Writing Prompt: 10 September 2016

empathy2

Here’s today’s Writing Prompt:

Background: A 2016 study has found that Acetaminophen (also called Paracetamol outside of the U.S.) the main ingredient in Tylenol and about 600 other drugs, not only reduces pain, but also reduces empathy for the pain in others.

Prompt: There is a global epidemic of a new, virulent flu strain, for which the primary course of recommended treatment is a new anti-viral that includes Acetaminophen. The problem is that the virus amplifies the anti-empathy effect and now survivors are being turned into sociopaths. How does society deal with the effect?

Alternate Prompt: Within 50 years, use of the drug has reduced human empathy significantly. How is society affected? Would the military research and increase the effect for its troops?

Up There, Somewhere

So, I’m reworking my science fiction novel, which I will try to get published (one day) via the traditional publishing model (assuming I can find one open to some LGBT lead characters). I’ve started at the beginning, and am re-imagining my book as the movie it needs to be. As such, the opening needs to be my lead characters sailing through the predawn darkness of the desert on their bikes, not her response to it.

I’ve said it, but now I’ll be showing it. More importantly, I’ve learned–from my other, better books–I must make you feel it. She’s headed “up there, somewhere,” and that’s the adventure in the book. Like so much in life, one launches oneself clothed in little more than hope–a wish, two parts luck and fifty parts work–and try to make life do what it do. She’s like that, opening her story wistfully and misty eyed because it’s dark, no one’s awake but her, and there’s no one to see. She’s strong, and true strength isn’t granite. It bends, it bows, but it never breaks.

My girl is there, with her daughters, and life is about to get real. All she can count on is her training, and her hope that “she and this bloke, god, can be mates.”

This way go I, with her, and for real this time. One thousand, nine hundred, and fifty-nine words. That’s the opening sequence. If I haven’t made you love her a little by then, if you don’t want to sit in her jump seat and take the ride with her 1959 words in I’ve lost you. If this isn’t the best thing I’ve done, the best thing I’ll ever do, then I’ll have done the world a disservice. It’s time to turn the world on its ear, Roxx and me.

Wish us luck.

Raining Love

He’d changed from the khaki pants and crisply creased button-down shirt he’d worn before and instead, wore a pair of jeans, the only other clothing he had since his beautiful suit had been ruined. Atop his deep, chocolate, rippling chest with the small dragon tattoo, he wore what I called a white vest, but which he referred to by the horrid name of a wife beater. Ça alors! Quelle romance.

“Come with me,” he said, taking my hand. As soon as I passed through the doorway, he stopped, bent, and removed my shoes. “Sorry, I didn’t have time to find rose petals for you to walk on.”

I took a step but he swept me from my feet and into his strong arms. I laughed. “Why did you take off my shoes if you weren’t going to let me walk?”

“I like your feet,” he said, giving me a sly smile.

We went up the steps, past the small bedroom in which I always slept, and past the larger one that I had assigned to him in order to avoid questions from curious sisters and children. Similarly, my emotions were on a path as well, traveling past excitement, then past disappointment, and now only at curiosity. Before I could ask him where we were going, he turned into the guest bathroom. Jette’s home is a real French farmhouse, exactly as Grand-père built it. The bath was little more than a wood-paneled room, well-lit from natural light, with a small sink, toilet, mirror, a bench for dressing and applying makeup, and in the center, a large, steel, oval tub with overhead shower and a detachable wand for washing by hand. Around the tub, on the bench, and on the counter were candles., Curling rivulets of steam rose to the ceiling, fogging the skylight and further muting the light. It was perfect.

Foss set me down.

“I thought if the cigarette smell is my problem, then I should be the one to fix it.”

“It wasn’t you. I know you don’t like smoking. I shouldn’t have.”

He shook his head. “You are a grown woman, and my job isn’t to tell you what to do.” He came closer and I thought he would kiss me. I closed my eyes, but instead, he reached around and pushed shut the door.

“We’re alone here,” I said. I felt my cheeks pull into a broad smile.

“I know, but it’s going to get chilly in a second.”

