Thursday, September 20, 2012

16779--He Just Didn't Deserve to Die

Ghastly murder in the East End. Dreadful mutilation of a woman. Capture: Leather Apron

Why was I going to kill this guy?  It seemed a simple enough question, but if I already knew the answer, I wouldn't have been asking myself and it would've already been done.  That's how I operate.  If I've raised the question, maybe I'm not done with this fellow yet.  Maybe he just needs to be maimed.

These are the things some characters will put you through.  Do you write a scene to accomplish a particular death in a particular manner?  Perhaps you're giving another character the opportunity to display something about himself through this killing.  Will it be difficult to do?  Maybe he can't do it at all.

What sort of an impact are you trying to make, not just on the victim but the audience?  Will it be a messy death?  Will there be last words?  Will it be quick or will Mr. Body linger on like Rasputin, requiring multiple efforts to put him down and keep him down?  Did he suffer?

There have been times when I've found that I wanted to kill off minor characters to demonstrate not just an antagonist's willingness to kill people but also to alert readers that they shouldn't get so comfortable as to think I wouldn't kill off characters who seemed safe.  Conversely, in another story I'm working on, I changed an opening fight sequence completely.  Instead of having the protagonist kill attackers to show off her fighting prowess, the situation was changed to one that was important enough to her to fight but no longer life-threatening.  In that way, the protagonist could show her skills and any killing that needs to come up later won't have it's impact lessened through overuse.

Scrawled and misspelled note reading: From hell—Mr Lusk—Sir I send you half the kidne I took from one woman prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer—Signed Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk
You don't have to explain it to the audience.  You might find that it works better to leave the readers wondering why Joe had to go.  If you're going to write it, though, you should know.  You will only enhance your ability to tell whatever story you're writing by being able to answer any such question that comes up.  That way, whatever situations arise and whatever choices you make to navigate them, you'll be able to know you had a good reason for it.  If you happened to have made notes, when someone asks "What were you thinking?", you'll even have a prepared response.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

16774--"My name is Logan"

My name is Logan. I’m a man. I suppose if you’re reading this, I “was” a man since this is my last testament. I figure it’ll be a while before anyone ever reads this, if ever, but I convinced the warden to let me use this transcriber so…if anybody ever gets ambitious enough to look for this…Let’s get real. The feds try to keep everybody drugged to the hairline, so it’s more likely that anybody who sees this will have stumbled across it by accident, hidden away in the virtual universe of information.

That’s alright. I’ve done my damage. I kicked city hall where it counts. I felt so good that I asked for the use of this transcriber. My jailers haven’t had experience with handling dissidents or last requests, but they weren’t given any specific orders that said I couldn’t have a transcriber. They were just told I couldn‘t leave. I guess they also felt sure that I couldn’t do more harm. Well, if they’re going to continue to underestimate me, any additional damage I might do is hardly all my fault. HA!

My name is Logan. I said that already. Sorry. I’ve been alive for the past three hundred and sixty-seven years. Considering that, I look pretty good. Physically, I’m thirty-two. The memories from back then are still pretty clear. I guess it sticks in your head when your doc tells you to start making funeral arrangements. I mean, I thought it was just some back pain and he’d give me some pills…ha! Probably nothing as good as what they hand out like candy now, but back in my time we had to get special orders from doctors to get drugs because the government tried to keep them away from us. Weird, huh?

Well, anyway, the pills didn’t fix anything. There was no cure for what I had. I was going to die. One night, apparently, I took too many pills and didn’t wake up. I ended up in a hospital and somebody made a decision to freeze me as some kind of experiment, I guess. Whatever. I was supposed to die, anyway, so what was to lose? Anyway, about a month and a half ago, some clerk ran across my file and found my freezer tube in a basement or something and, next thing I knew, I woke up cured in 2347.

If I don’t sound like I was grateful and happy to be alive, don’t get me wrong. I was happy. I tried to adjust and learn the new stuff they wanted me to learn, but…Well, here I am an enemy of the state. There are apparently some differences between being a 20th century man and a 24th century citizen and those differences can end you up with a death sentence.

Everything seemed OK, at first. They saved me from my existence as a popsicle and some nasty freezer burns. Once I was back on solid food, I was set-up with a physical rehab program. I felt like I was in one of those screwy sci-fi movies I never used to go see.

I did what I could to start catching up on history and learning how things worked now, since I’d missed out on so much, but there wasn’t much to look at. What I mean is, the facts were there, but there was stuff missing. There was no depth or insight. It was like the entire history had been polished over. It was subtle, but there was something else I couldn’t put my finger on until I found out what they’d done. Following the last cycle of social, economic and political upheaval and collapse, the people had turned control of their lives over to a group called the Prime Council.

