Concept: The Things We Cannot Keep

I have many ideas lingering in my writing notebook waiting to see the light of day. Unfortunately, I cannot possibly flesh all of them out (at least not at this point), so I thought it’d be fun to share the concepts in a series of posts. Not all will become full-blown novels or even leave this blog, but some will. Which ones have the potential? Only time will tell.

My mother, our mother, once said that you always love your family. They’re part of you. They know you better than you often know yourself, and they’ll always be there for you. I didn’t believe that then, and I certainly don’t believe that now. The only reason I’m here is for Colin, my younger brother. I’ve always had a soft spot for him, being the youngest and all. He talked me into this, but I think it’s a terrible idea.

We’re waiting outside the federal prison in Eastern Washington on the vast plains that stretch between the Cascades and Spokane. The rolling hills in the distance isolate this brutal place where many criminals come to die, like my oldest brother. He’s getting out today after two decades behind bars in this dreadful place.

Were it left up to me, Wyatt would walk out of those gates and no one would be here to greet him, certainly not Colin and me, but Colin had other ideas. He’s naive like that. He thinks people can change. He thinks there’s inherent good in everyone. I’ve never been able to convince him otherwise, especially when it comes to Wyatt.

Colin always looked up to Wyatt, idolized him really. Wyatt could do no wrong in his eyes even when it was painfully obvious that he was doing some serious wrong. Wyatt took advantage of it, that much I could see. He’d tell stories of drag racing the streets late at night, bar fights that always ended with him victorious, or the beautiful girls who were nothing more than a fling to him. Colin would eat it up like a giddy little boy listening to his hero.

I learned early on never to trust my older brother. He is a liar and a cheat, and I doubt two decades in confinement have changed him much. He took advantage of anyone who gave him the benefit of a doubt including Colin and our mother. She went to her grave believing that he had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time several times over.

When he miraculously beat that murder conviction, she swore that God was looking over her son despite the evidence that suggested he had stabbed the other man to death. I think he did it, but he was saved by sloppy police work and a keen public defender just beginning her career as a star attorney. When he was hauled to jail for beating his first wife, she claimed the poor woman instigated it with her philandering ways and constant harping. Wyatt could do no wrong even when he did.

But it all finally caught up to him. He had never shed his teenage obsession with drag racing even after his  reflexes dulled through years of drug use and alcohol abuse, both of which he blamed on his ex-wives. Wyatt always had someone to blame for his own shortcomings. On that fateful night when Wyatt Conner finally ran out of luck, a young man died when Wyatt inexplicably swerved and hit his vehicle as they were racing through the flats just outside town.

While Wyatt escaped with only minor injuries, the young man died on impact in the crunch of metal and the ensuing fire. Wyatt was too high to realize what he had done, but he had run out of people to blame for his behavior, and he ended up with a manslaughter conviction and a long prison sentence.

With Wyatt behind bars, I felt relief. The constant drama he had caused our family had aged our mother beyond her years and put my impressionable younger brother at risk himself, but neither of them acknowledged this. Neither of them shared my disdain for Wyatt. Our mother wept at losing her oldest son, and she visited him every week until she took her own life on Christmas day almost 18 years ago. Colin struggled after losing the only father figure he had ever had. His life has been one long series of failed relationships and unfulfilling jobs. He still lives in the trailer park where we grew up in Tukwila clinging to his own idealized version of our family.

I tried to forget Wyatt. I blamed him for our mother’s death. I blamed him for Colin’s struggles, but I wanted to move on. I wanted to have my own life to prove that there was something worth saving in this tattered family of ours, but he always lurked in the background haunting me every time something went wrong. Somehow, I knew I would never escape my family.

A beep echoed behind the door near our seats followed by a grating noise that sounded like metal grinding on metal. I tensed in my chair, my knuckles turned white. The moment I had dreaded for so long had finally arrived.

