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Category: Working on the Craft

Working on the Craft: Clothes

A fairly straightforward exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany: to write a short scene centered around a memorable article of clothing. The goal is to focus on the ways clothing describes the people that wear it — their class and status, profession, goals, awareness of self. For all that it is a simple idea, it is also a profound one, as clothing exists in 99.99% of fiction, in one form or another, and it always says something, be it about the characters, or the author.

The vest was beautiful. In the crowded street market, under the din of merchants hawking their wares, and customers arguing, it was hard to focus on anything. But this piece, placed on a stand most of the people walking the street could not afford to shop at, had caught Valen’s eye immediately, and held it. Dark blue, the color of Ocean’s mists, embroidered with glimmering golden thread. No pockets, no clasps. It was meant to be worn open, over a bare chest – a symbol of status and bravery.

He could appreciate the intent, though he knew how the nobility wore such clothing. They had no understanding of the subtlety that a tailor put into such simplicity. He had seen countless men buying vests like this one, and covering it up with chains of precious metals. They saw themselves as grand only when their wealth was on shameless display.

They couldn’t understand, because they’d never known poverty.

Valen looked down at his own vest. Simple, unembroidered. Good quality which said that it wasn’t handed down, but bought from a merchant with actual gemshards. Not shabby, for sure, but not exquisite either. A thief could not afford to dress gaudy, but neither could they afford to look like street vermin. Presenting as a beggar had its uses from time to time, but usually it closed as many doors, as the eyebrows that rich clothing raised.

If one wanted to be good at that profession, standing out for any reason was out of the question. Valen was a master at walking the middle road.

Still, his eyes lingered on the vest. He was no tailor, but he appreciated craftsmanship. And he remembered a childhood not nearly long enough ago, when any clothing had been a luxury. Doubly so, if it was bug-free. When roofs over your head were not a given, and a piece of sturdy cloth was the next best thing. The boy he had been back then had dreamed of palaces and riches, and the clothing to show it all off. He had probably lacked sufficient amounts of taste, that he would have draped all the precious metal and gems he could find all over himself, if he could.

Valen of today smiled. That had been before the gift of the leviathan. Before riches had become easy to acquire. More an excuse for the life he led, rather than its purpose. It was the challenge he now craved, and with that challenge came appreciation for the simple and understated. The craftsmanship of straight lines and bold cuts. It applied to the clothes he wore, as much as it did to anything else.

The merchant across the stall took his smile as encouragement, and launched into a sermon extolling the virtues of the cloth and skill that had gone into the tailoring of his wares. It was a prelude to asking for an exuberant price, of course, and Valen ignored it entirely. He had no use for this vest, could hardly imagine an occasion that would call for its understated elegance. And he had work to do.

In the end, he cut the man short, apologized for taking his time, and moved out of the way of another customer, this one actually interested in buying something. By the time he had made two steps into the thick crowd, he had been forgotten.

Which was just as well.

Thin tendrils of blue light – light only someone with Valen’s gift would see, and only if they were to look for them in the crowded market – wrapped themselves around the piece of clothing on the table behind him. He kept walking, but his senses were entangled with the manifestation of his power, and he could feel the smooth silk sliding against other vests and jackets, ignored by merchant, client, and passersby alike. The tendrils carried it between legs and flailing arms, passing it to each other through the crowd as they flared in and out of existence.

All the way to Valen’s waiting hands.

He wouldn’t get much use out of it. But he remembered that young boy, and how much he had wanted such a vest.

His smile returned. He kept walking.

Working on the Craft: No Ideas, But in Things

This exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany is in a section titled “Images”, and the goal is to tell a very short story (300 words) only in imagery. The character should be a part of it, but rather than show their thoughts or words, the author has to focus on their actions and movement instead. I found it eerily calming, as well as detached, which Kiteley says is a common effect of this exercise. Showing emotion through (in)action rather than word, is an extremely valuable skill (duh), and this was a very enjoyable way to explore i.

She walks out of the back door, and into the small garden. The muted light of the invisible sun paints the dome of mist in swirling pale gray. A small path leads from the house to where the two copper chains that hang on their short rods almost meet. Forming an exit, should she wish to exit their tenuous protection. She stops in the middle, staring at the meager yield of the mushrooms to her left. Avoids looking to the right. Sighing, she leans over, plucks a few that are ripe enough. She puts them in a small basket, but does not pick it up.

