Saturday, November 24, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: The Glass Cantaloupe

Author's Note: This is a bit of a departure from my usual New Mexico spec fiction. I wrote this for the third Absolute Write flash fiction carnival, which will be hosted by Virginia Lee. The theme is "transform," but this piece would've worked just as well for the last carnival, hosted by Samuel Tinianow.
* * * * *

I swallowed a glass cantaloupe the other night.

I’m not sure how I did it. It happened in a somnambulist state and we all know how that can be. I awoke on the floor, my stomach round, hard and full. After prodding it gently for a few minutes, I came to realize what had happened.


My first thought was to go to the doctor, but I quickly nixed that idea. It wasn’t just the problem of my pants not fitting—I had some old gym sweats that would do. But I was worried about the seatbelt cutting across my belly, and about car accidents. What if I got in a wreck and the cantaloupe shattered? I might bleed to death from all the cuts!

Better to play it safe. I called in sick and spent the day watching television, trying not to think about the glass cantaloupe, except to wonder how long it would take my gastric acids to break it down enough to pass.

I slept that night propped up on pillows, with bolsters of quilts and blankets on either side so I wouldn’t roll onto my stomach or fall out of bed.

In the morning things were no better. That damn cantaloupe was still there and I realized what a fool I had been. A solid glass cantaloupe wasn’t likely to break down in a single day.

I got online and searched “glass” and “gastric acids.” What I read didn’t give me much confidence. I was going to be waiting a long time for this thing to dissolve on its own, and since it filled my entire stomach, leaving me unable to eat, I needed to take action.

I called my doctor’s office. Annoyingly, Dr. Jameson didn’t do house calls. “But this is urgent,” I explained. “I can’t leave the house.”

“What seems to be the problem?” the nurse said.

“It’s my stomach. I swallowed a glass cantaloupe by mistake.”

“A what?”

“A glass cantaloupe. I’d have come to your office yesterday, but I’m afraid to get behind the wheel of a car. I might get in an accident and shatter it, you know.”

“Shatter the car?”

“No, shatter the cantaloupe. Please, just ask the doctor to make an exception and make a house call. I’ll pay for his gas.”

Instead I got a referral to a psychiatrist. I really need to change doctors.

I tried calling my brother next, since he’s a lawyer and the brainy one in our family. But he was no help. He said he had a meeting with a new client and didn’t have time for jokes. Then I called my ex-wife, who was always a practical sort. She told me to quit being dramatic and reminded me that our daughter’s ballet recital was on Thursday.

Discouraged, I made my way into the kitchen, trying to avoid bumping into doorknobs and countertops, hoping to find something to eat. But I couldn’t get anything down. The cantaloupe took up too much room inside me. Not sure what I should do, and feeling a little testy, I lay down for a nap.

I awoke in the evening with no better idea of what to do, so I watched TV in the hope of distracting myself. Around bedtime my brother called and asked if I still had a glass cantaloupe in my stomach. He treated it like a joke, so I told him to go to hell and turned off the phone.

By the third day I was feeling light-headed. Not being able to eat will do that to you. I think I was dehydrated, too. Cantaloupes don’t seem so big until you’ve got one taking up your entire stomach. At least feeling dizzy made it easy to stay in bed. At one point a girl from the office called and said something about paperwork that would need to be filled out if I didn’t return to work the next day. I told her to email it to me and went back to sleep. In the evening someone knocked on my door but when I tried to get out of bed I felt weak in my knees and decided it was safer to stay where I was and not risk falling.

By the fourth day I could feel the glass beginning to spread through my body. My gastric juices were breaking up the cantaloupe, but instead of passing through, it was permeating every cell. This was an alarming development. If I didn’t do something, I would soon be entirely made of glass. But my phone battery was dead and I didn’t trust my new glass feet not to crack if I tried to cross the room. So I stayed in bed and went back to sleep.

