J.M. Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

My Story Submission Process

Dec
04

It feels like I haven’t written about my current writing process in quite some time, but a recent comment from the wonderful Joy Pixley has me thinking about it again. She is not the first to comment to me that I seem to have had a lot of success in publishing.

I posted long ago about my story submission tracker. This is my method of keeping notes on all my submissions, which is necessary since my basic strategy is to write and submit a lot. The tracker is based on spreadsheets I use all the time in the Army.

Here’s part of the tracker as it looks now:

1

The tracker is now much too large to try to share in full. It has more than 60 rows and 28 columns. I have extended the submission attempts for a single piece out to 13, though in practice, the most times I have submitted a single story is still only 11. I have two stories currently on their 11th attempt, stories I like to think are particularly good.

If I were to sum up my submission strategy in once picture, it would be this:

2

My current acceptance ratio is around 1 in 5. Is that good or bad? I cannot say. I’ve also submitted almost 60 stories in total. At least 30 of these were first sent out by the middle of February. I am slowing down now as larger projects (and real work) take more of my time.

I think success is highly subjective. I’ve have 33 stories accepted for publication (also a novella and a fantasy series). Is that success?

I have not yet been published in a pro-rated magazine (SFWA defines pro rate as 6c/word). For a 5000-word story, a pro-rated sale would be over $300US. Currently my best sale is only around $50, though I did win $300 in a contest. Of course, I want a pro-rated sale. That would make all this work feel like it accomplished what was intended. Does that mean I am not yet a success?

To be brutally honest, I am not sure. I feel good about my writing and publishing so far, but I know I have a long way to go.

If I could offer any advice, it would be to not give up. Don’t send your story to a single publisher and give up if it is rejected. After a rejection, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. At first, I was always feeling on tenterhooks, waiting for a response, only to be devastated when the form letter came. I’ve come now to expect rejection. This makes it easy when rejection does come, and a delightful surprise with each acceptance.

Also, don’t read too much into a publisher before submitting. A lot of places will suggest to read a copy of the mag before sending, but this is often A) a ploy to get sales and B) an arbitrary restriction on the content of submissions. Editors often don’t know what they like until they see it. If the publication is in the same genre as your work, and doesn’t have a blanked rejection on some aspect of it (for example, some speculative fiction publishers won’t take certain subgenres and others have specific content such as sex or gore that they won’t accept), send it in.

Think about it. What’s the worst, and best, thing that could happen? Worst, you get a form rejection. Let me tell you, you’re going to get a whole lot of those no matter what you do. But the best thing would be getting a sale! It seems entirely worth the risk, doesn’t it?

The review process is completely subjective. A certain editor might just not like your style or voice, no matter the content. And many places have only one or two people doing initial reads, that first step that gets your work from the slush pile into the hands of someone who will actually give it the time and attention it deserves.

I learned over the past year that the editors of Daily Science Fiction don’t like my style. Each one of the stories I have sent to them–which varied significantly in style and content and even structure–got form rejections, despite being clearly better written, at least technically, than much of what they do end up publishing. On the flip side, the editor of Bards and Sages seems to enjoy my style, as she has accepted three of my pieces so far, currently my best sales.

While I am now more inclined to send my stuff to Bards and Sages, since I know the editor likes my work and have enjoyed working with her, I still continue to try new places. Most of my submissions in the past month were to new publishers.

That’s really it. Submit often and submit a lot. Not much of a strategy.

Of course, you must read each publisher’s submission guidelines carefully, often necessitating substantial formatting changes to your manuscripts. And you want to be sure you are submitting to places that publish your genre. But other than that, just write a whole lot and don’t let rejections discourage you.

What comes along with submitting often is a deeper understanding of the publishing process. My experience with other publishers, and in reading many publishing contracts, allowed me to quickly identify a sketchy publisher who offered me a contract for my book In the Valley of Magic. I was quickly able to not only identify behaviors the editors and other members were demonstrating that were not right, but also quickly see a dozen significant problems with the contract. That deal was dead before it even started.

All of the writing has also helped me develop my skills and personal style. The stories I write now are clearly better than the ones I wrote even 6 months ago. After 4 or 5 submissions to the Writer’s of the Future Contest, I finally earned an Honorable Mention. My writing is getting better with each story, so maybe that pro-rate sale will come eventually.

