Short Story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 3

This is the third and final installment of an old short story I’m re-posting, called “While We Were Yet Sinners.” Before you read this, you should also read Part 1 and Part 2. I’d also like to refer you back to an older post of mine about taking a known character and putting a fresh new spin on them as a writing exercise, because if you haven’t guessed already, that’s basically what I did in this story. Thanks for reading, and for those who celebrate, have a blessed and happy Easter.

Joha still remembered the details of how it had all happened the previous day. Now he sat in a cold, hostile jail cell, on the day that he had been told he would be killed. The cell was underground and since he could not see the sun, he was not totally sure what time of day it was now, nor what time of day his execution was to take place. As far as he knew, he could have almost a full day left, or he could have only mere minutes. He had no idea. As Joha sat against the hard, bare wall, he began to think about all that had happened recently. He had killed a man, but he accepted it now. Not to say that he meant to condone it as if it were not wrong, but he realized what he had done, and knew that there was no way to take it back. He felt deep remorse now, and though he knew that the pain of his death would be great, he understood that, if anyone should have died, it was himself, not the innocent man he had killed.

On that note, his thoughts turned back once again toward spiritual things, and what he had learned as a child. He knew that the LORD must certainly hate him now; he had stolen several times, and he had taken a life. He thought back through his past and realized that those were not the only bad things he had done. He lied whenever it suited him to do so, which was often. He had gotten drunk frequently, either from being under pressure or just for pleasure, and he had sometimes spent stolen money on the local prostitutes. He remembered the Commandment about regarding nothing higher than the LORD, and he certainly hadn’t obeyed that one. In fact, he seemed to have broken all of the LORD’s commands that he could remember.

Then he remembered Jesus. Jesus, the most controversial man in all of the Roman empire, possibly in all the world. The man who called himself the Messiah. The man who preached assurance of salvation, and forgiveness of sin. Joha thought about this. He knew he had committed many, many sins and was deserving of judgment. But he remembered from his studies of the Scriptures in his younger days that, though the LORD was righteous and just, He was also loving and merciful. What if this forgiveness thing was true? What if, even now, with only a very short time until his death, he could still be forgiven, and his soul could still be saved?

“You. Murderer,” he heard. He looked toward the cell’s entrance to see one of the Roman guards who had escorted him here in the first place. “Get up. It’s time.”

***

The guards were leading him to where he was to be crucified, a place called Golgotha. Joha had said nothing. Many thoughts were racing through his head, mostly the same ones that he had already been through a thousand times. He felt apprehension and sadness, of course, but he couldn’t ignore the thoughts he kept having about Jesus. He had never even met the man, but he couldn’t stop thinking about him.

What was it about Jesus that kept plaguing his mind? Was he truly the son of God?

As they were walking, the guards were talking to each other, making light conversation as anyone might do with their coworkers. “Another one to be crucified,” one of the guards remarked. “He’s the third we’ve had this week. What do you know?”

“It just shows you what a corrupt world we live in,” the other guard replied. “But at least this one isn’t as bad as the one we brought in yesterday.”

“Most certainly not. Jesus of Nazareth—claiming to be the son of God! What a ridiculous statement. I’ll be glad to see that lunatic crucified.”

At this mention, Joha became alert. “What did you say?” he asked frantically. “What about Jesus?”
The guards both eyed him strangely. It was very uncommon for prisoners to converse such with their guards. But perhaps they felt that the dying man deserved to be granted one last request; whatever the reason, they let him speak.

“You want to hear about Jesus?” the guard asked him. “We arrested him yesterday and brought him to be crucified!”

“But not before He was flogged and whipped,” the other guard added.

Joha was shocked. “What?” he asked. “Why? What did he do wrong?”

One of the guards looked at Joha as if he didn’t know anything. “You don’t know much about the man, do you? He was claiming to be the Son of God!”

“Well, yes, I know that!” Joha continued. “But he was healing people, and doing miracles, and forgiving sins! Those aren’t worthy of death, are they?”

“Look,” the guard said tersely. “I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. It’s your own people who want Him dead—I guess He wasn’t quite the king they were hoping for. I couldn’t care less about the man—I just do what I’m told, and they told me to arrest him.” The guard paused, then added, “Besides, I don’t think you’re in much of a position to be questioning what’s worthy of death and what isn’t.”

Joha ignored the insult to himself and continued inquiring. “But what if He really is the son of God?”
The guards were getting irritated now. They stopped walking and turned back to face Joha. “Why are you sticking up for this man? He can’t help you now, and He is receiving a punishment much worse than yours. If I were you I’d shut your mouth, unless you want them to charge you with blasphemy too!”

“But—”

“Stop!” one of the guards commanded. He gestured for Joha to come forward just a little bit more. Then, when they were in the desired location, the guard said, “We’re here.” He pointed to Joha’s right. Joha looked where he was pointing and saw it. Huge, menacing, a symbol of utmost terror and pain. A tree that had been cut, shaped, and formed into an implement of the worst possible torture. It was the cross.
“Carry it to the hill,” the guard instructed coldly.

***

Carrying Crosses
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha’s journey to the hill was brutal and torturous. A few times he felt like he wouldn’t be able to make it, but he forced himself to press on and complete the journey successfully. He grimaced at the irony that he was making such a journey that would only aid his captors in his death. But, just as before, there was nothing else he could do.

 

They pierced each of his hands with a metal spike, and put one through both of his feet. Joha cried out as excruciating pain surged through his entire being. He was now fastened tightly to the cross. He continued to moan and scream as they raised the cross, with his body still on it, until it stood upright and was securely fastened to the ground. The process, for the most part, was complete. What disturbed him most was the knowledge that he was likely to be left here, writhing in torment, for several hours or even days, when every part of his mind and body was screaming for the pain to be over right now. He knew, however, that at this point he would be dead sooner or later.

Despite the terrible, indescribable pain, he looked around him. There was an incredible commotion coming from the ground to his left. He saw that there were two other crosses in addition to his. All three of them stood in a row, and strangely enough, the man in the middle next to him was still being tortured and taunted by the spectators on the ground. Joha wondered why they would be doing this. Wasn’t the shame and torment of the cross enough punishment for whatever the other man had done? And, if anyone, why weren’t they doing these things to himself? Surely this man’s crimes, whoever he was and whatever he had done, were not worse than Joha’s!

“Save yourself, King of the Jews!” mocking voices cried out from below.

“If you can, then come down from that cross!”

“Some savior,” one remarked, followed by a cruel, scornful laugh.

Savior?, thought Joha. He had been told by the guards that Jesus was being crucified as well. Was this man Jesus, the one about whom he had been thinking and wondering so much, hanging on the cross right next to him?

From this left, past Jesus’ cross, another taunt was heard. To Joha’s surprise and outrage, even the other criminal on the third cross was mocking Jesus! “If you’re really the Christ, then prove it by saving yourself—and why not us too, while you’re at it!”

Despite how much he was hurting, Joha knew that Jesus was innocent, and felt the need to protest this mockery. As much as he was physically able, he turned his head toward the other criminal. Straining his voice and ignoring the pain, he called back, “Do you not fear God even in your death? We both deserve to die for our sins, but this man has done nothing wrong!”

