I’m afraid that I once again have to delay this week’s Story of the Week. Look for it first thing tomorrow, Wednesday, July 15.
I’ve reached a point where I think the problems I’m encountering with The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster are unsolvable. It’s kind of sad, since I’ve been working on this one since November 2005, but there are times when you need to recognize the inevitable and move on.
Fortunately I’ve got a new project in the works that I’m really excited about, tentatively called Memoirs of the Monster. I’m hoping to have the first draft completed by November, and ready for beta readers by February. There’s nothing that makes you feel better about euthanizing one project than having another exciting one in the works. I’ve already begun research and preliminary outlining. It’s going to be good. I had originally planned to write this one for this year’s National Novel Writing Month, but the energy is there, so I’ve decided to get moving, and work on something new for November.
Story of the Week Number 51, “Pushing Dogs (Part Two)”, is going to be late, I’m afraid. I’ve been in Seattle this past weekend and haven’t had a chance to finish the story. Look for it on Tuesday morning!
My writers’ group met last night, and since we had no manuscripts to review this month, we decided to simply have a small potluck get together, and probably just chat for awhile. One of our members suggested that we all bring in some of our earliest writings, just for the sake of a laugh or an appreciate nod, or possibly a nervous glance or two. So since I was working at home today I took my afternoon break to go through my oldest writing files to dig up a series of stories I wrote when I was eleven to thirteen years old about a private investigator named Fizziwinker.
I don’t know where the name Fiiziwinker came from. I didn’t know when I was a kid, and I certainly have no clue now. I think it’s a cool name, though. In fact, these stories are full of names like that: Fizziwinker; Foithbinder; Whicklewrecker; Brad Bockley, Thirty years later I still have fun saying these names out loud.
Fizziwinker worked alone, but he was also part of an international organization of private detectives called the Polties. Every now and then he would get together with one of them or even a team to solve crimes together. And while lawyer Brad Bockley was usually the criminal mastermind behind the mysteries, I did at one point have the criminal mastermind turn out to be Robert Phalen, the head of the Polties himself. Not to blow my own horn, but I think that my little thirteen year old head was pretty darn sophisticated.
I wrote nine of these stories overall, including a few that are sadly missing completely:
- “Fizziwinker and the Case of the Missing Turkey” (1978) was written for a class assignment, and is gone forever. I remember that it was heavily influenced by the Encyclopedia Brown mystery stories, though.
- “Fizziwinker and the Case of the Teddy Bear with a Hole in its Head” (1978) is the oldest one I have. In this story, mischievous lawyer Brad Bockley attempts to intimidate the widow Whicklewrecker into signing her inheritance over to him, by shooting her son’s teddy bear. The most frustrating thing about this story is that the last page is missing, and I have no idea how it ended.
- “The Maltese Chicken” (1978). I don’t quite recall what this one is about.
- “The Mystery of the Paw Print in the Jell-O” (1979). In this one, Brad Bockley returns with a nefarious plot to take over the world with his army of mutant toy poodles.
- “The Mystery of the Empty Suits” (1979). Another one which I remember writing, but I have no idea what it was about.
- “A Scandal in Disneyland” (1980). My sister Leona suggested the title and the plot for this one, but again I don’t remember the plot. I do remember that this is the first one in which the Polties show up.
- “The Fortune Cookie Scoundrel” (1981). Another missing one. In this one, I believe Brad Bockley tried to take over the world by inserting depressing fortunes into fortune cookies, thus depressing people into submission.
- “The Theft of the Declaration of Independence” (1981). Another one whose plot I forget, but the title is probably self-explanatory.
- “The Hopeless Diamond” (1981). Obviously a missing diamond caper.
