Excerpt from Promises, Promises

What follows is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Promises, Promises. I started this at least a couple of years ago. I haven’t made a lot of progress. Part of the problem is that I write very slowly, so much so that I’ve focussed on (thus far, unpublished) short stories so that I have something tangible and complete to show for my time.

I keep coming back to this novel, though, in part because I love the characters that inhabit this world. Mind you, given that the novel is of the horror genre, some of these characters will have endings that are a bit less than happy. The interesting thing about coming back to this work repeatedly is that, in the interim, you grow as a writer, and view your earlier prose with completely different eyes.

Please note that I may never finish this, and if I do, I reserve the right to completely retcon this opening scene. Having said all of that, I hope you enjoy it.

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Promises, Promises

by Selim Ulug

Copyright 2019 by Selim Ulug. All rights reserved. 

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Jennifer Fern closed her messaging app and put away her phone. It didn’t help. The words felt burned into her retina.

“Hey Jenny, sorry to send this by txt but don’t really want a scene. I don’t think it’s working out. We should probably stop seeing each other. Besides, I’ve met someone and don’t want to see her behind your back so… yeah. It’s for the best. No hard feelings?”

Blinking furiously, as if that would help her unsee what she had seen, she took deep breaths and scanned the pub. It was late afternoon, but early for the supper and after work crowd. There were a couple of people seated at the L-shaped bar with its gleaming, dark mahogany wood. Behind the bar, backing onto the flagstone wall, were open mahogany cupboards filled with assorted bottles of liquor. Throughout the pub, the ceiling was covered with square sections of wood paneling. The bar area, with its high chairs and small tables, was separated from the dining area by a long booth backed by a glass partition. A smattering of people were seated here. Some seemed to be tourists, resting their feet after a day of sight-seeing, judging by the backpacks they’d set to rest on the floor. In the dining area, Jenny noted, where only a couple of tables were currently occupied, Alyssa was leading a couple of men from the host station to one of her tables.

Grabbing a couple of menus, Jenny strode towards them. Fortunately, she was used to putting on her game face regardless of how her day was going. Perhaps, she contemplated, that was why actors made good wait staff.

“Hi, I’m Jenny,” she said, smiling as she wiped the table. “Something to drink?”

“Absolutely,” said one of them. “We’re celebrating.”

“Awesome,” said Jenny. “What’s the occasion? Birthday?”

“Better than that,” said the other man. “We’ve each just purchased our first property.”

“Congratulations! So that sounds to me like a pitcher’s worth of celebrating. Harp, maybe?”

“That’d be perfect, thanks.”

“I’ll get that for you then come back for your food order.”

Noting that Dar followed her with his eyes, Chris smiled and said, “She’s pretty.”

Turning back to Chris, Dar said, “Sure, if you happen to like women that are good-looking and pleasant with a nice smile.”

There was a pause during which Chris and Dar looked at each other, past each other, in silence. Finally, Dar said, “You look as stunned as I feel.”

Laughing, Chris said, “I know, right? I kept looking for something wrong with it. The location, the units, the price, they were almost too good to be true.”

“We were lucky,” said Dar. “It won’t take long before they’re snatched up.”
Jenny returned with a pitcher and two glasses. Dar ordered a curry, Chris a lamb stew.

Chris wasn’t able to eat much of his meal. This was surprising as he was noted for having a big appetite. However, the excitement of the day made it hard to think about food. Beer, on the other hand, was a completely different story.

Dar seemed to have not much more of an appetite, and after taking a few bites of their meals, they both ended up sipping their beers in silence, their attention wandering to the hockey game on the pub’s screens. It was near the end of the first period, and the Senators were already losing to the Leafs 2 to 1. The pub was filling in, the noise level rising considerably.

Jenny cleared away their plates, and they both assured her the dishes had been fine. “In fact,” said Dar, “I told my meal, it’s not you, it’s me.” Jenny laughed and offered coffee and dessert. They declined.

