Into the New [fiction]

Changes, Part 1

January has been a month of stepping back and observing the past, seeing what I can take with me into the new year and what to leave behind. As an artist and writer, it is also a time when I look at the parts of my art and writing I can change for the better. I write more often than I make artwork, so I spend much of my time in that area of my life. And that brings changes that I feel are necessary to make my characters strong.

David “Dave” Nicholas Conrad, 15

Dave

He is the first person I created—I wrote many baseball stories about Dave before his first encounter with ghosts, fairies and talking woodland creatures. I changed his last name to Evans for many years. But now, he’s back to his original name. Note: My Bruce Conroy comic strip character was Bruce Conrad before I changed it.

Dave is a risk-taker who lives a fast-paced lifestyle of extracurricular activities during the school seasons. He is sports active, outdoorsy and loves to hunt. He likes playing baseball, bicycling, and riding motorcycles and 4-wheelers. He is mechanically inclined and is handy at fixing small engines. Since he is the only boy in the family, he seeks out other boys with similar interests. His best friend is Kenny Douglas.

*

Holly and the Tattoo (A short story featuring Dave)

Dave Conrad’s pleasant expression changed to one of wildness mixed with flight. The air around him had become thin and dry, as though an unseen storm had sucked the oxygen from June’s cerulean sky over Ridgewood High School’s baseball field.

The five o’clock sun seemed to spark Holly Sorenson’s long, soft blonde hair. A halo of white surrounded her from the funeral dress she wore. Some of Dave’s classmates had said that she’d been buried in a white dress.

A chill entered his blue and white pinstriped uniform and gripped his back. Would telling his teammates about seeing Holly do any good? He quashed the idea when she glared at him.

The doorway at the far right end of the dugout framed Coach Walker’s short and heavy body. “Pray we all make contact with our bats this inning and score some runs,” he said around the customary empty tobacco pipe clamped between his teeth. He chewed on the stem and looked out at the visiting team. His Ridgewood Fighting Eagles were undefeated this year. But this evening they were two runs behind the New Cambridge Yellow Jackets as the bottom of the seventh—the final inning of the final game of the season—awaited the Fighting Eagles.

He removed his pipe and Navy blue ball cap and bowed his baldhead. Dave and his teammates waited at their seats on the long wooden bench inside the dugout until Coach Walker said “amen” and took his spot along third base.

“We can hit this pitcher,” someone said.

“Yeah! We can hit this guy,” another player said. “We’ve done it before. Come on.”

“That was before the seniors graduated.” Dave shuffled his feet, scraping the concrete floor with his rubber cleats. The twelfth graders were gone, doing whatever twelfth graders do after graduating high school.

Assistant Coach Andrews cleared his throat from the shadows at the dugout’s far end. “Stay focused,” he said. “This is your team now. This is your game. Never give up.” He called out three names of the players scheduled to bat. Dave stood, responding to the third name called. The players clapped loud and in unison for a moment as their assistant coach loped to his spot along first base.

The cheering came to a slow end and Dave’s gaze wandered again through the wire mesh of a window behind him, to the fifth row bench behind home plate, and the girl sitting there.

He looked away when Holly glared again.

“No such things as ghosts,” he whispered. It became his mantra until a baseball cracked off a bat. The Ridgewood fans and players jumped to their feet and cheered as Danny Ryan’s base hit shot between the first and second basemen.

Dave put on his batter’s helmet and took his place inside the on-deck circle outside the dugout’s doorway.

Holly glowed with a heavenly whiteness … and chilled him from the hellish anger on her face.

She vanished from view when the fans in front of her jumped to their feet.

Tyler Jones had laced a hot bouncing double between left field and center field. The centerfielder caught up to the ball and threw it to his shortstop, keeping Danny Ryan from rounding third base and scoring.

The Yellow Jackets’ coach called for a pitcher change and Coach Walker lumbered over to Dave’s side.

“Rally time,” he said, huddling close to Dave. “Get the ball into the outfield. We need you to score Danny from third.”

Dave nodded and thought about Holly watching him. He had stayed away from her funeral and her gravesite. And now she was here, giving him the stink eye. She hated him. He looked down at the grass, ashamed.

