Archive for September, 2011

It’s my favorite day of the week, Flash Fiction Friday!  Today I would like to share with you my 176 word short story, The List.  This tale is a bit on the periphery of my normal subject matter, but hopefully infused with a healthy dose of creepiness for these rainy autumn nights.  Is that a knock I hear at the door?  Enjoy!

Thunder rattled the panes of glass in the window frame, while lightning strobed across the black backdrop of night.  He wrote by candlelight, which flickered in the draft and cast misshapen and contorted shadows on the walls.  His letters were even and precise, chiseled into the creamy parchment by the sharp nib of his pen.  He studied the list of names to ensure it was complete, closed his eyes, and willed himself to shift.  He screamed, first with agony, then with ecstasy, as his muscles spasmed wickedly and his joints contracted.  The flesh on his face first tingled, then burned before it peeled away and fell to the floor in long streamers of macabre confetti.  He opened his eyes, once brown, now sapphire blue, and gazed at his reflection in the mirror over the fireplace mantle.  A petite young woman gazed back, eyes wide and innocent, long blonde hair in slight disarray.  A desperate woman in need of shelter.  She glanced once again at the list, licked her lips hungrily, and stepped out into the storm. 

###

Aside from writing, the only other thing I’ve done with as much long-time passion and diligence is play live music.  I’ve been rocking out in bars and clubs all over Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana since I was 25 years old, first on drums, later on bass guitar.  I’ve played every style except ska, hip hop, and death metal.  Some groups I’ve played with have been cover bands, others have been original indie bands plugging away for their big break.  I’ve played on stages so flimsy I thought my bass rig would shake ’em apart; I’ve played on stages so big that I thought I’d need a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way off (this, admittedly, has not happened often).  I’ve played crowded venues in Kansas City, Wichita, and Indianapolis, and I’ve played in towns so miniscule that their economic infrastructure was predicated on an outdoor pay phone, soda machine, bar, and post office.  But the one thing that has been a common denominator musically for me is that it has never mattered where I was playing, who I was playing with, or what type of music I was performing, because when I play, I play.

Music has always offered me a certain solace, a gift of quietude.  When I play, I lose myelf in the moment and the only thing that matters is the backbeat or the bassline.  There is no room for the myriad worries that otherwise vie for my time and attention.  There is only music, and my part in creating it.  In the midst of the 2 and 4, within the swirling eddy of lead licks and chunky rhythm guitar, beneath the arenaline and beer-fueled rock ‘n roll vocals, I find a space of zen-like peace within the moment.

I’ve found the same to be true for writing.  At first, I wanted my first drafts to be pristine.  I couldn’t fall into a story because I was too busy glancing back at the words that had just spilled onto the page, continuously proofreading and revising them.  One day, probably on one of those days when we’ve had it up to here with the world and have nothing left to lose artistically, I bound and gagged that snarky little homunculus, and chained him to our lawnmower in the garage.  Now he rides around and editorializes about how my husband tends to our lawn.  That’s fine, but I stopped feeding that particular troll.  There’s enough self-doubt and rejection in the world of writing without his poisonous offerings. 

Now I push myself to write more organically, to lose myself in the story and simply tell it.  My first drafts no longer come out as clean, but my word count has gone up dramatically and it has actually made my subsequent efforts at editing more effective.  I still have to fight the urge to break out of the flow and go back to fix something.  On some occasions, those tweaks and edits are necessary, but the majority of the time I give the tale another nudge and find that the words are waiting there, patiently, under my fingers.  Now when I write, I write.

This morning I cranked out about 2000 words.  I thought I could hear my homunculus shrieking nasties at me from the garage.  I ignored him.  This has made all the difference.

When I first started writing (that is, writing anything of appreciable length with some semblance of a plot) around the age of 15, I really struggled.  Writing believeable dialogue was a challenge, so I typically wrote stories with one character, or I’d kill the others off so quickly no one would have to interact.  Part of that might have been due to the fact that I am a bit of an introvert, and even my characters don’t like to have to extrovert – but really, it was because writing dialogue that advanced the plot, was engaging, and didn’t feel contrived or forced, was difficult for me then.  I also struggled with character development.  They all felt somehow one-dimensional.  Probably because they were.  My poor paper characters couldn’t have stood up to one of those sub-tornadic gusts Kansans refer to as a breeze.  I also had difficulty with developing an interesting context for my stories.  Looking back, a lot of what I wrote as a kid was based on mimicry.  I didn’t know anything about stealing cars, but I’d just read a book with a character who was a car thief.  Guess who ended up in the awkwardly Lovecraftian story I wrote when I was 17?  That’s right.  A car thief.  Of course, as with all my fiction, he met a rather horrific end. 

