Dude! That doesn’t mean what you think it means. Part One

One of the many stories floating around social media these days details the content of a text message exchange between a mother and her adult son:

  • Mom: WTF, Bobby. The store’s open!
  • Bobby: Uh, Mom? You do know what that means, right?
  • Mom: WTF? Sure! 
  • Bobby: Okay.
  • Mom: Today’s Friday, right? The store’s open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

There is a larger issue, however, which writers may encounter, especially if they’re writing historical fiction containing dialog. I’ve done my share of stories set in the past, from the first century BC through the middle of the last century. There are issues to be considered for both the oldest and the more recent periods.

In the case of stories set in the distant past, the writer must take care to avoid anachronisms, especially in dialog. Unless you’re writing some sort of time travel yarn, it’s highly unlikely that a Celtic chief would check his wristwatch before sending his warriors into battle. And while that may seem ridiculous, the narrative which accompanies such a scene should at least use chronological terms the players in the story would comprehend. In this case, it might be the sun’s position above the horizon measured in fists. A reference to some guy’s five-o’clock shadow would be meaningless in a world without clocks.

I recall reading Stephen Pressfield’s bestselling Gates of Fire and coming away disappointed by much of his dialog, a great deal of which is between Spartan warriors and their leaders. The language Pressfield used comes straight from a 1960’s Marine basic training camp, and it’s replete with contemporary expletives and curses. I’m sure the ancient Greeks had a rich vocabulary to lean on when swearing, but I doubt it sounded anything like what a drill instructor during the Nixon administration would say. Pressfield makes no effort to cast this dialog in terms that come across as authentic to the period. Aside from this, I found the rest of the book to be spot on historically and absolutely enthralling.

It wasn’t all that long ago that when someone said they were wearing thongs, they were talking about sandals, or more specifically flip-flops. Mention that today in polite conversation, at least with anyone under 30, and you’ll get a forest of raised eyebrows.

And while we’re talking about footwear, the discussion wouldn’t be complete without mention of rubbers, nifty devices for keeping one’s shoes dry when puddles are present. In Britain, rubbers are designed to erase chalkboards. Try throwing that one out in front of a crowd younger than 50.

The word “fizzle” once described a silent breaking of wind (more commonly referred to as an SBD). Once the college kids got ahold of it, the meaning changed radically. Something that fizzles these days is a failure. Whether or not it has an aroma is left to the imagination.

Next time around we’ll focus on phrases in American English that have fallen completely by the wayside. If you’re working on an historical piece set in the 1800s, be sure to come back for Part Two.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Gender vs World View

I had no idea gender could impact something as common and ordinary as giving directions. I now realize, it does. Though I’ve always claimed to know that men and women see the world differently, it never occurred to me such differences would cause me any grief.

Sadly, I was wrong.

In order to visit a friend who had recently moved to a town about an hour and a half away (by Google Map reckoning), I climbed into my <cough> trusty, 1991 Miata, lowered the windows and headed north through the pastoral wonder that is rural Georgia. I also lowered the rear window, since the car is a convertible and the window unzips. This is a must on trips of any length since the window is made of plastic, and it has contracted some sort of malady rendering it nearly opaque.  Opting for safe vision, I dispensed with comfort and noise control. I thus had an unobstructed view in all directions, something any driver of a tiny car will appreciate. After all, I was entering the land of the pulpwood truck.

These gigantic vehicles are often operated by folk who appear to have lately escaped the 19th century and who have little if no regard for those of us driving cars which could easily nestle right alongside some of the logs they haul.

Having dodged numerous such monsters en route to the meeting place, I kept looking, when possible, for the landmark indicating my final turn. Understand, I’d been dodging pulpwood (pronounced “pup-wud” locally) trucks all morning along with an assortment of grunge haulers, flatbeds loaded with earth moving equipment, and other more common but no less sizeable 18-wheelers. In short, I was in need of a beer and a quiet place.

The landmark? A Super-duper Walmart. I was told, “It’s on the left. You can’t miss it.”

Uh-hunh.

Women, apparently, have a sort of built-in mechanism which alerts them to the presence of large stores offering discount shopping opportunities. They can ferret out these mercantile masterpieces with virtually no effort whatsoever. An internal light clicks on and automagically, some sixth or seventh sense guides them effortlessly to shopping Mecca.

Men have no such gear; we must rely on lesser senses.

So, as I made my way through the swarm of trucks, I concentrated on finding the alleged Wally World. Needless to say, it never appeared. I suspect it may have been hidden by one of the multi-wheeled behemoths with which I shared the road, but I later discovered this wasn’t the real problem.

It turns out, the Retail Land O’ Plenty actually does exist. It lies at the far end of several acres of pavement devoted to parking space, most of which is hidden by a Verizon cell phone store and other assorted retail businesses. My generic blinders kept me from seeing through the stores located immediately next to the road on which I traveled, rendering the gigantic Walmart building invisible. After zipping by the heavily camouflaged landmark, I drove blissfully on for another several miles until alerted via road sign that I was about to enter a different time zone.

