Thanks for your patience. You may recall that I was attempting to write one short story a week, as recommended by Ray Bradbury, and was posting those stories each Tuesday on this blog.
I was eight stories in, doing just fine. But a funny thing happened on the way to story number nine. I had major surgery to replace my left hip, and my brain was blitzed by opioid painkillers. The fuzz in my head made it impossible to start a new story.
Good news: The logjam has broken. I’ve got a good start on story nine, but it may take a few more days to complete. As soon as it’s ready, I’ll post it, and will add a hyperlink here to guide you to it. Then I’ll try to get back on the regular Tuesday schedule.
“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926
When Your New Favorite Writer began blogging nineteen months ago, his declared purpose was to “cultivate my author platform . . . so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published.”
The blog was an auxiliary to my budding late-life career as a fiction writer. It was supplementary, not central, to my calling as a teller of tales. Therefore I proposed to fill it with ancillary content such as:
“Ruminations on ‘the writer’s life.’
“Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
“Mentions of good books recently read.
“News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
“Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
“Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.
“Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.”
Every Tuesday since then, I’ve been approximately hitting one or more of those targets.
But a funny thing happpened on the way to literary lionhood.
I started to take fiction writing as a serious challenge. The smug conceit that I was just around the corner from stardom wore off in the literary ball mill of submissions and rejections.
What remained was this: A passion to keep on making up stories and pitching them until somebody noticed.
I had completed two novels not yet published in book form. I vowed to take Ray Bradbury’s advice and write a short story every week for a year. (His explanation was: “If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”)
And, Gentle Reader, since you’ve been with me these nineteen months, it seemed churlish not to let you in on the fun part.
So I’ve been posting those stories, in first draft form, for your comments and suggestions. I am serious. Help me out. Let me know what you find appealing and what you find boring or distracting or otherwise off-putting in these stories. We’ll have this fun together.
Which brings us to the next news item: The website has been re-jiggered.
To make it easy to navigate straight to the short stories, or straight to the ancillary content if you prefer, I’ve set up separate tabs on the top menu for Fiction in Progress and Commentary. If you want to see both, mixed in together, just click on Blog.
As an added bonus, I rearranged the other tabs so that the Home Page now introduces what this site is all about, and the About Page has bio notes on me, Your New Favorite Writer.
“The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful.”
—Ray Bradbury, from “Telling the Truth,” the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University, 2001
What a challenge! Your New Favorite Writer is champing, as they say, at the bit. For the next year, I shall endeavor to write one new story each week. Why? Consult George Mallory (R.I.P.) on the joys of mountaineering.
Here’s how you can help this project: The stories I will post here are first drafts. As Bradbury implies, they may not all be perfect. The one quality they will all share is that they have been written down.
So please read them, and let me know what you think. Praise them, pan them, suggest alternative plots or endings, criticize the style. This is a learning exercise for me, Dear Reader—and I hope for you as well. To help you with time management, I have begun posting read times at the head of each blog post. If you don’t have time now, come back for it later when you do have time.
Engage me in dialog by posting a comment below, by posting a comment on my Facebook page, or by emailing me: email@example.com.
Today’s story starts right below my picture. Happy reading!
The bozo who had knocked me sideways was halfway down the grassy embankment, galloping through the Tuesday night crowd at the Washington Park Velodrome.
Right behind him ran my 20-year-old granddaughter. Her face as she zipped by said she was up to her neck in trouble.
Trouble? I knew that girl. Naught but mortal danger would fling her pell-mell across people’s blankets, right through picnics and cuddle sessions, and across the floodlit track, heedless of bike racers sprinting at sixty miles per hour.
My granddaughter? Impossible. At age twenty myself in July 1964, I did sports for KENO-FM, always after the human angle, anything beyond times and speeds. Too busy for girlfriends, not to mention marriage.
How could I have a granddaughter my own age?
No time to think. She chased that nasty-looking leather-clad thug. My inner grandpa could not help it: I plummeted down the bank after them, disrupting carefree cycling fans for the third time in ten seconds.
“SPECTATORS OFF THE TRACK!” bellowed the P.A. announcer as I crossed the banked oval in the paths of two Schwinn Paramounts, which swerved perilously to miss me. On the green infield, a cop gave chase. I jinked to the right behind the red Kenosha Scouts Rescue Squad truck, where my granddaughter had gone, right behind the hoodlum, just seconds before.