One of the few good things about getting older, I suppose, is the increased life experience that lends itself to better writing.  The more I read, the more I hear, the more exposed I am to the natural ebb and flow of conversation in the office, at restaurants or sleazy bars (I am a musician, which makes me a de facto denizen of many sleazy bars), the more my ears have become attuned to more effective, realistic, and convincing dialogue.  So, yeah, you might not notice me sitting beside you at the counter of Waffle House, but I am probably paying at least a little attention to your conversation about the travails of replacing the water main in your backyard, your kid’s weird Little League coach, or your grandfather’s polyps.  I’m listening for both what you say and how you say it.  Who knows when one of my characters might end up needing a colonoscopy?

At risk of sounding creepier, I’m watching you, too.  I’m looking for descriptive detail that I might not otherwise know, but can really benefit from when writing and developing characters.  I’m studying makes and models of cars, paying attention to the rust on the rocker panels and the partially scraped off bumper stickers.  I’m noticing what you wear to work – jeans and work boots, heels and a mini skirt, a Little Ceasar’s costume – whatever.  You – the cook at Waffle House in Franklin, Indiana – yeah, you.  Don’t think I didn’t pay attention to how you multi-tasked the orders, how you cleaned the grill, how you interacted with the wait staff, and how you kept the restaurant running like a well-oiled machine.  You’re already immortal.  You’ll find yourself in my new short story, Public Enemy.  Apologies in advance for the infectious zombie bite you incurred when you stepped out for a smoke.

I’m paying attention because this increases my fund of knowledge, incrementally keeps refilling the well that I draw my words from, and offers me glimpses of possible scenarios and compelling characters.  Is writing still difficult for me?  Of course it is.  Sometimes I have to pry the words out with a crowbar.  If nothing else, I am learning that being a writer is as much about technical skill as it is about passion and perseverence.  But by keeping my eyes and ears wide open, I discover my characters are already walking beside me.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been toying with neuroticism.  Not my own, although I’ve got a pretty good stockpile of that.  I’ve been thinking about character development, and the role odd little quirks and psychological peccadillos can play in making a protagonist, or a villain, more intriguing.  This is a bit of a natural line of inquiry for me, as I was a psychologist who wanted to be a writer in my previous life; now I am a writer who was once a psychologist, although my love for the behavioral sciences hasn’t waned.

Most of my characters are average joes, leading average lives with the same fears, frustrations, and concerns that so many of us share, who are suddenly thrust into a situation outside their control or forced to make decisions that are nightmarish in nature or implication.  But what if one of them struggled with attention deficit disorder in a world dominated by zombies seeking to devour the flesh of the living?  What if a recently-turned vampyr struggled with depersonalization?  How would uncontrolled auditory hallucinations and psychosis affect one’s ability to survive in a post-apocalyptic world?

When Chuck Wendig (who’s blog, Terrible Minds, happens to be outstanding)  issued a three sentence flash fiction challenge, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to toy with the concept of introducing a psychological quirk and seeing where it would lead.  As with most of the paths I walk, it lead into a pretty dark place.  This flash fiction piece, Head Count, is the result.  Enjoy!

His undead neighbors shuffled ceaselessly below his third story apartment window and his compulsion to count and touch them had become almost unbearable; at first he’d thought the desire to count was a quirk – annoying, yet harmless – but now he knew better.

As he counted his remaining shotgun shells and adjusted each with meticulous care to ensure that they lined up across his cheap Formica kitchen table in ranks and files with perfect alignment and proximity, he wondered if 27 would be enough.

He loaded his shotgun, inverted the barrel, and stared into its black depths; as it turned out, one round would be sufficient. 

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It’s Flash Fiction Friday, and to celebrate, I’m sharing one of my more recent forays into miniaturized horror, The Keeper of the Well.  This story seemed to flow out of the ether as I sat down to pen my first flash fiction piece of 100 words or less.  Or maybe it didn’t flow out of the ether at all.  Maybe something was sitting beside me.  Enjoy!

