Rylan dreams of becoming a published author. He thinks his first mystery writer’s workshop is going to help him achieve that dream. But what he finds is an out-of-control group spiraling down into a bottomless pit of envy, spite, and cruelty–a workshop from hell. Writer’s Flight is a short story about destructive workshops and an artist’s coming of age.
For a week, the entire short story will be available here to read. Next week I go in and delete half the story. (I’d put the rating of this story at around PG.)
Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore
Copyright © 2013 by L. M. May
Published by Osuna Publishing
This story is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Noldren held up Rylan’s synopsis pages like an altar sacrifice and tore them in half, flinging the halves at Rylan so that he felt them bounce off his stomach onto the frayed carpet.
“Your novel is terrible,” Noldren said. “You call this characterization? Your detective is a moron and your sentence structure is pathetic.”
Rylan sank deeper into the mushy sofa he sat upon in the living room. Each word felt like a mental slap. Diane, sitting on the sofa cushion next to him, wrapped her arm around him to give him a quick hug.
I will be calm, I will be calm, I will not give Noldren the pleasure of a reaction. He imagined he had escaped the writer’s workshop to sit upon the beach sand of the Outer Banks, the salt-flecked sea breeze ruffling his hair, seagulls screaming above.
Then Noldren dumped Rylan’s first three chapters on his lap, saying, “Go back to engineering, Gramps, ’cause you’ll never make it as a writer.”
The eruption of rage within him took Rylan off guard—half-aware flashes came to him of his hands flinging his manuscript pages at the walls, other student-writers scrambling around to dodge the crap he kicked in random directions.
“Break!” Dr. Williams yelled. “Meet back here in fifteen minutes…. Rylan. Hey, Rylan.” She put a firm hand on his shoulder. “C’mon, take a deep breath.”
He blinked, pausing in mid-stomp of the pages on the floor, to find that his fellow classmates, as well as Noldren, had left the room. “Unh, what am I doing?” The storm in his mind was subsiding, to be replaced by an oncoming headache. She still had a hand on his shoulder, to stop him if he went on another rampage. The room was now decorated with the crumpled and torn pages of his manuscript. “I did this.”
She patted his shoulder. “That’s because you discovered you cared about your writing: an excellent sign.”
Having me behave like I’m six is bad. He looked down at Williams’s head. Her hair was glossy black like a cat’s. His hair had gone completely gray a few years ago. And surveying the mess he’d made in this room made him feel worn out and ashamed of himself.
He was older than all of them, Noldren included. There were times he had to fight the urge to pat Diane and the other two twentysomethings on the head for being as cute as puppies and kittens.
He yanked his attention back to reality, to find that Williams was talking to him, saying, “— for a walk. Get out of the workshop house for a bit. You’ve been pushing yourself hard.”
“All right.” He rubbed his itchy face; he’d forgotten to bring a razor, and now he had a patchy gray beard coming in. “But first I need to clean up this mess.” Just six days to endure, and then you never have to see Noldren again.
Back to the fluorescent lights and cubicles.
Williams chewed at her cracked bottom lip as he picked up the crumpled pages within reach.
She’d started gnawing on her lip the first morning of the fourteen-day workshop, after she’d attempted to halt Noldren’s insults of the students. Noldren had pointed out that she was only an assistant professor on unpaid leave with no published novels to her name, while he had five. Since that confrontation, she’d let Noldren have free rein over her first mystery writer’s workshop.
Noldren truly seemed to revel in the rage and tears he provoked in the critique sessions.
While he’d never been to a writer’s workshop before, Rylan suspected that the situation was spiraling out of control—and this was only day eight. There were still six days to go. His fellow students and Dr. Williams looked like rabbits in the floodlights of a semi as it rolled down on top of them.
Smoosh, and they’d all be flattened road kill.
As he picked up the last pages littering the room, he wadded the entire mass into a huge paper ball.
Williams brought over the living room’s recycling bin, and he dumped the papers in. The devil of it was, Noldren’s spite made it impossible to tell if the beginning chapters of Cracked Glass really needed work, or not. He’d just have to go ahead and assume they were okay for a first draft, and move on to writing chapter four when he got home.
“You don’t have to join us again until after lunch,” Williams said.
