Phiserman: Part Three

photo of house during daytime
Photo by Sarah Eaton on Pexels.com

Part 1

Part 2

The trick is going to be maintaining an attitude of complete nonchalance. It will be the middle of the day and that means any neighbor or passerby might see me at any moment. If they see me sneaking glances to each side and wearing a dark hoodie over my head they’ll be tipped off immediately that something is wrong. If, on the other hand, I am seen striding up to the door like I owned the place they will just think I am some out-of-town uncle that has come for a visit. Hopefully they will think that anyway. There’s no denying that there is a very real danger in all of this. But then again, if there wasn’t real danger it wouldn’t be so appealing in the first place, now would it?

And so here I am, driving up to 17462 Oak Lane right at noon. It’s such a quiet, ideal sunny day and I park smack in the middle of their driveway like I don’t have a care in the world. I allow myself one more glance down either side of the street and take a steeling breath. It’s now or never.

I don’t remember deciding to pull the trigger, but suddenly I’m hearing the sound of my door opening and the feel of my feet strolling down the cement. I fish in my pocket for my make-shift key, scraping my finger along its teeth to vent my anxiety. Though I’ve forced a mask of calmness over my face my heart is racing as though I’ve just run ten miles. My hand is trembling as I lift the key out and slowly insert it into the lock.

Please work.

Please don’t.

Click! The lock opens with perfect ease. I exhale a deep sigh as I push my way through the front door and bolt the door behind me. I close my eyes and strain my ears, listening for any sound of movement within, though I already know that I’m alone. I remind myself that I’ve been far too thorough in my research to be caught by surprise by anything, and so the key goes back into my pocket and the latex gloves come out. I suit up each hand and scan the house again, taking in the scene.

It’s a small, one-story affair. Several decades old, and you can see it in the dated wallpaper and siding. Even so, it’s been well-cleaned and well-cared for. There’s pictures along the wall, faces I’m already well-familiar with. I stroll casually past the entrance area and into the living room. There’s a light on the blu-ray player beneath the tv and I walk over and press the eject button, curious to see what the last movie they watched last night was.

Way of the Dragon.

An involuntary memory forces its way into my mind.

“But why would Chuck Norris choose a role where he gets beat?” I’m asking.

“Well, you gotta remember this was before Walker, Texas Ranger,” Dad is explaining. “He wasn’t such a big star yet, so he was gonna do whatever role he could.”

I shake my head. “It’s weird.”

“I do like how he looks in this one,” Dad grinned. “Without his beard on he’s pretty similar to me, don’t you think?”

“But he’s the badguy here!”

“So?”

“Naw, Dad, you’re Bruce Lee!”

Dad laughs. It isn’t particularly mirthful. “And how can you tell me who I am, kid, when you can’t even tell me who you are or what you want to do?”

He’s jabbing his thumb at the summer camp brochures on the table. He brought them home for me to choose where I want to head out to this weekend.

“I just–none of them sound like the sort of things I want to do,” I say slowly, not wanting to retread this argument.

“Oh yeah? And what does sound like the sort of thing you want to do?”

“I’d rather just be with you this summer!” I suggest brightly. “We could just watch movies like this all day.”

“I told you, I have to go on a trip of my own this summer.”

“I could come with you,” I say quietly.

His face turns cold. He doesn’t try to explain, he just speaks with a grim finality in his voice. “No. You couldn’t.”

My throat is tight and the blood is pumping in my ears. I’m spinning on the spot, looking for something. I don’t know what, but I know it when I see it. One of those family pictures is on the mantle, a small piece of them smiling out on a grassy hill in a dark wooden frame. I don’t look at it so much as through it. I grip it with my hands and hold it a little lower than my chest, staring dead ahead as my arms twist. Long, slow, but powerful. The wood creaks, the glass cracks, and at last the whole thing gives way and bursts apart with a snap. I let go and the various pieces clatter to the floor.

Believe it or not, never in all my planning did I ask myself what I was going to be doing once I got in here. I don’t need their money or valuables, I don’t particularly care to trash the place any more than the one picture I’ve broken. Whenever I hack people I don’t ever drain their bank accounts or sell their information. I just enjoy the sense of knowing them.

I guess that was my general intention here, too, but now I want to do a little bit more. I want to take a memento, and also I want to scare these people. I want them to know I was here and have them fear what I might have done, though I won’t have done anything at all. I’ve already broken their picture, but I scour the surroundings for something else. Something big, something prominent, something personal. Something that has been placed very deliberately, something that couldn’t have just fallen down and rolled under the sofa. Something that the absence of will immediately stand out like a sore thumb.

And then I see it. There’s a nanny cam staring directly at me from the mantle.

How did I miss it when I came in here? How did I not prepare for this? I really didn’t think that they would have one.

Why not?

I don’t know…I guess I just wanted them not to. So much so that I felt they couldn’t possibly. Stupid as it sounds, I’m completely frozen in space for a moment. The only movement is my hand slowly raising to touch my open, exposed face. I didn’t want anyone to suspect me as I entered the place, but why not keep a mask in my pocket to wear once I had closed the front door?!

My instinct is to seize the camera and smash it to pieces, as well as any computer or tablet in this home it might be streaming data to. But with it’s sleek, angular, gray-and-white design I can tell this is a modern device, one that no doubt supports motion-tracking and automated alerts pushed to a user’s phone.

They already know that I’m here.

I manage to break the spell I’m under and scramble for the front door. As I wrench the doorknob and swing the door open I see the policeman stepping out of his car. He hadn’t had his sirens on, evidently intending to catch me unawares. The man is startled by my sudden appearance, and I instinctively slam the door back shut.

I pelt to the back of the house, roving my eyes in search of a door out the back. There, in the kitchen. I lunge for it, twisting the knob before realizing that the bolt is still holding it fast.

Stupid!

I fumble with the lock, hearing myself crying as my chest heaves with fear. I finally jerk the door open just as I hear the front door being flung open with a smash.

“Stop. Now!”

Needless to say I ignore the commanding voice calling from behind as I sprint out of the house and across the small yard to the six-foot chainlink fence separating their property from the neighbors’ place. I don’t try to fit my toes in the narrow gaps, instead just kicking forwards and upwards as I half-pull half-roll myself over the fence, getting a few scrapes in the process.

They’ve already seen your face! And you’ve left your car back there!

None of that matters. I’ll figure it out later. Somehow.

I hear the heavy footsteps behind me but refuse to look over my shoulder. The more I see the officer more real he’ll be. I hear the clatter of him scrambling over the fence as I sprint around the neighbor’s house to their front-yard, exiting onto the next street and peeling off to the right.

It’s still an ideal, sunny day in modern suburbia and I feel myself cowering like a wild animal at being so exposed out in the open. My legs are shaking, threatening to turn into molten jelly at any moment.

“Please!” I wheeze out between sobs. “Pleeeease!”

I just have to get past this. I just have to get clear. If it takes everything I’ve got, I just have to escape. I’ll be able to work it all out after that, I’ll tackle each problem systematically and one-at-a-time. But I just have to lose this cop.

The click of a clasp being unbuttoned.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!”

It honestly never even occurs to me whether he might be lying. I just feel a pure and violent terror seize my chest, gripping my heart like I’ve never experienced before. I throw my hands up in the air and spin on the spot, my voice breaking and warbling as I splutter out my pleas.

