Things We Lost in the Fire



Efren had been cold and wet for so long, his skin had forgotten every other sensation. Standing vigil outside the burnt, soggy remains of the garden shed. Just in case something came out.

The old man had been… a lot of things. He’d been a lot of things. A piece of work. An accomplished, bitter shit-talker. In possession of a mean temper and a right hook to match.

Who knew the bastard could have been sad too?

A body-wracking shiver coursed through Efren’s skinny body. He hadn’t dressed for the weather when he’d gone out early that afternoon—it had only been cold then—and when the rain hit, he’d figured he deserved it.

Fingers traced the tender flesh around his left eye. Blinking madly as fat raindrops rolled down his brow and into both eyes. Nothing was coming out. He couldn’t bring himself to go in. Nor to call whatever authority he ought to have called an hour ago.

Most of the streetlights in the neighborhood had gone. Victims of rocks and indifference. But his eyes had adjusted enough that he could still see a charred once-white undershirt. Light from somewhere glinted off broken glass. Maybe the moon?

Who was Efren supposed to call? The police? What would they do? Nothing he’d like, he assumed. The fire was long out. Did one call firefighters after the fire had been drowned?

Then it struck him. He didn’t have to call anyone. He could just… go.

So he did.


What to do with an unused idea?

Those who write novels will be familiar with this part of the pre- and early writing process. Even pantsers keep copious notes. Sometimes entire project gets sidelined, either for a different project, or due to life in general.

In my case, I hoard just about everything I write. I don’t always back it up, and this dubious treasure trove is scattered across various methods of storage and almost as many devices. But it’s all still there. Just in case I want to go back to it.

This time, I had two possible fantasy worlds. It was difficult to separate everything. Some of my ideas were intrinsically linked to one world idea or the other. Some elements would work in either world with minimal to no reworking. But the most important thing was that each of these settings is tonally distinct. In some ways, total opposites.

I got hung up on it, unable to choose. I liked both settings. There was no way to merge them, not without too much sidetracking. Worse, I couldn’t continue making notes while sitting at this crossroads, so I started to stick on more and more elements of the story. The size of the cast grew or shrank according to the setting I leaned further towards. Certain characters’ introductions changed or were moved.

How did I solve this? In the most childish way possible. I asked someone else to pick one. Like flipping a coin. This person was removed from my mire of procrastinating non decisions. Either would work, and I just needed a push forward.

But I have kept everything that belongs to the other setting. Maybe I’ll have a use for it someday.


The Ironic Lack of Intimacy in First Person

As often happens, I had a conversation with my husband about a book I was reading and I interrupted myself. I realised that I not only wanted the main character to succeed, but that I also liked her and could describe her personality. This struck me as notable because the book is written in first person present tense. A few years ago, that would have made it difficult or even impossible for me to enjoy the book. I’ve since become inured to it as a style choice, which may be why I don’t notice other people objecting to it anymore. But I do recall that other people dislike first person, whether in present or past tense.

While I’m aware that not everyone who dislikes first person perspective (FPP) does so for the same reasons, I wonder if there might be a common, undiagnosed problem. After contemplating for a few days, my brain tossed up the term “a lack of intimacy.” I tend to perceive FPP protagonists as samey and I often don’t like them, or at least I’m quicker to condemn them for their actions and slower to sympathise. They just feel so… detached from my reading experience.

Isn’t that a weird thought?

Articles and books on writing that cover perspective choice call first person things like intimatedirect, but also limited. The limited nature was possibly my biggest complaint back when I had trouble enjoying The Hunger Games. Katniss just missed so many things that were going on.

In an example like Huckleberry Finn, I certainly recognise the perspective as intimate, but one of the reasons for that is that it’s also conversational. The average YA novel with FPP doesn’t feel like the protagonist is talking to a reader. At worst, it feels like navel-gazing. Self-centred self-narration, like my toddler vocalising his actions because he literally likes the sound of his own voice. As if maybe the reason such a book was written in first person is because that perspective was easier. At best(?), it feels like listening to someone clever talk to themself. Why am I here? is something I have honestly thought while reading FPP before.

Maybe the best way I can really explain it is that for a person who dislikes reading first person books, the experience is akin to being forced to listen to someone recount an incredibly long dream. It’s full of vain little thoughts, meandering asides, in-jokes that only the speaker/author would get, and in the end might be so personal or so predicated on inexpressible feelings that it doesn’t even make sense.

That is not an intimate conversation. That is a selfish speaker and a bored, disengaged listener.


