Lawmakers to End Driver Distractions

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle gathered at the capitol today as the governor signed a law that promised to end the surprising phenomenon of distracted drivers. The law, which goes into effect July 1st, explicitly prescribes how drivers should behave while behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Drivers will no longer be allowed to exercise common sense when the law goes into effect. Lawmakers promised strict enforcement and hefty fines and penalties for anyone caught violating the law.

Surrounded by insurance company executives and personal injury lawyers, two groups that helped write the new law and funded its research, the governor declared it a brand new day in the state where citizens didn’t have to worry about being maimed, killed, or inconvenienced by distracted drivers. He congratulated the insurance executives for reducing vehicle accident risks to zero and praised the lawyers for being the de facto law enforcers through their proactive lawsuit endeavors.

In perhaps a bit of irony, one of the lawyers who was scheduled to attend the news conference was stuck in traffic due to the recent bridge collapse and called into offer his thoughts during the press conference. Talking on the phone while in a motor vehicle is strictly prohibited under the new law when it goes into effect. When asked about the apparent violation of the impending law, the governor scoffed that the law had yet to go into effect and that it didn’t apply to those conducting official state business. He refused to elaborate on exactly which provision of the new law provided such an exclusion and became irritable when pressed further. Later, in a tweet after the event, he reignited partisan sniping when he claimed the offending lawyer was a member of the opposing party.

Lawmakers and lobbyists had worked tirelessly for two years on the new law. At one point, they spent a week at a retreat in Barbados to reflect and redesign the law so that it would completely eliminate risks and put the onus on everyday citizens to prove that they are abiding by the law. After an unusual, late afternoon session that forced lawmakers to work until 3 PM, they hammered out the final details and declared victory for the decent citizens of the state.

The governor said he was pleased with the collaboration and unity surrounding the new law. “I’ve never seen lawmakers from both sides of the aisle work in such a spirited manner as they have these past two years. I hope we can put the usual animus behind us and build on this cooperation going forward. I’d also like to thank my campaign contributors in the insurance industry for fulfilling their promises and aiding lawmakers in their quest to make our state the safest in the country.”

An insurance industry executive exclaimed in a moment of elation at the otherwise moribund news conference that “it was time to make insurance about more than just assuming risk for the unpredictable things in our lives.” When asked why customers needed insurance now that the risks were so low, he replied, “Insurance is mandatory. The new law requires higher levels of insurance to ensure we can fund campaigns such as this to save even more lives in the future.”

Not to be outdone, two personal injury lawyers spoke at length about how they will be on guard to help any accident victims extract the maximum penalty from any driver who violates the law. “I like to think of myself as a law enforcement officer,” one proclaimed. Financial penalties are not capped under the new law, but lawyer fees are limited to 75 percent of the net award.

Under the new law drivers must keep their hands on the wheel at all times in the preferred ten and three o’clock positions. Cell phones, navigation screens, radios, food, cosmetics, pets, and children are no longer allowed in the vehicle while it is being driven. Head turning is strictly prohibited except in instances where the vehicle is turning, changing lanes, or backing up. Minimum fines start at $500 for violations and escalate from there. Citizens can lose their license after two violations and face prison time if multiple violations are discovered in one traffic stop.

The governor claimed he had unanimous citizen support for the new law because everyone was tired of being behind a distracted driver in traffic, but a citizen’s action group that protested silently with large, highly-inappropriate signs claimed that the law overshot its target and infringed upon the freedoms they had heretofore enjoyed. They plan a march on the capitol next week to force lawmakers to hear their concerns for the first time. It’s unclear if their actions will have any impact on the law before it goes into effect.