That’s about it. No magic. No special rituals. I don’t have the chance to do any networking, as I live in Asia and do not have access to conferences and conventions. I just spam my work to anywhere I think it might fit. Maybe it was inevitable to find some being accepted.

Thanks for reading. If you have any specific questions, drop them in the comments.

Good luck with your writing!

~J.M.

 

Tips Straight from the Horse’s, er Judge’s Mouth

May
26

One of my current goals as a science fiction and fantasy writer is to eventually get into Writers of the Future. This has been a target for me ever since one of my literature teachers in college won and was published by them. If you can survive the brutal competition and professional-level judging, you can proudly declare yourself to have made it.

My perception–as limited as it is–is that if you get into Writer’s of the Future, people will start taking your seriously. Agents and publishers will take a closer look at your manuscripts; readers will seek you out. That’s the step from being an amateur to being a professional, respected, money-making author.

To that end–and to help anyone else who is considering entering the contest–I have found an article with ten tips from one of this quarter’s judges. What better way to get ahead but to know what the reviewers are actually thinking?

I sent a story to the last quarter of WotF, so this guy probably looked it over. I feel like I avoided all of these issues, so maybe I have a chance to get in. My current story is certainly better than the last one I submitted to them. Wish me luck!

You can find the article HERE.

My Writing Process, or Dirty Dancing with the Muses

May
23

Some people are plotters, some people leave their characters adrift in hopes they will do something interesting. Stephen King is in the latter camp, adamantly a member of the let-the-characters-do-their-thing party. I imagine Tolkien must have been a plotter, and a big one. He started out building a language and then wrote a story for it.

I’m neither of these. Or maybe I am both. Am I bi-procedural? I don’t often plot things out in detail, at least not for short stories. Though I am not averse to writing basic synopses and outlines, just so I don’t forget my great idea.

I did do a whole lot more planning for my novel/full-book-thingy, which included outlines for each chapter, characters lists, world and city maps, and sit downs with friends to discuss concepts. I feel like the planning helped a lot in that particular case.

For the novella I am currently writing, I wrote a basic two-page synopsis (which was actually required by the publisher as part of the pitch), but that just included a cast of characters and some basic chapter breakdowns. When I actually sit down and write the chapters, I don’t look at the synopsis, but rather let the story go where it wants to go. But I also don’t like to leave the story completely up to the characters. They don’t know what makes for a good read.

I just wrote a new short story today in a blaze of creative frenzy. I was struck by a muse and it would not be ignored. I knocked out 2000 words in the first two hours of the morning, took a short break to ingest some calories, and finished the final 1500 words in another hour or so. A complete draft of a 3500 word story in four hours is not to shabby!

Sometimes muses come, and I feel the writing is always better than when I have to force it. I imagine muses are different for everyone. Mine can be particularly strong. I usually find a muse in one of two ways: either listening to music, or reading about some intellectual topic such a science or mythology. The former are more common and usually give me fantasy stories, the latter usually offer science fiction tales based on the science I am reading about.

I started getting into writing when I was young because I was a daydreamer. I was always playing scenarios and stories through in my head. After watching medieval shows like The Tudors for example, I usually imagine myself traveling back in time. What would I do to advise the king? Of course, I’d start by teaching them about basic hygiene. No more armies crippled by dysentery. Then I could start my own unit of ninjas. Take old England by silent storm. Princess being held in the tower? Get her back ninjas! My own medieval special forces.

Daydreaming is what sends me muses. After getting an idea or a muse, I usually mull it over in my head, playing through the scenario like a movie. This is probably why my writing is more action centered and visual, since the story is visual to me. The more I daydream on a story, the more potent it becomes, the more motivated I become to write it, and in the end, the better the result.

In the case of this morning’s story, I have been thinking about it since yesterday evening, when a few lyrics from a song I’d heard a hundred times suddenly decided to catch my attention. At that point, the first thing I did was replay the song a dozen times to milk it dry. There were a few more lyrics that inspired bits of the story. I woke up this morning and drove to my morning class, playing the song again, repeatedly, in the car. The story concept was so full at that time, I decided to write down some chronological notes.

