The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide

I’ve been working on a project for several months with some friends, and it’s finally coming to fruition.

The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide, Series 1 follows Thursday Forrester as he’s forced to leave his home in Louisville, Kentucky to travel across the remnants of the United States, fighting barbaric clans, monsters, and worse, even as his body fails him.

These stories also function as tourist’s guides, and are written by people who live in each city (or have for a significant portion of their lives). I’ve spent months researching Louisville’s history, and the stories behind some of its neatest attractions–especially the ones you won’t normally see in a tour guide. Want to know where I’d take a date? Thursday might fight his way through its ruins. Want to know where I’d eat? You’ll find that too.

You can pre-order “The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide to Louisville” at the Kindle Store. It’s about 18,200 words (90-ish pages). It will be published November 1, and features cover art by award-winning graphic artist Preston Stone:

Subsequent episodes will be published every 2 weeks, at $3.49 each.

Series 1 is comprised of 6 episodes, and will take you across the US.

Series 2 writers will take you a bit farther.

Follow us on Facebook: The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide,
Twitter: @TPATGofficial, and
Instagram: TPATG (where we’ll post research-in-progress pics)

Our official site is www.tpatg.com. This will have links to Kindle releases, author bios, pictures, maps, and more.

 

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The Breakthrough

Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk had long since passed away, but two men who looked and spoke very much like them met at Social Media Guy (SMG)’s lab. Mars-Colonizing Solar Panel Car Guy (MCSPCG) sipped a $500 cup of tea made from leaves that had been carried 100 miles on the backs of virgin mules in Tibet.

“I’ve finally done it,” SMG said. “That’s why I brought you here.”

“Done what, exactly?” MCSPCG asked.

“I’ve solved the energy crisis and found a way to enable faster-than-light space travel,” SMG said. “We can go anywhere. We can do anything.”

“Come now,” MCSPCG said. “Saving mankind and becoming a solar-powered AC-induction Hyperloop space-messiah is my department, isn’t it?”

“Hear me out,” SMG said. “Or actually, just watch.”

SMG took a cable marked “The Internet” in one hand, and connected it to a socket on the wall of the lab’s quarantine area.

“Inside that lab, I’ve linked batteries that can hold enough juice to power the United States for a year–about 4,000 Terawatt hours’ worth,” SMG said.

MCSPCG raised a single eyebrow in amusement as he sipped the $500 tea.

“Now,” SMG said. “I’m just going to connect my ‘The Internet’ feed from the outside world through this converter, and open Facebook. This system converts negative energy into usable energy.”

“Negative energy?” MCSPCG asked. His eyes widened as he set the tea cup down. “But the–”

“Trust me,” SMG said. He then typed two words into The Internet: ‘Politics. Discuss.’

“But you can’t–” MCSPCG stammered.

One of the batteries exploded before SMG was able to throw the emergency shutoff. The experiment had lasted 1.037 seconds.

The rest of the battery meters read ‘100% full.’

A lab tech raced into the room, breathless.

“Sir, Mr. Umm—whatever your name is–we’ve gotten an urgent message from NASA!” the tech said.

“An urgent message?” SMG asked. “What does it say?”

“One of the cryogenic orbital ships–the ones containing all the Walt Disney-eque frozen heads in off-world secure storage–its orbit decayed, and well, it fell into the ice giant planet it was orbiting.”

“That’s terrible,” SMG said. “What do they need from us though?”

“Word of your discovery has already leaked,” the lab tech said. “They’re asking for use of your negative energy harvesters to pull one of the frozen heads out of the ice. It’s a prominent politician from 2017, and the cryo-pod’s AI has sent out a distress call asking for rescue.”

“I see,” SMG said. “Let me do some math.”

He doodled on a white board, but quickly became frustrated.

MCSPCG stepped in, picked up a dry-erase marker, and doodled some other figures. He too became frustrated.

SMG turned to the lab tech, who’d been waiting in breathless anticipation.

“Tell them we’re sorry,” SMG said. “Send this message to the politician’s AI: ‘We have all the energy we could ever want, sir, but it’s still not going to be enough energy to pull your head out of Uranus.”

###

Copyright by Stephen Lawson, 2017. Feel free to link to it.

Cold Shoulder

I haven’t posted any non-flash fiction in a while. Actually, I haven’t posted anything at all since the end of June, mainly because I’m working on a novella that’s going to make your world explode with awesomeness. It will also probably give you nightmares when it goes to KDP this November.

This story, though, emerged out of a dream I had when I was in high school, and it’s taken several forms in my mind before making the transition into text. I’d put it in the Young Adult Science Fiction box if anything, but to me it’s a dream on paper (or a screen. Whatever. Just read it.)

 

Cold Shoulder

 

“He just keeps spacing out,” Principal Krueger says. He looks to my parents, then to me. “He’s been in my office three times this week–twice when teachers thought he was ignoring them, and once when he sat in class for an hour after the last bell rang. Mrs. Hopkins just left him there until the janitor found him. She said she was tired of his nonsense.”

