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Flash Fiction – Social Night

Image of the ISS from NASA, nasa.gov

This story was written for a contest. I was given the genre, comedy; the location, a space station; and an object that had to be mentioned, a surgical mask. The story had to be 1000 words maximum, and submitted within 48 hours. Posted here as submitted. This submission placed first in the group of stories with these requirements.

Synopsis [part of the submission]: Susan, a member of the female crew at a space station in a slightly twisted future, has high hopes for the evening when a mission crew of men arrive.

Honor among thieves? Not when a mission arrives. Then it’s every woman for herself and devil take the hindmost.

Rachel announced the mission at breakfast. “Out bound. Ten men. One social night, one rest night.” There were groans at the number, and just one social night, but it was still good news. For eight months, we only had each other’s company for the weekly social night. More action than I got before my arrest, but it would be nice to score a man.

Rachel posted their bios on the wall, along with details we didn’t care about, like which system they were exploring. Thanks to relativity, if they even came back, it would be long after we died. Health details were the usual – fit, sterile, and healthy, like us, and mid-twenties. Our ages varied, depending when we were sent and how long we’d been here, but thanks to good care and no sun, none of us looked our age.

The details that mattered were looks and rank. Captain Ninguno was the hottest – highest ranked, ebony skin, blue eyes. Rachel would go for him. As the lowest ranked crew, I’d be lucky to get any of them. But in for a penny, in for a pound. Cleaning wasn’t all bad. I listened to books while working. I learned proverbs and other things.

The shuttle docked right at 1500, and we lined up for the welcome. They looked surprised to see us, as usual. Everyone knew station crews were similar short, thin women, with short hair and identical uniforms, but ship crews reacted as if we were twenty identical twins. The men were oblivious to our different hair and skin colors, though not the different numbers and colors of our rank stripes.

Rachel stepped forward and shook Ninguno’s hand. “Welcome aboard ICQ 17.” He looked as handsome in person as he did in his image, but he was wearing a surgical mask. Odd, but the blue brought out his eyes.

“Thank you, Station Leader Rachel.” Introductions were made as per protocol. It was always pleasing how big the men were, and how obviously happy they were to see us. It was a long trip from Earth, although apparently men did not tire of each other the way women did. Ninguno ended his introductions with an explanation about his mask – not protocol, but neither was wearing one. “I have acquired a rare infection of the upper respiratory tract. Control is investigating, but meanwhile I must wear this, to prevent spread. My apologies.” Rachel tried not to frown, and I was disappointed myself. Even if my plans worked, that would limit our pleasure on social night.

Social night started with dinner, in three hours. Meanwhile, the men unloaded their equipment and our supplies. As we prepared for the evening, the others called me to one emergency after another. The soap dispenser in the shower stopped working. After I fixed that, the hot water ran out. The crew toilets clogged. The clean uniforms were covered with lint. Fortunately, I’d bathed and set aside a clean uniform earlier, and even bleached my hair.

Ninguno proposed the first toast, as per protocol. “Yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity. To the crew of ICQ 17, who make the departure so pleasant.” He didn’t look at me, sitting at the furthest table with the other one-stripers, but by his toast I knew he’d seen my note in his linens.

“Anyone going to try?” said Anna, to the table.

“I’ve made cookies for Derrick,” said Lori. “Just need to slip them to him.”

“Good luck,” said Stella. “Beatrice has her eye on him.”

“The cookies haven’t failed me yet.”

Regardless of how or if we paired, the two hours of dancing were when everyone got some contact. I hoped Lori succeeded with Derrick – he was a decent kisser. There was no kissing when I had my turn with Ninguno, as he still wore the mask, but we danced close.

“You were right,” he whispered in my ear. “The smartest, most beautiful, and most confident woman in the room, as I always expected. May I have you tonight?”

Rachel, nearby, tolerating Hogaza kissing her neck, glared at me.

“Yes.” Success! Though I was not sure why he’d always expected anything of me.

“Thank you, Angelica.”

“Who?” I said, but the bell sounded to switch partners, and he didn’t hear me.

At 2200, the unpaired women returned to the bunk room, Beatrice among them. Derrick held Lori’s hand, a foolish grin on his reddened face. He’d started on the cookies. Ninguno came to me.

“Where should we go?”

There were no private rooms, but we always found spaces. Mine was the cleaning closet, already prepared with a bed made of spare linens on crates of cleaning supplies. I led him to it, and the space impressed him. “Always a resourceful woman, Angelica. I’m looking forward to the honor of being with you and making love in half-gee.”

