Tag Archives: Disaster

Okay, so I’m a pantser

I admire people who outline books. I understand the principles of design. It’s good to define the structure of the architecture first before implementing the build. It’s the same with programming. Often you don’t solve a problem just by diving in and trying to code the solution. You have to take a step back and think.

Except when you don’t, either because you don’t have the time or the patience.

I’ve been having this recurring worry with The Sky Below. I’ve promised a 25-26 chapter story with an ending, split between chapters about four characters who each will maybe get about 15,000 words. That’s actually not a whole lot of space for a full character arc. I have to introduce my characters, throw them in a calamity, and get them out of it or at least a significant distance down the road in maybe 30-35 pages.

That means I don’t want to be retreading ground with one character that I’ve covered with another. But I also don’t want to miss a character’s specific reaction to an event, even if we’ve seen that event with another character. Then there’s the issue of how much time passes for each character when they’re off-screen. Are all of these things happening at the same time, or at different rates

And how do I solve these issues?

Mostly gut.

I know where the ending is. I know a few of the specific obstacles I want to throw in the way of my characters. But mostly I just know my characters well and try to let them guide their own actions. Each has a value associated with them, a theme to their story, and a way to deal with the circumstances in front of them (which are frankly ridiculous).

I’ll just get this out of the way right now. There are going to be a lot of physics types who are going to want to know the specifics of a world in which gravity goes out toward the atmosphere, and not down toward the center of the Earth. And I’m doing my best to present a somewhat realistic portrayal of those circumstances. But that being said, Armageddon was a pretty good movie right? (despite being riddled with scientific inaccuracies). This is a story proceeding from an already ridiculous premise. There is going to be poetic license. And some specifics will be gut (though I’ll admit to a little bit of planning of the mechanics ahead of time, particularly the rules of what can and cannot happen).

If it helps Cleveland is in a giant snow-globe and someone is holding it upside-down.

Gut gets you to places outlines never will. Already researching these buildings and this city has given me ideas I would never have had at the beginning. And the revision process for each chapter reigns in some of the crazy so that we can actually get somewhere with each installment.

All I ask is that you have faith. I may only know a couple of steps down the road right now, but we’ll find the ending, and it’ll be worth the journey.

I might even write a few alternate endings just for fun for all you physics nuts.

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The Sky Below (Chapter Four)

In this chapter of The Sky Below, a baseball player copes with the loss of the Kielbasa Kid and kielbasa and we start to get a vision of what this new world will look like, besides showers coming out of the floor.

If you missed Chapters 1-3 you can download them and the latest chapters from this page. As always The Sky Below is available in a variety of eReader and tablet friendly formats. So if you don’t want to read a whole chapter on the computer (and who does really?) be sure to check these out. Maybe something to curl up with over the long cold weekend.

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CHAPTER FOUR

The world was fuzzy and out of focus; colors blended into each other like a watercolor painting. This trick of vision would have made sense to Eddie if he’d been crying or gotten a bit of sweat in his eye. The truth was he’d just been staring too long. His eyes were dry from the wind, and his face was cold. It was as if he wanted to burn an image into his brain, but his eyes couldn’t or didn’t want to focus, so his mind just took one blurry picture after another.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there. It felt like days, though it was probably only a couple of hours since the sun was still up. Still, there was no way to be sure. If gravity couldn’t be counted on, maybe the sun couldn’t either.

Someone finally spoke, Eddie didn’t really hear who, but whoever it was had had their fill of sitting around moping and was trying to stir the others into some kind of action. None of them seemed to have the energy to object, but neither did they show any enthusiasm, choosing only to shuffle mechanically toward the far end of the dugout.

Eddie thought about ignoring the voice, continuing to sit there and stare until the sun went out or he lost his vision. Then there would be nothing to keep him from stepping over the edge, which seemed to be calling him with every passing second. That big open sky was getting inside him, goading him to permanent and maybe inevitable action. After all, how long did any of them really have?

It was Manny who finally broke him out of his stupor, tapping him on the upper arm. Eddie grunted, his muscles stiff from sitting on hard cement, and shuffled in the same direction as the rest of his teammates.

At the end of the dugout a door opened into a short corridor that led to a secondary locker room. The area mainly served the other events hosted on the field, though occasionally during long games the players would take advantage of the proximity to towel off or re-tape a foot. The locker room was small, maybe twenty feet by thirty feet at the most. Along the right wall were a line of open lockers and above them in the center of the room was a set of long wooden benches.

A rack of bats hung near the door, most of which had surprisingly not fallen to the floor. Some had flipped and were hanging by their grip, while others had slid straight down and become stuck. Eddie reached an arm up and pulled a metal bat down, flipping it over so he could hold the grip in his right hand.

Slowly he ran his hands over the black and blue paint. There were a couple of dents and a few chips he could feel with his palm, but the balance was still good. There was no space to swing in this small room, so all he could do was turn the bat over again and again in his hand. He remembered the feeling of electricity, the power when the ball made contact with your swing in just the right spot. You could feel everything the pitcher had put behind that ball, and how it was fighting against the muscles in your arms and shoulders. When that momentum was pushed forward it felt like a release, like something almost spiritual. After every swing like that, Eddie could feel the light tap of his bat on his left shoulder, a reminder that maybe it was time to start running.

He was never going to have that feeling again, or so he imagined. Though if he was being honest it had been a while since he’d felt it anyway.

