Sunday, June 29, 2014

Making Writing a Story as easy as Eating a Hot Dog

On June 23rd of this year I received an email from Trevor Quachri, the editor of Analog Science Fiction & Fact magazine, telling me that he was going to publish my short story, Robot Boss.  The contract would take three to four weeks to arrive.  He didn’t even see the need for any edits at this time.  
This was an email that made me very, very happy.  Analog, along with Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, where the three publications I read all the time after getting hooked on science fiction and fantasy as a middle-schooler.  When I decided to become a writer, one of my dreams was to see a story of mine published in each of these magazines.  I had a story published in Asimov’s September 2011 issue entitled, “Shadow Angel.”  Once Robot Boss sees print, I only have Science Fiction & Fantasy to break into to fulfill that dream.  
While happy with this accomplishment, I am also frustrated by it as well.  I told my dad I wanted to be a writer when I was a junior in High School.  I reaffirmed the decision, after a long stint trying to become a working actor, in the late eighties when I returned to writing.  My very first work of published fiction was a story called, “Random Access,” which appeared in the Sept/Oct 1990 issue of a magazine called Anthropomorphic Science Fiction, a Hugo nominated, professional publication that unfortunately has gone out of print.  Not counting the role-playing game articles I published, which weren’t fiction and were derived from other people’s work, and the comic book stories I published, which were collaborative efforts, it took me twenty-one years to see the publication of my second piece of writing. 
This is not a turnaround that can sustain a career as a professional writer, which is my ultimate goal.  
A few weeks ago, in my May 24th entry, Rethinking Problems Freakily, I made mention of an interview I had heard on the radio with Steven D. Levitt, one of the authors of the best-selling book, Freakonomics.  In the interview, which dealt with how he is applying the economic concepts from his book to address other problems, he talked about Takeru Kobayashi, the Coney Island hot dog eating champion that doubled the world record on his first attempt, and how Mr. Kobayashi’s training a twist on the goal of most people in the competition.  
Instead of trying to figure out how to eat a lot of hot dogs as fast as possible.  Kobayashi tried to figure out how to make one hot dog easy to eat.  
By way of this long introduction, I am taking my first step in twisting my own goal around.  For years I’ve tried to figure out how to write and submit a bunch of short stories.  Now, I’m going to work on figuring out how I can make one story, whichever one I’m working on now, easier to finish and submit.  To do that, I thought I’d review the three short stories I’ve sold thus far and find out what they have in common.  
Here we go...
Random Access
Random Access was written in a single night and submitted the next day, making it the faster turnaround for any story I’ve written and sent out.  Unfortunately I can remember next to nothing about the process I used despite years of trying to figure it out  
The story was actually the result of two other stories colliding together, the way the Earth and Moon were created by the Mars sized object that slammed into the spinning ball of debris that our planet and attending satellite was born from.  One story was a sappy romance about the inevitability of true love, one I was writing in celebration of the relationship I was in at the time.  The other was a science fiction story I was working on about computers taking control of people by rewriting their memories.  
Random Access got its start the night my girlfriend at the time asked me to meet her at a coffee shop near her home.  She told me that she was breaking up with me.
Driving home, I remember not really feeling sad about it.  I kept thinking to myself that I was taking it very well.  I was still in what I perceived to be a neutral state when I got home and walked into my bedroom.  The first thing I saw were the two manuscripts for the stories I described sitting side by side on my writing desk.  
“That’s one story.”  I said it out loud and pointed at the two manuscripts.  I immediately sat down and started editing and combining the stories into one; a story about a young man who goes to see his psychologist, actually an AI expert system, to get over the pain and depression of losing the woman he thought was his one true love.  The AI helps him by rewriting his recollection of the affair to where she was just, “someone I slept with a few times.”  
I finished writing the story that night.  The next morning I read it again.  I remember switching the position of two paragraphs.  That was all the editing I did.  I then printed out a submission copy, stuck it into an envelope and sealed it.  I selected Anthropomorphic Science Fiction because it was on the top of the alphabetical list of science fiction magazines I had.  