“So,” said Chris, “October first is coming up quickly. “We’ll have to plan this out.”

“I was thinking about that,” said Dar. “With the condo settled, I expect I can head back to Kingston tomorrow. We’ll book a truck for the first. By ‘we’, of course, I mean ‘you’.”

“Thanks,” said Chris. “I’m honoured by the… honour.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Dar. “You bring it down to Kingston, then we load it up, move me into the new place, then pick up your things. Get you out of Kanata and into a proper, civilized setting.”

“Hey,” Chris said. “Lot’s of highly cultured people live in Kanata.” Silence for a time, then he asked, “Will you miss Kingston?”

“For sure,” said Dar. “But Kingston is too small a place not to run into mutual friends, and I’m the bad guy. You should see the looks I get. I’d rather get a fresh start.”

“What about your parents?” said Chris. “Have they mellowed at all?”

Dar shook his head. “Not really. I’ve shamed the family. It was no way for a good Egyptian to behave, and so on and so forth.”

“You’ve been to Egypt just the once, haven’t you?”

“That logic escapes them,” said Dar. “Even though I was born here, they’re Egyptian so I’m Egyptian.”

“I’m really sorry,” Chris said. “You know, really. To have things turn chilly with your family at a time like this must make it so much harder.”

“Yes, well, thank goodness I can heap abuse upon you and get it out of my system,” Dar said.

Chris grinned and raised his glass. Dar did likewise and they clinked their glasses. “To abuse,” Chris said.

“To abuse,” Dar repeated. “May it be harsh and rain down often.”

After taking a couple of swallows, Chris raised his glass again and said, “Well, you’ll have a new job in a new city, living in a new condo. To fresh starts.”

“To fresh starts,” Dar agreed.

Those guys toast each other a lot, Jenny observed. It’s kind of sweet how excited they are. Mind you, here’s me sharing a small apartment with Laurie, who wishes I’d move out. Okay, so I guess I’d be excited too.

Carrying a tray laden with several mugs of beer, Jenny was about to pass by their table when…

She stopped dead in her tracks. She wasn’t in the restaurant any more. Instead she was in a large, dark area with a smudge of light a few feet in front of her. Unlike the bustle in the pub, this place, wherever it was, was deadly silent.

“Hello?” she called, tentatively.

Within the light, dust motes danced about, until they began to coalesce, forming… what? It was formless, and yet it wasn’t. Then Jenny felt goose bumps form on her arms and the hair rise on the back of her neck. Her stomach began to churn so that she felt about to vomit. The amorphous cloud of dust became a face, as large as she was tall, with black eyes and yawning maw displaying sharp, many-rowed teeth. The mouth opened even further and the face began to close the distance between them.

That was when Jenny screamed. She screamed loud and long. She was back in the pub and still she screamed, all thoughts of the tray forgotten. Until she heard the sound of glass breaking, the feel of the liquid soaking into her leggings, and someone yelping in surprise. It was one of the two men, the ones celebrating.

Chris was stunned as he witnessed their server first freeze, then scream, and then dump the contents of her tray onto the floor. What missed the floor landed upon poor Dar, who was drenched in beer.

Wiping his face, Dar looked from the server to Chris. “And an auspicious start it is,” he said.

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Assembling a Good Superhero Movie

This post includes major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War

It had no business being a good movie. And yet it was. How did that happen?

I’m talking, of course, about Avengers: Infinity War. My rule of thumb is that, all things being equal, the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to the number of major characters. How many were in this movie? I won’t even try to count.

So why does it work? The key is to listen to the directors’ commentary. In other franchises (let’s leave them anonymous, shall we?), what excites the director is the special effects.

This scene was shot against a green screen / CGI. So was this. And this. Oh, that scene? It was filmed on set. No biggie. But THIS scene, that was green screen / CGI. And so on.