I don’t know how much time passed after that. Sometimes I heard knocking at the door and sometimes I saw icy figures moving through my room, just beyond my closed eyelids. It was convenient to be able to see without opening my eyes. Turning to glass had its advantages.

Finally there came a day when the pounding at the door was followed by scratching and fumbling, then the sound of a key turning in the lock. My newly-sensitive glass ears heard ringing voices and the stomp of winter boots, but the words made little sense.



“Cantaloupe,” I tried to say through my glass lips.

Rough hands grabbed me. I tried to protest but was terrified to move, lest I shatter my neck and die on the spot. I was put onto a stretcher and carried through the rooms of my glass house. Outside in the brittle air, lights flashed red and white. Voices called to each other. “Found him! He’s alive!”

Somewhere static crackled on a receiver.

And as they heaved me into the waiting ambulance, I felt my glass mind shatter.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reading in Decline

According to a new study from the National Endowment for the Arts, not only are Americans reading fewer books, they're reading less of everything. This includes not just print media but online news sources, blogs, and presumably even the backs of cereal boxes.

The study found that in 2006, 15-to-24-year-olds spent an average of seven minutes on voluntary reading on weekdays and 10 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays, while finding time to watch two hours or more of television each day.

And if you think the older generations read more, don't get your hopes up. They're not better by much. In 2006 people ages 35 to 44 read only 12 minutes a day, and Americans 65 and older read less than an hour each weekday and just over an hour on weekends.

Even when Americans do read, apparently they don't do it very well. The proportion of 12th graders reading at or above the proficient level fell from 40% in 1992 to 35% in 2005. The percentage of proficient readers among college graduates declined by 23% and by 10% among Americans who had been to graduate school.

According to the study, employers are spending more than 3.1 billion annually on remedial training in reading and writing for their employees.

The problem isn't with writers, apparently, since according to Dana Goia, NEA chairman, "I don't think, in a country that publishes 100,000 books a year, the problem is that people can't find something they want to read." Rather, he cites America as having become "distracted as a society," caught up in multitasking and electronic media.

What does this mean for fiction writers? Well, we've been seeing it for awhile. No longer can a writer ease into the story with lush description of time and place like Dickens and Hardy used to do. Now your opening line, your "hook," is the make-or-break moment. If you can't capture an agent or reader's attention in the first few words, you're sunk. The change in public attention spans also shows up in word counts. No matter how good your novel, unless you're a well-established author, your story is unlikely to find a publisher if it goes much over 100,000 words. Quality doesn't even factor into the equation.

At the same time, competition for agents is tight, with some agencies getting over 20,000 queries per year. With reading on the decline and the number of manuscripts on the rise, is it any wonder there's so much anxiety in the literary world? Things are in a state of flux and people are scrambling for solutions: e-publishing, POD, the new Kindle e-reader, and of course the old standby, "Just write a better book. Get lucky with the market trends."

But really, if reading is on the decline in all mediums, how much does it matter whether your book is published in trade paperback or downloadable pdf? Maybe you'll get lucky and hit it big, maybe you won't. Hone your craft and hope for the big break, but don't drain your cell phone batteries waiting for the agent to call.

Instead, write for the love of it. Write because in a world where so many spend their non-working hours zoned out in front of the television, we're engaged in a challenging creative pursuit that requires us to think, grow, and stretch our boundaries. The pleasure we take in our fictional worlds and imaginary friends may be the only real profit we get out of our efforts, but in a stressful world where so little is within our span of control, this is no small thing.

"To Read or Not to Read" available from NEA Publications.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

World Building and Peak Oil

With apologies to my dear blogfriends who say I make them smile...

For those who read my spec fiction and wonder where I draw my worldbuilding inspiration, there will be a show on the History Channel this Tuesday, November 13. It's called Oil Apocalypse and some info about the show is here.

