangers for them to vivisect while you sit there unable to say a word. I make it sound like a nightmare, and it is daunting; however, you will be a better writer because of it.

But, in the week following the workshop, you can’t help but think, Wow, this time last week, we were going over my short story, or, Was it just a week ago we sat around the lounge and debated the worthiness of James Joyce (uh, no debate there). You miss the company of writers; you miss your family; you miss the challenges they offer you. You lament that you’ll have to wait a year to do this again.

Somehow, you’ll muddle through.

Book Launch!

MNE FCFlight Controller: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. We have lift-off! Lift off of Phyllis “Maggie” Duncan’s very first novella, MY NOBLE ENEMY! Ask yourself, what would you do if your best friend came to you and told you he was dying? You’d pretty much drop everything to care for him, even if it brings up old slights and opens old wounds. Most of all, you’d want the end to be peaceful.

MY NOBLE ENEMY is not my typical historical thriller. Rather, it’s a love story on many levels–what friends will do for each other, supporting a spouse even if you don’t agree with his or her actions, and a bit of young love in, of all places, the red-light district of Amsterdam. Yeah, you know I had to be a little salacious. If you pre-ordered a Kindle version of MY NOBLE ENEMY, it will arrive TODAY! And if you’d like your Kindle version “signed,” go to authorgraph.com, look the book up, and submit a request for a virtual autograph. If you’re looking for a paperback copy, you can order one from Amazon.com–oh, if you buy a paperback, you can bundle the Kindle version at a bargain price. I hope you enjoy MY NOBLE ENEMY.

Tinker Mountain 2015 – My Writing Tribe

The countdown calendar to the right of this post indicates that, as of today, I have seven days to go before the 2015 Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I find it amazing this is my fourth one! Three years ago about this time, I was having big second thoughts. For one, I’d never had my work critiqued by strangers, much less a well-respected, actual writer who was my workshop instructor. To say I was a nervous Nellie would freshen that cliché.

But 2012 was all positive with the incredible Pinckney Benedict; 2013 was amazing with the insightful Fred Leebron; and 2014 was an eye-opening experience with a master of genre writing, Laura Benedict. So much so, I’m re-taking her workshop this year, and I hope what I’ve submitted embodies everything I learned from her last year.

As critical as the workshop is now to my writing, the making of writer friends is, in some ways, more important. I have a circle of extremely talented writers who’ll beta-read what I’ve done and point out exactly what I need to do to make it better. More importantly, because we have that shared workshop experience, I respect their opinions. There is no sense of competition; just genuine, meaningful critique. What more could you ask for in a writing workshop?

So, today, I’m positively giddy. I can’t wait for Sunday to get here to head the loaded car south to Roanoke, set foot on the absolutely gorgeous campus of Hollins University (an inspiration in and of itself), and see my writing tribe.

Oh, and, I might get a writing themed tattoo while I’m there. Gasp!

MY NOBLE ENEMY – Ready for Pre-Order!!

MNE FCMy Noble Enemy: A Spy Flash Novella is now available for pre-order for your Kindle or Kindle App. At just $3.99–what a deal! Plus, if you order the paperback (which is also a steal at $5.99), you can add the ebook for just $1.99!

Feel like you’re in an infomercial yet? So much for the marketing skills.

You can pre-order My Noble Enemy by clicking here, and on June 5, 2015, it will magically appear on your Kindle and be accessible on your Kindle App.

But if you’re a gotta-hold-the-book-in-my-hands reader, you can order the paperback now. Did I mention it’s a steal at $5.99? Order the paperback by clicking here.

Thanks for putting up with my attempt at positive marketing. It’s okay to laugh.

Life Can Imitate Art–Unfortunately

“At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art.”–Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”–Oscar Wilde

Let’s say you write fiction based on topical current events. When violent events similar to what you write about in your fiction happen in real life, you chalk it up to coincidence and your overactive imagination. I, for one, never deliberately tone down violence nor do I make it gratuitous. I try to match the violence to the subject I’m writing about and to the context of the scene. So, for example, if I write about an ISIL beheading (and you know I will), some blood has to gush and not just for the sake of violence. Human physiology demands it. I also believe violence should never be watered down because if evil is behind it; then, evil needs to be seen for what it is in all its gory infamy.

