Onward! Even When Your Fiction Writing Stinks

02-27-13 OnwardIf I have learned anything about writing fiction this week, it’s that the magic genie comes and goes. I’m talking about the magic genie that makes your writing worth someone’s putting an eye to.

Monday was painful. I had to squeeze fiction in amongst a bunch of other stuff and what came out was corny or wooden. Tuesday was much the same. But then, on Wednesday, something happened. My imagination woke up, the cork came out of my word-bottle and the next thing you know I was writing about pirates-turned-gladiators-in-Hell and a prison where the inmates are encased in solid blocks composed of some – let me exercise some delicacy for once – especially unpleasant materials. I had action, sights, smells, characters, plot movement—joy! Thursday and Friday continued this happy pattern.

So what does this have to do with you, dear reader, who is perhaps, like me, a time-challenged part-time fictioneer?

Everything. Well, okay, a lot.

The one thing I did on each of this week’s five working days was sit down and bang out some fiction. Stinky, glorious, whatever its quality, I hammered on it. That happened for a few reasons, handily revealed by hindsight:

Habit. Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve become accustomed to the routine of carving out about an hour or so five days a week to work on the not-so-great American novel. So part of getting through this last weird week was just reflex, one I’ve developed through some early discipline.

Big Picture. I kept reminding myself that this is the first draft. It’s okay for the first draft to be rough—okay, terrible—in places, or even all the way through. I’m just at step one of a lengthy, multi-step process.

Permission. I followed the advice of J. A. Konrath and gave myself permission to write crap. It never fails to surprise me how that little attitude adjustment will help you keep going.

Associative Causality. That sounds important, huh? Let’s say it again, together: “associative causality.” Ooooh. We are smart. Actually, I’m not smart enough to come up with a term to encapsulate the notion that because our thought processes proceed by associating one thing with another, that even crummy writing produces thoughts and ideas that eventually cause your brain to spit out something halfway decent. This is just a pompous, ten-dollar way of saying I realized that if I kept going, something good would happen. I just didn’t want to call it “optimism,” okay? Too cheer-leader-y.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I hope it’s helpful. Good luck with your genies, folks.

Why-Wisdom for Fiction Writers

Notebook paper with pencil writing whyI was sitting in church the other day, listening to the sermon with my usual rapt attention, when I realized the minister was saying something about “why,” as in ultimate reasons. I suppose he was making a religious point of some kind, but my mind immediately leapt to fiction writing. Why, indeed, write fiction?

There are two bones to pick here, I think. The first is why you, dear reader, pursue the wordly way. The second is, why are you writing this particular piece of fiction?

Why Write?

To write, you’ve got to have the basic need to create. Not a longing or a hankering, but an itch you can never scratch enough. For a writer, this undeniable yen is fundamental; without it you’ll give out.

As for words, you may be instinctively drawn to the power of story and language like a yellow jacket to a picnic, just because of the way your DNA is wired. You may have a psychological need to write because of your life experience. Or maybe you just don’t have any place to paint, so you’re making do.

This first Why is the seed of your mission as a writer. Your raison d’écrire informs your choice of subject, your tone, the type of stories you choose – everything. If you know what it is, you can make those choices with more intelligence and better results. And when you get tired of the whole business, you can go back to Why #1 for a shot of ambition.

Why Write This?

The second Why, regarding why you are writing a particular piece, gets you to your theme. Theme is the thing you’re trying to demonstrate or prove in your novel. In a romantic comedy, that might be “love prevails, even for goofy people.” In something tragic, your theme might be “people can and will be noble, even when doomed.” If you really want to say something with a particular piece of fiction, that’s your theme, your second Why. Knowing the statement you want to make in your story is another thing that will keep you going when the batteries of enthusiasm run low.

Theme may not reveal itself to you right away. In my own case, I started writing Thin Spots because I thought the idea would be fun to develop into a novel. That’s no theme, though, and I may not figure out what it is until I’ve finished the first draft and re-read it. But that’s just the screwed-up method of a nascent novelist. You are far more clever than I, of course, and will figure out your theme, your Why for this particular piece, up front.