Plunged into the truck’s half-shadow, I stopped cold. Where had they gone?
Pinpoint sparkles, shimmering in mid-air, formed a bead curtain of the beatnik variety. I dove through it.
Crowd noise vanished. Dusk became night—not gradually, as is customary, but all at once. I lay on damp grass, knees and hips aching. Had I hurt myself?
The joints screeched as I pushed off the grass to stand up. My hands looked funny, too, even in the dark. The floodlights atop their tall poles had gone out. No crowd sat on the embankment. The Boy Scout rescue truck, all the cyclists, bikes, and spare wheels, all the coaches and helpers were gone from the infield, too.
Tuesday night had vanished.
I stood dizzy and gasping. What’s wrong with me? I felt the urge to punch something. I clenched my fists but stopped when my stiff knuckles complained. Just then a bright beam struck my eyes.
“Gramps!” I’d know that sweet voice anywhere. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”
I splayed my hands in front of my face. In stark silhoutte, the fingers looked bumpy and twisted.
The dazzling light went away. I squinted towards the vector of her voice.
She called, “It’s me, Gramps. Kaitlyn. I’m over here.”
Kaitlyn? What kind of name was that?
I spotted her near the picnic shelter, fifty feet away. She waved her light above her head. I staggered towatds her. Why can’t I walk right?
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You’re not supposed to be, that is . . . .” What do you say to someone who can’t exist, yet whom you love like life itself? Yet even her name eludes you? Mister Hot-shot Radio Guy was fresh out of glib.
She took my hand. Her other hand touched my shoulder. “Are you all right, old-timer?”
“Old-timer? Who, me? Well . . . I don’t know.”
“Oh!” she cried, pure concern on her winsome face. “How can I help?”
“Look. I need answers. Like, what happened to that hood you chased? If you ask me, he’s not your type.”
“You’re confused. He wasn’t wearing a hoodie.”
Hoodie? “Not wearing a hood!” I snapped. “He is a hood. Come on, don’t play dumb. Let me in on the gag.”
“There’s no gag, Gramps. Did you see where he went?”
I sighed. “No.”
“And why are you here all by yourself on a Monday night?”
“Monday? It’s Tuesday.” I saw she didn’t believe me. “At least, it started out Tuesday.” She looked askance. “And why did you chase that hooligan?”
“Hood, slimeball, thug—”
“Just protecting and serving, Gramps.”
The murk in my mind turned muddy. “What are you talking about, girl?”
“Didn’t Mom tell you about my new job?” She held up a slim rectangle of metal and glass. Tiny colored lights glowed on its face. She tapped it with her finger, and a shiny gold shield appeared on a field of white. “Kaitlyn Caruso,” she announced, “Special Agent, Temporal Fugitive Warrants Division.”
That dumbfounded me.
She tried to ease my befuddlement. “Think of me as a time ranger. A skip tracer on the Space-Time Continuum. My job is to nab felons who abscond from the twenty-first century.”
Twenty-first, did she say? “But, what happened to—”
“Guys like Jared Quickshift, for example. That creep you saw me pursuing. I had just collared him in 1964, but he slipped away and jumped back to now. He should be around here somewhere.” She swiveled her head, on the alert.
“Jared, Gramps. Although come to think of it, Jason applies. He’s on a quest for the Golden Fleece.”
“I knew it. What’s his game?”
“The warrant says intellectual property theft.”
I waggled my brow. “Isn’t that like trademark infringement? He looked like a more violent type.”
“He’s dangerous all right. That’s why I go armed.” She pointed to a holster on her hip.
She winked. “He can’t have gotten far, though. Stand back.”
Two doors stood side-by-side in the pavilion’s back wall. She stationed herself smack dab between them, about ten feet off, and drew her weapon. “Police, Jared! We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up, or we’re coming in.” She leveled her weapon.
What did she mean, “we”? I hoped she would not tap me as a reinforcement. I felt weak and vulnerable.
After a tense silence, the door marked WOMEN banged open. The creep in the leather jacket burst out. He sprang sideways.
Kaitlyn twisted, her weapon on the criminal. “Halt!”
He didn’t halt.
A Pop!, like champagne being uncorked. Jason Nogoodnik sprawled on the concrete floor of the pavilion. He howled and wiggled in uncoordinated spasms.
Kaitlyn leapt on him, handcuffed him, looked up at me, and smiled.
I approached with caution. “Is he dead?”
