Friday, March 25, 2011

Superstition (Flash Friday #2)

Photo by alphadesigner
Mikhail wasn't a particularly superstitious man but any man knows it's going to be a bad day when bird shit comes raining from the heavens onto the imported leather upholstery of one's pride and joy. In his case, an antique fully-restored gas-powered Audi TT convertible. Call it a man's intuition. Call it a collector's nightmare. Of course, either way, it was his own damn fault for leaving the top down for even a millisecond while it was not under his own watchful eye. But who would've guessed that those avian cess pits would have such good aim? As far as Mikhail was concerned, it was further proof that there was no god. Especially, if God had given turd factories wings.

So, as one might imagine, he wasn't particularly surprised or thrilled when the image of an unidentified motor vehicle came barreling into his surveillance feed nor when his ne'er-do-well sibling emerged from the driver's side. Sure, it had probably been at least a year since he had last seen said sibling. But as their infrequent encounters over the years became more and more volatile, Mikhail had resigned himself to the notion that the less he knew about the feckless habits of his kid sister, the less heads he'd be obligated to set a-rolling in downtown Gotham.

He was just about to call for Lani to go open the door when he noticed a third presence register on the feed. The prodigal sibling was not alone.

Scheiße but what the fuck was she thinking? Mikhail reached for the closest firearm he could find and prepped it without blinking. As he ascended the stairs, he called out to his wife.

He didn't even realize that the weapon he had grabbed was a reverse engineered Uzi until he'd made it out of the basement. Perhaps an aftermarket state-of-the-art machine gun was overkill for any one acquaintance of his sister's social genre, but since she had the gall to bring the scrub home, he might as well make an impression.

As he waited in anticipation to the incoming presence of his sister and her companion through the one-way glass windows, it occurred to him that there could be a metaphysical correlation between bird turds and shitheads. The thought was finally interrupted by a pounding at the door.

Mikhail wasn't a particularly superstitious man but he just knew it was going to be a bad day.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Point Blank (Sunday Sample #2)

The barkeep gibbered, shuddered, and ran his hands through his singed neon green faux-hawk as he lead her into a VIP room in the back of the dingy after-hours club. Clearly, it had been the man's first bar fight involving live ammunition, and Jadai would've almost felt sorry for the punk bastard. But he did try to charge her 15 chips for a vodka-tonic and the way she had it figured, this many clicks above Neo Johannesburg, the man probably deserved whatever comeuppance SynCorps had in store for him.

"Alec, is it?"

Regarding the flustered barkeep with mild amusement, she helped herself to a seat on a tacky leopard-print couch and almost swore out loud as pain shot through her side on impact. Blood and breakers! That'll be a cracked rib.

There was nothing quite like non-lethal injury to ruffle her feathers. The way things were going, Jadai was ready to start shooting and ask questions later. Too bad she'd dropped her gun outside. She grinned up at the barkeep instead.

"I'm all right," she drawled, "Just some bruises and scratches. Don't trouble your mind over--"

But the nervous little punk was already halfway back down the hall.

Jadai leaned her head back and waved at the ceiling. "Hallo! We were supposed to negotiate the Luminary file 'bout twelve minutes ago but instead, your point man--Yep, she'd be me--got busted up by some right ol' amateurs on the way in. Now, don't you worry! I'm not normally this sloppish. It's just, well, I can't fecking massacre a bunch of civies just 'cause they all tick me the hell off. Pleased to meet you too!"

Blowing out a frustrated breath, she made a mental checklist of the damages. Multiple bullet scuffs. Upper arm and back. Intermediate tissue damage--not the worst she'd experienced but enough to ruin her new coat. Pulled right shoulder, her own damn fault for using it like a cushion. New coat damage confirmed. Much chagrin to be had. Minor abrasions to same side hip and knee. Seventh thoracic rib through ninth--she grimaced as she found the exact locations--definitely fractured if not broken.

Nice piece of work you've done to yourself ol' girl, and all for some wankers who were probably too juiced to even notice who they were shooting at.

