The more I write, the more I find that I prefer to write longhand instead of using the computer. (It’s worth noting that the computer RULES for editing, rewriting, rearranging, and otherwise molding a story into the right shape.)
I always start a story by hand. I scribble notes and write a page or two. Then, up until the last two it three months, I have always switched over to the word processor to type the following 90% of the story.
It’s fast as long as I know where the story is heading. And maybe you see where this is going if you happen to know that I hardly ever write a story outline, and even when I do it’s less than skeletal. More like a stick figure missing a stick or two.
The words are more likely to dry up after I switch to typing the story. I find myself stalling not just on what to type for the next sentence or paragraph, but on what the next scene is and where the plot is going.
Maybe it’s because when typing my fingers can travel as fast as I’m thinking. But writing by hand forces me to fix what’s coming next in my mind as I hurry to write down the words that bridge the gap.
Or maybe that’s not it at all and there’s a different reason baked into my brain.
Either way, lately I’ve been writing by hand more than I’ve been typing as I compose a story. The biggest challenge is deciphering my own handwriting and making sense of all the notes and additions I cram into the left hand column of the evidence pads I love to use. (Think steno pad, but full 8 1/2″ x 11″ size and with the vertical rule one-third of the way from the left instead of down the middle)
(Edit, an hour or so later: composed this with the voice-writing function on my mobile — it didn’t do too bad, but left me a couple of things to clean up. Technology: the solution to and cause of all of our problems, right? Anything that’s still wrong, I blame on my lovable but very loud and distracting little ones. Oh, and I also clarified a couple of things in the third and last paragraphs.)
This is a little flash story I cobbled together while feeling adventurous about format and framing of stories. And, as usual, about the future. It seemed fitting to post it following the arrival of the Juno craft at Jupiter.
Hopefully the WordPress text editor won’t make too much of a hash of it — I’ll do my best to keep it looking like it’s supposed to.
This story first appeared as a patron-exclusive post on my Patreon page on July 5th — patrons see most posts 3 days early, stories 30 days early, get free ebooks whenever I publish a new one, and random exclusive stuff on occasion when I come up with something I think my patrons would like.
Help me move the hell out of the trailer park (no, seriously, I live in a goddamn trailer park and I’m NOT a fan of it) by becoming a patron, or buying an ebook or two.
Overheard Through an Apartment Wall in a City Orbiting Jupiter
At first he was speaking quietly
‘snot like it’s a new thing. People say, they say to me, hey, you’re thirteen hundred years old, man, of course you’ve forgotten best friends and lovers and all that shit shortlifers kill themselves over. But to you, hey, what’s all that? It’s no big, that’s what. It all spins around, you’ve got an age in Pluto years, man, and all we pygmies under three digits are like just dust swirlin’ ’round in the bright lightsocket, yeah.
but as he spoke his voice became louder
But what do those people know? They know nothin’. Nothin.
and I heard glass breaking
They think it’s cool, forgetting best buds and how we became so, just burnt out of there like a synapse forest fire, forgetting lovers, wives, husbands, even kids? To forget them and never remember ’til you read on a newsite how they died saving six people from decompression mapping out mineral deposits in the greasy guts of Orcus or they’re a loved great-times-six grandmother survived by who knows how many hundreds and you can’t remember her name until it says what it was in the obituary? And it’s not the years, it’s not the years, there are still a couple hundred of us in the first wave of the bioimmortal and far as I know all the rest all the damn rest still remember who’s important, hell, most of the most important to all of us are all the rest of the first wave, but
followed by a sob
oh I don’t know. Maybe they’re like me, just like me, maybe that’s how we get this old, throwing off dead leaf memories in the fall like the trees in the north when the winds start coming cold. How would I know. Dont’ talk to one of them. The years don’t make me forget. They never made me forget. I remember Tinisia, I can remember her a thousand years away, tiny little thing, graceful, her making coffee was a ballet, I remember her name and how she laughed and the smell of her skin in the morning after and last I heard she headed out in a whole hollowed-out asteroid balloon full of longlifers to see what’s around what star I can’t remember but they thought it might have two or even three Earths worth living on around it, big fat red simmering campfire with a Goldilocks the size of half a Solar system. Take them ten thousand years or maybe twenty and odds are I’ll be here to hear and not remember a damn thing I can’t forget Tinisia or
and I strained to hear another voice but there was only his growing softer again
But the rest, the rest, my own daughters, my own sons, they have no names any more and some of them are still alive out there and I don’t know
in a steady stream of words. If someone else had been there, I never would have known.
and I should know. I don’t know. If friends and family are what life is about then fuck them I’ve never lived or maybe I did but I’m not now and that’s bull, I have lived, I do live, I don’t need
Even when he wasn’t speaking, I heard faint sobbing. He never stopped speaking or sobbing. Not until
don’t need I don’t need shit.
