Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Revision bingo: Chapter 1 of "Piper's Song"

When you finish your first draft of a novel, you've still got a ton of writing left to do.

My current novel, "Piper's Song," has gone through at least five major revisions since I wrapped up the first draft and even more smaller ones. I've played with characterization, tone, pacing, and plot detail, and rewritten the opening scene more times than I could count. What that means for you is that the most recent version of the opening chapter I posted (which you can find right here) is considerably different than the final version of the chapter posted below. Comparing the two offers a sense of just how much a story can change from the first draft to the final, while still essentially remaining the same story.

Chapter 1: A Little Night Music

When you had an army of rats following you, people generally liked you better when you were walking away.

This was especially true when they weren’t your rats to begin with. Though Jess had gathered a few gawkers back in town, the houses out here at the edge were mostly shut up tight. She could only make out a few windows glowing in the rapidly fading light, the silhouettes of onlookers briefly appearing in each one as she passed by. Jess was never sure whether they were watching her or the rats, trickling out of the cracks in the houses and barns to join the army of them trailing behind her.

That didn't seem to be a question with the little boy standing by the side of the road, watching the rats with the kind of rapt fascination she hardly ever saw from anyone over the age of 12. She took one hand off the pipe long enough to wave at him, the song turning into random notes for a moment, but the kid didn't seem to care as he waved delightedly back. The rats didn't care either, pulled along by the magic Jess infused into every note.

The boy waved back enthusiastically, but not for long. His mother burst out of a doorway, hurrying over and snatching the child up as if he'd been about to follow the rats. The woman gave Jess her fiercest glare, as if hoping she could wither her on the spot.

It was hardly the worst look Jess had ever received, though she doubted the woman would appreciate the sentiment. That would also require her to stop playing the pipe, which would leave the aforementioned army of rats free to scatter and completely screw up any opportunity of her getting paid at the end of this. Telling rude people off could be deeply satisfying, but so was eating regularly.

Instead, Jess resigned herself to the most dramatic wink she could manage. The woman huffed, clearly displeased by the response, but her expression shifted away from murder and closer to “I'm going to send a strongly-worded letter to your supervisor.” Since Jess didn’t actually have a supervisor, she found that option infinitely preferable.

The woman turned to stalk back into the house, the little boy giving Jess one final wave over his mother's shoulder. Jess turned around, walking backwards for a moment so she could wave back at him.

That was the last interesting thing to happen before she made it to the empty field that marked the end of her journey. Or, more specifically, the flaming trench on the opposite side of the field. A man stood on one end of the trench, making sure the flames stayed high, but Jess’s target was the wooden bridge stretched across the middle. She’d checked beforehand to make sure they’d embedded it with the usual fire protection charm, the only thing keeping it from going up in flames along with the rest of the fuel.

(She had forgotten to check only once, a mistake that had ended up working out surprisingly well for her in the long run. Still, only an idiot expected something like that twice.)

Nodding at the man stationed at one end of the trench, she stepped fully onto the bridge and kept walking. She turned around while she was halfway across, using her foot to sweep the rats off the sides of the bridge and into the fire. They died silently, thankfully, but sometimes she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at what was happening.

When the last rat had finally tumbled over the edge of the bridge, Jess stopped playing as the man approached her. “That should do it,” she told him, flashing her best salesman’s smile as she stepped off the bridge completely. “I’ll stay long enough to make sure the fire goes out completely, so as soon as I get the rest of my payment you can go home and get to bed.”

He hesitated, looking back out into the darkness with a nervous expression. He was pale enough to have a desk job someplace, hair thinning and coat far too heavy for the relatively mild weather. “You sure that’s all of them?”

Temper rose up, stung by the implication, but she throttled it back. Keeping her smile firmly in place, she held out her hand for her payment. “If there’s a rat left in the entire town, I can promise you they’re completely deaf.” Then he shot her a skeptical look, and temper slipped past good sense to get a jab in. “Though if we don’t get this settled soon, I’m sure I can find more somewhere and bring them in.”

He narrowed his eyes at her briefly, as if he’d just processed who was speaking to him with such disrespect. Her golden brown skin was usually close enough to a farmer’s tan for people not to question it, but her black hair was just a little too dark to completely pass as a local in the more rural parts of the kingdom. Since that was also where the money was, she did what she could do adapt. She kept her hair short, told people she was a solid three or four years older than the 18 years she’d actually been alive, and knew how to use the knife she kept in her boot. She might not ever be one of them, but they were absolutely going to take her seriously.

She held the man’s gaze, careful not to show any hesitation or weakness. After a few beats of silence, his eyes dropped away from hers. He reached into his pocket, handing her the envelope of money with barely disguised reluctance. “I’ll let the mayor know we got everything wrapped up,” he grumbled, turning to leave.

Jess counted the money by the light of the fire, pleased to see it was all there just as promised. Money always did do wonders for soothing her temper. “Pleasure doing business with you!” she called out brightly, looking up in time to see him wave a hand vaguely behind him in acknowledgment.

As he walked off into the distance, she put her pipe back into the case strapped to her chest and tucked the money safely away underneath. “I still don’t know how you can stand waiting for me, T,” she told the empty air around her. “I’ve only been here a few minutes and I’m already bored stiff.”

A figure suddenly appeared out of the empty space, wearing a black cloak with the hood pulled up over his head. If you looked inside, you would only see an endless blackness designed to make you contemplate eternity and your own mortality.

The effect was immediately ruined when the figure spoke.  “Why do you think I always bring a book?” he asked, sounding suspiciously like a teenage boy only slightly younger than Jess herself was. He pulled a book out from underneath his armpit, tucking it back into one of the cloak’s many pockets. “There’s not enough light to do it out here, but in Reaper mode I can see just fine.”

Jess made sure to stop what she was doing so she could watch. She was one of the few people out there who got to appreciate the comedic value of an eldritch-looking horror being domestic, and she tried not to miss any opportunity to do so. “Remind me again why they bothered making the Reaper uniforms so creepy-looking?” she asked. “You said it’s against company rules for Reapers to let the public see them when they’re on the job. And when you’re in Reaper mode, they literally can’t.”

