Posted tagged ‘revision’

Wednesday it comes to an end.

March 21, 2010

On Wednesday, I will have finally completed my novel. I don’t mean that I will have reached the end of the novel, put the last word down, but that I will have crested the hill of my fourth revision or so. I am very excited since this means that the final step will take me over the threshold of the crafting stage to the sales stage. To be honest, I am quite nervous. I’m still working on it, cutting, rewriting, and trying to make sure every single plot point matches and makes sense. As far as I can tell, my work is coming to an end, though as the creator of the story I will never be able to look at it as complete. There will always be things that I will think could be better or be improved. It will never be perfect in my eyes, but if I don’t stop myself then I’ll never get to the next stage in which I try to send it into the world. So, once I add in the final revision on Wednesday, expect a celebratory post which will probably include fond reminiscences of writing this thing and final stats such as page count and word count. Until, then readers, keep writing and enjoy the process.

The Creative Writing Process: Part 3

March 20, 2010

Wow. I apologize for the delay in posting. The past week has been all about catching up with things I should have been doing over spring break. Oh the life of a college student but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In fact, with the end of my senior year looming, I find myself wishing my under graduate career would just go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that and we all find ourselves having to move on to the next phase. But enough of my personal musings and let’s get down to some writing!

So, you’ve come up with an idea that you want to expand on. You think it’s grand and you want to turn your vision into something that people will talk about and other writers will turn to years down the line. There’s just one problem: you need to start somewhere. How? We’re talking about a major undertaking and you haven’t a single word on the page. What I did to start out was to put it together like a puzzle. You can do this in your head but the problem is you will forget things. This may be a good thing sometimes. A little chaos is necessary for creativity but if you have a great idea or have plans for a plot twist you just know will wow your readers and you forget it, you will be kicking yourself for a long time. So what can you do to get your ideas down without actually writing out the story?

There are two very useful programs available that can help you trace out the possible routes your story can go down. The first is a program called FreeMind. FreeMind uses a wire diagram setup that allows you to create nodes from which other nodes can be attached and branch off. Want to brain storm a complex series of double-crossings and deceit? Make a “parent node” with lots of little baby nodes that will represent the literal web you are creating with the exploits of your characters. The same can be done for plotting and it will definitely help you keep it all straight. It’s a versatile system with a fairly small learning curve though you will have to get used to it. The second program requires far less practice time.

yWriter, now in its fifth version, can be used after you’ve completed your graph of the plot. What it does is provide a small but useful suite of functions that allow you to create folders for character biographies, setting descriptions, and finally, a robust system that breaks your novel up into chapters, allowing you to concentrate on the dynamics of character, setting, conflict, props, and other important aspects that contribute to a chapter functioning.

I used both programs in the planning stage of writing a novel but neither of them can really write your novel. Instead, you’ve got to pull the ideas together into something coherent and these programs can help with the organizing procedure. So where do you start? At the beginning is what I’ve heard works best. How do you know what that is and what’s worse, how do embark on this adventure? When I started my novel, I felt like I was about to jump off a ledge. It was a strange, out of control feeling, like if I started, I wouldn’t be able to change course. Once you’re falling, the only thing that will stop you is the ground. But that’s not true. You are in control at all times which is why you should start by thinking, “Alright, I have an idea for my story. This is a test run of sorts, a first draft of a first draft. A pilot episode of a book.” Test out a first chapter or two.

The two big questions you must ask to test the beginning of your chapter are: “If I picked this up in the book store, would I continue reading?” and “If I start here, will I be able to get where I want to go?” If the answer to either question is “no,” then you must switch things up. “But I thought my work with those programs would have fixed this!” you might be saying. All I’m saying is that even after I did all that work, I still discovered that when I went to write the novel, the ideas proved less secure than I had thought which meant that I had to modify them. I no longer have the first draft but if you looked at that then at the current and, I think for now, final draft, of the first chapter, you would think you were reading totally different books. This is okay and you should never be afraid of changing your ideas if you discover they are going to limit you and prevent you from telling the story you want to tell. Still, where do you begin in your story?

For my novel, I begin in media res which means, “in the middle of things.” In many stories, you will have to do this if you wish to avoid four chapters of pure exposition. This will force you to consider how you will get your reader to follow along with the narrative since they will be dropped into a world that is going full tilt. The up-side to this is that there is no down-time. The action or at least the intrigue begins at page one with later chapters providing the much-needed, and necessary, moments to pause and build your characters. The in media res method will give you the opportunity to introduce your problem or conflict that will be the center that your characters will circle around and it may introduce one of your major characters as well. You could begin with a description of the scenery if you wish and if you think that it will be important to adding atmosphere or revealing some important detail of the world. However, do not wait too long to introduce some human element, even if you use the method of a false protagonist in which the first character we meet is not actually our protagonist and may even be the antagonist. The fun for the reader will be the surprise that comes from the switch to the protagonist or main character’s narrative. Whatever the case, do not make the reader wait too long to encounter a human they can identify with. People want and need to have a person to ground them, to make a new and unfamiliar world you are introducing them to a little more recognizable and easy to follow. Whatever you do, don’t start off pummeling your readers with back story of the world or character. Readers don’t want a history lesson or a case study. They want a story about characters living and operating in the world you are creating then and there. So now we know that, where and when can we begin?