My ensuing phone call, questioning the existence of the Walmart did not go well. But, I was given yet another landmark for my southbound travels. I located it and arrived right on time. No harm done.

I’m not blaming my friend for being female, or for having her God-given abilities to know where things are. I’m just guessing that had my friend been male, he’d have told me to watch out for the big damn trucks and look for the Verizon store.

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Now, what does this have to do with writing? Absolutely nothing, unless I intend to continue writing stories offering a female point of view. Alas, my confidence in such efforts has been shaken.

–Josh

 

Posted in Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Not So Famous Last Words

Those who know me, or have read my books, likely assume I’m more interested in humor than I am in the dark and morbid. And they’re right. Which is not to say I haven’t dabbled in the no giggle genres. But I knew early on it wasn’t a good fit for me. I’ll take a laugh over a groan any day.

In my memoir classes, for example, one of the first things I ask my students to write is a humorous obituary for themselves. I want them to be silly, creative, and if possible, relaxed. There’s really no point in avoiding the topic, just as there’s no chance of avoiding the end result. More often than not, my students have fun with it.

Then I wondered just how far one could take the idea. Here are a few samples of what I discovered:

I thought this one had a certain flair. I suspect I shall be sharing Mitchell’s views.

Sometimes, the truth hurts. In any event, poor Pancrazio is beyond caring.

Clearly, Mr. Allison was a man with a mission, though not a terribly humorous one. Still, one has to credit whoever ponied up for the headstone. Alas, the headstone company did not offer any editorial assistance, or they’d have changed “that” to “who” in the inscription. There’s a lesson here I suppose, something like old editors never die, they just keep on annoying people forever.

And why not a pyramid? Why not a recreation of Stonehenge? It’s only money, and you only get one lifetime in which to spend it.

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Esther, but I have the distinct feeling we’d have gotten along well. And then there’s that editing thing again–the missing period (or exclamation point).

And finally, my absolute favorite:

Now that’s planning ahead!

–Josh

Posted in editing, Guest posts, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Where Newbies Go Wrong

Here’s the thing: anyone can write a book. The only limitation I can think of is a complete inability to communicate. Stephen Hawking, by the way, produced at least a half-dozen books after losing the ability to speak due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“ALS” or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Granted, Hawking was a certified genius, but communicating with a population of folks operating far below his IQ level was no easy task for him. He preferred to focus on physics, and if given the choice, his books would have been aimed solely at a science-oriented readership. His editor talked him into writing something everyone might learn from. That alone is a good reason for the existence of editors!

The point remains, if you can communicate, you can write a book. That assumes you have something to say, regardless of whether anyone else on the planet is interested. That’s not the biggest hurdle writers have, but it’s significant. One can still write a book, even if no one else ever reads it. (I post this cover image knowing full well, someone will want the book, even though it’s entirely bogus. <sigh>)

My point: writing a book is easy. Writing one people will want to read is damned difficult. I’ve worked with quite a few writers who’ve taken the leap and tried their hand at novel writing. For all but one or two of them, their time would have been much better spent writing short fiction. Why? Because it’s the best platform for learning the craft. All the mistakes one can make in a novel can be much more quickly achieved in a short story. If the writer is in a huge hurry to learn even faster, they can devote themselves to writing flash fiction.

Most beginning writers stumble over the same issues: lame or overdone plots, stereotyped characters, too much backstory, lousy dialog, and overblown narration. All of these commercial fiction sins can be committed in a short story, and any decent writers group will recognize and condemn them. As an active member of such a group, you’ll have the opportunity to witness others doing the same thing, and it’ll be your job to call them out. That’s the way to learn how to write!

Why build a terrible mansion, when you can learn how to do it right by constructing a few lousy playhouses instead? Think of the time and materials one can save!

Most of my students who fall into the “do the short stuff first” category typically ask why they should spend their time editing someone else’s work, when they originally came to me to edit their stuff. The answer’s simple: I’m trying to save them time and money. Unless you’ve decided to limit your writing career to a single story, or you’ve convinced yourself it’s okay to write stuff no one will ever read, you might as well take the time to learn the trade. And there’s no better way to do it than by reading and critiquing the work of others.

Once you’ve learned to spot the errors, you can fix them before anyone else sees them. Unless, of course, you become overconfident. Fortunately, there’s a fix for that, too, and it’s much easier to survive than a bruising, negative review posted on Amazon.

Most writers I know, even the most accomplished, have difficulty spotting errors in their own work. Simple things that stand out in someone else’s work often elude them in their own. It’s an unconscious thing; their minds simply fix the little things, making them look the way they’re supposed to look. Such fixes only occur in the writer’s head; they just ain’t real, Bubba.

There are a number of tricks good writers use to get around this problem. My favorite calls for reading the material out loud in as dramatic a fashion as possible. What this does is slow the brain down enough for the booboos to become visible. Once located, they can be dealt with.