Now, I’m not going to give away what song inspired today’s story, I will tell you I wrote a story a couple weeks back under similar circumstances. That one was inspired by A Flock of Seagulls’s “I Ran (So Far Away)”. I let you imagine where that took me.

While writing the story, I never looked at my notes, it was good enough that they were there and the idea was secure. I started with the initial scene that had been in my head the night before and let the story build itself, but keeping it close to the road I had paved through all my previous thinking. This morning’s muse was particularly strong and gifted, so I had little trouble getting it all down. I think I had to stop to think through a paragraph or look up a word less than ten times. It was a great writing session. I imagine this initial session like taking a lump of metal and hammering it into the rough shape of a blade.

Now, a couple hours have passed since I have seen my raw draft. I am about ready to go back to it. I have my blade, but now I need to fix any flaws in it, mend the cracks, heat-treat and sharpen it, and affix a fancy handle (If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of Forged in Fire). I will look over my raw draft and do a basic proof, while at the same time checking for consistency and continuity in the narrative.

After than, I need to have a friend or two take a red pen to it. That’s a critical step before something is truly ready to be published, at least professionally. There’s a limit to how much an author can see of his own work, like a sort of tunnel-vision or color-blindness. An extra pair of eyes will always improve your writing (well, unless the author has an extra pair, which is weird, and still doesn’t solve author bias). Get some comments, write some revisions and maybe then it’s ready to be sent to someone in a stuffy office somewhere just waiting to ease their stress by trashing something violently. Even if I can only help to ease one soul, maybe it’s all worth it…

Nah. Gimme money! Well, that’s my short story writing process. Usually. Sometimes. It is the ideal, anyways.

That’s my spiel. I hope it helps you think through your process.

So how do you write?

Water and Blood – A (very) Short Story

Feb
03

It felt good to finally be clean. The smell of fish guts and the sea still covered her hands like an aura, but at least the blood was gone from between her fingers.

Sparrow sat at a wooden table on the far end of the butchery. The windows were open wide, welcoming the salty night air in to remove the stench of blood and death. The pieces of the shark she had dissected were now far away, in metal bins sunk in the sea to keep the meat cool and fresh. The room had been cleansed of all signs of the struggle of life and was once again just a room, with wooded tables and carving knives that hung from the ceiling.

Lost in thought, Sparrow twirled a fat butcher’s knife in her hand, rotating it around the blunt tip that rested on the table. She looked at the blade carefully; it was fat and clumsy, not like the ones she had used in her previous life. She stopped her hand and stared into the shine of the blade. Gradually, in her mind, it changed shape into something more familiar: an assassin’s stiletto.

“Aren’t you a lovely little thing?” the man asks. He is dressed in a fine silk coat of bright blue, the mark of a servant of the mages. “Care to join me in my room?”

The sound inside the drinking lounge at the bottom floor of the Golden Gate Inn is thunderous, a rolling growl of fake laughter and honest anger. Sparrow follows the man up many flights of stairs, through a heavy wooden door which he unlocks with an expectant smile, and into a large but quiet room with a wide, canopied bed. 

“It’s been a long day,” he says, removing his coat. “Hunting down the Baron’s rogues just about drained my spirits.” He looks at her hungrily. “Maybe you can help me with that…How old are you by the way?”

“Fifteen,” Sparrow replies. She reaches back, feeling for the leather bound handle.

“Perfect. Come here.”

She moves forward, kissing him on the neck, marking the target of her strike. His eyes open wide, but he is unable to speak, the blade lancing through his throat. But slowly his eyes reveal their understanding; the Baron had come for him.

Sparrow let the butcher knife fall noisily to the table. She studied her hands. They would never be clean of blood, but maybe she could cover the scent of men with something more normal. Life was a bloody fight–no matter where you ended up–but at least now she was the one deciding what to kill.

The ship’s captain told her once that many people came to the sea to get away from their past lives. It was a place for starting over. There was something in the water, something rough and yet pure. Maybe she could cleanse her spirit through a life of hard work, a life of some benefit to others.

With one more glance around the room, Sparrow lifted her weary body off the chair and up the stairs to the room that held her bed. Her bed. It felt good to finally have a place of her own.

