I adored The Martian. I loved it so much I neglected important things like a research paper with a looming deadline and clean socks and sleep, because I couldn’t put it down. So at the same time I looked forward to reading Artemis, I dreaded it. I knew that The Martian was going to be a tough act to follow.
And I was right. The storytelling is just as good, but Jazz Bashara is no Mark Watney. I see the free-wheeling spirit, the principled criminal, the grudge-nursing, heartbroken, sarcastic introvert with the heart of gold, but the “Pants on fire!” “You take that back!” type of exchanges she often had with people were a turnoff. She carried her flip and biting remarks too far and I spent a lot of time wanting to knock her on her ass–fairly easy to do in 1/6 gravity. It felt like Weir was trying to put the spirit of Mark Watney into a female character, and it came off forced.
Still, it’s a good enough story. The science is made interesting and is simplified enough for my non-science brain to follow. I love heist stories. I think Weir gave us a realistic portrait of what life on the Moon would really be like physically – a lot to get used to and much less romantic than we tend to think of it. The pacing is good, the characters are good, and the setting is excellent. It’s an entertaining read, and I might be rating it higher if I hadn’t had the amazingness of The Martian to hold it up against.
Jane is halfway across the bridge when the panic hits. Suddenly she is gasping, hot, her hands clammy and her mouth dry. She barely catches herself from bolting backward, right into rush-hour traffic. She clutches at the fencing with one sweaty hand, her eyes drawn over the edge.
Why not? How long can she keep trying, keep losing? The open air calls beyond the chain-link mesh, beckoning to the water far below. It would be hard, and it would be cold, and then it wouldn’t. And for a few seconds, she would be flying.
Would it be so bad?
This week’s flash fiction challenge prompt at the Ranch: “In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that goes to the edge. Consider what the edge might be and how it informs the story. Go where the prompt leads.”
Jane labors out of her sleeping bag, into her jacket, out of the tent. Breath steams, frost crunches, but she smiles, fumbling pocketknife and cooler. Tasty breakfast, meat and cheese, cold frappuccino. The only way winter is a friend to the homeless–no ice needed. #Twitterflash
Over at the Ranch, @Charli_Mills and @CJaiFerry are giving us monthly #Twitterflash challenges. January’s prompt: In a single tweet, write a story about seeing coldness in a new light. Extra challenge one: Realizing a tweet’s limit of 280 characters includes spaces. Extra challenge two: Realizing the hashtag takes up 13 of those characters. Yowza!
So. I like Jesse and his department and I love Molly and Suit, and I like Paradise and the people in it, and the mysteries are entertaining, and I love RBP’s writing. But I cannot stand Jenn. I cannot stand Jesse’s obsession with this bimbo. I. Can’t. Stand. It. She annoys the living crap out of me every time I read one of these books. And every time I finish one, I’m sure that’s the last one I’ll read because I cannot take one more page of Jenn, and then I turn right around and check out the next book, hoping this time it’s what I want it to be.
Huh. Just like how Jesse is with Jenn.
Did you do that on purpose, RBP? Nice one. But it’s still pissing me off.
<checks out the next Jesse Stone novel against her will>
Jane shrinks back into her corner, trying for invisibility. Office birthdays. She hates them.
She hides behind her slice of cake, eying the other women, each one wearing fashion boots with the onset of autumn. Ankle-high, calf-high, thigh-high, like who thinks those are appropriate unless your job title is Dominatrix? Black, brown, trimmed with fur, leopard pattern, silver work, buckles. All sleek, all stylish. All expensive.
She shoves her own feet back under her chair, hoping no one has noticed the clunky black Wellies she was fortunate enough to find at the thrift store.
Her luxury is dry feet.
Every week, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge at the Ranch. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes boots. Whose boots are they, where do they go and what is their significance? Go where the prompt leads.”
TUFF – The Ultimate Flash Fiction – is a brilliant way to write. Whether it’s an entire story, a chapter, or a scene, it expands upon the strict formats I typically follow, either the 99 word challenges held weekly at Carrot Ranch, or the Six Sentence Stories blog hop hosted by Ivy at Uncharted each week.
This final contest in the Flash Fiction Rodeo consisted of five submissions total. The first was raw writing, timed writing for five minutes, total unedited draft. The second was distillation of that draft to the standard 99 words. The third challenge was to pare that down further, to 59 words. Fourth was essentially a blurb, a recap in nine words. Then we were free to stretch our legs and fill the story out in 599 words.
