Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Killing Stones (Opening Chapter)

“Will you shut it, you moron?” I whispered. “They’re gonna hear us!”

But Miko only laughed harder. A mere thirty feet separated us from them, and if not for their own noise, they surely would have made us.

“I’m serious, Miko. If they find us in here, we’re dead.”

He still didn’t acknowledge. Instead, he cupped a hand over his mouth to stifle his giggling. I glanced back through the soft, dark green cover of the bushes. Our prey hadn’t heard us. I turned again to Miko. “Okay?”

He nodded, his eyes fixed upon the three most loathed teenagers from my neighborhood. They were all freshmen at Somerton High and three years older than us. Brian Goldman – the ringleader – was smoking. His girlfriend, Connie Parker, wrapped her arms around his waist.

“He’s got a joint!” Miko whispered.

I’d have to take his word for it. Although Miko and I could shout to each other from our bedroom windows, he went to a middle school in neighboring Quinnipiac where - even in the sixth grade - drug use was already commonplace. In my sixth grade class at Nelson Elementary, a joint was still a knee or elbow.

But Brian wasn’t the one who worried me. My eyes were on Carl Posey - slasher of inflatable pools, torturer of defenseless kittens. Posey was the one we needed to take by surprise. He kicked a hacky-sack into the air, making his way around Brian and Connie. God only knew what he was thinking. Once he turned his back to us, we’d make our move.


Miko nodded. Now, even his eyes were absent of humor.

I peered through the hole in the bushes. Posey quickened his pace. He was at twelve o’clock. We needed him at six.


Miko giggled. Posey was at three o’clock.

“Two. And shut up!”

He did. Posey moved into position.


I pushed myself up from behind the bushes. The sudden weight I put on my left hand crushed the egg in my grip. Cold yolk gushed through my fingers, dripping onto the sun-baked pavement as I led the charge. My only regret? With only one egg, I couldn’t peg both Posey and Goldman. Sure, Connie was a skank, but she was still a girl.

Posey still had his back to us, and Goldman and Connie remained in their self-absorbed, drug-induced haze.

“Hey Posey!” I yelled.

He ripped his head around, mouth gaping, eyes already flaring in anger. Meanwhile, the two lovebirds looked my way with casual amusement.

“You suck!” I yelled, then reared back and threw. If I missed, I’d lose valuable seconds in my escape. I didn’t miss. The egg hit Posey above the left eye, splattering a yellowish goo across the side of his face. Before turning to run for my life, I noticed two things. One, Posey wasn’t the one chasing me. Two? Miko still hid behind the bushes. No wonder I only saw one egg flying. Aside from Posey disappearing, everything else was going as planned.

I would run faster that summer, but only once.

The footfalls of Goldman’s sneakers clapped louder on the hot cement. He was only a few steps behind me. As I veered into my yard and down the hill towards my house, a wave of confidence surged through me. I leapt over the azaleas lining my driveway. Now came the hard part - fighting the urge to head into the garage.

After all, we had a plan to stick to, by golly.

I ran onto my front porch. Usually it was a twenty-foot long screened-in haven of cold lemonade and Bobby Vale. But not today. Today, only silence and an empty table. I turned around. Goldman stood in the driveway, wary of coming too close. Connie ambled down the sidewalk. They said nothing, studying their surroundings instead. Would they dare come onto the porch? Sporting the best worried look I could muster, I kept an eye on Goldman as I fumbled for the front door. When I found the knob, I pretended it was locked.

Goldman smiled, then approached. Connie stood watch. A late afternoon thunderhead moved in front of the sun, and the sky darkened.

“You some kind of idiot, Cusamano?”

Depending on how the next ten seconds went, maybe so.

He stepped onto the porch, and I backed up. If the plan failed, I’d at least get to rub cold wet yolk into his face. It still dripped from my left hand.

“I think he’s home alone, Brian,” Connie yelled from the end of the driveway. “The garage is empty, and his mother’s stupid music isn’t on.”

I was hoping someone would notice that.

I backed up towards the porch’s far corner. He followed. As he did, I realized he had at least forty pounds on me.

“Up yours, Goldman.”

He shook his head.

