Plane and Simple

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I have a horrible idea for a reality TV show. Put a bunch of people on a plane, then delay that plane so that everyone is about to miss their connecting flight. The only way to make the flight is to have enough people missing it that they hold the plane. So everyone has a limited amount of time to convince others to switch their flights (it’s TV – no one actually has to go to the new place in the end).

I’d call it “Plane and Simple.” Here’s a short story I wrote which illustrates how I got to have this horrible idea:

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Plane and Simple

15 minutes
“We’ll let you know as soon as we know.” The first officer’s voice is calm, perhaps mildly annoyed. The plane was a little late in boarding. We all cast about at our new seatmates, our thirteen hour friends, and give small smiles. The price of flying.

45 minutes
“They’re not telling us anything. Once we have any sort of answer we will let you know. We apologize for the delay.” By now people are standing, despite the seatbelt light still being on. Some mill about the cabin, taking little walks. Nerves are starting to show. We have a late arrival – the connecting times have been trimmed so much that any delay can cost a person their next flight, perhaps the last flight home. I’m calm – I have a three hour cushion. The girl sitting next to me has twisted a napkin into a caterpillar. Wearing a raincoat and stowing a guitar, she’s returning to America for the first time. She had a thirty minute connection. Her brown eyes are forlorn and full of polite concern. She does not want to be a bother, but she is bothered.
The man in front of me, a young businessman with heavy plastic tortoiseshell glasses, gets drawn into conversation with a stately Chinese woman sitting next to him. This woman grabbed my attention as well, for she managed to get both the businessman and the heavyset industrial type sitting next to me to both volunteer to help her with her bags with minimal effort. She radiates confidence and dependency. Clearly she could do it if required, but surely someone will help her, correct? She had a permed head of graying hair, and wore a brocade jacket of purple and red flowers. With a knowing nod, she listens to the pilot.

“Can’t control them,” she says to no one and her immediate listeners.
“Who?”
“Oh, that’s all code for the Government.” She says it as a proper noun, as someone who’s lived her whole life under the watch of an official eye. “They’re keeping us here.”
“Well, I’m about to miss my flight,” says the heavyset man next to me. He’s in business too, though he’s wearing a Mustang shirt and board shorts. “Hope it gets fixed soon.”

1 hour 15 minutes
The flight attendants are floating around the aviary, soothing ruffled feathers and being rational. International crews don’t have to maintain the forced chipper attitude of domestic crews. They can speak it plainly – it’s rough, they’re sorry. We are in a foreign land, and we’ll move at the pleasure of the country’s government. Here’s five thousand bonus miles. Have a glass of complementary red wine.

The stately dame won’t take the miles. The flight attendant, a tall man with a genial attitude, offers twice and is rebuffed. The dame talks to him like he is a well-meaning but ignorant son. No, she won’t take those miles. Have him mess with her boarding pass? They’ll never let her through immigration – how could he suggest something so clearly foolish? My seat mate takes the red wine, though she sloshes it on the bulkhead in purple drops.

The level of patience in the airplane fluctuates now. We’re all being patient, worldly travelers. No one wants to be the one to snap. More flights are being lost. Tension rises under the jokes. The price of flying.
1 hour 30 minutes
This is when it all changed. The first officer, who keeps us up to date on how little everyone knows, comes over the intercom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your First Officer speaking. Still nothing to report – the air traffic tower is not giving us any information, and so we are going to have to stay parked for the time being. We regret having to keep you all waiting. We know many of you have connecting flights, and we have no new information to report from Detroit. One of the nice things about being on a big plane like this is if enough people will miss a flight, they’ll be more likely to hold it. Once again as soon as we have clearance we’ll be pushing back, and again thank you for your patience.”
A ripple, discernible only as a collective shift in the flotation capable seats, suggests a unified mental realization. The only reason I don’t join in the thought process is that I still have two hours of wiggle room.
The raincoat girl next to me shifts, however. She gets up and walks slowly to the back of the plane. I throw a casual glance over my shoulder, and see her showing her boarding pass to another person  in the back.
The tortoise glasses man is no longer typing on his computer. His fingers are poised over the keys, but his head is cocked to one side, listening to the murmurs of conversation.
The grand dame nods knowingly.
Then I hear it.
Destinations.
All through the cabin, I can hear where everyone is going. New York, Atlanta. People are looking at their boarding passes like they’re trading cards. Cincinnati, Miami. The plane, not being full, is getting reshuffled. Washington DC, Omaha. People are tallying, passengers are making alliances and camps. The flight attendants don’t stop them.

