Sunday, August 2, 2015

Come Fly With Me

This is the task set out for you by the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge (after a $55 entrance fee, thank you very much): Write a short story in 48 hours based on some random prompts we give you (after you give us your money).

This time around the prompts for the group I landed in were:

Psychological horror, anyone? Will that count with the judge(s)?

Considering I'm terrified of flying and have to fly twice between now and the end of the year (for writing conferences, natch), kinda ironic, huh? Probably shouldn't have written a plane crash story, ya think?

But I did. Because apparently I can't resist a challenge. Not that I knew they were going to throw a plane scenario at me. Not to mention the 1,000 word limit was going to make me cut more than I wanted to. I finally clocked in at 980 words. So close.

And you know what? The story in my humble opinion turned out pretty good.

With all that in mind, here's what I came up with in the space of about two hours this late afternoon/early evening.

Come Fly With Me

I can’t believe I thought it was really nice of him to make the invitation. We were pretty rough on him in college. I’m not sure why he hung out with us, except that maybe he hadn’t had anyone else to hang out with. Being the picked-on little brother of our social circle was apparently preferable to not being part of anything at all. And of course, being college kids, we weren’t the most thoughtful bunch, so we were happy to oblige. Someone had to be low man on the totem pole.

I’d pretty much forgotten him in the almost three years since we graduated. Then came the news that he’d won the lottery. Well, almost. He had five of the six numbers. How very Cameron – almost but not quite. Still, almost three hundred thousand dollars is pretty sweet. It wasn’t the twenty-nine million that six matching numbers would have paid, but it was three hundred grand more than ever fell into my lap.

There was talk he was going to use the money to fulfill his long-time dream of getting his pilot’s license, but other than that he faded away again. Until, when out of the blue, he emailed the old college gang with a proposal. He wanted to fly us all to Las Vegas for a big blowout weekend. He had just enough lottery money left to rent a private jet and spring for Sin City.

If he’d had that sixth number he’d have been able to buy a private jet instead of renting one.

He was finally going to get to be big man on campus. After some discussion, we decided it was the least we could do for him, after being kinda shitty to him in school. I know that sounds weird, but it felt like we’d made the transition from stupid kids to mature adults and were going to make up for past transgressions.

So that’s how we end up here on a gorgeous Friday evening, boarding a very snazzy plane. It looks like something a celebrity would own. And Cameron actually looks smart in his pilot’s uniform.

There’s no crew. Cameron makes a big to-do about setting us up with a boatload of hors d’oeuvres and drinks, then cheerfully waves as he disappears into the cockpit. I have to admit it’s really impressive.

As the engines fire up, I get a brief jolt of adrenaline as it occurs to me that we’re kind of taking his word that he’s knows what he’s doing. But off we go, without a hitch. Vegas, here we come! He really does know what he’s doing. We’re having a blast.

After a while, the intercom crackles to life. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. If you haven’t already, please check the fridge for additional drinks and snacks.”

It’s a perfectly normal mini-fridge. We all had them in college. I open it and with a sickening jolt realize our lives have just gone to hell. There’s no drinks, no snacks. Just a weird-looking package with wires curled around it.

I can’t move. Eventually the others notice and wander over. All we can do is gawk at it. There’s also what appears to be blood on it. Because springing a bomb on us isn’t enough.

We try the cockpit door. It’s locked up tight.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. The door is reinforced, so don’t bother trying to knock it in. Also, I have a gun. Please enjoy your flight.” And then, to emphasize his point that now we’re at his mercy, the plane suddenly goes into a nose dive that probably only lasts a few seconds before leveling out, but feels like forever.

Then the bastard turns on the seatbelt sign. Asshole.

The promised wi-fi is non-existent. We’re cut off from the rest of the world and at the mercy of someone who should never have wanted to see us again. How did we miss that? I just sit there in shock. A couple people are crying, others pacing, trying to come up with a plan.

After punctuating our flight with a few more quick dives, Captain Cameron cheerfully informs us that we’re approaching our destination, the neon lights of which we can see if we look out the left side of the plane. It’s an appropriately eerie sight, as the brightly lit city sits there like a crazy carnival in a sea of black, just floating in the middle of nowhere. An oasis in the desert.

I recall that however socially stunted Cameron might have been, he wasn’t stupid. His grades were almost always A’s. He never agonized over exams and finals and papers like the rest of us did.

Was he smart enough to build a bomb? Shouldn’t it have gone off by now?

