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Purple Flowers – A Short Story

A while back I participated in a 1,000 word flash fiction contest with this story, over at the leighendarium. It reminded me of “Stand By Me” and a time in my childhood when my friends and I seemed to come up with a dare every single day. I hope you enjoy it. (Instead of reading it, you can also listen/watch it on youtube here).


Purple Flowers

 There were three of us. Kelly Myers, Jonah Appelbaum, and myself. Every day after school, we’d ride our bicycles down Louis Avenue, jumping the pot holes and screaming from the top of our lungs. We’d race each other on the steep part all the way down and across the train tracks into the Nature Sanctuary.

The park extends to the river, a downhill slope past a school of weeping willow trees, across the narrow stone bridge and through the barren meadow where small purple flowers would stick out from the hardened soil.

The challenge was to ride as fast as possible toward the edge — the spot where the steep cliff fell forty feet down into the water — and hit the breaks in the last possible moment. I lost each time, breaking too soon. Jonah usually came in second, leaving Kelly the winner with only a few feet of distance between his bike and the sharp edge.

We called it the line of no return. We had carved it out of the dirt and filled it with charcoal dust so it was visible against the sandy soil. It was a straight line parallel to the edge. To come to a safe stop, you had to have the brakes fully engaged before the line.

That day, Kelly hit the brakes when he was on top of the line, not before. When his front wheel crossed it and he still had not made any attempt to break, I knew he wouldn’t make it.

I was already at a standstill, the fine dust of the dried up dirt swirling around me, when he approached. I saw his face, the moment of panic when he realized he hit the brakes too late.

“Alex!” he cried out. Then he went over the edge. Actually, he let himself fall onto his side in an attempt to slow down his momentum. It probably did. But not enough.

I was frozen. He didn’t scream or anything. It was as if he simply left this world without saying goodbye. I remember thinking that he was a good swimmer, that he could probably make it to shore. But I knew that the fall would most likely kill him — the fall onto the large boulders that stick out of the water this time of year.

Our town is in a drought from May through August. During that time, the river loses four feet of its water. Sometimes five. Kelly could have survived in March. He could have survived in September. Not in June. Not today.

I heard the metallic clanking sound of the bike crashing onto the rocks below. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to have the image of his broken body be the last thing I remember. Jonah, his face pale as the moon, was much more courageous. He let go of his bike and ran the few feet to the edge. Jonah lived next door to Kelly. They were like brothers. They fought and teased each other as only ten-year-old boys could. They loved each other too. They looked out for each other. They looked out for me.

I moved here only two years ago from Chicago. I’m smaller than most boys my age and had very thick glasses. I got teased a lot. I got pushed and intimidated and made fun of but when one of the other boys hit me, Kelly hit him back. That day I didn’t walk home alone after school. Kelly and Jonah walked next to me, one on each side. We were inseparable ever since, sometimes to the detriment of our teachers and our parents. We were trouble. We built a dam in the Shallow Creek that was so high, it flooded the nearby walkway making it impossible for pedestrians to cross.

We’d use the thin green plastic pipes you find in aquariums and turn them into spitball shooters. Armed with a bag of dried peas we’d declare war on some of our classmates, teachers, and unsuspected civilians. We’d sneak out of the house at night, meet up, and switch garden ornaments between houses, convinced that we had just pulled off the heist of the century. Kelly and Jonah said they were the muscle and I was the brains of the operation. I never had better friends.

“Kelly,” Jonah cried. He looked down toward the water.

I approached as if in trance. The afternoon sun sat golden on the surface of the river. I remember the ripples in the current, the sparks of light dancing on the surface, the quiet terror I felt when I moved closer to the edge, stretching out my hand as if to reach all the way down to the bottom and lifting my friend up and save him.

“Kelly,” I whispered.

The bike lay broken on top of a huge boulder forty feet below. The front wheel was bent forward, the steering column snapped in half. The cards he had pinned onto the back wheel to make the bike sound like an airplane propeller, lay next to it.

I couldn’t breathe. Jonah said something. He yelled something, first down toward the water, then to me.

“…go!”

“What?” I said.

“Don’t let go!” he said. Not to me. He didn’t say it to me.