“Stan,” Mom says, “what’s going on, sweetie?”

It still feels fuzzy, like my head’s full of cotton.

“I’m cold,” I say. “Don’t they have heat in this building?”

Mom puts a hand to my forehead, then looks to Dad.

“It feels perfectly warm in here to the rest of us, Stanley,” the principal says. “I think we’d see some other symptoms if you were sick–runny nose, things like that.”

I rub my hands over my arms, trying to warm them. I wore a coat today, while all the other eighth-graders are in t-shirts.

“My boy isn’t a liar, Principal Krueger,” Dad says. It’s gratifying when the principal breaks eye contact and begins shuffling papers on his desk.

“I think maybe we’ll keep Stanley at home until Monday,” Mom says. “It’s not like he’s going to get behind.”

Principal Krueger looks up from his paper-shuffling.

“It’s only Tuesday,” he says. “Regardless of your son’s advanced–”

“My wife is right. We’ll keep him home until Monday,” Dad says.

“An idle mind is the devil’s playground, Mr. Cray.”

“Well you’re clearly not stimulating his mind here. I think we’ll take the week to look at other options for our boy.”

#

I sit in the basement, staring at the box on the table.

Why won’t you work?

I have a space heater an inch away from my legs and a fur-lined bomber hat on my head. They don’t seem to do anything for the cold though.

I feel it in my bones.

The tapping on the window startles me. Through it, in the darkness outside, I see Dani’s face.

“It’s almost midnight,” I say when I open it.

You’re still up,” Dani says before grabbing the inside ledge and wriggling through.

“My parents pulled me out of school for the week,” I say.

“I heard,” she says. “Did you get it to work yet?”

“No,” I say, staring at the box again, “which doesn’t make sense. It opened a tunnel for sound waves, but I can’t send or receive the tiniest bit of actual mass through it. Sound has to move something to be heard. Why won’t the ping pong ball go through?”

“Maybe you need a bigger energy source,” Dani says.

“I don’t think that’s it,” I say. “The portal’s open, so anything should–”

“Are you not hot?” she asks. “You’ve got this heater turned up full-blast.”

“I can’t seem to get warm,” I say, “no matter what I do.”

“Does it feel any different with it off?” she asks, turning the rheostat all the way down. She sits on the threadbare plaid couch that my Dad dragged down here when he thought he was constructing a man-cave. He hasn’t been in the basement for more than five minutes since then.

“Not really,” I say. “I just don’t know what else to do.”

“Well I don’t want to burn up if I’m crashing here tonight,” she says.

Dani melts into the couch, her eyes finally betraying how tired she is.

“Were they fighting again?”

“Yeah,” she says. “My mom doesn’t seem to know what overdraft fees are. She’s still using the receptionist with the fake tits as a defense for everything.”

“Kids these days,” I say.

“Don’t get me started,” Dani says, a weak smile on her face as she curls into the fetal position, her hands clenched together between her knees.

I pull the quilt from the back of the couch and unfurl it in the air so that it lays perfectly over her.

“Stanley?” she says, eyes barely open. She holds an arm up from beneath the quilt.

I sit on the edge of a cushion and lean in. She hugs me close to her, and I feel warmth against my body for the first time in…days? weeks?

“Thank you,” she says.

I want to stay there, where it’s warm, but I know I can’t.

I pull away gently when her arm relaxes, and draw the quilt back over her shoulder.

Her breathing changes, and I turn back to the box.

I flip the toggle switch on the converter I’ve plugged into the house current, and the DC volt-needle swings into the green zone. An electric hum fills the air.

I turn the knob on the box slowly to the right. A pinhole opens in the air above it, and it slowly widens into a fist-sized portal as the rheostat reaches its clockwise stop.

White ice reflects sunlight into my eyes on the other side–ice I can see, but not touch. I pick up the ping pong ball from the table and hold it to the portal, hoping that this time it will go through.

When I release it from my thumb and forefinger, though, the ping pong ball falls onto the table as it did before.

I wait ten minutes before the voices come.

“Thaan difta negrata tul?” the first voice asks, in a low whisper.

“Garn difta. Fand elran Beranga,” whispers the second voice.

I put on my headphones and click an icon on my laptop. Google translate came up dry when I first built the portal box, so I’m running my own software now. I push the external microphone closer to the portal.

“Get Beranga,” the first voice whispers. “Tell him it’s opened again.”

“Okay,” the second voice whispers. “Just don’t forget to hit record this time. There were two voices last time, just before it closed. I think one was female.”

I remember this conversation. It’s like this has happened before. The ping pong ball was supposed to go through, though.

#

I wake up at noon, unsure why I’m instantly alert.

The doorbell rings several times in quick succession, like someone’s mashing the button repeatedly. Loud knocking follows the ringing.

I throw off the covers, pull on some shorts, and rush down the stairs.

Through the window next to the door, I see not a cop or a fireman, but a man in utility worker’s clothes.