Cameron’s smug voice comes over the intercom again. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you haven’t already, please finish your drinks and return to your seats. We will be landing soon.”

I consider the possibility that he’s just screwing with us. Put us in fear for our lives. I imagine him smiling and thanking us for flying Cameron Airlines as we, shaking and crying, exit the plane, never to be the same. It’s one hell of a revenge plan, assuming that’s how this plays out.

That’s when he overshoots McCarron. So low over the airport, terrifyingly so.

Someone points out the Bellagio’s dancing fountains rushing at us. Cameron’s going to make a big splash, literally and figuratively. The bomb was just to set the mood.

I don’t know what I was thinking, taking this trip. I was taken in, played. We all were, by Cameron, of all people. Cameron the clown, Cameron the seemingly cheerful butt of so many jokes during our carefree school days.

Cameron the pilot. Cameron, who is about to take out the Bellagio fountains and us with them.

Note: Eeep...while re-reading it here I found an editing error, a dropped word. Make that 981 words...and I went over it so many times :(

Friday, July 31, 2015

Hey, I might be able to make this work

After all, being in a plane is pretty much my idea of a horror story. Thanks, NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge!

Yep, doing this to myself again

Welcome to my weekend:

Haven't had a lot of success with this one, but apparently I'm a glutton for punishment. But Psych 1 has ended, so I'm free.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Quote of the day: Mental health

"It's no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." (Krishnamurti)

This popped up in my Psychology 1 text (we're on psychological disorders this week) and also because of so much crap that's going on in the world and our country these days. It just really got my attention.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Take a writing class with James Patterson

I've been wrapped up in an online Psychology class for the past five weeks, which is why blogging has been non-existent. It seems like every time I make the decision to blog regularly, something comes up. It's a great class and the topic is really interesting, but not something you should be trying to cover in a six-week period. In the past week we had to cover two chapters plus a portion of a third, and one of the chapters alone was almost 50 pages. The good news is that it's almost done and now I can concentrate on things I've been neglecting, like blogging, writing and cooking. And I just found a great way to get back on the writing horse.

Via MasterClass on Facebook: James Patterson Teaches Writing. Patterson is the prolific author of 19 consecutive Number One New York Times Best Sellers. The 22-part course is online so you can do it from anywhere and at your own pace. The best part: It's only $90. One more week of psychology and I'm signing up.

This will be the first time I've taken a course through MasterClass, but they've got a lot of interesting looking ones including Serena Williams teaching tennis, Dustin Hoffman teaching acting, and Annie Leibovitz teaching photography. All for less than $100. Anyone have any experience with their classes?

Monday, June 22, 2015

California Crime Writers Conference - Day 2 (afternoon)

The final wrap-up...

Keynote speaker Anne Perry spoke (very softly) about writers and writing.

"Social Media Tips From Professionals"
Terry Ambrose (moderator), Diane Vallere, Holly West, Lee Nelson

First off, Holly West turned out to be the winning bidder for the Maltese Falcon. She paid $200 and brought it to the panel with her. I was jealous.

Lots of great advice from this panel:
  • Tweet and Facebook posts can be scheduled, but be sure to unschedule them if there's a major tragedy in the news, or you'll look like a jerk.
  • Consistency of message: Vallere describes her books as being about shoes, clues and clothes, and that's what she talks about on social media. Ambrose pointed out that her latest post (the day before) showed the clothes she brought for the conference laid out.
  • While Twitter, Facebook and blogs are the most common social media platforms, there was a lot of talk about Goodreads, which has become a major author platform. Nelson warned about authors getting into battles with readers/reviewers on Goodreads, mentioning that it had just happened the day before and resulted in the author's account being deleted. (Apparently she was referring to this).
  • Query Shark got props.
  • "Buying" fans for your social media accounts got a big thumbs down.
  • Vallere's website got props from the panel as a great example of what an author's official site should look like. Vallere mentioned the importance of constantly updating your site in order to keep pushing it to the top of search engines.
  • Another way to increase your web presence is to guest blog. 