“I’ll stop, I’ll stop! Just please don’t–”

He doesn’t slow one bit in his run. Officer Daley’s name badge fills my vision as he goes horizontal and t-bone’s me right in the chest. The top of his head catches my jaw and I see a stream of blood curving through the air in slow motion as I become weightless in space. He’s knocked more wind out of my lungs than I ever knew could fit in there, and so there is no noise to the crying my throat is trying to make. I spin backwards, hurtling towards the pavement, anticipating the impact that cannot be denied.

“Alright then, Dad” I say slowly, trying to keep the trembling out of my voice. “You tell me. Where should I go this summer?”

“Naw kid, that’s not for me to choose.”

“Sure it is. You want me to go, so you can decide where.”

“You gotta decide what you want for yourself.”

“But only from what you decide I can choose from?”

Both our voices have been getting louder and faster. Half in anger, half in exasperation. The tension of unspoken truths mounting. Finally Dad stops to knead his brow heavily.

“This summer is going to be hard on all of us, Terry. I’m sorry. Really I am. But I’ve got to figure stuff out, and I need to do that alone. I need to…well…find out who I am.”

I’m quiet, staring blankly through the floor. “You know Dad, you were right earlier. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be either.”

“Hey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that–“

“No, it’s alright. It’s true…. Dad, can you do me one thing before you go?”

“Sure kid.”

“Who am I?”

“C’mon, that’s not fair. I just said, I’m still trying to figure out who I am, I’m not the person to tell you about yourself.”

“But you’re my dad. Just tell me what you think even if you don’t know. You don’t have to be right. I just need to know what you think.”

The tears were streaming from my eyes then, too. Dad was frowning, shaking his head at the responsibility.

“I will. Okay? Let me get myself sorted out and then when I come back I’ll tell you. It’ll be something you can look forward to when I return.”

“You promise?”

“Yeah.”

I rub the tears away with my grubby hand. “Daddy… I love you, y’know?”

“Sure, kid. I know you do.”

You may crush me as hard as you wish, Officer Daley.

***

 

As I suggested on Monday, unreliable narrators have the power to divulge as much from what they aren’t saying as what they are. I tried to craft Phisherman so that observant readers would be able to realize that not everything was adding up with our narrator. My hope then was that they would start reading between the lines to extract the missing pieces, and picking up on little clues.

There were things like his obsession with consuming other peoples’ identities, his unwillingness to define his own, and his negative perspective of men. All of these were supposed to tease that he bore some wound related to a father figure and his own role in life. Although the full details of that wounding would have been impossible to predict exactly, hopefully when finally witnessed it felt consistent with what had been suggested before. The ways his father left him will hopefully match up with the personality we see in him now.

Also, a week before Monday, I posted about how characters can be portrayed as one-dimensional villains at the outset, and then given a sympathetic backstory to evolve them later on. Obviously Jake (or should we call him Terry?) is doing something horrible when fate finally catches up to him, and he is deserving of all the legal action that is sure to follow.

And yet I do hope he also comes across as pitiable. I hope that the readers feel that the way he has become makes sense, even if it cannot be justified. This is actually an essential groundwork for any time a villain in a story is meant to become a hero. Once a character is understood, they are also redeemable.

It was in reaching this point of inflection that I ultimately decided the story was ready to close. I knew that Terry was stuck in an unhealthy rut at the outset of this story, and I wanted to get him to where he finally had a choice again. In this story we see him hitting rock bottom and what will follow could be either a spiraling demise or the beginnings of turning over a new leaf. Either way, that would be another story in and of itself, the story of the hacker “Jake” has reached its end.

Even so, I’m sure there are those that would rather have had the story go further into what happens next for Terry. This brings up a common question in writing a story: when exactly should it end? I’ll explore this question in my post on Monday. Come back then to chime in with your own takes on the matter, I’ll see you there.

Would I Lie to You?

actor adult business cards
Photo by Nikolay Ivanov on Pexels.com

On Thursday we had the second segment of Phisherman, in which our narrator let us into his home, more of his thought processes, and described various body sensations. But all of these are only surface periphery, and he has still stubbornly avoided sharing anything truly vulnerable. We don’t know what it is that makes him tick or what his real motivations are, and he adamantly refuses to tell us what he’s even feeling.

A narrator that has an adversarial relationship with the reader is not a new invention, but it still remains an interesting mechanic due to how it goes against the basic idea of what a story is. A story is supposed to be a way to share knowledge, to communicate, to bring to an understanding. Therefore an unreliable narrator seems that it would only make a story defeat itself in much the same way that telling lies defeats the natural purpose of communication.

Indeed almost every story begins with the assumption that the narrator is truthful and somewhat omniscient. Usually they know everything that is needed to communicate their tale accurately, and they will be used as the standard of truth that all else is measured against. Therefore when a narrator is not trustworthy it is something that has to be discovered. Bit by bit things just aren’t adding up, and finally there’s a breaking apart where our creeping suspicions become confirmed.

And it is in that moment of discovery that the self-defeating nature of an unreliable narrator is undone. When pulled off properly the communication that follows can actually become more true, due to its initial concealing nature. But don’t take my word for it, there have been some excellent stories which have proved this very point.

 

Fight Club)

Take, for example, the story in Fight Club. I’ve have not yet read the novel, but the film’s snappy, cynical dialogue was actually a direct influence on crafting Phisherman’s tone. Interestingly, this film starts by surprising us with just how brutally honest it is willing to be. We understand exactly how Edward Norton’s character feels about the media, society, and all the world’s various problems. He sees a lot to complain about, including of himself, and he doesn’t hold back in cutting down everything he despises.

But while that honesty is invigorating, the audience still gets the notion that something is being hidden from them. People occasionally treat Edward Norton’s character in a way that doesn’t make sense, and there are strange black-out periods that are entirely unaccounted for. It isn’t necessarily that we think our narrator is lying to us, just that he isn’t as in control of the situation as he should be. In the end it turns out to be both. He is lying to us, but he isn’t even aware of doing so.

In the final act the story reveals its secret, and we find out that our leading man is a far more complex individual than we had been led to believe. Certainly more than he, himself, had ever believed. Thus this tale is particularly interesting in that it features a narrator that is being duped right along with the audience. That “aha moment” where everything comes to light is even more of a shock to him than it is to us.

The takeaway here would be that the narrator does not have to always know when they are being unreliable. They might just be expressing the truth according to their limited understanding of it.

 

The Beginner’s Guide)

Another example of an unreliable narrator is that of the indie game called The Beginner’s Guide. This is a game that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, right from its initial moments. It opens with the game’s real-life creator giving you his real-life name and his real-life email address. It is incredibly, disarmingly honest, and leaves the player feeling a little embarrassed at just how far they being are invited into the creator’s personal space. But all of this is just a façade, and when it comes down things are only going to become more intimate.

The basic construct of the game is that the creator, Davey Wreden, wants to show you some small minigames that his friend “Coda” has made. These games are all quite short and about a very limited objective. They’re also very different, and feel less interested in providing compelling gameplay as being virtual art pieces that communicate an experience. For example a maze that is impossible to beat may not be very fun to play, but it recreates the sensation of being trapped that Coda was experiencing in his life at that time.

Then, at the end, Davey confesses that Coda actually hates him for sharing his games with the public like this. These weren’t meant to be put on display for everyone, they were very personal to Coda. Davey even admits that he has been altering the games, giving them glimmers of hope that he felt had been missing.

So clearly there was a deception here, and the player feels dirty for having been made an accomplice to violating Coda’s personal life. This might seem like it’s the “aha moment” of catching the unreliable narrator in the act, but there’s an even greater revelation still to uncover.