This past week, I had brief, second thoughts about any sort of violence in my writing.

Last Tuesday, I rose early and went outside to work in the flower beds in the front of my house. I am by no means a gardener, nor do I enjoy “digging in the earth.” It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever. However, I did need to weed the flower beds and cut back last year’s now-dead growth (yes, last year’s; I mentioned I hate gardening) so my landscaping guys can come and re-mulch. It was a gorgeous sunny morning, and I did relish being outside despite the pollen making my eyes water. I finished up in good time and went back in the house, intending to take a soak in my spa tub.

Shortly before 0930, I heard two gunshots.

I knew they were gunshots, from a handgun, not a rifle, and I knew they were close, not from the woods nearby. But gunshots don’t happen in quiet, suburban neighborhoods. Besides, there was a new house being built across the street, and the builders were using nail guns. In but a few seconds I talked myself into having heard nail guns.

Instead of heading for my bath, though, I finished the morning paper and decided to get it to the recycle bin, already at the curb, because pick-up would be in an hour or so. I opened the garage door and went to the curb.

And heard a man screaming.

Diagonally across the street from my driveway, my neighbor lay half-in, half-out of his garage, and he was not shouting, not yelling, but screaming.

Man. Garage. Screaming. He fell off a ladder, I thought, because I’d so successfully pushed the thought of gunshots out of my head.

I reached him and leaned down. I saw some blood on the driveway, on his arm, a little on his mouth. I asked if he was okay. (Yeah, blood; dumb question.) He asked me to call 9-1-1. I knew I’d need to tell 9-1-1 why I wanted an ambulance, so I asked my neighbor what had happened.

“I’ve been shot.”

That’s when I saw a large stain of blood on his dark green shirt, in the area of his left shoulder.

Now, everyone who knows me knows my iPhone is rarely not on my person, but this morning it wasn’t because the shorts I wore to work in the yard had no pocket. I told my neighbor I’d have to go get my phone but that I would call right away. As I ran (yeah, I ran) back to my house, his screaming started again.

At one point in my life I investigated small airplane accidents. I’ve even had a couple of them occur while I was at an airport doing something else. I guess that investigator side never really left because as I was talking to the 9-1-1 operator, I was giving her details and in a calm demeanor. “That’s good,” she said, “keep telling me what’s happening.”

And I did, knowing this was being relayed to the police. She told me to stay on the line with her until the police arrived. I told her I was going to get some towels and go back to my neighbor.

“No, you’re not,” she said, and we argued a bit about my stopping his bleeding and her insistence I stay in my house. “You don’t know where the shooter is,” she said.

Oh. But…

No buts from her. I did, however, concede to stay in my garage where I could keep an eye on my neighbor until the police arrived. As I waited, hearing sirens in the distance, I watched him stop moving, heard him stop vocalizing, but I stayed behind cover ’cause, you know, I write about this shit. About people who carry guns and who occasionally use them and know how to take cover when the bullets fly. But my stories are concocted, made up, fiction. My life doesn’t involve taking cover in my garage and watching a man who’s been shot grow paler.

The local, small-town police arrived, handled it very professionally, and took care of my neighbor. The ambulance came, they loaded him in–still alive–and took him away. The police “canvassed the neighborhood,” but it turns out I was the only one who heard or saw anything.

The policeman who interviewed me said, “Ma’am, you’re very calm.”

Airplane accidents I told him. This guy was in one piece.

Two reporters interviewed me. “Ma’am, you’re very detailed.”

Former accident investigator, I told them. Details are important.

And because this is the era of social media, I posted a brief description on Facebook.

“You just got involved because you write this stuff,” someone commented.

