New Short Story – “Puffery”

Remember last month when I said I was doing the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest? My first story, “The Nickel Tour,” was good enough to get me through to the second round. Now the results are in for that one and, well, I won’t make it to the third round. “Puffery” garnered an honorable mention, but didn’t place in the top 5 (out of 25 in the group). Given that it was outside my usual genre and style, I’m still pretty pleased with it.

For this round, my group was assigned to write a political satire on the subject of medical tourism, with a warlord character in it. After a false start I slipped into the right mode and wrote something that is definitely influenced by the time and place in which I wrote it. It also allowed me to create a character that I think I want do more with in the future.

Until then, enjoy!

Puffery

Milo slipped into the Trapezoidal Office just as the Generalissimo said, “what’s in the bay?”

Advisors were arrayed around the room, each clutching papers and trying to hide behind one another. Milo didn’t even recognize some of the faces. He’d made the right decision not bothering to learn names. What was the point? They’d be gone soon enough.

“A plague ship, sir,” the Minister of Defense said.

“From America,” threw in Kevefe, the Generalissimo’s son-in-law. Educated in America, married to the Generalissimo’s beloved eldest daughter, he was the one the man always tasked with doing anything important, from managing the Generalissimo’s properties to trying to negotiate treaties. His title should have been Minister of Everything. “They’re having a plague. It’s whipping through the south right now, like Sherman a generation ago.”

The American south was the closest large land mass to Oflana, the small island the Generalissimo had made his stronghold. It wasn’t even at large as Charleston, the nearest American city.

“And why are they here?” the Generalissimo asked, putting his elbows on his desk. It was enormous, made of dark walnut with ornate carvings of mythical sea creatures on each leg. He  told people it was made from the beams of the British frigate that Sadont, the national hero of Oflana, boarded and captured when the island won its independence. He would take any opportunity to tie himself to that legend. The truth of the desk, so far as anybody could tell all, is that the Generalissimo had found it in an estate sale in Savannah during one of his “diplomatic” missions.

“Because we are a day’s steamship voyage from Charleston,” Defense said. “Perhaps two, depending on weather.”

The Generalissimo looked as confused as ever. “But why now?”

Milo knew how this dance worked. The Generalissimo worked through the problem in his own time and in his own peculiar way. Everyone would have their say, but he had to make the final decision, even if everyone else knew it was the wrong one. Milo decided he had to goose the process along.

“Sir?” He raised his hand like a grade school child.

“Yes, Minister of Information?” the Generalissimo said, slightly slurring his words.

“Sir, that ship is here because of what you said on the radio last week.” Every week the Generalissimo took over the island’s five radio stations for his Voice of Oflana broadcasts. Ranging from five minutes to five hours, depending on his mood that particular day, it was his chance to talk to his people, who had little choice but to listen.

“Last week?” The Generalissimo looked at Kevefe, squinting, like he was trying to dredge the memory from the depths of his mind.

“You talked about the plague in America, how their hospitals and doctors couldn’t cope,” Kevefe said. “Things of that nature.”

“Due respect, sir,” Milo said before the Generalissimo could move on, “it was much more than that.”

The Generalissimo looked at him, slumped in his seat, hands outstretched. “How much more?”

Milo took a deep breath. “You also discussed the medical system here on Oflana. You called it the best in the world.”

“Of course,” the Generalissimo said. “We only have the best things here in Oflana.”

Milo knew that might be true for the Generalissimo and his family, but that for the rest of them modern medical treatment was more hope than reality. He pushed on anyway, leaving truth bloodied in a ditch yet again. “You also said the plague would not strike Oflana,” Milo closed his eyes and quoted verbatim, “because it knows in its heart that we have the medicine to kill it.” It was times like this that Milo cursed his eidetic memory.

“So?”

The Minister of Health sheepishly raised his hand. “Sir, that pronouncement may have been premature.”

