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


Here’s a prompt for all of you who loved J.D. and Turk in Scrubs.  This week, I bring you a call for submissions from Prime Mincer.  They’re currently seeking submissions for their Bromance anthology (click on the link and go to the bottom of the submission page).  The deadline for submission is June 1st and they’re looking for your best “work that in some way comments on or deals with male friendships and relationships, and/or plays on the idea of the buddy story.” 

Come on, you know you want to write a buddy story.  Get crackin’ bro!

Augh! Tuesday Again!: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Grr. Tuesday snuck up on me this week. Time to be held accountable.

1. I showed up to be critiqued at my writer’s group on Sunday. Took lots of notes on a short story that I’m going to send to Hayden’s Ferry Review for their “In the Dark” themed issue. (Ali posted it as a challenge to all y’all as well on a Saturday Pages post – so there’s still time guys!)

So, at the very least there’s gonna be some revision going on around here.

2. Annnnd there’s already some revision going on. I’ve been working on my La Llorona story – adding some scenes mostly, and cutting stuff that’s not important to the main plot. I’m up through the third chapter (I have twenty-two total and plan to work my way through all of them by the 15th).

I also went through the notes that I have from my original readers. I’ve discovered that if you wait a year you will come to the exact same conclusions as your original readers. My opinion of waiting between drafts has always been wait a looooong time. Way longer than you think. It’s the best way to get perspective.

Plus it’s easier to ‘kill your darlings’ when you don’t necessarily remember writing them….

Short and sweet, huh? I’m still baseballing too.

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.)

Getting After It: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Welcome to Tuesday, dear writers. That means it’s time to tell tales about what we’ve accomplished this past week.

As for me:
1. Filled a notebook! Yahoo! You know the only thing better than filling a notebook?

Starting a fresh one! Which I have also done this week. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will have to do a lot of typing-in because I’ve made the decision to plunge ahead and fill as many notebooks as possible. This means an exceptionally long type-in session of novel writing. And I’m not the quickest on the keyboard…so I’m hoping to take my time and let the type-in assume the role of Second Drafting.

Well, it sounds good to me.

2. Finished a short story. Sent it off to a couple readers to read. So I’ve added to my submittable short story pile. (And I’m pretty sure you guys have heard how short that stack was getting, right? Well, if you haven’t hear…it was getting short.)

3. (Which doesn’t seem writing related but totally is): Called around to find out about enrolling the youngest in preschool. Preschool time for youngest child = writing time for me. Sure, she won’t be able to go until August, but I anticipate a large increase in productivity around that point.

And that was my week. What’d you guys get done?

Filling Notebooks: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Tuesday sneaks up on me sometimes. Time to be accountable! Here is what I have done this past week:

1. Glorious news! I have almost filled a 120 page notebook with new novel words! The rough kind of words, but words nonetheless! Next week I should be able to say: filled a notebook. Such almost-satisfaction. I can see the end. I’ll be done with the notebook in just a couple days. Things are trucking along…and I think I can see the last hill I have to climb before I’m finished with the whole rough draft of The Line.

*the crowd cheers*

(Admittedly, it’s just seeing the last hill…still gotta climb it and hope to heaven that there isn’t some kind of mountain range behind it. I’m sure that happened to the covered wagon trains when they saw the Sierra Nevadas: “We’ve crossed plains! We’ve crossed a huge mountain range! We’ve crossed an unbearably hot desert! Look, it’s a hill! One more thing! Oh. Wait a sec.” That had to be a rough day.)

2. Started second drafts of two short stories. So, yay for progress.

Soon I’ll be able to add to my list of stories I’m submitting. My submittable short story list has been woefully short for a while. When you’re focusing on novel-length work, the time to create new short stories (and actually revise and polish them) is tight. But I’ve recently felt the need to say that something was finished. That I’m making some kind of progress.

Because working on a big ol’ novel sometimes feels like you’re spinning your wheels…even when you’re not.

3. Got some new short story ideas, and one idea for a play. My buddy John has recently been super-active in our local theatre community. Going to these play recently, I have been inspired. I had a one-act play produced when I was in college but haven’t embraced the challenge of a full-length. Sometimes you’ve gotta mix it up. (Just ask Neil Gaiman, right?)

And how have you guys been? Got a lot done?

Random Post of Awesome: Braggin’ on a Buddy!: Traci Cizek Sackett in High Contrast Review!

Awww. I held Traci’s babies when they were teeny-tiny – now I (and you, dear blog readers!) get to read her story-babies too. And if you wanna know how much fun this gal is, just check out the title of her piece, just published in High Contrast Review:

Maggot Pie

There’s such a terrific energy to this piece. The images are magical. I think they picked just the right photo to go with it.

Congrats, Traci!

New Short Story from Our Mentor!

Hello Atwood fans.

For those of you interested, The New Yorker has published a new short story by Margaret Atwood: “Stone Mattress.” If you dig stories with dark women…this one’s for you.

Let us know what you think!

A Week of Almost-Not-Quite: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Ah, welcome to Tuesday comrades. Time to see what we’ve accomplished this week.

For me:

It’s the week of almost-not-quite.

1. Almost finished a new short story. I’m up to the climatic, near-end scene. The story sorta wrote itself, which is always nice, right? But it still isn’t finished. Just two more scenes.

2. Worked on the first chapter of the book I’m collaborating on with Ali. (Soon she and I are going to be joined at the hip we’re doing so much together.) But I didn’t finish the work I wanted to do on the second chapter.

This collaboration thing is interesting. It seems to me that a lot of the decisions you make while writing are instinctive. When you have a writing partner, you have to be able to articulate – or, at least, to show – to another person what and why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is true both for this blog now that we’re both working on it and for the fiction piece we’re doing.

Ali – what are your thoughts on this work together stuff?

3. Almost hit my scheduled weekly word count for my own novel. But not entirely there. Sad faces all around. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to hit the count again this week because I’ve got to prep for a presentation that my writing group is doing this Sunday. (More on that next week!) Also, I have to prep my submission to the same group – which means editing some of my NaNo pile instead of new writing. At least that is all on the same project.

4. Almost finished with a poetry chapbook on Ted Bundy that I’m going to submit to a competition. Need three more poems. I know the subject matter, it’s just a matter of finding the right words. Poetry is tougher than anything when you’re struggling with finding words. So it’ll probably take me right up to the deadline before I finish.

5. Oh! I did finish one thing. I set up a page on Facebook for my writers’ group The Under Ground Writing Project (UGWP to those ‘in the know’). If you’re so inclined, you can go on Facebook or go to the website and click Like. Also, feel free to join the website itself, even if you can’t make the regular meetings. There are writing forums and blog posts and writing resources listed. The only thing you can’t do on the site is read the group’s documents. You’ll forgive me for protecting our work, right? I really want to promote writerly friendships.

Now it’s your turn! Tell me what you’ve been up to this week!