Covalent: Part Two

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Part One

Cace shivered hard.

“What? What happened?” he panted deliriously.

“It’s alright, Cace,” Aylme rested her soft palm against his temple. “It’s alright now.”

“But I–but–” realization finally sunk in. “You brought me back!” he said angrily.

“Yes, I had to bring you back. Tilt your lamp down.”

“But I was there! I finally got through! You shouldn’t have done that!” his cheeks were hot and flushed and he struck his legs with his fists.

Tilt your lamp down,” Aylme handed Cace the vessel. “Look, I already have my own at half-ember.”

Cace scowled. He didn’t want to turn his lamp down, he wanted to stay angry. Even so…he would do anything for Aylme. With a sigh he took the lamp in his hands. As always it felt strangely anchored, as if Cace could let go and it would suspend itself in the air on some invisible hook. Cace turned his hands, pivoting the lamp, letting the golden ember run out of the spout. The golden drops did not fall to the ground, though, for no sooner did they touch the air than they evaporated into steam.

As Cace continued pouring out the contents he felt the fire inside of him diminish. He was still just as opposed to Aylme’s interference, but his passion ebbed out, making him capable of calmer reason.

“There,” he said, righting his lamp and turning it so that Aylme could see only half the ember remained. “Tilted down.”

“Thank you,” Aylme nodded deeply. “Now I’m sorry I had to wake you, Cace, but your breathing was becoming so ragged, and your fists kept clenching, and you were in a feverish sweat. I was afraid what might happen if you remained any longer.”

Cace looked down at his tunic. Indeed it was covered in cold sweat, and even now his body was quaking as if he had been running for miles. But now that he was back in the conscious world his strength was quickly returning.

“I understand why you did what you did,” he sighed, “but I had made it through, Aylme! I was there!”

“That must have been exciting for you,” she smiled, then started to rise.

“You don’t want to hear what it was like?”

“The Ether is…your realm of fascination, Cace. I have too much on my mind of here and now.”

“But it matters, even to the here and now,” Cace insisted. “I think I could use it to help us!”

“How, Cace?”

“I don’t know. I just…know that it could.” Cace wasn’t sure how to explain. Whenever he had his visions of the Ether he sensed that there was a connection between the images he saw and the things of the real world. He couldn’t explain that connection, but he felt that they were simply different perspectives of the same thing. And now that he had finally actually been there, conscious and able to push at things and affect them, now he had a hope that he could ripple changes into this world, too!

“I’m not so sure that you should try and visit the Ether any more,” Aylme said. “It seems dangerous for you.”

“I’m fine. Look, I’m already feeling much better.”

Aylme smiled sadly. She appreciated his desire to help, even if she thought it was misplaced. He was several years younger than she and Rolar, and he must feel guilty that he wasn’t able to contribute as much as they could. “We can discuss it more later. For now just gather your strength.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on his brow, then turned and climbed out of the hole that served as the entry to their dugout.

It was the most humble of abodes imaginable: a hole dug into the earth at the base of a tree. It was quite small, only reaching out so far as the trees’ roots allowed, which provided a natural barrier to hold the earthen walls in place. The only airflow came from that small entryway, and after a while one started to feel stifled. Cace did not remain in that dark hovel, but clambered out and sat with with his back against the large tree.

Not that the breathing was much better up here. Their camp was on the banks of a slow river, and its humidity weighed the air down, making it hover low to the ground and difficult to swallow.

There was also very little sunlight that could pierce through the dense canopy of treetops overhead. Indeed most of the illumination came from the bioluminescent moss that grew along the riverbed, a dim light obscured by the lazy roll of water. It was just enough light to cast the place in a perpetual dusk. Already the three refugees had lost all sense of time, and they could not say whether they had been in this place for a week or for months.

Cace slowly breathed in the scent of a million living things and watched Aylme as she carefully stepped around the banks of the river, making her way to the great almnut tree. No doubt Rolar was there again, prying at the roots, trying to free whatever binding kept the tree from producing fruit.

“Rolar?” Aylme called out softly as she approached the tree, eyes darting left and right. “Rolar, are you there?”

The tree was as wide as a castle tower, and as she came to its base she held it for support, stumbling her way around its massive roots. “Rolar,” she called, slightly louder. “Rolar where are you?”

Just then she happened to glance downwards and leaped back in shock. For she had, in fact, been about to to step on Rolar! The youth was laid out right before her, draped awkwardly across the roots, covered in a strange black powder, and totally unconscious!

How Many Characters?

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Very Limited Scopes)

I’ve always been interested in movies with a limited cast of characters. Take, for example, the 2013 film Locke, starring Tom Hardy. The entire film takes place in a man’s car as he makes a long drive. Along the way he has a number of intense phone conversations, all dealing with a life-changing situation that has just come up. Obviously there are other characters involved at the opposite end of those calls, but it is very much a one-man show.

Then there’s Gravity, also from 2013, where Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts carrying out a mission in space. A sweeping cloud of debris takes out their entire crew, leaving them as the lone survivors, desperately looking for a way back into the atmosphere before the cloud of debris circles the earth and comes for another pass. George Clooney’s character doesn’t make it further then the first act, and so we are left with one singular character again.

Another example would be All is Lost, which, wouldn’t you know it, was also from the year 2013! In this film Robert Redford’s character is alone at sea when his yacht floods, leaving him stranded in the middle of the ocean on an inflatable raft. Not only is the entire film limited to the perspective of this singular character struggling to survive, he also happens to be a particularly silent character. There are almost no words spoken at all throughout the movie.

You might wonder how any film could work with such a limited set of characters. But for how limited they might seem, each of these movies provides a compelling narrative, significant character development, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas. This claim might seem less preposterous when you realize that while most films do have more than just one or two main characters, they usually max out at three or four.

Fewer Faces Than You Realize)

Just last week I finished watching Casablanca, one of the most beloved films of all time. Much of the film takes place in a bustling club, with dozens of characters filing in and out, ordering drinks, gambling at the roulette wheel, and selling contraband. But what stood out to me most as I watched this movie was how almost all of these characters are little more than set dressing, used to establish the mood of the film, but having no meaningful contribution to the central arc.

At the heart of this film there are really only three characters: Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, and Captain Renault. These are the only characters who ever show any development, the only ones with shifting feelings and objectives, and the only ones who change each other over time.

At the beginning of the film Rick is a disillusioned cynic, trying to hide from the life of passion he once led before his heart was crushed by Ilsa Lund. Captain Renault is somewhat similar to Rick, though he hides his true self behind a mask of careless joviality. Then Ilsa arrives on the scene, arm-in-arm with another man, Victor Laszlo. This forces Rick to confront his old wounds and he and Ilsa exchange a few heated barbs.

But those insults only prove that their feelings for one another are still very much alive. Rick finds himself slowly thawed by the shadow of the love he once held, first into bitter anger, but then into something more pure. By a series of events finds himself in possession of all that he needs to remove Victor Laszlo, clearing the way for him and Ilsa to run away together.