I open the door a crack. Dad told me to always keep the sliding lock in place unless it’s someone I know, so it only opens enough for one intense blue eye to stare down at me.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

“Yeah,” the man says. “I’m from LG&E. Name’s Branga. Is this the Cray house?”

“L, G, and who?” I ask.

And what kind of a name is ‘Branga?’

“Louisville Gas and Electric,” he says, “–the power company? Is your dad home, kid?”

“He’s at work,” I say.

He studies me through the crack in the door, then looks up at the sliding lock. I’m not sure I like how nosy he is.

“We got a report of a massive drain on the system from this house last night,” he says. “Several houses down the street lost power. We’re lucky it didn’t cause a bigger blackout, but most of your neighbors were asleep.”

“Well I’m not sure what’s–”

“Come to think of it, shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I’m sick, so–”

“Well look, kid, if you don’t mind me having a peek, I could see if there’s anything wrong with your appliances.”

“I’m not supposed to let anyone inside,” I say.

Branga takes a long look at the sliding lock again.

“Your locks are your locks,” he says. “Why’d you let Dani in, though?”

I slam the door, twist the lock in the knob, and turn the deadbolt. I run upstairs to Dad’s closet and pull his Remington 870 from behind the suits he never wears anymore. I release the pump, check the barrel and magazine to make sure I see shells, and lock the pump back in the forward position. Then I sit at the top of the stairs and wait.

“Dani?” I yell. “You’re at school, right? Yell if you’re here.”

No answer.

After my heart rate slows, I look out through all the upstairs windows. I don’t see any sign of Branga or an LG&E truck.

I flip the safety on the 12-gauge and carry it into the kitchen.

Five minutes later, armed with a sandwich and a glass of milk in addition to the shotgun, I venture back to the basement to have another look at the box.

#

“I didn’t tell my parents about him,” I tell Dani. “He knew you were here last night. Did you tell anybody–”

“No,” she says. “That sounds like somebody my dad knows, though. He probably asked Branga to stop by. I’m sure he’s harmless.”

“That makes one of us.”

“Did you turn it on last night, after I fell asleep?” Dani asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “It was more of the same–just voices. I think they’re watching it from the other side. I can’t see them, though. All I see is ice.”

“What would you do if you could climb through?” she asks.

“I’d explore,” I say. “I’d get out of this black-and-white, bovine, boring town, and see what’s on the other side of the universe.”

“That’s it?” she asks. “You’d just see what was there? What if the people you were listening to were weaker than you somehow? What if you could hurt them without even thinking about it?”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“The universe–I mean the world–is full of stories of powerful people exterminating weaker people, or enslaving them.”

“What would I enslave them to do?” I ask. “I have everything I need here. I’m just curious.”

Dani studies me for a long moment, but I don’t mind it. I watch her watching me.

“Last night,” she says, “when I held you close, I felt something.”

“Me too,” I say. “It was the first time I felt warm in–”

Dani leans into me. I start to put up a hand, but she rests her hand on top of it, stopping my protest before it becomes one. She kisses me, searchingly, like she wants to know what’s in my heart.

Then I’m kissing her, and my hand is pulling her into me, leaning over her on the couch. She’s warm, and it’s the second time I’ve felt warm in…forever?

“Stanley,” she says.

“Yes?”

“If I let you go–”

“What?”

“If I let you go, will you promise not to hurt us?”

“Hurt who, Dani? What are you talking about?”

She places a hand in my chest and pushes me away from her. Dani stares at the wall as her other hand moves in a strange gesture.

The world dissolves. The threadbare plaid couch fades into a gray blob. My portal box becomes a black pinpoint. The room around us fades to shadow.

And then I open my eyes.

It’s so bright.

I’m looking up at a solid block of ice. I try to get up, and find that I’m crunching my elbows into a snow bank. I’m wearing a parka and insulated pants, but I still feel the cold creeping into my bones.

Everything around me is snow and ice, except the two boxes on tripods. Each box emits a blue beam, which is pointed at my head. I lean forward, crunching more snow under my arms, and manage to sit upright.

I look into the pale blue eyes of the creature seated in front of me. She studies me, but I don’t mind it. She has Dani’s shape, but her skin is a translucent white.

There is no Dani. I remember most of what really happened, but I stayed home for the week because I got into an argument with a teacher.

“What’s your name?” I ask. “You clearly know mine already.”

“Dennai,” she says. The box at her side echoes it without translation, since it’s a name. “It was close enough to adapt.”

“Branga wasn’t,” I say.

“Beranga is my father,” the box says, translating for her. “I’ve told him you mean us no harm, but–”

“How in the world could I harm you?” I ask.

“I will show you, Stanley Cray,” she says. “Be still for a moment.”

She leans forward with a snow-white hand outstretched. She brings her fingers close to my cheek, and I watch as the ice crystals of her fingertips begin to melt.

She cringes, pulling the fingers to her chest.

“Did you see it?” she asks.

“I saw. You’re sentient ice crystals.”