It was amazing. I am well used to the 99-word challenge, participating most weeks. This constraint (and that of the Six Sentence Stories) requires me to really practice the craft, learn to be concise where I can so I can get wordy when I really need to, to paint the lushest picture I can with as few brushstrokes as possible. The next part, 59 words, was hard. An entire story arc in 59 words? But I did it. Nine words wasn’t hard at all. Then back up to 599 words, Paring things down, I’m used to; expanding things out, not so much. 599 words took some work. I loved every syllable of it.
And it wasn’t just the five different submissions, oh no. Part of the challenge was to follow the archetypal hero’s story. Charli explains the hero’s journey and elixir of transformation:
The call: the opening scene in which the hero is called out of the ordinary world.
The test: the story develops conflict through tests, challenges, temptations, allies and enemies.
The cave: the story leads to a crisis, the hero’s darkest hour in the abyss of ordeal.
The transformation: survival transforms the hero who begins the journey home.
The return: the hero returns to the ordinary world with the elixir of knowing one’s own transformation.
Throughout the Flash Fiction Rodeo I’d tried to expand my horizons, to stretch myself beyond my homeless heroine, Jane Doe, and the people she shares her world with. But with the TUFF contest, Jane was irresistible. What an opportunity to flesh out her entire story arc, even I don’t intend to publish it in its entirety! So Jane is back, thinly disguised as Marlie. I have never personally experienced homelessness but it loomed in the windshield of my life not too long ago, and it terrified me. It is an epidemic in this country that breaks my heart. I donate toward ending homelessness when I can. (Nickelsville, appearing in the 599-word finished product, is a real place, a tent city named in karma-esque fashion after a heartless Seattle mayor who made life even harder for the homeless than it already was.)
I didn’t win this one either, and I don’t care. I had a ball just being there, for this final contest and the other six I entered. The winners were fantastic — you can read them here, including the prizewinning “The Sun Shines on the Half-Moon Cafe” by Liz Husebye Hartman.
TUFF Five-Minute Free-Write (No laughing! It’s hard to expose the initial writing process. Yes, I know I started with “Once upon a time.” At least it wasn’t “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who was a talented paralegal. She worked for an attorney in a small town, for more than 15 years. But times got hard, and she was laid off from her job. She’d seen it coming, and had been looking for something new for more than a year, with her boss’ blessing. But nothing new had come her way in that time, and she had no replacement job waiting when the ax finally fell.
Casting her net wider, she soon got an offer for a position in another state. Expand her horizons, move up to the Big City, a new environment, a liberal community rich in the arts…what could be more wonderful? She happily spent money to relocate two states away, happy knowing family was a short flight away, happy for new opportunities.
The job was horrid. Miserable. She’d landed in a viper’s nest of emotional abuse and bullying, working for what she surmised was a true narcissist. After two months, she made an appointment with a job recruiter in her new city. After another month, she’d had no success. Fired. Far from home. Alone.
And the spiral downward began.
She applied for job after job, with no success. She was able to do temp work from time to time, but that wasn’t enough to keep her in rent money. She was evicted from her apartment, escaping with only a few possessions and the beat up old truck she’d intended to replace with her glittering new job.
TUFF 99-Word Challenge
“You don’t know what it’s like,” the man snarls. Fetid breath, brown teeth. “All your stupid paperwork, all smug, with your nice house to go to, your fancy clothes. But you’re clueless.”
Marlie recoils as if slapped. “You have no idea what I know,” she snaps back. “I used to make six figures a year. From there to unemployed, to suicide attempt, to the streets, until I finally got this job. And I’m grateful.” Deep breath. You’re not supposed to be mean to the clients. “I’m sorry, okay? Now let’s finish these forms, get you a place to live.”
TUFF 59-Word Challenge
Janine sips coffee. “I don’t get it. You used to have it all. Luxury apartment, Benz…now you’re in that sweathole, surrounded by deadbeats all day.”
Marlie cradles her own cup. “Ten years, I couldn’t get something at my old level. But I make a difference now. I get by.” She sips. “Sometimes you don’t make hay; you make do.”
TUFF 9-Word Challenge
Psych. I can’t find where I saved what I wrote for the 9-word part. Let’s say it was “I get knocked down, but I get up again,” with a nod to Chumbawumba.
TUFF 599-Word Challenge
“We’ve got the facts and figures for you, ladies and gentlemen, but I’ve also got the personal experience.”