 

2 hours
The New York camp is very persuasive. They ought to be, as they have representatives from the business class section moving through the rows with the oiled precision of prosperity.
“You know, you can switch connecting flights before we leave,” a grey-haired man is chatting up the grand dame. She looks at him, dark eyes full of mirth, but says nothing. “We get enough people to go to New York, they’ll hold the flight. Switch back when we land.”

“And what would I do in New York when I’m headed to DC?” She asks, voice direct and sweet.
“I can make it worth your while.” The man says, letting a hand linger on his breast pocket knowingly. The woman shakes her head with a chuckle.

“I’ve seen this before. And I’ll keep what I have. Have you tried going through immigration with mixed cards? They’ll never let me through.” The man, recognizing an immoveable object, keeps walking. He stops at me, contemplative.

“Where’s your connection going?”

“Indianapolis. I have plenty of time though.” I say it light-heartedly, but inside I’m starting to cringe at each passing minute. I’m an anomaly. I have a long layover in Detroit, and I am also alone. No one is going to Indiana. Should I need allies, I’ve already lost them all because I didn’t need them to begin with. The man moves on, clearly disgusted by my good-natured attitude.

He’s wasting his time in the back. The Omaha basketball team has the sympathy vote going strong for them. They’ve gotten people to switch tickets with swishes of blond hair and the youthful pleadings of needing to be back in time for finals. This is a lie. I know this because I listened to them chatting loudly from the carpet of their enclave in the terminal. Finals are done. This is just a last hurrah of the basketball team, one final bit of official campus business.
But they’re all leggy and pretty and it’s hard to say no when a team of leggy, pretty, giggling women put on the pressure to perhaps change destinations just to help them out. And they are smart – they’re targeting the businessmen who don’t have families.

That Omaha camp is the black horse of the race to stall future departures.

 

2 hours 30 minutes
It would be incorrect to say that the tension continued mounting. When flying, there is always tension. Even easy fliers have the presence of mind to feel a little pressure. If it’s not a second flight, it’s a family member waiting to pick them up, or a morning meeting, or a decent night’s sleep. Delays simply serve to magnify all those tiny gears in a plan which can break. The longer the delay, the more cracks form in the gears.
The crew turned on the entertainment system, placating those of us who could be bought by movies not yet sold in stores and HBO specials. Like me. The tension did not mount. The tension simply magnified. From my aisle seat, I saw all the camps.

The New York camp was sitting pretty with the bulk of the wealthy seats. They might save their more immediate flights. They had the platinum cards and could bring a great deal of customer service weight to bear. And some of them were. If their numbers wouldn’t save them, the cost would be great to their loyalty. That’s the word they keep using – loyalty. They’ve been loyal customers. And if that loyalty doesn’t get them anything, then perhaps they should take their loyalty elsewhere. Might as well start smacking people with billfolds.
I was right about Omaha being the dark horse. The Omaha girls acquired temporary allies from around the globe, and their numbers were now impressive enough to perhaps get that connecting flight to wait for them as well. Well done, college students.
DC was not so fortunate in numbers, but they have a weight of their own. They had claimed the economy comfort section, and were employing technology to negotiate their way to other flights, or to powerful friends on the ground who could save them. They had the longest reach. Sure, they could wait to get another flight, spend the night in Detroit. The repercussions for the good of the country were at stake, but oh well. They are clearly the tensest, as their means and pressure all are done through favors and political string plucking.
The Atlanta camp was strong, but they weren’t actually trying to save themselves. They were headed to a hub, after all, and there were always more flights to the main hub. Miss one, and another was leaving in an hour. They clumped together in the center aisles, and discussed the offers they’d received. They knew they were prized commodities for other cities. For the right price they’d say they were headed to Omaha, or Dallas, or Cincinnati. What did it matter, as they had the most options to get to their real destination? Oh yes, for a little grease those Atlanta flyers would say they were headed anywhere.
The rest of us – those of us going places with no weight – were a little like those from Atlanta. We could be bought, in theory, since we had no camps to speak of. But we were a hard sell because we weren’t going to hubs. Ours were the last flights to small places in unattractive locations. I might love Indiana, but I wasn’t going to convince a single soul to try and help me stop my flight from leaving without me. Sure, I could claim Omaha, but if I switched I could not switch back.
The man in the Mustang shirt looked at his watch, and did some mental math. “My flight’s going to be landing by the time we arrive.” He says it with finality, a man who knows there is no hope. The stately woman nods in sympathy. The tortoiseshell businessman has disappeared to the back of the plane, replaced by a Chinese man in a windbreaker who pushes his seat all the way back.
Looking around, I’m thankful that we’re in an airplane. Anywhere else and the camps would be at each other’s throats, like a collection of medieval provinces. Planes force civility. You can’t go anywhere, so if you lose your temper there’s nowhere to go. You don’t get to storm off – first class is off limits to the rest of us, anyway. So the camps glower and make catty remarks at each other. Stereotypes abound. The non-English speaking passengers eye us all warily.