I saw Kelly’s hand first. It was holding on to a root that stuck out of the cliff wall a foot below the top. Then I saw his face. His smiling face.

“Holy shit!” I said. Then I yelled it. I shouted it. “Holly shit! Holy shit! HOLY SHIT!”

Jonah grabbed him by the arm, I held on to his wrist as we pulled him up. We fell on our backs.

“That was close,” Kellly said nonchalantly.

“You’re such an asshole,” Jonah said.

The clouds flew across the sky high above.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I taught myself to play the guitar in my mid teens with songs like House of the Rising Sun, Heart of Gold, Nights in White Satin, Stairway to Heaven, and such. My friends and I spent many a night around camp fires, strumming and singing while reading from crumpled up hand written song lyrics. Now almost 30 years later, I exchanged the guitar for the keyboard and I write.

I just finished a novel called Six String. It tells the story of a sixteen year old girl who runs away from an abusive home, with only her broken six string guitar on her back. The story grabbed me right from the start. The main character’s pain was so powerful and palpable, I found myself weeping numerous times while writing it.

There is one quote by Ernest Hemingway I always come back to. It goes something like this: “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit in front of a type writer and bleed.”

I realized eventually that this quote can be translated into any art form. During my teenage years, I had tons of guitar idols, like Ritchie Blackmore, Angus Young, The Scorpions’ Michael Schenker and many others. I lost myself in Carlos Santana’s guitar solos as much as in Iron Maiden’s riffs. What all of them had in common for me was that I felt something when I listened. There was an emotion that was transferred from the player through the guitar to me, the listener.

I strive to do the same in my books. Learning the craft is hard work but once that’s done, I believe there’s another step to take to go beyond the average artist. In this sense, “there is nothing to playing the guitar. All you have to do is let it weep.”

 

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

A while back, I participated in an online screenwriting workshop that was all about finding the essence of your work. It was brilliant in its simplicity and even though it took a while, I arrived at the conclusion that this is the most important piece of knowledge about writing I have gathered so far.

“What is the story about?”

My friend Nick Cole, great writer and excellent marketer, is very big on pitches, specifically on how to condense a story to four lines. If you read his books you’ll know why he believes so strongly that the pitch is important. It helps boil the story down to its fundamentals and by doing that, exposes the reason why people want to read it.

Boiling it down is also a great tool to conquer writer’s block. We all know the feeling of being stuck in the murky mud. Asking the question what the story is about will loosen up the rocks. Doing that allows us to dive deeper into it and find the hidden treasures that are buried there. Only if we as writers know what the story is about, and only if we are emotionally affected by it, will the reader get swept away.

Let’s go one step further: Capturing the emotional essence of a story in one single sentence will increase the chances of having our work read tremendously. Think back to Alien’s “In space no one can hear you scream” tagline. You don’t need to know anything else about the movie. Deep and utter terror lies in those eight words.

In order to find the essence of the story, there is another question that might have to be answered. What is the essence of the writer? What am I about? Why am I writing? What is it that burns deep inside my soul that needs to come out? The essence of the writer informs the essence of each story she writes. There is no other way.

Writing is deeply personal. We can always only write about ourselves – our fears and nightmares as well as our dreams. What do we stand for? What are we about? What is our essence? That is obviously a larger process and not done over a few weeks, months, or even years. But if we’re in this for the long run, why not ask the question early on and discover the answer through our writing?

Cheers,

Stefan

Six String – Creating Emotion in Writing

The writer’s main goal is to elicit emotion in the reader. Why else would we turn the page and read until the end if not for being emotionally invested? Character traits can elicit emotion, so can certain acts like saving a child from a monstrous creature. Landscapes can be emotional. Anyone who has read Lord of the Rings can attest to that. In Hugh Howey’s Wool, the description of the silos brings forth a sense of terror and claustrophobia all by itself.

A while back, during my days of studying screenwriting, I watched a DVD called The Hero’s Two Journeys. Michael Hauge and Chris Vogler taught a workshop, incorporating Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey into Hollywood screenwriting and storytelling.