“Hit to the outfield,” Coach Walker repeated. “You can do it. The new pitcher throws nothing but heat. Take the first pitch and study its speed. Then swing away.”

Dave nodded again.

Coach Walker slapped Dave’s helmet before he returned to his coaching spot.

“No such things as ghosts,” Dave said after the home plate umpire bellowed “Batter up.”

He shuffled his way inside the batter’s box. The catcher taunted him with “No batter no batter no batter.” Then he stumbled from the batter’s box, certain he had lost his mind.

The pitcher’s face looked like Holly’s.

“Batter up,” the umpire bellowed again.

Dave trembled as he stepped to the plate. Holly spat and glowered darkly at him from the pitcher’s mound.

The catcher taunted him again. A Yellow Jackets player demanded that the pitcher strike him out. Dave’s teammates countered with a plea for him to get a hit.

Dave swung his bat a couple of times to loosen up, then shot to the ground as a fastball raced at him and missed his head.

He choked on a scream as Holly flew at him and entered his body in a blast of wintry air.

“You killed me,” she screamed in his head.

Dave shut his eyes and grimaced from the pain. When it stopped, he and Holly stood at the downtown playground where she had pitched the murderous baseball to him last month. It had been a gloating demonstration on his part of how far he could hit the ball. But the ball had gone straight off his bat instead of lifting and sailing over the trees by the banks of Myers Creek. The ball struck her sternum and stopped her heart. His foolish showboating killed the girl he loved.

He recalled the old woman telling him to pray for the girl lying unconscious in the dirt.

I did pray. I prayed all night. But it did no good.

Darkness consumed him.

“You never came to my funeral,” Holly said from within the void. “You’ve never visited my grave.”

Dave turned in circles, trying to see Holly and pinpoint the direction of her voice. “I know,” he said. “I’m truly, truly sorry. I couldn’t bear to see you dead. Please forgive me.”

Another icy blast hit him.

“I cannot forgive a coward,” Holly said. Her voice was as painful as the chill knifing his bones.

His heart fluttered and stopped beating. He plummeted through the void and tried hard to inhale. He pushed the fear of death from his mind.

“You were everything to me. That’s why I got the tattoo.” He lifted his right arm. “Your name is inside the heart … my heart. I love you, Holly. I always will … forever.”

He struggled to tell her of when the tattoo became infected.

“I had to go to the ER. My parents were mad, but I’d do it again.”

His falling stopped. Warmth blanketed him and sweet air filled his lungs. He drank it in and gasped from the sudden euphoria he felt.

A hand gripped his left arm and pulled him from the darkness.

“Are you okay?” Coach Walker asked as he brought Dave to his feet.

Dave’s vision cleared but a headache pounded. Something like fingers massaged the inside of his skull until the headache eased to a dull throb.

“I’m good.” He dusted dirt from his uniform and picked up his bat. Then he waited for his coach to settle in the coach’s box before he stepped to the plate.

“You can do this.” Holly’s voice swirled like a gentle breeze around his head.

He grinned at the pitcher who no longer looked like Holly as he readied himself for the next pitch.

It came, large and white toward the center of his strike zone.

The Ridgewood dugout and bleachers erupted with cheers moments after he swung his bat at the pitch.

“Run,” Holly said. Again, her voice swirled like a gentle breeze around his head.

Dave dropped the bat and started toward first base, all the while watching the ball until it cleared the leftfield fence. Then he found his stride and circled the bases. His teammates mobbed him as soon as his feet touched home plate with the winning run.

An hour later, he sat at Holly’s grave and talked—mortal and spirit—until the sun slipped beneath the tree-lined slopes of Ridgewood Cemetery. A breeze stirred through the trees when he placed the homerun ball at the foot of Holly’s headstone. When it stopped, he headed home and embraced the memory of Holly’s love, knowing it would be with him … always.