But now that he has awoken to love he has also awoken to his old sense of honor and dignity. And so he sacrifices himself to save Ilsa and Victor, arranging for them to leave the city together. He says goodbye to the woman he cares for, though this time on his own terms, and this honest departure allows the love to remain between them.

But then comes the complication with Captain Renault. For saving Ilsa and Victor required Rick to cross his old friend. He doesn’t want to kill Renault, but he must use him against his will for a moment, after which he promises to turn himself over to Renault’s superios and face all of the consequences that come. But when the moment comes for Captain Renault to exact his revenge he doesn’t. Like Rick, he sees the opportunity to finally redeem himself and he takes it. As they walk off Rick announces that he believes this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And that’s it. Three characters and no more. I would even say it is really only two main characters, Rick and Ilsa, with Captain Renault only being a supporting player until the very final act.

Aren’t You Forgetting Something?)

But you might ask what about Victor Laszlo? Or Major Strasser, the villain who weaves the very trap around Laszlo and Ilsa which Rick must deliver them from? I maintain that these are supporting characters only. They are entirely single-dimensional. Each is a single, unyielding force in opposite directions that the main characters then pivot and weave around. They are present only to make the actual drama possible, they do not actually play in the game themselves.

And everyone else you see in the movie? Set dressing. They are there to set the tone, to provide flavor and humor, and even just to distract you from the fact this story is really only about a very few people.

And that’s alright. Because as it turns out, writing a story for central characters becomes exponentially more difficult for each one that is added to the plot. When too many faces are forced into the center some of them are usually left half-baked or else everything is too muddled to make any sense of. It is always better to write a story of a few characters well and dress it up nicely, than to overcomplicate a story to its own demise.

And that is going to be one of my guiding principles in my new story: Covalent. Last Wednesday I introduced a single character, and in his thoughts I made mention to two others. And that’s it. That is going to be the entire central cast for the entire rest of the story. Yes, there will be other creatures and entities that lurk about, but all the central plot is going to be focused on the interplay of these three key players. Come back on Wednesday to see what I mean.

Revising The Storm- Week 1

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Here we are at the first post of my new series: The Editor’s Bench! Here I will select one of my short stories and take it from its first draft stage to something worthy of commercial publication. I will be focusing exclusively on the short stories that are my favorite, the ones that I feel showed the greatest potential, and I will be working on them for as long as the process requires. I may be overhauling a piece for a very long while if I feel that that is what is needed for it.

These are the steps that I intend to take in my revising process, but I will likely modify them as I gain more experience at it:

  1. Read through the current story. Summarize what it would look like in its ideal form and how it differs from that now.
  2. Cut, refactor, and add scenes until the story is generally in the desired shape.
  3. Make multiple passes to correct misspellings, grammar mistakes, and awkward phrases.
  4. Repeat the above three steps until the story is in its ideal form.

I have decided to do the first of these revisions on my short story The Storm. I have chosen it because it is a shorter, simpler piece, one that I hope will let me gently ease into this editor’s role.

So without further ado, here are my notes from reading through the story.

  • The first thing that stood out to me was the awkwardness of my story’s introduction. I mention my main character Oscar, give a very slight description of his setting, go off on the philosophy of the old seamen in this hamlet, and finally pull everything back to the present moment when I introduce the story’s central problem. I believe that my intention was to reflect Oscar’s free-associative mind and how it drifts from one thought to the next. Actually reading through it, though, is a bit disorienting. I’ll want to revise this beginning to be a bit more structured, and to make sure than any transitions from one topic to another are clear.
  • Another element that is standing out to me is the ways that I am trying to add flavor to the story, such as when I talk about how the sea slowly wears down the lives of those that live by it, how the gains and the losses even out in time, and how the lighthouse keeper is sustained by a portion of all the sailors’ profits. Some of these details do contribute to the overall atmosphere, but others feel a bit forced. I’ll lean into the ones that work well and cut the ones that don’t.
  • I do want to call out one thing that I think works really well, though. I really like this exchange between Oscar and Sam:

    “Do you know which way he went?”
    Went for mackerel, around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
    “He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
    He woulda.
    “He shoulda made it back far enough already that we’d see him now.”
    He shoulda.


    There is a lot implied by those two-word agreements from Sam. He never tells Oscar that he ought to go out and search of his fellow seaman, but the way he emphasizes the “would” and “should” makes clear that he feels something is wrong and ought to be looked into.
  • I also like the occasional one-liners that keep signaling to the reader that there is some history between Oscar and Harry, a history that is going to be unveiled in due time. You see that in lines such as these:

    It wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
  • One thing that I’ve been noticing even since the beginning is how I need to lean into my description of the sea itself. This, admittedly, is a weak area of mine. I usually skirt around set descriptions, rushing headlong into dialogue and action instead. Before I may have had the excuse of a tight deadline, but now it’s time to get down to business and dress this piece up properly!
  • I’m also noticing that I ought to reference the storm in gentler terms at the start of the story. It feels like it’s already pretty heavy as Oscar goes around the cape for the first time, which lessens the sense of escalation as the story progresses. I’ve got to improve that sense of gradual, rising tension.
  • I’m also going to make note of the fact that I have a fair number of awkward phrases and basic typos to correct. As I’ve tried to wax lyrical with my prose I’ve run into some silly, unnecessary descriptions, such as:

    All at once the crackle of static changed to a small voice, timid and broken, yet tinged now with fresh hope.

    “Yet tinged now with fresh hope” tacked onto the end like that doesn’t flow very well, now does it?
  • I’ve just reached the point where Oscar throws Harry the line and the description of that event is unnecessarily complex. Relating the details of physical events can quickly become unwieldy, better to find a couple short sentences that give the reader the gist of what happens and they can work out the rest for themselves.
  • Here’s an example of how I extended myself too far and made a phrase worse for it:

    “Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference. It was an order, and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with.

    It’s almost a good line, but I dragged it out for one statement too many. Drop the “and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with” and it becomes much better. A classic example of less being more.

Alright, I’m going to call it good there. Next week I’ll give my analysis of the second half, and then we’ll actually start making some changes. See you then!

Covalent: Part One

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Not much. Not much at all.

Just a little bit of gray tinged with light blues and yellows at the periphery. A small sense of swirling motions, too, like trace currents in a muddled ocean.

Cace leaned into that notion. Though he had no physical presence in the Ether he imagined his eyes closing and fists clenching as he tried to stir the ocean around him by sheer force of will.

And something changed!

It wasn’t in the ocean, though, it was in Cace himself. He suddenly became aware of a ripple thumping through the area, a cord that pulled through him at regular intervals.

He focused on that wave, tried to lean into it every time it passed through him. It wasn’t very pleasant, its friction agitated him, but as he did so he noticed that the gray nothingness began to shimmer and take form. As he let each ripple pulse deeper and longer the picture before him became clearer. Now the gray revealed itself to actually be all colors intermingled. Now they were grouped up in shapes. Now they went from flat shapes to bodies and volumes that surrounded him.

The throbbing was nearly unbearable now. It pressured him in a painful way, tugged at him so hard that he was afraid something might tear. But even that was good, for the more it discomforted him the closer it meant he was to having a proper form in that place. Leaning further into that cadence was going to hurt, but Cace knew it would only be worse to remain in limbo.