It sold.  It appeared in their Sept/Oct 1990 issue.
The only thing I can remember clearly about Random Access while it was being crafted were two things: I knew I had a story.  I knew how the story needed to be told from the parts I had before me.  It took me a very long time to recall even that much.  
Shadow Angel
Shadow Angel was born from a misunderstanding.  
I was sitting in my cubicle at work.  Someone came up to me, bringing a work order and some records with them.  While I was typing something at my computer, they put the work order and records into my Incoming tray.  
“I need you to get this job done before it gets sent to me.”  
Huh?  I turned the face them.  It took only a few moments to work out that I hadn’t heard them correctly.  They needed the job done before they could send a message to the client.  Oh.  Ok.  Got it.  Very doable.  
But the misunderstood phrase stuck with me.  Nor did it remain static.  I would hear other things throughout the day that would push it, reshape it, tear it apart and reassemble it.  By the time I was getting into my car to drive home, it had evolved into another sentence.  
“I need you to take me to Broombridge before this gets sent to me.”  
I knew it was the first line of a story.  I knew nothing else.  Who was talking.  What “this” was.  Why it was important to get to this place called Broombridge before whatever it was in this person’s hand got sent to them.  How this was to be accomplished.  
I got home and opened a file and started writing, to figure out the answers to these questions.  This was in May of 2008.  By this time, I’d developed the practice of keeping what I called “Word Palettes” on all the projects I was working on.  Word Palettes are files where I date the entry, write about the story, write test passages, or even write scenes that I cut and paste into the manuscript later.  
I knew I didn’t have a story at first.  It took about five months of writing to figure the story out.  The person speaking started off as “Angela,” but later became, “Hanuel,” which is Korean for “angel.”  
On 10/24/08, I had enough of a story to write a logline.  This is a single sentence, 15 words long, or as close to that as I can make it, that encapsulates the story.  I got this practice from The Snowflake Method, created by Randy Ingermanson.  He created it as a tool for writing novels, but with some paring down it works for short stories, too.  
It took me a long time to get to the final draft of Shadow Angel.  One reason is that I wanted a different sort of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel method for my future universe, so there was weeks of research for that.  Also, it was important for me that this story get published, to impart a sort of blessing on my technological background so I felt free to use it in future stories.  
Mostly, though, the time was spent figuring out how to tell the story.  With Shadow Angel,  unlike Random Access, I was very aware of every decision made to include or exclude something.  Every name, every scene, every beat was shaped to fit with what came before and after.  I knew I had a story.  I just couldn’t figure out how to tell it.  
On 10/29/09, I combined something I had learned about the mind’s default network with the FTL navigation system I envisioned and realized that the story needed to be told as a series of hallucinatory flashbacks.  I scraped every previous version of the story I’d written and started writing again.  I eventually finished and submitted it to Asimov’s Science Fiction on 10/3/10.  
It sold.  It appeared in their September, 2011 issue.  
Writing Shadow Angel was the antithesis of writing Random Access.  It took five months to see the story, then another 19 to figure out how to write it.  But I was keenly aware of where I was with the story at every point of its development.  I crafted that story down to the last comma and period.  It is one of the reasons I’m so proud of it.  
Like Random Access, though, I was very clear on when I had a story.  And once I figured out how it needed to be told, I worked and worked to get it to that point.  
And also like Random Access, it appeared in the September issue of the magazine that bought it.  I never noticed that until I started working on this blog entry.  
Robot Boss
Robot Boss was also born at work, from the frustration I’m sure every manager has when dealing with employees.  One particular day, when I couldn’t seem to get the people that report to me to perform the simplest of tasks, I expressed my frustration to one of my fellow managers by saying that I’d replace everyone in the department with robots if I could.  I even showed them a website that had the type of robots I envisioned the company buying.  