Thinking about Genre

If you go to TV Tropes (and I won’t link you, as that might be hazardous to your spare time), one of the first things you learn, after “TV Tropes will ruin your life,” is that “tropes are tools.” Genre is a collection of tropes that has been codified through repeated use. Some stories are half-genres (like vampire, werewolf, or zombie fiction), and some are… Westerns,

Genres, as tools, help to convey information to the reader in ways that aren’t necessarily explicit. When you write a Historical Romance, simply knowing that the story takes place in year 18XX in Country Y will tell you a lot about the story before you’ve even introduced the characters. When it’s done well, that is. Not naming any names.

Like the different shades of monster fiction, genres come in micro- and macro- versions, not to mention delicate little slices of subgenre representing mere collections of storytelling devices. Superheroes have seen a surge in recent years, but remember right after The Incredibles and the first X-Men films came out and everyone was taking potshots at capes and spandex? That didn’t get old effing immediately.

I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. In their original context, capes and spandex were part of a very specific collection of tropes (to be precise, circus strong-man tropes), and it’s important to remember and respect that original context. Maybe things have changed since then, but there was a reason for them. It isn’t random, and it certainly isn’t stupid.

Tropes and genres as a topic of discussion may seem modern, even post-modern, but it’s important to note that discussion of storytelling elements goes back to Ancient Greek theatre, and many storytelling elements we take for granted–such as the three- and four-act structure and the happy ending–are very, very old ideas.

Every so often though, you get a movie or a comic or a book or a game that breaks down what we call “genre conventions.”

Sometimes these works launch entire new genres of their own, or they’re the first (or last) nail in the coffin of a particular genre. Don Quixote is a famous work of parody-pastiche that deconstructs the chivalric romance, which was cliched even by the time Quixote was written. Harry Potter wasn’t the first boarding school fantasy, but it’s one of the most notable now.

When the elements of a particular genre become so well-known that you can create a shorthand for the collection of elements themselves, it becomes possible to write in multiple genres within one. Going back to superheroes, you might not consider it this way, but Jekyll & Hyde is about the same sort of questions. Identity, duality of same, the purpose of morality as a social construct, and what drives a pleasant person with a seemingly enviable life to discard it for a shadowy path.

Jekyll was even created by a fantastic serum that turned him into a monster. Obviously no one is ever surprised to learn that story was part of the inspiration for The Incredible Hulk. A less abstract narrative, certainly, which has grown to include elements of acceptance and tolerance, perhaps taken from Beauty and the Beast.

The language of storytelling is a living thing, constantly growing and changing. Storytellers who see success in one area, be it video games, books, or comics–will try to tell a similar (or the same) story in their own medium of choice. And through recombination, sometimes we see the progeny of these adaptations return to their original medium.

Interestingly, genres seem elastic. Though specific tropes may mature in the translation from one medium to the next, a Western is a Western is a Western, and everyone knows that when it comes to zombies–you always aim for the head.


CONFLICT (guest post)

Conflict drives a story. This is what we’re told. A character wants something, and something else rises to stop them. Honestly, it can get a little ridiculous when antagonists suddenly appear to prevent a hero from achieving something relatively unimportant like, I don’t know… groceries.

Like most writing advice, the truth is more complicated than that. If we’re being 100% straightforward, who your story has to do is engage and entertain your audience… that’s all. You don’t need conflict to do that if your audience isn’t engaged or entertained by conflict, it just so happens that conflict will do it for like, the majority. Of people.

So, what’s really important in creating entertainment and what role does conflict actually serve? You have to be willing to open your mind a bit to the ideas, because sometimes what really entertains can fall outside the sort of thing you find in the mainstream. Some people are entertained by home videos of people hurting themselves. Cue Jackass.

Schadenfreude is enough of a thing that America’s Funniest Home Videos and Jackass have an audience. Political punditry has an audience too. One of the first things you need to engage is subject matter that falls in someone’s interests. An easy way to start with this is to figure something that interests YOU.

You are potentially a member of your audience. It can be a good place to start.

A weird thing you can try to pull is of course to write on something topical or relevant. Current events or controversies can be subject matter that grabs an audience. It can be seen as “low” or even “pandering” writing to a fad or to rip stories from the headlines — but if it didn’t work, people wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be successful. Dull surprise.

It isn’t strictly necessary to create conflict for your story. So, what kind of conflict benefits your story? You want to include things that enhance and improve your story. Conflict for its own sake is tedious, like drama for its own sake or… anything that doesn’t really contribute or improve your story.

It’s worth looking at the core of your story to figure out what conflict will make it better. You should be able to explain the central points of your story in broad strokes, and add detail in successive iterations like reverse-peeling an onion really slowly. Some conflicts can be doubled and tripled up on in order to make them more relevant.

Ultimately you want to write with both eyes open — don’t add elements to your story arbitrarily. Everything you put in your story is a reflection of you: who you are and what you know. It’s a deliberate act of creation whether you’re fully aware of all your content or if you just coast through it. It’s better to be conscious of your content.