*You can find previous stories featuring Sparrow here:

1. The First Sighting,  2. Learning to Let Go

Career Change – A Short Story

Dec
29

Ulfar watched the smoke billow up from the smoldering corpse of the pillaged hamlet. The air was thick with the smell of sweat, blood, and death. But the joy of it all was lost.

When he was young, Ulfar had loved to watched the fire dance across the thatched roofs, to hear the final chorus of those trapped inside. He had been on more raids than he could count; his old face bore thick scars as testimony to the fact. But the excitement had long ago started to die. Now it was fully deceased.

He now found himself simply going through the paces—screaming his warcry to intimate the villagers, before he cut them down with his large axe. He envied the younger warriors who still had that look of bloodlust on their faces. Oh, the joys of being young and eager.

He didn’t know what to do with himself. The shamans said that he had to die in glorious battle if he wanted to make it to Valhalla—which would then mean an eternity of endless fighting. Ulfar wasn’t sure that was what he wanted after all.

“Ulfar,” one of the younger fighters beckoned to him.

It was Bragi, a relatively small man for a Viking warrior, but fierce nonetheless. Ulfar had a lingering respect for the man, who worked twice as hard as any other to make his name.

“What is it, whelp?” the older warrior asked with a smirk.

“Skuti has offended me,” Bragi complained. “He has taken what is rightfully mine.”

“What has he taken?”

“My prizes from the house of the man I killed. The loot was mine by right, since it was my sword-arm doing the work. But while I continued with the battle, he snuck in and stole the golden pieces. I demand justice. I want you to stand by me when I challenge him to a fight to the death.”

“Are you sure he took it?”

“Yes, I saw the bits spilling from his pockets.”

“And are you sure you can beat him in a fight?”

“With your spirit aiding me, yes, I believe so.”

Ulfar stood for a long moment, in deep thought. There had to be a better way. They spent their days killing villagers and the nights killing each other. All this killing was becoming exhausting. There had to be a better way.

“Do you have any evidence of your claim?” Ulfar asked the younger man.

“Yes, I have the ear of the man I killed, the owner of the house. And many others warriors saw me and commended me on my skill.”

Ulfar drew his hand down his long, gray beard. He felt the scars on his chin, hiding deep underneath the matted hair.

“I will stand by you,” Ulfar said. “But not at the circle of death. I have another idea.”

“What are you thinking?” Bragi asked.

“We will go present your case to the Jarl. I will be your advocate. We will offer him our evidence and plead for his judgment. No one need die, and we can establish a precedent to prevent this sort of dishonorable thievery in the future.”

It was a good plan, in Ulfar’s opinion. He knew he had a sharp tongue. And the new Jarl was rather weak-willed. It could work. And no one would die. There would be a fight, of course, but a totally new sort of fight. Bragi looked unconvinced.

“Trust me,” Ulfar said. “Have I ever lost a battle? I do not intend to lose this one.”

“And you would do this for me?” Bragi asked doubtfully. “What do you get from it?”

“Just a small share of the loot.”

My Writing Space (Or How Not to Follow Stephen King’s Advice)

Dec
21

Fortune favors the bold, or so they say.

I have been reading Stephen King’s great treatise on the craft, On Writing. While I do intend to extract and discuss many key points of the book later, there is one bit that is likely not to make the cut for me: the discussion of proper writing spaces.

This is because my writing space, according to King’s advice, is wholly inadequate. I know this, my cats know this, but it is largely because of them that I am forced to work as I do.

King suggests, amongst other things, that a proper writing space should be a room with a door–a closed door. It should not have a telephone, TV or other distractions. Shades should be drawn and you should be sealed away from the world as best as possible. Closing the door not only insulates you from the chaos of the outside world, but it tells the other people in the house that you are hard at work–unless those people are cats, cats don’t give a damn about your work.

And thus I find myself unable to follow his rules, despite agreeing with them for the most part. I live in a small but reasonable apartment with my wife and a perhaps unreasonable number of feline cohabitants. Ten to be exact (that is a story in and of itself, the abridged version of which is that our most recent rescue came preloaded with six additional color schemes, so to speak). I have a computer room that doubles as a library, but it also triples as a storage area and litter box space. In all we have seven litter boxes, so finding a place where the air is relatively dust-free is difficult.

