“Is it possible, in this world full of infinite possibilities, in the garden of forking paths, for a student to jot down the correct answers before reading the test?”
Let’s peek inside the House of Words.
The following short discovered its prose after a riveting, frightening chat with a woman; an ambitious, elegant, won’t-allow-me-a-single-word-in-the-conversation spunky señora. I did not obtain what I sought – at least not right away – but the discussion did gift a seed.
I planted the fat, furry nut beneath the keyboard and let my fingertips reap the story. A story an estranged wife appropriated in THE CHROME TRIALS, BOOK 2 of my young adult dark fantasy series CONCEPTION, to craft a letter to her husband:
The tale of her great-grandmother, Joy.
Joy lived in mid-twentieth century Japan. My great-great-grandfather raised her alone: His ‘skinny, awkward girl, beautiful in her own goofy way’. They followed a peaceful, frugal life, sustained by his modest earnings in the radio repair business. It would be ironically over a broken military radio, sixteen-year-old Joy first loved.
He was a soldier no more than seventeen. He came into their wooden electronics shop on orders from his captain, searching for replacement parts for a Type 94-6 transceiver. Joy tended to the counter that humid afternoon. He said “konnichi wa,” and smiled. She said “irasshaimase,” and melted. They conversed alone for fifteen minutes, a short time to fall in love, except in the teenage world, where fifteen lasts a lifetime.
The boy’s departure left Joy drained, saddened, and thirsty. Her days passed wistfully looking out the translucent paper windows, hoping to one day meet the nameless boy again; smile softly at his vivid stories and look into his eyes whenever he looked at hers.
While the boy never returned, his correspondence greeted her one evening. Imagine Joy’s surprise: Military life didn’t allow free time in excess, even less for pen and paper, and in his limited supply, Hiroki had chosen to write her!
In the letter, he spoke to her respectfully, yet with the passion of a man. He talked about teaching her the art of kirigami. About taking long walks across the city’s gardens and napping under the shade of the giant cherry blossom. Joy studied his calligraphy, obsessing over kanji characters, brush strokes and often pausing to inhale the remaining essence of ink and sweat. The girl read that letter over a hundred times a day until her spirit succumbed to the need.
Armed with his name, military address and a water canteen, Joy stole her father’s bicycle and ventured to the city. Forty kilometers separated her rural village from the densely-populated destination, and while the Empire had paved plentiful roads, the majority offered only dirt. Joy didn’t care. She was exultant, energized, and her young body committed every ounce of strength.
Upon arriving at the military outpost, she found a metal bus parked outside the gates. Excitement seized the scene as a dozen families disembarked, bags of rice and chocolate boxes in tow. Joy stopped and smiled. One day, this would be her: Wife to Hiroki; mother of his children. They would conceive twice: Hiroki Jr. and Hiro, both boys named after their father. Together, they would celebrate elaborate picnics in the city’s gardens; lay on the grass and try to guess the curious shapes sculpted in the stratosphere. Their bumbling sons would later sneak away and play while she and Hiroki held hands. Every now and then, he would look at her and smile, then she would smile, and their hands would embrace more firmly.
So vast was her elation when Hiroki walked through the gate that seeing the red-haired woman and child run into his arms threw Joy off her bike.
“Kore wa… nan desu ka?” She asked, confused, as the woman pressed her lips to her man and the little boy climbed his uniformed pants. “Kuso… kuso!” she said cursing, sobbing, hating an energetic Hiroki shower his wife and child with kisses. Joy felt the earth disappear. She tried to stand, shaking, but fell. She tried again, harder, and with a foggy head managed to escape. She mounted the bike and looked back once.
Then, she rode.
She rode on the dirt. She rode on the pavement. She rode over grass, in heat and in rain. For hours she pedaled until the oxygen impaled her chest, numbing the pain.
When the race came to its end, the girl had travelled over eighty kilometers. She bent over, delirious, and heaved, expunging the yellow disease from her stomach. She turned around, realizing she didn’t recognize the landscape, so she dragged her bicycle to the top of a nearby hill covered in hay.
A blinding flash lit the sky. An angry wind buffeted her face. Joy dropped to the ground as the loud rumble of crumbling concrete deafened her ears. Dust and smoke engulfed everything in darkness. The girl scrambled to her knees and crawled to the edge, empty of breath.
The city of Hiroshima burned, and behind a greasy veil of black hair, so did Great-Grandmother’s laughter, empty as well.
When Zelda’s wise man in a cave asks you to ‘Take any one you want’: Pause. Remember Joy and her courage to flee from love. Remember how in that single moment of lucid madness, she saved herself and the lives of her unborn children… so one could fill a bookshelf in my House of Words.
Your journey against hyper-intelligent antagonists, pouty naysayers and those road warriors who illegally pass you on the emergency lane needs more than fists and a piece of paper. Martial arts training and a brooding vigilante complex didn’t make Batman. The tool belt made Batman. If you want to be a writer, a great writer who produces quality prose that commands the World’s attention, get used to the extra weight around your pelvis.
Two years ago, I finished the manuscript for NATURAL SELECTION, BOOK 1 of my young adult dark fantasy series CONCEPTION. I didn’t use any tools. I didn’t study or practice the writing craft. I merely poured my exposition, characters and dialog – my world – into Microsoft Word until the soul offered a firm handshake to the brain and they pranced out into the night to celebrate. The end result? Garbage.
“B-but why, Alvin?” Asked my drunken spirit while the cerebellum prepared the defense’s opening statement. “It had the themes, the emotion; it had the imagery. It painted colorful characters and weaved them into the high-staked story you wanted!”
