Two Worlds and Eighteen Words

I was at work when the news hit. Specifically, I was in a third-floor walkup apartment with a patient who was taking a significant turn for the worse. A lot of blue-uniformed colleagues were in the room, along with very concerned family members, and we still had to get the patient down the stairs, loaded on to the ambulance, and transported to the hospital. I was growing concerned he wasn’t going to survive the trip.

Bink,” went my back pocket. It’s a very subtle notification, almost inaudible. I had no idea at the time, but some of the most exciting news of my writing career had just been made public.

We carried the patient down the stairs. Bink. Bink, the phone beeped. I looked at the EKG on the portable monitor being carried by one of my colleagues. I didn’t like what it showed. At all.

Bink. Bink. More notifications.

Now we are in the ambulance, and I’m calling for my colleague to prep an IV medication, and I’m doing about three things at once, and telling the driver to start driving, because I think this patient might die in front of us. I’m still standing when the driver pulls a U turn in the parking lot, holding on to a ceiling rail because I grabbed more crew members in case the patient went into cardiac arrest, and now there’s nowhere to sit. Bink, bink, bink. Someone is blowing me up. A family emergency? I’m not going to take out my phone in the middle of a call. It has to wait.

We get the patient to the ER. Things look extremely dicey for a little while, but he stabilizes. I’m cleaning up the ambulance, which is trashed with discarded bits of packaging and equipment, when I check my phone. The 2019 finalists for the Sturgeon Award are out, and one of my stories is among them. I have more Twitter notifications than I’ve ever had before. It feels amazing, and yet I have to restock medications and put fresh linen on the stretcher and get the ambulance ready for the next call, because I’m at work, and two calls have already gone out nearby while we were on the last one.

We’re dispatched for a seizure minutes later. Bink, says my pocket as I climb back into the ambulance. Bink. Like transmissions from a distant outpost, plaintive chirps from a place I once lived. I silence the phone and quiet my mind, because I have ten more hours to go in this shift.

By the time I dragged my ass home in the morning, I was beat. Our last call was for a patient in cardiac arrest, and despite our best efforts, we were unable to resuscitate them. I opened up the laptop to my current project, which I hope will someday be a book.

I managed to add eighteen words before my brain shut down.

I used to call myself an aspiring writer. There was no discrete moment when I dropped the “aspiring” qualifier - not my first publication, not my acceptance into the Clarion West workshop, not my first pro sale. Not the party at which a real author smiled at my self-deprecation and told me it was okay to call myself a writer. Not the day of the Sturgeon nomination. It just happened along the way.

The reality is that I’m still an aspiring writer. If you write, you probably are, as well. You’re always somewhere on a continuum between the first line you ever write and what you hope you might someday be capable of. Like me, you might be writing while an entire planet full of demands and concerns competes for your attention.

On this scale, eighteen words doesn’t look like much. But it’s progress.

New story: Redaction

My story Redaction now appears in Issue 11 of the magazine Compelling Science Fiction. You can read it online for free, or get the whole bundle of 7 total stories for kindle. Compelling's stories tend toward plausible near-future SF, which is becoming an increasingly wild sub-genre in these dystopian times. 

I wrote the first draft of Redaction a few years ago, and it is my only published work that draws on my professional experience as a paramedic. At the time, I wanted to honor the beginning writer's maxim write what you know. There is some truth to this advice, and some deception. Writing what you know is a good way to build on your available knowledge, but it also risks descent into minutia and "inside baseball" that bores readers and distracts from the real story. So, much of the work in revising Redaction involved stripping out all the bits that made the story more accurate (for me) and less readable (for everyone else). I hope you enjoy the result. 

If you're considering Clarion West (part 1)

When I first considered applying to writing programs like Clarion West, I poked around the web in search of personal accounts from attendees. They were almost uniformly positive - enough so to convince me to undertake the personal and professional hurdles of clearing six weeks in the summer, along with tuition costs.

In retrospect, much of what I read contained the idea of what I experienced, yet I still somehow was unprepared for what it felt like. It was the difference between data and qualia, between the word "blue" and plunging headfirst into the sea.

Someday, I'll try to collect some of the best links to first-hand accounts, but for the moment, take a look at this essay by my friend and fellow Clarion West grad Robert Minto. He writes about many aspects of the program. He also address what I think is an essential aspect of the workshop, and something many participants experience: the possibility that you will fall short of your expectations, that you will experience failures, and that you will be encouraged to own your vulnerability as a writer. 

Meanwhile, I'm working on a parallel account, which will address another important aspect of the workshop: community.


I reached my goal of 30,000 words on the new book one day early. Now on to the question of what to do with December. I think I might just try to maintain the pace and slam down another 30K words before the change of the year.

I'm aware that what I'm writing is going to need serious edits - by this I mean major surgery - before it's in a form reputable enough to qualify as "book." But the breakneck pace has served to keep the plot cooking along, so I see no reason to abandon it yet. 

Did I mention that I was alive

I forgot to tell you I was doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I forgot to tell you because I didn't know it myself until November 1. That morning, I was envying several friends from Clarion West who were attempting Herculean writing tasks that month (a 50,000-word start to a novel, or a complete short story every week day). On the spur of the moment, I decided to commit to starting a book. 

I have a book project I've been researching for two years now, so naturally I bypassed that idea and set my mind on an entirely new premise, which I hatched as I drove to work at 4:30 in the morning. By the time I started writing, it was 24 hours later and I was already a day in the hole. I set a modified goal of 30K words - still a substantial start to a book - so technically it's NaNoStaMo for me. 

On about 70% of my writing days (work days are always "0 word days" and I limit the writing I do on weekends so I'll still be married on November 30), I wake up convinced that this is a terrible idea and I am incapable of doing this. But I'm 4,400 words from my goal, and know what? It's pretty good. Just raw material, but there's some fun stuff happening and I think there are some people out there who might really enjoy it. 

So, I'm alive. Back with more soon. 

Story in the song

Many songs contain a narrative, like a piece of flash fiction set to music. Lola was a showgirl at the Copacabana. She and the bartender, Tony, were in love. But one day, a new dude came into the club, and when he went a little too far, Tony came across the bar at him. Shots rang out. Years later, she's still hanging out at the club, but drinking herself blind, washed up and still mourning Tony. Copacabana is a much-mocked bit of disco frippery, but it's actually a frightfully depressing story when you pay attention.

That's how most stories unfold: a thing happens, and that leads to another thing happening, and just when you think this final thing will happen, another - more elegant - thing happens, and it completes a pathway that in retrospect feels perfect for the characters you've discovered through the passage of actions. [Note: this is a terribly way to describe the basic characteristics of a story, but I'm not going back.] 

At Clarion West, it became sort of a joke to describe something as "not a story," because some of the best stories in speculative fiction are not, by any classical description, stories. For just one example, read the devastating If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky. 

OK, all of this is to ask you to listen to this song in its entirety. It constructs a narrative out of the addition of more harmonic voices, which also function as a metaphor for people finding common ground. It's not a classic narrative, but it develops an idea in a logical fashion, and the last verse pays off the earlier ones so beautifully that it "reads" as well as any literary piece. I don't say this often, but I think this song is a legit work of genius. I wish I could write a story in which the ending so perfectly resolves the ideas sown in the beginning.