the end when I heard footsteps
Ah, I sound like a brat baby fifty years old just figurin’ it out thumb in mouth. Was I fifty? Must have been, got here. ‘magine what it was for people in the old days, old west when the data roamed wild and free under the blue sky and never past the moon, takes a hundred years just to figure out how it all works, how all the things and people go together and bounce ’round and most all of it doesn’t matter a damn ‘cept if it makes you all happy right that moment, most all of it, who cares, nobody cares, not worth rememberin’ but worth it in the moment, and it all goes ’round, ’round, ’round, and much under a hundred it don’t make no sense but ’round then you figure it all out and the world starts to sorta work in a way you can get
and the door opened
my dad, what was his name, Chuck or Chas or Channing or Cher, a C-word, that was him, doesn’t matter his name he was a damn baby and died, fifty years old didn’t have time to know he didn’t know, and how old was I you expect me to know what happened when I was a snotnosed brat? Didn’t know anything then. Wasn’t nobody worth remembering.
and he paused
Not him, not me. Not who knows how many billions. Nobody knows.
and the door closed. I only heard a few more words.
Can you imagine what the world was like, when everyone died before they had time to figure out what it was all about? Wish I could ask
A month ago, I posted a word cloud for a work in progress, Broken Rice. It was around 8,000 words long then.
Since then, I reached a “I don’t know what to do with this next” point, then let the story sit for a while and worked on other things, then picked it back up recently for a major rework.
I liked a lot of things about the story and basic premise. Other things weren’t working for me at all. That’s why I took a break on writing it. I do that quite a bit. I start stories, then set them aside and come back days or weeks later. Sometimes I accumulate quite a few half-finished stories. When my pattern of working works well, it forms sort of a natural cycle with periods of drought and periods of plenty. I’ll finish nothing for a couple of months, then knock out a spate of finishes all of a sudden.
Broken Rice needed major work. When I picked it back up I overhauled it completely. I radically changed the setting, the personality of the main character, some major plot elements. I had to rewrite from stem to stern, making everything make sense again, then rewrite a second time so everything felt and sounded right, so everything fit in again, had the right new tone and the right new mood.
I really didn’t want to change the story so radically. But I had to. It’s hard to explain — you have to be invested in what you’re writing enough to kill it or alter it beyond recognition, sometimes. Get too attached to finishing exactly what you’ve started and you can find yourself writing a lot of meh. I don’t like writing meh.
Times like this, I’m so happy not to have hard deadlines. That’s an aspect of being self-published that is a great advantage… unless you let it turn into procrastination. Which I’m sorry to say has happened before and it won’t happen again please don’t be mad I’m probably not as much of a stereotypical GenX slacker as you think.
But, back to the story.
I’m not sure it will be finished soon. I have a general idea for an ending and some general ideas of what may happen along the way. From 8,000 words I’m now at 14,000. Maybe there are 5,000 more words in this one. Maybe 10,000. But the words keep coming in little chunks of 500 or so in stolen moments deep into the wee hours when everyone else is asleep or when I wake up early. So I keep writing them.
The more of them I write, the better I like the story now. That’s a good sign.
The word cloud changed quite a bit. Compare and contrast!
I’m about 8300 words in and I’m not sure how long it will go. Maybe only 9,000. Maybe a new complication will arise and it’ll go to 20,000. Or, way less likely, maybe I’ll accidentally write a short novel. You never know.
See if you can guess what “Broken Rice” might be about from the cloud.
If you want to make some word clouds of your own, here’s the generator I used.
I’ve begun rewriting that early story of mine, “In Real Life”.
(The new cover is better than the old, don’t you think?)
It was published in 2012, but it was written, to the best of my recollection, in late 2010. Maybe I’m wrong and it was early 2011, but it’s no more recent than that. That wasn’t too long after I took up writing again – by that time I had worked the most egregious bugs out of my writing, I think – but I temper that thinking with the fact that it’s something of a yearly affair to look back at what I have written and think, oh, I wouldn’t have written it that way now. I could have improved on that. Go ahead and read it with a critical eye, see what you think.
I’m helping the last customer of the day pick out a low-end cosmetic skin for his personal Heads Up Display when my PayDayFeed blinks three times and turns yellow. That’s the signal that I’ve gone into overtime. The dollar counter speeds up, reflecting time and a half, and the HUD Gear corporate overlay adds a digital countdown to the icon population floating in my view. I’ve got half an hour before I get a disciplinary notice; the company is very serious about limiting overtime outside of major shopping holidays. I perk up my tone as I list the features of the skin the lean pimple-faced boy seems most enthusiastic about, guiding him to a quick decision. We ShareSpace our HUDs through the retail interface, and I nudge his skin’s icon over to his side. He double clicks it to accept, and his account transfers the $119.95 to the store account. The receipt icon appears and I move it over for him to acknowledge. I’m loading my closing checklist at the same time I’m walking him to the door. It’s going to be close, the counter is down to 00:24:36 when the lock clicks shut.
