Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

On really good days, writing doesn’t feel like work, it feels like a slot machine paying off – the right words come tumbling out and fill the pages so rapidly that I am no longer certain who is in control of the story – me or it.  On really bad days, I feel like I am on a literary snipe hunt with a flashlight and gunnysack with a hole in the bottom.  I’m starting to discover that there is a vast range of variables and contributing factors to writer’s block, but in the end, the only way to fight through it is to write.  I’ve also discovered that naming my fear – referring to myself as having writer’s block – can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at least reinforce and exacerbate my fear that the words have dried up like the blood spatter from a zombie headshot in the Mojave.

Writing, particularly fiction writing, is a labor of love – a commitment to breathe life into a story from a flash of an idea, or a skeletal outline.  Sometimes we’ve got to rob some graves and piece together the exquisite corpse, and then jumpstart the monster’s heart with a surge of electricity.  I’ve recently been feeling a whole lot like I’ve been robbing the wrong graves, prying the words out of my skull and examining them in the harsh light of day – and finding them inadequate.  But writer’s write, and so I persevere.  I don’t wish writer’s block on anyone who has a love affair with words, but in case you ever find yourself wrestling with this brain-sucking, inertia-inducing hydra, here are some of the strategies that keep me sane enough to pass in society and producing creepy crap.

Write something, every day.  Even if it is 250 words, or just a sentence – move your story forward.  It may require revision or editing later, but advance the story with what you know of it, and don’t wait for the perfect words to manifest if it feels like they are holing up drinking tequila, trying to outwait you.

Jump to a new scene or POV.  Sometimes approaching the story from a different angle can loosen the block.  Jump ahead to a different scene, try a flashback, or relay events from another character’s perspective. 

Watch the movie.  That is, play it out on the big screen in your mind.  Imagine what the characters are saying, what they are thinking or doing, just as if you are watching a blockbuster film of your story after optioning rights to it for mega-millions.  Then write what you saw.

Ask the characters.  Discretion here is important unless you want to end up experiencing the world of psychotropic medication, but ask your characters wassup.  Ask them why they did or didn’t do something.  Ask them what they are going to do next.  Let them tell you.  Jot down their dreams, desires, and motivations.  The more real they are to you, the easier it might be to get in their head as the action unfolds.

Up the ante.  Ratchet up the tension, introduce some horrible, unanticipated barrier, kill somebody, raise the stakes, put your character through the wringer and see what they do under pressure.  It’s cathartic.  It’s fun.  When you’ve painted yourself into a corner plotwise, or need to get out of the mire, Raymond Chandler advises “when in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”  Modify as needed for horror fiction:  “when in doubt, have a zombie stagger through the door and nosh on someone.”

Moonlight with another project.  Spend some time on another story, and give yourself a break.  It can also be fun to try your hand at story prompts or writing exercises – anything to spark your creativity and get the words moving.

Location, location, location.  Change up your writing space.  Try writing somewhere new or unusual.  Or try writing differently, not harder.  If you usually type on a laptop, switch to pen and paper, try dictation, or tell your small child or family pet the story and stop worrying about using the right words, just articulate the essence of the tale. 

These are just a few of my favorite strategies for getting unstuck; what are some of your favorite tricks, tips, or techniques for battling the block?

Friday has rolled around again, so it’s time for a little flash fiction to celebrate the weekend!  This week I am going to begin a small experiment.  Recently I’ve read about a resurgence in popularity of serialized fiction, and how eBooks are making that increasingly possible.  As a kid, I loved serials, especially that old television show Cliffhangers from the late 1970’s (which featured, incidentally, Dracula in one of the stories, and aliens in the other).  With the ever-increasing demands on our time and attention, it can be difficult to carve out a half hour or more to settle in with a lengthy short story or novel (although eReaders are vastly increasing the portability and accessibility of stories for readers). 

 Serialized fiction such as that featured in pulp magazines, dime novels, and the penny dreadfuls was once extremely popular.  The concept of serials is enticing; it allows for stories to be told in manageable portions while retaining continuity, sets the stage for cliffhangers, and perhaps most importantly, leaves the reader wanting more, leaves them hungering to find out what happens next.  Forcing that delay of gratification  leads to an eager anticipation of the next episode.  In that spirit, I would like to share my first serialized short story, The 50 Minute Hour.  Please let me know your thoughts as readers and writers about serialized fiction, and in the meantime, enjoy!

Part One: The Hollow Men

Greg Farrier swung from his heels; the Ping graphite and steel driver he was gripping connected solidly with the side of the thing’s head.  It exploded in a macabre confetti of brackish blood, brain matter, decaying skin, and thin fragments of skull.  The thing collapsed at his feet.  He had only seconds to survey his handiwork before another one shambled around the corner of the Walgreens they’d taken refuge in the day before.  Greg allowed it to approach, listening to it hiss and moan as it stumbled forward, and dispatched it with a single swing of the golf club. 

