The Salt Worms: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Nathan had known that day was coming long before it occurred. Everyone did. Every other week some general or senator would show up, claiming to be the voice of the White House, and delivering a totally different set of orders than the last “representative.” Gradually everyone came to understand there was no central authority anymore. Somewhere along the way it had dissolved until every national power was an island of its own.

Nathan’s team stopped accepting oversight. They worked night and day to complete their prototype. For what purpose they didn’t know. No purpose if they didn’t get it finished, though.

Against all odds, they managed to scrap something together that they thought might work. But they couldn’t turn the tide with just one prototype, and they didn’t have resources to make any more. It wasn’t fully tested, either. It might not even work.

No. It had to work. When his colleagues’ faith waned Nathan held constant. Fate had chosen to let them complete this for a reason. This prototype had a purpose, a great calling to fulfill. He didn’t know how, but it was going to turn the tide of things. All that was required of him was to keep seeking until he found out how.

And so he stole it.

Any moment a sand striker worm might smash through their facility, or a mob might come marching into the building, or one of the other researchers might hand it over to one of those useless senators. He had to act before any of that happened.

It wasn’t hard to steal it. He waited for one of those rare times when all the other researchers took a break for a few hours of sleep. He left with them, but then doubled back, got his handgun out of his locker, and marched up to the guard.

This was no trained soldier, just some local former sheriff turned mercenary, and he gladly kicked away his weapon and laid down on the floor rather than get a bullet in the head. Nathan took the prototype, stole the sheriff’s truck, and sped off into the night.

“It was decided we should take the prototype weapon and bring it out west,” Nathan looked Samuel Iverson squarely in the eye. “I was entrusted to bring it here.”

“Why here?” the elderly woman further down the table asked.

“Well, as you know, the giant sand striker worm population is much denser in the eastern states than it is out here.”

“Because of the higher human populations,” Doctor Hogue added.

“That’s right. You don’t have anything nearly so populous out here until you get right on the western coast. So L.A. and Seattle and Portland were hammered, but here in the central west we were detecting less than one worm for every twenty thousand square miles.”

“So wasn’t the need for your weapon greater out east?” the elderly woman suggested.

Nathan shrugged. “I mean what difference would it make? This prototype should be able to clear out one adult and its nest, but then it’s used up. It would be like firing a single bullet into a horde of ants. But out here…it could actually make a difference.”

“It could?” Samuel Iverson still looked skeptical.

“Yes, at least that’s what I’ve always trusted in. I didn’t know what I would find out here when I first set out. I didn’t know anything about your outfit here at the edge of humanity. Basically I had no idea what it was I was looking for…but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it. Some opportunity, some special situation, some perfect place that this weapon had been made for.”

“I’m still unclear as to the nature of this weapon,” a large, black man seated next to Nathan spoke up.

“Ah, yes,” Nathan removed the shoulder straps of his backpack and put it on his lap. “Nothing too extravagant. Tried and true methods of killing were the best option.” He unzipped the bag and reached inside, pulling out a plastic tray that was divided into ten equal sections, each covered by its own lid. He popped open the first section and pulled out a compacted pill powder, about the size and shape of an egg. “Promethyia,” he pronounced, “a poison specifically engineered to disrupt the giant sand striker worm’s digestive system.”

“How, specifically?” Doctor Hogue leaned close and squinted at the pellet.

“There are three layers. The first is eroded by the highly potent acids in a sand striker worm’s gut. It’s a tough layer to get through, and any other creature that swallowed this pellet would pass it without ever unsheathing the second and third layers.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“The second layer is a carefully engineered acid, one that is specially designed to perforate the intestine wall of the sand striker worm, creating openings to the rest of the body. Then the third layer is a bacteria that naturally occurs in the sand striker worm. Usually it is dormant and does no harm to them, but we found some worms that died from a mutated strain. We were able to preserve and hybridize that bacteria variation, and through the intestine perforations we release them into the creature’s bloodstream.”

“How quickly does it work?”

“The worm will die within a month.”

“And you have enough here to poison ten of them?”

“No. One worm needs to consume all ten pellets.”

“Can the bacteria spread from one worm to another?”

“Theoretically, perhaps. But it only lives in the blood, and sand striker worms do not generally encounter one another’s blood. They don’t even eat one another’s corpses.”

“A month?” Iverson said.

“Sorry?”

“You said a month for the worm to die?”

“Yes, it should be about that long, give or take a week.”

“But this was your first prototype?”

“That’s right.”

“So it’s never been tested.”

“Yes, but the science is solid. It will work.”

Samuel Iverson folded his arms and shook his head in disappointment.

“It will work!”

“But what effect will it have on the worm during that month?”

“Gradual deterioration of its functions. Increased temperatures, swelling of the glands–“

“It’s behavior!” Iverson pressed, “What will it’s behavior be like during that month?”

“I–don’t know. Like you said, we haven’t tested it yet, so–“

“So it might go into a rampage! It might thrash about in agony and destroy anything in its vicinity!”

“Ah, I see,” Nathan said quietly.

“Now you do. But you’re not used to looking after a community, are you? You don’t have their lives weighing on you like we do! You’re not used to thinking through all the possible side effects, picking out the ways a plan might backfire and spill the blood of others.”

Nathan took that in for a moment, then replied in a low and steady voice. “I have not had to care for a community like you have, sir, but absolutely I have had to endure the weight of my creation. I have faced consequence and side-effect every step of the way from Virginia to this room. I have made difficult choices, and I have had to endure the spilling of blood.”