Start your book where your conflict starts. This is the most efficient method I know. What is the first encounter or first action that draws your character into the main plot of your story? That is where your story begins. In an action oriented book, what is it that the protagonist does or has done to her/him that brings the character into the main web of the story? Is it a plot to steal valuable secret from a science lab? Maybe your character is a con man who manages to con the people behind the theft into letting him in on the robbery and he steals the info for himself. In this story, you might start right at the heist detailing the run then surprise your audience with the character running off with the info. Why not start when he joins the group? The group stealing from the research team hired the con man, yes, but the actions of the thieves only start to affect him when they go after him. All the rest is exposition you can fill in as the story progresses.

That’s about all I can say for actually beginning your novel. Hopefully this was helpful in making that first big leap into the story. For the next time, I’ll see what pops into my head. Possibly I’ll talk about how to introduce background information and maybe I’ll talk about writing style though that might have to be a separate subject all its own. Until then, good luck starting your novel!

Torn in a million pieces. The middle ground in writing can be difficult to find.

March 10, 2010

Well, I’m finally back. I spent a few days in Washington, D.C. and went to the Smithsonian.  Pretty much all of it. This is why I haven’t been posting. I really can’t stress enough how great it is to go to one museum after the other and how many great ideas you can uncover just by looking at all the knowledge and experience stored there. But that’s not quite the point of this post.

The Buddha advocated finding the middle path in all things. Going to either extreme of something will only lead to problems and I’m finding that to be just as true when it comes to writing. One thing I’ve been finding is that I am still looking for a style. I’ve so far been to the two extremes of writing and am displeased with the results of both.

My first major writing project was actually more of an experiment or a practice exercise. After finishing an anime series I really enjoyed, I decided to expand upon the universe of the story line. This is called fan fiction and I have to say, if you want to get a feel for writing with the opportunity for near instant public feedback and no pressure, do a little. Pick something you like and write till your heart’s content then post it in any of the myriad fan fiction sites on the net. Looking back at the story I wrote, and I will not publish here since I will essentially be embarrassing myself, the word that pops into my head is “effusive.” Everything is too much. There is too much description, too much time spent inside the characters’ heads, too much of everything. It was an immature voice that pretty much taught me how to keep a cohesive narrative going and how to generate suspense. As a learning experience, and as an opportunity to entertain fellow fans of the series, I have no regrets which is something anyone who has an interest in writing must do: look at everything you write as a learning experience and to forgive yourself for transgressions committed in your novice state. If you get caught up on what you’ve done wrong, you’ll never advance.

My most recent novel is a vast improvement over the verbose and tortuous prose of my fan fic effort. Descriptions don’t trail on and the flamboyant use of similes and metaphors has been curbed. However, I’ve run into another problem and that is I don’t feel the characters sometimes. I do not know who they are because, in trying to eliminate excess, I’ve created a paucity of expression, I’ve muted the observations and thoughts of my characters. This is something that, as I continue to revise my novel, I am dealing with, giving free reign to my characters’ thoughts so that they will get to speak and tell us how they see the world. I find it incredible reading over the sections I’ve m modified in this way, getting that feeling of vibrancy, the feeling that this isn’t a character but a person who’s made us privy to his thoughts. This brings me round to the question of balance.

Part of writing is giving rise to a structured chaos. Human thoughts and feelings are not linear and easily traceable however, if we are to create a story, there must be some level of cause and effect, an economy of words and conservativeness of expression or else our imagination will pour out over the page and make the work unreadable to everyone but ourselves. Writing is a bit like a drug in that it just transports you. If you let it, it can put you in an altered state where ideas and words just flood your mind and end up on the page, but just because they seem to come naturally doesn’t mean that, in their unstructured form, they are necessarily at their best. However, if you don’t let the words move like water, then you build a dam in your mind and have to synthesize the words in an artificial manner.

I’m convinced that there is a border that you can walk though that cuts through both territories. It’s just that it can be very difficult to find the sweet spot where there is enough detail to create a convincingly realized world and enough restraint to prevent the story from being bogged down. Again, this is all part of the process of discovering what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully, as this novel turns the corner of its third (fourth maybe? I’ve lost count to be honest) revision, and I get a clean copy then a read through by multiple people, I will be able to determine what to keep, what to add more of, and what to jettison.

