Friday, October 25, 2013

Free Fiction Fridays: Isabel, Part Two

If you need to catch up, click here for Part One. Otherwise, please to enjoy the second installment!

Seconds passed, and Isabel’s throat remained intact. Carefully, she pushed herself up to a sitting position and looked across the stream.

The leopard now lay with its back to her, legs splayed unnaturally. Curious, but still cautious, she stood up—and discovered the reason she was still alive.

The cat angrily gnawed at one front paw, encased in a heavy steel jaw-hold trap. The trap was anchored by three feet of thick chain attached to a stake driven into the ground. The leopard must have sensed Isabel’s movement, for it whirled around to face her once more with ears pressed flat against its head, snarling angrily.

No, it’s not angry, Isabel thought, as she looked at the cat’s dilated pupils. It’s scared.

The leopard backed up jerkily, making the chain rattle, lips still pulled back from ivory daggers. Isabel felt a hot wave of sympathy wash over her. This cat wasn’t stupid, she was sure. It probably knew any human it saw at this point was coming to kill it.

The leopard’s snarling still filling the air (and the macaques screaming overhead—she now realized they hadn’t been screaming at her, but at the leopard) Isabel slowly opened her pack and extracted a small cooking pot, which she filled with water from the stream. She stepped smoothly over the stream, a move which freshened the pitch of the leopard’s snarls, and set the pot down in the leaves. Looking around, she found what she was looking for, a long branch (really, a small tree) with a wide fork at the end. She used this to push the pot of water inside the circle formed by leopard and chain, careful not to push it directly at the leopard—given its current mood, she was pretty sure it would whack the pot away with its good paw and upset it. Then she withdrew back to the other side of the stream.

Isabel knew she would have to be patient and quiet for quite some time while the leopard worked up the courage to approach the strange, shiny object full of water. How much time depended on how long the animal had been in the trap before she found it. Luckily, botanists are as a rule very patient people. They have to be—it’s literally part of the job description to sit around and watch the grass grow.

So, Isabel took her shoes and socks off to let them dry out, rested her back against a tree (checking for fire ant nests first), pulled her hat down over her eyes, and meditated on her situation. Her inner cynic immediately spoke up.

You do realize, she said, that you are hundreds of miles from anywhere, with no food, no bug spray, and no guides, on an apparent poacher’s route, and here you are, snuggled up against a tree, waiting for the leopard to give you your pot back.

I couldn’t just leave it, Isabel argued. The poor thing has been trapped within spitting distance of a stream for God only knows how long without being able to take a drink.

And what are you going to do once it’s had its drink? the cynic asked.

For this, Isabel had no rational answer. She knew what she should do; collect her pot, put it back in her pack, and continue walking, following the road from a few feet away in the jungle until she came across a village, or another traveler, one without leopard skin hanging from his pack. She knew the poachers would be back here to collect their prize, and she should really make every effort to not be here when they returned.

The fact was, though, every time she thought about leaving and turning her back on the animal, her stomach twisted into a snarled bundle. Maybe it had something to do with leaving her guides, feeling their ghostly, accusing glares, unable to do anything more for them; maybe it was just that she was a sucker for animals. But Isabel felt pretty sure that, even though she knew, she knew she had to leave five minutes ago, her feet would never obey the directive.

“Oh, Iz, you stupid, stupid woman, you,” she murmured, just as the sounds of gentle lapping reached her ears.

Against all odds, since she’d only ever seen it done and never really had the concept explained to her, Isabel had managed to catch two moonrats for the leopard with snares made from her guides’ shoelaces, which she’d taken when she left, knowing anything even roughly resembling rope can come in vastly useful in the jungle. She’d also found a fair quantity of fruit and other plants that were edible raw. The moonrats looked much more appetizing to her, despite the rotten garlic odor the possum-like animals were famous for, but she didn’t dare risk a cookfire—in her mind, that would be the equivalent of putting up a billboard for the poachers saying, “Come and get me, suckas.”

