Pirate Ink & Short Stories

So, here it is 2 AM and I’m an insomniatic bird again.  It’s not so bad this time, since apparently there’s someone to keep me company online.  However, since I had this idea, I thought I might as well enact it. Seeing as the Sandman isn’t coming by to see me anytime soon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my list of projects lately.  Mostly about how I have a lot of unfinished projects that I would like to spend time on–and, ultimately, finish.  I really don’t like abandoning stories. Each one is a little life inside me that wants attention, wants to grow, wants to become something and mean something to someone.

However, the more time I spend getting to know myself as a writer, the more times I relearn this lesson:

–I do not (as yet) know how to craft an effective short story plot.  But more importantly, I am not interested enough in reading tons of short fiction to take the time to learn how to do it right. I am however, greatly interested in novellas and novels.  I love series. I love spending lots of time with a particular set of characters.  I love plots, subplots, and stories that  grow organically over time.–

In 2007 I took a short story class and learned this about myself.  In 2011 when I began writing regularly again, I picked up both my WIP novel but also started dabbling in short stories to see if this fact had changed.  I really do like how short stories can be completed much more quickly than novellas and novels, and that was something I needed.  I needed to feel I could still accomplish things I set out to do.  However, the story-genesis process is so draining, the world and characters just can’t get themselves rich enough yet contained enough to shape a working short story plot, not like my longer fiction which seems to construct itself much more naturally.

However, dabbling in short fiction in 2011-2012 has taught me a few very useful things:

  1. How to routinely submit my fiction and what’s expected of me.
  2. More about revision.
  3. Rejections aren’t personal.  They’re just part of the process.
  4. To take pleasure in my stories being read and enjoyed, even if they’re ultimately rejected for publication.
  5. Not all editors are created equal, and some are much nicer than others.
  6. I really do love writing longer works than shorter ones.
  7. We can much more easily create the types of works we like to read.

So, today I am looking over my projects and making an important decision.  2013 will be full of novellas and novels.  I have learned what I need to learn at this point from short fiction.  Right now, I want to concentrate on learning more from and about my novel writing.

Therefore, I am going to release this (very) rough (and incomplete) draft into the wild.  I liked the concept: tattoo artist on a cruise spaceship saves a pirate-princess runaway by using her craft.  But I couldn’t get the execution right at all, not in my outline, not in the draft.  It kept fizzling and fizzling.  I could probably make it work as something longer, but it just was not fitting itself into a short story space.  Not to mention that I was trying to throw a draft together without knowing the characters enough, the world enough, and so on.

So this is a chance to take a peek into my process. Hello, rough draft. May you live to embarrass me all the rest of my days.

Without further ado, Merry Christmas?

= = =

Pirate Ink by L.A. Christensen, originally started for the magazine The First Line, May 2012 deadline.  Deadline: missed.

Rachel’s first trip to England didn’t go as planned.  Fortunately or unfortunately, the day everything went awry started like any other day: with breakfast. Only the zero gravity part was different. After a week in space, she still hadn’t got used to it. No matter how carefully she pulled back the adhesive wrapper off her hot-tray, anything that could float or fly usually took off like a rocket.

Today was no exception. Rachel harrumphed then blearily set to rescuing her pancakes before they catapulted too far away from her.  She brought them back to hover above her lap while she scraped up some jam and one-by-one cemented them to the tray.  “Ah-ha,” she muttered when she’d finished, as if the food were at fault.  Of course, if she were being honest with herself, it had been entirely her fault for repeatedly forgetting to strap the tray to her lap.  At least she’d remembered to harness herself to the wall before applying physics—or whatever it was she used to open her food. She muttered again and set to cutting and spearing her breakfast.  At least her space-nausea had worn off. Her newly-awoken appetite had her stomach growling.

“Some cruise,” she grumbled, for perhaps the hundredth time. Like all the other ninety-nine times, the complaint did little to reassure her.  Boarding this spaceship had been a mistake, one she could not run from. She was stuck until they got to Earth, like it or not.

Once when she was nineteen, she’d gone on an ocean cruise.  It’d been an impulsive move to get away from a bad boss who drank hard, swore harder, and always found a reason to dock her measly pay.  The ocean liner had made up for all of that, though.  Late night parties, shows, and all the food she could eat—she didn’t even get seasick. Gorgeous views across the rippling water. She could paint or snorkel all she wanted, lose herself in liquid sunsets and vibrant colors, and pick up impromptu clients.

This cruise, however, was nothing like that.  The ship jumped the greatest distances, like a rock skipping across the surface tension of water, just like any other ship. Then it sailed leisurely to orbit and sling-shot around planets—most of which were gas giants that were pretty, true, but impossible to visit. So far they’d only made one tour-stop, and that was to refuel on a station that was too utilitarian to be used by tourists. Onboard, there were no shows but the ones outside her window.  The only entertainers were the tour-guides who doubled as scientists—you could tell by the enthusiastic, if obscurely pedantic way they explained the minutia of each vista–and the all-you-could-eat meals were pre-cooked and came shrink-wrapped.