When the door opened, a man resembling my older brother stood in shoddy clothes before us. Colin ran to him and hugged him. I hardly recognized him. He looked like Wyatt, but the wavy dark hair had thinned and been peppered with gray. The smooth taut face of his youth had been replaced with sagging, wrinkled skin. He looked much older than his forty-five years. Only his eyes remained the same. They had that deep, distant stare that promised me nothing had really changed in Wyatt Conner.

I stepped in behind Colin who still embraced his brother. When he finally pulled back and wiped the tears from his face, Wyatt looked at me.

“It’s been a long time, Luke,” he said.

“Yes, it has. How are you?” I felt awkward like I had just met him for the first time in my life.

“As good as can be, considering…” He shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms as if he was pointing out the obvious to me.

I extended my hand. He hesitated, but then, he extended both of his and shook my hand, cupping the back of mine with his other hand. A slight, unsure smile crept across his face.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said. “I’ve had enough of this place.”

Colin draped his arm across Wyatt’s shoulder and hugged him close. “I thought we could all go camping this weekend just like we used to when we were kids.”

“I tried to talk him out of it,” I interjected, “but he insists it’d be good for you.”

Wyatt chuckled and looked at Colin in disbelief, but then, I saw something cross his face and he gave into the idea. “I’d like that. Just the three of us. Just like old times.”

 

A sense of dread overcame me as we walked out of the doors to the federal prison. A voice inside my head told me to put a stop to this nonsense, but I looked at Colin’s face and saw how happy he was. He hadn’t looked that happy in years. Maybe, just maybe, things had finally changed.

Excerpt: Into the Caldera

By the time the three emerged from the dense forest that cupped the southern side of the volcano, the skies began to clear. The foreboding clouds moved east with only an occasional lightning flash in the far distance to remind them of the storm they had endured on the drive from the freeway. The sun made an appearance and bore down on them with the heat that had been expected for a late summer day. The tree cover ended abruptly, and nothing but an open field of dirt and rocks lay before them. Scott was the first to pause to remove the extra shirt he had put on at the car.

“Hold up, guys,” he said behind Marc and Jenn, who had positioned herself in the middle of the single file line that weaved through the rocks.

Jenn turned and looked at him, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing…just want to take off this shirt.”

Marc paused at the base of a large pumice rock. He glanced back at Scott but turned to look ahead without saying anything. Scott sat his pack on the ground and shrugged off the long sleeve shirt. He quickly crammed it into a pocket on his pack. Jenn smiled at him and licked her lips through parted teeth.

“Keep going,” she said nodding to the t-shirt he still wore.

Scott chuckled. “I don’t want to embarrass Marc.”

Marc looked back at them and rolled his eyes. “Let’s get going. I’d like to get to the north side before it gets dark so that we can set up camp.”

“Yes, sir!” Jenn mocked standing up straight in front of Marc and giving a soldier’s salute. Marc rolled his eyes again before he turned to climb up onto the rock next to him.

Scott smiled as he slung his pack onto his shoulders and moved forward. Jenn did the same, and the three resumed walking toward the field of rocks cast to the side of the mountain by the eruption in 1980. The dark brown pumice rocks looked like hardened sponges. They were packed together and had nasty jagged edges that caught shoes and loose clothes as the three navigated the field. Scott looked ahead as far as he could see, and the rocks seemed to go on forever. After only a few minutes of moving up and down between the rocks, his breathing became more labored. Sweat dripped down his forehead. The rambling conversation that Jenn had mostly with herself under the dark canopy of trees they had just left ceased. He could hear her breathing from where he climbed. Marc was further ahead, but Scott assumed he was working hard too. The three focused on navigating the rocks as the irregular gaps and sharp edges threatened their exposed ankles and shins.

On one particularly deep divot between the rocks, Scott scraped his shin. “Fuck!” he yelled as he fell back between the rocks. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Both Marc and Jenn stopped and turned back to him. “Are you okay?” Marc asked.

Scott grimaced as he held his leg. “Yes, I’m okay. It just stings like a motherfucker.”

“Are you bleeding?” Jenn asked. She seemed a bit eager to see.

Scott took his hand off his leg and looked at his shin. “Not really, it’s just a scrape. Kind of like a paper cut. Superficial but hurts like hell.”

