Freedom for All – Entry #3

Dark Ava is back. Man, that didn’t take long.

The theme this week is “Best Laid Plans,” and I chose to write on the prompt “write about a plan that goes wrong, but for the better.” I’m posting my story rather than immediately jumping into the details surrounding its creation. I’ll post my thoughts on how/why I wrote it at the bottom.

Before I start, I will say it’s inspired by one of my favourite songs, “River Below” by Billy Talent. If you haven’t heard of them, go listen! They’re a great Canadian punk-rock band and I don’t care if you say it’s emo, I love them. Always have.

Anyways, here it is.

TRIGGER WARNING: mental health, suicide, and terrorism.

FREEDOM FOR ALL

The twisted bundle of wires is a brain and the hot soldering iron is my scalpel. Stolen books on bombmaking are opened and scattered around my operating table. It’s meticulous and messy work, but like any operation, it will save lives. The world, in fact.

It’s been almost two decades since the Elites developed their mind control program. At the start, they packaged it as a social website, tricking people into using it with shiny bells and whistles. Then, when smartphones became popular, the Elites transformed their program into an addictive app.

It didn’t take long for the world to eat it up. It spread, propagating like a virus. Now, everyone is infected. They’re part of the hive mind, enslaved and doomed to follow the Elites’ orders for all of eternity.

In any population, there will always be outliers. Ones that can’t be controlled. I’m one of them. It’s my purpose to stop the Elites and save the world.

I’m not alone. There are more outliers across the world, but only a few. We call ourselves the Crimson Warriors. We operate on the dark web, but even that’s not fully safe these days.

The Elites think one day they’ll control everyone, including us outliers, but they’re wrong. I’m the chosen outlier. I’m destined to break the chains and shackles. It’s a big task, but I don’t have a choice. I need to do this for everyone.

My friends and family rejected me when they found out I wanted to rebel against the Elites. My wife left me and took custody of my kid. My parents cut me out. I haven’t seen them in years. They’re under the Elites’ control, and until I act, they’ll remain lost to me.

Even though I’ve been abandoned, I will sacrifice myself for my family. For everyone. I’ll be a hero once this is over; famous for liberating the planet. I’ll be dead, but I’ll be everywhere. They’ll erect statues of me. Moreover, my family will be free. Everyone will be free.

The Crimson Warriors and I bought experimental black-market tech called Neurolinks that allow us to communicate through our thoughts. If I turn my eyecam on, they can see what I see, and we can hear each other in our heads. It’s the only safe way left to communicate. The Elites watch everything—phones, emails, texts, apps, internet. But they can’t hack the Neurolinks. Not yet, at least.

I pull more wires out of my toolkit. Explosives are part of this contraption, but it’s safe. I made sure when I researched and double-checked with the Crimson Warriors.

Cross those wires, Big Echo whispers in my head. If you get caught, they’ll try to dismantle it. But if you cross the wires, they won’t know which ones to cut. It could buy you some time.

I listen and cross the wires, soldering them into place. The scent is comforting.

Big Echo is a war vet. He was on a bomb squad and knows a thing or two about making them. Before the Neurolink, I had to do my own research. Now that I have Big Echo to help, things are going much better.

Mine’s ready, Rivers, Honor’s Bastard says. I’ll take out their New York Office. Big Echo, you got Miami. And you, Rivers—you’re the main show. Corporate Tower, downtown San Francisco.

“Roger,” I say out loud.

You got this, boss, Honor’s Bastard says. Man, you’re going to be a legend after this. You’ll be front-page news. Rivers, the savior of society! They’ll call you the Liberator! Has the ring of a superhero, doesn’t it?

You are a hero, boss, Big Echo says.

“Well, we are a team, boys.” I finish up the last of the work on the explosive.

Thanks to you. You’re the mastermind, Rivers. We all know it. No need to be humble.

A few other voices cheer in agreement, and I smile for the first time in months.

Freedom, someone says. Freedom for all.

“Freedom for all,” I repeat, still grinning.

***

D-day. My backpack is heavy with explosives as I approach the Elites’ headquarters. It’s raining and cold. Downtown San Francisco is busy and littered with human feces like the corporate cesspool it is.

The sidewalks and roads are congested, like always. Ever since the Elites mandated electric cars a year ago, traffic has gotten quieter. I don’t mind electric cars, but I miss having a choice. I miss being free.

The normal morning rush lets me blend in. I wear my old suit and tie from when I was a corporate slave myself. It’s a cloak I must wear so I can unleash my dagger. I’m not a wolf in sheep’s clothing—I’m a savior in the skin of the enslaved.

I pull out my phone. It’s offline because its only purpose is to act as a detonator. The app I designed is cliché—it’s a giant red button on the screen that, when touched, will activate the bomb in my backpack.

Cliché or not, all I need to do is get in the building and press it. No one will care about my creativity once I liberate them. They’ll just see me as the hero I am.

Despite running a company that controls the world, the Elites have little security. I have been scoping out their headquarters for weeks and haven’t seen anything that poses a threat. Individuals from all walks of life can stroll in unimpeded. I suppose you don’t need protection when you have everyone under your thumb.

Their arrogance will be their undoing. There are still outliers. There’s still me—no, us, the Crimson Warriors.

Neurolinks online, Big Echo says. What do you say, boss? Ready for liberation?

“Freedom for all,” I mutter under my breath. “Freedom for all.”

Freedom for all! A chorus of voices echoes in my head.  

“Freedom for all,” I repeat louder this time, unable to help myself. A nearby woman gives me a strange look, her eyes dead and empty like all those enslaved.

I ignore her. It’s not like she can hear me. The app probably filtered out my words, just like any non-conformity.

Careful boss, Big Echo warns. That woman seemed a bit surprised by you.

“She’s been programmed,” I say under my breath. “Her eyes were empty. That’s how you tell. Dead eyes, Big Echo. Remember that.”

Roger, Big Echo says.

I’m onsite, Honour’s Bastard says. Ready to detonate.

The Elite’s headquarters is only a few blocks away. I walk as fast as I can. My burden is hefty, but my resolve carries me forward with ease.

I think about my life as I weave through the crowds—it’s not much I’m losing. Not really. My ex-wife was taken by the Elites years ago. My parents, too. My kid is already programmed and online, a corporate slave to be.

If my sacrifice frees them, it will be worth it. Either way, I’m never seeing them again.

You’re close, boss, Honor’s Bastard says. Once you’re onsite, we’ll commence our plan and detonate in unison.

I approach the entrance of the massive skyscraper. It reflects the grey sky and cuts into the clouds, well above all the other corporate towers. Marble steps lead to the entrance like a dais, and I can smell the chlorine from their indoor fountain despite the stench outside.

The enslaved bump past me, all pulling out ID badges and chatting to each other about work. At times, I’ve found myself envying them. They don’t have the same responsibility that I do.

“Hey,” someone nearby says, “you lost?”

I turn around to see a large man in a black suit and dark sunglasses looking down at me. Security. How have I not seen them before? He sports an earpiece and I recognize his shades as TechGlasses. They don’t have x-ray vision, but rather have facial recognition and direct access to corporate databases. They can pull up someone’s profile instantly.

Those glasses can identify you, boss. Get out of there!  

“I’m late for a meeting,” I say, looking at his black, polished shoes.

“With whom?” I hear his glasses beeping. “I ran recognition on you, and it seems like you’ve been unemployed for some time now, Mr. Rivers.”

Shit, Big Echo says. Say you’re an entrepreneur.

“I’m an entrepreneur.” I square my shoulders, feigning haughty arrogance. “I have new tech I want to show to your marketing team. An algorithm, actually. We booked this meeting weeks ago. Listen, if they’re not interested anymore, I can take it to your competitors out in Silicon Valley.”

“Let me confirm with their team,” the man says.

This is bad, boss. I can’t hack their system fast enough to create a fake meeting.

What do I do? I ask in my head.

Run inside. If you go fast enough, you can still detonate.

I wrap my sweaty hand around the detonator in my pocket.

“Yeah, I got a guy here. Says he’s an entrepreneur with a new algorithm for marketing?”’ Security asks, speaking into their earpiece. “Uh-huh. Yep. Got it.”

Freedom for all, Big Echo says.

They took your wife and kid, Rivers, Honor’s Bastard says. Your whole life. They took your whole LIFE.

He’s right. My family was my whole life. My heartbeat picks up and my sweaty grasp tightens around my phone.

It’s the only way to free them, Big Echo says. You know it’s the only way, boss. Some people might die, but they’re all enslaved, anyways. And no war is won without sacrifice. No one obtains freedom without blood.

My heart races. The security guard frowns, his shoulders tensing. I notice two more coming down the stairs towards me, each as large and intimidating as the next. They’re also wearing TechGlasses, keeping their dead eyes hidden.   

They’re onto you, Big Echo says. It’s now or never, boss.

I think of my kid. My wife. Their faces. I want one last moment with them before I detonate. I remember the day my son was born. I smile. What a beautiful day.

You have to go now! Big Echo shouts. FREEDOM FOR ALL!

FREEDOM FOR ALL, the chorus screams.

“FREEDOM FOR ALL!” I bellow as I run.