The eldritch horror, otherwise known as a perfectly average human named Thomas, sighed. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to ask Management that question?” He pushed the hood back, dispelling the magic and revealing dark, close-cropped hair and warm brown skin burnished by the firelight. His wire-rimmed glasses were slightly crooked again, and the mere sight of him was enough to unknot something inside Jess’s chest. “All of them look at me like it’s the weirdest question they’ve ever heard.”

Jess shook her head in sympathy, bending back to her work so she wouldn’t think about how badly her fingers itched to fix his glasses. “Your bosses need to get out more.”

“That’s probably true.” Even though she wasn’t looking up, she could still hear the smile in his voice. “But since I would get into so much trouble if they knew you had any idea they existed, I’m not going to tell them you said that.”

She looked up, not able to stop herself from smiling at him. “But what a spectacular way to quit, hmm?”

Thomas made an amused sound, then his expression shifted as a thought occurred to him. “Oh, that reminds me.” He pulled out his pocket-sized magic mirror, handing it to her. “I should probably get to work, but you got a mirror message while you were on your walk.”

Jess winced at the reminder, taking the mirror from him as she straightened. “I swear I keep meaning to get a new one,” she said. “It’s not fair for me to keep using your work mirror for my work messages.”

Thomas shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I like being able to help you when you need it.” He smiled a little, calling up a rush of warmth in Jess’s chest, and reached for the I.D. hanging around his neck. Then he hesitated. “You want to skip following me around tonight, so you can focus on the message?”

He always asked her that, in one form or another, even though she’d never once taken him up on the offer. “What, and miss your rundown on whatever town it’s from?” Opening the message with one hand, she laid the other hand on his shoulder. If she let go of him, she’d immediately get dumped back into the regular world and Thomas would end up invisible again. “Seriously, if you ever want to quit being a Reaper I’m sure someone would hire you as a tour guide.”

Thomas made a rueful noise. “Only someone who was really interested in hearing an itemized history of the local plant life.” Then he slapped the flat of his hand against the I.D. hanging against his chest, and both the darkness and the fire disappeared in a rush of gray. The only spots of color left in the world were her, Thomas, and the cool blue light of the rats' discarded life energy floating in small clouds within the flames. Everyone's life energy stuck around like that after they died, according to Thomas, and when left alone it usually disappeared after about a week. Since life energy was an easy power boost for magic users with a more flexible view of ethics, however, hardly anyone left it alone.

Which was where Reapers came in.

Thomas's hand curled like he was holding a staff, murmuring a word that Jess could never quite catch. An instant later, a glowing, translucent scythe made of energy appeared in his hand. Jess watched him adjust his grip, remembering the explanation he'd given her once as to how the scythe had probably been made. She asked him questions about it sometimes, just to get him talking.

Tonight, though, she was content to just watch him carefully swing the tip of his scythe through each one of those small clouds of blue light. This sliced through the energy’s tie to this plane of existence – yes, Thomas had explained all of this to her, too – letting it disappear with a flash to somewhere beyond the reach of evil sorcerers. Technically, Thomas could use it to clean up any kind of energy, but he’d been officially assigned to focus on rats and mice.

Since that was how she and Thomas had met, Jess appreciated the assignment.

Still, she should probably focus on her job rather than his. Tearing her attention away from the reaping, she activated the mirror message from the potential client. When the smoke swirling on the other side of the glass cleared, the sender turned out to be an exhausted middle-aged man. He had the lingering trace of a farmer’s tan, despite the suit, and an expression that suggested he worked out a lot of stress by hitting people in his imagination. “Miss Tremeau, my name is Arthur Perkins. I’m the mayor of Kensford, a bustling, prosperous town that boasts—” He stopped, closing his eyes a moment. “But you don’t care about that.”

“If it’s the Kensford I’m thinking of,” Thomas cut in absently, his attention still focused on his work. “It’s only about a day’s ride from Hammelin.”

Knowing he wouldn’t have said anything if it wasn’t important, Jess briefly stilled the mirror message and wracked her brain trying to remember why Hammelin was relevant. “Wait, is that the city you said the witches were talking about? The one that’s been impossible to communicate with for the last day or two?”

Thomas nodded. “That’s the rumors they’ve been hearing, but no one’s worried enough to actually go investigate yet. It’s possible the city’s magical network is just down for the moment, but if nothing’s changed in a week they’re planning on sending an official society representative.”

Jess smiled a little. “Are they still trying to get you named an honorary witch so they can make you a member?”

Thomas’s sigh was both affectionate and long-suffering as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Yes, and I don’t know why. Just because I’m really good at identifying different herbs and have a few work-approved spells stored in my I.D., that doesn’t make me an actual witch.” 

Jess squeezed his shoulder. “The rest of us don’t care so much about accuracy, T. They probably just want to say thank you for having to listen to all their stories 500 times.”

Thomas shook his head, turning his attention back to the rats’ energy. “If they want to say thank you,” he muttered, “they should send me some of their reference books.”

Jess activated the mirror message again, the frozen image of Mayor Perkins springing back to life. He cleared his throat. “We’ve talked to the leaders of some of the other cities and towns who you’ve done jobs for, and they all say you’re the most thorough piper they’ve ever worked with.” She had just long enough to feel a glow of pride before he ruined it by continuing. “We had to research a little more thoroughly than we usually do pipers, since we heard your name in an unusual way. We put up our usual posting for a piper, and a man named Crispin St. Clair responded. His—”

Alarm spiking, she jammed a finger down to still the mirror message again. Thomas suddenly stopped, looking back over his shoulder. “Did he just say—”

Jess’s jaw tightened. “Unfortunately, he did.” She hesitated, thumb hovering over the trigger that would delete the message.

After that hesitation had gone on a beat too long, Thomas turned to look at her again. “You might as well finish it,” he said gently. “If not, you know you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering what the rest of it said.”

Something inside Jess stilled at the painfully accurate assessment, which he’d made without even looking at her. It had been a long time since someone had been able to read her that easily.

Thomas gave her an amused look, like he knew exactly what she was thinking. “You forget, I was there when you officially declared Crispin your mortal enemy.”

Jess winced as the memory hit, embarrassing enough to wash away the vaguely unsettled feeling. “Rule for the future,” she muttered. “Never monologue when you haven’t slept for a few days.” Taking a deep breath – Thomas was right, it would drive her crazy not knowing – she restarted the message. “—reputation is such that nearby towns had already warned us against him, so we rejected his offer even though we were desperate. When we did, he began ranting about how you had somehow arranged the situation by spreading lies about him. Since putting up a general posting had proven so unsuccessful, we decided to research your name in the hopes that it would speed things.”

