Welcome to Fiction Friday. For today, a short story.

The search for a place to park had put Martha off the Downtown art walk before she even reached the first gallery.  The crowd of skinny-jeaned, jelly-shoed, romper-wearing hipsters spilling out onto the pavement did nothing to help.  It was near impossible to even get into the gallery for a clear look at the exhibit, which appeared to involve old plastic doll parts, a blowtorch, and chicken feathers.  She managed to squeeze back out of the room without anyone spilling two-buck Chuck on her clothes and made her way to the next gallery, which contained only half as many hipsters and (which probably accounted for the smaller crowd) some very nice black-and-white photographs of rusted industrial equipment.  Martha spent a while with these, wondering if the crowds at the other gallery would appreciate their quiet simplicity or if they were too ordinary to satisfy this generation’s insatiable appetite for the “edgy”.
Once that exhibit had been thoroughly examined, she moved on. The next stop was overflowing with more wine-drunk hipsters, so she headed down the street.
Looking around for the next likely place, her gaze fell on a small storefront sandwiched between a defunct watch repair shop and a convenience store.  MYSTERY HOURS, the sign above the door read.  It was done in blue Art Deco tile, with a dusty, still-working brass clock set in the “O”.  There was a light on inside, and the window display of antiquarian books and dusty old knickknacks was so appealing that she had to have a look around.

A tiny bell heralded her entrance into something that definitely wasn’t just a bookstore.  In addition to shelves of old books in all languages, a glass case displayed wrought iron jewelry and trinkets accented with stones of different colors.  A corner cabinet held bottles of perfume with faded Art Nouveau labels.  Looking closer, Martha was able to make out strange names like “Dusk #2” (in an iridescent blue bottle) and “Halcyon” (in a delicate clear bottle with white swirls).

A noise from a far corner caught her attention.  Here an old-fashioned console TV was showing video of a modern woman staring directly into the camera.  She appeared to be speaking, shouting even, but static in the picture and audio garbled her words; it was almost as though she was speaking backwards.  The eerie faded image sent a chill up Martha’s spine and she turned away, only to be faced with what appeared to be a piece of parchment in a  frame, but the words on it kept changing.  First it said I WANT, which faded into some sort of Medieval French text, which faded entirely until the first words slowly appeared, this time in a different color.  She told herself it was a high-tech trick, but couldn’t shake the thought that something wasn’t quite natural.  Or the feeling that someone was…

She turned around quickly, to find a woman emerging from a curtained area in the back.  It was almost a relief to discover that someone really was watching her.

The woman wasn’t much older than Martha, about thirty, with shimmering waist-length red hair.  Her dress appeared to be handwoven, a simple long tunic in sage green, cinched with an iron-accented leather girdle and worn with beaten-up brown boots.  She smiled.  “May I help you?”

“I…” Words suddenly failed Martha, who wasn’t quite sure how to ask about the parchment and somehow didn’t think she wanted to know.

“Just browsing?”  The red-haired woman perched on a high stool next to the antique cash register.  “Happens a lot on Art Walk nights.”

“Is the Art Walk good for business?”  Martha turned back to the case of jewelry.  It looked like it hadn’t been opened in months.

The woman waved dismissively. “These young ones, with their mayfly memories and surface understanding.  They only see the next gallery and the next glass of cheap wine.”

“That’s too bad,” Martha said, with a sudden feeling that this woman, though she looked thirty, was immeasurably old.

“Not really,” the woman said as she wound her hair into a knot and pinned it with a magnificent metal comb.  Getting down off the stool, she joined Martha at the display case.  “Those who see what’s here and appreciate it for what it is, though rare, are always worth the wait.”  She gave Martha a searching look.  “See anything you like?”

Martha pointed.  “That one.”

“That one” was an iron ring with a green stone set in it.  “Protection,” the redhead said, with another searching look.  “Yes, I think that’s right.”  She took a key ring that hung from her girdle by a chain and unlocked the case.  Before placing the ring in Martha’s hand, she examined the stone carefully and rubbed off a bit of dust.

