Ablation: Part 5

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          Talia sat before the terminal, her fingers hovering before the ‘enter’ key. One click and twenty-four years of messages would begin to unspool. She glanced at the black & white photo of her family before Launch Pad 73C, their fake smiles beaming out in false reassurances. Though she looked barely a day older than when that photo had been snapped, her husband and son would now bare little resemblance to their images, the smiling faces of the photo no more than ghosts of their past.

          She stopped and waved her hand before the screen. The play window slid away and Talia tapped open another app. Her image popped up, consuming the full screen, and a record button blinked transparent in the middle of the monitor. She air-tapped the button and a red light lit up the corner as she began her message.

          “Well, we’re here boys. We’ve landed and… it’s… let’s say Anima is not everything that we expected. I assume newscasts went out years ago, but we landed in the dark maybe ten kilometers from the twilight zone. Who knew Anima was tidally-locked, right? Our projections predict another six years of dark before Alpha Centauri B casts its light on our side of Anima, and that the light of a dim evening at best.”

          Talia froze up.

          “Recording stop.” The red light blinked out of existence. She gestured with her hand and a delete window popped up. Yes or No? She tapped yes.

          Her family deserved better than a rote ‘we landed and ‘they’ fucked up message.’ She had so much more to say than the flight went smooth, but the accommodations are subpar. She needed to tell them something of significance – something that mattered – anything that would make the lost years tolerable. Nothing came to mind.

          Instead she swiped over to the backlog of messages, and tapped the first one.

***


          “Hi, Talia.” Milton smiled into camera, the green of a park stretching out behind him and trees swaying in the distance. Milton reached off camera then hoisted Bernard into view. He beamed at her, no older than the day Talia had left, and dripping wet.

          “Say hi to mommy, buddy.”

          “Hi” he squeaked, then began to squirm until at last he pulled free from his dad’s grasp and ran offscreen.

          “As you can tell, he’s enjoying the fountain. We went to Riverside, after all. The weather’s good and he’s having fun. We miss you already.” Milton cast his eyes away in his usual I’m not saying everything diversion, then looked back to camera. “Thanks for the message this morning. It was a… lovely way to start the day.”

          His eyes began to water. “We love you, Talia. And we’re so proud of you. I just can’t tell you how much –”

          “– Daddy!” Bernard shouted from off camera.

          Milton rubbed at his eyes. “What buddy?” he screamed back.

          “Water! Water!”

          “Sorry, honey. Gotta go. We’ll talk soon!”

***


          The verdant greens cut to black, with bold white text at the center of the screen declaring: ‘237 Messages Remaining.’

          Why so few, Talia thought. Even at an even distribution that would be no more than ten messages a year. Of course, why should she have expected more? She left them behind to carry on without her. How painful were those messages to record? Were they all as hard for Milton as the first? What would it be for Bernard sending messages to a mother he couldn’t remember? In the end, Talia decided she had been lucky to receive as many messages as she had.

          Thinking to the years ahead, she knew any message that she sent now wouldn’t be returned for at least eight years. Logically she might as well pace out the messages from her family, giving something to which to look forward in the slow but brutal days ahead. Even so, she knew that wouldn’t happen. She’d binge the 237 remaining messages in two Earth days or less.

          The colonists had been using Earth as a metric as best as they could. With Anima tidally-locked days did not really exist. One planetary rotation took nearly one and a half Earth years, the same as one revolution around Alpha Centauri A, or one Anima year. And in that entire time, no true day would come to Enhet Basen. Alpha Centauri B would eventually create a twilight period, but for now that star’s orbit placed it in conjunction with Anima’s main star, leaving night impenetrable. The colonists would have to last six more years for a chance at twilight.

          Talia could not yet bring herself to tackle the problems that this existence created, so instead she plunged further into her messages. Locking her quarters she settled in, shutting out her fellow colonists until she had done what needed doing.


