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A treat for you, from JB, in National Novel Writing Month.
Nobody expects a poet on the doorstep. Not at three in the morning, and sure as hell not with a gun. I didn’t. After all, it was still only the first week of November. I had, like, another twenty, twenty-five days to go. But not by Steinbruckner’s reckoning.
“Meeting deadlines isn’t good enough, John,” he said. “We’re gonna beat this motherfucker like a drum.”
Then he smashed the gun into my face.
So. I guess you’re wondering how we got here.
Desperation was how. Desperation and failure led me to this.
I’m a writer, you see. No, don’t laugh. I do write a lot, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it. It’s just…
I’m not good at starting or finishing or any of the stuff in between.
That’s where Steinbruckner came in. Like, literally, after breaking my nose and closing up one of my eyes with that .45 Colt. I went down like a sack of hammers, and he walked into my place right over me.
I shoulda been ready for that. Steinbruckner was a poet, but he was also a Finisher. With a capital ‘F.’ And Finishers get stuff done.
My problem, besides the broken nose and the tears streaming out of my swelling eye, was that I never finished anything. I had six stillborn novels on my laptop. Four screenplays that petered out before I even got to the B Story. And short fiction? Jesus. Don’t get me started because I won’t finish that either.
The door slammed closed while I was curled up on the floor, holding my face onto the front of my skull.
“Coffee,” said Steinbruckner. “You’re gonna need coffee.”
I almost cried out that what I needed was an ambulance, but I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t shoot me. While I was getting to know my floorboards, he’d screwed a silencer onto that .45.
“Kitchen’s through this way, right?” he said.
I wasn’t sure how he knew, but he was right. I nodded and grunted. The first white-hot supernova of pain had faded, but my face felt both numb and shockingly sore.
He gestured with the gun. The silencer – yeah, I know, it was a flash suppressor, but come on, general audience here – the silencer pointed the way.
“I take my coffee white with one sugar and no guff about the milk and sugar,” Steinbruckner said. “Can you get that done, at least?”
I blinked away tears and nodded, even though it sent a jagged shot of electric pain down through my neck. I struggled back to my feet and made my way past him. He was careful to step back, holding the gun close to his body with both hands.
A poet with skills, then.
My hands shook as I made the coffee.
“Careful,” he said. “You’re gonna get some of that in the cup, you don’t watch out. And make it strong, kid. We got a lot of catching up to do.”
I’m still in shock at this point. I don’t live a life busy with armed intruders or murder-poets. I used to write technical manuals. Computer stuff, you know. But I gave that up to try my luck as a real writer.
My luck so far wasn’t great.
“You remember when you joined the group, kid?” Steinbruckner asked. Chair legs scraped as he sat down, keeping the gun steady, aimed straight at my heart.
“It was only a week ago,” I replied, which makes it sound like I was some tough guy holding my ground, but I had to repeat myself because I stuttered and mumbled so much. I was terrified.
“Only a week,” Steinbruckner said after I had another go. “That is one-quarter of all the time you got left in the world, son. But sure. Only a week.”
I knew why he was there, then.
I guess I’d known as soon as I’d opened the door, but I knew for sure now.
“Put it down there,” he said, gesturing at a spot on the table well away from his hands. “Now, back the fuck up.”
I stumbled backwards, nearly losing my footing on the uneven stone floor. My legs felt weird and rubbery like I’d strapped on somebody else’s. Keeping his aim on me, he leaned forward and took the steaming coffee mug by the handle.
Made appreciative noises.
“You make a mean cup of coffee, JB. It’s a start, I guess. Make yourself one, and we’ll talk. Then we’ll work – if I think this deadline’s even salvageable.”
I don’t remember making the brew, but I must have done it because I remember burning my mouth when I took a sip. I was sitting down opposite Steinbruckner but back from the table.
In case I got any stupid ideas, he said.
Like I said, the poet had skills.
“You read the guides, right? The Admins say you clicked done on them, so you must-a read them. Right? You didn’t just click done to be done? Didja?”
I nodded shakily and said that I’d read them.
“What’s that? Can’t hear you.”
“I read them,” I said, a little louder this time. “All the way through.”
Right,” he said softly.
Then he smashed the gun down on the table with a sound like… well, like a gun going off.
“So what the fuck am I doing here then?” Steinbruckner shouted at me.
He wasn’t worried about the neighbours hearing anything, and I wondered why. Then I stopped wondering because it did not bear thinking about.
Steinbruckner leaned forward and poked the gun at me like he was jabbing a finger into my chest.
“If you read the fuckin’ guides, you’d be ten thousand words into this thing by now, John, and I’d be home with Jeremy, spooning his soft white ass for all its worth, which, let me tell you, is more than you, cos that man has an irresistible piece of ass on him. But I’m here, resisting it and sorting out your worthless, procrastinating ass instead. So let’s get that done, and I can get home and get after some make-up ass.”