So I do my work sitting on the living room sofa, typing away on a laptop that rests on a wooden TV tray. I have to place two or three cushions behind me to give enough support to work for hours straight. And as is likely to evoke King’s chagrin, I sit right across from my widescreen TV. The PS4 cannot help itself but call to me. And when it does, I think just a couple rounds of Vermintide won’t hurt right? Then after several hours and many failed levels (Quit running off on your own and getting yourself killed elf! You’ve lost it for the rest of the team! Bastard! I mean how is it that the game is easier with AI teammates than real players?), I feel the pangs of guilt.

Honestly, I don’t know how I get by. I must have some incredible willpower to actually get 4+ hours of work in everyday in such conditions. But loving what I do surely doesn’t hurt.

I’m hoping to make my fortune soon, mostly so I can move into a bigger place and actually have a writing space with a door…and a proper desk. I suggest against trying to struggle through work like I do. Find yourself a nice King-approved space to work in and get it done.

Learning, to Let Go – A (very) Short Story

Nov
27

Sparrow looked down at the massive shark lying on the table. It reeked something terrible and she worried how that stench would intensify once she cut it open. She was at the  Liminal stages of becoming a true fisherman, but she didn’t know if she could see it through.

Of course the older veterans had left her, the new girl, to do the dirty work. She was expected to chop the fish into manageable bits and place them in sealed containers to be left in the sea to keep cool. Cutting and chopping she knew well, but never with such cold flesh as this.

She grabbed a large cleaver from is notch in the large cutting block. It felt heavy in her hand. She watched the light bounce off the polished metal, thinking of the other blades she had held in her life before. They had not been tools, nor designed to aid the people. They had been weapons of death and nothing more. Was it really such a bad thing to get a little dirty so that the children of the village could eat?

But the smell was overpowering. She had grown up far from the sea, near mountains and forests. She had rarely eaten fish, let alone bathed in its particular aroma.

She found a moderately clean rag on a far shelf and tied it around her face. That solved one problem. But nothing was going to save her clothes.

She finally gave in and took to her work, making a big mess of it. From behind she could hear the laughter of the ship’s old captain.

“The point of the apron is to let the blood hit that and not the rest of the room,” the old man chuckled. “I dare say it’s the cleanest thing in here.”

Sparrow noticed that he walked around easily, without holding his nose. Maybe you got used to the smell, she wondered. She didn’t know if she wanted to get used to it.

The old man came to her and took the cleaver from her wet hands. He showed her where to slice, what to keep and what little bits to discard. She was astonished by his patience. Feeling out of place was not easy. Seeming to sense her thoughts, the old captain smiled warmly and spoke:

“Don’t worry. We’ll make a fisherman out of you yet.”

*A previous and related story featuring the character Sparrow can be found HERE.

The Stranger – A Short Story

Nov
24

I have been digging through the files on my old hard drive and discovered some little gems. This is a story I wrote back in college as part of a short story writing class. Peer-reviewed work from school cannot be any worse than the raw stuff I publish here daily, right? 

This is the story of a stranger who keeps his cool in a Chaotic situation, and the witness that he influences.


This is the second time in my life I have been held hostage.

Normally, I occupy a small cubicle on the top floor of a building owned by DFI Financial Corporation. I sit in front of a computer and scan financial transactions for suspicious activity. My job is boring and uneventful; I have never come across anything in my five years here that warranted investigation.

Today, though, I found something. A large amount of money transferred from one of our clients’ accounts to an account in the Caiman Islands. No sooner did I catch it, than the doors to our floor flew open and a group of men bearing guns burst inside.

Some people managed to get out, but I couldn’t make it. They intimidated me. They came to me and shoved me in a corner and I submitted, just like I always submit; I can’t seem to put up a fight for anything.

I’ve lost my job three times already, and I never put up a protest. Whenever people try to take advantage of me, I let them; I just can’t find the courage to fight back. I couldn’t even find the guts to stop my wife from walking out on me this morning.