The leopard didn’t snarl this time when Isabel approached. As she stepped across the stream, she held the dead moonrats up in the air for the animal to see. Its eyes widened, but otherwise it lay stock-still, focused on the carcasses. Isabel tossed them both inside the leopard’s circle.

At once, the cat attacked the meat with a violence that made Isabel flinch back. It was tearing greedily at the first carcass, its muzzle wholly entrenched in the moonrat’s stomach, when suddenly it lifted its head and gave a low, rhythmic grunting call.

The leaves opposite of where Isabel stood parted, and out tumbled a half-grown leopard cub which, with a cautious glance at the strange two-legged creature, settled down by its mother and began devouring the second carcass.

“Good thing I set more snares,” Isabel said with a sigh.

Night had fallen, the most uneasy night Isabel had known since her guides had been killed. She’d spent each night alone without a fire so far. Fires were wonderful for scaring off wildlife, but they were also wonderful for attracting attention, and the only other people in the jungle right now other than Isabel, as far as she knew, were cold-blooded murderers, and she certainly didn’t want to risk attracting their attention.

She had plenty of experience dealing with the creepy-crawlies of the jungle. Tonight, though, Isabel was trying to go to sleep with the knowledge that, a few yards away from her in the pitch-black, two leopards were watching her, one chained, one loose. Granted, clouded leopards, the kind native to Borneo, were much smaller than their Indian cousins; this meant that the unchained leopard cub, half the size of an adult, was only about fifteen to twenty pounds. But fifteen to twenty pounds of carefully evolved and heavily sinewed predator, however inexperienced, could conceivably kill her, and if not, deal her crippling injuries which could mean the difference between getting out of here alive—or not.

Something bumped her foot, and she bit back a scream, pressing herself back against the tree she leaned against and folding her knees against her chest. She heard a soft, surprised whuff at her flinch, then soft, warm breath, snuffling over her ankle, up her calf and down her thigh. At the top of her thigh, the nose forced itself between Isabel’s leg and stomach into her lap, investigating her crotch as a dog would, then continued upward, over her stomach and chest, poking into her armpits. A damp nose was pressed against the place where her neck met her shoulder, then pushed under the angle of her jaw. Isabel’s vocal cords trembled with the urge to scream, but she miraculously managed to remain still.

The leopard cub now investigated Isabel’s right ear, its fur brushing against her cheek. Then, it turned its head so they were nose-to-nose, warm meat-redolent breath washing over Isabel’s face and flooding her nostrils.

Just as quickly as it had come, the leopard cub was gone, and Isabel’s muscles, tensed to the point of rictus, collapsed, leaving her slumped on the damp earth of the forest floor.

Tune in next week for Part Three!

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A My Favorite Things Giveaway: Veronica Roth's Allegiant!

Hello, and welcome to my second My Favorite Things giveaway! If you read the title, you already know I'm giving away an ebook copy of Veronica Roth's Allegiant. I was going to do this anyway, but I became even more determined to do so after seeing all the problems this poor author has been through over Allegiant. First, a Canadian bookstore accidentally shipped copies of Allegiant over a month ago. Simple mistake, and honestly you can't blame the people who read it early.

Warning: Soapbox moment imminent.

However...some total toolbag leaked a digital copy of the book online. Before the links were shut down, a lot of people read it. It was a total dick move by whoever posted it, and a dick move by those who downloaded it. You can try to make all the excuses you want, but bottom line, that's stealing, not only from the author, who you as a fan profess to love, but the team of editing, publishing and marketing people who worked very hard to bring that book to life. If you're one of the people who downloaded it for free, illegally, you're a dick. Moving on.