Not surprisingly, while that (anonymous) movie has whiz-bang action and CGI, it isn’t very good. Story and character were pretty much completely overlooked.

In the commentary for Infinity War, what the Russo brothers comment on is story and character. And oddly enough, when the emphasis is on those two things, the end result is pretty good. This is the thing about Infinity War. While I’d argue it wasn’t a great movie, there was greatness in managing to bring all those characters together in a coherent, character-driven story that gave many of the characters interesting development arcs.

The most obvious arc is Thor’s, who picks himself up from his defeat at the hands of Thanos and, by the time he arrives on Earth, has become the king he was meant to be. Groot has a small but satisfying arc in which, after witnessing the sacrifices made by Thor, grows out of his annoying teenage phase and becomes instrumental to Thor’s evolution.

The humour, and there’s plenty of it, is character-based. Peter Parker, with his love of “old” sci-fi movies. Poor clueless Drax who thinks that by being still he becomes invisible. The clash of egos between Tony Stark and Stephen Strange. Then, of course, there’s the culmination of ten years of the MCU, the moment when Rocket meets the Winter Soldier and says, “I’m going to get that arm.”

There are many other precious moments. Pretty much all the scenes with Vision and Wanda, with their new (and apparently, doomed) affection for each other. The reverence with which Peter holds Tony Stark. The moment when Steve Rogers and Thor compare haircuts and beards in the midst of a battle for the universe. When Bruce Banner and Natasha are reunited, scarcely a word is spoken. There’s no need, because their faces say it all.

In the end, it’s the humanity in Infinity War that makes it good, and the reason why we so look forward to End Game.


The Perils of the Second Person

In which a dialogue ensues between author and protagonist. When the author lets slip that the protagonist will die, things go from bad to worse.


You walk into the pub, dimly lit, eighties music playing a little louder than you like.

Yes, I’m walking into a pub. Well done. Wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t said. 

After casting glances left and right, the corners of your mouth turn into a frown. She isn’t here.

What? I didn’t come here to meet anyone. Tonight’s the CFL Eastern Final. 

BE QUIET!

Now where was I? Oh yes. She isn’t here, but it’s early, so you take a seat at the bar where you can keep an eye on the entrance.

More like, so I can keep an eye on the TV. Will you just get out of my head for five minutes? Who the hell are you anyway?

Okay, look. Perhaps we need to establish some boundaries. I’m the author. You’re the protagonist. I tell the story, you act it out. It’s not very complicated.

You’re the… You know, for a while I thought I was crazy because I keep hearing this voice in my head. But you’re the crazy one. I wonder what it means when there’s a voice in your head, but the voice is crazy. 

(Counts down from five and takes a deep breath) You order a Sleeman’s and take a sip.

Actually, no. I’m going to order a Guinness tonight, thank you very much. 

“Pint of Guinness,” you say.

What? No. I said Sleeman’s. You were supposed to order Sleeman’s!

Tonight I feel like Guinness. 

Listen. I’ve carefully plotted out this story, in which the reader gradually comes to understand you as we peel away your defences, layer by layer, until, tragically…

Did you say tragically? 

What? No. Of course not. No spoilers. You have to act out each part as if you’ve no foreknowledge of what’s to come.

So how tragic are we talking about? Are the Redblacks going to lose? 

Um, no. Well, yes. But it’s worse than that.

(Sighs) Okay. The love of your life, the woman of your dreams, arrives in the arms of another man.

This woman you talked about that I’ve never seen before? That woman? 

Yes, dammit, that one. And you have seen her, but it was before this story so you don’t remember. Just like you don’t remember your own name, because I haven’t introduced it yet. Look, just run with it all, okay? Can you do that?

So you think I don’t know that my name is Ethan Black?

(Growls)

I’d like to explore this thing about tragedy some more. So this woman comes in with a man. What’s so tragic? 

Well, it’s more what happens next that’s really tragic.

Which is? 

