Thursday, February 25, 2016

California Night Mare (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

The earth shivered again in California last night. Shallow quakes, a storm of them around 1.5 to 2.5 Richter magnitude, shook the coastal mountains between my city and the Pacific. Most were centered around Cobb, a town in Lake County several hours north of San Francisco, which is home to a number of hot springs. 

We didn't feel them in Santa Rosa.

My spouse and I haven't always been so lucky with earthquakes, though. There were a number of shakers while we lived in Southern California, not as low in magnitude nor as shallow, not hot-spring-triggered. One that rattled me thoroughly came around 6 AM, while I was at work on the third floor of an office building, the only person in the building at that hour.

Another time, we and some friends were watching a Los Angeles evening news broadcast when the desks, lights, and equipment on the TV screen suddenly began to swing wildly. Like some do with thunder, we began counting seconds: "One-a-thousand, two-a-thousand...." The count told us when to expect the earth-wave to hit central Orange County and us.

Quakes usually provide no warning. One second the ground is solid; the next, it is a quivering, heaving uncertainty beneath your feet. When you expect it, you can ride the wave like a surfer, balancing over its crest. But more commonly, it destroys your balance and ruptures your sense of rightness. The earth shouldn't gallop like a horse, darn it!

When I read the prompt for this week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, I knew that however much "a gallop" means horses to others, for me, it brings to mind an earthquake's motion:

February 24, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about galloping. It doesn’t have to be about horses. Is galloping a burst of energy, a run for freedom? Or is it a sense of urgency that borders on anxiety to get tasks accomplished? Explore the motion in different ways — a galloping stride, a galloping relationship or a galloping mind.


California Night Mare

Deep in sleep, I am enjoying a pleasant dream, galloping down a beach, bareback on a white horse with a scarlet mane. The slow-motion rhythm of its pounding hooves speeds up suddenly, bringing my heart to a matching gallop.

With a start, I bounce from the dream to irritable semi-consciousness. The horse's hoof-beats have transformed into the rattle of the bed's bookcase headboard against the wall. "Darn it, hon," I grumble, eyes still closed, "Can't you just slide into bed instead of bouncing around?"

Distant from the doorway, a shaky voice answers. "I'm not in bed. It's an earthquake!"

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Masterpiece That Is Myst

Review: Myst, Riven, Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation and Myst V: End of Ages, from Ubisoft

Almost thirty-five years ago now, Rand and Robyn Miller and the folks at Cyan Worlds began work on Myst, a ground-breaking computer game with no guns, no aliens, and no power pills. The brothers Miller were no strangers to breaking new ground; their initial effort for the fledgling company they founded was The Manhole, the “first entertainment product ever on the new medium of CD-ROM.” But with Myst, they truly broke free of the shoot-em-up actioners, war-strategy boards and computerized table-games that had been the norm before this game debuted.

The story-line is simple, but
when had a game ever had a story-line before? With this one departure from the norm, the Millers might have had a hit. But they added artist Chuck Carter and audio engineer Chris Brandkamp, and funding from Sunsoft of Japan, and set out to make a CD-ROM game create an absorbing environment, complete with brooding music, nearly-real video clips smoothly integrated into the artistic backgrounds, and a stunningly-smooth interface that let the player easily immerse into the series of nested puzzles that is the game.

In this last, Myst most closely resembles another classic computer game, Colossal Caves. The challenge in 
Caves was to map a vast, mostly-underground structure, based on clues from the text descriptions. Younger players may never have worked around the frustrations of the “maze of twisty passages, all different”—but they have probably (if worldwide sales in the region of over 12 million units are any indication) mapped the dark Selenitic subway of Myst.

Many have written before of the spell cast over them by this game. Hint- and cheat-sites are everywhere, and dozens of forums support players who still want to talk about, consult over, and dissect the play of the Myst worlds, even decades after its initial debut.

