I’m thrilled to announce my short story, “Wishful Thinking,” about three teenagers in the 1930s in rural Virginia, has been accepted for publication in the Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology, The Best of Virginia. Publication will be later in 2017, for the 2018 centennial of the Virginia Writers Club.
Actually, I only want you to pick one of two (now three) choices. Easy, right?
A couple of months ago, I mentioned I’m trying a new type of promotion for my work–giveaway short stories. I have two in print: “Spymaster” and “Blood Cover.” Using canva.com, I came up with great covers for them, which I’ll share in an upcoming post. I have a third story about ready for printing, and this cover is proving to be a challenge. That might be because of the subject matter.
Writing from Current Events
I characterize myself as an “historical/political thriller” writer, meaning my works use history and current events as a basis for the fictional story. With these giveaway stories, I’m practically in present day, i.e., they have been prompted by news items I’ve seen this summer.
For example, “Spymaster” is based on a series of real events where American diplomats in Europe and Moscow have been harassed allegedly by the Russian security services (think, the old KGB). “Blood Cover” is about the perils of living in a theocracy with harsh methods of punishment.
The next giveaway short story to come out is called “Best Served Cold,” and it involves something that invokes either sympathy or ire, the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cultural appropriation aside, I write stories essentially where the characters tell me to write them. Sometimes those characters look or are completely unlike me. I believe a straight person can write about gay issues, a black person can write white characters and vice versa, that cisgender writers can write trans characters, etc. However, it is incumbent upon us to be authentic to all our characters and not to devolve into stereotypes.
I had a painful experience a couple of years ago where a contest-winning story was pulled from publication because I, as a western white woman, had dared to write a story wherein the protagonist was an aboriginal man from Australia. I had carefully and thoroughly researched as I wrote, and that aboriginal man “dictated” his story to me. Someone complained I wasn’t following Australian cultural guidelines, and the publication’s editor caved to a single person’s criticism and removed my story. (Joke’s on them. That story was later published in an anthology.)
All that being said, I was skeptical of my ability to write a story about the murder of a black man without offending anyone. But, sometimes writers have to offend. I did my research, I drew on distasteful things I’ve witnessed in my life, things that have made me angry but which I, as a white person, thought it best to be silent about.
That’s the thing. Silence is tacit acceptance of injustice. So, I wrote the story, “Best Served Cold,” and I took measures to make certain it was authentic.
“Best Served Cold” Back Cover Copy
To help in your choice–coming up in a bit–here’s the back cover copy for “Best Served Cold” to give you an idea what it’s all about:
Nathan Hempstead has long been the United Nations Intelligence Directorate’s cyber-guru. A hack, a tracking app, anti-eavesdropping tech, you name it, he can do it. For nearly four decades he’s worked in an environment that not only honored his genius but also kept him free of bias and racism and let him indulge in his favorite pop-culture fandom, Star Trek.
A critical Directorate mission fails because a dictator’s access to social media didn’t get blocked as planned. In fact, Nathan didn’t bother to show up to monitor the operation. The Directorate’s operational head, Mai Fisher, wants answers, not only for why the mission failed but why a critical employee, and a friend, let her down.
In his office Mai finds Nathan, seething with anger he directs at Mai, but when she presses him for what’s wrong, he has a cardiac emergency.
In hospital Nathan tells Mai about a son he thought no one else knew about and how that son had become another statistic in a deadly standoff between law enforcement and black men.
Mai knows how to get revenge; she’s done it before. Nathan, however, doesn’t want her help. He already has a plan, and it involves the most unlikely ally in the world.
Nathan teaches Mai the subtlety of an old Klingon proverb: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” She comes to understand, as well, that black lives do matter.
“Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility 1
Let me give you some background on why I picked this as a possibility. I liked the sense of movement, the blurred background, the indistinct human figures. I could write a dissertation on why, but that’s not the point.
The “BLACKLIVESMATTER” overlay is supposed to be graffiti-like, but I’m not one hundred percent happy with how it turned out.
I’ve used blue on the title and my byline to imply cold. I didn’t really want a cover which implied warmth, given the subject matter and the allusion to that famous Klingon proverb.
What I like about it is its modernity and mostly, the movement aspect. That appeals to me for some reason.
What do you think?
“Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility 2
This possibility has a number of things going for it. It’s bright and stark.