So, here we go...throw your name in the hat via any and all of the methods listed below in the Rafflecopter giveaway below. Up for grabs is not only an ebook copy (Kindle, Nook, or Kobo) of Allegiant, but you'll also receive a copy of my book, Blind Study. It's a two-fer! Drawing will take place next Wednesday. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Free Fiction Fridays: Isabel, Part One

Last week, I promised you a little buried treasure, in the form of short stories which have been mouldering on my hard drive. So, on the first of hopefully many Free Fiction Fridays, I give you Isabel, part one.
Isabel used the front of her shirt to wipe the paste of sweat, tears and dirt off her face, jammed her wide-brimmed hat back down on top of her head, and stood up, brushing off the seat of her pants. She took one last look at the bodies of her guides, which she’d arranged neatly on the side of the rutted track, their army blankets covering their faces, then turned and walked into the jungle.

Isabel had been a few feet off the track, hidden by a curtain of jungle creepers as she collected samples of an unfamiliar moss she thought might be an undiscovered species. Her guides, by now used to the strange American girl suddenly shouting, “Oooh!” and tripping off into the jungle, chatted as they waited for her on the rutted mockery of a road. Only one of her guides, Jasraj, spoke English, and Isabel herself wasn’t much of a talker, so for the most part they simply followed her along, talking, laughing and singing in Luru. It was liberating; their voices gave her the comfort of knowing she wasn’t alone, and yet they expected nothing of her, no uncomfortable airplane-type small talk, no, “What brings you to Borneo?”

She’d been crouched down in a small gully, carefully digging her sample, and smiling as she listened to them hooting with laughter over something Prasoon said. Suddenly, the laughter had ceased, like someone had cut it off with a knife. Isabel heard Jasraj whisper something.

Then the sound of automatic gunfire shattered the silence, startling a flock of parrots into flight, their alarmed caws  and madly flapping wings mixing with the sound of the bullets to make a screaming cacophony frenzied enough to shatter the mind. Isabel threw herself face-down into her moss, pressing herself flat and hoping her khaki-green hiking gear would be enough to hide her.

A second or an hour later, the gunfire stopped. Over the pounding of blood in her ears, she heard four unfamiliar voices in Luru coming from the area where she’d left her guides. Slowly, thankful for the soft cushion of moss which wouldn’t crackle and give her away, Isabel raised her head above the edge of the gully and peered through the green.

Four men, dressed in BDU’s, kicked at the blood-spattered bodies of Isabel’s companions with dusty boots, their rifles slung over their shoulders while they picked carelessly through the dead men’s pockets and backpacks. All four were wearing large duffel-style packs, and a scrap of leopard skin dangled from the opening of the man’s pack nearest to her.

Poachers, Isabel thought. She’d seen poachers before, but only in the towns that bordered the jungles, huddled in seedy bar doorways, their flat gazes making her shudder as they passed over her breasts and further downward before turning away. This was the first time she’d ever encountered them in the jungle, and she was rapidly coming to the conclusion it might be the last.

Miraculously, though, they turned away, stepping over the bodies of her guides and chuckling quietly among themselves. They continued along the track until, finally, the jungle swallowed them up as quickly as it had regurgitated them. Isabel waited for the alarm calls of the surrounding birds and small animals to stop before crawling back to the road.

They had been good men, all three of them. Isabel shuddered, imagining she could feel the accusing stares of their spirits on her back, angry with her for leaving their bodies in the open for the ants and the leopards. But the small camp spade now strapped to her pack could never have dug even one grave, much less three. Not to mention the more time she spent here on the road, the more chance the poachers would return. And there would be no one to dig her grave.

Three days later, Isabel was in trouble. The poachers had taken most of the food that Jasraj, Prasoon, and Taran had been carrying; luckily, she’d been in such a hurry when she spotted the moss that she’d taken off into the brush, pack and all. Now, she sat by a small stream, licking the wrapper of a granola bar, the last bit of food she had. Above her, a troupe of macaques chattered loudly, leaping from branch to branch and knocking dead twigs down on her head.