When a fried sound-card removed me from the ranks of computer-video users dozens of years ago, I wasn’t worried—I had very little reason to use the sounds of my computer, and I happily crossed that off the list of “necessities” for replacement. A brand-new PC, however, meant I needed to check the sound, so I popped my 10th-anniversary Myst DVD into the tray. “Just going to test the audio levels,” I told my patient spouse. “I’ll be in to bed in a minute!”

Four hours later, I acknowledged I was hooked all over again. Myst had reached out of my computer and seized me by the brain. Half-remembered solutions from my decades-past original play of the game teased me, remaining just out of mental reach. I had to raise the sunken ship on Myst Island, had to solve the sound puzzle of the Selenitic Age, had to find the elevator into the trees on Channelwood. The only cure was to play on.

Later games in the Myst cycle, like Riven, Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, and Myst V: End of Ages, may have that same power to entice me anew. The bad news is, I have them all on DVD. The good news is, I know better than to install them on my computer! (At least until I have a month or so to devote to them.)

The final version of the game is titled “The End of Ages.” Perhaps the spell-binding properties of Myst have even begun to trouble the folks at Cyan?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Lost in the Game

Review: Virtual Identity by Eduardo Suastegui

Remember at the end of eXistenZ, the 1999 movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law, walking away from that final scene being unsure if it was yet another stage in the virtual reality presentation? Jude Law's character, the "virtual reality virgin" Ted Pikul, was pulled and shoved from one insanity to the next by his ignorance of whether he was in a real world or in the virtual reality game. 

The entire story of Sandra Tomek and Rodrigo Ochoa in Virtual Identity has that same "still in the game" flavor.

You know the queasy thrill when the dead Brian O'Blivion showed up for a TV interview in 1983's Videodrome with Debbie Harry and James Woods? The appearance of the virtually-real, yet physically-deceased professor marked the point in the movie when what you knew was real started to spin out of your grasp. In Virtual Identity, that point occurs somewhere around the middle of Chapter Two. The James Woods character in Videodrome, Max Renn, at least has his Harlan, with a condescending "Patronne," to tell him why he has lost the boundary between reality and television.

Sandra Tomek has no such clue; she has slipped from a real existence to the shifting sands of virtual reality with scarcely a murmur of explanation. In fact, the core story-line of the novel seems to be her search for any stable, truly-real place to stand. Is Rod Ochoa an antagonist? a reluctant co-conspirator? a boyfriend caught in the same sting as Sandra herself? Is Sandra herself the villain, a terrorist-traitor selling secrets, or the innocent pawn of a cloned virtual self? Perhaps she is something entirely unsuspected, defined by shadowy "others" who have trapped her in this VR simulation.

Each new turn in the tale brings Sandra closer to madness, insanity of the kind that Max Renn or Ted Pikul would well understand:
It made her think about who she was, or thought she was, or believed she ought to be, or others expected her to be. Could she or anyone else identify the real Sandra? Did such a person even exist?

The ongoing confusion about what is real and what is part of the VR simulation, for the reader no less than for Sandra, draws you along. You want to resolve the mystery. You want to find the edible core of this artichoke you are peeling leaf by pointed leaf, but each new layer reveals only another spiny conundrum. At one point, Sandra expresses her frustration with the impossibility of recognizing "real" reality while still wrapped in the haze of virtual-reality madness. What's wrong?  she asks Rod. How would we even know?

This is Volume 9 in the Our Cyber World series, and it includes characters we've met before. The focus is so inward, though, that you scarcely need to be familiar with them to be enmeshed in Sandra's internal quest for identity. In the end, she may find a place to be herself.

How real that terminal identity may be, however, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Dinner Dance (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Surveying in Colorado can take you into some very wild spaces, indeed. I did a lot of rock and glacier climbing during my summer field course in geology, back at Mines, for example. 

