Friday Flash Fiction: The Bookstall

God help me, I’ve joined a Facebook group. It’s called Friday Flash Fics and presents a photo as a writing prompt, with responses to the photo posted every Friday.

You know, because I haven’t obligated myself to enough things already. But seriously, it’s good exercise for me. I’m not great at flash fiction, so these will probably be more like vignettes or scenes than fully fleshed out stories, but I’ll do my best.

So, here’s the image prompt for this week:

London riverside with Big Ben in background

This made me think of Detours. It’s been six years since my first novel came out. (Time flies, doesn’t it? Sure, it’s been six years, but you can still add it to your Goodreads shelf.) Readers may recall that it starts with the narrator, Joel, coming home from a stellar vacation… in London. Where he met a guy. That meeting happened offstage, as it were. But maybe it went something like this:

The Bookstall

Joel’s hand lingered over the Woolf, an old edition, the slipcover scuffed with a tear in it. If he lifted it to his nose, he expected it would smell musty.

He looked up, staring across the river and trying to calculate how much room he had in his suitcase and whether he should be buying books at all. In the aisle across from him, another man looked up.

It was one of those awkward moments where two people catch each other’s eye—not staring, but obvious that each has seen the other. There’s always two choices: look quickly away and pretend it didn’t happen, or…

“So, what’s caught your interest?” the man asked. It took Joel a moment to realize he meant the book. Joel held it up.

Mrs. Dalloway? Never read it. Wasn’t that a movie?”

English accent, a bonus for Joel on top of the dark hair, the stubble along the square jaw.

“The book’s better,” Joel said. “The book’s always better.”

The man looked surprised. “You’re American.”

“Guilty as charged. What are you getting?”

The man held up a Dan Brown, and Joel’s optimism fell a little. “Wasn’t that a movie?”

The man nodded. “Somehow I doubt that the book is better, but…” He glanced down at the stalls in front of him. “I imagine it’s more gripping than The Joy of Soufflé.”

Joel recognized an opportunity. “Hey, don’t knock soufflés.” He moved to the end of his aisle and circled around to stand next to the man. He picked up the cookbook and started leafing through it. “I make a pretty mean souffle.”

He was only half looking at the cookbook. Glancing sideways, Joel slid his gaze along the man’s torso, taking in the wisp of black hair at the neck of his t-shirt, plain white, on his way down the v of his half-zipped track jacket.

“You’re a cook?” the man asked. Joel shook his head.

“Only to keep from starving. I work in marketing. Do you cook?” I bet we could cook was what he was thinking.

“The best thing I make is reservations.” The man set down the Dan Brown and extended his hand. “Philip.”

“Joel.” The handshake lingered for maybe half a second longer than appropriate, and Joel wondered where the British reserve was that he’d heard so much about. Somewhere other than here, he figured. Thankfully.

“Do you have plans this evening?” Philip asked.

If he had, Joel fully intended to cancel them. “No, why?”

“Would you like to go to dinner? There’s a wonderful Italian place in my neighbourhood.”

In his neighbourhood possibly meant close enough to home that they didn’t have to have dessert out. “I love Italian.”

Philip scribbled his name and number and the address of the restaurant on a receipt he pulled from his wallet. Another handshake, a charmingly crooked grin and Philip was off. Joel watched him walk away, admiring the view, and hoped his vacation might end on a high note after all.

What is your first best destiny?

There’s a moment in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the best of the Star Trek films, if you ask me) when Spock offers Admiral Kirk command of the Enterprise. Spock has captained the ship as a teacher of cadets on a training cruise. If they’re going into combat, though, Kirk should take command. Kirk demurs, but Spock gently and logically persists. Eventually, he says it was a mistake for Kirk to accept promotion to the admiralty. “Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else… is a waste of material.”

This line is one of two that has stayed with me since I first saw the movie in 1982. (The other line, also from Spock, is: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” I don’t always agree with that one, however.

(Have I mentioned that I’m a huge nerd? Huge. MASSIVE. You may not have caught that yet.)

Answer the question, Spock.
Continue reading “What is your first best destiny?”

Yes, Coming Out Still Matters

I usually try to confine my posts here to writing, books, and Captain Janeway, but It’s National Coming Out Day in the U.S., and I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that I’m gay.

Gay gay gay gay gay.

Like, realllly gay. (Seriously, ask me about my Wonder Woman bracelets sometime.)

But anyway. Does something like that still matter? Yes, if you’ll pardon my language, it fucking matters. Continue reading “Yes, Coming Out Still Matters”

Five Things I Learned by Failing at This Novel

They (that ambiguous, omnipresent “they”) always say that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. Unfortunately, it’s true. Equally unfortunate for me, I just got reminded of that recently.

I’ve been talking a lot about the as-yet-unnamed sequel to The Unwanted over the past three years. Recently, I came to a decision: I’m shelving it. Or rather, putting it in the drawer. Well, even that’s a metaphor. It consists mainly of a collection of files on my hard drive that I’m going to drag into a folder labeled “Abandoned.”