“You know, Frankie, I was going to let Posey get you back, but now I’m not so sure.”

Where was Posey, anyway? Beating up Miko?

Goldman took two more steps. Only his conscience and six feet of air separated us.

“Kiss it,” I said.

“Does you mommy know you talk like this?”

I winked at him. “Mommy’s not home.”

“Nice. And I guess Tony’s down at the Amoco?”

Right on cue, my brother - senior class president and captain of Somerton High’s baseball team - opened the front door and slipped onto the front porch.

“Nope. Right here, Brian.”

Goldman stiffened. We stood eye to eye as the color drained from his face. He turned around. Which was worse for him? Seeing my brother’s grin or watching Connie backtrack towards the street?

“Oh, hey, Tony,” Goldman said. “What’s up?”
But he knew my brother wasn’t buying.

“What’s up? Your number’s up.”

Goldman, shifted on his feet then backed up towards me. “Come on, Tony,” he said. “We were just having some fun.”

”Save it,” Tony said. “Where’s Posey?”

Goldman’s shoulders relaxed. “Dunno. Probably washing yolk off his face.”

Tony looked around, then shook his head. He walked towards Brian. Goldman backed up some more. I did, too, just so he wouldn’t bump into me.

“I want my bike back, Goldman.”


“Yeah, my bike. Don’t tell me you guys didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“That crappy three-speed of yours? Why would we want that?”

”Course not,” Tony said, taking a couple steps closer. “The ten-speed I got for my birthday last week. Someone stole it two nights ago.”

Goldman started to say something but stopped. Carl Posey - nostrils flared, cheeks flushed, and egg yolk smeared into his hair - stood six feet behind Tony. He wielded a small pocketknife. Though its blade was only three inches, it was more than enough to do damage.

Posey moved towards my brother.

“Tony!” I yelled. I’m quite certain it was the last time I ever called my brother by name.

Tony wheeled around just in time to grab Posey’s flailing arm, and in one smooth motion he pinned the creep face down on the porch. I’m sure the look on Posey’s face was priceless, but I was too busy watching his knife hand which was pulled tight behind his back. Ouch.

Posey gasped. His grip loosened. The knife fell from his fingers, clinking onto the cement. Its gold Cub Scout logo glinted in the sun. Three letters were engraved on the blade. BCP.

I snatched it up.

“I want my bike back, Posey,” Tony said.
“I doh –”

“I don’t care if you stole it or not. Get it back.”

He rolled him over. Posey’s eyes were vacant but a faint smile returned to his face. It was spooky. Like he knew something my brother didn’t.

“You got twenty-four hours,” Tony said, then let go of him. “Now get off my porch.”

Posey got up and walked to the driveway. Goldman followed. Tony held the door open for me. I turned and caught one last glimpse of Posey. Yolk notwithstanding, he smiled at me and mouthed two words.

You’re dead.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One Step Closer to Knowing

Ever wonder what it'd be like to have lightning in a bottle for two months? Now I know. And even though I didn't meet my own arbitrary deadline of approaching agents with a polished version of Healing Chiron by June, I did improve and tighten the tale so much that I truly believe it's as good as it's gonna get. Version 10 is officially (for now) complete, thanks mostly to a goldmine of a beta reader I found in Florida and a whole lot of 'bridging conflict'. In theory, I can polish up my query blurb and start hitting up agents.

But there's a 'but'.

I've also been blowing through new versions of The Killing Stones. TKS - in my opinion - is not only more marketable than Healing Chiron, but would be a far less palatable second act to Healing Chiron than vice-versa. So, I think I need to finish this guy up and pitch him first. The good news? I've made tremendous progress the last two months on TKS, too. The only thing remaining on this page-turner is to tighten, tighten, tighten, and check for proper comma usage. The tightening is primarily an exercise in replacing as much passive language with active. An active voice is far tighter than a passive one. If I put my mind to it, this means TKS will be ready in, oh, two weeks.

I guess if every other writer avoids querying agents in the sweltering heat of July, maybe this means my queries will stand out in the crowd.