The green stone gleamed brilliantly, and looked dramatic against Martha’s dark skin. “It suits you,” the woman said.

Once it was on her finger, Martha knew she had to have it.  She reached into her purse for her wallet.  “I’ll take it.”

The redhead smiled.  “An excellent choice.”

While her purchase was rung up, Martha gathered the courage to ask — “That parchment with the changing words…”

The woman’s eyes twinkled.  “Just a trick for the easily impressed.”

Seeing that no further explanation was forthcoming, Martha paid, thanked the woman, and left with the ring on her finger.

It had grown much darker since she went into the shop, but not so dark that the drivers on the street could all be bothered to turn their headlights on. A taxi narrowly missed her as it blasted through the intersection she was crossing to reach the next gallery.

Once safely inside, Martha went to get a glass of wine.  The crowd of skinny-jeaned boys near the refreshment table had turned a bit rowdy… she had to dodge a couple of staggering “patrons of the arts” just to get within reach of the table.  As her hand closed around a plastic cup, one of the boys shoved another, who spilled his drink.  It should have landed on Martha’s white blouse, but somehow fell to earth right at her feet.  Another boy stumbled, and should have bumped her at least, but went careening wildly into the nearest wall.

A glint of green drew Martha’s attention to the ring on her finger.  “Protection,” she mused, thinking of the red-haired woman’s words.

Suddenly weary of the crowds and the mediocre art exhibits, Martha set her cup down and walked outside.  It would be dark by the time she got back to her car, and she needed to get home anyway.  As she walked back to the parking garage, another speeding taxi flew up the street, hitting a puddle. Not a drop fell on her.  “Protection.”  Martha smiled and looked back towards the little shop, but couldn’t make it out in the growing darkness.  If she didn’t know better, she’d have sworn it had disappeared. Shrugging, she adjusted her bag on her shoulder and continued on her way.

Adventures in Unemployment

So, let’s say that you find yourself unexpectedly unemployed.  This is a particularly distressing turn of events since you did this already last year, then worked part time and drew partial unemployment, then had to get an emergency extension (thanks, President Obama!), then cobbled together full-time work from multiple part-time jobs.  Goddamn it, you think, not only am I not working, I have to fill out all that paperwork all over again.

And so, despite the fact that you’ve cashed out your retirement savings in order to be able to, you know, eat and pay rent, and would almost (almost) rather eat expired yogurt than jump through all those hoops again, you sit down with your pay stubs and your computer’s calculator and try to figure out exactly how much you earned in the past five calendar quarters.  This is not easy, because you can’t find all of your pay stubs, and you have to Go Ask Chuck ™ exactly how much was in your 401(k) before it got taxed sixty ways to hell and back, and you have to reverse-engineer some of the information based on the post-tax amount you deposited in the bank. But somehow you manage to figure out your pre-tax income using only your brain, a calculator and the back of a Starbucks receipt, because while you may have a degree in Underwater Basketweaving and let Chase Online balance your virtual checkbook for you, you’ve been doing your own taxes (1040 Long Form plus Schedules C and SE) for years and fuck if you’re going to let this get the best of you.

Then you send off your paperwork and hope they don’t deny your claim, all while still playing catch-up with November on your previous claim… because whoever read your last continuation form couldn’t read the multiple teeny tiny addresses you wrote in the quarter-inch of space they give you, so they took a week to figure it out then said “fuck it” and sent you a duplicate form.

Then you have your eligibility interview, via telephone.  Then you get a letter saying that you’ve been granted a claim for a Small Amount of Money per week.  You see nothing unusual about this because you didn’t make all that much money last year; it’s not like you had some cushy corporate gig.  And then, on the same day, you get another letter saying that they can’t verify your identity and can you please send them photocopies of your driver’s license/passport and a W-2 form within ten days?