Marlie pauses, takes a deep breath and a sip of water, plunges ahead before she can lose her nerve. She’s never excelled at public speaking.
“Seven years ago, I was in the same position our clients are, the same position homeless people are in all over this country. Businesses were downsizing everywhere, people being laid off. They lost their homes, their retirements, everything, through no fault of their own. I’m one of them.
“I relocated across the country when I couldn’t find something at home. And then I lost the job here. And then I lost another. I lived off my savings, and I didn’t worry. I was confident in my skills and my experience. The mantra in America is that if you’re willing to work hard, you can have anything, be anything, isn’t it? But it’s not true.”
Another breath, another sip.
“Over the next ten years, I submitted half a million resumes and applications. I’ve worked with countless different recruiters. I’ve been awarded a few temporary contract positions, but nothing went permanent like they’d promised. The long-term contracts were canceled before they ran to the end. It only took a couple of times before I learned to live frugally even though I was making six figures, because I had no guarantees. None. Why didn’t anyone want me? Why couldn’t I get anyone to hire me permanently?” Marlie shrugs. “I still don’t know.
“I hit a real down four years ago, when I’d run completely out of money again, been turned down for another sure thing yet again, and I attempted suicide. This wasn’t a ‘cry for help.’ Four hundred pills—I meant it. But I wasn’t as secretive as I thought, because a friend figured it out from across the country, called the police. I was found and saved.” She laughs, short and dry. “I couldn’t figure out saved for what, though. Things only got worse from there.”
Marlie pauses again, looks around at the legislative committee, seated with their water bottles and laptops, paying attention, unbelievably enough, to what she’s saying. Her eyes light on her boss, who nods encouragingly.
“While I was in the hospital and rehab, I was evicted from my apartment. No job, no rent. My things were put into storage and I eventually lost all of them. A friend took me in for a little while but then she moved out of town and I was left with nowhere again. And that’s when I ended up on the streets.”
“I didn’t stop trying, though. I got a very little money leftover from Pell grants by going back to school. I sold homeless-benefit newspapers. I squatted in an empty house, until I moved to a tent in Nickelsville.”
More water, more air. Almost done. “Through all of this I kept applying, kept interviewing. Finally I landed this more or less permanent job, general office help at the homeless exchange. I earn a fifth of what I used to. I can’t even afford a whole apartment, but that’s okay, because I can’t furnish it, either.” Laughter. “I take the bus everywhere and I rent a single room from a nice family in Koreatown.
“It’s all okay. Sometimes you don’t make hay. You make do. I’m making do, and I’m making a difference to people who really need it, not just lining corporate America’s pockets. If the committee will approve our proposal, these funds can give real, solid help to people like me all over the state…”
A huge thank-you to Charli Mills, blogger extraordinaire at Carrot Ranch Literary Community and lead buckaroo of the Congress of Rough Writers. I had a blast.
Sherri Matthews led the Rodeo’s Contest #7, Murderous Musings, inspired by true crime stories, intrigued by the “why” behind it all. I am fond of true crime as well. I do believe that the right tumbling of dominoes could lead any of us to dastardly deeds and the workings of the mind and heart behind such things are fascinating to me. Contrary to what it’s easy to believe, most killers are not serial killers or mass murderers, dangerous to no one but their single victim, brewed up by a set of circumstances that are just so. According to both NPR and a Scripps Howard News Service review of FBI records, approximately one-third of murders in America go unsolved. I’ve often considered how easy it would be to get away with murder if I did it right, and I’m not even the smartest cookie on the sheet. One of my NaNoWriMo novel drafts was about exactly that. As much as most killings are one-time crimes of drunkenness or passion, it’s easy to ponder how many could be carefully planned, meticulously carried out, and successfully covered up.
This contest was simpler than some of the previous ones: “Write a flash fiction in 109 words, no more, no less and weave a murderous vibe through an every-day setting, either in thought or deed.”
Reading back over my own entry, I didn’t do much weaving, didn’t turn up quite enough heat. And that’s okay. Perhaps the main reason I write flash fiction, and participate in flash fiction linkups and blog hops, is to practice my own wordsmithing and to watch how others do it–watch and learn. Other writers let their murderous musings run free and took their characters far enough, and they were fantastic. I think I would do very well not to cross some of these characters, or their creators!
I am now of a mind to reread Arsenic and Old Lace.
