Hello all and happy Saturday. As I said on the mailing list and on social media, today I’m giving you the first look at Pantheon’s sequel. Just like The Memo and Make It Three while there are no spoilers, but this is the opening to Pantheon’s sequel; I highly recommend you finish reading Pantheon prior to reading as the characters and their roles will make much more sense that way.
Haven’t bought it yet? You can find it in both paperback and e-book on Amazon.
Murphy – 0130Z/0430L, 20 APR
US Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Murphy Hawkins rolled over in his narrow rack, snuggling up to the furry body next to him and relishing the warmth.
“Good morning, Zora,” he said with a smile. He ignored the gnawing hunger in his belly and his hand lazily patted his dog’s face, scratching under her fuzzy chin.
Zora sat up, her weight depressing the center of the canvas cot. She gave him a smile, tongue lolling out in a happy doggy grin.
“Aww, come on pupper, don’t get up yet.” He glanced at his Ares watch and groaned. “We got fifteen more minutes before we need to be up for the patrol.”
Zora stared back at him, one ear pointing straight up, the other flopping down. Belgian Malinois breed standards dictated that both ears should be “stiff, erect, and an equilateral triangle.” Her slightly drooping ear had almost been enough to disqualify her from the Military Working Dog puppy program. Murphy thought it gave her a roguish look. Given that Zora was the only female he loved, he was glad she made it through the working dog selection program despite what some might consider her “deformity.” He scratched the floppy ear.
“Okay, girl, okay. If you insist,” Murphy said to the dog, rising. “We can get up.”
Zora hopped off the cot as he rose, circled his tiny room, nose whuffling at the piles of dust strung along the floor.
Murphy gave the floor a disgusted look. The insidious moon dust grit drifted in despite how often he swept. After his many deployments, his hatred of sand was growing to epic proportions.
Murphy and his team had been in Syria for five weeks and he was still struggling to adjust to the change from his home in north-central Florida. Florida had a sultry, humid spring and sandy clay dirt, but this part of Syria was hot, dry, and coated in the damned moon dust. Murphy dressed, closing the last Velcro tab on his body armor and grabbing Zora’s armor.
“Here, girl,” he said quietly. Zora sat obediently in front of him as he gently lowered the canine flak vest onto her back. Hands swift and sure from long practice, he affixed her buckles and gave a final scratch of Zora’s ear before he snagged his guns, checked both magazines, and opened his door.
Zora sneezed and Murphy squinted into the pre-dawn gloom. Its smells and sounds of the Al Assad suburb of Damascus assaulted both man and dog. Around him, other doors in their make-shift urban camp were opening, and his security team members gathered for their pre-patrol briefing. Murphy eyed the dirty courtyard where they gathered. Sunrise was at least an hour away and dim lamps illuminated cobblestone roads. The door beside his hootch opened and the last two members of his team stumbled out, yawning and fastening body armor buckles.
“Okay, team. Keep the radio discipline strong. My team is ‘Red’ and you’re ‘Blue’ today, Gonzo.”
Gonzales gave him a gap-toothed grin.
“Same deal as yesterday,” Murphy continued with a wry smile. “The LT, who will be ‘Red One,’ wants us patrolling the eastern blocks while Blue Team goes west.” The new second lieutenant nominally led Murphy’s team and their sister team, at least that’s what the manning roster said on paper. But Murphy was a highly experienced NCO and was breaking in the fresh lieutenant so he didn’t hurt himself or others.
Everyone knew Staff Sergeant Murphy Hawkins had been living the traditional NCO ritual of gently guiding the new lieutenant since the young officer had arrived only three weeks before, his body armor still pristine and smelling like the plastic bags it came in. Second Lieutenant Alex Anderson was a model graduate of the United States Marine Corps Officer Basic School, gung-ho and full of fresh book learning, but no combat time at all. Plus, he was a whiny pissant. The team had been forced to politely allow the young man to believe he was in charge while Murphy systematically field trained him to be a worthwhile officer.
The men bent to double-check guns and gear pouches full of ammo. Murphy’s second in command, Sergeant Gonzalez, unclipped the lead from his own dog, Bali, preparing for departure.
Murphy gave him a quick fist bump. “Good hunting, Gonzo.”
Gonzalez said, “Cheers, bro,” with a smile that displayed the new gap in his grin where he’d lost a tooth the week before. Not from enemy contact, but after a patrol where he’d gotten accidentally clocked in the face with a rifle butt trying to film a video for social media. Rather than allowing himself and Bali to be removed from the team and sent to the rear and a dentist, Gonzalez had pulled out the severely loosened tooth himself with his multi-tool and gone back on patrol the next day.
Bali joined Zora and the two frisked briefly across the sandy alley before returning to their handlers.
“Questions, comments, concerns?” Murphy asked the group when they’d finished settling their gear. He ached for a cigarette, but his two-week stash had run out the week before and they hadn’t had the luxury of running to a 7-11 since arriving. Murphy reminded himself that his life in the Corps was only two more months. In two months, he would transfer to the Navy.
“I got a question, Sarge—what’s the chance we find some pussy on our patrol?” Lance Corporal Strake asked with a leer.
“About as high as finding some damn Cope longcut, Strake,” Murphy told him.
“And that’s the reason why you’re still a damn terminal lance, Strake,” one of his men muttered too quietly for him to catch who said it.
“All right, fuck faces, any real questions?” Murphy asked. If Strake was feeling his oats this early, it was going to be a long day. Young Marines love four things: the Corps, women, booze, and tobacco. In that order.
Heads shook in compliance. “Right. High fives, team, then let’s move out. And I swear to God, if you fuckers forget your MREs again, you will fucking starve. I’m not sharing with stupid people again.”
“Sorry, Murph.” Rawlins called from his right.
The team exchanged their traditional quick round of high fives and moved out.
Their eight-man squad, comprised of two fire teams, moved into the streets of suburban Damascus. Each fire team consisted of a grenadier, an automatic rifleman, a rifleman, and a designated marksman, and the team leader. In the case of his group, Murphy and Sergeant Gonzalez were both canine handlers and team leads. Usually, fire teams didn’t have a K9 partner, or “fifth man,” but for their mission in Syria, Murphy’s teams did. Zora and Bali were charged with sniffing out bombs and bomb-making supplies as well as taking down suspected terrorists as they fled. They also provided an intimidation factor. While the terrorists Murphy and his team sought were usually fearless, something about two fierce Malinois scared the shit out of the Syrians. Additionally, Murphy was a trained Arabic speaker, able to interpret and interact with the local community. Between his Arabic and Zora, he was the ideal team lead.
The first hour of their patrol was simple. The same mind-numbing monotony Murphy’s teams had experienced for the last few weeks. Theoretically, they were hunting suspected terrorists hiding in and around the outskirts of Damascus, but so far, their daily searches had been fruitless. Murphy let his mind wander as Zora loped ahead, sniffing the courtyards and alleys ahead of the team.
Six weeks ago, he’d been in the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Sterling had interviewed him personally on his pending award of the Navy Cross. Murphy had been both pleased and embarrassed to find out he was being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps’ second-highest honor for action during his last deployment to Afghanistan. He had sat stiffly in the chair offered to him, body nearly rigid, and uncomfortable during the whole interview.
While he knew the interview was merely a formality, a chance for the Commandant to get to know him before awarding the medal, he had been nervous. The Commandant had asked him about his time in the Corps as well as what Murphy thought of his future. Murphy knew damned well the Commandant had expected him to say he was staying in the Corps. The general officer couldn’t have looked more shocked had Murphy slapped him in the face when he said he was transferring to the Navy in three months.
He’d demanded to know why Murphy would leave when he was so obviously needed in the Corps. Murphy, as calmly as he could, told the general he had always wanted to be a Navy SEAL. Murphy had been irked to learn that his recruiter had lied to him and that Marines were ineligible.
The Commandant had a murderous look for a fleeting second before acknowledging that a man who’d earned the Navy Cross was surely good material for the SEAL program. By the end of the conversation, he’d even offered to write a letter on Murphy’s behalf to the acceptance board. Murphy had smiled politely and thanked him, fully expecting it to be a polite formality—until the General called his aide in to take Murphy’s name, home phone number, and the date of the in-service SEAL selection board. A genuine smile had broken across Murphy’s face before he departed with a handshake.
Murphy scanned the dark, narrow, sludge-filled alley in front of him with a strange, unsettling feeling. Roughly fifteen meters down the alley he could see movement behind a stack of rugs. He whistled quietly and Zora heeled, pressing against his leg. He motioned silently for his team to stop, the hair on the back of his neck prickling. Murphy listened carefully, ears straining to catch any sound. He caught voices speaking in hushed English, a rarity in the outskirts of Damascus.
“No, Yaʿqūb, it must be in less than two months,” a voice said nearby. “If the bombs do not go off, and inside your nation of infidels, then the plan will not work.”