The Creative Writing Process: Part 1

February 25, 2010

Talking with people, I can rarely keep myself from discussing books and literature. Sometimes, the person will say s/he would like to write something, that there’s been an idea brewing in her/his head for a while, just wanting to get on paper. So, I ask “Why not? Why haven’t you written it yet?” Aside from the all too common response of not having the time, the other typical answers are that s/he doesn’t know how to start, writer’s block when confronting the page, or disliking what comes out on the page. I think that part of the problem is that there are many misconceptions about how one goes about writing a novel and what one can expect to encounter in the process. Thus, this series of posts will be dedicated to examining the process of writing from beginning to end. Each and every aspect that I can think of will be covered though if I leave out an aspect of writing that you have questions about, leave a post and I will write on it. To begin, I think I’ll start with the preconceived notions I came to writing with and the realities I found once I started hammering out words.

I read everything I could from the moment I learned how to read. Words have always been quasi-mystical things in my mind. They hold incredible power. Just think about it: words, just squiggles and angles on a piece of paper, can make you bristle with excitement, cringe with terror, or cry from empathy. Words hold immense power and when reading a novel, at least a good one, we flow with them. The novel, like an animal, looks whole, complete, one organic being that fits perfectly together and could not be any other way. We don’t quite see between the words, don’t notice that, taken alone, the words fail to hold the same sway that they do when in context with all the others that make the novel. However, the author had to pick each one of these words and put it down. Despite its veneer of unbroken liquidity, the writing process is a staccato process. In other words, writing is done one word at a time, one after the other, like music. Books do not come fully formed but in pieces. Just because one has an idea, that doesn’t mean that it will simply materialize on the page. This was something I learned over a long while. Just because the idea is there, doesn’t mean it will look the way you intended it once it gets on the page and this is due to words and the way they shape and constrain ideas. Each word has to contribute to the novel, each one must do something for the character development, atmosphere, or plot. In other words, a writer does not sit down at his or her machine and suddenly give birth to a fully formed piece of writing. It is true that on the best of days, one may find oneself in a state of, “flow,” in which one simply spills words on the page, but often, there is a word by word battle to find just the right phrase or just the write rhythm to a piece of dialogue. Writing has sort of a mystical aura around it similar to a conjuring act in which the writer calls forth ideas and the words just assemble themselves. This isn’t the case at all. It is an arduous, tedious process that sometimes moves at a glacial pace as a certain word that you feel needs to be in the work alludes your grasp like a White Whale. Essentially, writing is hard work but it is, luckily, the type of work that if you’re willing to keep at it, you will be rewarded by the feeling that you’re accomplishing something. However, let’s say you do get all your ideas down, with all your words picked out and lines up. Does that mean you’ve done it? You’ve managed to attain the summit? Not quite.

Another very important thing that comes with your first experience with writing is that once you’ve finished and put the last word in, you will realize what you’ve written kind of sucks. At least you’d better be thinking that what you have in front of you sucks or else you’re not learning one of the most important things about this process and that is that it’s all about evolution. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and he is absolutely right. When I went back and read sections of my novel, I felt awful about myself. I thought, “I mustn’t have any talent. Only a hack could write this poorly.” Thankfully, that harsh criticism never really went away and dogged me throughout the entire writing of the book. But what I realized was that it was alright that my first draft sucked because it was just a first draft. No one will see your first draft. It is a for-your-eyes-only playground where you can put in whatever wacky, contrived, or just plain crappy stuff you want because in the second draft all of that will go away as your pare it down to what works and what will make the story shine. Still, the fear will harangue you as it did me. You will feel that you are wasting your time on writing and that you would be better off learning how to salsa dance. But don’t give up because it’s just a first draft! It’s your right, in fact your obligation, to put everything down that comes into your head no matter how terrible it is and there’s a good reason for that. Painters have paint, sculptors have stone, chemists have chemicals, biologists have cells, and so on. The writer though has nothing. The writers starts off with only an idea and a head filled with words. In a way, we take on the responsibility of a god who is creating an entire world ex nihilo. Every other group can just shape and tinker with what is at hand while we must make our own material: the first draft. Once you realize the enormity of that and that the first draft is akin to a block of marble, you will learn to accept the terrible, effusive prose, the poor dialogue, the tortuous sentence structures and see it instead as just a story in the raw that you will mold on the second, third, even fourth go-around. It may be difficult to accept, especially if you’re a perfectionist like me, that your first draft won’t be a diamond of literature but learning to look forward to when it will be, once you go back and revise, will give you hope to keep going and to put pour your mind into your work.