Why-dle Dum and Why-dle Dee

You may find that Why #1 and Why #2 influence each other. Writing a particular story may lead you to insights that change your overall reason for writing and, as I said earlier, your overall reason for writing is sure to influence the types of stories you choose.

Why Think About Why?

I suppose you could go your entire writing career without thinking about the Whys at all. Personally, though, I like living with as much awareness as I can, because that leads to better decisions. Knowing my Whys, as I’ve pointed out, also gives me additional resources to fall back on when my writing energies flag.

That’s all. I could write more, but I can’t think why.

Qualities of a Great Book

A display of booksI was at a birthday party the other night and got reacquainted with an old friend of my wife’s, a really excellent writer I’m going to call A.J. for purposes of this post. A.J. was very happy about having sold a nonfiction book to one of the big publishers. Given how difficult that gauntlet can be to run, I was pretty impressed. I thought later about how he had done it and some lessons revealed themselves.

He coped with his situation. A.J. was a newspaper writer for a long time. That business being what it is these days, he was laid off. Rather than lying down and bemoaning his situation, he started freelancing and eventually found his way to this book. Lesson: Cope with the situation that’s in the way of your writing. Maybe it’s time, or money, or relationships, or something else. Figure out a workaround.

He remembered a contact. A.J. sold his book with the help of an agent he had met twenty years before. Lesson: Keep up with people who can help your writing career, be they editors, bloggers, or just interested friends. You never know who might lend a hand.

He used an agent. A.J. told me he wouldn’t have had a prayer without his agent. Lesson: If you’re going the traditional publishing route, get an agent first.

He wrote a killer book synopsis. The synopsis A.J. wrote was about 20,000 words long, which was, like a ‘60’s miniskirt, long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. Lesson: An great synopsis will help sell your book, so put in the effort.

He had a fantastic idea. A.J.’s book idea was derived from an experience he’d had while working at the newspaper. I’ll enumerate its virtues in a list, but first, the lesson. Lesson: Have a wonderful book idea with all the concepts below.

  • Have plenty of conflict. In A.J.’s book, individuals and communities square off against each other in a conflict of deeply held values. You can feel it crackle just when he talks about it.
  • Have a satisfying resolution. The ending of A.J.’s book is moving and it ties up all the loose ends, so it satisfies the emotions and the intellect.
  • Populate your story with interesting people. This story is awash with character possibilities. Some are on one side of the value questions, some on the other and some stand around the middle. There are differences in economic and educational backgrounds, and stark differences in the way children are raised. The characters move this baby along.
  • Feature characters that change. The resolution of this story requires that some of the characters change dramatically. Observing that metamorphosis makes for great reading.
  • Use an engaging setting. The setting is rural America, but some of the features of it are unlike any most of us have ever experienced. Those aspects of the setting you are more likely to have experienced are viewed from a rarely seen angle.

The ideas listed here aren’t the complete list of everything needed for a great book, of course, but it’s a good idea to put them into practice if you can. I’m certainly going to try, and I’m going to keep up with A.J.’s progress and that of his book.

If you’ve got any more ideas for improving the writing process or the product, please leave a comment. Thanks.

Staring at the Ceiling

Announcement: I’ve decided to start posting only once a week, on Wednesdays, starting today. I hope this move will give me more time to write better fiction, which I hope you’ll one day enjoy. Thanks!

Baby staring at the ceiling“That’s not work… staring at the ceiling!”

So a radio panel show participant I heard once characterize his wife’s evaluation of his profession—not so much actual toil, but looking off into space, if not toward the ceiling then in some other equally lackadaisical direction. I wonder, if someone took the trouble to do a study, how much of a writer’s at-the-desk time would consist of scribing prose and how much would consist of staring, or chewing a pencil, or something else thoughtful.

Since I’ve reached a place in the Thin Spots project where I’m crafting scenes from scratch again and not re-working old material into the revised plan (yay!), I’ve come to think the percentage of ceiling-staring time is pretty high.

Words usually just don’t come roaring out of my head onto the page, because they’ve got to be preceded by mental imagery. Even though I’ve got my descriptive paragraphs all written and my scene sheets all neatly assembled, I still have to figure out precisely what’s going to happen in the moment-to-moment life of the novel. If a beastie is going to fling something at the hero (Colin), what’s it going to be? A spear? A cassava melon? Is Colin then going to get hit, roll, or dodge? If he dodges, does he go left or right? I could go on, but you would probably hate that, so I won’t. You get the idea.

