November 20, 2015
So, I’ve spent the last month reading over a story I had written at the end of 1999 about an old man battling with death, literally, and trying to figure out how to improve it. While I remember writing it for a particular sequence involving the titular cards, I’d forgotten that it was the only sequence that had actually worked as a story point. And even then, it was a story point fit for a false story, or a story that tries to be a story, but doesn’t do the best job at becoming a story.
As I was reading through it and cutting out hundreds of fatty words (and I’m not done!), I was thinking about the foundations of what makes a story great and what steps I could take to turn this rather bland tale into something awesome. Sometimes, the job of a writer is not to write the greatest story of his career but to rebuild a serviceable idea from scratch by infusing it with elements that build dramatic tension and essentially rip out the guts of the old story to make room for the new one.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing for my latest novella, soon to be released to Smashwords as an e-book, Cards in the Cloak.
Basic info will be coming soon, whenever I get the store page prepared, but here’s a preview of its first chapter (still a work in progress, but it’s almost there):
(Chapter 1, excerpt only)
Norman Jenson was just shy of nineteen the first time he looked death in the eyes. Fortunately, he didn’t have to stare at it for long. Gave it more of a fleeting glance. If he had blinked, he might’ve missed it. Nevertheless, the connection gave him the chills.
It happened not long after he’d gone through the forest. Much like the journey Little Red Riding Hood had taken on her way to Grandma’s house, he was trekking down a narrow path through a dense wood, barreling down hard on an enemy that he didn’t know he was about to face—well, a different kind of enemy than the one he knew he was facing—when reality nearly struck him between the eyes. But that reality wasn’t clear to him here. It was obvious only according to what the crazy guy at the front of the pack was yelling over his shoulder:
“This is it, boys! Welcome to hell!”
The platoon section leader was not exactly the motivating type, Norman thought. The guy probably thought he was. But he had picked the wrong set of words if inspiration was his goal. The excitement and adventure Norman was looking for didn’t culminate in such a joyless expression. He had rather the guy shouted something like Welcome to fun! or It’s time for a gun party! Really, anything with celebration in mind. After all, they were about to kick the tar out of the German Army, or part of it at any rate. A more appropriate battle cry would’ve been appreciated. But he didn’t get that. War was basically unkind.
His company was moving too fast, but he fought to keep up with it nonetheless. Basic training had taught him the maneuvers to stay alive, but not those required to keep up with the athletic warriors in the lead. They wasted no time bounding over boulders and brooks to reach the front line where the rest of the First Army was gathered. They were promised a brutal fight. They were promised blood. And Norman was looking forward to it. Sort of.
Growing up in the Northeast, he had his share of forest adventures, but none that came bundled with adrenaline. Sure, he had to fight off the occasional snake. They’d get pretty nasty in the creeks near his childhood home. But he was never really in danger of getting bitten by one. He had always just assumed he could outwit the poisonous ones. Death was just an idea. Not really applicable to him.
So, when as a fourteen-year-old he’d first heard about the assassination of the archduke, he realized that death was something that could come around the corner. But more importantly, as the world began to hedge its infantry and start its march against the nation responsible for pulling the trigger, he realized that with death came also a sense of vengeance. That was when he realized that fighting was more exciting than dodging snakes down at the creek.
It took almost three years for the United States to enter what was now called The Great War and another year and a half for Norman to enlist. He had wanted to go on his eighteenth birthday, but his parents kept telling him he was too young, and every effort he made to sign his name on the line anyway, his father was standing at the door with a whip to stop him. It wasn’t until two months before his nineteenth birthday that his parents had finally given up on trying to keep him home. His father, who was not yet forty, decided he would go, too, just so he didn’t look like a coward to his own son.
His father ended up earning a medal of honor for his service, ironically. Norman, not so much. But he tried.
Now Norman was on a northeastward march through the Argonne Forest, struggling to keep up with the front of the platoon section. The soldiers were in a hurry to reach the front line. Rumor had it that the companies before them were getting slaughtered.
“Keep it moving, you maggots,” said the sergeant, as he hopped over a log and ducked a fallen tree along the jagged path that cut through a bloodstained forest. “Death waits for no man!”
“You don’t have to keep calling us maggots, sir,” said the combatant behind him. “We’re right here.”
“Right you are, soldier,” yelled the sergeant. “Keep it moving anyway!”
Sometimes the insults spurred the soldiers on, sometimes not. The sergeant was known platoon-wide as the pushover who tried to motivate through name-calling. He was fairly new to the Army himself. In fact, much of the company was made of soldiers who were running businesses or attending college less than two months earlier. No one really knew what they were doing. But they were clueless together!
Norman wasn’t the slowest in the pack, but he was pretty far back, compared to the sergeant and the five leads, who were all so loud that he could hear them arguing. The guys closest to his position were quieter. For them, they were disengaged from the conversation completely. They were too busy listening to the trees, waiting for that moment when the enemy might spring up out of nowhere and come descending on their heads.
“Never know which krauts be hiding in them branches,” said a boy close to him. “Gotta keep an eye open.”
“Amen,” said another. “Can’t wait to go knocking them out of them trees like they be squirrels or sum’such.”
Sometimes Norman regretted joining the Army. It was in times of listening to the guys around him saying insane things that he wished he had stayed home. It also hadn’t helped that he had yet to see active battle. He’d heard about it plenty, of course, but this was the first time he would see it up close.
As he pressed on, he could hear it closing in, as if the treetops had contained the greatest acoustics in the world.
“How much farther?” asked another boy, who was probably eighteen. “I want to see heads explode.”
“The head you’ll see explode is your own if you ain’t quieter,” said yet another.
Everyone in the company had talked like a badass that day. But none were feeling particularly brave. The louder those gunshots had gotten, the heavier that Norman’s heart pounded, and, he was certain, the louder he could hear the boys in his squad’s hearts pounding. It was beginning to sound like a tribal drum march—the theme song to their march.
When the bloody trees parted, Norman could finally see the battle up close. What appeared to be the entire First Army, and its hundreds of thousands of soldiers, was climbing in and out of the concentric rows of bunkers, as each soldier tried to edge closer to the enemy. But the motions were so slow it seemed as if no one was moving forward at all.
“Down here, you maggots,” the sergeant yelled, when Norman and the backend of the platoon finally cleared the Argonne Forest.
Norman saw the sergeant waving them all in, as if he was a schoolmarm calling them in from recess to start their next lesson.
The rest of the company climbed down into the bunker with him, where medics were racing around tending to the wounded, and rats were racing around the medics trying to get in a nibble for lunch, and the living were loading up their rounds for the next volley of firepower. The smells that wafted up from the guts of the trenches—too awful to synthesize, but they all combined to replicate an old sewer—caused Norman to vomit in his mouth. He swallowed it before he could add to the mixture of nauseating horror.
Norman, who had carried his rifle with him since he’d gotten off the boat, was now in a position to use it. And, unlike his math skills, which he had labored hard to master in his final year of high school, he was eager to see what he remembered about firing it—not that he was in a hurry to kill the enemy, but because he was in a hurry to keep himself alive.
Until he was fourteen, he hadn’t believed much in death. But now, as a near nineteen-year-old who could hear guns cracking around him and bodies occasionally falling dead into the bunker beside him, he believed in death very much, and he was feeling genuinely afraid of it.
But he didn’t want that to show. Instead, he checked his rifle, made sure it was fully-loaded, then climbed out of the bunker and shot at whatever moved at the other end of the field.
He was pretty sure he had hit a tree.
I’m planning to have it ready for release on Black Friday, so keep an eye out for it.