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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 5: Your First Talents Quest

You came from here

Image courtesy of emaze.com

You're not sure where the hole in the earth came from, but suddenly the air's cool, then cold, then damp and freezing as you plummet. You look up--Melly's face disappears, the hole closes, and darkness closes over you.

You land in warm, bouncy jello before you have a chance to scream. Good thing, too--it splashes all over your face as you sink a good meter or two into it, and who wants mystery jello in their mouth? You flail, and find it's not sticky, and with some climbing and some splashing you wade or waddle your way to the top and flounder out onto a cool dirt floor.

It's cool because of its low temperature, but also, you notice, because of elaborate arabesques tracing it in thin ditches. A squelch sounds behind you, and you see the jello melt in its crater, and trickle into the arabesques, lighting up the floor with neon-green designs. 

The designs glow as the jello flows towards a center, a bubbling pool in the distance. A smell like lime wafts into the air from the pool's steam. You step forward, following the designs--

When you look back, the swirls behind you have dried, empty of their shimmering liquid. Thick darkness hugs your back. Oof, that's ominous. You scurry forward to stay in the light, following the designs as their pouring glow leads you toward the pool.

"Am I alone?" you ask the cave.

No one answers. You take that as a yes. You take a moment to remind yourself why you're standing here in sticky lime-scented steam: you'll discover your talents, use them to unravel the mystery of the black goo disease, and in the process discover who your mystery lover is. You're a little iffy on that last part, but hey, you clicked this link because deep down, you know you need to be loved.

You don't want to admit that to yourself, because that sounds wimpy. 

Does it? Has Melly rubbed off on you?

Anyway, you're now standing in front of the bubbling green pool. You walk around it--

And the floor tilts with your weight. "Whoa!" You stumble backwards as a whole plate of ground shifts. You fall--you tumble as liquid splashes out of the green pool towards you, into another series of designs under your feet, all arrows, pointing to three dirt mounds in the distance. 

You stop rolling at the three dirt mounds. The light flows around them, as if someone literally drew a circle in the floor for you to say, "Here." 

Oh, look, it even says "here" on the ground. Kind of a tacky touch.

So...you're supposed to do something with these dirt mounds.

You step on one. Nothing happens. You sit on another. Well, these aren't buttons.

Gosh, are you supposed to dig into them? What could be in there? Bones? Rotten stuff? Mmm, you'd rather not. You stand, looking around, but now everything's dark except the ring around the mounds. This is where you're supposed to be, alright.

The longer you stare at these lumps of earth, the more certain you become that you'll have to dig them up with your bare hands. You check in your pockets--nope, you've got folded dinosaurs in there. Nothing else. No shovel or anything. Oh man! You don't want to do this! Who would bring you here? What a gross and silly story! This is boring and dumb anyway!

Well, the longer you stand here, the more boring it's going to get.

Ugh, alright, you think. You begin to paw through the center mound--and suddenly your chest hurts.

You stop pawing. Your chest stops hurting.

Oookay...

Now you definitely don't want to do this. That's uncomfortable! It's like you're digging into yourself! Who wants to--

Oh, you get it. It's a metaphor. You have to sit, alone, and really dig into yourself sometimes, to find out what your talents are.

"Hey, that's total cheeseballs," you say into the darkness. "Cheesy!"

No one answers you, because you're alone. With a grumbling murmuring like a wimpy little baby, you--

"Hey!"

Okay, fine, I'll stop calling you a baby if you stop calling me cheesy.

"Thank-you."

Before you can reprimand yourself for talking to the narrator, which is a crazy-person thing to do, you dive back into the task ahead and dig through the center mound. The tenseness in your chest aches, but the dirt's cool, and soft, moist, and soothing in your fingers, and for a moment you remember why grubby two-year-old you liked to make a mess. Fingertips in your cheerios and milk, the cold and the mush and the hard textures all swishing together over your tiny palms...smearing pudding on your high chair, the smoothness, the frictionless rub...why don't you touch more things anymore? You rub your forefingers together, and dirt granulates between them, falling softly. Gritty, not sticky but mushy. Dirt is pretty great. And you know, ever since you were little, people said you were good at...remember? Remember what you were good at?

Aha! The dirt comes away to reveal five gold coins. They're old, and heavy, with faces on them that make you think of museums, archeologists, and Zeus. You brush away the dirt on the other two mounds, and find one coin, and ten coins. 

As the last bit of dirt is displaced the room jerks--the liquid light splashes out of the circle around you into a trough on the wall, and when everything stops shaking you see three switches. The first switch, in front of the mound with one coin, has one slot in it. The second, in front of you and the center mound, has five slots, and the third switch, to your right, in front of the ten-coin mound, has ten slots in it.

It's like a little kid's math book or something when the words "how much" light up on the trough.

It's clear the talents from each mound go into the slots from each switch. Well, which one will you flip? Will you get a chance to flip a second one after a first one? Should you go with one, or ten? Are these ten horrors you're picking, or ten rewards?

You play it safe, right in between, and pick the five-token game. Clink--clunk--drrrrr--cleenk--dunk--each coin falls into its slot with a different noise, and then you pull the switch.