“Are you suggesting I lied?” the Generalissimo said, slowly rising from his chair, his ever expanding girth straining the medal-covered white uniform he was wearing.

Health’s eyes went wide, but before he could defend himself the hammer came down.

“You’re fired!” the Generalissimo boomed, pointing to the door with great emphasis. “Get out!”

“Sir, I,” Health began to say.

“Do I need to call for Boze?” the Generalissimo said, invoking the name of his security chief, a massive islander who could snap Health, or anyone else in the room, in two.

Faced with a fate worse than termination, Health scurried out the door.

“If I even said that, about having a cure for the plague,” the Generalissimo said, returning to his seat. “I don’t think I said that.”

The advisors all exchanged wary glances. Milo just managed to avoid rolling his eyes. Not only had he heard the Generalissimo say those exact words, now the man had gone and fired the person who should be put in charge of dealing with that plague ship slipping into the dock.

“Rest assured, sir,” the Minister of the Interior jumped in, “our physicians will deal with this pestilence with care, skill, and strength.”

“We’re about to find out,” Milo said. There was a clock tick-tocking in his brain, knowing that the American ship was going to reach the dock in any moment. “Sir, that’s why they’ve come. They think there’s a cure here, and they’ve come to get it.”

Milo could tell that the Generalissimo was still missing some links in the chain. “Your broadcasts sometimes reach the American mainland. It depends on weather conditions, if I’m correct.”

Across the room the Minister of Technology nodded vigorously.

“In addition, although you expelled a number of American journalists last month, there are still a few foreign reporters here. I’m sure they heard your broadcast.”

The Generalissimo shook his head. “Deadbeat losers. Why do I let them come here and cause trouble?”

“They’ll be gone by morning,” Kevefe said with a wave of his hand.

“Er,” Milo said, lump in his throat, “that won’t solve the problem, sir.”

“Why not?” Kevefe glared at him.

Milo tugged at his collar. “They surely know that this plague ship is arriving. Anyone can see down into the bay from the city. And the ship is quite large.”

The Generalissimo leaned forward. “Larger than the Dominator?”

Dominator was the pride of the Oflan navy. For all intents and purposes it was the Oflan navy.

Milo chose his words carefully. “I’m no expert, sir, but I can say that it is not nearly as impressive as Dominator. Nonetheless, it’s carrying hundreds of people.”

“All infected?” At least something was getting through to him.

Milo shrugged. “It could be healthy people trying to escape from the plague. Or it could be sick people looking for a cure. We’ll only know for certain once they dock.”

The Generalissimo furled his brow. “Don’t we have radios? To talk to the ship?”

Milo wasn’t in the mood to handle this question, so he did what he had to do. “I believe that the Minister of Technology could best answer that question, sir.”

Technology shot Milo a look that said he would pay for this in the coming days. “Recall, sir, that the land-to-sea radios were damaged in the storm two years ago.”

“Ah, yes,” the Generalissimo said, “the great hurricane I turned away from the island.”

Hurricane Robert took dead aim on Oflana, turning off to the east and out to sea at the last moment. While it spared the island and the city the worst of the winds, the bay at the bottom of the hill had still been swamped by the storm surge. Hundreds lost their lives.

“Yes,” Technology continued, “well, sir, those systems have never been repaired.”

“Why not?” The Generalissimo said.

The truth was that the money went to rebuilding the swimming pool in the Generalissimo’s palace, but Milo certainly wasn’t going to say that.

“It went,” Technology started. He apparently thought better of it, too, the firing of Health still fresh in everyone’s memory. “I don’t recall specifically, sir. Regardless, there’s no way to contact that ship until it docks.”

Milo checked his watch. They had, at most, five more minutes to make a decision.

“Then how do we deal with this?” the Generalissimo asked, relaxing again. “Why not just send them back? I’ll defend my people against any threat. Keep that infected ship off our land.”

