Monthly Archives: October 2010

“Time Soldier” – first published story

Photo courtesy of Suat Eman

Below is the entire version of my only published work to date (errors and all). It appeared in the Fall 1991 edition of “Philae,” a tiny literary journal based in Colorado. The story is short, about 1500 words or three single spaced pages.

Content explanation: This is an early attempt at contemporary fantasy/time travel. If the core story concept holds interest, I have considered expanding this into a novel at some point. So, your feedback on the story idea or concept is very welcome.

Time Soldier by Mark Taylor

The man in the olive drab army jacket awoke in a daze. He sat up and looked around suspiciously. He was in a small park near a line of rusted railroad tracks. A slight breeze barely moved his dusty, unkempt hair. He looked down at this chest and thoughtfully watched the flow of blood slow to a trickle. In an instant, his life’s liquid dried and the hole in his chest sealed itself up like punctured bread dough. What was left was an odd numb sensation.

He heard voices and saw some college kids tossing a frisbee and laughing. Didn’t they know?, he thought. Of course not. They never knew. They never even suspected.

He stood up slowly and wiped the dirt and leaves from his uniform with absent swipes of his calloused and grimy hands. His thoughts went back to where he was before he had passed out.

War. With M-16 rifle in hand and body in a foxhole, he waited. There was always waiting. He remembered the thunder of artillery fire and the hail of mortar shells all around him. He couldn’t recall who they were fighting, or whose side he was on. He just knew he was scared. A cold, mind-numbing terror.

“Hey, hey you, toss us the frisbee will you?” Somewhere outside his head, a voice called out. He ignored it. Now he heard his sergeant and saw his face as clearly as if holding a photograph. The sergeant with the scar that stretched from his left ear to the corner of his mouth stood in front of him. He was close enough to see perspiration running along the ridge of that hideous scar.

“We got no room for pussies in the army. You listening to me, private? I have a feeling you’re going to be a private for a hell of a long time.” How right he was. “Now get yer thumb out of yer mouth and fight like a man.”

The soldier closed his eyes and wept silently.

“Hey, army dude, are you deaf? Throw us the frisbee.” An insistent voice said, closer.

This is my last chance, he thought. The last war this world will ever face started in a few hours, and he had to fight in it. He had fought in every war since the American revolution. He was a coward and a deserter even then. But, they found him. They always found him. That was when he met Luke. Luke was to supervise his “rehabilitation,” and through some incomprehensible power, Luke cursed him to fight in every war until the last. This would be the last. The world would go up in nuclear ashes.

He had only a vague recollection of past wars. Mostly just images and sensations of déjà vu and neverending fear. He had no idea what happened to him between wars, but he hadn’t aged physically. He was still a lanky 21 year-old with ratty brown hair and the shadow of a beard on his sunken cheeks. He didn’t care to wonder why he always survived to fight again. He only knew that he would be free from the curse if he displayed some form of unselfish bravery.

He blinked and his eyes focused on a well-built kid wearing a blue fraternity sweatshirt with yellow letters picking up a white frisbee not five feet from where he stood.

“What’s your problem? Are you some kind of whacked out Vietnam vet?”

The soldier just stared past him into the creamy blue sky.

“Hey, I’m talking to you, punk.” The college boy took a step forward. The soldier flicked his eyes to the figure in front of him and spoke.

“What is the year?”

“What? Where have you been? It’s 1992. What year did you think it was?” He smiled absurdly.

“I don’t know.”

“Sheesh, man, you’re whacked out.” He turned to walk off.

“Are you prepared to die?” The soldier said with such melancholy and surety that the college boy turned around.

“What?”

“I said, ‘Are you ready for the last great war?'”

“Now you’re talkin’ crazy, man.” He said as he clenched his fists. A pretty girl in blue and gold sweats jogged up and eyed the stranger sympathetically.

“What’s going on, Todd?”

“This lunatic is mouthin’ about some war and everybody dying.”

The soldier looked down at his feet long enough to cause the others to fidget impatiently. When he looked up a tear welled up in his right eye. When it broke loose, it cascaded down his scruffy cheek, carved a trail in the dirt and disappeared in the stubble. He met the girl’s gaze. “It is true. You must prepare. We haven’t but a few hours before the whole world goes up in flames like the sun itself.”

“Are you okay?” She said sweetly. “You look hurt.”