“These rocks are super sharp,” Marc said.

Scott felt annoyed by the obvious, but he released his leg and climbed back up the rock to be on level ground with his companions. “Let’s keep going,” he said taking a step forward. He shook off the pain that lingered in his shin as Marc and Jenn walked past him to continue the hike.

The three hikers continued their meticulous climb over the rocks at the base of Mt. St. Helens. More clouds moved over them blocking the sun, but the clouds were less threatening than the ones that had almost drowned them on the drive to the Sno-Park at the base of the mountain. Scott felt relief from the heat under the clouds as the climb became arduous, not because it was particularly technical but due to the constant up and down movement required to navigate the endless field of boulders. It reminded him of the squat exercises his track coach favored at school. Up and down. Up and down. His thighs ached.

The monotony of the rock field felt magnified by the silence that engulfed them. Marc was always the brooding, silent type. When he and Marc hiked alone, Scott did most of the talking, but Scott wasn’t exactly loquacious. He enjoyed the quiet solitude of hiking in the wilderness. Nevertheless, he also enjoyed the companionship and would force Marc into conversations.

He had only known Jenn for a couple of weeks, and in that time, he had learned that she rarely stopped talking, yet she had only said a few words since they had hiked out of the forest. He didn’t know if it the strenuous act of navigating the rocks had silenced her or if she had finally run out of things to say. She’d certainly said enough on the three-hour drive from Seattle.

He looked ahead at his two friends as they climbed in front of him. Marc, with his strong calves bulging beneath his shorts quickly scaled one rock after another. Jenn bent over as she climbed up with her rear not far from Scott’s face. His ears flushed red as he stared at her ass. He watched her unfold as she conquered the rock and stood up tall.

Scott took in the whole of the young woman above him. She stood at least 5’10’ with long blonde hair that hung down to the bottom of her shoulder blades. She had her hair in a long ponytail that flopped side to side as she moved. She didn’t have really sizable breasts but she had nice curves. Her hips flared out in the tight shorts that hugged her strong thighs. Scott loved her long, smooth legs. They were shapely and muscular. He could tell she was an athlete.

His observations aroused him, and a bulge formed in his shorts. He quickly shifted himself as he ascended the next rock to avoid the outward appearance of a hard-on. He and Jenn had only been hanging out for a couple of weeks, and they hadn’t even so much as kissed. He couldn’t really explain what their status was, but he was clearly turned on by her, and she seemed to relish the attention.

“Do you guys remember the SAE party at the end of the year?” Jenn asked.

Marc looked back at her and Scott looked at both of them as they paused to consider her question. Marc responded first. “I remember that there was a party but that’s all.” He laughed nervously.

“You don’t remember it at all?” Jenn asked.

“Nope,” Marc replied shaking his head. He continued climbing forward.

“We got pretty wasted at that party,” Scott said. “We’d been drinking for a few hours before the party even started. I barely remember arriving at the SAE house.”

“Really?” Jenn said. “I was there.”

“You were?” Scott said. “I don’t remember seeing you there.”

“I remember both of you.”

“Did we meet you at the party?” Scott asked.

“Yes.”

Scott stopped as the other two slowly scurried ahead of him. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” he asked Jenn pointedly.

“I thought you remembered,” Jenn replied. She seemed nervous all of a sudden, but Scott ignored it. She paused a moment as Marc climbed ahead of her.

“It was clear I didn’t remember you. You could have reminded me.”

“I didn’t think about it.” Jenn stood in the divot for a moment as Scott climbed up onto the rock behind her. She stared down at him before she turned and climbed up the next rock.

Scott let it go, but something didn’t add up. Jenn wasn’t telling him the whole story. He fell silent as he tried to remember the night of the SAE party, but it was like a blank spot in his memory. He remembered meeting his friend Sachin, who was a member of the fraternity, to go to the party, but everything else faded into the darkness of his drunken memory.

“Do you two always get that drunk at parties?” Jenn asked.

Scott felt offended. “No, we don’t. That’s the only one.”

“Aww, what fun is that? I thought you two were fun,” she replied.