Cace gathered his nerve, the same as if he were about to dive into a cold lake. Then, gritting his will he pushed deeper and winced as a terrible shock ripped through him. But it lasted only a moment and then, at last, he had the sense of breaking free from his tether, of spiraling downward, and of fully entering the Ether.

Cace was not in any pain anymore, but he did feel very unnatural, like he didn’t know his own body. He tried to open his eyes but nothing responded to the command. He tried to lift his hand but his hand did not raise. Something else shifted, though. Some long, gray limb that he did not recognize.

Then he understood. He was still trying to move his normal body back in the conscious world. But here, he did not have that body. He had…something else…a long, gray limb it would seem.

Cace tried to settle his mind into this new form, to be aware of his new reality. It was hard, like his body was was feeling itself through a thin glove.

Translating he thought to himself. Not direct.

Cace tried to speak, but no words came out, only a strange vibration pulsating around him. Or…maybe he had spoken…but just didn’t have any ears to make sense of those vibrations?

Cace tried to open his eyes again and this time it worked…sort of. It wasn’t really vision as he was used to it, but there was a general awareness, a heightened, inexplicable knowledge of his surroundings. No forms and shapes, but an understanding of movements and shifts.

Then the eyes shut, all of their own will and not of his. Cace tried to open them again but they did not respond. So he moved his attention to the long, gray limb again.

Wait, how did I know it was a long, gray limb if I haven’t even seen it properly? he wondered to himself. He couldn’t answer that, but somehow he had just known that that’s what it was when he moved it.

In any case, the limb did move again. It had a joint in the middle that was raised up high, almost folded in two. Cace tried to extend the limb, to stretch out the joint. It slowly flexed outwards but then halted, obstructed by something else it had run into. Obstructed by something that Cace could not perceive as being part of his body.

Wait…actually yes…yes Cace could perceive it now. It was like that part of him had been asleep, but now it was awake, stirred by the brush of the limb. And it felt like that other piece of him was now available for use. And…it had eyes as well. Cace could tell somehow. So Cace tried to open his eyes once more and they opened. Though as before, it wasn’t like vision as he knew it, but also it wasn’t like the prior sort of “seeing” either.

There still wasn’t any color or shape, but now he was simply cognizant of all the different entities about them. He could sense forms even without having a visual, he could perceive beginnings and endings. He was aware of the long, gray limb, of many others just like it, of a floor that pulsated like a heartbeat, of an essence flowing beneath the surface.

Not only these, but Cace found that he could look “harder” at these forms and pick out their relationships to one another. He could tell where one began and another ended, and what conduits linked the separate pieces together. And as he turned his focus from one form to the next he observed how all of it was interconnected to each other in a most massive network.

Or rather…almost all of it was interconnected. For now that he was focusing on the great, interconnected mass as a whole he was also able to perceive breaches in it, areas where no member of the body existed. Places where something else existed instead, something that he did not have direct understanding of, something that he could only understand indirectly, by observing the gaps it made in the mass.

And one of those foreign elements was starting to agitate, to quiver violently, to disrupt the connections in the body! And that discomforted Cace. For “the body” was his body. It was his own members and connections that this shaking entity was severing apart! And that entity was thrashing more wildly now, was growing bigger and shaking harder, was coming nearer and nearer, closer and closer to his core! It would be here any moment and then…

“Hnnnnnnnngh!” Cace sat bolt upright on his cot and nearly smacked Aylme in the face ! A cold sweat covered his body and tears were splashed across his cheeks.

He had been brought back.

Part Two

Children. Conflict. Play.

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The Intersection of Story)

In mathematics we learn that one vector defines a single-dimensional space. It is a line or a direction, a single, unchanging thrust into space.

Two vectors, however, can define a two-dimensional space. A field, a landscape, or an infinite blanket of ideas.

Three vectors and you get a three-dimensional volume. Length and width are joined by depth, form and figure emerge, a complex structure that has to be considered from different perspectives to understand the whole.

This principle holds true when developing a story as well. The genesis of most stories occurs when the writer’s mind finds an interesting connection of different vectors. Ideas that had seemed unrelated show a surprise connection, and as the mind explores that space it concocts a story to aid in the process. And like turning the knobs on a faucet we are free to crank one of the core ideas up and dial the other back, to leave one out entirely and then gradually introduce it to full force, each combination has its own potential. Notice how many story pitches are delivered in exactly this way: describing the intersection between different ideas.

“A romantic comedy, but one of the characters is blind and the other is deaf.”

“A classic Western, but it takes place in space!”

“The story is 1980s America, but if the Cold War had escalated to actual combat.”

Through these combinations we find a field of discovery, a curious volume to explore, an entire story of material…maybe even multiple stories of material! Entire worlds are discovered and our story is the spaceship by which we tour them.

For Example)

In fact, my most recent stories have all been ways to explore the same three ideas’ intersection. The Favored Son: Alternate, The Time Travel Situation, and The Punctured Football are all examinations on the themes of children, conflict, and play.

In The Favored Son: Alternate there was a very specific aspect of children, conflict, and play that I wanted to consider. I thought of all the times that I have seen children playing a game that shifts from innocent fun, to lively competition, to hurt feelings, to an all-out fight. Children at play and children at conflict are sometimes not very far apart!

I explored that concept in this story by continually returning to the competitions that the boys undergo as part of their training. At the outset these appear to be light-hearted affairs, just a group of children pretending at war and hoping to win. But the further the story goes the more these scenes shift into actual conflict. By the end they aren’t playing at all, they are at literal war and not all of them survive it.

Next came The Time Travel Situation, in which the element of play was cranked to the max and never became mean-spirited. There was conflict in the story, but it was only pretend-conflict, a fight where all of the children were united on one side against fictitious enemies on the other. Thus the conflict was never serious, it was all for fun.

It is, of course, an interesting question why we find pretended conflict to be so entertaining, and there are all sorts of theories that have been posited on the matter. For now let’s just accept the fact that we do. Our stories, even our happy stories, are almost always centered around this idea of opposition and conflict. But if we do intend to keep the conflict “fun,” we have to disassociate it from reality. Thus the badguys are totally fictitious beings, like comic book supervillains, or they are extreme caricatures, like moustache-twirling weapon dealers. Conflict is only fun when it is pretend, so I made my story all about a literal game of pretend.

The Punctured Football lays somewhere in between those two others. The conflict in it is not just pretend as in The Time Travel Situation, the characters are sincerely at odds with one another. But it is not nearly so grim as in The Favored Son: Alternate either. The two characters show plenty of hurt feelings, but there’s never any danger to either one. Also the play is more pronounced than it was in The Favored Son: Alternate, but not nearly so exuberant as in The Time Travel Situation. In short this story was all about finding a middle ground that was more realistic than either extreme. The other two stories each had a strong fantasy in their own way, while this one was more firmly grounded.