*–*–*

Writing Time

I could write more books—and blog about them—if I had more time to write. My 9-to-5 job—the one that pays the bills—runs within a timeframe of 8:30am to 10pm, five of the seven days of the week. My hours worked during a week fall between 30 and 38 hours. A typical schedule looks like this: Saturday and Sunday, 8:30am–5:30pm, Monday and Wednesday, 1pm–10pm, and Thursday, 5:30pm–10pm. Those hours can switch so that another schedule can look like this: Saturday, 1pm–10pm, Sunday, 8:30am–5:30pm, Tuesday, 5:30pm–10pm, Wednesday, 1pm–10pm, and Thursday, 8:30am–5:30pm. As you can see, I am never scheduled to work on Friday because I requested that day off for doctor appointments, car maintenance, housework, and if time allows (which is rare), writing. As such, I get one guaranteed day of the week to write. One.

So what happens on that only day I’ve set aside for writing?

I begin the day by waking up no later than 9am and taking my morning medication for my thyroid disorder. Then, while I wait an hour before I can eat breakfast, I go over last week’s notes of whatever story project I’m working on and jot down any ideas that come to me.

10am, I eat breakfast, feed the dog, and take him outdoors for his morning constitutional.

11am, I get back to work on my story.

Noon, my wife calls from her babysitting job to chat about her morning. This usually lasts for 15 minutes, so I wash my breakfast dishes and pour a glass of juice. Sometimes I make tea. Then, when my wife is done, I hurry back to my writing, which usually lasts until 2 o’clock.

2pm, our dog needs to outside again. If the weather is nice, we run in the yard for 10 minutes. If not, it’s a quick trip off the porch so he can do his business, then it’s back to my writing for me and a nap for him.

2:20pm (some days), my daughter calls from work and asks me to watch her kids when they get out of school at 2:40pm. I say yes and force myself away from my story, which often has percolated into a bubbling action sequence that has me rubbing my hands together and chuckling diabolically.

3pm, my first grandchild shows up. He is always hungry, so we spend about 15 minutes in the kitchen, looking for foods that he likes to eat and isn’t allergic to. By that time, my second grandchild shows up, so we look for different foods for him to eat. He has no allergies, so it’s usually pb&j sandwiches. Then they argue over what to watch on TV while I pester them to do their homework first.

4pm, my two grandsons have lost interest in their school assignments, so I turn on TV and alternate between SpongeBob SquarePants and All Hail King Julien for the next 90 minutes.

5:30pm, my wife arrives home from babysitting and I return to my writing for an hour.

6:30pm, my daughter has picked up her children and my wife and I sit down to supper.

7pm, I spend another hour writing, unless something comes up (visitors, we have to run to the store, our daughter has an emergency at her house and needs a repairperson). Something always comes up.

8pm, I take the dog out and get ready for bed (unless our visitors haven’t left/our daughter’s emergency hasn’t been fixed).

9pm, bedtime, unless (see previous).

Overall, I get about 5 or 6 hours of writing done per week. I can get a few hours more writing done if I have a noneventful Friday or my day off from my 9-to-5 job falls on Saturday or Sunday, but rarely does either of those lucky events happen. It takes me about 700 hours to write a 300-page book. At 6 hours per week, that equals one book every 2.25 years if I don’t lose interest in the story along the way. My last 300-page book came out in 2014. You do the math.

Some of you may wonder why it takes me 700 hours to write a book. Below is a description of the sequences and drafts of my last book.

Draft 1 was the “Inspiration” draft. I wrote whatever came to mind until the story ended. It took 140 hours to write.

Draft 2 was a complete rewrite where I bled over getting the characters to seem real. That took 200 hours to do. Big name authors call this “fleshing the characters.” The title omits pumping lifeblood into your characters’ veins and giving each one a personality. When you change a character’s personality, you change the entire book.

Draft 3 took 98 hours to write after I showed Draft 2 to some of the writers group I belong to and considered their suggestions. As I mentioned earlier, when you change a character’s personality, you change the entire book. The same is true when you add a new supporting character.

Draft 4 was a continuation of Draft 3. This was after I put it aside for a month, then read it from the viewpoint of a reader. The trick here was not to start writing any new books in the same genre during this time, especially if the new book had reoccurring characters, which it did and influenced changes to my story when I took it from storage and read it. After fighting and holding those influences at bay, I strengthened the emotional parts of the story. I tend to shorthand emotions, so I had to get deep into the heads and hearts of my characters. The total time for Draft 4 of my last book took 130 hours.