All three switches recede into the wall with a great rumbling noise, and then a stone door pops open before you. You step into the next room with the flow of green light; the door screeches and then thuds shut behind you. Your five coins tinkle and clink through the door to spin on the floor.

As you bend to pick them up, you find yourself kneeling before a pair of sandals.

Sandals with a guy in them. You look up, and he disappears.

He was beautiful.

(Wait, what?)

You stand as the room lights up. It's enormous--so cavernous you can't see where it ends, and filled with golden boxes! Two huge craters of shining jello dissolve next to you as you rise; shining liquid rushes along the room, filling jade curlicues and flowers and stars stretching off into infinity, and in the reflection of the shimmering, racing rivulets of light the golden boxes sparkle as if the room's on fire.

"Welcome," says a booming male voice. "To the Cave of Gifts."

Choose your gifts next week! In the spirit of group participation, please @ me on twitter about your favorite abilities! Jumping high? Drawing beautiful art? A smooth tongue? Powerful axe-wielding? Gifted sword-swinging? Amazing dance moves? What are you good at, and what do you wish you were good at? What might come in handy questing? Feel free to post in the comments, too! Your answers will slightly affect the action in the next section.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 4

Previous part here

Melly's world could fit in your pocket.

It's true: you're carrying twenty dinosaurs, a tree, and a hair dryer in your pocket, all folded up tiny using Melly's pocket-liner and a pair of those weird fingerless gloves motorcyclists wear. You're walking, sore and sweaty, through a dry, rocky, cracked plain under a vicious sun, but at least you don't feel the weight.

"This used to be a riverbed," you say, to make conversation.

"You some kinda geologist?" Melly's walking, too, to save jetpack energy, and she doesn't seem happy that her stride's a bit slower than yours because of her height. She's marching like she's got something to prove. Sweat glimmers under the short hair on the shorn side of her head, like dew on a lawn. The long half of her hair's tangled in a ponytail reminiscent of an actual horse's tail at this point.

"I don't know if I'm a geologist," you say. "I don't know the background of this body I'm apparently forced to be in. I don't know who I used to be or who I am."

"Well, we gotta figure out your talents," Melly says. She wipes her forehead in her forearm, and looks at the sweat for a second before looking accusingly up at the sun. "We'll make a detour through Quest Valley to test you."

"Aren't we getting a little off track? We need to stop the disease destroying your world."

"No, you're here to find out if you're loved or not, and by what or who. Stoppin' the disease is a means ta that." Melly tosses a stone in the air, and it unfolds into an umbrella, floating over her, blocking out the sun.

"Wouldn't that be selfish of me?"

"Depends. Say your good takes you through a journey that helps tha world. That selfish?"

"So the ends from someone else's point of view, which are the means of my point of the view, determines whether my end's selfish or not?"

"Yer getting me lost in word salad. Get over here and shaddup." Melly sits under the stone umbrella and begins to cook a maiasaura steak over a fire you didn't see her start.

You hang back. "I don't want to sit next to the fire," you say.

"But I got shade."

"Shade over fire."

"Mebbe sometimes you gotta pay for shade."

"That's nice and all, but can't you just put the fire outside of the shade?"

Melly tilts her head. Without taking her glance off of you, she scoots back and pulls the umbrella back with her, leaving the fire exposed to the sun like you suggested.

You sit beside her in the shade, and take the dripping strip of meat she offers you. It's hot, soft, stringy in your hands. You've become used to eating like this, without utensils, even though you'd never do that at home. You're much more civilized than that.

You turn to her and smile. She took your advice for once, moving the fire. "So you're not always right," you tease.

"Never said I was. I'm just s'posed to find the meanings in stuff for you." Melly stuffs her face, and talks while she chews. You take tiny bites that sit in your mouth for what seems like ages--the meat's stringy and tough, with a powerful flavor like chicken graduated to red meat and overcompensated.

"What did you do before escorting travelers on adventures?" You ask Melly. "Just chase dinosaurs all day?"

"Travelers? You mean traveler. I never met a soul-linker before."

"How do you know what to do with me, then?"

"He told me."

"Who?"

She tilts her head, as if listening to a voice in the windless heat, or as if adding up chess moves. "Someone who loves you."

"Oh great, this again. I'm still waiting for this to end on some kind of sermon," you smirk.

"Hon, everything in life's a sermon. Anyone who tells you somethin' else is just hiding the fact they're selling something because they know what they're sellin' ain't all that great."

"Sometimes the things you say don't make sense."

"Sometimes the things you say don't make sense," she mocks your tone.

"Excuse me?" You laugh.

"Mee Mur me?" She mocks you again.

"Are you, like, five?"

"Look, I'm hungry and tired, I can't be shoving wisdom down your throat 24-7. Imma open a door to Quest Valley for ya, and you'll Quest for your abilities, and then we'll head to the disease epicenter. That's what you want, right? Epicenters and stuff, to see where the goop's comin' from?"

"Is it that easy? We can just go there?"

"It's simple, not easy. We all know how the disease started. Problem's stoppin' its spread. But we gotta show you the beginning. Maybe see if you got any new ideas about taking it out." She shrugs. "Sound good?"

"We do a lot of planning and not a lot of doing," you observe.

"That's life sometimes. You'll be doing for the next five links. Questin' and such."

"Okay."