I never encountered quite the blend of furry and feathered critters, though, as Ken Cummings did while surveying in Yankee Boy Basin in the Sangre de Christos on the western front of the Rockies. He shares one story from Meant To Be Here:

All through the wintertime, marmots ("whistle-pigs") would burrow into the old timber- and earth-covered powder magazines for the Idarado and the Camp Bird mines and various other smaller operations. They did this not only to find shelter, but also to satisfy their craving for the salty flavors of certain explosives. Replacing explosives lost to the rodents’ appetites was a standard budget item for local mines. We would joke about their explosive potential whenever we saw some tourist swerve to try to hit one of these prairie-dog-sized animals as they scurried across the Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray.

Whistle-pigs were also a real problem with the work I was doing, staking claims to areas over the Idarado workings that had been missed in the original survey. My sweaty partner and I would drive a big wooden stake into the ground, then nail a can to the post to hold the mimeographed claim-papers. The only thing marmots liked more than the sweat-streaked wood of the claim stake was the rich ammonia of the claim-papers. 

The can may have protected the paperwork from the elements and from casual theft by tourists or mice looking for nesting material, but it was short work for the larger marmot’s rodent teeth. Whenever we revisited a claim, the post was usually down, with the sweat-soaked edges gnawed off, and the can had been ripped open with its chemically-treated papers completely consumed.

Posting the claim papers was a formality that had to be done, but the real record of the claim was filed by the mining office with the Bureau of Mines. In following the standard practice, all we were really doing was distributing treats for the marmots.

Charli Mills' prompt this week for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge made me remember this tale of explosive-munching marmots:

February 10, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about wild spaces. Is it a wilderness or a patch of weeds in a vacant lot that attract songbirds. What is vital to the human psyche about wild spaces? Bonus points for inducing something cute and furry.

For this flash, I take the marmot's point of view of all the surveying work.


Dinner Dance

Salt on the wind. And something richer, more aromatic, delicious: a promise of oils and esters unknown in the world before men came to my mountain vale.

Secure in my rock bunker, I watch them perform their inexplicable dance. It echoes against my walls: their cries, flat percussion of stone against stake, tinny rasp as the hull of their peculiar seed is fastened into place.

My mouth waters; I taste the core of that seed again in my imagination. It fills my mouth with its alien tang.

As soon as they leave, I waddle downhill to claim my prize.

Sweet or Bitter Desires

Review: Blood & Chocolate, with Hugh Dancy and Agnes Bruckner

The werewolf, fighting a dual nature, troubled by the demands of both human hungers and pack loyalties, is a theme that has been played by many, notably Herman Hesse in Steppenwolf. The novel Blood & Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause, on which the film's screenplay is based, was even titled in reference to a Steppenwolf quote: "I had the taste of blood and chocolate in my mouth, one as hateful as the other."

The teen loup-garou of Klause's novel adds puberty and normal teenage angst to her troubles. The novel has Vivian Gandillon living in a suburb in Maryland when her father dies, leaving the pack leaderless. 

In the movie, set in Bucharest, Bruckner's Vivian is an American ex-pat whose parents were killed by a human mob in the States. We get some clues that Vivian blames herself for their deaths. Living now with her aunt in Romania, she is being groomed as mate to Gabriel (played by Oliver Martinez), the much-older pack leader. who trades in each wife for a new one on a 5-year cycle. (This behavior, so un-wolf-like, is never explained. It appears to serve mainly to show that Gabriel is more of an animal than a "civilized man.")

In both stories, additional conflict is supplied by the advent of Aidan, a non-werewolf ("meat") boy near Vivian's age, whom she meets and falls in love with. In both, a rogue loup-garou who has given in to his wolf nature commits a murder that threatens to expose the pack.

Vivian's feelings of guilt about the death of her parents, her confusion about her feelings for Aidan, and her determination not to kill in the persona of the wolf, are presented in such a light-handed way that the viewer might miss the deeper conflict going on here. It is the same as Hesse's Steppenwolf fought: the desire not to allow the animal in our natures to rule the human spirit.