***


          By lunchtime the following “day,” Talia had noticed a disturbing trend. The messages began abundantly, with nearly fifty in the first year. They ranged from short clips like the first, to long monologues from Milton expounding on the minutiae of everyday life, to desperate rages as anger at their abandonment boiled over. Those last messages were usually followed by softer, somber apologies muddied by grief. The emotional turbulence tearing her family apart wracked Talia in guilt, but it was a different trend that threatened to snap Talia’s last, delicate sliver of hope. The messages were dwindling year over year. By two years in ninety-two of the two hundred and thirty-eight messages were done. After two more years worth of mail, only eighty-two messages remained. Her family sent fewer and fewer messages with each passing year.

          Talia forced herself to watch straight through, her anxiety mounting as each message finished, signaling one less contact with Milton and Bernard. With each communication she watched her son age, from the toddler that she remembered to a young child at his first day of school, to a boy of nearly nine. At that point, only eighteen messages remained; eighteen messages for over seventeen years of travel.

          Talia had stayed behind when the other colonists had left for one reason: a chance to still have a family, and yet, as best she could tell that family had given up on her long before she reached Anima.

          At the end of the second day of her binge, Talia had two messages remaining. With a sense of dread, she opened the penultimate recording from home. It had been sent not quite eight years after she left.


***


          Milton’s haggard eyes darted back and forth, unwilling to settle on any one point, set deep in sockets more hollow than Talia remembered. Those were accompanied by a new pair of crow’s feet clawing at their corners, but more disturbingly, Milton’s eyes lacked the typical shield of his glasses. As he glanced about, Talia could imagine his confusion, unable to rely on the crutch of cleaning those lenses in order to avoid direct confrontation.

          “Um…I don’t know,” he started, then stopped. He swallowed, and rubbed at the bags of his eyes. “Where do I start?”

          As he asked this last part, he glanced offscreen and paused. Talia could read his hesitance, but even more his deliberation. Talia had seen that look many times as Milton mulled over his words.

          Finally, he turned and looked directly into the camera. “I can’t do this anymore. We can’t do this, Talia.”

          His eyes shifted downward, and he bit at his lip. Almost instantly he shut his eyes, ashamed at his lapse. Talia understood. Milton didn’t want to face this truth any more than Talia did.

          His eyes back to camera, Milton plowed on.

          “We receive your messages almost twice a month – your ageless messages. Do you know how weird it is to hear from you over and over again in endless variations of the same theme, and you never aging, and always in that same uniform? Message to message only minutes have lapsed for you, while weeks and months leave us in the dust. For Bernard, he might as well be sending fan mail to a favorite television show, only it’s less than that. Your messages are like a familiar commercial, you the recurring spokesman. What connection…. No, still more… how do you think he can hold a connection with a mother that he knows so little?”

          Talia winced. She had seen this coming as the messages dwindled. The dread had been building over the past day, but she had hoped it would prove unfounded, no matter how little she had believed in that hope.

          “I understand this will be… beyond hard on you, but you can at least,” he said, then hesitated once more. “You can at least hear it all at once, rip it off like the proverbial bandage. For us, this dissolution has been dragged through years – years of carrying on the pretense that a relationship could survive this distance. I love you. Don’t get me wrong, but I can’t do this to our son.”

          Milton’s voice shook now, overcome. His eyes watered, but he would not let the tears flow. Not this time.

          “It’s not fair for either of us, for any of us, to live like this – to carry on increasingly separated through time. This isn’t an attack on you or me railing against your decision to leave once more. We’ve had those discussions, if you can call these messages that. My piece has been said time and again when it comes to that decision and there is no need to rehash that here. At this point, I’ve accepted that you had to leave. I’ve even managed to accept your departure for what it was for you, not as an abandonment of us.