"Okay."

She opens a hole in the ground, and shoves you in.

Next link next week. Sorry it's short this week. It'll be more worth it next time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Til Death Do Us Part--An Experimental Tryptich (Lit Flash Fic, G)

Inspired by a woman I met in medical school, and by the deaths on the wards. 
For more free fiction, click here.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 3: Dinosaur Hunting


You trot barefoot after Melly, who floats along on her jetpack through the shadows of the trees in the lengthening afternoon. After just a few yards she taps on another tree.

"Does everyone here live in trees?" you ask.

"T'ain't that we live in trees. We store stuff in 'em." She taps again, and twists a little knot in the bark. A slot opens, far, far up in the top of the tree--"go long," says Melly.

You're not sure what she means until clothing shoots out the top of the tree, rocketing off into the distance.

"Are you kidding me?" You mutter under your breath and take off.

When you find the clothes--a ragged, thick brown pants set and vest made of thick linen, and a lighter, white, baggy linen shirt--they've fallen into a stream. The light plays on the surface of the water as it bubbles and beats across the rocks in a merry way, but your clothes hang heavy, sopping and cold in your hands.

"Ah, sooorry about that," Melly says, emphasizing the "o" in her weird accent--is it Canadian?--as she pulls up beside you and draws a hair dryer from you don't know where. She blows off your clothes, you slip into them, grumbling a bit, and then without a word she leaves, and you follow.

The foliage begins to change as you walk. The leaves seem wider here, with more many-pronged star-shapes, and darker, long fronds, and ferns, and the whole underbrush becomes thicker and softer, and the trees shorter, and soon you break out over hilly plains…

Hilly plains covered with maiasaura! You recognize them by their wide, duck-shaped bills, and their hunched form and hooves. They stand on their back hooves to look around like meerkats, and then drop to trot on all fours, playing with each other and watching over each other, a huge family. Tiny craters dot the hillsides, each just a few feet wide and filled with eggs. Babies play among the hooves of their mothers.

You and Melly crouch in the shadows of the underbrush, just on the edge of the plains, speaking in low tones.

"I hate my job," Melly sighs.

"Wait, these are the dinosaurs you hunt? They're so peaceful!"

"Yeah. Without any predators we got plant-eatin' critters destroying all the forests. Local overpopulation." She unhooks a little box from her belt, and as with the mirror, begins unfolding it until it becomes a large metal claw. "The Forest Guardian before me f*ck'd up, and killed all the carnivores. Or he did what he had to ta protect the local villages without armin' them, I dunno how you wanna put it. But now I gotta clean up." She unhooks another little box, and unfolds a cattle prod. "It's a little like life, yaknow. Without struggle, without teeth, life gets overgrown."

"Overgrown with what?"

"Fat lazy stuff that eats your inner garden."

You're not quite sure what that means, but there isn't much time to think about it. She hands you the cattle prod and the claw. "Crush two eggs from each nest. No more, 'n no less," she says. "Based on my population studies."

"And what will you--"

Your stomach sinks as she re-folds her trident-sword into what looks suspiciously like a sniper rifle. "Imma take out adults."

You're going to vomit. No, this…this doesn't seem like something you want to do. "Isn't there some other way? Instead of killing them?"

Melly crosses her arms. "So you just got here, and you got a dinosaur population degree or somethin'."

"Well no but--couldn't you--relocate them or something?"

"To some place they're gonna mess with the ecosystem, 'cuz they don't belong there? Look, we already got some kinda magic disease spreading across the world, we don't need ta make it worse shipping animals all over the place. I love this herd. I love this world. I'm not too scared to show my love with a knife when it's needed." With that Melly bursts out of the woods, leaping into the air and firing up her jetpack again. She takes off into the blue sky over the herd, far enough away from the dinosaurs that they can neither see nor smell her. You watch her take aim…

There's a quiet zip, and with a mournful groan one of the graceful maiasaura tilts, and thumps to the ground, flesh bouncing like a sack of potatoes once before rest. There's no gunshot. The beasts near the victim dart away, surprised, but there's no stampede, either. 

Another zip. You cover your mouth with your hand as another giant pounds the dust with that same sad lowing. 

Melly flies over the herd like this, and you're counting in your head, unwilling to help her with her unnatural selection but unable to do anything else. Three…four…five…six…you don't want to be here counting, and you don't know where else to be! You're too old to cry over Bambi's parents--but are you, really?

Then, suddenly, one of the creatures breaks away from the pack. It looks to the falling beasts, and to you, you, huddling in the underbrush, doing nothing to help it at all, you, leering over its children like a pervert--

And it charges up the hill towards you.

It comes faster than you can think. You have no contingency plan for charging herbivore dinosaur. It's much larger, growing closer, and now you see muscled shoulders, and the sharp, heavy hooves, and and the sheer mass behind the lowered head, and the steam, almost, coming off the creature in its low, roaring, squealing, shimmering black-eyed rage, it all stuns you with terror no less beautiful than--

You need to run. Hello? Run, or something! 

There's a tree. A many-branched tree--low branches. Like the chestnut tree! You dodge to the side, and grab--and miss! You fall on your butt, and the dinosaur whirls to charge again--you grab again, your palm scrapes in the bark, your feet kick against the trunk, then step on a lower branch, then up, and up, and now you're climbing.