He removed the mask and leaned down to kiss me.

“Wait.” He stopped. “Your infection?”

“A lie to save myself for you, Angelica.”

A lie to Control made him brave or stupid. I was starting to suspect the latter.

“I’m Susan. Why are you calling me Angelica?”

“Are you not Angelica, leader of the resistance? You used the poem.”

“To seduce you. I don’t know about any resistance, and don’t care.”

“You’re just a one-striper crew, a cleaner?”

“Yes.”

“This is awkward.”

I slapped him. He put the mask back on and left. I slammed the door behind him.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I opened it, expecting Ninguno’s apology, or Rachel announcing demerits. Hogaza stood there, half-dressed and looking like a bashful Norse god.

“Yes?”

“If you spend what’s left of the night with me, you will forget everything between you and Ninguno.”

“I will?”

“I shall endeavor to accomplish that.”

“Come in. I guess half a loaf is better than none.”

[To fully appreciate the comedy, such as it is, note that ninguno is Spanish for none, and hogaza is Spanish for loaf.]

RWA – One Year Anniversary

‘Heart Loves the Ocean,’ by Jan Hull, at White Point in 2018. The artwork is now installed in Mahone Bay. https://www.thestoneist.com/ Photo by Tim Covell.

It’s been a year since I joined the Romance Writers of America. As with any subscription, it’s time to consider if it’s worth the money.

I joined to encourage myself to finish a romance novel I started in 2012. I had a completed draft of about 22,000 words, but it needed a rewrite to flesh it out and resolve plot problems. I was working on it periodically, and considered an hour a week good progress. I thought joining RWA would give me the incentive and tools to finish the work – if I acted like a romance writer, I’d be a romance writer: Fake it ’til you make it.

The bad new is that a year later, I’m still not finished.

The good news is that I’ve been working more on that novel, getting up to about five hours a week for the past month. It’s taken a long time to get there, but regular social media and email check-ins with other local romance writers has helped me achieve that.

Hanging out with people who have published 2 or 3 or 50 romances, or who see regular income from their writing, is enough to bring on imposter syndrome. Fortunately, there are other unpublished writers in the local group and the RWA, and I feel welcome there.

For all that writing is a solitary activity, a supportive group, like a writing partner, is valuable. I’m renewing my RWA membership, and hope to have the novel finished by this time next year.

Stealing Time to Write

Note 1: This is based on my final essay for a writing course. Modified to take advantage of no word count restriction on my posts.

Note 2: The author does not advocate stealing time from work, and has never ever used quiet time in a call centre to work on anything other than considering how best to respond to customer calls. The author believes a liberal arts education is essential to developing the soft skills required to provide good responses to customer calls. As always, readers are asked not to confuse the author with the narrator.

Picture of old manual typewriter
No power? No internet? No penmanship? No problem.

We’ve all read articles, online or in writing magazines, about finding the time to write. Finding the time, as if hours are scattered around the house, and all you need to do is look under the couch cushions to find four hours a week. Or get up an hour earlier, because that hour you spend sleeping is apparently totally wasted.

Do you have an hour or two everyday where you stare at walls, wondering what to do? Probably not. All the hours in the day are already occupied with some activity or another. To start writing, you must stop doing something else.

You’re not going to find time. You’re going to have to steal it. You must become sneaky and underhanded. Treat writing like the lover you meet mid-day while telling your boss you are at a client meeting. Not prepared to lie, cheat, and steal to write? You’re reading this because finding time hasn’t worked. Time to try something new.

Most of us work, because we need money to survive. Working less to write is rarely an option, because writing doesn’t make money. Sure, a few people make money writing. A few people win the lottery, too, but that’s not something you can rely on. I know writers who have a backlist of several books, and happily earn a thousand a month on their sales. Those of us who were proud to sell a magazine article, five years ago, for three hundred dollars, or anyone who knows how little an author gets when a copy of their book sells, are impressed that someone could make a thousand a month writing. But that’s before taxes, has no benefits, no security, and is less than minimum wage. We need to work.

You can’t give up work, but you can steal from it. Not in the sense of taking pens and paper (helpful as that is), but does your job have any downtime? I once worked in a call centre. Some days there were non-stop calls. Other days, there might be fifteen or twenty minutes between calls. I drafted several articles on my phone, between calls. What do you do during lunch, or breaks? Does your work offer time for personal development courses or open training? If so, take a writing course. Use your personal projects to complete exercises in the course. This is what the business types call win-win. You get writing done, and you get to check off the self-training box on your personal development plan.