Transition to Flashback

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The First Recollections)

120 years ago, when film was still in its infancy, the first flashback sequence was conceived of, in the french film Histoire d’un Crime. Before the film gets to its flashback, though, it opens on a burglar breaking into a house, killing a man, and robbing the place. He is arrested the next day while enjoying wine with friends at a café, and as he sleeps in his jail cell the painted wall above him pulls away, revealing an inner world of his own memories. The flashback. The audience watches how the man once had a happy, family-centric life, but became enslaved to alcohol, until he finally performed the crimes we saw at the beginning of the film.

To be honest, it’s a very clunky transition, and if it weren’t for the fact that I had already been told this was a flashback, I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow along. Contrast that to the far superior flashback we get at the start of Citizen Kane.

In that film, news reporter Jerry Thompson is trying to dig into the life of Charles Foster Kane, after the business and political magnate has died. Thompson’s research leads him to the memoirs of Walter Thatcher, a banker who established a trust for Kane when he was still a boy. Thompson reads the following line in Thatcher’s memoir:

I first encountered Mr Kane in 1871.

The camera pans across the line very slowly, soft, tinkling music plays, and then the page fades away into a scene of a boy playing with his sled in the snow. Unlike the burglar’s story being acted out on the wall above his cell, I immediately understood that I was being taken back into Kane’s history.

Of course, Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, had the benefit of forty years between these two films, during which time cinema had learned many fundamentals of how to communicate its transitions to the viewer. Soft tinkling music, a blurred frame, fading from the image of an adult to that of a child; these are all cues that cinema learned for how to communicate a transition to the past, some of which Orson Welles used.

Coming Back Again)

Of course, transitioning to the past or a dream or anything else is one thing, but what if you need to come back again? How do we signal when we are back in the regular, current world?

Well, the most obvious choice is to reverse the events that brought you into the alternate scene to begin with. So consider the example of the 2007 animated film Ratatouille, when the famous food critic Anton Ego tastes the titular dish cooked by the star of the movie, Remy. Anton clicks his pen, ready to write out his critiques, then puts the first bite of food into his mouth. Suddenly his face drops all of its tension, his eyes go wide, and the camera zooms out from him, exiting through the similarly-drooping eyes of a young boy in his mother’s kitchen.

We understand that this is the same character, Anton Ego, as a youth. It doesn’t take much to convince us of the fact, because by this point flashback sequences have become so numerous and varied that audiences just know to expect them. Anyway, we see how Anton’s mother makes him a dish of ratatouille to comfort him after he scraped his knee on a bike. The young Anton takes his first bite of the dish, smiles at the camera, which then zooms into his eye and back to the scene of old Anton sitting in the restaurant. The exact process that brought us into the flashback is played in reverse to return to us to the modern day.

Text Transitions)

So far we’ve been looking at transitions in film, but how about in a written medium? Well, because it is written, it is possible to call the transition out far more explicitly. You can write “seventy years ago” as a header before the flashback starts, you can say “Egon was taken back to a moment as a young boy,” and you can return to the original scene with “back in the present day.” In short, the written medium allows much more explicit transitions which don’t require an audience to be trained to interpret them.

But sometimes a story wants to do things without being so blunt. Visual mediums are so prevalent in our society that often a story wants to emulate their nuances, including their smooth transitions. The story that I am currently working on is going to feature several flashbacks, and I knew it would feel clunky if every few chapters I kept on saying “seven years ago” and “back to the present day.”

If you go to the end of Part Two of The Salt Worms and the start of Part Three, you’ll see that I made an effort to create just such a seamless transition. First, I stopped the dialogue that was going on between Nathan and the leaders of New Denver. Time froze as we went into his inner thoughts about this conversation, and I mentioned that the account of the past he was giving was different from the actual events.

Then dialogue returned, but it was something that Major Hawlings had said. That had said is meant to be a very subtle indicator to the audience that we have now traveled back to the time that Nathan was just thinking of, much like the transition from Thatcher’s memoirs in Citizen Kane.

Then, at the end of Part Three, I come out of the flashback by reversing the sequence that brought us into it, just as with Egon’s memory in Ratatouille. First I let go of the dialogue, shifting seamlessly into exposition. I mention the fact that the worms now lay their eggs on the surface, which was the very last thing that was said before I went into the transition in the first place. Then dialogue resumes in the present day with Nathan continued his account to the council.

All in all I’m pretty pleased with the effect, but I’m going to have several more of these flashbacks, and hope that I’ll be able to keep all of them seamless, yet clear. I guess we’ll see!

Revising the Storm- Week 20

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I’m coming into the real meat of the story now, the long journey back to shore. As always, here is a link to the second draft of this story, and now let’s continue with the third!

Sailing Into Trouble)

“I can’t do this,” he said to himself. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”

Then another side of him replied. “I don’t think you have any choice in the matter. You’re already committed.”

I revised the above so that it was clear Oscar was talking to himself right away.

If at all possible, his weathered face grew even more wrinkly and his eyes shone with unshed saltwater.

“I should have quit after I lost James.”

“No,” his other side returned. “You should have quit before you lost your son.”

“I’m sorry,” his chest quivered and the tears finally dribbled down his cheeks. “I should never have trusted him to Harry.”

The next wave slammed against the side of Oscar’s boat like a slap across the face. His feet jerked out from under him and he had to catch hold of a shelf to keep from tumbling across the floor.

“Keep it together!” he commanded, clambering back to his feet and spinning the wheel to correct his drift.