Until now, the closest to golf he’d ever come was playing putt-putt with his twin sons.  All that had changed two weeks ago.  Greg was still trying to figure out how to manage the mess his world had become.  He was a therapist, a clinical psychologist, not a killer and certainly not a gun-toting survivalist.  His sons had been students at Franklin College, one with a dual major in journalism and theater, the other in political science. 

Purgatory, he thought, this is a trip through purgatory, and we’ve all been invited along for the ride.  He wondered if his ex-wife was still alive.  Things could only be more hellish if she was, he decided, and swung the club at a corpse that had clawed its way across the parking lot, missing its legs, intestines trailing behind it in filthy grey streamers. 

“Dad!  Up here!” his son Aiden called.  Greg looked up to see Aiden and his brother Andrew on the roof of the Shell service station across the street.  The walking dead milled about below them, circling the fuel pumps ceaselessly.  Andrew carried a Mossberg pump-action shotgun.  Andy held a muddy aluminum softball bat in his left hand and a scoped rifle in his right.  Both wore identical expressions of exhaustion and concern.  The time for fear had passed; now Greg and his sons were concerned only with the most pragmatic aspects of survival.  They had left the drug store in search of a more defensible location, but had not gotten far before the undead had converged on the gas station across the street, forcing them to take shelter on the roof.  As far as Greg could tell, the dead had only gross motor skills and basic locomotion.  They staggered around with an insatiable determination, but it appeared that more complex physical tasks such as climbing ladders or trees was beyond their ability. 

“There’s a ladder around back.  Follow the alley.  We’ll cover you Dad,” Andrew shouted.  Greg watched Aiden cross the roof and reconnoiter the area behind the store.

“Clear,” Aiden shouted.  Greg didn’t hesitate.  He sprinted across the parking lot toward the gas station on a diagonal, dodging a pair of dead women sitting in the middle of Jefferson Street who were consuming, with a ferocious intensity, the remains of an older man in a Vietnam-era army jacket, hair tied back in a graying ponytail with a piece of leather.  Greg tried not to look too closely; he knew the man.  He knew most of the dead who now walked the town, and he knew many of the corpses who littered the streets, bones stripped clean of flesh, unable to rise, unable to walk, unable to join the army of the living dead that now populated the city. 

Attracted to his movement, a large group of dead detached themselves from the mass stalking the fuel area and stumbled toward him.  Greg ran harder, heart pounding in his chest.  His backpack shifted awkwardly on his shoulders with every stride, throwing him off balance, slowing him down.  He considered ditching it, but it held a bounty of supplies from the drug store, and he was reluctant to give it up so easily.  Rounding the corner, he lunged down the alley and spotted a pair of dumpsters and a ladder extending halfway to the ground from the roof of the store.  Greg was so focused on the ladder that he only half heard the crack of a rifle, but he sensed something thud to the ground several feet behind him.  Another shot rang out as he watched Andrew lean over the roof with one hand extended.

“Throw me your pack,” he shouted.  Greg didn’t hesitate.  He slipped the backpack from his shoulders and heaved it up toward his son with all his strength, feeling something give in his right upper shoulder and lower back in the process.  That can’t be good.  Something brushed the back of his head and tangled in his hair as he scrambled on top of one of the dumpsters.  He balanced on the rim like a tightrope walker, putting as little weight as possible on the plastic cover.  A snarl emanated from inside the dumpster.  Greg Farrier lunged for the ladder and closed his fingers around it in a sweaty but death tight grip.  He felt a tug on his boot.  Dead fingers sought purchase around his ankle.  The reek of decay from something unspeakable filled his lungs and he choked back bile as shook free of the thing’s grasp and frantically pulled himself up the ladder. 

“Dammit,” he heard Andrew shout.  “Ade, shoot that fucker!”  Greg heaved himself over the edge of the roof and stared up at the cloudless blue sky, feeling the warm sunshine on his face as his son put a bullet through the head of what had once been a person, but was now nothing more than a reanimated hollow shell.

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Or more properly, do the undead dream?  What horrors lurk in the quiescent minds of the walking dead, or of the writers who breathe life into those decaying corpses shambling about, stinking of the grave and hungering for the taste of human flesh? 

Just in time for the holidays, Dark Moon Books has released Frightmares: A Fistful of Flash Fiction Horror, an anthology of “delightfully squeamish short fiction” which offers a glimpse into a nightmare world of the undead and other denizens of the dark. 

I am especially excited about the release of Frightmares, as it includes Dead Reckoning, my first published flash fiction piece.  Now I can cross that off my bucket list.  Or maybe it should have been on my undead bucket list?