The most frustrating part of the past couple months? Of the half dozen or so prospective beta readers, only one of them panned out. The reason for this is most of the ones not panning out are friends or relatives that simply aren't voracious readers. They read a couple books a year. Of those that were voracious readers, a couple of them had beta read both novels at least once. Asking anyone to read your novel for the third time is a lot to ask, especially when you're trying to gauge their level of surprise/suspense leading up to the twist.

So, I'm basically at the point where (aside from my friend in Florida) I need to have faith in my gut feeling that's telling me "Yep....this is good....send it out." And I do. Too bad I had the same feeling on Healing Chiron when I started marketing it for the first time three years ago. But not only am I a better story teller now, I'm far more patient and far less desperate.

I guess we'll just have to see. That's the fun part, anyway, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lazarus Has Risen

Welp, it took three years, but I seem to be back on the horse. Last time I was here, I was in a dark place getting darker. A few weeks after my last post, I was given my 14-months notice at work that I hadn’t been ‘mapped’ into the new Post-Merger organization. Did I give a crap? Nope. I was still awash in the throes of acute grief, trying to ignore the chronic physical and emotional toll awaiting me. It took over a year to get the house cleaned out and sold, along with getting the estate closed. Even though my writing took a back seat during that time, I was somehow able to get through two drafts of The Killing Stones, but until recently, that’s been sitting in a drawer gathering dust. Meantime, I got THIS close (hold your thumb and forefinger half an inch apart) on landing an agent for Healing Chiron (v4.0). She sent me a note in July 2008 telling me why she was passing on it after sitting on fence for close to a year.

That, too, got tossed in a drawer.

Luckily, a much better company bought the company that bought my original company and in Fall 2008 I found myself with a new job – a promotion in fact. I also found myself in way over my head with two huge projects…Just in time for Angie to lose her job in the Spring of 2009. In the back of my mind, my original plan of walking away with a huge severance and focusing solely on getting my two novels published (while being supported by a Sugar Mama) was now a pipe dream. Healing Chiron and The Killing Stones sunk deeper into the trunk.

Work-wise, everything was going well. Nice bonuses, decent raises, 30+ vacation days a year. Who could ask for anything more? I could, apparently. In Spring of 2010, I basically hit the emergency shut-off valve when a health scare struck my immediate family. My mind defaulted to ‘worst case scenario’ and I not only had trouble focusing at work, but just staying emotionally stable was a challenge. After more test results showed there was basically nothing wrong, I realized I needed to talk to a professional. Because something was wrong with ME.

The psychologist scored me for moderate depression, theorizing my traumatic childhood (watching my brother die over the course of a decade) had conditioned me to believe Life Only Dishes Out The Worst. And apparently, Survivor’s Guilt had infiltrated me to the point of altering my genetic make-up. It made sense. Just realizing these two things has better equipped me for handling the next helping of brussel sprouts Life serves me.

As for the root cause of my depression? It dawned on me this January I wasn’t doing what I loved. I wasn’t writing. Sure, I could blame Dad for dying, or blame Wachovia for putting my career on hold, or blame Angie for getting laid off. But what it came down to was this: If I really wanted to write, and if I’m really supposed to write, then the only thing stopping me was ME. Even if I’m working my tail off at work. Even if I only average five or six hours of sleep a night. Basically, it was time to Man Up.

So, in February, I re-read the feedback I got from two of the agents who had read the 93,000-word tome Healing Chiron (v4.0) and came up with an inventory of changes that would make it (gasp!) more marketable. I set a goal of re-approaching both agents with Healing Chiron v7.0 by mid-May – I want to hit them before the publishing world goes dormant for the summer. As we speak, a few friends are beta reading v6.0 and I expect to have an 80,000-word v7.0 polished up in time to meet my arbitrary deadline. Meanwhile, I finished v3.0 of The Killing Stones last night, chopping out over 5,000 words from the 95,000-word v2.0. Realistically, I need to get this, too, down to 80,000 words (v5.0) before shopping it around.
The best thing about it? Before I broke the emergency glass three years ago, I had to give most of my beta-readers printed manuscripts. Now I can provide readable versions for the Kindle, Nook & iPad.

Meanwhile, two ideas (one is a fake documentary and the other is another paranormal) simply won’t go away until I at least map them out. I’m not getting much done around the house, but one thing’s for sure: The fire’s back.