Trying to cut across the waves at an angle was proving extremely difficult. It meant that the port side of their boats were constantly slammed by the onslaught of water, which pushed them back to starboard. As they came down the crest of each wave Oscar had to crank his wheel back to port to compensate for the diversion, but his boat was becoming sluggish, weighed down by the weight of more and more water in its hold. It taking too long for his boat to turn back into its line, he wasn’t even able to get back to the proper slant before the next wave was already upon them and pushing them further off-course.

“Whoa there!–” Harry’s voice cautioned over the radio as the next wave nearly turned Oscar’s boat completely broadside.

I reduced this sequence a great deal. I find that I try to spell out a lot of the locations and rotations of the boats in this story, and while I want to keep some of that, it pretty quickly becomes overwhelming and confusing. Probably better to only put enough that the reader knows things are a problem, and then trust their imagination to supply a fitting visual.

Oscar snatched the mic to his mouth. “Alright Harry, we’ve got to go head-on into those waves. Hitting them at an angle just isn’t working.”

“I don’t think there’s enough time between waves to turn at them head-on!”

“Well there’s going to be some tricky maneuvers coming up…but you leave them to me, just do everything you can to keep up!”

“Alright…”

Oscar locked the mic button down and set it on the panel. He would need both hands on the wheel for this next part, but would also need to call it out instructions as they went.

Of course, not cutting across the waves at a slant would mean giving up the shortest path around the cape. Now they would have to turn fully into the waves, push for as much distance as they could from the Broken Horn, then turn around and come back again. Then, as they then thundered back towards the cape, they would slice to port, hopefully pulling enough in that direction to skim past the dangerous shoals on their right.

How far out would they need to be able to make that turn? Oscar wasn’t sure. Did they have enough fuel for it? It didn’t matter. They just had to deal with the situation at hand and worry about the rest as it came up.

As before, greatly reduced the above description to hopefully make a cleaner and clearer experience for the reader. Obviously I am at a disadvantage when trying to gauge how difficult my work is to understand, because I already know exactly what I’m trying to communicate. I will be submitting this story to a writing group for feedback later on, and in the meantime feel free to sound off below whether these segments are making sense to you or not.

Oscar tapped his fingers in anticipation on the helm as the next wave roared up to them. The boat creaked as it was pulled upwards, bow pointed towards the sky. As before, the wave was slowly turning his boat to starboard, but Oscar still kept his wheel locked as far to port as possible.

The foam burst high into the air as the boat crested the wave at his angle, then Oscar swung his head around, watching until Harry’s boat burst through the top of the wave also. As soon as it did he sprang into action.

“Harry, hold that angle, but give me a little slack!” Oscar called down towards the mic. Then he thrust his wheel hard to starboard, opposite the way he needed to go. All the water in the hold rushed over, making the boat careen onto its side. Oscar splayed his toes wide, feeling the movements of the vessel through his boots. He could tell the shift when the water down in the hold collided with the hull wall and started to slosh back the other way. Now he spun the wheel back to port as quickly as possible, encouraging the water’s momentum, flowing it back across the hold until it slammed into the opposite side of the hull. The port side. The rudder and the rushing water combined to give Oscar that needed extra push, just enough to finally pull his boat out of its angle and pointed head-on towards the next wave.

Well, I’m making a lot more changes in this new material than in the old. I’m not too surprised. This new stuff has one less coat of polish than my original work. Hopefully with repeated passes I’ll be able to have them all smoothed out until it all blends together nicely. In any case, come back next week when I get to it again!

The Salt Worms: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

“Black Cypher you are now at the appropriate depth,” Major Hawlings had said into the microphone. There was a moment of silence, but no reply, so Hawlings repeated himself. “Black Cypher you can level out now, do you copy?”

“Two thousand feet, confirmed,” the voice of Sergeant Bradley crackled in from the wall-mounted speakers. He said something else, too, but it was lost in the static.

“Corporal Donahue, is there nothing we can do about the audio quality?” Hawlings turned in his seat.

“It isn’t interference, sir,” Donahue replied. “It’s just the signal becomes impure when it has to travel along such a long cable.”

Nathan Prewitt, seated against the back wall of the room, tried to imagine it. A massive hole somewhere in the plains of Iowa, nearly twenty feet across, with a massive black cable nearly a mile long snaking down into the earth, winding through tunnels until it joined at the back of a massive earth-moving vehicle.

“Black Cypher, please repeat,” Major Hawlings instructed. “We didn’t get your last message.”

“Our instruments show two thousand feet as well. All clear so far as we can tell and we’ve leveled out.”

“Excellent work, Sergeant. Now turn to mark two-four-zero and proceed eight hundred feet.”

Everyone in the operations room looked to the wall-mounted computer screen. It was a live feed from their seismic instruments, which gave a rough approximation of all the entities moving beneath the surface of the earth.

And there were many of them.

No less than seventy separate signals, each represented by an expanding and retracting circle on the screen, swarmed about the screen. Sergeant Bradley and his team were very near now to the sand striker worms’ nursery, and it was tended to by dozens of workers. At this particular moment, one of those gigantic worms was drawing very near to the blip that represented the earth-mover.

“Alright now, we’re seeing some movement in your area,” Major Hawlings said into the mic. “Are you detecting anything on your end?”

“Not yet, sir. Though the rig’s shaking so much it would be hard to know. Should we stop?”

“No, I don’t think so…” Major Hawlings looked to the lead zoologist, Doctor Persaud, who was seated against the back wall a few spots down from Nathan. Doctor Persaud shook his head in agreement. “Don’t slow down Sergeant. Your rig has been designed to imitate the tremor patterns of the other worms. So long as you keep moving like they do, they should think you’re one of them.”