With a whump you almost fall out of the tree as it shakes under the impact of the maisaura's head smashing into it. You hold on. 

But then, the creature smashes again.

And its head splits open on the tree trunk like a rotten egg.

You shriek, more in surprise and disgust than out of fear, as brains and a black goo splatter over the base of the trunk, and the maisaura falls limp. It lies there, bleeding out, without even a twitch as your breathing returns to normal. All is calm. All is disgusting.

Your gasp is out of fear, though, when the black goo begins to ooze up the tree towards you. 

"Holy--"

You're peering squinty-eyed down at it, curious, until it reaches the lowest limb--the branch cracks, and shakes, and with a creak like the Tin-Man relieved by oil the branch begins to move. It reaches for you like a scraping claw!

"Ohhhh no." You climb higher. 

The ooze follows! The branches come to life in your wake, until the whole tree below you begins to shudder, to writhe, with a creaking that sounds almost like a scream, as if the dead beast haunts it. You climb--but now you're standing on branches that bend under your weight, and clinging to a top that sways and sways and tilts further and further and--

Your breath comes in scattered pants, pants that want to become nothing but endless screams, as the wind picks up and you're clinging to soft green thin branches and oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh what even is that oh gosh oh--?

You fall.

You scream.

Your body collides with a mass mid-air--it's like getting punched in the torso with a boulder--and as you're lifted over the treetops you find Melly straining to somehow keep you in her small arms. You cling to her shoulders, and the jet-pack putters under your combined weight.

"Come on," she grunts, and then swears.

The jet-pack roars to life, and you float over the plains to the opposite hill. The tree reaches for the sky with one last screech and then collapses over the forest with a thundering crash and a splattering wave of slick slime.

"What is that?!" you cry.

"That's the disease," Melly says. "That's what's ruining our world."

 ***

You're sitting on a hill overlooking the wasted plain. Melly's already sniped her adult quota, and her egg quota, too, apparently, and you've watched her zoom down to collect blood samples or to use her weird folding technology to wrap a dinosaur body up in her pocket, and she's taking notes and speaking into a recorder on her wrist over the blackened tree and maiasaura corpse, and in some ways it's fascinating work, but you're not helping. She's already killed most of the eggs she planned on killing, and their mothers and father roar at her, chasing under her, away from you, as she flies over their home.

The last nest lies at your feet. You hold the last dinosaur egg in your palms. You imagine smuggling it out, raising your own little baby dinosaur--why not? If it's a pet, it can't escape and mess up the ecosystem or whatever Melly said. You don't know how long this adventure will last, and every little girl's dreamt about riding a dinosaur! Why not?

It's human arrogance. You could spread the 'magical disease,' or something. You know about the zebra mussels, and the Japanese kudzu plant, and all the other invasive species that wiped out native populations because of humans who relocated wildlife without doing any research first. 

What did Melly say? Without struggle, without teeth, life gets overgrown. Maybe it means that other things, every day mundane nothings, and apathetic meaningless comforts, maybe cloud out your purpose, until you can't find it anymore, can't find what you're fighting for because there's nothing fighting back, until you're not doing anything that's even worth fighting you about. Then what? Muscle cells that aren't stimulated with work, with prodding from your nervous system, atrophy and die. On their own. Maybe that's happening to you. Maybe it's why you feel like…dying, sometimes. 

So you'll find something to struggle for. Conflict to drive your story. A goal to make it all worth it. For starters, you'll find out more about this magical disease Melly's on about, and you'll fight to end it. Until the planet can become a place where balance can be restored, and no one has to execute dinosaurs just for living. 

The soul-link begins to fade again, because you're only here to inspire your search for your fight in your real life, but before it fades, you lift the smooth, leathery weight in your palms, crouch over a sharp rock…and crush the egg.

You'll be back for the link next week.



Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Tips On Small Presses and Punchy Writing From Mystery Author Dr. Martin Hill Ortiz (Alt Title: Inside The Mind of A Man Who Writes About Murder!)



Hey friends, I've got a treat for you today! Dr. Martin Hill Ortiz, a friend of mine and a multi-published mystery author, joins us to share some insight into his writing process and his experience with small presses. One of Dr. HIll's particular strengths is punchy, fast-paced writing, and I know a lot of you out there have questions about that, so I asked him for some tips to share with you all!

Ahem, is this mike working?


Dr. Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of four mystery-thrillers, most recently A Predator's Game from Rook's Page Publishing and Never Kill A Friend from Ransom Note Press. Also the recipient of a number of poetry awards, Dr. Hill joins us today from sunny Puerto Rico, where he currently works as a medical science researcher and Professor of Pharmacology, blending the analytic with the poetic side of his mind.


Dr. Hill, what brought you into writing, in general--and, more specifically, what kindled your interest in mysteries?


Even now I can hear my father's basso profundo
 voice as he reads aloud adventure stories as he once did for me and my brothers. Leiningen Versus the Ants, The Problem of Cell 13, Doc Savage! The singular comfort of written words woven into a net in which to catch both dream and a dreamer: that was my first love of story. The mysteries which I enjoyed were those that created a sense of order, both structural and moral.