She laughed. “Naw, he just wishes he were. Look here.” She whipped out her steel-and-glass rectangle and tapped one of the lighted squares. A bright beam leapt out from the tip of the thing. She aimed it at the crook’s head.
“Pretty good shot,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I had to find an unprotected area.” She pulled two small darts from the back of his neck. “These might have just bounced off his leather jacket.”
“What kind of a gun is that?”
“Called a taser. Less-than-lethal takedown option.”
The man lolled helpless on the floor of the park shelter. I guess it took him down, all right.
Kaitlyn delved in his leathery pocket and drew out a black metal tube half a foot long, with a bulge at one end. “Here’s what it’s all about, Gramps.” She twisted the thing and light sprang forth. A further twist focused the beam to a spot on Jared’s face. “It’s a Mini-Maglite. He hoped to smuggle this into 1964, for reverse engineering by pirates. He stood to make a bundle.”
“I’ve never seen a flashlight like that.”
“No? They’ve been around since 1984. Mom always says you’re not very observant.”
“1984? How can that be?”
“I don’t know, Gramps. Look, here’s the point. What if this creep had pre-introduced this invention twenty years before its time? Think how that could twist up Space-Time. It’s lucky I managed to chase him back to now.”
I shook my head to try to clear the cobwebs. “I don’t understand.”
“Suppose some ’sixties car mechanic makes a quick repair out on I-94 on a snowy night because he’s got a flashlight small enough to hold in his mouth while he tapes two wires together. Otherwise he would have had to tow it in, the customer might have been late for his sales call the next morning, and—”
“It might have changed the course of events.”
“Bingo.” She nodded emphatically. “But we’ve got Jared and the Maglite, right back here in 2021, where they belong. So, no harm done.”
Suddenly, it all came clear to me.
Well, no. It was half clear to me.
I held up my hands in a gesture of supplication. “Let me just get one thing straight. You followed this bozo from 2021 to 1964 to apprehend him?”
“And now you’ve brought him back to 2021.”
She nodded. “So?”
“So, how do you do that?”
“Do what, Gramps?”
“Travel from one time to another.”
She snorted and jerked her head towards her prisoner, who now sat upright. “Guys like him figured it out before we did. The crooks are always a step ahead of the law, you know.”
“It was ever thus. But do go on.”
“Who knows how much damage they did to the future—that is, the present—before we caught on? We’ll never have any idea. However, we now know there are special places where time-holes open up for brief periods. You can just step through from one time to another.”
“Velodromes, to be precise.”
“Bike tracks. Like Washington Bowl.”
She smiled as she hoisted the now-docile Jared to his feet. “But only on Tuesday nights in the summer.”
“Something about a certain mass of chromium-molybdenum alloy—such as custom racing bike frames—orbiting a given spot at high speed. Sorry, I’m no scientist.”
“Ahh.” Neither was I a scientist, yet who can resist chromium-molybdenum alloys?
“So I left 2021 six days ago—last Tuesday night. I tracked Jared down right away, got the drop on him, and stashed him in a safe house off Sheridan Road until Tuesday night. As we crossed Washington Road on our way to the velodrome, he got away from me in the crowd, ran across the track, and jumped back into 2021. With me right on his tail, naturally.”
“All in a day’s work. What knocked me sideways was finding you here in the middle of the chase. You still haven’t told me what brought you here on this particular night.”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“If you don’t want to say, that’s all right. But my prowl car’s just over on Eighteenth Avenue, where I left it six days ago. Let me drive you home so you can get some rest.”
“Nothing doing, you young whippersnapper.”
“Gramps, what’s the matter with you?”
“I’m fifty-seven years too old, that’s what!”
She made a face as if I spoke gibberish.
“Listen,” I explained. “I started this night on Tuesday, July 21, 1964, but somehow ended up here, in the Buck Rogers era. It’s aged me some.” I held up gnarled, shaky hands.
“Who’s Buck Rogers?”
“Look him up in your Funk and Wagnall’s. The point is, to get home I’ve got to go through that curtain thingy backwards.”
Jason the Hoodlum spoke up. “He’s right, Madame Copper. You gotta send him back to the Sixties. Me too.” He gave a massive heave, to wrest himself out of her grip. She was too strong, too fast, too smart. Put him in a painful hold and knelt him back on the ground again. That’s my girl.
“Shut up, you.” She turned to me. “Gramps, what you say is impossible. No one can go forward in time, to the future. It doesn’t work that way.”