At this point you’re too stressed out about other things to panic over the thought that someone might have attempted to steal your identity, or might recognize the blue envelope (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, is that a Blue Letter?!!!) and the address on it and think, “Here is someone who is sending copies of their identifying documents through the mail. I will steal them and open a credit card with this person’s info and shitty credit score.”  You lost the keys to your fireproof box long ago, so you pick the lock with a hairpin (no, really) and get out your passport, photocopy it and a newly-arrived W-2 from one of your many jobs, and drop it in the mail.

And you wait.

And you receive a notice in the mail that your claim has been denied, either for a couple of weeks or indefinitely (you can’t figure out which), because you did not send them copies of your identifying documents. Which you did send them. Over a week ago.

Fuck.

The next day, it’s time for you to go in to the One-Stop Employment Center for your re-employment assessment interview.  So you drive your unemployed ass aaaaalllll the way down to your assigned office, and arrive 15 minutes before your appointment, as requested.

And you wait some more.

Then you’re instructed to go into the conference room with about thirty other people, and there’s a projector in there, and you think, “Jesus Christ, are they going to force us to watch the orientation video?! I watched it at home like they told me! I have the certificate! Noooooooo!” Because that damn video is half an hour long, and you don’t want to sit through it again.

You wait some more. Then an EDD employee comes in and requests that everyone who has the “I watched the video” certificate go line up at Window 5 with their paperwork to sign in.  So you do.  You’re sixth in line. You don’t have one of the papers they said for you to bring, but they don’t care.  They have you sign at the bottom of some form or other, and then you go sit down in an uncomfortable plastic chair.

And you wait.

And you wait.

Finally, they call you in, and the gentleman assigned to handle your interview flips through your paperwork, makes a photocopy of one of the forms for you, and gives you two things to sign.  And then you pull out your claim denial letter and ask him to help you make sense of it — does it mean they aren’t paying you for a certain week, or does it mean they aren’t paying you at all? Because Small Amount of Money is small, but every little bit helps.  You make a remark about how you would have just called the EDD hotline, but you can never get through.  So this kind gentleman says that they have a direct line to the EDD people and you can use the phone in the next cubicle to call them.

You get your hopes up — a direct line! — and then they come crashing down when you realize that all this means is that instead of being disconnected if there is a longer-than-15-minute-wait (as you do if you call from your house phone), you are allowed the privilege of waiting on hold. With the same brief loop of hold music. And the recorded “please stay on the line” message. Over. And over. And over.

So you wait.

And you wait.

And you wait some more.

Thirty-two minutes later, the hold music shuts off. You wonder if you have been disconnected — is there a 30-minute limit for being on hold even from this line?!

You sit there and pray to every deity you can think of for someone to get on the phone.

And you wait.

And you consider hanging up and going home.

Then, finally, someone comes on the line and you read them the first paragraph of your letter.  They inform you that they have received your documents and that they must have crossed the denial letter in the mail.  The hold has been taken off your account and your benefits will be deposited in your bank the next day.  When you say something about hoping no one had tried to steal your identity, they explain that at least one of your employers used a DBA that did not match your claim application, so that was why it was held up.  And so you hang up, thank your interviewer — who says that the next time you need to call EDD, you need to come down and get on one of their phones in order to get through, like it’s no big deal to drive an hour and fifteen minutes round-trip to sit on the phone for half an hour to get a single question answered — and leave.

That night, you receive notice of a direct deposit of more than two weeks’ worth of Small Amount of Money.

Two days later, you receive an Amended Claim letter that includes all of your income from last quarter — you had thought they deliberately didn’t count your 401(k) cash-out — and says that you’ve been awarded the maximum benefit.  You’re also notified that one of the two weeks you submitted a claim for was a “waiting period” week so you aren’t getting paid for that, but you have zero fucks to give because now you don’t have to just sit there and watch your savings be depleted as your many Indeed.com job applications go unanswered.  And they’ve extended the Federal emergency benefits through the end of 2013 (thanks, President Obama!) so, just in case those dozens of resumes and cover letters and favors and referrals and the hours of legwork (virtual or otherwise) don’t pan out, at least you aren’t going to starve.