Moving Forward)

I am going to write one more piece in this series, and with this one I want to incorporate both forms of conflict: the more realistic and the more fantastic. I am going to therefore have two conflicts that occur, one that is between the children and a fantasy enemy, and one between the children themselves. The first being more pretend, the other being more grounded. As for the sense of play, I am going to incorporate that by having one of the characters explore the rules of a newly discovered world.

And by this I will be following a most popular template for stories. As it turns out, there have already been many tales that explore this same intersection of children, conflict, and play. It is the template that C. S. Lewis popularized with his Chronicles of Narnia series. Consider the first entry, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the children have a conflict with a magical queen, but also a more grounded feud between quarreling siblings. And though there is great danger in that tale, one cannot help but feel a sense of playfulness in how the children are able to explore such a fantastic realm.

It is also the template of Peter Pan, where siblings again intermingle their squabbles with the life-or-death conflict with Captain Hook. And all the while there is that same playful exploration of mermaids and the Piccanniny tribe and finding the ability to fly.

It is Harry Potter having a spat with Ron Weasley, while also being hunted by the murderous Lord Voldemort, while also uncovering the magical world of witches and wizards.

And now it will be the template for my own playful, conflicted, coming-of-age tale. Come back on Thursday to see it in action with Covalent.

Update on My Novel: Month 24

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APRIL STATS

Days Writing: 16
New Words: 4173
New Chapters: 1.25

Total Word-count: 75,955
Total Chapters: 20.25

In April I wanted to prioritize my story above all other hobbies and to write or edit 500 words each day. To the first matter I didn’t have very much success. I worked on my novel for only half of the days this month and there certainly were times where I didn’t prioritize it as highly as I could have.

But as for the second point I found some real success! I wrote or edited 500 words for all but one of the days that I worked on the novel, and on several days I wrote quite a bit more. The result of is that April showed more progress than any other month in the last year!

So of course the 500-word minimums is going to remain moving forward! I have always heard the importance of never having a 0% day, the advice that you must always work just a little bit on your personal projects, even if it is only the tiniest of contributions. And I do believe that that is good advice. Regular consistence in even a small effort will eventually build up to something substantial.

However I also feel that that piece of advice needs to be paired with another, which is that you don’t build up inertia until you put in enough effort to overcome friction. If I write so little each day that I can’t even feel the progress, then quickly I stop seeing the point in it and I stop. I may not have to write thousands and thousands of words, but I do need to write enough that the experience feels rewarding. For me that seems to be right around the 500 word mark.

Now let’s just see if I can pair that 500-word minimum with more days at work. Imagine how much I might have written with 20 days, or 25! That’s what I’ll be striving for in May and I’ll let you know in a month how it turned out. In the meantime, here’s a little snippet from my work this month.

Purging out the fungus takes a toll on the field. It is a matter of weeks until the last traces of it have disappeared, and during that time entire sections are carved out and burned, leaving ugly scars of desolation scattered all around.

But to William’s great relief, at last the crop is showing signs of healing. An entire week passes without a single new infected stalk, and those that remain of the crop are all thriving wonderfully.

The stalks are now so tall that they reach higher than any of the family members’ heads. They are thick, too, each as wide as two of William’s fingers. Individually they are impressive, but gathered in their legion they are completely tremendous! Three thousand stalks, straight, tall and slender, all of them reaching out green arms to salute one other, all of them standing faithfully in their rows and columns. One cannot help but feel that they are viewing a great army of satyrs!

All combined this great battalion weighs nearly five tons, a truly staggering mass, especially when one considers how it was sucked out of the earth by the finest of straws. Through a bed of threads has grown a city of giants.

“I believe we are in the clear,” Eleanor says to William as they look over the field at the close of day. “I was thinking to return to the gardens with Clara tomorrow.”

“Yes, I’ll be able to manage from here,” William asserts. “They’re too great to fail now, just look at them all!”

Eleanor lefts her arm around her husband’s shoulders and strokes his curly hair. Silently the proud parents watch over their tremendous brood.

Three Years In

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I looked at the things I wrote for my second anniversary and was shocked to realize how recent it all felt. I remember writing those things as if it had been yesterday!

Three years of consistent writing feels pretty good. More and more I have the sense that this really is my work. Not the work that I do for pay and not the work that I do for duty. The work that I freely choose for myself because I love it.

Statistics)

116 new posts were added to my tally this year, divided across 12 updates to my novel, 7 short stories, 50 essays, and a review of my first 50 short stories. The main trend that stands out to me is how much longer these “short” stories have been becoming! In my first year my writing produced 27 short stories and in the second it produced 19. This year it produced only 7?! That is an incredibly small number, but is it any wonder when three of them were Raise the Black Sun and the two variations on The Favored Son?

Altogether I added 203,000 words to my blog, bringing my three-year total to 619,407. Obviously not all of those words are in the form of a story, but more than half of them are.

The first draft for my novel With the Beast is at 74,000 total words, up from 42,500 a year ago. Clearly the progress there has slowed considerably, though I am still faithfully plugging away at it.

Years 1 and 2 had around 88 new followers each, but this year I was able to add 117, bringing my total to 293! Also 8 new countries read my blog for the first time, bringing the total there to 72.

Looking Forward)

It’s become something of a tradition for me to revise my approach to this blog at the beginning of each new year and I will be doing so again this time around. I’m not changing things just for the sake of changing things, though, this is all meant to help me in my growth as a writer.

The change that I am going to make is to introduce a new series for this blog, one where I take my previous work and revise it to its most ideal form. The intention is that at the end of this process my work would be worthy of professional publishing. Here are the reasons why I am making this change:

First and foremost is to help me achieve a higher level of quality as a writer. I am now two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my novel and I want to be well-rehearsed when it comes time to start its refining process. I’ve had plenty of practice at coming up with new ideas and hashing out a rough first draft, but I’m still lacking skills in the revision process and I don’t want to wait until the last second to begin developing those.

The second reason is because it just feels wrong to away from my short stories that show high potential. I can almost hear them begging me to take them up to the next level, but I’ve always been divided between that and a desire to keep seeding new ideas. At long last I think I’ve figured out a way that I can continue to cultivate my ideas to see which ones show the most promise, and then start polishing those promising ones until they reach their full potential. To be clear, not every one of my short stories will be getting this refinement process, only the ones that I feel are my absolute best work.

And lastly I get so sick of looking back at my old work and seeing all manner of typos and awkward phrases. I mean I churn these stories out on a pretty tight deadline, so I understand how all those errors get in there, but I don’t want to leave you all thinking that that is the best work I am capable of! I know I can do better and I intend to show it.

So how am I going to make time for this new refining series? I’m going to pull back the reins on my story series a little bit.

Currently each of my weekly story posts weighs in at about 2,500 words while my essays are only 1,000 words. I am now going to make three posts a week, all of them at the same 1,000 word quota. So on Monday you’ll see my 1,000-word essay, on Wednesday you’ll get the 1,000-word story chapter, and on Friday I’ll finish the week with a 1,000-word refinement. These numbers might adjust as I find the right balance, but you’ll see this plan go into effect starting this next week.

And Thank You)

At the end of each year I’ve paused to ask myself “so do I want to go another year?” And as before the answer this year is a resounding yes! This is the most rewarding hobby I have ever had and I don’t see me quitting it anytime soon.