Automakers have bemoaned the law saying that it will prevent them from selling over-priced entertainment and navigation systems in their vehicles, but one industry executive said that they would divert their sales efforts to other accessories like the pet-kid cabin, which resembles a U-haul trailer. The accessory helps frazzled parents comply with the law by removing distracting kids from the car and putting them in a semi-unstable trailer hitched to the vehicle. Another popular accessory that is just hitting the market is the “wheel-cuff,” a device that locks the driver’s hands to the wheel in the law-abiding position. The wheel-cuff also monitors usage so that a citizen can prove they were following the law. Automakers are excited about the potential profit from such accessories despite losing the cash flow from now-banned items.

In perhaps the most poignant quote of the day, the governor’s chief of staff proclaimed that lawmakers had achieved the impossible in crafting and passing the new law. “I don’t think I’ve such a thing in my lifetime.” Similar sentiments were shared by those attending the news conference, but the context was slightly different.

 

Hot and Cold

When an idea strikes, I usually fall deeply in love with it. Maybe I’m just happy that an idea wafted through the ether and landed in my brain, but the moment of inspiration often results in a flurry of typing as I capture the elements of the idea and flesh them out as much as possible before the details escape me. It helps to have my notebook always at the ready because ideas typically strike at the most inopportune times – on a run, in the shower, in a meeting at work, basically any time my mind is allowed to wander (Look! A squirrel!)

Once an idea becomes enshrined in my endless notebook (it is electronic after all), I like to let it gestate for a while. In some cases, I may not revisit it for weeks or months. It’s during that period that I learn if the idea will be worth promoting to the esteemed level of a draft chapter. If it survives, then I’ll write a first chapter or a concept chapter for the story to see if I like it or not. If the story has legs, then I’ll continue to work on it, but many ideas are left in the first (and only) chapter graveyard. Writing that first chapter really tells me if the story will work or not. It may just be my mood, or I may find another idea that I like better (Look! Another squirrel!).

Many ideas die on the vine. It’s a fact of life for a writer. Sometimes, two ideas collide and become one. On more than one occasion, I’ve had a new idea that I’ve simply integrated into an existing one to make (hopefully) a stronger and better story out of the original concept. This happened recently when I had a new idea about two people intimately drawn together by unseen and unexplained forces. Instead of making this a story in and of itself, I integrated the idea as a subplot into a draft novel I’ve been outlining called Someone Like You, a love story of sorts but please don’t call it that because it’s more akin to The Great Gatsby than any forlorn romance novel.

The sad reality remains that I have more ideas than time, but also, ideas seem to be a dime a dozen. So many start out promising only to lose their sizzle. This happens at any point along the way to a draft novel. I sometimes lose my enthusiasm for whatever reason, and when my enthusiasm fades, writing the story feels like trudging through a mud pit in heavy, steel-toed boots. It all boils down to the characters I create. I become them in many ways and as long as I can feel them on some ethereal level, I can keep writing, but the moment that feeling ebbs, the story slows to a crawl and may eventually peter out completely.

Writing a novel isn’t easy. Everything I’ve read from accomplished writers suggests this is true beyond me. The opening chapters are often like firework shows in that they are loud, generally flamboyant, and short, but then, the dreaded middle has to be written, and that’s where it becomes an uphill grind. The middle loses many a reader, but it also squashes the hopes of many a writer. Handling that transition well ultimately determines which ideas survive and thrive in novel land.

It doesn’t help that the creative juices can run hot and cold. Some mornings writing is like riding a bike. On others, it’s like taking a test for which I have not studied, a bang-my-head-on-my-desktop experience that leaves me wanting to go back to bed and start over. Maybe there are just too many distractions. Maybe I’m just too moody. Maybe…look a squirrel!

 

Concept: Pine Mountain

The worn gravel popped under his tires as he turned off the main artery that winded through Pine Mountain and snaked its way toward the mountain from which the town borrowed its name. Eric Slater peered off into the distance before his car completed the turn onto his mother’s driveway, beyond the sway of the southern pines that crowded against the road, and eyed the mountain’s gentle slopes. Nothing, it seemed, had changed in his hometown, most certainly not the mountain. He had spent his entire childhood in its shadow hoping to one day escape the gravity of its orbit only to find himself at its feet over four decades later.

