Writing Exercise – Smashionary

I have been preparing for a couple of upcoming workshop-style betas for my writing courses, and so for today I’m going to share one exercise that isn’t going to make it into those presentations, Smashionary. This is a very simple writing exercise but it does require either a dictionary, vocabulary book, or one of many online random word generators. Here is how it works:

Pick out two random words, and smash them together. That is now the title of the short story you are writing. Like many of the exercises I recommend, I don’t suggest a lot of prewriting—just start writing the first thing to come into your head and keep going for at least ten minutes. If you wind up writing a whole, complete story that’s great, but if you wander off or get lost or wind up only with notes or di Since the words are highly variable, you might be able to really learn what a new or unfamiliar word is through this sort of application which also trains creative thinking.

Here are a few mash-ups if you are eager to get started right now:
Hospital + Spike: Hospike or Spikpital
Boots + Garden: Bogarden or Gardoots
Sign + Sylvan: Sylvign or Sigvan
Hobby + University: Hobbiversity or Univobby

As you can see, they tend to seem quite silly and some naturally glide together while others are more awkward. The title is meant to help stir your mind like a cauldron and get you thinking. Here is where my mind went with the above examples:
– Spikpital: A grim detective story about a small Yankee forest town that hasn’t advanced its medical practices in a century…
– Gardoots: Some sort of small, troublesome creature called a Gardoot. I think I would start writing about the trouble they cause, and then try figuring out what they actually are.
– Sylvign: This title smells like high fantasy and mysterious forests, and makes me think of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth or the hero Sigmund and his dragon.
– Hobbiversity: A social critique or pundit’s scrawl about some sort of universal hobby, some craze that has taken over and is everywhere for the protagonist to struggle against and then at the end another new craze starts up. Maybe something out of the ordinary, like a teacher or a garbage collector is the main character.

It’s an exercise, not a competition or a novel so don’t get too invested and just practice letting the words flow out. Trust me, even if you are at square one with story talent or expression you will develop a good, natural feel as well as a personal style just through practicing, and having a judgment-free time to just practice is awesome for strengthening the skill when you really need to summon it up.

This and many, many other exercises will be in the fully finished course Practice Writing Through Short Stories when it releases, when you can find out why writing short story is the best way to practice all different forms of writing: creative, personal, professional, and persuasive alike!

For today, I rolled up “prevention” (the act of preventing) and “revenant”, and here is

    Prevenant

:

Martin’s ancient frown lines deepened as he looked down into the town square. “It’s been two days and they still are afraid to cut him down. That mob milling about truly is mad with grief.” He turned back and let the velvet curtain fall back, trading the harsh bleak winter light for the softer candelabras that lit his companion’s face as the thin young man shoveled forkfuls of chicken into his mouth.
“Mrf.” He dabbed his face and swallowed twice in quick succession and caught up his silver goblet. “Well father, the celebration of the heir’s birth was only four days ago. He was clearly a monster; probably hired by those meddlesome Ahesna. I’m just surprised his Majesty had him executed so quickly instead of finding out who sent him.”
“That is what concerns me most of all. The King is mad himself; he hasn’t slept since, just sitting and staring out a window or up and pacing as he dictates commands and letters.” The man’s ringed fingers absently found a pastry and he chewed reflectively. “What a misery. To celebrate the long-sought birth of a son—mother and infant both healthy as can be— and then an assassin steals in without subtlety and cuts your dreams to pieces. To think he climbed up the outside wall all that way up to the tower! It is outrageous. Inhuman.”
“They are sure that’s true, then? All the talk among the caravans were that it was an inside job, that some traitor let him inside.” The boy resumed his rapid, quiet repast.
“They are. His boots had a sort of spike on them, and the damage to the mortar is still visible.” Martin walked to his desk and picked up a book. “Here, though. For your birthday, so you can continue some of your studies while you are in the field.” The response was another muffled sound as the boy half-stood, magnetized by the food in the face of his attempts at courtesy. “God save you Thomas, do they not feed you?” Thomas looked ashamed, finally swallowing his mouthful. His father waved him to sit, allowing the book a place on the corner of the table.
“Ker-heh… When we heard the news, we rode straight through and changed horses. We stopped once at an inn yesterday morning where I talked a bit with the patrons, but that was the last I’ve had.”
“Mmm. Your horsemanship must have finally improved then! Your captain made a good choice to get back here. There’s been no more trouble, but still the situation is tenuous. That many peasants and all the emotions…”
“The queen was from just next door, raised in Epereims. How many of the rabble are from there?”
“Many. My fear is that someone will start a riot by attacking one of the foreigners, and more pain and blood will soak this woeful chapter in the King’s life.” The doctor checked the window again, pushing the curtain aside. “Still, hurry and eat. I expect to be summoned back soon.” The minutes passed in sober quietude, the small scrapes of cutlery punctuating the worried thoughts that brooded with the men. As the small feast was becoming fully picked-over, a knock brought the expected summons and the two gathered themselves and hurried to the guarded staircase leading up to the royal apartments.
The King slouched, bloodshot eyes vacantly scanning the still-bloody bed of his former Queen, a disheveled man brought low with sorrow. The doctor entered quietly and stood at a respectful distance. His son eyed the window suspiciously, clearly considering something as the regent sluggishly reacted. “Ah, Martin. And Thomas too! Lad, your father here is a dear friend and he will be pleased to hear that we acknowledge the wisdom of his insistence that I take my rest and some food. But there are yet two things to be done, then I can rest easy.” The lord swayed to his feet, some coals roaring to blaze again in his eyes. “Thomas, run down and tell your captain that he is to take his men to the square to assist Aster in finally cutting that body down. Disperse the mob and bury the body in secret somewhere lest we be tempted do un-Christian things to it. It is time for this day to end for– for us.”
As the lad shot away like a rabbit before a hound, the renewed eyes focused on Martin’s face. “Old friend, go with them. Find something about this man, so we may take our vengeance on whoever sent him. You know the great struggle we have had for an heir, and you yourself said that I may not live to see another; at least let us damn the one who have stolen our peace.”
“Could your gaolers not uncover anything?”
“Not a peep. They told me that fired irons and calipers and knives alike he simply ignored. They cut him and burned and questioned him but he was as unresponsive as when the guards took him from this room. You saw how he was.”
Martin ran his tongue over his teeth. “Like a brined fish, but breathing. I will do all I can think of, your Majesty.”
The march to the square was tense, and Martin uttered many a prayer even after they arrived and the surly, angry crowds slowly trickled out of the square, away from the ordonnance’s imposing weapons and the implied threat. All went peaceably, and the relieved and eager headsman looked to Martin for permission to cut the man down. The approval given, he examined the body right there on the platform, rolling out his tools and jars from his sack with his son’s practiced help. The Captain kept the privilege of gawking to himself, directing his soldiers to their task of keeping prying eyes discouraged and the true casket of the several they had brought concealed.
When night fell several hours later, the frigid autopsy had brought no answers. Martin had found nothing that would point conclusively in any direction—even the slivered shards within an old scar he had pored over and cleaned and set to jingling in a phial could only tell the quality of his assailant’s weapon, and these were so black from degradation that there was little hope left. The coins from the man’s purse, a mixed bag of copper from several nearby nations; his clothing, homespun; his body scarred like any sort of mercenary, though muscled like a true lion lithe and hard; a plain face that could be from anywhere. “The perfect assassin.” He finally stood. “Well, let us load the body to its eternal rest.”
The soldiers dispersed, weighted sacks keeping the knowledge of the true resting place from all but the Captain and the two surgeons though only the soldiers knew where in the countryside the grave would be dug. On their return, the cloud of disappointment returned to the King, though with rest and food he began again handling the affairs of state that lurked to cheapen his misery. The matter seemed concluded, until a week later a knock at Martin’s door as he was taking his evening revived the old corpse:
“Good evening, doctor.” The foreign nobleman was short and plump, immaculately dressed with dominant, dark eyebrows and pearly. “The servants suggested I visit at this hour, quietly, and escorted me here.”
Martin lowered his Etalan glasses and set his book down. “Very good of them, I’m sure, but to what do I owe the pleasure? You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid.”
“I am Doctor Brukowa. I served a lesser lord far to the East for my whole life until three months ago when he died tragically. I have come because there was a similar assassination here recently, on the path I have taken trailing my lord’s killer. May I come in?”
“Yes, yes of course…” The old man waved toward a chair. “Forgive me, I was not prepared to receive a guest.”
“Oh, I am grateful enough to overlook any of the typical niceties. I would prefer to be brief and to the point.” He withdrew a sizable scroll from his sleeve, tied with a purple ribbon. “This is a sketch of the man I seek.”
“It looks much like him.” The sketch was a masterpiece, and the pale fingers of his guest obscured a strange mark on the corner of the paper that made his skin crawl…
“Then my search is over. I have only to visit the grave and see that he is buried and I may return home!” The man rose, exultant as he rolled the scroll up again.
“That will be some difficulty. The King ordered him buried in secret, somewhere out in the countryside near the city.” Martin smiled ruefully, politely resisting an urge to take his goblet and throw back the rest of the wine.
“Ah.” The man sank down again. “That does make it more difficult. But you are sure the man was killed?”
“I investigated his corpse, at the King’s order, to see if I could find anything that would point to his employer.” The visitor’s eyebrows quirked, and Martin shook his head. “Fortune did not smile on me that day.”
“Nor me on this night…” The man chuckled and rose. “Well, I thank you for your help.”
Martin was left in silence after his visitor left. He was unable to return comfortably to his book and wine; was it his guest’s suddenness? No. He knew it, from a chance encounter in the far-off mists of his younger years. The symbol was one of sorcery, dark and forbidden yet somehow fitting for a dogged pursuit of a skilled assassin… He scratched his beard, reaching for his wine.
Outside the castle, a wisp of cloud slipped from a window on an upper floor and slithered along until it paused between the fortress and the town beneath a tree to form a pudgy man with a faint yellow glow and whiff of sulfur. He withdrew the scroll from his robe once again, placed his finger on the dark rune in the corner and spoke an oily word. The ink slid and coiled, reforming to a map of the surrounding area which he studied for a moment. He swore under his breath, and withdrew a short knife of black iron to place the broken-off tip onto the vellum. He looked expectant, then confused.
In Martin’s satchel, the phial with the metal shards made a tinkling noise.