Under some circumstances, conflict for its own sake might be acceptable but you need to decide that when you write it. Don’t be lazy about it, and don’t defend your own lazy writing. Own your conflict. Own your writing.


King of Teeth

One of the better jobs was simply maintaining the cage. Quiet, predictable work that was always done in a group or at least a pair. No chance that a grudge might sneak up on kill you. The others in the group didn’t even have to be allies. You were all united in not wanting to add to the blood you had to scrub off the concrete. Cleaning the cage was a little spot of peace in the Underground.

A flash of light caught Zaymie’s eye. She set down her bucket of rinse water and crouched, careful not to let her bare knees meet a soap-covered stain. No immediate joy. One of her locks slid over her shoulder as she  turned her head this way and that, trying to get the firelight from the sconces outside the cage to catch on the mystery object.

There. More of a glint this time, flashes over more than one angle, as if the thing had many facets. Her hand shot out and she jumped back to her feet. “Found a tooth,” she called out, palming it. “Who’s got the bag?”

“I do.” Tiger appeared at her side, the curt reply the only sound he made. Only long acquaintance with the short knife fighter kept Zaymie from jumping. He handed her the smelly burlap sack reserved for debris such as teeth and fingers.

Ill fortune. If Kickaby had been holding the bag, he would have simply thrown it to her, never mind the chance of spilling. When it came to a sharpness contest, Tiger was a dagger and Kickaby was a bowl. “Thanks.” She reached into the bag and relaxed her hand, not quite letting go of the thing. “I’m gonna see if it has any fellows.”

Their eyes locked. Tiger’s normally straight-lipped expression broke into something akin to a bemused smile. The cage was designed to be a heatsink, to cool the combatants in the sweaty, literal heat of battle. Not the sort of environment that allowed for flushed skin. Certainly not from something as basic as lying.

Goosebumps rose to sharp points, prickling hard across her neck like sandpaper under her skin. “Unless you want to be the King of Teeth.”

“Not today.” He turned away first, his breath and shoulders shaking. Laughing at her.


Free-writing On the Run

Hadley leaned forward to get her head between her knees. Her frizzy black hair draped over her legs like a ragged curtain. “Are they still out there?”

It was a stupid question, which Brian wasted no time answering. “Where do you expect them to go? They’re as trapped as we are.”

She disagreed. Nothing with teeth like that could truly be said to be trapped. Predators were the masters of all they surveyed. The beasts weren’t trapped. They were in charge.

That and other similarly bleak and useless things crossed her mind in a whir of activity. She bumped her head back and forth between her knees like an indecisive pinball, then launched herself up. Too fast. Combined with the smell of neglect and old rat leavings, the whiplash blurred her vision. She slapped her face with one hand and rubbed her eyes. “You think the chains will keep them out?”

“I don’t know.” Her brother sat on the crumbling old mattress beside her and rubbed her shoulder absentmindedly. “The door is made of metal, so they probably won’t just chew through it.”

Probably. So comforting.

“Those claws didn’t look like they’d help much with tool-manipulating, either. Even if they’re smart enough to open the door, I doubt they could.”

The warehouse had been a boon. From the outside, it had seemed to span the whole world. It very well could have done. The truly wonderful part about it was that it clearly connected contiguously from within, while only threatening a few entrances.

The truly disgusting part about it was that it looked like a concrete factory had thrown up into a dusty wood pile. Hadley coughed into both hands, then twitched away from that comforting hand on her back. “Then we should find all of the doors and chain them.”

Only Brian could smile in that situation. She couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled. Too much stress. Too exhausted. But Brian was always grinning, laughing at his own stupid jokes, and generally finding the silver lining in everything. He flapped her hair away from her face. “Take a second to breathe. They’re locked onto us, which means that if we don’t move, they won’t.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“No, but I can figure it out. Using logic.” He tapped the side of his head with a grimy finger. “The usurper sent beasts after us. That could mean just about anything on his end, but what it means for us is that they’re not gonna do the kinds of things a ranger team would do. Like secure all the doors.”

As much as Hadley’s back ached to flop onto the mattress and curl up for a good long kip, she could smell it all too well. She wasn’t quite burnt out enough to consider it over the floor. There were less places for fleas and lice to live on the floor. “Then you think they’ll just hover where we are until we move?”

“It’s highly likely.”

“We should still chain all the doors.”

Brian scrubbed at his chin. There was a bit of scruff there, but he was still too young to grow a proper beard. “It’d be better if I went by myself. You need to sleep, and if we split up, they might be confused enough to go slow and split their own forces. I’d have a better chance of making it to the next door then.”

The floor definitely looked inviting. It would be hard and cold, visibly dusty with cobwebs that would stick in her hair for ages. Still inviting. Hadley slid to the floor and pushed herself farther from the mattress in little scoots. “And I’ll get the next one.”

“You better.”