Everyone was still silent, even the young man who’d been shouting at them to move, who Eddie now recognized as Stankowsky, a rising star who’d come up from the Clippers just last year. Stankowsky was pacing back and forth across the ceiling floor until he tripped on something. He swore as he turned around to see the shower head sticking out of the floor. Some of the other guys chuckled for a second before the room was quiet again.

Stankowsky just stood and stared at the shower head. At first Eddie thought the kid was angry, but after looking closer he could tell that Stankowsky was trying to work something out. His features were sunken in, and he shaved his head every couple of days. A thin growth of mustache hung above his upper lip, though it was usually hidden from view by Stan’s pursed lips. His neck looked like he’d swallowed a baseball and with the way the kid mouthed off sometimes during practice, Eddie had thought about taking a swing at that ball more than once.

“We’re gonna need water,” Stankowsky said finally.

No one had really been paying attention except Eddie, but Manny was the first to reply, “What’s that, Stan?”

“We need to raid every snack bar and vending machine in the stadium, all the way down to the upper decks,” Stankowsky replied, ignoring Eddie’s obvious scrutiny.

Manny raised an eyebrow and the rest of the team seemed to be largely ignoring the conversation. Franklin for his part seemed to be wondering how Stankowsky could be thinking of food at a time like this, which was understandable for a guy who’d spent the last half hour revisiting his lunch.

“All of you need to look around,” Stankowsky said, raising his voice slightly but remaining calm. “This stadium is upside down, probably the whole city, maybe even the whole damn world. Lake Erie is now a cloud of mist floating up into space until it freezes. Same goes for the Cuyahoga River and every fountain, well and puddle. The only water there’s going to be is what we’ve bottled.”

Franklin smirked, “Haven’t you always been a doomsday prepper, Stankowsky? Isn’t the first thing you guys do is horde a stash of water?”

Stankowsky shook his head. “It’s in my bunker out in Garfield Heights. Might as well be on the moon for all the good it’s going to do us here.”

“Well, I guess we’re really screwed then,” Franklin said dismissively.

“You guys don’t get it do you?” Stankowsky said, “Whether this thing lasts another hour, or another year or a whole century everything’s going to be different. The only way we’re going to survive is if we embrace the reality of our situation before anyone else does.”

“Aww, you’re full of crap, Stan,” Franklin scoffed.

Eddie wasn’t so sure. They’d survived the first wave of this thing basically on luck alone. But there was only so far luck was going to take them.

“You should listen to him,” Eddie said. “We’re probably not the only ones who survived. We were down 4-0 in the fourth inning. I’m betting people didn’t wait for the seventh inning stretch to go for another beer. There’s probably people right below us walking around trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“I guess our losing streak saved a few lives,” Manny observed.

“Yeah,” Franklin sneered, “If ‘ol Eddie here had been able to keep a count alive longer than three pitches, maybe Alfonso would still be with us too.”

“That’s not funny, Franklin,” Manny said.

“Just making an observation,” Franklin said, leaning back on his elbows.

Eddie wondered how many of the men standing in that room had made the same “observation”. Hell, he’d been thinking it too. If they’d had a choice between him and Alfonso, even Manny wouldn’t have picked Eddie.

“Why do you want to go down to the upper decks anyway, Stan?” Their second baseman, Conesta, asked. “We’ve got no idea how long those levels are going to stay structurally sound. We should get what we can from this deck and head up into the sewers.”

“Conesta’s got a point,” Manny observed, “We all saw what happened to the pavilion. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of this place peels away.”

Stankowsky shook his head again. “We’re going to need more than just water. We’re going to need a way to defend ourselves.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Manny asked, his voice growing colder. “Defend ourselves from whom?”

“Everyone else,” Stankowsky replied flatly.

“What the hell is the matter with you?” Manny fumed. He looked to Eddie like he was about to leap forward and shake Stankowsky by the shoulders.

Stankowsky continued, ignoring the question and any imminent threat, “I’m just expecting people to be people, in all their flawed, crazed and animal ways.”

“You’re the animal, Stankowsky!” Manny said, “There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people out there who could be hurt and suffering.”

Eddie’s blood should have been boiling at the same temperature as Manny’s but somehow he was remaining calm. It was possible that he was just numb after what he’d seen, but he suspected it was something else.

“You’re right,” Stankowsky said, “And I feel for all of them, really I do. But is there going to be enough water for all of us?”

“Fuck you!” Manny cursed.

Stankowsky for his part remained stoic. “Fuck you too, if it’ll make you feel better. I’m just being realistic. We’re going to need to cooperate to survive, but not with everyone. Do you know what we are, Manny? Do any of you?”

He scanned around a room full of blank or angry stares.

“We’re a tribe, and a tribe looks out for their own. We don’t know who we’re going to meet out there, in the stadium or anywhere else we go. We don’t know what they’ll become. But we know each other.”

Eddie didn’t like the man saying those words, even if he knew they needed to be said. But that was the problem with hard truth. The people who came to the hard conclusions were hard people.

He put a hand on Manny’s shoulder, “Stan’s right, Manny.” Manny’s muscles loosened slightly, but his face still bore a dangerous expression. Manny hadn’t liked Stankowsky much when they’d been teammates, and he probably liked him less now that he was trying to be some kind of post-apocalyptic tribal chief.

Eddie turned to address the rest of the people in the room. “We are a team, even if there’s some of us we can’t stand. Now I want to try to help anyone we can, but part of being able to do that is being able to take care of ourselves.”

“Is this the part of the movie where we all put our hands in the center and shout ‘go tribe’ or something?” Franklin’s voice slithered out from where he was leaning against the lockers.

