novel-in-progress

Deception Island, Chapter 1, scenes 1 & 2 (revised)

Some of you will have seen an earlier version of this. For those who have, these two scenes are now 50 words shorter, but essentially unchanged. For those who haven’t seen it before, these are the opening scenes of my new novel. I hope you enjoy them.

Chapter One

Really.

All he wanted from life right now was just one day he could sleep in.

Instead, once again, her damn dog was on the bed.

Beside him, Lisa groaned and pulled the edge of the comforter over her head. Maybe if the dog couldn’t see her, she seemed to think, it would move on to something else. Jason tried pretending he was still asleep. Hector, Lisa’s little dust mop, wasn’t buying either ploy. He tap danced across Jason’s feet and lower legs, then tried a soft shoe over Lisa’s. In case that hadn’t gotten their attention, he barked twice, if you could call it that. His bark wasn’t exactly guard-dog quality. Hector was Pomeranian, ten pounds of long beige fur, attitude and little else. He was what Jason’s dad, who’d had a series of labs and retrievers over the years, would call a yip-yip dog.

“Hector, go back to sleep,” Lisa groaned. “Leave us alone.”

Hector yipped again and improvised another tap dance across their legs.

A claw dug into Jason’s ankle like a tiny little knife. “Ow!” He jerked the injured leg away. “Damn it!”

Hector celebrated his success by performing doggy calisthenics over their legs and yipping nonstop. He had them now and he knew it.

Lisa turned over and snuggled up against Jason’s back. “He needs to go outside. Can you take him?”

“Why me? He’s your dog. Or whatever he is.”

He felt her stiffen beside him.

“Fine.” She tossed the comforter aside and sat up on the edge of the bed. “Come here, Hector, my good boy. Mommy will take you outside. Don’t listen to Mr. Grumpy Pants.”

Mr. Grumpy Pants? What was this? Kindergarten?

Jason tried to tune them out and go back to sleep.

“Oh crap! Crap, crap crap!”

Jason sighed. Sleep obviously wasn’t going to happen. Not today. “What now?”

He felt her abruptly leave the bed. When he raised his head Lisa was already hunched over the dresser in the tee and panties she’d slept in, frantically pulling clothing out of a drawer. “The alarm didn’t go off! We’re late!”

“Shit . . .” Jason glanced over at the alarm on Lisa’s night stand. It read 7:37. The alarm was supposed to wake them more than an hour ago.

“I’m supposed to be teaching 131 at 8:30!”

Lisa ran to the closet, gathering a ski sweater to add to her load of underwear and jeans. Hector hovered near her feet, barking nonstop with the sudden excitement and running in tight little circles.

“Jason, honey, could you please take Hector out while I jump in the shower?”

“Sure,” he sighed. “I’d love to.”

More than anything.

His sarcasm was wasted. Lisa had already disappeared into the bathroom. A second later, the shower started up.

He rubbed the sleep off his face and climbed out of the nice warm bed, found yesterday’s pair of jeans, and slipped them on. Hector yipped nonstop and bounced between Jason’s feet and the bedroom doorway.

“I’m coming, you overgrown rat.”

Hector darted out into the living room ahead of him. He paused to sniff at the empty cartons from last night’s Chinese on the coffee table. Jason was a couple of steps behind him. “Don’t even think about it.”

Hector turned away and scurried to the sliding glass door leading to the back patio.

Jason paused over the empty food cartons. A single piece of barbecued pork clung to one side, It was no bigger than a fingernail. He picked it off the cardboard and crouched down in front of Hector. “Don’t tell your mom, okay?”

Hector accepted the tidbit, downed it and thanked him with a quick lick of the fingers.

Jason unlocked the sliding door and pushed it open. Hector bounded over the little patio and onto the lawn like he was off on a great adventure.

Jason shivered and closed the door against the morning chill. It was October and it was Seattle, which meant it was cold and wet and would be cold and wet pretty much until spring. It wasn’t actually raining now, but everything was still glistening wet. A low, soiled-looking overcast clamped down just above the tops of the neighborhood firs. Even the light seemed filtered by heavy curtains.

The shower went off. Lisa would be putting on her face in a moment.

Hector had finally found the perfect patch of grass and squatted down to do his business.

Monday morning.

Jason sighed and kicked himself for letting her talk him into staying over again last night.

*********

It being Monday morning and all, a multi-car accident on I-5 just south of 40th Street had transformed all four southbound lanes into a parking lot. Seattle’s notorious rush hour had just become a nightmare. According to the local news radio, traffic was backed up as far as Everett. Highway 99, the other major north/south route, was nearly as bad because of the overflow.

The city itself was a natural bottleneck. Seattle was built on a strip of land about twenty-five miles long north to south, but only six or seven miles wide. Several million people commuted to the city every day, almost all of them either from the north or the south. All it took was one little hitch in the flow and everything ground to a halt.