And once again I want to thank you for being a part of this adventure with me. I’ve gone to some pretty strange and exciting places in these stories and I’m grateful to have not made the trip alone. As I’ve said before, these aren’t just stories to me, they are the way I process and express my own self. They are the journal of my soul. I take very seriously the kindness you show when you listen to the thoughts of my heart.

Thank you for that.

The Punctured Football: Part Two

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Part One

That weekend Petey spent all of his spare time doing the extra chores. In addition to the ones his Dad had come up with he also cleaned the dirt of the window sills and tightened all of the faucet knobs for his mother. Noah even let Petey clean his room for $2, though they had to keep that transaction a secret from their mom. Bit by bit his wallet got fatter until at last he had $13.

“That should do it,” he said as he wiped the sweat from his brow late that evening.

The next day Noah agreed to walk Petey to the sporting goods store so that he could get the new football.

“So you think this is the best thing, huh?” Noah asked.

“I guess? Like you said, it’s bad that Brad’s football got popped, so I think it makes sense to just do something to make it better.”

“Yeah, but are you doing it to make him happy or just to make him like you again?”

“He’s not ever going to like me if he isn’t happy.”

“He won’t? Cuz that sounds like a pretty terrible friendship then.”

“Hey!”

“I’m just saying what it sounds like,” Noah shrugged. “You go ahead and do what you think is best.”

Petey did go ahead and he did buy the football as planned…but he couldn’t get Noah’s words out of his head. It had hit on something he had already been feeling, but hadn’t been able to put words to. There just was something wrong in the idea of giving a football to Brad so that he would treat him decently.

“I don’t want to just give Brad stuff to make him be my friend,” he muttered to himself on the swing at recess. “I want him to already be my friend first.”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing Susan. Hey, have you seen Brad?”

“I think he’s trying to get the ducks to come through the fence.”

Susan was right. There was a patch in the fence around the field where the chainlink had been snagged by a lawnmower once and twisted, resulting in a small hole. And it just so happened that this hole was right beside the canal and sometimes ducks would go swimming past it. Everyone remembered that time immemorial when Diego had coaxed one of those ducks through the hole and it had gone squawking and flapping across the entire field, chasing down whoever showed the most fear! It was many students’ greatest wish to recreate that legendary moment, even though this had been expressly forbidden by the Principal, but no one had ever managed it.

Brad was crouched down at the hole right now, poking pieces of bread through it and then backing away so as to not startle his prey. As Petey approached he saw that there were two ducks enjoying a little meal of Brad’s crumbs just outside of the fence, but they were stubbornly ignoring the trail he had also laid out through to the other side. As soon as Petey got within sight the ducks quacked in offense and scuttled down back into the canal.

“Hey Brad,” Petey said.

“Oh great, you scared them off.”

“They weren’t coming through anyway.”

“Gee…thanks. What are you even doing here, Petey?”

“I want to know what it’s going to take so we can be friends again.”

“Well, you broke my football. So I guess you get me a new one of those,” Brad sneered sarcastically and Petey’s heart dropped a level. He definitely couldn’t give him the new football now.

“Friendship shouldn’t be about just giving each other things,” Petey stated flatly. “That’s just selfish.”

“No, it should be about wrecking each other’s stuff and then pretending that doesn’t matter.”

Petey was taken aback. Once again everything made so much sense in his head right up until the moment he actually tried to say the words out loud. Brad just wasn’t responding the way that he was supposed to!

“No, it matters. That’s why I’m really sorry that that happened. I really am.”

Brad squinted his eyes in an accusing stare and spoke in a heavy whisper. “Did you know, Petey, that that’s the first time you’ve actually said you’re sorry?”

“What?”

“In all this time you haven’t said sorry even once until now.”

“I–no, that’s not true. I said sorry already!”

Brad shook his head. “You just told me over and over that it wasn’t your fault.”

Petey couldn’t believe what he was hearing…but at the same time he also couldn’t remember a specific moment where he had definitely said that he was sorry. Was it possible?

“I–” Petey began, but no other words came to finish the thought.

“Listen Petey, I don’t hate you,” Brad sighed. “But I just don’t think I want to be friends anymore. Forget about the football.”

*

“So did you give it to him?” Noah said over his shoulder as he heard the door to his bedroom click shut.

“No…” Petey said slowly. “Instead we just fought some more.”

“I’m sorry, man. Are you sure this friendship is working?”

“You think it would be better to just stop being friends with my best friend?” Petey’s voice was hurt. “Just run away like that.”

Noah sighed and put down the controller to the Super Nintendo. “No, probably not. You two have been buddies since forever. So no, I don’t think you should just throw that away. Being best friends is hard work sometimes. It takes real effort.”

“Yeah…but Brad’s all done. He told me he doesn’t want to be friends anymore.”

“Ahh,” Noah rubbed the back of his head. “That’s rough, little bro. I’m sorry.”

Those last two words made Petey wince.

“And he also pointed out that I never told him I was sorry when I broke his football. I just kept talking about how it wasn’t my fault.”

“Well I’m sure you were scared right then.”

“What kind of friend am I if I don’t even apologize?”

“You still haven’t?”

“No, I did.”

“When he told you that you hadn’t?”

“No, before that.”

“So I guess you are the kind of friend who apologizes, then. Maybe a little late, but if I’m hearing you right then you did actually apologize all on your own.”

“Well…yeah. But I still don’t blame him for being upset. Maybe he’s been too much of a jerk about it…but I don’t think I did everything right either.”

“Yeah…maybe so.”

A long pause followed, after which Petey gave himself a little shake.

“Well,” he said, “I just wanted to talk I guess.”

“Yeah, thank you for talking to me about it.”

“Sure.”

That night Petey wasn’t able to fall asleep. His mind turned matters over and over as he lay on his pillow until his pillow started to feel too hot and he sat up. A few moments later his dad walked past his open door and happened to notice Petey sitting up.

“Hey bud, everything alright?”

Petey shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Petey’s dad moved into the room and sat at the corner of the bed.

“What’s going on?”

“Brad and I had a fight. I don’t really want to talk about the whole thing again, though. I’ve been talking about it a lot already.”

“And thinking about it a lot.”

“Yeah. And I guess that now I don’t know what to do about it anymore.”

“It’s complicated?”

“Yeah. I keep thinking about things I could do…but I’ve already tried to do things the right way a bunch of times and it never works out how I thought it would.”

“Sure, sure. Do you mind if I offer a piece of corny, fatherly advice?”

“Sure Dad.”

“Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to do things the right way. Just do what’s right. Then, after that, it doesn’t matter what happens.”

“Huh.”

“Does that make sense?”

“Yeah…I think so. Thanks, Dad.”

“No problem. Try and get some sleep.”

“I will.”

The next day Petey knew exactly what he was going to do. He didn’t try to talk to Brad at school, though, he wanted to have a conversation when there wouldn’t be any distractions. Instead he took his backpack with him to the park after school, sat on the swings, and waited for Brad to show up. Sure enough, he soon saw Brad walking across the field like he did on most days. Petey rushed down the hill and onto the field, backpack swinging from his shoulder.