Under the Prime Council, the state took the position that all human suffering was the result of too much disease, emotion and thinking. With that decided, it didn’t take long for them to institute a campaign to eradicate all three through the magic of chemistry. I was never been big on philosophy, but it sounded to me like they were trying to get rid of human suffering by getting rid of the humans. That left me, the asshole from out of time, to be the monkey wrench.

I was never a big fan of chemistry, so I knew there was gonna be a problem at some point. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was while I was still getting re-educated that I met Jane. There was one thing I knew about chemistry and that was that women were one of the most potent catalysts a man could find. For me, Jane32971 made things happen to me that hadn’t happened in over three hundred years. At first, I thought the effects were simply physical, but as time went on I realized she was having an effect on my mind as well. What could I do? I was only a man after all, not some mindless product of the Prime Council’s conditioning.

I’m still a man. That, of course, is why I’m composing this as a prisoner with only a few hours remaining until I have my character assassinated. I’ve been sentenced to personality execution. Since the passage of my sentence and during my incarceration, I haven’t found any greater fondness for chemistry than I started with.

I’m getting off the subject, though. Jane32971, I’ll just call her Jane from here, was one of my counselors. She was really something. She was a very pretty…zombie. She came to see me at the medical facility every morning for our sessions.

“Good morning,” I would greet her. “You’re looking gorgeous today.”

“My designation is Jane32971,” she would tell me.  “I am your assigned rehabilitation counselor. The weather is pleasing.”

“Your hairstyle’s nice. They used to call that a crew cut. It actually used to be popular when I was a kid. It’s very sexy on you.”

“Have you taken your morning joy? We may have to have your dosages adjusted.”

I did mention not being a huge fan of chemistry, right?  “We used to call it ‘afternoon delight’,” I told her one time.  “Maybe we should get together for a nooner.”

That bit of humor went over about as well as any other.  She reminded me to self-administer with my midday nutrition.  “Thank you for your support,” I said.  “You nourish my spirit.”

Her eyes were simultaneously a beautiful brown and lifelessly hollow. They stared through me blankly as she told me, “I’m an insignificant part of the great whole of the state and our great society. Take your vitamins. They are your nourishment.”

Her voice was almost beautiful despite being a strange monotone. Every single day, I half-expected to find out she was some kind of robot. Every day she would come in and tell me her designation and job. Sometimes, I would mimic her tone when I told her, “My name is Logan. I’m a man.” I was the only one who found me funny…or seemed to care. Of course, I’d gotten used to that. After three centuries out of circulation, nobody was laughing at my jokes anymore. Granted, they weren’t all that great even when they were fresh, but even my attempts didn’t get giggles.

She took me out for walks every now and then, showing me the city so I could get familiar with it again. Maybe they were going to set me up with a delivery job. As I got to know one building from another, I slowly began to realize that I never saw a single museum, art gallery, park or even a scrawled bit of graffiti. No music either. Not inside or people playing on the sidewalks. People used to play musical instruments in public. Of course, I guess if you‘re alive and reading this now, I‘m going to have a hard time explaining music to you without sound. Never mind. We’ll move along. The city was cleaner than I remembered. I never saw any homeless people or hippies. Nothing at all out of the mainstream. Even the teens were well-behaved. Still, the city was full of people, but devoid of life. Everyone was working and everyone we saw had the same blank look. They were either drugged or, maybe if they were smart enough, faking being drugged. I don’t know. If there’s a secret bunch of clear-thinking people walking around loose, I haven’t found them yet.

Anyone we spoke to made the same standard greeting usually followed by a mindless comment about the pleasing weather. I wanted to let loose and laugh, but I knew I might never stop. Technically, I was still in the process of recovery, anyway, so I might have gotten away with it. My modern fellow citizens would be about as lost in the face of an emotional outburst as a dog being tossed a set of car keys and a toilet plunger. In a moment of weakness, though, something in me decided to become obsessed with Jane, instead. Oh, sure, I knew emotions were illegal, but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead.

The Prime Council had decided to handle thinking ahead for people, anyway. Driven by my new obsession, I subtly worked the subjects of couples and reproduction into one of my education sessions.

Jane very flatly explained that “The council has unburdened us from messy and unpredictable sexual activities by taking charge of population stability using genetic engineering and gestation pods. With the resultant minimal need for daily interpersonal physical contact, hygiene and disease management have also subsequently improved. It is for the good of all.”