A smirk tightened his lips. The grit of a long road trip with the top down speckled his teeth, so he wiped them clean with the tip of his tongue. The dry taste unleashed the thirst that had built up over the last few miles after he had exited Interstate 75 and made a beeline toward the small town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. The driveway dipped and he heard a scraping noise that, at first, made him wince for his car, but then, he realized he didn’t care anymore. He throttled the accelerator and pulled through the washed out section of the driveway until he climbed the hill and nosed the car into a shade near the edge of the old porch.

He killed the engine and leaned back into his seat exhaling his relief at having finally arrived. His stomach churned, a knot of angst broiled within him. His breakfast hadn’t settled with him too well. Maybe it was true that he could no longer eat greasy diner food without any remorse. He stepped out of the car and hesitated just a moment before he took the four steps onto the porch. If his mom was at home, she hadn’t noticed a visitor, or she was avoiding him. He hoped she wasn’t home.

He took in the old house, inhaled the scent of rotten wood and southern pine that surrounded him. The house, his childhood home, had been built by his great grandfather back when the town was first settled. His grandfather had tacked on a few rooms including a bathroom that had clearly been an afterthought. His father had simply maintained it, replacing old clapboard when it needed it and adding a fresh coat of white paint every so often.

Eric loved and hated the old house. He loved the grand, wide porch that hugged two sides of the house. He and his brother, Robert, had spent many days on the porch playing or waiting out the inevitable southern gully washers that struck during the long, hot summers. He could still see the steam rising off the earth and smell the pristine air cleansed after a hard rain. He took a deep breath trying to capture the wonder of so many years ago. He needed something to remember fondly.

Surprised that his mom still had not acknowledged she had a visitor, he shook himself free of his recollection and stepped toward the rickety screen door and pulled the handle. The warped, wooden door rattled in place but refused to budge. He looked inside the screen and could see that it was latched. The screen door had never been latched in all of his memories of his childhood. That thing had swung freely and wildly in every single thought he had about the old house. He distinctly remembered how it had clattered loudly when he stomped out for the last time so many years ago. It had played prominently in the soundtrack of his early life, but it had never been bolted shut.

He looked at the door on the other side with its rippled glass panes. Yellowed curtains covered the windows, and flakes of white paint shimmied across its surface. He held his breath for a moment and listened. Nothing. He looked back at his car, and, for a brief moment, felt tempted to drive off without a word, but he had nowhere else to go. All of his options had been exhausted. That was the only reason he stood on his mother’s porch at that very moment.

Instead, he turned back toward the bowed screen door and knocked on it. The door clacked and rattled in its frame making more noise than his pathetic knock. After the noise dissipated, he listened for footsteps on the other side. He knew the creaky plank floor announced every single step loudly, so he’d hear his mom approach. Again, he heard nothing. He knocked again but much harder. The sound could have raised the dead.

After a few seconds of unnerving silence, he heard someone stir on the other side. Slow, heavy steps made their way to the door. The curtain parted and he could see his mom’s face, or at least a much older version of his mom’s face, through the mottled glass. She didn’t smile or seem surprised. She wore the peeved look of a woman dealing with an unwanted door-to-door salesman, but she opened the door and stood there behind the latched screen door.

“Eric? What are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice creaked like the old house. She too had been worn down by time. She had white hair now and had put on a lot of weight. Her skin, always brown and weathered from so many summers spent in the fields, looked pale and dry like the red Georgia clay cracked by an endless drought. She stood slightly stooped as if the weight of her life had begun to win the battle of attrition.

“I wanted to come see you.”

“Why didn’t you call first?”

“I-I didn’t think I needed to.”

“I wish you would have called. I’m not ready for visitors.”

Eric didn’t know what to say at first. He just stared at her through the screen. She wore one of those house coats she always wore when she had on a nightgown, but it was just after Noon, well past the time for being dressed for the day.