Liner Notes:

  • There are apparently many wolf images to be seen in Bucharest. The film includes a number of them; some in the foreground, and some as fleeting glimpses. 
  • Multiple members of the cast and crew were named Vlad or Radu; single instances of Zoltan, Bogdan, Silviu, and Razvan also scrolled past in the end credits. Obviously, the location shots in the city of Bucharest were not the only thing giving local "flavor" to the film.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Claustrophobia in Paradise

Quick Review: Jackpot by Tsipi Keller

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls / are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds…  —e e cummings

Maggie, the naive New Yorker who visits Paradise in Tsipi Keller’s Jackpot, is an unusually self-absorbed young woman. The antithesis (at the beginning) of e e cumming’s Cambridge ladies, Maggie seems uncomfortable in mind and bare of soul. Her intently focused story is told almost exclusively in terms of her inner dialogue, making this a claustrophobic trip, indeed.

When we first meet Maggie in New York, she is preparing to go out to dinner with her friend, Robin. Instead, Robin proposes that the two women go on a winter vacation to the Bahamas, to a resort called Paradise. Maggie consents, and Robin then sends her off without the promised dinner. This, with other events revealed in Maggie’s reminiscences, make it clear that Robin is no true friend—but Maggie seems compelled to seek Robin’s approval.

It also becomes obvious that Maggie admires Robin, even while disapproving of her. She mentally chides her friend for being plump, skipping breakfast, wearing nail polish—and for casually taking up with men at the resort, especially the older man, Ben. We are set up to be wary of Robin on Maggie’s behalf, to worry that the naive girl will be led astray by her amoral travel partner.

In fact, Maggie has tied her behavior to Robin’s as an anchor, striving to be more in control than her friend. So when Robin takes off on Ben’s yacht (without a word to Maggie), our girl comes unmoored. Without Robin to compare herself to, Maggie descends into a maelstrom of drunken gambling and prostitution.

Despite its claustrophobic inward focus, this story is fascinating; Keller deftly provides clues to the source of Maggie’s desire for approval, her fatal inability to govern her own life, and her final abandonment of her job, her stateside persona, her body, and her judgement, to the seductive allure of Paradise.

At less than 200 pages, Jackpot would not seem to be a demanding read—but I warn you, Keller’s Maggie has power to take you along with her. That slender volume is, like Maggie’s planned seven-day vacation, deceptive in the duration of its effect. The furniture of Maggie’s soul, once her remodel is complete, is both uncomfortable and unbeautiful—but strangely inviting nonetheless.

Trilogy or Nonology?

Review: The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephanson’s epic Baroque Cycle is either a trilogy that concludes with this book, or a nonology in which The System of the World provides three volumes—one in which the “final” volume, Crytonomicon, was the first published. Either way, Stephenson has written a complex network of story-threads, which he deftly gathers into one hand in this book, to finish with a hefty braided hawser.

The voyage from Massachusetts to London on which Dr. Daniel Waterhouse sets out at the beginning of Book One, Quicksilver, ends with his stepping onto the London dock at the beginning of System. He has a multitude of daunting assignments in hand: reconcile the feuding philosophers Newton and Liebnitz; create a coding machine to use the Philosophical Language as the “program” for a Logic Engine for Tsar Peter of Russia; organize investment for the Newcomen engine—and find a non-alchemical use for the Solomonic gold packed in the bilges of a certain cargo ship.

Waterhouse is not the only thread-holder heading for London, either. Peter Romanov, the Great Tsar, brings Baron von Liebnitz in his train. Eliza, Duchess of Arcachon-Qwghlm and Half-Cock Jack Shaftoe the Vagabond King also have gold-centered business in the city on the Thames. Eliza’s young ward, Caroline of Hanover, perhaps soon to be Princess of Wales, is determined to visit the city with Eliza’s young son. The ear-chewing Charles White is headed for a confrontation with Jack Shaftoe’s one-time galleymate Dappa. Marlborough, Bolingbroke, and Roger Comstock vie on the field of politics, as the central question of the day is yet to be answered: will Whig or Tory triumph after the death of Queen Anne? Will the next King of England be French Catholic James Edward or Protestant German George?

