excerpts New Post Writing again

Flash Fiction: “A Bloody Mess”

If anyone ever asks where my ideas come from, I’ll be able to say honestly, “Facebook posts plus illness-related sleep deprivation plus general depravity.” I’m blaming this one on a friend’s post about a dripping ceiling fan.  I have no idea if I’ll ever do more with it (or if it’s worth pursuing)  but I have the shape of the story jotted down, just in case.

Blood dripped from the bathroom ceiling, seeping through the edges of the light fixture to fall like dark tears onto a shiny tile floor.  Drop after drop plinked into a rippling puddle beside the clothes hamper, and the liquid pooling inside the lightshade  cast eerie crimson shadows over gore-splattered walls. The air reeked of iron and piss.

Before Joelle Petak entered the crime scene she applied a fresh layer of lip gloss and rolled it back and forth until the eucalyptus scent rose into her sinuses and dulled the stink.  The she lifted one sneaker-clad foot over the black, buzzing lump of flesh in the doorway and hopped a little to clear the obstacle. An irritable cloud of flies rose at her passing, then returned to their feasting. Joelle landed in the clear spot of floor beside the toilet and regarded the lump of meat in the bathtub. The second corpse was as much of a shredded, anonymous mass as the first.

A hot wash of fear and disgust caught at Joelle’s belly, loosened her insides until she had to clench every muscle to keep her bowels and bladder under control. This one was going to be bad. She had seen worse carnage than this only once, when a sorority pledge had been tasked to complete a Greater Demon summoning and actually cast it perfectly–on the open quad on a Saturday night during football season.

This case might be worse by the time all was said and done. This time, the monsters were still on the loose. She pushed aside those concerns and swung her big purse of holding around to the front. Good, bad, or ugly, her job didn’t change. She was here to make the past give up its secrets in the service of justice.

The snap closure on her purse popped open with a sharp noise, and Joelle froze as she caught a glimpse of motion in the hallway. Both patrol officers behind her had dropped their hands to their weapons belts. She slowly lifted her field recorder from the bag with two fingers. “Y’all aren’t gonna shoot me over a little razzle-dazzle, are you?”

“Sorry, ma’am,” the patrol officer on the right said. His dark face had a sickly grayish cast and gleamed with sweat. His female partner had her other hand over her mouth, and her fingers were trembling. She shrugged, and the dull pain in her eyes spoke volumes. She had lost someone to death here tonight. Joelle wondered how many first responders had gone down before the big guns were called in.

 She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and the blood now raining down from the dimmed fixture. “How many more, do you think?”

“We aren’t sure,” said the woman patrol officer. Her words had thick, rounded edges, as though she was forcing them out around some obstruction in her throat. “In some bedrooms there are piles—” a shallow breath, and another, and she finished, “There’s no way to tell.”

“I’d best get my mojo moving, then. There’ll be a lot of flashing light. Please don’t shoot me, ‘kay?” Joelle  raised the recorder and muttered the triggering spell.

 Glitter exploded from the device in her hands and spread in a rainbow sphere of sparkles that chimed bright melodies. The flecks of light clanged and rang in dissonant notes as they struck surfaces and reached the doorway.  The shimmering veil hung for a moment, then melted away, leaving behind pale residue on everything but Joelle herself. The buzz of the flies stopped. A pall of acrid smoke hung in the silence.

The recorder chirped its happy done-collecting-things tune, and Joelle brushed away an errant dead insect. “All righty, then. One room down. Twelve to go.”

excerpts New Post

Decision Point: a bit of flash fiction

This short piece was first written for an online site a few years ago. I recently converted it to first-person present tense for the fun of it. Verb tense does change the feel of the story.  Not sure if it works or not, but it’s done, so up it goes. 


We don’t belong here. This rocky path high in the San Bernardino Mountains is no place for city slickers like us. We aren’t dressed for the weather or the terrain, we have no maps, canteens, or first-aid kits, and no one else in the wide world knows where we are.

We don’t belong, but we’re here. The trail goes two directions: forward or back. The sun is glimmering behind a seductive green fringe of pine boughs, the cool breeze perfumed with the scent of pine is rustling sweet meadow grasses, and the trail is a dusty-brown invitation to continue into the shadowed forest again. Forward or back: decision time.

We decided once already. That’s how we got this far.

A few hours earlier we were all lounging around a hotel pool in the blistering mid-summer heat of California’s Central Valley. There are five of us: Dru, Gary, Alexis, Kyle and me, co-workers by necessity, friends by serendipitous chance. Our company pulls together its best people to set up new locations, and the job involves a month of six-dat workweeks where the shifts routinely top twelve hours. We were enjoying the twenty-four hour break between week two and three, recreating as hard as we could in floating chairs with umbrella drinks, when Dru found an idea in her third mai tai.

Dru is short for Prudence, but I’ve never met anyone with a less appropriate name. Moderation is for monks, she says, laughing, and she has a sunny persuasiveness that makes the most ridiculous ideas seem reasonable.