That’s enough for today, kiddies. Now you may go back to your cubby holes and write like… I dunno. Writers!

–Josh

Posted in editing, Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

From Short Story to Novel–Part Three

In case you tuned in late, this conversation begins HERE. It moved forward last week, and the link for that is HERE. If you haven’t read the first two installments and hope to make sense of what comes next, you’re in for some confusion. So, if you’re smart–and obviously you are, because you’re here, reading this–you really ought to go back and start at the beginning. Go! Now. Shoo!

And welcome back! (I bet you missed the part about the girl and the gorilla, didn’t you? Never fear, I’ll address that again later. Or not. Who knows?)

Okay then, back to Scott and Daphne. Where does one go next if there’s to be a continuing saga for these charming protagonists? Fortunately for me, I’m going to be working in the fantasy genre, where magic is more rule than exception. My first question: How would such a world react to the presence of creatures–humans in this case–who’re supposedly make-believe? Elves and fairies? Sure. But homo sapiens? Get real.

And what about the basic necessities? They’re going to need food and clothing, and I imagine they’ll go stir crazy if they can’t ever leave the studio provided to them by the magickal blue lizard. They’ve already got a cast and crew who must know they’re human. Do they take pity on them? Fear them? Revere them?

Or might their emotions lead to other plot opportunities? What if the leprechaun lighting technician becomes jealous of Scott, or perhaps falls head over heels for Daphne? What if the dialog challenged, elfen actress uses a bit of sorcery to improve Scott’s opinion of her?

On a much less diabolical level, there’s the issue of an unplanned arrival in the fantasy realm. Scott and Daphne didn’t bring so much as a toothbrush or a change of underwear with them. What do they dress in while their clothes are in the wash? Fairy dust?

I’m also intrigued by the idea of a no-tech society which borrows video recording and broadcasting gear from the world we know and powers it with something other than electricity. Then too, one must wonder how transmissions are received in the land of gremlins, water sprites, and trolls. I’m picturing the home of the little old woman who lived in a shoe. You know the tale; the poor gal was overrun by children and there was no dad in the picture. (Kinda makes ya wonder where all the kiddies came from, right?) Anyhow, imagine that boot-like abode sprouting a huge TV antenna. Hardly charming and likely not a positive thing for the neighborhood.

And what about the societal pecking order? Which fantasy critters sit atop the social ladder? Is there any hope for a pair of lovers who hail from disparate groups: elf and troll, fairy and gnome, Montague and Capulet?

With few exceptions, everything mentioned thus far is mere background. It forms the canvas on which the story will unfold. It begins with a leap from frying pan to fire, though at the end of chapter one the primary players have yet to feel the heat. But they will, it’s guaranteed. The structure of a novel demands it–one crisis leads to another, and no matter how well or poorly the current problem is handled, it always leads to another, even more challenging one.

I’ve already broken one of my cardinal rules for novelists: don’t say too much about your story before you write it. If you do, you run the risk of losing the enthusiasm you’ll need to slog through the very difficult task of creation. Writing a novel is hard enough, why make it harder by talking it to death before you start the first draft? Save that energy and excitement for the writing. After all, you can only “tell” so many people. A novel, on the other hand, can take on a life of its own, one that will last a great deal longer than ours.

–Josh

 

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

From Short Story to Novel–Part Two

The story of Scott and Daphne, plus assorted lizards, faires, and other odd creatures continues. If you missed part one, you probably ought to go back and read it now. Here’s your handy-dandy link: Click Here!

In case you forgot why I’m posting this tale here: it’s part of a continuing dialog about turning short stories into short novels, which seem to have become popular among ebook readers. Thank you, MTV. Herewith, the conclusion of “Channel Zero.” [See note following.]

Our Story Continues…

Scott held a chair for his boss, Hiram Spinaldi. The older man lowered his bulk into it with a prolonged huff, like air being forced from a beach ball. Scott nodded to Daphne to turn on the big monitor at the back of the room. “I know this may be a little hard to believe,” he said, “but it explains everything. We just aren’t sure how to deal with it. I’d like your input.”

Spinaldi said nothing, but dug his chins into his chest and crossed his arms. The corners of his mouth were turned down so far they almost touched his wrists. “This had better be good, Pettigrew. There’s been an increase in the number of inquiries about your job lately.”

Scott swallowed and checked his watch for the hundredth time. Daphne stepped away from the set, and they all waited.

The screen remained dark.

“Well?”

“Give him another minute or so,” Scott said.

“Who?”

“The, uhm, one responsible for our signals being so… confused.”

Spinaldi pursed his lips as he stared over the tops of his glasses first at Scott, then at Daphne. He began to check his watch nearly as often as Scott.

With the blue lizard twenty minutes overdue, and Scott out of excuses, Spinaldi heaved himself to his feet and walked to the door. He turned to face his subordinates. “You’re fired, Pettigrew. I have no more time to waste on incompetents.”

