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.]

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.

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.