We’ve been sitting here for over 5 hours, grouped together in an open corner of the floor, away from the cluster of cubicles that occupy the west side; dusk has already covered the windows. The police are gathered outside; we all watch ourselves on cable news. Down on the street, a couple dozen police cars are flashing their lights and the SWAT team is spread out in groups. Every once and a while, the police helicopter passes by, shining its spotlight in, blinding us.

The men seem less concerned with us than with what they are looking for. One guy searches on the computers looking for God knows what, while another stands guard over us with a machine gun; he seems to be a little jumpy. The rest of our half-dozen or so captors occupy themselves with TVs and telephones, probably negotiating with the police.

I don’t know why I act this way, why I can never fight for myself. Am I such a coward?

As I said, this is the second time I have been held hostage. The first was when I was a boy, in the small town where I lived. I went to the bank with my mother; she was trying to cash her paycheck. She usually tended the house, but our family was broke, so she had gotten a job at the local supermarket, working a cash register. The money from her job, combined with what my father made as a freelance mechanic, allowed us to squeeze by from week to week.

My mom was excited that week; she had worked a day of overtime and planned to use the extra money to take my brother and me out for a nice dinner, a rare and special occasion. That made me excited too; it doesn’t take much to please a young boy.

The problem was that it seemed everybody in the town had just got paid. Couple that with the fact that our little town only had two banks, and you can see how the line could stretch almost to the door. We had been waiting in line for over 20 minutes when the men came in.

I fell over when they burst through the doors. Three of them, in old hoodies, one of them had a red baseball cap on; he seemed to be their leader, definitely more charismatic and controlling than the others. They were young, dirty and unshaven. One of them was shorter than the others by half a foot or so; he seemed more nervous, too.

The leader walked up to the center of the counter, a young blond girl was working there. He pulled out a black handgun and started screaming at her to get all the money out. She fainted right on the spot.

By now, people had already begun to run screaming out of the building, but my mother and I were in the farthest corner from the door; we had no chance of escape. She tried to pick me up, but I wouldn’t come off the floor, I was horrified. I had been raised around people who always preached kindness to others; it was a shock to see people so opposed to the doctrine.

One of the guys pulled out his gun and blocked off the door, sealing the rest of us inside. I could see my mother was scared; that amplified my own fear. In all, there were 23 innocent men, women and children trapped in that building with me. Some of them I knew, some of them I didn’t, but that didn’t matter, they were all my townsfolk… except one of them.

There was one man there that really stood out. Obviously a city slicker, wearing a long, tan trench coat, like one of those private detectives you see on TV. He had an attractive face, short, dark hair standing atop a high forehead. He was cleanly shaven and even in the chaos, kept a crisp smirk on his lips. He was tall, but by no means overbearing; he stood erect and confident. I didn’t understand how he could stay calm; I was awed by him.

The robbers circled us like vultures, brandishing their guns like claws. They lunged at me and to their amusement, I screamed. I cried and curled up on the floor; they teased me, telling me to grow up. It wasn’t just me; everyone was hysterical, except the city man. My first thought was that he must have been through this before. I had heard a lot of horror stories about how dangerous the city is; maybe he got mugged before. How else could he have been so calm and still, looking around the room carefully, looking at the robbers patiently?

The leader ordered the shorter guy to watch us while the other two jumped over the counter and started pulling the money out and stuffing it into some grocery store plastic bags they had in their pockets. I hoped they would be gone soon, I thought that something bad was going to happen. Once the clerk girl came to, they dragged her off to the safe in the corner; it wasn’t any use, she didn’t know the combination. It was about that time when we heard the sirens coming. Damn loud, too.

To my surprise, my mother got to her feet and started heading for the door; I was too scared to move. She motioned to me to follow, but I stayed there on the floor. The man in the trench coat watched from over in the corner, as the lackey on guard screamed at her:

“Where you going lady?” he said with a smirk. “Ain’t nobody goin anywhere yet!”

The gun was shaking in his hand. My mother glanced at him, a stern look on her face,

“Don’t you hear those sirens coming? It’s over for you. I have better things to do than to sit here and watch you boys throw a fit.”

My mother had always been a very stubborn woman. At that moment I thought I could get up and follow her; the man told her to stop again, but she kept on walking, so he shot her.