Her eyes move up, stop at the wall of mist behind the mushroom patch. She rises, slowly, and walks around, so she could approach the copper chain. It reaches to about her waist, and the gray wisps strain against it, as if pushing, wanting to invade the garden. Her face tightens. She reaches with a bare hand, and the mist pushes even closer. Her fingers are almost touching the tendrils when the metal bracelet on her wrist glows and a dagger materializes in her hand.

The mist recoils, as if burned, an angry hissing sound coming from where the silvery blade touched it. She smiles now. A cruel smile, but also brittle. Exhausted.

She turns back, and heads for the small house, leaning to snatch the basket on her way. Her eyes stay focused on the door, never straying to her right. But once her fingers are pushing against the grainy wood, she pauses.

Her eyes close. Tighten.

She looks behind her shoulder, at the small grave post in the mud. The soil there is still uneven, and her eyes trace its short length. One foot. Two feet. Stop.

She walks inside the house, her stride unsteady. But her eyes are dry.

Working on the Craft: Historical Omniscience

Another really cool exercise from The 3 A. M. Epiphany, this one aiming at omniscient view of the past (or a past, it doesn’t have to be real). The goal is to utilize a type of omniscience that takes a bird’s eye view of an event or people, using the knowledge of that period’s “future” as part of the narrative. It is a very different approach than the present day omniscient POV that I was used to, and the new relationship with the world was interesting to explore. It reminded me of Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy, in which the tight third person would shift to omniscient bird’s eye view during great battles or epic events.

This piece of text is part of the history of the world in which my current novel is set. I hope it isn’t thoroughly embarrassing…

[Excerpt] from “The Fall of the Chantry: Exploration of the InevitabilitY of the Dissolution”

By Kasheem Se Khaledun, Second Historian of the Sovereign College, member of the Guild of Lorists

In a world where the Gods are real, faith cannot survive.

That the Chantry would lose power as people lost faith, was not immediately obvious in the last decades before its collapse. There are records of religions older than the Leviathan Pantheon, dating as far back as the Age of Mythology. Faiths and splinter sects, devoted to deities both imagined, and likely already inspired by the Gods themselves. In all documents surviving such ancient times, we can see cracks in the façade. Abuse of power, corruption, dressing malevolence in piety. It is an easy conclusion to make, that not all who partook of such religions were truly faithful.

So we need to see the world as the Chantry saw it. For all that many quoted scripture while failing to follow its dogma, this was the most powerful religious institution in the history of the Jade continent. Lack of faith had never impeded its influence, nor its control over the political leaders of the land. It was so powerful, in fact, that we have documents showing said influence expanding to other continents, when they Converged with our own during their journeys through the mists of Ocean.

(Such knowledge is perhaps less impressive to the modern reader than it rightly should be. It is of note that the Chantry existed before the Fael skyships came to our lands, before the gift of Gleamdark artifice that would allow the birth of the Guild of Navigators. Traveling to other continents was impossible at the time, and we only knew of their existence due to the rare phenomenon of Convergence, when the currents of Ocean would bring our home in contact with other land masses for a time.)

What is the key to the Dissolution then? How did the greatest power on Jade collapse into the isolated cults we know today? The answer is simple: the Gods spoke to their chosen.

People receiving the gift of God power have existed as long as the leviathans themselves. Those possessed of the ability to change the world, performing what for generations was deemed miracles. Heroes whose mysterious sacrifices would pay for boons humanity could barely comprehend. We know the Pantheon existed during the Age of Mythology. In fact, the leviathans certainly swam the deep mists of Ocean before humanity even stood on two feet. And in every age of our existence, the gifted have been with us.

So what changed? I have outlined in detail how the number of the Gods’ chosen increased dramatically, seemingly overnight (though records reveal the transition happened over decades). Not only did they become numerous, but the leviathans were now speaking to them, directing their efforts to the Gods’ own mysterious ends. The question of “why” has plagued us for centuries, and I have listed some of the more reputable theories. A common thread among many of those deals with the imminent arrival of the Fael, the rise of arcana and artifice as the dominant drives of our societies, which would lead to the beginning of the Audacity and the world we know today. Surely, some among the leviathans can see the strands of the future, as the powers they gift indicate.

But whatever their reasons, one fact remains certain: The Gods spoke, and the Chantry fell.

The dogma of its scriptures had always had an uneasy reverence for the chosen. Those rare few who bore the mark of a God or Goddess of the Pantheon, were an aberration that the power structures of the religion could neither control, nor fully incorporate into their teachings. Many gifted women and men used their gifts in sharp rejection of the Chantry, and yet they were not smitten down for their blasphemous deeds.