Woman Writer Wednesday: Jennifer Trela

Today’s return of Woman Writer Wednesday is to celebrate the debut of my friend Jennifer Trela’s novella, The Legion: A Million More To Go.  Here’s what she had to say about writing:

1. What/who inspired you to become a writer?

What finally pushed me into writing full-time was when I couldn’t write. Writing has just always been a part of who I am, so when I can’t do that, I feel like I’m only a portion of myself. My government job was slowly killing me, and I’m not really exaggerating here. I would get home after working a 14-hour day and couldn’t write. Not even a sentence. That was the most devastating part of it for me. Before Hell Job, I would always use my writing as a type of escapism because, most of the time, I liked my characters more than I liked the real people in my life. My parents always used to talk about how they’d watch me playing as a kid, and I’d be sitting in the middle of the room with no toys, just talking to myself. My imagination was my playground; I didn’t need outside stimulation, save for a nice piece of music or a pretty scene in front of me. That didn’t change as I got older. It’s not abnormal to find people staring at me because I’ve been having a conversation between three characters that weren’t me. Well, it’s not odd for me.

So you can just imagine what it was like having that integral aspect of yourself just cut off. It was unsettling, to say the least. Luckily, now, though, even as I’m working my way through the maze that is self-publishing, I rediscovered my voice and, oh, my God, I feel so much better.

2. What do you like most about the genre[s] you write in?

I’m a weird fiction sort of gal, which includes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc., so I get to make up worlds and those worlds’ rules, which kind of plays to the control freak aspect of my personality. I geek out at it, almost to the point that Tolkien took Middle Earth. Sometimes, it’s easy to create your own world’s version of The Silmarillion, which every Tolkien fan claims to have read (and might have) but almost ultimately hate it more than they hate Twilight. However, it is a blast, if not a distraction from the actual story writing process.

But I think my favorite part of being a speculative fiction writer/reader is the fan base. I have yet to meet a more rabidly dedicated community of people that absolutely just loves to gobble up whatever book/comic/movie/etc. they can. They want to see stories they like succeed. I mean, how else would you explain the Star Wars prequels setting box office records upon initial release? They were terrible, TERRIBLE movies. Then people still gave the animated series a shot (it’s actually quite good), and now a whole new trilogy, brought to you by Disney, is already getting people excited. It’s bizarre and wonderful and I love it. Even if I hate George Lucas.

3. What’s the best piece of writing-related advice you’ve received?

The absolute best advice I was ever given was to take myself seriously as a writer. After I quit my soul-sucking job, I was having a hard time adjusting to the life of a self-employed person. I couldn’t get into a schedule and I was constantly telling people that I was flexible because I didn’t have a real job. Then a friend of mine, the lovely WT Prater, said, “You have a job. It’s writing. Stop hurting yourself with your own words.” And he was right. So I started treating it like I was at my job. I actually get dressed and don’t roam about in my pajamas. I put on minimal makeup, which is what I did at the past job. But the most important part was, I stopped trying to justify my decision to do this full-time. I was making a career move, and not just chasing after my dreams like a deluded idiot. It was incredibly freeing and I’ve had more personal successes in the past few months than I’ve had, well, ever.

4. Is there any type of writing you would like to try that you haven’t already?

One of these days, I want to write a horrible romance novel. Purposefully horrible, with all the tropes and cheesiness and hard nipples and what have you. And I’d make sure that everyone thought it was a FOR SERIOUS attempt at breaking into the genre, because I also love parody. Other than that, I’d love to try travel writing. It would give me an excuse to just go places. I did one absolutely horrendous travel article back in college (yay, journalism degree that I have not used at all), but I’d like to think that my skills have somewhat been honed and that I might not be too bad at it.

Oh, and comic book writing. And screenwriting. Well, basically, I’d like to do everything except sports writing and poetry. I’m the worst poet ever.

