Music of the Write: “Shutter Island” by Jessie Reyez

I saw Vogue included Jessie Reyez in their list of “Bright Young Things: 2020 Rising Stars” and was reminded of how important her debut single, “Shutter Island,” has been to formulating a number of characters.

“For a second I forgot I was a bad bitch. Begging you to stay became a habit” — that’s Axiom (whom you’ve met), as well as Pru to some extent, and a new character I haven’t published here yet. Of course, I realize that it’s also me: A fact I’m grappling with while also reflecting on a number of other things about my love, professional and creative life at the moment…

Axiom Thorne: Before there was Ansel

I’m sure by now you’ve inferred that I got my warlockian powers just in time for Ansel to mysteriously disappear from the landscape of my life. You forget: I’m the one painting this picture, and it’s not a landscape, but a self-portrait, which means you get to see exactly what I want you to see the way I want you to see it.

If you squint and look past the last layer of oils I smeared on the canvas, you’ll see another figure. Stephan, the baker’s boy. He was beautiful, and he hated me.

No, that’s wrong. He liked me, but in the way you like having an old scab ready to pop off the skin: Something to pick at.

If it wasn’t tripping me in the mud, it was baking pine needles into a cookie that he slipped into our weekly order with a note that said “For sweet Axiom, Love S.” Mamma said it was because he liked me. I still say it was because he was an asshole.

But the thing about picking at scabs is that you eventually peel off all the crusty, curling skin and hit fresh flesh underneath. And when you do, it bleeds.

We were playing along Bounty’s Creek. “Playing” might be the wrong word, as my version of it was watching Stephan pluck tiny fish out from the shallows and place them on rocks to flip, flop and bake in the hot sun. I was entranced, not repulsed, by the way the light glinted off their scales, almost strobing as they danced away their last breaths. But Stephan couldn’t care less, sweeping the dead bodies back into the water to make room for his next victims. Whenever he’d pivot around, the light would flash off the gilded viper fang that hang around his neck — a trophy from a kill, he’d boast, even though we all knew it was purchased off one of the roving traders that came through town.

I must have stepped on a twig or sneezed, because at some point he noticed me standing in the brush, a voyeur to his routine pescacide.

“Freak,” he spat at me, the one word stinging my ears.

Says the boy killing fish for fun, I now wish I had retorted.

This was about two weeks after I had first encountered the Man in the Scarf and Diamond Shoes and he had tapped me on both cheeks and told me I was magic. The tattoo on my ankle at that point looked like a couple of overgrown freckles.

So how was I to know that Stephan had said the magic word?

Just after the last fish on the rock flipped its last flop, the sun grew dark, as if a cloud had crossed it. Looking up at the brilliant blue sky, I saw instead that a mass of dark speckles had gathered above us.

Stephan let out a loud swear, and I turned to see if he was looking at the sky, too. Instead, his eyes were trained at the ground, where it looked like a landslide had started at my feet, slipping down the bank towards him. Upon closer inspection, however, it wasn’t dirt but thousands of gleaming beetles clamoring over each other to get to the water. But then I realized the water wasn’t their target.

The baker’s boy didn’t dance like the dying fish. Instead, he screamed, and the bugs from above funneled into his open mouth while the bugs from below coated his skin. It was funny, really, watching a once-human body become a wriggling mass of black exoskeletons clicking and clacking against each other. Once they had had their fill, they collapsed to the ground and skittered away into nothingness.

I stepped to the edge of the water. There wasn’t even a smudge of flour where Stephan had been standing, as if the beetles had just carried him away. But there was one thing: a sliver of something shiny poking out from the silt, just past where the water lapped against the shore. It was the gold viper fang from around his neck, still attached to the chain.

Plucking it from the muck, I polished it on the hem of my shirt. Without a look back, I trudged up the bank to the high road as I clasped it around my neck.

Vignette: The Dictator’s Punishment

When they finally extricated The Dictator from his home, they stood him on the front porch and surrounded him with their guns aloft, the barrels creating a starburst pattern around his crimson faux-military getup. And from there he had to watch as they deployed his punishment:

With the flip of a small red switch, it all happened at once. Streets named after him were rechristened with the names of the people who died under his policies. Portraits of him in government offices were taken down. The buildings he had prominently displayed his name on Lost their signage to become just another skyscraper, just another hotel. Every internet post and social media account bearing his name was wiped clean. Book publishers replaced his name in every draft with just “A Man” and pulled existing copies containing his identity from the shelves.