Book Review: The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead

Another excellent review from Matthew that is timely, if you have a graduate who is looking to make his way into the wide world. This work is decidedly aimed at a younger audience. Enjoy!

“You are in or near your twenties. You are intelligent. It’s not essential that you have a college degree, but you probably do … To put it another way, you are me long ago. For better or worse, I am giving you the same advice I would give to that vanished person.”
– Charles Murray (The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, p 12-13)

As many up-and-coming adults will attest the working world differs from expectations set in the college and university. They set out with the hope of finding and obtaining the perfect job after receiving their diploma only to being shocked by the existence of dress codes and “employee handbooks.” In short, many of my peers find themselves floundering in an environment for which they felt well prepared.

There are of course exceptions. A friend of mine works for his dad. Historically speaking this is a very natural progression and has not yet been entirely removed from the norm. Even so, in these times the higher expectation of responsibility is often an unexpected hurdle. In contrast, another of my friends have known they wanted to be a dentist since they were 8 and have pursued that path relentlessly.

For the rest of us who are barely initiated in the ways of “adulting” (read, “personal responsibility and discipline”) we find the challenge of managing bills, debt, income, insurance, taxes etcetera daunting and sometimes overwhelming. Add to the mix a serious relationship or thinking about one’s own faith critically for the first time and you find someone doing an impression of a confused and gasping toad flopping on the bank of the river wildly exclaiming: “You don’t understand, that fish was twice as big as I am and it tried to eat me!”

Enter Charles Murray, who is old enough to be your parent or grandparent but since he’s not them you might actually listen to him. Aside from proudly identifying as a curmudgeon, Murray is a political scientist and has authored and co-authored numerous articles and books. Some of his works have received national attention for sparking controversy. Whatever your view of his research, The Curmudgeon’s Guide offers to assist you in your pursuit of building your personal and professional life.

Allow me to recommend the book by taking a quick look at the table of contents: Under the chapter heading “On the Presentation of Self in the Workplace” Murray has broken the book into several short sections. Here are three: “On the proper use of strong language”, “Office emails are not texts to friends” and my favorite, “What to do if you have a bad boss”. I found these sections enlightening, engaging, and surprisingly wise.
As one who chooses to not engage in wholesale cussing I took some convincing that there could be anything good to say about the subject. However, when you consider the context of business conversations, the issue is not so much whether you use expletives but whether you are communicating clearly—The overuse of profanity can cloud your intended meaning and undermine your legitimacy just as much as blustering and sputtering like a spotless teakettle endeavoring to communicate frustration without a vocabulary. My take away was this: Getting the point across requires well thought out and crafted speech. Orator, consider your audience.