This one comes when you understand that Coda and Davey are not actually two different people, but rather two sides of the same individual. There’s plenty to suggest this fact within the game itself, but it is further confirmed by reading the blog posts that Davey Wreden has published about himself. He gets very personal and honest in those blogs, and they talk about his two conflicting interests: to be purely creative and also to feed his never-ending hunger for validation.

From his blog posts and this game we understand that “Coda” is the name that Davey has given to his muse, the part of him that provides him pure inspiration. But then there’s this other part of him, the public part, that tries to make those games more marketable and entertaining so that he can be praised for them. The more he does that, the more his private life is thrust into the limelight, and the more he starts to feel that honest creativity dying within him.

The Beginner’s Guide is very unique in that it makes the player believe it is being entirely honest, then convinces the player they have been deceived, and then let’s them discover it was actually being more honest than ever.

 

Truth Through Deception)

So obviously these are two very different examples of an unreliable narrator, however there is one aspect that they share, that of actually unveiling more as a result of their covering up.

If in Fight Club we had understood all the wrinkles of the main character from the outset, then we would not have experienced the same sense of confusion and foreboding that he was experiencing. He would have been wandering around scared and confused and we would have been waiting for him to catch up to our level. Being left in a place of uncertainty only better connected the audience to the lack of completeness he had been feeling the whole film long.

And as for The Beginner’s Guide, it could have been introduced as simply “here are two different sides of me,” but that would have lessened the sense of betrayal that we experienced at the end. By dividing the psyche into two individuals we better have this idea of a relationship, one which requires respect from one to another to survive. In this way this story is able to make its point that we know it would be unquestionably wrong to exploit another person, but why do we think it any better to exploit oneself?

This element makes for one of my favorite styles of unreliable narrator. Even though the narrator may not be telling you the truth about the details, they are informing you of other truths about themselves. This, however, is not the technique that I am utilizing for Phisherman. In fact I’ve decided to do the exact opposite to see how that affects the outcome.

Jake is being entirely honest about all of the details, and there is not going to be any sort of twist where he has a split personality or an imaginary friend. The deceit is one that he, himself, doesn’t recognize as a deceit because it is really a self-deceit. Jake has been able to omit his feelings from the story thus far because he is very practiced at numbing them, even to the point that he would doubt their existence. In the final section of the story we will have a moment where the pure terror that always lives beneath his surface finally rages to the forefront for all to see. My hope is that that moment of stark clarity will then color every scene that came before.

Come back Thursday to see how that works out. I’ll be waiting for you there!

Phisherman: Part Two

two black and brass colored keys with fob
Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Part 1

Less than a week after I found Pete I found these keys. To be clear, I’m not always looking for trouble… but I will acknowledge it anytime it comes to me on its own. I’m just finishing up with my run, twelve laps around the local park, when I see something glinting at me from one of the benches. It’s keys: a ring with about three on them. House. Car. Something else, too.

I ignore them, continuing my jog as I turn this fact over in my mind. On the surface nothing immediate presents itself, but there’s no denying that there is a power here. What can be done with that, though? It’s just a set of random keys. Finding anything that they unlocked would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Even as I’m thinking that thought another part of my mind is pointing out that this is a small and local park. Pretty much no one ever drives here, they walk. Whoever left these is almost definitely local. Sure, there’s a couple hundred homes in the surrounding neighborhood, but already the haystack is getting smaller.

And while that thought is finishing its course my eyes are already roving. How many people are here right now? A young couple there…man and his dog there…that’s it. Doubtful the keys belong to any of them, if so they would have kept them pocketed while out on the lawn, not laying out on a bench. The sun is setting and all of them will be leaving soon. The place will be vacant.

Oh right, the sun is setting… so people will be going to sleep. That means the owner is probably already back home. They somehow got back in their house without realizing they had lost the keys? Could be. If a couple had come together, each with their own set of keys, then they might not notice if only one set disappeared. People get distracted by all sorts of things. Or maybe the went back into the house through the garage instead of the front door. Or maybe they have noticed the missing keys and are searching for them, but they visited too many places today and aren’t sure exactly where they left them. In any case, after a certain hour no one will be looking for these…

But again, what would I do with them? A hundred homes is still a lot. The car key will probably have a logo on it. If I know that I’m looking for a Honda or a Toyota I can start reducing candidates. Unless the car is in its garage…

Wait a second. Was it just a key, or a fob? I decide to run one more lap, all to once more jog past the keys. I come up to them and surreptitiously glance at them out of the corner of my eye. Fob! That’s definitely a key fob! And that means it has a lock button, and that means pressing it within a certain radius of its matching car results in it giving a little toot.

If my mind was racing before it’s full-on sprinting now.

What on earth are you going on about? I ask myself. You can’t break into a house!

Of course not, this is just a thought experiment, I protest. I just want to know what would be possible.

What would be possible?

Find the house, setup a camera watching the front door and garage, learn their comings and goings, enter when the house is vacant.

Stop! You’d be caught. You’d get arrested.

This is all just theory, remember? But you’re right, in this theory I would need some latex gloves, a hoodie and a mask. Also you would need to check for a doorbell camera.

The voice of reason insists that we’re going to too dangerous of places and need to leave. I peel away from the park and head for home. It doesn’t matter where I go physically, though, because my mind is still firmly back there. From my apartment I happen to have a great view of that park and I find myself constantly returning to my window, checking to see if anyone is going to retrieve the keys. No one ever comes.

During my restless pacing the sun completely sets. It’s night. People will be going to bed before long. I open my laptop and try to do some work, but after rereading the same email six times without paying it any attention I open a few new tabs on my browser.

I mean, are there even any cameras that could run all day on battery and remain inconspicuous?

bestbuy.com
gopro.com
bhphotovideo.com

In case you were wondering, turns out it is feasible, and there’s even a some options just waiting for me at a few of the local stores.

I get up, grab my keys, and head out into the night. I wouldn’t say that I have made a decision, more so I just stopped resisting the inevitable.

I’m in no particular rush, though, I’ve still got a few hours until the absolute dead of night and I’m sure not going to check on the keys until then. I get a cheap, greasy dinner from Taco Bell and then start my shopping. I take my time, comparing options and searching for DIY enhancements on my phone.

I end up deciding to get a common dash cam. They’re small, subtle, and can be rigged to run off a battery pack pretty easily. I select an RSC Nano. This model will take an SD card for storage, up to 64 gigs, which should hold as much as 8 hours of footage if it records at 17Mbps. Most importantly it can connect to my phone through an app and allow me to download the footage from my car while parked on the street. I don’t want to risk being seen tampering with this camera each day. That download is sure to take a while, but hopefully I’ll be able to scope out a subtle area once I see the place.

Next I go to a grocery store for matches, a can of beans, and a pair of scissors sharp enough to cut metal. Thanks to my friends at YouTube I’ve learned this is all I need to make a copy of a key.

I go home and watch some television to while away the last hour. I’m not paying any attention to it, though, and I might as well just switch it off and stare at the clock. At last it reads 1 AM, the time I’ve decided it’s safe to go out.

A few long, steadying breaths, then I leave into the night.

My heart is racing faster than it did during my entire run this afternoon. My hands are clammy and I keep switching them from swinging at my sides to shoved into my pockets. Down the street, to the park, up to the bench. I reach down, grab the keys in one smooth motion, and hurriedly duck back out of the light cast by the streetlamp above.