Jadai redirected her attention as her descry implants alerted her to a new presence nearby. Looking up, she found a man dressed in a fitted black ensemble leaning against the back wall.

If it weren't for the nanobots coursing through her synapses telling her otherwise, Jadai supposed he could've easily passed as human--so long as he steered cleared of any magnets stronger than 3 Teslas. But his robotics flagged cyborg so obviously that he may as well have been wearing a polo that read "I am Centech's bitch" across the chest. A false man on a false wall.

A smile spread slowly across her lips. Maybe this assignation wasn't a total bust after all.

"Theo mentioned you might find some trouble on the way in." His human voice was low and sonorous. His accent mid-American. She didn't need her tech to know that he was studying her as well, though him using only his natural human senses.

Now how was that for a piece of irony? Jadai had to smirk again.

Pushing away from the wall, the bogey crouched down before her and had the nerve to look affable. "I think Theo understated."

His human features were athletic and well-formed. In fact she decided, once he was at eye-level, the man was a real beaut for an aegis-class bionic. Straight nose, clear skin, and unruly auburn hair--lovely candy coating for an automaton that could tear a soldier limb from limb without batting an organic eyelash.

"Well now, you're not from the typical ex-con stock Centech takes to harvesting now are you, lover boy?" she mused out loud.

The bogey reached behind him and pulled out a gun. Her gun.

"Where's the file?" he said.

"So that's where she went!" Jadai exclaimed, flashing him a wolfish grin. "How kind of you to bring my dear partner back to me." She held out a hand expectantly toward him.

Unaffected, he leaned in so close that she felt his soft breath by her ear and his free hand wrap gently around her throat. He pressed the barrel of the gun against her bruised side until she cried out--and cocked the hammer.

"We don't have time for games, girl. Where's the damn file?"

Jadai placed a hand over the gun so that her thumb slid teasingly over his finger on the trigger. She winked and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

"You're holding it," she whispered and pressed down. "Sweet dreams."

A small ripple of energy radiated out from the weapon as the hammer engaged an electromagnetic pulse reaction hidden in the chamber. The man didn't even have time to look surprised before his body went limp and slumped sideways onto the couch.

Wiggling herself out carefully from under his dead weight, Jadai let loose a string of profanities she'd been storing up as her side and shoulder protested to the abuse. Maneuvering gingerly into a standing position, she removed the false gun from the false man and linked into her communicator.

"Ho' there, Theo!...No, the Luminary file is gone--Shut up and listen for once." She glanced at her catch--looking for all the world as though he were napping peacefully on the tacky couch--and grinned. "We've got ourselves an even bigger fish to fry tonight."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Quitting (Sunday Sample #1)


Snow took a deep breath and repeated herself. "I said, I quit. I'm done with the Sabers. I'm done with the bullshit."

And I'm done with Kel, she added mentally. But that was another story--one that her brother definitely didn't need to hear.

The large, half-German man looked unmoved. Folding his muscular arms, he gave her a contemptuous look.

"Just like that huh? Just that easy?"

His tone was deliberate, but she could tell there was a storm building up in his deep blue eyes--their mother's eyes. For some reason, it was always at these times that she couldn't help but take stock of just how different she and Mikhail were. Even by appearance, she was night and he was day.

Snow kept her gaze intently on the space beyond her brother’s shoulder.

“Yeah. You got a problem with that?”

There was a tangible drop in air pressure as Mikhail inhaled, as if all the oxygen in the room was being sucked into his massive lungs. Snow leaned her weight into table she was perched against and braced herself. She had been anticipating her brother’s reaction from the moment she'd made up her mind to come home.

"You disobey my rules and run away from my house. You don't call or text for damn near four years and get yourself mixed up in fuck knows what kind of shit. Two months ago, you bring a fucking hooligan half-drowned in gasoline to my doorstep. And now you're done? Just like that?”

Snow rolled her shoulders and checked her nails. Her brother certainly wasn’t done.

“Do you think everything in life's just some sort of fucked up game?! Like you can just stroll in and out of the biggest fucking gang in Gotham like you can your own family?!"

Snow squeezed her eyes shut and felt her own bile rise to a boiling point. Now he'd crossed the line.