Murphy silently motioned his team forward and gave Zora the sign to search out the voice. They had been searching for high pay off targets for five weeks and this was the most promising lead he and the team had thus far.
“No, three months is not soon enough. If we are to show our strength, it must be two weeks or less.” The voice paused, clearly listening. “Yes. Good then. Until tomorrow, may Allah bless you.”
Murphy’s team flanked the walls of the narrow alley, moving steadily and stealthily forward towards their high payoff targets. For a brief moment, the only sound combat boots on sand.
“Damned infidels. They still believe we are on the same side but agree to their half of the destruction. By coordinating bombs in both their nation and ours, we can show how far reaching the power of the caliphate,” Murphy heard the voice say in Arabic.
Cold fear dropped leaden into Murphy’s belly. Terrorists in Syria coordinating with a group he could only assume was on American soil? The thought horrified him. He signaled to his team. On his count, they would break down the small wooden door they had surrounded. Murphy tapped his throat mic, calling his lieutenant, by now at least three miles in the opposite direction.
“Red One, Red Four, possible contact with HPTs. Coord for an extract to interrogation, twenty mike,” he whispered.
“Copy. Stand by, coordinating,” the young man’s voice replied. The lieutenant might not be the most seasoned veteran, but he was good at coordinating.
Murphy nodded to his team and counted down with his fingers.
A press of bodies burst through the door, Zora hot on their heels. Murphy followed, running with a practiced gait that minimized the rattle of his gear, the butt of his rifle held tight to his shoulder and in the ready position. Before he could cross the threshold, chaos erupted.
Angry shouts in Arabic came through the door as Murphy entered. He flicked his ballistic glasses off his nose and looked through the tableau. Two men in traditional long kaftans and loose pants held guns that we directed at Murphy’s men and Murphy’s team had their weapons up, tense with tightly leashed lethality. Both groups were tense. Zora growled at the men who were seemingly more terrified of her than his men.
“Put down your weapons,” Murphy barked out in Arabic. Slowly, the men complied. Murphy felt a loosening in his tension, but the hair at the back of his neck still prickled. “Hands in the air,” he told them. Their quick compliance bothered Murphy.
Murphy’s eyes flicked over the room, noting bomb-making supplies scattered across makeshift worktables. He gave a sharp nod to Rawlins, who was breathing hard at his right. This was exactly the thing they’d been sent to catch. He wanted to relax, but something in the two men’s speedy compliance nagged at him.
“Cuff them and we’ll bring them to the courtyard. LT has an extraction in twenty,” Murphy told his men. They restrained the two men and marched them out the door.
As Murphy exited, gunfire erupted in the dark, narrow alley.
Murphy’s mind went into overdrive as he watched the men controlling the terrorists drop, bullets tearing through their bodies. Murphy tapped his mic. “Red One, Red Four, contact three miles east of base, two men down,” he shouted. Without waiting for a response, Murphy pressed forward to look for shooters from the doorway. Before he could get his barrel through the doorway, Zora leapt forward.
“No!” he yelled at her. A bullet struck her and she emitted a pitiful yelp as she fell. “NO!” Murphy roared. He’d been scared and angry to see his men ambushed, but seeing Zora felled by a bullet drove the fear from a cold fury in his belly, directly into his heart.
Heedless of the hail of bullets, Murphy darted forward. His mind in overdrive, he saw Zora laying on the ground next to his two men and the terrorists. He knew that Rawlins was at his back, ready to provide suppressing fire for his two downed men. Murphy dropped into a baseball slide, stopping next to Zora. He lay his body over hers as he scanned for targets. At one the end of the alley, he could see a group of armed men rushing toward them with weapons drawn and point at his team.
The swarm of oncoming men outnumbered and out-gunned them. With only Rawlins and Murphy able to fight, the five armed men approaching them would be a match, even for two Marines. He eyed the room they had just exited. It wasn’t perfect but might provide a measure of cover, of safety, for his team while they unscrewed this mess.
“Red One, Red Four, I say again, contact three miles east of base, two men down.” Murphy raised his own gun, squeezing off a burst of gunfire. “Requesting any available air support for E-CAS.” Getting emergency close air support was a long shot at best and risked his life almost as much as it offered support.
Rawlins yelled wordlessly and Murphy looked back. At the opposite end of the alley, another hostile group was running towards Murphy and his men. Chips of mud wall and dust rained down on Murphy as the men opened fire.
Pushing down his fear, Murphy tried to rally his thoughts. He knew he and his men would soon be overrun and would likely be killed. He needed a safe place from which to fight and, hopefully, get a little airpower rained down, two-thousand pounds at a time.
“Red Four, stand by for E-CAS.” The lieutenant’s voice was calm as it crackled through his radio.
“Copy,” Murphy growled as he dragged Zora back inside the building, crouching low. He thanked any god he could name the hostiles were terrible shots and he could make it to even this small measure of safety unharmed. With Zora out of the middle of the alley, he rejoined Rawlins, who crouched over their two injured Marines and the handcuffed terrorists.
“Cover me, I’ll drag them both inside,” Murphy yelled.
At Rawlins’ nod, he grabbed each man by the handle on the back of their armor and pulled them inside the door while Rawlins’ gun sprayed a blast of covering fire. One of the men, Swanbourne, was still conscious but was bleeding profusely from both legs. Murphy tossed him a medical kit and quickly made sure the man’s gun was at hand.
“Stop the bleeding, then be ready,” Murphy said and darted back out the door. “Rawlins, pull back, we’ll use the door frame for cover. I assume they won’t shoot their own,” he nodded to the two terrorists still in the alley. Murphy leveled his gun, aiming down the alleyway.
The smaller man bolted for the door and Murphy gave him a quick high-five when he settled against the doorframe. Murphy glanced around the small room, taking in each man and Zora. The building’s meager walls would provide only a small measure of protection. He needed to pause this fight long enough to get them to safety.
Incongruously, his mind went back to the Commandant’s office once more.
Zora gave a quiet whine, almost inaudible in the rising gunfire and shattering of concrete around them. Murphy’s mind sought safety. He drew in a deep breath and released it, picturing some place safe. In his mind, he felt as if he was reaching for that safety. Without conscious effort, Murphy Jumped himself, his three men, and Zora into the office his mind had sought.
At his desk in the Commandant’s office, General Sterling was reviewing paperwork late into the night. His first wife had hated when he worked late. His second had used it to sleep her way through half of Quantico. The third merely accepted it as part of being the general’s wife. Regardless of the havoc it created in his personal life, he enjoyed the peace and focus it gave him when reviewing critical documents.
When four sweaty, dusty men and a dog suddenly appeared in his office, he gave a yell of surprise as he stood so fast he knocked his chair over. A career spanning thirty years in the Marine Corps had taught him to expect the unexpected but the sudden arrivals strained his calm. He gave the bloody, dirty heap of men a quick glance and recognized one of the dust-covered men.
“Staff Sergeant Hawkins?” he asked with more calm than he felt.
Murphy heard a voice calling him but ignored it. He was focused on what was in front of him. Breathing hard, he searched Zora’s chest with shaking hands, seeking the bullet hole. He found only a small line of scarlet where the bullet had grazed her. Murphy ignored the sudden quiet that followed the chattering of gunfire as he pulled gauze from his pack and pushed the wad onto the wound, securing it with a second roll.
He turned to his men and rocked back in confusion. Adrenaline allowed him to ignore the sudden fatigue weighing him down, but it didn’t account for his confusion. Where was the building they had just been in? Still ignoring the voice calling to him, assuming it was the lieutenant in his earpiece, he took in his men. His heart rate, already racing from the adrenaline, ratcheted up another notch when he noted blood now seeping across their uniforms.
“Sergeants Hawkins!” a voice bellowed, finally pulling his attention away from his team.
“LT, I need just another goddamn minute to sort this cluster out and we can talk about extraction,” Murphy said into his mic.
“No, Sergeant, I don’t think you need an extraction. I think you’ve got it under control,” the voice told him.
A gentle hand clasped his shoulder and Murphy tensed. His skin still burned with adrenaline, his breath was harsh, and his hand started to move without conscious thought as he stared at the carpet in front of him.
Sudden realization sunk into Murphy.
Carpet. Quiet. Clean. Things that meant he was safe. The arm moving to do violence slowed.
Murphy expelled a ragged breath, vision focused on the deep blue carpet under his hands. He looked up from his men, his focus finally taking in the rest of his surroundings. The Commandant’s plush office surrounded him and his battered team; he could feel the grit of Syrian sand digging into his knee where it pressed into soft carpeting. Darkness crowded in as Murphy pulled a whining Zora close.
“Nancy,” General Sterling called to his open door, knowing full well his secretary was there despite dismissing her hours ago. “Call Marco Martinez at Limitless Logistics. Tell him I need him in my office, right now. Tell him,” General Sterling paused a moment and gave a wry smile, “the Pantheon is expanding.”