Then I read an article in Scientific American about how, in the future, it is much more likely that human bosses will be replaced with AI expert systems.  The AI would give the directions and the human workers would do those things the AI had trouble doing.  Experiments were already being conducted show that this arrangement was much more efficient that having human bosses direct robots or the current arrangement of humans ordering humans around.  
Which meant that I would be more likely to be replaced by a robot than my employees.  After that, “Well, that sucks,” moment, I began to wonder what a society might be like.  
On 10/7/13 I opened a Word Palette file for Robot Boss.  I took the advise from a writing teacher years ago, who said the best way to come up with a science fiction story was to imagine what you do for a living 50 or 100 years in the future.  I took my department at work and replaced me with an AI.  I picked a typical disaster.  I worked out the ramifications.  I had a story in the very first session.  
I started using the Snowflake Method the very next day.  Robot Boss is one of the most “science fictional” stories I’ve written, where the idea behind the story is almost a hidden character throughout.  It was important to me that this concept of people working for AIs was there in every scene and decision point, but that it not bang people over the head when they read it.  
The story went much faster than I remember it going (it always feels like it takes forever).  My current schedule allows for fewer words per day, but I  put those words in every day.  With Robot Boss, I followed a newly developed process where everything is written into the Word Palette, and the usable parts are cut and pasted into a separate manuscript.  It makes finding previous revisions that much faster.  
At one point, I realized I was stuck.  I spent several days unable to get from “B to C” per what I wrote down.  On 11/21/13, I summarized my story as a fairy tale.  I even started, “Once upon a time...” and retold the story very simply.  By the end of the fairy tale version I realized I was creating a “No and...” situation for him, he doesn’t get what he wants in a scene, AND something worse happens on top of that, when it needed to be a “Yes, but...” result, he gets what he wants, BUT some unexpected bad result is there as well.  
Once unstuck, I rewrote the previous scenes to set up the “Yes, but...” scene I needed to have and carried forward.  I continued to write and rewrite throughout December.  I established a new writing pattern that I’ve incorporated into my normal routine.  Before writing anything new today, I read and rewrite what I wrote yesterday, correcting things I spot.  I get fewer new words each, but the words I keep in the manuscript document seem to be better ones.  
I finally submitted the story on 1/14/14.  It was rejected, though very nicely.   They said it was very well done, but just not suited for them.  A personal email, not a form letter.  I submitted it to an online magazine.  It was rejected again on 1/29/14.  Up until now I’ve never had a story published that wasn’t accepted by the first magazine I sent it to.  
But I still had hope.  When I finished the story I thought it read like an Analog story, but I already had stories under consideration with them.  I sent Robot Boss elsewhere, thinking that I needed to spread my submissions around to markets not considering my work.  By the time I got the second rejection, Analog had rejected the story I had sent to them.  So, now feeling free to do so, I sent it off.
It sold.  I don’t know what issue it’ll appear in.  Given the pattern, I’m guessing the September 2015 issue, but I hope it’s sooner than that. 
Like Random Access and Shadow Angel, I knew when I had a story instead of just an idea with Robot Boss.  I also knew how it needed to be told, enough to tell when it just wasn’t working right.  I tried a lot of different formatting methods until I used the Fairy Tale retelling to spot the problem.  
Like Shadow Angel, I started writing Robot Boss in October.  I can’t remember when I wrote Random Access, but I do remember it was after the Christmas holiday, so it isn’t in keeping with that pattern.  
So...  What have I learned about writing one story more easily?  
I have to know when it’s a story.  
I have to know how the story needs to be told. 
I have to finish my version of the Snowflake Method before putting down words for the manuscript.  
And, I might have to wait until October to start writing stories, and then wait until September for them to be published.  
Do you notice anything else?   

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Expressions of Magic

I felt myself wilting under the heat of the Inquisitor’s gaze.  My heart pounded.  I could take no breath to allow my lungs to fan it cool.  It would soon burst like an ill-made pot in the potter’s kiln.  