Not to mention, she hadn’t been able to make a single universal credit since debarking.  Not that she’d figured out how to use her equipment in null G yet.

Once again, choosing a space cruise-line rather than a shorter route via passenger ship had been an impulsive move, a trait in herself she was beginning to regret.  Attending the London Tattoo Convention had been a longtime dream of hers, but there were more direct ways of getting there.  She thought this cruise would be like the last. But unlike the ocean which she’d taken to immediately, there was nothing for her out in space but streaking stars and boredom.

And with boredom came unwanted thoughts and memories. Hardly an escape.

She pushed the bubbling regrets and memories down again and forced her attention to her breakfast. Eat now, stew later, she joked to herself with a wry slide of a smile.

She’d finished her pancakes and was well into her bacon and eggs when everything went dark.

For a moment, she couldn’t see anything but the Gaussian blurred starlit streaks through her window. Her heart thudded loudly in her ears with a dizzying blood-rush to her head unhampered by gravity. Then, bars of red light appeared overhead, casting strange, bleeding shadows about her room, and a voice crackled eerily by her ear. At first, she couldn’t understand what he was saying, it was too strange. Then the voice repeated his message, “All passengers, this is your captain speaking. Please follow the red arrows and report to [the seating area] then buckle in as quickly as possible. This is not a drill.”

She froze, not quite believing her ears. Though her mind hung suspended in confusion, her body believed; it clamped up then shivered, reacting to the creepiness of the blood-washed dark, the crackling voice, and—yes, was that a note of fear in his tone? Like an aftertaste, she felt the reality of the captain’s dread shift through her senses.

An emergency. Perhaps a fatal one. On a cruise ship?

Rachel was glad she’d forgotten to strap her tray to her lap, it was hard enough getting her shaking fingers to unbuckle the straps of her harness. When she was freed, she worked her way hand-over-hand down past her window.  Another ship was coming towards them—fast. Was this the emergency? She didn’t recognize the insignia painted in blazing colors along its side, but it reminded her of the gaudy, cheap tats she’d seen some men wear that made them look almost comical, beefy arms and all.  She scowled at it as she climbed down the wall, surprised at how quickly her hands found the protrusions meant to be handholds.

At last she arrived where she’d tied down her baggage and immediately hooked a leg around one as she bent to untie the other: her [tattoo case]. Livelihood first, she decided, her fingers stumbling over the knot. It took too long. Her pulse thudded too heavily in her ears and her fingers trembled too much to move quickly. By the time she’d got it free and its cold metal slung over her back, the Captain’s voice was crackling over the intercom again, this time with audible strain, “All passengers, please report to [the seating area] now. We need to [make the jump].”

She left her case of clothes behind. Kicking off the wall like she was a swimmer, she aimed for her closed door.  But this was space—air, not water.  She was careening too fast.  If she hit the door she would just bounce off it. No waves would be there to anchor her against her target.  At the last second, she reached out to hook her hand around the hatch’s handle and held on as tight as she could. As predicted, she landed against the hatch with a solid thump and ricocheted off it again.

Rachel cursed and held on tight then swung her legs around to prop against the wall so she could leverage herself enough to open the hatch.

She’d wasted too much time going for her tat equipment.  There was only a trickle of people streaming through the corridor like fish swimming down a river, propelling themselves along with much more grace than she’d ever manage. A few carried baggage with them, but most prudently had their hands free.

Rachel pulled herself around the door then raced off, one-handed, along the wall, following the streaking red arrows.

Ahead, an old woman’s white hair appeared through a doorway. “What’s that?” the old woman croaked. Her eyes were heavy-lidded as if she’d been napping, and she looked blearily about.  Her wrinkles etched her face into a scowl. “What’s going on? I thought this ship was safe.”

A dark-haired young man, sliding over the floor slowed then anchored himself by the old woman. “Come on,” he said, cajolingly. “The crew needs us to be secure for [a jump]. We’ll be safe soon.”  He offered her his hand. When she took it, he pulled her out of her room as if she were as light as a balloon.

I’ll never get used to this, Rachel thought, as she adjusted her path to sail over them.  It was all too ludicrous.

The hallway curved around, and by the time she rounded the curve and slipped through the next hatchway, the majority of the other passengers had slipped through the hatch at the corridor’s end into the [seating area].  She could hear the rumbling hubbub of their anxious voices.

Then a siren screeched by her ear and she heard nothing but its high-pitched wailing. For a moment she was stunned, dazed, and without thinking she let go of the wall to clamp a hand over her ear and swear.  Two white lights flickered ahead.