It clicks shut again, behind me this time, freezing the countdown at 00:04:09. Good. I still have 42:21:55 working time until my last OT warning goes inactive. I really don’t want a second one. I smile as I slide behind the controls of my aging Honda/soft three wheeler…
As I read over that, making mental notes about where to make changes, I thought, this is not going to be a cosmetic rewrite. I am going to rework this sucker bigtime. I haven’t developed just in terms of story mechanics or of smoothly communicating the story and scene to the reader. My style has changed. I have (I hope) a better feel for what needs to be explained overtly and what can be left to the imagination or assumption. Yeah, this story is going to change a lot. And that affirms my idea that the original text will be included after the rewritten story when I create the ebook. The reader ought to have the opportunity to see what the new edition sprang from.
Picking out details as I tackled the rewriting, the first thing that caught my eye wasn’t a miss in terms of writing, but in terminology. “Heads Up Display” (HUD) isn’t the worst way to describe “augmented reality,” but it’s not really very good, either. I hadn’t yet encountered the term “augmented reality” to describe the species of virtual reality in which the user sees the physical reality around himself, but with a visual overlay or modification added. A “skin,” to borrow a term from videogaming. HUD usually refers to a similar idea in which the augmented reality is projected on a transparent surface like the windshield of a car. So one of my first changes is to replace HUD with augmented reality and introduce my own take on the inevitable slangification of technical terms with “augreal.”
I also thought I leaned a little too hard on the details of how the transaction was navigated. Other things I changed were based on subjective feelings – I felt the flow of the original was a little choppy. I think I paid more attention to describing the action and being linear and chronological, and less to how the language sounds – I bet I didn’t read the first version to myself out loud. Now I pay more attention to that aspect. Prose may not be poetry, but it should be good storytelling, and good storytelling engages as much through the feel of the words and sentences as it does through definitional means of describing the setting and action the writer is imagining. At its best good storytelling prose feels a bit poetic in a way, transmitting something emotional and subjective, not just a dry description. Did I hit that mark? I don’t know, it’s notoriously hard for a writer to judge his or her own work. Did I at least get closer? I’m pretty sure I have.
These kinds of conversations with myself (is this good storytelling?) remind me that it’s easy to be a perfectionist in theory. I’d love my writing to be “perfect,” whateverthehell that is. In reality, indulging perfectionism kills productivity. No writer is perfect. Every writer misses the mark sometimes. No writing is ever loved by everyone who reads it. So I have to set myself a limit – I’ve tinkered with this enough, now I’m no longer improving the prose I’m delivering. I’m just tweaking the arrangement a bit, changing for the sake of changing.
Perfection is an illusion. Always strive to improve, never expect to be perfect.
Here’s the rewritten opening:
I’m already trying to hurry the last customer of the day through his purchase when the world grows a blinking yellow border – I’m now trespassing upon the dread domain of overtime pay. My bank balance, always present in the lower left of my augmented reality, ticks over faster with time-and-a-half. Glowing red digits appear in the center of my vision, ghost-translucent over the face of my customer – the Worktime corporate skin on my augreal counting down the half-hour of OT I’m allowed before I’m written up.
I resist the urge to talk faster – nothing turns a customer off like feeling he’s being rushed – and pour on the persuasion. He’s a kid, pimple-faced and gawky, self-consciously coolish, browsing first person shooter skins for his augreal and avoiding the ones with the highest user counts. But he skips past the lowest, too, and I get it: the key to hurry him out the door. He’s a safe player, looking for the middle ground between Popular Fanboy and Ironically Uncool. I lean in, tipping my forehead toward his, the universal gesture: merge our augmented realities? He nods and I zip through the advanced search options too fast for him to follow – I’ve been here ten years; jobs for humans are rare and precious; nobody leaves one on purpose. I flip through three skins like the ones he’s been lingering on, heavy on reds and flamethrower effects, and repeat the magic words to death: you can exchange it within seventy-two hours, FREE, if you don’t love it. Finally he taps one of the skins. I pass him the TOS icon and he taps agree without reading just like everyone else, even me. Nobody reads the TOS. He passes over his $119.95 – cheap skin, lousy commission, but you don’t try to sell a cheapskate a rich skin. I give him the exchange period countdown widget and open it for him in his augreal. I’m already opening my closedown checklist as I give him the thank-you-come-again. Time is slipping away fast and I don’t need another OT writeup – a quick peek at that widget tells me I’m still three workdays away from the last one dropping off. I rush through the closedown and freeze the OT countdown at 04:09 by locking the steel security gate over the store’s door on my way out. Victory.