Earlier I stated that “What to do if you have a bad boss” was my favorite section. Summarizing it simply will not do it justice and consequently I will simply introduce it and encourage you to read it for yourself. “You’ve been working at your new job for six months, let’s say, and you’re so unhappy with your supervisor that you’re considering quitting. Here’s what you need to think through: Exactly what is bothering you?”(p 37) Murray springs from this introduction into many different situations and has very savvy advice for the young professional in each instance.

The remaining chapters contain advice and guidance on “Thinking and Writing Well”, “The Formation of Who You Are”, and “The Pursuit of Happiness.” In the writing section you will find the ever-poignant advice (even if you’re not a writer) “Don’t wait for the muse.” An excerpt:

The last of my tips about writing is simple and absolute: Don’t wait until you feel like it. Find out what time of day you write best and develop a routine that puts you in front of your keyboard and screen at whatever time that might be.

I will close this review by noting that the section on developing your unique identity contains, arguably, the most helpful advice for a young person—among these the section titled “Being judgmental is good, and you don’t have a choice anyway.”

“Try hard. Be true. Enjoy. Godspeed.”
– Charles Murray (The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, p 142)

The Wild Hunt

Bonus little short story for you to enjoy today. I decided to practice some dialogue since I haven’t written much in a while, and threw in some mythology I was looking at on a whimsy—Krampus and elves!. I put it in the superhero genre, which I have zero emotional attachment to thus leaving me free to simply write. Didn’t turn out great, but I’m happy with the practice; C+ as an exercise for me personally—the ideas just wanted to keep expanding, I did not go into the exercise clear what perspective I wanted to write from which led to a neat blend that was sloppy, and I didn’t do much world-building in the prewriting moments, so it lost a lot of points as a short story and reads more like a chapter from a larger work.

Leave a comment if you liked or were curious about one particular bit over another—maybe I’ll do a follow-up!

