Sit down. Turn on power. Enter password. Open program. Blank document. Double-spaced. Size 12 font. Times New Roman. Today’s exercise: start a story with a random writing prompt I found online:
I woke up surrounded by the bodies of my friends. I had no idea how long I’d been asleep. I kept my eyes shut, I couldn’t bear to open them. Suddenly, I heard them: the bells…
After forty minutes of staring at the screen, I decide that something is wrong with the prompt and I stop. It’s not much of a jumping-off point. The bells thing sounds interesting, but apart from that, there’s not much I can do.
You’d think when all prompt writers have to do is write half a sentence, the least they could do is make it a good sentence. Maybe that’s what I should do: sell books full of writing prompts. That ought to make some money. No, no. I could never. All my openers are horrible.
I need to write something today. I have a few ideas in the works that I can mess around with. I could start that fantasy epic I’ve been thinking about. Sci-fi is easy to write too, I think. There’s also that true crime show I saw recently. Crime could be fun. Maybe I’ll just spend the day writing poetry. It shouldn’t be that hard.
First, check my bank account. Low, as it should be. I have just enough to make it to the end of the month, but not the next. That’ll change once I get my next acceptance. My usual three turned me down, so I’m banking on reliable number four. They’ll take anything.
Now, to check my messages: Advertisement. Advertisement. Late notice. Water shutting off soon, okay I get it. Useless coupon. Unsubscribe. News still sucks. And a reply from… oh my god.
“Dear [Submitter Name],
We thank you for submitting to our publication, but we regret to inform you that we have decided to not go forward with publishing your work. We found that your unique style of writing does not align with our mission at the moment. This is not a disparagement of your skill, nor is it an objective opinion about the piece you submitted. Ultimately, our decisions are subjective, and we encourage you to continue writing and submit again.”
God help me. What am I doing wrong? I was so sure this time. Never mind, it’s crap, throw it out. I need to stop dicking around and just start a new story. Let’s go with fantasy this time. Fantasy: kings, monsters, Beowulf. How does Beowulf start? Never mind. Knights, quests, bandits, wolves, forests… forests… forests…
A Tale Of Wolves And Women
I awoke in a forest. Sunlight peeked betwixt the branches above and shone upon my face. No matter where I turned, the terrible light followed me, blinded me. I shielded my eyes. Warm air covered me like a blanket; the light scent of a pine forest surrounded me; the hard rocks I lay upon dug into my back, scraping my skin no matter how I tried to escape; a cool stream ran at my feet, with little trickles of water soaking my toes.
The dryness in my mouth had crept deep into the back of my throat. I licked my lips, but my tongue had no moisture to offer. Trying to sit up, I found my feeble arms could not carry me. I began to shove at the ground and forced my body to roll, arcing towards the sweet relief of the water. Rocks nipped at my dry hands and threatened to draw blood. With one last push, I fell upon my chest and slammed my face into the shallow creek bed.
First, I felt the jagged edges of the pebbles on my nose, then a rush of cool water over my eyes. The quick sensation was too much, and I took a panicked breath, only for a mix of dirt and water to tear down my throat. I immediately splucked the evil substance from my body. Using the last of my strength, I turned my head to the side, halfway in, halfway out of the wretched place.
Is “splucked” a word? It has to be a word, right? It means to shoot water out. Or is that spout? Whatever. I’ve already used “betwixt” so nobody’s gonna notice splucked.
The water soaked my skin and I finally sated my thirst, licking what little drops I could from the pebbles that taunted my wounded face. Lain in my dismay as long as I could be, the flavor of copper eventually overwhelmed my tastebuds, and I knew I had drawn blood. Pushing myself to my shoulder, I ran an aching hand against my head, my nose, my mouth, and found them all torn apart. I was unsure if I should blame the sun, the earth, or myself.
From over my shoulder, I heard a crunch of leaves behind me. I made no effort to move, no effort to hide. Covered in blood and with little strength to fight, I was helpless, awaiting my slaughter like a deer clothed in arrows. If it was something wishing to do me harm, all I could do was lay there and see the creature of my undoing.
Did I ever remember to add in something to make sure people know this is a fantasy story? I guess the forest setting and the line about the deer might help, but those could also be modern. Whatever, I’ll start now.
