I never lacked for food, clothing, or shelter as a child. I never brought any complaints to my mother in those departments. What complaint I do remember bringing to her, however, was that I was bored!
“Well you have plenty of toys!” she might say.
“Yes, and I’ve played with them all.”
“I haven’t heard you practice your piano lessons yet…”
“No thank you.”
“Why don’t you read a book?”
“I’ve read books.” (To be fair, I really had. I read many, many books in my youth.)
“Well I’ve certainly got my fair share of chores that you could help me out with.”
“I said I was bored, not a masochist!”
Clearly, it was up to me to resolve this dilemma.
It was a tricky problem. For starters my family was homeschooled and insulated, so I didn’t have any friends to hang out with. We didn’t have cable or internet or video games. We did have over-the-air television and movies, but I was quickly saturated with those and still dissatisfied. And it wasn’t entertainment I wanted anyway, it was something to do.
We did have a computer, though. A Windows 95, complete with Microsoft Office. Simply because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I gravitated towards this, and in my boredom found two great loves that have defined me ever since.
One was programming. I found how to record macros in Microsoft Excel, and I used that to start making simple point-and-click adventures. I would try to make sense of the generated code and modify it when it didn’t quite do what I wanted. I didn’t know that this “programming,” and I certainly didn’t know that you could make a living off of it. At that time it was just my own little world, and it would be years before I stepped into the wider universe of software development and made it into my career.
There was another “own little world” that I found on that computer, too. One day I opened up Microsoft Word and started writing out my first story. I got out all of four-and-a-half pages, literally could not think of a single other thing to say, so I typed THE END at the bottom.
I was hooked.
One story followed another. One about a superhero, one about a small ant, one about a group of orphaned children. Each one was longer than the one previous: ten pages, fifteen, twenty.
Finally, when I was about twelve, I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. From that point on everything I wrote was a fantasy. I scaled my writing up to an epic novel in five parts which totaled over 100,000 words. My next work was the only hand-written piece I’ve ever done, and it was over 300 pages.
And all of this writing was done primarily on days when I was bored. Eventually I got a job and went to college, and for a time was too busy for the writing. But thanks to the days of boredom, I had found the things that I loved to do, and I always knew that I would return to them eventually.
Boredom: The Sequel)
Nowadays, I am not nearly so bored. Of course there are the occasional moments of lethargic indifference, where nothing sounds interesting to me. And there are the brief stretches of time where I have to impatiently wait for something. But by and large boredom is not a way of life anymore.
And that’s alright, because I already have my passions to follow. So now boredom serves a new purpose. I don’t use it to seek out what vocation speaks to me, I use it to know when I’m doing a good job in that vocation. For example, when I’m writing a story and I start to get bored with it, I know it means that I’m leading the story down the wrong path.
Think of a story as a journey, one where you are willing to arrive at any destination, so long as it is an interesting one. With parameters that wide, you could take this journey in any manner of different directions. But of course, not all of those paths are going to be as fruitful. In this journey there are treacherous routes you need to avoid altogether. You certainly don’t want to get stuck in the bogs of inaction, or tangled in the doldrum forests, or lost in the mazes of irrelevant plot.
Each of these slows your progress, and some can even bring you to a complete stop. I know this firsthand.
Because for all the stories I mentioned up above, the ones that I completed in my teenage years, there were just as many that I only partially wrote. They were tales that I began with great excitement, but which somewhere along the way found unbearable to continue.
At the time I didn’t understand why I couldn’t finish those projects, why my stamina ran out on some stories but not on others. As I’ve gone back and read over the unfinished drafts, though, I’ve realized that I always quit right when I hit the boring parts.
It is barely tolerable to sit through the boring scenes as a reader, but it is all the more unlikely to power through them as the author.
In the course of writing this blog I have run into this same conundrum again. I had multiple instances where I dreaded continuing with my current story, and fortunately I realized that it was not an option to just force my way through. If I did that, then I would deliver stories that I hated and my readers would be bored out of their minds by, and eventually I would stop writing them altogether.
So instead I have learned to recognize that dread of writing for what it is: my journey has wandered into one of those paths of boredom. And when I realize this I say “Oh, looks like I found the wrong path. I really had meant to go down this way, but it’s better to give up those expectations than kill the whole thing.”
Then I delete the last few paragraphs–take a few steps back on the path–until I reach the junction where I turned into the troublesome area, and look for another way forward. And you know what? I’ve always been able to find one.
A Non-Boring End)
So here I am, writing stories that I truly enjoy, and I owe it all to boredom. Boredom led me to discover story-telling in the first place, and boredom showed up again just last week to save me from writing a lifeless exchange in my most recent story.
My first draft of the boys discovering the stranger had been platonic and rigid and unbearable to write. Thanks to boredom, that scene now features a freakish woman whose face has been turned to stone and a guard who wields a shotgun-crossbow. You’re welcome!
“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to…” Master Palthio paused and squinted at his gathered disciples, “me.” At his last word all the youth gave a collective groan of disappointment.
Watching over the gate at night was the single most important responsibility in their small order. The most important responsibility that any boy from the inner fields could ever aspire to. Watching over the seventeenth gate was, of course, the shared responsibility of them all, but to be the solitary watchman over the most dangerous hours was something special.
To hold that watch meant that you had been elected by the Order, and the Order was elected by the District, and the District was elected by the City Core.
But tonight, as with every other night, it was old Master Palthio who was elected, not one of his acolytes.
“Do not be so dismayed,” Master Palthio shook his head at their reaction. “Yes, the night watch is considered a great honor…but you are acolytes, you are expected to have to learn and grow. Your time will come.”
“It’s just means you don’t trust us,” impetuous Bovik could not withhold his frustration.
Master Palthio cocked an eyebrow. “That is one way you could view it, I suppose: as a shameful punishment. Or you could believe what I have just said, that growth is part of every journey. Does a child carry his father’s sword until he is strong enough to bear it? No. But that is not because he is being punished, it is simply because he must strengthen over the years.”
“So…you would entrust it to any of us now?” Bovik asked. “But you’re just waiting for us to grow a little more first?”
“Well…except for you, Bovik. You I just don’t trust.”
All the boys laughed, even Bovik after he realized it was only a joke.
Of course, the significance of the night watch was mostly symbolic. All of them defended the keep together, no matter who was standing watch. That was the entire duty of their order, after all. The night guardsman was simply to raise the alarm.
And it wasn’t as if there was only the one night guardsman in all their district, either. There was only one for their gate and for their order, but every mile along the perimeter wall was another gate, another order, and another watchman. Seven in all for their district. Neither was theirs the only district. There were fifteen fringe-districts in all, which were collectively responsible for guarding the many different passageways to the City Core. Though the boys liked to pretend that the night guardsman was the solitary protector of the entire realm, it simply wasn’t true.
And it didn’t seem that the realm needed much protecting either. Yes, there had been the ancient wars, but then King Eidoron had driven the barbarian hordes back to their caves many generations ago. So soundly had the victory been, that even after the barbarians spread back out over the Waving Plains, they did not dare muster another attack against the City. They instead contented themselves with warring amongst themselves, fighting for scraps of land instead of kingdoms. So it had been for three hundred years. So it would surely be forever.
And so the boys shrugged off their disappointment when they left Master Palthio that evening. They would have their turn in the evening watch someday, and when that day came they would crow for finally being trusted as real men…but also when that day came they would know that the responsibility didn’t really matter.
“Swords ready?” Reis asked, marching back-and-forth in front of the other boys like a general on inspection.
“Uh, yeah,” Inol shrugged, looking to his side to be sure that his scabbard wasn’t empty.
“Oh?” Reis sneered, not at all appreciative of the indifference in Inol’s tone. “So if I ordered you to pull it out for inspection I would find it sharpened and rust free? Polished so that my face shines in it, as per Standard Regulation?”
“If you ordered me?” Inol furrowed his brow. “Just who do you think you are?”
Reis stammered in confounded rage. “I’m Marshall!” He exclaimed. “Today is the Fourth Drop? I am Marshall!”
“Sure, it’s your turn to play Marshall,” Inol rolled his eyes. “But you don’t see the rest of us becoming so serious when it’s our turn for it.”
“Tharol does,” Golu corrected from the side.
“Well yeah, Tharol does take everything seriously, too,” Inol agreed. “But he doesn’t become a self-adore about it all.”
“Fifteen hauls!” Reis spat.
“Fif-teen hauls,” Reis emphasized every syllable while pointing to a round boulder against the far wall. He looked Inol firmly in the eye, daring him to defy Standard Regulation once more. “Tell me I don’t have the right,” he whispered.
Inol shot him a dark look, but then walked over to the stone and pulled the leather straps that wrapped around it onto his shoulders. The other boys sighed and fell into more relaxed poses, idly waiting for Inol to finish running fifteen laps around the wall, the heavy boulder slung to his back. After he took his place back in line they fastened their swords back on and were ready for their patrol.
The patrols, like all of the rituals they performed at the keep, were mostly symbolic. Yes, it was obviously an important duty to sweep the surrounding area and identify any nearby threats. How could they hope to protect the City Core if they didn’t have a basic awareness of what they might be have to protect it against?
But the outcome of every patrol was always the same: nothing. Again, it had been generations since the barbarian hordes had mounted an attack, and so it had also been generations since there was evidence of an upcoming attack. So now each patrol simply served the purpose of reaffirming that the current status was still the status quo.
Thus the boys were known to be quite lax about it, idly strolling up and down the fields and lazily poking through the cave networks, looking for some entertaining diversion more than for signs of a threat.
Except when they went with Reis. Whenever it was his turn as Marshall he divided the boys into proper squads and ordered them to march in formation. He expected them to round each corner with swords drawn, to sweep every corner of an enclosed space, to dive for cover at any unexpected sound.
And it just so happened that there was one of those unexpected sounds on this day, right as the boys came to the cove of trees that graced the Western Slopes. It was only a rustle of leaves and a cracking of a twig, but it suggested that something was moving on the other side of the tree-line.
“Front line down!” Reis shouted and dove for the dirt. Inol and Golu slowly followed.
“Bolts up!” Reis ordered next and Bovik and Janeao lazily lifted their crossbows to their shoulders from behind.
“Who goes there?!” Reis demanded, though the other boys figured it was probably just a fox.
Much to the other boys’ surprise, though, it wasn’t. There was an actual person there, and that person spoke to them!
“I come in peace! I come in peace!” the raspy voice called out from behind the largest of the trees. Two hands emerged from either side of the trunk, hands open to show that they wielded no weapon. “If I had meant you any harm I would have already had you shot.”
“Had us–shot?” Reis asked slowly.
The left hand pointed to the boys’ right. They turned that way and saw a large, fifteen-foot boulder resting in the soft grass. Seated at the top of it was a soldier in dark armor, silently aiming his spread-fire crossbow at all the youth!
“Cover him!” Reis shrieked to Bovik and Janeao at the exact same moment that the two of them dropped their crossbows on the ground and raised their hands in surrender.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please,” the voice behind the tree placated. “As I said, I have come in peace…so long as you are willing to not be so hasty!”
“Why are you hiding yourself back there?” Reis shot back. “It’s hard to believe a man’s words when you cannot see his eyes!”
“I am not a man,” the voice said, and for the first time the boys noticed that the hands and arms had a more feminine quality to them. The voice had simply been too raspy to tell its gender. “And I am deprived a peaceful face. However…”
The hands dropped to the woman’s sides and slowly she stepped out from behind the tree. The boys frowned in confusion, unable to make sense of what it was that they saw. She slowly strode towards them, and only gradually did they come to realize that her face was stone! It appeared like a gray sculpture, etched many years ago, rubbed smooth by years of erosion, with deep cracks running from crown to neck.
That neck was where the stone finally transformed back to ordinary flesh, and as she spoke the throat bulged, vocal cords standing out, red and swollen from the strain of trying to resonate words through such stiff housing. Her face was permanently held in an expression of having just seen something alarming, with her eyes wide open, lips curled back, and teeth bared in a snarl.
“What?!” Golu exclaimed before Reis could hush him.
“Yes,” the woman sighed heavily, and it sounded like wind rushing through a canyon. “I am a person trapped betwixt.”
“Have you…always been like this?”
“I don’t know that I can recall.”
“How can you not–“
At the exact same moment Reis held up his hand and the woman spoke, both of them to cut Golu off.
“I don’t believe this is pertinent,” she scolded.
“Well what are you here for?” Reis asked. And he spoke he rose to his feet, sword still held in a defensive position. “You are very near to guarded realms, you know.”
“Very near to guarded realms,” she repeated with a shake of the head. “This is the attitude behind every conquest. Make your walls, define your boundaries, but then protect the outside of them until you feel you own those fringes as well. And so on and so on…. I care little for your petty border disputes.”
“Then what are you here for?” Reis repeated irritably.
“I have business within your walls. My companion and I have come to meet with a man who resides in your district.”
“You would not know him. He is an outsider.”
“There are no outsiders within the walls.”
“Oh really?” and though her mouth could not curl into a smile, there was an unmistakable amusement to her tone. “And here I thought I heard the accent of a Waylan in your voice.”
“The Waylans are officially recognized as a satellite contingent of the City Core!” Reis said defensively. “I’m as much a part of the communal as any of these others, it doesn’t matter where I was raised!”
“I truly meant no insult,” she placated, seeing she had struck a nerve. “My point is that you know full well that there are thousands of citizens living outside the walls, which enter and exit from the city every year. So do not pretend it is impossible for a pretender to have slipped in among the masses.”
“But we have a system. Precautions and–“
“And many other imperfect systems which can be broken or corrupted. I can see that you are too close-minded to hold a rational conversation with. Never mind. I will have to reserve my petition for someone that is more enlightened.”
And with that she turned to walk away. Without a word her bodyguard dropped down from his perch and started to recede into the trees with her.
“Should we…go after her?” Bovik asked Reis.
Reis frowned, then slowly sheathed his sword. “I shouldn’t have interrupted her. She had not yet requested anything illegal. If she had, yes, we ought to have taken her in.”
“Well even then ought we?” Janeao queried. “It seems that that was exactly what she wanted.”
“Hmm…” Reis nodded. “Who’s on patrol next?”
“We are,” Bovik pointed to himself and Inol. “Along with Tharol, Beesk, and Avro.”
“Good, good. You two did not say anything to upset her like Golu and I did. You should watch for her then and find out more of what she intends. We’ll wait to report the matter to Master Palthio until we get to the bottom of this.”
“Shouldn’t he be informed about it now? Wouldn’t that be Standard Regulation?” Inol sneered.
“No…” Reis shook his head. “What is the injunction of the daily patrol? ‘To assess and handle,’ and we still have some assessing left to do.”
“Remember what Master Palthio said this morning? It’s time for us to grow up. It’s time we show him that we’re worthy of the night watch by taking the responsibility that’s been give us. This is what he’s waiting for. For us to prove that we’re men. We’ll take care of this one on our own.”
On Monday I spoke of stories where the characters are tampering with forces that are beyond themselves, bringing down all manner of unintended consequences on their heads.
There is only the beginning of this in today’s post. Reis is overly-eager to be in charge, to play the part of the ruler before he is ready for that responsibility. That arrogance manifests again at the end, where he chooses to take the matter of the strange woman under his own jurisdiction, rather than properly report it to his elder.
But as we’ll see later on, this is just the beginning of characters overstepping their bounds and dealing with matters that they do not understand. There is yet a much larger Pandora’s Box to be opened.
Before we get to that, though, I want to address an interesting experience I had while writing this piece. I tend to let my imagination run freely while writing these pieces, taking ideas that happen in the moment, and seeing where they take me. One of those was having the strange woman’s face be made of stone. That was something that I had no intention of until the very moment of typing it in. And part of the reason why it came about was because I was feeling uninspired in the material I was writing before that moment. I was becoming bored, and then that interesting novelty popped into my mind to entertain me.
With my next post I would like to consider the role of boredom in creative works, both as a catharsis for invention, but also as an early indicator for when your story is straying into a rut. Come back on Monday as I explore this topic in detail, and then we’ll have the following section of The Favored Son: Alternate next Thursday.
I thought it fitting that after having completed fifty short stories I am about to try something I’ve never done in my writing. At the end of my last story, The Favored Son, I expressed a desire to give it a second try, to rewrite it with a different plot and set of themes.
Not because the first try was a failure, I actually liked it pretty well when all was said and done, but because there is a very different experience that I believe I can grow from the bones of the first, and I just can’t turn down an opportunity like that! Like Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll or the scientists in Jurassic Park, just to imagine the experiment is to already be compelled to see it through. Never mind what the outcome might be, the question of “can I pull it off” must be answered!
Man’s Exceeding Reach)
But unlike those examples, my cobbled-together monstrosity probably won’t be trying to kill anyone!
Which is a very interesting pattern from those three stories. Each one of them is a fresh take on the same theme, one of the most common themes in all of literature: man should not deal with matters that are beyond him.
Frankenstein is trying to play God by creating new life. Though at first he appears to have succeeded, eventually he learns that making something walk and talk is not enough. Man needs a soul, strong morals, and innate goodness. This new creature lacks all of these qualities, and so is not a man, but a monster.
Dr. Jekyll learns a very similar lesson, though his attempt it not to create new life, but to circumvent human nature. What if instead of going through the long process of mastering oneself you could just drink a potion and amplify all of your best qualities? A tempting idea, but Dr. Jekyll learns the hard way that there are no shortcuts to self-improvement.
The scientists in Jurassic Park find a way to extract dinosaur DNA and use it to clone new incarnations of those creations. And in the words of one of the film’s protagonists, those “scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And…of course…they shouldn’t have. For soon the wildlife gets free, and then the humans learn that nature had given them a great gift in separating their species from these true apex predators!
But why is this the central message of these stories? Why have authors felt it so important to caution us against playing God? Magic potions and cobbled together bodies are pure fantasy, not reality. Are there any true-to-life examples of people unleashing unforeseen tragedies by reaching further than they knew how to control?
Earlier this year my wife and I watched the miniseries Chernobyl, which related the events of a nuclear power plant’s meltdown near the city of Pripyat in 1986. From the very outset this event was tragic on a local scale. An earth-shattering explosion in the middle of the night and engineers coming down with a strange illness and dying painfully. But beyond that an even bigger problem had just been let out of the bottle. There followed the spread of an inorganic disease, an intense radiation that could both kill instantly and over a lifetime, infecting thousands and rendering a thousand square miles as uninhabitable.
Just how many thousands have died or are dying from this nuclear fallout is unclear. Current estimates range as high as the tens-of-thousands. In either case, it was a man-made failure that was as lethal as a natural disaster.
And the question of course is, but why? What was it that caused this failure? That is the main mystery at the heart of the miniseries, and in the end the answer is simply that the people responsible were dealing with powerful forces that they did not fully understand. They created a disaster, simply by not knowing that their particular sequence of steps even could result in that disaster. They were trying to pinch at a beach ball with a pair of tweezers.
Perhaps this recent event was in the filmmakers minds when they made Jurassic Park, but what about for Frankenstein and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? There weren’t people making nuclear power plants back when those stories were written, so what horrible cataclysms did those authors have to caution against?
Or what about going even further back? As I said, this is one of the most prevalent themes in all of literature. Why does it show up in Icarus flying too close to the sun, in Pandora opening her box, in Prometheus stealing fire for mankind, in King Midas wielding the power of golden touch? Clearly the ancient Greeks had a deep mistrust of people dealing with elements that were beyond them! But why?
Because massive tragedy is not dependent on great technology. Perhaps there were no nuclear power plants in among the Ancient Greeks, no weapons of mass destruction, no international travel to spread globe-wide diseases…but there were always leaders who outstepped their bounds, and it was their people who then paid the tragic price for that.
For example, the Greeks only came into power at the sunset of the Persian Empire. The Persians were preceded by the Babylonian Empire, and before that the Assyrian. Each of these kingdoms pursued their conquest with a voracious appetite, overextending themselves, weakening their borders, and finally falling to their own hubris.
And the Greeks paid sharp attention to history, and they would not have missed this pattern. So perhaps their motivation for weaving that element of hubris into so many of their tales was to caution their own leaders from repeating the same mistake!
But…they did. And when the Roman Empire rose next, it was over the dead bodies and broken spirits of the Grecian populace. How ironic that the Greeks, of all people, could not resist flying too close to the sun.
A More Ancient Tale)
And perhaps these stories have their root in the very beginning of humanity. It has always been within us to build towers to reach to heaven, until God smites us back down to earth. It has always been our nature to reach for fruit that was not meant for us, and reap the consequences that follow.
It is an idea I intend to replicate in my remade version of The Favored Son. There were shades of hubris in the first, but with this second I intend to more fully make the villain’s downfall be one of toying with forces that he does not understand.
I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I am going over my most favorite entries!
The Top 10)
Believe it or not, having these last two sections be exactly ten entries each was not something I did on purpose. It just so happens that I think these remaining stories really are a tier above the last. A lot of the reason why I feel so is because of personal preference, these ones just speak more directly to me. In any case, these truly are the stories that I am the most proud of having written.
10. The Storm. An old fisherman goes into a storm to bring back a fellow-sailor, which sailor was responsible for a past tragedy. Once again I went with with beaches, the sea, and gray skies! The symbolism of this piece is extremely blunt: two boats tethered together and weathering a storm as soul-breaking confessions are made. Sometimes it’s better to not be subtle, to just wear your themes on your sleeve and see how far you can push it. I enjoyed being able to really lean into the depth of emotions that I wanted to convey.
9. Free Cleaning Service. A detective is trying to track down a serial killer, and in the process invites the murderer to his own home. I was woken up in the middle of the night by a nightmare once. So then I posted it on my blog for everyone else to share. You’re welcome. Grim as this piece is, I also can’t help but be impressed at how well it captures the terror I felt that night. I had to translate unspoken sensations into written words, which would elicit the unspoken sensations in the reader. Not an easy thing to do, but I think I found my way through it.
8. Boat of Three. A captain, a sailor, and a pirate are together in a lifeboat, the most precarious of companions in the struggle to survive. This was yet another example of starting a story in fertile ground, and then just sitting back and letting all sorts of interesting plot developments spring out of it. Although I couldn’t let those ideas grow entirely unhindered, because I already had a strong sense of where I wanted the story to end. Thus I had to steer the herd in the right, general direction, and in the end I felt it was a success. Not only this, I felt it was one my best examples of writing about current issues through allegory.
7. The Soldier’s Last Sleep. A soldier on the frontlines must defend against one wave of the enemy after another in what might be his final stand. This story emerged from a very simple image: a soldier laying down in his bunk after days of fighting, too exhausted to even remove his boots. But where many stories grow forwards from an idea, this one went backwards. I started to ask “well how did he get this way?” which led me to imagine a long sequence of excruciating labors. This piece was actually very satisfying to write, because I permitted myself to flesh out every scene with layer upon layer of prose, resulting in some of my most favorite lines in all my work.
6. The Anther-Child. A race of creatures that live on the anthers of a flower are menaced by a persistent predator. I wanted to write a story that was a true fantasy, where the main characters were not human, nor human-like. I wanted it to be very surreal and strange, featuring a species I have never seen in any other story. And when all was said and done, I would say I succeeded. I simply do not know anything else that feels like the world I setup for this piece, and it’s somewhere I would very much like to spend more time.
5. Deep Forest. A strange, insect-like creature awakes after eons of sleep, discovering an unfamiliar world that has yet to be awoken. When I said The Anther-Child was unlike any other story, I meant any other story than this one! I wrote this one first, and once again it represents a more pure fantasy, with a main character that defies any semblance of being human-like. It eats dirt and has compound eyes and regurgitates a larva that it places in an inner pod to incubate! I loved the freedom that this approach gave me, and still want to spend more time in this space.
4. The Toymaker. Two toys are brought to life, and set on a path to the Great City. But soon they are waylaid, and must strive to ever find the road again. This piece starts as whimsical and carefree as Winnie-the-Pooh or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but quickly meanders into a grim and harsh world. It strikes an intriguing balance of examining coarse reality, but all through the eyes of un-surrendered innocence. The ending is, I believe, the greatest success I’ve had in sentimentality, and conveys a message that I believe we all could benefit from.
3. Raise the Black Sun. A caravan must bring their wares to a mysterious citadel, weighed down by a sense that they are approaching the end of the world. Yet another story of mine with a slow burn, this one being the longest and slowest of them all. That gradual escalation was the only option for this one, as its purpose was to capture a deep sense of burden and melancholy. Thus there is a heavy weight that permeates every scene, dragging down the tempo, but slowly rising until it bursts out everywhere in the most explosive conclusion I’ve ever written!
2. Revelate. A group of automatons go about their daily lives, falling in love and concocting schemes against one another. This is my most intricate piece to date. Its plot occurs in a complete cycle, where the ending transitions seamlessly back into the beginning. It also features characters that evolve into one another through the course of each cycle, done in a way that I have never seen in any other tale. It is therefore one of my boldest pieces from a technical standpoint, and on top of that also presents a sincere and heartfelt drama.
1. Glimmer. A warrior descends to a planet shrouded in darkness. She has come to restore light and life to it at any cost. This story takes the fight between darkness and light in a very literal sense. The world it presents is stark and barren, with little to distract from the drama at its core. It is another epic in miniature, where the great battle is in the heart of its main protagonist, more than the outer world that she is trying to save. And indeed, her intense earnestness is a very large part of why I like this story so much.
As I said, I’m very proud of these stories, and I could have certainly made a case for any of the top several being my favorite of all time.
Now I know that none of these works aren’t perfect. I’m aware of pacing issues, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing in even my favorite stories. And I don’t even mean in the sense of “no story is perfect,” I mean I could do better than this if I gave myself more time. This is why I don’t try to pan any of this off as professional work, and I wouldn’t publish any piece as a commercial product without first putting it through extensive rewrites.
But that is simply the nature and intent of this blog. I have an idea, I explore it for a while, and then I move on. The purpose of these exercises is not to make commercial products, it is to sift through the seeds and find which ones would be worthy of a more thorough production later on.
Some of these I’ve discarded and don’t expect I will ever return to, some of them show a bit of promise if I can just figure out a better approach, and some of them are the beginning of something special.
But for as many seedlings as I’ve started, I’m nowhere near ready to stop planting more. The pool of ideas is simply too large to stop processing them. And if I do say so myself, I’ve still got some of my best ideas yet to come. In fact I’ve already queued up a few of them for the next story series I publish.
In closing, thank you for being here with me through this long self-examination. These tales have so very much of me laced through them. I wrote them first and foremost for my own benefit, and am forever awed that there are others of you who seem to enjoy them as well.
I do believe that stories is one of the best ways we have to connect to each other. As we each find a part of ourselves in the same themes of the same story we find our common ground.
I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I will bring us to the threshold of my most treasured work.
The following are the stories that I consider to almost be my favorite work. It’s hard for me to quantify what I feel they are missing…quite possibly nothing. I think it’s just down to a matter of personal preference at this point.
20. A Minute at a Time. A young father is trying to care for his chronically ill son, who is in perpetual discomfort. I have written several sentimental stories that did not land as well as I had hoped, but this actually succeeded. And a lot of that has to do with the end. At its conclusion the father does not fix his son’s problems. He does not make the bad situation go away. But he does embrace his son’s struggle, and even admits to his own feelings of powerlessness. And so at the end there is a form of healing, but it is that of emotional closure. That sort of honest, bittersweet conclusion brought this story in where other efforts fell short.
19. Phisherman. A hacker who enjoys filtering through the lives of others decides to break into a stranger’s home. If there is a common trend in my stories, it is that I tend to avoid ordinary, everyday life. With this story I broke that pattern. It is modern, it has no supernatural elements, and it is an examination of a person that could be totally real. And taking this radically different approach did not compromise the piece at all! I think the quality I enjoy most of this story is that its protagonist is unquestionably doing bad things, and needs to be held accountable for his behavior, yet I can’t help but feel a deep pity for him also.
18. The Last Duty. A hermit with a secret shame is visited by a wanderer, whose arrival might not be as random as assumed. I wanted to write a story that begin with false pretenses. In this piece two characters have their own stories to share, the intersection of which is not made known until a surprise revelation at the end. In addition to the exercise, I also wanted to explore a theme of regretful parenthood and I wanted to explore it to the extreme. The two characters are not merely asking themselves “where did I go wrong,” they are wrestling with the responsibility of having sired the world’s greatest evils!
17. The Noble. A group of medieval slaves find an unlikely savior in the newest member of their chain gang. I admit that this story ends too quickly. At the time I wrote it, I was still concerned with fitting my stories into a specific number of posts, and sometimes that meant cramming too much into the last chapter. I am including it here, though, because in spite of that I am still very proud of its characterizations, themes, and imagery. Most of all, though, I am proud of the unexpected turn of events at the very center, which in the moment seem a soul-crushing defeat, but actually sows the seed of a later redemption.
16. With the Beast. A family lands on an inherited island, excited to build a new future for themselves. There isn’t much of an arc here, this piece is mostly about just setting a tone. And in that it definitely succeeded. There is a goodness and an excitement that emanates from the explorers, but it is set apart by a contrasting tone of regret from the reader. Which brings up another distinct element that I’m proud of. The reader is given a voice in this story, and the whole thing is written in a second-person present tense. I suspected that would be weird and off-putting…but it actually works quite well!
15. Does What He Must. A young man in the old west recalls the larger-than-life feats of his father. I’ve sometimes come into trouble by starting a story without a clear idea of where I wanted to end it. But this piece was an example of how sometimes an expedition into the unknown can turn up gold. All I knew when I started was that I wanted to do a series of scenes that showed the development of a western legend. The fact that it did that, and also came together in an emotional and fitting finale was a wonderful, happy accident!
14. Washed Ashore. Two men wash onto a beach, the lone survivors of a shipwreck, burning with an eternal hatred for each other. Another mood piece and another shoreline. Something I’ve learned about myself and my writing is that I am captivated by the image of a stormy beach. Here I used it as the flat, gray backdrop behind a dramatic escalation. Things begin with a tone that is longing and wistful, but by the end burns with the promise of destruction and never-ending strife.
13. Once Among the Clouds. A patrol of clouds come across a source of infinite growth, and are seduced by the power it represents. Well this was certainly a different piece, and it was so for two different reasons. The first, of course, was the choice of clouds as the cast of characters. Coming up with mechanics that reflect those most whimsical of forms was a fun challenge. The other unique element was trying to write an epic drama in miniature. Which I realize sounds like an oxymoron, but was necessary to capture the extremely majestic, yet extremely transient nature of clouds.
12. To the Great Infinite. A man uses his homemade technology to try and map his way into another dimension. Only my second piece on this blog, and still one of my favorites. I love the sheer creativity of it, particularly the idea of a concrete basement being transformed into a dimension-hopping shuttle. A definite challenge in this was to both invent creative problems for my character to encounter, and then come up with reasonable solutions to them. Perhaps my favorite element, though, was having it cap all that sci-fi extravagance off with a simple moment of leaping into the unknown by pure faith.
11. Slow and Easy, Then Sudden. A sleepy, rural town has a new visitor in town, come to carry out an evil deed. Another thing that I’ve learned from writing these stories is how much I love the slow burn. This piece begins particularly lighthearted, with a cheerful diner and a warm slice of apple pie, then builds to a climax of cold-blooded murder. In between I was particularly focused on the idea of a man having to work up the hate within him, necessary to being able to carry out such an act of violence.
Come back on Thursday where I will conclude this review with my top ten stories!
I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I am taking a look at the middle of the pack.
It’s Nice. No More, No Less)
There are always things I can find to improve in my stories, even in my best ones. But this next section is the first batch where I feel there are not any flaws on a fundamental level. I think that they are perfectly fine as they are…and that is all. They’re not life-changing, but they are fine.
36. The Wolf in the Room. Doctors and scientists in a secret facility try to solve the mystery of a man slowly transforming into a wolf. I enjoyed this unique take on the werewolf. Obviously it has been inspired by other works, such as The Fly, and even Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The application of this body-swapping logic to werewolves is, to my knowledge, original, and I think it does a good job of raising the questions that I wanted it to.
35. In Stars and Stones. The world’s leading astronomers and archaeologists are both discovering the same end-of-the-world event through two very different lenses. This one was written from a very removed perspective. The voice is similar to a narrator in a documentary, or a news reporter. There are no named characters, no moments of dialogue, but rather a series of escalating events described until a picture of inescapable Armageddon is made clear. It was a fun exercise, and one that presented some refreshing new experiences.
34. The Favored Son. An abbey in a fantasy world is suddenly overrun by a mysterious invasion. My most recent piece, and one that I frankly struggled with quite a great deal. Right in the middle I followed a tangent that I hadn’t considered before, and found myself making up the story as I went. In the end I felt it came together much better than expected, and I found a few nuggets along the way that I’m glad to have discovered.
33. Three Variations on a Theme. Three different allegories, each centered on the same idea of condemnation and loss. This was a more free-form, experimental piece. The visuals in it still haunt me, and I believe the separate sections each fit together thematically. My main purpose here was to see how many ways I could express the same idea, which made for an excellent writing exercise, but may result in a redundant reading experience.
32. Revenger of Blood. A Jewish man’s father was a victim of manslaughter, and he struggles with the right course of action to take against the killer. I like the ideas of this story, I like its slow burn, and I like the resolution that it comes to. But I do take issue with the dialogue of its characters. I was trying to capture that old, biblical style of speaking. And while it is near enough you know what I am going far, it is also far enough from the mark that it feels a bit awkward. If I took the time, this piece could be polished into something really special.
Worth a Look)
There are many elements that I personally value in the previous stories, but if a friend asked me where to start reading my blog, I would not point them to any of the above. I would tell them to start looking from here.
31. Network Down. A man is hunted by a band of murderers in a highly digitized future. This was a great example of having a single, simple idea (what if anything manufactured in our society could be interfaced with and digitally purchased), and then running with it for as long as possible. And even with so many ideas packed into such a small package, the piece still finds time to build a compelling arc for its main character.
30. Imposed Will. A man is incarcerated in a Victorian-era prison, where a mysterious figure invites him into a world of magic. I had a lot of fun going down this rabbit hole, revealing one surprise after another. As one of my earlier pieces, I’m sure it could do with some polishing, but the core of it is still quite good. I remember that as soon as I finished the story I came up with several ideas for how I might continue the tale into a more complete novel. Perhaps one day I will get to.
29. Phillip the Mouse. A series of children’s stories, each following the adventures of a small, anthropomorphic mouse. These stories are very dear to me, given that they are drawn directly from the bedtime stories I tell to my son. They are at times very fun, at others very sentimental, and in both halves very sincere. This is one that I might very well expand into a more complete collection of short stories at some point.
28. The Death of Simon Bowie. An old man’s memories come alive, and mix with one another during his final moments of life. I set myself quite the task with this one, trying to recreate a mind that is fading, firing random neurons in quick succession, losing its grip of reality, and no longer able to tell the difference between fact and imagination. As the author, I can understand it just fine, but I would imagine for most readers it is very easy to get lost in. And in this case, I’m not so sure that that’s a bad thing!
27. The Changed Dog. Two parents try to change out the old family dog, hoping that their son won’t notice the switch. Perhaps one of the most grim stories I have written. There were a lot of powerful emotions behind this piece, including those of loss and deception. I have no question that a good deal of what inspired this piece was my son was dealing with the loss of two family pets in quick succession, and me fighting down a temptation to distract him from the hard facts of life that he needed to make his peace with.
26. Sculpting Light. A series of surreal images and loosely associated ideas are presented in a stream. This is probably the most experimental piece that I’ve ever done. It has no characters and no dialogue, but it does have an arc: that of associated ideas building towards a central idea. And I found it a very refreshing thing to write. It’s just plain different, and allowed me to work on writing muscles that I didn’t even know I had. It’s something that I would definitely like to explore again.
25. Tico the Jester. A small girl plays with her toys, who are powerless to help as she approaches a traumatic experience. So this was a bit of an interesting approach. I wrote a story where the main character and her arc are not explored in the actual text. The toys in this story just don’t understand anything outside of their small, childish world, and I keep the action limited to their naïve perspective. I think it made for a very intriguing take, with plenty of subtext and room for interpretation.
24. The Last Grasshopper. A grasshopper is the last of his generation, observing the onset of winter, and the end of an era. Where I live there are a great many grasshoppers, and they only survive a single season, leaving their eggs buried in the ground to hatch the next spring. I don’t remember when, but one day I realized that there must be a grasshopper each year that was the last grasshopper of its generation. That idea gripped me very tightly, and I knew I had to write a story to convey all the emotions that came with it. I feel like they all came out here rather well.
23. Cursed. A father lays wounded and dying. In his final moments he tries to convince his morally weak son to not seek vengeance for what has happened. This is a very charged piece, with several competing emotions surging forward in equal measure. The son is filled with hate for those that have killed his father, and the father with fear for losing his son’s soul. There is no outwitting an opponent in this duel, no making an argument to convince another, and no test of physical strength. It is only a duel between intense love and intense hate, where only one can prevail in the end.
22. The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath. A king discusses with his counselors the best way to execute vengeance on a district that has betrayed him. All the time in stories we follow the protagonist as discover, in horror, the evil plot of the main villain. The best of these plots are ingenious in their cruelty, a perfectly dark work of art. With this story I wanted to examine the formation of one of these plans from the villain’s perspective. I wanted to show how he would wrestle to come up with a plan that was not only evil, but unforgettably so.
21. Power Suit Racing. A young man in a futuristic society joins a dangerous racing league to escape the pangs of love. I just had a lot of fun with this one. The world it takes place in was different from any setting I had experimented with before, and it was nice to explore one aspect of it and then another. I thought that this exploration naturally and seamlessly integrated with a compelling arc, too, which intersection is where the most satisfying story experiences are found.
That’s all I have room for today, come on Monday as we’ll make our way towards my most favorite stories!
This isn’t all, though, it also held the distinction of being the fiftieth short story that I’ve completed on this blog. Not too bad for two-and-a-half years. At this rate it will only take me a half century to post a thousand!
Though actually, that might not be quite true. The fact is my stories have been getting longer and longer at a dramatic rate. In the first year-and-a-half of this blog I did forty short stories, and in all of this last year I only did ten!
Which I don’t feel bad about, it’s just an interesting observation. Probably these longer ten-part stories are harder for readers to persevere through than the short one-offs, but the top objective of this blog has always been to just write what I want to write. If anyone else happens to like it, too, then that’s an extra gift and I am very grateful for it, but it really isn’t my driving motivation.
But back to the milestone.
I’m very proud about having made it through fifty stories. And I am proud of the overall quality in them. There have been a couple duds here and there, but as a whole I feel that I’ve been able to express what I wanted to express, and that I’ve been able to write about things that truly matter to me.
So I felt it was time to commemorate this achievement, and the way I’ve chosen to do so is by ranking each of my fifty stories. From worst to best I will list out a short description of each tale, what my personal feelings about it are, and any special challenges that it presented. And these reviews are going to be very influenced by my perspective as the author. My experience while writing the story will be as important as the final quality of it when determining where it ranks.
Fifty stories is going to take a little while to cover, so I will break it out over this week and the next. My regular essays and short stories will be put on a short hiatus until after that.
And now, without further ado, let’s get to it!
It Sounded Better in My Head)
It turns out there are very few of my stories that I consider a complete flop, tales that I would feel very little reason to revisit, even if I had the time. If anything, I would just extract the few parts I do like about these stories and repurpose those into other, more promising stories.
50. Harold and Caroline. A boss and one of his workers are constantly at odds with one another. For some reason I really struggled while writing this one, redoing multiple scenes multiple times. I think it has a more sentimental ending than it has earned, and I’ve frankly never felt so detached from a happy ending after all of the frustration it took to get there.
49. The Basketball in the Water. A man is meeting with his therapist, discussing his frustrations with his father. It’s a nice representation of counseling, utilizing actual methods of the profession. But the entire thing was built around a twist ending that feels oddly out of place. My reason for wanting to include that twist was to be true to a dream which inspired the story. Sometimes I need to be able to let go of the initial concept of a story, though, so that it might evolve into something better.
48. Hello, World. A group of programmers inadvertently let loose a virus which strives for world domination. I’ve included the occasional moment of humor in my stories, but this is the first and only time where I tried to write a comedy. And, given where it is ranking on this list, it might be quite a while before I try it again! I think my main issue here was trying to mix a sense of levity alongside some thick technical-speak. It made the whole piece feel off-balance and lacking a clear voice.
Good Idea, But…)
The next section of my stories are ones that didn’t shine as brightly as I’d hoped when written out, but which I still like the ideas at the core of. There is still potential for them, but they need a different interpretation or a fuller context to really come into their own.
47. The Sweet Bay Tree. A young tree is brought into a multi-purpose room on university campus. Slowly it comes to the realization that it will never leave this place. I think there was an intriguing idea at the heart of this story, but the main thing I learned from the experience was the importance of finding the right medium to tell a story through. This is something that could work in a soulful song, but as a short-story it just kind of comes and goes without making the intended impact.
46. The Heart of Something Wild. An African Tribe tries to negotiate the shift of power after the old chief dies. I feel like this story had too many core ideas: the tribe members deciding where their loyalties lied, an examination of a shamed heir, and the relationship being formed with a strange creature. Each of these could have been interesting in their own right, but the blend of them all made for a bit of a distracted concoction.
45. Shade. An altruistic leader sacrifices himself to save a friend that has fallen to the other side. I have posted many stories that feel like a single chapter from a larger piece. But where most of them feel like they have a complete arc within that larger tale, Shade felt decidedly incomplete. There just wasn’t enough time to care about the characters involved or the events that transpired. What was described could have been an interesting piece, if it had been backed by a novel full of development.
44. I Hated You, Jimmy. A man looks back at his frustrations with a High School bully, and how he finally developed empathy for the boy. I tried something new with this story: I made the protagonist’s voice change a great deal throughout. Though the entire piece is is couched in the setting of an adult reflecting on his childhood memories, he very much gets caught up in the emotion of the moment, and at different times sounds like a teenager, a young adult, and a mature man. This might work over a longer piece, but in the short story format it resulted in too chaotic and frequent of changes.
43. It’s Tough to Be a God. A man is exiled on a small moon, where he discovers the power to create whatever he wants. There are a lot of ideas I really like in this. I think a simple man being made into a god and trying to balance out his own ignorant mistakes is fascinating. But the tone of it kept slipping from me. I felt like I kept pushing at the fringes of creature horror, which was not my intention at all. It’s definitely something I’d like to do another take on.
42. Celestials. A solar system is destroyed through a complex chain of events. I feel that this story fell to the same weakness as The Sweet Bay Tree. It is an interesting idea, and one I think that is worth, it’s just very hard to communicate by a written medium. This tale is full of dense paragraphs that are brimming with chemical and physical terms. I originally envisioned this idea as a short film, and I do believe that that would provide the best experience.
41. Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry. A sentimental story about an old cynic who is transformed through his work for a rich altruist. This was my attempt at a feel-good Christmas story like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. I still very much like the idea of a man learning compassion by repeatedly being the vehicle for someone else’s kindness, but I can’t help but feel that the ending just didn’t come together in the way I had hoped. It’s not terrible, but I would like to have had the time to experiment with a few alternative versions before hitting submit.
40. Washed Down the River. A detective mystery set in the 70s, where a suburban suicide might actually be foul play. I had wanted to write a mystery for a long while, and finally decided it was time to try my hand at it. I enjoyed the more measured approach I used, but unfortunately all that slow burn builds up to an end that is disappointingly anticlimactic. It could definitely be reworked, though, and there are many ways it could have a far more exciting conclusion than its current “so I guess no one was really the murderer?”
39. Cael: Darkness and Light. Two isolated scenes of a dark void spilling over the world, and two characters attempting to flee it. If I were just evaluating the very first scene, I would have placed this much higher. It’s scene of a man dissolved within a void I still find quite gripping. And the second scene has its own interesting ideas as well, but as with Shade it would have had more impact if contained in a greater context. In other pieces I have better learned how to take a vertical slice from a larger tale that still feels complete on its own.
38. The Wedding Scenes. Four vignettes from a single wedding reception. My very first story on this blog! And while writing those first pieces was pretty grueling at the time, I am actually quite pleased that it turned out as well as it did. In the end it is a bit lopsided, with certain vignettes turning out much better than the others. I could easily drop the weaker sections and just let the others stand on their own.
37. Instructions Not Included. Two boys discover some strange machines that operate on their own set of rules, separate from the laws of nature. It was nice to write a story about pure discovery, and in that regard I consider it a success. The ending was designed to open the world up to a wealth of future possibilities, but I feel that in this case it was it felt like a hurriedly tacked-on cliffhanger, rather than a natural escalation of all that had come before.
That’s all I have room for today, come on Thursday as we’ll delve into the next sections of my countdown!
Days Writing: 20 New Words: 3924 New Chapters: 1.25
Total Word-count: 60,547 Total Chapters: 17
Well this month was my most productive in a long while! It was the most words written since March, and the most days-in-a-month working on the novel since October last year! It would have been nice to break the 4,000-word barrier…but I’ll just have to keep that as a motivation for this next month.
A little less positively, I noticed during this month that I kept falling into a pattern of halfhearted writing. I would open my word processor, type out a minimum number of words as quickly as possible, and the quality just wasn’t up to the standard I have been striving for. I’ve told myself previously that it’s okay to only write out a few words during a busy day, but they still ought to be quality words!
On the other hand…maybe my tepidness is a blessing in disguise. It could be a warning to me that the section I am working on is not very interesting, and will be a slog for the reader to get through as well. A slow middle is one of the most common failings in literature, and I might very well be falling victim to it myself!
But if I am able to recognize this trend as it happens, I will still have time to correct it. I’m currently doing a once-over on my latest chapter, and in addition to picking out grammatical and logical errors, I will repeatedly ask myself “is this even interesting.”
For now, though, here’s a piece that I wrote during this month. One that I feel still has that spark I’ve been striving for. Enjoy!
But William has no more time for ruminations, for Eleanor is now ushering the family to their seats around the fire, and once they are settled she presents the first real feast that they have enjoyed since setting foot on the island!
The main attraction, of course, is the roasted bird.
“Oh, this is divine!” William exclaims. “What kind of fowl is this?”
“Well I’m not sure exactly,” Eleanor answers, “but it looked like some sort of pheasant.”
“Are we going to start putting traps out for them regularly, now?” he smiles hopefully.
“Yes, I think so. Try and catch a few and start breeding them I imagine. Though this came out quite dry and bland, didn’t it?”
Everyone murmurs in disagreement. But of course, this is the first fresh meat they’ve had since they arrived, and even dry, bland fowl seems succulent and rich!
In addition to the pheasant, there are two side dishes made from the recently harvested produce of their garden. The first is yellow yams that have been boiled soft, with green beans and peas mixed throughout. The second is another set of yams that has been sliced and fried, and is served with a dip made of mashed mung beans.
And even this isn’t all. A large bowl is also passed around, full of nuts and sunflower seeds, and also a jar of tamarind jam to enjoy by itself.
“How nice to have a dinner with dessert again,” John approves. “Would you like some, Clara?”
“No,” she wrinkles her nose. “I don’t like tamarinds. And that’s not what we’re having for dessert.”
“There’s more?” John looks in amazement to Eleanor, who reaches behind the stump she is sitting on and produces cashew fruit, cut into halves and topped with some of the leftover cane sugar from their test crop.
They all eat more heartily than they knew they could. There isn’t a single morsel left in any bowl or plate, and there isn’t a single finger that isn’t licked clean. They are quite full when all the food is gone, yet each feels they would happily eat just as much again.
Tharol nodded solemnly, then turned and streaked down the hall. He heard the clatter of swords behind him, but he didn’t turn to see whether Master Zhaol would be able to hold the other two back or not. All that mattered now was getting to any of the other students who were still alive.
He raced out of the main abbey doors and across the grounds. There were no more stone columns to launch himself off of, but he pounded his feet into the hard earth and was lifted into the air by a force that far exceeded the amount he had thrust down. He sailed through the night, rose up higher and higher, then he peaked, and as he came down he expanded his Shraying Staff as a net of fine tendrils to slow his descent into something that wouldn’t shatter his legs!
He repeated this process, bounding in great leaps over the tall, silver-green grass, until he came to the entrance of the stone hedge maze. In the dark shadows he could just make out a scuffle taking place at the central archway.
Instead of leaping upwards, this time he propelled himself forward, streaking ahead like a loosed arrow. The dark figures raced up to him and he formed his Shraying Staff into a single-edged sword. He drew it back and swung it forward, trusting his reflexes to guide him, still not sure of his target. One of the bodies turned towards him and started to raise its arm in defense. For a brief moment Tharol saw its outline quaver, like the elders when they were shifting into and out of one another. Without hesitation he angled his already-swinging sword and let it cleave through that body.