Marc let out a half laugh but kept hiking forward.

“Well, for starters, I’m on the track team. Kind of hard to workout if I’m hungover,” Scott said.

“Then, why’d you join the fraternity?”

“We didn’t. A friend of ours invited us to the SAE party. We’re not members. We don’t have time for a fraternity.”

“You seemed to fit in that night.”

Scott gave Jenn a puzzled look. “We were just blowing off steam after a hard year. That’s all. It’s not something we’d do normally.”

“What do you do ‘normally’?” Jenn asked making air quotes in front of her as she continued to press forward.

“Marc and I are on scholarships and we’re Computer Science majors, so normally, we’re in the computer lab. That’s about as wild as it gets for us.”

Jenn giggled.

“What’s so funny?” Scott asked.

“You two don’t look like computer nerds.”

“How do we look?” Scott asked.

“Well, Marc looks like some kind of mountain man with that beard and long hair, and you look like a skinny high schooler with that baby face.”

“Gee, thanks,” Scott said. Marc just grunted a laugh without even looking back.

“What?” she said opening her palms and shrugging her shoulders. “I’m not being insulting. You look so young, but you’re not nerdy.”

“I’m 19.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Do you want to see my license?”

“Anyone can get a fake ID.”

Scott sighed in mock annoyance.

“So neither of you remember the party?”

Scott looked at Jenn as she turned to face him. “Nope. Sorry. Is there something we should know?”

Jenn didn’t respond. She just turned and climbed ahead. Scott stared ahead at her butt as she scurried up the rock. He remembered his hard on and his mind drifted to other thoughts. A deep-seated desire throbbed in his head. He tried to shake the thoughts, but each time she bent over in front of him to climb the next rock, he couldn’t help himself.

The clouds had finally moved east and left open a fading blue sky as the sun began to descend. They only had a couple of hours before it set and they were still maneuvering among the rocks. Scott could tell by the profile of the mountain that they had made progress, but it felt like they were climbing over the same rocks over and over again. As the shadows started to grow longer and the fractured north side of St. Helens came into a better view, the rock field faded into a sandy landscape. The three hikers paused to sip from their water bottles.

“That was insane,” Scott said as he looked back at the field of rocks. “I’m glad we’re not coming back this way.”

“There are more on the other side,” Jenn said nonchalantly.

“How do you know?”

“I’ve hiked this before.”

“You have?”

“Yes. I’m from Longview just up the freeway. This was practically my backyard.”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“I dunno.”

Scott narrowed his eyes at her but smiled. “Is there anything else I should know about you?”

“There are many things you should know about me,” she teased.

Scott laughed. Marc smiled but rolled his eyes at the banter between his best friend and the girl between them.

“If you’re going to be my boyfriend, there’s a lot you need to know,” Jenn added.

Scott paused and smiled nervously. He didn’t know what to say, so he took a long swig from his water bottle.

Marc looked up at the sky and turned to survey the route ahead of them. “We should get moving if we’re going to set up camp further north,” he said.

Scott and Jenn agreed verbally and fell in behind Marc as he climbed up a hill on the trail. The three fell into a single-file line again and remained largely silent. Scott couldn’t shake the idea of being Jenn’s boyfriend. He had hoped for as much, but he felt it unlikely. He watched her walk in front of him and his imagination consumed him.

The rugged trail dipped into a valley between two large rocks and then went vertical. Marc stopped at the top of the trail and surveyed the path. Scott and Jenn paused behind him.

Marc turned to Jenn. “Do you think you can jump across that?”

Jenn looked past him and smiled. “Yep. Of course.”

Marc didn’t seem convinced. “It’s probably four or five feet and you have that pack on your back.” He nodded to her shoulder.

Jenn seemed annoyed by his questioning of her ability. “I jump all the time on the court. I think I can handle this.”

“This isn’t volleyball,” Scott interjected.

“I know that, silly,” Jenn replied.

“Why don’t you go first?” Marc suggested to Jenn.

“Do you want me to hold your pack?” Scott asked.