- “The Secret of Foithbinder Manor” (1982). In this one, Mrs. Whicklewrecker inhereits a house from her late husband. Unfortunately, the house appears to be haunted, so her plans to tear it down to replace it with a parking lot are foiled. It turns out, though, that a mysterious figure named Joe Feegan was behind the haunting, because he knew that Abraham Lincoln had originally owned the house. Mrs. Whicklewrecker decides not to turn the house down. And in a startling twist, it turns out that the house is really haunted after all.
In addition to the stories above, I also had a novel planned, The Mystery of Captain Hawk’s Treasure, but I never got around to writing that.
I tried getting these stories published in venues like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, but, unsurprisingly, they never sold. I couldn’t understand why. At the time I thought I was writing serious crime fiction, possibly with a comic element or two, but serious overall (did I mention I was eleven when I started writing these)? When a friend of my grandmother’s said that these stories were among the best children’s stories he’d seen I was outright insulted.
For years, these stories have sat in my files, unlooked at and unorganized. Looking back at them now, though, I’m kind of wondering if there might be a future for these stories after all. They would need some editing, but just maybe my grandmother’s friend was on to something after all.
HEART OF GOLD
©2009 by Richard S. Crawford
about 1,300 words
Francesca saw the man with two heads on I-90, just outside of Gillette, Wyoming. The empty plains of the Midwest are full of weird things, mostly at night, but sometimes in the middle of the day as well, so Francesca expected strange things to happen whenever she drove that route. A two-headed man was not among the expected occurrences.
He was thumbing her down, hitching for a ride, with two left arms, and that also piqued her curiosity. She pulled her pickup truck to the shoulder, fully expecting that there would be trouble, ready for it, and rolled down the passenger side window.
“Need a lift?” she called out.
The two-headed man came over to the car and leaned inward. Both heads peered at her. All three hands rested on the edge of the window. “Hey, man, you going my way?”
Francesca shrugged. “I don’t know. Where are you going?”
“Just a few miles down the road. My spaceship’s out there, see, and I’d better get back to it before Marvin tries to take it apart again.” The two-headed man opened the door and climbed into the truck. “Man, this chair is really uncomfortable.”
“Well, it’s only meant for one-headed people, you know.”
“Yeah, I dig that. Hoopy.”
Francesca revved the engine and pulled back onto the highway. “So. A spaceship, huh?”
“Yeah. Big one, too. Nice and shiny.”
“Where is it?”
“In a field a couple miles away. Say, what’s your name?”
“Francesca Alvarez. What’s yours? And why are you hitchhiking here so far away from your spaceship?”
“Zaphod Beeblebrox. And I was just checking out the scene. Looking for something to eat.”
Francesca blinked. She looked again at her passenger. The two heads, the three arms… Yep, it made sense, and she wondered that she hadn’t made the connection before. “Zaphod Beeblebrox? Like in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books? Are you on your way to a convention or something?”
“Convention? No way, man, I’m the real Zaphod Beeblebrox. You wouldn’t believe how many times people ask me that. You people here are so crazy. Oh hey, there’s my space ship way up there in the distance, see?”
Francesca peered through the windshield. All she could see was a grass-covered hill in the middle of a pasture. “All I see is a hill,” she said. “You’re ship’s called Heart of Gold, right?”
“Yeah. It sort of turned into a hill when it landed, and now it can’t take off again.”
“Can’t you just get inside and activate the Infinite Improbability drive? That should fix it right up, right? Or at least turn it into something a little more useful?” Francesca was having fun with this. It felt like she had stumbled into a live action role-playing game. Like How to Host a Murder, only with characters from the old BBC television series.
“You ever try to get inside a hill and fly it around? It’s like, really hard.”
Francesca nodded. “You’re probably right about that. But I’ve got a shovel in the back that I could let you borrow. You could dig your way in.”
“Oh, hey that would be great.”
They drove along in silence for a few minutes. Francesca kept sneaking glances at her passenger. “Your costume is magnificent,” she said at length. “That second head looks so real. I mean, it matches your facial expressions and everything. Must have cost you thousands of dollars, at least.”