Eddie smiled, “You know what? You’re right, Franklin. This is some kinda movie. Probably one of those crappy horror flicks they used to show on Big Chuck and Lil John.”

“Yeah, like The Ground Above or Topsy-Turvy-Terra,” Conesta offered.

Manny chuckled, his face softening, “What does that make Franklin, the Kielbasa kid?”

“That’s good,” Eddie laughed. “And I’d always had Stankowsky pegged as a certain ethnic.”

The three men started laughing uncontrollably until Stankowsky cut them off. “What the hell are you guys talking about?”

“Oh, that’s right, you’re from down south,” Eddie put his arm around Stankowsky. “If YouTube somehow survived this catastrophe you should watch the certain ethnic lays carpet.”

“Or the certain ethnic movers,” Conesta added.

Manny laughed, “Oh, I’d forgotten about that one.”

“Anyway,” Eddie continued, “Stan’s right about one thing, there are supplies in this stadium we’re gonna regret losing to gravity if we sit around here all day.”

“Holy shit!” Conesta interrupted.

“What?” Eddie asked.

“All the cows and pigs, they’re probably floating in low earth orbit by now. No Kielbasa kid after all.”

“At least they’ll be well preserved,” Manny said, chuckling again.

Eddie grinned, “Probably, though I for one am grabbing a hot dog when we go downstairs.”

He grabbed a sports bag that had been crumpled in the corner and tossed it to Stankowsky. He tossed another at Franklin before handing a few more to Manny, Conesta and Belanchek, their pitcher.

“What if we run into trouble?” Conesta asked. “It’s a long way between here and the security office.”

Eddie looked down at the bat in his hand, then back up at the rack above him. He’d been in fights as a kid, but that was using your fists and feet, not a weapon. He’d seen the damage a gun could do, but that had felt cold, almost distant. Even as he contemplated their goal he found himself realizing he could fire a gun. That wasn’t personal. But beating someone with a bat, the electricity of impact of metal against bone … that was taking something he had loved since he was a kid and perverting it.

“We’ll use these,” he tossed his bat to Manny, then started taking them down for the rest of the players. It was funny; as he watched them toss the bats from one hand to the other, adjusting their gloves and trying out the grip, they almost looked like ballplayers again. His eyes turned to Belanchek, who was pocketing a couple of balls and tossing a couple more in his pack. Who needs a bullet when you have a 97 mile per hour fastball?

Maybe Stankowsky was wrong, maybe they wouldn’t need any of this. Maybe people would look in the face of this tragedy and decide to help each other out.

‘Yeah, when pigs fly,’ he thought, ‘though come to think of it, I guess they are.’

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All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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Making characters who aren’t you

Probably one of the hardest things for a writer to do is create characters. I don’t mean characters who largely function as set pieces, but real living breathing people who grow and change from the beginning of the narrative to the end. Beyond just assigning physical traits there’s a lot that goes into forming a character’s personality and a lot of that is bound to come from personal experience.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you have a lot of characters all of whom basically act like you and have your same set of values, than you don’t have as much to bump up against in the story. This is something I’ve been trying to figure out as I’m guiding four characters through a post apocalyptic upside-down world. All of them have a piece of me to start, something my wife picked up on right away. It was actually her that really challenged me to make one of them wildly divergent, to have some trait or attitude that runs counter to the way I think.

I tend to develop characters organically. They never spring fully formed into my mind, but rather coalesce as I construct the narrative. Hence the more time I spend writing characters the better I know them. At the early stages this means I can nudge trajectories even small degrees that will have big consequences by the end.

I’ll admit that certain kinds of character traits and conflicts don’t particularly interest me. In Surreality I have a character who is pretty dedicated to his job, and has decided that it’s probably best not to make any serious attachments as he isn’t able to split his time without hurting one or the other. I could have given him a girlfriend he largely ignores, or one that wants him to stop being a cop, but that isn’t the kind of story I want to tell.

Put another way, a lot of the character conflicts I tend to put into my stories are external, not internal. Something out in the real world pushes up against them, and they react from a place of set ideas. But what makes characters more interesting is both internal and external conflict, something I’ve definitely learned in revising Surreality and in crafting The Sky Below. The Sky Below in particular has some obvious external narrative choices I could make. But it also provides a place for a lot of internal strife and decision making about what’s best and what’s most important.

Some of my characters are going to make bad choices. And those choices may have consequences. They may be choices I would have made, or they may be something that springs from all kinds of other desires. The point is, not every choice made by a character should be the right one, and it shouldn’t always be the thing you’d do in that situation. Not unless you want to keep writing the same book over and over again with a main character who does the same thing over and over again. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of mystery writers have gotten by on this formula. But even those of us who write genre fiction, be it mystery, sci-fi or apocalypse don’t want to rely solely on tropes and one set of ideas and personality traits.

We can still draw from real life, stealing from those round us or even people we just observe in a coffee shop. There are many days when I’m writing that I have to keep myself working instead of listening to the conversation of the people in the table next to me. But in the long run it’s those different view points and experiences that make for diverse and interesting stories. I’m not advocating eavesdropping, at least in obvious and easy ways to get caught 🙂

Pro tip, ear buds with no music make people naturally assume you can’t hear them. Don’t tell me you haven’t done this at least once 🙂

This next tip might sound a little silly, but it’s one I’ve scarily found effective, play an RPG sometime. I’ve been playing a D&D RPG with the little red haired girl for a couple of months now. I started playing as a Paladin, Lawful Good, mixing overtime with a wizard and skewing a little more toward Neutral by the end. Now I’m playing as a Cleric Dwarf, which is inherently flawed in some ways but is also kind of funny and different. Games can help you with the exercise of creating characters, and rulesets like D&D let you determine a lot of personality by adjusting traits like lawful – chaotic or good – evil as well as your race, appearance and profession. People will react differently to a religious dwarf than a fighter dwarf. Sure these are set fantasy tropes, but the exercise is what matters, living in another skin and making different decisions from what you’d usually do can help you to do the same thing with your characters.