The soldier felt something inside that made him forget for an instant his torment. He tried to smile, but it had been too long. Instead, he looked into the pretty girl’s eyes and was mesmerized by the life and light they possessed.

“You better keep those crazy ideas to yourself, army dude, or they’ll lock you up like a stray dog. Let’s go, Amanda.”

“But Todd, he’s hurt—” she started, but was cut off when the college boy grabbed her arm and led her away. He was laughing and mocking him just like people always did. Their clothes were slightly different and their dialects were varied, but their disbelief was always the same. They thought America too powerful to be harmed. Too late to warn them. That would be a waste of time. But the girl, Amanda, had a shine of hope and a love of life in her expressions. Too bad it would never be realized by her college boy.

He sighed deeply and painfully and trudged across the grass to the lavatories. He washed his face and hands and thought back to his first war.

The colonies had been victorious when Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown in the fall of 1781. Washington was praised and the colonists were ecstatic, but one young soldier wept bitterly as a man known only as Luke pronounced an inhuman curse upon his head. Luke held pity in his eyes, but his judgement was swift and the young soldier’s damnation complete.

“You’ll benefit far greater from quick reform than from drawn out lamentation, my friend.” He had said like a disappointed father. How utter his punishment had been. Dozens of wars later, he was still a ‘whiteliver’. His self-deprecation had become more and more pronounced until he had become a shell of a man. He was filled with an empty regret that had eaten up his mind like acid and left nothing but the base instinct of survival and desperation.

Luke would come soon, he thought as he left the washroom and looked out beyond the railroad. He watched intently as a form in the distance moved toward him. As it approached, he could make out the unmistakable features of an old man in a gray robe walking laboriously with a withered staff for support. The soldier waited until Luke came up to him.

“Greetings, young one, the time has come.”

“I know, Luke.”

“And are you ready to free yourself? I can hear the wailing of your imprisoned soul. It pains me deeply.”

“Not nearly as much as it pains me.”

“Yes, yes. You know the consequences of failure on this your last chance, do you not?”

“I do. I’ll be banished to the dawn of time and must repeat the cycle from the first war to this, the last.”

“There will be no relief from your suffering. You cannot die. This you know.”

“I understand. And if I succeed?”

“Hello, what have we here? You have never queried about that before. What stroke of fate have we witnessed?”

“What if I succeed, Luke?” The soldier was amazed at his own insistence.

“You may go back home, to the place and time where we first met.”

“May I take someone with me?” He felt his bitterness and despair fall away like dead leaves and in its place the buds of faith began to sprout.

“What happened to you, my young friend? You look as if you’ve been smitten by Cupid’s arrows.”

“I’m not sure about that. But for the first time in ages, I have forgotten about my self. And it felt edifying. Am I going mad?”

“No my friend, you are perfectly sane. There is truly hope for you yet.”

“May I take her if I overcome my cowardice?”

“I have a feeling that you may do just that.”

“Thank you, Luke. Now, if you’ll pardon me I have a girl to save and a bomb shelter to find.

The old man smiled broadly and watched the young soldier sprint across the park and out of sight. He will not only save someone else, but he will save his own soul.

He’ll be home in no time.

The End

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How not to set the stage

 

Photo by prozac1 on freedigitalphotos.net

 

How many times have you picked up a promising book based on an appealing cover design and an evocative title only to be disappointed a few pages into the first chapter because you don’t feel properly oriented to the time and place of the story?  Or on the other extreme, the author spends the first several pages describing not only the immediate setting of the story, but its history as well?

What is it that bothers us in these stories?  Even if we don’t recognize the flaw as being the setting itself, what signs point to either a too heavy hand or a too light hand in revealing the setting?  As we all know, according to Wikipedia: “A setting is the time, place and social environment in which a story takes place.”  Without setting, the characters act out their parts on an empty stage, a blank canvas, with no context for their actions.

For writers and readers of epic fantasy fiction and other speculative genres, setting is especially important for a new and different world needs to be explained to the reader so the story will make sense.  Again, I ask how is this done?  Rather than give a list of all the things you should do in your writing, or all the things that you shouldn’t see when you read a well written story, I’m going to do the opposite.

If you read or write any of the following (in no particular order), you will have successfully discovered bad examples of setting.