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“Writers apologies are a knitted fucking condom,” he growled, leaning forward and raising the gun a little so that I was staring into the small black hole where the fun came out. “Useless, of course, but ugly with it. I don’t wanna hear your excuses. I don’t wanna hear what you’re gonna do about it. I’m here to see that you do something. Right the fuck now. Cos if you don’t, we will.”
The Finishers, they called themselves.
‘We get stuff done.’
He waved the gun, letting me know what that would involve.
It was all subtext. But readable nonetheless.
“Get to work,” he said, tapping the pistol on my laptop, which was another surprise because I don’t remember bringing it out to the kitchen table.
What I remember is falling asleep with it in bed, watching Netflix.
Another day of writing – shot to hell.
But there it was now, sitting in front of me. Powered up, Scrivener in full-screen mode, open to my current file.
Maybe I was disassociating from the shock and the terror. I still had plenty of both. And I had that coffee I still don’t recall making either. It was as real as the laptop in front of me.
“You do it the way you agreed. When you joined the group,” Steinbruckner said.
When he saw the look on my face, he cursed me for a fool.
“Classical Pomodoro Method, dickhead. Twenty-five-minute work sessions. Five-minute break. No emails. No Facebook. Rinse and repeat.”
He cocked the gun.
It’s true what they say. Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being shot in the face by a deranged poet.
Absolute fucking gibberish for the first few minutes. My hands were shaking so much that even if I’d tried to write a coherent sentence, I’d have mashed a bunch of rando letters into the screen.
And to be fair, Steinbruckner wasn’t deranged. Not even a little bit.
Murderous? Absofuckinglutely. But utterly rational with it.
Because I’d asked for this.
Begged for it even, by pleading with the Admins on that stupid Facebook Group to let me in.
‘We get stuff done.’
So for nearly twenty-five excruciating minutes, I fumble-fingered my way across that keyboard, expecting at every second to be blinded by a sudden flash of light and then…
The big fucking sleep.
But right at the end, maybe twenty-two, twenty-three minutes in, it happened. The magic thing. The thing they promise you will happen. A sentence wrote itself.
The first actual sentence I’d written under the gun, so to speak. And the first sentence of what became my finished project for National Novel Writing Month 2023.
No spoilers. We’ll get to that later. But the magic wasn’t in the words on the screen. There were only seven of them, and they were prosaic. The magic was in the way I went from feeling trapped at the bottom of a deep pit with no way out to a place where I could look around and see…
Possibilities. Real narrative possibilities.
I jumped a little. Residual nerves. Poets carrying their own artillery support will do that to a guy.
“Nice work,” Steinbruckner grinned, but it wasn’t so much a friendly smile as a guy peeling the lid off a tin can full of teeth.
He picked up a small, bright red, plastic tomato timer.
Where the hell had that come from?
Same place as my laptop, I guess.
He cranked it a little way around.
“You got five minutes. Then you go again. I’d take a piss if I was you. You know the rules. No breaks during Pomodoro time.”
He was right. That’s the essence of the bit. When you’re in the Pomodoro, all you do is work. That was in one of the first guides I’d read when they let in that Facebook writers’ group.
‘We get stuff done.’
And I really did read the guides. That’s pretty much all I did on the first day of Nanowrimo 23. Dicked around on Facebook, reading the Group Rules and User Guides for The Finishers.
It was exciting, honestly. I thought I’d found my people. A whole tribe of degenerate procrastinators who couldn’t shit out a line of finished copy on time with a gun to their heads and a gut full of Laxettes.
Except, of course, once you joined the group…
‘We get stuff done.’
“You should be writing,” Steinbruckner said.
The gun was pointing right between my eyes. No shake in his hand.
I got back to it.
Twelve hours he was there, sitting in my kitchen, drinking my coffee and eating my Tim Tams the whole time. Somewhere around about the seventh or eighth hour, he put the gun down. An hour or so later, he put it away.
I was using dictation software by then. Walking around the kitchen, talking to Scrivener, telling my story.
After twelve hours, he said I was done. It was enough. For today, at least.
“You need to take a proper walk,” he said. “Get some sun, some vitamin D on your face. It’s good for what ails you.”
“Thanks,” I croaked.
I meant it, too. I wasn’t just humouring a homicidal intruder.
I’d smashed through my word count for the day. Caught up to where I was supposed to be when I’d opened the door to Steinbruckner. And blown right past it.
“We good now? You gonna make me come back?” Steinbruckner asked.
He was grinning again, but it was genuine this time.
“I’m good,” I said.
And I was.
For a few days.
It’s incredible how good it feels to do the work. Amazing, too, that I couldn’t before. I could no more force myself to do a decent day’s writing than I could tap out a three-ton cocaine bear in the octagon. I told you about the magic of that transformation, right? Going from the pit up and out into the wild, storied skies where anything was possible. It truly was magic, but once you got flying, there was some mystery, too.