I hope you enjoy this first chapter! I will start releasing additional info about the coming sequel in a few weeks. In the mean time, I would love to hear from you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or by email! Stay up to date on the latest KR Paul news by joining our mailing list. As always, thank you dear fans!
“I refuse to fail again. After all, I want to see the void blink.“
Wow. What a week!
Sunday was Valentine’s Day, a holiday for which I feel ambivalent at best. I dislike the commercialization of it, it all feels performative, and I just plain have terrible luck with Valentine’s Day.
It started in High School. I was supposed to go on a church youth group ski trip that happened to fall over Valentine’s Day. The young man I was seeing, upset that I wouldn’t be around, dumped me. I went on the trip anyway and, of course, broke an ankle. Even worse, while in the ER, I picked up strep throat and spent the entire seven-hour drive from West Virginia back to North Carolina puking my guts out while trying to keep my foot propped up. There have been other Valentine’s Day mishaps, blizzards, and fights, but that really set the tone for my perception of the holiday.
It should come as no surprise that Valentine’s Day 2021 started as a trail run and ended in the ER.
For those of you who have only recently started following me, on Sunday, I was three weeks out from running the Mississippi 50k, a feat I have attempted and failed three times before, but the lure of completing it keeps drawing me back. It’s been a struggle at times, but last week I felt like I was really dialed in and the last few weeks before the race would tick by easily.
Then life happens. Remember my last post? “And in this, the era of COVID, meeting with the wrong person could wreck my lungs and put me in the cardio penalty box for six weeks.” Oof. Big oof.
Sunday was supposed to be a 20-mile run, one of my last long runs before taper started, and I was excited to burn some calories before chowing down on the delicious dinner I had planned. Friday’s run had been an easy and steady six-mile run with no problems. But on Sunday, by the end of the first mile, I knew something was wrong. I spent a few miles trying to resettle my vest, adjust my bra band, and do anything that would ease the tightness settling on my chest.
By the first water stop at 5 miles, I was in a mental boxing match with myself and deep in the pain cave, something I had been staving off until at least the 10-mile mark recently. At mile six, I had to make the decision to quit my run. I was breathing hard. Harder than I should for how low my heart rate was. I was constantly stopping to walk and catch my breath. Even after readjusting my vest and bra, I still felt like I had a band around my chest.
At mile six, I acknowledge what I had been trying to ignore: I couldn’t breathe.
I can run through a lot of pain. In fact, my notably high pain threshold and lack of self-preservation are exactly what makes a good endurance athlete. But while the pain cave can be ignored, a distinct lack of oxygen cannot. I staggered back to my car and went home, resolved to try again on Monday.
An hour later, I got the first text: “Bad news… I just tested positive for COVID.”
I’m sure there is a compound German word for “the feeling of dread when your subconscious fear has been confirmed.” COIVD has been an ever-present threat for almost a year now and I have been fortunate. I got sick once back in November, but it was, mercifully, only strep throat. I have been careful. I’ve diligently worn my mask at work, at the gym, even while running when I’m near others. I look like a dork, but a safe dork.
I spent the new hour working with my coworkers to identify who had been near who, who needed to get tested, and how to move forward with folks on quarantine. The whole time, my breathing became more and more labored. Another hour and a phone call to my nurse later, I was on my way to the ER.
The ER staff was amazing; I’ll give them that. I was taken back to a room in under five minutes and saw a doctor almost immediately. Based on my symptoms, they did a rapid COVID test, but everyone acknowledged the rapid tests have a high false negative rate this early (based on when I had contact with the three positive folks). Unsurprisingly, it was negative; however, I was in a bad way, so I was essentially told, “look, you *do* have COVID. Go home, quarantine from your family. We’ll retest later.” They gave me an inhaler and I drove home, my mind whirling.
COVID affects the lungs and heart… as an endurance runner, I kinda need those to be in perfect working condition.
Dazed, tired, and scared, I told my family what I’d been told by the doctor and we worked out our plan. We split which parts of the house I would use and what they would use, plus where we would wear our masks.
You know that first second after the drops start on a rollercoaster? That was Sunday. Monday through Thursday were the rest of the ride, whiplash and all.
I spent Monday and Tuesday too sick to do much more than stagger to my computer desk, my bed, or the bathroom. I had to use my inhaler regularly and the emotional toll on my family was staggering. My kiddo’s birthday is soon and we’d planned a party this weekend, which we then had to cancel. More than a few tears were shed over that.
On Wednesday, a couple of monsters snuck up from work and I spent the day battling them while finally letting a few of my very close friends know how sick I was.
With every puff of the inhaler, I wondered what might be happening to my heart and lungs. The occasional burning feeling in my lungs or heart palpitations scared me, but I was too fatigued to do much more than lay on my bed worrying. I was sad I might have to drop out of Mississippi 50, thus failing to complete the distance for the fourth time. My doctor helped calm me down a bit as we talked through my symptoms and what I could expect. He recommended a second test to confirm, but with as hard as it had hit, he ordered three other tests from the same swap.
On Thursday, I got the utter delight of having the full depth COVID swab. I’m not a fan. It didn’t hurt, but it was very uncomfortable and unpleasant. I spent the rest of the day wondering what the results would be. The ER doctor was insistent that I had COVID. I had COVID symptoms. But I never had a fever and I never lost my sense of taste or smell. It was such an odd feeling while I waited. Fortunately, by the afternoon, the results were back: I was negative for COVID again. And two strains of flu and a common respiratory infection. Stumped, the doc and I walked through what I needed to do now (spoiler: wait until my 14 days had elapsed) and what my family could do (come off quarantine, yay!).
What a rollercoaster. COVID! No COVID! I feel like the rollercoaster cart is pulling back to the loading and unloading area, but I’m not off the ride yet. I have six more days of quarantine to ensure I don’t start exhibiting (additional) symptoms and I’m trying to do my job from home.
Where does this leave me for running Mississippi 50? Well, at this point, I still plan to run in the race. My health has improved each day since Wednesday and I feel confident I’ll be out running as soon as my quarantine ends. Which, of course, is the start of taper week. I’ll miss my two 20+ mile runs.
It’s unfortunate that my last two weeks to push through long runs are shot because I can’t leave my house. But I have eight months of training behind me. As my thesis advisor would say, “the hay is in the barn.” All I can do now is make good nutritional choices, keep my focus, and keep up with a good bodyweight strengthening program until I’m allowed back out. It’s not ideal, but it’s the hand I’ve been dealt.
And I refuse to fail again. After all, I want to see the void blink.
PS – during my downtime, I decided if/when I recovered and finished that f***ing race, I’m getting a new tattoo. I spent some time sketching out the design ideas below. I’m not set on any of of them yet, but I’m narrowing down what I like. So if you wondered why they were all plague doctor themed, now you know.
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A Pantheon Thriller short story
Hello all! Happy Saturday before Valentine’s Day. Tonight I’m giving you a quick look at some of Limitless Logistics’ beginnings. Just like The Memo, while there are no spoilers, there’s mild foreshadowing. I highly recommend you finish reading Pantheon prior to reading as the characters and their roles will make much more sense that way.
Haven’t bought it yet? You can find it in both paperback and e-book on Amazon.
Make It Three
Hera absently brushed at the dried crust of blood on her otherwise immaculate peacock blue mini dress. She kicked one low heel irritably as she stared into a three-dollar Manhattan, silently cursing the bastard who couldn’t be bothered to remember she preferred champagne cocktails and spent outrageous amounts on a beverage she would barely sip. She pushed the drink away and caught the bartender’s eye.
“Champagne cocktail, love. Pomegranate syrup and twist of lemon,” her rich voice carried across the bar.
“Yes, miss.” The bartender glanced once, for only one moment, to a darkened corner where the only other patron sat before he went to the task of concocting her drink.
Hera absently brushed at the blood on her skirt again and pushed away the memories of how it got there. Men die every day, she knew that, but she didn’t like seeing it first hand and fumed to have been sent to Vietnam on a supply run twice in as many weeks.
The clinking sounds of serious bartending filled the almost empty bar for a few peaceful moments and Hera let her eyes close. Her morning had been – eventful – and now, at two in the afternoon Washington D.C. time, she was bone weary. Hera was starting to recognize the wearisome drag of a calorie deficit and knew she should eat, but she elected to drink her calories instead. There was still work to be done.
The sound of glass sliding across granite brought her eyes open.
“You’re in luck, miss,” the bartender told her. “I might be the only bartender in Washington that keeps pomegranate syrup on hand. We have to make it in-house, you know.”
“I know, dear. It’s why I come here,” Hera said and gave him a warm smile, basking in the glow of the appreciative smile he gave her in return. She brought the cocktail to her lips and sipped delicately with lips painted blood red, looking at the bartender through lowered lashes. “Pure ambrosia,” she told him “thank you.”