She might as well have thrown me under a truck right then. As she explained how the government had even managed to ruin sex, I realized how bad the new government had to be if it was able to make the one I’d left behind look good. Back in my time, we used to say that the “good old days” were good because they were gone. I was starting to believe that wasn’t entirely true.

I tried, session after session, to wear Jane down or maybe wake her up. I looked forward to seeing her each day, even if it was just for the challenge of trying to get her to smile or blink funny. There weren’t anymore weekends or even names for the days, so we met every day for seventeen days. Still, there was no penetrating her armor of chemically induced smiles and brainwashing. That was only fair, since I wasn’t buying into the party line or drinking the fruit punch chaser. I smiled and nodded a lot. It bought me time while they added more societal activities to my days to see where I would fit best. Ultimately, I was put to work as a clerk in some public office, which explained why the drugs went over so well. I could see how it was easier to get through the drudge if you were numb from the neck up.

At work, I did whatever they told me needed to be done. An army of chimps could’ve done the job. With a clear mind, I had lots of free time. For about five minutes one day, I thought about mounting a coup against the Prime Council, but I couldn’t really see an upside to being King of the Living Dead. I could only see an increase in my personal insanity factor. Instead, I went for a walk and thought about Jane. Jane and I were still meeting every other day, so the days without her gave me time to myself. That was the day I managed to get myself into the trouble that ended with you reading this.

On my walk that day, I ended up wandering into a greenhouse hydroponics lab. It was someplace Jane had never taken me and probably never would’ve. People still needed to breathe and eat so I should’ve figured that the government still needed plants. They didn’t produce anything pretty, just very efficient. There were plants high in protein, plants that grew crazy fast and even plants that grew on the water they sucked out of the air. I was the most excited I’d been about anything since my thaw. I’d never been a big fan of chemistry, but gardening I loved since the first time my grandfather had turned playing in the dirt into something special.

I engaged the head horticulturist in a monotone conversation about hearty breeds of grass, algae and hemp they had developed. Some of them could produce three times the oxygen output of their parent plants. I was impressed. The next day, I mentioned to Jane that “I have extensive experience working with plants. It occurred to me that I might serve society better were I employed in such a capacity.”

“You have never mentioned such experience before,” Jane said. “That information could have facilitated a more logical occupational placement.”

“I apologize. I hadn’t been inclined toward such personal discussions, I guess.”

“We have had forty-seven discussions centered on personal topics,” she told me.

“I’m not always in the mood to be probed, Jane.”

“You initiated the discussions,” she said.

“I did that? Are you sure?”

“I have notes.”

“Oh. Notes, huh?”

“Extensive notes,” she said, showing me her data tablet.

“I see,” I said. “Forty-seven, you say?”

“Forty-seven,” she confirmed. “I will investigate a new occupational placement to facilitate the optimization--”

“I’ve already spoken with the head of a greenhouse near here,” I told her.

Within a few days, I was working in the greenhouse lab as an assistant. I considered it a minor triumph to get to work with actual living things for a change, instead of zombies.

I threw myself into the work. I worked through breaks and stayed late. I learned how to use the computers to design new strains of plants to help keep the air clean. I was so excited, it was all I could do to pretend to be unemotional and detached every day. That was especially true after I secretly started making things of my own design.

It took a little while. I lost track of how long, but once everything was ready, I left a box at the door to Jane’s apartment. Later, about halfway through the afternoon, when I was walking to the Central Plaza. I heard Jane’s voice behind me. Sure, it was a flat monotone like everyone else’s, but I’d spent enough time listening to her that, I suppose, on some subconscious level I heard some quality that was familiar enough to make her stand out from what other little background chatter was happening. As I started to pay attention to her words, I realized she was identifying me to a pair of Peace Guards. The bitch was turning me in. Can someone be a terrorist when people can’t be scared?

She told them I’d been acting strangely and needed immediate psychiatric evaluation before becoming a greater danger to myself or others. The cops were super polite and looked really confused when I started throwing punches. I’m not a fighter, but the law enforcement guys were zombies who were only geared for handling more zombies. Jane looked confused as she tried to reason with me like I was attempting suicide. Naturally, she suggested I needed more drugs. Her robotic, passionless pleading prompted me to slap her and run. It was probably a safe bet that she’d never been hit before. I was pretty sure I hadn’t hit anyone since elementary school and there I was, after a three hundred and sixty year lull, hitting everyone who talked to me.

No one seemed to pay me any notice as I trotted along with my gray duffle bag. At the time, I figured that if there’d been an alarm raised, they sure were calm about it. Still, I didn’t want to waste any time. Since I’d offered such decisive resistance, I was pretty sure that Jane would be helping the Peace Guards rally and run me down sooner than later. As I hustled through the crowds of pedestrians shuffling mindlessly along, I finally reached Central Plaza. It was at the heart of the city, overlooked by four of the Prime Council’s central buildings.