I dash up the stairs as I hear someone shout stop him. I shove myself through the glass doors. I pull out my phone and unlock it with my fingerprint. The app pops up. The red button flashes.

Now or never, boss!

Shaking, I lower my finger to detonate.

Then I seize and convulse. My fingers cramp and my hand turns into an involuntary claw. Pain ripples through me, searing and electric, and I hear the crowd gasp as I collapse. My phone slides away.

A taser. Fuck! It will throw off my Neurolink—maybe even fry it!

A body slams on top of me and their weight crushes my ribs. I can’t breathe. I’m still convulsing. The scorching, crushing pain is distant, like it belongs to someone else.

I still have my goal! I have to liberate them! It’s up to me! I’m the only one who can do it!

I stare at my phone on the shiny tiles. The red button flashes. I roar as I try to reach for it, but the security guard grabs my wrist and yanks my arm behind my back.

“It’s a bomb!” A bystander cries, and screams erupt everywhere. Feet stomp past me as the crowd rushes out the door. Nearby, glass smashes. Sirens wail.

It’s over.

  The crushing weight is too much. I try, one last time, to breathe, but it’s futile. I black out.

***

I come to with an oxygen mask on my face. Blue and red lights flash all around me. My mouth is dry. I taste iron. My vision is blurry. I try to move, but my arms are restrained. The smell of chlorine is gone, replaced by that of sterility.

I look down and see I’m strapped to a bed in the back of an ambulance. There are IVs hooked up to me, pumping poison into my veins. Probably full of nanobots. They’re already starting the programming. I’m woozy, sluggish, and stuck in place. I can’t fight it.

“Lucky we got him in time,” someone says. “His bag was full of explosives, which were connected to a device that let him detonate with his phone. He could have taken out the whole floor with what he was packing, killing hundreds, if not thousands.”

“Who is he?” I spot a grizzled man in a suit talking to the security guard from earlier. The newcomer has a gun and badge strapped to his waist. A cop. He’s drenched from the rain, his balding head shiny and damp. He has sharp brown eyes, though; unlike everyone else, he doesn’t look enslaved.

“Facial recognition says he’s Tom Rivers. He’s thirty-one and unemployed. We ran him through our security system. He’s been hanging around here for weeks.”

“What do you know about him?” the cop asks.

“He used to be a software engineer at a big tech company but was fired two years ago after he started spouting off about mind control conspiracies. His wife divorced him and he lost custody of his kid shortly after. Doesn’t look like he has had contact with his parents since then, either. And despite his history of mental health problems, he hasn’t filled a prescription in a long time.”

I try to speak, but my tongue is too thick to make words. I need to tell them that I don’t have mental health problems. The Elite made that all up once they found out I was onto them. They even tried to hide nanobots in the pills!

If I’m right, and this cop is an outlier, maybe I can pass the message to him. I try communicating through Neurolink, but I’m met with silence.

You there, boss? Big Echo responds, his voice slow and fuzzy. We got busted, too. The Elites knew. There must have been a rat. Rivers? You there?

“I won’t ask how you got his private medical information.” The cop shifts on his feet, looking uncomfortable. “Anything else?”

“He has a website called the ‘Crimson Warriors.’ It’s a conspiracy theory website. Says that social media is a form of mind control that’s enslaved the population, and all the tech companies are in on it. Calls CEOs ‘the Elites.’”

“Anyone else using the site?”

“There’s some traffic, but not a lot of engagement. Based on our analysis it would appear he’s a one-man show.”

The cop shakes his head. “No such thing as privacy anymore.”

“If it wasn’t for us,” A nearby man in a suit—a dead-eyed Elite!—chimes in, “you’d be chasing your tails for weeks trying to figure out this psycho.”

The cop sighs. “Anything else, then?”

“Recently,” the security guard continues, “he posted about new tech called ‘Neurolinks,’ saying it lets him communicate with his network globally, but based on what we know, there’s no such thing as a fully functional Neurolink.”

Shit! They know, boss! No! The Neurolinks were all we had left!

“Any chance there could be?” The cop asks.

“No, that tech is still years off.” The Elite rolls his dead eyes, lying like the devil he is. “We’ve done a lot of testing, but it never goes well. The subjects usually die.”

“Right. I remember reading about those poor test monkeys in the news,” the cop says. “My guess is this asshole has untreated schizophrenia.”

“He does,” Security adds, quieter this time. “But you didn’t hear it from us.”

“They’re lying,” I croak. All heads swivel to me. “They’re all lying. They’re lying!” I thrash against the restraints. They have to know! I can still get through to them! “You’re all slaves! Slaves to the Elites! I was trying to help you! I just want you to be free! I want freedom for all! Freedom for all!”

“Give him a sedative.” The cop sounds bored, not enlightened like he should be! “And whatever other drugs he needs.”

Boss, they’re going to cut your Neurolink! You have to fight them! You’ll be as lost as all the other enslaved else if you don’t do something!

I struggle against the restraints as I watch fluid flow into my arm. I flex all my muscles, hoping I can squeeze it out. I grind my teeth. I howl like a wolf calling to the moon.

Fight it, boss!

The restraints cut into my wrists, but I won’t stop fighting. I don’t want to be enslaved! I don’t want to end up like these dead-eyed sheep!

I watch helplessly as the paramedic injects something into my IV—nanobots! I feel them crawl into my veins, cold and invasive.

No! I have to stay free! It’s the only way my wife and kid stand a chance!

My vision darkens. The voices fade. My head rolls to the side, my eyes half-open.

It’s over, I tell my team. I failed. We lost. I’m sorry. You have to go on without me. Detonate if you can. We can still…save…them…

For the first time in years, I’m met with silence. Tears roll down my cheeks. The Elite…the…oh god. It wasn’t real, was it?

Wasn’t it?

Author’s Notes

Soooo…I’ll start by saying I recognize this is a pretty dark topic, but I really, really love doing unreliable narrator stories. When I saw the prompts this week I felt uninspired at first, but then I started thinking – what about exploring the idea of someone who believes they’re doing the right thing, but in reality, what they’re actually doing is really destructive? And when they’re caught, it seems like they’ve lost, but as the reader, you find out that their plans being thwarted is actually a good thing.

And thus, “Freedom for All” was born.

There’s been quite a bit of discourse recently around colonization of the mind on part of social media and tech companies. Someone recently commented that capitalism started as colonizing the planet, but now that the land has all been colonized (gross), the next place is the mind. Obviously, space comes after, but until that’s feasible, minds it is!

GROSS, but I kind of agree. Social media takes your time and sells it to advertisers. The goal is to get you to spend as much time on your phone/computer as they can. The more time you spend on social media, the more they can gather data on you and build an advertising profile, which they then sell for $$$.

If you want, you can see the profile Google has built on you. I checked mine out, and it was eerily accurate.

I do not, however, think that anyone is mind controlling us through social media (anymore than the next person, at least). But Tom Rivers, an untreated schizophrenic, sees things a different way. The story is set in the near future, maybe like 2025-2030ish? In his reality, everyone is brainwashed, and it’s up to him to sacrifice himself to save them. But in everyone else’s reality, they’re just addicted to their phone, and tech companies are using it to profit. No mind control – just regular old manipulation.

If you read the lyrics from River Below, you’ll see the inspiration I took from it. God, I love Billy Talent. Absolute kings.

Anyways, just because I’m paranoid – THIS IS JUST A STORY AND DOES NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS/DESIRES OF THE AUTHOR IN ANY WAY.

Terrorism is bad and everyone that needs medication should take it. As someone with Jewish heritage, I absolutely hate the notion of conspiracies and lizard people and chem trails and MK ultra programming and whatever else there is out there. So again, if it’s not clear, THESE ARE NOT MY VIEWS.

Thanks ❤

Billy Talent Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/08yf5A2nS4XEeNvabDXqyg

Kitty, Kitty – Entry #2

Back again with another Reedsy entry. It hasn’t been approved and put on their website yet, but I’ll update the post with the link once it is.

The theme this week was Halloween or in their words, “I’ve Got Goosebumps.” I chose to write on the prompt “Start your story with someone encountering a black cat.”

Honestly, I love cats. This is undoubtedly my future:

Eleanor Abernathy, you queen. Source: https://simpsonswiki.com/wiki/Crazy_Cat_Lady

I also hate that every Halloween I have to keep my cat inside because people are fucked up. Especially if my cat happens to be black. I also don’t like the horror trope that black cats are “bad luck” or “evil.”

As I’m writing this, I’m having flashbacks to big daddy King’s Pet Sematary. Great book, but look at this cover:

My heart bleeds for the poor baby kitties that happened to be born with the wrong coat of fur. So when writing this story, I decided to take a different approach with a lil twist. It’s probably a cliché twist, but I don’t care. I did it for the cats!

I’ve also been feeling abnormally positive lately. Normally, when I write, my books have sad endings. I used to find happy endings annoying, if I’m honest. Recently, however, I’ve found myself writing more positive stories. I don’t really know why-maybe it’s the sunny Ontario weather.