The periods of staring come into play when I’m trying to work out all those details. For me, it’s a process of envisioning the action and hearing the dialogue in my imagination. Part of the scene will play through my head like a movie trailer and then I’ll write down the pictures, allowing the magic of wordplay to change them as it will. Then I’ve got a platform to stand on with one foot while I reach out into empty space with the other, feeling for the next bit of the scene.

This process requires me to avoid hurry. If I’m in a dither about getting to a certain point or spitting out a quota of words in my allotted hour, I’ll be too focused on putting words on paper to allow sufficient time for the meat of the scene to form in my brain. When that happens, I either get little written at all or the writing meanders all over without getting much of anywhere.

I hope I’ve now shown how important staring at the ceiling (or at anything) is to writing fiction. So, friends, if someone says to you that all you’re doing is staring into space, print out this post and show it to them. They will read it and be utterly convinced, or they will crumple it into a ball and fling it at you. In the latter case, I suggest a dodge; that seems to work for me, most of the time.

Conflict at the Core

BoxingI recently reread J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, in honor of the movie’s coming out later this year. During the process, I ran across the following sentence:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

What Tolkien is getting at here is the importance of conflict to stories. It is possible to have a narrative without conflict, but it’s bound to be flatter than a bug after an encounter with a windshield.

I remember one example of a conflict-less story with a distinct lack of affection. It was a story about a doll. The doll started as a gleam in a little girl’s eye, continued as a conversation with a grandmother, was constructed of scraps collected by the oh-so-poor family, given to the little girl and then loved forever after. The closest this tale came to conflict was the family’s poverty and their struggle to collect the scraps, which wasn’t so much a struggle as a hunt around the old cabin or farmstead or whatever it was.

This was an oral story. The teller, or writer, if you prefer, had all the advantages of body language, gesture, vocal tone and dramatization. The teller used all these as best as possible, yet to call the result insipid is an insult to insipid things everywhere and indeed to the concept of insipidity itself. In fact I wish I could think of a word that conjured a greater level of insipidity that “insipid,” but I can’t and I don’t want to use and adverb.

Anyway, it was bad. Why? No conflict.

Now, what if the story had gone differently? What if the family had had to go to some extreme lengths to get the materials for the doll? What if the little girl was dying? What if the doll got made and was then stolen? What if the doll was possessed by evil spirits? What if the favor shown this little girl made her sister jealous and that had a disastrous effect on their relationship? The possibilities are myriad.

I think the reason we love stories with conflict, at least in part, is that conflict always involves something we must try to overcome. That overcoming presents us with a challenge and it’s wrestling with challenges that, win or lose, sharpens our characters and makes us grow. Conflict is at the very heart of our evolution as a species—would the first hominids have stood upright to see farther across the savannah if there hadn’t been predators to watch out for?

So, if your story seems a little flat, look at the elements of conflict. It could well be they need some pumping up.

How about this? Once upon a time there was an dad who, after a fantastic but exhausting day with his son, needed to come up with a Wednesday blog entry, even though he was was reeling with fatigue…

See you next time. I’m going to bed!

The Writer’s Disadvantage

Native American StorytellerI have been a writer of one stripe or another for a long time, but I’ve been a performer for even longer. I became a theater kid when I was 10 and didn’t let up until I was out of college. Not long after college, I was the lead singer in a little soft-rock band in Memphis. That didn’t last long, but it was great fun. I got involved in working my way out of poverty after that and so didn’t perform for a long time, until I was comfortably ensconced in the cubical of a technical writer. It was then I discovered oral storytelling, a craft that allows for loose story composition and offers a lovely lack of long rehearsals. I’m still doing that when I have the chance.

The thing all these performing activities have in common is that they put you right in front of your audience. This gives you some great advantages when you’re trying to entertain people.

For one thing, you get instant feedback. If people laugh, or gasp, or lean forward, or even stop talking for a couple of minutes to listen or watch, you know you’re on the right track. If you’re in the groove, there’s a weird ethereal connection between you and the audience. You can feel each other.