“The Wild Hunt is coming.” The officer at the desk jumped with a decidedly unprofessional yelp. She blinked and straightened in her chair: The man who had appeared on the other side of the security glass was small, quiet, and wore a blank expression on his Asiatic face. As she opened her mouth to speak his quick, low, gently-accented voice cut through: “The Cavalcade is coming. I must speak with the chief of police immediately.”
“Sir, it is past midnight and the chief of police went home hours ago. I–”
“He is here. Without informing him, it is certain that everyone in this building will die in three hours and seventeen minutes.” The man leaned forward slightly. “I am doing this as charity. I have no concern for my own safety. Please understand.”
She sat back and watched as he walked calmly and silently to one of the chairs, waved his hand in a circle over it, and sat. His flattened affect and silent motion unnerved her, but he hadn’t done anything wrong. Technically, what he said wasn’t even a threat either. Delusional? Mental break that happened to come with serious, catlike grace? He appeared unarmed.
She tapped the mute filter on the glass, and pushed her radio’s transmit button. “Front desk to Admin. Cap, is the chief here?”
“Why do you ask?” The sound was scratchy, and she pursed her lips to help her frame her next statement.
“I have a…concerned citizen talking about serious danger to the city, saying he needs to speak to the chief as soon as possible. Also says the chief is definitely here right now, and the section of the wall he waved his hand over is now glowing in blue letters.”
“One sec, I’ll be right there.” Sure enough he was, and her supervisor looked through the glass. The man was placid, eyes closed and hands resting on his thighs like a zen master. His khaki business suit was wrinkled only a little.
“Interesting fellow.”
“Tell me about it, he just ghosted in and surprised me.”
“Oh, he’s powered. Look.” The Captain pointed at the man. “No water on his shoes or jacket, no moisture. It has rained for the last three hours, front walk is soaked. No wet footprints on the carpet either from him. Even without the glowing lightshow there, this one makes me nervous.”
“So do we get the chief out of bed?”
“What did our guest tell you, again?” The captain sipped his coffee and leaned back against the cabinet.
“He mentioned the Wild Hunt. I think he called it the Cavalcade?”
“And that means nothing to you?” The Captain studied her face. She shook her head, a feeling of dread rising. “How about the Night Knights? You heard of them?”
“Oh God, are you serious? That’s what he’s talking about? Are they coming here?”
“Above my pay grade and out of my control. I already informed the chief though, he was just going into a meeting in the basement when you radioed.” Another sip of coffee, and the Captain tapped the glass controls again. “Sumimasen. Sir, the Chief will be available shortly. Are you ready to come into a meeting room now?”
The strange man’s eyes opened, and he rose and replaced his glasses with a precise speed. Pausing only to wave his hand once more over the glowing letters on the floor and wall, he quick-stepped to the door.
“Guess that means yes.” The Captain whispered to her as he moved toward the entry point.
Captain Hargrave was a man of some wisdom, and had worn a badge since before the powereds began to Awaken. He knew better than to piss off a powered man of unknown but polite disposition—a foreign one at that—and if one of them thought walking in and announcing his intention was the easiest way to off the Chief, well, he couldn’t be so powerful that the City’s Finest couldn’t handle him. Hargrave’s stolid disposition and unflappable nature kept the thought that a more powerful freak would just waltz in and kill whoever he wanted dead from interfering with his thought process. He slid his card into the door, and cycled it open.
“This way, sir. My name is Captain Hargrave. May I get you something to drink while you wait?” Hargrave led at a brisk walk down the bleak corridor, and the man followed close behind.
“Coffee, black. I have traveled a long way to find this opportunity to protect people, but ultimately it would not make me feel bad if I have to wait long. I will not be here when the Cavalcade comes, but you and your city will be Captain Hargrave. I assure you that you are only wasting your time with such pleasantnesses.” They arrived and Hargrave opened the door to usher the visitor inside and then returning with the coffee. The man was sitting just as he had in the lobby, runes glowering around him. When the coffee was set before him he came to life again, tilting his chin up. “By this time tomorrow, this city will likely be unrecognizable. Still, I am grateful for the offered drink. It is very civilized of you.”
“I am a public servant. Our guests must be served. Careful, the coffee’s hot.”
Hai. I understand service, though this is the first time in my life I have been a part of it.” The man gulped down half the cup in a moment, unbothered, and Hargrave began to sweat; he sucked a tooth, then:
“Does your recent service involve the opportunity to warn us of the Night Knights tonight?” A nod. “Who do you work for? The government?”
“Ah, no. I apologize for the implication.” The man downed the rest of the coffee in a second gulp. “You may call me the Writer. I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life pursuing my own goals, and have voluntarily decided to spend the next several in service to others. This is the first time I have been in the way of something truly horrific with the means to stop it from happening. It is the sort of opportunity I first imagined, but they are fortunately rare.” He smiled, the humanity remaining razor-sharp, as though any emotions were a practiced mask.
The door opened, and the Chief walked in past the Captain and plunked himself in the seat, blowing like a steamship. “Well,” he wheezed, “I am Edgar Simms, Chief of Police, and I hope you have something worth postponing a meeting that was already at an inconvenient time and hustling up two flights of stairs.”
“Chief, this is the Writer. He believes the city will be attacked by the Night Knights in less than three hours.”