One: This immediately became a complete rework of the whole text. It’s basically as time-intensive as writing a brand new story. I may not do this again because I’d rather be writing something new. If I wanted to revisit this particular story, I could do just as well coming up with a sequel or a second story set in the same universe.
Two: I do like the new copy more than the old. And of course I do. I’m taking something that 2011 S.A. Barton liked and making it into something that 2016 S.A. Barton likes. People change, likes and dislikes change; this is just another illustration of this.
Three: I’m going to keep going on with this exercise, but it’s going on the back burner. It will be a fine thing to tinker with when I’m feeling otherwise uninspired. And it has inspired me to critically look at myself as a writer – that’s almost always a good thing. Also, I said I’d rewrite the whole thing, and followthrough is good – mostly. If I find it’s eating new work, it’s going to have to go in the trunk. Sure followthrough is good – but on the other hand there’s no need to go down with a sinking ship but pride, and if life as a poorish person has taught me anything its that you must choose what you take pride in with care because pride is a luxury in most cases and luxuries are simply not in the budget.
Four: Rewriting those couple of paragraphs led to this (longer!) post PLUS a few clarifications of my priorities when it comes to writing. Part of my slow progress as a writer is due to the volume of other things that occupy my attention: life in general, children, mundane chores like cooking and, soon, moving household, online classes because grad school loans are part of what supports me having a home and internet access with which to pursue matters of education, family, and self-publishing. Interruptions of writing, unless you’re a monomanac, are going to happen, and many of those “interruptions” are GOOD THINGS. I don’t want to miss playing with my kids and private time with my wife because writing. But part of my interruptions spring from lack of focus. I’m especially prone to defocus because I’m worrying about X, Y, and Z current things going on in my life. The usuals, like keeping vehicles running and people fed and what if a hurricane or tornado comes this year and what if there’s a bureucratic snafu or something and we can’t pay rent and what if my last story sucked and, and, and… and I’m guessing plenty of you reading this can identify with worry as an enemy of focus to one degree or another. I worry about things, it’s what I do – and I remember being a small child and my grandmother saying “we are a family of worry-warts.” Worrying about things is apparently genetic. But I worry, worry, worry. I worry that slow sales of my work stems from older, less attractive stories that turn readers off, for example – rather than the idea that short story singles are limited sellers and novels, or at least novellas, are where the sales are at in self-publishing 999 times out of 1000. Actually, is that the figure? I’m not sure I’ve EVER heard of an author, self-published or other, making a self-supporting income out of solely short stories. At other times, I glom on to other ideas. I’m pissing readers off with my tweets or my blog posts (and I’m sure I have, because having ANY opinion will piss SOMEONE off – you can’t please everyone, ever), but most readers look past differences of opinion with authors and save “I’m not reading that person anymore” for REALLY HUGE UNFORGIVABLE stuff like kitten-eating.
Still on point four: so it turns out this rewriting exercise wasn’t as much about rewriting and getting a few blog posts about the process of rewriting as I thought it was.
It turned out to be about settling some of my internal conflict over my successes, failures, and in-betweens as a writer and self-publisher. Just taking action on the start of this old story plus the thought behind writing this post led to what I hope are some positive conclusions. Writing new things is more important than rewriting old things.I recently wrote a post in which I said unpublishing is a giant pain in the butt and you should consider everything else, including rewriting, before doing it.
Well, I may be best off unpublishing a few things. I don’t know yet – it IS a pain in the ass – but it’s on the table for those stories of mine that aren’t my favorites. We’ll see. Having some short freebies, as I do, remains a good idea – the free story has been the centerpiece of self-publishing marketing/selling strategy for a long while (comparatively long in this young current and extensive incarnation of self-publishing). Keeping my longer novelette and novella singles is a good idea – long stories are more likely to sell. Shorter stories that are neither freebie or novelette, neither the fish nor fowl of the world of self-publishing – I need to take a close look at those. If they’re already in a collection, maybe that needs to be their home instead of living a dual existence as a 99 cent single AND part of a collection. If I drop the unpublishing axe at all, it’s going to be on some of those awkward short stories that are not also flash fiction, novelette, or novella.
I have a lot of thinking to do as a result of this exercise. That makes it already successful, in my book. Some of the points above are me thinking ‘aloud’ on the page – and I’m inviting all of you who have read this far to tell me what you think.
This post has been as long as some of my short stories. If you read it all, you are definitely one of the people I’d love to hear a comment from – you were interested enough to stick with me and my thoughts for quite a while, in reading-on-the-internet terms.