“How can you say that? You and Jason just did it.”
“No, we didn’t. We used something called Nerdleman’s Law to go from the present to the past. Then we used Axenberg’s Corollary to Nerdleman’s Law to return to our original time frame, that’s all.”
“Yes, and I came along, right behind you.”
She looked exasperated. “If you had, that would shatter our whole model of Space-Time. You’d be a resident of 1964 going into the future. That’s impossible, just as it would be impossible for Jared and me to step into, let’s say, the twenty-fifth centiury.”
“Because that’s our future, just as—if you were a 1964 person—now would be your future, a place you can’t get to except by the normal passage of time. Don’t you see?”
I filled my gaze with her gorgeous, red-headed earnestness. “Like all children, you’re cute as a button when you know you’re right despite the fact you’re wrong.” She glared at me. “I tell you, I dove—dived—dove right through that shimmering curtain of light behind the Scouts’ rescue truck.”
For the first time, her face showed doubt. She frowned at Jason, still on his knees, in her grip. He made a “How would I know?” shrug.
A brilliant thought came to me. “Listen, Catherine—”
“Ah—Kaitlyn—yes. Now, listen. If I’m right, your grandpa will be found alive and well here in 2021 Kenosha—but not in the form of me standing here in Washington Park.”
“You’re saying you’re a duplicate?”
I huffed in annoyance. “I’m saying, I’m twenty years old and I belong in 1964.”
She frowned. Jason, restive in her firm grasp, looked up at me in wonder.
“Here’s how you can prove it. Let’s lock Jason here in your squad car nice and snug. Then let’s go find a phone booth. Call your grandpa. If he answers, I promise it’s not me playing Señor Wences.” I dug in my pocket with shaky, withered hands. “A 1964 dime still work in a 2021 phone booth?”
She gave me a strange look, then sighed. “Okay, you win.”
She shoved Jason all the way to the ground and stood on his neck. Then she whipped out her strange little rectangle, touched a bright patch, then another one. She held the gizmo up to her ear. A sound like a telephone’s buzz was followed by a tinny little voice.
“Gramps?” Her and her eyes went wide. “Where are you?”
Silly question. He answered his phone. He must be at home.
After another string of tinny voice gibberish came out of the thing, Kaitlyn said, “I see. Okay, just checking. Sorry I disturbed you. Don’t lose too much.” She touched the rectangle again and the sound went dead.
I gloated. “See? You found him at home.”
“No. He was at a friend’s house, where he plays poker.”
A poker-playing friend? It had to be. “Lumpy Bernacchi? He still alive?”
Her jaw dropped. She nodded warily.
“See? That proves I’m him. He’s just not me. Not yet, anyhow. I belong back in the Sizzling Sixties.” I turned to go back the way I had come.
“Where you going, Gramps?”
“Back to the time curtain.”
“You won’t find it. It’s Monday night. No bikes.”
I looked back toward the track. Of course. She was right. I scanned the dark, silent velodrome. No spinning molybdenum in sight.
Kaitlyn pledged me to secrecy, so I can’t tell you the details. She found a place where I could stay, in reasonable comfort, in complete isolation from all the denizens of 2021—including my old friend Lumpy and my own adult daughter, whom I’ve never seen—for six days, until the next Tuesday night bike races. Then she spirited me over to the infield on a special police pass.
Now, I’m back in my own timestream.
When I first came back, I spent a long while confused. But now that I’ve had almost a year to mull it over, my dilemma has resolved itself.
I’m now convinced Axenberg and Nerdleman got it right. Known facts to the contrary notwithstanding, I could not have paid a visit to the year 2021. My real presence in 2021 would extinguish whatever future I have here in 1965. The only way I can possibly get to the twenty-first century is the old-fashioned way: Clean living and good luck.
My granddaughter’s phone call to my septuagenarian self cuts no ice. I won’t believe I live in 2021 until I actually do. Anyway, how could they have phones like that?
Right now I’m going to listen to the radio broadcast of the Liston-Clay rematch from Lewiston, Maine. I’ll have to break it off to go to the Tuesday night bike races, unless the fight goes short. Who knows? Maybe this time Sonny will flatten him in five.
OUTLINERS figure out what the story is, then write it.
PANTSERS are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants” and get surprised by their stories.
Which one are you? Or, which would you be, if you were a writer?