Jenn smirked. “No, I’ve got this.” She stepped back a few feet and then ran toward the gap. She bolted upward and landed gracefully on the other side of the gap seemingly without effort. Her feet scuttled up some dust that looked like smoke. The late day sun had dried out the rocks already. “I told you.” She crossed her arms and smiled as if she had just defied gravity.

Marc looked surprised, but he turned to Scott and said, “You go ahead.”

Scott backed up and adjusted his pack before he took off running toward the gap. He flew up in the air, but his pack felt like it was pulling him into the gap. He panicked briefly before his feet landed on the crusty rocks and he braced himself on his palms as the force of the pack and his body pushed him to the earth. He stumbled a little as he got up but he was firmly on the other side.

“That was some jump,” Jenn said sarcastically.

“I’m a runner, not a long jumper.”

“I see that.”

Jenn and Scott turned toward Marc on the other side. He backed up further than either of them had. His thick legs pounded the dirt beneath him as he ran somewhat slowly toward the gap. He thrust himself into the air toward the two onlookers, but he didn’t get enough distance to clear the gap. Scott watched him bound up toward him and then disappear beneath the edge of the rock almost in a cartoonish slow motion.

“Marc!” Scott yelled as he ran toward the edge as his friend disappeared from view. He heard Marc thrashing around as he tried to grab anything on this side of the gap to prevent himself from falling. The scrabble of loose rock and the pounding of flesh and bone against rock ended with a solid thud and a loud grunt.

Scott, with Jenn at his back, stopped at the edge of the rock and peered into the gap. Marc lay motionless ten feet below in the gap between the rocks. The shadows prevented him from seeing his friend clearly. “Marc!”

The Writing Life

The writing life sounds idyllic. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their time simply thinking up ideas and creating stories? Okay, maybe only writers want to do that, but nevertheless, such a life sounds good, no?

When I tell someone I’m a writer, I’m quick to follow-up with the fact that I have a day job because when you’re an unpublished writer and you tell someone that they immediately think you’re some unemployed dreamer living in a van down by the river. At the very least, they suspect you may spend an inordinate amount of time near the off-ramp of the freeway with a cardboard sign in hand.

The truth is most writers don’t make much money – even published ones. The heavy hitters like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King get a lot of press for the wealth their works have generated, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. No one becomes a writer because they want to get wealthy. It’d be like plotting your whole retirement savings strategy on the lottery – only with a slightly better odds.

Most writers I know, and I’ve met many over the past four years, do it because they love it. Sure, it’d be nice to get paid for your work, but that’d be like icing on the cake rather than the penultimate goal. Writing is like an extension of oneself, something you do because deep within your soul you feel compelled to do so.

What else would explain why I get up at 4:30 every weekday morning and sit in my chair to write? I wouldn’t even get up that early to run, and I’m a lifelong runner. There are mornings when the alarm goes off that I feel like just rolling over and sleeping another hour, but I don’t. Every morning (except on vacations) for the past four years, I’ve done this. It would be inexplicable were I not compelled to write.

While it’s easy to fall into the habit of doing something regularly, writing is not easy. I’ve been lucky that the stories have come rather easily, but I’ve been less fortunate in the response to my work. After you pour your heart and soul into a work and the critical feedback is less than encouraging, it’s easy to give up. It’d be easy to take that extra hour of sleep and enjoy it, but I don’t do this because I want something easy. I do it because I love it. Instead, I focus on getting better. I read books on writing. I solicit feedback from those who know good writing. It will only make me better.

Sure, the writing life sounds idyllic, but like everything else, there are positives and negatives or pros and cons. It’s not for the feint of heart or for those who cannot handle criticism well or who find it hard to persevere in the face of discouragement, but when you love something, nothing can stop you from enjoying it. Sometimes, I have to remind myself of this. Sometimes, I have to stop and read the words on the page again and relish the fact that I’ve created something from nothing.

This writing life makes me happy.

Script Suicide

This past weekend I went to see Suicide Squad, DC Comics’ latest attempt to deliver an entertaining comic-book-based movie. After the bizarrely-inept Batman vs. Superman tome earlier in the year, I thought this movie would render my faith in DC Comics anew, but after reading the reviews going into the movie, I was worried. The critics shredded the movie to bits questioning its very existence.