She sat at her desk, typing as if to beat the devil, or in this case, writer’s block.  She’d suffered from it for five agonizing years.  But tonight her fingers danced on the keyboard and the words seemed to flow from the well of her soul.  She glanced at her reflection in the monitor.  With half-lidded eyes she saw the succubus, caressing her shoulders, kissing her neck.  With every keystroke her vitality waned, her reflection was somehow less there, but still she continued to type in an explosive rapture of words until she lacked the strength to draw another breath.

###

I launched an inquisition earlier this year.

I’ve been on a bit of a witchhunt to suss out and destroy those insidious adverbs that have plagued my stories for many years.  I have not been able to stamp them all out, but I’ve plunged a stake through many of their wicked little hearts.  This seems to have improved the quality of my fiction; certainly it has challenged me to select stronger verbs, to choose words that are more compelling and deliver greater descriptive impact.  It forces me to write with greater intensity and precision.  It also helped me clean up my dialogue and reduce expository clutter.  My zombies will never again move quickly toward anyone; they will lurch, lunge, or stagger.  No longer will my characters do anything suspiciously, they will lurk or skulk. 

So long, suddenly, really, immediately.  Farewell, nearly, literally, eagerly, carefully.  Scram, defiantly, cleverly, awkwardly.  Be gone, hastily, violently, viciously, and utterly.

This is not to suggest that I have an all-or-nothing perspective on adverbs; I am still learning the craft of writing, and I am certain that a few will continue to sneak into my writing.  In other instances, they may have a very appropriate place.  For now, however, I choose to pound on mine as if I were trying to win the biggest prize on a Whack-A-Mole game.  Or perhaps I am just sublimating some sort of twisted, deep-seated aggression on them unconsciously.

Here’s the thing.  This morning, I read an intriguing post on a Reddit zombie lit discussion thread, exploring the possibility that fast zombies work most effectively cinematically, while slow zombies are better suited for writing.  I had never considered this before, and it sparked my interest.  All considerations of rigor mortis, decay, and basic physiology aside (which tends to render the concept of fast zombies a little more far-fetched for me), the question remains:

Is it more difficult to write about fast zombies?

All of my tales of the reanimated dead with a lust for human flesh have involved slow zombies.  While not a conscious decision, that struck me, especially given the capacity of fast zombies to enable jump scares and terrifying, breakneck sequences that leave viewers and readers gasping for air.  Why haven’t I written about fast zombies?

I’ve commited to giving a fast zombie fiction piece a try in the coming week.  As I jotted some ideas down throughout the day, I noticed an inclination on my part to want to default to phrases such as “immediately, quickly, viciously, rapidly, and ferociously.”  I’m not sure why the adverbs are wanting to crop up again, but I’m going to put every one I find down with a clean headshot.

Some days I wonder if I am writer, or if I am really just a masochist who likes words. 

I checked my email before I could get the sweet nectar of the Gods – more commonly referred to as caffeine – into my system.  That was a mistake.  Nothing beats a rejection email first thing in the morning.  Yup, rejection email.  When I first started writing stories, I pounded ’em out on a word processing typewriter and my rejection letters arrived by mail.  Two decades later, if want a rejection letter I have to print it out myself.  Today’s rejection was from Kindle Singles.  No big surprise there, I had already gotten a sense of the caliber of material the editors were most likely looking for and suspected my tale of madness in a world populated almost entirely by reanimated corpses – very hungry reanimated corpses – wouldn’t cut it. 

“Our editors have carefully reviewed your submission, and it has not been selected for inclusion in the Kindles Singles store.  Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to consider it.”

Sigh.

The rejection slips that at least have a scribbled note of encouragement or a few words which offer suggestions as to how I might improve my writing are like gold.  I welcome those.  But I hate the form letters, the ones that seem to scream INADEQUATE but don’t tell you why.  When I first started writing around the age of sixteen, I had no idea how difficult it would be to become a published writer.  For a kid, I was fortunate to have at least a vague understanding of how prevalent rejection could be, largely from an interview of Stephen King, in which he’d talked about pounding a nail in the wall of his bedroom and spiking his rejection slips on it.  What I had not anticipated was how insidious rejection slips can be.  Their weight eventually exceeds their mass.  My first rejection, scrawled on my own manuscript returned by SASE sometime during the waning years of the 80’s, contained only three words:

Formulaic.  Not bad.