In the darkness I peer at the key fob and can just make out the white little logos on the buttons. I place my thumb over the one to lock the car and make for the nearest row of houses. I walk down the sidewalk on one side of the street, pressing the fob button as I pass each house. Then I cross over to the other side and do the same coming back the other way. Then I move on to the next street.

To help me pass the time I start doing the math in my head. It’s taking about six minutes to do both sides of a street. Ten streets an hour. I could keep this up until four, that would cover thirty streets. Seven-and-a-half blocks. Obviously at some point I’ve got to call it quits, but at that rate I’d say two, maybe three nights at most and I could cover the entire surrounding neighborhood.

Unless they really were from out-of-town. They might have been visiting family around here, they could have been geocaching, they could have…

Boop! Boop!

My heart skips a full three beats at the unmistakable chime of a car sounding from the garage nearest me. I start to walk away, then wonder if it might have been a coincidence. I push the lock button again.

Boop! Boop!

My ears are buzzing from all the blood pounding through my head as I resume my walking. Still I have the presence of mind to read the number off of the mailbox: 17462. I walk faster, straining to hear any noises coming from the house. The bedrooms would have been decently removed from the garage, further than a car beep would have been heard from… Right?

To my great relief nothing stirs from the home all the while as I come to the intersection of the next street and make a sharp turn, noting the name of the road I’ve just left: Oak Lane. I resist the urge to run. Though no one else is out at this time I don’t want to risk drawing attention to myself. I do power-walk, though, winding through one turn after another as if I’m being followed. In fact I do look over my shoulder a few times, but all that’s there is my shadow.

Every extra second out here is just that much more risk, and I won’t be able to breathe fully until I am done with this night.

I glide across an intersection to my apartment building and now I allow myself a sprint up the steps to my flat. I bolt the door, lock the knob, and slide the chain. I punch 17462 Oak Lane into a text editor my phone and then pull the keys out of my pocket. Car key, house key, gym key. I grip the house key as I move over to the kitchen table where the matches, scissors, tape, and metal ends of the can of beans are already waiting.

I light a match and heat up the key, then press it into the tape, transferring a perfect image of it onto it the clear plastic. That gets laid flat against the metal from the can, and using my scissors I carefully cut out the exact same shape. I do this a second time, stacking the two copy-keys on top of each other so that they are a similar thickness to the original. I press them down on the original house key, pressing firmly with my fingers until the groove that runs down its side is transferred over as well.

There. All that’s left is to return everything back to the way it was before, to remove any cause for suspicion or fear. I pocket the keys and grab a handkerchief, then stride back out into the night. Again I power-walk the whole way to the park, and as I go I vigorously rub the keys down with the handkerchief, obliterating any trace of fingerprints on them. It’s probably an unnecessary precaution, but I intend to reduce the risk as far as I possibly can…aside, you know, from actually not following through with this plan.

I reach that fateful park bench and deposit the keys silently in the same spot where I found them. One last time I go back to the apartment complex, up the steps, through the door, lock all of the locks, and at long last I lean against the wall and let out the breath I’ve been holding all night long.

Suddenly I feel tired, exhausted even, and I leave for bed. Everything else can wait until tomorrow.

*

The next day I return to the park under the guise of another run. I’m excited when I see that the keys have been removed from the park bench. It could be that someone else stole them or tried to find the owners, but I like to hope that the people at 17462 Oak Lane woke up the next day, discovered they were missing, retrieved them, and believe the whole incident was brief enough that it isn’t worth changing the locks on their door. Everything depends on that, and I’d say there’s a decent chance of it being true.

After the park I take a drive around the town, slowly rolling by the home in question. I scope out the area, noting a couple of bushes belonging to the neighbor across the street. A camera could be easily hidden in there with a wide enough view to track both the front door and the garage. I also take note of the cars parked along the sides of the street. There’s enough of them that it shouldn’t stand out too much when I join them to download the footage to my phone. Finally I also peer up at the front entrance and check for a doorbell camera. There is none.

Everything is working out perfectly for me. Or, when I consider how idiotic this entire scheme is, perhaps I should say working perfectly against me. Either way, I’m back on that street at 1 AM the next night, burying my camera in the bushes.

And now the routine begins. Early every morning I drive down the street, open the camera’s app, and tell it to start recording. Late in the evening I come back and download the footage, then go home to scrub through it, taking notes of everything I see.

On the very first day I become fully acquainted with the occupants of the house. Husband, wife, two daughters. Middle class, young family. The father seems to work in some office, based off of the casual-nice fare he always wears when he leaves at 7:47-ish each weekday. A little less than an hour later the wife leaves with the two daughters in tow and wearing scrubs. Presumably she drops them off at school and then goes to work at the hospital, coming back about 3:30, with the husband following a couple hours after that.

Once again: perfect.

The house is completely vacated all day long every weekday. I verify this over a few more days, of course, but there’s never any variation. I even check the weekend footage to verify that they don’t ever come out on a walk with some invalid that’s otherwise being cooped up indoors. All clear on that front. I never catch a glimpse of a dog or a cat, either.

All I have to do is pick a day.

But is that necessary? Haven’t you already consumed them enough? There’s a lot to glean about them from the video already.

Hmm, interesting question. What of these people themselves? Who are they? What makes them tick? What are their aspirations? Why do they live here? Why do they have two kids and not more or less? Why do they drive the two old Honda Civics that they do and not something else? Why do they forget their keys at parks?… I can observe a lot of things about them, but what of them?

The two daughters appear to be about six and eight. If they were the same age you would definitely think they were twins. Both with blond hair down to their shoulders and chubby cheeks. Well-fed, well-dressed, healthy. Well-liked, too, judging from all the friends that came to visit on Saturday. Comfortable, but not so fancy as to be stuck-up. They’re probably nice girls.

The mother is, in a word, tired. She’s yawning every time she rolls out in the morning, she’s rubbing her eyes when she comes home in the afternoon. No doubt she uses those few hours at the end of the day taking care of all the housework: cooking dinner, doing laundry, cleaning, etc. Physically…she’s not really my type, but I mean we’re talking a suburban mom here, what did you expect? Still… I suppose she’s pretty in her own way.

I don’t think the father likes his office job very much. When he leaves in the morning he always procrastinates, rushing back into the house for some forgotten item until eventually he has to race out in a hurry to not be late. He appears educated and capable enough to give his family a bigger home, so I can only assume it is his lack of passion at work that is holding him back. Whenever he comes home he looks so much more alive than when he leaves, and his daughters are always bounding out the door to meet him. They’re really happy when he comes home.

That still doesn’t mean he isn’t going to leave you one day, girls.

I’m going to hit their place tomorrow.

*

I acknowledged last Monday that Jake is an uncomfortable person, someone who does bad things and is entirely unrepentant about it. I suggested that perhaps there was more depth to him than met the eye, though.

In this section I tried to really sow the beginnings of this idea in the reader with how little Jake actually says about himself. He is quite talkative when it comes to critiquing other people, describing their little details, and chronicling a list of events. But he absolutely refuses to ever discuss himself. In his own words that is a lot of things being said about him, but not of him.

In the first section this absence might not have stood so much. It was fast-paced, plunging right into the hacking-action, and his quick banter was well-suited for deflecting closer inspection. But the longer you stay with him the more you find it bizarre to not have heard anything meaningful about him.

This sort of absence will hopefully suggest to most people some sort of hiding, a wound that needs to be covered. The evidence of that wound is further suggested by the selective way he critiques others. Apparently he is able to be tolerant, and even kind, to little girls and women, but we’ve now seen him unnecessarily cut down two men without reason.