Like now.

Jason turned east on 45th Street, away from the Interstate, cruised through light traffic for a mile and a half, then turned south on Mountlake Boulevard toward the University. Lisa had probably steered her little Civic on the exact same route thirty minutes before. Maybe she’d missed the worst of the traffic.

Within a block and a half he was back in bumper to bumper traffic, but that was normal. Like most colleges, the University of Washington had been designed for foot, not auto, traffic and he usually avoided the area if he could. But at least traffic was moving. He could probably walk faster than it was moving, but it was moving.

No sooner had he formed the thought than both lanes of traffic ground to a halt. To their left the massive facade of Husky Stadium hulked across barren parking lots. To the right, students in raincoats or under the protection of umbrellas scurried around red brick buildings toward their morning classes. The overcast seemed to have lowered and grown darker. In the distance, he could just see the steel gray surface of Lake Washington.

He glanced over at the powder blue minivan idling beside him. A woman with long dark hair was talking on her cell phone and gesturing with her free hand. Behind him, a man with a mustache that matched the dark color of his SUV grimly sipped coffee from a Starbucks cup.

One afternoon, several years before, while sitting at a traffic light just like this, he’d glanced over to the car next to him and recognized the prominent Pastor of an area mega church. The good Pastor had been spending his down time at the traffic light getting friendly with a blond woman in the passenger seat. Jason had suspected the blond was not his wife. He’d snapped a quick photo with his cell phone, done some investigating and confirmed that the good Pastor was indeed breaking the Seventh Commandment.

His story had ended up on the front page, below the fold, but the front page. You never knew where the next story would come from.

But not today.

His cell burped that he’d received a text. He fished the phone from his jacket pocket and glanced at the display. Lisa. He opened the phone and the message.

Made it, she’d written. CU 2nite? Luv u.

His phone asked him if he wanted to reply.

He wasn’t sure.

He wasn’t sure about a lot of things when it came to Lisa. Oh, he liked her. He liked her a lot. There was no doubt about that. She was kind and smart and funny in a goofy sort of way. She was working on her Masters in American History at the University and could spend an evening discussing the nuances of the Nineteenth Century political climate and then without any kind of transition be on the floor wrestling with Hector like a little girl.

She collected teddy bears, for God’s sake.

He truly enjoyed being with her. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that she was beginning to make long term plans. As in lifetime plans. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that. He didn’t want to break up; he didn’t want to see other people; he just wanted to slow down.

They had to have a serious talk, but he didn’t know how to go about it without hurting her.

He decided to avoid the whole issue for now, saved her text, and instead called the newsroom. Marcia, the receptionist, answered on the second ring, only a touch of frazzle to her voice. He told her about the traffic situation and that he’d be late.

“Oh we’ve heard,” she told him. “Believe me, we’ve heard. Half the newsroom is running late. Miles is not a happy man.”

Miles Condiff was City Editor and Jason’s boss.

“Miles wouldn’t be happy if Jesus came down to personally hand him a Pulitzer.”

Marcia laughed. She had a nice throaty laugh.

“Besides, it’s Seattle. He ought to be used to it by now.”

“You know Miles. ‘We’ve got a paper to get out!’”

“Tell him not to have a coronary. I’m on my way.”

Marcia said she would relay the message. “By the way, I really liked your story yesterday.”

He smiled and thanked her. It still made his heart glow when someone liked his writing. They said their goodbyes and he closed his cell phone.

His car radio was already tuned to one of the all news channels, such as it was. He viewed most of his colleagues in broadcasting with barely concealed contempt. How could you take seriously a medium in which an in-depth report lasted two minutes? But he wanted to hear whether anyone else had picked up his story.

With the help of an inside source, he had uncovered a scam involving a contractor who was providing inferior asphalt to the City Roads Department, but charging for top-of-the line product. It was no wonder the city’s streets were in such sad shape. Not only was the contractor essentially doubling his profits at taxpayer expense, but he’d been doing it for nearly ten years. And that was almost exactly how long the contractor’s father, Harold Stevenson, had been on the City Council.

There was no mention of it on the radio, but it was late in the rotation and they were talking about the Huskies win over Cal last Saturday and whether they had a shot at upsetting the Oregon Ducks on Saturday. (Jason wouldn’t bet on it. The Ducks were very good.) The headlines would come at the hour and half-hour. He checked his watch. He had ten minutes.

The double column of vehicles ahead of him began to move forward. He slipped his car into gear and followed the taillights of the Camry in front of him for about a hundred yards before the procession again came to a stop. Now though, he could see the traffic signals ahead. He figured he’d get through the intersection on the next cycle.