“Mr. Spinaldi, wait!” Daphne said.

The old man squinted at her. “Why?”

“It’s not his fault! If you’d just–”

“You want to join him? Fine. You’re both fired! You have thirty minutes to clear your personal belongings out of the building. And if I ever see another unscheduled fairy on one of my channels, I’ll have you arrested!” He slammed the door behind him.

“He’s as bad as Dashgarnefel,” said the lizard from the back of the room.

Scott wanted to kill something. “Where’ve you been?”

The lizard blinked. “Right here, of course.”

“No way!” Daphne said. “We’ve been watching the screen the whole time.”

“You didn’t expect me to transmit with that nasty thing in the room, did you?” The lizard shivered.

“Spinaldi?”

“Way too much negative energy.”

“I’ll give you negative energy!” Scott grumbled, his fists shaking.

Daphne put her hand on his arm. “Punching TV screens is a bad idea; trust me.”

The lizard nodded. “Besides, what makes you think he’d listen to me?”

“Couldn’t you spritz him with a little magic?” Daphne asked. “Something to make him human? I’d really like to get my job back.” She put the Dr. Pepper can to her lips and discovered it was empty.

“Thirsty?” The lizard held up a long-stemmed glass, the contents of which changed colors as rapidly as his robe. He traced a symbol in the air over his head and blew it toward them. Seconds later the goblet appeared on a desk between the stunned humans.

“That’s amazing!” Scott said.

The lizard curled its talons and blew on them.

Daphne looked puzzled. “If you can do stuff like that, why can’t you solve your own problem?”

The lizard sighed. “My range is limited. Do you think I’d be talking to you if I could change things on my own?”

Scott looked at the goblet, then at the lizard. “Your magic is limited? How much?”

“I’ve got enough to pump my programs to any of your channels, and out to all your subscribers.”

“Then why can’t you contact the FCC as well?”

The lizard removed its pointed cap and scratched its head. “That’s a problem. This is a visual medium, right? But there aren’t any TV sets where the FCC meets. With a monitor handy, I can work wonders, provided it’s hooked to your system. So far, you two are the only humans I’ve talked to.”

Daphne shook her head. “Just us?”

The lizard donned its cap. “Yep.”

“So what do we do now?” Scott asked.

“Like I said before, get me my own frequency.”

“That’s impossible!”

“So be it. Be sure and tune in for the trolls company picnic tomorrow. It’s an all-day affair.”

Before Scott could respond, the lizard winked out. He turned to Daphne instead. “Would you like a drink? I could sure use one.”

Scott and Daphne reached Feeney’s Fireside Lounge about a half hour before Scott’s wife and her handsome young attorney made their appearance. In the couple’s wake trailed a dozen people Scott didn’t know.

He watched his soon-to-be-ex use one of his credit cards to pay for the first round of drinks. The attorney raised his glass in a toast, but Scott couldn’t hear it. When his credit card was produced for the second round, Scott got to his feet.

“Another bad idea,” Daphne said.

“You’re probably right. If I live through this, promise to drag me someplace where I can heal, okay?”

Daphne shrugged and Scott wandered over to the congenial group surrounding his wife. “Why, Bertha,” he crowed, swaying a bit from two hastily consumed highballs. He grabbed the back of her chair for balance. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“It’s Berta,” she said pointedly. “Why don’t you crawl back under your rock?” She nodded at her well‑muscled companion. “Or do you need help?”

“No need for alarm, Bertie, I just thought I’d say hi.” He bobbed toward her chest, then away. “These new glasses are hell,” he said. “I thought for a minute there your boobs were the same size! How silly of me. Did you ever find the guy who did the work?”

Berta’s attorney was on his feet but had to circle the table and maneuver through a crowd before he reached Scott who was gesturing with both hands. “You can get damn near anything at K‑mart these days! Nobody pays retail for boo–”

When the lights slowly came back on, Daphne’s fuzzy but concerned face peered at him from a few inches away. “Am I dead?” Scott asked.

“Not yet.” Daphne draped a cold washcloth on his forehead.

Scott pushed the wet rag from his eyes and squinted at the unfamiliar room. “Where–”

“My place,” Daphne said. “You can sleep on the couch if you want.”

Scott’s jaw felt as if someone had unhinged it. “How badly did I hurt him?”

It took a while, but Daphne finally stopped laughing. “He was on the boxing team at some Ivy League school. You were gone before the end of the first inning.”

“Round.”

“Whatever.” She touched his face. “How long do you think it’ll stay swollen like that?”

Scott winced and struggled to his feet. “It’s okay to be ugly when you’re dead. And the way I feel, I must be close.”

“You aren’t ugly; you’re–”

“Rugged-looking?”

“–wounded.” She handed him a key. “Your wife asked me to give you this. She had your stuff put in storage. She said she wanted to send it to the moon, but couldn’t afford the shipping, and figured you’d press charges if she had it burned.