Putting one’s soul into a piece of writing is fine but chaos without any kind of control is just that: chaos. Writing needs to be a sort of controlled chaos, an artfully executed act of insanity. Before writing my novel, I wrote short stories as practice and I didn’t bother with outlines or treatments. I trusted my instincts to get me where I needed to go. However, I had read in a writing magazine about the usefulness of outlining and planning so I gave it a try on one of my short stories which actually serves as an extension of my novel’s universe, more on that later though. In any case, I found that, prior to what I had been doing, the outline served as something very helpful. I had shied away from outlines mostly because I was afraid that by making an outline, I would make the story feel artificial, that readers would read it and feel that I was not being spontaneous and I was somehow being dishonest. To the contrary, the outline proved to be extremely profitable for creativity and making what would have been a sprawling jumble into a coherent picture that I could work off of. Even doing just a treatment (a fairly short summary of major plot points and characters) of your idea, may help you develop new ideas at an incredible pace as you don’t have to worry about finding the right words, just the skeletal ideas you will build the meat of your novel around. However, I learned something else: don’t be afraid to stray from the outline. Like the first draft, the outline is raw material for you to work with and to act as a guide. However if something doesn’t work or you want to take your story in a new direction, try it. Keep experimenting till you find the path you want to walk down. Then again, some people may find that the outline is only a distraction and that just diving in and seeing what can be dug up is the way to go. If you’re one of these people and this works for you, then stick to it though if you’re undecided or haven’t given the outline method a try, do so and see what comes of it. Sometimes a lot may come, yet it’s no good if it gets lost which brings me to a bit of practical advise.

Back up your data. The short story I had made a draft for, and that explained part of the origins of the novel, was lost when my motherboard shorted out. It was complete and was awaiting revision when it was wiped out. I never thought that this could happen and so didn’t store a copy in a second location. All that work was lost. So learn to expect the unexpected and protect your work like it was your child, which isn’t far from the truth in a way. But in any case, if you’re using a computer, make back up copies on multiple devices. Thumb drives don’t cost that much you know. If you’re doing it the classical way, with a pen or typewriter, make photocopies and store them somewhere safe. You do not want to put weeks or months of work into something only to have a freak accident erase it all.

These are just a few of the ideas I had about the craft of writing coming into it and what I found when I actually got down to work. I’m sure there are more preconceived notions out there and if there are, leave a post. Let’s see how many we can come up with. But the most important thing is that this is a learning process and the more you do it, the more you will come to appreciate writing as something both difficult and sometimes brutal, yet nuanced and uplifting. No matter what, if you want to write, go for it and don’t stop till you’ve put that last word down.

Next time, I’ll look at the earliest stage of writing: the idea stage and how to spot ideas worth pursuing and those that need more time to develop.

First Sample of My Novel: Schism

February 23, 2010

Well, here it is, the first bite-sized bit of my novel. Actually, what I’m posting is two versions of the first half of the first chapter. The first excerpt is from an earlier version while the second is the most current, though not necessarily final, version (There’s always room for more revision and hopefully with your feedback it can be made even better.). This will allow you to see a bit of the evolution of a section and what gets taken out or put in. More of these will come so hopefully this will be enough to tantalize you.

Before getting to the actual novel, I’ll give you a basic overview of what it’s about. Set in the future at an unspecified date, the Earth is in the midst of upheaval. Depleted resources, drought, famine, floods, and violent geomagnetic storms have disrupted life across the globe and led to a growing wave of destruction. Yet technology has surged forward. Implantable organic computers have replaced external devices, feeding directly into a person’s brain. The real and the digital become fused together. Enter Detective Paul Mardel of Soundview Police Department. He finds himself on a case that leads him to a hacker with a past she’d rather forget and a plot spanning the entire net with much more at stake.

So with out further ado, here is the earlier version and newest version of my novel.

Unedited Version 1

Paul watched the scene from beyond the protection of the shelter. Unlike the others, the hood of his blue mackintosh lay between his scapulae, exposing him to the low-pH rain pounded down from a bleak September night. Later, he expected to find his blond hair brittle, spun glass poking out of an irritated scalp. Didn’t matter. He was far more uncomfortable with it on. He couldn’t stand to have anything on his head. He walked over to the unfolding scene, his blue eyes scanning. Scanning. Another mess of bodies was laid out before him. He wondered what they were thinking before the car had careened into them. Did they have families? Friends? Who were they leaving behind? Paul shook his head and took in the way the scene was being handled. The officers were milling about, stepping over markers and debris but overall doing a whole lot of nothing else. The crew must have already done the three-dimensional imaging. Or maybe they had just skipped it altogether. Wouldn’t be the first time they had cut corners. It was Soundview after all.