Everyone’s eyes snapped back to the monitor, watching as the approaching worm grew closer and closer, then smoothly glided past the earth-mover, about forty feet above.

“Well done, Sergeant, you’re in the clear!”

“We should be getting close now, shouldn’t we?”

“About one-hundred-and-fifty feet to go. Make sure you don’t stop to drop the package. When I say so just make a wide, one-hundred-and-eight degree turn and drop it behind you.”

“Yes, sir.”

The indicator for Bradley’s team updated its coordinates every few seconds. Those numbers grew closer and closer to the known location for the nursery. Somewhere, half a mile beneath the surface of the earth, there was an underground cavern filled with thousand of striker worm eggs.

“Turn now and drop the package!” Hawlings ordered.

“Message received…turn initiated…” there was a long pause, and then… “package deployed. Countdown sequence underway.”

The room erupted in applause.

Thus far the giant sand striker worms hadn’t posed any threat to humanity, but Washington had ordered their team to come up with a weapon which could be used against the worms if ever needed. While they worked on a more elegant solution, they decided to at least try an underground nuclear explosion. This mission was a pre-emptive strike, just to let them know what they could expect if they ever went to war.

And it had worked. The entire nest, and nearly all the attending nursery workers had been destroyed that afternoon.

And almost immediately after that, all the other worms in the colony began surging for the surface!

At first the specialists were all baffled as to why. These were just dumb creatures, weren’t they? It’s not like they could have understood that humanity was responsible for the attack and were retaliating against them!

One theory Nathan heard, just before the collapse of the government, was that the worms had seen the attack on their nest as a sign of some more powerful predator churning in the deep. As a result they had moved up, hoping to find a domain where they would be the apex predators once again. That would explain why they now built their nests at the surface, too.

“In any case,” Nathan continued his account to the council at New Denver, “it doesn’t matter what drove the giant sand striker worms to the surface. All that matters is that they came and they ravaged everything faster than we could have anticipated.”

“And were you involved in the decision to drop nukes on your own people?!” the man two seats down from Nathan demanded.

“No,” Nathan sighed. “That was as much of a shock to me as it was to the rest of the world.”

That much was true. The decision to drop nuclear bombs across the northern states had been made in a state of frenzy, causing far more destruction to humanity than to the worm population. Perhaps the giant worms had moved towards the surface, but they still spent a significant portion of their time at depths where the radiation wouldn’t reach down to them.

“So what happened to your department?” Samuel Iverson asked.

“Things became more and more difficult as the cities grew uninhabitable. A lot of our work just couldn’t be done remotely, though. We had to gather somewhere with machines and technology and staff. We were working on a prototype, a weapon that we thought had a real chance to kill the worms, but we had to relocate time and time again. First Arlington, then Raleigh, then Lynchburg. We were slow to realize that the worms could feel our communities through the soil, that they would pop up sooner or later wherever the population was more than a few thousand.

“With every strike we lost people, lost equipment, and lost resources. We were close to a working prototype, but finishing it seemed more and more improbable. And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the entire government collapsed.”

Stories Within Stories

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A Tale of Two Tales)

I have previously mentioned the idea of a story being bookended by another. This would be like the Grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson in the Princess Bride, or Roger Kint telling his story to police detective Dave Kujan in The Usual Suspects. The bulk of the story is through the inner narrative, but there are a few moments where we see it connect to the outer one.

Arguably there is just one story, though, the larger inner one, and the other stuff is an enhancement of it. But what if there truly were two stories that stood side-by-side in the same narrative?

This is a common phenomenon in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Many times a case opens with a client coming to Holmes and recounting the events that led them to his doorstep. And these aren’t just quick summations, they are elaborated from a first-person perspective, telling an entire tale on their own. Then, only after this first story is completed does the second story pick up, that of Sherlock Holmes solving the case.

An excellent example of this is The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb. In this mystery Victor Hatherly comes to Holmes’ abode with a chilling tale and a bandaged hand. He recounts how he was hired for an engineering task at an old mansion, but was blindfolded so that he did not know where it was. While doing his work he discovered that the mansion was being used for some sort of criminal operation. The owner’s of the mansion got wise to his epiphany, though, and tried to kill him, resulting in a chase where Victor escaped but his thumb was chopped off along the way!

The story now returns to the present moment, where Holmes deciphers the true intentions of the criminals, figures out the location of the mansion, and leads the police in a raid on the facility, only to discover that the place was already destroyed by a fire that Victor Hatherly inadvertently caused while he was there.

There is a strange feeling when Holmes and the others go the mansion, because it the first time that he has been there, but it feels like it is both the first and the second time for us, the audience. Were we there with Hatherly during his eventful evening, or were we sitting in Holmes’ study only hearing about it secondhand?

Well…both. It is a very strange and interesting sensation, being able to exist in two different scenes at the same time, and it is a quality I enjoy a great deal from this mystery.

Split Perspective)

There is another famous detective who also has his stories split in two. The TV series Columbo was unique in that it always let the audience know beforehand who the murderer was, and exactly how they carried out their crime. The first half hour of each episode was always dedicated to following the murderer as the main character, showing the meticulous details of their crime and how they tried to cover up any clues that tied them to it.

Take, for example, the episode Fade in to Murder, which is incredibly meta by making the murderer an actor who plays a television detective. Ward Fowler is a star of the silver screen, but his entire career has been overshadowed by the blackmailing of his show’s producer. Finally he decides that he has had enough, and he stages an elaborate scheme to rid himself of her for good. First he sets up an alibi by inviting a friend over to watch a ball game, then drugs the man while he goes out to commit the crime. Fowler then stages a robbery at the deli where his producer, Claire Daley, is ordering her meal. After knocking the deli owner unconscious he shoots Claire, assuming that the police will see this as a simple case of a robbery gone too far. Finally Fowler returns to his home, rewinds the VCR on which he has been recording the ball game, setting it back to the moment where his friend went unconscious and rouses him, making the man think he had only been passed out for a few minutes.

And that ends the first story, and now begins a new one as Lieutenant Columbo arrives to investigate the case. Bit-by-bit the detective finds things that don’t add up in the case. For example the bullet hole in Claire Daley’s jacket is above the entry wound in her back, suggesting that she still had her arms raised when the robber shot her, suggesting that she wasn’t running away or making a scene, suggesting that the killing was deliberate.

As Columbo zeroes in on Ward Fowler we feel another strange split of perspective, just as we did with Sherlock Holmes. Because of the time we spent with Ward Fowler as our main character we feel sympathetic to him. Part of us wants to see his ingenious strategy come off. But at the same time Columbo is our main character now, and we are charmed by his ingenuity, too. Are we supposed to view this as Columbo’s triumph or Fowler’s tragedy? Well…both.

My Own Story)

In my latest chapter of The Salt Worms I had the main character start to recount his journey from the eastern United States to the west. When I first wrote this it was a very brief summation, something that I rushed through to get back to the main event. And it worked, and I think that version of the story could have been maintained, but as I thought about this idea of a story split in two, I realized that I had an opportunity to slow things down and show the protagonist’s journey as a story of its own.

So then I revised and expanded it, and will continue doing so as the overall narrative proceeds. One thing that I am going to be careful about that, though, is to make sure both stories matter to one another. Only together will they provide the two halves that I want for The Salt Worms. Two halves that come together and tell of a grim resolution to correct a terrible situation, but all of it tinged with an uncertainty of success at the end.

Revising the Storm- Week 19

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I’ve reached the second act of this revision to The Storm. So far things have been a lot smoother than the first time I read through it, and honestly that’s been very encouraging to me. It’s important to me as a writer to feel that my work is getting closer to being finished with each pass, not just being changed for change’s sake.

Anyway, here’s a link to the previous revision of my story if you want to compare it to my work today, now I’ll get along with it.

Heading Back)

It was very difficult to hold the boat steady in the rolling waves, but the true challenge would only begin after Harry had his end of the rope secured. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. They would have to maintain constant tension, since the more often the rope slacked and snapped taut the more likely it would break. They would have to gauge their speeds so that Harry’s boat didn’t come careening into the back of Oscar’s. They would have to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was still down in the valley of another and vice versa. They would have to keep the line straight between them and not at an angle, or else they might roll each other into the drink.

This first paragraph was hard for me. In the end I’ve only made slight changes to it, but I went back and forth on each one of them. There may yet be more work to do on it.

In short, there were many things that could go wrong, that probably would go wrong, and any of them could easily end in destruction. For any other fisherman in their hamlet Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry?… Well, evidently he would still face them, but there was nothing glad about it.

Why did it have to be Harry, Oscar wondered. Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?

“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice came from the radio.

“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar returned to the matter at hand. “Then you throw your engine on and give whatever you’ve got to keep us aligned. I’ll do the pulling and warn you for every turn.”

“Of course Oscar. And…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”

“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference, it was an order. Oscar pushed the throttle control forward and the engine hummed loudly. Slowly his trawler edged forward.

As Oscar came close to the end of the rope’s length he eased back a little so that he would hit tension as gently as possible. Even so, there was a powerful jolt when the last feet of slack pulled out of the line. Oscar’s vessel shuddered from stem to stern and its boom groaned ominously, but nothing broke, and at last the boom gave a counter-groan as it settled into place.

“Alright,” Oscar said into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little to starboard here. You just follow the turn.”

“I know, Oscar. I know.”

If you know so much then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.

Oscar turned the wheel, swiveling his stern twenty degrees. The most efficient route back home would be to make a wide right turn to starboard, go until they were past the cape, then turn the rest of the way around until they were pointed back at the docks.

Of course making this turn meant that Oscar’s boat would be at a slant to the waves, and they were much larger than before. Each one of them thundered against his hull and drenched his deck with their foaming spray. Oscar looked west to see where the Broken Horn lay, but anything further than three hundred yards was shrouded in murky black. It was as if they had been submerged in an ink bottle.

I took out the line “alone in their own, thick darkness,” at the end of that last paragraph. It felt like a moment of me telling the audience how to feel about the situation, rather than trusting them to get that already from the visual of ink in a bottle.

Suddenly Oscar heard a reverberating whine from behind and he turned to see Harry’s boat sliding to starboard, failing to keep up with the turn and pulling Oscar’s vessel at an angle.

“I said stay straight!” Oscar shouted into the mic.

“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!”

Oscar gave a cry of frustration, but spun his wheel towards port. They would just have to try a shallower angle, one that Harry’s waterlogged boat could still handle. Oscar took the angle-of-attack from forty-five degrees to thirty, but the rope was still moving the wrong way, now scraping across the corner of his deck.

He reduced down to twenty-five degrees, but still no. The rope wasn’t slipping anymore, but it continually wavered back and forth.

Twenty degrees and at last the rope moved back to center.

“We’ve got it! We’ve got it!” Harry’s voice was flush with relief.

Oscar wasn’t relieved, though. Far from it. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get around the cape, meaning they’d be spending that much longer in the heart of the storm.