“No, Captain. Three hours and two minutes from now they will begin.” The Japanese man bowed his head slightly. “Forgive me, Mister Simms, but if you would like to save the city or at least spare what you can, it would be best that you run back down the stairs and bring the Ad Astra for me to brief. Grimm and Pinocchio should be sent to collect those you referred to as ‘the heavy hitters’ as quickly as possible.”
The Chief’s brow furrowed. “How do you know who from Galt’s Finest is here right now?”
“On the much-vaunted Powered Ranking System your department uses, I would be a Category 5-P, Mister Simms.” The Captain made a choking sound, and the Chief straightened up. “Still, the story I am Writing cannot have me die beneath the hooves of the Wild Hunt—my deeper duties lie elsewhere, but I came to warn you so that many might live and not perish.”
The Chief pulled back his sleeve, and tapped a fancy digital watch surface in a complex rhythm before returning his attention to the Writer. “So, you know who the Night Knights are and what they do to cities they visit, but you are both not going to be here to actually help and being cryptic in what we can do to stop them?”
“I have already helped, giving you several hours to organize that you would not have had otherwise. I did not need to come out of my way to save your city.”
“But that’s what heroes do!” The Chief exclaimed, pounding a fist on the table. “Come on man, a category five is an incredible gifting. What better thing could you be doing than saving lives?”
“I have traveled far. Your city means nothing to me, as do my errands. I am not a hero.” The tension remained, the Chief trying to stare down the Writer until the door opened and Ad Astra strode in as though the floor was starlight, her blonde waves playing down past her red belt. Her masquerade mask revealed her smile as she took in the diminutive man skewered by the Chief’s stare.
“Oh, now that’s neat.”
“Ad Astra, this is—”
“Shush.” She waved away any explanation, leaning to inspect the runes. “‘Here no hoof may pass nor bray be heard no horn shall call nor stone be stirred.’ It even rhymes.” She straightened, hands on her hips. “Your power at work?”
“Yes. If you wish to save the city—”
She slashed her hand through the air, voice ringing with ice. “Don’t tell me what to do, tell me the situation. I will do what I decide.”
The man’s head bowed deferentially. “Of course. In just under three hours, the Cavalcade will begin their assault on the city. Those heroes who are willing to drive them away will need the support of Gladiator and Amygdala, possibly more, to avoid being wiped out. If this aid is not received, the city may be completely destroyed.”
Ad Astra was slow to speak. “And how would we get two prime freelancers like that to come within the next three hours?”
The man’s glasses caught the light as he stood and waved his hand to erase his runes. “It is in your hands. My part in this story is complete.” The masked heroine blocked his way as he turned toward the door, agitation in her twitching lips.
“Wait a moment, what if you are wrong, or something else happens?”
“I am not wrong.”
“Why are you here?”
He paused. “You once gave a helpful piece of information to a young child. That child grew to become someone I admire. I give back to you only your due—information that will help you with Your goals.”
Her brow furrowed. “I am not very old.”
“Growing does not take long to do.”
“I want to speak with you, after. For the reports.” She gave away her nervousness with a tapping of her fingers.
“Then tear this in half.” He proffered a card. “It will do nothing until three days from now, after your primary concerns are sorted.” The three locals each did their best to inspect it: Silvery paper, the size of a credit card yet thin and free from text or mark. With a frown, Ad Astra stepped aside and the man left the building as quickly and mysteriously as he had come. The Chief stood with a huff, slapping at his various pockets.
“Pretty unnerving, but I guess OpSec is worth less when psychics are reading reality like a book. Anyone have a cig I can bum? I’m going to go smoke and make a few calls.” Hargrave passed him a pair of tobacco-laden rolls and he bustled out. The captain considered the powered woman, who was chewing her lower lip.
“Any way I can help you out? I’m guessing that you have more knowledge of how to hire those mercs than you let on. The situation seems pretty serious.”
“More so for me than you—do you know what the Cavalcade does?”
“I heard they hit Marsten and half the city burned. Lots of refugees.”
“It’s worse.” She shook her head and ran her fingers through her hair. “Their leader, Ruprecht is also called the Krampus. His sworn goal for the Hunt is to kill all powereds, ‘to put the world into balance’ but he has no intention of offing himself anytime soon, unfortunately. He is very, very dangerous.”
“More dangerous than this Writer fellow? He claimed to be a 5-P. You believe him?”
She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. He is not a part of this next few days. You are a VFW, right? Last time I was in I saw you wearing a cap.”
“Yeah. Two tours. Saw some serious action, fortunately from a safe distance through a scope.” He opened the door with an exaggerated flourish, and they stepped into the hall. “Coffee? I’m going to be making a fresh pot.”
“Yes please. I need to make a phone call, I’ll meet you in the break room.” Thirty minutes later began the planning session, and another two hours saw the small team welcoming a succession of helicopters punctuated by a hellish green globe at the pad on the station’s roof. In the clear night below the full moon, the all stood along the northern railing knowing there were just minutes. None knew what form the Hunt would come in, or where they would strike first, whether it would be a dozen or a hundred even was knowledge they did not have. It was interesting, Hargrave reflected as he absently polished the top of his shotgun on his sleeve: It did not really matter what form it took. Something about the visitation by the Writer gave him immense peace—after all, six of Bambino’s crew had come in from Vegas, drawn by the same mysterious pull that Ad Astra used to bring Gladiator with his seven-foot-two muscular frame dominating the Easternmost edge of their group and Amygdala’s psychadelic purple glow near the fiber-optic blue and yellow of Ad Astra. It was a pregnant, holy sort of silence for a long moment, before an unnatural wail grew on a strengthening, sudden wind as clouds began to gather.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, this looks like it. Our guests must be served, and if there’s enough of Galt left to support it I can promise a reward for each powered head you take tonight—or save.”