There’s a scene in the book where someone likens the flow of blood over asphalt to how the ocean flows over sand, and I thought this implied that.
The red on the cover isn’t quite blood red, and, unfortunately, it’s something I can’t change.
The warmth of the cover color contrasts with the title. You don’t look at this and feel cold.
However, the meaning of the “best served cold” proverb is that you’ll enjoy your revenge if you let some time pass, i.e., that the person won’t know what hit them when revenge comes. It’s not a cooling down period; it’s to make the revenge “hotter.”
What do you think?
New! “Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility #3
It’s great when you have friends who are real graphic designers, unlike moi, who is a hopeless wannabe. Thanks to Becky Muth, here’s a third possibility you can vote for:
Since computers and hacking figure in the story, this may be the ideal cover for this story.
It’s stark, like the story, has a bit of an air of mystery about it, and ties in more obviously than cover possibility #2 (or #1).
I have a new favorite. What about you?
You Pick the Cover
In the comments below, tell me which cover you like and why. Here’s why you should vote: I’ll pick a winner at random from the commenters and send you a copy of the three giveaway short stories when they’re all in print.
What do you have to lose? You get to express an opinion and have a chance to win free stuff!
I look forward to reading your comments.
Haiku 366-191 to -208 will come soon, but today I thought I’d get back to a post about fiction and the struggle of every indie author–getting people to give your books a chance.
I’ve ranted before about the quality of some indie publishing, but as I’ve read more and more of it, I’m finding the truly awful (i.e., unedited, misspelled, and grammatically deficient) is fast becoming a minority. Add in Barnes and Noble, that behemoth of traditional publishing, will allow indie published work in its stores (at last), and the writer, who decides to forego the traditional and often demoralizing hunt for an agent and a publisher, is getting R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This is especially heartening for those who took the time and effort to publish a polished product and who didn’t succumb to the coveted “published author” title at all costs.
So, before this becomes a rant: join a critique group, hire a professional editor (for all stages of editing), design or purchase a professional cover, hire a proofreader, and, if you’re not familiar with a book’s interior design, hire someone who is.
Now, onto “getting your name out there.”
An Unexpected Find
I’ve always believed my books about my spy characters would be successful if I could “get them out there” where people could see the depth of the characters, the timeliness of the subject matter, and the pains I’ve gone to for an intriguing story. I’ve done the bookmark thing, the postcard thing, the purchase-an-ad thing, the book signing thing, the open mic thing, but what more could I do without bankrupting myself?
At Virginia Festival of the Book this past spring, I came across a local fantasy writer who’d purchased a table at the book fair. I almost walked past because I’m not much of a fantasy reader. However, on one corner of her table were several small (as in thin) books with a sign that said “Free.”
“Free?” I asked the author.
“They’re short stories featuring my characters and aspects of the mythology I’ve built,” was the reply.
“And you give them away?”
“Bookmarks and postcards get thrown away. When someone’s done with one of these, they won’t throw them away. They’ll give them to a library or a used book store, and that’s exposure. Hell, maybe they’ll even keep them.”
I must have stood there gaping with the shock of “why hadn’t I thought of that” because she picked up two of the “booklets” and handed them to me. “Enjoy,” she said.
Back home when I unpacked my goodie bag from the festival, I came across the two booklets and sat right down to read them. The author was right. They were engaging, a quick read, but complete, well-crafted short stories and certainly piqued my interest for her longer works.
But life moves on, and I put them aside and forgot about this unique marketing idea.
Imitation and Flattery
After polishing off the edits on a couple of draft novels, which I hope to have ready for the demoralizing agent hunt (Yes, the dream is still alive in my head.) later this year, I decided I wanted to go back to writing some short stories, not the flash fiction I’ve been delving into for years, but a true short story of 7,000 to 8,000 words. I’d come across an article in The Washington Post about Russian security services allegedly harassing diplomats in Europe and Moscow–juvenile pranks mostly, but they were escalating. The Russian government, of course, disavowed any participation on its part, but those of us who’ve studied that country throughout its iterations knew better.
The result: a 7,500-word short story called, “Spymaster.”
And the booklets from the Festival of the Book came back to mind. What if (a writer’s favorite question) I used CreateSpace to make that short story into a booklet to give away at book signings and over events. At CreateSpace, it’s free to publish, and the size of the booklet means ordering copies for my personal use will be a minimal investment.
Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.
The story is with a beta reader/editor right now, but while I’m waiting for the feedback, I went ahead and designed a couple of cover possibilities.
If you’ve never heard of Canva, it’s a great online tool for designing a number of graphic art pieces, from Facebook page headers (go to https://www.facebook.com/unspywriter and have a look at one I did for my author page using Canva) to Instagram posts. Canva has templates for ebook covers, including Smashwords and Kindle. Most of their artwork is free, but even the ones you pay for start at a dollar a piece. Unlike another good resource for professional covers, http://www.selfpubbookcovers.com/index.php, where once you buy a cover, it’s taken down and not sold to anyone else, with Canva you risk having the cover you choose used by someone else. Of course you can customize it. I remove all the sample text on the Canva cover, download it as a .jpeg, and further customize it in Photoshop. Canva’s selection of free graphics is limited compared to SelfPubBookCovers, but I managed to find a few that appealed to me and fit the theme of the story, “Spymaster.”
“Spymaster” Cover #1
This cover appealed to me because one of the critical scenes takes place in a forest in Eastern Europe. What it’s lacking is color. The story has dark elements, but not quite this dark.
It fits the story but to me has limited appeal in getting someone to pick it up and look at it.
“Spymaster” Cover #2
This cover also appealed to me because of a specific theme in the story. Again, it’s black and white. While it’s certainly intriguing and I know people who would pick up a book with a cover like this, it lacks color. I experimented with other fonts and putting the type in different colors, but that didn’t quite work either.
“Spymaster” Cover #3
The final choice appeals to me visually, has excellent color, and is very evocative. It doesn’t directly relate to a scene in the book, but it screams “intrigue” and “mystery.” I know I’d pick up a book, even a free one, with this cover. Of the three choices, this is certainly the one I’m leaning toward.
But what do you think? Which cover appeals to you and why? Let me know in the comments below.
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!
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:
“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:
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:
Lots of things to look forward to for the summer. Oh, and either or both of these new works would make great beach reads!
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:
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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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—”
“And are you—”
“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.”
Duncan tucked the paper inside his jacket, saluted, then about-faced and spared no time heading for the exit.
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.
I haven’t blogged in a while. My apologies. There was the run-up to the holidays, the holidays, a six-week-plus bout of the flu, then a set-back in my writing career which had my finger hovering over the “delete all” option in my Writing folder on my hard drive. Then, I realized the only way to cope with that set-back was to write about it.
Once Upon a Time
Anyone who writes knows how hard it is to send stories out into the world of contests and literary magazine publication. Most of the time, those stories get rejected, some with a modicum of hope (“send us something more”); some with not so much as an acknowledgement of receipt. The rare time something gets accepted is such an ego boost, we can live off it alone for months. This is the validation every writer craves.
I recently had a two-fer: I wrote a story for a contest, and it not only won but earned an offer of publication. Double validation.
BTW, I’m not mentioning the name of the contest (to protect the innocent) nor the name of the magazine (so I don’t give the guilty any inadvertent publicity).
I said yes to the offer of publication, of course, because I’m not at the point in my writing career where I can casually turn such things down. If I’d known then what I know now… Except, well, I did my research. Not only did I discover this particular online magazine had a low acceptance rate, i.e., difficult to break into, according to Duotrope, but publication in it was a qualifier for membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America. The positives were adding up, and I was looking forward to my story being published early this year.
Sometimes when you’re writing a story, you get a feeling about it, that this is one which has a future, one which is special. I had that feeling as I wrote “Dreamtime,” a 500-word story for a flash fiction contest and based on a photo prompt. The photo itself was of the interior of a didgeridoo, a unique perspective, to say the least. I researched the history and manufacture of the didgeridoo, and at some point the unnamed narrator of my story began to speak to me. This is the first thing he said:
“In dreams on walkabout, my ancestors in the rock paintings come alive and descend to my camp.”
Yeah, I know. Pretty amazing. He continued, telling a story of playing a didgeridoo passed down over the generations, then getting the idea to look at the stars through the didgeridoo. He imagines another dreamwalker on another planet doing the same thing. When he returns to his day job at a radio telescope installation, he “listens” for that other’s song, and he also realizes he is the perpetual outsider there, being the only one of aboriginal descent. He understands as well, that one day, he’ll die and return to the earth. When our sun expires millions of years from now, his atoms will be scattered to the far ends of the universe to create another dreamwalker ancestor, who will be painted on rock. He finished his story this way:
“Then, in dreams on walkabout, I will descend and dance around a fire.”