“Can I come in?” he asked finally.

She looked at him as if he had asked a silly question. “Come on in,” she replied. She opened the door wider as if he needed more room to squeeze by her, but she didn’t touch the screen door.

Eric stood there for a moment and then said, “The screen door is locked.” He nodded to it.

“Oh, sorry, I forget that I keep that locked now.” She fumbled with the latch. Her fingers were swollen and arthritic, so it took her a bit to remove the tiny metal arm of the latch from the eye hole. Eric looked on patiently. He had all the time in the world. There were no calls for him to take. He had no meetings to attend. His email had been disconnected after he had been fired rendering his phone useless for doing anything other than wasting time.

His mother pushed the screen door outward, and he stepped aside and through the door. She turned without a word and ambled toward the kitchen. He followed her, taking in the house that had at one time been as familiar to him as the back of his hand. It felt strange to be home again after so long. Everything looked the same, but it was different.

“Where’s that wife of yours? What’s her name, Carla?”

“Carmen.”

“Is she not with you?”

“No, she’s back in New York.”

Eric didn’t offer an explanation and his mother didn’t ask for one.

“You want some sweet tea?”

“Sure.” He salivated at the thought of her tea even after all of these years. He could still remember how it tasted on his lips.

He stepped into the kitchen behind her and she padded toward the refrigerator slowly. He took a seat at the shaky, metal table that had served as the dining room for the three of them for his entire childhood. The rubbery seat still felt as uncomfortable as it had when he was a petulant teenager. He still hated how the table had a perpetual glaze of stickiness to it that pinched at his skin, but something about that cramped kitchen with its steel sink and drippy faucet and the dank old refrigerator that rumbled in the corner made him feel like he belonged, like he had found what he was looking for. He allowed a smile to form on his lips, but he quickly suppressed it when his mother turned around with the jug of tea in her hand. He’d save it for another day when, or if, things ever got better again.

Dueling Approaches

In the midst of my endless editing, I’m working on another story concept called The Castle on the Hill.  No need to worry, this story is far from another over-done fable about kings and queens and princes and princesses. I’d rather base jump into a vat of acid than write such cliched drivel. However, the story idea has presented a challenge because the protagonist is delusional, so I’ve had an internal debate about how to start the story. Should I lay the facts on the table or should I prop up the imaginary world of the protagonist and slowly reveal the truth as the plot unfolds and works its way to the climax?  It’s not a debate to take lightly because it all boils down to surprising and delighting the reader.

The first approach, revealing the essential facts up front, seems straightforward, but it feels like it’s been done many times before and takes away from some of the surprises in the plot. I call this approach the “by the book” approach because it is likely how many writers would unravel the story. There’s nothing wrong with this story progression but it doesn’t feel inventive. I’ve already written the concept in this way and I generally like it, but I think there could be more to the story.

That’s where the second approach comes in. The story opens with a grand illusion presented by the protagonist, a world that she truly believes in, but a few tiny cracks are revealed ever so slightly as we get to know her. Unlike the first approach, this version of the story leaves the reader wondering what’s wrong. There’s definitely an uneasy feeling that ripples just beneath the surface. The only concern with this version is that may come off as kitschy if not handled properly, like a silly clown routine at a second-rate circus.

To resolve this internal conflict, I’ve decided to write both versions of the concept and see which one I like best. I may post both here to see which one gets the most likes or comments. Either way, one of the concepts will land here soon. I’m excited about the potential of the story and may make it my next project after I finish the story of never-ending edits. Whenever that may be…

Scene: The Encounter

The main characters in my current novel, Into the Caldera, have a chance meeting at a party that alters the course of their lives. Jenn, the protagonist or antagonist depending on how the story is viewed, meets Scott and Marc although she’s too high to really remember much. The scene is written from her altered point of view.