“Legends cannot truly be killed, but we will put this to rest tonight, Mister Simms.” Amygdala intoned, her violet eyes brightening and dimming in a hypnotic throb. She patted the man’s forearm.
“Through difficulty…” mused Ad Astra, flicking the switch to light up her costume fully. The night was full dark now, and the city lights painted the roiling clouds orange. The wailing was now clearly human, terrified souls crying out in sorrow and pain, the breeze crescendoing to a whistling wind that blew garbage and whipped power lines and tree branches and made the north-facing line squint.
Then a single break in the clouds, a teardrop of living silver dropped down in the hellish orange boil, and slammed into Midtown with a shake of the earth. Power went out in a huge swathe, and the screaming began. Dozens of shapes spiraled through the hole torn in the curtain of cloud, haphazardly wandering then slamming into the city with devastating force. Captain Hargrave swallowed hard as one landed less than half a mile off, down at the base of the hill, and he checked his shotgun rather than look at the wave of fires that flared up around the low-income housing. Hell has marched against us, and it’s my job to enforce the ‘No Entry’ sign.
“Powereds, my team of officers will take that close impact, split out and cover the more distant ones. Godspeed to us all.” He felt like a ghost, the wail he heard singing in his ears his own, and he hummed a tune from some forgotten past as he moved down the stairwell and out onto the street towards the blaze. Downhill, feet first, destination God-knows-what to engage some overly-enthusiastic reveler in a philosophical discussion about power. “Well, if anyone bet on my living forever, you can go ahead and collect after tonight. One way or another I’m committed to buying a farm—cities are too noisy!” He bawled out, and he heard his men whoop and laugh. Six against one. Hopefully only one, and hopefully the fires were something chemical or incendiary instead of innate.
At the bottom of the hill, demons cavorted. Twisting, mannish shapes danced around a dark central spike: A traffic pole, with three limp bodies stapled to it, limbs still swinging. More came to join them, coming from street and window in staggering, limp steps with tears and moans and cries. So lurid were the flames that nobody would have faulted him for missing two key details, but he caught them anyway: First, all the dancing shapes were in pajamas or dishabille, citizens drawn from their beds, and second, in the dim and smoky glow at the top of the pole was a shape with wings.
A sharp hand sign, then a knife hand pointed at the orchestrator balancing above the growing crowd. Guns raised, and Hargrave barked the command that brought a new hell to the scene as lead poured up at the powered balancing up above. A yelp and it fell in a twisting mass, and the dance paused, hiccuped, and broke, the people falling and dropping to vomit on the pavement. The Captain moved in, flanked and covered by his officers as the figure started to rise. He leveled his shotgun and blasted, pumped, blasted, and saw the thing’s wing deflect the peppering without damage. They were close, and as it regained its feet, he saw the thin snakey tail and the horns and sulfurous eyes, complete with fangs on the woman’s thin, monstrous frame. She bobbed and dashed, rolling away from some follow-up shots by his squad, ending behind a trash can with the grace of a cat and a hiss like a snake, her clawed hand snapping out as if to grab them up and crush them.
The crowd convulsed as one, and like puppets they rose and turned on the policemen with a stuttering and inhuman fury, moaning in disbelief and pain and incomprehension. Sidearms were drawn, naked forms were butchered point blank and ruptured with knife and bullet, and when the squad regained some semblance of cohesion again half of them were broken and had to be hauled to the entrance of a brick bookstore, where their backs were secure. Several officers kept oncoming staggerers dropped with single, well-placed shots, and Hargrave shook his head to clear a growing concussion—the helmet that had saved him from the flower vase had come off when the over-the-hill woman had clawed at his face and dragged him down to the sidewalk. He scanned the rooftops, and saw the tailed devil climbing up a building further down the street in apparent retreat. He sighted in and blasted her from the wall, though he was certain her wing blocked the bulk of the damage.
“Catch the imp, blaze a trail. Martin, Cavanaugh, Reese: You three stay with the wounded. If your finger works and you’ve got two legs under you, on me. Don’t let up on her!” They hustled up, the occasional shot snapped off at the winged form to keep her scrambling instead of running, dodging from bench to mailbox. Hargrave pulled up and lined his 12-gauge up where he knew she’d be and cut loose, her dash around the corner of the next street foiled and knocked sprawling into the gutter. The squad sprinted forward as he bawled, loading three of his solid slugs in as he brought up the rear of the hit team.
He looked up and caught her wrathful expression, naked form bleeding from small scrapes and a bullet through the meat of her calf, lips curled as her taloned hands thrust out fingers first and together towards them with a feral scream, as a gout of fire bloomed and engulfed the slowest and closest.
Hargrave hit the deck and felt his scalp bake as he kept her in view, wrenching his gun downrange. When did this goddamn gun get so goddamn heavy? He pointed blindly toward the area where the air boiled hottest and emptied his goose-gun as fast as his awkward posture allowed.
The fire stopped, and a single collective scream sounded in the night air from the throats of the possessed townsfolk as the first Night Knight, Vivien the Willo’Wisp, fell. As the fires blazed the night only deepened, for the Wild Hunt had come to Galt.