The balance held only because such people were so rare.

And then they were not.

More and more awoke to a gift, more and more heard the whispers of the Gods. When they spoke, their word clashed with the dogma of religion. And where religion had faith, the chosen had proof. The former can only survive the latter if their conclusions overlap. But they did not. What we know today, the simple truth that brought the Dissolution, that turned the Chantry into subservient cults more interested in tradition, ritual, and service than any real power, was unthinkable to the people of that period. But over time, it was also undeniable.

The simple reality of the world is that the Leviathan Pantheon cares nothing for our deed and thought, our desires and needs. The Gods are indifferent to all but the ones they choose, and even them they view as but tools to their will. And if certain rituals have survived to the present day, they are hollow tradition, unburdened by the tenets of faith.

In the following chapters, I have laid out the first cracks in […]

Working on the Craft: Implication

Today’s exercise comes from Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. In both of its parts, the author has to describe something without the help of characters. Part 1 is dedicated to a room, which should describe its occupant without them being present at the time. In Part 2, the goal is to depict the aftermath of an event without anyone currently participating in it. I really enjoyed both segments. The exercise seems very useful as a tool in writing longer works, and Le Guin herself points out that it doesn’t have to be limited to omniscient authorial view. A character could be describing these things from their own point of view (though I opted for the former option).

Part 1:

The room was more statement than office. Every aspect of it designed for a marriage of utility and the demonstration of rank. From the first step one took inside, a portrait of the House’s first ruler greeted them, hung on the wall behind a massive oak desk. Its height was perfectly positioned so that the stern face of the ancient noble would look above the head of the desk’s occupant, adding weight to their every meeting. The desk itself was designed for full integration with the Network, smart surface seamlessly crafted into hand-worked wood, of the kind one had to import from off-world at obscene cost.

Floor to ceiling bookcases covered the dark blue walls to each side of the desk, their shelves packed with physical books – tomes that were clearly priceless artifacts, yet meticulously selected for their relevance to the House lord’s projects. The faintest smell of ozone marked the high-end security fields protecting the paper from entropy or unauthorized fingers.

The office was equipped with complete overlay capabilities as well – projectors and forcefield generators designed to meld with the walls. Yet none of them were ever active, unless necessary for e presentation. Where lesser nobility might simulate expensive art or other objects of great value, this room belonged to a House that could possess anything it wanted in the real world.

And often used that capability, for the sake of demonstration, because it sent a clear message to rival Houses: Anything could be bought.

Part 2:

The sweet smell of rotten wood permeated the small clearing, the bent limbs of branches reaching out with arthritic fingers from the wall of mist, yellow poison seeping out of split bark like pus.

It was almost enough to mask the stench of blood from the bodies on the stunted grass. The tableau told the story of sudden violence. Limbs splayed in unnatural positions, farm-made clothing torn to shreds by sharp claws that had gouged ragged groves into the flesh beneath. And the look of frozen terror on slashed faces, no longer seeing the monster that had taken their lives.

Each body had a totem attached to its wrist – a bracelet of simple copper and High Technology meant to protect in a world where the very air could manifest teeth, even when one could see beyond three feet into the mist. The ancient devices had helped not at all, for the protection they offered was a chance, and not a promise.

The mist advanced now, swallowing the bloated limbs of the diseased trees, closing in on the corpses as their totems no longer repelled it. Grey wisps slithered over dying grass, like a thing alive questing for food. They closed in on the bodies, caressing shredded clothing, covering wounds.

Before the clearing was fully swallowed, the first corpse began moving.

Working on the Craft: The Royal We

Another exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany, aiming at a split personality first person plural narrative, in which the perspective is from the point of view of the group, while each individual member is described in third. The point is to describe a melding of thoughts and feelings within a tight-knit group. For some reason, this instantly made me think of telepathy or data-share, which naturally led me to dystopian cyberpunk, because my brain is extremely predictable. I opted out of geshtalt-writing, because that felt like cheating. Anyway, here is my 600-word attempt.

We climbed to the top of the crater at dawn, and the Cluster bloomed in front of us. An ugly, disjointed sprawl of prefab housing cubes, piled precariously on top of each other, surrounding the dome of Paris like filthy beggars reaching desperately for scraps. Which they were.