Oh fine! You march to their table where they’ve already ordered a bottle of wine. You smash the bottle on the mans head, then, with the broken top of the bottle, slit your throat. Happy now?

What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?

I was just thinking. You know what I was thinking?

What?

That I’m going to leave this pub and your crummy story. 

No! You can’t do that. I’m the author. You’re the…

Yes, I know. I’m just the lowly protagonist. Bye. 

You get up, put on your coat, and leave the pub, your glass unfinished on the bar. Moments later, all the patrons turn at the sound of screeching brakes and scream as your broken body is tossed upon the pub window. The screams continue as your corpse slides to the ground, leaving streaks of red in in its wake.

Like I said. Tragic.

(With a satisfied smile, takes story and files it away. Nothing worse than a lippy protagonist.)

Celebrity Encounters

Does it seem to you that fan conventions are becoming ubiquitous? Just about every major city hosts them these days. Although I don’t go every single year, I still find them irresistible. Especially when they host celebrities I’m particularly fond of.

cc2018You can meet a celebrity in one or both of two ways: an autograph signing session or a photo-op. Having a photo with yourself and THAT person can be awesome. Just bear in mind that the encounter will last at best a dozen seconds. Then “poof” it’s over. Another thing is, at least at the cons I’ve been to, they only take one photo. So if you have your eyes closed, well, that’s just unfortunate.

If you want to spend a bit more time with your idol, an autograph session is the way to go. I’ve found that you can often count on getting thirty seconds or so to chit-chat, then it’s on to the next person. But that’s not cast in concrete. It depends on the duration of the session and the length of the line. You might still end up getting just a few seconds. Be mentally prepared.

If you haven’t been to a con before, note that all of this costs money. In some cases quite a bit of money. Prices for photo-ops are typically posted ahead of time. I don’t recall if autograph prices are posted ahead of time or not, and it may depend on who’s hosting and where.

When it comes to physical contact, let the celebrity take the lead. Don’t initiate a handshake or hug or any other form of contact. If they want to shake your hand, they’ll offer it to you.  If you do shake hands, do so lightly. Don’t grip tightly. Which rhymes! Makes it easy to remember.

So, let’s say you have half a minute to talk to the person you’ve waited in line an hour to meet. What do you say? It’s probably not the best idea to blurt out, “I’m your biggest fan,” or something of that ilk. Can you imagine hundreds of people telling you that over a weekend? What saved me the first couple of times was that may name isn’t common in North America, and the conversation would revolve around that. Once or twice, the celebrity and I have smiled awkwardly at each other and that was about it. After that happened, I decided to go in prepared.

What I’ve found that works fairly well is exploring their side projects and discussing these. If someone is the star of a major TV show, but they’ve done some small, independent films, check these out and discuss. Or perhaps you’ve found out they support a particular charity. Or maybe they’ve been on stage.

You have to decide what works for you, but I think its best to go prepared to discuss something other than the obvious. Or to ask about trivia from a particular episode. Or, if the show has been canceled, asking if they would return to the role someday. (Hello, Firefly fans!)

Of course, there’s a lot more to cons than the celebrities. You’ll often find row upon row of booths with merchandise, books, you name it. There are comic book artists, authors, and you may find the odd Dalek or Storm Trooper doing the rounds. And of course, attendee cosplay is an attraction in and of itself.

If you haven’t been, do check them out. They’re great fun. You’ll find people of all ages and backgrounds there. People who just want to geek out with their friends for a couple of days. What more could you ask for?

 

What’s Old has become New

During the 80’s, I never gave A-ha much thought. To me, they were YASB (Yet Another Synth Band), notable mostly for their the groundbreaking music video, “Take On Me”.