"That's some nerve you've got bringing up family, Fubuki.” She spat the name out, finally meeting his gaze with a cool befitting her name. "The Kurogane clan was dishonored by treachery and deceit, and your answer was to run away while Father and aniki drowned in their own blood--the fuck do you know about family?"

She shifted lithely as a fist crashed into the dry wall behind her.

Right on the money. Snow fleered without enthusiasm and took a seat neatly in the chair he had abandoned.

Footsteps came rushing down the stairs. Mikhail didn’t bother withdrawing his hand before he sent his other fist crashing through the yet-unharmed expanse of wall right next to the first hole. He was practically fuming from the ears, veins standing out from the well-defined muscles in his arms and neck.

"Don't. You. Ever--"

And without warning, his wife Dallandra was there. Coaxing him, whispering something urgently by his ear.

Snow couldn't help but watch in awe as her brother's expression transformed from blind rage to smothered exasperation and finally to defeat in a matter of seconds.

Collapsing into an armchair hard enough that the legs made an audible screech against the linoleum, he resumed his smoldering glare as he brushed flakes of plaster and fiberglass from his knuckles.

"So what the hell are you doing here?" he growled.

Releasing a breath she didn't realize she was holding, Snow fished a cigarette out of her purse and shrugged as she lit it.

"Simple. You deal what I want," she replied, as casually as she could manage. “What they all want.”

Smoke unfurled through the space between them, dressing the silence in the room with a nebulous haze. Her hand trembled involuntarily as she tapped the ash from the cigarette and watched out of the corner of her eye as realization dawned on the man.

"Nymph..? You got hooked on.. Nymph?"

Snow found she could no longer meet his gaze.

"It was an accident, okay? I mean--it doesn't really matter how it happened. What’s done is done. It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t help it. I...I’m sorry."

Even in her own ears, the words sounded weak and meaningless. But it wasn’t her fault that Tony Lester was running a whorehouse under the old club and using drugs to control his girls. It wasn’t her fault that her only ticket out was falling in with the Sabers and that Kel exacerbated her addiction. She didn’t know until it was all too late, so it wasn’t her fault. Right?

"Why didn’t you ever tell me..?"

His anger replaced by incredulity, her brother suddenly sounded very tired and out of place.

"I'll go straighten up your room," Dallandra said.

"I'm sorry.." Snow found herself repeating lamely, as she snuffed out the cigarette.

Mikhail shook his head and ran his hands over his face.

"Christ," was all he could say.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Devise to Demise: Developing A Character To DEATH

Have you ever spent hours slaving over a work of art until it was just short of perfect, but then instead of backing off and accepting the rationalization that nothing is ever perfect and that any further tweaking will inevitably result in the undoing of Everything Good and Wonderful, you stubbornly carry on, brandishing pen, palette or paint brush as if you were some kind of reinvented Michelangelo and the bloody screaming corpses of the Medici themselves had come back from the grave just to commission one last masterpiece? That is. Right up until you wear an irreparable, flaming, gaping hole right through the center of your precious creation?

For me, the worst part was learning that this disease of killing your work with love is not restricted to art. Writers are not immune to polish-the-ever-living-crap-out-of-it-itis!

In high school, back when the world was...not-so-young...and Pluto was still a planet—okay fine, so it wasn't that long ago—the Pagemasters (AKA Ladies Pendragon) and I used to make up characters and stories together through a combination of role-playing and notebook-passing. (Scribe recently exposed us on her blog about collaborations so I guess by "used to" I mean still do and by "make up" I mean rabidly crank out like house elves on LSD and crack rocks.. But we've upgraded from notebooks to Google docs! And we've matured from role-playing Look. DON'TJUDGEME.)

We all made characters and spent years developing the ever-living crap out of them. Most of the time the results were good. We ended up with characters who were healthy complex individuals with realistic problems, meaningful aspirations and shining personalities. I'm sorry. Who am I kidding? They were mostly veritable basket cases with serious life problems, megalomaniacal tendencies and fangs. But we did come up with some awesome stuff too.

