Sunday Snippet – Pickpocket

I have to be careful with what I’m reading. It influences what I write. I distort what comes out of my pen by what goes in my eyes.

Lately, I’ve been reading too much lurid pulp fiction.

Whip Hand

Whip Hand

W. Franklin Sanders is a pen name for Charles Willeford… Ebook Here. Whip Hand was also published under the title, Deliver me from Dallas. In this heat… I know the feeling.


I needed something to take to our writing group, so I punched up a writing prompt generator and what came up was: Nonchalantly she reached into the other woman’s handbag and whipped out her purse.

Using this prompt, I wrote out a quick four pages…. this is what I came up with, Raw First Draft.


Pickpocket

The book she had read was nothing more than a pamphlet, printed long ago in blue mimeograph ink on office paper and crudely stapled into a small, rough book form. Loralee remembered the smell of fresh mimeo from grade school. The pamphlet paper was brittle, the blue fading, and crisscrossed with yellowed cellophane tape repairs but it was all still readable.

Loralee had bought the pamphlet at a strange little bookstore she had stumbled into while on a trip to a business conference in New Orleans.

Her boss had called and set up a meeting on the second day of the conference in a private hotel room. It seemed a little odd to Loralee, but she figured there was a new program to launch or some reorganization she had to help smooth over.

Instead she was laid off.

“Well,” her boss said, “At least you have two more days in New Orleans to enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about the meetings; and your hotel is paid for.” Her face seemed to creak as she forced out a frightening smile.

Thanks a lot.

Loralee spent the rest of the afternoon at the hotel bar, hitting it hard, charging the tab to her room. But when the meetings finished and she saw her coworkers returning to the lobby, gathered into conversational clots like old spilled blood, she couldn’t stand it and staggered back up to her room. As soon as she entered, she had to tumble into the bathroom and barely had the time to stick her head into the toilet before she heaved and puked up what seemed like a lot more than she had drank that afternoon – which was a lot. She continued to convulse even after she was empty until her diaphragm ached.

Finally spent, she tumbled onto the sagging hotel bed and fell into an uneasy sleep full of terrifying dreams.

When she awoke she saw a half-light splayed across the sheer curtains of the room. The digital clock had six fifteen glowing in red numbers. Loralee didn’t know if it was AM or PM and curled on the bed, staring at the curtains until she was sure that it was getting lighter, rather than darker. Six AM it was.

Hungover, wearing sunglasses despite the overcast sky, Loralee stumbled the uneven brick and cracked concrete of the French Quarter looking for… she didn’t really know. As she walked she chanted, “Laid Off – Let Go – Laid Off – Let Go” over and over like a Mantra. Almost everything was closed this early in the morning, street sweepers pushed filthy piles of cups, bottles, and beads down the middle of the street. Each block seemed to have an unconscious person still snoozing up against a building or beside a stoop. The smell of last night’s old beer and piss hovered over the still air like a filthy umbrella.

Finally she spotted the open door of the old bookstore. It actually opened out into an alley, with the entrance barely visible around the corner from the sidewalk. The alley had a rusty streetsign – the letters were faded, but it was barely legible, “Rue Deday.”  A red neon light glowed PEN – the “O” was burned out. Without knowing why, Loralee turned the corner and went in.

The stacks smelt like old mold. Loralee thought that most used bookstores were musty like that – but this was one step beyond. Maybe it was just New Orleans, maybe the French Quarter, maybe the ghost of Katrina. There was a lot of evil old water around.

The books were not marked, no prices. Loralee wanted to stick it to her company so she asked the ancient, bent proprietor, “What’s the most expensive shit you got.”

He did not flinch – simply peered over his thick glasses at her with eyes that were surprisingly bright and clear for someone of his age – otherwise he looked to have one foot in the grave. “Well, dear, we have a drawer of very expensive shit right here.” He pulled a massive key chain off a nail by the register and removed a padlock from a small metal filing cabinet.

The cabinet was full of old manila folders, each marked across the front with a scrawled red marker. The marker showed various prices – all over one hundred dollars each. The folders contained various bits of paper: single yellowing crumpled sheets, folded maps, handwritten notes.