She stopped the message completely, far more tempted than she knew she should be. The idea of getting one over on Crispin and getting paid… “We’d still be far enough away from Hammelin, right?”

Thomas smiled a little as he turned his attention back to the reaping. “Far enough.”

“And think about it this way,” she wheedled, “it sounds like there are enough rats you’ll make your quota for the entire month with one job.”

“I always make my quota now that I follow you around.” The lightness in his voice was as much a ‘yes’ as if he’d said the word.  “Let me finish up here. Then we’ll get a few hours of sleep and set out for Kensford in the morning.”

Jess grinned. “I’m sure the rats will be excited to see us.” Then, after sending a quick return message accepting the job, she slipped the magic mirror into her pocket and went back to watching Thomas work.

#

Two days of hitching rides on various wagons and carts later, they arrived in Kensford. They stashed their things in a quiet stable near the edge of town, and after a quick change into a more impressive outfit they headed to the Mayor’s Office.

Before they went inside, Thomas lightly touched her arm. “Want me to go invisible?” he asked quietly. “I know they already gave you the job, but that doesn’t mean you want me in the way when you’re dealing with clients.”

The hesitancy in his voice made her turn to look at him. He’d hunched his shoulders slightly, just like he always did whenever he apologized for explaining something too thoroughly or basically being himself. Every time she saw it, Jess gave serious thought to tracking down the people who ran the Abernathy Home for Orphans and punching them in the face.

Instead, she grinned at him. “Not a chance, my friend. Today, I’m going to show you how to make an entrance.”

Slowly, his expression relaxed. “How about I just watch you make the entrance and take notes for later?” he asked, lips curving upward a little.

Recognizing her cue, Jess gave the appropriate dramatic sigh. “One day I’ll teach you the joy of the spotlight, T.”

His smile widened as he came back with his usual response. “But that day is not today.”

They announced themselves to the woman behind the front desk, who ushered them with gratifying speed back to Mayor Perkins’ office. Unfortunately, the office also included a sour-faced man with a beautifully tailored suit and a face like a lump of bread dough. He started speaking the moment they were announced, cutting the front-desk woman off before she’d even reached the end of the explanation. “Not so fast, Miss Tremeau,” he said, glowering at Jess. “The rest of the council chose to hire you while I was out of town on business. They’re all clearly prone to panic, but I’m not about to let myself get conned the same way they have.”

Jess bristled at the word “conned,” but held her silence for the moment. Mayor Perkins sighed, looking like a man in urgent need of a nap. “Edward, the city is in crisis. I know the situation hit suddenly, but the people are desper—”

“The people need to learn some self-sufficiency,” the man – Edward, apparently – snapped. “Now, Miss Tremeau. I know the previous cities you’ve worked with have spoken well of you, but I’m sure there if we actually take some time to examine the situation there are other, more experienced pipers out there who have been more thoroughly validated. If more people had kept an eye on sirens a century ago, I’m sure they wouldn’t have become the problem that they did.”

“Really, Edward, a comparison like that is just pure slander. Do you really want it to get—”

Unsurprisingly, Eddie continued ignoring him. “This is nothing more than fear-induced impulsiveness. I’m sure if I speak to them, the council will agree that—”

No, this wasn’t going to be at all useful. She glanced over at Thomas, wondering if he was going to try and be the voice of reason. Instead, he was busy glaring daggers at Eddie, intense enough in his dislike that he didn’t even notice Jess looking.

Well, that was a go-ahead if she’d ever seen one.

Pulling out her pipe while the mayor and Eddie were busy arguing, she called her power up into her throat and started into a simple children’s song. By the time she’d gotten three notes in, she could hear the click of rat claws in the corridor outside.

Smirking to herself, she walked over to stand at Eddie’s side. He shifted his glare to her. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, girl, but—”

Before he could finish the thought, four rats surged into the office. Jess stepped slightly behind the council member, and though he moved away quickly he was still between her and the rats. They went straight up his legs, prepared to go over whatever or whoever they had to in order to get to the music.

The esteemed council member’s shriek was loud enough to drown out the music.

Jess stopped playing, causing the newly released rats to scatter instantly. Eddie straightened his suit, shaking with offended dignity, and Jess shot him her best salesman’s smile. “It seems like you have a rat problem, Eddie. Are you sure you really want to wait?”

He lifted his chin, turning to the mayor. “Fine. I won’t argue anymore,” he snapped, then turned and stalked out of the room as if it had offended him personally. As he left, Thomas grinned and mouthed “nice job” at her.

Jess grinned back, feeling like she’d just played for a command audience as she turned to the mayor. “So, shall we?”

Things wrapped up fairly quickly after that. Mayor Perkins agreed to a healthy fee, but insisted she do the walk that evening in exchange. Jess sighed like she was making a serious concession instead of getting exactly what she wanted.

The streak of luck continued all the way to that evening, when she officially started her walk. A nice crowd had gathered, watching her with an eagerness that meant no one would give her funny looks or question her credentials. She even got a round of applause as the music started, which was always good for the ego.

Unfortunately, the luck lasted about half a block. The power flowing through her felt the same as it always did, but this time there were only a few rats following her. There should be at least 50 by this point, especially in cities with as big a rat problem as Kensford seemed to have, and the people lining the street would figure that out any moment now. No matter what the real reason was, they’d blame her for it.

She dug deep inside her chest, reaching for more magic to pour into the song. It resisted, far more effort than she was used to making on these walks, but frustration and embarrassment gave her the strength to yank it free. The power rushed through her like water through a burst dam, pouring into the song so suddenly that she stumbled a little.

It only took a few more steps before the rats started coming. She could hear the sound of their tiny claws on the cobblestones, flooding into the street the same way her power had into the song. She didn’t turn around, but she’d been doing this long enough that she couldn’t stop her brain from estimating the number from the sounds. One hundred… three hundred… five hundred….

She’d just used too much power, that was all. That was the reason they were coming so fast, pushing at her ankles with far more eagerness than she usually got from the rodents she called. This was just an overdose, a completely understandable error, and she’d make a note of this and never do it again. 