I have always been an Outliner. Now, however, I’m changing my tune, and it scares me to death.
The Haven of Preparedness
Outlining may be considered a premeditated act. An Outliner commits Fiction in the First Degree.
This approach has a lot to recommend it. Once you have the whole plot engineered in outline form, you know where you are going. All that remains is to render it in prose.
But the way I personally think of it is: I must do the hard part first, the part I don’t like one bit, the part that intimidates me, which is making up the story.
Inventing plot twists, character actions, and dramatic events is like having all my teeth drilled and filled, one by one, and then extracted, without benefit of Novocain. That’s why I prefer to take refuge in historical novels. The main events have already happened and are known. All I need to invent is a few details. Even that seemingly small effort can leave me wounded and edentulous.
Writing prose, on the other hand—with its delicious prospect of future revision, and further revision; polishing, and then polishing the polishing—is a pleasant gambol in Elysian fields. Given any encouragement at all, I could spend the rest of my life merrily revising a single chapter.
The problem is, people want a story. People consume stories wholesale. People hunger for story. And The Magic of Story is the reason I got into this game in the first place.
I was seventy years old then. In the five years since, I have learned a lot about writing. Mostly about the technique of writing. About craft. About marketing.
But the most important thing I’ve learned is that a story is more than the words by which it is told. It’s more than the plot turns along the way. A story is the verisimilitude of a live person’s meeting and overcoming—or perhaps succumbing to—challenges that are interesting and exciting. A story is the telling, or the showing, of “life as she is lived.”
To bring a story to life by draping a string of phrases over an outline is a highly artificial skill. Only a few people can do it well, like an actor bringing a character to life on stage by sheer technique. For what I’m trying to write now, that just won’t do.
I must become a method actor.
Izzy—or izzn’t he?
A few years ago, I wrote some light-hearted short stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I was thrilled when three of them were e-published by The Saturday Evening Post. (You can read them here, here, and here.)
These Izzy stories replicate my own boyhood. Every detail comes straight from personal experience, with minor re-arrangements to enhance the drama.
Now, I am starting a book about Izzy Mahler. It’s not a collection of Izzy short stories but a full, front-to-back novel aimed at young people, starring an Izzy slightly older than the one who appears in the Saturday Evening Post stories.
The story this novel tells will have a bit more substance. I could never write anything really dark; but growing up in the 1950s was not all Leave It to Beaver. Kids had problems to face.
I started by outlining a plot for this book. It took a great deal of mulling over, but ultimately it went well: I emerged with a real spiffy outline. Then I started to write the text, based on my outline. I got seven chapters in before noticing that, although the writing was going very well, the book was going astray. The story was going off the rails by staying true to the outline.
There was no spontaneity to it. No real voyage of discovery for Izzy Mahler.
I had made a rookie error. I mistook my protagonist for myself.
If Izzy is merely a smudged copy of me, his saga will be a failure. My actual boyhood served me well enough, but it was not the stuff of stories. Whatever unhappiness I owned, whatever traumas in my upbringing, they cannot be cured by rehashing old grudges or inchoate yearnings on paper. That is not fiction, it is whining.
What is needed, if the past is to have meaning for the future, is an imaginative restaging, starring a better and more interesting person than me. That would be Izzy, you see. But this improved Izzy will not take pleasing shape from an outline. Izzy needs to be a true protagonist. He must burst forth from his circumstances and shove the story rudely in its ultimate direction.
In this account of things, Izzy is someone who flies by the seat of his pants. To capture him alive, I must follow his example.
Someone told me:
“The protagonist must protag.”
Don’t waste your time looking up “protag” in your Funk & Wagnall’s. No such word appears. It’s just a writer’s in-joke, meaning that for a book to enthrall readers, big things must happen; and the central character must be the one who makes them happen.
If I have a main fault as a writer, it’s that my characters are too much like me: Timid, passive, inert. Lord, preserve my little hero Izzy from such a fate. But Izzy will only seize his destiny if I grasp the nettle and make him strong where I am weak.
That is why Pantsers are always saying things like, “I thought it was a story about lust and betrayal, but then my hero took it in a whole different direction.”
All I can do is put Izzy on paper and confront him with challenges that he must address. Just fly by the seat of my pants, and hope the story will be worth reading.
But right now, in the moment of doing, it feels like I’m riding the world’s tallest roller-coaster. My carriage, on the top level, has just tilted sharply downward and started its plunge.