Nobody eradicated the facts of what he had done and how he had ruined everything he touched during his rule. They didn’t ignore the ways he had come into power. To forget history doomed the country to repeat it, and no one wanted that.

What they did do was remove the memory of his name. They denied The Dictator a legacy. Because in the end, he was never concerned with doing good for the country. He was only concerned with implanting his name in its history, raising it in ten-foot letters across the fruited plains and purple mountains majesty.

Once they barred him from re-entering the home, they let The Dictator walk freely among the people he had once ruled. The Dictator waited for someone to yell something, throw something — anything to assure him they knew who he was and remembered that he once had power.

But no one did anything. No one spoke to him directly or whispered his name. A woman hustled past him with a quick “excuse me” that he heard her reiterate to other strangers on the street in the same tone.

The Dictator wasn’t special anymore. He was just another person on the street, and it was the worst torture a man like him could ever be asked to endure.

Vignette: Slim for what

“I’m not skinny for you,” she said, bolting upright in bed. She pulled away from his fingers as if they had turned to cattle prods reaching out to trace the ribs under her skin.

Truthfully, she wasn’t doing it to look like a magazine ad or provoke even more men to buy her disgusting vodka cocktails or catcall her from their cars. She woke up at five every morning to exercise, ate small lunches, avoided the sweets aisle at the grocery store, etcetera, because she liked when people underestimated her. The pitying, hungry smiles they flashed at this bird-like creature whose skin was too tight for her bones as they assumed the least of her until it was too late — she had swallowed them whole, and she hadn’t gained a pound.

Axiom Thorne: Remind me which lie I told you

OK, OK. Which version of this story did I tell you? Did Ansel die? Did he lie to me? Or did he tragically forget who I was as a cruel punishment for saving his life using ill-begot magic?

See, I forget what I tell people. There are so many renditions I’ve run through that it’s hard to keep track of who thinks they know what. You could say it’s a gift, being this good at lying, though in a lot of ways, each version somewhat resembles the truth. It’s just a matter of deciding which story I’ll tell. Usually I can figure out in the first ten minutes of knowing you what will likely tug at your heartstrings the most.

With eligible, unavailable men, it’s usually the “he lied to me” story. That one gets them every time — they love comparing their fidelity to his and feeling like the superior prospect: “I’d never cheat on my lover; I would be so much better to this woman.” Hypocritical, I know.

With eligible, available men, I talk about Ansel’s death. They decide quickly that all they need to do is clear the cobwebs of grief from my heart so they can take up residency, and the knowledge that no one from my past will come dusting them away is a confidence-boosting comfort. It’s easy to ensnare them by making them believe they have a chance to rule me.

But you all were different. No one was taking up the accursed mantel in our little club, so I figured I should do it. Every ragtag group of heroes needs its sob story, so I told you a rendition I reserve for old women and eager adolescent girls aching to have something to cry about other than aging and growing pains. And you all bought it, didn’t you? You, our captain; and you, the thief; and you, the self-righteous sea queen in disguise. I slowly revealed how Ansel had loved me, and was dying, and the Man with the Scarf and the Diamond Shoes had coaxed me into his alley and given me the magic I needed to save my love, but it came with a dreadful price.

I’ve never seen such suckers.

You all wanted to believe that my powers came from an overload of grief. It would mean they were temporary, curable with a kind smile or sunny day.

Let me assure you, my powers are about as temporary as death itself.

Of course, you’ll figure that out pretty soon. There’s a storm forming to the west, and it’s bringing ghosts this way. Maybe Ansel will be among them to tell you the truth himself.

This is the second piece I’ve written from the perspective of Axiom Thorne, the half-elf warlock I’m playing in our Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The first appeared in September as a short story. More to come, most likely.

#NaNoWriMo 2019: What to do when you don’t have a plan

In my latest weekly post, I teased a character I had been working on for a while and was thinking of using for whatever I end up writing during National Novel Writing Month. When I posted it on Twitter, a friend from college responded, saying he was inspired to try his first NaNoWriMo but wasn’t sure what to know going in.

I responded with a couple 280-character tips: Have a network, set up a daily word count goal, tune out the editor in your head, etc. Anything you’d find on a typical writer’s blog.

But then I started thinking: What if you don’t have any plan whatsoever? How do you do NaNoWriMo when you have no concept of what the story is, who the characters are, and what critical human theme you want to explore?

I started thinking this mostly because, Hello! That’s me this year! And, as a sign from Master Bong Joon Ho himself, I saw Parasite on Sunday (excellent film, go see it), and there’s this monologue that’s gripped me since I walked out of the theater:

You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned…You can’t go wrong with no plans. We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next.