For another thing, you have many tools of communication at your disposal. You have body movement, facial expression, tone and volume of voice and personal appearance to name just a few off the top of my head. You might have music, too.

When we create fiction, the goal is to get the same audience reactions the performer does—laughter, tears, attention, dollars in the tip jar (sales, that is). Alas for us, we have precious little to work with—just words on a page. I am conscious of this, at some level, whenever I write to entertain and I am forever astounded at the facility with which some practitioners to weave a spellbinding tale using only this system of symbols, devoid of any other ornament.

How can I make a prosperous journey to that lofty height of writer-dom? Here’s what I tell myself:

  • Don’t worry about it. If you worry about it you’ll just get wrapped around the axle.
  • Practice. Write as much as you can and have some discipline about it.
  • Read. Check out the acknowledged greats and the obscure folks, too. Include poetry.
  • Write poetry. Poetry demands the most of your vocabulary and your ear for language. Make it something that demands careful word choice, something with structure. Haiku is good for this.
  • Get support. Join a writing group or groups, with real people or online, preferably both.
  • Read it out loud. Does the piece work as an oral story? If not, maybe the language needs fixing, or the story itself. This is a great way to ferret out typos, too.
  • Imagine telling it live. When you’re writing, it’s sometimes fun to imagine you’re telling the tale to an audience. Try it, maybe you’ll like it.

This is all stuff that works for me. I hope you’ll find something here to help you overcome the writer’s lack of resources. I mean, overcoming that lack is half the fun, right?

Top Ten Reasons to Keep Writing

Keep on Truckin'10. You Have a Dream

I suppose there are some writers who create simply for its own sake and put the manuscripts in a box or use them to wrap fish, but most of us would like to be read. It’s grand to have a dream! A dream can get you up in the morning with enthusiasm and put you to bed at night with hope. Just don’t take it too seriously or get too obsessed with it; that takes all the fun out of it. This one is number 10 for a reason!

9. You Love Words

Words are some of man’s most ancient and entertaining playthings. To rearrange them so they hang together so that each one supports the others, to really wring the music out of them is one of the most rewarding, fun activities to come along since eating. People who don’t write may not understand this, but writers do. We love this stuff! Why stop?

8. You Honor Your Ancient Lineage

Storytellers of the written and oral varieties are part of a long line of artists going back to the first people who told tales of the mammoth that got away or the bear that attacked while they were gathering berries in the woods. For centuries, they’ve entertained and enlightened their fellow human beings. As long as you’re writing, you’re part of the lineage of poets and bards.

7. You Won’t Let Your Readers Down

Whether you’re writing for millions or just for your mom because she’s the only person who’ll read your stuff, you’ve got an obligation to your readership. They’re waiting with baited breath, or at least polite attention, to see what’s going to happen next in your riveting tale. Don’t let them down!

6. You Love Crafting the Middle

Working through the middle, finding your way from the initial crisis to the resolution while trying to provide entertainment and perhaps enlightenment, is an excellent game. It’s like going on a long, exciting adventure into unknown territory.

5. You Love Starting

What could be more fun than starting the newest work? There’s sketching and planning and plotting and then, at last, the first words of prose on the paper, the first movement of characters, descriptions, dialogue! I suppose the feeling isn’t universal, but for me the fun of starting is one of the chief reasons I keep coming back to the keyboard.

4. You Love Finishing

Ah, the finish! Dealing out just desserts to the bad guys and rich rewards to the good… or crafting some variation thereof, if your tale runs darker or lighter. There are fewer greater satisfactions in life than tying up all the loose ends in a neat package and writing “the end.” And at that point you’ve earned a martini, which is pretty sweet, too.

3. You Want to See How the Story Turns Out

It’s the wise writer—and I’m sure you are—that writes for the enjoyment of the tale. If you keep going, you get to see what happens next. Even if you’ve planned things carefully, there are still surprises waiting that will change your story’s path. Stop writing and you’ll never find out what they are; keep on and they’ll reward you.

2. You Appreciate God’s Gift

Whatever it is that sends you to the keyboard is a gift from God to be treasured and used gratefully. If you don’t believe in an objective God but are spiritual, think of your writing as a gift of the universe, or part of your particular expression of Buddha-nature. If you’re an atheist, appreciate the fact that your evolutionary path led to your having this gift. Your writing is part of the unique set of traits that makes you unique; it was meant to expressed.