Kitty, Kitty

Anna wiped her brow, calves burning as she rushed down the crowded Toronto street. She was late to a get-together, as she quite often was. Although it was the end of October, the weather remained persistently hot, and the tall skyscrapers blocked Lake Ontario’s breeze, insulating the heat. Thanks to the weird weather, Anna had spent far too much time struggling to pick out an appropriate outfit.

Excuses aside, the fact remained that Anna was late. Again. Today was their friend Ahsan’s birthday, too. She walked a bit faster, urging her short legs to go. She swore as she dodged someone with their eyes glued to their phone. Anna picked up the pace, weaving between the crowd, until a line of burly, slow-moving brodudes blocked her path.

Anna sighed and stopped, sweat trickling down her back. Why was she stressing so hard about this? Ahsan wouldn’t care if she was late—he’d just be happy to see her.

She caught her breath, taking in her busy surroundings. The sidewalks were packed, and the wide streets were filled with cars, driving erratically and honking aggressively, as they quite often did.

Anna glanced at the sidewalk, the clear sky, then into an alley next to her. It was lined with dumpsters and covered in graffiti. Despite being dimly lit, Anna spotted a set of bright teal eyes belonging to a scruffy black cat. It was bigger than most cats, with short fur and a long tail.

Anna felt an anxious pang in her chest. It wasn’t that she believed black cats were bad luck. She just couldn’t help but wonder if superstitions existed for a reason. When she was a kid, her mother broke a mirror, and sure enough, the next seven years had been hell. Her mother got divorced, lost her job, even got cancer. It was like the universe was against her for a while.

Everything was fine now, though. Her mother was in remission, had a great career, and had even remarried. And yet, the image of the shattered mirror hung in Anna’s mind, reminding her to always be cognizant of superstitions, even if they seemed ridiculous.

She shook her head. It was just a black cat with gorgeous neon eyes, quite like the surrounding graffiti. It meowed, watching her. Anna took an unconscious step towards it, hand outreached.

“Watch out!” someone shouted. Anna turned and saw a car spinning out of control, tires burning and breaks squealing as it ricocheted towards her. She shielded her face, letting out a scream of her own.

The car slammed perpendicular against the two buildings that formed the alley. Anna slowly dropped her hands, heart racing. It had stopped not even inch from her. Its driver was inside, blood pouring down his forehead, the front end of the vehicle totalled. 

“Are you alright?” a bystander asked, their voice muted by the ringing in Anna’s ears.

Anna turned around to see the black cat. It hadn’t moved, nor did it seem phased by the chaos. It narrowed its brilliant teal eyes, then bounced away.

Emergency services showed up, and Anna was let go by the paramedics. Miraculously, she had no injuries. Rather than take the subway, she walked home numbly, barely aware of her surroundings as day transitioned to night. Eventually, she reached her apartment building and pulled out her keys, hands shaking.

She felt a creep run up her spine and looked over her shoulder to see yet another large, black cat with glowing teal eyes watching her. It couldn’t be the same one, could it? Anna swallowed the lump in her throat.

“Go away,” she said hoarsely. The cat remained in place. “I said go!” She shouted this time, stomping her foot. The cat didn’t budge.

Anna charged towards it, shoulders heaving. She froze at the sound of a nearby crash. She spotted a smashed flowerpot behind her. Red flowers, dirt, and broken pieces covered the sidewalk like blood and guts.

“What was that?” Anna heard a sliding glass door open. “Did you hear that, Ed? It sounded like—oh, shit! My pansies!” A blonde woman Anna recognized as her neighbour hung over the railing of the balcony. “Are you ok? Did it hit you?”

Anna looked back towards where the cat had been, but it was gone.

“Hey, are you’re alright?”

“I’m good!” Anna called out, shaking worse than she had been previously. She stepped over the broken flowerpot, opening the entrance to her building.

Thankfully her apartment was on the first floor. She darted up the stairs and ran down the hallway, then jammed her key into her front door, opened it, and slammed it behind her, locking it.

The superstitions were real, just like the damn mirror. Anna didn’t care what anyone thought. That black cat was evil, and it was trying to kill her.

“Anna?” She heard her roommate, Jasleen, get up and bound towards the entrance, her black hair in a messy bun. “Ahsan messaged me. He said you never showed up. Are you alright? You look pale.”

Anna stared at the dirty linoleum. The cat had unusual eyes. Was it a ghost? Or…or a demon?

“Anna?”

“Sorry.” Anna blinked several times. “I almost got hit by a car—”

What?”

“I’m alright!” Anna said through a nervous laugh. “Fine, just fine. I need to lay down, though.” She pushed past Jasleen and opened the door to her cramped, messy room. She threw down her purse. looked up at her bedroom window, and gasped.

“What is it?” Jasleen called.

The cat. The black cat. It was sitting on her windowsill.

“Go away!” Anna screamed, hurtling towards the window in an attempt to scare it off. She tripped on the cord of her hairdryer, flew forward, and landed on the clothes-ridden floor. Groaning, she opened her eyes, and spotted an empty glass next to the tip of her nose.

“Oh my god!” Jasleen shouted. “Anna—you could have died! I told you not to leave glasses on the floor like that!” She swept beside her and picked it up, shoulders tense.

“It’s trying to kill me!” Anna blurted. She pushed herself against her dresser, and it wobbled, dropping a pile of books down beside her. “See?!” Anna pointed at the scattered books.

Jasleen looked around the room, confused. “What?”

“The cat!” Anna sprung up and looked to the window, only to see that the cat was gone.

Jasleen looked at the window, then back at Anna, then back at the window. “Are you sure you’re ok?”

Anna stared at the empty glass in Jasleen’s hands. If she’d landed on, it would have smashed straight into her face. Probably taken out an eye.

But the idea that a cat was somehow doing this? She needed to lay down, rest, and try to forget about everything.

“I-I think I need to lay down,” Anna said.

“Did you hit your head?”

“No, I’m alright. The paramedics said so. Just…I’m a bit shook up, is all.”

Jasleen stared at her long and hard, then nodded. Ever the good friend, she picked up Anna’s books, then headed towards the door. She nearly tripped on the hairdryer cord on her way out. “Clean your room. Seriously. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“I will,” Anna mumbled.

Jasleen gave her a sympathetic smile. “Rest up, and I can help you take care of this tomorrow. Night, Anna.” She gently shut the door.

Although it was early in the evening, Anna fell asleep almost instantly. She dreamt of screeching tires, sliding cars, and teal eyes. She woke with a start, the sun spilling in through her curtains.

It’s just a damn cat and a whole lot of weird coincidences, Anna tried to reassure herself, but she still felt anxious. In an effort to fight it, she got out of bed and showered.

Drenched, she stared at herself in the foggy bathroom mirror. She noticed a small crack on it and immediately thought of her Mom’s bad luck streak.

Just a cat. She went into her room and blow-dried her hair, putting the dryer away afterwards.

After Jasleen woke up and showered, they cleaned Anna’s room until it was spotless. Anna took Jasleen out for sushi and picked up the bill as thanks. They left the restaurant and wandered their noisy downtown neighbourhood, drinking ice coffees under the hot sun.

“I don’t give a shit what anyone says,” Jasleen said after a sip, “climate change is here. This weather is weird as fuck.”

“I know,” Anna said. “Like, it shouldn’t be ice coffee weather this time of year!”

“Right?!” Jasleen shouted, and they ranted about it at some length, then switched to talking about their latest Tinder exploits.

Anna felt her shoulders relax as Jasleen went on about a horrible date she’d had. Just a cat, she reminded herself, smiling as she sipped the last of her ice coffee.

They turned a corner near their apartment building, and Anna froze. The black cat. It was outside the building, teal eyes glowing despite the bright sun.

“See it?!” Anna shouted, pointing.

“What, the cat?” Jasleen asked, taking a loud sip from the dredges of her ice coffee.

“Yeah!” Anna’s heart raced. The cat twitched its tail, teal eyes mocking her. 

Fuck this. Anna lifted her arm to huck the empty plastic cup at it, hoping to scare it away for good, but Jasleen grabbed her bicep and lowered her arm.

“Girl, what the fuck?!” Jasleen said, letting go of her arm as Anna backed away, panting. “You seriously about to hurt a cat?”

“It’s trying to kill me, Jasleen, I swear—”

Before Anna could explain, she was cut off by a loud shriek. A woman on an electric scooter whipped between her and Jasleen. Anna bristled, ready to accost her for using the sidewalk instead of the bike lane, but the girl crashed into a garbage can. She flew over the handlebars and landed on the pavement of the busy road. A car swerved and crashed into another, its windshield exploding.

The girl from the scooter sat on the pavement, covered in bloody road rash, her arm bent at an awkward angle. She let out a piercing cry, eyes wide in horror at the sight of her mangled arm.

Jasleen dropped her plastic cup, the ice rattling as it hit the ground.

“See?!” Anna blurted. “It’s the cat, Jasleen! I saw it last night, before I almost fell on the glass in my bedroom, and yesterday, I saw it before the car almost hit me! And—and a pot of pansies almost fell on my fucking head, too!”

Jasleen wasn’t listening, though. Her brown eyes were wide and glued to the scene of the accident, the colour had drained from her face.

Anna looked back to see the cat still watching her. Its eyes narrowed again, reminding her of a smirking demon. Clearly, it thought this was funny. Anger, fresh and hot, scourged through Anna.