Then I saw Deadpool 2 and heard an arresting, acoustic version of “Take On Me”, and I was lost. Not only was this version of the song mesmerizing in its own right, it fit the movie perfectly.

aha-cover-900x900px

In short order, I found that the song was one of a set of re-worked songs on A-ha’s recent album, MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice. I haven’t finished the album yet, but I’m already in love, particularly with the lovely acoustic version of “The Sun Always Shines on TV.”

What’s old has become new.

This is encouraging because, I don’t know about you, but I find it increasingly hard to find music that excites me. Odd, considering how many choices there are out there. Music stream services have, how many songs? Lots. Lots and lots. But finding music that appeals to you can still be a challenge.

Movie soundtracks are becoming a great way to discover music. There are some great songs on the Lost in Translation soundtrack, for example. And don’t get me started about the Lord of the Rings soundtracks. For me, it was love at first sight. Trivia note: Howard Shore, the LotR composer, was once part of Lighthouse, a popular Canadian band in the 70’s, which I was also very fond of.

Meanwhile, I’m planning to sit back and give A-ha’s unplugged album a few listens.

The Continuity Conundrum

Suppose you’re a writer and you want to write for a rich, established universe. Think Doctor Who, Star Trek, or Star Wars, for example. The question becomes, how do you write something that is original but consistent with all of that backstory?

Let’s stick with Doctor Who for now. The show started over 50 years ago, and although there was that hiatus between 1989 and 2005, that’s still a lot of content. But wait, that’s not all! You also get many books, graphic novels and audio dramas (yay Big Finish!). It’s enough to make your head explode. Unless you’re a Time Lord.

So what’s a poor, human, head-about-to-explode writer to do? Well, we can be grateful that there are websites like http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Doctor_Who_Wiki. Here you’ll find just about every fact about Doctor Who that exists. If you search for the Third Doctor, for example, you’ll learn about all his adventures in chronological order across all media. As a resource, this site is invaluable. And yet, there’s still a limit to what you can absorb, and there may be details omitted within a given adventure that contradict something in your writing.

I’m afraid this is one of those posts where I have no brilliant solutions. If you actually owned the property, rather than, say, the BBC owning Doctor Who or CBS owning Star Trek, or Disney owning Star Wars, then you could consider crowdsourcing the story. Put the whole thing online, then act on the feedback you get to make the story better. Andy Weir famously did this with his novel, The Martian, with contributors pointing out sciency things that could use some tightening.

If you’re writing fanfiction, then you can do this by posting the story on fanfiction.net, for example. I posted a very short and hopefully humorous Lord of the Rings story there. Once. It was inspired by a review of one of the Hobbit movies that pointed out that the eagles are a kind of deus ex machina in Tolkien’s writing. As multiple readers pointed out, that premise was fully explored in a YouTube video in which our heroes bypass the whole adventure by simply flying with the ring directly to Mount Doom. Rats. That episode cured me of any further desire to write LotR stories. You’ve really got to know your stuff, especially for that fandom.

Posting content online yourself doesn’t really work if you’re writing commercially for someone’s existing intellectual property. As with most things, I suppose you can only do as much research as you can (and as your deadline permits) and do your best.

PS Have I mentioned that Landbound has been released by Big Finish? Oh.

Landbound Available Now

DMzrImYX0AAWWsn.jpg-largeLandbound, the Doctor Who short story that I wrote, is now available as a Doctor Who Short Trip from Big Finish. The audio drama is free, but you need to login or create an account with Big Finish.

I can’t call it “my” story anymore, as the end result represents a collaboration with Big Finish. To be honest, the final product blows me away. Nicholas Briggs’ narration is exquisite and at times emotionally gut-wrenching. The sound effects take you right there, to the Whitby coast, to the Jolly Sailor pub, and to the TARDIS itself. Then there’s the brilliant music which adds so much to the presentation.

As for my written story, I gave it everything I had to make it the best that I could. Then, with gentle nudges from editor Ian Atkins, we made it better still.

I hope you get a chance to check it out. Let me know what you thought.

Oh yes, and Happy New Year to all!