Monday, October 26, 2009

Voyage of the Piquant [Part One]

Voyage of the Piquant
Part One

Call me Irving. The tale I am about to relate is a story of obsession, madness, the power of the sea, and other heavy stuff like that.

I was serving as Chief Activity Coordinator aboard the Piquant, a six-hundred foot cruise ship operating off the Pacific Northwest. We were late in the season, perhaps our last run along the Canadian coastline, when we found ourselves drawn into a nightmare of unspeakable proportions. It began on a normal day, during the normal routine, on a cruise that seemed no different from the hundreds I had seen in my career.

A seaman is supposed to be able to sense a storm coming, and I suppose I must’ve gained some of that legendary faculty for precognition during my years on the sea. I first felt a sense of dread as I was guiding my group of passengers through their early evening routine.

“And ready... now drain!” I checked my stopwatch, ticking off the standard seventeen seconds. “Good... now shake! Two, three, four. Now retract... and zip! Group three, move out, group four into place.” The next line of men shifted their way to their assigned positions with the practiced ease of a precision drill team. “Check your number to your urinal,” I instructed, my tone crisp and professional. “Now unzip, and extend...”

And I felt it—an ominous premonition something was about to happen... something that was definitely not on the agenda.

I stared into the distance, looking past my clipboard, as if I could see through the steel hull of the Piquant and into the ominous forces gathering in the endless depths upon which our vessel we floated. The seconds ticked by on my stopwatch, unheeded, until finally I heard one of the passengers clear his throat. I glanced towards the sound and saw the men standing before their urinals, poised and waiting for my command.

I shook off the strange feeling, remembering my duty. “Sorry, men. All right, on my mark… now, drain!”

I dismissed the eerie premonition as nothing more than a lapse of consciousness, perhaps brought on by an ill-advised second helping of Muenster-spinach quiche with truffle garnish at breakfast. Yet within thirty-eight minutes, I received the first sign that there was more to my feeling than a case of gastronomic excess.

As my group shuffled onto the Riviera Deck, the intercom crackled to life. “This is your captain,” came the voice of Captain Wellington. “This ship will be making an unexpected stop. There is no cause for alarm. Please continue with your scheduled activities.”

The passengers milled nervously, low chatter humming to life from the group. Aboard a cruise ship, that kind of uncertainty can lead to unthinkable chaos. “To your positions!” I snapped, my voice cutting through the babble. “We are not deviating from the schedule! Stand on your color-coded squares... very good.. Mr. Armstead, please turn your head towards the viewing marker. Now breathe deep, and... appreciate the sunset!”

My timely actions may have saved us that evening, but nothing could have prepared me for the horror that was to come.

I guided my charges through the remainder of their routine without further incident. Three minutes and twenty-two seconds after I had sealed the cabin doors behind the passengers for the night, I spoke to the captain about the disturbance. “What happened back there?” I asked.

Captain Wellington twirled his fingers along the length of his waxed moustache. “We picked up a castaway,” he informed me.


“He was lost at sea, in a rubber life raft,” the captain said. “By maritime law, we were obliged to pick him up. Even if it meant sacrificing our position for optimum viewing of the sunset. Damn, but the sea can be a cruel mistress.”

“Where is the castaway now?” I asked.

“Sickbay,” the captain said, then both of us stopped. A sound came to our ears from along the corridor leading to the bridge. We heard footsteps and the familiar swish of a hand sliding along the polished brass surface of the safety rail. Yet there was something different about that sound, something alien that sent a chill straight down my spine.

The man who entered stared at us with black eyes that contained nothing of human sanity. His coarse beard seemed to be made of bristling wire, similar to the copper scrub brushes they use to clean the grills in the kitchen when they get really nasty. He had skin as rough and leathery as an old loafer, creased into a permanent scowl of rage. And we saw the horrible truth behind that discordant sound on the handrail—on the grizzled madman’s right hand, where his pinkie should have been, there was only a wooden peg.

“What the devil are you doing here?” the captain demanded.