I saw his hands moving.  His finger, tracing something in the air. As if he was drawing something...?  Or writing...?
A glyph!  The inquisitor was casting a spell!  A chill born from the dead of winter descended upon me.  How many strokes hand he done so far?  Eight?  Ten.  Eleven...  Twelve...  
His hand closed into fist, then he flicked his pointing finger at me.  
The words boomed inside my head.  They were spoken in my voice of my departed mother, but with an imperiousness that she had never used.  Following their reverberation, a calming silence came over me.  My flesh vibrated like the skin of a drum.  
“I ask you again, my landlord’s son...”  
I looked up.  The inquisitor was now a pillar of smoke, ascending beneath a ceiling lofted higher than that of the largest cathedral ever built.  His eyes were like glass, beaming a light down on me born of the divine fire that created him.  Somewhere, in the farthest recesses of my head, I knew I still stood in the Portico Entrance of my family’s inn, surrounded by guests seated at their tables.  But it felt as if myself and the inquisitor were the only beings in all creation.  Bathed in the light streaming from his eyes, I could hide no secret from him.  
Nor, did I want to.  
“I am looking for someone that came from the North...”
This is a scene from my novel, A Spell of Thirteen Years, when the main character, Enrico Paoli, experiences what it is like to have a Spell of Truth-Telling cast upon you, when the Church Inquisitor visiting his family’s inn comes to believe he is hiding something.  
Before we find out what happens to Enrico, I’m going to go back to show what the Inquisitor went through to cast his spell.  
In my last blog entry I wrote about the glyphs that sorcerers use in my world to cast spells.  Each glyph represents a word or concept that the practitioner wants to bring about into the world.  In the case of the Inquisitor, it is the telling of absolute truth by someone he is questioning.  
To cast a spell, the practitioner must first select, or create if he or she is advanced enough, the glyph needed for the effect in question.  In the case of the Inquisitor above, the glyph for the Spell of Truth-Telling is one that has been long known and used often for decades by the Inquisitors of the Church.  It is the same glyph used when any Inquisitor wants whomever they are questioning to respond with perfect accuracy to questions put to them.  There will be hundreds, if not thousands, of such common glyphs known to any working practitioner.  A professional sorcerer in the world of A Spell of Thirteen Years would be expected to know something on the order of a thousand to fifteen hundred glyphs.  
It is possible, though, to be more specific.  Instead of a generic spell, like the one the Inquisitor used, it is possible to create a glyph representing the concept of having a specific person tell you the truth.  Such a spell would have much greater efficacy, as it would be tuned to work on that one particular person.  In the scene above, a “Spell of Enrico-Paoli-Truth-Telling,” would work much better, with fewer opportunities for errors or omissions that the generic spell applied.  But the creation of such narrowly defined glyphs can be arduous one, as I hope to demonstrate.  
To create a glyph, a practitioner needs to understand the concept of “glyph radicals.”  Glyph radicals are simplified versions of glyphs that are incorporated into other, more complicated glyphs.  
An example from Japanese.  Below is the Japanese kanji for “hand.”

Like other kanji, which is pronounced “te,” it started out as a drawing of a hand which became more stylized over centuries of continued usage.  
Now here is another kanji, for the word “hold,” as it to hold on to something.

The first three strokes of this kanji, which create a shape that looks something like a cross with a check mark going across it on the left hand side, is the radical for hand.  By taking the radical for hand and adding it to other components, which in this case are “ground” (土) and “measure” (寸) we can create the concept of holding something.  
To show how a different radical might change a glyph’s meaning, I offer this one: 

The two stroke character to the left, replacing the one for hand shown above, is the radical for person.  This kanji is the one for “samurai.”  If you think of it as “the person that measures the ground,” dolling out parcels to the peasants to work on, the extrapolation becomes clear.  