5. What factors went into your decision to self-publish, do your own cover art, etc.?

The most obvious reason is money. I just didn’t even have the funds to pay Lulu.com for their services, and they’re one of the cheaper of the reputable self-publishing sites I was able to find. It was fairly discouraging to see that the business of books seems to be pitted against self-publishers or small publishing houses. I mean, $125 for a single ISBN? Come on, guys. Luckily, though, there are other resources out there for someone in just my position. I may not necessarily like some of Amazon’s fees (for example, I can only get 35% of royalties if I charge under $2.99 and I’m like, “Amazon [side-eye with a head tilt]. Explain to me why you deserve 65% of my earnings when all you’re essentially doing is hosting.”), but at least they’re pretty much letting me publish what I want and how I want it. Give and take, I guess. I’ll probably eventually want to bring in some other people to work with me, but since the money issue is still a very big one, I will be doing all of the design, artwork, formatting, etc. for a while, which is okay with me. It’s probably a good thing that I enjoy doing all the little things and not just the art creation. Not good for my sleep patterns, though. Ha.

Then there’s the fact that I’m kind of a control freak when it comes to my art. I have a particular vision and I know exactly how I want something to turn out. Now, I’m flexible to a point; if someone’s idea is better than mine, I have no problem admitting it. It’s when someone comes in and tries to take and change what I’ve worked so hard on to suit their vision. And that’s where self-publishing is so freeing. I can think bigger and more crazily and be innovative and push the envelope. That, in turn, just puts me into that creative think-space that just encourages me more.

This isn’t to say that I won’t ever use a publisher. I just know that there are certain things on which I won’t compromise, and some of the horror stories I’ve heard from fellow authors involve the intrusion of editors into their work. But I’ve got a while before I get there, so for now, I’ll be poor and in control.

Unspooling Fiction: Grimm

Today I’m honored to have my guest essay, “Remember Who You Are: Identity and Free Will on Grimm”,  featured on Unspooling Fiction.  And while you’re over there checking it out, be sure to take a look at what the Chandler/Hammett team has to say, they’re sharp ladies.

The Five Stages of Spec Pilot Writing

  1. YAY! New idea! *gazes raptly at shiny new idea*
  2. SHIT! This is exactly like [series that lasted four episodes] + [movie that tanked] x [pilot a more powerful writer than you’ll ever be couldn’t get made] ÷ [webseries that parodies your serious topic]
  3. Hmmm, what if I did THIS instead of THAT?
  4. GAAAAAHHHH IDEA FLOOD SOMEBODY SHUT IT OFF SHUT IT OFF NOW HELP! *sputter choke splash*
  5. Well, shit. Guess I have to write it now, don’t I. *retreats into writing cave*

[Steps 6-infinity: Write ten pages in thirty minutes. Tear hair, gnash teeth, rend garments. Pull all-nighter to finish. Do a victory dance. Send draft out for feedback. Revise. Rinse, lather, repeat.]

2012: Year In Review

Taking a page from Patton Oswalt, I give you the past twelve months in eleven seconds.  Ready? Unemployed, writing class, short film, agency job, internship, fellowship entries, writing class, retail job, temp assignment, unemployed.  [“Wave your food over this laser beam, and put it in the bag. That’s how this works! Sad.“]

Heh. Okay.  Maybe I should use a little more detail than that.  This year, I met lots of awesome people, reconnected with other awesome people, took two excellent writing classes, finished one pilot, got most of the way through another, started my first episode spec in ages, worked on a short film, got a short story published in a beautiful anthology,  got my first industry desk job, interned for an awesome producer, learned that you should hang on to two small birds in the hand because that giant golden-egg-laying goose in the bush will croak two days after you catch it, cashed out my 401(k), and blogged on a consistent schedule for far longer than I ever have before.  Not bad, right?  Except for the part about the goose that laid the golden egg biting it in 48 hours or less.  But onward and upward.  Time to finish those scripts and step up the job hunt.

For now, I leave you with this: