The Dancer and the Shattered Shell

It’s like this when dark comes: you get inside. The rule is simple and absolute.

Anna is running late after she finishes her audition. The auditorium doors close behind her and lock. The auditors will be there all night — but dancers can’t stay while they deliberate. It’s 5:42pm on a late winter evening. She’s never been out this late before.

She hurries but something on her foot hurts; she pushed too hard during the audition. The pain is near her heel so she keeps her weight forward, but the awkward gait slows her down. She checks her watch again. It’s taken her five minutes to make it two blocks. She’s not going to make it home before dark.

The cost to stay somewhere overnight is beyond her reach. She’s going to have to squat somewhere. Up ahead she hears the catcallers hollering for any strays (like herself) to come inside, for a price, of course. Anna turns down an alley to her right. Between the buildings it’s dark already. Goosebumps chase each other down her arms. She needs to get inside. These buildings, which are nothing but big stretches of red brick and broken, boarded windows, appear unoccupied. Anna tries one of the doors. Locked. She curses but doesn’t waste time trying another one. Instead she goes straight to one of the windows and pushes at a rotted piece of plywood. 

Anna tosses the bag with her dance gear into the building. Then she lifts herself over the sill, avoiding the tiny shards of glass that remain even after years of wind and rain. But, if no one comes to clean, there’s no reason for anything to move, right? That’s a law of physics. She climbs through without a scrape. Quickly she lifts the rotted plywood back into place. It’s not perfect but it will serve. Sighing, Anna leans her back against the wood and takes in the room around her.

The floor is cold cement, she feels the chill through her sneakers, and it stretches for what could be a couple acres. Bare. Empty. The walls seem sturdy enough. Then Anna looks up.

Half the ceiling is gone. And by gone it is gone twenty stories upward. It’s like a giant meteor ripped through. There’s a pile of debris along the rear wall — a giant shadowy mound. Anna is not in a building. She is in an empty, shattered shell of a building. Through the huge hole she sees stars beginning to shine.
Anna turns to yank the plywood away, ready to run screaming for help down the street. But she’s too late.

The swarm is already overhead. She hears the distinctive metallic series of fast clickclickclicks bouncing off every surface. It’s the sound of tinnitus growing wings. Tiny flashes of light flicker among the bots, like fireflies. They’re searching for heat signatures. Soon they’ll find her. She’s the only heat to be found in this cold little hell. 

Years ago, the nanobots surpassed what was believed about artificial intelligence. The bots were designed to heal humans and became a staple of modern medicine. Billions of the things were manufactured. Then the bots broke down their designated boundaries and began utilizing humans for their own purposes. Hunting via heat, the bots figured out humans are easier to spot after the sun goes down — less confusion about what’s a living creature versus a hot sidewalk. Now Anna is caught. It’s just a matter of time.

Strangely, she doesn’t feel anything but a numb bitterness. Hours of practice, years of going everyday to Madame Robard’s, the recitals. Even fucking learning French. All for nothing.

The moldy plywood slips down soundlessly behind her back — as useless as it ever was. “Merde,” she whispers.

The bots have found her. A handful come barreling down the open shaft of the building. No bigger than mosquitoes, though they are louder. They go for her feet. Her injury from the audition. Even now, she thinks, they heal first.  The bots were unable to fully escape their original programming.

Anna kicks, sending a couple loose. The kick feels good. She performs a half-assed jete. The bots on her shoes clear off. Don’t like sudden movement, huh

She feels the weight of her body. Her center of gravity feels low because she’s so scared. The bots are coming back and, overhead, she hears more. Her breath comes in hard bursts, and each inhalation feels like a needle. Her trembling arms move into second position. Her feet follow suit — the opening position of her audition performance. She counts off eight — the clickclickclick is louder; they’re dropping down like rain. She moves.

The opening tempe-leve is fast, faster than Anna has ever practiced. She moves through her choreography quickly; the clickclickclick adding to her nervous energy. The bots keep their distance, like they think a stray swipe of her hand might be mortal. Anna comes to the end of her choreography and begins to improvise. She can’t bear the thought of being still now that she’s in motion — another law of physics. She can’t keep the allegro pace, however.

She slows but the bots don’t move any closer.

The clickclickclick shifts pace too, as if the bots sense the change in her movement and are imitating her with their sounds. But she must be imagining that? Anna arches into an arabasque. She looks up. The room is filled with the hovering swarm of bots. They arc around, creating an upside-down bowl of air over her. The only light is from their flashes, which fill the space like tiny spotlights.

Then the clicks begin to sound more random — almost like applause. A small pulse moves through them, which terrifies Anna. She falls out of the arabasque and spins into another series of movements.

It’s not her imagination. The clickclickclick becomes more regular, matching her motion, giving her a beat. She wonders what it means when machines pause to admire beauty. And Anna dances.     

*This is my response to Chuck Wendig’s 1000 word story prompt over at Terribleminds 
**The prompts came from a random title generator that you guys should totally check out: Title Generator

The Downside of Setting Challenges for Yourself

The only reason I’m up right now writing a blog post is because I’m stupid. Yes, I’m whining. And yes, I’m whining about a challenge I set for myself not even a week ago. I’m complaining about the blog-a-day challenge. This whole post right here – the one you’re reading/skimming over – is written only because I said I do it and I can’t wimp out on the seventh day of the New Year.

I’m soooo sleepy at the moment. This is the first night ever where I almost fell asleep at the wheel. Really, the only thing that kept me awake was the thought: I still have to write a blog post. I’m stupid.

So, there you are. Voila! A blog post. A post about posting. It’s all very meta. Now I’m going to sleep.

Challenges 2014: EPIC Edition

Because I’m a little insane, I’ve decided to give myself some challenges this year. (I don’t like to call them “resolutions” because then I won’t do them. I rebel against that kinda shit.)

So, instead, I’ve decided that I will do a writing challenge, an acting challenge, a blogging challenge, a reading challenge, and a physical challenge.

The Writing Challenge
I challenge myself to write two (2) full fledged novels this year. This means that I will have two completed first drafts by December 31, 2014. The first one is to be finished by March 31. The second is to be finished by October 31.

The Acting Challenge
I will act in three (3) different plays this year. This one might not be that difficult, since I’m already cast in two plays already. However, with theatre, since it’s such a subjective kinda gig, it’s hard to know when a director will be like “YES” or “no.”

The thing that is within my control, however, is auditions. I’m going to any and all local auditions I can get to until I land that third part.

The Blogging Challenge
I’m gonna write a blog a day for 2014. It might not be good. It might be boring as hell for you. It might degenerate to kitten pictures. But there will be a post-a-day.

The Reading Challenge
I will finish reading the complete works of Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. This means that any books by these authors that I have not already read previously, I will read. That’s something like 30 from King, 20 from Shakespeare, and two from Austen. (See Goodreads sidebar for progress!)

The Physical Challenge
Confession. I have been unhappy in my body for a little while now. So I’m going to start putting it back into shape. I’m 101 pounds overweight. This year, I’m going to lose 60 pounds. There might be a lot of blog-crying on this one, so just a heads up…health related posts are sure to pop up!

So, 2014 should be delightfully busy, busy, busy!

Missing Your Goal Doesn’t Mean You Didn’t Accomplish Anything

2013 has five weeks left in it. Back in January I set myself a Goodreads goal to read 100 books this year. By October, I’d fallen so far behind the pace that there was no way for me to hit my goal. I was something like 30 books behind and it would take me the rest of the year just to catch up, let alone hit the goal. So I dropped the goal to 90, which cut my catch-up in half, and I proceeded to read as many books as I possibly could.

I’m not gonna hit 90 books.

Last night I looked at my numbers. This year I’ve read 64 books. According to the Goodreads counter, I’m fifteen books behind. So I have to read at least three books a week for the rest of the year to even catch the books I’m behind.

Last night I felt like a failure. I’d missed what I’d set out to do. In frustration, I looked at my stats — the section in Goodreads where you can see how many books you’ve read and how many pages you’ve read and compare that to other years. I stared at the 64 books. I stared at 20,000+ pages. And felt like a failure.

Then Shane, who was reading over my shoulder said something like, “That’s over a book a week.” He said something like, “I’ve never read that many in a year.”

So I looked at my stats again.

Prior to this year, the most books I’d read in a single year was 56.

Prior to this year, the most pages I’d read in a single year was 15,745.

Both of these records I’ve blown away this year. And I realized that I was being too hard on myself. Did I hit my goal? No. Which stings. I said I would do something, and then I didn’t do it. It’s like breaking a promise to myself.

But I have done more this year than I have ever done before. How could I not be proud of that? How could I beat myself up for that?

The answer is I shouldn’t, and I’m going to stop right now. In the spirit of the upcoming Thanksgiving Holiday, I’m not going to look at what I don’t have and be thankful for what I do. And what I have are 64 new books under my belt, five weeks to read more of what I want to read, and an opportunity to set a new, badass record for myself.  

Last Minute Stories and Editing: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

It’s Spring Break, so I almost forgot it was Tuesday. Time to be held accountable!

Here is what I did last week:

1. As Ali posted on Saturday, Hayden’s Ferry Review has put out the call for their “In the Dark” issue. Oliver and I decided that would be a fun experiment for our writer’s group and extended it as a challenge…which Ali then passed on to you guys here.

At first, I wasn’t going to do it. I didn’t have an idea. But then Oliver threw down and I can’t just send out a challenge without participating in the challenge. So on Saturday I came up with an idea, worked it, and then worked more on Sunday right before the group.

Oh yeah, it’s a last minute thing. But I have a new short story! Yay!

2. Wrote more stuff on The Line. Got through two scenes – so about 2000 words. (Sounds pathetic, I know. But the short story writing time cut into it.)

3. Finished a rewrite of the first chapter of La Llorona.   And let me tell you something interesting about that experience:

Way back in the day, Ali was reading the early chapters of La Llorona and I remember her saying something along the lines of “The sentence structure is off.” You see, I was being all ‘literary’ and she didn’t get my genius. So, of course, it was her problem.

Then I was re-reading this stuff, marking it up, pondering it. And thought: I don’t understand what half these sentences mean. I got the gist, but it wasn’t easy reading. Most of my marks were cleaning up weird grammatical things – not incorrect, just…weird.

There are two things to take from this:

The first: You’ve heard that bit of advice about needing distance from a piece before you revise. In On Writing, Stephen King recommends at least six weeks. (Which, to many writers, seems an impossible long time. To you I say: It’s not, and it’s worth it. If you can hold out even longer, better.) I have never had a problem with this waiting gig – it makes sense to me. But I think something else goes along with it.


Between the time you put a piece down and the time you pick it up again, you should have written something else: a short story at the very least, but maybe even a whole different novel. 

If you do nothing between the time you drop your novel and the time you pick it back up again, you have learned no new skills. You have learned no new techniques. You are the same writer. You haven’t improved. If you haven’t improved, why on earth would you think you could make your manuscript better? You learn something with everything you write – so write a lot.

The second: Assuming that you don’t have the time to wait (hello Deadline!), you have to trust your early readers, especially for the grammar thing – that kinda stuff isn’t as open for debate as storyline or character motivation. Readers have the distance, and they have a different skill set than you do – so they have the two things needed in order to edit gracefully: distance and practice.

That’s all for me! What’d you guys do this week? (I gotta tell you, we’re re-doing the upstairs bathroom this week…so I can’t guarantee big word counts for next week.)

More Words to Go

John’s right. You can get smoked in a marathon.

Here’s my focus at the moment: I need 12,500 words by the end of this week at least, because I have to turn in at least 50 pages to the CWC. At the very least, I have to hit that. No exceptions. (Have I said ‘at least’ enough times?)

So, the bad news: I’m getting smoked.

The good news: The challenge is working like it’s supposed to. I’m getting words down after a very difficult block. After a period of “Nothing I’m doing is good enough.” “Everything sucks.” and “Why doesn’t someone please break my fingers so that I have a better excuse for not writing!” I’m moving again.

And I have to say this for my fellow competitors: You people can move words! Damn.

The current word counts (as of this morning at 9:20) stand thus:
Matt: 16077
Marie: 15,756
John: 14,002
Ali: 10,000
Me: 5, 227

So, to put that into 4 words: I am losing badly.

What I’m Learning From This Race

For those of you who may have missed the last couple posts, or may not have understood them, my friends Deb, Ali, fellow blogger B. Freret, and I are all in race to see who can get the most words written in two weeks.

I’m not going to talk about our word count now.

Right now I’d like to talk about this process and what it does to your brain (or, at least, my brain because I’m not entirely sure what happens to other brains….)

1. Focus. This is probably the whole point of any writing contest. Like National Novel Writing Month, you just move your focus away from time-suckers.
2. Little bits count as much as big bits. A lot of writers feel they don’t have time to write because they feel they have to have big blocks of time to create. While bigger blocks are certainly more helpful, they are not necessary. Many professional writers talk about how they write now–not how they wrote when they were 9-5 jobbers like us, so please keep in mind that a lot of great novels were written bit by bit, in the moments that could be stolen as well as planned. And trust me, if you feel you can’t get a lot of words out in a day, it’s because you’re plotting to spend a couple hours at a desk. Since this competition began I’ve averaged 6 pages a day…and I have not had more than an hour in front of a desk at any given time.
3. If you’re struggling with a plot point, you’re pushing too hard. Cut loose a little bit and see what happens. Speed fixes a lot of blocks.

All right. Enough with this mini-lesson. Back to writing!