          “But that being said, even acceptance does little to mend the rift created by your travel to your new home. Over sixteen years to go before you even hear from us, and in that time, we’ll receive some pleasantries, but not one shred of real conversation. Nothing shared. Hell, it will be twenty years before I can even hear from you in response to this so-called conversation. No, It’s just not tenable. That’s all there is to it. We have to stop pretending. We have to say goodbye.

          “There. I’ve done it. I’ve said my piece.”

          Milton paused one last time, again biting at his lip. Talia guessed that lacking lenses he had resorted to a new diversion. Still, where were his glasses?

          “Anyway,” he said, “that’s it. There’s only one thing left to say. We love you, Talia. Both of us in our own ways. Bernard didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to force it. So this it. Goodbye.”


***


          The screen cut to black, white text dominating the center of the screen.

          1 Message Remaining.

          Talia couldn’t do it. She pushed back from the monitor, unwilling to open the final message.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 6

Be Lenient

© Alexander Raths | Dreamstime.com – Vintage typewriter

By Chris Hutton


          You have a right to fail. Dwell on that for a minute. Sometimes as writers we forget that we will fail and that failure is okay. It is just one stop on a very long road.

          Now by failure I don’t mean that all writers are destined to the status of eternal starving artist, but that all writers will hit stumbling blocks. We will miss a deadline, lapse in our writing, or just write something plain awful.

          Expect this failure. Accept it, and take solace in knowing that you can find successes after the fall. If you expect perfection that’s just a sure way to never finish anything. Admittedly this is a superlative statement and thus somewhat questionable, but the essence boils down rather simply. Seeking perfection we will dwell too much on every detail and in so doing impede our momentum and our ability to move forward with a larger whole. The strain of that task shall become too great to bear.

          Take one of my favorite examples. In Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he discusses writing his first novel, Carrie. At the time he started the novel he had been aiming to write a short story for submission into a men’s magazine. Very early on he decided to abandon the story altogether. It didn’t move him, he didn’t like the lead, he wasn’t writing what he knew, and he knew the story would be too long to be accepted for submission. In one sense you could say he had failed in his goal. He’d gone over the word count and found himself disliking the story that he was telling. That being the case, he literally threw the pages away. If his wife had not discovered the manuscript in the trash and encouraged him to finish it, if he had accepted it as a failure and left it behind, his first novel as we know it never would have come to be.1

          Looking at my own writing, when I push through the first draft of a story I can dwell on crafting the perfect sentence or I can push forward with the larger story. If I focus sentence by sentence I may have a few well-crafted lines at the end of the day, but my story will have barely progressed. This approach kills my momentum and I am likely to never reach the end of the story, the slow-pacing of focusing on the minutia dragging beyond the limit of my inspiration. If, however, I allow for imperfection, then I can push through that initial draft of the story, mapping out the overall movements, and fine-tuning sentences and editing in subsequent drafts. The short stories featured on my web site for instance are first draft stories. I push straight through not allowing myself the benefit of a second draft. I do this to meet the time constraints of weekly postings, but also to force myself to complete the stories rather than to hold on to them and fine-tune them over the course of years (which I would do without the promise of an imminent audience).

          Even if you do strive for perfection in a rewrite, you can once again find yourself stuck never finishing the rewrite process. There will always be more that you can do to perfect a story, but at some point you just have to call it finished.

          Again looking at King’s On Writing, he describes his own rewrite process and his limit on drafts, holding himself to a strict two drafts and a polish. Conversely, as King also mentions, Kurt Vonnegut rewrote every page of his novels until he had them perfected, sometimes only covering 1-2 pages a day.2 To each their own. No rule is universally applicable.

          In my own work, I first started my teleplay for Dream Walker in the fall of 2006. I continued tweaking that script through 2012. To this day, however, I could still return to that script, but factoring for diminishing returns at some point you have to move on.