Sirens wailed nearby. Anna marched towards the cat, plastic cup brandished.

“Hey!” Jasleen grabbed her arm. “What are you doing? Just wait—there’s glass everywhere.”

“The cat, Jasleen!” Anna hissed. “It did this! I’m telling you!”

Jasleen calmly looked over Anna’s shoulder towards the cat. “It’s just a cat, Anna. Poor thing looks half-starved.”

“It’s bad luck!” Anna dropped her cup and took Jasleen’s shoulders. “It’s probably Satan, or something worse!”

“Satan?!” Jasleen was looking at Anna like she was insane. “Oh god, girl. Black cats aren’t evil. You know how messed up it is that people are afraid of them?” Jasleen shook her head, eyes filling with pity. “Shelters put them down all the time. It’s so sad.”

Jasleen sighed. “Listen, you’ve had a lot of bad luck the last couple days, but it’s just that. Bad luck. A black cat didn’t cause it. Random chance did. Just be thankful you’re not the one on the ground right now.”

Random chance? Hell no. It was real, just like the broken mirror. Anna had proof, she just had to make Jasleen understand.

Jasleen, ever the perceptive one, seemed to read Anna’s mind. “You said the cat was there when you almost got hit yesterday?”

Anna nodded, her hoop earrings flapping up and down.

“And again, when you fell in your room?”

Anna nodded once more, earlobes hurting.

“And something about pansies?” Jasleen raised an eyebrow.

“A flowerpot almost fell on my head last night!”

“And you saw the cat…right before?”

Hope bloomed inside Anna. She wasn’t crazy. Jasleen could see it, too.

“What if it’s—I mean, you stepped out of the way just in time, otherwise that girl on the scooter would have slammed straight into you…” Jasleen glanced back at the black cat. “What if it’s looking out for you?”

“Huh?”

“The cat. What if it’s trying to protect you? Think about it. You actually got lucky, not the other way around.”

Anna looked at the cat. It narrowed its eyes at her again. “Jasleen, it’s glaring at me!”

“No, girl, that’s how cats show love. They squint at you.”

“What?”

“Cats squint at people they love. That cat looks like it loves you.”

“But what about the colour of its eyes?! They’re practically glowing!”

“They’re so pretty.” Jasleen smiled sadly. “Used to have a cat that looked like that, but it was grey. Same eyes though. It would sleep with me when I was sick and snuggle me when I was sad. Got me through some rough times, you know, when my parents were getting divorced.”

Anna studied the cat over the chaos. An ambulance rolled up to the scene, along with a firetruck. The girl from the scooter was sobbing in agony, clutching her arm. An older woman was knelt beside her, trying to calm her down.

Through it all, the cat remained firmly rooted in place.

“Squint back.” Jasleen narrowed her eyes at the cat. “They love that shit.”

The injured girl let out another wail. What if Anna had collided with her? She’d be the one howling in pain.

Thinking back on the first accident—hadn’t Anna stepped towards the cat initially? When she’d first seen it? Yes, she had. And the car stopped inches from her. Moving towards the cat had saved her.

And the flowerpot? That time, Anna had been running towards the cat. If she’d remained stationary, those pansies would have landed on her head.

But what about the empty glass in her room? The cat had drawn her in, causing her to trip. But that had prompted Jasleen to help her clean. Now her room was hazard free.

“Come on.” Jasleen squeezed her hand. “Humour me.”

Anna met the cat’s neon eyes. It flicked its tail. Sighing, Anna squinted at it. The cat returned the gesture, then slowly sauntered off.

“There. Now you’re good,” Jasleen said. “Cops are coming. Let’s give our statements so we can go home.”

Shaken, Anna and Jasleen returned to their apartment, but after a couple hours Jasleen cracked a joke and Anna found herself laughing. The sun set, and the heat that had plagued them earlier died off. They cooked dinner together, and Anna cleaned up, thanking Jasleen again for helping with her room.

Anna thought about the cat. What if Jasleen was right, and it wasn’t out to get her, but rather was protecting her?

Jasleen laughed loudly in their living room while watching a stand-up comedy special. Anna bit her nails. She opened a kitchen cupboard and pulled out a can of tuna.

“Can I have this?” Anna asked. “I’ll pay you back.”

“Go for it,” Jasleen said without taking her eyes off the television.

Anna opened the can, sighed, and went into her bedroom. She flicked on the light, expecting to see the cat waiting for her on the windowsill, but it wasn’t there. She moved to the window and opened it. Sirens echoed somewhere far off, and a horn honked, reminding her of the unfortunate accidents that had almost taken her life.

Anna stuck her head outside, held out the opened cat of tuna, and tapped it with a fork. “Here, kitty, kitty,” she said weakly.

She placed the can of tuna on the windowsill. Whatever the cat’s motives, Anna could use the tuna to thank it, or try to make a peace offering if it was, indeed, nefarious.

“Kitty, kitty…” Anna said under her breath. She grimaced, feeling stupid, and shut the window.

Tired, Anna flopped on her bed and pulled out her laptop, opened the lid, and put her headphones in. She watched YouTube videos on black cats and learnt that some cultures viewed them as bringers of good luck. Interesting. She’d always been led to believe they were bad news.

After a long YouTube blackhole, she pulled out her headphones and heard a scraping noise outside. Anna sat up slowly and looked out the window to see the same big, black cat eating the tuna, the can sliding against the windowsill as it mowed down.

It froze, its bright teal eyes on Anna.

Nervous, Anna slid the window open. “You want in?” she asked meekly.

The cat jumped on her bed, purring loudly. It brushed against Anna, tail up in the air.

Anna smiled. “I suppose I owe you one. Well, more than one.” She scratched behind its big ears. It was actually really cute, and soft, and seemed like it had a sweet personality. How could she have thought it was evil?

Anna felt calm wash over her as she stroked its black fur. “You can stay if you want. Jasleen said she likes cats, so why not?”

It pushed the top of its head against Anna’s arm, purring loudly. Anna reached over and closed her window. Exhausted, she fell asleep shortly after, the black cat curled up against her legs.

Karma – Entry #1

I recently discovered that Reedsy has a weekly writing contest and decided to enter. I’m aiming to write at least one prompt a week. My partner gave me the brilliant idea of also posting them to my blog, so I’m going to do that. Hurray.

The link to my first submission, which I titled Karma, is here. The prompt was “write about a character missing a train, for better or worse.” No idea if I’ll win or not, but that’s not really why I’m doing it. It’s nice to keep writing, and short stories aren’t something I have a lot of practise with.

I realized, after I wrote this submission, that the Canadian Criminal Code has been updated and I used an archived version of the law. Wooops. Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t pursue a law career, after all.

Jokes aside, I’m proud of this one. It’s a bit personal, if I’m honest. I went to university in Vancouver, Canada, and let me tell you, the wealth disparity on campus was blatant and depressing. I held a job where I worked with several dozen other students, and out of everyone, only two people didn’t live with their parents and had to pay their own tuition. I was one of them.

I learned what privilege was, and honestly, it stung. I know I’m privileged to have gotten to go, but I was so broke I went hungry at times. Meanwhile, other kids were driving Lamborghinis to campus. In order to survive, I had to hold down several jobs. I also wanted to be a lawyer, and that meant I had to maintain a high GPA, volunteer, and intern on top of everything. It sucked.

Needless to say, I ended up changing my mind and pursuing a different career path. Ironically, I work with a lot of former lawyers. From what they tell me, I made the right choice. No regrets.

Anyways, enough blabbing. Here’s my story:

Karma

Concealer under my eyes to cover the bags. Visine to clear the red lines. Mascara, even though it will inevitably smudge. The front-facing camera on my phone is broken. I’ll need a pocket mirror to touch up my make-up on the train. I’m tired of being a broke student.

But after years of schooling, I scored an interview for one of the best paid legal internships in Vancouver. I glance at the stained walls of my crumbling apartment. Paid. With Grace Wexley, no less. A criminal lawyer famous for defending addicts in the Downtown Eastside.

If I get this internship, I can help people and work with the community, all while not starving. Grace usually hires her interns back if they do well, and she pays a living wage. It’s my dream job.

Yesterday, I had a heavy day of volunteering at the women’s shelter, but afterwards I jogged to clear my mind, studied until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and studied more as soon as I woke up. My medication kept the nightmares at bay, so my morning was productive. I’m groggy, but it’s nothing coffee can’t fix. I can do this.

Wool coat, or raincoat? It’s raining, but a wool coat looks more professional. Mine is black, like my pants and blouse. Why are all my clothes black? Right, because black goes with everything, meaning I don’t have to worry about matching colours.

Except now I look like I’m going to a funeral, not a job interview.

I need to change my outfit. It’s not just the drab colours—my tits are spilling out of this top.

I pick up my phone. Shit. I have five minutes to catch my train, or I’ll be late to the interview! How did I let this happen? I don’t have time to change. I just need to get going and pray my boobs stay in place.

I put on my heels and black wool jacket, then snatch my purse, full of study notes and other essentials. I bolt out of my apartment, locking the ancient door behind me, and dash down the cabbage-scented corridors.

I make it to the stairs. The building is so old it doesn’t have an elevator, but it’s only three stories. And the rent is cheap.

I bumble down, nearly tripping. I’m a track athlete, but like most people, I suck at running in heels. Why do women have to wear heels to look professional?

I trip on the last flight and slam into a wall. Pain shoots through my wrist and my head spins, thanks to my medication. Hopefully the sprint to the train gets it out of my system.

I stumble out of the entrance of my musty building, and I’m met with a lot of rain. Sheets of it. Way more than usual. I reach in my bag for my umbrella, but don’t find it. My mascara will run. I forgot my pocket mirror, too. I don’t have time to go back. Shit.

This internship means I can make real change and help people. It will lead to a rewarding career, and not just in a financial sense. 

No more black clothes. No more noisy neighbours keeping me awake.

No more pills to numb the constant, overwhelming anxiety caused by living in poverty.

Show my parents that I’m better than them. Make them regret how they treated me—no, don’t think about it. Focus.

The interviewer’s going to test your knowledge of criminal law. Focus.

My parents aren’t going to fuck this up for me.

I race into the monsoon. It ruins my straightened hair and melts my make-up off my face. It soaks through my wool coat and drenches my titty-brandishing top. It floods my over-sized bag.

Shit, this is bad. Bad. Bad. I must look like a drenched harlot, not that I’m one to slut shame, but this is unreal. I can picture my mother sucking on a cigarette, smirking. She croaks through a cloud of smoke: “And here you were, thinking you’re better than us. It’s karma, sweetheart. Karma for being a rat.”

Karma my ass. That bitch can rot in her cigarette smoke-stained trailer. I’m going to be a lawyer. I’m going to be a good person and help people, unlike her. I’ll start by catching this damn train.

The station is a ten-minute walk from my house, or a five-minute heel-laden run. The train is close to arriving, but I can make it.

I grew up running. From escaping my violent parents, to running away from home, to running track to get a scholarship, to running all throughout university to pay for it, and now running towards my future.

No one is taking it from me. No one. Not my parents, and especially not karma.

I bolt, sweeping through the trees and onto the sidewalk, bee-lining for the tunnel that runs under the busy highway and leads directly to the station.

I make it to the tunnel. More stairs. I go down as quickly as I can, heels splashing in puddles filling the misshapen steps. I stagger and recover, dizzy. At least the downpour is cold. It’s keeping me awake.

I turn a sharp corner and speed through the concrete tunnel bathed in harsh yellow tones from flood lights. The clacking from my heels bounces off the walls and echoes. Several homeless people snigger, and one shouts where you going sweetheart? My mom’s voice echoes in my mind. Where are you going sweetheart? She’s standing in the porch, shouting at me as I flee, cigarette burn on my arm sizzling.

Don’t think about it. Criminal law. I sweep around another corner, racing up the stairs to make it back to the sidewalk, then to the station. Test yourself. When can one claim self-defence?

S.34 of the Canadian Criminal Code: every one who is unlawfully assaulted without having provoked the assault is justified in repelling force by force if the force he uses is not intended to cause death or grievous bodily harm and is no more than is necessary to enable him to defend himself.

I hear the train racing down the tracks, its loud breaks beginning to engage.

Fuck!” I shout, driving my strength into my quads and tearing down the sidewalk, rain splashing into my eyes.

I’m almost there. I can make it. I reach the entrance to the polished station, equipped the freshly installed electronic gates. I shove my hand into my wool coat and reach for my electronic train pass, and—

I stop. It’s not there. Panic shoots through me. I shove my hand into my other pocket. Nothing. I gasp and look through my purse. The ink on my wet notes is smeared. I rip them out, but it’s not there.

My pass is at home. In my rain jacket.

The train screeches to a halt and I hear the cool, automated voice announcing its arrival.

I shove my soaked notes back into my purse and fumble for my wallet, shaking as I pull out my credit card. The new barriers allow you to tap a credit card as payment, like you would a debit machine. I rush up to the barrier and slap my card on the grey pad, waiting to see the green check mark pop up on the small screen.

Nothing. Nothing. Why?

“Seriously?!” I shout and slam my card back down on it. The screen gives me a friendly, green check mark and the barrier opens. I shout in frustration and soar through it, scrambling up the escalator, gasping for air.

A nearby man let out a phlegmy cackle. “You won’t make it, dear!”

You’ll never get into university, dear. You’re dumb as shit, just like that idiot father of yours.

I climb faster.

You’re going to live and die here, just like me.

My legs burn from the never-ending escalator, but I fight through.

You’re just like your father. Just. Like. Him. A deadbeat loser.

I got a 4.0 in undergrad. I got into law school. I have scars from beatings, but I’m still here, besting even my Louis Vuitton-clad classmates.

Doesn’t matter. He’s in jail and it’s your fault, you little rat. Karma will get you, just like you deserve.

Halfway there. The train waits for a solid minute or so. I can still do this. I shove past a woman in a violet jacket, who appears not at all concerned that the next train is a whole ten minutes away.

He could have claimed self-defence if you hadn’t called the police, like the little rat you are.

No, Mom, not accordingly to s.35 (c), because he did not decline further conflict. Dad’s victim begged him to stop, but he beat the man into a coma. Over a bag of heroin. In our living room. I did the right thing. I did the right thing—FOCUS!

Excessive use of force. They might ask me a question on that.

I gasp for air as I make it to the last step, fighting my way to the top, as I always have. The train doors are still open and only a mere twenty-five feet away. The cart is packed with individuals from all walks of life, almost of whom are sporting rain jackets and holding closed, dripping umbrellas at their sides.

A few spots me, eyes massive. I know that look. It’s reserved for those left behind, clinging to some futile hope that they’ll make it onto the train, even though everyone knows damn-well they’re screwed.

Not me. I fly, feet barely touching the ground as I cover those last twenty-five feet like they’re inches. I can see it in the passenger’s eyes. They’re amazed, and they should be. They’re witnessing a miracle, after all.

I could be a stunt woman if lawyering doesn’t work out. I should be. I’m a hero. A real-life hero. Wonder Woman. Fuck you, Mom and Dad. You won’t hold me back, not this time—

My right foot slips and my ankle twists. I can’t recover. My knee slams on the concrete platform and I bounce. I cover my head on instinct, grasping the back of my skull and shielding my temple with my forearm. My ribs collide next, and I hear a crack before I feel the agony shoot through me, starting in my chest and radiating to my spine. My forearm lands, shielding my head, but I bite my lip as I collapse, face inches from the train.

“Oh my god!” someone cries. “Are you alr— “

The doors slide shut before I hear the rest.

Pain. I let out a groan and more hurt shoots through my chest. I can’t breathe. I roll onto my back, grinding my teeth. I taste blood.

“Are you alright? Shit, that’s a stupid question. Of course you’re not,” someone says nearby. “I’m calling 911—”

A familiar image of a bloodied man in my living room materializes in my mind’s eyes. He’s begging my dad to stop hitting him.

Don’t!” I shout, ignoring the agony in my ribs. I let out of roar as I push myself up. I don’t know if it’s in pain or anger.

“You’re bleeding—”

“I’m fine!” I shout, then crumble, holding my side. I clench my jaw. I’ve managed worse pain than this. I can still make it. I’ll be late, but maybe I can blame the train being delayed.

I open my eyes and look up at the digital board displaying the transit schedule. Nine minutes until the next train arrives.

As I look to the glistening tracks, I realize I’m surrounded by a gawking crowd. The closest person is a woman in her early fifties or late forties, I can’t tell. She’s well-dressed, but not soaked like me, wearing a violet jacket and emerald Fluevog boots.

It’s the same lady I pushed past earlier on the escalator. She picks up my scattered belongings, including my rain-soaked notes, and puts them into my bag.

“I need to catch the next train.” I wipe my mouth, blood smearing on my trembling hand. “I’m late—it’s,” pain radiates through me, “it’s important.”

“It’s not worth your health, whatever it is,” the woman says.

I bite back a sarcastic laugh. “Trust me, it is.”

“Unless it’s a doctor’s appointment, it can wait.”

“It’s a job interview,” I croak, raspy voice like my mother’s.

The woman frowns. “You’re hurt. Badly. If they don’t understand, you don’t want to work there, anyways.”

God, why now? Why does some privileged boomer need to sweep in now and give me out-of-touch advice?

“I appreciate,” I wince, “the concern, but I’m alright.”

“No offence, but if you go in there looking the way you do, you’re not going to get the job. You’re best off telling them you need to reschedule.”

She has a point. There’s blood on my face. My palm is cut. My pants are ripped, exposing a bloodied knee. My tits are probably out. I look like shit.

  “You’re right,” I concede.

“Should I call 911?”

“I can’t afford the ambulance.”

“It’s eighty dollars…”

“I know. I’m poor, alright?” Fresh agony—talking hurts. “Eighty dollars is food for the week. I’ll get the next train. It stops at the hospital.”

She looks at me, long and hard. “I’ll drive you. Can you walk to the car?”

I nod. She helps me up. The pain is overbearing, not only in my ribs but in my knee and ankle. I ignore the onlookers on the platform, focusing on dragging my sorry ass to the elevator.