I frowned, not understanding what he meant, but before I could even move, he reached to my waist, and with a single motion, pulled my blouse over my head.

“You have beautiful breasts.” He was looking not at my chest, but into my eyes.

“You can’t even see them. I’m wearing a bra.”

“I’ve seen them before.” He nodded ever so slowly. “Trust me, I have them memorized.”

My breathing hastened.

In contrast to the swift removal of my top, he took forever to remove my jeans. First, he unlatched my belt, then unfastened the top button. He bent to me, gave me his tongue and tasted mine. And while they reconnected and fell there, lovingly, slowly, deliberately, he unzipped my pants as if I were a ripe banana to be unpeeled. I pulled back, gasping for air. It had been a long time, too long. I was still panting when I felt cool air against my exposed legs. My knees buckled.

“Are you hurting?” he asked.

“Oh, oui, I am. I have been hurting since the day we met.” I pulled his wife beater and together, our tongues entwined, we beat the hell out of that wife until I was spent, breathless, and gasping for more lips, tongue, love, always. I could see colors dancing before us and between us that would intensify whenever we touched. There was a vague buzzing, like electricity,that I’d never heard before, but I knew instantly that it was our connection finally being closed.

Foster kissed my cheek, my shoulder, slid off the strap, kissed the other, repeated the gesture, kissed my breastbone and reached around, unlatching the bra so that it fell silently to the floor. Precisely as my nipple was freed and hardened against the cool air, he slipped his warm mouth over it, tasting me for the first time and warming my breast and heart. My eyes glued closed but still I could see the purple flare of him. He fell to his knees, somehow still erect there before me like a knight waiting to be crowned. He waited until I met his eyes and then slowly, painfully, teasingly, removed my panties—inch by inch.

By inch.

By inch.

I tried to step out but he stopped me. “From now on, all the work is mine, love.” It was the first time he said that word since we met, and it stopped me. After five seconds, I remembered to exhale.

“Do you love me, Foss?”

He stood, meeting my gaze with intense, brown eyes. “Baby, I love you rivers, love you heaven and stars and all the galaxies beyond. I love that the sun waits to rise until you smile and refuses to set until he sees you’re safe. I love the day you were born and when your mama was born and grandma was born and when the first woman was born, all of them proud, knowing one day they’d evolve into you. Honey, I loved you the moment we met and every crazy minute since, and I promise you, when we’re done here on earth and it’s time to rejoin the heavens, I’ll still be loving you.”

It began to rain outside with the droplets’ tapping on the clay roof tiles making a perfect percussive accompaniment to my tears and to my Foss, who lifted me, placed me upright in the tub, and began washing me. He explored my curves, starting at my neck, and then to my shoulders, back, and bottom. He washed my breasts, gentle with them, saying nothing and not meeting my eyes, but focused on the soft cloth and my skin. When I was lathered, my curves sudsy and my secret places clean, he took a steel pot that sat nearby, and instead of using the shower’s wand, he rinsed me by hand, slowly, sensually, tenderly. I remember thinking, even now, that until that moment, that magical night with Foss, I had never been washed before. When I was clean and rinsed, he sat me in the tub. The water was no longer hot, but still warm and soothing. He lifted my right leg, held my ankle, washed my foot. On the left, he repeated the process, but carefully, minding my hip.

“Lean back,” he said, and I did.

He washed my hair, using only my shampoo and his strong hands, and to my dismay, I had my first orgasm there, just then, as he held me with one arm around my chest and the other rinsing shampoo from my hair. I had heard stories of women who could climax with a kiss or a touch, but never from a good shampoo. I was like a silly schoolgirl, wishing for longer locks so that the washing, and my orgasm, would last. When we were done, he sat me on the side of the tub and toweled me dry with one of the enormous red flannels that Jette loved so much. I wrapped it around myself like a cocoon.

“You look great in red,” he said. “You should wear it more often.”

“I will if you wear jeans more often,” I said.

“It’s a deal.” He sighed and sank to the floor.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Uh-uh. Just content, for the first time in … ever.”