I enjoy plot. That draws me to mystery.

You've had a number of eclectic life experiences to draw upon as a writer. Can you tell us a little bit about your murder research?


I spent about a dozen years researching the case commonly called the West Memphis Three. Why? The sheer injustice. The fact that it had become a crowd-sourced investigation and that it was possible to gather more and more clues over an extended period of time. 


As I understand it, your research assisted in getting the case overturned.


I assembled a large website, jivepuppi.com, dedicated to my research and that of others. I have appeared as an expert in the documentary West of Memphis. Because of this experience, I better understand the justice system, police and criminal behavior, and the meaning of evidence and its limits. 


That's really amazing experience to have under your belt as a mystery writer. You also directed a theatre for a while, correct?


I wrote for the theater before my ventures into short stories and novels. It has an artifice, but it also has disciplines that translate into other writing forms. You must set the stage. You must invest the audience (i.e. reader) in what is going on. If I lose my audience, it is my fault. Directing was a hair-pulling experience.

You've also got a lot of experience working with small presses, and a lot of my readers are looking into small press publication themselves. Do you have any tips for them?


After writing several novels for which I could not find a publisher, (about half of them didn't deserve to be published), I turned my sights on small publishers. Almost immediately I received three responses back from three different presses for three different projects. They all were eventually published. What did I learn? 


Small publishers have different levels of professionalism. It is relatively easy to get a novel published (it actually is) but to get a professional small publisher is more difficult. 


A novel needs editing and professional packaging. That's the minimum to ask for from a small publisher. The next matter is publicity. To be in a small press, you are responsible for a fraction of your publicity, from between 50% to 100%. Be prepared for that.


What about writing-related tips? What are your writing strengths, per se?


Writing tips? You'll read a bunch of them on-line. Here's a couple. Choose the strongest, most vivid verb that is supported by what you are saying. When in doubt, be clear.


For more forceful writing, arrange a sentence so that the most meaningful words appear at the end as a punch. Look at this bit of Shakespeare taking into consideration the final word and its adjective or just the final word. 


Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.



Tomorrow, day, recorded time. Then fools, brief candle, poor player, stage, tale, fury - ending with - nothing.

Or if you insist on following the punctuation: dusty death, brief candle, no more, nothing.


It works out to be a bunch of quick punches. I often use this technique to make flaccid sentence firm. Shakespeare also employs another powerful technique here: using a variety of words to convey the same theme. (And other than the triplet of tomorrows, the words are always varied.)


The first theme, time. Tomorrow, day, recorded time, yesterdays, brief, hour.


The second theme, futility and insignificance. Petty pace, fools, shadow, no more, idiot, nothing.


The third theme, story. syllable, player, stage, tale.


My writing strengths? An ability to envision the story I am telling. An ability to hold in mind the big picture while compounding the details. I have a facility for poetry.


That's really helpful, I think. What about weakness--what's a word you overuse, or something else you're trying to beef up about your writing?


My storytelling is somewhat breathless. I generally don't give the reader enough character development and motivation.


I overuse "get" and "give." I have to pore over my stories to look for instances where these words can be changed. I put together my own thesaurus with about fifty words which I can overuse and alternative choices. 


That's actually also a really good tip--a personal correction thesaurus! Writing that one down! Now, for something more fun, to close this out: if you had to describe your writing in one sound, what would that sound be?


If I made this sound, your ears would fall off.


Who's your favorite writer right now?


Right now? At this very instant? Me, since I am busy writing this and I am not reading something else.


Ha! And finally, what are you working on? What kind of cool things do you have coming down the pipe or already out? 


I'm almost done with the sequel to Never Kill A Friend [a police thriller about an African American policewoman taking on DC corruption and human trafficking]. Then on to a short story or two that have been waiting to come out. Then I'll weigh my options on my next novel.


A Predator's Game by Martin Hill Ortiz
Looking forward to it all. Thanks very much for doing this interview with us--I know my readers will want to check out your work,  so I've included a link to your novel about Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes in this nifty picture here for the history mystery buffs. I also encourage readers to check out your blog, where you analyze New York Times bestseller data for authors and break down historical fact and fiction about Tesla, et al, for history fans. 

Thanks for stopping by, everyone! Feel free to share more questions for Dr. Hill below, or tell me this: what are your favorite mystery stories?

Looking for more? Read more author interviews here, or request your own interview with me via twitter, @petr3pan. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 2

(Part 1 here)

You awaken to the sound of wood chipping away, and the twittering of birds. A stream bubbles somewhere beyond the wood-chipping, and light begins to crack into the darkness.


Your chest aches, suddenly, and for a moment you can't breathe, and then the light bursts forth over you and the pressure's relieved. You squint; a short, stocky figure stands silhouette'd against the light, pulling open the crack in the darkness like Samson tearing down the temple.

It's a reference that enters your head that you're not sure you knew before.

You crawl out of the tree, dripping and sticky, and leaves stick to your hands and knees as the Space-Woman helps you to your feet.

"Hey!" she says. "Where's my jet-pack?"

You reach back into the infinite darkness inside the tree-trunk, pull out the silver vest with its glowing blue rockets, and hand it to her. "I didn't catch your name," you say, with a confidence that surprises you, in a voice not quite yours.