This element of a narrator holding back information is, of course, not a new invention. This is the famous “unreliable narrator” where the storytelling might be as flawed and inconsistent as the voice behind it. On Monday I’d like to delve into this concept more, and then we’ll get the final act of Phisherman next Thursday.

Second Introductions

two persons hand shake
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This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.

And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.

As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.

It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.

I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.

Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.

 

A Christmas Carol)

In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.

No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.

But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.

The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.

 

Citizen Kane)

Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.

We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.

Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.

We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.

 

Empathy)

In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.

I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world  to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.

When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.

Come back on Thursday to see how I iterate with that in the second entry of Phisherman.

Phisherman: Part One

crown group modern motion
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Hey there, you can call me Jake. That’s what I tell people my name is.

Speaking of people, have you ever noticed that they all like to have collections? Poor people collect stamps and coins, rich ones collect houses and cars. Lots of people collect problems. I knew one lady who had a new terminal disease to complain about every week.

Thing is I think everyone collects something or other. We want to find that something where we can say “This. This is what defines me. I could never have too much of this. The more I accumulate of this the more complete I will be.” That makes it so easy, to be made right just by hoarding things.

As for me, I collect people. Now, to be clear, I don’t mean that in a creepy way. Well not as creepy as you’re thinking, anyway. I don’t harvest organs or have a stack of bodies in my cellar or anything like that. I take people’s digital lives. I hack them and uncover all of their public secrets. No, that wasn’t a typo.

Frankly I am amazed at how easy it still is to take the deepest, darkest secrets of people. Even with all the cautionary tales and available resources in cyber-security, people insist on surrendering their lives to their devices. They use those devices to track their calories, to schedule their day, to make their investments, to socialize and communicate. And then they go and connect that device to public networks with virtually no security measures whatsoever. Our digital age is the thief and I’m just the enterprising soul that reaps the field.

Take someone’s name for example. They think its their own, and they think no one knows it unless they tell it to you. But here’s something to try: go somewhere with free WiFi, like a coffee shop or a library. Malls like I’m at now are great, too. Really it’s just a question of what demographic you want to sift through. Now open up your laptop, go to the network settings, and you can see a list of all the devices that you are sharing your connection with. And what are the names on those devices? Invariably you’re going to find a lot of titles like these:

Zekes_Laptopxx
BriansBigDell420
I Am Sam
TiaCuteIPhone

Alright, excellent. Now look at the people around you. It’ really not hard to start matching device names to users. They’ve already told you their personality, what type of brand they’re using, and age (leet speech is younger).

There. See that big meathead doing hunt-and-peck on his laptop keyboard? That, my friends, would be Brian. And that millenial girl with blue hair and an iPhone case encrusted with fake diamonds. Tia.

“Hey Tia, how’s it going?”

She looks up, her smile curious, wondering what old friend is calling to her. It quickly shifts to confusion, she’s running through her high school yearbook in her head, trying to place my face. Nothing comes up and she starts to look upset, offended even. “Um…do I even know you?”

I took something that she thinks she never gave to me. Her name. And it shocks her, she feels violated. I like seeing people with that angry, stupid, self-righteous look. In this moment I have owned her better than she has owned herself. I know her name, I know what she’s thinking, I know what she’s going to do after this: Google “What to do if someone’s stalking me?” and then she’ll change all the locks on her doors.

All I said was five innocent words.

She doesn’t need to worry, though, I’m already done with her. She’s useful for a cathartic moment of shock and awe, but I have no interest in diving deeper into her not-so-private digital life. I’ve already seen enough duck-face-selfies to last me a lifetime. I smile then walk away, continuing to mill around for a more interesting subject.

Tia is shouting “Hey! Hey you! Get back here.” She won’t follow, though, her overconfident voice only betrays how scared she actually is. I stroll past the phone vendors and the tech store. I pause briefly at the maternity clothing shops but decide I don’t feel like fishing for an expectant mother today. Though that can be interesting…

The food court. Talk about your buffets! One contained place and you get a conglomerate of all the types. Jocks and nerds, pretty girls and not-so pretty girls, grandparents and teenagers. Just take your pick. I’m about to go find a table when my head snaps to the side, my eyes glint, and a broad smile splits my face. That, my friends, is a forty-pound bass if I ever saw one.

Or maybe I should say a two-hundred-and-eighty pound bass. He’s extremely overweight and throwing his empty KFC bag in the trash. Dangling from his left hand are the shopping bags he accumulated before this particular pit stop: Under Armour and Garmin. He’s a walking contradiction.

On the one hand he knows his life is pathetic. He’s miserable at who he is and realizing he’s slipping down a hole he won’t ever be able to climb out of. But then on the other hand he’s been deluded by tacky slogans and mass media telling him that “there isn’t anything he can’t do” and he “just has to believe in himself.” They remind him how special he truly is and then promise him happiness if he just buys their brand.

So what does he do? He swipes his card and pays his dues, and the pain is soothed enough that he can hurt himself some more. He’ll go home, eat a tub of ice cream, and say “it’s okay, I bought a new pedometer today so I’m still making progress.” Pathetic, and all so emblematic of all society.

I follow him as he saunters around, watching his watching. He seems to take particular note of the guitar store, no doubt reminiscing on a childhood dream that never came true. He sighs and shuffles away, checks his watch, pauses to think, and finally glides over to a bench in between the main walkways. He sits down and fumbles in his backpack, pulling out a laptop. He’s got some time to kill.

Perfect.

I can’t go sit down next to him right away, that would just look weird. I’ve been careful to hang back enough that he hasn’t seen me yet, and I peel off to the side as I plan my approach. There’s another bench right next to his own. Maybe a little too close. People aren’t usually in the habit of sitting down right next to a stranger, I don’t want this to come off as weird.

I’ve had the thought, of course, that I probably overthink all these details but that’s just part of the fun. It’s all a facet of the performance, you see.

Now where was I? Oh right.

I whip out my phone and begin my approach. I walk in his direction, along the path right in front of him so that he’ll be able to see my act. I’m staring intently at the phone screen, pretending to be reading an engrossing text. I furrow my brow, as if I’ve just read something upsetting right when I become parallel with him. The concern still on my face I stop walking and instead shuffle over to the nearest seat, which not-so-coincidentally happens to be the one right next to my target.

I reach for my own sleek notebook, powering it on to complete the story. I got a text, it upset me, and I have to go online to address whatever it was about. I allow myself a sideway glance at the man. He hasn’t taken notice of me at all. Oh well, the performance was wonderful anyhow.

So long as I’m eyeing him I start taking in more details, looking for some topic of conversation. His shirt says Good Charlotte. I’ve heard the name, but none of their songs come readily to mind. I sit there next to him, reading up about the group and preparing to initiate our conversation.

He sits there next to me entirely oblivious.

A surreptitious reach into my bag, a flick of the switch on to turn on the signal jammer there, a few seconds wait. In no time at all he’s trying to reset his WiFi connections, sighing in exasperation when that doesn’t work. He’s pulled out of his reverie and starting to glance around him. I do the same, making eye contact and mirroring his expression of frustration.

“Hey, are you having trouble connecting here?” I ask before he can.

“Yeah, it’s not finding the WiFi at all.”

I shake my head. “Sucks, man…” I make as though I’m just noticing his shirt for the first time. “Hey, nice!” I gesture to it.

He glances down to see what I mean and breaks into a smile. “Oh yeah! You like ’em?”