          Natalie Goldberg described the art of writing as practice in her book, Writing Down the Bones. Here she detailed the story of how her writing students could set too high of expectations for themselves, deciding to “write the great American novel,” and not writing “a line since.”3 As she describes, setting that expectation of perfection, of greatness, writing becomes a “great disappointment,” and furthermore “that expectation would also keep you from writing”.4 If we refuse to bend, to accept our own failures, then every act of creation becomes too burdensome and impossibly Herculean.

          So next time you find yourself daunted by the prospect of perfection and your inevitable failure, remind yourself in the words of Natalie Goldberg “I am free to write the worst junk in the world”.5 It is extremely freeing, and you just might actually get something finished.

          Happy Writing, All!


1Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p76-77.
2Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p209.
3Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.
4Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.
5Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.

Ablation: Part 4

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          “It’s more than disconcertment, Talia.” Milton’s bespectacled image froze in momentary lag, pixelating, buffering, then jumping into motion again. “Can you hear me?”

          “Yes. It’s a little better.”

          “How many economies did we pour into this ship, and it has crappier reception than our cabin?”

          “Well, it wasn’t really built for video conferencing, dear, as I’ve already said.”

          Milton nodded, and looked away, returning to his usual distraction – cleaning his glasses. “I know. Not much use for that feature after today.”

          “No, not much,” Talia nodded. She paused watching her husband clean his glasses for the last time. There was something familiar and comforting in it, yet deeply disheartening. Soon they would lose each other to time, and yet he couldn’t even look at her. “Keep that up and you’re going to scratch your lenses, Milton.”

          Milton stopped and turned a hesitant gaze to the camera. He bit at his lip, then cast his eyes about distractedly. They had talked nearly every day that Talia had been on Unity, and he knew every detail of the voyage ahead already. The final crew had boarded a week prior, necessary introductions had been made between the heads of each colonist group, and all systems had been prepped, checked, and rechecked. The final return capsules had departed and the ship’s engines had started, a slow, steady acceleration building that would one day carry his wife to a distant star: her new home.

          Talia drummed her fingers against the console, at the same loss as her husband. Everything to be said had been said; the same sentiments shared on a daily basis and even even recorded nearly 450 times in a litany of pre-recorded messages. There reached a point when all the tears had already flowed and all that remained was to move forward, no matter the pain that waited on that path.

          “All our years and it comes to this,” Talia started, breaking from her thoughts and vanquishing the silence. “This loss of words,” she continued. “I don’t even know what to say.”

          “I know.” Milton leaned back letting out a deep sigh. “I don’t think I can take another goodbye right now.” He signaled air quotes as he said goodbye. “Not one more of those conversations.”

          “Then let’s not. It’s just another day. Okay?”

          “Okay.”

          “So Bernard’s doing well?”

          “So, so. He misses you of course.” They both paused, hitting a road bump before the illusion even had a chance to take hold.

          “Yeah. I miss him, too.” Talia swallowed back the lump in her throat. The last capsule had returned she reminded herself. There could be no turning back. “Otherwise?”

          “We played hide-and-seek this morning. He keeps hiding behind the coat rack. Every time.”

          “As always.”

          “Yeah. I don’t think he quite grasps the finer points of the game, yet.”

          “Of course he does. You just don’t understand his rules.”

          “Well, there is that.” Milton plowed forward, picking up steam. “Then we read some books. I started him on Where the Sidewalk Ends. I think he likes the rhythm of it, but he’s –”

          “–Don’t say missing the finer points,” Talia interrupted.

          Milton stopped, breaking stride, then pulled off a weak recovery.

          “… not fully into that humor yet?”

          “Good enough.”

          “So I finished off with Where the Wild Things Are. He seemed content with that. Then some chase, some lunch, and bubbles in the yard. Now he’s napping.”

          “Oh.” Talia couldn’t hide her disappointment.

          “I tried to keep him up, I did, but he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. Do you want me to wake him?”

          “No. Yes, of course, but no. It feels like it would be too hurtful. We’ve had a pleasant goodbye. I’d rather remember our last call than wake him for a cranky and groggy farewell. What about tomorrow?”