The good news: the movie isn’t as bad as the critics say. It’s entertaining at the very least, but it could have been a whole lot better had the script been better written. Maybe DC Comics should invest in winning over some of the writers from the Marvel movies, which are much better and way more entertaining. Marvel has the formula right, and I think it’s due to the scripts.

Suicide Squad suffers primarily from too many characters hastily introduced in a frenetic script that allows little time for an emotional connection to be made with the audience. Sure, the Joker is in the movie and everyone is familiar with him, but he’s really part of a subplot, not the main dish. The most interesting characters – arguably Deadshot and Harley Quinn – are thrown onto the screen and pushed aside quickly for the others to make their entrance. Then, it’s off to the races to stop the evil Enchantress. I’m all for fast-paced, fun movies, but give me something to hang onto that keeps my interest, like a really good character I can root for (yes, even a movie about villains can have heroes).

All of this got me thinking about the books I’ve read this year and why certain ones held my attention, while others did not. I read Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series and thoroughly enjoyed it because I connected with the Crosswhite character. She is someone I can root for and someone I care about. The character really struck me emotionally, which made me enjoy the books immensely. Every Wally Lamb and Khaled Hosseini book I’ve read also connected with me emotionally. I’m eagerly awaiting Lamb’s latest release this November because I know it will be good. His ability to make me care about the characters is paramount to my enjoyment.

If this is important to me as a reader, then it has to be important to me as a writer. Do my stories connect emotionally with the reader? Why or why not? I have to ask myself these questions. Do I have an emotional center to each of my books? If I don’t, then I know I need to re-write them. Even mindlessly fun movies can teach me a thing or two about good writing.

To be fair, I enjoyed Suicide Squad in spite of its script flaws. It could have been better, but for some good summer fun, it fit the bill, but I do hope DC Comics gets its act together. I have high hopes for Justice League next year. My review won’t be so kind if they screw that up.

Write It While It’s Hot

While on vacation at the end of June, a story idea hit me. As I was driving through Yellowstone watching the bison lumber across Hayden Valley, the story grew from a mere idea to a full-fledged novel. I envisioned the flashpoint that caused the conflict, how the story would unfold, and most of the ultimate resolution of the story. By the time we left Yellowstone, I had outlined the novel in my head.

For a writer, having everything come together like that is a godsend. We often use otherworldly terms to describe the way stories enter our brains and settle in for the long haul of writing a novel. That’s how magical it is.

It’s one thing to have a concept – I have many of those written in my notebook, but it’s a whole different ballgame to have a fleshed out idea that can quickly become a novel. Concepts are merely starting points. An outline or story arc is something you can actually work with and begin writing almost immediately.

And therein lies the issue. When I left for vacation, I was working on another novel. I had finished six chapters and was well on my way to getting it done by the end of this year (hopefully), but progress had slowed as I had debated the story arc and developed some character quibbles that I didn’t think were working as well as I had envisioned originally. This story idea had come to me over a decade ago, and I think maybe that time fermenting in my notebook may have worked against it. I had decided to leave the story behind while on vacation in hopes that I could come back to it with fresh eyes. Instead, I came back with the idea for another novel.

When I sat down in my office that first Monday back from vacation to write, I decided I couldn’t wait until I finished my current work-in-progress to start on my new novel idea. The new story burned a hole in my mind and I couldn’t let the passion and excitement for it die down. I had to write it while it’s hot. I had to get the idea on the pages of my writing program. So I did, and now I’m already six chapters into this book and still going strong. I may be finished with it by the end of September if this pace keeps up.

I’m not the least bit sorry that I took a hiatus from my work-in-progress to write this story. I have to go with the hot hand, and my new story is it. Sometimes, when your progress grinds to a halt like it had in my other novel, you start to lose grip on why you do this – why you enjoy writing – because stalling projects are frustrating. What I needed was for this to be fun again, and the new novel made it so. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.