Once the glyph is chosen, or glyphs if more than one glyph is being combined for the spell, the practitioner must study it.  This is done by writing the character, over and over and over again, until it can be written clearly and precisely within the required amount of time.  For basic spells this would be one or two glyphs whose strokes can be done in thirteen seconds.  For longer spells, greater combinations of glyphs, forming magical sentences if you will, will be written out in the corresponding time frame, such as thirteen minutes or even thirteen hours, which is the upper limit for a single practitioner casting a spell alone.  
For all spells, the final unit of measure, whether it is a single second for a simple spell or a minute or hour for longer, more complicated and powerful spells, is taken up with the execution of the “invisible glyph.”  The invisible glyph is the portion of the spell that represents the practitioner.  Like the Formative Reading, the correct magical pronunciation of a glyph, it has to be discovered by the practitioners themselves.  Unlike the Formative Reading, though, there are no texts to assist in finding it.  It must be discovered through meditation, study and reflection.  As with the spell-glyphs, the practitioner will spend hours upon hours practicing the execution of this glyph.  Once it is perfected, any written copy will be destroyed.  Allowing another practitioner to know one’s invisible glyph is like giving away the password to your computer or the PIN to your bank account.  
With the glyph in hand, the practitioner will then search for the spell’s Formative Reading.  For known glyphs, like the one for “Spell of Truth-Telling,” there are texts that the practitioner can find where, by reading through the Assigned Readings of the glyphs use to tell the story or puzzle written down, the practitioner can discover the Formative Reading for the glyph they want to use.  For a glyph they have created for themselves, then the practitioner needs to work out the pronunciation by combining the Conjunctive Reading of the radicals involved in creating the glyph.  For the definitions of Assigned Readings and Conjunctive Readings, you can take a look at last week’s blog entry, Words of Magic.  
With the glyph studied and its Formative Reading discovered, the practitioner now needs to execute the spell by writing the glyph, either physically or in their mind, and saying the Word the glyph embodies.  
A quick note about Wands and Staffs.  Wands and staffs have long been considered a part of a sorcerer’s equipment, but they have no special powers associated with them, nor do they impart any special ability to someone holding them.  A sorcerer’s wand or staff, in the world of A Spell of Thirteen Years, is nothing more than a reference device.  A sorcerer will carve the image of the glyph they have studied into the surface of the wand or staff they carry.  When it comes time to cast a spell, the practitioner will turn the wand or staff to the glyph they need to use and then trace it as they recite the word for the embodied concept.  
Amongst professional practitioners, wands and staffs are tools used by practitioners who are in the very early stage of their careers.  Apprentices serving more powerful practitioners, sent out into the “real world” on errands, are more likely to make use of them.  This is probably why the average person, who is more likely to meet an apprentice than a true adept, associates these devices with sorcery.  They do have the advantages of being more durable than the tomes practitioners keep in their libraries, and being used for secondary uses, such as stabbing the last dumpling from the common plate or bopping an attacker over the head.  
And that is how a sorcerers cast their spells.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Words of Magic

They say good things come to those that wait.  I don’t know how good this might be, but if you waited for a breakdown of the magical system I’m using as part of the background of my novel, A Spell of 13 Years, here it is.  
There were three things I wanted in the magical system for the world of A Spell of 13 years.  They were...
The Word.  This was directly inspired by the Sefer Yetzirah, the Kabbalistic tome that I had mentioned in previous blogs.  The idea that the act of creation comes from a word, a spoken intent that had no shape or form before it was uttered, appeals to me as a writer.  It also implies that magic comes from a higher order of intelligence and is not either the result of happenstance or a bi-product of natural occurrences.  
Universality.  By this I mean that magic is something that can be performed by anyone.  It is a learned skill, albeit a very difficult one.  But the ability to perform magic is innate to  everyone.  I comes from having a fragment of the “True God” encased in material flesh shaped by the Demiurge that stole it to form our universe.  Having a fragment of divinity is having an infinite amount of divinity.  