Incidentally the cleric spells are very cool and I like having fire elementals at my command. Makes me feel powerful.

Balthazar Mountain Crusher

Meet Balthazar Mountain Crusher

Don’t mess with the dwarf cleric writer.

So here’s a challenge, take a common day to day situation, like someone cutting in front of you in line, or a clerk giving you back too much change, and write 300 words of what a character would do or say that is the opposite or at least 15 degrees to the left of what you’d do. Post in the comments if you feel like sharing.

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The Sky Below (Chapter Three)

It’s Thursday and you know what that means, you have a one in two shot of a new chapter of The Sky Below. In case you missed the first couple of chapters of our serialized story, I’ve put up a new landing page that has all the links you’ll need. And if you look to your right you’ll see the new cover. Neat, huh? Anyway, hope you enjoy this chapter and as always keep the comments coming. ~BTW

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CHAPTER THREE

Bethany woke to throbbing pain from her right hand. The skin was pink and wet, and had the faint aroma of the coffee she’d been holding moments before. The immediate scalding heat had subsided, leaving a dull ache and a slightly itchy sensation, making Bethany wonder exactly how long she’d been unconscious. Still, that question could wait until her more immediate needs were met: a fresh cup of coffee and something cool for her hand.

Bethany recalled a bathroom just around the corner and pushed down with her good hand to get herself up. The floor felt rough and dusty. She wondered idly if her donut was still on the counter or if it had fallen off during … whatever had happened.  Sure enough, there was a little paper wrapper on the floor with the edge of a maple donut creeping out of it. As she bent down to pick it up, she noticed that the counter was no longer in front of her.

The Latina woman and another teenage employee were sprawled out on the floor where the counter should have been.  Bethany took a tentative step forward, then stepped back as the woman groaned.

“Are you alright?” Bethany asked.

The woman was still dazed, her eyes squinting as she regained focus. “I think so. What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Bethany replied. “Do you have any bottled water back there? I spilled coffee on my hand.”

Bethany put out an arm which the woman waved off. Once the woman had righted herself she stood on her tiptoes to look inside the little refrigerator behind the counter, which was now above her head. “All I have is milk and orange juice.”

“Probably the milk,” Bethany said. “How much do I owe you?”

The woman fixed her with a look, then said flatly, “No charge.”

Bethany took the small carton and held it against her hand. It felt a little better, but the cardboard didn’t feel very cold against her skin. She sighed and pushed the carton open, pouring out the liquid slowly over the back of her hand. She winced briefly from the cold, then relaxed as her fingers loosened and the skin felt less chapped.

“Throw on a little fresh cinnamon and I’ve basically made a latté on my hand,” Bethany said. The woman just stared at her. Finally Bethany said, “Thanks. That feels a lot better.”

The Latina woman nodded, then turned to wake up her co-worker, who was drooling into a pile of spilled cup-holders. Suddenly the thought of eating her donut in front of these people didn’t seem so appealing. Bethany reached into her coat pocket to stash the wrapper when she noticed a familiar bump was missing.

“Dammit,” Bethany hissed softly. Looking down she saw nothing other than milk-stained shoes. She looked behind her and caught a glimpse of a purple phone case against the far wall. She took an unsteady step toward the phone, then froze as the floor creaked beneath her. Suddenly heels didn’t feel like such a good idea.

Cautiously she slipped her feet out of her shoes, then knelt slowly to pick them up, dangling them from her left hand. Given the state of her hair and clothes she looked like a woman walking home from a one night stand, with the added humiliation of milk dripping from her hand and shoes. The floor creaked with every step but at least it didn’t feel like it was going to buckle anymore. Within a few seconds she was across the alcove to where her phone had slid.

The protective case had broken open but the phone seemed relatively intact. She had a couple of missed calls from her sister but no messages. This was pretty typical; Grace was the kind of person to keep calling until you picked up rather than leave a message. When she wanted your attention she had to get it right then, though the last call was from about ten minutes ago. Bethany frowned; it wasn’t like Grace to give up like that.

Reluctantly, she pressed down the call button. The phone didn’t even ring once before she got the three-tone alert message.

“We’re sorry, but we cannot place your call as dialed. Our lines are over capacity at the moment. Please hang up and place your call again later.”

“Probably everyone’s calling each other trying to figure out what’s going on,” the donut woman shouted.

Bethany frowned again, “Even if there was some kind of accident in the mall it wouldn’t have jammed up every line!”

“Lady, we’re upside-down. I think that’s enough.”

Bethany looked up toward the “ceiling” and saw the familiar tile of the floor. The “floor” beneath her feet was completely flat, except for a couple of diamond shaped bumps that looked a hell of a lot like light fixtures.

“That’s impossible,” she gasped.

“You’d think so, but here we are.” The woman shrugged. “Listen, can you help me with Jared here? I think he might have broken his ankle.”

“I must have hit my head harder than I thought,” Bethany said, not really hearing her.

“Hey, maybe so, but until you wake up I could really use a hand here.”