At 568 hours, I wasn’t done.

After I eagerly presented Draft 4 to my writer friends with a promise “You’re gonna love it,” I licked my wounds and began Draft 5 where, if you’re familiar with Stephen King’s help book On Writing, you end up killing your darlings. So I butchered mine by chopping out chapters and scenes that were redundant and didn’t move the story toward the end, i.e., the boring parts. Most of these were downtime events where my main characters regrouped. Total time for Draft 5 was 102 hours.

After I wrote Draft 5, I contacted people from my writers groups who had read my earlier drafts and wanted to be my beta readers. Beta readers are people who provide honest feedback on your book. Best friends, spouses and family members are the worst beta readers. They’re predisposed to loving whatever you write—no matter how crappy it is. I contacted people who like reading the genre I write and, after I got five readers, I asked them for their opinions about what the liked and didn’t like about my book. After I collected their opinions, I began Draft 6, the final tweaking of my book. From their opinions, I looked at why certain things confused them. Many were story elements missing from my draft, so I corrected them. That took 70 hours. Then I let my ultimate beta reader—the one who was most brutal with my book—have the final lookover. Once a few more corrections were made—8 hours—I headed off to publish it.

Overall, the book took 748 hours to write.

I’m making no promises, but I hope to have another book written before 2018 ends. Maybe sooner, if I don’t lose interest and can squeeze more hours from my busy life.

Mundane Job Blues

I’m writing this before I leave for work. I have a 1-10pm shift today. Next month I celebrate 16 years at the store I work at. Celebrate is the wrong word. I don’t celebrate anything about my job. Well, maybe the paycheck. But that isn’t much to party over.

To say my job is depressing is an understatement. I wonder how high the suicide rate is in retail work. Probably high. Really high.

The worst part of my job is interacting with people. It’s important that I smile, be friendly, and make my customers feel relaxed and welcomed. I do that, pushing my depression down, deep inside me. It resides there with the anger I have from the little recognition I have received from my managers. 16 years of rarely getting a thank you or a job well done.

So I dip in the kindness still alive in my soul and make my customers feel welcomed and cared for … just to listen to them gripe about how awful the weather is, how awful the service is in other departments of the store, and how awful technology is. The last one is usually from people who don’t understand how their smartphones work. You see, I work in a photo center and many of today’s customers print pictures from their phones. The worst customers are the ones with iPhones. Apple thought it a good idea to make storing photos in clouds a default setting on their phones. And I get customers who have no idea what a cloud is, other than what sits in the sky when they gaze out their windows. Since I get a lot of these customers, and since I work alone because the company is skimping on hours to its employees to save a buck, I have little time to service all of my customers. Some of them complain to my managers, and I get to hear how I need to be a better employee.

Working in retail sucks.

Now, it’s time for me to push down my anger and put on my “happy” game face.

Until next time, this is Steve saying, “Is it too early in the year to take vacation?”

Another Year and Fixing My Blog

Yes. Another year.

As usual, I entered my WordPress blog after a long hiatus and spent the whole day redesigning my blog instead of writing. The artist is the true inner child in me—I love playing with design.

Anyway, I played all day with many themes, inspecting their positive and negative elements until I found a design with a high proportion of positive factors to make my blog look its best. I simplified my categories to Art Blog, Writing Blog, and Life Blog, which echo my blog’s underlying title: Art ~ Writing ~ Life.

Next on my agenda for 2018 is a plan to blog more … and as often as I can without it interrupting other agendas on my schedule. We’ll see. I make no promises—or resolutions—other than I have made more changes to my Ridgewood characters and progressed with Vree’s Margga’s Curse story, now called The Witch’s Curse, its working title when I first drafted the book.

You may remember from January 2017 that I planned to rewrite Margga’s Curse and publish it as a physical paperback at Amazon, which was to be the first book in The Ridgewood Chronicles series. That didn’t happen, so I’m extending that plan and aiming for a finished project by the end of the year.

But I make no promises.

Anyway, have a safe 2018 and live your life like there’s no tomorrow.