Then it came to him. He had just realized the answer he had been subconsciously seeking all along. The reason that he never had fulfillment in his past life was because he had walked away from God and had been living in sin. The reason that the LORD had never seemed close to him was that he himself had moved away by ignoring the LORD’s commands and following his own path, which had led him to this death. All this time, he had needed to repent of his sins and get back to God. And this Jesus—He hadn’t done anything wrong. He had healed people, and performed miracles, and fulfilled all the ancient prophecies—surely he was the true son of God, just as he had claimed!

“Jesus”, said Joha, finally seeing the truth. Slowly, t

Thief on the Cross
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

he son of God turned his head towards Joha. His whole body was nearly unrecognizable; he had been beaten and tortured so much that he almost didn’t look human anymore. His beard had been violently ripped out and a cruelly wrought crown of thorns dug itself mockingly into His forehead, causing streams of blood to spill out onto His face. It was a face filled with ineffable sorrow that seemed to transcend even the physical pain of the cross, but even so, the hope, love, and forgiveness it radiated were unmistakable. “Jesus”, Joha repeated. “Do not forget me when you return to your Kingdom.”

Jesus smiled, inwardly rejoicing despite all the shame. Struggling against the agony to speak, He responded, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Joha managed to smile. It was true! Even though he had done so much evil, and would never have a chance to make up for it with good works, he was forgiven. Jesus had given him joy and hope, even as he was going to his death.

The rest of Joha’s life is indescribable. He endured much pain as he hung on the cross, pierced and bruised, for hours. He felt his heart almost sink again when he watched Jesus give up his spirit and die—put to death by the ones he had come to save. Joha saw and felt much grief, but he still held on to the renewed hope that Jesus had given him.

After several hours, a few Roman guards came by to make sure everything with the crucifixion was running smoothly.

“Look,” said one of them. “Jesus is dead.”

“Are you sure?” the other one asked, surprised and disappointed. “They usually last much longer than that.”

“Let’s find out,” said the first guard. Maliciously enjoying his work, he thrust his spear violently into Jesus’ side. The man on the cross made no reaction, no further outcry of pain. Instead, a mixture of what looked like water and blood gushed out from the gaping wound as the soldiers looked on, somewhat dejected. “Yes, he’s dead.”

The other guard shrugged. “Might as well just finish off the other two now.” He walked over to Joha’s cross. Taking a sharp, hard weapon, the guard smashed it forcefully against Joha’s legs a few times. Even more pain piled on top of what Joha was already feeling. He let out a shout of anguish. After several blows, Joha’s legs were broken.

Joha knew what this did. As long as his legs were still intact, he could still push up on his chest, and would still be able to breathe. But now that they were broken, breathing would be much more difficult. The guards did this when they wanted someone to die more quickly. Joha struggled to breathe, but couldn’t hold out very long, and he soon drew his last breath.

Suddenly, all the pain was gone. He felt no more hurt, and was no longer hanging from the cross. Instead of total darkness, he saw intense, unfathomable light. And in the midst of it all, he saw Jesus.

“Welcome, Joha,” Jesus spoke lovingly. “I had been seeking you out for quite a while, and I am glad that you finally decided to trust in me and be forgiven of your sins. We were just rejoicing over your repentance.” All the shame had been wiped away from his face. It now bore only a pure, holy love. “Welcome to heaven.”

Heaven
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:8

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 2

This is the second part of a short story that I first wrote several years ago. Part 1 can be found here.

The next day, Joha returned to the marketplace once again. This time he had no intention of stealing anything; it would be foolish to do so again so soon, since the trader from yesterday would still be suspicious and watchful for thieves. This time, Joha came simply to spend some of his well-earned fortune from the day before. He browsed around the various stalls set up, searching for nice things to buy.

Look at that, he said to himself. A large, plump pig for twenty-six denarii—that could be enough to cover each meal for a day or two. He turned his head in another direction and saw a trader of linen and fine clothes. A very fancy robe, richly adorned and beautifully woven, for thirty-three denarii. Both of them were very fine items. But as Joha looked around at all the activities around him, he noticed something that caught his eye even more.

A man was paying for his trade with a cup. Not just any cup, it would appear, but a fine golden chalice, laced with silver and studded with jewels on the outside. What a nice and valuable cup—surely it was worth much more than Joha had right now, even more than what the trader was selling it for.

Joha wanted it.

Golden Chalice
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

 

He quickly forgot all of his logic about how foolish it would be to steal at a time like this. From a distance, Joha carefully watched the trader, an elderly and somewhat frail man, handling the fortune he had just received. The man polished it, seemed to admire it visually, and then tucked it away inside his cloak so he could resume business. Perfect—he was no longer keeping an eye on it. This would be an excellent opportunity for Joha.

Carefully, the thief snuck up behind the trader, preparing to make his move. Fortunately for him, another customer had come already, turning the trader’s attention away from the recently acquired chalice. Joha waited patiently. He watched and waited constantly, searching for the right moment. And then, moving on instinct, his stealing reflexes kicking in, his arm shot out and he grabbed the cup. Then, also almost automatically, his legs started running, carrying him far, far away.”Stop!” Joha heard. “Thief! He stole my cup! Somebody stop him!”

Joha paid these distressed cries no attention. He never did. All he did was to continue running, making his escape as quickly as possible—

“Aha!” came a cry from in front of him. Joha suddenly stopped moving, noticing that his path was obstructed by a large, muscular, familiar-looking man. It was the same livestock trader whom he had stolen from yesterday.

“You!” the trader shouted, grabbing Joha on the arm and holding him with a firm grip. “You’re the same thief who stole from me yesterday, aren’t you?” A mixture of victory and vengeance covered the trader’s face to produce a satisfied grin. He raised his voice and called out to all the citizens around, “Somebody summon the Roman guards!”

Then he turned back to Joha. Joha noticed that the other trader, the one whom the cup had belonged to, had now come up behind him as well. He felt fear well up inside him. He had always escaped before—would he be able to this time? If the Roman guards were being summoned, would he be jailed—or even executed?

His thoughts were interrupted by the livestock trader, still with a firm grip on his arm, speaking once again. “Now, as long as you’re not going anywhere, I’d like you to return that cup to the man standing behind you.” His words were gentle, as a mere suggestion, but the tone of his voice and the strength of his arm left no doubt in Joha’s mind that it was a command. “And while you’re at it, why not hand over the money you swiped from me yesterday.”

Joha had a plan. It was a very rash plan, one that he had just thought of on the spur of the moment, but it was perhaps his only chance at escape. Slowly, he raised his arm, as if he were going to return the cup. The trader’s grip on his arm loosened. Then, acting quickly, Joha reared his arm and flung it forward, thrusting the golden cup into the trader’s head. The large man let out a cry of pain, and instinctively let go of Joha’s arm. The thief took off running once again.

His initial feeling was relief. His plan had worked. He hadn’t been sure if it would work—he didn’t know how heavy or hard the cup actually was—but apparently it was enough to hurt. Joha looked behind him as he ran. Just as he expected, the livestock trader was once again pursuing him, with the other trader following close behind.