“The writing, man. The writing sucks,” I said and stormed past the screen door.
NATURAL SELECTION’s first draft – and second and third and tenth – stumbled about with weak verbs on wobbling crutches made of adverbs (e.g. walked slowly instead of sauntered, or walked quickly instead of hurried); lazy descriptions (e.g. the great big mountain vs. the mountain towered); amateur dialog tags (e.g. Joseph said, Mary replied, little Jesus hollered) and my favorite, and by favorite, I mean bang-head-against-wall hellish: enough passive voice to melt action scenes into PowerPoint slides.
Then, I lost my voice.
Protect that precious voice box. The endless task of self-improvement through the torturous realm of editing is coarse. The tools were designed for quality, specifically molding your hands to create what publishers and literary agents consider quality writing. Yet, they have the side effect of making you sound like a drone. If this lasts more than six hours, you should definitely contact your doctor… or an exorcist.
I glanced at the hospital on my way to church but rebelled and hired myself a chemist instead. Together, we brewed the following formula to guide my prose:
- Write whole chapters to your fingertips’ delight. Write and write, unjudged, untested, free words belonging only to the wind and yourself.
- Let your art sit for a day or two, and take plenty of showers to let the shower thoughts run. More so, if lots of good plot points were involved. Plot points, like wet cement, need to set just right.
- Pick up some tools and put your words on the grinder. Shave off those adverbs and correct your pacing. Remove unnecessary filler words (e.g. that, then and just), excessive dialog tags and clichés (no one needs to hear “Forget everything you think you know!” again). And lastly (Gasp, an adverb!): revise overuse of the passive voice.
- Re-read the piece, fix and tweak, until your voice is smeared all over that thing like a buttered-up, Aunt Jemima-oozing, stack of pancakes.
You’ll be exhausted after this and crawl out asking why the hell you write at all; questioning whether it’s worth the trauma to publish professionally. Have a drink, or a chat with a good friend. Remind yourself you write because the world needs your voice.
Yes, yes it does. And pardon the cliché, but it does get better over time. I found my new eyes the best outcome of the grinder and can now produce a higher quality first draft. The tools trained me to recognize the glitches. Some even plague this post (Gasp, again!)
There are no shortcuts here. Write every day, edit every other day. Then band with others who love the same craft. Find one better at it, and learn. Find one worse, and teach. That is the key.
Of them I’ll talk on the next Tools post. Them, wielders of truth. Banner men and women, unafraid to lunge their sword and cut you, but never hesitant to loan their shield. It is of them Zelda’s wise man in the cave spoke when he said:
“It’s dangerous to go alone.”
My father’s spirits walked me across in 1979. The gateway still exists today, buried deep under the sand behind a lemonade stand, crumbling toward time. Humanity received me in an island city named after a Spanish conquistador. Ponce de Leon’s curiosity lingered in the oxygen, propelling my childhood to a life of exploration, experimentation and at the center: A good story.
Racing imaginary friends up the two-story high mango trees in grandma’s backyard. Tinkering with broken electronics laid sprawled on the cement floor. Programming ancient computers in the den while whistling the Back to the Future theme. Hands-on hobbies always reigned at the Chardon House. The media fed us spacefaring 80s, radical and robotic 90s and the occasional fantastical kingdom. Throw in 12 years of old-fashioned Catholic schooling at Academia Santa María and the Republic of Alvin began to crack. To this day, my diplomats still discuss the juxtaposition of Noah and Darwin over plantain chips and rum, stooped over miniature tables and ganglion chairs. I didn’t entirely crack… I think.
University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez admitted me in 1997, a poet still thirsty. Curiosity carried the prose, fueling my imagination with the relentless pursuit of our spiritual Truth inside science. I didn’t find it. El Colegio spit me out a pragmatist, holding two degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and I must confess, algorithms didn’t charm me on the first date.
Don’t pout, Microsoft. Meeting a new craft with denial and disarray is normal. I truly do love my job. I do. The coding gene evolved and this humble simian professionally reviewed two software books in the arts of C# and C++ circa 2007. One New England colleague even screamed I’m wicked pissah at it too. The tech-curious can read about a decade of Microsoft adventures on Linked In.
This blog is about writing.
I wrote a novel, maybe three, to scratch my soul and prove I own the ethereal apparatus. I do not call myself a novelist. Not until NATURAL SELECTION, BOOK 1 of my young adult dark fantasy series CONCEPTION is published. I do indulge the delusion of thinking myself a storyteller.
Stories exist in everything we do. From slurring a pitch to Bill Gates over burgers and wine (and not remembering the topic 10 minutes later); to witnessing your dead great-grandfather, Luis, equip your winter jacket and grab the other shovel. A select few are special. And the special ones carry the gift. For me, realizing mortal life is not always the will of the gods was a hell-of-a gift.
Yes, life’s lemonade tastes bitter, at times downright rancid, but I prefer my citrus concoctions with a pH > 2. I did what great engineers before me did: Fail. And after failure, enjoy a sugary drink, reboot and try again.
I finished that novel. I challenged the gods. And I’ll explain why and how in this,
My House of Words.
For now, I unclench a quote borrowed from my characters to describe the journey:
“I created it… a new World of stolen life, built from your words and mine. Imagined from our dreams and aspirations, crafted with our visions and lack thereof. I made it with light and with darkness, with our children’s smiles and screams and nightmares. I designed it to last, and to not exist at all. And with your unearthly essence, I will power it.”-The Engineer