          “I think I’ll take him to the park.”

          “Oh. Which one?”

          “I’m not sure,” Milton started, then stopped.

          A black-haired young man, no older than his mid thirties, intruded on the video conference nodding to Talia. He wore a finely pressed uniform, and everything about him, down to his short-cropped hair, was in its place. This was a man of order and orders.

          “Ma’am.”

          Talia nodded back, then returned to the screen. “I’m sorry, Milton. You remember Gustavo from the Brazilian delegation? Our cryo-engineer?”

          “Yes.” Milton raised an awkward wave in acknowledgement.

          “It appears all the preparations are set and I’m up. I have to go.” Talia hesitated, looking for the right words.

          “No more goodbyes, sweetheart.” Milton cast his eyes anywhere but at the camera.

          “Of course.” Talia swallowed and wet her lips. They cracked, and as she wiped at them her hand came back with a small streak of blood. She had nothing left in her, yet how did you end your final goodbye with the love of your life?

          “Try Riverside, tomorrow. They have a fountain for the kids if the weather’s nice. Bernard loves it.”

          “That’s good. I will.”

          “Have fun.”

          “Okay. Fly safe.” Milton’s voice wavered and Talia could see the tears forming. Yet before the flood began the screen went black.

          Communication Ended.

          Talia froze staring at those words, consumed by their finality. She had spoken directly with her husband for the last time, and yet the end came with such banal chatter, everything of consequence unuttered.

          “Dr. Ernst?”

          “Yes, Gustavo, I’m coming.”

          She flicked a switch, shutting down power to the terminal, and rose for her final voyage.


***


          “Dr. Ernst?”

          Talia stopped mid-stride, half in and half out of her quarters, and glanced at the owner of the gravel-laden voice. Small wrinkles webbed out from his eyes, and others creased from his nostrils to his lips. HIs jowls hung lower than before, and the jet black of his hair had turned a salt and pepper mix of gray and white, yet it remained short as ever, with everything in its place. At first she seemed to be staring at a stranger, then burned a flicker of recognition.

          “Gustavo? You stayed?”

          “Appears so. A quarter of a century manning the ship while you slept, ensuring you all woke, I just couldn’t accept it being for nothing – turning tail and running home. No, when I chose Amina I committed to it.”

          “And the rest of the wake shift?”

          “A mix. Many felt cheated and are looking to retire without struggle, but what is life but struggle? Personally I want to see the world my years bought.”

          “You’re one-of-kind.”

          “It’s a kind sentiment, if a little unearned. You stayed as well, and plenty others. A good three dozen or more from what I hear.”

          “Well, three dozen of a thousand. What’s that?”

          Gustavo glanced up to one corner, biting at his lip, then answered. “One of twenty-eight. Roughly.”

          “Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?”

          “No, ma’am. Not quite.”

          “Well, I’m glad to have you, nonetheless. And, there’s no need for ma’am anymore. You’re my senior now.”

          “Yes, ma’am.” Gustavo smiled. “It’s good to see you as well.” With that he nodded and began once more down the corridor. His leisurely pace and the fondness of his gaze spoke to a volume of experience so far beyond the young man Talia had known only a relative week prior. She barely recognized him. To what degree would that same passage of time have changed her own family? Would they be as equally unrecognizable?

          Talia had only one way to find out. When the morning had begun twenty-four years of messages had been downloading to her terminal. They had been downloading from the main drives since the moment she’d been assigned a station on Anima Day One. As she entered her quarters she could see the green light flashing. The download had completed.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 5

7 Lessons Learned

© Freerlaw | Dreamstime.com – Check list

 

By Chris Hutton

 

My multi-month absence now draws to a close. As mentioned last week, I am officially back.