They were getting closer. Joha looked behind him and saw that they were probably only a few cubits away. Normally he was a good runner. He had to be, since he always needed to make quick escapes. But from what had already happened, his legs were getting tired, and he was losing strength. Within a few moments he was forced to slow down, and his pursuers caught up to him. The large man came up in front of him, and the older man to his side.

“Now I’ve got you!” said the large man. “You’re tired now—don’t try to escape! And don’t think you can pull that same trick again!”

Joha wasn’t listening, and he didn’t say anything back. He desperately needed to escape, and quickly. Even though the trick had already been used, he once again raised the cup to strike with it—but this time, he struck the older man, who happened to be closer to him. The old man let out a gasp of pain and fell to the ground. Joha once again tried to run away—

“Stop!” shouted a loud, commanding voice from not far away. Joha looked up. Two tall, muscular, stern-faced men stood in front of him, wearing armor and brandishing weapons. Hadn’t someone called for the Roman guards? Obviously, they had come. Joha didn’t know what he would do.

“What is the trouble here?” one of the guards inquired. The large man pointed to Joha and angrily spoke up. “This vile thief has stolen from our marketplace two days in a row now! And just a moment ago, he slew this innocent man!”

“Slew?” Joha repeated incredulously. “What? No, he can’t be dead!”

“He was old and weak,” the large man commented, bending down toward the other man’s limp body. “His heart beats no longer.”

Joha felt a chill rise up inside of him. What had he done? He had only wanted to get rich and get away. He never meant to kill anyone. Despite the ethical codes that he had justified his way around bending or breaking, he knew that murder was most certainly wrong. Wasn’t that a Commandment as well?

Roman soldiers
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

One of the guards looked at him, studied him over, and scowled with contempt. “A dirty little Hebrew, causing trouble in the city. Why am I not surprised?” This vile man shall be brought before the judge, and punished for his crimes!” the other guard shouted, coming closer to Joha. He gestured to the golden cup and asked, “Is this what he stole?”

The large trader confirmed it.

Before he knew it, the golden cup was being torn from Joha’s hand by the strong grip of the Roman soldier. Crestfallen, not so much for the loss of the cup as for the fact that he had been caught, Joha saw the chalice being handed back to the livestock trader. Then the Roman soldiers quite forcefully took hold of Joha. With his mind racing, his heart pounding, and his soul overwhelmed with a sinking feeling, Joha was brought away.

Only a few hours later, Joha stood in a large courtroom, in front of a judge. The Roman guards on either side of the room still eyed him menacingly.

“Joha the Hebrew,” the judge addressed him scornfully. “You have committed theft and murder. Is this true?”

Joha knew that there was no point in trying to escape any more. There had been several people to witness the scene, and any possible routes of exit from the courtroom were blocked by the hostile guards. He was no longer trying to deceive himself, either about escaping or about right and wrong. He knew that his crimes had been wrong and, though he still felt fear gnawing away inside him, he was trying his best to be brave and face the consequences boldly. Feeling irrepressible guilt and shame rise up in his soul, he spoke three simple words. “It is true.”

“Then, Joha, you will be punished,” the judge announced. “Such crimes are certainly worthy of death. Based on the many things you have probably stolen over time, as well as requests from the murdered man’s family and the witnesses of the act, the court has ruled that no punishment less than crucifixion will be acceptable.”

Crucifixion? This was terrible! That was the very worst possible way one could die! Though he knew he deserved to be punished, he had fervently hoped that his sentence might be a light one, at least lighter than this. Only in his darkest imaginings and fears had he envisioned himself being crucified for his crimes. He had heard all the horrible stories about criminals who had been sentenced to such a death, and how they were often allowed to hang on the cross for hours in agony until the last trickle of life faded quietly out of their bodies. The thought of such a thing happening to him made Joha unbearably fearful and nauseous. But what was he to do about it? He had already established that there was no possible escape. And somehow, even though crucifixion was such a terrible experience, he felt that he deserved to die for what he had done. No, he would not try to escape. He would have to endure it, with whatever modicum of dignity and nobility might still be left within him, however terrible it might be.

The judge made one final comment. “The crucifixion is to be held tomorrow, during the Passover feast. Guards, I trust you to keep Joha in prison until then.”

To be concluded…

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 1

Hello, readers! This week I’m filling in for another contributor who is ill and not able to post right now. As such, I’ve dug up an old story from my younger years that I’d like to share with you this time around. It looks like I first published this story on my old Fictionpress account way back in 2009, and I haven’t really done much with it in a long time, but it’s nice to revisit artifacts from the past every now and again and see how one’s writing has changed and grown over time. In any case, this story is called “While We Were Yet Sinners,” and I think it’s fitting to post around Easter week, for those who observe the holiday. I’ll post the story in three installments throughout this week. I hope you enjoy it.

He was running away, ignoring whoever sought him and making every effort to avoid being found.

In fact, it seemed that he was having to do that a lot these days. Every time Joha stole something, the original owner and any other people who happened to be there at the time came running after him to try to bring him to justice. And that was exactly what was happening now; he had just been at the marketplace and helped himself to a handful of gold coins from the livestock trader. It probably wasn’t all that much—Joha hadn’t had time yet to sit down and count it—but it was something, hopefully enough to support him for another week or two.

Roman forum
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

He looked behind him and saw the livestock trader, a large and burly man, close on his trail, his rage fueling his body and giving way to furious shouts. Joha was inclined to snicker to himself; the trader probably thought that he actually had a chance of catching the thief. But Joha knew that he was the best at what he did; he had never been caught, and as far as he was concerned, he never would be.

Still running past the various obstacles that stood in his way, Joha ignored the oncoming opposition and looked ahead. The sight he saw brought him gladness: a large crowd. It wouldn’t be hard to lose his pursuers inside it. Neither his physique nor his face were particularly out of the ordinary, and he was fairly sure that none of them had gotten a good look at him, so once he was among everyone else, they would be hard-pressed to recognize him. He tucked the small bag of coins inside his cloak, and then, running on the last leg of his journey toward safety, he ducked into the crowd of people standing around and seeking to trade their items. As soon as he was among them, he stopped running—running would make it obvious that he had something to hide. Joha smiled slightly to himself. He should be safe now.

Carefully, making sure to be inconspicuous, he peeked above the heads of those gathered and looked in the direction he had just come from. He saw the livestock trader, still standing there, but confused, not sure of where the thief had gone, and no longer able to chase him. In a moment, the trader ran off in another direction—whether to continue the search or to give up and go back to his post, Joha didn’t know.

But he didn’t care. Joha had not been found. He had won.

Now that the immediate threat was gone, Joha slowly and cautiously made his way out of the crowd, trying to blend in and act natural. Acting natural wasn’t too difficult for him, because stealing had become natural for Joha. He carefully pushed past people, throwing out various pleasantries and requests for pardons to make himself seem like a normal, respectable citizen. Once he was out, he continued at a steady pace back to his home on the other side of the city. He mentally congratulated himself at another job well done.

At that point, while he was still walking, Joha had a strange thought, one that rarely occurred to him, and thus was all the more puzzling. For the first time in quite a while, he considered what he had just done. A part of him almost seemed to say that it was not right to steal—but no, that was irrelevant to him. He had done it many, many times now; that was how he had come to be so good at it. There was nothing wrong with stealing. Granted, it put whoever he stole from in an unhappy position, but Joha never thought about them—he needed to steal in order to live, and so it must be all right.

And yet, he still couldn’t shake the feeling. Why did he have this moral sense all of a sudden? He hadn’t followed anything of that sort since—he thought back—since he had been a mere youth. Joha was a Hebrew both by birth and upbringing, and his mother and father had always taken him to the temple on the Sabbath, to worship and sacrifice to the LORD. His mind flashed to the Ten Commandments. They had been recorded in the Scriptures, in the book of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, and had often been recited and referred to by the priests. Though he couldn’t remember all of the Ten Commandments, he was fairly sure that one of them specifically forbade stealing.

But it didn’t matter now, he told himself. He hadn’t been to a temple on the Sabbath for years, since he was a child. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he even believed in the LORD. Growing up, Joha had read and studied the Scriptures under his parents’ instruction. He remembered being a young boy, full of childlike faith, whose heart would swell with hope and excitement whenever he read the prophecies about the restoration of the nation of Israel and, even better, about the coming Messiah. As he grew older, a part of Joha still hoped for these things, but he had begun to realize what a cruel and bleak place the world really was. His people were looked down upon by most everyone else, and he himself had failed in every attempt to make an honest profession, which was why he eventually resorted to stealing. His parents had shunned him for such evil things and for no longer practicing the faith on his own, but he maintained that stealing was a necessity and that the LORD had all but abandoned them. He had had a hard life, and he hadn’t seen any of the blessings that the Scriptures had promised to his people. If the LORD really was so good and so powerful, then where had He been all this time?

Since he had taken up the life of a thief, Joha had almost completely ignored all thoughts of the LORD and memories of his religious upbringing. Yet today, for some reason, the thoughts and feelings had come to him out of nowhere, as if someone out there wanted him to remember and had the power to reach out to his soul. Joha still was not certain that the LORD existed, but after pondering the subject briefly, Joha determined that if He did exist, then He must no longer care for Joha. The LORD hadn’t done any good for Joha in his life, and now that Joha had become a thief, the LORD must care for him even less because of all the evil things he had done. Yes, this had to be true.

Joha sighed to himself. What had caused him to think of this all of a sudden? Even after reaching this conclusion, Joha couldn’t quite bring himself to shake the thoughts. Things had been so simple in those days; his mother and father had always taken him to worship. They had diligently followed all the ceremonious instructions of the Law (in fact, if he remembered correctly, the Passover celebration was to be held just a few days from now, though it certainly didn’t matter to him anymore). He had basically believed that he was a good person, one of the LORD’s chosen people, and would be going to heaven when he died. But now he hardly knew what to believe.

Things had become especially complicated in recent months, with the appearance of this Jesus person. Joha hadn’t seen him in person, but he had heard of the man’s teachings and doings—who in Rome hadn’t heard of him? The things he had heard about Jesus were very strange, and half of it was probably gossip and lies. After all, nobody had the power to walk on water or to heal sick people simply by touching them, and nobody thinking logically would believe those things for even a minute. But was it true that the man had the audacity to claim himself as the very son of God? Did he really have the boldness to criticize the religious leaders, and the authority to preach salvation and forgiveness of sin?

Forgiveness of sin…

Roman coins
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha looked up. His feet had carried him to his home. Upon realizing this, all thoughts of religious conundrums dropped from his mind, as he made his way inside to count up his new fortune.
Pulling the small bag out from his coat, he spilled the contents out onto his table. Several small metallic shapes, each imprinted with Caesar’s likeness, fell out of the bag and were counted accordingly. When Joha had finished counting, the total came to seventy-three denarii. Seventy-three! It was certainly more than he had expected, more than he usually got. He smiled and mentally congratulated himself on making another week’s wages.

To be continued…

The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 2

Hello, internet!

I hope you all enjoyed Tuesday’s instalment of my ongoing story, The Siege of Gordul Nor.  Without any further ado, I present part two – and I hope that you’ll come back on Sunday for the finale!


 

Crimea Barricade Corpse

“I wouldn’t advise that, sir,” Bournclough managed to articulate, after several moments of stunned silence.

“Nonsense!” said the nob. He was still inspecting the parapet of the trench with a glint of zeal in his eyes. “I shall only be making a quick inspection. I can’t imagine that I’ll come to any great harm.”

Bournclough shared a look with Corporal Mogget. There wasn’t much that could distract Mogget from his rollups for more than five seconds, but this nob was managing it.

“Well,” Bournclough began, in the gentle voice used to explain things to officers. “Not to tell you your own business, sir, but wouldn’t it answer better to take a look during the day? Safe and sound behind our lines, like? With a spyglass?”

“Oh I’ve already done that, Colour Sergeant,” the nob laughed. “But I need to get a close look at the enemy cannon, and I should hardly think that they’ll be keen to let me do that in broad daylight. I must approach their lines under the cover of darkness.”

Bournclough fell dumb again. He returned his pipe to his mouth, but it had gone out. If this nob was mad enough to want to visit the enemy positions at night then he would be better off going west to the Gavilonian lines and finding one of their all-elf companies, the somnambules who could cross the mud without leaving a footprint or making a sound. But the nob seemed to have every intention of going by himself. Bournclough watched wordlessly as the engineering officer retrieved a fur-lined cloak from a sort of satchel that hung at his waist, shook the cloak out to its full length, and swept it over his shoulders. Once it was tied, he peered away down the trench.

“I believe the approach line is that way, isn’t it?”

Bournclough could think of two answers to the nob’s question. The first was “yes sir, and are there any valuables you’d like to leave with us for safekeeping so we can flog them on the sly for drinking money when you don’t come back?” It was the question that Mogget wanted him to ask. But when he looked at this bright-eyed, cheery, innocent nob, he didn’t quite have the heart to ask it.

It was a funny thing. He’d always assumed that his conscience was something that he’d misplace after he spent long enough in the army. But he’d been in the army a long time, and his conscience had stuck with him like a stubborn case of gout.

He steeled himself, wondered what he was doing, and asked the other question.

“Yes, sir. Would you like company, sir? Can’t let you go off by yourself, now. Might lose your way.”

Just for a moment, the nob looked surprised. Then he looked cheery again. “How thoughtful of you to offer, Colour Sergeant. Let’s not waste a moment. The night won’t last forever!”

The nob started off towards the approach line, careful not to step on any more of Bournclough’s men. The men watched him go, and then Bournclough felt their eyes turn on him.

“Stay warm, boys,” he said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say in the circumstances. He fastened his cloak around his shoulders and swung his pack onto his back, bearing the weight as well as any man despite the fact that the pack was almost as large as him. He emptied his pipe and tucked it into his belt. Then he picked up his musketoon and checked the flint.

Dry as a bone.

He’d been hoping that he might have to replace it, because that would have given him one more thing to do before he had to set off after the nob. But he’d exhausted his options. He wriggled his moustache, sniffed, and set off down the trench.

He’d only managed to take two steps before someone said “Sarge.”

Bournclough stopped, and turned around. It was Mogget. The skinny corporal rose to his feet and sighed, casting the glowing dog-end of his rollup down into a puddle. “If you’re going then I suppose I’m going too, aren’t I?”

