Friday, May 16, 2014

Cut it out

Writing is re-writing, and re-writing is cutting.

As a young man once said to me, "Get aggressive with it." At the time it was an incredibly stupid thing to say, given the situation. But that was then, and this is now. So, dig out the scissors and X-acto blades, ruler and tape from the back of that junk drawer because it's hacking time.

Was it Germanicus that once said "Fortune favors the bold?" Doubtful, but we'll pretend he did. Have no fear and remove that lovely prose you are so proud of. Destroy every adverb. Insist on being succinct. Be gruntled in your gratuitous expenditure of destruction.

That all sounds like fun, but why? You have spent time believing what you wrote is worthy for others to read, right? Think of this as mining. You have a lovely pile of coal, which in itself is quite wonderful. Getting it out of the mountain is a huge accomplishment. And yes, coal is a valuable commodity; someone will buy it. But that's not why you are here. Simply providing something for the masses will only yield "something". No, you want the diamonds that are hidden in that dark heap of words. You want the real value of what you have. So be bold young man. Get aggressive with it.

Just make sure you have a great backup!

Other blog posts by Eric Michalsen
Follow Eric on Twitter @michalsen or catch up on his rantings at his blog.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Dreamleaks 3: The Lady of Derrenth

I never had a home as a child. Not one that lasted long enough for us to call it a home, at least. See, my parents traveled all the time, and that meant that my sister (Diana) and I (Stuart) had to go with them. If they were acrobats or rock stars or something, the cool factor would have made up for all the other ways this stunk a bit. But they weren't. They were financial consultants or something. I never understood the details as a kid. And now, I just preferred not to find out.

But there was a time when we found a home, however briefly. Not on purpose, though. It was a summer twenty years ago, when I was twelve and my sister ten. For three glorious weeks, we got to stay put in the tiny seaport of Deacon's Wharf. My aunt and uncle had a house there with a couple spare rooms, and financial consultants or something are not the type to turn down free stuff, so there we stayed. Its probably the lost childhood talking, but I remember Deacon's Wharf as some idyllic small town, like something out of a history book. Our cottage was barely a block from the beach of an enormous bay that the entire town had been built around. As the land rose up near the bay into a series of cliffs, the town followed. I could still remember the bustling main street far above the water, and the trains that made their way to town, their plumes steams visible from miles away.

We had our fun in Deacon's Wharf and the beaches. No to mention staying a real house for a while, playing with the toys that my cousins had long outgrown. But we knew it wouldn't really be a home. Not for us. My parents warned us that as soon as their business in town had finished, we would take the next train out, no questions asked. That fact haunted us the entire time, an ambiguous deadline that we could never forget. Never, that is, except when we went into the woods.

If the town came from ancient history, that forest came from a storybook. I've been in a lot of forests after that summer, both as a kid and after I grew up, and none of them felt like how a woods should be. Too many bugs and thorns, too many boring fields and brambles. Being in the Derrenth Woods, the one next to Deacon's Wharf, felt like being in another world. One that never would let you forget that you were an alien, that you were not meant to be here. But, if you meant it no harm, the Derrenth Woods would welcome you as a guest into its home. Or should I say her home.

The first time we saw her must have been at least a week after we arrived. By then, any moment we could get away from our parents, we went to the woods. Sometimes we ate lunch there, but mostly we just explored, climbing trees, and discovering the wood's mysteries. This time, its mysteries discovered us. The Lady of Derrenth (that was all the name she ever gave us,) had bright green hair with streaks of red. But it never looked dyed or artificial; nothing about her ever looked that way. I wondered sometimes how it would have looked if we met her some other season. Would it have turned more orange and golden in the fall? Or would she go bald in winter? Kind of glad I didn't get an answer on that one.

Not that her hair was her only unusual trait. She always wore a shimmery blue-green dress, one that flowed like nothing I had ever seen before or since. It was like water made into fabric. The only other glowing she wore were shoes, if you could all them that. More like hardened mud semi-encased in a shell of wood.

The Lady of Derrenth was sort of like that herself. She had a hard or stern look about her, but she never treated us as anything less than kindly. Especially Diana, though that hadn't been any surprise. When we first saw her, leaning on a tree and staring into a pond like her life depended on it, I just watched her, shocked and entranced. My sister, however, skipped right up to her and shook the Lady's hand. “Hi, I'm Diana!” she chirped. “What's your name?”

The Lady looked as surprised to see us as we were at seeing her, but she managed just the faintest of smiles. “It's strange to receive visitors,” she said, notably not answering my sister's question. “Most of your people have learned to avoid the woods.”

My sister gave the Lady a funny look. “Oh, we just visiting some relatives while my stupid parents have to work,” said. “Why wouldn't people want to visit here? This place is awesome!”

The Lady's smile grew wider for just an instant, and then vanished entirely. “Not all that inspires awe also brings joy,” was all she said. “But you are kind. I thought we had visitors in these recent days, and it is good to meet you. But I fear I can't be the best host. The fall comes soon, and with it the harvest. I have much work to do before then.”

“Can I help?” Diana asked. By this time, fear had started to override surprise. Yes, this had been a nice woods to explore, but if the townsfolk didn't come out here, maybe they did for a reason. My child side assumed that this woman was something fantastic, a creature of the woods. But at that age, my child voice had already started to fade, and my rational side worried that this was some crazy hermit. I considered grabbing Diana's hand and dragging her home, then telling our parents and possibly even the police who we saw. But I didn't. My child's voice hadn't been silenced completely, and so a part of me still wanted to believe.

But I resolved that as long as Diana was in the woods, I would never let her out of my sight again, at least not while the Lady was around. For the first couple of days, their activities seemed pretty innocuous. We watched the animals, sometimes staying behind while the Lady went out to greet them, or carved patterns into the ground. Or Diana would tie a string around a tree, one laden with decorations and even some of the Lady's hair. I had no idea what it meant, and the Lady never explained herself. Until that one day when we stayed in the woods until it had gotten dark. Not something we normally did, but then, it never got dark at two pm before.

This time, the Lady grabbed us and warned, “We have to leave, right now. The harvest has come.”

“What?” I protested. I barely ever spoke to the Lady before this, and I certainly never argued with her, but I could feel something off, like my worst fears were about to be confirmed. “It's barely August. Who harvests so early? And more importantly, who harvests a woods?”

“Only one being,” she assured me. “The Harvester.” She wouldn't explain further, just pulled us a long with a strength nobody could imagine such a frail woman could possess. Instead of taking us out of the woods, however, she pulled us farther in, well past where we had ever gone before, and then down – down into caves I didn't know this forest even had. We found ourselves in an underground cavern, one containing a tiny village and an enormous lake. An enormous lake, I should add, that floated above us.

“What's going on?” I asked, but the Lady didn't really have to explain. Besides the massive violation of physics going on above our heads, the village soon exploded with activity, as its people emerged from the houses to greet our host. Each proved my child-side right. I saw all manner of faerie creatures: tiny people with wings, people with bark for skin and leaves for hair, animals with the light of intelligence behind their eyes, floating beings of substances I had never seen before.

My question ceased to matter and I contented myself with stammering like an idiot. Diana just rolled her eyes and said, “What did you think this was about, dork?”


The Lady held up her hand before the worst-timed sibling argument could begin. “Please, not here. We have enough discord in the Derrenth now anyways.”

“Do you mean the Harvester?” I asked. “What is he?”

The Lady shook her head. “I do not know, exactly. At first I believed it to be a spirit of your cities, one who sought the dominance of the artificial over the world of old. But now that I felt his nature, I felt a bit of our own within it. Perhaps it had once been of the forest, but the desire for power drew him to monstrous sources. Whatever the form of his power, he found it. When he first came to Derrenth, I gathered forces to drive him off. I was, I feared, to reckless and arrogant. I thought too little of his threat. You see, I had an army at my side. The Harvester only brought one.”

“What happened?” Diana asked.

“One,” she mourned, “had been enough. The Harvester's champion had skin as hard as metal, and no force could even hinder it. Worse, as it swept through our forces, it attacked the very spirit of its enemies, the thing that kept them alive. Without even being touched, my people – destroyed themselves. They plunged against each other, dove off cliffs, or simply dissolved into nothingness. I did the only thing I could and ordered a retreat. For all of that autumn and winter, the Harvester held dominance in our land. When spring came, he simply vanished, but I always knew he would return. And this time, he would not just claim this land as his. He would twist it into something new, something my people and I could not survive.”

I felt a shudder and saw the lake above us ripple. The Lady drew a breath. “It appears that he has left, for now at least. I should see you home. It would be wise if you did not return to the Woods again. Especially not tomorrow.”

“Why, what's tomorrow?” I asked.

“Tomorrow,” she said, “The battle we had been preparing for will begin. I can't say we will win, only that we have no other choice. Regardless of what happened, I won't have you see the result.”

She led us out of the woods, which had again returned to light as if nothing had happened. But we felt an unease around us, one brought silence to the animals and left the entire woods as quiet as a tomb. When we got home, we promised each other that whatever the Lady warned us, we would return to the forest tomorrow, to see what happened and how we could help the Lady.

The next morning, the train came. I could hear the roar of the engine long before it arrived at the station. We had barely woken up when our parents ordered us to start packing. If they had their way, we would be gone in an hour.

I couldn't let that happen. Before we even left our room, I told my sister, “Go. Get to the woods.”

“What?” she said. “What about you?”

“I'll do the only thing I can,” I told her. “Stall.”

And so, while she snuck out the window, I groaned and whined like the teenager I soon would be. I pretended to be asleep, I took a shower that was so long I think my bones wrinkled, and I insisted on one last breakfast, one last swim, one last everything before we left.

And … that's the story. If I was the hero, I would tell you how it ended. But I wasn't. I didn't greet the Lady, I didn't believe in her right away, I didn't offer to help. Diana was gone for the entire morning. When she returned, her clothes was shredded and she had a number of nasty cuts and bruises, but she didn't have any physical harm to show for it. Any anger our parents had built up faded when they realized she was missing and turned to relief when she came back okay. But I saw the look in her eyes on her return. Something had changed.

She refused to tell me what, or give me any details. When we finally had a moment along, all she would whisper is “We won.” That's all. We never returned to Deacon's Wharf as children again. And the few times I visited, I barely could look at the woods, let alone go inside. Diana, on the other hand – I think a part of her never really left the woods. When my aunt and uncle passed away, she bought their old home and started a new life there. But from what I heard, she barely even used it. No, she spent all of her time elsewhere. In Derrenth.