I screamed; it does something to you, seeing your mother get shot like that, I think I started hyperventilating. Even though she was only hit in the arm, it’s still a very traumatic experience, especially for a boy. I was too frightened to go to her aid.

Everyone was going crazy, the mob started concerning themselves with only themselves. The robber moved himself between my mother and the door and pointed the gun out at the rest of us. The other two hung over the counter, looking at him, wondering what the hell was going on. The city man slowly walked over to her and carried her back to his corner. Unlike the rest of us, he moved graceful and calm.

The police were outside, screaming in on a megaphone. Throw your guns down, put your hands up and various other generic police expressions. There were a bunch of cars outside; cops from the next town over must have come as well. The shaky robber seemed to be getting even more nervous; he made me nervous. He turned to his leader and vented his panic. The leader told him not to worry; the police wouldn’t come in because they had hostages. Were we no more than poker cards to those men?

Meanwhile, the stranger in the trench coat was tearing up my mother’s shirt, trying to get to her wound. He took out a white handkerchief, wadded it and pressed it to my mother’s wound; there was blood all over now and she was looking pretty faint. I was worried for her, yet I was amazed at his skill, so I eased closer to him, so I could see better what he was doing.

He told me to hold still and ripped a long piece off my t-shirt, which he used to tie down the wadded handkerchief. He asked if anybody had a ballpoint pen; I gave him the one I had in my pocket; it was one of the clicking types. He put it on top of the wadded cloth that was now dark red with blood, and tied the shirt piece around it. Then he slid the pen out from underneath the knot. I asked him why he did it and he told me that it was so the bandage wouldn’t be too tight; if it was tied too tight, it could cut off the circulation to her arm. My mom thanked him in whisper; I thanked him in silence.

The shaky robber walked up behind him and ordered him to get up. The stranger turned around as he rose, the pen still in his right hand. He stared straight at the robber and the robber in turn put his gun to the stranger’s face. The robber’s right hand shook nervously, as it flexed on the grip of the pistol. The other two came back from around the counter and traded glances a few times between the cops and us on the floor.

“You’re quite a guy.” the shaky robber said, “You got a name?”

The city man’s eyes scanned the robber; he was still smiling. “My name’s Jim.”

“Well, Jim,” The robber said, “You got some mighty fine hands. What do you do for a living Jim? Are you a doctor or something?”

Jim stared at the robber. His breathing slowed and his eyes focused. Tension moved down his arm, flooding his right hand and causing his grip to tighten on the pen. He clicked the point out, the move causing his veins to bulge.

“Actually…” he said calmly. His smile dropped and his face became rigid. His eyes locked on the robber and his breathing paused.

“I’m an assassin.”

Jim’s left hand slapped the gun to the side, a round hitting the wall. His right hand thrust the pen into the right of the robber’s neck. He grabbed a hold of the gun and dropped the robber to the ground. Jim aimed across the room and shot the leader in the chest. The other robber dove behind the counter. Bullets from Jim’s gun hit the wall moments after the man had moved.

Jim ducked behind the counter. The robber popped back up, sending some shots back in our direction. A few of them came close to my mother and me. Jim shimmied along the counter until he came to one of the small swinging gates used by the tellers to get inside. He paused for a moment, checking the door. When the robber came out and shot at us again, Jim bounded through the slender gate. He pivoted and with the gun in both hands, he firing twice. The room went silent.

After a few moments the police burst in the door, their guns raised. Jim stood up and set his gun on the counter; my heart pounded and I gripped my mother’s arm tight. The shaky robber still had the pen in his throat and was gurgling pretty bad; a paramedic started working on him right away. The cops went over to the other two, but didn’t give them more than a quick glance, wasn’t much guessing about their fate. To my surprise, they handcuffed Jim and dragged him outside.

That was the first and last time I ever saw him. I think I read in the newspaper sometime that he had been found not guilty on manslaughter charges. When I was a little bit older, I went looking for him once. I wanted to know why he did it, why he risked his life for us. I don’t know if he really was an assassin, but from what I saw that day, he very well could have been. People on the news called him a murderer, but they hadn’t been in that bank, they didn’t know. He was brave and selfless; he acted when the rest of us were too scared to. Something about him has stayed with me these past 20 years.