But he didn’t have time to dwell on that misfortune. The storm’s darkness had become complete, so that each wave was hidden behind the streaking, black rain until it was already upon them. Oscar had to strain all of his senses to guide them through every change with only a moment’s notice. He led them forward as the waves rose like sheer mountains, tipping their boats skyward and then breaking across their bows in a fury. Oscar gripped his wheel with white knuckles and locked his knees in place.

I greatly reduced the above descriptions, calming things down a bit from its original melodrama. And on that note, I’m going to call it here for today and pick things back up a week from now.

The Salt Worms: Part Two

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Part One

Nathan’s head swiveled left and right as Doctor Hogue led him through the city. The houses were small shacks, made of the same concrete and zinc sheets that had been used for the perimeter wall. There was a large, central area that held a community of mixed livestock: chickens, sheep, and goats. One trail ran through the whole city, passing by every home and the farm, then slowly declining towards a large, open pit where a group of workers were washing pans of salt. This salt was what kept the citizens of New Denver living in this bleak place right on the border of a giant sand striker worm’s domain.

In the salt was power. Electrical power, to be specific. Every citizen of the city dedicated themselves to the harvesting and processing of that salt, and then they fashioned it into portable salt batteries. Were these even remotely as efficient as old lithium or alkaline batteries? Of course not. But they were able to be produced without a factory so large that it would summon the sand striker worms. Every other faction in the western states knew this was the place to come for power, and they would pay whatever it cost to get it. Only the nomads at the base of the Glacier Wind Farm in Montana were rumored to have an equal source of energy, but of course getting to Montana meant surviving the radiation zone in between.

Nathan also noted the old Teslas parked at one corner of the battery pit, lending credence to the stories that New Denver was close to making a converter to power electric vehicles. If the people here could actually pull that off it would revolutionize everything!

“We’re in here,” Doctor Hogue motioned to a small, concrete building with a corrugated zinc sheet covering the entry way. “The council meets in the bunker.”

Doctor Hogue swung the zinc sheet on large hinges, and together the two men scrambled into the dark enclosure.

“I’m here,” Doctor Hogue said to the inhabitants of the place. “I’ve brought him.”

“Take a seat, stranger,” a voice commanded.

Nathan blinked a few times, adjusting his eyes to the dim light cast by a solitary lightbulb in the corner. He was in a small, crude space, with three card tables standing next to one another in the center of the room. Around those tables were folding chairs, and a group of elders eyeing him curiously. Nathan located the nearest empty chair and took a seat.

“Now, what was your name?” the man opposite of Nathan asked. He had gray hair, a bushy mustache, and a large puff of chest hair poking out of his thin, button-up shirt.

“Nathan. Nathan Prewitt. And yours?”

“And you’re some sort of chemist?”

“Biochemist,” Doctor Hogue corrected as he took his seat beside the man who was addressing Nathan.

“Well what does a biochemist have to offer us then?”

Nathan smiled uncomfortably. He had a hard time believing Samuel Iverson was the sort of man to take him seriously. In any case, he wasn’t going to answer the man’s question straightaway. What he had to say was too important to not put it in its proper context.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what your name was…”

“Samuel Iverson.”

“Well, Mister Iverson, I want you to know that I’ve traveled all the way from Virginia by foot, just to sit here in front of you this day.”

“Hmph, impossible.”

“It isn’t if one is very careful…and very slow. I genuinely do not believe there is another wanderer on the roads that has taken the precautions or faced the dangers that I have.”

He paused for dramatic effect, but everyone just stared at him, waiting for him to continue. So he obliged.

“Before the Onslaught I was primarily involved with pathogen and virus research. Any time there was an epidemic my team would study the cell structure of what we were dealing with and make reports to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Of course all of that changed once the sand striker worms were detected. Mine was one of the first teams that transitioned to studying the worms’ tissue after some samples had been obtained. For two years we put whatever fragments they could get under our microscopes and identified every unique feature in their cell structure–“

“For two years?” Iverson interrupted. “But the government collapsed eight months after the Onslaught began.”

“Right…” Nathan said awkwardly, as if unsure whether he should elaborate further. But the government didn’t exist anymore, so neither did clearance levels or confidential information. “Most people are not familiar with this fact, but the government was aware of some new, gigantic species moving beneath the surface some eighteen months before the first outbreak in Chicago. Seismic sensors used for detecting earthquakes were already picking up on them.”

“Are you serious?!” an elderly, rail-thin woman further down the table gasped. “And they did nothing?!”

“Well, to be honest they didn’t properly know what it was they were dealing with. That was the point of my team, as well as several others, to assess the situation and give them insight.”

“The worms were just roaming about, minding their business underground?” Doctor Hogue asked skeptically. “And then–what–decided out of the blue that they ought to plow through our cities? Just like that?”

“To be honest, we never were able to determine what it was that drove them to the surface,” Nathan shook his head sadly. “A prevailing theory was that it had to do with their life cycle. Just like how a salmon will start swimming upstream once it’s the season to reproduce. The worms might have just matured into some phase that signaled them to move towards the surface.”

“Up here with us is their spawning grounds?”

“It could be. They do lay their eggs on the surface, don’t they?”

Jonathan had told the same lies so many times over that they came out sounding perfectly sincere. Even before he left Washington he had known he would need to tell his story repeatedly. He would need it to give people a reason to help him, to open doors that would normally be closed. But if he were to give people the whole truth, they would have killed him right from the beginning.

So he had come up with an altered set of events to tell people instead, and he had recited it so many times for so many years that he had to remind himself from time-to-time what the actual situation had been.

Part Three

Inspiration and Perspiration

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A Strange Place)

On Monday I started my latest short story, which is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There is an outpost of survivors, perched at the edge of a horrifying monster’s domain, and a mysterious stranger who comes to them with an a secret power.