“Miss,” he said with a nod, but there was a hint of swagger in his step as he headed down the bar to polish a section of granite with the spotless white cloth tossed over his shoulder.
Hera smiled into her drink and took another sip. A flutter of lashes, a full bosom, the right siren red lipstick, and a mini dress went a long way towards getting what you wanted. God bless the fashion of the sixties, even when the world is a shit-show, she thought. Her free hand drifted to the dried blood on her hem a third time and brushed at it briskly. Realizing what she was doing, she drew her hand back and tucked an errant blond curl back behind her ear.
“Glenmorangie twelve, neat please.”
Hera eyed the young man who slid into the padded leather barstool a few seats down from her. He gave her a nod and a grin.
“Twelve, hmm? Looking for something your own age, love?” Hera asked, a sly grin catching the corner of her mouth.
He gave her an appraising look before answering. “I’d go a tiny bit older, but I’m not sure I can handle it, miss.”
Hera gave a rich, throaty laugh. “Well played. Get him the twenty-one, on my tab,” Hera told the bartender. “I’m Ada Ward,” she told him.
“John. John Page,” the young man answered.
Hera leaned forward and took him in. Dark hair the color of rich chocolate, golden hazel eyes that spoke of a certain warmth in his soul, and a charisma that was rare in someone so young.
“Hmm,” she murmured and ran a finger down her jawline, “come sit with me. You sound like you could hold up your end of a conversation.”
If her eyes glanced to the darkened corner of the bar, he didn’t notice as he moved down to sit next to her.
“So, John Page, what brings you here today?”
“I hear only the most beautiful of women come here,” he told her. “The really special ones come at two in the afternoon on a Sunday.”
A thrill ran through her. “Oh, you’re the one I hear about then?” She quirked one eyebrow and licked her lips.
His eyes narrowed briefly as they followed her tongue. “Yes, I think I am.” He took a heavy swallow of his scotch.
“It’s nineteen sixty-nine,” she said and the corner of her mouth twitched up slightly, “and I hear that in this fabulous year, men like you do extraordinary things.”
“Yes, I do, honey,” he assured her, his eyes darkening.
She bit her lip, something fierce and hot blooming in her. “Think you could show me?” she asked, her voice breathy with expectation, not all of it contrived.
He flinched back. “Here?” he asked, his voice rising in pitch. “Now?”
She dropped her head over her drink and looked up at him through her lashes. “Why not here? Why not now?”
“Wow, that’s fast but, yeah, groovy.”
The fool held out a hand and, mentally bracing herself, she took it. A flame of lust lay over the top layer of his thoughts and she tried not to chuckle. Underneath was a mélange of dominance, trepidation, and intense focus. He was precisely the kind of man she adored, even if he was wrong for her. She saw him flinch slightly at the contact and wondered what he felt form her.
“Follow me,” she said and hopped off her chair. She gave the skirt of her mini dress a tug and pulled him after her, towards the bar’s washrooms. She cast a quick glance at the bartender and gave a convincing giggle. They plowed through the bathroom door in a tangle and she snagged the door, throwing the latch to lock it against anyone following them in.
She turned to him, her face suddenly sober and serious. “Can you Jump?” she asked briskly.
“Jump?” he asked and took a step back.
“Teleport? Move from place to place in a blink?”
His brow furrowed. “Is that what this is?
Hera nodded, her crimson smile widening.
“Yes? I think so,” he said, still sounding slightly confused.
“Show me,” she said and held her hand out again.
He inhaled sharply but slapped his hand into hers. No sooner had he made contact than they appeared in another place. The granite and gold of the bar was replaced with a spacious, modern apartment. A low mustard colored gondola sofa sat on a green shag carpet and faced a low slung table, covered in a high-end record player and hi-fi speakers.
“Impressive,” she told him with a smirk. “You are what your reputation says.” She released his hand and walked to the small box of vinyl records. She idly thumbed through them, judging his taste.
Hands landed lightly on her shoulders and skimmed down her arms. “Impressed?”
“Yes, as I said.”
“Can I show you more?” John’s voice was pitched lower and held a commanding note that made a hum of lust shoot through her again.
She couldn’t see the smirk on his face but could hear it in his voice.
“No, but I think I can show you more,” she said as she turned.
His face held the hopefulness of youth; he was hopeful that he knew where this was going, but unsure if he could really talk her into his bed.
She gave his shoulders a sharp shove and they Jumped back to the bar’s bathroom. He tumbled back into the row of sinks.
“What the hell, girl!” he said as he thumped to the tiled floor. He struggled to his feet and faced her again.
“I guess I’ve done a better job keeping what I can do a secret than you. You’ll have to work on that if you come work for me. My name is Ada Ward, but I go by the military code name ‘Hera.’ I do what you do, only,” she gave him a smirk, “quieter and better. I was in Vietnam earlier this morning.” She paused; her hands straying to the bloodstain on her hem. “Their night, I suppose. But no one knows except a very small group.”
She approached him, her hands drifted to his collar, straightening it, and lingering for a moment.
“I think you’d like working for us, John Page. Come finish your drink, then you can come back and discuss business with us. Unless you can’t perform with a little liquor in you?” Her wry smirk expanded into a full grin.
He inhaled sharply. “Girl, you–”
“Don’t say anything you’ll regret, John Page!” she said. Her flashing eyes narrowed, but her grin remained. She relished his flustered muttering. Watching him go from arrogant and swaggering to unsettled and complacent ignited something in her. Hera sashayed out of the bathroom, John trailing behind her.
Their drinks lay untouched on the bar and Hera nodded once to the bartender. He nodded deeply enough that it was almost a bow.
Hera snagged her drink and held it up. “Will you join us?”
“Us?” John stammered, reaching for his own drink.
The man who sat in the darkened corner of the bar rose, buttoning his jacket as he stood. John’s eyes widened as the man unfolded himself from behind the corner booth. Even across the room, he towered, his physical presence commanding the whole room.
Hera pursed her lips as she watched him saunter up. He was a tall man and thick with muscle that pressed against the seams of his dark suit. His square cut, intensely masculine jawline had drawn her in year ago, but now she could only think of how he set his jaw when he was arguing with her, stubbornness etched into his bones.
“John Page, Morgan Ward. He goes by his military code name, Zeus,” she told John with a demure smile she didn’t feel.
John gave her a quizzical look. “Ada Ward? Morgan Ward? He’s your husband.” It wasn’t a question and he looked dumbstruck.
“Indeed,” Zeus said, his voice a bass rumble that filled the bar. “I’d like you to consider joining us at Limitless Logistics,” Zeus said and passed him a card.
“Limitless Logistics? What’s that?”
“Just like its name, a logistics company with no limits.” Zeus looked askance at Hera. “We are military, but recent,” he paused, considering his words, “shifts in politics have shown us that we need to be a separate entity. Out from under military control.”
Hera stood rigid, willing her hands not to drift to the blood on the hem of her micro-skirt. She let her face and mind go blank, refusing to let the horrors she’d seen just that day or in any of the past weeks enter her mind.
“But…” his confused voice trailed off. His brows furrowed. “Just how many people do you have in this Limitless Logistics. I can’t imagine there are that many of us.”
“You’d make it three. I do so love when there’s three,” Hera told him with a wink. She fought down a smirk when Zeus frowned at her.
“But, I already have a job–”
“With the United States Army, yes, we’re aware. You’ll still be an Army officer.” Hera looked at Zeus, who nodded. She set her jaw. “We’ve had a few problems in the past, with brass pushing us around. Our new deal allows us both leeway to recruit and the privilege of being a general officer.” She gave him a quick smile. “You would be promoted to general and a contractor as well.”
“Contractor?” he asked, voice full of incredulity.
Hera was amused and reassured that he latched on to that and not the offered rank.
“What like a mercenary?” A layer of panic lay on John’s voice.
“No, man. God, no!” Zeus laughed, hand slapping onto Hera’s shoulder as he shook with mirth.
Hera took the gesture in stride, smiling pleasantly at John. It probably wasn’t retaliatory for her flirting with John; Zeus knew that she, at least, would never stray. It was likely Zeus had forgotten her entire morning Jump to Vietnam or was deliberately ignoring the blood on her skirt so he didn’t have to listen to her weep over it. If she didn’t need him for so many reasons, she’d be tempted to wring his well-muscled neck.
“We utilize people like you, with special skills to move things. People and things, different places in the very special way we do.” He gave John’s shoulder a light jab. “Ring me up in the morning. We’ll talk it over and if you agree, I can expedite your paperwork. I assume you’d like that little incident in Mexico cleaned up as we move you over?” Zeus asked slyly.