Left to right: West, Nelson, Vallere and Ambrose

"Putting Your Blog to Work"
  • Smiley is an LAPD Reserve Detective who writes cozies. She is also part of an MAB (multiple author blog) called Naked Authors, which was started in 2006. She also had a friend who was one of Ted Bundy's victims.
  • The panel was asked how much personal info they include on their blogs. Smiley: Funny stuff, but otherwise no family, although she did blog about her father's death. Johnson will poke fun at herself, but doesn't generally talk about her family. Lauden is a pen name, to separate his writing career from his real life, which included a wife, kids and a corporate day job.
  • Trolls: Lauden is fortunate enough not to have been trolled. Smiley was trashed in comments by an author who didn't get a harmless joke she'd made. She also had a guy who started commenting as famous authors, then complained when she deleted his comments.
  • Blog tips: The importance of keywords in titles (SEO) and tags in Blogger. It was recommended that you end a blog post with a question to help draw out comments. Lauden also uses lots of visuals/graphics. People move so fast that a wall of text can be a turnoff.
That was the end of the day and my first California Crime Writers Conference. It was a great conference and I look forward to the next one in 2017.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

California Crime Writers Conference - Day 2 (morning)

"Hidden Talents: Using Skills From Other Media"
Stephen Buehler (moderator), Lee Goldberg, Phoef Sutton, Ellen Byron, Catherine Pelonero

This panel featured authors who have also excelled in other areas of writing besides books.

Left to right: Byron, Pelonero, Sutton, Goldberg, Buehler

Goldberg's extensive television credits include Diagnosis Murder, Spenser: For Hire, Baywatch, Monk, 1-800-Missing, Psych, and The Glades. Sutton is an Emmy/Writer's Guild/Peabody winner whose credits include Newhart, Cheers, Boston Legal, Terriers, and the feature The Fan. Byron is a journalist and playwright who has written for Wings and Just Shoot Me; her upcoming novel is described as a "Cajun cozy". Pelonero is a playwright whose new book examines the life and infamous death of Kitty Genovese.

I've seen Goldberg on a number of panels, and he never fails to entertain. He talked about ghost-writing his mother's San Francisco society columns as a teen and an early job writing fake letters to the editor for Playgirl (his girlfriend was an editor for the magazine). Discussed the main difference between writing scripts and novels: You can get inside the character's heads. With scripts, you just write dialogue and action.

Sutton started out as an actor and recommended acting classes for writers.

Byron pointed out that when you're writing for television, you have to write in someone else's voice. When writing novels, you can write in your own voice.

Pelonero: "Character is everything."  Wrote her Kitty Genovese book because although a number of books about the murder exist, she felt that they only focused on Kitty's death, neglecting her life. She interviewed Winston Moseley, Kitty's killer, for the book after corresponding with him for several years.

During the Q&A, the writers were asked how they felt about the level of intelligence of their audience and if this affected their writing. This resulted in two very different answers. Suttons said he nevers writes down to readers/audience. Byron said that when she worked on Wings, a frequent question among the writers and producers was, "Do you think the Timmys will get this?" "Timmys" referred to what Byron described as the "itinerant masses". Got quite a reaction from the crowd.

After the session, I headed into the book room to browse and the authors were all there for book signing. I was intrigued by the Kitty Genovese case, so I bought a copy of Pelonero's book and she kindly signed it for me.

"Going Hollywood: Novels to Television"
Diana Gould (moderator), Charlaine Harris, Joshua Bilmes (Harris' agent)

I have to say, right off the bat, that my favorite part of this highly entertaining and informative session was Harris comparing working with HBO (True Blood, based on her Sookie Stackhouse series) unfavorably compared to working with the Hallmark Channel (the upcoming Aurora Teagarden series starring Candace Cameron Bure). She described Hallmark as "professionally happy" and HBO as "scary" and "cutthroat" (and they once kept her waiting 45 minutes for a meeting). She accentuated the difference by describing their parties: HBO's featured men clad in only loincloths and red glitter, while Hallmark's party theme was Christmas in July, complete with Dickens carolers.

Harris has sold over 30 million books and Bilmes has been her agent for all of them. He read her first manuscript during a rain delay at Shea Stadium.

Bilmes on breaking into and working in Hollywood:
  • The entertainment business is rife with conflict of interest, lies and self-interest. You need to be careful.
  • Write good books that Hollywood will find. Alan Ball stumbled across the Sookie Stackhouse books in an Encino Barnes & Noble while killing time before a dentist appointment. He wasn't the only one interested, but the other party was unable to secure funding. Said all major studios have books to TV/film people always looking for the next big thing. Waiting for the phone to ring is not the worst way of dealing with Hollywood.
  • Need to have a good agent and be very careful how reserved rights are defined and negotiated. One mistake they made was not reserving Sookie/True Blood comic book rights. Fans don't realize this and Charlaine said that she autographs them "reluctantly".
Harris on True Blood and producer Alan Ball: 
  • After finding her books, Ball called her at her office in Arkansas. He told her he liked the mix of comedy and horror and that he saw it as an HBO series.
  • Was dismayed at what she described as the show's "political turn", but overall felt that everyone involved did great work.
  • She was given a line in one episode and still receives $2.16 residuals from SAG.
  • Said Ball likes working with HBO because, "It's an easy drive."