Only one folder had anything that was thicker that a few sheets. That one had a folded and stapled booklet with the label, “How to be a Pickpocket, Guaranteed!

The price on the pamphlet was one hundred and twenty five dollars – which seemed really steep, but Loralee still had her company credit card. Somehow, her boss had neglected to confiscate it in her “exit interview.” She knew it would be deactivated any minute and wanted to waste anything still left in the account.

“I’ll take this one,” she said to the old man. “Here charge this card,” she said as she extended her company card for the last time.

Back home she fell into a languid life of half-hearted job searching. She ventured out to a big warehouse store and bought a case of frozen fried chicken dinners and several of ice cream. She would send out enough letters and resumes, apply online when she could, enough to keep an unemployment check coming, but her heart wasn’t in it.

One thing that did interest her was the old pamphlet she had stuck her company with back in New Orleans. For something so short it was surprisingly complex. She kept noticing something new every time she picked it up.

Different paragraphs were written in different styles, all jumbled together. Some were in a modern, hip, joking style, talking about “Stealing for Dummies,” and such. Others were in an arcane style, full of old-fashioned spellings and extinct phrases. The text seemed to be one third cold, dry instruction, one third psychology lessons on how a mark thinks and what he will and won’t notice, and one third strange incantations designed, as the pamphlet said, “To reste the spirit and calme the blood.

She read and re-read the thing. When she would put it down to try and watch TV or to get something to eat, she would feel it growing in her mind until her hands would actually quiver and itch for the feel of its aged paper between her fingers.

Some of the pages contained simple exercises meant to improve dexterity and quickness. She set up some little stations around her apartment. Everything was laid out exactly as the pamphlet called for, bits of cloth, small metal weights (she used some old hexagonal steel nuts she pried off the bottom of her coffee table), and shapes folded from shirt cardboard as diagrammed in the pamphlet.

Loralee would practice over and over again. First she would mumble the words prescribed on the pages; she felt an odd urge to try and get all of it exactly right – no matter how silly it seemed. Then she would go through the motions of snatching the metal nuts from whatever cradle they were hidden in. At first she would make her move while looking directly at the setup, but – as the instructions dictated – after a while she would work with her head turned, and then, finally behind her back. She was amazed to find that, with enough practice, she could snatch the prize without even touching the cloth or cardboard. She felt she could almost see her goal in sort of a glowing mist inside her head, see it clearly, even though it was behind her back.

After three months of preparation and practice, she decided she was ready.

There was a Starbucks near her apartments and as she entered she immediately picked out a matronly woman in a faded print dress at the end of the queue of customers looking confused at the lighted menu overhead. Loralee sidled into line directly behind her as the woman began to ask questions of the barista, “But I don’t understand… are you telling me the Venti is bigger than the Tall?” Loralee muttered one of the incantations under her breath. This steadied her nerves as she leaned over, pretending to look into the case of pastries.

Nonchalantly Loralee reached into the other woman’s handbag and whipped out her purse.

She then calmly pulled the money out, leaving a single five and the change so the woman could pay for her coffee. Without taking her eyes from the pastries she then replaced the purse, sighed quietly, turned and walked out. She could hear the woman going on behind her, “Oh, tell me again, what’s the difference between a latte and an espresso?”

It became easier and easier as her marks became larger and larger. Loralee began to frequent spots – casinos, expensive nightclubs, the racetrack, where customers would be carrying a lot of cash and might be drinking a little. She made enough money to begin buying expensive clothes. That enabled her to sidle her way into parties and receptions of the highest levels of society, where she could accumulate jewels and watches in addition to the mounds of cash she was quickly developing. Luckily, the pamphlet had advice on fencing those goods, and on the methods to safety and surreptitiously convert her ill-gotten gains into diamonds and gold coins – portable efficient receptacles of growing wealth.

She didn’t pay any taxes and couldn’t trust any bank, of course, so she bought a heavy safe and disguised it as a pedestal for her new wide-screen television.

She began to travel. She went to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Palm Springs… anywhere that the marks might congregate with the cash.

She even returned to New Orleans to push her way through the huge dense drunken crowds at Mardi Gras. That was almost too easy. She could reach out and grab whatever she wanted without even thinking about it. For old time’s sake she returned to the street where she first saw the old book store, but it was gone. She moved along the alley running her hands over the rough brick, but there wasn’t even any evidence of where the door used to be.