“That would look very bad,” Milo said. “This plague is fast acting. If there are sick people on that ship and they don’t get any kind of treatment they may die before they get back to Charleston. The press would have a field day.”

“The press hate me,” the Generalissimo said. “Even if we don’t send the ship back, they’ll say bad things. Lies and slander over and over again.”

Milo wasn’t about to get into this now, so he dodged the barb. “Is there another option?”

“We let them dock,” Interior said. “If they’re healthy refugees, we take them while stating this is a onetime situation. Any other ship will be turned back. If they’re sick, they go to the hospital and we’ll treat them the best we can.”

That was a bad option, too, Milo knew. It would lay bare the Generalissimo’s claims that the plague could be treated here. These people, if sick, would overwhelm the island’s small hospital and most likely die horrible deaths, but at least their ends might come with some dignity and care. “Sir, we really have to make a decision. That ship is about to dock.”

The room fell silent. Milo held his breath, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, waiting.

“Let them in,” the Generalissimo said, after what seemed like an eternity. “We are a generous people, are we not?”

“Yes, sir,” everyone else muttered without real conviction.

“Thank you, sir,” Milo said, bolting from the room. He couldn’t believe the man did the right thing, even if it was probably for the wrong reason. Milo ran to his office, rang the dock, and told them the news.

Shortly after he hung up, Kevefe knocked on his open door. “How are you going to sell this to the press? Before you’ve expelled the foreign reporters, of course.”

With the foreign press gone that would only leave the handful of Oflan reporters, none of whom were interested in doing anything but regurgitating whatever Milo told them.“I hadn’t thought of that yet,” he admitted.

Kevefe raised a finger and said, “I have one word for you.”

“One word?”

Kevefe nodded. “Puffery.”

Milo raised an eyebrow. “Puffery?”

“It’s a legal term,” Kevefe said, lapsing into his typical condescending explanation mode. “When someone makes a promise, say in a contract, and can’t keep it, that can be because they lied about the promise or they, let’s say, promised more than they could actually deliver. They puffed up their capabilities.”

“In other words, they lied to get the contract,” Milo said.

Kevefe stepped into his office and glowered down at him. “No, they innocently exaggerated their abilities. Are you suggesting that our physicians aren’t capable of dealing with this plague?”

“The best doctors in America aren’t,” Milo said, deciding not to answer directly.

Kevefe shifted forward, hands on Milo’s desk so that he was almost on top of him. “Are you calling my father-in-law, the Generalissimo of Oflana a liar?”

Milo wanted to, but knew he couldn’t. “Of course not,” he said, doing his best to back away from Kevefe. “Puffery. Yeah, I think I can sell that to the press.”

“You’ll prepare a statement?” Kevefe said, stepping back and composing himself.

Milo nodded. “And, of course, I’ll share it with you before it’s released.”

Kevefe stepped back into the hallway and smiled. “You’re a good man, Milo. Don’t know what we’d do without you.”

Milo took a moment once Kevefe disappeared to compose himself. He needed to prepare a statement for the press. And he needed to expel those foreign reporters. If he was lucky, maybe they would take him with them.

Cartman

New Tune – “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard”

Last spring the Fourth Circuit held an oral argument session in Charleston, South Carolina, rather than its usual home in Richmond. I had to go down there to argue a case, so I took the wife with me and we made a little vacation of it. Charleston is a neat old city, full of lots of history and architecture.

One day, while walking around, we passed this narrow passageway:

PiratesCourtyard (Small)

Something about the sign grabbed me. It wasn’t for a restaurant or bar and wasn’t any kind of historical marker. It was just a sign designating this places as Pirates Courtyard.

Almost immediately I got a riff in my head. Being that musical inspiration is usually fleeting for me, I did well to keep it going until we got back to the hotel. I jotted down the idea and, at the top of the legal pad with the notes, wrote “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard.” Usually I pick a title from my long list of nonsense phrases I keep handy just for that purpose, but this seemed to fit the riff and gave me some idea of what might come next.