Bournclough snorted with humourless laughter. “Not if you don’t fancy it.”

The corporal shrugged. “Well I’ve just thrown my light in a puddle, haven’t I? Might as well come with you now.”

Bournclough smiled. “Truer words, Pat…”

“Oh sod off. Let’s get after him before I come to my senses.”


 

They crossed the valley as quietly as they could, listening for each other’s movements to avoid losing each other, and trusting Bournclough’s sense that they were heading in the right direction. It was hard to get lost as long as they kept going uphill. The land rose unevenly towards the hill where the defenders of Gordul Nor built their great redoubt, and the ground underfoot was strewn with loose rock, blasted clods of soil, and the hundreds of cannonballs fired by both sides almost every day for the past three months. There were bodies too. Bournclough saw grey hands emerging from the soil, a lone boot still containing a substance that had once been a foot. He had to grab hold of the webbing on Mogget’s back to stop him from sticking his boot through the gaping chest of a dead elf. The elf lay there in his powder blue Gavilonian tailcoat, looking pale and forlorn in the way that only a dead elf could. Elves always looked like they were in a painting, even when they’d been festering on a frozen hillside for three weeks. Bournclough felt oddly jealous.

“Must have copped it in that last assault,” Bournclough muttered.

“Yeah,” Mogget muttered back, “him and half the 34th.”

Bournclough hoped it wouldn’t be his regiment that was picked to lose half its men in the next attack. As far as he knew, the concordium had landed in Myrmogosh with the plan of marching straight into Gordul Nor and sending a polite note to the Malign Emperor, suggesting that he could have the city back without a fuss if he agreed to give up some of his favourite hobbies, such as slaughtering the penitent and sending back the limbs of ambassadors enclosed in rusty hunting traps. Bournclough didn’t know whether the Malign Emperor would be quick to accept that arrangement, but the plan hadn’t got that far yet. Gordul Nor still stood. The city fell away to the north, protected by heavy batteries that stopped the concordium’s ships from sailing into the harbour, which meant it was the infantry’s job to attack by land. So far they hadn’t had much luck. The old High Elf ruins had been turned into a fortress, with guns that overlooked the valley, defended by legions of orcs and a good few regiments of Pyromanian riflemen. Bournclough didn’t want to see another attack go as badly as the last one. If this engineer nob took a good look at the enemy cannon, maybe it would help to make the next attack go better. That was why he was out here risking his hide. That was what he told himself as they neared the orc lines.

He knew that they were getting close when the stone head of an old elf king appeared out of the gloom, one cheek submerged in dirt, his free eye pleading for some good soul to set him to rights again. Stone heads meant they’d reached the ruins. And sure enough, a little way uphill of them, Bournclough saw the first of the enemy batteries. Stones steps rose to the lowest tier of the old elf temple, where mounds of rock, earth, and straw had been thrown up as a barricade among the fallen columns. Bournclough could hear nasal voices from the other side. Hideous faces flickered in the dim light of a hanging lantern, but they weren’t the faces of men or orcs. Bournclough had been fighting orcs for long enough to know that all of their cannon were cast with dragon’s teeth or demon’s eyes, grinning as they belched fire and rained down shot upon their enemies. These were the cannon that the nob wanted to see.

The nob was crouching next to Bournclough, peering over the ear of the fallen king. He hadn’t spoken once since they crept out into the valley, but now he took an intake of breath, and whispered, “How close can we get?”

Bournclough glanced at Mogget, then back at the nob.

“How close would you like to get, sir?”

The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 1

Hello, internet!

I have a story for you today, but I’d like to begin my post by offering massive congratulations to Tobias, who – if you didn’t see his post yesterday – is expecting a baby! I wish his whole family several metric British tonnes of health and happiness.

Now! Down to business: I am writing stories set in a new fantasy world at the moment, and I thought I’d try some of them out on you. So this week you’re getting three instalments of a short story which I’m provisionally calling ‘The Siege of Gordul Nor’. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Crimea Barricade Corpse

Bournclough had figured out that if he kept every muscle in his body clenched as tight as a drum, he could stop himself from shivering. And if he stopped himself from shivering, that stopped his teeth from chattering, which meant he could smoke his pipe without biting through it. Thus he sat, on an upturned crate stamped POWDER, DRY FOOT, INFANTRY, with his greatcloak draped backwards over his folded arms and his pipe clamped in his mouth, warming the crags of his face with a healthy glow whenever he took a draw from it. He was firmly ensconced in the blind end of a trench, with soggy wicker ramparts doing their best to keep back the mud on either side, and he wasn’t intending to let man, dwarf, elf or beast move him from the spot for the night’s duration. No. 4 Company would be turning out at dawn as their relief. After he’d had a quick word with Colour Purding and handed over possession of the upturned crate, Bournclough would make his way straight back to his billet, where he was looking forward to sleeping until lunchtime, if not later. Then when dusk came around again, he’d march right back out and plant his arse back down in the exact same spot.

This routine had been repeating itself for nigh-on three months, ever since the army reached Gordul Nor and started digging siege lines. Bournclough’s company always got the night watch, and he knew full well why. It got him riled up, sensing the lads around him in the dark every night, shivering from the cold. They squatted all the way down the length of the trench, muttering to themselves, boiling tea, trading smokables, coughing the damp out of their lungs, still on duty when they should by rights have been asleep on their bedrolls. Just because he’d the had the bad fortune to be born with a bit of Broonie blood in him, people thought that he could see in the dark, and these lads suffered. “Put Bimhead’s company on piquet,” the major had said. “He’s got that twerg sergeant, send him out. I’ll say this for twergs, they’re bloody useful for night excursions, if not much else.”

The arrangement suited their lieutenant very well. He turned up each evening to nod his head when they stood to, saying “Carry on, Colour Sergeant” with a very dignified bearing, then turning on his heel and making straight for the mess tent, to keep the sherry decanter company until the small hours. It suited Bournclough to a point, as well. He could deal with officers who were drunks and wasters. They didn’t stop him from running the company the way he liked. It was the interfering sorts that he couldn’t stand.  Or worse, the ones who tried to be heroes. The safest thing for that sort of officer was a bayonet in the back before they got anywhere near the enemy.

He got the sudden sensation that there was someone new in their trench. He couldn’t see in the dark, despite what the major thought, but he did have a bit of the old Broonie sense. Even when it was dark and when the company had fallen silent, he could still sense the lads around him. Still knew where they were, could still avoid stepping on them like everyone else did as they stumbled down the trench in the dark. But it also worked like a barometer. He got a pang in his chest, or a quirk in his eyebrow that drew his attention to something, as though he was being tugged on a fishing hook. Now his thoughts were being drawn towards the communications trench that led up from the rear lines. Someone was approaching. Bournclough watched the opening with patient focus.

His senses proved to be less than necessary. The new arrival nearly tripped over Private Burrows as they entered the trench, and Burrows drove them away with a torrent of abuse. Bournclough could see vague shapes in the dark, and could feel that there was somebody approaching him, getting closer.

“Hullo!” said the new arrival.