He went into the hall, took his windbreaker out of the closet, and slipped past the whispering students standing on the porch. Diane was with them. She gave him a worried frown, but he gently waved her back before descending the porch steps. He wanted to be alone with the October afternoon.
Being able to smell the seawater as he walked was a continual torment to him.
The writer’s workshop was holed up in a rented house in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, instead of on the Outer Banks as he’d hoped. To have come all this way from Atlanta, only to go back without having seen the Wright Brothers’ site at Kitty Hawk, as well as the lighthouses, was driving him nuts. The daily writing assignments tied up his mornings and evenings, making it impossible to do the drive to Nag’s Head and back.
He’d had to argue and wheedle to get his boss to let him take two weeks of vacation. As soon as he’d gotten off work on Friday afternoon, he’d driven up to North Carolina for the start of the workshop on Saturday morning, and as soon as the fourteen days were up, he’d be driving home on Sunday night to be back to work —probably ringed like a raccoon under his eyes—bright and early on Monday morning.
And this workshop felt more and more like a horrible waste of his time and money. If he’d thought all published novelists became this pathetically vicious, he would have deleted all his manuscripts and given up fiction writing altogether to escape becoming a world-class jerk.
Rylan could hear Diane’s voice rising from the living room as he opened the screen door to go back inside the workshop house.
“You arrogant S.O.B!” she yelled. “What do you know about alcoholism? My character has to act this way!”
He hung up his windbreaker in the closet.
A red-faced Diane rushed out of the living room into the hall, and passed by him to go up the stairs two at a time. He listened to her pounding footsteps on the floorboards of the second story hallway, followed by the slam of her bedroom door.
Oh, great, now Noldren’s gotten to Diane. We’re doomed. Diane had been their fulcrum, and the rock that kept the group from complete disintegration. Now she was crumbling.
Instead of joining the others in the all-too-silent living room, he went upstairs to knock on her door.
“Diane—it’s Rylan. Can I come in?”
Diane opened the door a crack. Her face was a mottled pink, seething. She regarded him for a moment, then threw the door wide. “Enter.”
He closed the door behind him. “So he finally got to you.”
“Yes, the stupid idiot. I swore I wouldn’t let him, but so much for the good it did me.” She kicked a sandal in frustration. “He may have five published mystery novels, but he’s a sadistic S.O.B. What a waste of time.”
“Then leave,” Rylan said. “It’s not worth the pain. It’s the slow season on the Outer Banks—should be possible for you to find an available motel room for the time that’s left. Go and work on your novel out there.”
“No.” Diane sat on the bed, wrapped her arms around herself, and rocked back and forth. “It’d be quitting. I’ll see it through.”
His hands tightened into sweaty fists at his sides. “This is getting too destructive, and you’re young. And vulnerable.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well.” He cleared his throat. “You’ll find as you get older that your skin gets thicker. Easier to slough off the attacks and keep going. Easier to know when to walk away from a fight.”
“Hah, you should talk.” Diane grimaced. “You’re a lot less thick-skinned than I am.”
Damn it, he’d put his foot in his mouth. “That’s not what I meant.”
“I’m strong enough to see this through,” she said. “Stronger than the rest of you. Just you wait and see.” She unwrapped her right arm from about herself and pointed at the door. “Don’t lecture me. Shoo.”
As he left the bedroom, she went back to hugging herself while rocking on the bed.
When Rylan went into the dining room for lunch—the last student to enter, before Noldren and Williams came in—he saw a piece of paper lying on Noldren’s empty plate. Upon closer inspection he found it was a copy of a Bookseller’s Weekly review from three years ago. The review was of Noldren’s last published mystery novel: the scathing comments about “bloated prose,” “ridiculous coincidences,” and “a boring heroine as the love interest” had all been carefully triple-underlined in red ink.
The other eight students were already seated, helping themselves to sliced turkey and roast beef sandwiches.
Rylan picked up the review to get rid of it.
“Put it back,” Diane whispered. She shared conspiratorial glances with the others. “It’s a surprise I got for him.”
************** End of Excerpt *****************
Writer’s Flight is bundled with the short story Parallels in e-book format, and also available in the story collection Tales from the Threshold. Click Here to go to the main info page for this e-book.
Thanks for taking the time to read this story. See you next week! L. M.