But they kept coming. More and more rats found her with every step, the sound of them loud enough now to be heard over the music. The townspeople were growing increasingly unnerved, and it was getting harder and harder to pretend she wasn’t feeling the same way. Jess told herself she should turn around, get an accurate count, but she could never make herself do it.

As the audience thinned, fewer rats appeared out of the shadows to join her. When the cobblestones gave way to dirt roads, the sound from the rats claws was muffled enough to stop sending shivers up her spine. It was easier to calm herself down after that, reminding herself one more time that she’d just used too much power. The trench fires glowed in the distance, the rats were still moving along behind her like an obedient little army. She was almost—

The thought cut off as Thomas suddenly appeared in the middle of the empty field, hurrying toward her at a dead run.

Friday, December 7, 2018

New Thea and Max Novel now available!!!!

It's out! It's finally out! "Dirty Deeds Done for Reasonable Prices" is finally up on all the usual formats (my site has Kindle, iBooks, and Smashwords, a DRM-free site that has a bunch of formats, but it should also be up on Kobo, etc.). I'm sorry it took SO long for me to finish this one, but I'm so glad it finally all came together. I hope you all like it! (Click on the "Books" link and scroll down to the "Novellas" heading, or just scroll down until you hit the novellas.)

https://jennifferwardell.wixsite.com/mybooks

Monday, November 26, 2018

Cover reveal for the newest Thea and Max novel!

After far, far too long, the newest Thea and Max novel is finally in the home stretch. While I finish up the final edits on the book and get it formatted to go live, here's a look at the cover and a few more details.

Dirty Deeds Done for Reasonable Prices

Getting too attached to a real-life secret agent has its consequences. When Max asks for some help on an assignment that's gotten a little too personal, Thea can't help but say yes. Soon, however, the chance to see her favorite spy again turns into a tangle of secrets and sabotage that could blossom into a full-fledged supervillain plot. As our daring duo struggle to save the day, Thea finally realizes just how high the stakes can get.

Chapter 1: Never Give Them Ammunition

Chapter 2: Potential Supervillain Plot

Friday, October 19, 2018

Teaser for possible new novel

When wizards fought, it was as if the gods themselves walked the earth. They poured their power into towering projections, huge clawed beasts made of light that could tear through the landscape as easily as if they were made of flesh. Their roars were louder than any thunder, enough that mere mortals quaked at the sound of it.

But at the heart of all this terror-inducing magnificence was a fragile human made of nothing more than blood and bone. They could break so easily, these humans, especially when they poured so much of themselves into their creatures they forgot to keep any for themselves. They gave their own hearts in the service of a power far greater than they could ever realize.

And when they fell, crumpling like a broken toy, all that power disappeared as if it had never been.

The girl collapsed to the ground, the sudden absence of her dragon's golden glow leaving the world so much darker than it had been. She tried desperately to draw a full breath, to get anything past the blood in her mouth, but the knives of pain in her chest made it impossible. She ordered herself to get up, to do something, matter how fiercely she tried her body refused to do anything more than leave her fingers scrabbling uselessly in the dirt.

And the magic.... Tears leaked uselessly out of her eyes, mingling with the blood trickling its way down into the soil. They'd drilled the magic into her for months, told her to cling to it in the midst of even the greatest pain and suffering. She'd done just as they told her to, held onto the warm glow until it started to seem like it was almost alive. That glow had kept her going through the worst of her training, and the fact that she couldn't even feel a flicker of it now was almost worse than the knowledge that she was dying.

The sky somehow became even darker, the blackness her gran had always told her would come at the end of things. But then she heard the sound of footsteps, someone running, and she realized that the Dread Sorceress's creature had vanished as well. She was coming closer, wanting to be up close and personal to see her enemy's death.

But when the swirl of dark robes stopped in front of her, there was no mocking comment. The Dread Sorceress instead dropped to her knees, and the girl felt a hand smooth back her matted, bloody hair. "A child," the Sorceress whispered, her voice full of a trembling rage that would have made her afraid if there'd been anything left in her. "They sent a child to battle me?"

She tried lifting her hand again, tried to reach for even the smallest flicker of light inside her, but there was nothing. The Dread Sorceress made a noise that sounded like the girl felt, her hand still stroking the girl's hair. "Shhhh," the Sorceress whispered, softer even than her gran's had ever been. "You fought hard and well against an opponent you never could have hoped to beat. There are wizards twice your age who could not have done what you did, but the battle is done. It's time for you to rest now."

Even if the words were a lie, there was nothing else to cling to. Carried along by their softness, the girl finally let the dark embrace of death take her.

000

Her next memory was of silk against her cheek. Her first thought was surprise -- the village priest had never mentioned fine fabrics in the afterlife -- but then the smell of dust filled her nose as she realized this couldn't be the afterlife at all. Then the fine spider's web of ache all over her body demanded her attention, and a far more startling realization slowly settled in. She wasn't dead.

It took more effort than it should have to open her eyes. She was in a richly appointed bedroom, dusty enough that it clearly hadn't been used in some time. Sunlight filtered in through the closed curtains, not nearly enough to give her a clue as to where she might be.

She tried lifting her head, wanting to get a better look, but managed only a scant inch of space between herself and the pillow before her body informed her firmly that it was working with limited resources at the moment and crazy things like lifting her head was not on the approved activities list. She rolled instead, finding only more of the dimly lit bedroom.

The impossibility of it all did not lessen in the slightest. The closest castles to the Dread Sorceress's territory had all been abandoned, all carefully locked so the villagers couldn't make use of the resources inside. Even if someone had broken in, how could they have healed her? She was weaker than a baby, yes, but out on the battlefield she'd been a breath away from death. No herbs in the world could provide that kind of cure.

The memory of the Dread Sorceress's soft voice came back to her, but she dismissed it as a hallucination. People imagined all kinds of strange things when they were dying. There was no--

The thought cut off when a twisted, misshapen creature appeared in the doorway, one of the Dread Sorceress's army of monsters. The girl screamed, or at least meant to -- all she had the energy for was a pitiful-sounding meep -- but the creature jumped back as if she'd been much louder. It inched back inside after a moment, shaking, and the girl realized that the creature was just as frightened of her as she was of it.