A few raindrops splattered against his windshield, then thickened to a light rain.

“Perfect,” he sighed.

He opened his cell phone again and dialed his home phone number. No one was there, of course. No one had been there since Friday morning, which is why he needed to check his messages. When it switched over to voice mail, he punched in the access code and waited as the computers did their thing.

The spooky computerized woman told him he had twelve new messages.

He told the computer to play the messages.

The first three were computer-generated sales pitches offering to refinance his mortgage (he rented) eliminate his credit card debt (it was reasonable, thank you) and save him money on his auto insurance. He quickly erased all three. Next up was a man’s voice: “Hey, it’s Charlie. Listen, I met this gorgeous woman, but she won’t go out unless I find a guy to go out with her roommate. What are you doing tonight?” Jason had no idea who the guy was. Charlie? He didn’t think he knew anyone named Charlie. Besides, the message had been left on Saturday night, so it was too late now. He deleted the message.

He quickly deleted five more messages that were either sales calls or hang-ups, then a man’s voice caught his attention. For one thing, it was a real man, not a computerized imitation. The voice also had a tone that grabbed his attention, somber. “This is Detective (the name was unclear), of the King County Sheriff’s Department. I’m trying to reach Mr. Jason Reynolds. It is very important that I speak to him as soon as possible.” He repeated that it was very important and left a call-back number. The voice mail said the message had been left Saturday afternoon.

Jason frowned, wondering what that was all about and hit the button to save the message.

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Writing advice

Writers’ Conferences

I admit I was late to appreciate the benefits of attending a writers’ conference. Part of this, I’m sure, was because I had finished my college education, which meant I’d taken nearly every writing class the University offered. What more, I felt, could I learn from a one or two hour workshop? I’d just spent more than four years studying the art of writing for several hours a week.

Little did I know.

Oh, I did attend a conference once outside of Portland, mainly because it let you reserve a time slot to pitch your work to a real life New York agent. I did, but nothing came of it. In hindsight, I was over-reaching. I was not yet good enough. But it was an experience.

I attended all the workshops for which I’d signed up, but didn’t get much out of them. They reminded me of freshman-level courses at the University. There was a lecture hall full of about a hundred students listening to someone lecture. There was no discussion, little in the way of question-and-answer, almost no engagement. I also didn’t know a soul there, and it just being a day or two, never saw anyone often enough to make a new friend.

My opinion of writer’s conferences largely reflected that experience: me wandering alone from workshop to workshop, passively listening to the lectures, but gaining little or no insight into what I was trying to learn.

I decided writers’ conferences were not for me. The expense was simply not worth the meager returns.

I was wrong. For ten years I was wrong.

Flash forward to 2006. I had just moved to a little town on the Oregon coast and, as fate would have it, this little town hosted a writer’s conference every winter. Still, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t like writers’ conferences. Remember?

However, a family member talked me into going just once. Am I glad she did? Absolutely. That weekend experience at the South Coast Writers’ Conference truly changed my writing life. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I became one of the cadre of volunteers that help organize and host it every year. I’ve been doing it ever since.

I was converted.

So what made this conference experience so different?

In a word: size. The South Coast Writer’s Conference is a small conference. It usually only hosts ten to twelve presenters and about a hundred-and-fifty participants. Instead of a lecture hall full of student writers listening to the presenter, most workshops consisted of fifteen to twenty students discussing the topics with a presenter. Students actually did exercises and discussed them with their colleagues.

I walked away from the weekend exhilarated and enthusiastic about the craft again. It was remarkable.

Ever since then, I’ve told anyone who asks (especially writers struggling to learn the craft and establish their careers) to by all means attend a conference. But choose carefully because different conferences offer different things. Not all conferences are the same. Like any business expense, you must decide whether the benefits are worth the expense.

Some of the larger conferences (such as the Maui Conference, or Willamette Writer’s Conference) can offer things the smaller conferences can’t, such as presenters who are wildly successful, household names, opportunities to meet one-on-one with agents and film producers, or to have your manuscript critiqued. These conferences, however, are relatively expensive (someone has to pay the higher speaking fees for the big name authors) and they are often so large that it’s difficult to get any personal attention.

The smaller conferences can’t attract or pay for the household-name writers, but they also are usually much less expensive. The presenters who do come are talented, perfectly good writers who just haven’t made it into the stratosphere of the best seller lists. Often, they are young authors who are on their way up. I’ve seen a presenter suddenly have a hugely successful book and become so much in demand that a small conference can no longer afford them.

But the biggest advantage the smaller conferences have is that you can receive much more personal attention. Attendees often chat with presenters over lunch and between workshops. Also, because the workshops are small, the attendees are often seeing the same faces in several workshops. Friendships are made. Connections forged.