“Uh, yes, that would, uh–” John stammered. “How did you even–”
“Not here, man. We can cover that tomorrow. Have your girl phone me in the morning. We’ll meet again.” His grin widened. “Until then.” With a wink to John, Zeus clapped a hand on Hera’s waist and they blinked out.
“Morgan!” Hera scolded him when she recognized their penthouse living room. “You really shouldn’t–”
“I shouldn’t?” he asked, cutting her off furiously. “Oh, don’t tell me what I shouldn’t do, girl! Taking the boy back to a bathroom? What were you getting at?” Zeus shot her a jealous glare which she returned with interest.
“Please, Zeus, don’t you even start trying to make me out to be the unfaithful one. Oh, and you!” She pointed a finger at his nose. “Two years of marriage and you still can’t remember that I hate bourbon? Buy me champagne next time, you ass. Maybe I’ll remember not to drag men to the bathroom like some common slut!” She stalked to the bedroom, her stride jarring her angry hands as they tugged at her mini dress zipper as she went.
“Are you coming or not you pig?” She shot over her shoulder. The fire of anger was replaced by the passionate blaze that had been growing in her all afternoon.
Zeus groaned in fury but unbuttoned his coat and loosened his tie as he followed her to their bedroom. “You’ll be the death of me, girl.”
“Hardly!” She told him, shimmying out of the mini dress and grabbing his shirt collars. “Your fat mouth and paranoia will be the death of you if a filthy sailor’s disease doesn’t get you first! And don’t you lecture me. At least I,” she stressed, “am faithful. I just get my engines revved up where I can while keeping my clothes on!” She gave him a filthy look.
“Oh, go have your own affairs, you harpy. We’re only married so you can run this company,” Zeus growled as he clamped hands on the ones gripping his collar.
“A marriage vow means something to me, Zeus, even if it means nothing to you!”
His hands released her at her words. They both knew how the other felt. Most days, the small grain of love still remaining burned more than it soothed.
“I hate how much I love you,” Zeus grumbled as she slipped his pants off.
“Same, you bastard,” she told him as they tumbled into bed.
I hope you enjoy this little vignette and would love to hear from you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or by email! Stay up to date on the latest KR Paul news by joining our mailing list. As always, thank you dear fans!
Hello and welcome to the doldrums. With only five weeks to go until the Mississippi 50, I’ve hit that horrible intersection of “I’ve come so far” and “I still have so far to go.”
Five weeks is a miserable length of time away from a big event and I hit a doldrum like this with every major race or bodybuilding show I’ve done. With five weeks, you find yourself close enough to the event that you can start feeling like it’s soon, especially relative to the amount of time you’ve already trained and prepared. In this case, I’ve been training for the last five months. Five weeks is close enough to feel those nerves driving you inexorably forward to the start line. But five weeks is still a long enough amount of time away from the starting line that you can still mess it up. One wrong foot placement on the trail could knock me out with a sprained ankle. A poor lift in the gym could wreck my back. And in this, the era of COVID, meeting with the wrong person could wreck my lungs and put me in the cardio penalty box for six weeks.
I also find myself in the doldrum grind. I have been doing this for five months. I know my local trails by heart. I know what I need to eat and drink. The challenge of nailing down those things is gone and it’s a long five week grind to the starting line. Part of my brain tells me, “You could stop; you could throttle back and coast in from here. What’s the difference between a 17 mile run and an 18? Or only 15? Heck, just skip this week; you’re legs are tired enough.”
Fortunately, I have failure to spur me on through this last month into taper week. As I’ve written about in “But Why?,” “Being Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable,” and my most popular post, “Chasing the Ultramarathon,” I have failed to complete the ultra distance three times now. In 2016, I had to drop down to the 20k distance a mere week out because my body was falling apart. In 2017 I gave myself a freaking heart murmur and my doctor wouldn’t clear me to race the ultra distance. In 2020, I started training for the 50k distance but knew months out that I couldn’t make the distance and only signed up for the 20k.
Those failures burn me.
Not like the warm flickering of a candle. They burn in me like a spark ignites a forest fire. My ambition is the tinder of a dry forest floor and at five weeks out, the flames are licking at the branches. I will finish this race. I will make the distance. I will crawl across the finish line if I have to because I won’t accept failure again.
So many people are afraid of failure. Terrified and paralyzed by the very thought of failing. But I ask you: if your goals don’t include a risk of failure, are you really achieving your potential?
Maybe there are folks out there who are truly happy staying safely in their personal bubble. But, me? I need goals. I need a challenge. I need the risk. Hell, I need to know I’m walking to the edge of the cliff and staring into the void. I want to know that when the void stares back, the void blinks, not me.
The failures are what drive me out of the doldrums. It’s what silences the little voices that tell me to take it easy. The fear of failing, again, is what will drive me through to taper week.
Because when I toe the starting line on March 6th and I stare into the void of covering 31.1 miles with a goal of 8 hours or less, I want to see the void blink.
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Last week I wrote about plotting out your story via index cards. Whether you’re a Plotter or Pantser, there’s a lot of goodness in that method. Today I want to show you some of what I do before the index cards come out.
I know I was all excited on Twitter and here recently because I had finished making cards for my “Hades and Persephone” project, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s really the first step in crafting a story. Every author is different, but I have several steps I have to get through before I can even think of putting scene cards together. I’ll break it down into the steps, but I plan on only focusing on a few of them today. I’ll add additional posts later to add more detail to some of the steps.
Step 1: The Idea
Here’s the toughest part of writing. You can be taught grammar, spelling, style, how to structure a story, and how to edit. But if you don’t have the idea, that creative spark for a story so compelling readers can’t put it down, then you have nothing. You can be taught how to draw out that world that exists only in your own head, but I can’t teach you what doesn’t exist.
But when you have the idea — whew, friends — we’re in for a ride!
This step can take me anywhere from two seconds or years as I let a story percolate in my mind. In all honestly, I sometimes complete Steps Two and Three while gnawing on Step One.
Step 2: A Single Sentence
Later in the process, I tend to refer to this sentence as my elevator speech. But at the beginning, it’s your plot captured in one sentence. It should be the answer to “Oh, you’re writing a book, what’s it about?” when asked by a stranger and have only the span of an elevator ride to explain.
For example, when I have to give the one sentence, short version of Pantheon’s plot, I typically say: “Loggies who can teleport are superheroes.” Six words, that’s it. But it hooks you and it’s the foundation for everything else.
Step 3: Characters
Whether you write plot/action driven stories or character driven plot, you still need compelling characters to fuel your story. I spend a good measure of time developing characters before writing the plot. After all, it’s tough to write character interaction and that fabulous conflict if you don’t know how a character would react. For Pantheon, I have meticulously kept files on all my characters.
Seriously, even characters who don’t exist in the universe yet had sheets and backstories that inform their actions and choices.
The outline is fairly basic, with only a few questions, but the more I learn who these characters are, the more detail and depth I can add. Currently, most of my notes go into one of my precious notebooks. The basic details go on the front, but as I learn a character, I fill in more details and where I want their plot to go gets filled in on the back of the page.
A note about the “aesthetic” section: this is an odd one to explain. To me, each of my characters has an aesthetic, a vibe, if you will. I use this section to fill in sensory information reflective of each character. While I never directly write this vibe, that would be weird, I use the sensory information to add subtle layers of depth to scenes. Certain characters have certain description tags that are either consistent throughout or their changes to indicate the character is undergoing a personal change. No more on that… I’d hate to spoil something accidentally.
I have the aesthetic block, but I also utilize Pinterest as a visual reference and each character’s “mood board” is often up on a background tab while I write them. The reminders help me both in the initial writing and later as I edit in depth.
Val’s board makes a good example. Her character has a lot of rage and for good reasons! I represent her with reds, fire, and the natural, chaotic energy present in a thunderstorm.
Step 4: The Arc
I wrote briefly on the Arc in the index card post and showed most Western stories follow the same three act plot arc.
Act 1 – sets your world, introduces your characters, and hooks them into the action. Many authors use this to introduce their characters in their natural habitat, with things existing in a state of harmony or stability before they have the inciting incident. Me? I’m a sucker for the cold open and typically punch readers in the face with a big fat plot hook right away. Readers will catch on to what “normal” used to be later and you know damn well I’ll use the friction between “normal” and “now” to drive that plot.
Act 2 – I think of Act 2 as an ever escalating set of obstacles. It should set the stakes and drive the characters toward the climax of Act 3. I also like adding in a good disaster/crisis to align all my characters against their Big Bad.
Act 3 – I use Act 3 to finalize any powers a character may have, letting them finally get a grip on them. The other option is to allow them to resolve one subplot point so they can head into the climax with one step forward and two steps back. This is your story’s climax and where the charters should be fighting the big fight. It should resolve your main conflict and set the characters on their future path. Of course, I’m a jerk, so if I know that the book is part of a series, I leave enough unresolved points to fuel the next book.