See you in the comments section.
A short story, about 3500 words.
Parkhar’s father has a plan to wrest an ancient talisman from the glittering City of the ancients and the godlike, deathless Bots that guard it — but it will be Danwill, Marjay, and their cohort who take the risks. What they find will shape the future of the whole tribe, maybe even of all humanity itself!
This is my newest ebook short story single. While my patrons at Patreon have downloaded their free copies as part of their patron privileges, thirty days before release,
at this writing it is available elsewhere only by preorder. The release date is April 7th HEY YOU CAN GET YOUR COPY NOW! The cost is a mere 99 cents — all you can get for that price at Starbucks is a funny look from the cashier. Of course you don’t have to buy and read this — you should read what you want, that’s kind of a central idea in this whole freedom of expression thing we like to talk about in authordom — but it would make me really happy if you did. And there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be happy too, because if you’re here reading this far into a science fiction writer’s bloggy stuff you probably enjoy science fiction in general. Right?
The preview below is a bit over the 30% you can view where it is available to preorder (or buy directly if you’re reading on April 7th or later). You can find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books, Kobo, Smashwords, and hopefully soon at iTunes! [Right now iTunes is not listing it, though I haven’t gotten a ticket from Apple about any problem with the ebook file — if/when it finally is listed, I will hopefully remember to come back here and update the link to point at the book instead of my iTunes author page]
Enough of that, here’s the preview:
S.A. Barton — Copyright 2016
Since the time of my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, the People have sought the Grail. Today, I hold it in my hand. The other two survivors of our band eye me as warily as I eye them. It is easy to talk of sharing before you hold the key to all wealth and power in your hands; after, it is more difficult to practice. Temptation…
Parkhar sits with his back against the office door, twisting a leather tourniquet tighter on his left wrist. He hisses through his teeth at the last twist. His hand and the stumps of his fingers tremble, dotting his pants with more blood, red over red. He’s wondering if we’ll let him live now that we’ve found the prize. Marjay, though – she and I are unwounded but for scrapes and scratches. She’s short, broad, agile almost to the point of acrobatics; she stands across the massive burlwood desk from me, eye on the grail, hand on the haft of the heavy machete at her hip.
“Well, Danwill?” she asks, soft in the silence that falls after Parkhar’s groan. “Can we share, or must we duel?”
For a thousand and some years, we the People have lived in the hills and mountains surrounding the City. For the same amount of time, anyone setting foot in the City has been swiftly confronted by its tireless Bot defenders and either killed or captured. They are immortal spirits, avatars of the ancient giants who strode the land before the People were created and who have since passed Beyond. A few Bots fly through the air on circle-blades that whirl faster than even the wings of hummingbirds flap; a few, the size of bison, roll on wheels. Most wear forms like those of human beings, but bulky and shiny-black armored, and they walk in magic boots that never wear out. When Bots take a captive, on nights when the winds are still the captive’s cries can be heard all the way up in the mountains. Some of them live and scream for many weeks.
The City, in stories passed from grandmother to grandmother to grandmother, has always been a pool of jewels in the night, luminous treasure cupped in the great ancient mountains’ palms. As in the tales, even now it is bright there while in our tents and burrows we strain our eyes at guttering tallow candles. It is warm there while we shiver. There are storehouses packed with food while our lean bellies growl. The City is jealous of her bounty.
The holy tales say that once, the People dwelt among the giants in the City. Then, talismans brought them shelter, food, and other luxuries we can no longer imagine. The holiest talisman, the Black Grail, is said to grant the bearer all the heart’s desires, provided by the Bots.
With the Black Grail, the People might be brought back into the City to live in riches – and the one who brings them would be their King.
“Well?” Marjay asks one more time. The cords stand out on her thick forearm with the power of her grip.
If we fight, either might die. Even the victor might die of wounds later, or lingeringly of gangrene. We are too closely matched.
Slowly, I draw my own machete – a little longer than hers, its spine not quite so thick.
She tenses. Half the length of her blade clears its sheath in a blink, with a sound like the chirp of a bird.
Slowly, slowly, eyes locked with hers, I extend my blade, turn it sideways, lay it on her side of the desk.
“There’s only one way that we both walk out of this place,” I say.
“You have to be joking,” Marjay replies. “You know I have no interest in men.”
Over many years, many bands of young warriors have challenged the City and its lethal Bots for the Black Grail – or simply, in famine times, for a few armloads of food from the City’s warehouses.