An officer with crossed arms over a barrel chest stood on the stoop that led into the confines of the building. Paul looked at him a moment, then past him. Either the car or the ionosphere storm had knocked out power for good. Both probably contributed to the decrepit apartment’s further decomposition. But now, a lighting tripod had been set up in narrow foyer, silhouetting more busy shapes, dryer variations of the ones that moved around beneath the canopy.

Paul’s eyes stayed on the car as he walked parallel to it. The roof had puckered like a pair of split, anemic lips, right down the middle. Smeared across the driver’s door, streaks of coagulated blood shone blackly against the white light that flooded the area from more of the squat tripods. Through the spiderweb laced film of the driver side window, Paul spotted something strange. The car appeared totally empty, just a frame encasing nothing. He didn’t dwell on it too long. It was just a weird discrepancy that tickled the back of his mind. Or maybe it was the spare hydrogen ions picking apart his skin.

“You Detective Mardel?”, the hulking blue form on the stoop asked him.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“They wanted to know if you were here.”

“Still some problems in the traffic system,” Paul grunted and crossed into the dank hall.

The foyer smelled of cigarettes and stale air. Breathing in, he could taste dust collecting in the back of his mouth, making him salivate so his tongue didn’t stick to his palate. Blinding white light tore at his eyes and he had to lift a hand in defense against the glare. A chrome glint brought Paul’s attention to a pile of cheap furniture that had been tipped and thrown against the wall. Chairs, an end table, and a rotten couch engaged in an inanimate orgy. Blobs of foam pushed out of torn imitation leather like the innards of a bloated, dead animal. Paul wondered if this had been left here since the flood riots. He shook his head slowly. The figures in here were dressed in similar blue rain slickers, but they wore blue surgical masks that obscured even more of their faces. They were a ragtag knock off of better funded crime scene investigation units. One of the blue humanoids emerged from a doorway to Paul’s right, trailing the smell of concrete. Before the door had clanged shut, he managed to catch just a sliver of linoleum floor littered with gray debris and the crushed front end of the car jutting awkwardly into the building. But this wasn’t what he’d come for. That would be three floors up.

#

Paul stopped in front of the open doorway where a blue form knelt, peeling a metallic strip from the mottled door knob. The figure turned its nondescript face up to Paul and nodded. It must have pinged him for identification then sent it to whoever was leading this team which meant he could just wait for whoever it was to find him. Please don’t let it be Darmin, he begged to the emptiness in his head while he slid past the figure and into the small apartment. It was sparse to say the least; it could have been almost ascetic had it not been for the clutter that had piled in lopsided mounds around the room. The kitchen was a scrap yard of containers: Mexican, Chinese, burger joints. Some blue person sorted through the mess, handling each slimy container with pinched fingertips despite the gloves. In a cramped bathroom, two blue figures jostled back and forth, trying to maneuver. When one would crouch, the other would stand and vice versa, like pistons. And then, in a chair by the door to the bedroom, like a corrupted nucleus surrounded by scampering blue electrons, was the corpse.

The head hung over the back of the swivel chair, letting auburn hair fall back from the pock marked forehead in which dull green eyes stared out past Paul’s shoulder. A drying trail of vomit extended from the corner of his mouth. He guessed that he might have been around mid to late twenties and, judging by the apartment, was at most barely bobbing above poverty line.

“Detective Mardel,” a muffled voice said from beside him. He turned and recognized the eyes at once. They were small little beads that squinted and opened like a valve of some kind, slurping in the world around it like a tick. Right now it was Paul’s tick and all he wanted to do was get the tweezers and yank its blue, skinny little head out of his skin.

“Darmin. So, what have you gotten?”

“His name’s Thomas Drole. Funny situation he got himself into, huh?” Darmin chuckled with a sound that should have belonged to a sticking ignition.

Paul suppressed a wince and continued. “Cause of death?”

“Can’t say yet,” Darmin said, now composed. “No external wounds of any kind. No detectable trauma. In fact, the rat was still wired into his external memory console.” Paul checked each aspect of the scene as Darmin flung it out.

“Nice array isn’t it?” Paul asked, moving closer to examine the make.

“Bet your ass. Don’t know who he had to service to get it but, man! I wouldn’t think they’d even give someone like him an advertisement pay-off system.”

Paul blew air from between pursed lips. “It’s an Mnemos Legacy model I think. You’d be serving ad-space for the rest of your life and probably of your kids’ for that matter.” He became self-conscious of the advertisements others probably saw when their systems pinged him.

“Well, we’ll turn it on once we get it back to the lab so we’ll find out how deep our little coffin dweller was in,” he heard Darmin say in an ebullient voice. “It’s gotta be stolen,” he added.