But while the story is extremely fictional, the location of it is not. I very clearly state that this outpost is positioned is at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, a famous real-world location in Tooele County, Utah.

These Salt Flats are the residue from the Bonneville Lake, a massive body of water that once covered the entire North-Western portion of Utah during the Pleistocene era. So massive was this lake that we can still see its old shoreline etched into the mountains today, and 150 million tons of salt still rests in its old basin.

That salt covers a spread of nearly 40,000 acres, creating a plain of dry, white powder that extends as far as the eye can see. When it rains a thin pool collects on the surface, creating a perfect mirror of the sky above, and when it is dry you can feel the air sucking the moisture out of your body.

In short, it is a strange and ethereal place. It feels totally alien, like it doesn’t actually belong in this world. And in my experience, that makes it the perfect place to help one’s imagination come alive.

The Two-Part Process)

Creativity comes down to making meaningful connections. Whether it be an original combination of notes in a song, or colors in a painting, or words in a novel, or jokes in a comedy act, the thing that makes creativity creative is how it puts things together in a way that the audience has not experienced before.

But making meaningful connections can be difficult. For being able to do so requires a most fickle connection of its own: unconscious fantasy and deliberate thought. The unconscious fantasy comes first, where novel thoughts and ideas pop up, seemingly at random. We have little to no control over this process, it just has to grace us when it sees fit. This is the “connections” part of the puzzle. Then comes the deliberate thought, because it is rare that these new ideas come through fully formed. They have to be filtered, distilled, and completed, and that comes about by simple, hard work. This provides the “meaningful” aspect. Spontaneous inspiration plus methodical development equals meaningful connections.

The “deliberate thought” phase is the hard piece of the puzzle in that it requires a mind that is disciplined and trained. It requires the ability to analyze and iterate. It requires energy, so being well-rested and in full command of one’s faculties are essential. It requires time without interruption. But while this may be the hard piece of the puzzle in terms of work, it is the easy part in that we can control it. It is work, but it is work that we can do on purpose.

Contrast this to the “uncontrollable inspiration” side of things. When we are in the zone it is effortless and fun, new ideas popping up one after another and delighting us. But when we are not “in the zone?” Well, that is what we call “Writer’s Block,” which isn’t a blockage of effort, but a blockage of new ideas.

In short, creativity requires a mind that is healthy in two different respects. It must be both strong and flexible. In weight training one learns that it is important to build both muscle strength and muscle relaxation. Healthy muscles don’t just flex well, they release well. And so it is with the creative mind. By being able to relax we freely make new connections, but by being able to flex we distill those into plot and structure.

Exercising and Stretching)

Muscle strength and flexibility are improved through different practices. Stretches help to keep the muscles limber while weight-lifting helps them to grow tense. So, too, there are different practices for strengthening and relaxing the mind.

Keeping the mind sharp is as simple as using it intentionally. This can be done through creative exercises, such as writing stories and poetry, but also through non-creative means. Mastering new subjects, learning analytical sciences, and solving puzzles may not seem like they directly contribute to your writing prowess, but they teach your mind how to work hard, and that absolutely helps with the creative process.

And while inspiration may be less within our power to control, there are still ways to relax our mind so that it reaches a state that invites new ideas. The free-association pattern of dreams has been a rich well of inspiration since the dawn of man, and keeping a regular dream journal can help one to retain the memory of those moments past waking. Meditation can also bring us to a more free-flowing state that is ripe with fresh ideas.

Of course there are those that have used mind-altering drugs to enter a creative trance, but this has the negative effect of degrading the mind’s health over time. It is a short-term gain for long-term losses.

There is one other excellent technique I know of to seek out inspiration, which is to experience something new. New experiences have to be processed by the mind, and processing gives rise to all manner of “what-ifs” and “imagine-thats.” As I mentioned at the start of this post, my current story is based at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and it is because my childhood visit to that place fired so many questions in my mind of what might be lurking beneath this flat, dry ocean of salt.

When I was nineteen I went to the Caribbean for two years, which was also a mind-opening journey. So was my first week at University. So was the first time I learned how to write computer programs. So was falling in love. So was holding my newborn son. Each of these days was a new experience and accordingly a new story idea.

There are some great, creative scenes in there, and now they just need some mental power to turn them into the moments of an actual story.

Revising the Storm- Week 18

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So far things have been getting along pretty smoothly. I still like a lot what I’ve written, with just a bit of tidy-up here and there. Now, though, I’m coming into the heart of the story, which is where I made my most extensive edits. At long last I’m going to get to see how those hold up in the midst of the older material. As always, you can refer to my previous draft for comparison here.

Now let’s get to it.

Becoming Tethered)

“What’s your status, Harry?”

“Not good. I’m having lots of engine trouble, in fact it’s barely turning at all! I can’t make it around the cape, so I’ve just been tryin’ to hold her steady. I don’t mind telling you I’ve been real scared out here, Oscar!”

“Yeah, well I still am! Stay put, Harry.”

Oscar spun the wheel until he was in alignment with Harry’s vessel, then opened the throttle and surged forward. As he went forward his vessel finally pressed through the misty curtain that stood at the edge of the storm. Large and heavy raindrops broke across his windshield, momentarily obscuring his vision. Then the heavy rain subsided, and darker forms were revealed beyond!

I spent quite some time reworking this “breaking through the veil” scene. I think it’s an important and theatrical moment, but it just felt so clunky to me how I had it before. Hopefully this new transition will read much more smoothly. It’s definitely much leaner than the previous attempts.