We cross the platform together, me limping like a lame mutt, and approach the steely elevator doors. The woman presses the down button.

Karma. As the doors open and reveal bottom floor of the station, I let silent tears run down my face.

My mom’s right. Trash. That’s all I’ll ever be. Bloodied and soaked like the drowned rat I am.

We slowly walk to the parking lot and the woman helps me walk to her brand-new Tesla. She must have driven in from the hills where all the rich people live. She opens the door for me, and I fight the urge to cry as I sit on the black leather seat, white-hot pain enveloping me.

She pulls up the car’s GPS and types in hospital, tapping the nearest one. The car starts with a humming noise. She pulls out of the parking lot and rain patters against the windshield, wiped away effortlessly. My seat is warmed. The car smells like it’s fresh off the lot.

I could have been this woman, but I messed it all up, just like Mom predicted. Why, why can’t I be functional, like my classmates? Why does everything have to be hard?

Karma, my mom’s hoarse voice echoes in my mind.

“How you holding up?” The woman asks, a worried look on her face.

“Fine,” I lie, my voice shaking. “T-thanks for driving me, and sorry if you’re late for work because of this.”

She shrugs. “You don’t need to apologize. I can reschedule my morning.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a lawyer.”

I let out a pain-laced snort.

“I know,” she sighs. “But we’re not all bad.”

“No, it’s not that. I was on my way to an interview. For an internship.”

“At Wexley and Oakes?” she asks.

Fuck. “Um—yeah.”

She grins. “That’s a wild coincidence. I was supposed to interview interns today.”

You’ve got to be kidding me. “Are you Grace Wexley?”

“I am,” she says. “Judging from how you were running, you must be Mercedes Burnwell.”

Of course. I laugh, and I stop immediately, the pain too much. Then I start crying.

“Hey,” she puts a hand on mine and squeezes, not taking her eyes off the road, “don’t stress, alright? To be honest, I already made up my mind about you.”

“W-what,” I choke out. “That you won’t take me?”

“No!” She looks aghast. “You were the best candidate. You have the highest GPA and the most volunteer experience I’ve seen in a long time. In the Downtown Eastside, no less. From what I hear, you’re a big part of the community.

And you held a part-time job throughout undergrad, all while running for the track team. Tell me, between working, studying, training, and volunteering, did you ever sleep?”

“Five hours a night,” I say. “Six if I was lucky.”

She nods, a sad smile on her face. “I was like you. I didn’t get help from my parents, and had to get through university on sports scholarships, too. But it gets easier. I promise.”

“Sometimes—” I wince, fresh pain searing in my ribs. “It seems like—like it never will.”

“It will,” she says, the confidence in her voice so inspiring that, for a brief second, I believe her. “Listen, don’t worry about the interview. I have space for two interns. The position doesn’t start for another seven weeks, which gives you time to recover. The job’s yours, Mercedes.”

“Don’t—don’t you need to test me?”

“I caught a glimpse of your notes. I’m confident you know the law well enough. Besides, it’s an internship. I don’t expect you to be perfect. You’re there to learn.”

I nod, tears running down my face. “As long as this isn’t out of pity.”

“Not at all,” Grace says, smiling. “Your grades, reputation, and experience speak volumes. I know you’ll work hard, and I can tell you’re passionate. No one volunteers like you have unless they genuinely care.”

I nod, silent tears staining my cheeks.

“Call it karma,” Grace says. “With all that you’ve done for the community, you deserve something good.”

I choke out a painful sob, moving a closed fist in front of my mouth. One thing my mom always failed to mention, and I failed to believe, was that karma works both ways.

“Thank you, Grace,” I say. “Thank you so much.”

Writing Resources: Hardcopy Textbooks, Old-school style

I like Googling things. Sometimes, I’m told that I should Google things rather than ask questions. I don’t always agree with this. But Google is treated as a library, encyclopedia, professor and research assistant. Like it or not, you gotta get with the times, kiddo. However, Googling only gets me so far. In my opinion, nothing beats a good, educational book. AKA: a textbook.

Why read textbooks when you can just read novels? I’ve frequently heard that the best way to learn to write is to read a lot of novels, then slyly steal styles and techniques. I guess that’s one way of doing it, but I also like to read books on how to write alongside works by other authors, so I better understand the tools they are employing. Then I can make mental notes on how they use them effectively. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, then how can you take it and use it?

Incidentally, over a year ago (pre-Covid, I should say) I sat next to someone on the train to university reading a writing textbook. It was called Write Great Fiction – Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by Nancy Kress. Intrigued, I tried to read it next to them without them noticing me peering over their shoulder.

Write Great Fiction - Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by [Nancy Kress]
Get it here

What I noticed is that this book had practice exercises. I like exercises and drills, more than I like Googling things. What can I say? The grade school mentality never left me.

Even more intrigued, I looked up the book on Amazon. I went through the previews on my phone next to the man reading Kress’ book, but he seemed too engrossed to care. The reviews seemed good, so I bought the book and finished it.

Overall, I’d say this book is great if you’re trying to improve how to write characters, aren’t sure what you’re doing wrong and/or how to fix it, or even if you want to refine techniques. Kress lays out the basics clearly and succinctly. She also does an excellent job of explaining how to show rather than tell characters’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions (that relentless phrase we’re all sick of hearing). She provides numerous examples to support her instructions, which I found helpful in understanding the concepts she presents.

And really, what’s wrong with running through the basics? I do it all the time in martial arts; you must perfect the basics to build up to the tougher stuff. Like Kress notes in her book, if you’re struggling with the basics, editors and agents may be less likely to work with you. So get in there and read it, even if you think you have it all figured out!

This isn’t to say that online resources aren’t helpful, either. I learned a lot from podcasts, Limyaael’s Rants, and the r/writing subreddit. Still, reading this book was immensely helpful. I recommend it if you’re struggling to understand concepts like showing rather than telling emotions, or want to write stronger, more complex characters and utilize various viewpoints effectively.

Any thoughts? Want more details on the book? Have links to good resources? Disagree with me entirely? I’m happy to hear either way, just leave a comment below.

Hiring Beta Readers

A detailed account of my experience using Fiver to hire beta readers

I tried to make this post as informative and helpful as I could. Just be forewarned that it’s long. If you want the TL;DR, skip to the high-level lists. The rest is background that might be helpful if you’re like me – a relatively new (and perhaps anxious) author seeking outside feedback for the first time.

If anyone wants the names of the beta readers I hired, email me. I won’t write them in the post or in the comments. If you have any other questions, ask! I want to help others as much as I can. And if I got anything wrong, please point it out. I don’t want to accidentally mislead anyone.

*I should also note that I read that authors shouldn’t pay for beta readers, and that the service you’re getting on Fiver is actually classified as a “critique.” I’ve seen people call Fiver contractors “beta readers” despite this, and that’s how they marketed their services, so I’m going to refer to them as such throughout this write-up.

Why I Paid

My novel is … different. It’s a fantasy novel, but it’s a similar style to Kings of the Wyld (pointed out by one of my beta readers, best compliment I got, thank you!) in that there’s comedy, character development, and action/politics. I would classify it broadly as fantasy, but it doesn’t fit in with the classic genre novels, done so intentionally.

Suffice to say takes some risks, and yeah, I know I’m stepping into a genre that has readers with set expectations in mind when they pick up a fantasy novel. I also have no formal creative writing training. I’ve never participated in writing circles and this is the first I’ve shared anything outside my friends and family.

I saw Fiver as an opportunity to hire beta readers that were committed to the cause, had some expertise, and could give me constructive, critical, unbiased feedback. I did worry that the fear of getting a negative review could influence them. I wondered, “will they say nice things because they’re afraid to say otherwise, even if my novel sucks?” But I learned that a good beta reader won’t do this, they’ll tell you the truth, even if it stings, but they will do so constructively, and you will thank them for it.

Fiver: What I Wish I’d Known

Maybe this is common knowledge, and I will admit that I technology is not my forte, in addition to the app-based gig economy eluding me at times. Whatever you may think of it, here’s my list of lessons learned:

1. Sellers set the delivery deadline, but they can extend it as many times as they like.

You can choose to accept or deny an extension. Accepting gives the seller more time. Denying awards you a refund, except…

2. You don’t actually get a refund.

You get a Fiver credit. Wish I’d known this, you’ll find out why below. I didn’t try to argue this with Fiver but maybe I could have. If anyone has any advice on that, let me know.

3. You get asked if you want to tip.

Where I live, it is expected that you tip at restaurants, coffee shops, when you get your hair done, etc. I was a waitress for three years and let me tell you, the only thing that made that back-breaking job bearable was the tips.

So in no way am I resentful for tipping my beta readers. I would encourage you to include it in your budget, because really, they don’t charge that much for the work they do and I’m sure they appreciate it. I will acknowledge that I can afford to tip, and I know this isn’t the case for everyone. Just be aware of it when you’re calculating your costs.

4. If a seller offers you a refund/requests to cancel, and you accept it, you can’t publicly review their services.

If anyone knows a way around this, please tell me and I’ll update the post. I will also note I don’t know what happens if you don’t accept their offer to cancel. Maybe you can rip them a new one for all to see?