The truly calm are those precious few who are actually stopping in Michigan. This is their last connection – so apart from the annoyance of spending a few extra hours on a parked airplane in China, life is good.
“If we hit four hours, they’ll make us leave the plane,” the gray-haired woman says to me. Unlike most of the plane, neither she nor I have left our original seats. I nod, feeling half my mouth quirk up in a smile.
“Heaven forbid. All these machinations.” I nod in the directions of the camps.
“They’ll never get through immigration,” the woman agrees. I go back to being entertained by movies.
3 hours
There’s a different hum.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been given clearance to push back. We are no longer first for take-off, but we should be in the air shortly. Flight time estimated at thirteen hours and twenty-seven minutes…” He continues, but I can’t hear over the muffled clapping.
Almost everyone reshuffled in the great grab for connection allies, and no one feels like going moving back to their old seats. So people bundle in their chairs, setting up tray tables and fastening seat belts and going through the motions of pretending as though they still care about procedure.
The tension dissipates out of necessity. There is no internet over the Pacific. There is no way to know, and not knowing means not controlling. Thus movies, and snacks, and sleeping – the hallmarks of the long trip – take precedent over worrying, negotiating, and demanding. Also prayer. Prayer lives in both worlds, within and beyond tension. I would bet my connection boarding pass that there was a lot of prayer as we broke through the dimming cloud bank and into the darkening sky.
In those thirteen hours, I bet there was a lot of prayer.

 

Old Man Mountain

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Old Man Mountain

His skin is cold, but reassuring.

So very, very solid.

He’s so present, it makes me feel dead already.

Why is that strangely comforting?

I run a hand lovingly along his creases,

And press against the cold.

“Hey, Old Man. How goes it?”

Under my hand, I feel my own pulse

Hot and transient.

It beats into the stone

But I can feel the resonance within.

“How long has it been, Old Man?

How long since someone spoke to you?”

The answer comes up soft and deep

The answer is beat back in my pulse

The answer is longer than anything I could comprehend.

Ages.

Ages.

Ages.

 

Rage Haikus

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Rage Haikus

 

Get enough water
To go rolling off a duck’s back
And you flood the pond

———

One lone mosquito
Provides enough annoyance
To destroy a room

———

Early morning noise
Trumpets and a loudspeaker
Small straws stacking up

———-

Just a few more jibes
Perhaps you’ll see her smile break
Before your world ends

 

 

—-

 

You write one when you’re angry, and then they all just seem to flow….

Hotel Hallways

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Hotel Hallways

The infinite paisleys
Serve as inspiration…to run!
Narrow but not confining
Expansive but bounded tight
The possibilities seem endless
The carpet goes on forever!
Each door a new world, but consistent.
To race past each
Is a breathless adventure
Ending abruptly
At a wall.
A metaphor for life?
Perhaps not,
But a damn fine sprint.

Small Talk

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When writing, too often my characters get stuck making small talk. Conversation and dialogue are strengths of mine (I flatter myself), and I love to write dialogue. The problem is that my dialogue is not always plot critical. Heck, most of the time I have to delete whole swaths of small talk because it’s not actually important to the story. Because I enjoy writing adventure stories, small talk can become a real momentum killer.

On the flip side, small talk is a great way to learn more about a character. How they handle the everyday gossip, or accept a drink, or argue – these tell the reader so much about the mentality of that character! And I have a fine collection of vibrant secondary characters who love to chat.

So, how do we learn to walk the line between too much conversation and good character development?

Well, first I think it is good to write out the full conversation your characters want to have. They want to spend five pages trading barbs and debating apples and oranges? Let them – get it out of your system. Don’t tamp down their voices. That lets you, the author, get a better idea of where they’re coming from. Maybe it will give you a trait you can use later.