Zaphod glared at Francesca with his left head while keeping his right head staring out at the world beyond the truck. “Are you kidding? This head’s just as real as this one.” He pointed at each head in turn.
Francesca stifled a laugh. “Okay, Zaphod, whatever you say. Are all of your friends with you?”
“Yeah and they’re all as freaked out about everything as I am.”
“What’s there to be freaked out about?”
Both of Zaphod’s heads looked uncomfortable. “Well, you know, Marvin said it was bound to happen sometime. What with all the infinite number of universal possibilities, and all, there’s bound to be a universe where there’s still an Earth and they know about us there and they all think we’re just fictional characters. You think we’re not real but we are. We’re totally real, baby.”
“Okay, sure. But you really are just characters in books. And a television series and a movie, too.”
“Yeah, but there’s the thing, you know? We’re real, actual people. Not fiction. If anything, I’m larger than life, so not just fiction.”
“Sure, Zaphod. Whatever you say.”
They drove in silence a few moments longer until they were alongside the hill that Zaphod had said was his spaceship.
“You want to come out and meet the gang?” Zaphod asked.
Francesca looked out at the field. Four people milled about the hill. A woman with blond hair, wearing a tight red outfit, spoke urgently to a man who wore a bathrobe and pajamas. Francesca identified them as Trillian and Arthur Dent, respectively. Another man, wearing loud, ostentatious clothing — Ford Prefect, obviously — argued with someone in a brilliantly authentic Marvin costume. The costume looked just like the one in the original TV series. All of them looked exactly like the characters as they were portrayed in the series.
Francesca was impressed with the detail and completeness of the costumes. And with how much time they must have spent putting these costumes together;
“Come on, they’re the hoopiest froods in the galaxy, man. Even Monkey Man has his moments, you know?”
Francesca smirked. “Thanks, but I’ve got a real life to get back to. You can just grab the shovel and keep it. I’ve got a lot more at home.”
Zaphod shrugged. “Suit yourself. But thanks for the shovel.” He climbed out of the truck and slammed the door shut behind him; it wasn’t an angry slam, just the slam of a person who didn’t care whether the door behind him slammed shut or whispered shut on a gentle hydraulic cushion. Francesca half expected the door to utter a contented, “Thank you for using this door.”
She had only driven a few yards when the world went wonky. The truck lurched forward as if shoved from behind, and an intense blue light flickered bright in the air, like the flash from the biggest camera ever built.
Francesca stopped the truck and looked behind her.
Nothing there but a flat, empty field.
She scratched her head, trying to remember something. She’d shared her truck for a few minutes with an odd person, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember who it was. And there was something about a television show, wasn’t there? And a series of books? The answer was right on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t bring it forward.
She shrugged and started up the truck again. Maybe she’d remember soon what it was she’d forgotten. But it probably wasn’t all that important.
She drove on, watching the sunrise, and thinking that it really was a wonderful world after all.
This was Story of the Week Number 42; and 42, of course, is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, as revealed to us by Deep Thought, the massive computer in Douglas Adams’s seminal novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So, since it’s 42, I figured I should write a story which somehow at least touches on that series.
But as I was preparing to write this story, I also discovered that today, May 11, is the eighth anniversary of Mr. Adams’s death. Learning about his death was one of the Serious Moments in my life. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard about the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle; I can remember exactly where I was when I heard about the death of Jerry Garcia; and I can remember exactly where I was when I heard about the death of Douglas Adams (for the record, a cheap hotel in the heart of Glasgow, Scotland, a mile or so away from Marks and Spencer, where I bought the tackiest towel I could find in the man’s honor). The coincidence — that my 42nd Story of the Week would be published on the anniversary of the death of the very man who revealed the importance of that number to us — simply could not go unremarked upon. It was as though the Infinite Improbability Drive was active and flying through my life, dropping off improbable coincidences right and left. So I wrote this story, which had actually been brewing in my head for a very long time.