He sounded like a nob. Cut-glass accent. College boy, Bournclough thought. Nobs like this didn’t come strolling down to the siege lines just to say “hullo.” There was almost certainly something that he wanted. Bournclough, and the rest of the company, waited silently to see what it was.

When the answer wasn’t forthcoming, Bournclough reached up to twist the key on a naphtha lantern that was hanging above his head. He turned up the heat, casting the trench in a dull green glow and revealing the features of the men who were squatting nearby. Most of them had features which looked better in dim light, but not the nob. He was all cheekbones and wispy hair. Bright eyes and pale skin. He was young, but tall. He looked like he might be trouble.

The nob managed to figure out that Bournclough was in change, and smiled. He covered the last few steps towards him, walking confidently over the duckboard floor of the trench, and avoiding getting his boots any dirtier than they already were. He reached Bournclough and extended his hand.

“Gildersleigh,” said the nob.

Bournclough’s eyebrows crept up into his hat. He stared at the nob’s outstretched hand, then up into his face, and took his time doing it, sucking thoughtfully on his pipe. But the nob had that kind of friendliness that didn’t know when to give up and go home. Eventually Bournclough relented, and shifted himself forward off his perch, hitching his cloak over one shoulder and standing to his full height. Which was roughly half the full height of this Gildersleigh character.

He offered his own hand, far rougher than Gildersleigh’s and wrapped in sweatsoaked bandages for warmth.

“Colour Bournclough,” he grumbled.

“Well,” the nob smiled, “it’s a distinct pleasure to meet you, Colour Sergeant Bournclough.”

The nob reached down and shook Bournclough’s hand companionably. He didn’t seem to mind the bandages, and he actually seemed sincerely pleased. Corporal Mogget snorted under his breath.

“…and you, sir,” Bournclough said, then cleared his throat, feeling embarrassed on the nob’s behalf.

There was a long silence.

“Cold, isn’t it?” said the nob, trying civility once again.

“We hadn’t noticed,” said a scornful voice from somewhere further down the trench. It was probably Corporal Mogget once again. Bournclough chose not to reprimand him. The nob was wearing the uniform of a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, so unless he’d stolen the togs from somewhere, he’d probably just come from the rear lines of the siege camp, where the engineers had set up their tents around a nice warm steam engine that they’d brought ashore from one of the ships in the harbour. Mogget had a right to be jealous.

“We’re the Egremontshires,” said Bournclough. “Second battalion, number three company. If you want Lieutenant Bimhead, he’s, er, well…”

He nodded his head westward, to where the regimental mess tent was pitched behind the safety of the earthworks. The nob must have passed it on his way down, must have seen the glare of candles from inside and heard the clamour of the regiment’s subalterns banging the table, drinking their way through their private supplies of wine and brandy.

“Er, no, I don’t want Lieutenant Bimhead,” said Gildersleigh. “I shan’t think that I will need to bother him for any reason.”

“…oh,” said Bournclough, feeling confused. “Then, er…how can we help you, sir?”

“Oh!” Gildersleigh smiled, and looked up at the edge of the trench. “It’s very kind of you to offer, but I was just thinking of going out by myself and taking a look at the enemy’s positions.”

There was an even longer silence.

“…oh.”


 

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Tales of the Ice

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Well, I have something fun for you today: a short flash-fiction piece that I’m working on. This is a work in progress, but I think its in somewhat decent shape (though my apologies for any typos… and for the lack of pictures… not a lot that actually reflects the story out there).

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Grunda shivered as he pulled his bearskin tighter around his squatted form, thankful for the windless day, despite the cold. The ice-field stretched out before him towards the horizon, broken sporadically by sharp, jutting splinters of rock. He raised one hand to shade his eyes from the sun, though the glare off of the ice wasn’t any better. From the vantage point of the low hill on which he stood he could see nothing but flat ice and rock to the far horizon, like a mountain had exploded and rained fragments of itself down across some wilderness lake. Of course, everyone knew that was an illusion. Just a foot or so beneath the ice lay nothing but barren, frozen, dead earth, a wasteland tundra that wouldn’t even absorb the water that fell on it. Grunda didn’t know why. Even the dreamwalkers of his tribe didn’t know.

He had seen something move on the ice. Flitting from one large stone splinter to another, but in the glare of the sun it was nothing more than a wavering blur. Grunda considered sounding a blast of his horn, but such a warning would cause the tribe to cease their ice-mining and they would lose precious water. The wasted time would prove just as much of a danger as most any lone creature of the waste. Still, he scanned the broken field before him, alert for movement, with one hand on his horn and the other wrapped tight around his stone-tipped spear. When it came the movement was inhumanly fast. Still nothing more than a light blur, but much closer than it had been the last time he’d spotted it. Squinting to keep the glare out of his eyes, Grunda fixed his gaze on the spur of rock–at least twice the size of a man–that it had disappeared behind, but he saw nothing.

For a long while it was as if the thing, whatever it was, had simply vanished beneath the spur, and the out of the corner of his eye he caught it again, or perhaps a second creature, moving towards his hill. This one also vanished behind a splinter of rock, and he wondered how many of them there might be. He considered sounding the horn again. If there were a pack of tundra wolves he could easily be overwhelmed, and any creature that could move through the stone or ice to avoid his gaze was sure to be dangerous, but the tribe had had no water for days and they were all thirsty. The ice-field was their chance to replenish their stores and they couldn’t afford to waste it. He stood though, and pulled his horn off of his belt, just in case a hurried blast was necessary.

Another blur of motion, almost at the foot of his hill sent the horn to his lips. He stepped back and raised his spear to thrust at whatever charged out from the rock spurs at the bottom of the hill, but again, whatever it was seem to have vanished. How long he held that pose for, heart hammering but breath slow and sure, he couldn’t tell. Every muscle was tensed, his squinted eyes scanned to and fro along the bottom of the hill, the horn pursed on his wetted lips until it froze to them, and yet he waited. After what seemed like it must have been a sun-cycle he allowed himself to relax, lowering the spear and wetting the ice on his lip with the heat of his tongue until it melted. Still, nothing moved.

Grunda returned to his crouch, waiting, though not knowing what he waited for. Either the thing had vanished, or it was a more patient hunter than he, and he was among the best hunters in the tribe. He let his eyes return to scanning the ice-field, though frequently they flitted back to the base of his hill, still waiting for something to happen. Then he heard a roar from behind him, and screams. Immediately Grunda lept from his crouch, running across the low hill towards the ice-mining camp to see chaos. Large balls of hail pelted the camp, crushing bones. Sharp spikes of ice exploded out of the ground, impaling some of the miners and sending the lucky one’s sprawling away. Two hazy blurred figures strode leisurely through the camp, and wherever they gestured icy terror struck the men of his tribe.

Grunda ran down into the camp, hoping that he could help. Perhaps kill one of the creatures, or even just pull a few of his injured brethren away from the camp. But as he entered the camp he ran headlong through one of the figures. In shape it was a man with no face who wore fox furs, a wolf-skull adorned his head. However, the image wavered and blurred, and Grunda knew immediately that the man was a dreamwalker deep in his sleep, untouchable by any mortal man, unless they knew where he lay. The figure gestured towards him, and Grunda rolled over his shoulders, gaining his feat and leaping away as a spear of ice shot out of the ground where he had just been. Hearing the screams around him and feeling the warmth of an emptying bladder in his furs, Grunda glanced around the camp, and then grabbed the nearest bag of ice and ran.