I’ve nearly finished reading my copy of Frightmares, and if you are hungry for a grim and glorious collection of bite-sized and easily digestible (mmmmm, braaaaiiinnnssss) tales of the macabre and horrific, this is the book for you.  It weighs in at a hefty 258 pages – all of which makes you shudder – then eagerly turn to the next one.

I took the week off from writing.  Maybe that is not exactly true; the words and the stories didn’t seem to be there when I needed them, and so I stopped trying to find them.  Today I will try again.  I do know that the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to get the literary engine to turn over. 

This has been a rough week.  On Monday, one of my dearest friends and mentors, Phil Cramer, passed away.  I’ve known him for almost 30 years – and although that sounds like a long time, my heart protests that it wasn’t long enough.  Two days later, on Thanksgiving, Inky passed away.  She was a beautiful cat and a spirit filled with joy.  I found her on a Halloween night in Kansas a decade ago – she was the black cat that crossed my path and brought nothing but happiness and love.  The ten years Inky and I shared together went too quickly, and I miss her terribly. 

When Phil’s health suddenly failed earlier this month, I sat with him in the hospital many evenings.  I don’t know if he knew I was there, but I told him about my dream of being a writer someday, and about my first story which will be published later this month.  On the drive home from the hospital about two weeks ago, I started toying with the premise of a different kind of vampire story, one that evokes compassion rather than horror.  Stakes and Stones was the result. 

She couldn’t see well in the dark, and the other children taunted her for it until she fought to keep tears from spilling down her cheeks.  She blinked hard, but lost the battle.  Being unable to produce tears themselves, the children watched with curiosity as she sobbed quietly, her head lowered and eyes downcast, until the school bus arrived.

The girl was second in line to board the bus.  As she stepped forward, Pytr gave her a vicious shove.  She fell forward with a gasp, pinwheeling her thin arms for balance to no avail.  Her nose and upper lip smashed into the edge of the school bus’s doorframe.  Blood gouted from her now crooked nose, and she spat two of her front teeth into the gutter.  The teeth gleamed in the moonlight, slick with blood.  One was her upper left incisor, which had already been chipped from a previous encounter.  The other was the dog tooth that had neighbored it.  It was much smaller, more rounded, and less pronounced – unlike the wickedly sharp canines of the other children. 

The scent of her blood set off a cacophony of howls, catcalls, and laughter from the children on the bus.  Blood dripped from her chin and saturated her threadbare, hand-me-down paisley print blouse.  It had been one of her favorites.  The bus driver sent her home to change clothes; she’d have to walk to school.

When she arrived at home, her mother took one look at her ruined face and shirt, and berated her for getting into another fight, reprimanded her for not trying to get along.  The girl accepted the scolding wordlessly.  She slipped on a clean shirt.  It was more tattered than the one she’d been wearing. 

Her mother’s parting words chased her out of their tiny apartment.  In a sudden fit of anger, the girl slammed the front door.  It rattled in its flimsy frame.  All of the low income housing units were cheaply built and poorly constructed.  It was the only life she had ever known.  Despair engulfed her as she trudged to school in the late night darkness.  She’d already missed her favorite part of the school day.  First hour: reading.  If she took her time, she’d miss second hour as well.  Social studies.  Tonight they were supposed to be learning about minority populations.  She figured she already knew more than enough about that. 

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Having just concluded a two-month marathon of watching all six seasons of Lost, I started thinking about what I’d want with me if I ended up on that island.  Especially if I was stationed in the hatch, punching in a numeric sequence every 108 minutes.  I tend to pack light when I travel, so if I’d actually been on Oceanic flight 815 I might have found myself short a few of my favorite things, but as for books, here’s a list of the top ten novels I would want populating my bamboo bookcase:

1. The Stand (Stephen King)

2. It (Stephen King)

3. Summer of Night (Dan Simmons)

4. Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)

5. The Alienist (Caleb Carr)

6. Boy’s Life (Robert McCammon)

7. I Am Legend (Richard Matheson)

8. 1984 (George Orwell)

9. Twilight Eyes (Dean Koontz)

10. Hell House (Richard Matheson)

As for the second shelf (no bookcase is complete without a second shelf, right?) I’d have to include Just After Sunset, the Shining, and Duma Key (Stephen King), Heart Shaped Box (Joe Hill), Timeline (Michael Crichton), Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), Velocity (Dean Koontz), Compulsion (Jonathan Kellerman), Swan Song (Robert McCammon), and The Last Ship (William Brinkley).  If I could get Fed-Ex to overnight me a few more (maybe on the Dharma sub), I’d also include the entire Gunslinger series (by King, of course).

And I would need an Underwood typewriter and several reams of paper. 

How about you?  What are some favorite books or stories that populate your Desert Island bookcase?