You may have noticed that I have been transitioning into my usual activity for a while now. In mid-April my social channels returned with 1-2 posts a day across Facebook and Twitter regarding recent news in science-fiction and horror. The first week of May, my social channels resumed their usual speed, with a mix of science, sci-fi, and horror news, along with media recommendations on Tuesdays, comic releases on Wednesdays, sci-fi and horror movie releases on Fridays, a mix of additional topics, and the return of my Instagram account. The second week of May (last week), I announced that my blog was returning, and now as we enter the third week of May I present this, my first new blog on writing for 2017. Next week, I resume posting short fiction.

This staggered approach has been intentional. While I was away and my absence from this forum plagued me (which it did daily), I pondered the causes of my long absence and how to best resume without making it a Herculean task. This contemplation led me to the subsequent conclusions – the few lessons of my absence, which I would like to share. Each lesson is listed in brief here, but there is likely much more to be said. Rather than make this an incomprehensibly long post, I will give the Cliffs Notes today and share the longer version of each in the weeks ahead.

 

1) Be lenient.

You have a right to fail. And you will. Expecting perfection is a sure way to never finish anything.

 

2) Fall down. Get back up.

We all fall, but standing back up is key. Don’t just move on, but also learn from your mistakes to move forward all the stronger for each misstep.

 

3) Want to write? Read!

Novels. Comics. Scripts. Know your medium. and not just the rules, but what you like, and what you don’t like. Consume as much as possible.

 

4) Be consistent.

Set a plan and follow it. Marketing plans are a must. Consistency from week to week helps establish your brand. In doing this, however, be sure to provide your readers with expectations that you can meet. Otherwise stumbling is likely.

 

5) Have a plan, but not ironclad.

As mentioned plans are a must, from marketing to story outlines. At the same time, malleability is key. An ironclad plan is one more route to failure. It will break you, whereas a little flexibility allows you to bend and move forward without snapping.

 

6) Create a backlog.

Don’t want to stumble? Stop rushing to post when you’re not ready. If you have plenty to say, then you might as well write as much of it down now and generate a glut of content before moving forward. See my staggered approach in the opening of this entry. That staggering was intentional. It allowed me to generate a backlog while easing back to full speed. And by the way, backlog everything.

  • Social Media Posts
  • Blogs Entries
  • Short stories

Any content that can be pre-planned, do it. This post is a prime example. I drafted it on April 22nd.

 

7) Strike while the iron is hot.

You have an idea? Write it down. You’ve started that story. Finish it, now. The longer you wait to act, the less likely that idea or story will every be realized. I generated the plan for phasing back my writing presence on April 12th while getting ready in the morning. I immediately jotted down these seven notes before progressing with the day and had temped in April’s social media by the 14th, and begun in-depth social media for May and June by the 16th. Had I not done that, I doubt this post would be here or that my blog would be live again.

 

I can’t say how much anyone else will learn from this, but these lessons really are vital to me and my ability to successfully maintain a blog or any form of public, open writing. If you’re looking for tips to help with your writing endeavor, whatever it may be, I hope that you find these useful.

Either way, Happy Writing, All!

I’m Back…

By Chris Hutton

          My absence from this blog has been overly prolonged and for that I apologize. While admittedly, I created this blog for my own edification and as of yet only maintain a small readership, I had dedicated myself to this endeavor and I take that commitment seriously. Whether I have one reader or hundreds, each of you deserve consistency in the service (fiction) that I offer.

          That being said, originally I had intended to take merely a couple of weeks off while traveling with my family for the winter holidays. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks became a few months. When I returned in January my entire household had caught cold and in particular my illness persisted well into late March. Between illness and work, my writing had to take a backseat.

          That time has passed. I am happy to announce that my writing has resumed and that this blog shall be returning to a consistent update schedule for the foreseeable future. In order to ensure that this consistency is provided, I extended my absence while creating a two-month backlog of content to protect against any future unforeseen circumstances that might disrupt my writing.

          I hope that you enjoy the coming blogs, short fiction, and comic samples as much as I enjoyed creating them.

          Happy Writing, All!