“As you are sentient amino acids, yes.”

“So you constructed a dream engine to imprison me.”

“We have compressed ice weapons,” she says, “but we also have a prohibition against killing innocent life. We had to know your intentions. It took longer than expected when you fortified yourself.”

“Fortified myself–in my house you mean?”

“Your parents were aspects of you, Stanley. You walled yourself off from our attempts to extract information. Why did you let me in, but no others?”

“Because,” I say, and that’s as far as I get for a moment. I made Dani real in the dream because I wanted her to be real. I didn’t question her presence the way I did the principal’s or the electrician’s. “Because you’re beautiful.”

She reaches forward with a hand again, but stops short of touching my face. She closes her hand, a pained look in her eyes.

“Dennai!” a voice says from the doorway. “The prisoner is awake! What have you done?”

“He’s not dangerous, father, he’s just–”

“You know nothing about such things, girl. He could be a spy. Can’t you see he’s exploiting your weakness?”

“He’s not,” Dennai says. “I promise you, he’s–”

“Out!” he says. Beranga clutches an ice staff in his hand, its end sharpened to a fine point. Dennai stands in the doorway behind him.

“You come through your space-hole to melt my daughter,” Beranga says, pointing the spear at my left eyeball. “You come through, thinking you’ll walk over us with your indestructible form and body heat? Well I have news for you: you’re not indestructible, Mr. Stanley Cray space-hole man!”

He jabs the spear point into my left shoulder, and it stings. There’s a rip in my parka now. I stick my finger into it, and it comes away bloody.

“I didn’t come here to hurt you or your daughter, Mr. Beranga,” I say. “I just wanted to explore.”

“Aye,” he says. “Maybe, but what about the other ones on your planet? What about the ones you’ll sell your portal box to? They’ll be here in an hour, enslaving the ice men of Throstvale IV to mine fossil fuels, or make telephones, or some nonsense. The universe is full of–”

“I know what it’s full of,” I say. “I’ve had enough history classes. I’ll–”

“You’ll what?” he asks. “Make me a promise that everything will be fine?”

“When I get back,” I say, “I’ll destroy it.”

“No!” Dennai says, and Beranga looks back at her.

“I told you to leave,” he says, but she takes a step forward.

“I would stay in your dream forever with you, Stanley Cray,” she says. “We would wake to feed, but return to a life spent together. Give me the blue beams also, father, so that I can dream.”

“Do you see what you’ve done, boy?” Beranga asks. “Go now, before I pin you to the wall.”

He gestures with the spear, and I see a door to my right. I walk through it into the open ice field.

My feet slide under me, and I take small steps to avoid losing what little footing I have. It’s colder out here, away from the scant insulation the igloo provided.

Five feet in front of me I see a hole in space. It’s roughly twice the diameter of my head, and I distinctly remember dropping a ping pong ball through it before I stuck my hand through.

On the other side of the hole, I see my basement, with my books and Dad’s threadbare plaid couch against the wall.

I look back to the doorway, and see Dennai watching me. She has both hands pressed to her face as though she’s attempting to stifle a sob. I wave to her, once.

I wish I could–what?–hold her close to me, as she melted into nothing?

I climb through the portal, lose my balance on the table, and crash onto the floor in a heap of emotional, physical numbness. I turn the rheostat on the portal box all the way to the left, and pull the toggle switch on the converter.

Mom and Dad left for the weekend. That’s why I felt safe going through the portal. If I’d been killed on Throstvale IV, they’d have never known what happened.

     I pull the plug from my surge protector but stop short of actually breaking the portal box.

My stupid life was better with Dani in it, even if I can never go back.

#

I pull my Physical Science textbook from my locker. It’s Monday, and I’ve decided not to argue with any of my teachers about any of the nonsense they want to tell me.

“Hey Stanley,” Megan says. She clutches her books to her chest and studies me with bright green eyes. Megan’s on the verge of blossoming into heart-rending gorgeousness. She doesn’t know it, so she talks to me instead of whoever popular girls talk to.

“Hey Megan.”

“You were gone, so I didn’t get a chance to ask you, but I thought that–”

“Thought what?”

“There’s a dance after the football game Friday. Josh and Kelsey are going. Do you want to come?”

She’s not on the verge of heart-rending gorgeousness. She is heart-rendingly gorgeous, especially under the accouterments and lack of makeup that black-and-white, bovine, boring girls wouldn’t understand.

“I’m flattered,” I say. “I want to go to the next one with you if you’ll let me, but right now I can’t.”

Mentally, I’m looking back through the portal one last time.

“You seem sad,” Megan says. “Are you okay, Stanley?”

“I’m fine,” I say. “I just need some space.”

###

Digits

She sat alone in the corner of the cafe, tapping away at her laptop and nervously eying her purse every few seconds.

A young man approached, and noticed her.

“You should give me your digits,” he said, oblivious to the intrusion on her writing.

She looked up, startled at his arrival.

“My digits?” she said. “Why?”