I’m not terribly happy with this story, though. It’s hard to write about characters who were so well-developed by someone else, widely loved by so many people. I did my best to capture Zaphod Beeblebrox’s character, but I’m not sure I did such a great job.
And, finally, remember that two weeks from today, May 25, is Towel Day. So carry a towel with you on that day in honor of one of the finest humorists of the twentieth century.
At a recent meeting of our writers’ group, my friend Leonard Pung (who, by the way, is currently attending Clarion, the lucky dog!) referred to my twenty-eighth story of the week, “Code Zombie“, as a “feathered fish”. When I asked him what he meant by this, he told me it’s a term used in genre media. Essentially, it means a work of fiction that can’t quite decide what genre it’s supposed to be; or, more technically, when the target audience reads it or views it, they think it’s for another target audience. In the case of “Code Zombie”, he couldn’t quite figure out whether it was supposed to be a comedic romance story with some elements of horror, or a horror story with some elements of comedic romance.
Later, another conversation with another member of our writers’ group made me think about genre fiction versus literary fiction. I also thought about how some writers, whose works could technically be considered horror, fantasy, or science fiction, often find their books marketed in the general / literary section of the bookstore, rather in the genre you might think. For example, Christopher Moore (currently my favorite writer), whose books could be considered horror or science fiction or fantasy by some folks, usually end up in general or literary fiction, because that’s the way he writes. He writes mainstream fiction, fiction about regular people, with elements of genre fiction in them. His novels Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck might be about vampires, but their real focus is the characters and the relationships between them. They’re novels about people who just happen to be vampires, rather than novels about vampires who just happen to be people. The difference is subtle, but it’s the difference between the book being found in general / literary fiction, or in the horror / fantasy / science fiction section. It also means a difference in sales (though I, of course, being of a higher caliber morality than most people, don’t care about the money).
So, because it’s all about me after all, I found myself thinking about what kind of fiction I want to write. I enjoy horror fiction, of course, but I could read a dozen horror novels and not have any of them stand out in my mind; but a good character-driven story, well told, with warmth and sensitivity and humor, will stand out more. Such stories are harder to write, I think, because focusing on human beings and their relationships is more difficult than focus on than what monsters do. Vampires? Werewolves? Zombies? Tentacled monsters from beyond the stars? Those are easy to write. A couple whose been married for forty-seven years and now dealing with the husband’s rejection of their gay son thirty years ago while zombies march across their suburbs? Much harder.
The world is full of broken, funny, damaged, wonderful people, and I think I’d prefer, in the long run, to write about them. And the zombies that surround them, too. But mostly about the people.
I’m not at all afraid to promote myself, nor to promote the fact that Shimmer magazine interviewed me. I suppose, however, that if I were a more aggressive self promoter, I’d be going out and forcing myself onto the set of Oprah or The Daily Show and getting myself arrested, on the theory that any publicity is good publicity. Alas, I have a job and can’t afford to take time off from it for jail time.
While browsing through my hard drive today trying to ignore this stupid headache (which has, at least, responded to a bit of directed meditation), I came across an interview I did with Insight, a local news radio show aired by Capitol Public Radio, Sacramento’s NPR affiliate. I’d love to say that the interview was a detailed insight into my creative processes and a must-listen for anyone who wants to know the Full And Complete Story Of Famous Author Richard S. Crawford, but it’s actually a story they aired on November 30, 2006 about National Novel Writing Month. Still, in case you want to hear the sound of my voice and want to hear what I’d be like reading an excerpt of one of my own novels (specifically, The Return of Deacon Dread, which honestly has yet to see the light of my green editing pen), please give it a listen.[audio:http://www.mossroot.com/worlds/audio/rcinterview.mp3]
Issue #10 of Shimmer, which includes my short story, “The Bride Price”, is now available. Because it’s the tenth issue, the publishers are celebrating by making the electronic version available for free on their website. Woo hoo! More exposure for my story! (And, I suppose, the other ones as well.) Download the electronic version here. Of course, you can also purchase the print edition from the same page.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this term. I like to think that I am, though, so I’m going to claim that I am. “NaNoCruft”. It’s the term I use to refer to the bits of prose that you used to fatten up your word count when writing your National Novel Writing Month (or, NaNoWriMo) novel. It’s the stuff that, even two revisions later, causes one of the members of your writers’ group to say, “Huh. You wrote this during NaNoWriMo, didn’t you?”