1. You Can’t Help It

The number one reason to stick to your writing is that you just can’t help doing it. Not writing for you would be like a flower not blooming. In Samuel R. Delaney’s novel Dhalgren, which I read ages ago, there’s a reference to some people having “a wound that bleeds poetry.” Maybe you have a wound, maybe not, but it’s certain that stories and words are flowing out of you like water from a spring and their destination is the page. Hold them in and the earth around either explodes or rots from the inside and caves in. Keep writing because you must.

Scene Templates Might Save Your Bacon

SignpostLast Wednesday, I wrote about the Beat Sheet and how great I think it is now. With that bad boy knocked out, I feel I’ve got a coherent, streamlined structure for a story that might even be worth reading one day.

So what’s next? Jump into writing?

I have to say I’m strongly tempted. Although I do love planning, I love the creative play of writing much more. But I am holding off for a few more days to complete scene templates for at least the first few scenes I’m going to write.

Why? Because whenever I have gotten stuck before, scene templates have saved my bacon.

I picked up the form and idea for these templates from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, a fine tome on the mechanics of novel-writing, especially when combined with Story Engineering and Outlining Your Novel. Since adopting Marshall’s original templates, I’ve tweaked them to meet my own purposes and temperament and am tweaking them still as I go along. Here’s an example, with descriptions of each part in [brackets]:

Scene Title: Mine! [Scene title. Like, duh.]

Scene # and description: Satan writing “Mine” all over his map. [I am not using scene numbers right now because the tools I use don’t support auto-numbering and if I rearrange things I don’t want to have to change all those scene numbers. I like using a nutshell description. One could also put the descriptive paragraph here.]

From # N/A [Title of the preceding scene; this helps you keep the dots connected.]

To # [Title of the succeeding scene, again for connecting those dots.]

Action/Reaction: [In an Action section, the viewpoint character for the scene does something. In a reaction section, the viewpoint character mulls things over and decides what to do next.]

Scene Viewpoint Character: [Three guesses what you put here.]

Where: [I use a nutshell description, but this could be as long as you want.]

When: [I like to use a date and time of day; however, I suppose you could use the relative timing of events, as in “after John gets a parking ticket, just before he trips over the coffee shop doorjamb.”]

ACTION [Use this part of the template if the scene is for Action.]

Goal from viewpoint character’s last section: [Here’s the concluding goal from this character’s previous section (just put N/A if it’s their first one), which provides motivation.]

Against (person or circumstance that brings crisis): [This is whatever is at the root of the conflict in the scene.]

Conflict (occurrence of crisis; section character’s reaction): [This section might just as well be called “Action,” except that would be confusing. Here’s a synopsis of what happens in the scene.]

 Failure (unless opposition) (inability to undo or deny crisis): [Because a good story requires the hero to be up against the wall most of the time, she is always failing on some scale at the end of a scene (at least until you get to the very end). The bad guys, on the other hand, mostly experience success.]

 New Goal (or go to a Reaction section) (character doesn’t necessarily have to devise, but describe it here; can devise here, though, or devise in Reaction section): [Having failed, the hero decides what to do next; you describe that here.]

 Cliffhanger: [At the end of most scenes, I like to have at least the appearance of a major disaster occurring for the hero. This is some kind of action, as opposed to thinking up a new goal.]

 REACTION [Use this part of the template if the scene is for Action.]

Failure from scene viewpoint character’s last action section (briefly describe; the section will restate it): [Pretty obvious, eh? This can be a cut-and-paste job, if you like.]

 With (other characters that share the section): [Often it’s good to have at least one other character, perhaps a confidant, in the Reaction scene so the hero can talk out his reaction some.]

 Emotional reaction (character’s gut reaction to the previous failure): [Describe the viewpoint character’s emotions here.]

 Rational reaction (character’s analytical reaction to the previous failure): [Describe the character’s more calculated thoughts about how to make things right.]

 New Goal (character devises): He/she will X in order to X. [The emotional and rational reactions work together to engender the new goal. Describe that here.]