"I'm Melly. And you're Mara. They decided to go with matchin' letters for this one."

"I'm what?"

"You're Mara! That's your name. Remember, I told you, we needed to bake you into the Protagonist of this story? The Protagonist is a young woman, a little chubby, a little multi-colored, named Mara. See?"

She unfolds a sheet of paper from her pocket, and keeps unfolding it, and unfolding it, until it's a vellum blanket almost your height. She gives it a nice flick, and it snaps taught and straight into a mirror.

You're surprised, to say the very, very least.

"Hey! Hey, I didn't ask to be a girl! And who gets to name me, or decide my race? This is weird!"

Melly crosses her arms and puffs a strand of hair out of her face. She glares at you, and doesn't say anything. She's not very patient.

You keep talking: "This is--this is deterministic, or something! At least make it like a video game, like an Avatar, where I pick the things about me!"

"That ain't how real life works, and it ain't how stories work, either. The author chooses the paramaters, the protagonist acts, and the reader discovers new things 'bout themselves, and 'bout humanity, through that protagonist, acting through those parameters."

"But what if I don't identify as a girl?!"

Melly smirks as she folds the mirror back into a little pocket handkerchief. "What the blinkies does that mean?"

"Are you kidding me? It means, what if I don't feel like a girl?"

"And what's a girl feel like, exactly? Is there some special way a girl's gotta feel?"

"Like--like feminine, and stuff. With--interests in feminine things."

"Uh-huh." Suddenly Melly's 'masculine' musculature becomes very obvious to you, and the tough blaze shaved into her buzz-cut stands out. "And who," she asks, as she straps her silver vest around her small-breasted torso. "Gets to decide what's feminine? Who gets to decide what feels like a girl?"

"There are--there are cultural constructs of gender that people identify with."

"So some 'constuct,' some imaginary idea a buncha people have, gets to decide what it means to be a girl. Tell me, this construct, it's based on some kinda science?"

"Uh--I don't know."

"It's based on some kinda reality? Like the reality o' the breasts pokin' outta your chest right now?"

You look down and blush. "Look, there may be some kind of genetic alterations that make certain people more likely to identify as various genders. I don't know."

"You don't know. Well you know what I do know." Melly draws her trident-sword, and it glows blue as she floats up in the air and turns away from you towards the forest. "I do know that ain't nobody gonna tell me a girl has to feel a certain way to be a girl. I wear what I want. I do what I want. If I see something a guy has, or a guy can do, and I wanna do it, f***, I do it. Doesn't make me less of a girl."

"But not everyone feels like you do."

"Yeah, sure, I guess some people wanna let a bunch of fuzzy ideas from other people's heads tell 'em what it means to be a girl. Dresses and flowers or whatever. I'm not here to talk theory, woman, I'm here to take you dinosaur hunting. You comin' or not?"

"But--you are here to talk theory. You're--a--story character--" You pause as you say that, and look around at the maples and oaks towering above you, and the blue sky studded with wispy clouds, and you inhale that wet, moldy smell of earth and leaf decay, and there's no sign or a portal or a soul-link out anywhere, and Melly doesn't have to correct you.

She does anyway, in a low, muttering voice, with her chin ducked down to her chest as if ashamed. "Don't say things like that. You ruin it for the both o' us."

She turns, and you follow because she looked so cute in her forlornness. Strong people always look less prickly, less politically-incorrect, in those moments of doubt. But why would she doubt? What does this mean, for her, if she knows she's a story character, and you're--

"Stop thinkin' about it, will you?" she snaps.

Ah, there comes the brute back into her voice. What's her deal, you wonder? Maybe you're here to soften her up.

You consider going back to the tree. Mixed-race fattie female might not be your style. What kind of name is Mara, anyway? Melly might be kind of a jerk.

Dinosaur-hunting, though. What's that about? And wasn't there supposed to be some kind of secret something here, about how you're loved? That might be good for your self-esteem. You might need a pick-me-up like that, something to encourage you. Life's sh**ty sometimes. A little fantasizing, a little clicking around on a webpage, that might be nice...

Will you be back to click next Sunday?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Revisions are Killing You (But Some Things Are Worth Dying For)

Unfinished painting of King Arthur, still under revision (Ponce Museum of Art)

As an editor I respect used to say, "We're all very excited."

I am, in particular, incredibly excited about finally releasing bits and pieces of the meta-comic world where characters kill their authors, BUT--

There's a really huge but on this one--

I think they're literally killing me. 

See, this project exists to climax with my 2017 book release, and that means I'm spending this year revising said book, and oh man revisions.

I'm not just talking, like, read over it and rewrite some paragraphs and fix some wordings. I'm talking tear-your-hair-out hardcore revision. Rewrite outlines, rewrite the whole story in short-story-baby-words form (this helps center you on cause and effect), create three new word documents to copy and paste in all the things you like from the original, and then throw one away and try to do it again, with less--less "kill your darlings" and more "kill everything except your darlings"--restart the story in a blank document again, throw that away and do it again, have it beta'd over and over, read that advice, re-read the novel to get its spirit again, write interviews with the main characters, make lists and note of each character's voice and draw the characters out to get their pose and attitude fixed in your mind, and now that I've done all that, today or tomorrow I'm going to get out index cards, write out all the major plot points, and throw them around the floor until I find an order that finally works. 