Bethany shook her head clear and walked back over. Jared was still in a haze, which was probably just as well given the angle of his foot. Bethany put a hand under his arm, and grimaced at the moisture underneath. The woman shot her a grin, “Yeah, I know. Try standing next to him for 12 hours on end.”

“Where do we put him?” Bethany asked, pulling upward. The two women linked their arms trying to put most of Jared’s weight on his back and under his thighs, though his feet still bumped into the floor every couple of steps.

“We’ve got a couple of chairs in the office in the back, assuming they weren’t bolted to the floor.”

The back area was dark, the floor littered with all sorts of dry ingredients, sugar and flour and cinnamon, floating a few inches off the floor in a thin mist. Bethany could already feel a coating forming around her ankles and feet.

They found a yellow plastic chair that looked like it had been taken from a 70s classroom and kicked it upright. Jared let out a little yelp as they dropped him down, then slumped slightly forward, threatening to fall back onto the floor. The woman shuffled over to the other side of the office and found another chair. She put it under Jared’s left leg and he leaned back, his head falling backwards to the right.

The woman leaned against the back wall to catch her breath and Bethany did the same, “What’s your name?” the woman asked.

“Bethany, and you’re … Sofia, right?”

“Got that from my name tag and everything, right?”

Bethany blushed, “Doesn’t everyone?”

“Yeah, I guess so. It’s actually Claudia, but I got sick of people pronouncing it wrong. Clow-dia not Claw-dia.” Claudia breathed out heavily, “Hey. You still got that donut?”

Bethany chuckled, “It’s been on the floor.”

“Actually I think it’s the ceiling. How ‘bout you give me half in return for that milk?”

Bethany took out the paper she’d tucked in her jacket and tore the donut in two. “Deal.”

* * *

“Grab my hand!” Reverend Marcado shouted as he leaned down toward the balcony railing.

Marcado had wrapped his legs around one of the wood paneled columns which suddenly felt a whole lot less solid with the weight of the balcony pulling on it instead of pushing down. Hymnals and Bibles were raining down around him as they slipped out of the pews, forming blue-bound piles on the high curved ceiling.

The young man below him was terrified, and had wrapped both arms and legs around the flat metal of the railing. Already Marcado could tell that railing wasn’t going to hold his weight forever, despite the 200-year old craftsmanship of the sanctuary.

“It’s alright,” he said calmly. “I’ve got you, and the Lord’s got us both.”

The young man leaned as if to move, then whimpered and held the railing more tightly as his ball-cap fell off his head.

“Son,” Marcado said more firmly, “I know it’s scary, but you’ve got to climb.”

The young man leaned out again, still leaving his legs wrapped around the railing. As he stretched he was able to get a few fingers under the curved inset of the panel above. Marcado stretched down and this time he could just barely brush the tips of his fingers against the young man’s hand.

“Just a little bit more,” Marcado encouraged. “You’re doing fine.”

The young man grabbed the U-shaped arch of the trim and pushed up, reaching with his left arm to grasp one of the small wooden balusters. He let his right hand go and pulled upward, swinging his legs out and hanging by one arm for a few terrifying seconds before Marcado grabbed him. The baluster in his left hand pulled out from the railing and dropped out of his hand, making a low clattering as it hit the ceiling.

Marcado grunted as the man’s full weight pulled down on his arm. He began tugging with his legs, hoping the weight wouldn’t pull the column out like the baluster. The young man grabbed Marcado’s arm with both hands, the weight easing as the kid got a hand up on the ceiling at the base of the balcony. Within another few seconds he had a leg up and soon was lying flat on his belly. Marcado dangled over the edge till the kid collected his wits enough to grab his arm and spin him around the column.

Both men lay flat for a few minutes catching their breath. The adrenaline was already starting to wear off, and Marcado was wishing he’d spent a few more evenings playing in the church basketball league. The young man looked to be in his late twenties, wearing a large and garish Chief Wahoo t-shirt. Most of the fans in the city had long ago abandoned wearing that mascot, at least in public, preferring the newer letter styled jersey, or if they liked the tradition at least keeping the Indian small and on their arm. It was the out of towners who still got a kick out of the grinning chief.

“Reverend, look!” the young man shouted, pointing downward. He’d crawled to the edge of the balcony and was looking toward the organ. Below them, pairs of curved wooden bracers stood atop a wooden floor, with circular vents in between each pair. Further down, stained glass windows glowed brightly from the sun outside.

‘Whatever has happened hasn’t spoiled the sky at least,’ Marcado thought.

On the floor near the organ, a young woman lay sprawled over one of the curved bracers. She was breathing slowly, her long black hair fanning out behind her head like a halo. Her eyes were open but unfocused, looking at nothing in particular.

“We’ve got to do something,” the young man said, already looking around for something to lower himself down.

From twenty-some feet above Marcado could see the small pool of blood forming behind her head. That she’d survived the fall was something of a miracle, if a cruel one. Her body was bent and broken, her breathing raspy and pained. Her face was a cloud, unable to speak even if her lungs would allow it, on the verge of seeing a divine mystery Marcado had only glimpsed from afar.

“Don’t just sit there, we’ve got to help her,” the young man’s voice was growing all the more urgent. There was no rope to be found, nothing aside from a few domed glass hanging lights now lying flat on the ceiling floor. The cords might lower them down a few feet, assuming they could even hold their weight. Marcado put a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“We can’t reach her, not without falling ourselves,” he said gently.

“But you’re a man of God, you’re supposed to help people aren’t you?” the young man said angrily, pushing Marcado’s arm away.

“I am going to help her,” Marcado said, “I’m going to pray.”