The elder fell to the ground, dead.
Tharol’s feet hit the earth and he skidded to a halt in the midst of everyone else. Now he could make everyone out in the soft moonlight. His allies were huddled back-to-back, trying to hold off the remaining elders around them. They were Marvi, Bovik, Meelta, and Yaihs, the only other survivors of the night.
“Hold firm!” Tharol instructed. “I’ll try to throw back their first attack, and then the rest of you–“
“They’re doing it again!” Yaihs shrieked, and he pointed to one of the elders, who also started to quaver around her outline. She lost her features for a moment, and became an obscure mass. Then two figures separated and stepped apart from that mass: the same woman as before and Strawl. No one else emerged, though. Apparently Zhaol had taken Oni down with himself.
“Five of us and four with us,” the five elders counted in unison.
“Yeah, fall back,” Tharol panted, then lurched forward at the elders, swinging his sword wide. They easily sidestepped his blade, and the two elders nearest the stone hedge used the opportunity to reposition themselves in front of the entrance and cut off the youth’s retreat.
“It’s over!” Yaihs cried. His hands clutched the side of his head, panic set in, and then he began to quaver violently.
“He’s being taken!” Bovik yelled.
Tharol looked around frantically. What was he to do? He had pushed himself to places he didn’t even know he was capable of tonight, but even so the situation had slipped more and more out of his control. Now it was lurching out of his grasp entirely!
He roared in desperation and flung himself through the air at the elders blocking the youth’s retreat. The elders there were waiting for him, and no sooner did he touch ground than two swords pierced him, one in the leg and the other in his already-wounded shoulder.
“Just go!” he panted to the others, then thrust his Shraying Staff out as vines, momentarily restraining the elders there. He would hold them down for as long as he could, and after that he could only hope that the youth would find a way to save themselves.
Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta youth dashed past him. Three of the elders followed close behind. Yaihs–who was nearly fully taken over–and the two ensnared elders stayed with Tharol. Tharol regarded those two for a moment. It was Master Strawl in front of him, and Master Umir behind. Each was just about free from Tharol bonds.
Tharol looked down to the ground and panted heavily. There was no catching his breath, though, for his exhaustion went far beyond a shortage of air. His own life was flowing out of his wounds, leaving him closer and closer to darkness with every passing moment. Part of him wanted to just succumb to his wounds…but that would not help his friends.
With a shout Tharol drew back his vines, reforged his Shraying Staff into a sword, and thrust it at Strawl. Strawl blocked the blow, so Tharol immediately flung his sword backwards, extending it as a pole with the hope of catch Umir. A dull thud told him he had succeeded, but Tharol hadn’t hit him so hard as to take him out of action.
Back and forth Tharol flailed. His head snapped from one foe to another, watching for their own strokes and madly thrusting his weapon to parry them. His Shraying Staff changed form a dozen times. Now it was a shield to catch a thrust he couldn’t see properly, now it was a pole to punch through a small gap between Strawl’s arms, now it was a hooked blade to try and snag Umir’s weapon.
Tharol stopped thinking through the transitions anymore. He simply felt the flow of battle, turning and reacting by pure reflex. He moved as if in a dance. And when Yaihs was completely taken over and joined the fray, Tharol merely let his rhythms flow in that new quarry’s direction as well. He called on his limbs for strength and speed, and they responded.
That surprised Tharol. He should be bleeding out right now. He should be growing weaker and fainter, not stronger and surer. So confident did his body feel, that Tharol even drew out his standard blade with his other hand, and wielded it as if there was no hole through his shoulder.
Tharol was too preoccupied with the battle to examine himself closely, too distracted to see how the sections of his Shraying Staff were unfolding from their place on the weapon, and reassembling themselves over his wounds, forming as artificial muscle, tissue, and bone, all just as responsive to his commands as his natural flesh.
What he eventually did notice, though, was that the weapon in his hand was growing smaller and smaller. Eventually so much of the Shraying Staff had dissipated through his body that his weaponized arm had reverted back to its regular flesh and blood, holding nothing more than a small dagger in its palm.
Tharol frowned in confusion, but that moment’s hesitation was more than he could afford. Yais pinned Tharol’s natural sword against a rock. In exactly the same moment Strawl and Umir thrust their blades forward, each driving straight for Tharol’s heart.
But once again Tharol felt his way through. Instinct, more than memory, told him that Strawl and Umir had already cut him with those blades, stained their weapons with his blood, and thus surrendered control of them to him.
He opened his palms, and felt Strawl’s and Umir’s weapons forming in his hands. They were left defenseless. The flung themselves backward, out of reach. Tharol considered which of them to lunge after first, but before he could all three of his foes quavered and dissipated, no doubt merging back with the other elders pursuing Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta.
And so now Tharol must chase as well! He turned to the stone hedge entrance and rushed onward. Down the first pathway, on to the next, and to the next and the next. He beat on through the maze, faster than he had ever moved through it before.
As always, the walls began spinning in reaction to his every move. And at speeds like these, there was very little time to react to their erratic pivots. So once again, Tharol relied on instinct, dodging the extruded walls without a single thought, leaping over the stone risers by reflex, ducking under the popping-out ceilings on whim.
He thrust out one of his newly acquired Shraying Staff limbs as a claw, gripped the top of the stone hedge, and flung himself high into the air. The stone tapestry whirled up with him, continuing to surround and spring obstacles on every hand. He converted his other Shraying Staff into a claw as well, and used both to grip the tumbling stone and dodge and weave his way through.
Then he reached the height of his ascent and angled back downwards. The stone continued to warp around him, and now he formed his Shraying Staff arms into thin tendrils, scraping the edges of the stone as he slid down their chute. Every now and again a sudden barrier sprung at his feet, and he used those tendrils to seize on the rock and jerk himself to the left or right as needed.
Every now and then a stray block caught him. Every now and then he took each blow and tumbled into the dirt. But he simply rolled back onto his feet and continued on as if nothing had happened. It didn’t matter how hard it hurt, he had to keep moving forward.
A shout in the distance rang out, and he heaved himself forward, willing his body to find every small crevice and crack to slip through at only a moment’s notice. One wall spun out of his way, and beyond it he saw Meelta, collapsing with a sword through her heart. Bovik and Marvi were just beyond, and the elders were pressing in from every direction.
With a shout Tharol flung himself forward again, threw his Shraying Staff arms out as a protective web. They formed two half-circles that encompassed him and his companions, closing them all together in a thick-wired ball. The elders hacked at his netted barrier, but Tharol wasn’t sticking around to fight with them. With another cry he flung himself forward again, carrying all three of them forward through the maze.
Blades and walls and broken tendrils filled the air around them. It seemed a blow hit them from every direction at once, and it was only by sheer grit that they forced their way onward.
“We have to be near to the centrifuge now!” Bovik cried.
“It doesn’t matter,” Marvi wailed. “We won’t be able to figure out how to get in with them right on us.”
It was true. There wasn’t time to wait and puzzle out the right way in. They would be caught just outside of their sanctuary and have to take a last stand against the elders and Yaihs.
For right then each of the elders raised their hands forward, sent out a beam of light, and the walls directly ahead exploded into pieces, exposing the centrifuge beyond.
“They can do that?!” Bovik said in shock as the three bounded into the central clearing.
Tharol drew back his protective cage, and formed his arms back into blades. “They’re proving to us that there’s no sense in running anymore, and they’re right. We stand and fight here. Maybe we all die, or maybe one of us gets out alive. Either way we–“
A strange clicking noise from behind distracted Tharol in the middle of his sentence. Slowly he turned, and saw there the artificial creature that had been forming over the past weeks, the one he had spoken about to Reis before all this nightmare had begun.
It was moving now, and its head was complete. It stood nearly as tall as Tharol did on long, spindly legs. It had a horizontal body, angular features, and a head that was long, flat, and alert. It was pointing that head towards the elders.
“Um,” Tharol started to say, but then the artificial creature burst forward like a shot. It crossed ten yards with each bound, closing the distance to the elders in no time at all. The elders threw their Shraying Staffs up as shields, but the creature cleaved through them instantaneously. Its next strokes slew each foe instantaneously.
Just like that…the massacre was over. The artificial creature looked back at the youth, then turned and bounded deeper into the maze, lost to the sprawling pathways beyond. A deep sigh seemed to emanate from those dark chambers, the unclenching of a prolonged strain.