I set it aside for a while, mindful of the contest’s deadline; then, I dusted it off and did some editing. This was a story which resonated strongly for me, but I researched to assure I got the history and the culture correct. (I have a degree in history; research is my be-all and end-all.) If something was slightly off, I realized that in writing fiction, I had a certain amount of dramatic license, especially for a piece which had both a fantasy and a sci-fi tone.
I was happy with it, happier than I’ve been with a lot of my short stories. As I said, I thought this story had a definite future. I submitted the story. I knew it was strong enough to be a finalist, and it was. What I didn’t expect was to win, but I did. The offer of publication was icing on the literary cake.
What could possibly go wrong?
To be continued in part two.
The other day on my Facebook Author’s Page I shared a graphic from a great on-line group called Writers Write. Based in South Africa, this group offers writing courses, some of which sound so great it might be worth the expense of a trip to Johannesburg to attend. They also post inspiring quotes from writers, renowned and otherwise, for writers. Almost every day, one of those quotes makes me stop and think about my writing and my writing goals. Those quotes are affirming on so many levels.
Here’s one I shared recently on my Author’s page:
That struck a chord with me because I want to write more short stories, but I’m always lamenting that the things I draw inspiration from (current affairs, history, politics) lead to longer works. (Not complaining by the way; I love writing novels.) I keep a notebook with me at all times, but it’s distressingly empty lately. I live in a very interesting area of central Virginia, full of intriguing, odd, and refreshing characters and, so you’d think that notebook would be full of dialogue snippets, bon mots, and killer ideas for a raft of short stories.
Maybe I need to overcome the MYOB attitude imbued in me by my grandmother. “It’s not polite to listen in on others’ conversations,” she used to tell me. I paid attention to that because I probably didn’t know then I was going to be a writer. It just seems rude to write down what other people say; a southern thing, I suppose.
I do manage to overcome the reticence of jotting down what other people say on occasion. My one-act play, Yo’ Momma, started from a single phrase I overheard at a bar: “This here’s my new phone–I gots it for free.”
Recently, in my town two young men died within two days of each other, both at the age of twenty-six. One had mental and intellectual challenges; the other was an award-winning and brilliant cellist. One was murdered; the other died in his sleep of a heart defect. They both warmed the hearts of everyone they encountered. All that is rife with inspiration, but it will have to wait. It’s too fresh and raw.
I’ve long wanted to write a novel based on the lives of my father and my ex’s father–I even have a great title: Two Fathers. The ex (when he wasn’t my ex) and I discussed it, and I took a lot of notes on his father’s history. The ex and I haven’t been together for nine years, and even though I haven’t forgotten the idea, it is also too fresh, too fraught with emotions I’ve tried to put behind me. Someday, I’ll be in a place to write it.
Day in and day out, I encounter the oddest collection of characters in the most routine places: the barista at Starbucks whose laughter could damage eardrums; the couple who own a local business and have arguments in front of the customers; a bail bondsman who dresses as if he’s the east coast version of Dog the Bounty Hunter; a senior citizen who is always front and center of every Tea Party event with a sign which reads, “Keep the Government out of my Medicare!” (I fixed the spelling.) And so on.
There is the challenge, of course, of making someone too recognizable. I don’t have a problem doing that with public figures. In my series based on the Oklahoma City bombing, people will have no trouble figuring out on whom I’ve based President Randolph. However, I also have a family member who is pissed about how I characterized my step-grandfather (that family member’s grandfather) in a story which is based on a family event. Just goes to show, every story has two sides.
Even with the pitfalls, look around you. There is inspiration in everything and everyone. Use it wisely, but use it.
In case you didn’t know it, May is National Short Story Month, a celebration of that quintessential literary form, the short story. By the way, I have three collections of short stories published. What better way to acknowledge Short Story Month than to buy them? Should you feel so inclined, click here to go to my author website where you can link to their Amazon.com pages.
Okay, enough shameless promotion. Let’s talk about short stories. I love to read them, and I love to read them from a wide variety of authors. They are, however, some of the most frustrating to write, especially within a specific word limit, but doing so is a great exercise in making sure every word counts.