Jeriko flashed the sight to Axe, who was being led by Shim while her goggles rebooted. Axe’s eyes had been taken the year past, sold to some Corpling by her douchebag father, and replaced by a subpar implant that kept glitching more and more with each passing month. She beamed now, happy to see what Jeriko did. Shin tried her best too, with her sinth-leg being the half-assed job that it was. Jeriko got flashes from her, discomfort making her lose control of her priv-filters.

We were all broken in one way or another, none of us mint. But together we were whole. The three of us were all we had, and we were about to make a play for the big leagues.

Her goggles rebooted, Axe let go of Shim’s hand and walked to where Jeriko stood, staring at the expanse of the Cluster. We flashed comfort at one another, like little bursts of tranq, to keep us afloat. We knew the dangers of crawling out of the crater were nothing, compared to those lying ahead. Miles upon miles of slums, where cy- and chem-drugs were the norm, you were either in a gang, or at the mercy of one, and everything that could be sold, was fair game for trafficking. We had escaped poverty and were about to enter desolation.

Shim checked the blades in her arms, humming with satisfaction when they vibrated in response under her skin. Jeriko’s hand rested on the hilt of the sword on his back, and Axe’s memes were armed, ready to debilitate any system that even so much as looked at us.

We had to make it through the warrens of the Cluster, hopefully in one piece, or close to. We could ill afford to lose parts at the best of times, and no time was less “best” than the times ahead. If we were hacked or dismantled, the only help we could hope for, would be for a price, and we could not pay. Axe’s weaponized meme-engine, Jeriko’s claymore, and rations for a week’s journey had depleted our already non-existent resources.

All three of us had agreed that this was a one-way trip, and it would end in one of two ways. Success. Or… not.

Because beyond the Cluster lay the dome of Paris. Few corp-cities left on the ground, most of them having gone orbital a generation ago. And fewer still even considered allowing outsiders in. And none of those were anywhere the three of us could reach on foot. So Paris it was. Not a paradise, by any stretch of the imagination. Corps had seen to that. But better than where we had grown up, better than what future we had out here.

Axe knew deep-server ops. Jeriko was auged for strength and speed. And Shin had connections sprawling throughout the Cluster. Not enough for safe passage, of course. But between the three of us, we had a chance for a foot at the door, and a hand hopefully strong enough to hold said door from slamming on said foot.

The Cluster awaited us. Beyond that – the corp-dome. And beyond that still, maybe a chance at the stars. We flashed emotion at each other, the three of us sharing this experience, standing at the threshold of a journey with no certain end. A hand reached, and another clasped it. A muscle smile here, a flashed one there.

We started forward.

Working on the Craft: Journalism

Continuing with the exercises from The 3 A.M. Epiphany , today’s pick is Exercise 5, titled Journalism. The idea is to tell a short story through journal entries and try to convey important parts of it in the gaps between what is written. A play on the writer’s perceptions and the reader’s expectations. Which, of course, made me think of Gene Wolfe, and his Seven American Nights, which to this day is one of the best short stories I have ever read. So, without further ado, here is my mediocre tribute to Gene Wolfe.

January 7: I arrived in Reprobation at sunset. It’s a small, shitty place, way out of any trade route that still exists in this blasted wasteland. One of those townships where prospectors gathered back when everyone thought they would strike crystal if they only dug deep enough. And once it was clear this asswipe of a land would rather swallow them up than give anything of value, the dregs remained, too obstinate or too desperate to move.

I got a room in what passes for an inn around here. Too expensive for what it is. But I think the guy saw the hand cannon and decided I would want to do this question-free style. He is right.

Everyone is weird. They act almost like normal folk, but then give me these long looks, like they measure me for a coffin. Doesn’t matter. If anybody is moron enough to try something, my gun loves making examples.

Moonless night. Reprobation is too quiet. Maybe it’s such a depressing town that even those whiny murder lizards  from the wilds don’t want to be nearby and make noise. I miss the moons. That was a dumb war.

He is here. And if he isn’t, he sure as fuck passed through, and someone knows where he went.

January 9: This town has fewer than a 300 people, only one purifier station, no means of long-range communication, and so little high technology that it might as well be from before the diaspora. Yet, some-forsaken-how, it has a church! Because obviously it would. People who stay in places like Reprobation tend to find gods. Or worse – a God, singular. Still, made sense to go there first thing yesterday.

Why do religions with just one dude – and it’s always a dude – in charge suck so much more ass than those with a merry crowd of drunks and sex abusers?

This one had three gods, maybe. Or four. Barely any finery. No icons, just a drab alter and some carvings on the walls. Creepy stuff. Tentacles and fangs, and big bulging eyes. What fucking religion is this?