Paul looked at the flat black machine lying on the rough table surface. It was a simple plastic rectangle. Along the front of it little inert LEDs caught the hazy light of the room and reflected it back in sharp points. A power button was set into the middle of the face-plate, its unlit symbol a dark blotch. The transdermal trodes ran from a port on the far side of the machine and terminated in two adhesive knobs that still clung to the cooling skin of what used to be Thomas Drole.

“Total space case I bet you,” the exasperating voice said. “When we pump his guts, we’ll find a fiesta of colors from some street corner pharmacy. He probably stumbled on a bad combo and didn’t know enough to pull out of whatever he was doing.”

Maybe, Paul thought. It wouldn’t exactly be the first time he’d seen a Grid-skid mixing and matching his pills, spin the cylinder, and hit a live round while completely absorbed in another world.

“What a waste.”

“Huh?” Darmin blurted.

“Nothing. Do you have a possible time of death?”

A crash of broken glass shot through the room from the kitchen, wiping the first part of what Darmin said away with it. “-during the ionic storm.”

Paul turned and stopped at the threshold that opened into the shallow bedroom.

“We’ve found mostly data slides in there. Hacked storage systems, illegal software. Porn. Typical stuff.”

Another blue clone had stacked orange, plastic squares on the rumpled, slightly yellow and stiff sheets of the bed. In another pile, several obsolete hard drives were laid out. The clone was picking up one slide at a time and passing them under a dark, flat wand that led down through a thick cord to a bulky case that stood on the floor next to the clone’s khaki pants legs. He wondered how much longer the data collector would be functioning. It had been dumped on them by its producer, SpecTools, after they had come out with a new, more dependable series that didn’t have the bad habit of destroying the original copies.

He walked back, feeling Darmin’s eyes perforating him as he resumed his place before the corpse. There was something eery about the way it looked back at him while connected to his exterior processors. The thought of what he was doing before he’d died tantalized Paul. People don’t just die it seemed. There was always something unfinished. There was always that one thing that they were going to do, about to do. What was Thomas going to do before he died? What was he looking for?

A sigh emptied Paul’s lungs but he caught himself when he remembered the company he was in. He straightened up and turned, noting how the air tasting particularly sour around where Darmin stood. He could picture the smirk that worked the pale lips beneath the round mask, the myopic amusement Darmin must find in his small cues and quirks.

“How soon will you be loading your findings onto the network?” Paul said, staring past the thin blue tick that had picked up a tattered gaming magazine and was thumbing through the pages. He didn’t stir.”When will I be getting the data?” Paul said, louder.

The polished marbles of Darmin’s eyes slid over and locked onto Paul. The small gaze seemed to snap a photo with a little blink, then refocus and meander around the room. “I think we’re done here.” He clapped his gloved hands. When they didn’t produce the crisp and authoritative sound he desired, he pulled them off and tried again. This time the sound sparked and the clones stopped their work. “Alright everybody,” he shouted, his cheeks pulling up the straps that held the mask to his face, “pack it up. The coroner will pack the stiff.” Again, the corrosive laugh. Little nervous giggles emerged from here and there but they never meshed.

“Great to have you stop by!” Paul heard as he strode to the exit. He found a certain measure of comfort in being alone in the darkened hall, away from that room and its business. The power still hadn’t been turned back on. He splayed his fingers, feeling the tendons tense, pull at their moorings. On either side of him, doors stood open into dark rooms where things stood in charcoal outlines. It would probably cost too much to fix whatever had been burned or broken. He could picture these rooms six months down the line, the torn wallpaper hanging like charred skin from a body caught in a fire. Rats would scurry around squatters picking through whatever the former tenants had forgotten to take with them. The disease of desperation would take another step towards finding Paul.

All the way across the globe and the stone followed him, waiting to be rolled uphill.

Edited Version 2

Paul watched from the oily street as the saccharine colored lights from ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars bounded over the dank, pulsing scene of the accident. Unlike the other officers, the hood of his blue mackintosh lay between his scapulae, exposing him to the acidic rain that pounded down from the muggy September night. Later, he expected to find his bristle-short blond hair brittle as spun glass, poking out of an irritated scalp. Didn’t matter. He was far more uncomfortable with the hood on. Stepping onto the sidewalk over a clogged gutter, he let two paramedics rush by him. He watched as they picked up a wet, limp body from the gritty cement and laid it on a stretcher. One covered the corpse with a blanket that bloomed red in several places while another fastened it with blue straps. They had a half dozen more to pack away before they could be done. Paul wondered what those people were thinking before the car had careened into them. It was too bad that the last thing that the world had impressed upon their minds was the crumbling remains of Soundview, New York.

Off to the side, a circle of wet, bedraggled people Paul assumed to be the tenants of the darkened building had formed around a police officer who had her hands up in a placating gesture that was having no effect on their undulating clamor. Hopefully the police woman would be able to cull out one valuable piece of information from all the noise. Paul wasn’t optimistic though as under normal conditions there was a culture of reticence and distrust of police. Especially when a potential murder was involved.