“Brad!” he called out as he came near.

Brad shook his head in a longsuffering way. “Petey, no,” he said. “Please stop talking to me. I’m not interested.”

“I will, alright. I’ll stop talking to you if that’s what you want. I just want to say one last thing and that’ll be it.”

Brad sighed. “Okay…well what is it?”

“I know you don’t want to be friends anymore and I’m not going to try to make you change your mind, but I do think that that’s a mistake. It’s okay to be upset, but I think it’s wrong to stop being friends just like that.”

Brad shrugged. “Still not interested.”

“Okay,” Petey said bracingly. “That’s alright. And even though you don’t want to be friends, I want you to know that I really am sorry about what happened. It really was an accident, but that doesn’t change that you lost your football. And I don’t think it’s fair for you to not have your football anymore…” Petey reached into his bag “so here’s your replacement. I bought it with my own money and everything. Now things are back to how they were.”

Petey handed the ball to Brad who stared back at him in stunned silence.

“Okay,” Petey exhaled deeply. “That was it, I’m done now.” And with that he slung his backpack over his shoulder, turned around, and walked away.

He made it nearly thirty feet before Brad called out.

“Hey you, get back here!”

Petey turned around and saw that Brad was grinning sheepishly.

“What?” Petey asked.

“Hey look, Pete,” Brad walked forward until the two boys were near again. “Look I know I’ve been being a jerk about all this. I didn’t feel good about it…but I did it anyway. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.”

“So–uh–I’d like to be friends again if you’ll allow it. And…here, keep your ball,” he held the football out again but Petey didn’t take it.

“That’s for you,” Petey insisted.

“Oh come on, I can’t take it,” Brad protested. “You bought it with your own money you said.”

“Yeah, to give it to you.”

“But then…if I take it…that means I’m being your friend just because you gave it to me. And I really don’t mean that, Petey. I really do want to be your friend without this.”

Petey gave that one a lot of thought. The fact was he didn’t want their friendship to be repaired just because he had bought something for Brad either. But he also didn’t want to end up getting a new football out of all this, that felt wrong, too.

“Well I don’t want it,” he said flatly.

Brad looked down at the football and furrowed his brow in deep thought. Suddenly he looked back up with a big smile. “Hey wait…I’ve got an idea!”

*

“Ready?” Brad asked ten minutes later. He had run back to his home and retrieved two screwdrivers which the two boys were now wielding side-by-side.

“Ready!” Petey affirmed.

“Okay. Three…two…one…now!”

The two boys swung their screwdrivers down as hard as they could, puncturing the new football at each end! It did not deflate with a sad whistle like the last one had, though, it ruptured all at once with a huge BOOM! Each of the boys fell backwards laughing.

“Holy cow, that scared me!” Petey giggled.

“My heart’s racing!” Brad added.

They lay there laughing another minute longer, getting out all of their frustration and sadness together. When at last they quieted down they sat back up and looked at the flat pancake that had once been a football. Brad picked it up, flung it into the nearest trash can, and pocketed his screwdriver.

“C’mon buddy,” he said, extending a hand. “Let’s go play.”

Petey took the hand and let Brad pull him to his feet. “Sounds good,” he said, and the two friends walked off, arm-in-arm.

On Monday I wrote how characters that depart from each another at the end of one scene should not reunite at the start of the next. And if you look through every scene in this story I followed that guidance from start to finish. There are never two scenes of the exact same characters back-to-back.

I also tried to maintain an even balance between the appearance of each character. Petey is the star and appears in each scene. Noah and Brad are the main supporting characte4rs, and they each get a pretty equal number of scenes. Secondary supporting scenes are Petey’s dad and mom, who also get a pretty equal number of scenes in the story. This setup allowed me to bounce back and forth between the main thread with Brad and the other main thread with Noah, but also to break up those threads with small asides to his parents so that it wouldn’t feel like Petey was just ping-ponging back and forth the whole time.

One of the benefits of this approach was how it provides credence to Brad’s character development, which primarily occurs offstage. In the case of Petey, we see him grappling with his problem firsthand. We hear all the conversations he has about it and the process that leads him to his final solution. But Brad has been going through his own process as well, and we don’t actually see that firsthand. I imply it at a couple times, such as when they met at the school. Before then Brad had only been insulting and hostile, but here he had softened up enough to admit that he didn’t hate Petey. Then there is that moment at the end where he says:

Look I know I've been being a jerk about all this. I didn't feel good about it...but I did it anyway. I'm sorry.

So yes, Brad has developed as a character, and we’re able to believe in it because of the gaps between each of the boys’ encounters. Those gaps suggest that enough time has passed for him to have changed his mind. If those same changes had been shown in back-to-back scenes it would have felt too abrupt and unbelievable.

So now I have written three stories in my latest batch, and there is a common theme in them that I want to shine a light on. That theme is three simple words: Children, conflict, and play. I have explored the intersection of those three ideas in various ways, and will explore one more interpretation of them before I conclude this series. Come back on Monday as I explain this further.

Depart to Return Again

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A Gap Between)

There is an unspoken rule in storytelling that if two characters meet together for a scene and depart at the end, then the next scene won’t begin with them meeting once more. Two scenes later they might, but it is always preferred to have that space of at least one scene between every coming together.

The reason for this is purely aesthetic. Because while we understand that any period of time might transpire between two scenes, they remain a sequential experience to the audience. It just feels wrong to read of two people walking apart and then immediately read of the same two people walking back together. Where one scene concludes by asking a question we do not expect to already have the answer at the opening of the next.

To be clear, two characters can meet in one scene and then progress together into the next, but they cannot move apart and then return together immediately. In a story we measure the passage of time by changes. We need to feel the separation and the return, the change of clothes and sets, the gaps which create that artificial sense of minutes and hours spinning by.

Let’s look at a specific example of what I’m talking about.

Investigating Structure)

The film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a hardboiled detective noir. Like many of that genre it features a core set of characters that interact with one another many times over. Promises are broken, bribes are offered, and threats are extended at reckless abandon, requiring the same characters to depart and return again many times over.

And yet, the film firmly follows this rule of letting characters stay apart for a scene before reuniting them. Here are how the opening scenes play out.

Scene 1: Sam Spade and Miles Archer are partner detectives. Their secretary Effie Perine introduces a new client to them, Ruth Wonderly.

Scene 2: Miles Archer goes from the first scene to meet with an unknown murderer who guns him down.

Scene 3: Sam Spade receives a call in his apartment that Miles Archer has been killed. He calls Effie and asks her to break the news to Archer’s wife.

Scene 4: Sam Spade arrives at the scene of the murder and discusses the matter with the police there.

Scene 5: Sam goes to his apartment and is grilled by Polhaus and Dundy, two police detectives.

Scene 6: Sam is back in the office with secretary Effie Perine. Archer’s widow comes to meet with Sam.

At this point notice how Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perine are the two characters that have shared the most scenes together: 3 out of 6. But each of these scenes together are separated from the others by at least one intermediary scene.