“What’s that going to do? We’ve got to get her up here!” The young man said, tears starting to form around his eyes. “We can just leave her!”

“Who is she, son?”

“What?”

“What’s her name?” Marcado asked calmly.

“Stacey,” the young man said, tears running down his face in earnest now.

“You care about her a great deal, don’t you?”

The young man looked down at his feet, “She’s my girlfriend, about six months now. We just moved in together about a month ago.”

“Alright, you want to help her don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said weakly.

“Just look at her.”

The young man took a tentative crawl toward the edge. His eagerness from a few moments prior replaced by fear, not of heights or the ceiling collapsing from beneath him, but of the reality he knew lay just below him.

“She’s dying, son, probably only a few minutes now.”

The young man backed slowly away from the edge. Marcado stopped him gently and the young man’s voice cracked as he spoke. “She was just a few feet in front of me. If only I’d been closer I’d…”

“I know,” Marcado said. “She’s in God’s hands now but we can still pray for her.”

“But we’re not believers, Reverend,” the young man said. “Doesn’t that mean you think she’s going to go to hell or something?”

Marcado shook his head. “You really think that’s how it works? I don’t think God is as cruel as men make him out to be. He’ll take care of her.”

The young man wiped his tears off with a sleeve and bowed his head. Marcado closed his eyes. After a brief prayer he opened them again and stared at the front of the sanctuary. Everything loose had fallen toward the ceiling, including a grand piano which had landed with its legs sticking in the air like a wounded animal. Somehow the organ had managed to maintain its shape, with just a few of the over three thousand pipes slipping out of their moorings. The chandeliers, on the other hand, had all swung toward the center of the room; the glass from each of the cylindrical lights shattered and strewn in a glistening carpet on the ceiling. The Bible he read from every Sunday morning and the candles he lit were all gone. All of the familiar rituals and objects that made this place his home as much as God’s were falling away.

The truth was he didn’t know what God had in store for Stacey or for any of them. He’d seen people die before, around the world and right in front of him. But none of that had felt like God’s doing, just man’s nature at its most extreme and perverse. But flipping a church upside-down didn’t feel like the work of man. God had killed all but a few people in a boat when he brought terrible floods. He said he’d never do it again, but maybe he only meant the rain.

Marcado turned back toward the young man who was still kneeling with his head bowed and eyes closed. “Come on. We’ve got to get moving. If we get into the basement, we might at least stand a chance.”

The young man opened his eyes and nodded. The two men turned and crawled away from the edge, neither looking back.

——————————-

All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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Writing the same scene differently

So here’s the thing. I’m writing a disaster novella. It has four characters each of whom get individual scenes. Chapter 1 introduced everybody, Chapter 2 showed two of the characters in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, and Chapter 3 will show two more. Essentially, the four scenes that comprise Chapters 2 and 3 are the same. A character realizes something has happened, comes to grips with it, and deals with some of the immediate aftermath in their surroundings.

I want to keep the reader hooked, to make these narratives feel individual and not redundant, even if they are treading some of the same ground. And I don’t want to skip a character moment of realization just because I’ve already written a couple of them. Everybody reacts to a situation differently, and if I’m doing my job of creating unique characters then I could have each of these people doing the exact same thing and the scenes would still come out different.

Terminology becomes a factor in my scenario. For starters, I’m still working out exactly what I should call the surface beneath the character’s feet. Is it the ceiling because that’s what it was a few minutes ago or is it the floor because that’s what it is now? Can we have such an animal as floor ceilings and ceiling floors? Probably the approach I’ve taken organically (i.e. typical seat of the pants technique) is to let each individual character think of the thing beneath their feet as the floor or the ceiling depending on what makes them comfortable.

It helps that I’ve thrown the characters into different kinds of physical locations, and given them different personalities and goals. These things alone can make scenes unique. And one thing that is already becoming apparent as I continue to plot and structure this book is that pairings matter. Even though these characters are largely independant of each other for now (and may remain so for the vast majority of the book), they need to interact in thematic ways. Sometimes the sharing is more overt (one character’s sister is with one of the other main characters at the time of the crisis), and sometimes it’s just a shared object, or a phrase, or a joke.

So you make things different by applying different variables, and you tie them together thematically by sharing elements. That way instead of just repeating yourself, you build on what has come before.

One other potential way to deal with this problem (though one I have not chosen to apply yet) is different timelines or non-linear timelines. If this was a book I was assured you could all read in one sitting, then I might play with the structure a little more, but as it is I want people to be able to follow individual character narratives from week to week, and not get to lost or forget who someone is after a month. But I may have moments where something happens explicitly to one character that is only implied in another (if that character has nothing to offer in the real-time reaction).

Every writing project gives unique problems to solve. Already figuring out how to keep a narrative thread going while tossing the ball to four different characters is a challenge, but one I am enjoying thoroughly. You guys will have to be the judge of whether I just keep repeating myself, or whether I have something new to say.

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The Sky Below (Chapter Two)

What would you do if your world turned upside down?

Every other Thursday I’ll be presenting the next chapter in my serialized novella, The Sky Below. You can read the first chapter of the story here or you can download the up-to-date novella from the Internet Archive in a variety of tablet and eReader friendly formats.

Full Novella (Chapters 1-2) [MOBI, EPUB, PDF]

Chapter 1 [PDF]

Chapter 2 [PDF]

Comments and questions are always welcome. Enjoy!