A peasant woman with a pail and a basket smirked at me.
“Not having a good day, are ye?” She spoke in the common tongue, not even a hint of refinement or grace about her.
I relaxed at the news that it wasn’t some beast, but the nerve of her! A poor soul lying in a creek bed, nearly dying of thirst and bleeding from the face, and all she can do is laugh. No offer to assist, no calling for aid, no mercy at the end of a sword. Just laughing at the sod stained with blood. Wolves have the decency to kill the things they find, and they don’t carry on about it.
I sat up and dragged myself to the dry land.
“What do you think?” I said. My gravelly voice ached with each word. I fished another drink from the shallow creek.
“Are you a bandit?” I glanced down at myself. Black hair down to my shoulders, the remains of a braid hugged the sides of my head. My shift was white, or at least it once was, and my trousers the color of mud. I had no weapons of any kind, no criminal brands or tattoos that I could see, and certainly no money.
“I don’t think so. If I am, I’m not much to worry about.”
“What are you doing, bleeding in the river?” she asked, shaking her bloody pail of water at me.
“Not a clue.”
“You know where you are, girlie?” she said.
“Not a clue.”
“You know who you are, girlie?” What an odd question. I imagined this was her way of learning my name. Strangely, though, I couldn’t seem to recollect.
“I’m afraid I don’t,” I said.
Should I have mentioned sooner that the protagonist is a woman? I shouldn’t have to, but people might get confused if I only start mentioning it this late in the story. I can just add something in later when I come back and edit.
“You should follow me to the farm, then. Lot of your kind found their way there.” I scowled at her as best I could. She’d begun to peel an orange and a pang of hunger grew inside me.
“What do you mean by my- pftf…phtth!” I spat some blood out and wiped my leaking face, “…my kind?”
“Folks who wake up in the forest looking like they slept in a grave, no pot to piss in, no past to speak of. A few of ye have come through these past months. Funny-looking bunch, you are.” What a rude young woman.
Before I could retort, she finished peeling the orange and hurled it into my lap. I wasted no time in tearing through the flesh. It was bitter and filled with seeds, but I devoured it regardless. I only stopped when the vile thing was finished, my lips dripping with its foul-tasting juices, and I allowed myself to breathe. The rude young woman laughed at me.
“Unless you’re feeling right to go someplace else, the path’s just over this hill. Carry my things for me and I might give you an apple this time.”
I couldn’t believe it. I ate that thing like a starving wolf, and then I was propositioned to follow her like a common mutt. The worst thing is that I did it. Someone like me, reduced to a pauper, begging for the kindness of a peasant woman. Then again, who is someone like me?
I followed her to a barn house on a barley farm. She said nothing along the way, just hummed merrily.
“By the way, girlie, I’m-
No, no, none of this works. I’ll have to carry on for at least half a dozen more pages until something can happen. And that’s only if I rush the intros of the other characters that I haven’t even planned out yet. I don’t even know what will happen once I get there. If I add magic, it’ll look like I’m copying The Once and Future King. But if I don’t, then any obstacle I put in this damn story will seem boring. I don’t have time to debate this, I just need to trash the whole thing and move on.
Sci-fi is popular. Sci-fi is easy. Right? Worthless sci-fi fiction gets published all the time. Yeah, sure, whatever. Spaceships, politics, military, technology, AI, aliens…
Coexistence: Part One of “GAIA’s World”
The auto-wake function of my bed prods the bottom of my mattress to rouse me, and the melodious ringing of Gittarian altar bells plays at my bedside, over and over. A wakeup message with the time and date lights up the crummy standard-issue viewing panels across my wall, just as it did yesterday and the day before.
“GAIA, I’m awake.” No response comes, the bells just continue playing. I drag my old bones out of bed to a standing position. “GAIA, I’m awake!” The alarm hushes. GAIA’s planet icon appears.
“Good morning, Captain Durham.” says the electronic voice. The messages disappear from my screen viewers, and panels of today’s news and weather replace them. “Your workout is set to begin in fifteen minutes. You’ve asked me to remind you that today is the ceremony.”