“Because you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh,” she said, smiling. He thought he heard a sigh of relief, which puzzled him. She batted her eyelashes. “That’s nice of you. How many do you want?”

He chuckled. He loved a girl with a sense of humor.

“Um,” he said, “ten?”

“Sure,” she said. “Hang on a sec.”

She opened her purse, and pulled out a small white object, which she placed on the cafe table next to her tea cup. It was roughly the size of a pencil, broken in half.

She reached in again, rummaging through items in her purse.

“No,” she muttered. “Not that one.”

She pulled out another small white object, and placed it next to the first.

It was his turn to be puzzled. He stepped closer.

His face slowly turned the exact shade of white as the objects she was placing on the table.

“There!” she said finally. “That’s ten! All yours.”

He stared at the severed fingers and toes, which she’d arranged neatly in a row.

He cleared his throat, and hurried away without explaining the miscommunication.

She cocked her head to the side as she watched the door hiss shut behind him.

“Sigh,” she said, without actually sighing. “I’ll never understand men.”

Wifeception

I recently rewatched “Inception,” and thought about what might happen if Mal hadn’t tragically died. What if two people lived together all the time, waking and sleeping? What if they had no boundaries at all?

I should preface this entry by saying that I love my wife, and this is in no way meant as a misogynistic dig. As a recovering introvert, though, I need periodic alone time to re-energize, so one of my greatest horrors is of being with people all the time. This is, thus, something of a personal horror story. For what it’s worth, she found it quite funny.

 

Wifeception

“I can do better than this movie,” Thad said when he was twenty-two. “I’ll invent a shared-dreaming device, but I’ll keep my wife from going mad.”

Naomi loved the idea, and loved dreaming with her brilliant husband. They would spend not just every waking moment together, but every moment sleeping as well.

Thad’s wildest fantasies came true in their shared dream world. They could fly on the backs of dragons, build cities from nothing, and breathe underwater. It was wonderful, when he was twenty-two.

#

When he was thirty-five, Thad’s wife found him wearing green flames as a bathrobe in a castle made of diamonds. He was riding a cockatrice through their grand ballroom, and reined it to a halt next to five leprechauns who were tossing each other down a bowling lane.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” she said, “but you forgot to take the trash out to the curb. They started coming early, so I reset your alarm for five.”

The green flames of his robe sputtered, flickered, and died. The leprechauns laughed when Thad winced at the cockatrice’s scales against his bare bottom. This was the first time their dream-world had mocked him, and he wondered whether it was her subconscious or his own that was laughing.

#

When he was fifty-two, Thad realized he had to put an end to their constant togetherness. When he told Naomi he just wanted to dream alone that night, though, she cried.

“You don’t love me anymore, do you?” she asked between sobs. “You just want to be rid of me. Do you want me to be younger in the dream? Should I look like somebody else?”

“No dear,” he said. “Of course not. I love you the way you are.”

Without knowing what else to say, and to stop her crying, Thad put the soft wireless transceiver pad at the base of his neck and closed his eyes. Naomi sniffled a few more times before turning out the bedside lamp.

In the dream, she made herself young again anyway, so Thad did too.

“Oh,” she said. “You look so much better! You don’t even have a bald spot. I’d almost forgotten what you looked like without it. You don’t have a gut anymore either.”

There were no leprechauns this time, but a nearby tree brought a limb to its mouth to stifle a laugh. Thad felt sure this was his own subconscious at work.

When he woke the next morning, he examined his bald spot in the mirror. It shone under the bathroom light.

#

When he was seventy-three, Thad decided he’d had quite enough. His grandchildren lived well off the fruits of his invention, and Naomi was well cared-for. His affairs were in order, and his responsibilities met.

So he died.

#

His children and grandchildren mourned him, as did the wife with whom he’d lived, waking and dreaming.

Two days later, Naomi died. Her last thought was that Thad was enjoying the afterlife without her, and that she must do something about it.

“It’s sweet,” their youngest grandchild said, a tear in the corner of her eye. “They couldn’t stand to be apart. It’s so beautiful.”

###

 

Two brief fictions

The Ice Cream Man

“We had a report of screams coming from your truck,” the policeman said.

“It’s just how folks get around ice cream,” the ice cream man said. “You know–I scream, you scream, we all scream for–”

“Yeah, yeah,” the policeman said. “I know.”

The ice cream man offered the policeman two scoops of rocky road in a waffle cone, which he gladly accepted before moseying back to his cruiser.

The ice cream man stepped back into his truck and locked the door behind him.

He picked up a set of needle-nosed pliers, clanking the tips together in his hand. The ends, bright red with fresh blood, shone in the dim light. He looked out through a crack in the side window, which he’d closed three hours before.

The cruiser eased onto the road, and vanished into the distance.

“All this screaming for ice cream,” the man said, as he turned back to his duct-taped captives, “is a bit like a boy crying wolf, don’t you think?”

He picked up his blowtorch, and looked between it and the pliers, mentally weighing his options for his next amusement.