Of course, we know from history how this question was answered, but Stephenson’s tale rests on simpler matters. As the diverse elements of this world engine are assembled, the final output of the machine is not half so wonderful as its clinking, clanking roar. And as with Newcomen’s engine, Dr. Daniel Waterhouse is the midwife-cum-investment broker who will bring the thing to life.

The three volumes of the first book, Quicksilver, were illuminated, networked, shot through with references to mercury: quicksilver, the symbol of communication and science (or "Natural Philosophy," as it was then called). The mercuric systems in that novel presaged the coming system of the world. In the two volumes of the second book, The Confusion, gold became amalgamated with that mercuric essence, and the strangely heavy treasure from the Solomon Islands became the property first of Vagabond Jack, then of an island queen. In the same way, Eliza’s path mingled the quicksilver Apollonian air of the German court of Hanover with the Dionysian golden streams from the French court of the Sun King, Louis le Roi.

The final book must describe the sorting-out of all that is con-fused, and careful identification of the quicksilver essence that has been alloyed with gold in the currency of England. Currency. It can mean money or information, or—as in “state of the art”—technology. Like the legs of a tripod, these three currencies support the System of the World.

Thus, as the various actors gather in London, awaiting them all is Isaac Newton, now Master of the Mint. His system is designed to make the golden coin perfect, uniform, and desirable above silver, so that gold throughout the world flows in shining streams toward England, bringing him any gold that is denser than the “common” metal. Why would this brilliant man be so absorbed with coining the English currency? The simple answer is, he is not—it is the "Solomonic essence" in the heavy gold that he seeks. Newton desires two things above all: the dense metal that will let him perfect his alchemical research, and the recipes stored away upon Hooke’s death.

Stephenson picks a careful path between obsolescences in the tone and approach of these 18th-century denizens, and the flavor of their speech and style. We can see why Waterhouse the Puritan might become a Deist, why Newton the pure scientist might succumb to the allure of Alchemy, why Liebnitz the mathematical might, in the end, be a fervent Religionist. These three religious philosophies form one of many triples jousting for supremacy in this story. Another trio is economic: agriculture, the trade in money, and the need for Power, whether from Newcomen’s engine or the labor of slaves. A third (you knew there would be three!) entwines Tory with Whig at the top of society, with the "Mobile" (the mob) as the third side of the triangle.

In the end, the triumph of The System of the World is the way in which Stephenson has let us inhabit the brawling, rowdy, sensual world of London at the brink of a new age, when the system of the world would change forever, and our own world would be born.

Liner Notes:

  • All nine books of the Baroque Cycle, as well as a compilation titled The Baroque Cycle, are available for Kindle.
  • If you have read Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle books provide origin clues and histories for many of the characters in that book. 

In the End, It Killed Him

Review: The Man With Three Wives, with Beau Bridges and Pam Dawber

Last night I got sucked into a 1993 made-for-TV movie, The Man With Three Wives. I cannot explain why this sleaze even caught my eye sufficiently to cause me to turn it on—perhaps it was the concept that it was based on a true story. 

Maybe it was just the opportunity to see Pam Dawber again.

Whatever my initial motivation, I was thoroughly hooked by the first commercial break. Beau Bridges, who played Dr. Norman Grayson, the polygamist of the title, presented a complex character with confused motives. Genuinely caring, a truly good doctor, Grayson suffers because he really does love all three women.

Yet he lies to them constantly, by omission and by action, covertly and overtly deceiving everyone for whom he supposedly cares. He complains of stress in his life; his solution is to marry a third woman. He even juggles two wives who live in the same community, managing to keep them separate. Wife #1 (Lillian, played by Kathleen Lloyd, a veteran TV-movie actress) is the mother of Grayson’s three adult children. Wife #2 (Katy, played by Joanna Kerns, familiar to wide-screen audiences from Girl, Interrupted) owns her own business; Katy’s father is another doctor at Grayson’s hospital, and his good friend.