Then the captain’s harried voice came over the intercom, “We’ve been boarded. Please remain calm and stay where you are. Sealing all hatchways, and sending out security.”

Abruptly she realized what the blinking lights meant, one on either side of the door. But by the time she’d grabbed the wall and thrust herself forward, it was too late: the hatchway [to the ___ area] slid shut with a gust of air then locked itself tight. A deep, metallic thud reverberated through her ringing ears.

Rachel stared at it uncomprehendingly. A sick feeling wormed through her belly.

Floating somewhere beneath her, the old lady swore, released the young man’s hand and propelled herself to the hatchway to slap at it with her fists. “Let us in! Open this door right now!”

Muffled voices answered her from within, but Rachel couldn’t tell what they said.

“Someone—help!” A girl’s voice rung out behind her, half-strangled by a grunt.

Without thinking, Rachel dropped her tat case and spun around, pushing herself towards the girl who was struggling to keep the previous hatch open wide enough to slide through.  The girl had her shoulder and upper back lodged into the opening and seemed to be keeping it from crushing her by sheer force of will, judging by her size.

The dark-haired young man made it to the girl first.  He spun his feet swiftly around, took up a position to leverage himself against the wall, then grabbed the handle.  Rachel had a moment to wonder why the doors didn’t have sensors to tell if anything obstructed them as she pushed herself to the girl’s other side, then grabbed the girl’s arms and pulled her through.  Once again, Rachel overshot; her rescue attempt had them both spinning out into the center of the corridor, but at least the girl hadn’t been crushed.

Behind them, the hatch slid shut with a gasp of air then a clunk of metal.

Trapped. In a corridor. While they were being boarded.  She couldn’t believe it, not really.

She couldn’t really believe she’d managed to save a girl from being crushed, either.

“You alright?” Rachel asked, looking the girl over as they spun, just to make sure.

“Yeah.” The girl reached up and grabbed a handhold to stop them with barely a glance.  As she reached, her sleeve pulled back and revealed the tat starting at the back of her hand and curling around her wrist and disappearing beneath her sleeve: it was a black-and-grey-realistic baby dragon, wet-wired with diodes for eyes that twinkled like poison-green stars in the dim light.  Then a streak of light came shivering out of its nostrils, curling down toward her fingers: smoky bioluminescence like winking Earth lightning bugs, probably wet-wired as well to get the effect’s timing right.

Despite her disorientation, the creature’s beauty was a stab at Rachel’s heart, a triple-edged blade of envy, longing, and shame.

She stared at it, startled by the sensation she’d seen the tattoo somewhere before.  The stylized, India-ink-like lines especially at the dragonlet’s eyes reminded her of _____ ‘s work. Another Earth-based tattoo artist whose art she admired and whose entire portfolio she’d obsessed over since she was a kid, giving tats in her backyard to her friends.  She’d give her left eye to apprentice with him, but she’d probably have to settle for basking in his presence in London instead.  His waiting list was nearly impossible to get on, and his tours were booked years in advance.  If this girl had managed to get a tattoo by him, she was either incredibly rich, lucky, or well-connected—or all three.

Distracted, Rachel mumbled a ‘thanks’ of her own and anchored herself against the wall—or ceiling. (She’d lost track in her tumbling.) Then she gave the girl another look over—and blushed immediately at her mistake.

The girl wasn’t a girl, he was a boy.  He looked to be about fourteen or fifteen, though he was taller than she’d expected for a boy of his age.  He had the long, thin look of someone who’d either just come off a growth-spurt or else he’d been in space too long. __ He’d shaved his head into star patterns at his temples, and slicked the hair above into whorls like comet-trails. Definitely a space-freak, she thought, with a touch of awe where before she’d regarded the breed of space-dwellers with bafflement.

The boy gave her a nod then looked past her, his eyes widening by what he saw. Even in the strange, red glow cast by the emergency lights, he went noticeably pale.

Rachel turned, dreading the return to reality, and saw the same gaudy spaceship floating tranquilly not a hundred meters away.

“Who the hell are they and what do they want?” The old woman had ceased pounding at the hatch and had turned to release her fear at the windows and the ludicrous, lurking ship beyond.

“I think they’re pirates,” the dark-haired man said. He’d come to hover alongside the window.  “They don’t look like the ____ to me.”

A woman with streaks of grey in her red hair that floated about her like a halo peered out the other window. “Pirates have boarded us?”

“Why aren’t we running?” the old lady demanded, as if she held them personally responsible.

“We were—but the—that ship is faster, and this is a cruise ship, not a cruiser.  We couldn’t prepare for [a jump] fast enough to make it out of their range,” the tattooed boy said in a small voice.

“Pirates aren’t supposed to be here,” the old woman said. “[Company Name/PanGalactic Tours?lol] guaranteed this tour would be safe.”

“Let’s hope your insurance makes better guarantees,” the boy muttered, rolling his eyes.

= = =


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