A single woman taking care of the whole thing. Priestess. Or High Bishop, Supreme Wizard, whatever. I guess she told me, but who cares. Weird like the rest of the township. Stared at me like she wanted to mate with me and feed my body to her young. And she knew nothing. Which is bad, because it seems most of this glorified latrine passes through her hovel on whichever day service is. So either he is hiding better than I thought he could, or she is lying to me.

Or he passed by so quietly, that nobody noticed.

But he didn’t. Not his style. And a place this small will notice the corpses.

Still, the day wasn’t a total waste of life. Inn has a bar. Reprobation has drunks. Drunks love talking. When they don’t love talking, a hand cannon in the face makes them talk. And mine is fancy. Exo-tech. It whispers to them, so they get extra scared.

They still looked at me funny, but I guess alcohol loosens their buttholes a bit. Got some information there. Someone did pass through, a week ago. They didn’t want to tell me, and I doubt they knew much. I don’t know if they’re secretive, or unobservant. Perhaps both.

But why would the Grand Hierophantess not want me to know?

Going to check the nearby caves today. Mine didn’t work out, but tunnels still make great hidey holes. They say people go in there sometimes, to avoid trouble. If he is still around, that’s where he would go.

Innkeeper looks like he will try to go through my things while I’m gone. If he hasn’t already. Doesn’t matter, everything I care about is in the holster at my hip.

And maybe the nearby caves.

January ???: I don’t know

Woke up in room how did I get here

Hurts so much but only when I breathe should stop breathing

I can barely move. Don’t know how I got back to the inn. I am not sure what happened in the mine. Got shot. Maybe stabbed.

Bitten? Why would that be an option?

I remember noise. Loud. And then something was on me, and I think I fell. I remember the pain, but nothing after. Was there bulging eyes?

Don’t know how long I was out, or what day it is. Panicked real good when I could think straight. No pants and no shirt is fine, but if they took my hand cannon, I am fucked.

It was fine. Gun was in its holster on the chair. Not fucked.

Maybe a bit fucked. My side is all bandaged up. Wasn’t me. Inkeeper guy? The Archpopetress? Fresh bandage too, so they changed it at least once. Hurts when I breathe. But manageable.

Thank you for the memories, Reprobation, you lizard nutsack.

But also, no memories. What happened in the mine? My thoughts keep going back to the church for some reason. Who in the endless starless void worships things with tentacles? This is some fifty-million-years-ago shit.

Must go back to tunnels, but hurts too much. Gotta gather my strength. Should rest now. Maybe getting feverish.

January 12: I woke up and felt wonderful. The bandages were such a great relief, and I was thankful to the kind soul who had taken such good care of me, nurturing me to good health so quickly. If I ever find who they are, they shall have my love.

I endeavor to leave this place now, for what I seek was not here. Perhaps I shall abandon this journey and settle down elsewhere. Certainly far from here, even if Reprobation has proven a worthy township.

This will be my last entry. I leave this journal here, as a memorial to the life I leave behind, and a promise for a bright, beautiful future in a distant land.

Do not look for me.

Working on the Craft: Three First Lines

Today’s exercise comes courtesy of a recent Writing Excuses episode, in which literary agent DongWon Song suggests rewriting drastically the first sentence of a work in progress three different ways. The result is, by necessity, short, but it actually took me a while to get the different versions to be anything I would want to start a story with. Funnily enough, I am now considering changing the original.

Disclaimer: the opening paragraph this is taken from is an establishing shot of a very non-terrestrial world. As such, it features some terms that are defined through context and might not make sense to readers in isolation. Hopefully, this won’t make the entire exercise unreadable for people who are not currently writing my book.

Original: Valen stood at the edge of the world and looked down upon the mists beyond.

Version 1: A world with no horizon greeted me when I reached the mouth of the cave, all distances drowned in the glowing mists of Ocean.

Version 2: An endless blue swirl of mist spreads before you as you reach the end of the tunnel, the dance of color at once calming and dizzying, making you put a hand on the stone wall so as not to fall into the abyss below.

Version 3: The Arc in the night sky bathed Ocean in its golden glow when Valen came out of the cave, and he needed a moment to orient himself, his sense of proportion dwarfed by the immense vista.