As you can see in the picture above, I use percentages (by word count) to describe when an action point should occur to keep the plot moving. There’s something to be said for having a quick lull in the action for readers to catch their breath but, I don’t want them to languish through unnecessary plot. I use the high points to expand on my single sentence plot description. Knowing what types of action should happen in each act, I can add more detail and specificity.
And NOW you can start writing those scene cards! Once you have the act framework, it’s easy to break into the associated plot points. I don’t hold rigidly to a “this is my inciting incident” and “this is obstacle number one,” but those parts are sometimes reflected in the color scheme I use.
I really hate to burst the bubble of anyone who thinks I just sit down and write or that the story goes from inspiration straight to plot on paper (or a Word Doc).
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Super quick post tonight because my Muse has me in her glorious grasp. Sometimes you sit on a story for ages. A week. A month. A year. More.
And some days, the dam cannot be held back any longer. Today is my day. This Hades and Persephone story has gnawed at me for years. Last week I ripped the story’s scribbled pages out of my ancient green notebook and started transferring it to a real notebook. I violated the prime rule of authors: We horde beautiful notebooks. We never, NEVER write in the notebooks.
Well, I’m writing in that notebook now. Not only that, I’ve started index cards for each scene. I’ve finished Act I’s note cards! I’m not waiting. I have the time, the energy, and the muse.
Let the words flow!
Let’s be honest, the “here’s how I constructed this plot” blog post is the writing blogger’s equivalent to the beauty blogger’s ubiquitous “my daily skincare routine!” post. Like, sis, no one asked, but ok, I’ll watch. Why? Because it’s at least mildly interesting to see what other writers (or beauty bloggers) do differently from our own techniques and it’s great to learn someone else’s best practices. Maybe you’ll find something new you love.
Plotter or Pantser?
If you are not a writer or new to writing, you are probably wondering, “WTF is a Plotter or Pantser?” It’s ok. The first time I heard those words was sitting in an author panel at DragonCon. (Pretty sure I was wearing a Wonder Woman costume too, but that’s neither here nor there.) Jim Butcher and another author were debating the merits of plotting your entire story before you write (“Plotter”) or letting it free flow and going by the seat of your pants (“Pantser”). I realized that I wrote my first novel (still unpublished) and the first draft of Pantheon by the seat of my pants and not knowing how either story would end was a major problem for me as I wrote.
During the panel, Jim Butcher recommended “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” by Deborah Chester, his writing professor from school. My kind, wonderful, and supportive spouse immediately bought it for me and I’ve been using it ever since. It has a ton of useful information, but one of the things I keyed in on was her information on building scenes. I took the information she provided and built on it. Now, using her basics, I have my own technique for plotting.
If you are a Plotter, I think you can get real utility out of my technique. If you’re a freewheeling Pantser, stick around as you still might take something away from this, especially when I talk about the dreaded writer’s block.
What Deborah Teaches:
While I highly recommend getting a copy of “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” because the whole book is loaded with good information, I will be focusing on the scene building from Chapters 5 and 8. In Chapter 5, she notes that successful scenes all contain a “goal, conflict and resolution” (pg 88). In Chapter 8, she goes on to describe the four ways in which a scene can end: “Yes,” “No,” “Yes but,” and “No, and furthermore” (pg 129-132). A “Yes” means the conflict is resolved. “No” means the characters are at an impasse, but they could find a resolution as the plot progresses. A “Yes but” scene leaves the conflict mostly resolved but sets it up for further conflict later with the unresolved portions. Finally, a “No, and furthermore” scene is the worst-case scenario and sets up your major plot points, disasters, or turning points.
I like her technique because it helps me frame the scene, know what the outcome should be by the end of the scene, and where it fits in the larger story. It also helps me keep from having too many low conflict scenes in a row. If everyone agreed all the time, it would be a boring plot. I also use a very formulaic set up for pacing to keep from dwelling too long in Act I or skip building something important in Act II. I don’t hold too rigidly to the standard set up. You all know I love a cold open and dropping straight into the action, but you can see from Pantheon’s set up, you hit your “35% first pinch point” spot on in the Syria scene.
How I’ve expanded (AKA – The Index Card Technique):
I like how the book lays out scene setting and having both a goal and resolution, but I needed a way to capture that information that worked for me. I, being a huge dork, keep index cards around the house. I also don’t like building my plot on a computer, favoring the handwritten word, usually in a notebook. So, I combined a little bit of all of these elements.
I tend to daydream out a lot of my plot before I ever write it down. As I’ve stated before, Pantheon was “written” while I drove the 15 hours round trip from school home every few weeks while getting my masters. Val, Powell, Hank, Damarcus, and Mandy were fully fleshed out people/personalities in my head before I ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. The problem, of course, is my fallible memory. Now I keep my pre-made plot index cards that also capture the best elements from “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” and my own tracking system.
Each card has the following pre-written: scene, goal, conflict, decision, result, character(s), and POV. Those first four come directly from “The Fantasy Fiction Formula,” and the last two are what help me track who is in the scene and whose head we’re in.
Scene: A basic title for what is going on.
Goal: This is what I should get out of the scene, my goal for the reader.
Conflict: Who is mad? Who is fighting? What is driving the tension in this scene?
Decision: Did we win? Did we lose? Is someone dead?
Result: a very shorthand version of “Yes,” “No,” “Yes but,” and “No, and furthermore,” so I can frame the intensity level of the scene.
Character: Any and all characters present in the scene.
POV: Who’s point of view takes this scene.
Other notes: Once I capture all my scenes for a book, I will order them and number them. This helps me keep track later and usually a scene number will become the chapter number. As I continue to flash out a scene and its details, I’ll put additional notes on the back.
Color coding: I also color code my index cards once I have a better idea of how the plot is structured. It helps me identify high points in the writing and make sure it flows logically.
White: Normal scenes
Yellow: Catalyst, climax, or plot turning point scenes
Orange: These are not scene cards, but cards that indicate what elements must be in place before the next act begins. Almost always placed directly before a yellow card.
Green: Conclusion cards. Like the orange cards, they don’t describe a scene but, based on what I want to happen in the next novel, describe all the elements or points that have to be made before the end of the book. It would suck really bad to have an amazing plot twist or idea but have to rush the foreshadowing or plot flow because I didn’t include it in an earlier book. (I’m looking at you Star Wars sequel trilogy…)
Index Cards to Written Plot:
You’ve got this massive stack of cards, now what? Now you write! You have all the elements you need to write a scene. If you aren’t like me and don’t pre-write full novels in your head like a psychopath… then you have the basics from which you write your novel. Sit down and expand on the information contained in your card. You will find that when you know what the scene’s goal is and where the conflict lies, writing it out becomes so much easier. With the addition of the orange and green element cards, you can ensure you don’t miss anything, adding key information early, which gives it a more organic feel than adding it back in on a second or third draft.
How It Helps Break/Avoid Writer’s Block:
Ok, Pantsers, listen up! I love you free-flowing, character-following folks, but as a former Pantser, that can set you up for failure when it comes to writer’s block. If you have to follow a chronological flow, you can get stuck. You may know what the end is supposed to be, but if you are on A and the conclusion is Z, you still need to write B through Y.
This is where my method of plot framing helps kill writer’s block. Why do you care about B through P, Q, R if you already have a card for S through Z? Don’t feel motivated to write a scene? Skip it! Move on. Go to the scene you know and you’re vibing with today. Grab that card and put the verbal meat on its bones. No law says you absolutely must write the plot in order.
“But Kay, how do I keep track??” Easy friends! You ordered your cards, right? Put a scene number down? Cool, save the file with the scene number. Then, when you are able to write those scenes that are blocked, you know where to fit in the previously written scenes. For example, in Pantheon’s third installment, I have over thirty scene cards, but the only chapters I have written are 1, 3, 10, 11, 14, 15, 18, and 19. I’ll get there with time, but for now, I like that I can pick up a card I’m feeling that day and work it out without feeling pressure to link two scenes.
The index card technique may feel like it’s adding rigidity and structure to the plotting process. Still, by framing your plot with scene goals in mind, you actually give yourself flexibility later in the writing process. It takes a little more time in the beginning because you need to prep cards, but I feel that it pays dividends later as I can let the creative process happen without stressing about how a scene fits or if I need to tweak a goal. The result is a more organic writing flow and a more impactful writing style. I use it to create a fast moving, addictive plot that readers can’t put down and the method helps me side steps writer’s block.
Welcome back to the wild world of ultramarathon training. By this point, you’re read all about my current training cycle and I chase down that ultramarathon goal. Yeah, I know, the BUTS Bearly was supposed to be my tuned up/dial in race before Mississippi 50; however, that was when I was waitlisted for Bear Bait and I was offered a spot! I’ve spent the last two weeks making minor tweaks to my running plan to accommodate a taper week and working out the kinks in my hydration and nutrition plan based on BUTS Bearly.