And that’s where the second-guessing and self-doubt came in. Had I approached this with a writer’s eye, taking in detail I could turn into a scene in a story or novel? Had I responded as a fiction writer and not as a concerned citizen? Should I have stayed in my house like every other neighbor had?

The answer is no, no, and no.

As the day unfolded, the neighborhood gleaned more details. My neighbor was shot by his wife, who fled the scene and was pulled over by police an hour away from our neighborhood. At some point during the confrontation with the police, she shot and killed herself. She had recently been diagnosed with advanced brain cancer and had but a few weeks to live. She had expressed suicidal thoughts to her family. (One of her relatives lives in the neighborhood.) The man I found shot survived and is likely out of hospital by now. No one has returned to their home, with its perfect lawn and blooming flowers.

So, yeah, I’m a writer. I see details. You don’t like it? Bite me.

If I were to write this, it would have a better ending. No one would be dead. No one would be shot, certainly not someone I see in the neighborhood every day. At the very least, my neighbor would have been accidentally shot while trying to stop his wife from hurting herself. But the happy endings are rare. Sometimes they only occur in fiction, as described by a writer.

In the meantime, my characters will still carry guns, and they will still use them when it’s necessary. I will still describe violence appropriate to the context of the story. Now, unfortunately, I can lend it verisimilitude.

“Then life will find its very existence from the arts.”–Fyodor Dostoevsky

More Good (and Bad) Writerly News!

Two, count ’em, two stories of mine will be published soon: one in a fiction chapbook, the other in an anthology.

“Reset” is a completely made-up story (as in not based on something which happened to me even though one character bears a strong resemblance to my father) about a father and daughter who attempt to prove the validity of the one-shooter conclusion of the Warren Commission Report. It will appear in the inaugural edition of The Ink Ribbon Reader later this year. For more information on Ink Ribbon Press, the publisher, click here.

The other story is “Dreamtime,” winner of the Flash!Friday second annual flash fiction contest. It will be published in the anthology Skyline 2016, which will come out next spring, likely at a Virginia Festival of the Book event. My story, “Meeting the Enemy,” appeared in Skyline 2014. The Skyline anthologies are edited by author Olivia Stowe and published by Cyberworld Publishing.

So, that’s the good news.

The bad news–and that’s the writing life–my story, “The Lost Diaries of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany,” did not advance me to the third round of NYC Midnight’s 2015 Short Story Challenge. The judges liked the story, but one didn’t buy the voice in the story was a seven-year-old’s. I respectfully disagree, especially since I explained the child’s advanced vocabulary in the story itself, but, hey, can’t please ’em all. “Prince Leopold” will find a home, somewhere.

And more good news: A Spy Flash novella, “My Noble Enemy,” will be available soon for pre-order. Here’s a cover preview:

BookCoverPreview.do

 

“My Noble Enemy” goes against how most spy deaths are portrayed in movies and novels, and here’s the tagline:

“There are old spies and bold spies, but no old, bold spies because, if you believe all those blockbuster movies and bad novels, they go out in a blaze of gunfire. Or do they?”

“My Noble Enemy” will be available for your Kindle and as a slim paperback (117 pages), and I’m pretty excited about its upcoming release.

And the final good news–then, no more bragging, I promise–late summer will see the release of my novel in stories, The Better Spy. Here’s its cover preview:

TBS Cover

Pre-ordering for this should be turned on some time in July, and it will also be available for Kindle or as a paperback.

The Better Spy is in an experimental format, and not just as a novel in stories. It proceeds from “present day” (2013) to a seminal event in a character’s life in the mid-1980s. That puts a bit of a burden on the reader, but I’ve also put a date tag on every story to help with that.

Oh, and if the cover of The Better Spy seems a little familiar, it’s a companion cover to 2012’s Spy Flash:

Spy Flash Cover 2.do

 

Lots of things to look forward to for the summer. Oh, and either or both of these new works would make great beach reads!

 

 

Finally, Some Good Writerly News!