Working on the Craft: Omniscient Out of Sync

As I am listening to the entirety of Writing Excuses for the 3rd (I think) time, I decided to actually try and do some of their prompts this time around. In S07E12, titled Writing the Omniscient Viewpoint, the exercise in the end asks us to write a dialogue from an omniscient third person, in which the characters are out of sync with each other. Now, I am relatively certain that the goal here was to achieve this through mostly/exclusively dialogue. But once I started, I found myself enjoying the scene, so this is what happened. I think, objectively speaking, I may have only paid lip service to the actual prompt. But it was still fun to be in the heads of two people not understanding each other, so I don’t consider my time wasted.

Villem felt hot all over. He wished it were as simple as a fever but knew better. His hand twitched, wanting to scratch the bandaged wound under the sleeve of his shirt. He stopped it. Scratching only made the itch worse. And the waves of heat radiating from the bite.

‘Something happened to me,’ he said, his throat dry. ‘I was… attacked. In the forest.’

Linea felt the words like slaps on her cheeks. Her little brother’s face was red with anxious flush, his entire body seemed to tremble. She had known something was awfully wrong the moment he slammed the door of her hut open. She wanted to reach out and comfort him. But it seemed that it was too late for comfort. And this was her fault.

‘I am so sorry, Villem,’ she said. ‘Did they hurt you?’

How could he deny it? His sister had always been on his side, even when he had grown up different from other boys. She stood by him and defended him when the others made him an outcast in the village. Would she turn away from him now? ‘N-no. Not a lot. I bandaged it, and…’ His hand went to the hidden wound now, rubbing at the place over the sleeve. The shivers the touch sent through his entire body were almost pleasurable. ‘I am sorry.’

‘Bandaged it? Let me see!’ She reached forward, but her brother pulled back as if burned.

She felt the beginnings of true anger. The other youths could be cruel. Their parents thought Villen morally bankrupt, and had taught their sons to fear his attentions, and their daughters to mock his manliness. She knew they teased and insulted him. But to draw blood? This was an outrage. He was different, but he was still part of this community.

‘I need to teach them a lesson,’ Linea said through gritted teeth. ‘The village healer’s family is off limits to these monsters.’

‘A lesson?’ Villen stared at her in disbelief, the feverish heat in his body almost forgotten. Was she deranged? He had always looked up to his sister, but the things that had attacked him in the forest were beyond even her ire. ‘You cannot teach them a lesson! They will tear you apart!’

She was baffled, then felt her heart break. Had it become this bad? Did he really fear the other villagers this much? A decision formed then, one that was both sudden, and – she realized – the result of months of buildup. ‘We are going to leave this place,’ she said.

‘Our home?’

‘It has not felt like a home since father’s death. And I think things will only be getting more… compicated.’

‘Complicated.’ Villen repeated the word. ‘Complicated.’ It felt strange in his mouth. Like trying to fit a ball in a square hole. His sister thought going away from the village would help him? Or was she just trying to save the villagers? He couldn’t blame her. Already, his nose assaulted him with smells he had never experienced before. His ears throbbed with too much sound, as if the hut was full of people whispering, feet shuffling, cloth rustling, wood scraping on wood. It was driving him mad. ‘Where would we go?’

‘There is another village a day upstream into the mountains,’ Linea said with more confidence than she felt, and turned her back to him, already making lists in her head, looking at the shelves on the wall. ‘I need to pack a few things, leave some notes for the elder, and we could be gone by morning.

‘And you think they could help me there?’

Her hand froze as she reached for a book. She wanted to lie and say yes. But she could not. As a woman of healing, she knew that there was no helping her brother. He was not broken or sick. He was just born different. It angered her to see him this distraught. Perhaps the new place would be kinder, see that he was a gentle soul. She wished he didn’t have to hide his desires from others, for they harmed no one. But could he? And if not, how long before things in the new place were just as bad as here?

Still, Linea forced a smile as she looked at him over her shoulder. ‘I can help you. I will help you. But not here. We must leave.’

Villen felt relief flood him. His sister could help. She knew herbs and medicine. Maybe she could stop this curse. He opened his mouth to thank her, but a wave of nausea overcame him. A horrifying itch spread from the bandaged wound under his shirt, and the skin on his hand grew darker before his horrified eyes, tiny black hairs sprouting from his skin. He looked up, but his sister had her back to him. He felt a sudden urge to jump on her back, to tear and bite, and smash.

‘Oh, Villen?’ Linea said, turning to find her brother with his back to her, about to leave through the already open door. He stopped. In his hunched back and stooped shoulders, she read so much tension that it scared her. He was like an animal about to pounce. Tears threatened to well in her eyes at the thought of how threatened the villagers had made him feel. ‘Pack light. We will have a long walk and little time to rest, if we want to reach the village by nightfall.’