“The devil?” the stranger rasped. “What do you know about the devil, you softgut? The devil lurks out beneath the waves, white and slick and hungry. He tasks me, and I mean to have him! I’ll chase him around the Cape of Good Hope, past that boot-shaped bit of Italy, and through the Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”

“Pardon me, but what are you talking about?” I asked.

“My name is Aholl,” he growled. “I’m taking command of this ship.”

“You most certainly are not!” Captain Wellington said..

Aholl drew a harpoon gun from the folds of his battered black coat. “Say again now, you bowl of pudding?”

“Eh... heh,” the captain chuckled weakly as the tip of the harpoon pointed between his eyes. “Now... I’m sure we can discuss this like reasonable men.”

He brandished his peg-pinkie, the veins on his neck standing out like jump ropes. “Reasonable? You see this, milk boy? You think a man like me is capable of being reasonable?

“It’s only your pinkie!” the captain squeaked.

Only?Aholl roared. “Try touch-typing with a thing like this, flounder-breath! I used to be able to hit eight-five words per minute. Damn it all to Hell!”

“How did it happen?” I asked, hoping to draw his attention away from the captain.

He whirled to face me, flinty eyes shimmering. “Bitten off, lad. Bitten off by the fiercest hunter in the seven seas. My little finger rests in the gullet of the great...” He paused.

I leaned forward.


I held my breath.


“Squid?” I repeated. “A squid bit off your finger?”

“They have very powerful beaks,” the captain said, keen to placate the lunatic with the harpoon gun. “Can be quite nasty.”

“This ain’t no ordinary squid,” Aholl told us in his gravelly voice. “’Tis a beast what squirmed straight out of the poop-chute of Lucifer himself.”

“Oh gross,” I moaned.

“He roams the sea, laying waste to everything that dares cross his path. White as bone, and twice as vicious. I call him Mocha Rich.”

“We serve that at the coffee bar,” I said.

“Shut up,” Aholl snarled. “That devil took down my last boat, destroyed my entire crew, yet somehow I survived. My last ship, she was too small for the job. But this tub of bolts,” he looked around at the bridge assessingly. “Aye. This might just be enough.”

“But surely you can’t mean to use this ship to hunt a squid!” the captain protested.

“He tasks me!” Aholl bellowed. “He tasks me!”

“Right, yes, you already mentioned that,” Wellington said. “But we have a schedule to keep, don’t you know. The passengers...”

“Shall be my crew! Fear not, they’ll be well rewarded when we take the beast. I am a man of some means.”

“But it is not in the itinerary!” cried the captain.

“You can shove your foul itinerary into Mammon’s blubbery armpit!” Aholl thundered, waving his harpoon gun wildly about mere inches from the captain’s face. “Do as I say or I’ll skewer you like a sautéed prawn!”

Wellington clapped his hands together, smiling through the sheen of sweat which covered his face. “Right! Well, then I suppose we shall be making a new schedule for tomorrow. Mr. Irving? Let’s report to the copy room. And for the love of God, I hope we have enough toner.”

Progress Report: 10/26/09

Got a nibble.

At this point, it's no more than a nibble--that is to say, an agent has asked to see more of my novel. But a nibble is something, and that's at least encouraging. I will, of course, keep you posted.

Meanwhile, apart from making more submissions and contacting agents, I realized I was having a hard time motivating myself to write this week. Forcing it, almost. As I reflected on this, I discovered one of the unforeseen voids left by Thunderstruck in my life. The comic was a labor of love, written pretty much just for fun, with no major pressure. Every writing effort I've made since then has been, in one way or another, geared towards professional publication.

So I needed to write something just for fun.

I'm posting the first part of this story on the blog and on my DeviantArt site. It's a silly piece of work, but that's precisely the point. It's called "Voyage of the Piquant," and it is a homage of sorts to a famous literary masterpiece. See if you can guess which one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Progress Report: 10/19/09

In terms of progress, I could copy and paste the previous report and have it covered.

At this point, it's kind of like forging across the frozen reaches of Siberia. "What did we see out there today?"

"A lot of snow."