DEEP BREATH

IF that works, and I finally see a story coming back together, I can move beyond the tearing stage, and start building up again, and then the real work begins, where I'm going to rewrite the entire thing from scratch in a blank document. Then I'll open one of those "darling" documents, and see if there's something from the old book I want to put in--make sure I didn't lose the book's spirit--and finally, I'm going to open that finished document in one window, open a blank document in another window, and rewrite it again as I read it, fixing it for voice and little things. 

It's making me sick and tired and tired and sick. I get psychosomatic pains sometimes--it's just a thing that happens to me--and this process gives me those. When I'm done, I'll stop. Maybe my headache will go away, and my stomach will stop churning.

I share this because I see writers, often, who are unwilling to go back and do the work, in the spirit of "it's okay" rather than "it can be amazing." We have low thresholds for ourselves. If you're a genius, that's okay: I read somewhere that C.S. Lewis literally never reread anything he wrote--just sent it right on to the publisher, who did all the editing--and at this point in my life I'm less and less sure that's true, but alright! Sometimes you've got to know when to let something go. On the other end of the spectrum, you've got J.R.R. Tolkien, whose book almost never went to the publisher because of how long he spent on it. His children say he used to pace the upper floors of his house, muttering and shouting about story problems he couldn't solve. I suspect most of us treat ourselves more like Lewis than Tolkien.

I saw an unfinished painting at the Ponce Art Museum. It's about King Arthur's death. The artist spent his whole life re-doing it. His house became littered with props he built so he could paint them from real life--swords, bowls, clothing--and he sketched and painted hundreds of character studies of each part of the wall-sized painting. Hours before he died, he was on a ladder in his studio, painting details in the corner. 

I would rather be that guy, who puts all his heart and soul and passion into a thing, than any other kind of artist.

But unlike that dude I AM gonna stop, at some point, because I want to put all my heart and soul and passion into life, and life requires breathing in and out, exhaling and inhaling, holding on, and then letting go.

I'm just saying--I don't want to let go too early. Dear God, I hope I don't trip; I'm well aware that some people will hate my stuff and some people will love it and I've got to love it myself first, but man, this takes the life out of me. People ask me, sometimes, what's more difficult, writing or medicine, and I say writing without hesitation. 


Thank God I don't have to do this full-time.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 1

Hello, soul-linker, that was quite a ride, wasn't it! We flew from one energy-page in the ether to quite another one altogether--not even on the same psychic-computer-box!

Okay, fine, that's a weird word for a server. Yes, we're on a different server now. (You might want to click that link if you don't get it) I have a mission for you, if you choose to accept it. It's an especially important mission if you're thinking about suicide, or if you're very, very sad (but happy people are allowed here, too).

Will you pick up that stick in front of you?

What stick, you say? I'm sorry, the soul-link's a bit unclear. Let me tighten it for you.

THAT stick. The wet, moldy stick, spattered with lichen, and a touch of moss, and maybe--oh, yeah, that's a hissing black beetle walking over it. The big, hard beetle, with horns. Wait until he passes.

Alright, now pick up that stick. It'll help you to see where you are.

As you lift the stick, it's softer in your hand than a stick should be, and moist, and you don't like it between your fingers, but as you look at the depression it left it the wet leaves, you begin to see the mossy ground, and the stream, trickling before your feet, and the trees, dripping just after a rain, extending up into the sky. Oak, maple, and in the far, far distance, a chestnut tree drops its spiky fruit on the forest floor.


You begin to walk towards the chestnut tree, stepping over the stream, because it looks a little different from all the trees around it--squatter, and more branched out, a better climbing tree. As you get closer to it you realize you don't have any shoes on.

"Ouch!" You yelp--there's a spiny chestnut in your foot. "Why would you do that?"

"Do what?"

You turn around, hopping on one foot and cursing, and waving the wet stick around as you try to catch your balance.

There's a little fairy standing about three feet behind you. You know she's a fairy because she's standing about a foot off the ground, and she's only about four feet tall, but she's gotta be some kind of weird space fairy dwarf, because she's got a glowing blue jetpack, and a three-pronged laser weapon that makes you think a trident and a sword had a one night stand they regretted, and half her head is shaved, with a tri-swoop pattern emblazoned into it. The other half of her hair is long.

"Do what?" she repeats as you gawk.

"Do--chestnuts, right here, I--hi. This isn't what I thought would happen. I'm sorry."

"That's a'aight. Whateva." Is that a Scottish accent? Or a--no, it isn't. It sounds like the made-up accent you make when you try to mimic your secret favorite accent, when you're not very good at it. You're trying to wrap your head around it--

"Where are you from?" you ask.

"From space, obviously. Better question is where are you from, hopping around here nekkid in the forest on chestnut spikies."

"I'm--I'm--"

"Oh, I know, you're very stuttery. You're obviously a soul-linker, you are, and I guess since I found you stuck here in these woods it's my job to start you off on your quest." She sighs, obviously not very happy with her new job, and floats by you towards the chestnut tree. "Come on, then, ya staller!"

"Quest? Is this like World of Warcraft?" It's my fault our link left you so nerdy, I'm sorry. All you can think to compare this to is a video game.