Scene 7: Spade goes to the new client Ruth Wonderly’s apartment. She admits to having lied earlier.

Scene 8: Spade returns to his office with Effie Perine (once again notice that they were kept apart by Scene 7 before reuniting), and meets another new client named Joel Cairo.

Scene 9: Spade is being tailed by an unknown man on the streets. He arrives back at Ruth Wonderly’s apartment and calls her out on more lies.

Scene 10: Spade and Wonderly go back to his office together and tell Joel Cairo to meet them there. In the middle of their argument detectives Polhaus and Dundy come to grill Spade further.

Scenes 7, 8, 9, and 10 therefore involved Spade and Wonderly, Spade and Cairo, Spade and Wonderly again, and Spade and Wonderly and Cairo. This limited cast of characters is interacting with each another rapid fire, but they still get spaced out with a scene between them, or else move together to the next scene without parting in between.

The arrival of Joel Cairo greatly helps to maintain this hopscotch pattern, as it provides a second thread for Spade to pull on in addition to the one with Wonderly. He is able to bounce between progressing each of these lines and the interactions never feels awkward as a result.

Here the film comes to a tricky juncture, though. In the last scene pretty much every known character came together. So how to progress forward? Well, Scene 11 opens with Sam confronting the man who had been tailing him earlier. Yet another thread to pull on while letting the others gestate.

Scene 11 does also provide the first and only exception in the entire film to the rule of giving characters a scene apart, though. For after conversing with the new man, Wilmer, Spade bumps into Joel Cairo once more. And while these two men are technically revisiting each other two scenes in a row, the brief conversation with Wilmer in between helps to offset the awkwardness of that.

Deliberate Pacing)

Even stories that spend a long time in a single setting will deliberately pace themselves in this way. You can find an excellent example of this in another Humphrey Bogart classic: Casablanca. Watch the scene near the start where we first come to Rick’s Café Americain. It is an extended sequence of nearly a half hour, with many of the same characters repeated. But we hop from one conversation to another and back again. One thread is established about some stolen visas, another about an upcoming arrest, another about a mysterious revolutionary arriving, and then back to the first. Everything flows seamlessly and is aesthetically pleasing because just enough space is given around each character and thread before we return to them.

And to be clear, a story does not naturally divide itself into staggered pacing like this. It comes about by a very intentional weaving. In writing my own stories it is often necessary for me to refactor my structure when I realized I wasn’t giving each moment enough space to breathe.

I have been careful to manage this very thing in my latest piece: The Punctured Football. This is a short story with a limited set of characters, but look at the scenes and you will see that I change which character is interacting with the protagonist each time. The same individuals never meet back-to-back. And I’ll be keeping that rule as I conclude the story on Thursday. Come back then and make note of how I drive the whole thing forward while hopping between its multiple different threads.

The Punctured Football: Part One

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“Do you think Curtis and Jordan would play if we asked them?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to ask them.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re not careful and it’s my only football.”

“I don’t think they’re not careful.”

“You weren’t playing at the park after the parade.”

“No. What happened?”

“Well, so they had those airplanes, y’know? Those ones that you hook on a rubber band and it goes flying through the air.”

“Okay.”

“Like the ones you can get from the arcade at Seventeen Alleys.”

“I know what you’re talking about.”

“So Curtis and Jordan each got those from the fair games and they were launching them right over there by that building. What do you call that building?”

“I don’t know. But they do all the city stuff in there, don’t they?”

“Yeah, like the mayor and everybody.”

“Yeah.”

“So they were shooting their planes alongside of that building and talking about how they thought they were shooting them high and long enough to go all the way over the building.”

“Oh wow.”

“But Curtis’s dad, he heard them and he told them ‘don’t you do it.’ He told them they’d never get their planes over it and once they got lost on the roof he wouldn’t climb up there to get them back down again.”

“Sure.”

“And, well, they didn’t try it right then. Because right then the hot dogs and hamburgers were ready and everybody started to eat. But then after that they went and tried it and guess what?”

“What?”

“Curtis’s dad was right! They got stuck right on top of the roof and they never got them down!”

“Oh wow. Are they still up there?”

“What? No. Curtis and Jordan went back for them the next day when Curtis’s dad wouldn’t know anything about it. But the point is that they’re not careful and I don’t want my football up on the roof.”

Petey caught the ball once again and paused for a moment before chucking it back to Brad.

“Yeah okay,” Petey said, “it’s just we can’t really play a game with only the two of us.”

“Well we’re playing right now, aren’t we?”

“It’s not a game. It’s just catch.”

“Well…let’s make it a game.”

A game of two cannot have offense, defense, and passing, though. Thus the two boys decided beforehand whether the next play was a run or a pass. If it was a run then one of them would hike the ball back and then try to tackle the other. If it was a pass, then the hiker would tear down the field to get open for a catch. The boy playing quarterback would imagine defenders breaking through the front line and would have to throw it before they got to him.

“Go left! Go left!” Petey called. “I can’t throw so far to the right.”

“You just turn your body!”

“Go left!”

Petey lobbed the ball high into the air, it hung high against the sky, then came down to the earth with a squelching splash!

“Oh, you’ve thrown it into the marsh!”

The marsh was the name for the low part of the field where all the water drained to and was a perpetual pond of filth.

“Whoops! I didn’t mean to.”

“Well don’t ruin my ball, okay. Don’t throw it into the marsh anymore.”

“I won’t, Brad. Anyway try to catch it next time.”

The incompletion had been their fourth down and now the other side got their turn to charge it up the field. They were held at the forty, but the boys didn’t make much more headway with their next set of downs.

“It’s fourth down again,” Petey wiped some sweat off his face. “It’s too far to make it.”

“If you hadn’t tackled me so quickly on that last run…”

“What? I’m supposed to tackle you when I’m playing defense.”

“Well you’re in charge of the play this time. What do you want to do?”

“A kick.”

“A kick?”

“Yeah, I’ll try for the field goal. If I get the ball into the tree there–“

“You’re not kicking my ball into a tree!”

“I mean if I kick it…” Petey rotated slowly, looking for a suitable target, “over the soccer goal. That’s a field goal!”

Brad couldn’t find anything wrong with that, so they lined up for the play. A few random numbers shouted, a hike, a step back, a kick! The ball sailed quickly and decisively. It was in-line with the edge of the goal post, but angled too high. It quickly reached its zenith, plummeted back to the earth like a diving hawk…and impacted onto the corner of the goal post!

The goal post corner was two metal poles cut at an angle and welded together, making for a sharp point. The corner punctured straight through the ball and held it fast like a head on a spike. The two boys watched in horror as the ball noisily deflated, shriveling from bottom to top up until it rolled off to the side and down to the ground. Limp. Empty. Not a ball anymore.

“You broke it!” Brad shrieked, fists clenched into little balls.

“I didn’t mean to!” Petey wringed his hands anxiously.

“Why would you kick it there? It’s the only ball I had!”

“I didn’t know! It was an accident. You know I didn’t do that on purpose!”

“I told you so much that I didn’t want to ruin it! I told you to be careful so much!”