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CHAPTER TWO

Eddie fought the impulse to scramble for the edge of the dugout. Against all logic his mind was telling him that he would fall just like Alfonso if he went over that edge. The weightlessness had passed and gravity had reasserted itself, but in the wrong direction. This had to be some kind of sick dream. Maybe the last pitch hadn’t sailed by him after all.

Yeah, that was it. He’d been hit in the skull and this was just a concussion induced nightmare. Eddie shook his head wildly, trying to shake reality back into something sensible.

But the pain in his shoulder was real; it felt like he’d come down with his full weight. He swung his left arm across his body and rolled onto his belly. Something about burying his face in the cement ceiling made this all a little less surreal. Sub-consciously he knew the bench was somewhere above his head, but he was trying not to think about it. The open air over the edge taunted him just a few inches away, and against the protests of his body he nudged himself forward.

The wind nearly blew the cap off Eddie’s head as he inched his nose over the side. The ceiling was on a slight incline toward the back wall, so he was able to still any immediate thoughts of falling. He looked down cautiously, then snapped his head back violently at what he saw. The sky was maddeningly blue, the clouds moving perceptively but leisurely despite the gusting inside the stadium. It looked like any one of dozens of lazy summer afternoons spent lying on his back looking up; except now he was on his belly looking down.

Eddie eased backward, breathing out slowly as he moved. He rested his chin on his hands and looked across the stadium. The stands were mostly empty, though a few people were swinging precariously from railings or clinging to the backs of their seats. Most fell after a few seconds, falling quietly below his line of sight. A few were followed by a sickening thump, the sound of their bodies hitting the upper decks or the pavilion shell.

He watched helplessly as a mother reached out for her two children. The daughter had managed to weave herself through the bars at the edge of the field, but the son was too far away. In his right hand he wore a baseball glove and was trying to grip tightly to a chair, but Eddie could see his hand was slipping. He wanted to shout, to tell the kid to ditch the glove and get a better grip, but it was too late.

The glove slipped, and the kid’s right arm hung uselessly at his side. The effort of trying to hold himself up had probably exhausted him. He dangled loosely for another few seconds before his left hand gave out. The mother tried to reach for him but he was already gone. She turned to look across the field and for a brief instant her eyes met Eddie’s. Then, without a sound, she let go of the chair and dropped out of view.

Movement to his right drew Eddie’s attention, and he turned to see a young man trying to shove his way past a middle-aged man and his wife. The older man was heavy, but strong, and was not about to yield an inch of ground. Eddie closed his eyes, and when he heard the thump a few seconds later he didn’t look to see who’d won.

He buried his head in his hands and cried silently, not wanting to see any more.

“Eddie?” He felt a warm hand against his right calf. He bent his knees and rolled back onto his side. The speaker put a strong arm around his back and helped him toward the wall. The rear of the dugout was a mess, a pile of bats and helmets and other random bits of detritus.

Eddie opened his eyes to see his teammate, Manny, who up till this point hadn’t said a word to him in weeks. ‘Guess there’s no reason to worry about my slump rubbing off anymore,’ he thought.

“Are you alright?” Manny asked.

“I’m fine. I just hit my shoulder. You okay?”

Manny nodded, “Banged my shoulder pretty good too.”

The rest of the lineup were scattered against the back wall. Some hung their feet over the side, while others crouched down, pressing as close to the back wall as possible. The whole scene was playing out before them in panoramic view, but nobody wanted to look at it for very long, choosing instead to huddle together in groups of two or three.

Eddie looked over at Franklin, who was puking his guts out in the far corner. He’d been next at bat and would have been standing in the on deck circle if he hadn’t had to re-lace his shoes. Their coach had been standing at the end of the steps, leaning against the pads on the railing and making his wishes known to the base coaches. Eddie hadn’t seen him fall, but he didn’t see him here either. It was ridiculous the difference a couple of steps made.

“This isn’t some x-man thing, right?” Manny said, breaking the silence.

“Excuse me?” Eddie said.

“Like the end of that one movie. That magnetic dude picked up RFK stadium and dropped it next to the White House.”

“What’d he do that for?” Eddie asked, relieved for any kind of distraction.

Manny shook his head. “I’m not sure. I mean it’s impressive like, flying through the middle of DC carrying a big building. But then he just drops it to keep people out who might spoil his plans. If you need a wall, why don’t you just make one out of metal?”

“I don’t know,” Eddie said, “I’ve never seen that movie.”

“You think we’re flying, Eddie?”

“I don’t know.”

‘God I hope so,’ he thought. At least if some telepathic force was picking them up, it could put them down again.

His thoughts were broken by the sound of wrenching metal from somewhere below. He’d been able to tune out the individual screams, but the collective wail beneath his feet was impossible to ignore. He scooted up from his crouch and looked over the edge again.

Below, the solar pavilion had torn itself away from its moorings and was curving outward like a long ribbon. All along its ridged surface people clung desperately, trying to climb as the metal tore away faster and faster. One would lose their grip, and knock down the three below them. They were all fighting a losing battle.

The noise went on for countless minutes, the tear growing longer, twisting in the wind and bucking savagely. The stadium below the dugout shook and for a moment Eddie was afraid their tiny perch would be pulled down as well.

But then, just as quickly as the noise had begun, it stopped.

* * *

Kammie looked up at her feet and wondered where the hell she had put her shoes. The rest of her was covered in boxes, and she felt thin metal cutting dully into her back and shoulders. Her head rested on top of something that felt like thick cork board that cracked as she turned her head.

At first she thought she had lost her balance and knocked over one of the shelves. She groaned at the thought of all the noise she must have made. There was no way she was going to get this mess cleaned up before one of her supervisors found her.