So in that spirit, here’s what I came up with if you’re facing Nov. 1 without any idea what to write but the egotism? courage? stupidity? to want to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month anyway:

1. Build the story around stuff that’s happening in your actual life. Have a croissant and coffee for breakfast? Your main character did to. What were you daydreaming about while waiting for the barista to hand you said croissant and coffee? Imagine that happened — a homeless man went sprinting through the Starbucks and dropped a weird metal piece on the floor, not turning around to pick it up because there’s three alien-looking dudes chasing him, leaving puddles of slime behind them. But then one of them turns and looks at you, and signals that he wants your croissant, and you (rather, your main character) is now part of the story. OK, now what happened? You’re easily at 2,500 words after describing the scene. Only 47,500 more to go!

2. Pick a two-word name for your main character. Every time it gets mentioned, you’ll be two words instead of one closer to that 50,000 word count goal.

3. Be super descriptive of everything. What music is playing? What does the coffeeshop smell like? Is the croissant crusty, or does it give a little in its paper baggy? What does the barista look like? Multiple hair colors are a plus because they take up more words.

(Spot the trend yet?)

4. Spell out the chapter titles. That’s two words each time you break. Might as well make chapters pretty short, then.

5. Everyone your character talks to on the street has a dog. Describe it in full. More words!

6. I’ve started putting allusions to pop culture into my work when they make sense. Do the same thing. Find a great song to write to when describing what happens when your character finds out that the metal part they absconded with from the coffee shop while the alien was munching on the croissant is actually the key to a spaceship that landed in the dog park across the street. Then have it playing on the character’s earbuds or something, and toss in some of the lyrics to boost your word count.

7. Stuck on a battle scene? Write “They fight” and follow it with little bullet points of things that might happen. Then highlight it bright yellow so you can find it later when you have a better idea (or just need to bite the bullet and write it). My first NaNoWriMo project literally had “Zombies attack” written in the middle of the second chapter because I wanted to get on with the story instead of focus on action scenes, which I hate writing.

8. Which brings me to my last piece of advice: Write something you LOVE! OK, so maybe you’re gluten free and can’t eat croissants for breakfast, and the thought of having to write about an alien species for a whole book makes you cringe. Find something else to explore and enjoy. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about: playing and having fun with words. We just do it really fast, and really intensely. It’s like a month-long sprint, and we all end up stronger for it in the end.

Character vignette: Merritt King, the Pick-Me Girl

Merritt had lost something and didn’t notice until it was too late.

She had lost herself.

Somewhere in her transition from being Merri, giggle-monster middle schooler who wanted to be an archaeologist who designed fashion based on what she discovered during her digs, to Mer, hard-ass tomboy with little respect for the world and even less for herself, the real Merritt King had ducked out through an emergency exit and left her feeling empty.

“You’re the worst kind of girl,” Cardeja had yelled at her as she stormed away across the lunchroom. “A Pick-Me girl. The kind who pushes other girls down because she thinks it’ll make a boy like her more.”

What made Mer so mad that day at her best friend — no, former best friend — was that Deja was right. Matt Charles had walked into their fourth period algebra class one day, and that night she had gone home and stripped the walls bare of the computer printouts of One Direction with highlighter hearts around Harry’s face; pushed all her dresses to the back of the closet; stolen the oldest issues from her brothers’ Car and Driver and Sports Illustrated archives; and watched an hour of YouTube videos describing how to apply liberal amounts makeup in a way that looks like you’re not wearing any at all.

If every other girl in class was going to hyperfeminize to attract the new boy, she was going to stand out by doing the exact opposite.

The next day she walked into school with her skinny jeans cuffed unevenly, Chuck Taylors rubbed dirty with mulch from the front lawn, and brother’s raggedy flannel shirt hanging over a low-cut camisole. She passed Matt’s locker, jeans cutting into her sides, Chucks giving her the mother of all blisters, and flannel itching her armpits. But she felt like she looked good, and that was what confidence was, right?

She sat on her hands so she wouldn’t bite her nails during study hall as she tried every opening line out in her head. The Car and Driver sat on her desk, untouched. And then he was walking in, with his hair perfectly pushed back from his emerald eyes, and his Rolling Stones T-shirt so authentically him. At least, it felt that way.

Mer opened her mouth to cooly say “Hey,” but was rudely interrupted by Mrs. Tarvinski dropping dead at her desk in what would become a mass extinction of anyone over the age of 17.