Glyphs.  If the practice of magic comes from words, then magic can be written down.  But to write down the method of creating universes filled with living things is dangerous.  As I noted in a previous blog entry, a commonly held belief amongst Kabbalistic practitioners was that the words written in the holy books of Jewish tradition were altered so that some common person reading them aloud wouldn’t accidentally create worlds of their own.  Glyphs, I thought, would be the ideal way of writing something down where people could know its meaning but not necessarily know how it was pronounced.  
This lead me to rely on the one language that uses something similar that I’m familiar with, Japanese.  Japanese kanji, which are based on the Chinese characters imported into the language centuries ago, gives me the basis for how the magical glyphs used in The Twelve Realms of Nao, where A Spell of 13 Years takes place, are used, read and taught. It also gave me some methodology to use in keeping the pronunciation magical practitioners would use secret from the general public, as well as a method for them to cast their spells.  
And here are the rules I’ve come up with (thus far, and in no particular order)...
A spell takes 13 units of time.  
Thirteen has long been considered a number of power in pre-Christian religions.  The reverence of pagan cultures for the number is the reason why it is considered unlucky in Western, Judaeo-Christian cultures.  
Ironically, while 13 is not considered unlucky in the Japanese culture, the numbers 4 and 9 are considered unlucky, and they add up to 13.  The reason 4 and 9 are considered unlucky is because the pronunciation of the kanji for those numbers, “shi” for the number four and “ku” for the number nine, sound like the Japanese words for “death” and “suffering.”
These glyphs are created with twelve strokes.  In other words, when drawing them on paper, the pen would make twelve distinct marks on the page for each glyph.  
The order in which these strokes are made is important.  Depending on the design of the glyph itself, the glyph is created starting from the top and working down, or starting from the left and working to the right.  
For example, below is the Japanese kanji for “uma” or horse: 
The first stroke, the straight vertical stroke staring at “1,” goes down from that point.  The second stroke, starting at “2” goes from left to right.  Each stroke that follows continues this top-down, left-right pattern.  The only one that is somewhat different is stroke 6, which starts left and goes right, then curves down and back to the left.  The last four strokes are placed within the space created by the sixth curving stroke.  All glyphs have their own specific stroke order that must be followed.  
The last time unit, the 13th, is when the practitioner adds the “invisible stroke.”  This final stroke is what releases the word the practitioner has envisioned into creation.  Instead of a stroke of a pen, it can be thought of as the stroke of a knife, which cuts the material veil that separates the practitioner from others and sends forth the magical word he or she has spoken.  
Each glyph has several ways to pronounce it.  
The “Vulgar Reading” is how the glyph is pronounced in everyday life.  This is how the average literate person in the world would recognize and use the glyph when writing letters, posting signs, etc.  
The “Conjunctive Reading” is how the glyph is spoken when combined with other glyphs.  An example from Japanese, one word for “lunch” is 昼ご飯, which is pronounced, “hi-ru-go-han.”  Another word that also means lunch is “chuu-sho-ku,” which is written using the same kanji: 昼食.  In a similar fashion, when two glyphs touch each other, their pronunciation changes.  
Glyphs with more than one Vulgar or Conjunctive Reading are said to have “Surrogate Readings.”  Most glyphs have surrogate readings.  In Japanese, this stems from the two languages involved in creating the meaning for their kanji.  There is the original pronunciation of the character from Chinese, which the Japanese call the “onyomi,” and the pronunciation of the Japanese word the kanji is being used to represent, the “kunyomi.”  From the example above, the Japanese word for noon, “hiru,” is the kunyomi for the kanji, “昼.”  The onyomi, or Chinese pronunciation, is “chuu.”  
I should note that the terms I’m using, Vulgar Reading, Conjunctive Reading, Surrogate Reading, plus those below, are terms that are used in my universe and not in the study of Japanese.  
The most important reading for a glyph, from the standpoint of practicing magic, is its “Formative Reading.”  This is the reading of the glyph when used in spells.  