You might also consider work that comes with available writing time. Spider Robinson starting writing science-fiction while working as a night watchman for sewer systems. Airport limo drivers and tour bus drivers spend hours waiting for passengers.

No time available at work? Do you volunteer? You don’t need to give up volunteer time to find writing time. Choose volunteer work that includes downtime, such as ticket taker, or standby driver. You might have hours between shows or waiting for passengers. Bonuses include looking civic-minded, being unavailable for social events, and a free t-shirt.

Household chores take a lot of time. Are you vacuuming or laundering once a week? Emptying the litter box daily? Spend less time cleaning, and more time writing. The resulting mess will discourage people dropping by – gaining more time. Think about everything you do during the week, including intimate activities (alone or with others), and decide if writing is more important than that. If it is, stop or reduce that non-writing activity. 

Stealing time to write is like robbing a bank. It takes planning and cunning – and, ideally, no one gets hurt. Stealing time to write is not easy, but the rewards are great. Money isn’t sitting around waiting to be found, and neither is time. Get greedy, steal some time to write.

Romantic Revelations: Unmasked by the Marquess

One of the reasons I enjoy romance novels is their consistent happy endings. It’s not just the central romantic relationship that ends well – subplot relationships progress, siblings reconcile, estranged parents and children re-connect, small businesses succeed, and rural towns thrive. Is this realistic? Of course not. Does it show us what is possible, and encourage optimism? Yes.

I don’t need books to tell me how bad things are, or to explore man’s capacity for cruelty. I can read the news for that. This does not mean romance novels are an escape from reality – they are tips on how to improve reality.

In broad terms, until the mid-1970s, the limit of romance novel optimism was that women’s stories mattered. Then the novels started to demonstrate female agency. Female characters not only worked, but had more challenging and non-traditional jobs or ran their own businesses, and might continue to do so after marriage. In other words, women had goals and pleasures apart from marriage. In newer books, regardless of when they are set, it is not unusual for a woman to be the main wage-earner or provider, or for her career and interests to take priority when the couple finally get together. This is both a reflection of changing attitudes, and a recognition that women and marriages have always been more complex than they have sometimes been portrayed.

In recent years, thanks partly to the growth of e-books and print on demand publishing, non-heterosexual relationships have flourished in romance novels. In contemporary and historical settings, and with varying levels of heat, there are romances featuring gay couples, lesbian couples, bisexual characters, threesomes (of various kinds), and larger groups. What is particularly cheering is that in most of these books, the sexuality of the characters is largely accepted by themselves, other characters and their communities. Realistic? Sadly, no. As with women and marriage, love has always taken many forms and been more complex than often portrayed, but acceptance of this is rare. However, these portrayals are definitely optimistic. And Cat’s Sebastian’s Unmasked by the Marquess (from a major publisher) is among the most optimistic I have read.

There are spoilers below, so stop here if you avoid those.

Cover of Unmasked by the Marquess.
At first glance, a typical romance cover, but look carefully at clothing and character positions.

Alistair, the titular Marquess, is bisexual. Not openly, as he is conscious of duty and image, but he has no concerns over his sexuality beyond keeping it discreet. The other main character (heroine does not seem right) goes by Robert, was previously named Charity, and is given the nickname Robin by Alistair. Charity dressed as man to attend university, but found herself more comfortable living as a man than as a woman, and became Robert.

Some reviewers have questioned whether Robin is truly non-binary, or simply a woman dressing as a man to survive in a society with gender roles more rigid than they are now. I feel this is worrying too much over labels. While a woman dressed as a man is an old plot device, the typical story arc has her presenting female at the end. (In Dragonslayer, the gorgeous Caitlin Clarke is initially a male character. Once she is revealed as a woman, her father proudly announces, “She was twice the man of any of them, and now she’s twice the woman.”) In Unmasked, this change does not happen. Sebastian has also been criticized for using the pronoun she to refer to Robin, but in the author’s note Sebastian explains this decision (and I am following the author’s lead).

Alistair finds himself attracted to Robin, and the feeling is mutual. This leads to kissing (in a library – a frequent setting for romantic activities). A few days later, he learns Robin has lied to him about a family connection. When they discuss this, Robin reveals her not-quite-birth name is Charity. Significantly, there is no change in Alistair’s attraction to Robin, though he is angered by the family connection fib. He loves the person.

A part of him, the part he had failed to silence with brandy and righteous anger, shouted that he’d be willing to call this person by any name he or she wanted as long as he got to hear that laughter, see that welter of freckles.