Years later, Grunda would tell the story of how he had fought a dreamwalker and lived to his children, and then to his grandchildren. He conveniently forgot to mention how a timely warning might have allowed more of the miners to escape, and the stains the soiled his furs when he’d returned to the tribe. Fortunately, no one else remembered those parts of the story either.

Drama versus Prose: An Overview and a Challenge

So, you’re a pretty experienced writer by this point, eh? You’ve done prose pieces? Short stories? Maybe even a novel or two? Not bad, not bad at all.

But if that’s you, then I’ve got a new challenge for you. Try writing drama.

Of course, this challenge won’t be too hard for you, because you’ve already mastered general storytelling elements such as plot and character development. The rest of it couldn’t be too hard at all, right?

Wrong!

Drama masksIn my last post I wrote about my recent experiences with writing children’s drama for my church. This time I’d like to talk more about the major differences between drama and prose–because, believe it or not, there are many, and being good at one does not necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, in famous authors and aspiring ones alike, it’s relatively uncommon for one person to be really good at both prose and drama.

And before my challenges to you start to sound like I’m bragging about being such a great writer myself, let me level with you for a minute. I’m not good at both prose and drama, either. I consider myself a pretty decent writer when it comes to narrative prose, but I’m really not so great at writing drama.

“But wait!” you may ask. “If you’re not good at writing drama, then why were you in charge of writing drama for church recently, and even of subjecting innocent children to partaking in puerile performances of your poorly-penned plays?” That’s a good question that I’ll get to a little later.

For now I want to tell you a story, dating back three years or so to my undergrad years. I was an English major with a Writing minor, and I had already taken classes on creative poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As an elective for my minor, I decided to take a class called “Writing for the Stage.” I had written church drama several times before and also had a little prior experience writing a (probably not very good) play for my high school theater senior project. Like I alluded to above, I probably thought that, as a master of prose, I would have an easy time with drama too. But, upon getting a ways into the semester, I realized a couple of things: 1) the class was mostly full of close-knit theater majors, so an English major like me was a little out of place, and 2) drama is an entirely different animal from prose, one which is not particularly my forte.

There may be many elements that differentiate drama from prose, but I’ll tell you about the one that I think tripped me up the most. In drama, you as the author can really only speak through dialogue and action. You have to do everything you normally do in prose–develop characters, flesh out the plot, etc.–but you must do it through only dialogue and action. An outside narrator doesn’t really have much of a voice to describe with words what is happening or what a character’s inner thoughts are like. And, for a wordy author like me who is used to the freedom provided by prose, condensing so much meaning into so few words is hard to do.

For example, my play’s protagonist was a very well-developed character. At least, he was well-developed in my head. I had a pretty specific idea of his backstory, his goals and motivations, his inner thoughts and feelings, etc. And, to me, he was a very sympathetic and relatable character. But, when we peer-reviewed each other’s plays in class, most of what I knew and felt about my character didn’t come through to my readers, because I wasn’t good at conveying it through limited dialogue and action. Everyone else, for the most part, saw my protagonist as distant, flat, and unlikeable, because they didn’t know him like I did and I didn’t do a good job of showing what he was like through this medium. (In hindsight, maybe I also shouldn’t have picked a protagonist whose personality was by nature secretive and guarded. That combined with my inexperience with the medium made it doubly hard for the audience to get to know him. But I digress.)

Hamlet“But wait!” you may ask. “Is all drama always so restricted in what it can show? Aren’t there some plays with narrators and characters who clearly explain themselves to the audience?” And the answer is that yes, there are. Dating back to ancient Greek drama and throughout subsequent centuries, it was very common for plays to have an outside narrator, often called the “Chorus” or some other entity. Later, in Shakespeare’s day, characters often spoke in asides or soliloquies, which was one character onstage speaking directly to the audience, often openly stating his or her own thoughts, feelings, and intentions. To me at least, that kind of direct writing seems relatively easy to do. But it’s no longer in vogue these days. In modern drama (or film, etc.), audiences don’t really take it seriously when narrators or characters explain the action to them so directly. It’s considered tongue-in-cheek or corny at best, and didactic or insulting at worst. No, the stage of today is not the place for long written descriptions of characters’ thoughts and personalities, but rather for quick dialogue and visual actions that should show what they’re like.

So, going back to my recent writings, maybe I should amend an earlier statement. It’s not that I’m horrible at all forms of drama. Like I detailed in my last post, I’m good at writing children’s drama. I’m good at writing the kind where relatively basic stock characters can speak directly to the audience and talk openly about what moral they learned today. I’m able to entertain, amuse, and educate a certain type or demographic of audience. But serious drama, for adults, with passion and pathos, nuance and skill? That’s a bit above my reach for now.

This is not to completely discount the genre or my experiences with it. Although I cringe a little when I think back to the play I wrote in stage-writing class that semester, the experience did help me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And could I get better at drama if I tried? Yes, knowing what I now know about my limitations and the areas where I fell short before, I could probably get at least a little better if I worked at it more and practiced with that genre again. I just haven’t done so in a while, and I’m not nearly as comfortable in the world of drama as I am with prose.

But sometimes it’s good to get a little uncomfortable and challenge ourselves to try something different. So, if you’re used to writing prose, then I challenge you to try some drama as well. Write a short scene where all you can show between a few characters is dialogue and stage directions. Or, if coming up with one from scratch is hard, take a scene from a favorite book, or from a story you’ve written previously, and rewrite it as if for the stage. See if you can still develop the characters fully and make the plot just as clear without being obvious. Warning: you may get frustrated and find that it’s not as easy as you thought! Or you may stretch your creative horizons and learn more about your potential as a writer!

Writing versus Editing: The Eternal Struggle

Which is more important: writing or editing?

Obviously, that’s an unfair question. To a serious writer in any type of writing, the answer should be “both.” The act of writing itself is essential because it gets you into practice and gives you raw material to work with. While your first draft probably won’t be great the very moment you put it down on paper, at least doing so gives you a draft that you can revise and improve later on. That’s where editing comes in. Even if your first draft is crap, editing lets you refine it and hone in on the good parts while weeding out the bad. Editing and revision, especially after you’ve gotten some feedback or taken some time to come at your work with a fresh perspective, are what can turn a decent story into a good one, or a good one into a great one.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

For a good writer, writing and editing should of course go hand in hand. Without the act of first writing something, editing wouldn’t exist at all. And without the act of editing and continual revision over time, writing couldn’t be nearly as good as it is. So it seems impossible to answer the question of which one is more important.

And yet, nonetheless, I’m still trying to answer that question now.

Well, maybe I’m not asking which is more important–just which one I should work on now. Here’s why.

If you’ve read some of my other posts on this blog, then you might know that, with some exceptions, I haven’t worked on writing novels in a long time. Two years of grad school and other responsibilities will do that to you. Yes, I’ve still been writing throughout all this time, and not just for school. But since my free time has been sparse for a while, I’ve focused my attention more on shorter works, such as poetry, blogs, articles, parodies, and maybe one serious short story. While I once dreamed of writing best-selling novels (or even halfway decent ones), I’ve barely worked on any for at least two years–probably closer to three, really.