“Then, I guess you wouldn’t want to risk spoiling it by making love to me,” I said. I had been waiting for him since the day we met. I will never understand shy American men.

“Oh darling, I plan on spoiling it all night.”

“Good. I haven’t made love in years.”

“Me either.”

I laughed and hit him. “Liar!” It was sweet, but seeing how women were drawn to him, I knew it wasn’t possible. Besides, he had a fiancée when we met.

“No, I mean it. Remember, you said, ‘love.’ ”

“Love, oui.”

He kissed me—then, later, all night long.

Wordaventing

Charlie’s longboat pitched and yawed, rolled port and starboard, rose and fell, while the rest of the lagoon stood as serene as a glass sculpture. I wish Robin would sit still just this once. Knowing he could no more control his best friend’s actions than he could the weather, he focused his attention away from the girl’s insane dancing and to the vista before them. Long, tree-born shadows stretched across the broad lake, interspersed by bright stars of sunlight that danced through their leaves. Beyond the shoreline, a long arc of snow-capped mountains scraped the underbellies of clouds until they surrendered, fell as fog, and began to obscure the mountains’ peaks.

The mountains must not want to be here either.

The springtime trees that dotted the mountainsides were populated with the bright lavender of new foliage. The air was thick and humid, though not unpleasant. It was nearing dusk and the waning sunlight painted the sky a muted pink that was reflected in the mirror-like lake. Away from the westward sky, the landscape had already changed to midnight purple with thick fog roiling down the mountains and drifting over the treetops. It gave the lagoon an odd duality, with half the countryside brightly cheery and half dark and ominous.

Charlie sat in the boat facing the dark half. Robin, by contrast, was standing, dancing in a frantic circle, her head tilted toward her lovely pink sky. She was tall and lean, already five foot seven at age fourteen, with her blossoming body hinting at the woman she would become. Thirteen-year-old Charlie barely watched her, though she fascinated him.

“You’re all gloominating my dream, Dimple Boy,” she said, barely pausing to look at him. “Cheer up,”

“That’s not a word,” Charlie said. “You’re always making up words.”

“Wordaventing is what we poets do,” she said. She punctuated her statement with a pirouette, then sat facing him. “I’m here because you asked me to help you use your imagination. Now you’re complaining that I’m using mine.”

“I-I wasn’t complaining, just …”

“Envious?”

Charlie looked up at Robin and was surprised to see she was smiling at him. He had never known her to make fun of anything that troubled him, which meant either she could not tell how much this bugged him, or … “You’re about to say something you think is brilliant, right?” he asked.

Her grin broadened, and she poked him in the shoulder. “Quit reading my eyes, that’s cheating,” she said.

“I wasn’t. It’s too dark out here. They just look gray.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be dark if you’d cheer up.”

Charlie looked around, noticing once again the fog seemed to thicken as his mood darkened. “I can’t help it. I hate writing stupid poems.”

Robin grinned wide enough that Charlie was tempted to cup his hands, in case all her teeth sprang from her mouth. He hoped her braces would not cut his hands.

“That’s my idea,” she said. “I want you to close your eyes and just make up a word. Then we’ll just let the dream decide what the word means.”

“What? What’ll that do?”

“De-gloominate the place, hopefully. And it might get you started on this poem you have to write.”

Charlie sighed and face-palmed. The sound of his hands slapping against his forehead echoed over the quiet lake.

“The phrase you’re looking for, I think, is ‘liven up.’” The voice came from a small canoe about ten feet away from them in which sat a fifteen-year-old boy with black-rimmed glasses and slicked-back hair. He looked remarkably like Charlie, except that he was dressed in a white collared shirt and red bowtie. Even bobbing along in the canoe, he managed to look as if he were preparing to lecture a class on algebra.

“I beg your pardon,” Robin said.

“You cannot just go around modifying the English language as it suits you,” the boy responded. “It makes no sense to invent a word for a thing that already has one.”

“Wordavent,” she answered. Robin cupped her hands to her forehead and squinted. “Do I know you? You look awfully familiar.”