Left to right: Bilmes, Harris, Gould

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Death Wish 2015

Some things you look at and they're so cool, and some things you look at and you think, "That guy is seriously batshit crazy, and he's lucky to be alive."

This is one of those batshit crazy things:

Here's the insane story: Crazy-ass diver with a death wish leaves cage to give enormous great white shark a high five.

That dude has bragging rights forever. Good thing someone got the shot. Can you imagine pulling that off and no one got a picture for proof?

Oh, and also...THE. SIZE. OF. THAT. THING.

H/T to @LAKingsDru on Twitter for the only non-choking shark in my Hockey feed.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

California Crime Writers Conference: Day 1 (afternoon)

Today's keynote speaker was Charlaine Harris, who was utterly charming and gave a wonderful, Southern-accented speech about, "Everything I know about writing." In this speech, she became the third person today to advise, "If not now, when?" Message received.

Charlaine Harris addresses the troops.

"Miss Marple's Rules: Traditional Mysteries Today"
Susan Goldstein (moderator), Jill Amadio, Susan Shea, Carole Sojka, Gay Degani

Goldstein on the definition of traditional mystery: 1) A criminal problem solved by a professional or amateur; 2) It's not about crime, but about relationships - what fractured the relationships?

On the changes modern times have changed the definition of traditional mystery:

Shea: Basic rules don't change - there's still a puzzle to be solved. Difference now is that the characters can move beyond a small town or their existing social circle.

Sojka: Social issues have changed and are now included more than in the Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers era. Her protagonist is an alcoholic and that plays into the story. Plus the modern technology.

On the subject of amateur sleuth:

Shea: Amateurs have skills from their day jobs that they can bring to sleuthing.

Goldstein: Amateurs can be teamed up with pros/law enforcement to give them access to information they wouldn't normally have.

Degani: Her protagonist was originally a suspect, which propels her to start researching and investigating her case.

"Forensic Investigation From Beginning to End"
Professional Donald Johnson, California State University, Los Angeles

Dr. Johnson seems like he would be a great instructor to have. His affability made the chasm between his personality and the horrific subject matter all that much more jarring. But if I was murdered, I'd want him on my case.

We were warned in advance that some of the photos would be graphic. It took a while to get to those, so I think we were kind of lulled into a false sense of security as to what we were going to see. They were from a real crime scene and one of the victims was a young girl. I won't even describe them, but as tough as it was to see the pictures, it also increased my admiration for people who work these cases and bring the killers to justice (which they did).

Some points about forensics:

  • Rigor is variable and therefore not necessarily a reliable indicator of time of death. Unlike on television, in real life they do not make a TOD determination at the scene of a crime. Same thing with digestion - too many variables.
  • Autopsies are usually done in order of receipt (yes, he used that expression).
  • It's assumed that first responders may unintentionally alter the scene.
  • Luminol is used to search for blood that is not visible to the human eye. It can detect blood diluted 1 million times, but can also react to paint and rust.
  • Stabbing: A lot of bleeding occurs internally and can actually leave very little blood at the scene.
During the Q&A (and after the graphic photos), Dr. Johnson was asked how he and others in the field cope with the horrible stuff they see. He responded that he does view it as a mission, but also as a scientific issue. He also said it helps to have a cast-iron stomach.

Oh, and by the way, have I mentioned that this is part of the silent auction:

It's a replica, but WANT.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

An L.A. Live by any other name

Nokia Plaza? Nokia Theatre, yes. Club Nokia, certainly. But up until now I had no idea Nokia's world domination extended to a plaza as well.
The comprehensive partnership between AEG, owners and operators of L.A. LIVE and Microsoft will also include rebranding L.A. LIVE’s 40,000 sf. outdoor plaza into Microsoft Square among other assets.
And then I dug out this pic I took at a Kings game a couple years ago:

Huh. There it is. In lights and everything.

I hate to break it to Microsoft, but I'm not sure I've ever heard of the general public referring to or thinking of the place as Nokia Plaza. Angelenos will continue to refer to it as L.A. Live.

Lucky for Microsoft, they've got money to burn. Money Nokia apparently doesn't have anymore.