Scott wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?” Then he looked down at his clothes. “Oh, my God! It’s me!”

Daphne put her hand in front of her face and tried to hide her smile. It didn’t work. “That’s my fault, I’m afraid. It happened when I was hauling you here from the car.”

“You carried me here?”

“Not exactly. I draped you over a garbage can–it’s the only thing I could find with wheels.”

He looked again at his clothes. “Are you sure you didn’t put me in it?”

She laughed. “I’m positive. But you did fall off a couple times.”

“I can remember a time when I would’ve been upset by that.” Scott smiled. “Now I’m just glad you’re so resourceful.”

Daphne blushed. “Why don’t we get your stuff on the way back to the office?”

“Did I miss something else while I was out? Last I heard we’d been fired.”

“While you were, uhm, resting, I had some time to think. We’ve got a lot in common, y’know?”

“Besides unemployment?”

“Sure. No family. No money. No prospects.”

Scott groaned. “You make it sound so hopeful.”

She punched him on the shoulder. “Anyway, I’ve got an idea, but we’ll need to talk to the lizard.”

Scott shrugged. “Why not? What’ve we got to lose?”

“My thoughts exactly,” Daphne said. “Let’s go. I’ll explain in the car.”

Scott and Daphne slipped past the guard while he yelled at the Orioles for completing a double play. They sneaked down the hallway to the control room and entered the area as if they’d been deep in conversation for some time.

Ralph Murchison, the night shift operator, looked up at them. “Yo, Daffy!” He waved his coffee and a Twinkie at her. “I thought you got canned. What’re you doin’ here?”

“Fired? Me?” She looked at Scott as if Ralph were an escaped mental patient. “You just want my shift, right? Wishful thinking.”

Ralph looked dubious but didn’t argue.

“I need your help,” Scott said. “We’re having a problem reading the schematics for some of the feeds. Daphne said you were the best at figuring the damn things out.”

Smiling despite the Twinkie cream on his chin, Ralph pushed away from his desk and waddled closer. “Sure, let’s go.” He followed Scott out of the room.

Two minutes later, Scott returned alone.

“You didn’t hurt him, did you?” Daphne asked.

“Nah. Just locked him in the janitor’s closet. I hope they don’t start cleaning up too early tonight.”

Daphne glanced at the digital wall clock. “Me, too. C’mon.”

They hurried to the back of the room and stared–first at the space where the big monitor used to be, then at each other. “Forget it,” Daphne said. “It’s not like he would’ve been there waiting for us.”

“I’d kind of hoped–”

“Forget it. I figure our best chance is to find out which channels are getting through to his world. Then maybe we can send him some kind of signal.”

Scott shook his head. “Maybe we ought to just leave now and head for the border. We could be miles away before anyone knows we’re even gone.”

“You don’t have to stay,” Daphne said. “I’ll do what I can by myself.”

He grinned. “I’m not that big a creep!”

Daphne grinned, too. “I knew that.”

“So, now what?”

“I say we start with the most offensive channel and work backward. I can type out a message that’ll appear on every screen we broadcast. If he’s watching, he’ll see it.”

“The phones’ll go nuts! Spinaldi’ll be here in a heartbeat.”

“I bet he’s already in bed,” Daphne said.

“What message were you going to use?”

“How about ‘Yo, lizard!'”

Scott frowned. “Would you respond if someone put up a message that said, ‘Yo, babe!”

Daphne straightened. “Me? You think of me as a babe?”

“Sure! Haven’t you ever looked at yourself in a mirror? Sheesh. Anyway, why don’t we say something like: ‘Hold off on the troll’s picnic; we need to talk.'”

Daphne seemed to be in a bit of a trance but quickly shook loose. “Yeah, that’ll do.” She slipped into a chair in front of the control console and reached for a keyboard. “I’ll go scroll it on all channels. There’s no telling which ones the lizard gets.”

Within moments, they heard a familiar voice. “You called?”

Scott and Daphne looked up at the bank of TV monitors. The powder blue lizard/wizard occupied all of them. Daphne stared down at the control panel. “How does he do that?”

“Later,” Scott said. “I’m going to check on our friend in the janitor’s closet. I’ll be right back.” He slipped a thumb drive from the desk into his pocket and stepped into the hallway.

The lizard squinted. “Where’s he going? I thought you wanted to talk.”

“We do,” Daphne said. “But we don’t have much time. We hoped you could help us get our jobs back. We had to break in here just to talk to you.”

Suddenly, Scott dashed back into the control room, slammed the door shut, and locked it. He turned away from the lizard and winked at Daphne. “Our guy, Murchison, is loose.” He dragged a desk in front of the door. “The cops will be here soon.”

The lizard blinked. “Murchison? Cops? I don’t care about any of that. All I want to know is whether you’ve figured out how to preserve my frequency!”

“No,” Scott said, “we haven’t, but we’ve thought of something even more important. If you keep broadcasting on our frequencies, the commercial interests here will want to tap into your market.”