Short stories are an art form. Some writers, like Alice Munro, write them almost exclusively. Other writers are adept at both short stories and longer works. I can enjoy Ernest Hemingway’s short stories but rarely his novels. Stephen King, best known for his expansive novels, is also quite the short story writer, with several collections of his work and inclusion in many anthologies. A few years ago when he edited the Best American Short Stories 2007, he lamented in the New York Times that short stories were endangered. Walk into a book store and what do you see? Novels right up front and on the top shelves; collections of short stories get relegated to the lower shelves, the ones harder to peruse. Rather than sound the death knell for short stories, King said we need to remember “…how vital short stories can be when they are done with heart, mind and soul by people who care about them and think they still matter.”
Yes, they do, and I, for one, won’t stop trying to write good ones, ones that matter.
Today’s Friday Fictioneers prompt brought a current international incident to mind–I won’t say which; you can let it apply to whatever one you want. The title, “Hope in the Darkest of Days,” comes from a Dalai Lama quote: “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest.” If you don’t see the link on the title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.
The NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge is on!
If you recall, this is a two-month challenge involving three rounds (if you’re lucky) where contestants write short stories from prompts provided by the contest. The top three from each heat of the first round go on to the second, and the same for the third and final round. I signed up back in January to participate, and as the deadline for the first set of prompts (midnight February 7) neared, I went from anticipation to panic. What prompts would I get? Would I actually be able to come up with something? What if I flop?
I didn’t wait up until midnight to get my prompts. I got a good night’s sleep then planned on checking email first thing on Saturday morning. However, a writer friend of mine, who is also participating, messaged me first thing in the morning, terrified about her prompts. Gulp. I looked.
Genre: Horror. Okay, not so bad. I’d been terrified of getting YA or Romance, neither of which I have much experience in nor enjoy.
Subject: Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Again, not bad. There’s been a debate locally about such products and whether they should be labelled as such, so I knew there was fodder here for a decent horror story.
Character: A prisoner. Hmmm. More possibilities.
However, I didn’t sit down to write right away. I had to travel to Charlottesville, VA, for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the Virginia Writers Club; however, the prompts kept tickling at me the whole drive over. I was a little early in arriving, so I pulled out the notebook I go nowhere without and jotted down this opening paragraph:
“I always figured it went down like this: one of those impersonal government buildings–you know the kind, all concrete, no glass–a conference room, a table occupied by faceless bureaucrats, a couple of guys in lab coats, maybe with names like Krishnamurtichatterjee or Schwartzenschikelgruber. They sat around the table reading a thick report, maybe watched a PowerPoint or a Prezi. The guys were from USDA, FDA, maybe Justice or U.S. Marshals, Bureau of Prisons, or some such.”
Yeah, promising, but where to go from there?
All throughout the meeting, as I knew it would, the prompts kept “talking” to me, and I jotted more notes at breaks and at lunch. By the time I left for home, I had a fully formed idea.
A really grotesque, fully formed idea. Even then I let it stew most of the day on Sunday; then, I sat down and started to write. It was all going smoothly until I got a text telling me I was late for my three-year-old granddaughter’s cake and ice cream birthday party. Oops! I hit save, dashed to the car, and took care of family business. I had to remind myself not to scarf down cake and ice cream and dash home, that Mamo had to be there for the Emster.
I got home, sat right down again, and resumed the story. When I next looked at the clock, it was almost 2300, and I had written 2,498 words. (The story can’t exceed 2,500 words.) I read it over, noted the spots needing work, and got to the end. I liked it. It needed work, but I liked it.
For the first round we have eight days to upload the story, and I’m grateful for the time. I’m letting the draft sit for Monday and Tuesday; then, I’ll pick it up again on Wednesday, with a goal of having it ready to upload on Friday. Yes, I’m grateful because if I make it to Round 2 I only have five days. Should I make it to Round 3, I only have twenty-four hours to upload a story. And you can’t pre-write because you don’t know what the prompts will be.
It’s certainly a challenge–so, aptly named, NYC Midnight–but each story gets feedback, and that’s what most interests me. Two of my writer friends from Tinker Mountain are also participating, so we’re supporting each other by listening to each other vent on Facebook Messenger. It would be the coolest of cool if all three of us made it to Round 3.