But now, all that could change. I finished my graduate degree last month and, for the first time in about two decades, have absolutely no intention of continuing my studies in the fall. It’s summer and I have plenty of free time to catch up on reading, Netflix, and perhaps even writing. I have at least a few friends (and/or family members) who are using this summer to work on novels, and I want to join them because at least a part of me misses it.

But there’s a couple of problems. First, I’ve been out of novel-writing for so long that I’ll really have to re-cultivate my motivation for it if I’m going to make any progress at all. Secondly, there are two different large projects that I’ve wanted to work on, and I don’t know which one to start with or to give my attention to first. And that’s where my conflict between writing and editing comes in, because one project is a full novel that needs editing, and the other is an unfinished novel that needs writing.

I’ll give you a quick summary of both:

My full-length novel is a superhero story, tentatively titled Fractured Heroes (although I’m still not fully satisfied with that

This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.
This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.

name). It follows an ensemble cast of seven main protagonists, all superheroes or crime-fighters of some sort, with various personalities and character flaws. Some are brutal and violent; some are cold and detached; some use the outlet of heroism to seek redemption from a past of guilt and shame. But when they uncover a dangerous super-drug and a plot to destroy their city, this disjointed group of heroes has to band together and rely on something greater than their individual selves. I wrote this story throughout 2010 and 2011 (it was long enough to be two NaNoWriMos, and then some), and it’s gotten good reviews from a few friends and online forum readers. At some point in 2012, I had a trusted friend read through it and make comments or suggestions about how it could be improved. So I have a large document full of my friend’s comments…and I have made very little progress since then in going through those comments or revising my story at all. However, I would love to revisit it and get it good enough to send to a publisher one day.

And the other story I’m working on is a futuristic, dystopian one called The Joining. A couple centuries into the future, society is built almost entirely upon romantic relationships and physical pleasure. On their eighteenth birthday, everyone is expected to choose a partner and be joined with them for life. But one seventeen-year-old boy doesn’t fit into his society’s customs and doesn’t like feeling rushed to commit so soon . What is he to do with his Joining ceremony fast approaching? I started working on this story sometime in 2012. I outlined the entire plot, so I know more or less what I want to write. And in all that time I’ve written a walloping two chapters, about ten pages or so. I’ve got a story in me and I want to get it out, but I just haven’t had the time!

Of course, I want to work on both of these projects eventually, so maybe this dilemma is a bit redundant. If I really planned it and worked at it this summer, then I could certainly do some of both. Still, since I haven’t done that yet, I’m a little torn, and I’m opening it up to input.

Which one do you, my faithful readers and fellow writers, think I should focus on more so? And why? Is it better to get a new story idea out of my head or to hone the one that’s closer to a finished product? Which story sounds more interesting to you? And do you have any wise advice for a long-dormant novelist trying to get back in the game?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Science Fiction and Human Nature

I love science fiction, and I’ve consumed quite a lot of it–books, movies, comics, and more–in my day. And as much as I love an epic quest or a final showdown where the hero defeats the villain in some spectacular way involving super powers and futuristic technology and lots of flying colors, there’s one thing I’ve been noticing lately about sci-fi. It’s that good sci-fi is not necessarily about technology or the future or quests to save the world from evil madmen. Sure, those things are great, but they shouldn’t necessarily be at the heart of the story, and sometimes they can even distract from the main focus. Rather, the best sci-fi is about human nature and what real people would be likely to do with a particular technology or science.

Of course, this principle may sound basic; an understanding of human nature is essential to any good fiction. But it’s something I’ve been noticing especially in science fiction lately. A friend of mine recently showed me a couple different short stories he was working on. Both took place in mostly normal worlds, but each had one thing that was different–one new technology or one new law that changed things for the way people lived. And the stories were not necessarily about the technology itself, or the government that built the technologies or put the laws in place, but they were about ordinary guys living in these worlds and using these different technologies as they saw fit–usually for personal pleasure or gain.They were about how human nature reacted to new developments in the world.

I don’t want to publish my friend’s ideas without his permission, so I won’t say specifically what twists and gimmicks his stories contained. But I’ll give you another example. I tried to emulate this same principle with a story I recently wrote on this blog, a five-part installment tentatively titled “Parallel.” In this story, a regular, flawed, unhappy guy finds a way to travel to alternate dimensions, but there’s not a big epic quest where he has to find his way home or battle evil parallel versions of himself. In fact, the narrator even makes the point directly to the reader that he’s not battling an evil alternate version of himself (okay, maybe I’ll be a little more subtle in my revisions). Rather, he just uses dimensional travel as a way to escape his failing marriage and unpleasant home life–and it works about as well as it ever does when normal people without interdimensional travel try to run away from problems in their lives and their marriages. The technology is a fun gimmick that helps make the story work, but it’s not the focus or the main point. The story is about this guy and his life and his marriage and the choices he makes.

Another good example is the film Inception. In the movie, there’s a technology that lets people enter each other’s dreams

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

and be in control of their actions within the dream world. Very little attention is given to how the technology works or why it was developed, because that’s not the point of the story; it’s basically just assumed that, in this fictional world, dream travel is possible. But again, dream travel alone isn’t the main point of the story. One could say that there is a “quest,” or at least a convoluted heist that the protagonists work to pull off to achieve a certain goal, but there’s more to it than that. The story is about the main character, Cobb, and his life, and his guilt over a past relationship with his wife. The existence of the technology in this world allows for the plot events to play out the way they did, but it’s not the main point of the story. It’s about how the technology affects the lives and the psyche and the character development of realistic people. It’s about what human nature does with the technology.

I think I’ve made similar points to these in my previous post about dystopias, because a good dystopia, while often futuristic or post-apocalyptic, requires a focus on human nature as well. And speaking of post-apocalyptic dystopias, I’ll also use The Walking Dead as an example–both the comic books and the TV adaptation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, The Walking Dead is not about the exciting or gory action of human good guys killing zombie bad guys. No, it’s about how the need for survival changes people over time, how the breakdown of civilization brings out the worst in humanity. It’s about how, as Nietzsche warned, he who fights with monsters should be careful not to become a monster himself. Author Robert Kirkman stated in the introduction to the first collected volume of the comic series that he wanted the story to be more about realistic character development over time than just about zombies scaring people, and I for one believe he’s achieved that goal well. He doesn’t just deal with zombies, but with the effect that zombies have on human nature.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Your challenge, then, next time you’re lacking inspiration or need a new story idea, is to think about science fiction–and not just sci-fi itself, but about how sci-fi affects human nature. Come up with a technology or innovation that could exist in speculative fiction. If you can’t think of one that hasn’t been done already, then just come up with a new law or government regulation that could possibly be put in place. Then ask yourself: what would real, flawed, human beings do or act like in a world where this exists? What would you do with it? What would your friends or enemies do with it? Or what about that guy you met on the street with everything to gain and nothing to lose? Be creative, think about the implications that a certain innovation could have on human nature and behavior, and write the most real and natural story you can. You may be surprised at what you find.