Like, why the fuck didn’t I just do that earlier?
I had everything I needed. There was nothing in those Guides I didn’t already know. I had all the tools. My Pomodoro Method, task lists, standing desk, dictation software, focus hacks, everything.
I just had to trust the process or be the process or some Zen shit. I dunno.
And for a week and a half, I did.
Crushed my rolling deadline. Two thousand words a day, three thousand. One mad, howling tornado of a day, I wrote more than five thousand usable words.
I was killing it. And then…
This is me sighing.
And then, I did some research. I needed to know something about guns. There’s a shit ton of guns in my stories, but I don’t have a kink for them or anything. Don’t even own one. Not even interested.
But I get to this point in my novel where one of my guys needs to do this thing with a gun, and my Spidey senses start tingling, and I’m like, no, wait, I don’t think he can do that.
So here I’m gonna refer to one of those Guides in The Finishers’ Facebook Group that, honest to God, I did read. One of the things this Guide advised very strongly was “Get it written, then get it right.”
What they mean, of course, is don’t get distracted. Don’t go down the rabbit hole.
And I knew that. I fucking knew it even as I opened up Wikipedia for the first time in two weeks. To check this one little factoid. Just the one.
Anyway, long story short, I’m in bed, and it’s maybe half an hour since I drifted down into this fitful, half-conscious doze, worried about all the time I wasted, which was all the time I had that day, and Steinbruckner is back.
Didn’t knock this time.
Dude came in quietly, but once he was in, it wasn’t quiet anymore.
First thing you woulda heard was me shrieking in pain because he grabbed a handful of neck skin to pull me out of bed. Maybe if I had hair, he’d a grabbed that instead, but I can tell you that with the right grip and enough motivation, a dude with a love of iambic pentameter and Jeremy’s irresistible ass can totally haul you out of bed, screaming, with just a handful of neck skin.
“You fuckin’ did it, you fuckin’ did it again,” he yelled. “It’s like you did even read the FAQ!”
He yelled some other stuff, too, but I don’t recall that so well because by then, bombs are going off in my head every time he pistol-whips me with that .45.
I’m screaming and crying and apologising, frantically knitting him an ugly writer’s condom full of lies, excuses and justifications.
But we both know what I did and what I didn’t do.
Two thousand words, that’s what.
My word count for the day. Declared and solemnly attested to in a Facebook Group for people who need help meeting their commitments.
I could give you the blow-by-blow of what happened next. But really, all you need to know is some shit went down.
When it was done, we put in another all-nighter at the kitchen table. It was both harder and easier than last time. Harder, because I had a couple of broken fingers this time, some missing teeth and my jaw was severely swollen. Not easy to type or dictate under those circumstances. But on the upside, I only had to make up yesterday’s shortfall, about twelve hundred words, and bank another 2K for the day ahead.
I got it done. I’m here, aren’t I? Still got breath in the body.
“We good?” Steinbruckner asked me to show him the word count in the little box at the bottom of the Scrivener window.
And the hell of it was, we were.
I still am.
Not with the disfiguring facial injuries and the broken fingers. That really fucking hurt. My fingers still do some winter mornings.
But if this was easy, everyone would do it.
Steinbruckner taught me that, along with how to make a finger splint from chopsticks and some tips for writing in the deep third person.
“It’s a real bear to manage,” is what he said. “Your conventional action tags like ‘he felt’ and ‘she saw’ are supposed to provide clarity, but you let ‘em get loose and those motherfuckers can start putting some real distance between character and reader. Not everyone can handle it.”
He was looking right at me when he said it. He’s talking deep third person, but he meant more than that. What he meant was, if this was easy, everyone would do it.
Subtext is a motherfucker.
Text, on the other hand, that’s easy. Two thousand words a day.
I got mine done after that. I get mine done every day.
Finished Nanowrimo, obviously. I posted the first line and the last on the Facebook Group.
‘Nobody expects a poet on the doorstep,’ I wrote.
People loved it.
But the first comment was from Streinbruckner.
“You’re a funny guy, JB. You should write jokes for a living.”
And I will, I know that now. But first, I got this thing I gotta do.
A new member of the group.
Begged us to let him in. Pleaded for it, really.
He’s got this epic fantasy he’s been working on for twelve years, and he’s rewritten the first chapter over a hundred times. Hasn’t made it to Chapter Two.
I gotta go around to his place and have a word with him. Remind him he’s a Finisher now.
We get stuff done.
A Note from JB.
If you made it this far, thanks. This is the first short story I’ve written since high school. Thirty-plus books done and dusted, but I just couldn’t come at how to make something work in less than a hundred thousand words.
I plan to write one of these a month for you. Next one, if I can pull it off, is a Dave and Threshy Christmas tale for fans of the Dave Hooper series.
Before that, though, I have to finish up a final error check on the box set of Zero Day Code. That’ll drop before the end of the month.