"Same snow as last week?"

"No sir. Different snow."

"Looked the same."

"I promise, it was different. We're getting to new snow every day."

"Well, I guess that's something. Let's keep going, boys. We're bound to make it through all this snow eventually!"

(muffled collective cheers from the team)

(Aside) "I hope to God we're not going in circles."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Progress Report: 10/12/09

Submissions and more submissions.

Successful writers always like to tell stories about how many times they were rejected before they finally got their break. In that tradition, I'm accumulating rejections now for Rose & Jade. Got a pretty good collection so far.

Everybody gives advice about perseverance, tenacity, sticking with it, and all that. The "I got rejected a thousand times before I was published" stories come from all sides, from your local authors all the way up to your multi-million selling giants. Successful authors share these tales in order to give heart to starting authors, such as myself. And it's good, because it helps me keep going.

But at the conference I went to recently, one writer who was giving a presentation looked out over the room full of agents and editors, and he said something quite candid: "There isn't one agent that I wouldn't want to run over if I saw them on the street."

Because being rejected is no goddamned fun.

Anyway, the cycle continues, and writing continues. I'm going to a critique group this week to see if it'll be a good fit for me. I joined the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers association. I have the outline for a new novel churning along, and I'm probing the conceptual approach for a novelization of Thunderstruck. I'm thinking point of view style chapters, as in George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, might be the way to go.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why "The Raptor Clause"

I chose the title of this blog as a play on words to incorporate two of my favorite things: dinosaurs and writing.

This is not to suggest that all my stories will contain dinosaurs. Thunderstruck contained no dinosaurs, unless you count the "Patches" outtake. But Rose & Jade features dinosaurs in addition to dragons, so I decided to tip my hat to that passion of mine for the title of the blog.

One of the things that's really cool in modern paleontology is that we are finally able to look at the soft tissue imprints of fossils with more detail and clarity. That's allowed scientists to peek inside the chest cavity of well-preserved dinosaur mummies and check out the heart and other organs. We've had pretty good skin impressions, too. It's kind of sad to think about how many good soft tissue fossils have probably been destroyed through routine efforts to expose the bones, but now that paleontologists have better technology at hand, I expect we'll see more and more discoveries.

Traditionally, most scientists have depicted fleshed-out dinosaurs very conservatively, draping a reasonable quantity of muscle over the bones and providing them with some basic gray-green skin. This is a conservative approach, and scientists are by nature conservative, so that's to be expected.

But dinosaurs were assuredly much more interesting, magnificent, and strange than the bones can indicate.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Take an elephant skeleton, and put it amongst paleontologists who have never seen an elephant or any related creature. What do they make of this peculiar being's skull? How do they suggest it got food to its mouth? The most significant feature of the elephant is its trunk, yet there are no bones in the trunk (just tens of thousands of muscles). I'm not sure what these hypothetical scientists would postulate, but I they wouldn't go as far as nature did. And they'd probably miss the ears, too.

Artists get more leeway than scientists. The dinosaurs I like to write about are colorful, weird, and have adaptations that are unlike anything we see today. I may be wrong about what the real beasts were like, but no more wrong than the super-conservative version. If I'm going to err, I'll err on the side of magnificent.

Progress Report: 10/5/09

All submissions, all the time.

The differences between what agents want to see make the whole submission exercise somewhat slow going. For instance, I've now written synopses of varying length, from one sentence to a full page. As I get more of them done, I expect I will be able to re-use more elements.

One of the agents had an interesting request, though. In addition to the first 30-some pages, this agent asked for "one of your favorite sentences from your story." That took a bit of looking to figure out what to choose. This is the one I picked:

The living juggernaut rammed headfirst through the blackjack tables, tossing its mighty horns as playing cards fluttered like a cloud of butterflies in its wake.

I selected that because the first 30 pages are not action-heavy, and I wanted to give a hint that we get into some action down the road. Also, I like the bit with the butterflies.

Other writing churns along. I've had a lot of ideas, which is good, and now I need to get some more onto paper. The screen. Whatever.