The lizard frowned but remained quiet.

“And once they get a toe-hold, it won’t be long before they take over the whole thing. Your friendly little Public Access channels will be squeezed out. You’d get nothing but game shows, soaps, and reruns of ‘Bewitched’ and ‘I Dream of Jeannie.'”

The lizard looked stricken. “Dashgarnefel will have me stuffed!”

“Too bad,” Scott said, “especially since Daphne here could probably find a way to block the signals cluttering your network.”

“She could?” The lizard’s eyes grew wide.

Daphne squared her shoulders. “Sure, no problem.”

“Too bad she hates Public Access,” Scott said.

Daphne touched Scott’s shoulder. “Do you hear sirens?”

“What’s wrong with Public Access?” demanded the lizard.

“Nothing, provided you like banal programming executed with an utter lack of originality. That’s all you can expect from amateurs.” She sighed. “Without a knowledgeable director, the big networks will eat you up.”

“A director? Then what would be left for me?”

Daphne laughed. “You’d be the big shot–the Producer! Your job would be to wander around looking important, entertaining royalty–”

“Discovering new talent?” asked Scott.

Daphne shot him a look.

“But how could I lure a director away from one of the big studios?”

“A promise of wealth would do the trick,” Scott said. He cocked an ear toward the hallway. “Uh-oh. Hear that? Cops!”

“But I don’t have great wealth; we don’t care about that in our world!”

“Then you’d need to find someone who had to leave for other reasons.” Daphne looked at Scott. “Someone with the skills you need and no reason to stick around here.” She frowned. “Now I can hear footsteps, too.”

“It sounds like an army out there!” the lizard said.

Scott nodded. “A SWAT team most likely. They’re almost here. We’re sunk.” He looked at the lizard. “You, too.”

“Maybe not.” The lizard’s image faded from all the screens but one. He began to trace smoky runes in the air. “Can you step a little closer?”

Though he agreed to have his name stenciled on the back of his canvas director’s chair, Scott refused to wear either the beret or the scarf the lizard offered him. On the set of his latest dramatic effort, he winced as a buxom blonde elf muffed her lines for the twentieth time.

“Listen, Galadriel, trust me on this. Blanche Dubois would never throw pixie dust in Stanley’s face and fly away–honest!”

Daphne stepped behind him and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Take five!” he yelled.

“Tough day at the office?” she asked. “I thought this is what you wanted.”

He smiled. “It is. I hope I wanted the right thing.” He put his hand on hers. “Were you able to fix the transmission problem?”

She nodded. “Yep. We can turn off the signals in either direction any time we want, and the lizard showed me how to peek in on what’s going on back at the cable company.”

Scott sighed. “Who cares? We’re safe here. We’ve left the old lives behind.”

She stepped around to the front of the chair and sat in his lap. “Then it doesn’t interest you at all that I saw Berta in Spinaldi’s office? I think she was auditioning for something.”

Scott laughed. “I really don’t care; they deserve each other. The only thing I regret is not being able to bring along a copy of the Stormtrooper spot.”

Daphne shook her head. “You’d take a chance on letting the lizard see it?”

“Sure. I just wouldn’t want him to hear it–again.”

~End~

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From Short Story to Novel–Part One

I’ve often heard, from both accomplished writers as well as students of mine, that their novel began as a short story and then grew. Sadly, I’ve never had a bag of 10-10-10 literary fertilizer to sprinkle on my short fiction in hopes of growing something I could package and sell as a novel. But the idea remains appealing.

So, while digging around in some of my older, shorter stuff, I came across a story I wrote twenty-some years ago. After reading it, I was surprised that it still worked, despite some technological advances since its creation. The basic story relies on some fantasy tropes–elves, fairies, unicorns, etc.–which I avoid like a contagious disease in my novels.

And yet, the story still works! AND–I’ve decided to expand it to (short) novel length. That will be the subject of this blog over the next three or four installments. Later, I’ll get to the details and thought processes behind how I’ll do it. For now, here’s the first half of the original tale. It will be concluded next week. (Full disclosure: This entire post runs about four times longer than usual. As always, your comments are welcome and encouraged. Let me know what you think!) Herewith:

Channel Zero

©1996 Josh Langston All Rights Reserved

Scott punched Daphne’s intercom number twice before he got it right. His finger hovered over the buttons, quivering, ready to stab in another extension if she didn’t answer. At length, she did.

“This is–”

“Where’s the goddamn World Series?”

After a moment of silence, Daphne answered. “Budapest?”

Scott made an effort to unclench his jaws. “It’s supposed to be on ESPN.”

“Oh! Sure. Stand by, I’ll check the feed.”

Scott tried to calm himself; Daphne would have everything back to normal soon. Her ambivalence toward sports had nothing to do with her technical ability, and he had no right to blast her because his private life was on the fast track to hell. The IRS audit notice he’d received was bad enough, but when the World Series disappeared, it was almost too much. He’d apologize.