No previous expedition has ever recovered the Black Grail. Few who have gone hunting it have returned. From those handful of survivors, we have some trinkets of the city among us. The Herndez clan has a ball-shaped lamp that has stayed lit for twenty generations. The Denneh clan, Marjay’s, has a box that plays music that no instrument of ours can duplicate. When it stops playing, allowing it to rest in the sun for only an hour will restore it to play for many days. My own clan, the Kirkays, keeps kitchen herbs in metal cans that once held food captured from the City in a famine time a hundred years ago. There are a few other trinkets, but not many.
Few are willing to challenge the Bots. They cannot be harmed by blade, arrow, or spear. There are tales of talismans that might stop them, but those have proven as elusive as the Grail itself.
My father was one who was willing to challenge the Bots, in his own way. By studying the holy tales and the many stories we tell around our campfires, he thought he knew where the Black Grail must lie. But he was also a man of extraordinary patience and cleverness. Instead of going himself, he made a plan for the future. As he executed his patient plan, his hair slowly turned iron-gray and I grew into a man.
I remember, dimly, being four summers old, waddling with the weight of a reed basket of dirt and gravel gripped in both hands. It was a scoop of what my father and his fellows dug out of a long tunnel under the city boundary. Part of his plan was simple: avoid the eyes of the bots for as much of the path to the Grail as possible. The entrance of the stealthy tunnel, squared off with heavy smoke-blackened timbers, was shielded from the inspection of the Bots by the abrupt stony mound of a hill near the city limits. Still, that we were digging must have been obvious. We children, who, grown, formed the company that has brought we three survivors to the residence of the Grail, carried out endless buckets of earth and stone, filling nearby dry washes and building new hills. It’s obvious in hindsight. So many things are obvious in hindsight. Things that might have saved lives if only they’d been obvious to us before. But the desire for the Grail was strong in us all, we young adventurers, our aging parents and grandparents, even our wise toothless Eldest whose food we youngers trade the honor of chewing for her ease. The vision of wealth blinded us all. Perhaps that is the curse that ended the reign of Giants and allowed the humble People to step from their shadows.
But the Bots had never shown curiosity about anything beyond the border of their domain. We had never seen any pay attention to anything under the ground. And so we thought we were safe…
…and that’s the preview. Want to see what happens next? Head back up to the top and click a retailer link, or click one of the Patreon links there or in the header, become a patron, and download your free copy!
Pictured: cover model and artist and damn fine stepson Erik Elliott.
The blurb (LENGTHY PREVIEW BELOW): Keshawn Bolling lives in a future of total government control. His religion, his education, even the length of his hair are dictated to him, Worse, his own father is one of the enforcers. He wants out; rumor says there is freedom to be had in the orbital habitats. But getting there won’t be easy, and freedom is a slippery thing to define…
The preview, about 30% of the text:
I Pledge Allegiance
By S.A. Barton
Copyright 2014 S.A. Barton
of the North American Union
and to the Republic for which it stands,
One nation under the Lord, Jesus Christ
who grants Liberty and Justice to All.”
I recite it from the screen with a smile, emphasizing the bolded words, my face a mask of enthusiasm. The smile is required. So is the emphasis. The menu won’t progress unless I do it ‘right’, and truancy is a misdemeanor for student and parents. A felony, on the third offense.
ENTER BIOMETRIC SCAN OF FINGERPRINT TO CONTINUE
SWIPE CREDIT/DEBIT CARD TO CONTINUE
NAUD $0.125/INSTRUCTIONAL HOUR
ENTER DNA IDENTITY SCAN TO CONTINUE
I stick my thumb in the slot under the fingerprint scanner and a surface like fine sandpaper licks the skin like a cat’s tongue. The screen displays a segmented don’t-tread-on-me snake chasing its own tail in a figure 8: working.
WELCOME KESHAWN BOLLING
((1)) Citizenship: Yr11Mo8: Pretest: Economic Obligations of the Citizen to the State
((2)) Mathematics: Yr11Mo6: Study Exercise: Algebra: Basic Competency: Binomials
((3)) History: Yr11Mo3: Lecture: Vulnerabilities of Democratic Governmental Forms and their Practical Remedies
((4)) Elective: Yr9Mo12: Lecture: Photography: Composition of Images For Esthetics and Legality
I know I should catch up on the history. The number in front of that option blinks sluggishly: mild urgency. If I neglect it for another couple of weeks, it will begin to flash more quickly. After that, my other options will disappear.
Most of my options disappeared, in reality, before I was born, before my parents were born, in the First American War. The Second American War and the War of American Unity nailed the coffin lid down.
The History option isn’t there for most students after Year 6. It’s there for me because the Citizenship Test Panels everyone takes at the end of Year 5 decided that my career would be Instructor: Correctional Facility. A specialized prison guard, a political re-educator. My Pa’s position probably has something to do with that, along with my more-than-average intelligence.
The smart ones are the ones they want to keep close, in the heart of the system, under maximum surveillance. Smart is dangerous.