She stayed silent this time, waiting, as the creature wrung its hands. "Does the girl need anything?" it asked, voice like a hand moving through gravel. When she nodded, mute, the creature nodded with what looked like relief. "I will tell the Mistress you are awake."

Then it fled, leaving the girl staring after him in shock.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

New short story: Redeemed Items

Sometimes, trouble was so obvious you could practically hear the dramatic music.

Mavis kept one eye on the teen who had just stepped into the shop, their hunched posture and dingy red hoodie making further identification impossible. Anyone who tried that hard to make sure no one could see their face was automatically up to no good, and the way they were moving along the displays didn’t help matters. This person’s attention wasn’t on the shelves, stuffed with a range of items that fell somewhere between antiques and junk. No, their attention was on Mavis herself, waiting for the moment when her attention slipped.

Mavis pretended to oblige, letting both her eyes rest on her account book. She barely had to wait ten seconds before she heard the sound she was looking for, not quite covered by a fake cough. The cough actually drew more attention to what they were doing, though the more inexperienced ones never seemed to realize that.

Of course, none of them had quite as much experience as Mavis did. “You’re not as good at sneaking as you think.”

She looked up as the teen froze, face still carefully turned away from Mavis’s view. “I didn’t steal anything.” The voice was high enough that Mavis was willing to guess girl, though there was a rough edge to it that usually only came with throat injuries. “I wouldn’t.”

“I’dve preferred you try to steal something.” Mavis could hear the sympathy slipping into her own voice, completely against her will. The injured ones always got to her, whether she wanted them to or not. “Whatever you just added to that shelf, child, take it back. I’m not running a collection agency here.”

“I didn’t put anything on the shelf.” The girl tried to sound casual, but Mavis could hear the waver fear put into the words. “I was just looking.”

Mavis sighed as she pressed the button that locked the door. “I know every single thing on those shelves. If I have to come over there, you’ll walk out of here with both your unwanted prize and an amulet that compels you to shake the hand of every single person in the world with brown eyes.”
The girl made a distressed noise, then covered her mouth with her hand. She had to breathe carefully for a few seconds before she spoke again. “Amulets can’t really do that,” she said finally, voice far too even to be anything but fake. “Magic isn’t real.”

The amulet wasn’t real, in fact, but there was no need to tell the girl that. “Then there’s nothing stopping you from picking up whatever you just tried to slip me. If you have it in your hand, I’ll let you walk out the door right now.”

There was a long moment of silence, then the girl surprised her by walking up to the counter. She stood there a moment, eyes resting on the edge of the account book, then lowered her hood and looked up to meet Mavis's gaze.

Mavis thought she'd prepared herself for anything, but the electric blue lightning that filled her eyes was enough to make her blink. There were no whites, no pupils, but somehow the anguish in them was still clear as day. "I don't know how to make it stop," she whispered. "I tried to give the ring back after the battle was over, but no one would take it. They said the magic would fade once I crossed back over into this world, but it's been months and it's as strong as ever. I can't even use a phone anymore without shorting it out, and the last person who saw my eyes screamed." Her voice cracked on the last word, and Mavis couldn't help but hurt for the girl. "I thought, maybe if I got rid of the ring, it would fade."

Aching at the all-too-familiar pain in the girl's voice, Mavis carefully closed her account book. "Can you hear the ring whispering to you?" she asked quietly. "Or any other kind of compulsion, for that matter. Sometimes it's a pressure in your head, other times it's a buzzing."

The girl looked briefly startled, then shook her head. "No."

Mavis studied the girl's eyes, which hadn't cleared at all in the few moments she'd been away from the ring. "But you can still feel the magic inside you, can't you?"

The slowly dawning horror on her face was answer enough. Mavis's voice gentled. "If it was the ring causing your powers, you'd still feel a connection with it," she explained. "It might have sparked something in you, but its job is done. Getting rid of the ring won't get rid of the magic."

"Maybe if I get further away," the girl pleaded, as if getting Mavis to agree would force the universe to do the same. "Or maybe it just takes more time for it to fade."

Mavis shook her head. "You'd feel the separation already, no matter how short the distance. I'll let you leave the ring, if you'd like, but it won't solve your problem."

Now the girl looked stubborn. "You can't know that." She leaned forward, still focused on trying to convince Mavis. "You might know about magic, but that doesn't"

The rest of the girl's argument choked into silence as Mavis pushed up the sleeve of her sweater. The tattoo covered the inside of her right arm from wrist to elbow, thick, swirling green lines that shimmered like sunlight on water.

"This curl appeared the day I found a necklace in a shop just like this one." She pointed to a small section of the tattoo, almost indistinguishable from the others around it. “It let me open doorways I shouldn’t have, but every time it did a new curl appeared.  A week later, I threw that necklace into the bottom of the reservoir and haven't seen it since." She let the sleeve of the sweater fall. “When it disappeared, the tattoo was less than half the size it is now.”

The girl pressed her lips together. “The magic didn’t leave with the necklace?”

“No.” Mavis’s hand tightened on the page of the account book, letting herself give into regret for a few seconds. “For awhile, I got reckless. Opened a lot of doors I shouldn’t have, told myself it didn’t matter if the tattoo ended up covering my whole body.” She looked down, then met the girl’s lightning eyes again. “Don’t do that. Magic’s like any creature – more you give it, the more it wants. You have to be the one holding the reins.”

The girl swallowed, looking upward like she was sending up a prayer to whatever god or goddess was listening. Then, taking a deep breath, she looked back at Mavis. “Do you need some help in the shop?”

Mavis stared at her, more surprised than she’d been by the sight of the eyes. “I can’t cure you, girl,” she warned her, remembering her own years of hoping. “As far as I can tell, there isn’t one.”

“I guessed that.” She pulled her hands out of the pockets of the hoodie, laying her fingertips lightly along the edge of the counter. “But you seem like you’ve had a lot of practice at surviving.”

Mavis watched the girl’s face, wondering what would have happened if she herself had stepped into the right shop all those years ago. Then she nodded. “I think I can find a place for you.”  

Friday, July 27, 2018

How to let Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep teach you about writing

Photo courtesy of Paramount
So I don't think I've mentioned this here before, but I also write movie reviews on a professional basis. Currently, my reviews are running with the Vail Daily, a newspaper in Colorado, and I'm a member of the Denver Film Critics Society (I was a member of the Utah Film Critics Association, but which group you join depends more on your outlet than where you live).