For the purpose of this article, I’d like to focus on the two items of the hero’s journey that elicit the most emotion in the reader. Without those two components, the story falls short. Mastering them, however, ensures success (if you define success in transferring an emotion from the writer through the written word to the reader).

The two items are:

A) The main character has to have a burning desire. I’d like to say she has to have a capital B BURNING DESIRE. The bigger the desire, the more emotionally invested we are as readers.

In Six String, the main character, Jennifer Dalton, lives in poverty in an abusive home, and when her little brother dies, the emotional toll on her becomes so overpowering that she runs away, taking with her only her broken six string guitar. For as long as she can remember Jennifer has dreamed of becoming a singer but nothing in her life, other than a raw and untrained voice, has pointed her toward fulfillment of this dream. Now living on the streets, she has no money, no prospects, not even enough strings on her guitar to play.

Jennifer’s burning desire is two-fold. Her most fervent desire is to get rid of the pain over the loss of her brother. The only way to do that is through singing and playing her guitar. That’s her coping mechanism and has been for most of her life. Becoming a singer and getting rid of the pain are interchangeable to her.

B) The second component, besides the hero’s burning desire is an insurmountable obstacle. The burning desire has to run against the obstacle for most of the story up until the climax. Initially, the obstacle has to be bigger and far more powerful than the desire. The bigger the gap between the desire and the obstacle, the better. Only in the final battle (whatever that may be) can the desire become so strong that it literally crushes the obstacle. The hero’s arc has been completed. The grail has been found, and the journey has been completed.

In Six String, the insurmountable obstacle is Jennifer’s homelessness, lack of means, lack of food, and symbolic of that, the lack of guitar strings. She runs away form her home in Twin Falls, Idaho with $18 to her name and a few clothes in her school bag. The obstacles to her ridding herself of the pain she experiences are tremendous as the journey only seems to add to her pain not lessen it. Her desire has to become so big and all encompassing that it eventually overcomes the obstacle.

In looking at successful stories, there is a definite pattern to the “Desire/Obstacle” approach. Basically, any story that grabs us and wont’ let go, has those two elements in it. If one is missing, it won’t work but bringing both to the forefront of the story makes for a wonderful read.

Cheers,

Stefan

 

The Call to Greatness

obama

Eight years ago — I remember sitting at my kitchen table with the sun streaming in through the window — the TV was on with President Obama’s Inauguration address. His speech contained the most inspired words I had ever heard from any politician, or any public figure for that matter.

I felt lifted up, suddenly filled with purpose and hope. This was a significant moment as it reaffirmed my wish to become a writer, to inspire people as much as I was inspired at that very moment. I jotted down a few lines.  They turned into a poem that would stay with me from then on. Whenever I feel unprepared for this journey, whenever I feel lacking the very basic modules of inspiring others, I turn to the poem, knowing that it didn’t come from me but from something much bigger, something that connects all of us on a level we very rarely have access to. This place seems to be what we all aspire to reach, in whatever shape or form we do so. I strive, at times in vain, to get close to it. But sometimes, not often enough, I can hear the call with such clarity, it cannot be dismissed.

 

The Call to Greatness

 

The call to greatness, ever present

Lifts us up to higher ground

Calls us to our highest purpose

Freedom’s choice, no longer bound

*

We will meet it either trembling

Or with steady resting hand

For we cannot hide forever

From our destiny’s command

*

Our oath has not been broken

Our promise’s still our word

From afar, our truth has spoken

All through time has it been heard

*

Here I stand on ground made holy

By this ancient symphony

As I reach for my own glory

For my Father’s company

*

There, with cold and bloodless fingers

Darkened veil, and evil sense

Grips my throat, my heart and lingers

Fear, employed for my defense

*

Fear of death has lost its power

And its ever present threat

It is not the great deceiver

But my greatness that I dread

*

Should I dare to leave my smallness

And my littleness behind

Should I forfeit my own blindness

For a vision that is kind

*

And then one day, maybe not this day

And maybe not even tomorrow

But one day, I know it for sure, my friend

We will exchange joy for our sorrow

*

That day will come and it will be the day

When we take a deep breath

And we pick ourselves up

And we dust ourselves off

*

And with outstretched fingers

We touch the face of God.

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