An officer with crossed arms over a barrel chest stood on the stoop that led into the confines of the building. Paul looked at him a moment, then past him. Either the car that had plowed into it or the geomagnetic storm had knocked out power to the building because the electricity for the rest of the North East had been up for half and hour. Both occurrences had probably contributed to the decrepit apartment’s further degradation. A lighting tripod had been set up in narrow foyer, silhouetting the forensic techs walking back and forth, going through different motions.

Paul’s eyes stayed on the car as he walked parallel to it. The roof had puckered right down the middle under a chunk of bricks. Smeared across the driver’s door, streaks of coagulated blood shone blackly against the white light that flooded the area from more of the squat tripods. Through the broken driver side window, Paul spotted something strange. Instead of car seats, it was filled with a spindle of rebar that needled through the windshield in over a dozen places, making it droop like moth eaten cloth.

“Detective Mardel,” the hulking policeman on the stoop shouted.

“Yeah.”

“They’re waiting upstairs. Third floor.”

“They told me in the message,” Paul grunted and crossed into the building.

The foyer smelled of cigarettes and stale air. Breathing in, he could taste dust collecting in the back of his mouth, making him salivate so his tongue didn’t stick to his palate. Blinding white light from the tripod tore at his eyes and he had to lift a hand in defense against the glare. A chrome glint brought Paul’s attention to a pile of cheap furniture that had been tipped and thrown against the wall. Chairs, an end table, and a rotten couch engaged in an inanimate orgy. Blobs of foam pushed out of torn imitation leather like the innards of a bloated, dead animal. Paul wondered if this had been left here since the flood riots. He shook his head slowly.

The forensic techs in here were dressed in blue rain slickers similar to those worn by the cops, but they wore blue surgical masks that obscured even more of their faces. They were a back-water collection of techs who didn’t qualify to serve in any of the more lucrative departments Acropolis Forensics provided services for so they sent them there. One of the blue humanoids emerged from a doorway to Paul’s right, trailing the smell of concrete dust. Before the door had clanged shut, Paul managed to catch just a sliver of linoleum floor littered with gray debris and the crushed front end of the car jutting awkwardly into the building. Paul turned away and found the stairs that led up to the reason he was called.

#

Paul stopped in front of an open doorway where a blue form knelt, peeling a metallic strip from the mottled door knob. The figure turned its nondescript face up to Paul and nodded then went back to work. It must have sent out a ping through the Grid for his identification then sent it to whoever was leading this team which meant he could just wait for whoever it was to find him.

Please don’t let Darmin be on this, he begged to the emptiness in his head while he slid past the figure and into the small apartment. Before entering the room, Paul unbuttoned the mackintosh, letting it hang open over the rumpled white shirt and coat that sagged around his thin frame.

The apartment was sparse; it could have been almost ascetic had it not been for the clutter that was piled in lopsided mounds around the room. The kitchen was a scrap yard of containers: Mexican, Chinese, burger joints. Some blue person sorted through the mess, handling each slimy container with pinched fingertips despite the gloves. In a cramped bathroom, two blue figures jostled back and forth, trying to maneuver. When one would crouch, the other would stand and vice versa, like pistons. And then, in a chair by the door to the bedroom, like a corrupted nucleus surrounded by scampering blue electrons, was the corpse.

The head hung over the back of the swivel chair, letting auburn hair fall back from a brown, pock marked forehead in which dull green eyes stared out past Paul’s shoulder. A drying trail of vomit extended from the corner of his mouth. One of the corpse’s arms was slung over the back of the chair, its wrist bent with its fingers splayed. Paul guessed that he might have been around mid to late twenties and, judging by the apartment, was at most barely bobbing above poverty line.

“Detective Mardel,” a muffled voice said from beside him. He turned and recognized the eyes at once though the rest of the face was covered in a surgical mask. They were small little beads that squinted and opened like a valve of some kind.

“Darmin. So, what have you got?”

“His name’s Thomas Drole. Funny situation he got himself into, huh?” Darmin chuckled with a sound that should have belonged to a sticking ignition.

Paul suppressed a wince at the attempt at humor and continued. “Who found him?”

“Pretty much anyone who crossed this floor. From what we’ve heard so far, the car hit the building so hard it knocked some doors open and whata-ya know, behind door number three was our corpse.”

“I take it there are no witness statements.”

“Try getting anything out of these assholes. That’s why I stuck the rookie on it. Give her a sense of who she’s protecting and serving.”

“Have a cause of death?”

“Can’t say yet,” Darmin said. “No external wounds of any kind. No detectable trauma. In fact, the rat was still wired into his external memory console.” Paul checked each aspect of the scene as Darmin flung it out.