“Just started listening to them actually,” I say quickly, the last thing I need is for him to start an in-depth discussion about them. “But I sure like what I heard. Anthem, I Just Wanna Live…” I repeat the first song names that Google brought up for the band and he starts nodding.

“Sure, sure. Those are definitely good ones, but you’re just scratching the surface.”

There it is. The connection. I do a lot to make myself look friendly. Approachable. Nice. Trustworthy.

“Well at least I get to try out my new toy I guess,” I grin, pulling a black box and cable out of my bag. I can tell he wasn’t ready to stop talking about his favorite band, and that’s good. Keep him wanting more.

“What’s that?” he asks curiously as I plug the device into the side of my laptop.

“One of those LTE mobile hotspots. It’s supposed to get me my own internet line anywhere. Once I get it fired up you’re welcome to hop on if you want…”

The hook is dangling and he pauses.

“Naw, it’s cool. I can just use my phone’s data.”

I nod. “Yeah, sure. Let me know if you change your mind.”

With that there’s nothing left but to wait. The jammer will keep his phone from connecting, too. Maybe he’ll come back around, maybe he won’t. This is only going to work if he makes the next approach himself. That’s a secret it took me too long to figure out. People have to be the one’s to initiate their own hacking.

While he vainly waves his phone in the air to find a signal I open up some fake webpages on my screen. They’re just imitation websites running locally from my machine since I’m not actually connected to the internet either.

He’s putting his phone away and we’ve come to the moment of truth. It would be easy for him to just get up and walk away…unless he wants to stay here. Because he wants a moment of feeling like I’m his friend.

“Hey, uh…” he begins bashfully. “Was your hotspot able to connect?”

“Yeah, it’s working great!”

“Sweet. Uh, is it still cool if I hop on?”

“‘Course, man!” I grin broadly. “It’s ‘WiFist of Fury.’ That’s w-i-f-i-s-t. Password is ’roundhouse kick to the head,’ all lowercase and one word.” This is another of my secrets. I give them my password, I don’t ask them for theirs.

“Nice,” he smiles back, then opens his laptop back up. As he does so I slide my hand back into the bag, and switch the jammer off. A moment later a notification in the corner of my screen lights up.

New Device Connected.

Got you I think.

The device name is PetesDragonComputer. Well pleased to meet you, Pete. He starts browsing the web, happy as can be while I reach back through our tether and start browsing his own computer.

First things first, I install a key-logger so I can start tracking everything he types. If he happens to log into his email while we’re connected I’ll get his credentials and then I can have a field day with his data. Even if he doesn’t, there’s plenty I can do now.

I open up his file structure and start browsing. The “Documents” directories are obvious, I set those copying over to my machine immediately. But then I start checking for anything else that looks out-of-the-ordinary. A “P90X Workout Program” folder? Yes, please.

As the files copy over I see a few of them are pictures. Glancing sideways to ensure Pete isn’t watching I open a couple of them.

Day_1.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, his beer-keg-gut hanging loose for all to see.

I scroll down to the last entry and open it.

Day_60.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, the exact same beer-keg-gut hanging out. Literally all that’s changed is the color of his shorts.

I snigger, and quickly Alt-Tab away in case Pete looks over towards my screen.

Nothing else obvious stands out, so I start searching his directories for some favorite keywords. In order I look for:

passwords
pete
secret
love
family
ideas
dreams
hitlist

I didn’t always search for that last one, but after stumbling across such a file on one computer I’ve always hoped to find another. Any matches get copied over to my hard drive. After any matches from those get copied over to my hard-drive I’ll get started on more photos and videos. Those can be juicy, but they also take time to transfer and you never know how long you have before your fish decides to swim away.

And so I sit there, literally downloading the life of this man who is sitting right next to me. I’ll just keep taking so long as he keeps giving. I don’t delve into his secrets just yet, as soon as he leaves I’ll head back to my apartment, order a pizza, connect my laptop to the tv, turn off all the lights, and start getting to know Pete. If the keylogger managed to lift any passwords I’ll get to know him even better. I’ll come to know him better than most of his closest families and friends. I will consume him, and he will become just another part of my collection.

So no, I’m not some sort of “ethical hacker,” and I’m not the lovable rogue with a heart of gold. I don’t question whether what I’m doing is wrong or not. It is. But be that as it may, try and tell me you aren’t a little intrigued yourself…

*

So there we have it, as promised on Monday this story is in a very different style than my usual fare. It has a different setting and the voice from what I usually write, but more dramatic a shift is just the experience I am trying to evoke in the reader. Whereas most of my stories are meant to provoke introspection and pondering, this one had far less lofty goals. To put it bluntly I expect the reader to feel fairly slimy, tainted just by being associated with someone as unnerving as Jake.

Writing this definitely stretched me, both in form and function. On the one hand I had to adjust to writing shorter sentences, chattier dialogue, and snappier pacing. Even further, though, I had to access some different corners of the mind. Where titles like Glimmer feature characters that are so earnest and sincere, this one required tapping into being cynical and manipulative. I certainly have those shadows in me, but I usually don’t write from them.

That’s not to suggest that our main character is one-dimensional, though. While right now he’s only shown you a single slice of him, as an author it is important for me to keep in mind all the details that make him a more real person and be true to them. That’s a concept I’ll be exploring more in my next post, come back on Monday to read about that. Then, on Thursday, we’ll get some new developments in Jake’s story with the second section of Phisherman. I’ll see you there.

Something Different

eggs in tray on white surface
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Well, here we are in a new series. Usually I try to make each series distinct from the one before, and thus avoid building off of any prior ideas. This is going to be the exception, though, because last series I made a post that I have a bit more to say on. Specifically it was my post just a week ago about how every author seems to have a distinctive style. In that post I suggested that if each writer were to examine their own style they would probably find that it had naturally emerged as an extension of their own personality.

I still agree with those thoughts, but realized that many authors are actively trying to change their style. Perhaps they want to branch out and try new things, or they want to be more marketable, or maybe they want the prestige of being a versatile author.

Personally I do think it can be very positive to spread one’s wings and expand, though not necessarily for all of those reasons listed above. In fact I think authors can run the risk of killing their passion for writing if they push themselves too hard to change and for the wrong reasons.

 

Unhealthy Change)

I’m concerned that the most common motivation people have for changing up their craft is a fear of what other people think of them. This fear can manifest in couple of ways. Perhaps the author feels that writers who shift effortlessly between many different styles are more impressive than one who only writes in one, or perhaps they think their work will sell better if it is in a different genre. With these fears an author can feel pressured to redefine themselves over and over, changing with every shift of society.

Holding ourselves to such expectations can never be healthy. It’s exhausting and will inevitable lead sooner or later into writing things that we really don’t care about. With this mentality writing truly becomes just a “job” and not a work of passion. And what of the outcome? Perhaps one can learn to write something different, but that does not inherently mean that it is better.

Even a dream can be made into a drudgery, and nothing is more dulling than slaving away over a script you don’t care for. I’m all for writing things out of your comfort zone as an exercise, and even for emulating an entirely different voice in a new novel. But if you’re going to be dedicating a significant portion of your life to doing this work, you had better make sure it will be in a genre that you love.

 

Priorities)

But what if it’s not about pleasing a crowd? What if it’s sincerely just trying to become the best author one can be? What if the author is afraid that they have stopped growing and they want to take their craft to the next level?