They had screamed for ice cream. They saw now the error of their ways, but saw it too late.

 

Anniversary

“What a memory,” Hannah said. “Look at this.”

Wanted: Custom body armor, maternity fit.

“Yeah,” Phillip said, maintaining his smile while she was in the room. “Happy one year anniversary. Could you take the shackle off?”

“Perhaps when you’re done with the story,” Hannah said. “You have mouths to feed.”

 

 

 

 

How to get to this point

The Kentucky National Guard public affairs office was kind enough recently to write a story about me. The same day they published it, an airman named Lealan from our Air Guard component emailed me and mentioned that he also writes speculative fiction. He asked for any useful pointers or resources that might help build a writing resume, so I thought I’d turn it into a blog post.

In his email, Lealan asked, “What advice could you offer for perfecting a style, developing a story overall, and finding those resume-boosting contests and opportunities?  Are there any writing books or resources you’d also recommend?”

My recommendations are:

The basics:

At the Writers of the Future workshop that I discussed in a previous post, several of the wise old men of the profession reiterated Robert Heinlein’s rules for writing. They are as follows, and are what most consider to be the fundamentals of being a pro spec fiction writer.

Rule One: You Must Write
Rule Two: Finish What Your Start
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

My notes on these, from the workshop:

  1. You must write, not talk about writing. Many people talk about how they have no time to write, or how they’ve been working on a novel for five years. They aren’t writers. They’re talkers. Secondly, you must write a lot for your brain to rewire and adapt itself to the fine art of writing. Most of what you need to be a writer is subconscious change that only comes through much practice.
  2. Finishing work is necessary to sending it out. It’s easier to finish short stories than long ones, so I recommend starting with flash fiction or markets in the 3k-5k word range to get your feet wet.
  3. I got into Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show with a rewrite requested by the editor. Otherwise, I leave most of my stuff alone after it gets rejected. If no one picks it up, it goes in my “trunk” folder. I don’t rewrite out of endless second-guessing to please people. Apparently Heinlein didn’t either.
  4. and 5.: fairly self-explanatory. I’ll talk about markets next.

Where to send work

If you write science fiction or fantasy, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has a listing of the markets they accept as proof of your professional status. As such, they make a great place to begin your market listing at the pro level. They also publish a monthly market report with updates on their homepage. To be listed as a SFWA qualifying market, each venue pays a minimum $.06/word in 2017, which goes up with inflation over time.

If you’re just starting out, pick up a copy of Writer’s Digest’s annual Novel and Short Story Writer’s MarketI get it at B&N, and I have three different editions on my shelf. Go to the section on contests, find the ones that are free to enter–you’re a writer, not a customer–and enter every one you’re eligible to enter. I won third in a couple of Toasted Cheese Literary Journal‘s horror contests with some really awful writing and got like $10 for that first story. That’s where you start. It was validation, especially after they rejected my stories several times.

Then I won an On the Premises contest and got $220. More validation means more legitimacy as a writer. Even though they’re not a pro-level market, I still submit to their quarterly contests because I enjoy the themed prompts. They still reject a lot of my stuff, but they’re a part of my resume and a step in my self-validation.

To get feedback, and to learn by critiquing others’ work, I recommend registering with Baen’s Bar, which occasionally publishes work in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette. They’re a SFWA market, but their slush pile functions as a workshop also. There is a lot of drek in the slush pile. Some of it is mine.

So, for Heinlein’s 4th and 5th rules: Use the SFWA site and the Novel and Short Story Writers Market to find places to send your work, edit to their specifications, and don’t stop sending it to venues until you’ve exhausted the list. As soon as you send out a story, start writing the next one. Develop your art.

Books on Writing

The best one I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing. It is an easy read and full of practical, down-to-earth wisdom.

For structure and technical advice, you can’t go wrong with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

How to be creative

I’ve loved writing since I was a kid, but I learned more about creativity by reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine than I’ve learned from any other source. Jonah Lehrer, a former Wired writer, got into some hot water at one point for recycling his material, but this book is truly phenomenal.

The basic advice I would give you for making stories happen in your noggin is this:

  1. Read (a lot) in the fields that you want to put into your writing. If you want to write science fiction, read articles at phys.org. Take an astronomy class. Read books in the science section of your bookstore about weird but interesting things. You are gathering raw material.
  2. Be isolated–Train for a marathon. Go for long bike rides. Take a job doing solo manual labor. Turn off the radio during your commute, or put it on classical. Do anything that requires little mental interaction with other human beings. Avoid stimulation from outside sources like video games, social media, etc. Your mind must be directed inward, rather than outward. This is when your brain digests the raw material and you start to ask what if… 
  3. Put your brain in a state of relaxation–Drink a beer or two, but have a notepad handy. You forget the great ideas you have when you get loosened up, so write them down. Take a hot bath and stare at your bathroom ceiling. Be warm, unstressed, and melty. The ideas will start to form.
  4. If necessary, use writing prompts. On the Premises is great for this, but only 4-ish times a year. Other sites do it too. Another method is to pick a random book at a library, or have a conversation with a stranger, and mix contents of these with something else you’ve read or listened to. Mix unconnected things into a story, and make them work together.