Looking back, the story was an awkward, juvenile, cliched, predictable, monstrosity.  But the “not bad” part kept me writing.  A few years later I received a rejection slip from the Silver Web, edited by Ann Kennedy.  Her handwritten note gave me hope for several years:

Good writing.  Sometimes less is more.

I took her words to heart and worked to use them to become a better writer.  But at some point, I stopped submitting, and not long after, I stopped writing.  I regret those lost years.  Now I am at a point in my life where I can look quite a long way forward and quite a long way backward.  Writers write.  Writers who don’t write, aren’t writers.  I very intentionally renewed my commitment to writing this year, but I had forgotten (or repressed) the power of rejection, and I feel it weighing very heavily on me today.

I read a well written blog post on this very issue yesterday.  In her entry, Sue Healy offers several good suggestions on dealing with rejection for aspiring writers.  I especially liked her analogy of multiple submissions as being ships at sea.  I’ve had many torpedoed into the murky depths and others completely lost, never to be heard from again.  Maybe someday one will return to port.  In the meantime, I’ll keep writing and keep the zombies shambling around.  They’re hungry, you know.

Hot off the press!  Time to get your zombie on with my new horror short story, A Life Less Vanilla.  Enjoy!

           “Todd, I’m leaving you.”

            The words were met with silence and the sound of her own harsh breathing.

            “Girl, I’m telling you, that’s all you’ve got to say.  He’ll get the message.”

            Charlie closed her eyes and frowned.  She tapped her cell phone against her temple once, twice, three times.

            “How long are you going to support his lazy ass,” her best friend, ‘Chelle, continued.  “Girl, he’s already failed out of two degree programs in five years.  Now he’s majoring in what, poetry?”

            “Creative writing,” Charlie corrected automatically, and bit her lower lip.

            “Pays about the same.”  Her friend gave a sniff and a short, ugly laugh.  “Come on, Charlie, you’re too good for that slacker.  You’re young, talented, and attractive.  No reason for you to stay trapped in a dead end relationship.”

            Charlie heaved a deep sigh and glanced up at the framed photograph of Todd – a glamour shot, no less – on the top shelf of the cheap black laminate bookcase that flanked the television in the living room of their studio apartment. 

            “I just don’t know, ‘Chelle,” Charlie responded.  “Todd’s a nice guy.  Just too nice.  I don’t know what to do.  I’m tired of vanilla.  I need some excitement, some spice, a little splash of color in my life.”

            “That’s what I’m talking about.  Break free, girl, live a little.  Step out of that prison of a relationship!”

            Charlie wedged the cell phone between her left cheek and shoulder, and slowly crossed the room.  As she went, she hesitated briefly in front of the bookcase and removed a small ebony box.  She listened to ‘Chelle rant and rave, grunting an occasional “uh-huh” and “oh, yeah” in response.  She plopped down on their 1970’s-era avocado green sleeper sofa.  Her fingers searched for, and found, the sliding panel for the hidden compartment. 

            “What can I do, ‘Chelle,” Charlie interrupted.  “At least Todd’s stable.  I could do worse.  I have done worse.  I’m not sure I want to turn things upside down.  But I don’t how long I can live in this void.  He’s just so unmotivated.  His idea of a wild Friday night is a trip to the Old Country Buffet and a DVD from Family Video.”

            Charlie heard her friend’s laughter and joined in, but no smile graced her eyes or lips.  She gazed down into the box.  It had contained two capsules, given to her by Alex, the handsome and charming biochemistry Ph.D. candidate.  The man who had stolen her heart.  The man who had been married throughout their six month affair.  Alex, who had been the epitome of passion, charisma, and ambition.  The antivirals had been his last gift to her before the motorcycle accident that had claimed his life.

            She’d taken one about a year ago.  A precaution.  That was the word Alex had used to describe the pills, with a careless grin and an easy shrug.  He wanted her to have them just in case.  Just in case of what, Charlie had asked.  In case you need them, Alex responded.  If you ever need them, he had continued, drugs like these will only be available to the wealthy.  She’d taken the capsules and hidden them, not sure if she would know when – or if – they would be necessary.  Alex had refused to tell her any more, and the drugs had been in the final round of human subjects testing when he’d died.  Charlie had taken one of the pills with a large glass of water and an equal amount of trepidation.  She had no idea if the pill actually worked.  It hadn’t appeared to do anything.  The extra capsule remained in the box.  She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t given it to Todd, if it really was as valuable as Alex had suggested.  Too complicated, she imagined.