Loralee decided she must have been mistaken about which street it had been off of. Even the street sign was missing, so she must have been lost.

After a year of work, her safe was bulging with gold and diamonds, three dresser drawers were stuffed full of hundred dollar bills. Loralee began taking it a little easier. She felt her skills begin to slip. Once, for the first time, a mark turned and shouted at her. She dropped the man’s wallet and fled. She decided to stop, at least for a while. She had enough to last, possibly for the rest of her life.

She liked to treat herself to a nice dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant around the corner. She received the best food and the best service, the waiters like her generous, cash tips. This night she stayed a little longer than usual, sipping on a particularly nice brandy after dinner; thinking about a European trip. It would be her first non-working trip to the old country, and she smiled, mentally planning it.

When she returned home and pressed her key into the lock, her door swung open freely. With a rising tide of fear choking her throat, she quickly pushed on inside. The apartment was a shambles. Everything was tossed about – not a stick was undisturbed. Her television sprawled face down on the floor. Looking at the stand, she saw the bulging cloth covering and knew the safe was open. Pulling the cover aside, she verified what she already feared. It was empty.

She dashed into her bedroom where the dresser drawers were tossed on to her bed, cash all gone. In a rising panic she rushed about the place looking in corners and hiding spots. Everything of value had been found and stolen. Even her old pamphlet on how to be a pickpocket was stolen. She realized she was doomed, there was no way to get this back without her instructions.

Finally, standing in the center of the room, fighting back panic and tears, she noticed something new. On her dining table was an old, dirty, and worn manila file folder. She approached the folder and saw, scrawled across the front, “One Hundred Seventeen Dollars,” in red marker. Shaking, she opened the folder. Inside was a single, torn, worn piece of paper covered with faded typing. At the top it said, “How to be a Burglar, Guraranteed!

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Why I Love to Slaughter my Characters

Man is born crying. When he cries enough, he dies.
—Ran
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As I’ve said before, I can outline too many of my short stories with three cards-

1. Introduce Compelling Character – interesting and fully rounded human that, despite some quirky faults and failings, the reader likes and can identify with.

2. Something bad happens – the protagonist is presented with something that does not go as planned and puts them in some distress – a problem to solve.

3. Protagonist dies. Nothing works, doom descends and the main character dies an ignominious, painful death.

They aren’t all like this, but this is what I like to shoot for. It’s just that sometimes my characters refuse to do what I tell them to and, despite my best efforts, they get lucky, scrape by with the skin of their teeth, and survive.

Everyone tells me I’m a terrible person because I take so much joy in butchering my heroes and heroines, especially since they are sometimes such nice people. Some ask me why I do that. I do it because I like it. I do it because I can. I do it because it doesn’t hurt anybody.

These are fictional characters. They are not real. Everything is a lie. Writing this stuff is a lot of hard work, time that I should be spending in useful money-making activities – so I want a payoff. Since I can do anything, doesn’t it make sense to do what I can’t ever do in real life? Death! Off with their heads!

The idea is to kick it up a notch, isn’t it? What possible reason is there not to kick it up as far as it will go. Turn those amplifier knobs to eleven.

Yell

Yell

It’s the same thing if you are reading. It takes time to turn those pages; time you should be using to interact with real human beings. So if you are choosing to hang out with an imaginary shade instead of a flesh-and-blood person you are going to want to make the best of the situation. So what is the one advantage of befriending fiction, a pack of ghostly lies, over some warm living example of God’s creatures?

You can kill them and nobody gives a shit. Plenty more where they came from. Close those book covers or shut off that e-reader and the pain and mourning is all gone. You can wipe a tear and go make a sandwich-nobody knows any better.

So let’s raise a glass to fictional death. Give a big hearty laugh at the disaster yarn. Let the blood spill and the darkness descend, as long as it is behind the protective screen of those twenty-six letters with the added armor of a few punctuation marks.

There’s too much out here, so lets keep it in there. As much as we can.

One Hundred Short Story Basic Ideas

George Polti put the number at 36. He insisted that there are exactly thirty-six dramatic situations.