The sky grew brighter despite the deepening night. The music not so much confronted her as penetrated her like Ron had done earlier. Every guy at the party leered at her, made suggestive comments, and lapped at her breasts like the thirsty dogs they were. She felt like she walked on the air beneath her feet. Her body thrummed, titillated with each step she took. Her arm brushed against another girl’s bare arm, and she felt a rush of desire. The girl, equally drunk or high, smiled lazily at her and apologized, but Jenn wanted to kiss her and taste the beer on her lips. Only her stumble into the crowd stopped her from pushing herself upon the girl.

Nicole came up to her and steadied her in the ebb and flow of the crush of bodies.

“Jenn, you’ve had too much.”

“What?”

“You’ve had too much Molly and beer.”

“There’s no such thing.” Her words felt coherent and sharp, but she didn’t recognize the sound of her voice.

“You need some water.”

“I want another beer. And a Molly.”

“No.”

Jenn focused her eyes on her friend. Anger flushed her face. “Why not?”

“You’ve had enough. Besides, I’m out.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I gave the last one to Hannah.”

The name reverberated in her head, but Jenn couldn’t process it. “Holly?”

“What?”

“What the fuck is Holly doing here?”

“Not Holly. Hannah. Who’s Holly?”

“Oh.” Jenn looked at the blur of faces past Nicole and shook her head. She felt her heart speed up like a rocket in her chest.

“Who’s Holly?”

Jenn came back down to the moment. “She’s that tramp Ron’s dating now.”

Nicole shook her head. “Oh, her.”

“She’s a tramp.”

“We should go.”

“This party is still hot…”

“It’s 2 AM.”

“Seriously?” Jenn pulled her phone from her pants pocket, but it fell to the floor. Nicole bent down with her to retrieve it. Jenn nodded her head as Nicole handed her the phone. She widened her eyes to see the time displayed on the lock screen. “Damn. Where’d the time go?”

“I’ll take you home.”

“No.”

“Jenn, I’m going over to Aaron’s place. I don’t want to leave you here alone. Let me take you back to our apartment and then I’ll go to Aaron’s.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“You’re rolling, Jenn. You shouldn’t be left here alone.”

“I’m not alone. I have the girls.” She thrust her hand out toward the door leading to the patio and hit a passing guy on the shoulder. “Oh, sorry.” The guy looked at her and smiled, but he kept walking.

“The girls are already gone. They’ve hooked up.”

“All of them.”

“Pretty much. This party is winding down.”

Jenn scanned the room around them. Bodies still crammed into most available space. Only a narrow path winded through the room to let people pass. “It still looks strong to me.”

“You’re high.”

“I’m fine. Go on and fuck Aaron. Fuck your brains out. I’ll be fine.”

Nicole exhaled a laugh. “Are you sure?” She sounded genuinely concerned, but Jenn didn’t want to interfere with her friend’s hookup.

“Have an orgasm for me.”

Nicole laughed out loud. “Those are only for me!”

She leaned in and hugged Jenn. Her hair still smelled good despite the sweaty volleyball game they had played earlier. When they parted Nicole said, “Call an Uber and text me when you get back to the apartment.”

Jenn wobbled a little in place. “Yes, mother!”

“Jenn,” Nicole sighed sounding exhausted.

“Okay, I’ll keep you informed of my whereabouts.”

“Thank you.”

Nicole gave her one last hug before she pivoted and allowed the crowd to swallow her. Jenn watched her best friend disappear from sight before she scanned the sea of heads that bobbed around her. In that brief moment when she was alone, she felt like the only one at the party. A chill ran up her spine and goose bumps perforated her arms.

“Hi, I’m Scott, and this is Marc,” said a voice she could not see. She turned and two tall, lanky guys stood before her. Both had longish, scraggly hair and boyish faces so young looking that she thought that some high schoolers had crashed the party.

She tried to steady herself and make sense of where she was, but she drew a blank, so she said the only thing she could think of, “I’m Jenn. I’m leaving.”