“GAIA, thank you.” The icon disappears. I briefly stretch, switch to my workout clothes, and head to the 4X-Elite multi-sim floor panel I installed in my room. Before I can set it to the gym function, I check if it lost connection overnight, which, of course it did, so I reconnect it to my room’s GAIA network and let it boot up. This thing’s an off-brand piece of junk, but it was a gift from my niece, and I’m not going to waste money on a real Kore or Najah until it breaks. The photo function stopped working a month ago, so we’re halfway there.
I have a decent workout, then switch it to laundry without even trying the bathing feature. That thing can handle a workout just fine, but it couldn’t give me a clean shower if I filled it with water and put it on the ceiling. Instead, I leave my clothes on the panel to absorb-clean, and use the room’s built-in shower panel by the window wall. I activate the water feature and shower while looking out at the ship.
The mechanics have already drawn in the solar panels and shields to make the hull more presentable. They’re probably prepping the engines to work at a lower setting to make it quieter and steadier by now. All these cordialities will go straight out the door once we need to actually move, but orders are orders.
This panel thing is already getting complicated. How do you slip in the fact about the entire society being built around panels without disrupting the story? If I just keep leaving clues, they’ll eventually pick it up, right?
When I was younger, we didn’t have to worry about multi-sim panels for every little thing we do. We just had good, honest wall panels for things like the kitchen and bathroom, the government panels that you use when you go through passport control at the station or get your license updated, and the command panels if you were one of those nerds that had to fix one of the last two. Nowadays, we’ve got panels for messaging, panels for keeping track of your medicine, panels for basically everything you used to do yourself. Pretty soon, they’ll have a panel to spoon feed and wipe my ass for me.
My doorbell rings.
“Commander Bailey for you, Captain Durham.”
“GAIA, let him in.” No response. I grunt and shut off the water. “GAIA, let him in!” The door unlocks and I turn the water back on. Bailey lets himself in.
“Still having trouble with that voice feature, Kal?”
“Yeah, microphones are probably shorted out. I’ll call Liam in tonight.”
“You mean tomorrow? Your private tour for the newbies should be going ‘til late.”
“God, don’t remind me.” I finish my shower and switch to the drying feature. The quiet hum is easier to talk over. “Everything already on my plate and I gotta show some ensigns around because heaven forbid we don’t kiss every Mugalian ass we see. What are you even doing here, Marlon? You could’ve sent a message.”
“Lowered engine setting means messages are verbal for today. You might wanna shorten that shower as well.” I give him a look and decide I’m dry enough to shut off the panel and step out to start getting dressed.
Would society be more or less prudish about nudity in the distant future? I mean, they are in the military, and if they’ve accomplished interstellar communication, privacy about the human body would probably be low on the list of priorities. I guess that works.
I brush past Marlon and GAIA flips open the closet. My full-dress uniform is hanging inside the door.
“What’s on the schedule?” I ask.
“Dockett should be simple today. Preparation check went well, all systems are working fine, albeit with dimmer lights for energy saving. We should be set for another ten thousand minutes before we need to open the panels again. That should be enough time to cover the Ambassador’s entire exchange, as long as we don’t disembark. Ambassador Rodriguez got delayed, so you’ll have to greet Mugalian Ambassador Dracir on your own in about a hundred-and-twenty-five minutes, or whenever he decides to show up. The ceremony starts sixty minutes after, Rodriguez should be here by then to cover for you. Meanwhile, you’ll greet the recruits, give a speech, then Dracir will give a speech, then clear the room except for you and the recruits. There’s five of them, and you know Mugalians tend to be complainers, so I’ve budgeted in fifteen minutes afterward to shut down any questions they might have. The whole process should take forty minutes.”
“You might have to bump that up to thirty minutes of complaining time.” I joke as I button up my suit. New recruits can be hell to work with at the best of times, but this is the third batch of Mugalian newbies to ever serve on a galactic cruiser. “How much do you wanna bet one of them’s gonna ask about the scholarship money?”
“There’s no amount you could offer to make me bet against it. You should probably remember their names, too. There’s…”
“Nodoff Asswipay, Doom’ahs Betch, Goo-goo-ga-ga No-speakee-good…” I make him laugh. He hates this whole ceremony as much as I do.