It was a world of muddled black. Pitch skies hung low overhead, whipped by strong winds into long wisps, thin and fragile, yet so numerous as to entirely crowd out the evening sun. Under the grim ceiling lay a landscape of fomented waves, rolling in endless agony, and colored the green-black hue of ink. Shocks of lightning bristled every second at random places, each bolt immense but straight, efficiently transferring energy from darkness above to darkness below.

I also did an extensive rework on the above paragraph, cutting out a full half of the storm’s descriptions. I don’t think it was a waste to have written those excised parts, though, I just generated all the imagery I could think of in the first pass and this time pruned it down to the very best.

And caught in the thick of everything, was Harry’s vessel, twitching and swaying erratically, entirely at the mercy of the storm. Only on occasion it would surge to life, just enough to jerk back into line with the rolling waves, and then the engines would die and it flounder. The boat must have taken on a great deal of water already, growing more sluggish by the minute. Growing more difficult to haul out by the minute.

Oscar’s heart fell, but he only allowed himself a moment’s dread before he grit his teeth and grabbed the mic. “You gotta hold it more steady, Harry! I can’t come up alongside just for you to swing into my hull!”

“Okay…” came the timid reply. “I’ll try, Oscar.”

Oscar spat and shook his head. He knew it was a hard thing he was asking, but it was necessary if they were to pull this off.

“Yeah, you gotta hold her straight. I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line as I pass. You be ready to catch it, and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”

“Okay, Oscar. Okay. I’ll try.”

Apparently that was as good as Harry was going to give.

Oscar held firmly to the wheel, maintaining as straight of a line as possible to Harry, running through the next maneuvers in his head. They would need to move with precision and speed, minimizing the number of seconds that their boats would be so treacherously close to one another!

Oscar glanced to the raised beam back at the center of his boat. He punched the release, dropping the net at the end of it. Then he pulled a lever, letting the rope run out until there was about fifty feet of it unfurled on the deck.

“Alright now, Harry,” Oscar called into the mic. “You ready?”

Harry didn’t respond. Oscar raked his eyes over the other sailor’s ship and saw that the man was already out on his own deck, waving his arms.

“You’re supposed to be keeping your boat straight!” Oscar said in anger, turning the wheel for an even wider berth between the two of them. Then he turned the throttle up, pushing his vessel just a little ahead of Harry’s boat.

“Alright, alright,” Oscar told himself encouragingly, then cut the throttle and locked the wheel in place. As his boat slid backwards he ran back to the rope pooled out on the deck. With practiced skill he found its end and coiled it around his hand as he leapt to the port side. His boat came level with Oscar’s for just a moment, and in that moment he gave a mighty fling, arcing the rope through the air and into Harry’s waiting arms. Harry pulled it to his chest for dear life, then sprinted towards the front of his trawler to run it through the bow cleat. Meanwhile Oscar dashed back to his own wheel and spun it rapidly to correct for drift.

“Harry, are you ready yet?” Oscar spoke into the mic, but there was no response. He raised the throttle, moving a little beyond Harry’s boat, but not so far as to pull the line out before Harry had it secured.

Mostly the same as before, just with some extraneous details removed. It does feel good to cut the fat and leave the more lean, focused story. Anyway, that’ll do for today, come back next week as we tackle the next section.

Update on My Novel: Month 28

black pen near white printer paper
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AUGUST STATS

Days Writing: 17
New Words: 2,966
New Chapters: 0.5

Total Word-count: 85,250
Total Chapters: 23

My goal for the past few check-ins has been to incrementally improve on the previous month’s effort. In August I wanted to hit 13 days of writing, and I met that and then some with 17 in all! I also wanted to get 3,200 words, but I fell a little short on that one. At 2,966 I was even a little under July’s 3,069.

I would have liked to have met my goal, but I’m not too upset about it. I feel like I gave an honest effort this month, just sometimes it’s a different sort of work that goes into making a novel than at other times.

And that was the case with this month. I spent quite a bit of time doing and undoing work, which might seem like a waste, but going through that process made me more confident that the story is where it needs to be.

Specifically I was trying to add a new nightmare sequence to Chapter 20, and it just wasn’t coming together. Finally I realized that I was trying to force this piece in for logistical reasons (to have an equal number of chapters between each nightmare sequence) and that was the wrong motivation. The story simply didn’t want to go there, and it would be a mistake to force it to do so.

So I scrapped the ill-fitting sequence and instead added a different dream sequence to the end of Chapter 23. This was a much better fit and my writer’s block was replaced with a pleasant flow.

For September I’ll go for 18 days of writing and see if I can hit that 3,200 word goal this time around. Come back in a month to hear how it goes. In the meantime, here’s a segment from the dream sequence I added during August.

Each day the would-be hero grows more ill-at-ease with the cruelty, more unwilling to stand idly by as the children he loves are harmed.

“Leave him alone!” he calls out one day as the bully kneels on a small student’s chest and pushes his hair into the mud.

“No!” comes the reply. “I’m the leader here so I do as I decide!”

“But what you’re doing is wrong!”

“Oh, wrong am I? You don’t even know how wrong I can be!”

To prove his point the bully pulls the small student back to his feet and wraps his hands around the boy’s throat from behind.

“What are you doing?!” the hero shrieks. “Stop that!”

But instead the bully clenches even tighter, and the youth begins to splutter.

For a moment it seems that they hero is still not going to intervene. For a moment he bows his head in shame, resigned to once again shirk the call. Maybe if he walks away, if he capitulates to the bully here and now, maybe then the bully will let the small student go.

But then the hero raises his head and there is fire in his eyes.