The helicopter is coming around again, that damn spotlight making it impossible to see anything. The men are arguing with each other, it seems their searching has borne no fruit. They are worried how they are going to get out of the situation they are in. Whoever hired them isn’t going to help them out when he finds out they came up short.

Why am I just sitting here, while the lives of these people are threatened? What would Jim do if he were here?

I’ve tried my best to live up to their examples, Jim and my mother; they both were supernaturally brave. I have always done my best to help people; I give to charity, and take care of my neighbors. Why not now, when action is most crucial?

This is the second time I submitted to my fear. The second time I sat still instead of making a stand. Nevermore, this is the day I do something.

One of the men approaches me as I stand. Where does this courage come from?

The Light of Tumin – A Short Myth

Nov
19

Long ago, long before the rise of empires of stone, long before man put his hands on the reigns of magic, Tumin watched over the people of the valley.

She was a mother, a beacon of light and purity. She inspired honesty in men and steadfastness in women. She held the hands of maidens as they joined in nature’s great cycle of creation. She was always there, watching and loving, and the people worshiped her.

One day a girl wandered into the sacred groves. Her hair was knotted with dirt and sweat, her hands covered with blood. The girl collapsed against the roots of one of the ancient trees, weeping. The sound filled the air and the animals grew respectfully silent.

“I have lost it!” she wailed. “I have lost my child. Woe onto me for I have failed my family and my village! How can I return to my husband? I will lie here with my tears until I die!”

Tumin watched the girl. She heard the girl’s cries and tasted her tears.  She felt the girl’s inner most pains. Benevolence requires sympathy, and sympathy is painful. Tumin felt everything. She filled herself with the child’s torment.

“My child…” the girl wept. “How could you take my child?”

“We did not take your child, young one,” Tumin spoke softly. “He came to us of his own accord.”

“He…?” the girl said, turning to gaze in awe at the goddess before her. She fell to her knees, refusing to look up at the glowing image of divinity.

“Look at me child, for I am here for you.”

The girl slowly raised her head and her body was filled with light. She was warmed by feelings of peace and love. Her tears ceased to fall.

“Your son saw the state of your life. He saw your great happiness beside your husband, despite the struggle for your livelihood. He did not want to cause you further burdens. He saw your world and decided now was not the time to come to you.”

“Not the time?” the girl said, confused.

“Your son is waiting. He will come back to you when the time is right. Do not despair.”

The girl knew the words of the goddess to be true. She felt the force of life in her bones. Tumin’s radiant white robes rippled in the wind, her long golden hair hanging like vines. She placed a soft hand on the girl’s cheek, smiling down upon her.

“Never forget that you are my child and I am always watching. Do not fill your heart with sorrow. All is as it should be.”

Tumin watched as the girl fell to sleep, exhausted by the physical and mental trauma. As the girl dreamed, the goddess washed the blood from her body and the sadness from her soul. She filled the girl’s heart with hope and courage. This girl would be a leader for her people.

When the girl woke, the goddess was gone. But the residue of divinity remained, deep in the girl’s spirit.

With devotion and resolve in her heart, the girl returned to her village.

A response to the Daily Prompt: Mythical

Glacial Rage – A Nano Story

Nov
18

3519055 - iceberg

Beads of water rolled down the icy cliff into the sea—a million tiny splashes echoing in time. The silent rumble of centuries groaned as the glacier slid across the ground. Mists rose up where the it met the ocean, a pitched battle of warm and cold. Waves crashed futilely against the white continent. The wind swirled. The gulls retreated.

Sorun watched the moving ice, gripping his obsidian fishing spear angrily in one hand. He would not allow the land to encroach upon the sacred sea. The ocean was the origin of life, fluid and ever-changing, filled with more wonders than the land would ever see. How dare the young ground try to conquer his domain!

It was a battle the ice could never win. Sorun drove the waves harder against the cold invader. He warmed the seawater with his essence. Blow after salty blow chipped away at the endless block of ice. Yet like the bullish creatures it cradled, the land kept coming. Salt, bolstered by the warmth of the sea, returned the ice to its holy form. Every inch the glacier moved was an inch of itself lost.

He watched the glacier slowly drip into the sea. It was a victory that would take eons. But Sorun was a god; he could wait.

Percolate