At this point, you might be thinking I am the most anal-retentive creature in existence and have devised a way to suck all fun and discovery out of story creation while at the same time putting off any actual writing.

I beg to differ. Crafting the scene templates, I’ll admit, tastes more of work than play, but it’s worth it. As you fill them out, new ideas will occur to you for nifty development or much-needed fixes. These things are not carved in stone—you can reorder them and rejigger them any way you like as you go along.

The best part is, once you have a template for every scene in your story—or at least enough to get started with—the writing flows through those blank pages like hot lava through a scrub forest. The “duh” moments, when you don’t know what to put on the page next, are few and far between. This means you can concentrate on the quality of the writing itself—the crafting of language, the drawing out of characters, the description of setting, the arrangement of action—all the truly fun stuff!

Scene templates may not be for you, but I invite you to give them a shot, especially if you’re a writer who has started several novels but never finished one. They could make all the difference in the world.

The Beat Sheet: A Revelation

Sometimes a simple thing can be a revelation. Thus it was for me with the scene list, usually known by its cooler name, the “beat sheet.”

Though I had heard it mentioned before, I really didn’t know what the beat sheet was until I happened on Larry Brooks’s lucid explanation of it in Story Engineering. It sounded so good I decided to try it.

The beat sheet isn’t a complex thing. It’s just a list of your scenes with the minimal information necessary—a scene name and maybe a nutshell description. Having assembled your list, you start fooling with their order, adding some, subtracting others, until you have a satisfactory skeleton on which to hang the flesh of your tale. You can use whatever you like to make your beat sheet: a word processor, post-its, index cards, scraps of tanned cowhide. The main thing is that you can rearrange, add and subtract scenes with ease.

The beauty of the beat sheet is that it removes detail. If you’re trying to sort paragraphs describing each scene, or scene-construction forms of some kind, it’s too easy to get lost in the information about each scene, rather than simply concentrating on where it should go in the story. With the beat sheet, you get a couple of crystalline drops of data for each scene. These info-chicklets are easy to hold in your short-term memory, so you can juggle several at once and better determine how they affect each other, which insight goes into your scene arrangement. (FYI, the average short-term memory holds about seven items at once.)

I was stunned by my results with the beat sheet. I had a big sub-plot and realized it wasn’t working at all, so I cut it to the bone. I figured out how to tighten up the first three sections and began forming an idea of how the concluding section would go. Most valuable of all, I found that events in need of foreshadowing and questions in need of answering  jumped out at me like clowns popping out of a miniature Volkswagen.

Valuable as it was, the beat sheet still left me feeling a little short in the coherence department. I didn’t have a good sense of whether all the beats made sense or not. Now it was time to bring back some detail. The next step, writing a descriptive paragraph for each beat, helped me take care of that. Writing a paragraph about each beat helped me analyze it to be sure it held up as a worthwhile part of the story and also fit well with the other beats. I discovered more plot gaps, more foreshadowing needs and even a few more scenes that needed adding.

I’m still working on the descriptive paragraphs, but they’ll be wrapped up soon and when they are I’ll be in great shape to plan each scene to the point where I can write it easily. Then – joy of joys! – I’ll actually write those puppies!

Bonus! Here’s a beat with a descriptive paragraph to give you a concrete idea of the process.

1.      Colin gets killed. The Dough(boy) is Flat Colin gets hit by a truck while delivering pizzas.

Colin is toodling along on his scooter with the music turned up. [Look up some real scooter/motorcycle fatal wrecks and base the scene on them.] A truck runs a light; Colin doesn’t hear it coming and gets hit. He sees the famous bright, white light beckoning him forward. [What about other people who are in comas? Why don’t they get the same reaction as Colin? And if there are more like him, why don’t they recognize the smell of someone still connected to a body? Maybe de Retz, in his eagerness to make good, broke the rules and snatched a soul (Colin’s) meant for Limbo, Heaven or some other area; that hasn’t happened before. Also, Colin is the only person ever to find out he is in a coma someplace and that affects his behavior.] [If Colin is meant for Heaven, why is his body still alive? Maybe Colin’s angel is the one to escort him to Limbo or coma holding area.]