The boy barely glanced in her direction, having lost interest in the conversation. He was now maneuvering a pair of oars and was straining toward the darkened end of the lagoon. A vein bulged in the center of his forehead.

“Dude,” Robin said. “You’re gonna give yourself a stroke.”

He did not respond, but continued pulling at the oars with all of his might. Seated opposite him was a girl who appeared to be around seventeen. She too looked very much like Charlie, with long, curly brown hair, caramel skin, and full lips that were pursed in a tense frown. She was rowing just as hard as the boy, but in the opposite direction. They were, not surprisingly, going nowhere.

“Charlie,” Robin whispered. “I think that’s your sister.”

Charlie’s eyes shot open, and a look of horror crossed his face.

Oh God, no. This place is nuts enough without Layla invading my dreams.

Charlie and his sister Layla loved each other, deep down someplace. It was very deep down, however, and Charlie often couldn’t find an emotional shovel powerful enough to reach that well of love. Her moving out to live with his father had been a joyous occasion for him. He was certain he would eventually miss her, though it hadn’t happened yet. He looked over to where Robin was pointing, and his expression turned to a scowl.

Marching Orders

Because I forgot. Love, Bill

9Charlie was dreaming of hyenas, again. He had dreamt of little else for days. They were not always run of the mill hyenas, however. In his dreams, hyenas were everywhere: in school administering mid-term exams, patrolling the grocery store, even standing at the pulpit in church. While others in his dreams seemed not to notice Charlie, the hyenas always did. Whether he chose to run or fight, the hyenas reacted the same way–ferociously.

This night, however, Charlie was not the prey. He had taken the form of a lion, sitting with his back to the sun at the peak of a sand dune on the Kalahari, in Africa. He was massive, six feet tall at the shoulders, and covered head-to-toe with black fur, except for curly flaxen hair that framed his face at the base of his mane. He stood, panting, watching a family of hyenas that was tormenting a zebra herd. Charlie sat silently, waiting, as the sun settled low on the horizon. As darkness enveloped the Kalahari, he crept toward the hyena clan. His footfalls were silent in the warm sand and soon his pace quickened into a loping gait. Swiftly gathering speed on his descent, he launched himself – airborne, he was, powerful wings unfolding from alongside his back.

photoshopped+black+lionToo late, the hyena clan saw him.

The battle was swift, bloodless, and decidedly one-sided. When it was done, there were zero living hyenas, one winged lion, the zebra herd …

Who’s the Native American dude in the silly hat?

Charlie turned to the intruder and roared a warning. “Who are you?”

“Some call me Kwih-doh,” answered the man. “But my friends  call me Gabe.” The man smiled and pushed the hat from his head, leaving it to dangle on his back from a string tied around his neck. He looked around at the plains – eyebrows raised – and wiped his brow.

Charlie squinted. He had never seen the man before, but knew him immediately. “Gabriel,” he said.

Continue reading “Marching Orders”

Falling in Love with a Story

I know when a book is working because I stop being the author and become a reader. This book, I like to read.

Dark Hat

After an hour of pointless ranting, Hardesty had convinced me he thought everyone in Northern Africa was potentially part of a Muslim plot. I’d have considered that racist, but the man thought pretty much the same about everyone in North America too. To his reckoning, our little Seize Mai contingent was no more than a fingerprint away from an Al Qaeda plot. It’s one thing to be a racist. It’s another, wholly indigestible subhuman trait to be despicable simply because no one ever taught you not to be a schmuck. Kevin Hardesty was a schmuck.

“Cain, you and your partner are interfering in a United States Government Operation.” I was no synesthete like Dark, but I could hear the capital letters in that declaration. I almost saluted out of habit.

“Boss, I keep telling you, we aren’t working on or interfering with your case in any way. Rather than come back home, me and Dark took a holiday in beautiful Casablanca.”