Adryn accomplished the 50,000 word goal for NaNoWriMo this past November with characters she'd been playing with us since before we all had driver's licenses. Scribe is well on her way to completing an epic trilogy she's had in the works for over a decade featuring characters she used to sketch into the margins of her Latin notebooks.

I recently picked up The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie and one of the praises on the back of the book really stood out to me. Scott Lynch, the author of The Lies of Locke Lamora and coincidentally another favorite author of mine, wrote: "If you're fond of bloodless, turgid fantasy with characters as thin as newspaper and as boring as plaster saints, Joe Abercrombie is really going to ruin your day. A long career for this guy would be a gift to our genre."

So character development is fun and character development is good. It also goes without saying that character development is one of the most important, if not the most crucial, aspects of a strong story. But like all things fun and good, can there be such a thing as too much? Is it possible to over-develop a character?

Just like over-editing a drawing can result in eraser burns on your subject, I believe that it's also possible to smite a character with over-thinking.

Mainly, because I've done it before.

Unlike my friends Adryn and Scribe, most of my brainchildren from high school have never seen the light of day, let alone the light of a computer screen. Reason? I strangled them in the womb with their own umbilical cords.

While the rest of my cohorts formed up just enough description to breath life into a unique operative being and saved the development stage for pen, paper and notepad, I closed in on my own grey matter, analyzing and delineating every detail of my potential Frankenstein. As if not knowing my characters' favorite flavor of ice cream and political disposition on the Rape of Nanking before I presented them to the world would somehow prevent them from being functional in their respective stories. This is embarrassing to admit but I once mapped out an entire time line for a single character from birth to death because I thought that by knowing everything there was to know about her, I would be able to write her better.

Needless to say, I was dead wrong.

Knowing everything there is to know about your character doesn't mean that your character is well-developed. Hell, it doesn't even necessarily mean that you have a viable character. To illustrate my point (because I don't do enough of that *sarcasm*) I'm going to tell you all about a very small friend of mine.

S. aureus is a nonmotile, nonspore-forming facultative anaerobic bacterium that can be found on the skin of about 20% of the human population. Morphologically it is a cluster-forming cocci, so under the microscope it typically looks like bunches of grapes. It is Gram-positive, catalase-positive and coagulase-positive which sets it apart from the rest of the Staphylococcaceae family. Grown on an agar plate, S. aureus forms the large golden colonies for which it is named—aureus is Latin for "golden". It is ubiquitous and usually harmless, but certains strains can cause suppurative infections, as well as food poisoning and toxic shock syndrome.

There. I just told you more or less everything there is to know about the microbe which causes Staph infections.

Does this now mean S. aureus is well-developed as a character? No.

Does this make S. aureus unique and distinctive from other bacteria? Maybe. But I can tell you from personal experience that without a microscope and testing, it's actually quite hard to distinguish from its close relative S. epidermidis.  

Does this even make bacteria more interesting? Well.. that can be argued.

The point is, what I just created was not a character but a fact sheet and even though I just wasted an hour of brain power reviewing my microbiology 101 notes from college, you probably still don't give a hot-damn about S. aureus. So I'm exhausted, you're disinterested and I still don't have a candidate for building into good story.

Now, bring it all back to my original anecdote on character development and the Pagemasters, stretch it out over about 10 years or so, and you have my diagnosis for literary cancer which killed just about every poor character I thought up in high school. May they all rest in their pieces.

The biggest difference between me and the rest of my friends?

They treated their characters like people. I treated my characters like lab reports.

What I've learned and need to act upon:
  • Details DO NOT EQUAL Development.
  • The same things that make real people interesting can make characters interesting as well, i.e., John's fear of spiders could be more of a take-off point than Gandalegolas's sword-chucking prowess. 
  • Sometimes, it's not about what you know; it's about what you don't know. 
  • Let your character do the talking. 
  • Leave room for fan-fiction. Personally, I'm not even a fan of fan-fiction. But before you spend precious time coming up with useless factoids like your character favorite cheese and his mother's maiden name, ask yourself: "Will I write this in my story?" and "Does anyone care?"
  • Stop caring.