He stood still, his shoulders rising and falling with his ragged breaths. Linea made to go and put a hand on his back to make him relax, but as she stepped forward, he just grunted and went out the door.

And as Villen walked outside in the cool night air, he knew there would be no leaving. Not with his sister at least, who only wanted to help him, but who would not survive a day’s travel with him. He knew it was too late. A soft buzz fogged his thoughts, made it hard to focus. His chest swelled, skin stretching over muscles and bones that were growing bigger than they had ever been. He felt his shirt ripping in several places. The smells and sounds of the village assaulted him from all sides.

‘Oh hey, look, it’s Villen, looking for victims in the night,’ a mocking voice said. He looked up, his vision suddenly tinted red. Two boys stood across the little square. One pointed at him. The other laughed. For some reason, he could not recall their names.

He started walking toward them.

Working on the Craft: Unreliable Third

Continuing my journey through Brian Kiteley ‘s The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and Exercise 3 is both simple, and infuriating: Write a fragment of a story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator in tight third person. We are so used to unreliability being the realm of first person, that it was a really exciting thought process to tell a story I knew was wrong, but through the perspective of a more detached, supposedly less subjective point of view. Kiteley’s idea is that in this way, the author can play within the edges of unreliability, and actually coax more trust from the reader. And unlike a first person, where you understand the thought processes of your character and know how to use them to mislead, it seems that if you use third limited, you have to believe your own lie to a greater extent. Or at least that was my experience.

Waking up was a burst of joy. He arose and contemplated his reflection in the mirror.

That he was alive at all, was a miracle to his parents. When the terrifying illness had taken hold of their precious beautiful newborn, they had wailed. Oh how they had wailed! Matronly nursemaids had ran from the castle screaming in terror. Healers had fainted, too weak to comprehend what had befallen the Duke’s family.

His mother and father had wept for joy, he knew, when the illness had simply gone away one day. He woke every night, basking not in dreaded sunlight, but in the feeling that radiated through his home – of a family that cherished and loved him, of servants that rejoiced in his existence, saw him not as master, but as kin.

He opened the door and left the shadowed cave of his chambers, as he did every night. He enjoyed roaming the corridors upon waking, once the harsh dayglow he only faintly remembered was gone from the world. The hallways would echo with his footsteps, hushed voices drifting from far away. Those usually dwindled further as he approached. He wondered now, as he sometimes did, at the coincidence. He was the beloved master, the shining liege, and as he grew fat with joy, so did his servants and parents grow to love him even more. But yet there was rarely a soul nearby when he began his nightly strolls.

No matter. Should he wish for something, he knew he had to only call out.

There was much to do in the castle at night, much to experience. His pale skin glistened. The light from the lanterns that lined the walls painted oily colors across the length of his arm when he raised it before his face. He laughed, turned it around to see the play of crystalline reflections, as it danced up his lean triceps. The skin of his neck stretched and he felt the familiar click inside as he moved his head to chase the pattern further, over his shoulder and down his ribbed back…

A soft gasp brought him out of his reverie and he allowed his neck to return to its usual position, to look upon a young servant boy, standing frozen at the entrance of a side chamber. The boy’s eyes were wide with awe and a bead of sweat traced a line down the side of his face. The servant dare not breathe for fear that his beautiful lord would avert his countenance away.

He laughed. The boy need not fear. He moved forward, crossing the distance with a single glide, and reached with long fingers to caress the servant’s face, taking the bead of sweat with the tip of a nail. The boy trembled with adoration. He laughed and made to turn away and heard a gasp behind him.

He got confused for a moment. It happened sometimes. He was used to it and did not let it worry him.

As he continued roaming the corridors, screams sounded somewhere behind him. They made him wince. The castle was a happy place. His very presence brought delight to all who lived there. And yet, on occasion during his nightly strolls, there would be such dreadful tumult! It made him angry, but he was as merciful as he was beautiful. The bounty of his joy was big enough for all to partake, even if at times they would refuse to be content.

His very mother had wailed and screamed at him once, the tears so striking on her normally smiling face. She knew how much he loved her smile, and so she always smiled for him. But that time she had not smiled, even when he told her to. She had been the one confused then, his mother. Her voice shrill with accusations, yelling something about a brother, calling him – him! – a monster. Her distress had been tiring, and unnecessary as well.