It's an amazingly good gig for a storyteller to have, because it becomes your literal job to sit there and dissect stories all day. Yes, the language is different for movies than it is for novels, and there are more people to blame when things go wrong -- in a movie, sometimes it's the director or the actors who are at fault rather than the writer. Movies will also try to distract you with explosions and CGI, which is generally much harder to do in text form. (Why yes, I did just recently review "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" for Vail. However did you guess?)

But stories, are at their heart, very much the same. And when you watch enough movies, studying them the same way a biologist studies their animal of choice, you learn all about the ways a story can move. You get a sense of the story's rhythms, the rise and fall of drama, joy and heartbreak. You learn to anticipate plot twists by recognizing the groundwork the writer lays into the script. You learn what it takes to make dialogue flow naturally on the human ear, and hear firsthand how jarring it can be when it doesn't.

Sometimes, that makes it harder for me to just watch movies. It's like someone who studies magic for a living watching a magician onstage. No matter how good they are at the trick, you can't help but know exactly how they did it.

(And when they can surprise you anyway, it's hard not to fall in love a little bit.)

More importantly, though, it makes me a better writer. Doctors study anatomy to know how things should work, and what should be done to fix them when they don't. Criticism requires an intense study in narrative anatomy, walking through the story firsthand to know what works and what doesn't.

It's a knowledge I carry over to every piece of fiction that I write.

For those who are interested, here are some of my recent reviews:

https://www.vaildaily.com/entertainment/the-movie-guru-tom-cruise-surprisingly-funny-in-new-mission-impossible-fallout/

https://www.vaildaily.com/news/the-movie-gurue-eighth-grade-beautifully-painfully-real/

https://www.vaildaily.com/entertainment/the-movie-guru-even-without-meryl-streep-mama-mia-here-we-go-again-is-fizzy-fun/

Friday, May 18, 2018

Chapter 2 of the new Thea & Max adventure!