“Nice array isn’t it?” Paul asked, moving closer to examine the make.

“Bet your ass. Don’t know who he had to service to get it but, man! I wouldn’t think they’d even give someone like him an advertisement pay-off system.”

Paul blew air from between pursed lips. “It’s an Mnemos Legacy model. You’d be serving ad-space for the rest of your life to pay off this kind of hardware.” Paul became self-conscious of the advertisements others saw when their systems pinged him. Having a whole network of artificial nerves and organic computing modules running through his body wasn’t so bad but having everyone know that his cells had been cultured, converted into processing units, then implanted back into him for a price he couldn’t pay was an embarrassment that nagged him.

“Well, we’ll turn it on once we get it back to the lab so we’ll find out how deep our little coffin dweller was in,” he heard Darmin say in an ebullient voice. “It’s gotta be stolen,” he added.

Paul looked at the flat black machine lying on the rough table surface. It was a simple plastic rectangle. Along the front of it little inert LEDs caught the hazy light of the room and reflected it back in sharp points. A power button was set into the middle of the face-plate, its unlit symbol a dark blotch. The transdermal electrodes ran from a port on the far side of the machine and terminated in two adhesive knobs that still clung to the cooling skin of what used to be Thomas Drole.

“Total space case I bet you,” the exasperating voice said. “When we pump his guts, we’ll find a fiesta of colors from some street corner pharmacy. He probably stumbled on a bad combo and didn’t know enough to pull out of whatever he was doing.”

Maybe, Paul thought. It wouldn’t exactly be the first time he’d seen a Grid-skid mixing and matching his pills like a game of Russian Roulette, spin the cylinder, and hit a live round while completely absorbed in another world.

“He’s too young for this kind of shit,” Paul mumbled.

“Huh?” Darmin blurted.

“Nothing. Do you have a possible time of death?”

A crash of broken glass shot through the room from the kitchen, wiping the first part of what Darmin said away with it. “-during the geomagnetic storm.”

Paul turned and stopped at the threshold that opened into the shallow bedroom.

“We’ve found mostly data slides in there. Some hacked storage systems, illegal software. Porn. Typical stuff.”

Another faceless blue forensic technician had stacked orange, plastic squares on the rumpled, slightly yellow and stiff sheets of the bed. In another pile, several obsolete hard drives were laid out. The officer was picking up one slide at a time and passing them under a dark, flat wand that led down through a thick cord to a bulky case that stood on the floor. Paul wondered how much longer the data collector would be functioning. It had been dumped on them by its producer, SpecTools, after they had come out with a new, more dependable model that didn’t have the bad habit of destroying the original copies.

He walked back, feeling Darmin’s eyes on him as he resumed his place before the corpse. There was something eery about the way it looked back at him while connected to his exterior memory unit. The thought of what he was doing before he’d died tantalized Paul. People don’t just die. There was always something unfinished. There was always that one thing that they were going to do, about to do. What was Thomas going to do before he died? What was he looking for?

Paul placed his hands in the pockets of his coat and rocked back on his heels, letting himself get lost in thoughts as they popped up. Before he could get far, he remember the company he was in. He straightened up and turned, noting how the air tasting particularly sour around where Darmin stood. He could picture the smirk that worked Darmin’s pale lips beneath the round mask, the myopic amusement Darmin must find in his small cues and quirks.

“How soon will you be loading your findings onto the network?” Paul said, staring at Darmin who had picked up a tattered gaming magazine and was thumbing through the pages. Darmin didn’t stir.”When will I be getting the data?” Paul said, louder.

The polished marbles of Darmin’s eyes slid over and locked onto Paul. The small gaze seemed to snap a photo with a little blink, then refocus and meander around the room. “I think we’re done here.” He clapped his gloved hands. When they didn’t produce the crisp and authoritative sound he desired, he pulled them off and tried again. This time the sound sparked and the look-alikes stopped their work. “Alright everybody,” he shouted, his cheeks pulling up the straps that held the mask to his face, “pack it up. The medics will pack the stiff.” Again, the corrosive laugh. Little nervous giggles emerged from here and there around the room but they never meshed.

“Great to have you stop by!” Paul heard as he strode to the exit. He found a certain measure of comfort in being alone in the darkened hall, away from that room and its business. The power still hadn’t been turned back on and maybe never would. He splayed his fingers, feeling the tendons tense, pull at their moorings. On either side of him, doors stood open into dark rooms where things stood in charcoal outlines. It would probably cost too much to fix whatever had been burned or broken. He could picture these rooms six months down the line, the torn wallpaper hanging like charred skin from a body caught in a fire. Rats would scurry around squatters picking through whatever the former tenants had forgotten to take with them.