While he waited, Scott stared at the mass of blinking lights on his phone console. How come people only called him when things went wrong? He’d been to college to learn cinematography, and he was good at it, so why did Spinaldi insist that he spend his time managing this second-rate cable TV company?

“Signal’s strong,” Daphne said. “I’m getting a great picture.”

“Of the game?”

“No. It’s either a commercial or a kid’s show, but it’s a new one on me. It’s a conversation between a couple of, I dunno–elves, I guess–and one of those horse-looking things.”

“A unicorn?” Scott rubbed his eyes.

“Yeah,” Daphne said. “A real beauty! And I thought ESPN only ran sports.”

“Kill it.”

“But the picture’s perf–”

“If it ain’t baseball, it ain’t leaving the building. Go to ‘Stand By’ until you can get the game back on, okay? And Daf? I’m sorry I yelled.”

“No problem,” she said.

Scott hung up and faced the bank of TV screens at the far end of his office. A big one at the heart of the array carried the picture Daphne described. A pair of green-tinted midgets, with wings, floated to either side of a unicorn. One of them polished the horn protruding from the animal’s forehead while the other combed its mane.

Absurd! Where in hell were the Orioles and the Braves?

“Mr. Pettigrew?” The secretary stood in his doorway. “There’s an attorney here to see you.”

Scott shook his head. “Huh? From the IRS? Tell ’em I’m–”

An athletic young man in a dark suit slipped past the secretary and dropped a large gray envelope on Scott’s desk. “I know you’re busy,” he said, “so I won’t stay.”

Scott poked the envelope. “What’s this?”

The attorney looked surprised. “Your wife didn’t tell you? She’s suing for divorce.”

“Really? It took her long enough.”

~*~

Daphne slumped in her chair. “There’s nothing left to check.”

Scott stood next to her, shaking his head. “We’ve missed something. You don’t feed a ballgame signal into the wire at one end and get elves and pixies out at the other!”

“Well, we did,” Daphne said. “Right up until the fourth quarter.”

“Inning.”

“Whatever.” She took a long pull from her diet Dr. Pepper and offered him the can. He made a face.

“Maybe we should look at the unicorn video again. If this is a high tech prank, I’ll bet there’s some kind of message in it.”

Daphne called up the offending footage. “I’ve already watched it twice. I sure didn’t see any message.” She clicked PLAY.

The screen cleared to a bucolic scene featuring the elves and the unicorn. “Turn it up,” Scott said.

“…but I don’t have any proof,” said an elf with a goatee. He patted the unicorn’s neck. “Besides, we all know humans are just myths.”

“Nonsense!” said the second elf. “Just because we haven’t seen any doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Scott and Daphne watched the entire tape, but the conversation rambled. “It’s obviously not a planned production,” he said. “Certainly not a professional one. The whole thing’s just silly.”

Daphne clicked off the video. She stepped closer to Scott and put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry about all this, really. I heard about your divorce.”

“I should have expected it.” Scott patted her hand. “Berta used to do my tax returns. She never showed much interest in me until Spinaldi hired me for his production company. She must’ve thought I was going to be some big deal Hollywood director and spent money we didn’t have to improve her chances in front of the camera.”

“Acting classes?”

“Surgery–nose, chin, hips, chest. So much of her has been added to, reduced, or rearranged, I’m not sure how much of the original is still there.” He laughed. “If you saw her wardrobe, you’d think she was already a star.”

Daphne grinned. “And I’ll bet you never said anything about making movies, right? As if anything else ever mattered to you!”

“Well, okay. I might have mentioned it in passing.” He smiled, then sighed. “But she lost interest when all Spinaldi let me make was commercials. Now, he doesn’t even let me do those. Who wants to manage a cable company?”

“Spinaldi’s a jerk.”

“He’s also my only source of income, and he says if we don’t find and fix the problem with our transmissions, he’ll fire me.”

Daphne shook her head. “I’ll bet he’s still angry about that commercial we did for Gruber and Slantz.”

“The Stormtrooper spot–my favorite!” Scott waved his hands as he spoke, painting pictures in the air. “We open with a tight shot, black and white, of steel-toed jackboots. No music, no voices, just the relentless sound of footsteps as a squad of Gestapo-like cops tromp down a hallway to arrest the hero as he thumbs through a phone book to find an attorney. We should’ve gotten an award for it!”

“Too bad Spinaldi’s brother is the Police Chief.”

“You could have told me.”

Daphne pointed to herself. “Me? You directed it!”

“But you were the production assistant.”

She counted on her fingers as she spoke. “Also set technician, special effects editor, stunt coordinator–”

“No fair! We didn’t have any stunts. Besides, I…” His voice trailed off as he stared at the monitors in the control room. “Daf? I thought line 6 was CNN.”

“It is.” She turned to look at the screen on which a parade of short, ugly miners filed into a dark tunnel. “Good grief! What are those things–trolls?