He bellowed some epithets that I was glad Dark couldn’t hear through the glass door. He went silent then, except for slurping on what had to be his tenth cup of Joe of the day. Actually, it was a Starbucks Tall Latte Mocha Something-or-Other, but I was in Casablanca and found myself channeling Bogart’s Rick Blaine by the minute. To me, Hardesty was no longer my obese Government COR, he was Kev Hardass, my stout Fed Bureau Chief, sipping on his cuppa Joe and trying bring his rogue agent, namely me, in line. I sort of sympathized with the poor sap, especially since he was knee-deep in a D.C. snowstorm while we were luxuriating in a Mediterranean clime and I knew there was nothing he could do about our actions short of creating an international incident by sending the troops into a friendly country.

“Cain, for the last time, tell me the truth. What the fuck are you doing in Casa, and how the hell did you know to go there? If you have someone here leaking you TS-SCI info, friend or not, I will have your ass and theirs.”

That stopped me in my tracks. I had zero idea to that point that the man considered me his friend. I can be as stubborn an ass as anyone, but I’m a sucker when it comes to loyalty. I’d started to fold just as Dark reentered the room. “Kevin, I promise, no one on the inside told us anything. Dark figured it out from some clues that Danni Rudenko dropped us.”

“Oh là là là là,” Dark said, throwing up her hands.

“What clues?” Hardesty asked. I gave Dark the hush sign, received the fuck-you sign in return, and then recapitulated the highlights of our interview with Danni, while my partner stood scowling at the phone with her arms crossed. When I’d finished, Hardesty said, “You’re in central Casablanca based on that meager information?”

I looked at Dark who called Hardesty something that sounded unconscionably harsh in German before stalking out the room’s front door. “I will see you downstairs,” she said and slammed the door behind her. That made me reconsider. She flat out didn’t trust him; friend or no, if Dark was suspicious then I needed to tread lightly.

“Cain, did you hear me?”

“No, sorry. Dark just stuck her head in to tell me we have an appointment.”

“I was saying that I don’t know how that woman does it, but she hit the nail on the head. Tell her I said she can work for me anytime.”

Editing Minute: Using a Reverse Dictionary

Since I get so many hits on my “Grammar Minute” posts, I’ve decided to start an “Editing Minute” series. They’re really more like 5-Minute posts, but that’s not as catchy a name. This first one points to a nice interwebs tool called “OneLook Reverse Dictionary.”

The concept is a simple one. One of the main goals of the editing process should be to tighten your language. Readers are busy people. A fast way to take them out of your story is to make them stumble over unneeded words. That’s where the reverse dictionary comes in. Unlike a normal dictionary, wherein you look up a word to find its precise meanings and usage, with a reverse dictionary you start at a concept and use the tool to find a more concise or precise way of stating it. Let’s look at a real editing example.

Here’s the original sentence:

“Her hips were barely covered by a tiny, asymmetrical skirt with a split all the way to her waist.”

Now, there’s an immediate marker that my editor’s eye should tell me I need to edit: the adverb, “barely.” Now, unlike Stephen King, I’m not allergic to adverbs, but they do often indicate there’s a better word or phrase that can be used. So, stuck for a word that’s more precise than “barely covered,” I pull up Reverse Dictionary:

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 10.38.34 AMThe tool is sometimes hit or miss, but right away, the 2nd verb strikes me: “feather.” That’s a possibility. I click on the word, which takes me to a set of dictionaries that I can use to verify my choice.

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 10.39.01 AMI use the American Heritage, as I’m writing this in US English. For UK usage, I’d likely pick Oxford. Clicking on it takes me to a Yahoo page with the following:

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 10.39.52 AM

Blah, blah, nouns, blah, and then to cover, dress, or decorate with or as if with feathers. That’s perfect. I want the feel of something short and diaphanous, and feathering will produce that image. I’m still not done, however. I’m not thrilled with “all the way to” her waist as originally written. Returning to the Reverse Dictionary produces the following:

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 10.47.52 AMNo good choices, alas. However, number 28 strikes me–“to.” Ah, I can simply strip out “all the way” and end up with the following sentence:

“Her hips were feathered by a tiny, asymmetrical skirt with a split to her waist.

Much better than the original sentence–it’s more visual and 4 words (21%) shorter. Try a reverse dictionary and let me know what you think.