I touch the elective icon instead, and tap my bulky camera to the spot indicated on the screen. My homework images upload. I hate the camera’s bulk, its jellybean neon-green color; it was the smallest and least gaudy I could find. Law dictates a camera must be a minimum of 8 inches by 6 by 3 and cased in plastic of a high-visibility color. Cameras must be easy to spot; unauthorized photography is a felony.
I’m not worried about the non-elective classes anymore.
I expect to be gone by the time the rest of my options disappear.
If the man standing behind me is with who I think he is. I wonder how he’ll avoid being picked up for questioning when I’m gone.
“Playing hooky, kid?” the man says, setting his coffee and muffin down on the battered tabletop opposite my own coffee. I look up from my tablet, let the textbook go black. He’s broad across the shoulders, chest and upper arms heavy with muscle, looks like Army except for his close-trimmed salt and pepper beard, well under the 2” legal maximum length. Army on local police duty, then. My legs tense with the urge to run, to disappear. I force my face to smile, not hard after years of insincere Pledges of Allegiance, and take a deep breath.
“Registered day off, sir,” I say. Army men are always sir with a smile. I offer my thumb. “Please scan me to verify, sir.” I’d rather spit in his fat privileged face.
He pushes his coffee to the side with the back of his hand and leans in close over the yellow poppyseed-topped muffin.
“Calm yourself, Keshawn,” he says quietly. Between us, he brings a finger up and teases a few long strands out of his hair, which I had thought was all safely under the 4” legal maximum for men.
He twists half a dozen hairs around his finger and raises an eyebrow at me. The hairs are at least double the legal length. They protrude from over his left ear for an instant before he tucks them away again. They’re a symbolic forelock, worn very thin so he can tear it off and throw it away if arrest is immanent.
He’s a secret Jew, a living felony offense. He has given me power over him by showing me that forelock, a dangerous act. He must be one of the people I’ve been trying to reach since 9th year, with careful hint-phrases in approved online discussion forums and on paper slips left in key library books, carefully inscribed and carried wrapped in blank paper so they can be left without fingerprints.
I hope he’s one of them. He could easily be an agent of the secret police. But if I don’t take a chance I might never get another one.
“30th Street Labor Center, 8AM,” I whisper, then I lean back, pick up my tablet, and stand. I’m not fool enough to try to have a prolonged discussion somewhere so public.
“Thank you sir,” I say in a calm conversational tone, “but I’m a student. If I fail I might have to do day labor, but I’ve got no plans to fail.” I turn and walk out without waiting for an answer and head home. Day labor recruiters are common in the city. Even the gainfully employed often solicit for the 10% finder’s fee the labor centers offer. Pretending he offered me work is a good cover, I hope. It has to be. After all, I’ve got no plans to fail.
On the other hand, nobody does. But the Correctional Centers are always full.
“Hey, Ma,” I say over the dinner dishes with the water running. I’m washing, she’s drying. Pa has gone to his study to work on the constant documentation his job requires. He’s Army, local Police division. Another privileged face; this time, no chance I’m mistaken—but I do love him, too. But while I might love him, I don’t like or trust him. This isn’t a conversation I can have with him around; I’m certain he’d turn me in.
“What is it, baby?” Ma asks. I’ll be baby to her for as long as she lives, never mind I’m six feet tall and have to trim my facial hair every day, running a 1/8” clipper over my face and neck. I can’t shave clean; I’d like to, to seem younger, less imposing, to draw fewer hostile looks from police on the street. My deep black skin already gets me too many looks from the mostly Caucasian and Hispanic cops. The beard, this last year, has made it worse. But the razor bumps eat me alive if I shave clean. I’ve tried.
I turn up the water louder, let the plate I’m holding rattle the bowls in the wash water.
“Hire someone to watch me tomorrow,” I say, voice low. Half of the appliances are voice activated and every microphone is on 24/7, government computers listening for red flags. “30th Street. I’ll show you who.”
“Oh,” she says, and that’s it. I imagine she must have sounded like that when Pa asked her to marry him, a happy little gasp. She’s known I’ve wanted out for a couple of years now. She puts her towel down and hugs me, I let the plate go into the wash water and hug her back. I’m always surprised by how small she is, only a little thick and her head hardly comes up to my shoulder. She’s happy for what makes me happy.
She’s never told Pa I want out, I’m certain. That says it all about him in my eyes. Maybe he was different when I was little, but he’s an Army man through and through now. But I will miss Ma.
In the morning Ma swipes her card in the house tablet and calls an autocab.
“30th Street Labor Center,” she tells it, then waves her hand though the VERIFY dialogue box projected in the air.