“You’re not too far off. Navodon Rqchi is in Engineering,” he made a clicking sound after the R, which confused the hell out of me, “Anin Urep and Enin Sura are in Sciences, Qchell Gosar is with Security,” again with that clicking, “…and K’tan Dracir is in Navigation.” That last one caught me off guard.
“Dracir? As in Ambassador Dracir?” He gave me the same look he always does when he’s about to call me an idiot. “Don’t tell me that purple-faced bastard brought his son in.”
“It’s his niece, and she’s all over Mugalian news right now, so treat her like-
Ugh, this is all too much. I can’t tone down the racism without people saying I’m a racist for writing this, and I can’t amp it up without sounding more cliche than I already do. What does GAIA stand for again? Gittarian Artificial Intelligence… something. Whatever. Even with all the weird technology and corny lingo, it still looks like I’m ripping off Star Trek. There’s nothing original about any of this, it’s all useless. Maybe I just need to drop all of the sci-fi and fantasy stuff and do something a bit more adult.
Murder, violence, Perry Mason, Poirot, Private detectives, no one’s used those in awhile. Grizzled detectives, femme fatales, or is it femmes fatale? Murders, money, macguffins…
The Gun in the Safe
He’d fallen asleep at his desk again, still in his coat, caked with sweat from the previous night. An unlit cigarette sat in the ashtray; his lighter was somewhere that took too long to find before sleep overtook him. Forty-two straight hours of staking out apartments, sneaking onto private property, and shaking information out of strumpets, junkies, and hired guns takes a lot out of a man. So, when that final bit of work, that few hours of silence in the office spent compiling a detective’s opinion comes around, a good rest seems just about necessary.
That’s how Shelley had found him. The previous secretary had told her not to worry about bothering him while he was sleeping, as neither heaven nor hell could rouse him after a long night. Nevertheless, she had to try. People were asking about him, and lying to visitors was not a necessary tactic until other avenues had been expended.
“Mr. Best, you have Mrs. Prior waiting for you at the front, and some gentlemen are outside saying that Mr. O’Shaughnessy wants to speak with you.” Charlie Best shot up from his desk.
“Tell Mrs. Prior to go home, I’ll call her later. Lock the door behind her when she leaves and don’t open it for nobody. Shut the shades, too, while you’re at it.”
As Shelley rushed to fulfill her duties, with more urgency than she began them, Charlie grabbed his hat and crawled across the floor to his safe. Once opened, he shoved past his stacks of US and Colombian bills to reach the revolver. Shelley returned and shut the door behind her as she entered.
“Everything alright, Mr. Best?”
“Yea, everything’s fine.” he said, fiddling with his shoulder holster. “Could you close these shades, too? Once you’re through with that, call Jerry and tell him to meet me at his apartment.”
Charlie finally got his holster clipped on as Shelley reached the window. A trill of gunfire flew though and tore up the curtains. Charlie covered his eyes from the falling glass and heard a thud on the ground in front of him. When he looked up, Shelley was lying on the floor, still writhing in pain, and then she was no more.
Wait, wait! I can do better, I can do so much better. Just give me another chance.
“Everything alright, Mr. Best?”
“Yea, everything’s fine.” he said, fiddling with his shoulder holster. “Could you shut that window, too? It’s always giving me trouble. Once you’re through with that, call Jerry and tell him to meet me at his apartment.”
Shelley steeled her nerves at seeing her boss holding a gun, but figured listening to him would have a better outcome than not. She knew the risks involved with working for him. The office had become infamous for the under-the-table style of business and the high turnover rate of secretaries who get scared off. Not her, though. A little scrap here and there didn’t hurt.
She peeked through the fire escape to ensure the street was empty, which it was, thank goodness, before struggling with the stubborn latch on the window.
Charlie threw the holster on his desk, apparently giving up, and approached Shelley.
“Do you still keep your purse under the front desk?” he asked. Shelley nodded. “I’m gonna need to borrow it for a bit. I’ll buy you a new one if I rough it up too much, doll. I promise. Hold this, will you?”