After many months, and some good lockdown time, I’ve finally completed it. Does it really conjure a “dance party”? Probably not. It’s too slow, has a “chorus” in 7/4, and has an ambienty piano bridge. But I like it and it’s my song and I’ll call it whatever the fuck I like!
Anyway, here it is – hope you enjoy:

 

Weekly Read: The Last Emperox

I like John Scalzi. I really do. I came to him via his blog, Whatever, before I read any of his books, so I kind of got to “know” him first before I knew his work. I like the snark. I like the politics (mostly). I like the open and honest way he talks about his writing and the business aspects of it. He seems like a very open guy who is helpful to emerging writers and still a complete geeky fanboy about established ones (and, for the few moments he stopped by my table at the WV Book Festival a couple years ago, just a nice guy).

I wish I liked his books better.

Late last year when I was putting together my list of favorite books from the last decade I was surprised that only one of Scalzi’s made the initial cut based on how I’d rated them on Goodreads. Redshirts, which wound up making the final list, was the only one I’d given at least four starts. I’d enjoyed all the others – there were no 2-star clunkers – but most things didn’t get beyond “like” to “really loved.”

I mention that because I really hoped that The Last Emperox, the last book in the Interdependency trilogy, would break through that ceiling. The first two books (I reviewed the first one here) had a lot of promise, but seemed rushed, like there was more in them. With the end in sight I’d hoped it would tie things together in a super satisfying way. Instead, it was more of the same – good and good fun in spots, but ultimately short of great.

The best part of The Last Emperox (and the entire trilogy) is the idea of The Flow. Analogized to a kind of river in space it’s the in-universe way of travelling between distant stars. It isn’t really FTL, but it works like it. The operative fact for the trilogy is that The Flow is collapsing, which is going to cut off planets from each other and basically dooming human civilization.

Against this backdrop the story of the trilogy is various people coming to grips with this. Some are trying to solve the problem, some are trying to profit off of it, and some are trying just do the right thing. This is fairly interesting and some of the characters involved are great. Kiva Lagos is a great, fun character to read about. The suddenly and unexpectedly enthroned Emperox Grayland II is pretty interesting, too, as are several of the supporting players (one is essentially a sentient spaceship). All good stuff.

The problem is that all these interesting people are racing around pushing the plot so hard that sometimes the books come off like extended Wikipedia entries. Part of this has to do with some things that Scalzi does repeatedly that don’t work for me (your mileage may vary, as they say). One is that something will happen – suddenly, with no warning (given who the POV characters are), and often violently. Then we’ll get a couple of characters talk about what happened. It’s like in-world telling instead of showing. Plots – in the sense of plotting, conniving, conspiring – are a lot more fun when you can see the gears working during the wind up. Just getting the incident itself with an ex post explanation isn’t very satisfying.

Another thing that happens repeatedly is that something happens to a character that should move them off the board – a conspiracy foiled or an assassination – that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. The evil doer caught in the act escapes, the target of death really escaped serious harm – all explained after the fact. It gets to the point that when a very major “death” occurs in The Last Emperox you can’t care about it very much because there’s little chance it’s real.

Those issues wouldn’t matter all that much if the ending wasn’t so underwhelming. As I said, the entire motivation for this tale is that The Flow is collapsing and civilization is at risk. Folks come up with a clever way to save it and . . . then we learn that will happen years in the future, after this book is over. So, yay? You think it’s heading for a galaxy-defining moment and it just doesn’t.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this trilogy – it doesn’t feel like a complete story. It feels more like the first part of a larger trilogy (for epic space opera these books aren’t long), where a certain challenge is surmounted but the big one that would overarc the series has a lot of legs left to it.

I suppose that’s appropriate, though. The first two books mostly left me feeling the same way – I liked a lot of what they had to offer, but felt there was more there, lurking in the aether. I know the old show biz saying is “leave them wanting more,” but I’m not sure it applies to books – trilogies, especially.