Sebastian, Cat. Unmasked by the Marquess (The Regency Impostors) (p. 99). Avon Impulse. Kindle Edition.

As the relationship proceeds, Robin recognizes that part of Alistair’s attraction to her is her presentation as male, but she has no concerns about this. It has been claimed that Sebastian is not fairly portraying bisexuality, since Alistair falls for an androgynous figure (Robin is conveniently small-breasted), and bisexuality does not mean a preference for androgyny. But bisexuality does not preclude that. And though I am calling Alistair bisexual, the term never comes up in the book, and non-binary is used only in the author’s note. The sexuality of the characters is not labelled in the story.

As Robin and Alistair prepare to marry (on the understanding that she can continue to dress and otherwise act as a man while having the title Lady Pembroke), other characters accept her with ease. One says this explains Robert’s oddness, another says he always thought Robert was unusual, perhaps French. As for the staff:

“This is Mrs. Selby, soon to be Lady Pembroke. You’ve met her before as Mr. Robert Selby. Youthful pranks, you understand. She’ll stay in the green bedchamber until the wedding.” Hopkins, not even raising an eyebrow, merely replied, “Quite right, my lord,” and that had been the end of it. Alistair knew the rest of the staff would follow suit, and if they had a problem with the new marchioness, they were free to find other employment.

Sebastian, Cat. Unmasked by the Marquess (The Regency Impostors) (pp. 300-301). Avon Impulse. Kindle Edition.

As this passage and a few others make clear, it’s easier to live an unconventional lifestyle and have an unconventional marriage when you are very rich. Despite that, the comfortably queer identities of the main characters, and the widespread acceptance of them and their relationship, is wonderfully optimistic portrayal of love without labels.

The plot, incidentally, has the usual historical romance tropes – scandalous family histories, scheming relatives, inheritance challenges, secret marriages, frantic cross country horseback rides, stays in dubious inns – as well as more general romance tropes such as noble sacrifice for love and miscommunications. There is good character growth and contextually appropriate steaminess. In other words, this is a solid and entertaining romance, regardless of the characters’ genders. Cat Sebastian has become one of the authors I seek out.

My interest in this book was sufficient that I finally researched what a Marquess is, and how they fit into the nobility. The short answer is a type of Earl, or Count. A Marquess ranks below a Duke, but above an British Earl (equivalent to a Count in other European countries). A count’s land is a county (aha!), while a marquess’s land is a march. Marches were historically counties on the border of countries, so managing them was a greater responsibility than counties entirely within the country, and the title reflected that. I still don’t know how to pronounce Marquess.

Romance novels, and associated organizations and publishers, have rightly been criticized for under-representation of minority racial and sexual identities. I’ve been told my male name will make it difficult for me to sell romances, since readers expect the authors to be female. It’s not an equal world. But it’s important to recognize steps being made to promote equality, such as stories that show queer characters finding love and acceptance.

New Flash Fiction Story Posted

Public domain photo of Ottawa Transit bus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oc6136.jpg

I’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but it is the source of the expression “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” I heard this expression at office meetings, where it was presented as some sort of encouragement to teamwork. The mind wandered, as it does, especially at office meetings, and I speculated on when this expression might be used literally.

I doodled a few paragraphs, and a couple of years later stretched that into a flash fiction story. Over the last year I revised it several times, still in ignorance of the original usage of the expression. Now that I know the expression is from a 1968 story of hippies, drug use and travelling by bus, they way I have used it seems appropriate, if coincidental.

Click here to read “Route on Detour.” Comments appreciated.

Write, Revise, Repeat – Romance!

I entered my first 3-day novel contest in 2012. The story I wrote was a thriller, along the lines of North by Northwest, though considerably less epic in scope and execution. To keep it light, I attempted to parody the man-on-the-run formula (in the way that Mean Streets can be seen as a parody of The Godfather.) The story didn’t place, but I planned to revise it (taking a little more than three days) and perhaps self-publish it.

By 2012, I was taking writing seriously, but had not given much thought to tackling a novel (and that showed in the construction of my thriller). However, I had begun reading a lot of romance novels, found I enjoyed them, and a friend encouraged me to consider writing romances. For NaNoWriMo later that year, I wrote a first draft of a romance novel, this time paying some attention to novel plot and character arcs. Like my 3-day thriller, it was rough, and novella length, but a candidate for revision and self-publication.