Second, you must have the plot point in mind. So they’re in a bar, arguing – what is the next active point in the story? Do you know that you want character A to wake up the next day, or perhaps announce a journey or decision which has not been discussed yet? How can you transition from the talk to the action? Perhaps another character arrives, or a momentary distraction breaks up the conversation. Even the tongue in cheek ender of “Well, this gets us nowhere” might be an option. But know where you want to end up, eventually, so you don’t peter out into silence, the way most small talk does eventually.

Finally, edit it down. You write it all out, find out where you really want to end, and then you start cutting. Maybe not all of it – like I said, I love small talk – but you can see where the breaks in conversation occur naturally. We utilize them in everyday life, and unless you’re trying to stylize like Ayn Rand, your characters will have breathing moments too. Perhaps a section which rehashes an earlier point can be trimmed out, or a slow bit can be where the interruption happens.
In particular, I watch for:

 

  • Repetition: In real life we might rehash a problem multiple times in the course of an evening. Characters might want to as well, but I think that makes for boring reading. Limit the number of times a character can bring up the same point in conversation.
  • Over-wit: Being clever with words is a lot of fun, but it can cloud the point. Make sure you aren’t writing wit to show off your own cleverness. Not all characters are from The Philadelphia Story (great film – go watch it immediately). I fall into this sometimes – I’m so pleased with my word play I forget the setting and the need for movement.
  • Overshadowing: You might have a character other than the protagonist making some excellent points, or some real zingers. Great, but are you going to have that character in use throughout the story? No? Then maybe you shouldn’t give them so much space. It’s harsh, but unless you’re going to change their place in the story, they don’t get to hog the spotlight. This is especially true if you have a large cast of characters.

Anyway I’m writing this little essay because I just deleted yet another chunk of dialogue that simply goes nowhere. I mean, I enjoy having these two secondary characters express themselves, but they’re not my protagonist, nor is the conversation entirely important. They’re setting up the background for the upcoming conflict, and as such it’s useful. However, I feel something gnawing at me as I reread it – the conversation is not going anywhere. These two secondary characters could keep arguing throughout the night, and still be unresolved because the larger plot won’t be truly set in motion for another chapter or two.

Here’s how I’ve chosen to resolve it:
The protagonist eavesdrops for a few lines, then joins the conversation. She gives her opinions, and the argument is about to be rehashed when second main character arrives and interrupts the conversation with question about immediate action. Thus my protagonist can announce her intention for the next chapter, while tabling the bigger plot arc for later. Drinks are shared. I can pick up on the next morning.

 

If this is of any use to you, then I’m glad.

 

High End Shopping

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High End Shopping

I don’t give off the proper scent
To walk into Yves Saint Laurent.
For Prada I got nadda.
And Gucci, Burberry and Fendi
Cannot bear to look at me.
I have no accord with Tom Ford.
Salvatore Ferragamo
Looked me over and said “No.”
I was at a loss with Boss.
Try Dolce? Or Gabbana?
With my debit I don’t wanna.
My swan sang for Vera Wang.
My hips lament how far they’ve gone
When they see Louis Vuitton.
I won’t give more to Dior.
Dooney liked me, but Burke
Was such a fiscal jerk!
I cannot pay for Hermès.
Where else could I possibly go,
Since you won’t have me, Valentino?
Jimmy Choo, the same to you.

I don’t get why shopping’s a chore
I can’t even enter most of the stores!

At least you’ll never turn on me.
Thank you, Coldstone Creamery.

 

 

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I started this one singing it like Garrison Keillor does – I can hear the band and his breathy voice making all those goofy rhymes.

Man, I haven’t had Coldstone Creamery in ages….

Fantasy Eyebrows

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Fantasy Eyebrows

 

High, arching eyebrows are the mark of the villain.

Second option: the dangerous love interest

(He’ll probably shoot a questionably innocent person early on)

Straight, bushy brows? That’s the wise, cantankerous teacher

Or a fat jerk who is selling low-quality goods at market prices to make an extra buck.

Thin, graceful eyebrows usually belong to the princess

Or her proud, condescending fop of a brother.

Strong, no-nonsense brows probably did some military time.

Might mark the hero or heroine

(The betrayer will have them too – but there will be a hint of an arch)

A unibrow is the most complicated of brows.

Simpleminded rube, evil sidekick, loyal and marked for death – all possibilities…

No eyebrows?

Alien.

Possibly the scientist gleefully making science.

Straight, slanting eyebrows?

You’re watching anime.

Anime does not count because it’s not real.

We’re talking fantasy here.

 

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I am actually a big fan of science fiction eyebrows – for whatever reason, you can tell a lot based on eyebrows.