The lack of food made things difficult, but not impossible; Isabel’s extensive knowledge of jungle plants meant she could probably sustain herself for a good long while. She wouldn’t be dining like a queen, but she wouldn’t starve to death, either. More worrisome was the fact that she was out of bug spray. Before she became a field botanist, Isabel would have laughed at someone being more concerned about bug spray than food. But the numbers of mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects that swarmed in the rainforest could actually drink enough to make a person anemic, not to mention that being covered in thousands of itchy bug bites would eventually drive a person to near-insanity. And sanity was one thing that Isabel could not afford to lose, not now.

At least I’ve got plenty of iodine tablets, she thought, dropping one into the bottle of water she’d just drawn from the stream. She swished the water around inside the bottle until the tablet dissolved completely, then took a swig, grimacing at the bitter taste. She set the bottle aside and, trying not to think about the kinds of exotic bacteria that could be living in the mud of the stream bank, began smearing gloppy handfuls on her arms. Mud or malaria.

Isabel was spreading the mud across her face, eyes closed, when suddenly it felt as though someone had dropped a small, cold stone into the pit of her stomach. She was being watched. Slowly, she dropped her hands from her face, opened her eyes—and froze.

On the other side of the stream, about ten feet away, a pair of yellow eyes, narrowed in concentration, met her own. Isabel’s mind raced in mad circles around her options—back off slowly, or stay still and hope for the best? Move? Stay?

The cramping of her fatigued muscles finally made the decision for her. Knowing she was making a move that might end her life, Isabel slowly rose from her kneeling position to a low crouch.

The leopard sprang; Isabel leapt backward, but tripped over her pack and sprawled out flat on her back, hitting her head on the ground hard enough to turn the world into a sickening, spinning carnival ride. Her eyes finally focused on the light trickling down through the canopy, the macaques screaming above her. This is the moment, she thought, calmly. This is the end.

Tune in next Friday for another installment!

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

TV Storytelling

I have to tell you, I'm not that big a fan of movies anymore. In the past several years, the medium of television has come so very, very far. It's not just cheesy sitcoms and miniseries specials anymore. With shows like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, and Game of Thrones, television is now the place to go for drama.

The medium of television is so much more flexible than movies, mainly because of the time constraints movies face. Television has somewhere between 13 and 24 hours to tell you the story, and that means there can be so much more story. For instance, the Harry Potter movies are, in my opinion, one of the best-done book-to-movie series that exists. But stop and think for a minute, about all the stuff that got cut, all the little bits and pieces that didn't make it into the movies. Now reimagine Harry Potter as, say, an HBO produced series. Thirteen episodes per book. Suddenly, the possibilities are endless.

I think writers can learn a lot from television, too. One of my absolute favorite shows is The Vampire Diaries. Not only is it entertaining, but it's one of the most useful shows to watch if you're interested in the craft of storytelling. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either--a few years ago, io9 posted an article about their successful plot pacing and story arc, which I really tried to find but it was written a long time ago and I kind of got bored looking, so sorry. I call it the, "Ask a question, give a cookie," formula.

"Ask a question, give a cookie," basically works like this: in each episode of TVD, viewers are given two things: a piece of information which fills in a bit of the puzzle (and by puzzle, I mean "story arc"), and then a new question or complication which extends the story further.

It's an excellent strategy. If you keep asking questions, and never giving answers (cookies), your viewers/readers will get frustrated (starved) and give up. OTOH, giving them small pieces of information at a time keeps them satisfied enough to be happy, but hungry enough to want more.

There's a lot more to The Vampire Diaries's storytelling (moral grey areas, the appeal of an imperfect protag who makes crappy choices), so if you haven't already, I highly recommend you check it out. Seasons 1-4 are now on Netflix, I believe.

Ok, enough deep thoughts. A few news items for you:

--My thanks to everyone who participated in the giveaway! If you didn't win, don't fret--I'll be giving another "bundle" away in a few weeks. And it's a biggie. Stay tuned.

--I have a few short stories sitting around my hard drive collecting dust, so I think I'll put some up here for your reading enjoyment, starting Friday the 18th . So stop on back and check it out!

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