Well, to be clear, experimentation and exploration are obviously essential to becoming a confident author. Every person who wants to author a story needs to be expanding their scope every day. They need to practice and exercise their skills, making sure every tool in already in their belt is kept sharp, and trying to add new tools wherever they can. I think most people would say that developing one’s skillset is the single most important thing one can do to become a professional writer.

I, however, would say it is only the second most important. It’s a very big second, but still second.

First and foremost comes living a full and complete life. Extensive skills, fancy prose, hours of writing prompts… these are ways of putting those tools into your belt. But tools do not craft a masterpiece, the artist that wields them does. More than these you need to find things in life you are deeply moved by, so that you will know by experience how to touch a reader’s heart. You need to experience the full depth of real-life relationships, so that you will know how to write a convincing relationship. You need to go through a soul-crushing disappointment, so you will know how to pen a heartbreaking tragedy.

One of the classic elements I love most in a good martial arts film is that raw talent is only of use after one is grounded and centered. You see this in The Karate Kid, Ip Man, and even Cinderella Man. Other warriors in those stories might have greater raw strength, but the heroes triumph because their foundation is based on living a life that matters.

If you want to be the best author you can be, then you need to find out what real love is, what real loss is, what hopes and dreams and doubts and failures are made up of. You need to hurt, and you need to be healed. You need to understand yourself, and then you need to be mystified by yourself.

 

Natural Improvement)

No author should want to stay the same for their entire career, but they needn’t worry about that if they are living a deep and meaningful life. Part of living life to the fullest means constantly changing and improving. It means not sitting back in complacent idleness, but rather growing and expanding as a person.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, my own particular style has changed as my patterns of life naturally evolved through education, physical exercise, and spiritual searching. I didn’t have to try to alter my form of storytelling, it just did so naturally as an extension of who I am.

When growth as a writer is based first on personal development and second on developing skill, I think you’ll find your improvement will outstrip any other method. This has certainly been the case for me.

Whenever I want to take my writing to the next level, my first question is “what can I do to improve myself as a person?” And if I successfully become a person that I respect more, then I always find that my writing is more satisfying as well.

 

A Real-Life Example)

Obviously many life changes come unexpectedly, and it is impossible to tell exactly how they will color our writing style. This means that while we hope to improve in our craft, we may not know in which way we will do so.

When Brunelleschi lost the commission to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 he also lost any future as a sculptor in Florence. His entire trajectory had been crushed in a moment, and he knew it was time for some deep soul-searching. So he went away to Rome, and there among the marvels of antiquity he found an abiding fascination in the ancient ruins that he found there. He started uncovering principles of architecture that had been forgotten to the ages, secrets of a bygone era, and even found ways to improve on them.

Eventually Brunelleschi did return to Florence, but not as a sculptor. Instead of crafting a pair of mere doors, he was commissioned to erect an architectural masterpiece. His dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral showcased principles of balance and support that were entirely unheard of, and the structure still stands today as a prominent figure of the Florentine skyline.

The important thing, though, is that while his shift in life was quite radical, it was not a brash reaction to public opinion. Perhaps it was losing a commission that began his journey of self-discovery, but he dedicated 39 years of honing his craft between that failure and his later monumental success. This was no brief flight of fancy, this was a man improving himself over a lifetime of effort. As best we know, Brunelleschi died a content man. A man who had lived richly, and then created beautifully.

 

By all means each of us should test the limits of our comfort zone regularly. These exercises will expand our skillset, and may even lead to discovering new passions, such as architecture to Brunelleschi.

Generally, though, I always like to approach these sorts of exercises without any expectation, I simply allow the experience to be what it will be, take the good that it offers me, and move on with my work. And that’s exactly what I am going to be doing with my next project. On Thursday I will post the first part of a story that is intentionally as far removed from my usual style as possible. Where normally I fall into the pattern of slow and fantastical allegory, here I am going to strive for a realistic setting, some biting cynicism, and a chatty-conversational narrator. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Glimmer: Part Five

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Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Except for the stone. As everything else vanished from the reality the small portion of cold rock against Reylim’s knees seemed more real than it had ever been before. She felt it physically, of course, but now she felt its very state of being, too, it’s purpose, it’s destiny, it’s rightness. She knew it. She understood it.

Reylim glanced down and saw her inner light glowing. It wasn’t just a bright spot at her core anymore, it was her entire figure, vibrant and shining. She focused on that glimmer, spinning it through her with greater and greater speed, churning it faster with each beat of her heart.

The stone beneath her was fading, losing its reality. She gritted her teeth and beat her heart harder. It hurt, and even seemed to tear her inside a little, but she felt some of her essence spill out into the rock and bring it back towards reality.

She beat her heart into the stone again and again. Cold beads of sweat formed on her brow, her hands were shaking, but she did not dare stop. She felt another heartbeat wanting to come. It was going to be heavy, it was going to hurt, but it needed to be.

Thump

A torrent of light pooled from her into the stone, and there the rock began to shift, contorting until a being started to emerge from its midst, a man born of the earth. As he rose to his feet before her, she recognized him from the village below.

“Avaro!” she said in surprise.

He smiled warmly to her. “At your service, lightbringer! I never dreamed I’d get the honor of meeting you.”

“Oh!” she cried as another heartbeat rent her, spilling her essence back into the stone and beginning the process of raising another warrior, this one a woman. These beings were casting their own light, light borrowed from her. With every portion of herself that she gave to the stone their little circle of light was steadily widening.

“I want you to know we’ve never forgotten what you’ve done for us, first star,” the emerging woman said earnestly. As she spoke Avaro’s eyes flitted to the widening circle of illumination around them. Reylim followed his gaze and saw the dark billowings of the shadows slowly coming back into form. The woman was speaking again. “We may struggle to find our ways at times, but…”

“It’s right to struggle,” she said to them, then doubled over as a third heartbeat tore her heart again. Her face landed on the stone and she felt her breath coming out ragged and shallow. She was faint and clammy, her fingers twitching involuntarily. When at last she opened her eyes there was now a third warrior, and all three were waging powerful battle against a number of dark figures that were spilling into their radius of light. The three glowing guardians all bore different uniforms and weapons, all from different periods of time, all representing a different race.

Reylim tore her eyes from them, looking the other way. At the edge of the circle of light she could just make out the stone pillars of the Nexus. As difficult as scaling the mountain had been, this crawl looked more daunting by far. Limbs protesting, heart heaving, she lifted an arm that felt like lead and thumped it on the ground in front of her. She lifted her next arm to meet it, then slid her knees across the rough stone.

She heard a cry behind her and saw Avaro careening from a vicious blow to the chest. She cried, too, as another heavy heartbeat crippled her. The warrior’s chest healed and he rose back to the battle.

Reylim summoned her strength back and began crawling forward again. Even the small heartbeats hurt now, but they were necessary, each brightening the path in front of her, bringing it far enough into reality to support her crawling form. In spite of the pain and effort, yet she couldn’t help but notice each inch of rock and tree bud came into relief from her light. She found herself loving each one of them as her own. Wanting so much for them. Giving so much for them.

Thump!

Again Reylim felt her whole form shake as an orb of light gushed out of her, streaking from her form to the Nexus looming just ahead. The rock formation flashed to life, dust and dirt blasting from its edges as cords of light wound back and forth between its pillars. Reylim crawled forward another pace.

Thump!

Another ball of light went to the Nexus, deepening its cords and giving them a distinctive hum. Reylim’s elbows quaked and she dropped to the ground. It took all of her strength simply to turn her head up to the structure, soft tears shining down her cheeks. She clenched her fingers, then shuffled her arms and legs, grinding herself forward on her belly.