  • Assume the reader has seen all the science fiction or fantasy movies and does not need the flora, fauna, architecture, or weather described.  Let the reader imagine EVERYTHING, because after all, aren’t speculative fiction fans the savviest readers?  Everyone knows what an alien or a dragon or a sword looks like.  Why waste precious story time on describing such common things?
  • Readers don’t have an imagination and need everything described to them in infinitesimal detail.  How could a reader possibly imagine the trees in the forest unless you describe them down to each leaf, blossom, twig, termite, and root.  Don’t forget the special way the wind blows through this tree and how it sways as if dancing to an inner tree music.  Remember to point out the way light catches on the silvery bark at sunrise and the seventeen distinct insects and animals that inhabit the tree in various ways.  The readers want to know all this.  A story about the trees and insects is more interesting than one about people and their struggles, right?
  • Why not make it easy on the reader and use phrases and descriptions that everyone already knows so the story can focus on the characters and plot.?  “Dark and stormy night”, “thick as pea soup”, “pretty as a picture”, “deep blue sea”, “smooth as glass”, and “quiet as a mouse” and dozens of others will do the trick nicely.  Why make it hard on everyone?  Use as many clichés as possible so that your setting is as clear as the blue sky.
  • Keep your thesaurus handy because the only words that truly describe the setting in the story are those obscure terms that no one uses or recognizes anymore.  Don’t they have just the perfect pitch of meaning for what is intended and doesn’t everyone want to learn new words while reading a story?  Doesn’t everyone like stopping in the middle of a scene to look up a word that make no sense to them?
  • Don’t bother with world-building, it is a waste of your precious writing time.  A time efficient writer, doesn’t lose hours in research.  Write the story and make up anything that you don’t know about castle drawbridges or the speed of horses or the winter weather patterns in a northern climate in mid-winter.  Readers and editors are forgiving.  No one will mind if the horse in your story can run eighty  miles an hour when real ones can only run in the forties.
  • Ensure that not a single fact of your two-year world-building binge is lost.  It is essential that the reader know every fact about everything you’ve researched or developed for your world.  And why not?  Your world is so unique that no one could possibly imagine the trees in the forest unless you describe them down to each leaf, blossom, twig and root AND make sure the exotic name you’ve concocted for oak tree, “egetræ”, becomes part of the reader’s vocabulary.  (For the record, “egetræ” actually means oak tree in Danish.)  You can’t possibly let a single bit of your research be lost, it must end up in the story to justify the time spent.

You’ll notice the bullets above are listed by pairs of opposite extremes.  If any of the above are happening in stories you are reading or are writing then you may be experiencing some examples of how not to write setting.

I’m personally guilty of the fourth bullet about using the thesaurus.  One reviewer in my writers group called me on this in the Prologue and Chapter One of my current novel in progress.  Needless to say, I’ve corrected the problem using more normal words.  Ironically, the meaning wasn’t lost.

Do you have any examples that stand out to you?


What makes a great character?

I just finished reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and was exceptionally impressed with the quality of writing and the high degree of development of the protagonist, Kvothe.  I’m not the only one who shares this opinion.  Critics and over a quarter of a million readers rave about this compelling story that transcends the fantasy genre and is just a great character in a great story.  If you read fantasy or adventure or just like a good read, I highly recommend this book.

Since I read the last page a few nights ago, I have been pondering the idea of characters and what is it that makes certain characters so memorable and others forgettable.  Why do we remember Frodo Baggins  and Gollum, Harry Potter and Voldemort, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, and Bella/Edward/Jacob, but can’t remember the guy who did that thing in that one book with all the magic and dragons, you know the one I’m talking about?

In my personal reading, the books that come alive most for me are the ones with the most compelling and realistic characters.  Characters that carry on in the face of all obstacles and overcome their flaws to triumph in some manner and become changed for the better, and often making the world a better place in the process.  Characters with whom I can relate on some level and identify with their struggles and vicariously experience all that befalls them.

I now ask the question of all of you.  Who are your favorite characters in fiction and why?  What is it about some characters that make them memorable to you long after you read the last page and close the book?  What makes a character come alive in your reading?

I’m hoping we get a bit a discussion going here, so please share your thoughts…

–Mark

 

 


Who needs feedback?