He had never had a brother, he told her, and all the monsters had gone away once he had come through his illness as an infant. He had hugged her tight to console her, and her screams had turned into rasping sobs. She fell on the floor when he let her go, twisted strangely, but when he had made to help her stand, she had screamed that there was no need. She smiled then, the way she knew he liked, and so had his father, when he had turned around to see him standing at the doorframe.

His mother only sat in a chair now, with wheels. He giggled as he thought about the silly contraption, but she was so attached to it. And she never yelled at him anymore, so of course he indulged her in her game, even if it must be uncomfortable at times.

The last vestiges of his confusion were now gone, and he found himself alone once again, in the hallways of his ancestral castle, seeking joy. He licked his fingers without looking at them. They tasted slick, salty. Metallic. He loved that taste. Lived for it. Through it.

As he traveled down the corridors, sometimes skipping on the stone tiles, sometimes gliding above them, he laughed his rich laughter, reveling at the happiness he felt. His dark world was beautiful and filled with the brightness of love. He only had to reach out and pluck it.

Working on the Craft: Imperative

Another exercise from Brian Kiteley ‘s The 3 A.M. Epiphany . As the name suggests, this one requires you to write 500 words of a 2-nd person narrative that is made entirely by imperative commands. I may have cheated a bit here and there — as far as I am concerned, it is still a command, even if it features a whole entire sentence surrounded by dashes, like, say this one — but the overall process was fun and just the right amount of challenging, so I am going with it.

Wake up. Come on, open your eyes. Try not to wince when the light pierces your brain, it makes you wrinkle. Don’t think how grey and bleak it is, don’t try to calculate how many days the cloud cover has remained in place. Try to crawl from under the blankets faster. Remember where you are – the big guest bedroom, as befits your so-called rank. Take account of all the gaudy details the palace architect and that horrendous interior designer have seen fit to vomit all over said interior. Appreciate it for a moment, yeah. Try not to dwell on why you agreed to this state visit in the first place, considering you are just a marionette and have absolutely no authority to do anything this country’s glorified dictatrix would ask of you.

Don’t dwell, I said!

Get up – stop coughing, it makes you look like even more of a decrepit old man than you already act like! – and get to that bathroom. Yeah, don’t stare too hard at the mirror. Try to get cleaned up, to the best of your uninspiring capability. Wash the shame of last night’s “reception”, or as the young kids call it – “a clusterfuck of getting shitfaced on disgustingly expensive wine, while half the continent is choking on poverty thanks to your hostess”. Yeah, take that hangover pill, you know you want to. Forget that it’s another admission of weakness. Embrace it – weakness is not out of your way. Don’t think too hard, just choke it down, like you choke down your continuing political impotence.

Get dressed now. Do this right, or you won’t be able to impress the Empress, or whatever she calls herself these days, or her lackeys who you are supposedly here to woo. Consider this carefully and dress appropriately, so that your look screams courtly humility, with just a touch of “I will degrade myself for you”. Remember why your country sent you and try not to think of what the assholes who built this wonder of architectural kitsch will do to your people if you fail. Don’t think about it – seriously, I know I didn’t stutter – and pick that shirt with the pink ruffles. Look at yourself in the mirror now, and asses your capacity to present just the right amount of court buffoonery before you make the trip.

Ok, now get to the throne room for the early morning reception. Act like you don’t know that they did this on purpose, to make you and the other bobble-heads like you feel emasculated, defeminated, or however-else-they-identify-ated. Pretend that it doesn’t sting. Fail a couple of times on your way if you need to, while it’s still safe, then put on that broad, somehow charming “sentient block of cheese” smile you are renowned for in literally no circle, and get on with the theatre of diplomacy.

Walk down the long, gaudy strip of carpet like a good, obedient boy. Don’t look at the crass opulence on display, pretend you don’t hear the snickers. Ignore the metric fuckton of frills and lace half the court is wearing, then avert your eyes from Her Corpulent Majesty, the Whatever She Has Decided to Be Called Today, and just bow. Keep a straight face, damn it! Stifle the giggles – nobody has time for your nervous breakdowns – and offer her The Speech. Accept her gracious grunt of acknowledgement.

Go mingle with the rest of the diplomacy victims once this is done and over with, and act like any of you matter. Try not to think what her obnoxious kingdom can do to yours, and if you can’t do that, hold the depression until tonight’s reception starts. Allow yourself to drown the inner shrieks in more grossly expensive wine like an adult.

Then do it all over again tomorrow, and then do it the day after, until you have saved your nation, or have found any other meaningful reason to keep existing.