1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
2. Deliverance
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
5. Pursuit
6. Disaster
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
8. Revolt
9. Daring Enterprise
10. Abduction
11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
12. Obtaining
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
16. Madness
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones.

Foster-Harris said there are three – “Happy Ending” – “Unhappy Ending” – and the “Literary Plot”

Jessamyn West listed out seven.

[wo]man vs. nature
[wo]man vs. [wo]man
[wo]man vs. the environment
[wo]man vs. machines/technology
[wo]man vs. the supernatural
[wo]man vs. self
[wo]man vs. god/religion

Ronald Tobias says there are twenty master plots.

Quest
Adventure
Pursuit
Rescue
Escape
Revenge
The Riddle
Rivalry
Underdog
Temptation
Metamorphosis
Transformation
Maturation
Love
Forbidden Love
Sacrifice
Discovery
Wretched Excess
Ascension
Descension.

As for me, these are interesting ideas and a great starting point to come up with inspiration, but not really practical when the deadline is looming and the mind is empty and the panic is rising.

So, in my “Spare Time” I have started to make a list of short story ideas or plots or basic structures or prompts or whatever. I decided to come up with a number first instead of doing the list first and then counting. Makes more sense to me.

I picked a nice round number – one hundred. So, in my notebook(s) that I carry around, every now and then I’ll think of a new one, write it down and give it a number. I’m only up to sixteen so far, so I better get crackin.’

1 Revenge Story – must have downtrodden victim taking revenge on the person/people responsible for keeping him down.

2 Love Triangle – Requires a somewhat passive follower – yet very desirable- character has to choose between 2 pursuers.

3 Someone isn’t what they seem. On the surface a benevolent character turns out to be a monster underneath.

4 Wakes up to the man. Someone, probably a youth, realizes the hopeless, soul-crushing nature of existence – rebels. Successful or not.

5 Unreliable Narrator. – First person narration point of view. As the story progresses the reader realizes the narrator is lying and is not the beneficent person they portray (and believe themselves).

6 Revenge Story 2 – Someone done wrong but NOT downtrodden, takes revenge on a victim that does not expect it.

7 You might be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you. A long-ago incident – secret- comes back to haunt a person in a secure well-established position.

8 Petty Crime Goes Bad – Someone steals something (notebook? Laptop? Phone? IPOD? Digital storage card or thumb drive?) and it turns out to have something unspeakably evil and dangerous associated with it.

9 (related to #8) Ordinary Object contains evil. Gift? Bought at thrift stop? Item has power but also terrible danger.

10 Fractured Fairy Tales – Take an obscure (or well known) fairy tale and set it in modern day. Kick things up a notch.

11 Rosebud – Filthy Rich self-made man – his fortune can’t cure a hurt left over from his childhood or he can’t rescue a loved one – or both.

12 Memories of Childhood nightmares. – fear of atomic attack, making noise, or other mostly irrational fear – maybe it comes true (just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you).

13 An ordinary dystopia – A terribly ordinary day is told in all of its horror.

14 Requiem for a Dream – The hero’s constant struggle for a goal, for fulfillment, is turned by a fatal flaw – dreams turn to nightmares. The core sin is that of blindness to one’s true nature – and/or ignorance of one’s love’s true needs.

15 Mediocre athlete – a person aids a naturally gifted person – that is a fraud. The mediocre person ends up relaxing and winning himself.

16 – Expert helps downtrodden – an elite unexpectedly sacrifices a bit of his own success to aid someone not as elevated.

Sixteen down, eighty four to go. Leave a comment if you have any ideas, that would be cool.

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17  Blast From the Past – A person meets someone that was a key influence in their distant past.

18 Mysterious Pest From Beyond – a hellish parasite arrives from an unknown location and attaches to the protagonist

19 Monkey’s Paw – Dream comes true, turns into a nightmare (similar to #14 – but different tone)

20 The Opposite Of Doomed Love – What if Romeo and Juliet said to each other, “I love you but this isn’t going to work out, what with the family and all.” What tragedy would ensue.

21 Military in Need – Opponents on the battlefield are thrown in with each other and must cooperate to survive.

22 What we were and have forgotten – The world from a child’s point of view. We don’t remember the fear.