“Oh Lord, not again.” Scott scanned the other monitors, then checked his watch. All three of the big networks should have begun their evening newscasts, but ABC seemed to be running a feature on bad weather flying for fairies. A pair of elves discussed the relative benefits of nectar versus honey on FOX, and in place of NBC’s usual anchor team, a platoon of wood sprites frolicked in the nude.

Scott felt the birth of a stomach ulcer. “Cut!” he yelled. “Cut everything to ‘Standby.’ Now!”

Daphne scrambled to hit switches. Scott searched the screens for new program failures. There didn’t seem to be any. He eased back against Daphne’s desk and waited for his pulse to return to normal.

“Good evening,” said a voice from behind him.

Scott whirled around to face another monitor. A powder blue lizard wearing a pointed sorcerer’s cap stared at him from the screen. “Sorry if I startled you,” it said.

Scott shook his head and turned back toward Daphne. “What line is that?”

She squinted at the big monitor. “I didn’t even think that set was hooked up. It’s been so long since–”

“You’ve no call to be rude!” the lizard said.

Scott stared at the screen; the creature had to be looking directly into the camera. Scott felt as if it could really see him. “Daf?”

She shook her head. “Nope. It’s not hooked to anything.”

A giant hand seemed to push Scott back down on Daphne’s desk. He continued to stare at the big screen. “I– How–”

“Relax,” the lizard said. It blinked, slowly, and then did something with its mouth.

Scott felt his jaw drop. The damn thing was smiling at him. He swallowed, but with some difficulty. “Can you, uhm, see me?”

The lizard nodded.

“Daphne? I’ll take some of that Dr. Pepper now,” Scott said. She handed him the can.

“And a good evening to you, too,” the lizard said as Daphne stepped next to Scott. “What an alluring outfit.”

Daphne looked down at her T-shirt and jeans, then up at the screen. “Are you talking to me?”

“Certainly!”

“But, how?”

“The magic of television.”

She walked back to the monitor and poked around behind it, then looked at Scott and grinned. “I’m impressed,” she said. “This is the slickest thing I’ve ever seen! You really had me going. It looks so real! How’d you do the animation, with a computer?”

Scott shook his head. “Daf, I–”

The lizard cleared its throat. “Will you ask the young lady to return to the front? I can’t see her back there.”

“This has got to be the most elaborate–”

“Daphne!” Scott growled, “this isn’t a practical joke; it’s some kind of interactive TV or–”

“‘Goyle squat!” The lizard tilted its cap slightly forward and squinted. “It’s magic, plain and simple.” He shuddered. “I hate working with mundanes.”

Scott and Daphne exchanged looks while the lizard adjusted its robe, the color of which continuously cycled through a spectrum of metallic shades.

“I have an offer to make,” the lizard said. “If you’re interested in having your broadcasts returned to normal.”

Scott perked up instantly. “You’re responsible?”

The lizard rested its chin on a palm and drummed its cheek with sharp-clawed toes. “It began with your satellite transmissions, which normally wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the moon spots. Since then–”

Daphne howled. “Moon spots? Right!”

“Never mind,” the lizard said, “I’ve obviously come to the wrong place.” He turned and headed off-screen.

“No! Please! Come back,” Scott said. “I– No. We apologize.”

“You’ll hear me out?”

“Absolutely.”

After another round of robe adjustments, the lizard continued. “Ever since the moon spot problem, certain of your transmissions are showing up on my network.”

Daphne’s eyebrows shot up.

“You have a network?” Scott asked.

“Certainly. Quality stuff, too. A half-dozen channels, all Public Access.”

Daphne groaned.

“What’s her problem?” asked the lizard.

Scott shrugged. “She’s a snob.”

“Anyway, when your telecasts invaded my network, I started getting complaints. The trolls threatened to strike, the wood sprites all came down with green flu, and Dashgarnefel, the Elven King, told me if he ever saw that damned purple dinosaur again he’d have my head!”

“I had no idea our signal was causing any interference,” Scott said.

“I figured as much, that’s when I decided to get your attention. It seemed only fair that if you could force your viewing tastes on us, I should be able to do the same to you.”

“But it wasn’t us. At least, not on purpose. The government assigns the frequencies.”

The lizard tapped its claw tips together. “The frequency I’m interested in is so obscure, I thought your kind would never use it, but I forgot how you always overdo things. Why broadcast on a dozen channels when you can use thousands?”

“That may be, but it’s not something I control,” Scott said. “So, what do you want me to do?”

“Us,” Daphne said. “What do you want us to do?”

“Give me back my frequency,” the lizard said.

“But I–”

“No buts. I don’t care who you have to see, or what you have to do, but if I don’t get exclusive use of that frequency, you won’t be able to tune into anything but the troll’s home movies and coverage of the pixie parade!”

“Wait! I need more–”

“I’ll be back in an hour.” A puff of smoke drifted up from the monitor and the image of the powder blue lizard disappeared.

~~To be concluded next week~~

 

 

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