The unbelievable cojones required to keep up this balancing act can be encapsulated in one scene. About four years into their marriage, Katy arrives at the hospital and asks Grayson to take her to lunch at the mall. She knows Lillian (whom she believes to be her husband’s ex-wife) is participating in a bicycle safety event there. Grayson not only consents to introduce them to each other (by first name only, needless to say), but stands there with a gentle smile on his face as the women exchange guarded greetings—he even invites Wife #1 to lunch with him and Wife #2! (Fortunately for Grayson’s adrenals, Lillian cannot leave the booth she’s tending.)

Bridges’ Grayson never breaks a sweat in public—but at night, as he weaves his pattern of false emergencies and late hours to sleep with both local wives for a few hours each night, the years of bigamy begin to take their toll. Increasingly, he wakes in a cold funk, and needs to gobble antacids to return to sleep. When Grayson helps Robin (Pam Dawber) through her divorce, this woman with whom he has a long history of friendship becomes first a refuge from his stress, then a new source of it when he marries her, as well.

The third marriage escalates his problems, as Grayson begins to lose some control in this incredible juggling act. He “forgets” to make several mortgage payments on the house he is buying with Katy, in order to pay the income taxes for his household with Lillian. Checks are being returned NSF from all the accounts he’s opened for the three homes. His marriage to Robin entails travel every other weekend, and when he rejects Robin’s offer to come visit him at the hospital, saying he “can’t afford to put her up in a motel” there (which is probably true on several levels), her suspicions are aroused.

Robin, unlike either of Grayson’s long-term wives, is sufficiently worried to hire a private detective. What she learns sends her storming into Grayson’s office with a full annulment, and a restraining order to keep him away from her daughter. She does, however, consent not to tell anyone else about her “husband’s” infamy.

Throughout the movie, I was engrossed by the narrow escapes and the effrontery of this man, whose three wives could say, even after his bigamy was revealed, “But I still love him!” I knew his artificial world would eventually come crashing down. The grace of this movie (which, given the topic, could easily have been as sleazy as its title implies) is that we want Norman Grayson to succeed, even while we know that he deserves, and is ultimately doomed, to fail.

Liner Notes:

  • This review was first published in 2005 in my blog Paper Frigate. It also appeared in Blogcritics and was republished in print in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
  • The real-life polygamist, Dr. Norman Lewiston, lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay area. Wife #3, Robyn Phelps, met him when she worked at the same hospital, but married him after she had moved to San Diego.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Dialog Versus Narration

Just as there is a difference between show and tell, there is an obvious difference between dialog and narration. A common writing error is to mistakenly use one for the other.

The protagonist, for example, sits across the table from his wife and angrily tells her how he has just been fired from his job. This is dialog when his rant and her replies serve to reveal something about their relationship, but narration if it is included mainly to describe the firing. Each has a legitimate purpose in telling the tale. The fired man narrates his termination interview, for example, because his description of it differs from the actual event (which you have already shown the reader.)

Deus ex machina is an extreme form of misused narration, introducing a character (or any other plot device) for the sole purpose of explaining away a problem point of your story. The term originated with ancient Greek plays in which main characters, who were usually the gods, came onstage by means of some mechanism: a rope from above, or a platform from belowliterally, producing a god from a machine.

In telling about his experiences as a "child actor," Kenneth Cummings wrote of the concept in his memoir, Meant To Be Here:

When I was in grade school, I was pulled into my sister's interest in acting, as was my brother. Half a lifetime later, I now believe it was because Mother could drop all three of us off at the local Antrim Playhouse for a few hours of free baby-sitting. I recall being in Alice in Wonderland, in which my sister was Alice; Love for Three Oranges. a fantasy opera by Serge Prokofiev; and Thurber's 13 Clocks, which had been written only a few years before we performed it.