By long tradition, the Formative Reading is never written down using phonetic lettering.  This is to avoid the same problem that the ancient kabbalists saw of having just anyone create universes after they learned to read.  But the Formative Readings have to be taught, otherwise apprentices could never become practitioners.  This is done through the practice of an “Assigned Reading.”  
Assigned Reading is something I’ve borrowed from the Japanese concept of “ateji.”  It’s almost an exact translation, since ateji means “assigned characters.”  It is the practice of assigning kanji to a word for pronunciation purposes only, without any regard to the kanjis original meaning.  
The best example I can think of is for one Japanese word almost anyone who goes out to eat Japanese food is familiar with: sushi.  In Japanese, the kanji used for sushi are “寿司.”  The first character, pronounced “su,” is the kanji for “lifespan.”  The second kanji, pronounced “shi,” means, “to administer.”  Neither kanji has any meaning associated with fish, food, raw, eating or anything close.  But their pronunciation together, “sushi,” is the same as the Japanese delicacy of eating uncooked fish on rice.  This is ateji, or assigned characters.  
In the world of A Spell of 13 Years, during the last stage of their training, magical apprentices are given texts to learn the Formative Readings of the glyph-words they’ve been studying.  These texts are written as very intricate riddles or puzzles, or mystery stories with intertwining clues.  The solution of these puzzles, or the answer to the mystery to be solved, will provide the apprentice with the method of taking the pronunciation of the glyphs used and assigning that pronunciation to the glyphs whose formative meaning he or she is trying to learn. 
It is one reason why the magical practitioners in my world are overly fond of puns and word games.  It is the means by which they learned to craft spells of awesome power.  
Next time, more on the glyphs and how they are used to create spells. 

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Still Waiting to Graduate

“Goofy Hat!”  
I heard it while I was walking across the parking lot toward my office.  There’s a gym right across the walkway to my office’s entrance.  A bunch of guys were hanging out one of the side entrances, taking a breather.  They were tall and well built.  Guys who had jobs that allowed them to be at the gym whenever they wanted, like 8:30 in the morning when I arrived at the office.  Or who had enough money so they didn’t have to work.  
You know, “Jocks.”  
I knew they were talking about me.  I have this hat that some people make fun of.  It is camouflage, with a flap in the back that keeps the sun from burning my neck when it’s hot, or the rain from getting down the back of my coat when it rains.  I really like my hat.  It’s become a symbol for me.  When I wear it at the comic book and science fiction conventions I go to, I often get compliments about it.  People there tell me it’s cool, or they marvel at how practical it is.  
But that is a particular group of people.  People who share a lot of the same outlooks on life that I have.  
You’d call them, “Nerds.”  
When I heard the call, I did what had been trained into me after years of experience.  I lowered my head, ignored the person calling out to me and kept walking toward the side entrance to my building.  This is what nerds do when jocks call out to them.  At least, that is what I’d learned to do in High School.  
This week, I remembered what it was like to feel that way.
I graduated from an all boys Catholic high school that was run by the Sacred Hearts order of priests.  In my junior year, my school had one of the best football teams in its region.  Our team’s forte had always been defense, always ranking at the top or near the top in that category.  But that year, they were able to put together a much better offense to go along with that defense.  
As you can guess, the school faculty supported the football team and its players.  The coaches often taught some basic courses at my school, so it was easy for them.  I found out the degree to which this support ran.
That year, somebody broken into the teachers‘ meeting office and stole the answers to a science mid-term.  I don’t know if that person was a member of the football team or not.  He was never identified as far as I can remember.  Whoever he was, in order to disguise the fact he was cheating, he changed a few of the answers.  Enough to lower his score by a few points and still score high enough to get an A.  
He then gave his answer sheet to some other students who were members of the school’s football team, but neglected to tell them he’d included incorrect answers.  
The teachers found out about the break-in and were able to recover the bogus answer sheet.  They didn’t know who it was that had received the answers, but they knew which answers had been changed.  Without telling the students, they proceed with the test and then separated out those tests where the results, correct answers and wrong, matched the bogus answer sheet.  