People still call it rush hour, but there are no old-style traffic jams. Central computers coordinate vehicles perfectly; with private cars restricted to top political occupations only. Neighbors share autocabs often, keeping the traffic density manageable. The ride is smooth; the traffic lights are relics, colorful gargoyles decorating the intersections. The autocab regulates its speed so it never has to stop until it reaches its destination. The red lights are always casting their warnings in the distance, but nobody really notices—because of all of the closer distractions, because the traffic never stops.
At the labor center, I hold Ma’s hand and let her appear to be leading me. But from a half-step behind I guide her with firm pressure along the rows of hopeful day laborers. There are more workers than there are jobs for; thirty percent of the population is assigned to Laborer: Nonspecific and set loose to fend for themselves, most with a Year Six education or less.
I see the broad-shouldered secret Jew and guide Ma to him. Her finger hovers, two workers to the left. My eyes downcast, peering just high enough to see her finger, I twitch her hand right, right, squeeze.
“You,” she says. “Can you watch my son at school and make sure he logs a full seven instructional hours, and pays attention to them? One dollar now, one dollar when you deliver him home. He’ll pay the autocab with his card.”
“Two and two,” he says.
“One and two, firm,” Ma says. Laborers are expected to bargain, a nod to entrepreneurship, but not to bargain too much. They’re lowlier than anyone but a beggar. And three bucks less twenty percent for the Labor Center and forty percent for taxes is about the going rate for a day of light work. It leaves the worker enough to pay for a cot and two meals in a bachelors’ housing hall.
“Done,” he says. He doesn’t offer to shake on it—women don’t shake. It would be a misdemeanor indecency. In fact, it almost violates ‘public decency’ that she’s at the Labor Center, unaccompanied and hiring a worker, at all. But, as the ‘For the Ladies’ releases from the NAU Department of Moral Hygiene have it, children are part of the household and a mother’s job is the household’s upkeep, so it’s still okay for her to hire someone to watch me do my schoolwork. At least for now. A few of the men, laborers and employers, still cast suspicious glances at her.
Business done, we follow her outside and she calls an autocab from her pocket tablet. The one we arrived in is gone; autocabs never wait. Our wait for the new one, though, is not long either. Outside of times when large public rallies are held, more than five minutes would be unusual.
“I’m John Porter, by the way, ma’am,” the secret Jew says as we wait at the curb outside. I glance at him, then away. Playing the part of moderate resentment. He doesn’t look like a John Porter to me. An alias? I wouldn’t begin to know how having an alias would be possible. Identity is DNA and fingerprint tracked from birth. Maybe I’m thinking overdramatically, excited by our subterfuge. I breathe deep. Remain calm.
A short story, about 5000 words.
Young Jacinta Jaara likes to sit by the old landfill mine and listen to the music ancient Neyerneyemeet plays. The music speaks of her of the old days, when the people of Australia were divided, before the war that changed everything. Soon, Jacinta’s curiosity will lead her to an even more profound change, a change of growth, learning, and understanding.
And there’s the blurb. You can preview the first thirty percent and decide if you’d like to shell out a paltry 99 cents for the whole thing on Smashwords — and I hope you’ll look. If you don’t look, how can I persuade you that you want to see the rest of the story? 🙂
A short story, about 3200 words.
Young Becky shares a home with a preoccupied father, a mentally ill mother, and an awful secret… something… that speaks to her from under the basement stairs. To reveal that secret and put it to rest will demand confrontation, and a wisdom that neglected Becky will have to find, somehow, within herself.
Here’s my newest ebook, available at Smashwords in pretty much any format you could want. You can even click “read as HTML” and view it as you would any webpage, the same way you’re viewing this right now.
You can also read a 30% sample and see the first thousand words for free, and figure out if you’re willing to fork over a paltry 99 cents to see how it ends. As I’ll see nearly 60 cents of that (CHA-CHING! No more starving artist if that happens a few hundred thousand times!), I obviously must recommend that you do.
But seriously, I think you’ll like it. Of course, as the guy who writes all these stories, I ALWAYS think you’ll like it.
Check out the preview and decide for yourself. And thanks for reading this, at the very least!
In its center cowered a tiny caricature of ourselves, closer to our ancient spacefaring cousins than to ourselves, but still recognizably relative to both. But it was small, small, a mote that might have been barely a fiftieth of my own young mass. I looked at it crouched there in the center of its disc of web: four leg-pairs.
“It… this animal… is it sentient? It’s older than I am,” I said, whispering, reverent without understanding why. But I was.
A snippet from a work in progress, The Spiders Fly, a short story in which an alien species explores the wasted remains of Earth… and what remains there of its very, very distant ancient cousins.
Mysterious? Of course! There’s only so much to reveal of a short story. I need to be mysterious.