Usually I was “mobile scenery.” I remember little more about the whole experience than Prokofiev’s music, and bits of the stories. For example, in 13 Clocks, there was a villain (the Duke) who was punished by the Devil for not doing enough evil, and one (the Golux) with an “indescribable hat” that became describable whenever he was depressed.

One otherwise-forgotten play (Three Oranges, I think) I recall only because it was the only performance in which I had lines to speak. I came onstage as “a chief,” very deus-ex-machina, to narrate away a plot problem. I stomped on, made a complex long statement, and stomped off. It couldn’t have been any more obvious if I had been lowered from the ceiling in a toga to speak my lines.

Prokofiev used an old fairy tale for his libretto, and took the tone from commedia dell'arte performances which commonly used stock characters that the audience was presumed already to know something about (King, Prince, Witch, Cook, and so on.)  

Perhaps in this case, the narration was a deliberate choice, deus ex machina intentionally used as a satirical tool. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Killer Instinct (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Sometimes the flash challenge from Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch happens to coincide with a topic I'm already writing about. Sometimes it hooks onto an idea I'm already pursuing. Rarely, it hits with a bolt of sizzling light that turns me around and sends me in a completely new direction.

Whenever I participate in the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, and however it strikes me, I get the chance to practice writing in a very specific way, reaching for something that is almost poetic in structureonly the needed words, only the best words to convey the thought. The 99-word restriction means that a story must be edited drastically.

And since my major task in January and February is editing the work that was written last year, this week's challenge linked into that process quite nicely:

February 3, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that explores the question, “What good is power?” Is it a story of empowerment, or a story of a dictator? Poke around power and go where the force takes you this week.

Like any creative activity, writing lets you invent endlessly, generating something that never existed before you wrote it. Editing, while destructive in a narrowest sense, allows you to polish what you've created, leaving you with a finer product than you had before it began. It is an essential part of that creative process.

And whether you are writing or editing, your power over the world you're creating is absolute.


Killer Instinct 

Benny drew a careful line through three names in his notebook, muttering to himself, "You're history, Jeff. You're outta here, Mike. Adios, Linda." 

They were as good as dead. Benny had total power over their lives.

It was only fair; he had created them in the first place, word-generating additions to the world he was building for his novel. But something told him the story didn't need them. His gut said he should do away with them.

They wouldn't be the only victims of his edits, either. Benny sharpened his red pencil and went back in for the kill.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The CCR Committee (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

For the last month, we've been taking care of an elderly family member who is winding down her life in home hospice care. 

She has a "team" of hired caregivers, but she also has family and friends who have stepped up to help keep her engaged with life and let her know she is loved.

Betty lives in a community with covenants and restrictions. The "CCRs" define what can be planted in front yards, how many cars can be parked on the street, when trash bins can be put out for collection, and when they must be put away again, and so on.

In Betty's case, her team and family are engaged in making sure she doesn't violate the CCRs for her neighborhood. Then I read the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge for this week:

January 27, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about how a community reaches out. Who, or what cause, is touched by a community “spoke”? Do you think communities can impact change and move a “wheel”? Why or why not? Explore the idea of a community hub in a flash fiction.

Can a community focused on controlling behavior change to be supportive of its less-able members? I think so.


The CCR Committee

"First agenda item: Winnie Collin's place." Peter's tone was grim. “We have covenants and restrictions in this community. Winnie agreed to them, but lately her trash bins are left out, her garden’s full of weeds... And far too many cars are parked outside.”

Jennifer raised a timid hand; new members were not expected to speak. “You know Winnie is in terminal home care, right? Those cars belong to caregivers and nurses and visiting family.”

“Right!” Peter harrumphed. “So... Who here is going to weed her garden? And who can commit to take care of Winnie’s trash bins every week?”