Chapter 2: Potential Supervillain Plot
“Ah, the glorious life of a spy.” D’s voice, this time on the other end of a phone rather than an earbud, was as dryly amused as always.  Sometimes, Max wondered if she’d picked up the British accent at some point just to add to the effect. “Lurking outside the Columbus airport, defending your territory from the real shuttle service drivers.”
“You’re just jealous because you’ve had to spend the last three days in a luxury Saudi Arabian hotel doing nothing but relaxing and listening to audio recordings,” Max said lightly, holding up a sign with Thea’s cover I.D. written on it. “You know where I am, there’s at least a 15 percent chance I’ll get to punch somebody before this is all over.”
Maybe more, if the feeling in his gut was to be believed. When he first got Dave’s call, he assumed he’d be taking a few days to soothe an eccentric old man’s paranoia. With every minute he was actually out here, though, his sense that there was something seriously wrong kept climbing.
“You know I can be out there the second you need me.” The sudden seriousness in D’s voice made it clear she read his silence as well as she ever did. “Any idiot could handle my current assignment. All it will do is take one phone call to Rhys.”
Max smiled a little, genuinely touched by the offer. “Thank you, seriously. But like I said, I’ll be fine. This is probably nothing.”
“So ‘nothing’ that you flew out to Chicago simply to go ask your programmer for help?” D asked, using the tone that pointed out how full of shit he was without actually saying the words. “When we both know you wanted to wait until you found something exciting for her first spy mission?”
“I still am,” he countered, carefully sidestepping the real question. “This isn’t her first spy mission. This is just a favor for whatever it is she sees me as.”
A part of him, even now, kept expecting her to call and say she wasn’t coming. It would be wildly out of character for Thea not to hold up her end of an agreement, but asking someone to drop everything and fly out to Ohio on a hunch definitely counted as extraordinary circumstances. It was entirely reasonable that common sense would suddenly hit her and make her realize she never should have said yes in the first place.
“A favor, hmmm?” D’s tone was gentler now. “What did you do to get her to say yes to that?”
“I’ll have to get her to Rome at some point,” Max said lightly, even though he knew Thea had thrown that in as an afterthought. Hopefully, she actually wanted to go to Rome, because he was absolutely planning to follow through.
“That will be such a hardship for you, I’m sure.” The tone was teasing, but when she sighed it sounded completely serious again. “Keep me updated, would you? If you’re foolish enough to get yourself seriously injured because you didn’t have the good sense to call me, I’m going to be extremely annoyed with you.”
Max smiled again as he hung up the phone, sliding it back into his pocket as he scanned the crowds coming through the doors. The uniform hat was pulled low enough to keep his face off of any cameras, but he’d arrived early enough that a few of the other drivers were giving him pointed glares for his prime real estate. It was too late to go back in time and make himself wait, but in a few minutes he’d have to circle the block just to—
The thought cut off when he saw Thea hurrying through the doors, wearing a professional-looking pantsuit and dark curls pulled back in a sensible ponytail. She was carrying her small suitcase rather than wheeling it behind her, and had the faintly harried look everyone got after having to deal with an airport.
Right then, she was the best thing he’d ever seen.
He stepped forward, lifting a hand, and he could tell when she caught sight of him by the relief on her face. His own chest felt suspiciously tight, full of things he knew it was best not to look at too closely, but he kept the conversation to the usual shuttle service spiel while he loaded her luggage in the back and opened her door for her.
When he got inside, safely shutting the door, he gave her a real grin. “Your Taser’s in the glove compartment, if you’re curious. Fully charged.”
She got it out as he pulled back into traffic, giving it an approving once-over before slipping it into her purse. “I assume this professor of yours knows I’m coming?”
Max nodded, sobering at the reminder. “I told Dave I was bringing in a computer expert from the security firm I work for, and he spent 20 minutes apologizing for the fuss he'd been making and explaining that there was really no need to go to all the trouble.” He knew this was more information than she’d technically asked for, but it was a relief to finally be able to put some of his worry into words. “Which would be fine, except this is the first time in my life I've ever heard Dave apologize. About anything.”
Thea winced. “Okay, that does sound suspicious.”
“Tell me about it.” He let out a breath, navigating his way through airport roads and out onto the main highway. “I'm really afraid he's gotten himself in trouble, somehow, but I can't figure out how a professor in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio who's obsessed with grain crops would manage to do that.”
“I hate to say it, but it usually has something to do with money.” She hesitated. “I can... poke around a little. If you'd like.”
He’d hoped she would be willing to take a look at Dave’s files, but the way she phrased that sparked his interest. “Are we talking Nancy Drew here, or Miss ‘How dare you accuse me of being a hacker?’”
Thea narrowed her eyes at him. "First, you thought I'd hacked my own code to work with terrorists, which isn't the same thing at all. Second, it’s…” She let her voice trail off, suddenly looking more hesitant than he’d ever seen her be. “Just because I don't do something doesn't mean I can’t.”
There was a story here, but one he had to be careful in getting. “There’s not even a hint of that in your files,” he said lightly. “And I have some pretty extensive files.”
He glanced over to see a flicker of pride cross her face. It was a much better look for her than the hesitation had been. “It only ends up in your files if you get caught.” She even smiled a little. “I know this is a strange and foreign territory to you, but when you’re not prone to showboating it’s much easier not to get noticed.”
He grinned. “But where's the fun in that?”
Her smile widened briefly before she sobered again. “I would prefer no one else know, if that’s at all possible. I know Rhys should probably know, in case he needs me to do something specific, but….”
As the words trailed off, Max shook his head. “He won’t hear about it from me. Though honestly, you should feel free to tell him yourself – scuttlebutt says that his best friend was a hacker, back in the day.”
“I don’t know,” she said finally, in the tone of voice that actually meant “no.” “It’s just… I think you might be the first person I’ve ever told.”
The words humbled him. “Whatever you’re comfortable with.”
“Thank you.” She relaxed, settling back against the seat. “Still, the offer’s open if you need it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” His fingers tightened on the steering wheel, wanting to give her something in return. The problem was, most of the secrets in his past weren’t nearly so charming or pleasant. “Dave calls me Rick, by the way.” He kept his eyes on the road for this part. “Rick Martinez. I completely made up the first part, but… the last part is my mother’s maiden name.” He let out a breath, trying hard not to think about how much his mother would have liked Thea. “My real first name is Joshua.” 
He could feel how carefully she was watching him, which meant she had to have noticed how tense he’d suddenly gotten. “You didn’t have to tell me that,” she said quietly.
“Seemed like we were having a moment.” His voice wasn’t nearly as light as he’d meant it to be, and it took far more effort than it should have to keep his voice from cracking. “Didn’t want to miss out on my turn.”
She didn’t respond to that, and Max braced himself for questions. When she finally did speak, however, her voice was gentle. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll keep calling you Max when we’re not on assignment.” When he glanced over at her, she smiled at him. “I like it better than Joshua.”
He grinned back at her, trying to ignore the lump in his throat. “So do I.”
#
The campus of Lochland Agricultural University was quieter than most of the colleges Max had visited, which meant they weren’t bothered as they wove their way to Dave’s building. Max had made himself a parking pass along with all the necessary I.D.s, so he pulled into one of the faculty and staff spaces. “So, ready to meet Professor David Hoskins, a man who is fantastically bad at interacting with humans and may or may not have gotten funding from the agro-mafia to help create a super-bacteria?”
“First, I’m almost positive the agro-mafia isn’t an actual thing.” She gave him a wry look. “Second, I’m very familiar with male nerds. I think I can handle your professor.”
Max winced. “Dave may actually be slightly worse than the standard model.” At Thea's surprised look, he shrugged. “It's like the science is really the only thing that exists for him. The rest of the world mostly gets shuffled into a box labeled 'things that distract him from science.’”
Thea’s look had softened to curiosity by this point. “But you two are still close?”
"I don't know if I'd call it 'close.' It's more like he tolerates me, but actively dislikes pretty much everyone else." Back in college, during those first few years after escaping his old life, it had felt like the most honest relationship he had. “He needed someone to run interference for him, and I was the only TA he had to didn’t snap and try to kill him after a few weeks.”
Her curious look sharpened, like she was about to ask something about whether he had any actual friends in college, and before she could he got out of the car and opened her door. “Don’t worry – if he tries to interrogate you too much, I’ll deflect.”