Colin Davis: Gladiator

Monster GladiatorHowdy! In this week’s installment, Colin pitches in at gladiator practice. (Note to the persnickety: This has not been edited, not even a little bit. Proceed at your own risk.)

Colin leaned against the dugout wall and watched anxiously as Stebbins stepped up to the plate and readied his bat. Stebbins, who had made a fortune in life bundling worthless loans into attractive mortgage-backed securities, was muscle-bound enough to deliver a wicked hit, but the art of connecting bat to ball had thus far eluded him. If he screwed up, Coach Dagon would be angrier than usual with the next few batters, of whom Colin was one.

Dagon flapped his red wings and spit into the dirt. “Elbow up, Stebbins! How many times do I have to tell you, you piece of damned soul scrap! Square to the plate, not the pitcher! You’re at home plate, not on the line of scrimmage, you criminal ass!”

Stebbins corrected his stance. The pitcher wound up and threw a fast ball, straight down the middle. Stebbins swung hard, but too early. The ball — actually a former dictator of a small island nation — smacked into the catcher’s glove and yelped.

“Strike one! You’re swinging too soon, moron! Watch the ball!” Dagon’s blood-red barbed tail snaked out and whipped Stebbins across the back of his naked legs.

Stebbins whiffed the next two pitches as well. “Hopeless! You’re hopeless!” Dagon raged. He grabbed Stebbins by the neck, flew him high to one of the giant torches that illuminated the arena during real competitions, and hung him there by the back of his loincloth. “Anybody else want to give me a sorry performance like that today?” the demon shouted. The assembled gladiators-in-training replied with a chorus of shaking heads and mumbled “no sirs.”

“All right, then. That’s enough baseball! Time for combat practice. Go fetch your equipment. Run! Last one back runs laps for a year!”

The students stampeded for the locker room, all except for Colin, who paused, looking up at Stebbins, who was swaying gently to and fro in a Hellish breeze.

“Master Dagon, Stebbins won’t be able to practice combat if he’s hanging up there.”

The demon fluttered over and came toe to toe with Colin. “Very observant, deadie. Don’t think because you’ve got a little talent in the sword department you can afford to be a smartass.”

Colin lowered his head. “Oh, no, Master Dagon. It’s just that he’s one of the best at combat and if you want Satan’s Sadists to win against Beelzebub’s Bastards…”

Smoke poured from Dagon’s pointed ears. “We’ll beat those Bastards with or without Stebbins! We’ve got the greatest team in Hell, with the best coach and don’t you forget it! Now go get your equipment before I decide to disembowel you this very instant!”

Colin sprinted away, knowing Dagon might well make good his threat. As he got to the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, he looked back and saw the coach flying upward toward the spot where Stebbins was hanging.

***

Stebbins came running in seconds after Colin arrived in the locker room. The big man was breathing hard, but otherwise seemed none the worse for the wear.

“I don’t know what you said to him, but thanks, Colin,” Stebbins said. “I thought I was going to be hanging up there forever.”

Colin cinched his sword belt and grinned. “I just told him we couldn’t beat the Bastards without one of our best fighters. I guess he agreed.”

“Isn’t that helping?”

“Nah, it’s ingratiating yourself to the coach. Totally self-serving.”

“Yeah, right. You ready? I don’t want to be running laps for a year.”

They ran through the tunnel into the arena, leaving some of the slower souls to worry about who would run 365 days of laps.

Though he hated to admit it, even to himself — especially to himself — Colin loved the arena, even though he had never fought a real battle in it. It was an enormous oval of sand, surrounded on all sides by a high wall perforated by various cavities. Some led to locker-room tunnels, others were reserved for the release of beasts and other opponents into the fighting space. From the top of the walls rose row upon row of stadium seats. Fastened to the top rim of the stadium was a ring of giant torches, each carved into the likeness of a different demon, with the fire bowl in the top of the skull. Standing in the middle of the playing field, looking up into the stands, Colin had a hint of the feeling that had come to him for the first time when he had fought Ragtagalog and that came to him now in combat practice.

Dagon’s whistle jarred him out of his reverie. “All right! Give me Colin, Stebbins, Episki and Fights-Like-a-Girl. To arena center. Now!”