“Let’s go for a drive,” she says, and that is that. Alexis the designated driver chooses a route titled “Scenic Byway” from the rental van’s GPS, and off we go.

Eight clogged lanes of highway become four, and then two. Brown, withered plains give way to scrubby hills, and the roads empty out. Twenty miles from millions of people, we are the only souls  in the universe.

The road shrinks again to one lane with narrow shoulders, and the route twists  and climbs uphill through tall trees as straight as telephone poles. Drifts of snow huddle at the tree bases, gray in the shade. Gary opens the windows, and we shiver in our tank tops and shorts. “National Forest,” declares a faded wood sign.

Conversation quiets to murmurs of “I’ve never seen so much green,” and “I wonder what kind of bird that is.”

Kyle, ever the curious one, checks online. “Steller’s Jay,” he says, but we are happier when his phone loses signal so we can christen the world for ourselves.

Ship-mast pines, old-man bushes with clumps of leaves like shaking fists, and bat-squirrels who cling upside-down from branches. We laugh at every new discovery claimed, and then we run out of road. No tire tracks mar the smooth gravel of the turnaround. A trailhead beckons to us from the far side. Fallen pine needles lie thick on the path, undisturbed by any travelers. The sign beside the entrance is unreadable, paint weathered off, surface sanded flat by time’s passage.

I trace the carved symbols by hand, but their meaning is long gone. Dru says, “Let’s see where it goes.”

That’s the kind of suggestion that gets people killed in these wild places on the edge of civilization. Nature doesn’t forgive mistakes. Hypothermia, dehydration, starvation–all those deadly fates are one injury, one slip, one wrong turn away. People die every year because they mistake proximity for safety. I know how stupid this idea is.

I say, “Great idea.”

It’s stupid, but risk is part of life. We live, we dare, we head into the woods. Dru skips along in her flip-flops, Gary grumbles about blisters, Kyle and Alexis complain about sweat, but no one wants to be the first to give up. Then Drew stops at a narrow cross-trail, looking tempted.

There’s stupid, and then there’s stupid. “No turns,” I say.

She walks on, but she asks, “Why not?” so I tell gruesome stories about people dying lost in the woods. Survival is about choosing risks. All decisions have consequences.

A snide remark from Alexis and a joke from Gary lead to an unforgettable discussion about survival and the human spirit. The conversation meanders like the trail. We walk, and we talk, and we soak up the joy that comes with baring your heart and past to friends while getting grit in your teeth, twigs in your socks, and sunburn on the tips of your ears.

One more curve, we agree every time we come around a corner and the trail goes on. One more, until we reach this overlook where the smoggy human grid of the valley spreads out below us. We joke about zombies and escaping the apocalypse, we admire the way the trail dives back into the trees at the far end of the soft forest grass—so enticing—and we look at the sun, not setting yet but soon.

Do we turn back? Or do we toss the coins of our lives onto luck’s table and gamble our futures for the thrill of new and now?

Life never lets us see the endings we don’t make. That’s what stories are for.

Do we walk back safe with full hearts and no regrets? Do we retreat with the itch of what if scratching at our souls for the rest of our lives?  Or do we freeze in the dark, caught by a late-season blizzard blowing off the Pacific? Maybe we fall to our deaths, first one alone, the the rest in a tumble of screams when a rotted slope crumbles beneath us. Perhaps adventurers from a generation not yet born will find our starved and withered corpses lost deep in the heart of the wilds.

We stand in a meadow bathed by golden light and weigh a simple choice that is not simple at all. One decision will create a whole ever-after for each of us.

What would you choose?

Photo credits: William Morris, private collection


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Scrivener Formats & Other Victories

I’ve now uploaded new Kindle files for both my novels. Let the revels commence!  I worked out the kinks in Scrivener compiling for Kindle without ‘sploding the file sizes and having graphics weirdness happen to the “Look Inside” feature. Boy, was that not all the fun ever.

Points  I need to remember after this adventure include:

  • 1: Export as epub. Period. Make KDP do the grunt work of converting to mobi. But DO use Scrivener’s compile to mobi feature to double-check weird image quirks unique to Kindle before committing to final KDP upload.
  • 2: Trim images down to no more than 200% of pixel size used in the document. DPI is not a factor as far as I can tell, only size. “Look Inside” evidently digs out original formatting data from deep in the uploaded file, including margins, indents…and original graphic size. So keep the originals in the document near the final size, regardless of resolution used for creation.
  • 3: remind myself that I’m obsessing over details my audience  may not even notice, and that changes will not result in increased interest.

Second win. Completing some basic compile templates for the Restoration print books & ebook now (which are not as template-y as I might like, but I’ll take ’em.) Soon I will soon be uploading new interiors for Turning the Work & Joining in the Round too. Because I can. And because it beats being frustrated with every other aspect of authoring. (The writing is something else again. I will always enjoy the imagining part.)