Thea gave him an amused look, clearly catching his evasion. “That should be interesting to watch.” 
He watched Thea study everything as they made their way inside, more pleased than he probably should have been to see her eyes linger on several different weak spots in the building’s security. She didn’t catch all of them – the lab of a small university, it turned out, was basically a defensive nightmare – but she had a fantastic eye for a civilian.
When they got to the lab, however, there were other things that demanded Max’s attention. What appeared to be some sort of roofless tent made of autoclave bags had been constructed over one side of the lab bench, sheltering it entirely from view. Some of the DNA equipment had been moved over to the opposite side of the bench, where the grad students were valiantly trying to construct a new decontamination shield.
Already feeling the headache coming on, he looked over at the PhD student at one of the computers. Grace didn’t seem to get ruffled by anything, which generally made her the most reliable source of information. “That wasn’t here this morning.”
“He built it while you were gone.” She kept her eyes focused on the screen, rapidly inputting numbers. “Which means we’re at least a day behind on our Wheat Rust research, and even though Dr. Hoskins doesn’t give a damn about it there are some of us who still do.”
If even Grace was about ready to kill him, then things were really bad. “I’ll get him,” he sighed, shooting Thea an apologetic look. “Sorry. I may have undersold his inability to handle other humans.”
She held up a hand. “No need to apologize. I have an aunt like this.”
Ducking his head under the tent flap – where had Dave found these metal poles so quickly – he poked a finger in the middle of the lab-coated back bent over a microscope. “Dave, time to come out and play with the other members of society. Your students are prepared to overthrow you if you don’t.”
“What are they complaining about? I gave them the equipment they needed.” Still, Dave lifted his head to look back over his shoulder at Max. His face was narrow in a way that meant he rarely remembered to eat, his beard in desperate need of a trim. He’d looked that way when Max was in college, too. “Tell them I’m busy.”
“Not a chance.” Max slipped all the way inside, letting the flap close behind him. “I need you out here to explain your magic bacteria to that computer security specialist I was telling you about.”
Dave made a dismissive noise, bending back down to the microscope. “You explain it. This Ms. Thurgood needs to know whether someone is hacking the lab’s computers, not the inner workings of my bacteria or the retrovirus it carries.”
Technically, that was true. But he needed Thea to hear the scientific version of it, so he could see if it made perfect sense to her or if she caught the whiff of “potential supervillain plot” like he did. “You know me and science, Dave. I’ll get three lines in and completely bungle the whole thing.”
That got him to turn around again, if only to shoot Max a disgruntled look. “We both know that you understand science perfectly well. You simply don’t like it.”  His eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t like you, either, I’m sure. You certainly broke the hearts of enough promising young scientists who came sniffing after you while you were in undergrad.”
Taking advantage of the sudden resurgence of the old argument, he gently nudged Dave away from the microscope. “I keep telling you, it’s not my fault Paul became a priest.”
Dave hrumphed, too focused on proving Max wrong to protest being moved. “He could have been a brilliant researcher. There was no reason for him to give that up.”
“He said he felt a calling.” Max lifted up the flap with his free hand, nudging him through. “Just like you did with science.”
“That’s ridiculous. He was perfectly happy—“ Dave stopped, narrowing his eyes as he finally processed that he was now on the opposite side of the tent. He turned to glare at Max. “I forget how tricky you are.”
“Many people do.”  He gestured to Thea, who was busy helping the student scientists try to re-assemble their work space. “Dave, this is Elise Thurgood, Sterling Enterprise’s resident computer genius. Elise, this is Professor David Hoskins, one of the most annoying geniuses I’ve ever met.”
Thea stopped what she was doing, holding out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, professor. Rick has been telling me a great deal about your work.”
Dave shot Max a disgruntled look “I’ll bet he has.” He gestured toward a door on the opposite side of the lab. “Come on, then.”
As he disappeared through the door, Thea shot him a questioning look. Max gestured her onward, turning back to the students. “You have this dismantled by the time we get back,” he told them, voice low. “I’ll buy you all pizza.”
Grace considered this a moment, then nodded. “Done.”
They started swarming Dave’s stolen workspace as Max followed Thea out the door. He already knew the pathway to the lab’s greenhouse, having been led there the first day, and slipped into position next to Thea just as Dave stopped in front of the right environmental chamber. “My greatest work,” the older man said proudly, gesturing to the wheat plants visible through the sides of the chamber. “All five of them started out as different variants of wheat, but now all five are genetically identical – the perfect, healthy, ideal plant.”
Thea’s eyebrows flickered upward briefly. “Rick mentioned that you’d developed a bacteria?”
Dave’s eyes lit. “A retrovirus inside a bacteria.” He laid a hand against the side of the environmental chamber, looking at the plants the same way other people looked at puppies or kittens. “I refined the virus so that, rather than inserting its own reverse-transcribed RNA, it inserts the RNA I choose to have the virus carry. The retrovirus sees the insertion as programming, and will place itself in the correct location to disrupt any conflicting genes. The bacteria is infinitely more controllable as a biological gene vector than the pure virus, which means we should be able to contain the changes to a specific field.” He turned back to Thea, practically glowing. “Think of what could be accomplished.”
Thea’s eyebrows took considerably longer to come down this time. “You could destroy a farmer’s entire crop, along with any future seeds.”
Dave scoffed. “That’s easy – there are so many crop diseases we can do that now. Sabotage is the realm of the simpleton.” He turned back to his plants. “No, my virus will save crops all over the world. When the blight comes, no matter what form it takes, all scientists will have to do is prime the virus with the healthy version of the DNA and set it loose in the infected plants. Within days, their entire crop is healthy and whole again.”
Thea’s eyes flicked over to Max. “I bet the grant committee was excited to hear how far your research had progressed.”
Dave immediately bristled, turning back to glare at her. “This research is being privately funded,” he snapped, and Max mentally circled the comment in bright red marker. “The drones who hand out the grant money wouldn’t understand the value of what I’m doing if I wrote out a detailed chart for them. For the sake of true scientific achievement, I had to go elsewhere.”   
“Will I get to meet this mysterious benefactor?” Max asked lightly. “Guys rich enough to privately fund research are generally good for a freelance bodyguarding gig or two.”
“He has his own people,” Dave said shortly, once again calling attention to himself by avoiding the person’s name. He turned away from them. “Besides, I think he’s out of town at the moment.”
As excuses went, it was only a step or two up from “He just stepped into the shower. Can he call you back?” But Dave had already left the conversation, staring at his wheat through the wall of the environmental chamber like Max imagined a man would stare at his child through a nursery window. Pride, love, and possessiveness were the most obvious emotions, with the faintest undercurrent of pure terror running just beneath the surface.
Thea cleared her throat to get his attention. “That sounds fascinating, Professor. I assume all your data is on the lab computers?”
“Yes, yes.” Dave nodded distractedly, staring at the wheat through the wall of the environmental chamber. “I don’t expect you to understand it, but all the information is there.”
“If I did have a question about some of your research, could I ask you?” she asked, faking just the right touch of diffidence. “I wouldn’t interrupt your work, but this seems like a fascinating area of study.”
Dave hesitated, then turned to give her a far more penetrating look than the question warranted. Then, finally, he turned back to the chamber. “Maybe.” He gave the wall a gentle pat. His expression already seemed far away again. “Depends on how busy I am.” 
Now that he wasn’t looking at her, Thea’s own expression turned far more analytical. “If you’re busy, I can ask one of your students.”
Dave made a dismissive noise. “They’re busy with their own project. Curing all three types of wheat rust.” He looked solemn again. “This one is mine. Only mine.”
Then he turned, heading back towards the exit. “You know the way out.”
When he was gone, Thea let out a breath. “Well, that was weirdly uncomfortable,” she said after a moment, voice pitched low enough that the one or two other people in the greenhouse couldn’t hear them. “Do you want me to take a look at who’s—”
“Yes, please.” He gestured toward the exit, careful to pace himself so they were walking exactly together. “I’ll go clone his phone and walk my way through his contacts the last few months, see if there’s anyone who sets off alarms.” There were a lot of databases full of people who had connections to various shady enterprises, and Max had access to all of them. Dave probably wasn’t working with a drug runner or anything, but there were plenty of ways you could dip a toe into the criminal pool.
Whatever Dave had done, Max was going to get him out of it.