"No, silly," Space Woman smirks. "What would I be, then, some kind of mystical creature?"

"But you are a--"

She turns, sharply, and you almost run into her as she stops mid-air. "Is that some kinda slur?" she asks. "I'm no different from you, or anybody else. Got achondroplasia, is all."

Oooooh crap. She's not some kind of fairy, she's a super-space-hero little-person. Is Little Person the right word? You can't remember. You left your politically correct dictionary at home.

"Alright, soul-linker, you can drop the droopy stick now, you know."

You drop it. It makes mushy thud behind you as the Space Woman touches the chestnut tree, and the bark shimmers and fades, and then a metal door appears.

"When you come in here, rules begin," she says.

Uh-oh. That doesn't sound good.

"The first rule is not to forget why you came--why you clicked in the first place. That's the first rule."

"What if I don't know why I clicked?"

"Then decide, right now, why you're going to keep clicking."

"This is weird. This is becoming some kind of meta-psychedelic thing..."

The Space Woman crosses her arms as you trail off. Your discomfort and awkwardness knows no bounds, and suddenly you don't want to follow into that door. Come on, this is ridiculous--no clothes, you're embarrassed about mistaking this Normal Human Woman for something magical, she doesn't seem too happy about you, this began with weirdly personal language in the first place, and now there's this whole rules thing. This isn't even very interesting. It's just a space woman in some kind of North American forest. Why should you? Why should you go into her weird chestnut tree door? How do you know she's not a serial killer or something? Or a figment of some preacher imagination? This could be a horror story for all you know!

She checks her watch. It glows, and displays symbols you think might be Arabic.

"How long you wanna make me wait while you take in the breeze on your privates?" she asks. "I got dinosaurs to hunt, you know."

Dinosaurs, that sounds promising.

You're conflicted. Adventure, or awkwardness. Or the reason you clicked in the first place. Are you really here, looking for some answer to how you're loved, and isn't that like, the silliest thing in the world? It's probably going to end in some preachy religious spiel. What is this, even?

"My God, you must be one o' them cynics." The Space Woman groans, running her hand along her face. "It didn't take the last one this long to decide. You really don't think this is gonna be worth your time, do you?"

"I don't know," you say.

"You can't know. Not until you finish the story, silly. But you can always click away if it gets too scary for you. I'll warn you if somethin' bad's comin' up--I got a sense about these things."

You shift your weight from one foot to the other. The musty smell of moldy leaves filters up to you.

"It's not like it's for sure, when you step through that door, anyhow," says the Space Woman. "You still gotta pass the time test."

"The time test?"

"Yeah." She whacks the silver door, and after a resounding thud it slides open, and there's a dark hollow you can't see to the bottom of. "You go in this silver door, it closes. The soul-link slips to the back of your mind as the text ends at the bottom of the page, and you wait a week for the door to open again. You're the protagonist of this story, but the story's gotta have details about you, you see, and that whole mess, you and the details, that simmers inside the tree for a week until You The Protagonist is ready ta' emerge. If you've got the desire inside you, the spark, you'll be here when I open the door again next week at the same time for Part 2. If you don't, well, you'll fade away, and I'll never see you again."

"And I won't know about the Someone Who Loves Me Thing." Your voice sounds a bit sarcastic. You know it's some kind of marketing ploy. Maybe this culminates in a mormon.org link or something.

"You won't know if it was all a trick or not, neither--you won't know nuthin' until you wait this out," she nods. "Man, you think of everything, don't you? No hope. Cynics like you really get my goat. I'm not even kidding, the last cynic literally stole my pet goat."

She zips down to the ground to pick up a spiked chestnut and toss it into the darkness. There's no sound of it hitting anything. "Some people don't have to wait that long," she says. "Some people get their Part 2 link right away--the people who come later, after the update. But if you're one of the first, you gotta wait. I have no way of knowing which you are, I'm just inside the story, you see."

"I'm not going into any dark holes that don't have bottoms," you say. "Not even for a love story."

She rolls her eyes. "I thought you might say that." She lands, and takes off her jetpack-vest. It's like a silver leather, sparkling in the blue glow of the jetpack engine, as she hands it to you. "You don't need it, but makes people feel better to have a cool jetpack, for some reason. You better still be here a week from now when I open this cocoon, you hear me?"

"Is it going to eat me?"

"Did it eat the chestnut?"

"Cocoons turn things into other things. What if I don't want to turn into a thing?" you ask. You're running out of excuses, and you see the end of the page coming up quick.

"You can always click away," she says. "Like I said, it's a test. I'll see you in a week, or I won't see you in a week, and you'll steal my jetpack, and I'll have to sue the Greeting Committee again for sending me another cynic soul-linker who steals my things without comin' back."

Arguing's just going to drag the story on. With a deep breath you slip the jetpack vest around you--it's warm, whether from the Space-Woman's body or from the heat of the engine, you don't know--and duck into the silver door.

"See ya," she says.

The door whooshes shut behind you, and you're suspended in the internet again, with the smell of bark and mulch wafting over your cerebral cortex in the blackness.

Now you check the date of this post, and wait a week for the next link to begin.

(It will appear for you to click HERE next Sunday evening)