Petroleum is the bedrock of our current society and it's so much more than just your car! It's food-- fertilizer, tractors, and trucks to ship the stuff to your grocery store. It's home heating oil. In some parts of the country, it's electricity. It's the cheap goods from China that came here on a diesel-fueled ship. It's our military, no matter where they fight or whether you think they should be fighting at all. It's our space program. It's asphalt roads. It's the plane that takes you on vacation or to visit your relatives. It's medicine. It's plastic. Look around you right now and imagine what it would take to replace every plastic item with something made of something else. We'd need rubber (brought by diesel ship), wood (shipped by truck and rail), metal and glass (created in our mostly-defunct factories). Not so simple, is it?

The problem with an oil supply crunch isn't that we can't come up with alternatives but that we aren't. We're not rebuilding our factories and railways, we're not cutting back on use of plastic and petroleum-based fertilizers, and while we're doing better at making solar panels, what are they made of? Yeah. Plastic. When the raw materials get scarce, what's our next plan?

As a nation, we're standing next to the cellar door while the tornado approaches, refusing to take shelter because we don't believe the tornado is real and because going down those stairs might be scary.

I can't speak to whether we'll make the necessary changes in our economy and lifestyle in time to save ourselves from the tornado. But in my fictional world, action came too late and the result was war, disease and a lot of poverty. It didn't happen overnight. People didn't go to bed in the 21st century and wake up to find the lights all out and a medieval world outside their window. The collapse came in fits and starts, with some places doing just fine while others devolved into chaos. Historically, this is how most great societies collapsed, and it's the model I went with for my fictional world.

This isn't a plug for any particular party, politician or policy. I try to keep my blogs non-political. This isn't even a plug for Peak Oil, per se. If you think there's "plenty of time" and it's not our generation's problem, that's your right and privilege. I hope our generation's children and grandchildren feel the same way.

But if you want a better understanding of what prompted me to imagine Will and Diana's world (and for those with access to "Tin Soldier" the world of Amalia and Carina), check out Oil Apocalypse this week. Check your local listings for times.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Writer blog-pal Susan recently gave me this very nice award!

I'm flattered and I hope my friends will spend some time at Susan's blog, where they'll have an opportunity to meet her fun characters, who can't all be fictional since some have their own fans, right?

And since there's no point to an award unless you pass it along, I'm giving this award to Thomma and her many feline friends who never fail to pop in and leave a pick-me-up comment when I need one.

Thanks for making me smile, Thomma! And thanks for the award, Susan!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Flash Fiction Interlude: The Afternoon Boyfriend

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is an excerpt from My New-Found Land, Diana Channing's journey across post-collapse America. I've altered it very slightly from the book edition to work as a stand-alone story

It was a fine sunny day for traveling, and with the soft blue sky and scent of spring in the air, I could almost forget I was alone and far from home.

The crumbling asphalt road traced a path parallel to the rail line, and around noon I came upon a stalled train. There was a man standing in the shadow of the open door of the last car, and I asked him why the train was stopped.

“Something blocking the tracks,” he said. He sounded cheerful, like being stranded was a grand adventure that suited him just fine. “We may be here awhile. Come on board. I’ve got a bottle of Tennessee whiskey, if you’d like to share.”

What a silly idea! I laughed and shook my head.

“Don’t tell me I’m going to have to settle for the company of desperate war widows and screaming children.”

He had a nice smile, and I guess I must’ve had a touch of spring fever, because I heard myself say, “Maybe just one drink.” I tethered my mare to a nearby tree and climbed into the car.

The man’s name was Gilbert, and he hadn’t been lying about the whiskey. He had a whole bottle of it, as well as a nice cheese and some spicy peanuts. I was nervous at first that he might have other ideas besides just a drink, but he took no issue with my desire to sit in the open doorway, so I was reassured. He set the bottle and food within arm’s reach, and we dangled our legs over the side of the car, sipping our whiskey and looking out at the landscape.

“Where’re you from?” he asked.

“All over. You?”

“Mississippi. I’ve been trying to get to Chicago for a couple weeks now, but the train keeps getting diverted. At the rate I’m going, I’ll get to see the whole world.”