“Why would I know where he is? We’ve been divorced fifteen years. That was a happy day, being rid of that abusive piece of –”
“I’m just following up, Mrs. Burg. I’ve got two clients he owes child support to. He’s disappeared.”
“It’s Ms., and it’s Smith. I dumped his name when I left the state to get away from him. Try asking your clients.”
I’m asking you. Any ideas?”
Macie’s shrug can almost be heard over the phone. “There’s old abandoned mine shafts all over the place down there. And if he’s in one, I hope one of those exes had the pleasure of putting him there.”
So, here’s the thing. I didn’t care all that much for the 80’s, with the exception of Mario, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and MTV actually playing music videos. I had thin, flat hair that wouldn’t go big no matter how much hair spray I used. I don’t care for loud colors, can’t stand sitcoms in general, and I never got into hair band music. I lived my teenage years in the 70’s, playing Dungeons and Dragons and listening to better music and wearing cooler clothes, although I will admit that avocado green appliances were fuuuugly.
But this book is still just awesome. Willy Wonka meets The Matrix is right. It’s not the writing, which sometimes falls a little flat and is prone to telling rather than showing. It’s not the characters, who are standard (80’s) issue hero-cleverly-disguised-as-poor-geeky-orphan-kid, staunch-and-funny-best-friend, and super-hot-wicked-smart-love-interest. It’s obviously not the absolute saturation of 80’s pop culture with constant references to movies I’ve never watched and video games I’ve never played and comic books I’ve never read. What it is, is a grim dystopia, the year 2044, the world suffering a 30-year great depression due to damage from climate change, various nuclear altercations, and the widespread, abject poverty caused by unchecked capitalism. This dismal life is saved only by the OASIS, a virtual reality consisting of thousands of worlds and any type of magic and technology you could dream up, free for anyone to access, a gamer’s paradise and general escape from the desolation of real reality, and I can totally be down for that. If I had a billion dollars, one of the first things I’d get is a holodeck.
All of this makes a rollicking good tale, the worldwide free-for-all hunt for an Easter egg inside an incomprehensibly huge virtual reality/MMO game that will give the winner the entire Bill-Gates-ian fortune of the man who invented it. It’s a page-turning romp that may not be literary brilliance but is still written competently enough to get you there. I couldn’t put it down.
(It’s worth noting that I almost didn’t read this book, as it’s adored by a lot of the same people who love Ender’s Game, which pretty much nauseated me with its utterly unlikable Gary-Stu-little-shit of a main character and its disturbing number of scenes centered around naked prepubescent boys in the group shower. What is wrong with you, Orson Scott Card? Fellow bookaholics, if you’ve been avoiding Ready Player One because you threw Ender’s Game into the wall as hard as I did, trust me. They don’t compare.)
“…to hold you in shadow and light, in doubt and certainty, when times are hard and when they are easy…”
Richard’s sister may have legally taken his earthly possessions, but this single page covered with scribbled bits of the vows he was writing are worth more than his computer equipment and manga art collection could ever be. Vows for the wedding they would never have. Becca gives in and allows herself to weep for a minute, then flings the pages away in horror at her carelessness. She can’t even read his words now, his pages smeared with her tears.
Every week at Carrot Ranch Literary Community, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about wet ink. It can be artistic, writerly, or completely off the wall. Go where the prompt leads.”
With a slam of the stairwell door, Michelle and Becca are gone. No invitation for Jane to join them, but as much as she dislikes them and can think of no one she’d want to eat lunch with less than those two, it still rankles, all the snapping orders and barking at her like she’s a dog and general condescension, no acknowledgement that she’s their co-worker and is human and might actually have a feeling or two. Not being invited to lunch, again, is really the least of it.
But then Jane sees it, shining like her own personal grail on the desktop of Becca’s Mac — the file Becca has been laboring over for the last two weeks, the electronic reams of police reports and witness statements and diagrams and photographs and medical records and deposition transcripts needed to prove their case, meticulously indexed and cross-indexed and Bates-stamped, ready for final approval and transmission to opposing counsel and the court.
It takes Jane only three clicks of the mouse before the magic words display on the screen: Delete file permanently – are you sure?
“Wages of sin, payback’s a mother, karma’s a bitch, and all that,” she mutters, and clicks Becca’s mouse once more.
Every week at Uncharted, Ivy hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction blog hop and linkup. This week’s cue was “wage.” Fun sixes from other writers are here. Join us! It’s fun!