Tharol, Bovik, and Marvi stood there in silence for a long, long while. At first they stared blankly at the blasted hole in the centrifuge wall and at the corpses of their former masters and fellow student, Yaihs. Then they let their eyes silently roam over the broken columns and moss-covered boulders that were scattered all around. Everything was quiet and very, very still. There wasn’t even the sound of crickets or wind.
It was Bovik who finally spoke.
“What do we do now?”
With the spell of silence broken the other two youth came back to the present moment.
“There’s nothing,” Marvi shook her head. “Everyone’s gone.”
“We’re not,” Tharol countered. “We’re still here.”
“We’re three people! We were supposed to be an Order, we were supposed to carry the torch on. But–but–“
“But that flame’s gone out,” Bovik finished and Marvi nodded.
“That’s true,” Tharol nodded. “It’s gone now, and it isn’t coming back. Not for a long, long time at least…and maybe not ever.”
They all stood another moment in silence.
“So let’s go do something else,” Tharol said with conviction.
“What?” Bovik asked.
“Something. I don’t know. But let’s go out there. First we’ll just worry about surviving, and later, when we know more, we’ll build something new.”
“Of course you would say that,” Marvi frowned in contempt. “Leave this all behind and start something new, because you never did like the Order!”
“That’s not true. I loved the Order. It confounded me, but I loved it. Now, though, I think it was an imperfect structure built on a perfect idea. And for right now I want to get to know that underlying idea better. I can’t do anything more until I understand that. There’s so much we don’t know.”
Marvi pursed her lips and thought for a while before responding. “What about the traitor?”
“The traitor that Reis was telling us about. He believed it was you.”
Tharol shook his head. “I’m sorry to say this, but Reis was a fool.”
“It’s true. And the fact is, I think he was the traitor that his let medallion was warning of. Not knowingly so, but his fear-mongering and personal insecurities opened the door wide for tonight’s disaster. There’s no reason why twelve of us should have been killed tonight!”
“Marvi, it’s true–” Bovik started, but she held up her hand to stop him.
“Can you just–let me be? I don’t want to talk about this right now.”
Tharol and Bovik made eye contact and nodded. She clearly needed some time and space to mourn.
“Well…so what do we do now?” Bovik returned to his initial question.
Tharol turned from the hole in the wall, and looked over the top of the stone hedge maze to the sprawling valley outside of the abbey walls.
“I need to get away from tonight. I think we all do. My next step is out there…. Beyond that, I’ll figure it out as I go.”
“I’ll come with you,” Bovik agreed.
Marvi didn’t say anything, but nodded.
“Do you think the Invasion is happening out there, too?” Bovik asked.
“I expect so. But–at least we’re still together. Maybe we can find some more survivors, too.”
And then the three of them walked out into the night.
Well, there we are, all finished with The Favored Son. It’s been quite the journey, and quite the sprint to the finish! To be perfectly honest, I was starting to hate this story in the middle, because I had no idea where I was going with it. But here at the end I feel I finally settled into an understanding, things came together nicely, and I am quite pleased to add it to my collection.
Speaking of my collection, The Favored Son represents a special milestone for my short stories, and I’m going to do a little something to commemorate that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain what I mean, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
Usually at the conclusion of each story, I leave a little space at the end to review all the different lessons I gained from writing it, and to summarize all the elements I had been trying to imbue in it. But sometimes these stories run nine chapters long, and there is too much to cover in the little space at the end of the last post. So instead, I will use this entire post to review my current story, The Favored Son, all the things that I think went well, and what I think could be improved on.
Right before I launched into this story I shared a post discussing how an author gets readers to trust and distrust certain characters from the outset, so that then the audience will accept or reject the philosophies connected to them.
At the time I pointed out how I wrote Tharol and Reis in particular ways to make one likable and the other not, to get the readers to assume one would become the protagonist, and the other the antagonist. That expectation was wholeheartedly affirmed.
A little bit later, I wrote about how this style of manipulation allows the author to guide the reader’s mind to a particular state, and then, knowing what they are expecting, they can either reaffirm or subvert those expectations.
And so, having had this affirmation of Reis as the antagonist and Tharol as the protagonist, I knew the reader would now assume that there would come a standoff between the two of them, a point where they duel over their different ideals and the protagonist would finally overcome the enemy.
And again, this was affirmed in my last post as Tharol defied Reis’s orders and convinced the other youth to do so as well. At that point it may have seemed obvious for Tharol and Reis to cross swords, but I wanted Reis’s downfall to be strictly due to his own hubris, not because Tharol happened to fight better. And so that is what occurred.
You might have noticed that I also setup an expectation for things to go horribly wrong with the battle against the elders by foreshadowing trouble multiple times. There was Tharol feeling uneasy, Tharol going along despite the protesting of his own conscience, and the youth encountering many surreal and unsettling sights along the way. All this was meant to create a sense of discomfort in the reader, and prime them for a scene of failure. Which, again, is exactly what occurred.
I next wrote about stories that begin with an extended prologue, which gets the audience settled into the tone of the story before the main thrust of the tale begins. I suggested that this was my approach with the first sections of The Favored Son, where the youth first gathered at the centrifuge and Tharol spoke with Master Palthio about his dilemmas of faith.
At this point it should be abundantly clear that the real story was not about those elements, but about the war between the elders and the youth. And its themes evolved into letting go of old expectations to begin something new and about the need to preserve one’s soul even in the most dire of situations.
This isn’t to say that the introduction was entirely disconnected, though. Those opening scenes still laid the roots for several elements in the main story arc. In them I established the basic ideas of Reis’s hunger for power and Tharol’s efforts to listen to his conscience. Thus while my intro largely stands apart from the rest of the tale, it does still remain in connection to it, too.
Things Go Topsy-Turvy)
Then I reached a critical juncture in my story. I was having trouble making that transition into the real thrust of my tale, and suddenly I thought of a better way to go. But that better way changed a great many things, and meant that all the rest of the story would have to change accordingly.
At the time I considered releasing an alternate version of The Favored Son. I had wondered if that would be redundant though, after all that I would end up writing in this new version. And now that I am at the end of this branch, I actually think there are still a lot of original, worthwhile ideas that have been left on the cutting-room floor.
And so I will be doing another take on The Favored Son. I think I need to rework the opening sequences to better support that alternate form, so I will be rebuilding it from the ground up. Certain elements will be similar, some passages will probably be copied over verbatim, but eventually the two will permanently diverge, at the point where the elders attacked the youth in my current version.
Next I spoke of stories that revisit the same location multiple times, and how using that familiar backdrop can be used to highlight the changes in the main characters by contrast. The location I was using for this effect was the centrifuge. Previously we saw the students there in a moment of innocent drama. They were quibbling about politics that didn’t really matter, and their fears and anticipations were only minor things.
The second visit took place after the initial attack of the elders, at a point where things had become horrifying, and probably seemed like they couldn’t get any worse. Now we see them returning for the third time, when things have absolutely gotten much, much worse! The unchanging nature of that centrifuge is helping to highlight the darker and darker situation among the youth as it unfolds. Where the location’s broken columns and crumbled stone were originally just an amusing piece of set dressing, now they can be recognized as a foreshadowing for the entire Order.
Finally I spoke of inventing new things in a story, simply to entertain the reader. I mentioned as a counterpoint to this, though, that all these crazy, new inventions still need to feel like they belong together. So long as the new creations feel like they originate from the same place, then our illusion of that place as somewhere real can be preserved.
In The Favored Son there are quite a few new creations. There is the strange behavior of the Invaded elders, the reforming Shraying Staffs, the strange physics when one is connected to their core self, and the cryptic hints of the Order’s doctrine.
I like to think that there is a sense of cohesion between all of these, although if I’m honest I kind of just wrote them down as they occurred to me, realized that they didn’t gel together, and then refactored them in my rewrites to bring them more in line with each other. Generally I like to pin down the system and mechanics of a world first, but in this case I kind of just took flight and corrected things as I went. And in the end, I don’t think it was half-bad!
Well that was a lot to cover! Now all that’s left is to finish the tale. Next I will be posting the last section of The Favored Son, and I hope it all comes together in a way that makes the journey satisfying. Come back on Thursday to see the result of that, and then a little bit later we’ll look at the alternate form of it, and consider which version lands better.