At the center of the sprawling plaza, I reached into the duffle bag to grab the portable digging tool I had brought from work. It was a fancy name for a shovel, but since I’d woken up three centuries in the future, it looked more like a hand-held cannon. Yay! Fun for me! Still, no one around seemed to be paying any attention. My hand tightened on the pistol grip and I pointed the business end at the smooth gray stone that easily withstood thousands of footsteps a day. The digger didn’t even kick when I pulled the trigger and unleashed a focused stream of plasma and vibrations. For all the damage the thing was doing, it was eerily quiet and vibrated less than my old vacuum cleaner. A cloud of dust began spreading along the ground as I guided the digger in chopping the stone to fine powder, creating a gaping hole about twenty feet around. It took a few seconds to get through what looked like about two feet of rock and find what I’d come looking for: dirt. I could smell it even through all the dust. It was rich, healthy soil. Oh, it smelled so good. It was just what every garden needed.

People were finally paying attention. They were stopping and staring all around. Some of their jaws were hanging open and some were pointing, but none of them knew what else to do. The disruption to their daily monotony was one thing, but the new smell was waking up their brains. All that mattered to me was that I had their attention when I completed my act of civil disobedience. I dropped the super shovel and started scattering my new seeds into the hole. The aggressive little hybrids were a supercharged mixture of hemp, kudzu and roses. They were engineered to have a rapid sprouting phase, so they sprang to life in seconds to start taking root.

Thorn-covered stalks grew up and out in minutes, getting thicker and tougher as broad leaves sucked up sunlight and soaked moisture from the air. The hole was filled with a deep-rooted, emerald bush with more thorny vines creeping out in all directions. The tallest stalks were already taller than me when the deep red flowers started to bloom. I felt a rush like I’d never felt before. It was like something out of a storybook or a dream. It was beautiful, all red and green and at least twelve feet tall. I loved it. The surge of fresh oxygen the bush was pumping out mixed with the heady floral scent probably added to my euphoria. Even when my arms were being restrained behind me, I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. To the mind-wiped citizenry, I must’ve looked like some sort of mad scientist as I was being dragged away.

At the tribunal, they said I was jumping and cheering. I knew I must’ve been at least twice as happy as that kid with the magic beans, but I must’ve gotten a little delirious because I couldn’t remember that part so well. There was some issue about them trying to kill off my roses. They were having tough time destroying them since the plant fibers were almost as strong as steel. Even if they blasted it to pieces they were just going to spread it around and increase the chaos. The Prime Council declared me an enemy of the state, a Morlock loose among the Eloi. You probably don’t get that reference either, but I was ecstatic.

I sat under a spotlight in an otherwise black room. I don’t think the whole thing lasted more than an hour. They didn’t have Jane there to testify against me. I don’t think they had anyone else in there with me at all. They probably figured I’d done enough damage without giving me access to anyone else. The tribunal process wasn’t anything that looked like what I remembered of courtroom trials. No more civil rights, just me and sentencing. Still, they were always polite about it. They weren’t even insisting on a public admission of how right they were and how insane I was. They weren’t going to try to break me and get me to tell them how much I loved them for it. There would be no torture and no screaming.

I was sentenced to twenty minutes in some brainwashing machine that would make me a non-disruptive part of society, smoothing off all my rough and undesirable behaviors with a focused chemical infusion. My mom used to tell me: you can’t fight city hall. Around here, they made sure no one even wanted to think about it.

Still, I guess, I had fought city hall. Maybe I didn’t win. It remained to be seen if my beautification program would have an impact, but I did fight. The fact that it was possible, that the government could be openly defied, was out there now. There were people who had seen that no matter what the Prime Council chose to say had actually happened.

I leaned back on the bed in my tiny, bare cell, suddenly feeling the absence of a harmonica. Again, no music. All the harmonicas probably got melted down years ago and I‘d never been much of a whistler. There was a scraping at the door and a small window slid open. I knew they weren’t going to feed me and it sure wasn’t gonna be a priest. They probably melted them down with the harmonicas and the lawyers.

I looked up at the silent, shadowed eyes staring through the little window. I sat up to take a better look. There was something different about those familiar eyes.

“You came all this way just to make sure I was locked up and neutered?” I asked her.

There was a slight crinkling around the corners of her eyes. I couldn’t be sure, since I couldn’t see her mouth, but I could almost swear she was smiling.

“Wait,” I said, a light bulb flaring up in my head. “You got the box, didn’t you?”