And whichever conference you decide to attend, that is probably the most beneficial aspect of all of them. The knowledge that whatever challenges you might be facing in your writing career, there are others out there who know exactly how difficult it can be. Some of them even know how to overcome them.

Sure, the workshops might teach you a new way to handle point-of-view, or a promotional opportunity you weren’t aware of, but the most important thing any person who has chosen this maddening and often frustrating pursuit needs to have is a sense of belonging to a community. Writing is lonely enough without feeling you’re completely alone. Attending a writers’ conference can help with that.

So should you spend your hard-earned on the local writer’s conference? Absolutely.

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Writing advice

The Devil in the Details

One of the keys to successful fiction of any kind is easy to say but much harder to execute. It’s filling your fiction with carefully chosen detail. Details help create what the literary critics call verisimilitude: the illusion of reality the work builds in the reader’s imagination.

Consider two similar sentences.

Joe got in his car and drove away.

Okay. Good enough. It’s a simple, declarative sentence that adequately describes the action and moves the narrative along.

Now take the same sentence and add some detail.

Joe slid behind the wheel of his BMW convertible, popped the clutch, and raced away.

Doesn’t the second example ratchet up the realism a bit? Instead of a generic action, now the reader has a more specific picture in her mind’s eye. Not only that, but it adds something to the characterization of Joe. A young man (for example) driving a BMW convertible is perceived differently than one driving a twenty-year-old Toyota. Even if it’s the same young man.

It’s all in the details.

Stephen King is one of the best at using such details. Read virtually any of his works and pay attention to the details he weaves into his stories. He never has characters just listening to the radio, or watching television. They are listening to a specific song on the radio, watching a certain program on the television. His characters also often follow specific fads (often from a particular time period) and use specific slang when they speak. All this helps create a sense of reality in the reader’s imagination, even when the subject of the story itself is utterly fantastic.

It’s all about the details.

Imagine your character’s home. What, if anything, is hanging on the walls? Whatever you choose, it will add realism and a touch of character. The person living with her walls bare is different from the person surrounded by family portraits, Monet prints, or Elvis on black velvet. Whatever the choice, it adds to the realism.

The same is true for clothing/fashion, preferred music, movies and television shows, etc. The more detail, the better.

However, I must add a warning here. Detail improves your fiction, but, like most things, moderation is essential. As much as detail can improve your fiction, you don’t want to bombard your reader with laundry lists of descriptive details. We’ve all read works where the narrative comes to screeching halt while the author gives us an inventory of some character’s livingroom. That isn’t what we want. Aim for for an accurate, revealing sketch, rather than a fully rendered portrait. Our readers want to imagine the story for themselves, they just want some thoughtful guidance.

Think Hemingway, rather than Dickens.

So where do we, as writers, find these details for our fiction? The easy answer is from the world around us. We’re surrounded by living breathing characters and locations. We just have to pay attention. Observe the details of the world around you. What does your dinner companion do with her hands while you’re talking? What is your best friend’s livingroom furniture like? Your bosses? What kind of cars do your daughter’s friends drive? Do the boys drive different types than the girls? What do your co-workers talk about in the break room?

Pay attention. Take notes (not in front of them, of course) and secret them away. You never know when one of these little details will make the difference in your fiction.

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Writing advice

5 Tips For Beginning Writers: Tip #5

Last, but not least, the final of my tips for beginning writers:

5. Develop a thick skin.

Criticism hurts. We’re sensitive creatures, with fragile egos. It hurts when someone points out our personal faults, dislikes our clothing, or belittles our taste in music. It also hurts when someone doesn’t like the piece of writing we’ve spent hours and hours working on. But it happens. All the time. A writer needs to get used to it.

Every writer needs to develop a thick skin. Everyone is not going to like your work, no matter how good it might be. Everyone doesn’t like anything. So be prepared. And learn to tell the difference between constructive criticism and destructive negativism. Constructive criticism can be useful. It can help you become a better writer. Someone reads your story and tells you that the ending didn’t do it for them. Perhaps it felt anti-climactic, or rushed. Okay. The writer needs to put the sting of the criticism aside and look at the story again. Is the ending a let down? Did you rush things?

Destructive criticism, on the other hand, is not even worth your time. The person who tells me my story is garbage brings up two possible responses from me. Either I ask them what, specifically, makes them say that, or, more often, I simply express regret that they didn’t like it and walk away. You can’t please everyone and there are some people that just don’t want to be pleased. If they can’t help me improve my writing, why waste my time? Or theirs? I certainly won’t convince them the story is actually good.

Every writer needs the ability to not take every criticism as a personal attack and we certainly cannot let it discourage us. One needs to listen to the constructive observations of flaws in your work and use them to make it better. With everything else, you need to be able to smile, shrug, and move on.

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