No, really, I have a folder labeled “Abandoned.” See?

Screenshot of my writing folder with a subfolder titled "Abandoned"

There’s tons of stuff in there. TONS, I tell you.

Here’s the thing, though. I feel pretty good about this decision. I wish I’d come to it sooner, as I’ve gone back and forth on it several times in the last few months. In the process of making the decision, though, I realized a few things:

Don’t go back to the same dry well.

The Unwanted got some nice reviews, including a really positive one at the American Library Association’s GLBT Reviews website. I’m really proud of that one. But the book didn’t really find a significant audience, certainly not in the way that would justify going back and revisiting these characters (and working out just how to get some of them back on the stage for a sequel). There’s also the risk—and this alone is not a reason not to write a sequel—that what happens to them in a follow-up novel could alienate readers who were perfectly happy to let the story end where it did.

I’m not gonna lie. I think I knocked it out of the park with that book. If it ends there, I’m happy.

Don’t fall for the sunk costs bias.

Like I said, I’ve been working on the sequel for well over three years. You might think after that long, I’d be in the frame of mind to just get behind this thing and shove it across the finish line. But that would mean at least a few more months before I had a draft I felt comfortable turning in, and then another several months with all the requisite edits, proofreads, and so on before it even came out. Of course, the job doesn’t end with publication day, either. There’s promotion and readings and everything that goes into getting a book noticed and in people’s hands. 

This is not me complaining. I love doing that stuff. And this isn’t me complaining about The Unwanted not being the success I’d hoped it would be. This is me working out tough choices about where to focus my limited time and resources for the good of my writing practice.

Don’t wait to start on the next thing.

I might feel bad about the decision to shelve something I’d worked on for three years if I hadn’t already started four more novels in the meantime. One of them is in revision, another is a very rough, incomplete draft waiting for me to sift through it, the third is a forty-five page story that I wrote in grad school that doesn’t want to be a short story, and the fourth is an idea that’s just starting to take shape in a composition notebook. If I find myself wondering “what now?” I know I’ve got options.

Don’t draw your self-worth too much from any one project.

Or any one part of your life. In addition to my aforementioned facility with ardha chandrasana, I’m a pretty good cook and a more than passable bread baker. I’m also not half bad at Scrabble and, according to a former boss, I have an unusually good recall of the Associated Press Stylebook. When a writing project is giving me fits, I know that I can go into the kitchen and bake a cake and make buttercream frosting with my eyes basically closed, and I can get a batch of homemade pickles started, no problem. I may not be able to string two sentences together at times, but at least I won’t starve. Also, I can hold plank for two and a half minutes, which helps counteract the cake.

Don’t throw away anything.

I could just as easily have dragged all those files to the trash folder and clicked “empty trash.” But I didn’t. Even though the novel won’t ever see the light of day in its current form, there’s something in it that kept drawing me back… and I don’t think it had anything to do with Jamie and Billy. There’s a story within it that’s not the one that I was trying to tell, but it’s one that I might want to try telling later.

This year has pretty much been about embracing rejection. And I would say that embracing failure is a companion on the journey, and maybe the more important one. Do the things that seem impossible. Write the stories when you don’t know how they’ll end. Fail bigger. Fail often. Try again. Eventually succeed.

What I don’t regret is spending more time with these characters, even if it was just them and me. I’m still very fond of Jamie, Billy and Sarah. I don’t think that’ll ever change. I hope it never does.

Kids aren’t the only ones who should get a summer break

Have I mentioned lately that I’m revising two novels? Yes, two; one two buckle my shoe novels. One is the as-yet unnamed sequel to The Unwanted, and the other is a revision of the near-future dystopian speculative fiction I wrote in grad school. For many industrious and talented writers I know, this would be no big whoop.

I am not one of those writers, however.

Anyway, my goal is to finish these revisions by the end of the summer, so I’m taking a temporary break from here (and yes, I know “temporary break” is redundant, but I can live with that, and so can you). So that I can focus (something I always have problems with, as you know if you’ve read, like, anything I’ve posted here), I’ve also deleted a whole slew of apps to make my smartphone as dumb as possible. I’ve caught up on all my must-see TV (which, granted, isn’t much) so that I can ignore all the other things piling up on the DVR, and I’m not going to even think about seeing what’s new on Netflix.

At the moment, as in last week and this one, I’m focusing on the as-yet unnamed sequel to The Unwanted. (At some point, I really should come up with a title, shouldn’t I? What do you think of Prophecy Sucks? No? Maybe?) I finished revising chapter 15 this weekend, and chapter 16 in its current form is a bit, well, sketchy. There are lots of bracketed notes to myself that say helpful things like “[FIX THIS]” or “[MORE HERE],” Will I get them both done before September? Maybe not. Probably not. Maybe I’ll get one of them in the can, though, and the other one farther along than it is now. We shall see. Wish me luck!