But as her memory returned her brain offered up another suggestion; one neither of them was too happy about. She remembered floating for the briefest of moments, and could recall her feet leaving the floor. What she couldn’t remember was if she’d fallen back down again.

Suddenly Kammie was more thankful for the darkness than she had ever been in all those solitude seeking moments. Her back and shoulders were telling her that what she was laying on felt a lot more like the ceiling frame than the tile floor.

‘Alright,’ she thought, ‘the ceiling’s collapsed. The building’s only a few years old but maybe there were some material flaws.’

She slid one of the tiles aside with her hand and probed for the floor below, but instead felt textured metal. She wasn’t certain, but it felt like the plating above the ceiling. If the ceiling had fallen on her, then the plating would be sitting on top, or still be hanging from the ceiling.

So what was hanging above her?

Her senses were feeding her information in small pieces, knowing that she needed time to comprehend the full reality of the situation. She pushed down, the tiles bending under her weight until they met the plating. She put her arms behind her and slid backward, moving her legs down carefully from where they’d been elevated. The frame had collapsed to the plating around her head and upper back, but the rest was still about a foot and half in the air.

Kammie pulled her knees up under her chin and breathed in slowly. She polled her hearing for information next, trying to recall if there had been any kind of rumbling or shaking that might account for this upside down closet. Northeast Ohio had been getting some minor earthquakes lately, supposedly due to fracking in Pennsylvania, but the worst of that hadn’t registered above a 4 or a 5 on the Richter scale.

The floor, or ceiling, below her was perfectly level. If the building had collapsed or even toppled over she’d be on some kind of an angle. But the room had been flipped 180 degrees.

It was the sound of someone yelling that broke her out of her thoughts. Unless she was dreaming, and that was a real possibility, this room wasn’t likely to be the only one that had gone topsy-turvy. She grunted as she pulled herself onto her feet, assuring herself that some of the cracks she was hearing were coming from the tiles and not just her knees. She brushed off some of the accumulated dust, and ran a hand along her back where the metal had been pressing in. She felt no obvious cuts, at least where she could reach, though she was bruised in a couple of places.

She took a tentative first step, and nearly fell back onto her hands as the frame caught her below the knee. Most of the tiles had fallen out of the frame, but a few clung on stubbornly. It was almost like walking through a foot of snow. Sometimes the material was packed enough that Kammie could stand and pull herself forward, only for her next step to sink her down again. After a few minutes of this, Kammie reluctantly determined that the best way through was to crawl underneath the frame on her hands and knees.

After another couple of minutes of crawling like this, poking her head up every couple of feet to make sure she was still heading toward the door, Kammie reached the far wall. The handle of the door was a little above eye level. She reached up and pulled down, but the handle wouldn’t move. Panic seeped in for a few fleeting seconds as Kammie thought she might be trapped in this room.

She pushed up on the handle and the door swung open.

Kammie crawled over the doorframe, the ridged metal pushing into her stomach. She hung half-way through for a couple of seconds before falling back below the tiles, like a fish diving below the surface of the water. She stood angrily, breaking through the tiles above her head and plastering her hair with dust and cobwebs. She cupped a hand to her mouth and shouted, “Anybody alive out there?”

“Over here!” a faint woman’s shout came from about fifty feet down the hall. “I’ve got someone hurt!”

Kammie crouched down below the surface of the tiles, crawling for about thirty feet before bumping up against a wall. The voice was coming from the direction of the visitors lounge, and the ceiling abruptly changed to smooth, thick plaster. Kammie surfaced and crawled up slowly, spreading herself wide to distribute her weight evenly. She moved forward a few feet at a time by alternately kicking with her feet and pulling with her shoulders, like someone crawling across a frozen lake.

The young woman was leaning against a pillar and pressing her sleeve against the forehead of a woman in her fifties. The older woman’s face was obscured so that Kammie didn’t recognize who it was until she was right in front of her.

Margaret Benson had been one of the nursing staff who had first interviewed her, and had been the one who gave Kammie that nick-name. Her full name was Kamyra, and for most of her life she’d been insistent that others pronounce it fully and correctly. But whenever Margaret had called her Kammie it had sounded warm and affectionate. When Kammie had tentatively called her Margie for the first time she’d been treated to a smile so wide it nearly made her giggle.

Margie’s breathing was shallow, and she’d lost consciousness. Kammie felt for a pulse, but it was thin and weak.

She looked up to the young woman who was fighting back tears. She was cradling Margaret in her lap, her one arm pressing down, and the other lightly stroking her cheek. Kammie had remembered seeing the young woman around the floor for the past couple of weeks, mostly in room 3, mostly arguing with the other members of the nursing staff. It never ceased to amaze her how hard and how fervently people fought to control uncontrollable things.

“Can you lift your arm?” Kammie asked, putting a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulder. She nodded, and Kammie tore the sleeve off her scrubs. Margaret was going to need antibiotics either way for the infection, and getting the bleeding contained had to be the priority.

“What’s your name?” Kammie said as she started to work.

“Grace. I was trying to call my sister before…”

Kammie nodded, “I know. I’m not sure what to call it either.”

Grace shook her head, “No, it’s not that. My mother’s sick.”

Kammie tied off the dressing. The bleeding was starting to slow down, and Margie’s breathing seemed a little better, but Kammie was still concerned. She looked up to see that Grace had started to cry.

“I just wanted her to hear Bethany’s voice one last time,” Grace said.

Kammie put an arm around Grace’s shoulder, and the young woman buried her head in her chest.

——————————-

All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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