Readers of my blog will recall I participated in this contest in 2014. I made it through all three rounds but was not a finalist. However, I received great feedback on the three stories I submitted. That made the experience more than worthwhile. The 2015 challenge is well underway, and I made it from Round 1 to Round 2. That was a great boost in a writing year, which, thus far, has been a challenge in and of itself. (I’ll write later about my critique group walk-out.)

I won’t go into detail about the challenge because I’ve described it before, but if you want a refresher, check out the website here. The Flash Fiction Challenge will be starting later in the year, and I encourage writers of all levels to try it out.

My assignment in Round 1 was to write an original story of no more than 2,500 words in the Historical Fiction genre, with the subject of “a walk in a forest,” and the character of a general. The assignment came in the midst of my epic bout with the flu, so I used several beta readers before I submitted it. Sure enough, one of them made suggestions which improved the story–and that story ended up in the top five of my heat. That placement moves me on to Round 2, and on March 12, I’ll learn my next assignment. This time the story will be no more than 2,000 words, and I’ll have three days to submit the story.

So, here’s my Round 1, Top Five story:

Orders

            Being the “GI’s General” was a blessing and a curse—a blessing in that his men followed him with an enthusiasm few combat commanders had seen; a curse in that he eschewed many of the perks of his rank to maintain that image. Truth be told, Omar Bradley felt just as disgruntled right now as any of his soldiers, given his recent dispute with Ike and the fact his fourth star wasn’t forthcoming. He took some solace that Georgie Patton wasn’t going to get his either. Still, the sting of having had his command placed under Sir Bernard Montgomery was as strong as it had been back in December when Ike broke the news.

“The Brits are our allies, Brad,” Ike had said. “We’ve got to give them this.”

He knew his outburst, so unusual for him, had taken Ike by surprise. “By God, Ike, Montgomery’s not accountable to the American people. I am. You do this, and I resign.”

“You’re forgetting something, Brad. The only person accountable to the American people is me, as Supreme Allied Commander. Now, Montgomery will have command of your 1st and 9th Armies, and we’re at war, Brad. You don’t get to resign.”

“My men won’t like taking orders from that popinjay.”

“Brad, are you trying to out-Patton Georgie? I know he detests Monty, but I thought you—”

“Ike, I won’t stand for it.”

Ike’s face had flushed, an expression any soldier would understand, and Bradley knew he’d gone too far. “Brad, those are my orders,” was all Ike had said.

That had been enough to silence him. Orders were orders.

His shoulders hunched in his great coat against the cold, Bradley plodded the length of the encampment to his tent, apart from the others. His aide trotted ahead of him and held the flap open for him. Inside was almost pitch dark, given the no-lights, no-fires order—his orders—but Major Benson flicked his lighter to life.

Two camp stools, a camp table, and two sleeping bags with extra blankets—just as it had been for the past several nights—made the tent feel crowded. Bradley shivered, rubbing his gloved hands together in a futile attempt to bring warmth to them. In the center of the tent between the two sleeping bags was a dead campfire, tinder and small logs ready to be lit. Benson flicked the lighter off, and Bradley stood in the tent, still hunched, still shivering.

“Major,” Bradley said.

“Sir?”

“Orders be damned. Light a fire to warm the sleeping bags.”

“With pleasure, sir.”

Again using his lighter to illuminate the interior of the tent, the Major opened the flap at the top to let the smoke escape, then knelt on the frozen ground to get the tinder burning. Bradley settled on his camp stool and draped one of the olive drab blankets over his head and shoulders.

Benson soon had a good fire going, the smoke spiraling toward the opening in the top of the tent. Bradley let the heat warm his face and felt almost comfortable. Benson also took a blanket and settled on his camp stool, holding the blanket over his head and shoulders. After a few moments, both men scooted their stools closer to the small fire, stretching out their blankets in an effort to channel the heat.

Just a few more nights of this, Bradley thought, and we’ll be on the move again. Just a few more nights.

###

            “You know, Sarge, this ain’t fair, us doing perimeter patrols like we’re ground-pounders,” said Corporal Jenks.

“Even tankers are ground-pounders to the flyboys, Jenks, so quit pissing and moaning. Orders are orders,” Sergeant Duncan replied, as the two men crept through the forest surrounding the encampment.

The Battle of the Bulge wasn’t that far behind them, and everyone was in wait-and-see status: waiting for the generals to figure out what would happen next and seeing nothing but the same scenery for days now.

The winter of 1944-1945 had been tough, the coldest some said in centuries, and it hadn’t eased. Though they hadn’t seen snowfall in a few weeks, the temperatures hadn’t risen much. Tonight, then, Duncan was grateful for the exercise of a foot patrol. It kept his blood moving, kept his toes from getting frost-bit. Better than shivering in his tank or, worse, in a tent with no fire, which a new general order had forbidden.

The crisp air, the crunch of the snow beneath his boots, the evergreen branches drooping under the weight of the snow all reminded him of home. With a rifle in his hands, this was more like hiking in the woods when he went jacklighting for deer with his brothers.

Except back home, a stray German wasn’t likely to jump up and start shooting at him.

And his brothers, older than he, were scattered in the Army from here to North Africa. All of them safe he assumed, though how he’d find out different, he didn’t know.

“How much longer you figure we’ll be here, Sarge?” Jenks asked.

Duncan brushed aside a low-hanging bough and murmured, “Jenks, be quiet. If there are Jerries out there, you might as well take ‘em by the goddamned hand and lead ‘em here.”

Jenks lowered his voice. “Shit, Sarge, we kicked their asses so hard, they’ll think twice about bothering us again.”

Duncan recognized Jenks’ bravura. Everyone in the 4th Armored Division had felt it after they’d broken the siege at Bastogne and freed the 101st Airborne. Duncan was a new sergeant, a “buck sergeant,” but a quick learner. Discretion and thinking things through, not glory, saved men’s lives and won skirmishes.

“Jenks, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. That’s an order.”

Duncan scanned his surroundings, looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything other than a sea of GI tents. He gave a glance at the sky, again reminded of nights at home where the dark was deep and the stars were familiar beacons, interrupted by the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He let himself feel some wonder that halfway across the world from his home, he could find Orion the Hunter and the Dog Star.

Not for the first time, this country made him homesick. His tank had surged across many a farm field, achingly reminiscent of what he’d left behind to do his duty, and he’d sent silent apologies to the farmers whose fields he’d wrecked.

When Duncan lowered his eyes, he stopped, holding up a fist for Jenks to stop, too. Duncan went to one knee, M1 at his shoulder, eyes squinting in the dark. Through the trees and brush, he saw a faint orange glow against the snow.

“Son of a bitch,” he murmured.

“Is that a fire?” Jenks whispered.

“Yeah, it is, and I’m gonna bust whoever lit it down to buck private,” Duncan said.

Duncan strode toward the tent, Jenks almost jogging to keep up with him. As he neared the tent, he could see the silhouettes of two soldiers inside. Just outside the flap, Duncan paused and called out in his best sergeant’s bellow, “You, there, in the tent! Identify yourselves!”

One of the men stirred, and Duncan kept his rifle in a position to bring it up quickly. A head covered in a blanket poked through the opening.

“Stand down, soldier,” came the command.

“I’ll decide who stands down,” Duncan said. “My corporal and I are on patrol, and you have a fire in violation of standing orders. Put it out. Now!”

“Who are you, soldier?”

“Sergeant Duncan, 25th Mechanized Recon.”

A murmur came from inside the tent, and the man poking his head out looked back inside. He turned to Duncan again. “Step inside, Sergeant, and we’ll clear this up.”

“There’s nothing to clear up, soldier,” Duncan said. “The fire needs to be put out now.”

The man stepped back and held the tent flap open.

“Jenks, you stay here,” Duncan said, then ducked inside the tent.

The second man remained seated, only his eyes visible through a small opening in the blanket he clutched around him. “What’s the problem, Sergeant?” he asked.

“The problem, dogface, is that we have a general order for no lights, no fires, and what do I see before my eyes? Why, I believe it’s a fire, soldier, a fire you are not supposed to have.”

“Sergeant—” the other soldier said.

“Quiet,” Duncan ordered. “I’m talking to this soldier. Now, soldier, just why it is you think you have the right to a fire, when the rest of us are freezing our asses off? Or do you want the Jerries to see us and blow us all to hell?”

“Sergeant,” the other man said, “you need to stand down. Now.”

Duncan ignored that and continued to address the seated man. “You need to put this fire out now. No questions. No excuses. Put it out. Piss on it if you have to, but put it out. Now!”

“Sergeant! Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?” the other man asked.

“Two pieces of shit who are getting put on report for having a fire against orders.”

The seated man stood, letting his blanket slide to the ground. Duncan took in the three stars on the great coat and the helmet. He blinked and looked at the other soldier, whose helmet he could now see bore a gold oak leaf; then, he looked again at the man standing across the fire from him.

“Oh, shit,” Duncan muttered and drew himself to attention. “Sir, I—”

“Sergeant Duncan, was it?” said General Omar Bradley.

Duncan swallowed hard in a tight throat. “Yes, sir.”

Bradley looked him over, taking in his unit patches. “You’re one of Georgie’s boys,” he said.

“Yes, sir. My apologies, sir. I didn’t realize it was you, sir. Might I ask, sir, if we could just, maybe, pretend this didn’t happen. Sir.”

“No, sergeant, we can’t.”

Well, hell, Duncan thought, there goes my Army career. “I apologize again, sir.” He turned to the major. “And to you, too, sir.”

“Sergeant, at ease,” Bradley said, and Duncan barely shifted from his rigid stance. “Sergeant, we can’t leave this be because you’re absolutely right. I am in violation of those standing orders, and you are well within your rights to put me on report.”

“Sir?” said Duncan and the major at once.

“Tell me, sergeant, what would you have done if some other soldier had a fire against orders?” Bradley asked.

“Well, sir, I’d order him to put it out, take down his name and serial number, and report him to my lieutenant.”

“And give him a good chewing out?” Bradley asked, a smile twitching his mouth.

“Uh, yes, sir.”

“You did a good job of that, Sergeant. Best I’ve heard in a long time. You have a notepad and pencil on you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well, sergeant, take out that notepad and pencil.”

Before he realized it, Duncan had done just that.

“My name is Omar Nelson Bradley, U.S. Army, Commander, 1st Army. Rank, Lieutenant General. Sergeant, you should be writing this down.”

“Sir?”

“You need to write all that down to put me on report,” Bradley said. He repeated his information, adding his serial number, and Duncan wrote it down.

“Who’s your lieutenant?” Bradley asked when Duncan finished.

“Westmoreland, sir.”

“Very well. I’ll be checking with Lt. Westmoreland to make certain you put in that report. Am I clear, sergeant?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“Major Benson, put the fire out. Sergeant, you’re dismissed.”

The cold air almost froze the sweat on Duncan’s body when he left the tent. Jenks stood there, eyes wide as baseballs.

“Jesus, Sarge, that was—”

“Yes.”

“And are you—”

“Yes.”

“Westmoreland’s going to shit a brick.”

And probably throw it at me, Duncan thought.

Before he walked away, he looked back over his shoulder. The fire in Gen. Omar Bradley’s tent was out.

###

            Even though he knew why Lt. Westmoreland had summoned him to his tent, Sgt. Duncan spent his time on the way there going over whatever he might say to keep the lieutenant from taking a stripe from him, but he wasn’t optimistic about the outcome.

Duncan stepped through the tent opening and came to attention. “Sgt. Duncan, reporting as ordered, sir,” he said.

Westmoreland didn’t look up from the papers on his camp table. “And yet again, Sgt. Duncan, your name shows up in my daily dispatches, and for the damnedest thing.” The glare Westmoreland fixed on him was as cold as the weather. “You put a lieutenant-general on report.”

“Well, sir, he ordered me to,” Duncan said.

“Oh, I know that. He sent me a personal note, explaining the whole thing. Once again, Sergeant Duncan, I don’t know whether to bust you or promote you,” Westmoreland said. “You’re damned lucky it was Bradley and not Blood and Guts himself.”

“Yes, sir. Uh, sir, do you want me to withdraw my report?” Duncan asked.

“No. Bradley told me I’d be a second looey again if I made you do that. The report stands, the only blemish on a command officer’s otherwise spotless military record. I thought you should know that. I’d like to read you something—a note Bradley sent to Patton, who passed it on to me.”

Westmoreland picked up a sheet of paper and began to read, “Sergeant Duncan is a fine example of a dedicated military man. His concept of duty and responsibility is something other soldiers should model. I consider you a lucky man, Georgie, to have him under your command. I did a stupid, bush-league thing, and Sgt. Duncan spared no words in reminding me of that. I am glad he was on guard duty to keep me from a mistake which could have cost lives.”

“General Patton added a personal note,” Westmoreland continued. He folded the sheet of paper in thirds and held it up. “Would you like to have this as a memento?”

“Uh, sure, sir. Yes, sir.”

Westmoreland nodded to him, and Duncan walked up to the desk and took the paper from his lieutenant.

“You’re dismissed, sergeant.”

“Yes, sir.”

Duncan tucked the paper inside his jacket, saluted, then about-faced and spared no time heading for the exit.

“Sergeant?”

Duncan stopped and turned around. “Sir?”

“Is it true you told Bradley to piss on his fire to put it out?”

Duncan cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”

Westmoreland burst into laughter and waved at Duncan to leave. As Duncan walked back toward his tank, a spring in his step and a grin on his face, he could still hear Westmoreland laughing.

© 2015 by Phyllis A. Duncan; reprint with permission only.

 

Unpublished – WTF? (Part Two)

To read part one click here.

You send a story out into the world, and it gets published. Most of the time you hear nothing more about it, except perhaps for friends who go read it. On February 1, in email I got my copy of the on-line magazine my story, “Dreamtime,” appeared in, and the link to see it on-line. Normally, I’d update my author website with the link to the story, but I was still on the recovery side of a bout of flu. A few days won’t matter, I thought; I’ll get around to it. Turns out I was prescient.

A day later, I received an email from the editor of the on-line magazine indicating there had been some negative comments about the story. Literary critique, I asked? No, some readers found it offensive. How so, I asked? I got a vague reply about offensiveness and an indication the magazine’s editorial staff were considering what to do about it. The editor provided me a link if I wanted to see the comments.

I considered it, but I also didn’t want to get into a social media rant over my writing. No, I responded, I really didn’t want to see the comments. If they were literary critiques about style or story structure, summarize them, and send them to me. No reply.

Trolls and Fake Reviewers

I follow the author Anne Rice on Facebook. She is the rare famous author who will engage with people who follow her. She is adamant about commenters on her posts remaining civil and that she will block anyone who is vindictive or rude. She has also taken on people on Amazon and Goodreads who call themselves reviewers but whose sole purpose seem to be to cut down writers they decide they don’t like.

I’d had one negative review of my collection of short stories, Spy Flash. The reviewer indicated that he or she thought it was a novel but was disappointed to discover it was “just a collection of short stories.” All the information on the book clearly indicates it’s a collection of short stories, so when it became obvious this person hadn’t bothered to read the book, I let it go and didn’t reply. That was mild compared to some things I’ve seen on Amazon and Goodreads–questioning the author’s intelligence, whether the author’s parents were married when the author was born, and worse. Anne Rice is determined to shut these trolls down by pressuring both Amazon and Goodreads to police reviews better.

I had given her issue only passing attention. It didn’t affect me, so why get riled up over people being rude on social media. Happens all the time. I’ve personally pushed the boundaries of rudeness, but I’ve never posted false accusations or personal attacks. (Well, some right-wingers might disagree, but if so, my work is done.) Now, I felt as if I understood what Anne Rice was talking about.

My Offense?

I would never have known I’d been unpublished unless a friend had gone to the on-line magazine’s website to read my story and couldn’t find it. So, I looked. Sure enough, it was gone–no indication in the table of contents, no explanation on the web site. It was as if my story had never existed.

I emailed the editor, who did respond promptly to say it was a “difficult decision” to unpublish the story, but that the number of people who were offended had grown, and the editorial staff felt it had no choice. I again asked for clarification about what was offensive in the story and received a reply indicating that when art deliberately offends it is sending a message; but when art inadvertently offends it shouldn’t be displayed. Again, I requested specifics and got something, but not enough.

Because my story involved a didgeridoo, which is a musical instrument native to aboriginal people of Australia, the assumption was that my narrator was an aboriginal. The Australian Arts Council, so I was informed, has protocols that only aboriginal people or non-aboriginals who have obtained permission from aboriginal people can write about aboriginal people. A caucasian Australian objected to the story on that basis.

Two other writer friends went to the on-line magazine’s Facebook page and looked at the comments there. Most were positive, and indeed people I didn’t know came to my defense in light of what turned out to be a single person’s criticism. I haven’t looked at the comments. I can’t. Though my author’s skin has thickened to constructive criticism, it would do me no good to read the kind of negative comments my friends indicated were there.

The Australia Arts Council Protocols

This organization, which only has effect in Australia, does indeed have a nearly 50-page booklet entitled, “Protocols for Working with Indigenous Artists.” It has a section on writing and does indicate that if you, as a non-aboriginal, are going to tell the story of the aboriginal people of Australia, you should work with aboriginal people to assure accuracy. You should also use aboriginal language to describe cultural aspects. So, by titling my story, “Dreamtime,” which is a western term for a complex aboriginal religious ritual, I was in violation of those protocols.

Except, of course, they don’t apply to me because the Australian Art Council, which is not a regulatory body, has no jurisdiction over my little plot of central Virginia.

I did, however, download and read cover-to-cover those protocols. I believe those protocols have a place in Australia, where the indigenous people’s’ history, culture, and art were in danger of eradication by non-indigenous people who disparaged them because of racial prejudice.

Precisely what my story was about.

So, I’m glad that Australia now seeks to protect the art and culture of its aboriginal people, but, again, those protocols have no license over anyone outside Australia. Now, I’m not saying non-Australians are free to disrespect the Australian indigenous people. If a non-Australian writer did that (or an Australian writer for that matter), I’d be the first to denounce them.

My story revealed the narrator’s feeling of being an outsider at work, of his (or her) face being the only dark one there, how his (or her) co-workers wouldn’t understand why he went walkabout, how he’d overheard them calling him (or her) a derogatory term used by non-indigenous Australians. My story intended to honor the indigenous people’s struggle to be accepted, but it wasn’t perceived that way by at least one person and a few followers of that person’s blog.

The Aftermath

For the most part of two days, I questioned my entire existence as a writer. I’ve fought injustice, discrimination, sexism, et.al., with my words and my actions. To be accused of “inadvertently” offending a whole race of people is shattering.

I did fight back. Though it was obvious the editorial staff of the magazine wouldn’t change its collective mind, I had to make a point. A novel I’ve written, which is at the rough draft stage, features a transgender character. I’m a straight female who identifies as such; however, I’m straight but not narrow, as the meme goes. I pointed out to the editor that based on her (or his) logic about my story, I shouldn’t be allowed to write about a transgender character. That and my point about “unpublishing’s” effect on creativity went unacknowledged.

However, I insisted the publication rights for the story be returned to me, and they were. I instructed the editor to keep the check (Yes, I was going to be paid for the story.) and to cancel my complimentary subscription to the magazine. Small protests, yes, but sometimes it’s the principle of the thing.

So, why not publish the story right here, so you can decide for yourselves? Since I have the publishing rights back, it’s my intent to submit it somewhere else, to a magazine whose editorial staff has a spine and stands up for its authors.