“That happened to a friend of mine,” I said. “She finally got tired of it and got off.”

“It’s tempting. But I really need to get to Chicago.”

“What for?”

“It’s personal.”

I wondered what could be so secret about a trip to Chicago, but it was none of my business. I leaned against the door frame and he told me about Mississippi, with its kudzu, sweltering summers, and air heavy with moisture all year round.

“Sounds lovely. It’s desert where I’m from. Some days it’s so dry you can feel the moisture being sucked out of your skin. And then the creeks and wells run dry, and in the afternoon the dust storms come.”

“How do you survive?”

“We know our land. And the rains come, eventually. We used to take our chairs outside and watch the clouds roll in, the way people in the old days watched television.”

We talked for an hour about everything and nothing. The cheese was sharp and the whiskey was smooth, like dark honey. The afternoon sunshine turned soft and I found myself leaning against Gilbert’s shoulder, his arm around my waist. I could’ve sat like that all afternoon, talking nonsense and dreaming the world away.

The train made a sudden jerk. Gilbert’s arm tightened around me and I grabbed onto the door frame for support. “I’ve got to go,” I said.

He pulled me close and kissed me hard.

The train jerked again. Gilbert let me go, and I jumped to the ground. I turned back and waved, and he got to his feet, laughing. We stood calling our good-byes as the train started up, first slowly, then faster and faster, until it was nothing but a pinpoint in the distance.

I looked around, wondering how the bright afternoon could’ve lost its luster so quickly. Gilbert and I had been best friends for an hour and now just like that, he was gone.

I walked over to my horse and leaned against her shoulder. “Well, better to be friends for an hour than never at all.”

She turned her head and looked at me like she didn’t quite agree.

“Okay. It was a dumb thing to do.” I swung into the saddle, light-headed from the whiskey, and we continued on our way.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Custom Fiction

I ran across this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It's about someone who is compiling digital information in such a way that it can be printed in POD format, but customized:

If all goes as planned, the book will be published digitally, and it will allow each reader to create a personal version of the text, based on his or her interest in reading digitized excerpts of the unpublished messages and other source material.

The librarian hopes to let people print hardbound copies of the book, each of them customized and unique. “The notion of the final fixed copy is giving way,” he says. “Texts are always in flux.”

I can see how this would work for certain types of non-fiction texts, but it got me wondering if there might be fiction applications, too. Obviously in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, there would have to be a "standard" version of a novel. But what if when you purchased online, you could choose between the happy ending and the tragic ending? The PG version or the R or even X-rated version? Abridged or unabridged? Maybe you just want the first three chapters, to see if you're going to like it.

I realize that abridged versions and changed endings aren't new to the publishing industry, but in the past, one hasn't always gotten a choice of which version to buy. Someone has to decide, for example that they'll print a certain number of copies of A Clockwork Orange with one ending, and a certain number of copies with the other ending. Someone is making decisions about what they think will sell, and if they guess wrong either they or the reader will be unhappy. But in a POD format with the reader deciding what they want, there is no risk to the publisher that they'll get stuck with a warehouse full of unwanted pulp.

I hope to keep an eye on how this customization works in actual practice. It might be fun to write a story that the reader can adapt to his or her personal tastes.

Seventy Days of Sweat Update - Week Three

I don't have too much to show for this week. The Halloween Fiction Carnival took up a fair chunk of my time mid-week, and I also made the not-so-surprising discovery that I was starting my novel in the wrong place.

Now that I'm starting where I should've started before, a lot of things that felt like just a bunch of unconnected events make much more sense. Oddly, I knew ahead of time what would happen, just not the why. Now that I'm not mucking around in prologue-y stuff, things are flowing nicely.

I'm looking forward to a good week of writing!

Seventy Days of Sweat Tally
Novel: 2,500 words
Short/Flash Fiction: 5,500 words
Edits: 1,000 words
Submissions: 1
Acceptances: 1
Trashed: 7,500 words