Today you’re getting my full race report for Bear Bait Ultra – 25k (15.53 mile) Race
They did a good job offering three days/times, one of them was close to where I live even. Unfortunately, an accident blocking one of the bridges between me and the store kept me from getting my things ahead of time. However, like most ultras, the field is small and it was really easy to get my packet on race day.
The start line was just outside the check in area and had a larger crowd than I anticipated but there were four distances offered, so it makes sense. The 50k, 50 mile, and 100k runners started at 6:30 and the 25k runners started at 6:45 once the sun was fully up. My weather app says it was a brisk 34F at the start, my body said we were somewhere in Antarctica.
First off, due to COVID, they were not allowed to run last year’s course. The Florida Forest Service would not issue their usual permit to run at Bear Lake, so the race director moved it to a local adventure and zipline park. I’m glad they were able to find a new location but it makes it tough to compare last year’s run times to see what I thought I could accomplish. I’ll give you my goal, stretch goal, and finish time below.
Weather: A brisk 37F at opening and race start but warmed up for about 45F by the time I was done around 10am. Windy but you couldn’t tell in the woods and the sky was that perfect winter blue and clear for miles. I started with every layer I had, including my windbreaker. The windbreaker and gloves came off at the first lap and I was relatively comfortable for the last three laps. It bit me post-race though.
Trail conditions: Overall, great with only a few minor “I hate this” points. There were a few creek crossings but every single one had a bridge so my feet stayed dry! The trail was primarily single track but very technical due to the roots. The only breaks in that were one slightly swampy area and a 0.25 mile long stretch with deep sand which I came to loath.
Terrain: Flat. Mercifully, blissfully flat compared to BUTS. In 15 miles I had ~500ft of elevation change. There were a couple steep drops but nothing terrible for a 25k runner. It will be a challenging course for those running into the night.
Since this was a looped course, I came through the aid station three times during the race and finished basically in the aid station. They had a great selection of food, well laid out in small cups so runners didn’t put their grubby hands into communal bowls. In all honesty, I hope that trend continues long after COVID. The big barn type structure that housed the aid station also allowed runners to make their own drop bag areas. At the last minute, literally between the long runners going and the 25k runners going, I unloaded most of my snacks, dropped them in my big plastic tote, and hauled the tote to the drop bag area. It was really nice to be able to cruise into the barn, grab some of my own snacks, drop a water bottle or jacket, then cruise out with a small cup of chips. Very well done, possible the best aid station set up I’ve seen.
Did I hit the Pain Cave?
Yes, but it was minimal. On lap three I got a little cranky, but after a small cup of Coke at the aid station, I felt like I was flying through lap four. Then, of course, the face plant. If you follow me on Twitter, you saw my short, terse TL;DR version of the race report.
The short version is that I was hauling ass on the home stretch and tripped turning off the paved road headed towards the barn. Full tumble and I skidded several feet on my face. Like all good wounds above the neck, it bled like a SOB and looked worse than it was. It freaked a couple people out, it freaked me out, but no permanent damage. I cleaned up before driving home and again in the shower, now my face is just swollen, but its 100% why I have no pictures at the finish line; I looked like hell.
Even worse, I had been silently battling it out with another woman for over 3 miles that last lap. She had nipped at my heels but never moved to pass until I feel. To her credit, she checked to make sure I was ok before zooming off and I ran like hell to try and catch her again but it didn’t happen. I came in 10 seconds behind her. I’m not mad at her in anyway, I tripped and losing my lead was 100% my own fault, but it’s just so frustrating to be so close and lose the lead at the very end.
The biggest unknown was the course. It was the first time in nine years they hosted the race at this location so none of the racers really knew what to expect. I usually like to look at the spread for the times to get an idea where my pace will fall and how I might do. But, with no prior race stats it was a big unknown for timing, trail conditions, and elevation change.
Just like BUTS, the other impact was the cold. I did not want to drink my water. It was cold, I was cold, and I had a hard time making myself drop ambient temperature was directly into my core when I was already cold. And just like BUTS, I saw the impact of that later in the race when my heartrate was jacked up through the roof (165-180bpm) even when I was running an easy pace on a gentle downhill. I had hoped that drinking from a bladder pressed against my back would warm it more but it was just so cold outside. While I was driving home, in a heated car with heated seats, I was shaking from cold. Cold water to the core is just a killer.
No crew for this race at my distance, but there was limited access for pacers on the 50k, 50 mile, and 100k course despite COVID. Mostly, they were there for safety for the folks still running through the night.
The finish line:
Not as minimal as BUTS but low key. I flashed my numbers and they recorded me complete, I snagged my cool medal (really, ceramic), and headed to my car for the drive home. I didn’t even stay for BBQ because I finished fast enough that it wasn’t out yet!
3:11 for 14.72 mi (course was just shy of the billed 25k). The unofficial results showed me at the 10th place woman and 15th overall. Not too shabby and I’ll be interested to see how I stack up against the full field.
My goal was sub-4:00 with a stretch goal of sub-3:00… yes, there was a full hour spread there. Unlike road running, the terrain and trail conditions have a HUGE effect on your run times. If you read my race report for BUTS Bearly, you know I missed my goal by nearly 15 minutes. I’m very happy to have been that close to my stretch goal and it was mostly because the course was so flat.
This felt like a little bit of redemption after BUTS kicked my … well, you know. That said, it was humiliating to literally fall on my face so close to the finish line and have to come limping in looking like I was indeed bear bait and had lost a fight with the bear. But, the pace was good, it was a beautiful, if cold, day. I feel more ready for Mississippi than I did after BUTS.
The Gear List:
I’m going to start adding gear lists to all my runs so folks can see what I’m carrying and how it changes between courses and weather. Some affiliate links, most aren’t.
Mask: Under Armour Adult Sports Mask – required to run. Must wear item for check in, race start, and going through aid stations. Since it was so cold, I kept this on for the first 2 miles or more, it was warm and didn’t hinder me in any way.
Top: Nike Women’s Dri-Fit Element Long Sleeve Running Top – This one is a good top (45-55F) or middle layer (<45F). Plus, thumb holes and it covers half my hand.
Tank top: Running top from Skirt Sports, who is in the middle of owner turn over. The shirt is about 5 years old and no longer offered which is a bummer because it fits well on top with a loose middle. Great as an only layer (>60F) but does well as a base layer too (<60F).
Bra: SheFit ULTIMATE SPORTS BRA – a qualified “good.” I like that you buy based on cup size and both the chest band and shoulder straps are adjustable; it’s probably the most comfortable sports bra I have. That said, the metal loop that holds the chest band tab tears my back up after 5 miles. I wore two very large band aids under it and had no problems, but it’s something to note.
Tights: Curve ‘n’ Combat Boots Empowered Black (V1) – As with my bra, its not desired as running gear but it fits me well and does the job. These are designed as weightlifting tights and the dimensions are for a woman with thick legs. Like, babe you are squatting 225lbs as a warm up and the squat boots/thighs are strong and the waist is small! They fit me perfectly but if you have a more traditional runner’s body then they may be too baggy or slip while you run.
Socks: Balega Blister Resist Quarter Socks – These are thick and comfy but the “blister resist” is only as good as how well you lace your shoes. I did not lace my right shoe tight enough and have a small blister to show for my slipping around inside the shoe.
Shoes: Altra Olympus Trail Shoe – These have the thickest soles of my trail shoes which was good for all the roots on the trail. If it hadn’t been as technical, I might have considered dropping down to my Lone Peaks which have a thinner sole and are lighter weight.
Gaiter: Altra Trailer Gaiter – Designed specifically for Altra trail shoes and fits well (will not work on other shoes!). Kept out the sand pit I slogged through around mile 3 of each loop.
Gloves: Cheap ($1) knit cotton gloves bought from either Michaels or Hobby Lobby a few years back. I highly recommend finding a very cheap cotton glove to carry. Expensive bougie gloves are great but get lost so often… buy the cheap ones and they’ll never disappear on you.
Hat: Brooks and probably some type of dry fit? It was a gift from my wonderful spouse so I have no idea where he purchased it. Wears well and kept my head warm.
Vest: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta 4.0 – This is my “new to me” but “older model” vest I got on sale for half price. There’s a new version but I’m glad I gambled on buying this one as it’s been a real champ. Lots of easily accessible pockets, good bottle holders, and the bladder holding set up keeps it from rattling around or slipping its loops like my other vest. Not as easy to access the bladder for refills once it’s on but I didn’t need a refill this race so it hasn’t impacted me yet.
Liquid Salt/Carbs: Gatorade Endurance Formula Powder – purchased with coupons on the Gatorade website which is good because I don’t love it. It’s not as strong a flavor as regular Gatorade and it does well for replacing salt/carbs quickly but… I dunno, maybe I’m too picky, I don’t love it. But, I’m kind of a cheapskate and won’t buy anything new until I finish this container.