What not to do

The don’t you dare send us this lists as Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons make for funny reading, but they’ll give you an idea of the things hacks do, and things that editors see too often. I differ with Neil Clarke on some things, but he still has a list worth reading.

Conclusion

I hope this answers most of Lealan’s questions. I don’t hoard resources as I acquire them, and I don’t think most other writers do either. It’s talent, work ethic, and persistence that will make a writer, not talking in writers’ groups or secret market knowledge.

Having said that, let’s see if I have enough work ethic to get a novel cranked out this summer…

Thanks, updates, and a correction

I’ve been remiss in linking to beta-readers and critiquers in some of my blog posts,  so I updated the Published, Pending, Press page today with their names and links where appropriate.

I met two of my fellow wordsmiths on a now-defunct website called Fablers, wherein we wrote themed stories each month and the guy that owned the site would send people prize money if they won the not-blind-judged vote. It doesn’t exist anymore. The guy that owned it was very kind and generous though.

Cyndi Bishop and Jim Becker are both extremely talented writers who helped me hone my skillset while Fablers did exist. Cyndi critiqued “Moonlight One,” my first pro-rate publication. Jim line-edited (he’s brutal) and critiqued an early version of “The Death of Arthur Owsley,” which has been picked up by Galaxy’s Edge.

Also, on Tuesday I received an email with an offer to publish “Bullet Catch.” It won second place in the Jim Baen Memorial contest this year, and got me admission to the International Space Development Conference next month. Baen normally only publishes the Grand prize winner, but they’ve offered–in an extremely rare gesture–to publish Bullet Catch also. I’d been looking for a home for it since the contest closed, and now it has the home I wanted.

I owe thanks to Dr. Caitlynn Taylor Iddings, a college friend who’s now a pediatrician, for sharing her experience and details regarding neuroblastoma, which were crucial to this story’s success. 

Thank you also to Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, for sending me the good news and for being so easy to work with.

 

One correction: I posted previously that “Leaders Taste Better” would appear in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Issue 57, in April. This is not correct, and was due to a miscommunication. Issue 56 came out this month. IGMS publishes every other month, so 57 will be in June.

Writers of the Future workshop, 2017

I just got back from Los Angeles Tuesday night, towing a new piece of luggage with a trophy, some original art for “Moonlight One” and 12 writers’ copies of the anthology.

They paid me twice, too. If you look at the Writers of the Future website, they mention prize money ($500 for a third place). They also pay you a by-word rate after the publication, though, so I deposited another check for $589.60 when I got home.

That ain’t bad, but if I had to choose between the money and the workshop, I’d have taken the workshop.

The hours each day were long, running from 9am to about 5pm, then more stuff like photos, interviews, etc. after dinner until 8-9pm each night. Throw in some socializing and networking, and you get to bed about 11pm.

The content was worth every second, though. We learned primarily from Dave Wolverton (Dave Farland is a pen name) and Tim Powers, both of whom are accomplished SF/Fantasy writers. Dave had a student named Stephenie Meyer once upon a time–you may know her as the author of the Twilight books. He also worked at Scholastic in the marketing department, and made a decision that among many books to push, the unknown “Harry Potter” would probably do well.

They taught us better story structure and research techniques, and had us write a story in 24 hours.

We critiqued 3 of the group’s stories, and learned from other accomplished writers like Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Doug Beason, as well as some up-and-coming past-winner, neo-pro writers like Megan O’Keefe, Laurie Tom, Ron Collins, Kary English, and Martin Shoemaker.

We learned personal branding, book marketing, and when you need/don’t need an agent.

Basically, it was the best crash-course in professional writer-ism I can imagine.

 

The awards show they put together put this year’s Oscars to shame. Seriously. You can watch it here. I’m on at about the one hour mark. Don’t miss the insane performance art they put on just before my award speech, though. It starts at about 58:35.

Our anthology, which features writers from Finland, England, Nigeria, and across the US, is out on Amazon, and in Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million now. It has full-color illustrations of each story by illustrator contest winners from Poland, Kazakhstan, and many other places. The stories hold some of the best suspense and human relationship I’ve seen in print. I’m proud to call these writers my peers, though I think I’m getting the good end of the deal.

The Valhalla Catapult

 

If all cemeteries are sacred, permanent resting places, will we eventually run out of room to bury an ever-increasing number of our dearly departed? Perhaps people have considered that problem before. Maybe resting places aren’t as permanent as you think. For a reasonable fee, though, we can give your loved one the send-off they deserve.

 

The Valhalla Catapult

 

“You know I actually met my wife on a run like this, Wence?” Grigor asks. He hasn’t shut up for five minutes since we left Valhalla’s home office this morning.

“A tube landed on her house?” I ask. I nearly miss the turnoff for the gravel road, and swerve to avoid making a U-turn.