My 2013 3-day novel was a sequel to the 2012 thriller, and dreadful, in part because I moved apartments during the weekend. Since then, my projects for these contests and others have been romances, and I’ve generated several drafts for romance novels. I’ve also taken classes and workshops on writing romances, joined a romance novel book club, and joined the Romance Writers of America. Though I say so myself, I am getting better at constructing plots and characters. In between shorter writing projects, I’ve worked on the thriller and the romance novel drafts from 2012.

I sent the revised thriller to a trusted editor a few years ago. It came back with many comments and suggestions. There were problems, starting with an unlikable hero. He was supposed to be a bad guy that learns lessons and reforms, but I did not have the authorial skills to make readers care about such a character. Other characters had poor motivations and their actions were forced to fit the plot rather than arising out of character.

I rewrote the story, trying to make my hero nicer, and other characters more complex. I improved the style, removing much of the passive and vague language my editor noted. Earlier this year I sent the novella to several friends for beta reading. There were still problems. The character tweaks were not enough to make the story work.

I was tempted to give up on the work. For several years, most of my fiction reading and writing has been romance. My heart was not in working on a thriller. I couldn’t decide if the story should be cozy or dark, which left readers muddled. Changing the hero enough to make him likeable meant the plot did not work. From a marketing and branding perspective, offering a thriller and a couple of romances would not help the sales of either.

Photo of light bulb
Public domain image.

Then an idea struck – in hindsight, an obvious solution. If fixing the characters will not work for the plot, then I need a new plot. So, my thriller is going to become a romantic-suspense novel. I have to rewrite it anyway – might as well do it in a genre I prefer and know well. There are already various romantic and erotic elements – they can be merged and expanded into a romance plot. Most the thriller elements can be kept, but will be in the context of the romance plot.

My hero will be more likeable – we no longer want him to merely survive (he was so unlikable some readers did not want that) – we want him to have a happy ever after. He’ll also have a stronger (and more heroic) motivation, to explain his actions in the suspense plot. A couple of characters will be combined to become a complex, interesting, and sympathetic heroine, and the relationship of another character to the hero will be changed to make her a more credible and motivated opponent. And the darkest, creepiest, scene in the story is coming out.

With this new genre goal, I’m no longer resigned to another rewrite of this story. Instead, I am looking forward to it. And I still have that dark and creepy scene ready for use in another story.

Drawing Connections

I recently attended a life drawing class. In preparation, I dropped by a local art store, asked a lot of questions, and left with a few pencils, a sketchbook, and a book on how to draw figures. I’m not a visual artist, have never had any interest in being an artist, and have never had any art training. Much of the little I know comes from Bugs Bunny, like this explanation of pointillism:

So what was I doing at a life drawing class? Learning to write.

Writing is hard. I’ve had college classes on the subject, attended workshops, read books on writing, read books, and revised a lot. All of that has helped, but there’s still so much I don’t know. Like how to describe a person sitting with their back to you, in a way that is interesting and original. Exactly where are their arms? What muscles are visible? What curves are obvious? Where are the shadows? I hoped two hours looking at a person in different positions, and trying to capture those details visually, would help me notice those details. It did. It’s going to take more than two hours, but I’m already more confident about describing bodies.

I also learned the folly of attempting to draw an entire person in 15 or 30 minutes, especially when are you trying to remember the proportioning rules from your how-to-draw book. I had more luck drawing when I focused on one limb, or one area, such as the upper back. And it’s one area that a character might observe, such as how the back muscles bunch and stretch depending on the position of the head. For short poses, only a minute long, the best I could do was sketch a sense of person’s position – and again, that’s often all that’s needed for a written description. The time limited poses helped me focus on what was important.

Sketch of person sitting, back view.
Tim tries sketching. He has no plans to leave his day job, or give up writing.

Exploring creativity in different artistic pursuits is a common habit of several writers I know, and other writers. It’s a break, and a chance to exercise other parts of your brain and body. I like taking pictures, trying to capture key aspects of landscapes in the same way I was trying to capture the body at the drawing class. I’m also partial to writing limericks, which are good warm-up exercises for writing. (Blog posts are another exercise.) Since books can take months or years, it’s also fun to tackle a creative project that can be completed in a short period of time.

It’s important for everyone to learn new things. It keeps the brain healthy, and for writers, it gives you more material. Last year I drafted a romance novel where the main character is an artist. When I revise it, I can use what I learned from my little excursion into the art world.

If you are trying to write, try new things, and try being creative in other media and formats. You’ll gather material, meet new people (potential readers are good, no matter how introverted you are), and stretch your creative muscles. With a little sketch stretch, and a warm up blog post, I’m feeling ready for more work on the novel marathon.