Six students had test papers that matched the bogus sheets.  All six were players on the football team.  Ironic, that, since at the time the team was 6-0 in divisional play.  
The faculty meet.  A decision was made.  The students in question were “reprimanded” and were allowed to take the test over again.  
There wasn’t a big brouhaha over this.  Mainly the student body shrugged and went on their business.  There was some ill feelings amongst me and my friends.  The general consensus amongst us was that if one of us had decided to cheat...  
Well, in the first place, we were all agreed that none of us NEEDED to cheat because we all actually studied for the test.  But IF one of us had decided, as an experiment in psychology, code breaking or forensics, to cheat, 1) We would have cheated in a far less obvious way and 2) If we had been caught we would have been failed for the term and possibly even expelled from school, because that was what they school rules on cheating said would happen.  
But that didn’t happen to this particular group of cheaters.  And we all knew why.  I expressed this shared belief walking into a classroom with someone from my circle of friends.
“You know,” I said as we squeezed through the entrance to the class just as the students and teacher from the previous class were squeezing out.  “The only reason they were ‘really’ punished is because they were football players, and they get special treat--”  
That “whack” was the sound of someone’s hand hitting the back of my head.  I stumbled forward.  My hand came up to rub my now throbbing skull.  I turned around to find the teacher of the previous class, who was also an assistant coach on the football team, glaring at me.  
“What were you just saying?”  His lips barely parted as he growled out his question.  
“Nothing.”  The answer just popped out.  I didn’t take any time to consider it.  
“That’s what I thought.”  He turned around and marched out.  One of the students leaving the class, wearing a green letterman’s jacket marking him as a member of the football team, snickered at me as he followed the coach out.  
“You know what you should have done?”  
This was later that night, when my group of friends was gathered at someone’s house for our weekly role-playing game session.  I was DMing the game, with a huge, continent sized map that I had hand-drawn spread out across the table.  The speaker was a mutual friend of ours who had started at the High School, but later took the GED and graduated early.  
This particular friend of mine was known for being confrontational, though often in a very cool and positive way.  For instance, this friend, a self-proclaimed agnostic at fourteen, had railed against being forced to sit through the monthly mass our school held, saying that since he was a non-believer, and paying extra tuition because of it, he shouldn’t be forced to attend.  One day, when the student body was being unruly, the principal got up and demanded quiet.  
“Anyone that doesn’t want to be here can get up and leave!” he shouted to the assembled students.
This friend got up and did just that.  From that point on, when mass was held, he was sent to the library to sit and read until the service was over.  
“What’s that?”  I looked up from getting my bags of polyhedral dice out from my backpack.  
“If that coach had hit me like that, I would have turned around and said, ‘I said the football players get special treatment when they cheat.  What are you gonna do about it?’  And if they HAD done something to me, I would have called the newspapers, would’ve gotten an attorney...”  He went on from there, in a very firebrand wielding, revolutionary style.  And he would have done it, too.  I remember regretting missing my chance, as well as wondering if I would have had the guts to go through with it.  
In any event, I didn’t say anything.  The players retook the test.  They all passed, with C’s and D’s I think.  The football team went on to an undefeated season, finishing 12-0 in divisional play, and then winning the championship for our region.  
Right before publishing this, I went online to review some of the history I remembered.  I found dedications to the coaches of that team, stadiums being named after the head coach, the website for my old school.  I made the decision to remove dates and names of the school and the participants.  
Is it because I don’t want another WHACK on the back of my head?  Maybe.  Hopefully, it’s because I want to graduate from the feeling that I’m still in High School.  Not to get away from feeling that I’m the odd man out, or to be counted amongst the “freaks and geeks” of this world.  I’m comfortable with that.  
No.  I want to graduate to a state where, if that WHACK happens again, I’ll turn around and say what I know to be true, and face whatever consequences may happen.  We’ll see.  
PS: Yeah, I know...  I promised an entry on my magic system.  It’s coming.  Soon.  I hope.