In the meantime, maybe you’ll find something worth reading in the archives. I’m going through them and clearing out some of the mundane stuff from the early years, but I’m also working on organizing the rest of it into more helpful categories. Because good heavens, looking back at posts from 2006 and 2007, it’s like Captain Kirk opening that storage unit on Space Station K-7 and getting buried under an avalanche of Tribbles….

Finding writing inspiration… at a leather convention?

You never know when inspiration is going to cross your path. In my case, I never would have expected inspiration for my young adult writing to arrive at a leather convention.

Let me back up. Recently, we went to Chicago to visit my friend Scott. He’s a photographer and a good friend I originally got to know through blogging. Yes, it was that long ago. Blogging was still a thing, dinosaurs roamed the earth, and we all drove Model Ts. We’ve known each other for about 15 years, but I hadn’t seen him since before I went to grad school. So five, maybe six years. This is far too long, and I hadn’t been to Chicago in about as long a time, and he’d just recently moved there. So, up we went.

Amid all of our sightseeing and museum-going and dining and cocktailing (is “cocktailing” a verb? Well, it is now), Scott also was scheduled to promote a book of erotic photography that he’d published and was getting ready to publish a second edition. So he had to work a shift at the book table at International Mr. Leather.

Yes, that IML.
Continue reading “Finding writing inspiration… at a leather convention?”

A story: Murder on the Midway

cover of Men of the Mean StreetsThis story was a step outside of my comfort zone, something that my editor Greg Herren has always encouraged me to do. He’s commented how funny it is when writers are approached to contribute to an anthology outside their usual genre, the frequent response is “oh, I don’t write mystery/noir/horror/erotica/literary clown fiction.” (I made up that last one, but it’s got potential, don’t you think? No? Just me? Let’s move on, then.)

Where was I? Oh right, stepping outside of your comfort zone. Instead of responding “I don’t write that,” Greg told me, you might consider “I’ve never tried that before.” You never know what you’re going to enjoy writing.

Continue reading “A story: Murder on the Midway”

What the things I repeat tell me about my focus

As a writer and someone who writes about writing (insert obligatory “dancing about architecture”-type comment here), there are two things that I tend to worry about more often than all the other things I worry about: repetition and focus.

This applies to my fiction writing as well as whatever half-baked principles and ideas about writing I may spout off. (Just kidding; all my ideas are fully baked.) Case in point: in one of my fiction workshops in graduate school. When my story was up for discussion, a friend of mine* started off by saying, “This has the trifecta of a Jeffrey Ricker story: love, longing, and loss.” As the discussion went on, I missed a few things because I kept wondering, wait, is this story a retread? Am I just writing the same thing over and over?

It was a different story from all the others I’d submitted that year—different characters, plots, settings. However, as I mentally scrolled through my pile of stories for that class, it was true. I was writing about people longing for other people, losing other people, and loving and unloving other people.

Love, longing, loss. Surely there’s more to the world than that, isn’t there? On the other hand, those three things count for a lot, don’t they?

When I sit down to write a blog entry about writing—about the things I think about when it comes to writing—at some point in the process I usually flip back through the last few entries I’ve written to confirm that I’m not rewriting the same thing I wrote a month or three months (or six months) earlier. And sometimes, while it’s not word-for-word the same, the topics and the points are… well, familiar.

photo by Matthew Hamilton, Unsplash

Continue reading “What the things I repeat tell me about my focus”

A story, “Multiverse” at Phoebe Journal

I submitted the story “Multiverse” to Phoebe Journal, the litmag of George Mason University, for their fiction contest. While it didn’t win, apparently the contest readers liked it enough that they named it their Reader’s Choice entry. Here’s the first bit:

You learn about the multiverse theory from your Facebook feed, when a story about it appears above a photo someone posts of your best friend from high school. It’s unexpected, that photo. He’s in his forties, like you, and he looks almost the same as back then…and yet, not. It takes a moment to pinpoint: His smile doesn’t reach his eyes. He used to smile with his whole body, his eyes most of all. Not now.

His sadness makes you wonder, and the multiverse theory makes you think about worlds in which you tried to kiss him….

Phoebe's issue 46.2 contains my story 'Multiverse'

It’s not a long story at all. You can read the rest of it here. There’s more fabulous writing available there, too.

I’m not so much proud of this story as bemused by it. It seemed to be one of those that emerged almost whole, unbidden, out of the ether. Mind you, I don’t really think writing works that way. A kernel of this idea has been in the back of my mind since—well, since high school, if you must know. It just needed the right spark to catch fire, honestly. Lucky for me, a friend’s Facebook post (back before I ditched my personal Facebook profile) provided the necessary catalyst.

I also need to thank my friend, fellow writer Ruth Daniell, for her valuable feedback on it before I sent it in. (Ruth is a fantastic writer, by the way; you should read anything she publishes.)

I hope you enjoy it.