She nodded, then looked about to make sure she wasn’t being watched too closely. Then, she slipped a piece of paper through the window. Our hands touched as I took it from her. Her hand was warm and soft and trembled a bit as she squeezed my fingers. I looked at the scrap of paper and smiled. When I looked back at her, she smiled more and then recomposed herself before she left quietly. She finally understood.  I couldn't see her, but it made her more gorgeous than ever.

I flopped back to the bed and read the note again. On it was printed, “My name is Jane. I’m a woman.” That would have been enough to make me happy, but it also had my appointment time for my next rehabilitation session with her. Amazing the headway you can make with a box of roses and a bunch of seeds. I imagined the coming sessions with Jane would be much more interesting.  We would have a lot of work to do.

If you’ve read this far, your mind isn’t as clouded as the council would like. You might even know someone else you can pass it along to. Just be careful. You don’t want to end up writing one of these yourself.

My name is Logan. I’m a man. I’ll try to hang on to that thought. Maybe I can resist what they’re about to do to me, drowning my radical thoughts and emotions in drugs, or at least recover from it with time. With Jane’s help. Damn! I forgot to tell Jane what the flowers are called. Shakespeare said it didn’t matter, but I always liked the name, especially now that I’ve managed to weaponize roses. I was so busy keeping it secret, I didn’t think to write it down or tell anyone. I'll have to try to hang on to that, too.  People should know the name. Names do matter.

My name is Logan.

Monday, September 3, 2012

16762--Reality From A Certain POV

Staring eye.jpg
I'm pretty sure I'm not looking at things like the majority of people, what you might be inclined to call a "normal" person.

I remember it used to be limited to things I was writing.  That was fine.  I would analyze my writing as I constructed it.  That seemed to be quite practical, allowing me to assess whether or not I was moving things in a proper direction.  If it wasn't making me happy, I could change it.  "Oh, I'm building a cliched story, or at least something I've seen done before.  Looks like I need to do something else."

Now--and though I say now, it's something I've seen building over several years--I can't just sit and watch a movie or a TV show or enjoy reading a story.  As I take them in for processing, my mind is analyzing them.  This isn't to say that I can no longer be entertained, but I've got a whole other nerd processor running simultaneously.  I guess that means they're not doing enough to engage my brain.  Yeah, I was that kid in school, with mom exchanging pages of notes with teachers about giving me extra work in class.

When it's entertainment time, I'm trying not to be spoiler guy for anyone else in the room.  Fortunately, working out the mystery set-up of TV shows or movies ten minutes in doesn't mean I can't enjoy a good story and entertaining characters with well-written dialogue.  In fact, it makes me look harder for them.  It also makes me look for more news and read more non-fiction to give the Nerd a rest, but that's OK, too.  I like learning.  The Nerd loves Jeopardy!
Thisisbossi Symmetry.JPG

With fiction, though, I'm looking for something that's not wasting my time.  I want something that's well-written, whether comedy or adventure or drama, because while I'm immersing myself in the alternate reality the Nerd is at work.  "Ah, here's the conflict character," he says.  "Here comes the climax," he tells me.  "This would've been better if--" or "Oh, they still need to do ______ because they still need the plot element of this character to ______ in order to justify the others doing ________."  "Remember how all this started?" he asks.  "Look at these changes _______ has gone through."  "Oh, this is going to work out to be ________."  "Needs more cowbell."

The Nerd isn't so much a critic as a clinician, breaking written works down into analytical elements.  I suppose that means it lives in the left brain, being all logical in there.  I know it's tied into the writing part because, as mentioned earlier, it does it to me, too--analyzing my writing as I'm writing, figuring out story formulas, story needs and such.  Sometimes, it's almost like having a co-writer, I imagine, but with smoother communication.  "Look, irony!  Call Alanis Morrisette."

"What're you doing?" she asked as I backed up the movie for the fourth time to replay a single line of dialogue.  "Is something wrong?"
"No, I just love the way he says that line," I explained.  "It's this perfect inflection where you can tell he's in pain after being tortured, but sounding surprised that it hurt.  It's just enough to make it sad and funny."
"You're such a nerd."
"It's a great delivery," I said, pushing PLAY.  "Sorry."  Sometimes it gets out in the open.
Eyes aren't just the windows to the soul, they feed your brain a tremendous amount of information you're not even fully aware is there.  So what's that brain of yours doing with it?  How is it affecting the way you interact with what, in effect, is your particular world?  Something tells me that other writers must go through this sort of internal interaction much as I do, watching people as character studies and absorbing entertainments as analytical examples as well.  You tell me, though.  How does the world look from your POV and does your reality have enough cowbell?