            Or maybe she was hungry for a life less vanilla.

            “You need to go out now, Charlie, now, to the nearest bar and slam a few shots of Patron and get your flirt on, girlfriend.  I bet you are sitting alone in your dank apartment this very moment.  Aren’t you?  Aren’t you-“

            ‘Chelle’s strident words turned into a shriek that rattled the plastic casing of the cell phone.  Charlie involuntarily jerked her ear away from the headset and dropped the phone into the dingy khaki shag carpet beneath her feet.  She gazed at the phone numbly as her friend continued to scream.  Outside, the town’s tornado siren began to wail.

            That’s odd, thought Charlie.  It’s late November.  Well past tornado season.

            The sounds of a multi-vehicle collision in the intersection below brought her to her feet.  Charlie rushed to the patio window and shoved the vertical blinds aside.  They swung jauntily on the cheap aluminum curtain rod.  She looked down onto the street in disbelief, then with growing horror.  Outside the apartment, smoke from several large fires blackened the sky.  An ambulance lay on its side in the middle of the intersection.  It had been t-boned and flipped from a violent impact.  As she watched, an EMT crawled out of the back, clutching a wound on his shoulder that geysered blood.  A crowd of people swarmed toward him and engulfed him within seconds.  She lost sight of him as he was buried beneath a mass of writhing bodies.  Charlie listened as his screams first grew faint, then stopped altogether.  ‘Chelle’s screaming had stopped emanating from the phone, but Charlie barely noticed.

            The door to their apartment burst open.  Todd staggered over the threshold.  His eyes were cloudy, skin ashen and gray.  His gait was awkward and uncoordinated.  Blood dripped from his chin, and what looked like – but couldn’t possibly be – a string of entrails dangled from the outstretched fingertips of his right hand.  His shirt was saturated with blood, a garish maroon.  A color uncharacteristic for him, Charlie thought, and laughed.  Her laughter was unnaturally shrill.  It caught Todd’s attention and he whipped his head in her direction and advanced with clawed fingers.  Charlie could see his normally white teeth, now tinged with gore.  She backed away but there was nowhere to go in their tiny apartment.  Todd’s fingers locked around her neck and she could hear his guttural snarling and groaning.  She could hear it for several seconds after he ripped her throat out with his perfect teeth and gouged out her eyes with manicured fingers.  She heard it distantly even as darkness chased her into the abyss, which was, she noted with an almost clinical detachment, also devoid of color.

###

My grandmother would be horrified.  Well, maybe not horrified, but if she were still alive, she would be astonished and overwhelmed with the possibilities that the interwebs offers us.  She would also be horrified – but not exactly surprised – at my choice of fiction genres.  Grandma always knew I liked to write, but I am not sure she would be as thrilled with reading my tales of the insatiable undead.  However, today marks a first time occurrence for me.  I am going to try and write a piece of coherent flash horror fiction 1-2 lines at a time via Twitter.  Being a writer that likes continuity and flow, I can already sense some of the challenges that this approach offers.  However, I thrill at the possibility of writing something so organic and non-traditional.  I’ll throw out a couple of lines at a time on Twitter, and if you would like to reply with suggestions for next lines, a title, or plot developments, we’ll make it happen and co-create a horrifying flash fiction tale together.  The first few lines are already up – swing on by and join me in the dance!

Welcome to the Void!

Posted: 09/12/2011 in Uncategorized

If you’re like me, you’ve always had a strange affinity for the things that go bump in the night…  the books at the library or the bookstore that beckon to you are the ones with lurid, creepy, haunting cover art that promise tales of darkness and horror…  the undead stalk your dreams and lurk in the shadows… 

Some of you may be devotees of the dark arts, of horror film and fiction, or aficionados of speculative tales of lunacy, terror, and suspense.  Others of you may be writers like myself, seeking a dark muse and inspiration for your next tale of the wicked or the arcane, or of the fears that we all seem to share when the lights go out and we find ourselves alone. 

Or perhaps not as alone as we think.  Let’s step into the darkness together, shall we?  Let’s peek over the edge and peer deep into the depths of the void, and see what lurks within.