The four souls obeyed on the double. Each of them had a leather-and-iron shield and a short sword. Other weapons were scattered around the arena for them to get to, if they could. They lined up in a rank and stood at attention. Dagon pointed to a spot about ten feet away and to the left of the group.

“Colin, over there.”

Colin jogged over to the indicated spot. He knew better than to argue.

“It’s time you kids started practicing something close to the real thing. Today, no fake cuts, no scoring for touches, no Dagon telling you you’re wounded, sit out. No. Today, it’s real cuts, real ichor, real limbs coming off, real heads bashed in.”

Fights-Like-a-Girl raised his hand. “Won’t that leave us in pretty poor shape for more practice or… anything?”

“You’ll heal well enough. Now then… it’s the three of you against Colin.”

“What?” said all for gladiator trainees at once.

“You heard me! Real combat starts soon and you need to be ready. Start on one whistle, stop on two. Ready…”

Dagon’s whistle split the air. Colin crouched into a defensive stance, sideways to the other fighters, shield raised in front of his body, short sword just behind it, ready to lash out at the least opportunity. The other three trainees circled him. Colin felt the battle fever creeping into his blood like wine. He grinned and faced Stebbins.

“Ready, Stebs?”

Stebbins rattled his shield. “Come on then!”

Colin raised his sword, shouted, and at the last instant spun and ran at Episki. Episki began to pivot sideways but Colin detected the move almost before it was begun. As Episki’s sword slashed sideways toward the spot where he expected Colin’s guts to be as he ran past, Colin vaulted into the air, twisted and landed so that he was facing Episki’s back. He swung his sword at the other trainee’s temple. The blade sliced neatly through the top of Episki’s skull. Episki dropped to the sand like a bag of nails.

The fighting stopped. All the trainees stared agape at their fellow student, lying quite still on the ground.

Dagon blew his whistle twice. “Time out!

“What happened to the magic for blunting the weapons?” Colin asked. He was shaking. “It’s just practice. Yesterday that would have only knocked him over and you’d yell ‘touch’ and call him out. What’s the deal?”

“Surprise!” said Dagon. “You’ve graduated from the kiddie-cars to driver’s ed. Real combat’s just around the corner. Plenty of bets on the line. You need to be ready.”

“But Episki…” said Fights-Like-a-Girl.

“He’ll heal! Here, watch!”

They looked. The crown of Episki’s skull was somehow dragging itself across the sand towards the rest of him. They watched as it reached its goal, shot out gelatinous tendrils that attached to the whole part of the skull and used those to pull itself back into place. Episki’s body jerked a few times and then he sat up on one elbow.

“Did I get him? Boy, my head hurts.”

“Gladiators are too rare to waste,” Dagon said. “So they get a little extra repair capability. Lose too many times, though, and it wears off. After that happens, annihilation.”

“What?” asked Fights-Like-a-Girl.

“Annihilation. Erasure from existence. No atoms. No ether. No quarks. No mind. Absolute zilch.”

“Swell,” Colin muttered.

“Spare me the editorials! Now, fight!”

They fought for the rest of the day without a break, always Colin alone or with a partner against the others. He leapt, spun, slashed, kicked, punched, bit and twisted, the battle fever burning hotter and hotter as he worked until he thought he might burst into flame. Blade edges wouldn’t cut him and he hardly felt thumps from fists, feet or weapons. When Dagon finally blew his whistle, the other three trainees were lying on the sand, healing from grievous wounds. Colin threw his sword and shield down and sat heavily on the ground.

Dagon prodded him with an eagle-clawed foot. “You love it, don’t you?”

Colin shook his head emphatically. “No. Absolutely not. If Hell didn’t make me do it, I wouldn’t.”

The demon smiled and spit a sizzling gob into the dust. “Say what you will. I have been around a very, very long time. I can tell.”

“Well, you’re slipping, Master Dagon. That’s all I can say. Begging your pardon.”

“Pardon granted, deadie. Now off to clean up and then to food and rest with you. Go.”

Colin dragged himself off and limped down the tunnel toward the locker room. The battle fever was rapidly leaving his system, leaving him feeling nauseous and weak. More than that, he was disgusted with himself.

Oh, God, he thought. What’s happening to me? I think he’s right. I think I love it. I think I really do.