5. You have three days to accept the order when it’s finished, otherwise it will automatically be accepted. After you accept it, you’ll be asked to provide a review immediately.

I didn’t realize I’d be asked to immediately review the services. So when I saw the option to give them a review, I said, “I’ll do it later after I read what their report.” I didn’t get the chance to do it again. Maybe there’s a way around this (again, open to feedback here). I wanted to give the person 5 stars and feel bad that I didn’t get the chance.

Lessons Learned

I tried to pick people from varied backgrounds that I could picture reading (but not necessarily liking) my book. Of the four people I chose, three were superb. One was not. More on that throughout this section.

1. Follow-up questions should be welcomed and free.

You should be able to ask follow-up questions after you receive your report. All the decent beta readers I worked with were all open to these, and when I did ask questions, they went out of their way to give me extended advice. They also didn’t charge me for this.

One person had it set as an option when I ordered initially, charging extra for “follow up questions.” He ended up being the most problematic of the four. I don’t know enough to say whether this was a red flag, but maybe someone else can speak to that.

2. Expect live comments in your manuscript.

Again, maybe this isn’t normal and I just got super lucky with the three amazing beta readers I hired, but they all provided these as part of their service and I loved reading them.

3. Go for sellers who are established with lots of buyer reviews, especially if you’re on a budget.

Might be obvious, but I didn’t do this for one of my choices and suffered the consequences. Not only do a lot of positive buyer reviews mean sellers are good at what they do, it also means they finished their orders.

I took a risk and picked someone with only a few reviews, because a) I wanted some gender balance; b) he came across as a fantasy snob, the exact type of person I wanted to read my manuscript because I wanted to know what their reaction would be to it; and c) he was cheap. I came to regret this choice.

4. Yeah, you get what you pay for, but sometimes you get a little more.

I hired two expensive beta readers and two inexpensive ones. One lower-cost beta reader I hired turned out to be professional, quick, and super nice. But the cheapest option? He had very few reviews and he was less money on average than the established sellers.

5. It can take time, so plan ahead if you’re on a schedule.

The fastest timeline I got was two weeks. The longest was four, but she finished ahead of schedule. All in all, I waited close to a month to get everything back.

6. Prepare a list of areas you want them to focus on.

They should ask you what you want specific feedback on and provide it to you in the report. I asked for plot, characters, dialogue, etc. If you want a full list of what I asked, DM me.

Overall Thoughts

The Good

I loved reading the critiques and the live comments. Seeing people laugh at things I tried to make funny and talk about how shook they were by the ending was rewarding. Hearing things like “I want to read more,” and “I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even when I was doing other things,” or even “I was so angry at [insert character name] I slammed my laptop closed” was worth every agonizing moment I spent on this novel.

Reading their analysis of my characters, saying they love them and feel connected to them (or that they hated them for the reasons I wanted them to hate them), has probably been the best thing to happen to me in a long time. I don’t really have words to describe the feeling it gave me. But I would say that it felt exactly like I imagined it would, and then some.

I want to make it clear: there was constructive criticism, as there should be, because no novel is perfect and that’s the point of beta readers. One report went into an in-depth analysis of the problems. It was a bit overwhelming, but damn, it was helpful and well thought-out, and I appreciated it as much as I treasured the compliments. I think it will help me make my novel better, but also show me how to be a stronger writer overall.

The Bad

The cheapest reader I hired was the most unprofessional of the four. He sent a plethora of excuses (the details of which I won’t get into) and numerous requests to extend his deadline, only to cancel abruptly. This, coupled with the fact that I didn’t get a cash refund and couldn’t leave a review to warn others, was a bit frustrating. Oh well, the Fiver credit turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I used it to tip the others.

Moving Forward

What now? I’m going to polish this sucker up and make it better, maybe do a rewrite. Keep working, that’s what I’ll do, because that’s what I do best.

For anyone else out there like me, anxious to share your work out of fear of an anticipated accosting, don’t let haters influence you! Do what you want and take risks. Seek feedback and learn from it, but don’t let the fear of shitheads stop you from putting your work out there. Like me, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by what people have to say.

Writing Resource: Improving Dialogue

Happy Sunday! I was browsing r/writing as always, and stumbled upon a great article regarding writing believable dialogue. It’s appropriately called 10 Tips to Help You Write Realistic Dialogue.

I found all of these tips relevant and useful. I especially liked the tip about not using corny lines during fight scenes, and how the author uses real life experience to describe what actually goes through someone’s mind during a scrap. You don’t have time to think of witty lines or insults, nor would you ever say them. You tend to be too focused on not getting hit, keeping up, and not letting exhaustion stop you from defending/attacking. I’m also speaking from real life experience here – believe it or not, martial arts happens to be one of my favourite pass times next to writing.

Another point I liked was that feelings can be conveyed through actions or descriptions. Iglesias correctly states that “…if the character is constantly telling us how s/he feels, we stop caring.” Something I’ve been working on a lot in my writing is using body language to show (not tell) how my character is feeling. In re-reading my drafts, it adds much more depth and lets the reader infer what the person is thinking, rather than cramming it down their throats through the character’s dialogue.

I think another great point to keep in mind is avoiding heavy-handed dialogue. Something that irks me (even in television) is when a character explains why someone is making a decision. I see it all the time in the Hundred. One of the characters will do something, and before I can ponder why, a different character will shout “I know you regret your previous actions, but doing this won’t change the past!” It makes me roll my eyes and irritates me. Let your readers come to their own conclusions about the character’s behaviour. It will make your story more gripping.

Another tactic I employ is acting out some of my scenes between characters. I’m no actress, but hearing things out loud  helps make things sound more realistic. If you’re stuttering or stammering, or having to pause to try and understand what you’re conveying, chances are it needs a rework. This is also kind of fun and provides some entertainment while working on a draft (for me, anyways).

Hope this helps! Share your tips/thoughts below. I would love to hear them!

The Red Queen Series

Spoilers ahead for the Red Queen series.

So I’m reading Victoria Aveyard’s War Storm right now. I’m four chapters in and my eyes are bleeding. If anyone has picked up the Red Queen series, you’re probably thinking I brought this on myself. You’re right, I did. But I have weakness for Young Adult (YA) novels, and sometimes it is nice to read something mindless, especially when your brain is fried from work. And let’s be real, some YA is really good!

But this series sucks. The first book was alright, but as the story drags onto it’s fourth novel, it’s verging on unreadable. My initial impression was that it was a rip off of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, which is totally is. Truth be told, I could deal with that in the beginning.

However, the series has warped into a convoluted mess of POV (Point of View) chapters in a strange attempt to make it a GOT-level epic (GOT = Game of Thrones), for which the author lacks the skill to pull off. It also doesn’t help that the foundation of this novel is built on the well-worn trope of a female protagonist in a post-apocalyptic society, fighting to save the enslaved while plagued by tugging love interests (a set of Princes and a childhood best friend). Gag.

I think that if you have skills and talent, you can pull of a trope or two. But Aveyard doesn’t. Why?

For one, her writing is riddled with adverbs and one-sentence paragraphs. I know I said the occasional adverb is not the devil, and I stand by that. But it feels like every goddamn sentence has one. I chuckled darkly. He said sadly. I moved slightly…She wrote poorly.  They make the writing cheap and lazy. And the one-sentence paragraphs are melodramatic and annoying. They do not make her writing impactful, because there are so many. SO MANY. They are irritating and relentless.

Her POVs also lack distinction. I feel like I’m reading the same boring person’s voice over and over, just with different opinions and settings. I agree now with the advice that it’s hard to pull of multiple POVs, and you have to really know what you are doing if you want to be successful. Aveyard is a good example of how not to do multiple POVs, if you want one.

The characters themselves are cliche and the volume of people being introduced is overwhelming. The A Song of Ice and Fire series has a lot of characters, as well, and its a testament to GRRM’s skill that he can pull this off without making his readers bored or confused (debatable by book five, but in the beginning it wasn’t the case). Aveyard cannot do this. The side characters she introduces are one dimensional, and quite frankly, lame. They lack anything robust and only serve as fodder to her plot. There are too many dicks on the dance floor, as I (plus Brett and Jermaine) like to say.

Aveyard also isn’t that great at describing people, places, battles or settings. One example that stands out is when she highlights one of her characters as “smiling like a cat.” I don’t understand why she used this comparison, especially given that her plot takes place in a society that is 1000 years into the future and probably has no inkling of Alice in Wonderland. Because without Chester, when would you think of a smiling cat? Cat’s never fucking smile. They yawn, hiss, growl, bear their teeth, but when do they smile? Ugh. And what’s worse is this character smiling like a cat is supposed to make the readers question him. Is he devious because of this cat-like smile? What are his real motivations? What is he really thinking? CAN WE TRUST HIM?!!! It’s fucking terrible. I’m sorry, but it is.

The plot really isn’t that great, either. In fact, the basis of the story (newbloods) is one giant dues-ex machina waiting to happen. It’s just a matter of time before “the most powerful newblood of all” swoops in and saves Mare and her friends from total annihilation (and side note – what kind of fucking name is Mare?). It sucks. Period.