“Well not exactly like this one,” he says, bracing himself. “It was out in the country, though. The tube left a crater where her granddad’s toolshed had been, and she drove over to help him sort it out. She had to sign a nondisclosure, of course, but her papaw didn’t have much problem with it once he saw the money.”

“Given what Valhalla charges, I don’t think they miss it. If the gun failed more often, maybe, but–”

“Yeah. You ever wonder why folks never gave the endless space in their cemeteries more thought?”

“I guess they just liked to think of their burial plots as sacred. They didn’t think they were just renting them for a hundred years or so, until all their living relatives joined them.”

“But people aren’t that bad at math,” Grigor says. “If the population in a city is constantly growing, and more people die in it every day–”

“People are lazy though. They don’t really take the time to think about things. I mean I’m not complaining. It keeps food on my table.”

Grigor chuckles.

“Launching folks into the sun on a fusion-powered rail gun doesn’t pay your bills, Wence. Failing to launch them does.”

He reaches into the back seat and grabs the duffel bag.

In the early days, after the first Senate hearings on cemetery cycling, contractors like Grigor and me got caught skimming Valhalla’s hush money before it was delivered.

Now Valhalla puts a protein-based tracking thread on every single bill. If any of them leave the duffel bag prior to getting the recipient’s thumb print, it’s an automatic life sentence.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I say, when Grigor unzips the bag.

“Relax,” he says. “I just want to smell it.”

He inhales deeply before zipping the bag shut again.

“I wouldn’t mind a tube coming through my roof,” Grigor says. “I’d quit this job tomorrow.”

It’s disgusting, but it’s part of life. People don’t want to know how things like this happen any more than they want to know how chorizo’s made.

“Hey,” Grigor says, “you want to get some Mexican after this? There’s a great place nearby. They make their chorizo in-house.”

“Sure,” I say, “as long as they have beer.”

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“I don’t see any damage to the house,” I say.

There’s nothing but cornfields for miles in every direction, which is by design. Valhalla chose a launch point that would only put Failures-to-Launch–FTL’s in industry jargon–over mostly unpopulated areas.

“Are you strapped?” Grigor asks. He knows I am, since he watched me holster my 1911. It’s company policy anyway.

“Well, yeah, but–”

“My second drop was a set-up,” Grigor says. “Global reducing weirdoes. They went on and on about how we were slowly launching our planetary mass into the sun. In the end, all they wanted was the cash.”

“It’d take a billion years to see any impact from global reduction,” I say.

“I know. They’re like the global warming folks were at the turn of the millennium.”

“I never took you for a history buff.”

“It pays off,” Grigor says. “Time is a circle. Nobody really misses California, from what I can tell.”

I would’ve gone.”

“Have you ever been to the beach in Reno?”

“Yeah. I mean it’s beautiful. Hollywood looked kind of cool, though.”

Grigor knocks on the door while I maintain distance. He fidgets with the holster under his jacket while he waits.

A man in his late forties answers the door. He smiles.

“Hello sir,” Grigor says. “My name is Grigor Salamanza. I’m a representative of Valhalla, LLC, and–”

“I know who you are, Mr. Salamanza,” the man says. “I’m afraid I wasn’t completely honest with your exec on the phone.”

Grigor eases his hand toward his holster. I’ve already thumbed the safety off on my 1911.

“Oh no, it’s nothing like that,” the man says. “I’m not a global reductionist or a cannibal, I assure you.”

“Then what’s it like?” Grigor asks. He’s dispensed with the professional charm.

“Perhaps you’d like to come inside?” the man asks. “You can keep your guns on me if you like. Just hear me out.”

Grigor looks to me. I shrug.

We walk inside, guns in hand.

The man, Flad Bjooren, is a real estate developer. He’s bought a sizable piece of real estate in the Nevada desert, and has begun construction on a necropolis. He explains all of this as he shows us the plans for cheap, uninhabited desert acreage.

“Think of it,” he says. “The people of America can still visit their dearly departed. We won’t lose global mass, and we’ll gain revenue from all the restaurants and hotels we build nearby.”

“That sounds great,” Grigor says. “Why do you need us?”

“A tell-all book about Valhalla would certainly steer business my way,” Flad says.

Grigor rubs his chin.

“And our cut?” he asks.

“How much is in that bag?”

Grigor tells him.

“Double that when the book comes out,” Flad says.

Grigor and I both give Flad noncommittal assurances that we’ll think about his offer.

“Did you know they hired me because I was a forward observer in the Army?” I ask once we’re back at the car.

“I didn’t,” Grigor says. “Why don’t you make the call then?”

I dial Valhalla.

“I need an FTL,” I say. “Protocol 13F.”

I give them Flad’s coordinates.

“The paradox is going to throw the police for a loop,” Grigor says, “since we recorded him calling this morning. It’ll be evidence.”

“They’ll be fine,” I say. “They don’t want to know how the chorizo gets made. They just like the taste.”

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