Are there any among us who have undertaken a new endeavor, project, or sought to learn a new skill and demonstrated immediate mastery?  Have any of us mastered anything entirely through our own trial, error and perseverance?  Even Beethoven, one of the greatest composers of all time, was not self-taught.  By the time he was 9 years old he’d had five different music instructors.

 

Photo from Wikipedia

 

If Beethoven had considerable instruction in music, then how much greater need have we for guidance in our humble pursuits?

Ours is a modern world where face to face interaction and tutoring is being replaced by books, e-learning, webinars, video lectures and other virtual teaching methods.  How then are we to improve our craft and develop expertise in the vocation of our choice if we are left to learn and develop on our own?

I offer four avenues for consideration that have worked for me and have built up my base ability level in writing to the point where I am comfortable with both my skill and my current limitations.  You can apply these principles to any pursuit of your choice, from learning to play to chess, starting a vegetable garden, acquiring skills in public speaking, or earning a black belt in jujitsu.

  1. Attend classes – Nearly all of us learned to read and write and perform math via classrooms in the elementary school setting.  This is a universal method of teaching and learning that presents information, lessons, activities, and skill-building from a teacher or instructor who has already mastered those areas.  Classes are available for nearly everything imaginable from martial arts in the local dojo, to guitar or piano from a local music center, to university extension courses.  This a great way to start a new pursuit and to learn and build on the basics.  As I mentioned in my initial post, it was from my sophomore English teacher that my initial foray into fiction writing began.
  2. Read books on the subject – Many experts in the field of your choice do not teach classes, but instead write books, articles, or essays on the subject.  Many even have websites dedicated to sharing that knowledge.  This method allows you to deepen and broaden your knowledge base with new and varied ideas that you may not receive in a classroom with a fixed curriculum that has been generalized for a group setting.  You can find more specialized information about areas of your pursuit that interest you.  For me, even with two long ago university creative writing courses under my belt, I still bought and have read dozens of writing books.  I am currently reading Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld, a writing book that focuses on the unit of action in a scene and how to maximize the value and impact of each word in those scenes.  This is a unique and specific take on writing that I needed when I bought the book.
  3. Practice, practice, practice.  What more can I say about this?  Use what you’ve learned in class, online, or via books you’ve read and put all that theory to the test.  Going to class and reading books does not make a writer, or engineer, or nurse.  Applying the learning in a real world scenario, for that is where the learning is cemented into our minds.  Our muscles develop what athletes call “muscle memory”.  Repetition in sports create the ability to repeat a desired behavior with precision.  We need repetition in any endeavor to hone our skills and deepen our understanding.  I have read it takes a million written words to achieve expertise in writing and other skills take upwards of 1000 hours of practice to achieve mastery.  There is no overnight success.
  4. Feedback.  If you attend a class, your work will no doubt be reviewed and graded by your instructor and often you will benefit from peer review of work or through group projects.  However, items 2 and 3 above include work done in a relative vacuum and this necessitates deliberate solicitation of feedback.  So, at least for writing, getting others to read your work and providing a critique is important to your progress.  Whether you find a mentor, have a spouse who loves to read, or join a writers group, find someone willing and able to read your work and provide an objective analysis.  This feedback is of great value.  As a writer, I’ve spent so much time with the story in my head that I have lost objectivity in translating that vision to a written version.  Another set of eyes and another opinion can quickly point out a flawed character, illogical plot device, poor description, bad word choice, and a host of other issues to which you the writer may be blind.  I have a supportive spouse who loves to read and reads fantasy, so she is always my first reader.  As of August, I am in a writer’s group with a great bunch of aspiring epic fantasy writers and the feedback they’ve provided on my first few chapters has opened my eyes to many opportunities for improvement.  Feedback is invaluable.

Who needs feedback?

Everyone.  If you pursue excellence and achievement in any area, learn what you can from teachers, self-study, and practice, but don’t miss an opportunity to seek feedback from peers and potential customers.  You will accelerate your developement and find more satisfaction as your skill progresses.  Don’t be afraid of the time it takes it learn.  Don’t allow fear of performing poorly to deter you from trying.  Like I said in my last post, persistence is more important than talent.  Go for it.  Make it happen.  Start today.  Start right now.

What are your tricks to learning?  How has feedback benefited you?  Please share so that I may learn from you.

And speaking of feedback…I would benefit from your feedback on this blog.  Thanks in advance…

–Mark


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

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Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.