Her palms crossed the perimeter of the Nexus. Her elbows. Her shoulders. Inch by inch she moved forward until she was directly under the pillars. Laboriously she rolled onto her back, looking up at the twisting cords of light.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

Each of the heartbeats came harder and faster than the last. Her light and her life spilled out, beating into the Nexus and imbuing it with power. Her breath fluttered and her head fell to the side, her nearly lifeless eyes settling on the blurry forms of light and dark fighting in the distance.

“Rage on,” she croaked, then gave her last beat of all. She was already too slumped down to collapse any further. The only perceptible change was the way her eyelids slowly closed and the expression of peace that washed across her face.

Above her the Nexus hummed loudly, churning into full life. It’s light increased a thousandfold in a single moment, washing the entire mountain peak in blinding light. In an instant the warriors, light and dark, were all scorched away as the reality of now was established in their place. No more people, no more villages, no more struggle. Just the memory and the assurance that one day they would be.

With the light of the Nexus having been established, another glow joined it, emanating from the entire world itself. At long last a Glimmer radiated at the core of Nocterra, giving the entire surface the beginnings of definition and clarity.

It’s task fulfilled, the pillars of the Nexus collapsed and its light sunk downwards, settling on the figure at its base. Reylim’s body coursed with exceeding luminescence, the light overpowering her form until it was actually lifted into the air.

Slowly, gently, Relyim raised higher and higher, her robes billowing in shining glory, stirred by a wind that came from within. She continued to rise, eventually lifting so far that she became a single pinprick in the night sky. She settled to a rest there, and so became the first star, the first guide to all that would walk the world beneath. Eventually other heroes would join her in the heavens, but she would always stand supreme in their legends.

Finally, peeking over the horizon from the dark side of the planet, the very first sunrise was now beginning. And with it, the promise of tomorrow.

***

And with that we have reached the end of Glimmer! I certainly enjoyed doing this one, though it did end up extending out for two sections longer that I had anticipated. There were several defining traits that I wanted to incorporate in this story all at once, one’s that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Let’s do a brief summary of what each of those were.

 

Sacrifice)

First I shared about the significance of sacrifice in a story. I suggested that sacrifice is a sacred principle, and ought to be treated with care by authors. Don’t try and kill off characters just to force sadness on your reader, and don’t pretend you’re going to feature a sacrifice if you don’t have the nerve to follow through.

In Glimmer I opened the topic of sacrifice in the very first scene. Reylim knew from the outset that this was her ultimate destiny, and she was naturally quite unnerved by the prospect. In fact she kept trying to find a way out of her own demise. By the end I tried to suggest that martyrs don’t have to want to die for their cause to still be willing to do so. I think we can spend a lot of time scrutinizing our heroes and wondering if we could ever make the sacrifices that they did, when in actuality they never knew if they could take those steps themselves until already striding over them.

 

Staggered Arcs)

Next I discussed the value of taking the plot of a story, dividing it into multiple arcs, and staggering their beginnings and endings. In this way key themes become reiterated on, separate threads weave towards a satisfying conclusion, and the pace is easier maintained.

With Glimmer there is always the overarching plot of Reylim’s self-discovery and the fulfillment of her quest. Though at times I had segues to introduce new characters, mechanics, and motivations, each of these eventually came back to that central core. Glimmer was introduced and would serve as the companion in her quest. The void was introduced and would serve as the opposition to give her quest meaning. The shadows of the people that might one day live were introduced and served to bring a climax of action at the end of her journey.

And though I could have taken all the sentences dedicated to her anxieties and exhausted them in one single scene at the beginning, I knew it would have greater impact if I instead reiterated those fears at many separate points throughout the tale. And anytime those fears, or the central arc, or the discoveries I mentioned above were starting to grow stale, I had plenty of options to change gears into one of the other categories and keep everything fresh.

 

Non-Person Characters)

During the third week I mentioned the option of creating characters that were not-so-human. These characters could be massive, disembodied forces, things like karma or God. Still their influences would be felt, and they would have desires, and would interact with other characters, but they just wouldn’t ever be seen explicitly.

In Glimmer there are two of these entities, and each of those is manifested indirectly. These two beings are, of course, those of Glimmer and the void. The ball of light that guides Reylim through her journey explains that he is nothing more than a spark off of that main fire, a fire that we never interact with directly. We understand its purposes and attributes to be the same as this guide, but also that it is a distinct and infinitely more powerful being. We understand that that being has thrown off a multitude of sparks igniting planets all across this story’s universe, and we associate it with all that is good and heavenly.

It is the same with the void. We see areas where it is not, more than we see areas where it is. We see beings that are driven by it, but they do not define it itself. We understand it to be an infinite being that stretches through the universe attempting to swallow all existence into perfect nothingness.

The purpose of creating two entities that are never directly spoken to, nor indeed can be spoken to, is that it gives the story’s lore an immense depth. We are witnessing the tips of infinite creatures, and the promise exists that their eternal duel will extend far beyond the confines of this single story. It simultaneously makes Reylim insignificant by virtue of the other infinite wars that must be going on, but also terribly significant for being worthy of these god’s attention in this one place and moment.

 

Intimate Focus)

In stark contrast to all of this brushing against infinities and the battles of the gods, I then posted about the need for stories to focus deeply on mere individuals. As I explained, no one will care about a massive army if they are not invested in the individuals that make it up. We simply lack the capacity to register groupings past a certain size, and instead need something more individual to anchor our emotions to.

Though Glimmer involved epic beings lurking in the background, at its forefront this was still very much a story about a single individual: Reylim. Even Glimmer and the shadows she fought were only secondary supports to her own very personal and intimate story. This closeness was established by having every inflection of the story immediately followed by an examination of how it affected her. I mention the dark cloud that is waiting for our heroes on top of the mountain, and I immediately focus on how Reylim cries in response to it. I mention how empty and bleak the world is when Nocterra first arrives, and I immediately show how she trembles and whimpers. I then mention how a small light is exuded from her, and I describe her delighted surprise.

Reylim may be a single character in an infinite epic, but this is undoubtedly her story. I even emphasize this in her final moments where her vision fades and the raging battle becomes nothing more than a blur, a backdrop, a mere periphery to her final strains.

 

Style)

Last of all I observed how every author has a particular style for the stories that they write. This is simply a default voice, one that I suggested is based more on personality and experience than conscious intent. Mine, it would seem, happens to deal with themes that are slow, supernatural, and allegorical.

Certainly in Glimmer there were punches of action, but ultimately the climax of the story is a long and heavy final note. The action that does exist comes in at a very specific time to fulfill a very specific purpose, and otherwise I allow the drama to move the plot forward.

This story also dealt entirely in the supernatural. Alien worlds, strange powers, mysterious beings of light and shadow; actually there was very little in the story that was relatable to us and our everyday lives. I suppose there were humans and basic villages and depictions of nature, but all of these operated under different rules and physics than our own.

If there was one thing that the reader could find familiarity in, though, it would have to the be story’s themes. The call to become one’s truest self, the sense of fear at sacrifice, the personal quest against evil; all of these are very human experiences, and herein we find the allegorical nature of the story. By making all of the mundane and tangible things bizarre, it is instead the intangible familiars that shine through most clearly.

 

It’s been fun working on this story and this series as a whole. It’s certainly time to move on, though, and I look forward to exploring entirely new pastures when we begin a new series next week. Come back Monday to see where we’re headed.