LastEmperox

My Characters Don’t Speak to Me

Creativity is a weird thing. A book is a book or a song is a song, but different writers can get to that finished product in lots of different ways. That’s made clear to me whenever writers talk about being pantsers instead of plotters. Pantsers, generally speaking, make it all up as they go along, without any great amount of planning, notes, and the like. Plotters, by contrast, do all that stuff before they start writing. I’ve learned, the hard way, than I’m more plotter than pantser. I admire pantsers for the way they write, but to me it’s as foreign an experience as it would be if I tried to write the last part of the Unari Empire trilogy in Tagalog.

There’s another group of authors of which I am not a part when it comes to the creative process. That’s the group who talk about the characters in their stories like they are independent, sentient beings. Some talk about how they don’t write dialog, they just transcribe conversations their characters have on their own. Others give their characters agency and talk about how they can’t control what they do. As at least one well-known writer put it:

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, reports negotiating a deal with his character Mrs. Coulter to get her to spend time in a cave in one of his books. Some authors have reported that their characters give them unsolicited advice about the writer’s own life!

I just don’t get this. One of the amazing things about writing fiction is that I, as the author, am God, in a big G omniscient and omnipotent sense. Characters only exist because I create them and they only do what I tell them to. Their words are my words. Does it means they always develop the way I first intend them to? No, but that’s me changing my mind, not them rebelling.

Maybe I look at it this way because I started writing seriously as a lawyer and in legal writing you’re at the whim of so many other things – the law, the facts, your clients. In fact, it’s my clients who behave the way some writers talk about their characters – with complete free will and a dazzling inability to control themselves.

I always figure that when writers talked about characters talking to them or doing things against the writer’s will it was a way for writers to deal with the vagaries of the creative act, with a heaping helping of metaphor baked in (we’re talking about writers, after all). But I’m apparently wrong and in the minority on this, according to recent research with authors from the Edinburgh book festival:

Researchers at Durham University teamed up with the Guardian and the Edinburgh international book festival to survey 181 authors appearing at the 2014 and 2018 festivals. Sixty-three per cent said they heard their characters speak while writing, with 61% reporting characters were capable of acting independently.

‘I hear them in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’,’ said one anonymous writer. ‘They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn’t right – that they would never behave or speak that way. I don’t usually answer back,’ said another.

Beyond that, 15% of writers surveyed say even talked back to their characters. So, what, are they crazy? Not so much:

Even though some authors reported that their characters had a life of their own, the researchers were keen to stress that there was no question of writers confusing fiction with reality. When the academics rated the writers on how prone they were to hallucinations, they did not score differently to other samples of the population. ‘Hearing voices and other unusual experiences are not in themselves a symptom of a mental health problem,’ they wrote. ‘This shows that vivid imaginative states – including losing control of one’s own imagination – [are] a healthy and safe thing which is important for how some people create fiction.’

Then what’s going on here? Researchers think that these writers aren’t sharing a singular experience, but it’s more that they’re describing a myriad of experiences that occur during the writing process. In other words, to say “they hear their characters talk to them” really flattens the nuance of the issue.

There’s part of me who thinks like this guy, like I’m missing out on something:

CharactersTalk

I get what he’s saying. There’s something transcendent and beyond the realm of grinding craft when characters talk to you. You’re not just writing, at that point, your communing with the muse, you’re tapping into the essential forces of the universe.

But I don’t think that can be right. Neither he nor I are missing out on anything – we just work differently. Truth is, while there may be a wrong way to write a book, there are probably an infinite number of “right” ways, because what works best for one writer might not work at all for others.

So, I guess I’m fine with the idea that my characters don’t talk to me. In place of the psychic connection that others have with their creations, I’ll happily sit back and make mine do whatever the hell I want while theirs are wreaking havoc!

Raplh