“Let’s go to me home and talk to my mom. Maybe she can fix it. Maybe she could buy another.”

Brad stomped over to the lumpy, brown sack that had once been a ball and cradled it in his arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Petey!” he shot back. “You’re a terrible friend…and a jerk!” And with that he stormed away.

*

“Back already?” Petey’s mother asked as the screen door bounced shut behind him. “I thought you’d be at the park until dinner.”

“I’m back,” he said simply. “Brad is done playing for today.”

“Oh…” she raised an eyebrow in surprise.

“Nothing!” he replied in anticipation of the question she hadn’t asked. She raised the other eyebrow but he wasn’t in the mood. “Nothing,” he repeated softly. “I’ve got to go do homework, okay?”

“Whatever you need.”

“I need to do my homework.”

She just stared at him as he bit his lip and looked elsewhere.

“So, okay, bye,” he concluded, then turned and walked up the stairs to the bedrooms.

“Okay, bye.”

But before getting to his own room Petey passed by the room of his big brother, Noah. Noah was inside, laying on his bed on his stomach, playing the Super Nintendo.

“Noah?” Petey cautiously advanced into the doorway.

“Hey, bud,” Noah didn’t turn. “Plug in the second controller.”

“No, I have to do homework…Mom’s making me.”

“Oh, okay.”

Petey stood another moment in the doorway, silently chewing his lip. “Hey Noah?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“So Brad is really mad at me right now.”

“Oh? What happened?”

“Well we were playing with his football together and I kicked it and it fell onto a sort of spike in the park and it popped.”

Noah whistled.

“Yeah, it was really bad. I don’t think there’s any way to fix it.”

“That’s no good.”

“And so now Brad is being really mad at me about it.”

“Well how do you feel? Guilty about it or no?”

“Yeah, I guess guilty. But I don’t get why, because I really didn’t do it on purpose!”

“No, I’m sure you didn’t. But you know, it’s not a bad thing that you feel bad about it. It was a bad thing that happened, you’re not supposed to feel good when that happens.”

“But I don’t feel bad like I would have if Brad had been the one to kick it. Then I would have felt sad for him. But just because it was me I feel like I did something really wrong.”

“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean I’ve felt like that and I don’t know why. You really feel dirty even though it was all an accident, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“And Brad’s pretty mad about it?”

“He hates me now.”

“So it’s kind of like how you feel. Both of you are blaming you for it even though that’s not fair.”

“So what do I do?”

Noah shrugged. “I don’t know, man, that’s a hard one. To tell you the truth I was hoping it would make you feel better just by talking about it.”

“Well…it does a little. Thanks, I guess.”

Petey turned to go but suddenly Noah whipped his head around to look over his shoulder.

“I guess if there’s something you feel like oughta do to make things right then do it, just don’t do it because of blame. Either from you or Brad.”

Petey nodded and closed the door.

*

“Hey Brad, how’s it going?” Petey said cautiously as he approached the edge of the curb.

“Don’t talk to me,” Brad said flatly.

“Hey it’s okay if you need some space, but you have to know that it’s not my fault what happened to your football.”

“It’s not your fault?” Brad raised an eyebrow. “You kicked it into the corner and it punctured. Who else made that happen if not you?”

“I–well–I guess, yeah, it was my fault. But that doesn’t mean that you or I should blame me for it.”

Brad turned to full-on stare at Petey with incredulity. “Are you even hearing yourself right now?”

Petey did, and he had to admit that he sounded pretty ridiculous. He squirmed uncomfortably and wondered why everything had seemed so clear and simple in Noah’s room, but out here it just all got turned around. He wasn’t even sure himself what he meant anymore.

Either way Petey was spared trying to explain himself any further by the arrival of the school bus. The two boys stepped on board. By force of habit Petey followed Brad to their usual row and almost tried to sit next to him, but a single withering glare from his friend sent him to the row right behind.

“If you’re curious, though,” Brad turned in his seat for one last jab, “my dad yelled at me for ten minutes’ straight yesterday because I’d already ruined my birthday gift. Says I’d better not expect anything for Christmas. So thanks for that!”

Then he spun around, leaving Petey to stare out the window, hurt and confused.

*

“Hey Dad, any extra chores I could do this weekend?” Petey asked that evening.

“Um, yeah, always. How come? You saving up your allowance for something?”

“Yeah, it was Brad’s birthday last week and I want to get him a late birthday gift.”

“Oh you don’t have to use your allowance for something like tha–hang on, didn’t we get him something for on his birthday already? A couple of CDs, wasn’t it?”

“No, it was CD-ROMs, not CDs. They go in a computer and play games.”

“Okay, well we got him covered either way.”

“Yeah, so I know this is extra and that’s why I thought it should come from my allowance.”

An unusually concerned expression came over Petey’s dad and he put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Say–uh–is there something you wanted to tell me about the Morris’s?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Are they having trouble making ends meet? Something like that?”

“What? No. I mean–not that I know of anyway.”

“Well this seems like some weird behavior from you, Petey.”

“No, I just–Brad and I were playing with his birthday football the other day and we broke it. I don’t think he’s going to be able to get a replacement for it so I wanted to get it for him. Just to be nice!”

Petey’s dad nodded as he thought it over. “Well alright, whatever you want to do son. I need someone to rake the leaves, clean out the gutters, and tidy up the shed. If I think of anything else I’ll let you know.”

Part Two

On Monday I shared my history with writing stories, and how I have oscillated between a problem of writing too few words and writing too many. In my very first stories my issue was that I would just say what happened without dressing it up at all. They read like a list of events more than a narrative. Here is an excerpt from the very first story I wrote:

We all agreed and headed off toward some islands in the distance. The next morning we landed on the first one. There wasn’t anything we could profit from, except for some branches that we made into harpoons with our swords. There were three other islands to visit, the next one was like the first. By then we were quite thirsty, but didn’t have any fresh water, so we went on. The next one appeared to be perfect, but as we neared the island three alligators swam towards us, we tried to sail away but they cut us off. Then one swam forward towards us I hacked at his head with my sword, I only managed to get a few cuts when he raised a six-foot tail, and dropped it in the middle of the boat.

This is a play-by-play of events. Even in its moment of action, the fight with the alligator, everything is “this happened, then this happened, then that happened.” It took me some time to understand the importance of giving moments space to breathe, to evoke them rather than tell them, to let the reader experience them directly.

This can be taken too far, though. It would not do for a story to dwell on every moment. One has to filter from all of the things that could be shared in a story to just the things that should be. In writing this current piece I had to fight the temptation to throw in some side-plots to pad out the central narrative. That would be necessary to round things out if this were a larger coming-of-age novel, but it isn’t. It is a short piece about how a young boy deals with one problem and every scene that I’m including needs to be related to that single narrative.

There is still an element of rounding things out, though. I don’t want back-to-back scenes between the same two characters because that would feel weird. Characters need to have an interaction and then move on to somewhere else before they come back together. That might seem like an arbitrary requirement, but if you pay attention it is a commonly followed guideline in most stories. Come back on Monday as we take a closer look at this rule and the reason it exists. I’ll see you there.