NaNoWriMo is, for the uninitiated, all about writing a novel in one month. For the purposes of the project, a novel is defined as a work of fiction 50,000 words or more in length. It’s a pretty arbitrary target, but it seems to work for many thousands of people worldwide every November. The number of participants worldwide has been steadily increasing since it was started by Chris Baty in 1999; and the number of “winners” — people who actually make it to the 50,000 word mark and beyond — has also increased. A few published novels, including the bestselling Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, started out life as NaNoWriMo novels, and I think that the majority of the participants in NaNoWriMo share the dream of publishing their novel, having it become a bestseller, be optioned for a film, and so on. It’s why so many of us go on after November to either finish up the novel (it’s common for participants to complain that even though they reached the 50,000 word mark, their story is still far from complete), or to edit it. Some have even gone on to designate every February as NaNoEdMo, and there are usually at least a couple thousands participants in that as well.
Because the emphasis of NaNoWriMo is on quantity and not quality, there are a number of tricks that participants use to pad out their word count, and it’s this padding that ends up being “NaNoCruft” when it isn’t removed during subsequent edits. In my own novel, The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster, which started out as my 2005 NaNoWriMo novel (and I’m still working on it nearly four years novel? Ouch), readers in my novelists’ group have identified several habits that count as “NaNoCruft”. Excessive ruminating, for example; my characters frequently ruminate on events that have already transpired. This ends up with the same events being told two or more times. An attack by monsters is not just shown, but the characters involved talk about it amongst themselves, think about it, and whenever a point of view is shifted, the characters ruminate about it again. And again. And again. I’ve tried to eliminate most of this rumination, but some still remains, and that’s NaNoCruft. Characters of mine also make long speeches about irrelevant topics. This, too, is NaNoCruft. Extraneous characters show up and do things that aren’t relevant to the action of the novel. More NaNoCruft.
NaNoCruft is difficult to eliminate. Plenty of writers fall deeply in love with their own words, with their own clever turns of phrases, with their own characters, and so on; so to eliminate any of them can feel like amputation without any sort of anesthesia. It hurts, so they try to avoid it. And because writers are so deeply entrenched in their work, they have blind spots to their own faults. I certainly do, and that makes it hard for me to track down and eliminate my own NaNoCruft. I’m always surprised when a member of my novelists’ group points out a passage in a draft of STSM and say, “This shows me you wrote it during NaNoWriMo.”
Thus, with its focus on just getting 50,000 words written, regardless of whether or not they’re good words, NaNoWriMo can encourage bad habits for writers that are difficult for the writer to see, much less get rid of. This is not to say that NaNoWriMo is a bad idea. I’ve participated every year since 2001 (skipping 2002), and each year I’ve hit that 50,000 word mark. I fully intend to participate this year. For the last two years I’ve served as the co-municipal liaison for our area, and I plan on doing it again.
NaNoWriMo is great for writers who need a boost getting their project started, or who just want to get some words down. Or who just want to say, “Hey! I wrote a book!” But finding and eliminating the NaNoCruft that creeps into my own novels can more difficult than imagined. So I think that for 2009, the main challenge I’ll set for myself in NaNoWriMo is to avoid as much NaNoCruft as possible during the actual writing, so that when I set to the task of editing the project later on, there will be that much less work for me to do.