Elbow Grease

I recently finished a challenge from my wife, writing twenty minutes a day for the whole first month of 2018. I sat in my office and she sat just out of sight in the living room in her chair, and we wrote then talked about our writing over breakfast.

I did not expect the little ideas she gave me as prompts to be so effective at improving my writing. My writing habits are so much better—simply writing every day breaks off the rust of disuse—but the quality is markedly improved also. It reminds me of the first manuscript I finished, back in high school: Three-hundred thirty-one pages of disorganized juvenile drivel about kings and a princess, dragons and fools that sought them out, forgiveness and bloodshed and promises kept and broken. It has a terrible plot, disorganized with no sense of pacing or meaning or purpose beyond an exploration of another world, but the writing quality is beautiful by the end.

I had written almost every day of high school for an hour or more. I am comparatively out of practice now, and the electric ink as I type feels forced and stultified in comparison. I knew nothing back then, but I was used to the work and expression. Elbow grease really accounts for a lot in terms of both quantity and quality.

So come, if you’re serious enough to gamble on yourself: Try a course like this one my wife did to build a serious writing habit and get cracking—I love how this particular man cuts through the nonsense to explain why a writing habit is one of the greatest decisions you can ever make. Become who you want to be and use the resources at your disposal to become who you want to be, be they time, money, or vision. If you are the one on the line, why not gamble? Place your outcome in your hands, take up your pen and take that first step forward over this weekend.

You have the power to change yourself, and to decide if you win or lose a reasonable bet when the money’s on you. Do it. Come out ahead. Rinse. Repeat.

101 Ways to Skin a Thank-You

Two young men traveling are helped by a stranger while they pass through a small town on their way to a large city. After the help which took several hours, they walk on their way. One pauses, turns, and shouts a “thank you” back, the other one takes a few more steps, looks first at his companion and then at his helper before raising a hand in a wave back at the stranger.

Could be an Aesop’s fable: “A kind act does not always produce gratefulness”

Yet that is not what struck me from watching this scene play out. The two boys, I knew from their behavior through that space of time, were both grateful but their social responses were very different. Seeing this difference—which amounted to deliberate expression versus quiet presumption—made me consider: When we teach the young how to behave, we often fail to present the truth of personality. One of the boys was an only child, raised in a somewhat brutal strictness by aloof but intelligent parents, and his response was to take the advice and help seriously and put it immediately into practice, happily giving back what he could to the giver and saying little with his tongue or body language to express his gratefulness: actions were his focus. The other boy was energetic, raised by the rhythm of the mountain streams and the other children of the mountain town around which he rambled free by warmer, more carefree parents: words and the need to express his emotions and connect with this stranger bubbled up though he followed the former boy’s lead at first.

More to the point, their helper had a smile on his face and had begun to turn away before being called to. He knew they were grateful and appreciated them both despite their differences in expression, doubtless from having seem plenty of both styles in his life. Both expressions of the young men were valid, yet often I see manners and social graces taught as a form of magical mathematics—you are supposed to say this word to get this result, you’re supposed to do this and this every time XYZ happens, you’re supposed to do this every time someone enters the room, etc etc etc.

The reality of stylistic differences and, importantly, the value of developing and polishing a consistent style for your very own is extremely important, both to be aware of your own when you interact with others and to help you interpret others’ behaviors clearly without coloring harmless gestures or lack thereof with your own style. Enjoy the variety, and appreciate individuals you meet for their manners not your own. Focus on the substance, not the style.