Third success. Fixing all my damn interior graphics variants and implementing naming conventions I should’ve been using all along, and making sure all my Scrivener book files have copies of the updated images.  That was a long few days of grinding, but I feel better for having done it–like cleaning the inside of the closet. No one else will ever see it, but I know it’s tidy and scrubbed fresh.

Final victory: it’s difficult to talk one’s self out of doing astonishingly stupid things late at night, but I did it!  I finished the Scrivener project on at 4AM, but I did NOT publish a collected ebook edition of my two science-fiction romance novellas right then and there. I could have. I could’ve uploaded the shiny new ebook file, a cheesy cover and some cribbed-from-other-descriptions blurb I’d already made, and called it done.

Could’ve. Didn’t. Tempted. Almost did. But I talked myself into blogging instead. Whew. Picking book categories and search words needed to wait until after I’d taken a swipe at sleep. Spelling and habitual grammar errors ditto. All that nit-picky detail stuff really needed wait until I could think without yawning. So it did.

What did I do instead? Well. I wrote this. And scheduled it to post around getting-up time. Ta-dah! Blogging. It keeps me out of worse trouble.

PS: These improvements will not affect already-purchased copies.  Only new customers will see the changes unless I ask the Kindle Tech Peeps to “update” all my novels on peoples’ Kindles. Which I am not ready to do yet, since that is only supposed to be requested for “major errors or problems with the file.” And I can’t say there were any. Honesty. It’s a burden.

cover image by Maskschili (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons

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Pants on fire

This started as a reply to the question that comes up every so often in writing forums: “Plotter versus pantser.” The question is usually raised by someone who’s recently moved from the second camp to the first and is aflame with the evangelical zeal of the newly-converted. It’s a thinly-veiled (if it’s veiled at all) cry to embrace the joys of plotting.

I have thoughts on this. First, calling the split plotting vs pantsing judgmentally ignores the reality that pantsers do plot. The real split in process is whether the plot is fully planned prior to writing the narrative or discovered during writing the first draft. Even that split isn’t an absolute. Ask anyone who’s had a grand outline crash and burn when a new creative idea appears like a supernova in the middle of building their story.

I emphatically disagree with the idea that prior plotting requires more thought than pantsing straight out. It requires different thought. Just as ballet differs from gymnastics, pantsing and planning are both approaches to artistic creation that use many of the same basic tools in different ways.

Some people start their writing career as planners, some gravitate to it with experience or training (especially since creative workshops push its development) and some have no *need* for it. And all those paths are equally good if they lead to a result the author loves.

My (moderately complicated) novels can be outlined. The standard narrative structures are visible to anyone who wants to analyze them. But they develop that way straight to the page. Pantsed all the way. It’s the easiest way for me to write.

It’s a rough fight these days to remain a pantser because that approach doesn’t mesh well with production schedules and regular release dates. Discovery and punctuality don’t play well. Those truths do NOT make planning a better approach. Planning is a more commercially-friendly one. Not the same thing as better, except in one particular sense: financially.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that financial success is an invalid measure of writing goodness where goodness applies to ideas and wordcraft.

I am so tired of typing that point. It seems so damned obvious to me, but it gets lost in the shuffle every day.   Lots of lip service gets paid to “great writing gets overlooked every day” but the proof of disrespect is in the inability to join the SFWA, the science fiction writer’s trade organization, until you’ve achieved specific and arcane sales thresholds. (the blatant bias for short fiction and deliberate marginalization of independent novelists continue to irk me, but that’s a whole ‘nother post. And I acknowledge this is an SF thing.

The trade organizations for mystery/thrillers and for romance writing (for example) do not treat active membership like a private cool-kids-only club.

Anyway. Sales are great. I want all the sales ever. But I want to tell the stories in my heart even more, even if those stories do not fit into tidy categories or grow according to a tidy timetable. Which, so far, they have not. Thus I pants along producing my quirky, skewed tales. But I digress.

Back to the bigger the wider picture,  how should writers decide which method works best?

First we have to decide on our goals. Then we gan write start whichever method is most comfortable, and explore the others when–or if– it feels right, and in line with our changing, evolving goals and lives.

That last part is another oft-overlooked point. Developing a distinctive personal approach–finding a comfortable balance between mapping and discovery–is not a one-time choice, nor an irrevocable decision. It isn’t an us vs them issue. They’re both tools.

Analogy time again. Some people prefer hammers, some people love nail guns. And some people get great results with mallets. I like to play with ALL the tools, but to say any one of them is always the right one?  I reject that idea. Would we tell a woodworker who builds with dowels and glue they’ll never be successful/aren’t professional  unless they use a power drill and steel screws so they can make a certain number of cabinets a year? Nope.

All writers deserve the same artistic respect of being judged on quality results, not quantity or process.  That’s my cranky, contrarian take on the subject.  Again.