Snacks: Both the Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews (caffeinated version) and the Honey Stinger Organic Waffle. For the cold, this wasn’t a great pairing. The waffle was stiff and hard to chew from cold and since the chews are caffeinated, they aren’t a good “only” option. I supplemented with snacks from the aid station during this race. But for a race in more normal temps, they work really well for me.
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945 – Y’all know I love this watch and I’ve talked about it before, the good and bad. I didn’t have any tracks walk offs today and I’m confident in the recorded distance/time. Also, can confirm the Incident Detection worked as advertised… except that it doesn’t send if you have no cell service. Probably a good thing or I would have scared the hubs! I was rattled enough that I didn’t have my wits about me in time to halt it sending the distress call. Fortunately (for today) it couldn’t complete the send.
The good news: Pantheon’s sequel is working through the editorial and publishing wickets!
The bad news: Crap, I have to market another book!
You saw how I realized my misconceptions at one and three months post release. Marketing and what’s actually valuable was a huge misconception for me. So, I spent today working through marketing strategies. What platform? How do I stay centered on The Brand? What tools do I have at my disposal? How much money can I spend? What’s the real goal here? It’s a lot of work. It’s more of that out of the box marketing and hustle I’ve discussed with both Angry Staff Officer and James Young.
I had a few ideas but the one I think I’m most proud of is also the dumbest. Truly, it’s brilliant in how dumb it is…
It’s a PowerPoint.
Because, let’s all be really honest: what’s more military than death by PowerPoint?
Therefore, 1,000% on brand, I give you your favorite Pantheon member, Captain Valerie Hall, for the OPERATION MARKET BOOK strategy briefing.
Val: Good afternoon and please be seated. I’m Captain Valerie Hall, Logistics Expediter for Limitless Logistics, and this will be your OPERATION: MARKET BOOK briefing.
Val: I will be covering the mission, elaborating risk, and seeking the Commander’s approval.
Val: We will release the sequel to Pantheon on or around Summer 2021. To ensure a smooth and exciting release –
Val: stop snickering Damarcus! – here is the mission statement. Please note that Author Actual will ensure the largest fanbase growth from now until release.
Val: Please coordinate forces across all available social media platforms for widest audience engagement. Ensure each engagement on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook has the standard one (1) each call to action: Like, retweet/report, and follow!
Val: A strong fanbase with consistent engagement will help ensure OPERATION MARKET BOOK has a wide audience for sales.
Val: Standard PMESII+PT layout. Stay out of politics, folks! That’s not a wise choice at any time, even more so now.
Val: Engagements will be Twitter: standard. Expect we will employ new tactics, techniques, and procedures the adversary forces are not anticipating to get a leg up in the competitive field. Like, for example, silly PowerPoints by exhausted strategists.
Val: Risks are monetary and viral in nature. We have no money so we have to be creative. Going viral would be beneficial. Getting infected by a virus would not. Act wisely. Yes, James, that means no Comic Cons until after you’ve been vaccinated.
Val: Gen Martinez and Task Force Poseidon Publishing, sir, at this time I am seeking execution approval for OPERATION MARKET BOOK.
Marco: You’re approved, Val.
Val: Copy, sir. Proceeding.
Yes. I’m a huge nerd. Yes, I’m extremely comfortable with it.
I also know you all are going to LOVE this next book! If you’re a beta reader, you’ll see it soon. If you’re an Advanced Reader, you’ll see it not long after the beta team tears it up and I make my fixes. And everyone else will see it this summer!
Title and cover art release should be soon. And if you want to be the first to know, join the mailing list.
And of course, if you like it I bet your friends would to, so why not tell them about it: share this page. You know, gotta get OPERATION MARKET BOOK off to a strong start!
All joking from the one month update aside, I can tell you that I am still not writing from my private island while surrounded by my enormous piles of money. Bummer.
In my one month update, I talked about misconceptions I had and the realities I faced: not everyone is an overnight success, it does not mean instant popularity across social media, the hustle is both real and necessary, and I am not instantly or fabulously wealthy. But after three months, I’m starting to see the intangible wins and working on setting my goals for 2021.
First note, I don’t set New Years Resolutions; I set New Year’s goals. A resolution can be broken and, once broken, it’s done. A goal is solid. A good goal is specific, measurable, and achievable but still pushes you. So rather than bore you with some sad wheeze about why I didn’t achieve my goals in 2020 due to [fill in the blank], let me instead give you an update on those misconceptions and how I’m setting goals for 2021.
Misconception 1: My book will be a runaway hit! I’ll sell millions!
Reality: The average debut novel sells 250 copies—some as few as 5.
3 months later reality: The number of debut novels sold is almost irrelevant
2021 Goal: Keep cranking out the books!
In the last post, I noted that I wanted to beat the average and sell enough books to earn back my advance. After some forthright and honest conversation with my publisher, I’ve learned two additional things. First, making back my advance in the first year is unlikely as a new author. Second, getting my name and story out is of primary importance. I also don’t feel like my second or third books are on shaky ground either, even if I don’t make back my advance. I’ve been able to show that I am willing to hustle my rear off promoting this book. (More on the hustle later.)
Misconception 2: I will suddenly become very popular across social media
Reality: I’m a little bit more popular, but I hustled my rear end to gain followers
3 months later reality: Still working to build my fan base, but finding more avenues than social media
Goals: Build a loyal and active fanbase (Same for 2021)
In the two months since the last post, I’ve continued growing my Twitter, Facebook, and blog following. I’ve also started a mailing list. Partially because I want as many ways as possible to reach folks and because social media streams are so saturated that if a follower isn’t online as I post, they lose the potential to see a post within three hours; an email is ready for them at their convenience. I also came up with other creative ways to reach folks like Val’s Twitter takeover and a follow-up article on Medium about the lessons I learned from it.
The second aspect of this is people exactly like my spouse and me. That person who sees a book is part of a series and won’t bother picking it up until several books in the series are available to binge. Heck, I didn’t even pick up Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files until he’d produced three or four books. Knowing this helps me focus my goals on getting those first few books out a quickly as I can without sacrificing the writing or editing quality.
Misconception 3: I can take a breather now that the hard work is done
Reality: I have worked an average of 1-2 hours a day after work and an additional 4-6 hours on the weekend since the start of September
3 months later reality: Work smarter, not harder! I work fewer hours and more intelligently to build recognition and interest
Goals: Position myself to take advantage of opportunities as they come (Same for 2021)
I’m still working to position myself to take advantage of opportunities as they come up. An introduction back in the spring enabled me to get an excerpt of Pantheon published in Military Times. My connections and friends who advocate on my behalf have gotten my book in front of people who have enjoyed it and talked it up on my behalf. Or, maybe, lost a running bet and wrote a blog post about what Pantheon meant to them. The most delightful surprise was being added to the Modern War Institute’s 2021 Reading List under the category of “Military Fiction and Sci-Fi.”
Misconception 4: I will be fabulously wealthy from sales
Reality: I will be very happy to earn back my advance!
3 months later reality: See Misconception 1
Goals: As with the sale numbers, I want to sell enough to keep selling. If my book tanks, then I may not get another shot.
2021 Goal: keep producing quality military thriller and urban fantasy novels as well as short stories and blog posts about fitness on my blog
As many of you know, I have submitted the manuscript for Pantheon’s sequel, and my goal for 2021 is to get it out to you all. I hope to announce the title soon! What some of you don’t know is that I have finished the overarching five book plot for the whole series. And what only a few people know is that I have finished the primary plot arc of book three with several chapters written. I intend to finish all primary writing and edit this year and will strive to get the manuscript to my publisher before the end of 2021.
There was a new misconception I recognized that ties in with Misconception 2; social media isn’t the only thing that sells a book. In fact, reviews as probably the most important part. It’s how potential readers decide to buy my book if all they see is its page on Amazon. GoodReads and Amazon reviews were my primary source of reviews until the Modern War Institute and Military Times reviews came out. I have been very pleased with my rankings, but I’ve also discovered that the more positive reviews, the more the algorithms pick up my books. One quick plug, if you’ve read the book, please review it on GoodReads and Amazon so more people can be introduced to Pantheon.
The last two months have been as enlightening as the first month after publishing. Every month I learn something new: a new marketing technique, an area in which I can improve as an author, who my audience is and what they want, and what reaches people. This has all helped me shape my goals for 2021: grow my audience, keep producing captivating and exciting fiction, and keep hustling to achieve my dreams.
Thank you to all the people who have supported me. Thank you to every person who took a chance on a new author, to those who posted photos of Pantheon out in the wild, and who told a friend or wrote a review. You all have helped me build a dream for which I will always be grateful. For those who have read and come asking for more, I promise the next book is on its way!
2020 was a right bastard, but not everything was a dumpster fire and I hope to carry those good parts forward into 2021!