The sad thing is some of the concepts aren’t that bad, and if the writing wasn’t awful, Aveyard could probably pull it off. I’m gonna reference my number one homeboy Steven King here, in that I can see how reading terrible books can be motivating. After reading the Red Queen series (which apparently is a fucking hit??), I know I can do better and I want to do better. So thanks, Aveyard, for giving me that, and showing me what not to do.

 

The First Rewrite

Oh Gosh. Long time no post. To all three of my readers, I apologize.

Sarcasm aside, I’ve been tits-deep in my rewrite and it’s been sucking the life out of me. I spent a good part of the year procrastinating, but I finally started a few months ago. And now I’m almost done!! This post won’t be my best writing because I’m totally gassed, but I want to share regardless.

The thought of having to do a second rewrite is jarring, but I think it’s necessary. I’ve learned an immense amount throughout this process  Moreover, I’ve fallen in love with my work again. I was dreading tackling my draft because I knew it was flawed, and part of me was worried I’d say screw it and scrap the whole thing. But the opposite happened. As Dolores would say, I chose to see the beauty in that draft. And, I used what I have learned over the last little while about writing to make it better than before.

Do I have any wisdom to pass on? Hmm. Let’s see

1. Just do it.

If you’re anxious about rewriting your novel because of the inevitable self-criticism that will follow, dwelling instead of writing will only make it worse. Sit down and get started, no matter how painful it is. You might struggle in the beginning. I know I did. I kicked and screamed and metaphorically bit myself as I sat in front of my computer preparing to start. But as time goes on and you spend more time on your rewrite, it will get easier, less painful, and you’ll find splendour in your work

2. But wait a little bit first…

I had to throw in some juxtaposition . Steven King suggests that you leave your draft alone for a little while, so when you pick it up again you can look at with fresh eyes. I have to agree with this advice. When you’re in the depths of your novel, it’s hard to spot mistakes. Just like with a toxic relationship (I’m on a roll with the dark humour), taking a step back and giving yourself some time to process what you’ve written will allow you look at your draft from a new perspective, giving you the ability to spot flaws, and edit accordingly

3. Be critical, but not mean.

I use the comment tool in Microsoft Word when I’m rewriting like self-administering morphine after surgery, ripping apart my own work with criticism. I poke holes without mercy because I know others will, but I do so with the goal of making my draft stronger, not with the aim of putting myself down. Sometimes I cringe as I do, thinking, wow, Ava, can’t believe you missed this, as I cringe and wonder why I even bother.  But I push forward despite these thoughts, remembering that acknowledging flaws will only serve to make my story better

4. Re-read, re-read, re-read.

I’m lucky in that I like reading my own writing (anyone else feel the same, or am I totally self-indulgent?). So I can reread the same part over and over, until I hate it, then I put it down and re-read it again. By doing so, I continually make my writing better. Throughout this rewrite, I’ve probably read some of my problematic chapters 10-15 times each, editing each time. It’s only served to make my work better, so I recommend trying it.

5. Be brutal with removing unnecessary words and sentences.

I noticed that I when I am pounding out my draft, I tend to write the same thing but in two different ways. During my rewrite, I was often forced to make a choice and cut out one of the sentences. However, by doing so, I cleaned up my work and made it much less wordy.

The general rule is draft – 10%. My second draft is longer than my first draft (about 20% longer), but only because I wrote in description and added items that are necessary to the plot. I actually cut out a tonne of my old work because it was redundant, poorly written, or just unnecessary. It’s hard sometimes, but essential for improvement.

6. Read out loud.

Especially the dialogue. If it sounds weird, or you think “would someone actually say that?” then switch it up, then read it out loud again, over and over, until it sounds smooth. This is a critical step. I used to do this for all my university papers, as well (and not to brag, but I aced almost all of them).

7. Adverbs should be avoided but are not the devil.

Sorry y’all, but I don’t hate them. The truth is, most readers don’t care about the occasional adverb because they don’t realize they are considered poor form. I didn’t care about them until I read On Writing. Adverbs don’t ruin your writing if they are used sparingly (see what I did there). I think they give my writing character, actually. Just sayin’.

8. Don’t get sucked into the oppressive world of rules.

I found that the more I tried to learn about writing by reading blogs, listening to podcasts, posting on Reddit, etc., the more I found myself feeling constrained and bound to a set of norms. This hurt my ability to be creative and it sucked the life from my writing, especially in the rewrite phase. Truth be told, the more I rewrote my work to adhere to these rules, the less I liked it.

Don’t get me wrong – these rules helped me improve my writing, too. I’m just saying moderation is key here. If breaking the occasional rule gives your writing a unique and endearing voice, embrace it I say. Otherwise we’ll all just sound the same.

9. Avoid the copy and paste method.

I’ll admit that there were times (quite a few times) I was lazy and I would copy and paste from my old draft into my new one instead of actually, you know, rewriting it. Occasionally it worked, because the work I’d done previously was good. However, my writing was much stronger when I sat down and made the effort to retype my story line by line. New ideas would form, things would come out better, and over all, the rewritten work was stronger than the what I had copy and pasted, then edited.

10. Embrace change.

It’s hard to let go of our creations. But if something isn’t sitting right in your gut, or if you know part of your plot doesn’t make sense, take the plunge, change it and make it better. I was afraid of change, another reason why I delayed my rewrite. But once I got started, I saw how much it improved my work and was inspired to keep going. It’s funny how many times I’ve been terrified of the idea of doing something, only to find out that I actually love it. Change was one of these things.

 

Maybe some of you will read these bits of wisdom and say, “None of that applies to me, I can’t WAIT to rewrite my work and change is a beautiful, unthreatening thing!” How I envy you. For me, it was a grueling process, but like any challenge I am glad I overcame it. Next steps for me are to repeat the above process, then look at getting an editor. I’m sure that will be an adventure in itself.

In the meantime, I’ll keep updating this blog, because I miss posting here!

Anyone else rewriting their draft? Care to share some thoughts? Rants are just as welcome.

The Line Between Your Characters and You

Recently, I’ve been reading Limyaael’s old posts/rants on writing and they are extremely helpful. Her focus was the fantasy genre, but I think a lot of her advice applies across the board. The rants are fun to read, as well. I wish she was still around.

However, Limyaael seems to disagree with the idea of “working out your own issues” through your characters and your novel. She says that “therapy” and “diaries” are for dealing with your problems, not your characters.  She cites people who write about teenage heroines in awkward family situations, being yelled at by their parents to “clean up their rooms.” You know, characters dealing with modern drama in a fantasy context.

Yeah, this is annoying. I do dabble in YA (ashamedly…but also not, some of it’s good), and there are times where the heroine is obviously based on the author. Sa-rah is short and has long raven-black hair with blond tips because she’s magic, and is sick of her parents telling her to be a lady, so she fights with them and hates her miserable life (Sa-rah being some cheap attempt at making the name Sarah more “futuristic” and different).  We’ve probably all come across a character like this at some point (*CoughMarefromRedQueencough*). It’s an overdone trope in YA and appeals to the teenagers who, omg, have to do chores, thus selling books.

However, when it’s done right, I really don’t see a problem with using your characters to work through your issues. Writing is an opportunity to express your emotions and create characters that help you understand yourself and the people around you. It’s not always a conscious thing – I’ve created characters that are mirrors of some of my own internal struggles without meaning to. Stephen King has done it, as well. He said a lot of his characters unintentionally struggled with alcoholism because he himself was fighting that demon.

I’ve been through some hard times in my life, and writing helped me cope with them. In fact, one of the first epic stories I wrote was when I was 14 and dealing with a bad breakup (yes, I know, but I was an angst-ridden, hormonal teenager). Would I ever let anyone else read this story? Fuck no. But did it help me deal with my problems? It sure did. I recently re-read this story, and the dialogue and characters were pretty good (all obvious teenage-drama-inspired things considered). This is largely because I based them on real situations, real emotions I’d felt, real people I knew and real conversations I’d had.

There’s nothing wrong with letting out your emotions through your characters. People often feel like they’re the only ones going through a certain situation, feeling specific things, and that they are alone because of this. If you create characters who feel the same things you do, I believe that you’ll create someone that others can connect to. You might also create a character that helps your reader better understand themselves and the people around them. Personally, I’d rather read a book where the characters are realistic because they struggle than one where they are strong because a rape doesn’t affect them (see rant several posts below). I think most people agree, which is why series like A Song of Ice and Fire are so popular. We can relate to and understand the characters, even if they are assholes.

I think Limyaael was trying to help people avoid creating characters who are always based on themselves (otherwise they’ll all be the same), or characters who struggle with problems that don’t fit into your story. Or, more importantly, annoying characters who whine and complain about mundane crap everyone has to deal with. Or… characters who are strikingly beautiful with silver-green eyes and beat up the bully and everyone in their school of magic loves them and they are now super popular unlike me irl unlike before. I agree with Limyaeel on this entirely. But I don’t think anyone should feel bad about working out their issues through their stories, because I think a lot of times it adds more to your characters rather than taking away from them. And if your story does end up sucking because of this (which, unless your character is having a mental breakdown because their parents won’t let them stay out past 11, it probably won’t), keep it to yourself and use it for you. There’s no shame in that game.