He handed her the revolver from his safe and headed for the door. Shelley, unfamiliar with guns herself, knelt to place it on the ground, when a bullet zipped over her head, joined by many friends, some of whom met Mr. Best at the door. Shelley landed on her back and had to pause to adjust her glasses. She looked up to see her boss lying in the doorway, a blank look on his face, a trickle of blood pouring from his brow down the bridge of his nose.
Around the corner, the front door was kicked open. As quietly as she could, she leaned out the window and slid onto the fire escape as footsteps approached. Her shoes caused two tiny clangs that rang like church bells in her ears. Ducking behind the wall below the window, she removed her shoes, nearly revealing her position when another few shots rang out, likely into the remains of Mr. Best.
“I think we got him.” said one of the shooters, to the grunted laughs of his accomplices.
“Alright, you check his body, I’ve got the safe. Marconi’s pistol has gotta be here somewhere.” Shelley saw she was still holding the revolver, which she quickly noticed had a letter M engraved on the handle in gold. Cursing that she didn’t set it down when she had the chance, Shelley inched her way down the-
What is even going on? Killing off the main character right at the start? This was supposed to be about a guy seeing a woman get killed and feeling all the survivor’s guilt and such. Why is she suddenly the main character? She doesn’t even have a last name! And what’s all this about a gun and Colombian money, and who the hell is ‘Marconi’? This is all stolen from The Maltese Falcon and I’m a talentless hack for even trying to compete with it.
Was that all my ideas spent? Whatever, there’s… there’s a lot more genres out there that haven’t been totally taken up. No, no, genre fiction doesn’t get published. I need to do something literary. Something about the human experience. Just need a catchy opener…
Once upon a…
What is wrong with me? Why are all of my stories about meaningless bullshit? I’m supposed to be writing something that people can relate to, that will change how people see the world when they read it, that will make people look at me like I’m not some useless idiot who writes about wizards and spaceships and detectives. I want to be like those people who write about their time in war, or about fighting for a cause they care about, or about going through the worst experience in their life and never being the same after. I’ve never done any of that. I’ve been safe, fed, and educated for all of my life and I couldn’t be more upset about it. Magazines say “People want to read something truthful and not melodramatic”, but how can I write that when all the truth I know is melodrama?
I woke up late like I always do. I quieted my alarm a few times before finally deciding that today was the day I got something done early. Mom called; Dad was doing fine; I was doing great but needed to work harder anyway. Something bad happened to Maria from work that I was supposed to laugh at. Something good happened to Uncle John, whoever that is, and I was supposed to be angry. Said I love you, goodbye. Then I couldn’t go back to sleep.
I showered, ate, and did everything I could to avoid the one thing I wanted to do more than anything: work. When I was finally bothered by the amount of relaxation I was doing, I sat down at my computer and opened a blank page, knowing that I needed to be in a good mood to start, before I could open my email and a bad one would approach.
I wrote some drivel about magic or whatever, ensuring that my flaws and misgivings about myself stayed far away from the keyboard. No thinking about embarrassment, or failure, or lying to myself about having a job, just the usual drivel. I followed my usual routine of researching names that sound right for characters, making occasional notes if the events got complicated, and using what feels like the right word for a sentence before checking to see if it has the definition I thought it did.
When a good stopping point approached, I opened my messages and read a funny little rejection letter that didn’t bother to tell me if they thought I should add more description to the lighthouse, given that it’s a pivotal location to the protagonist, or if I should kill myself for trying again. I didn’t blame them, though. They were probably very busy.
Leaning back in my chair, I wondered if I should’ve written something more traditional. I could’ve used real experiences from my life and attached them to some character who was slightly different from myself. Maybe that character would’ve felt how I did about my parents, had relationships that failed like mine, worried about money every goddamn day like me, and thrown all of our personal lives under the bus.
I could’ve pretended that I was just a creative person, and the story was ‘inspired by experiences of the author’ and not a particular event or individual. God forbid I added any more magic than pure coincidence, any more violence than what can be seen on the news, or any made-up technology too advanced for the most advanced civilization in history, or else I might create something that people actually enjoy reading.
Finally, with all the room for originality sucked out of it, I would’ve made sure this topic was never done before by another person, living or dead, in the way I did it. I wondered what my rejection letter would’ve said then.