31 Days of Art, Day 15: Holes

I’m going to be honest. When I saw this prompt, all I could think of was the movie “Holes,” which I enjoyed watching, but I had no idea what I was going to do with it. Anyway, my subconscious must have been mulling it over, because eventually what came out was this story…

Day 15: Holes

It was subtle, and I didn’t realize it at first.

I can’t remember why I was going through the pile of old photos—probably on another Marie Kondo-inspired cleaning and decluttering kick. I go through those, every once in a while, pulling everything out and putting it in a pile and maybe organizing one or two things… and then getting distracted and forgetting about the pile until it’s time to go to bed and I shift it to the floor, where it stays for another couple of weeks or months.

The faces looking out were somewhat faded, but this was a properly developed photo from a film negative, not a computer printout, and so even though it was over three decades old, I could still make out everyone’s face. Their hair. Eyes. Glasses for some. Braces for a few unlucky others. We had all mostly gotten over that phase of life, but there I was, back row, right in the center, smiling a grin full of metal. My orthodontist made a lot of money of my parents, with my mouth all cluttered and out of whack.

I could barely remember any of the other kids’ names. We’d spent the entire summer at camp, swore to stay besties forever, said we’d write every day. That hadn’t even lasted a week. I’d never sent a letter. I’d gotten one—a postcard from Jennifer Anne. She’d sent one to everyone, but I never wrote back and never received another letter. I’d looked her up on social media a few years ago to find that she’d married and had two kids before passing. Cancer, I think.

Looking at the photo, I couldn’t remember where she’d stood. Was that her on the end? I seem to remember them putting her on the end. But none of the kids on the ends looked like her.

I put the photo on my dresser, thinking that I’d eventually frame it and add it to the collection of photos on the filing cabinet in my office.

That’s probably why I noticed the next one so much more quickly. I was organizing my underwear into neat little rolls, just like in the book, folding and rolling and stacking so I could easily see at a glance what I had. Oddly satisfying. I looked up at the photo and paused, my sturdy cotton panties dangling from my hand.

Because there was a hole in the middle of the photo.

Someone had been in the photo, and they weren’t there now. Unlike Jennifer Anne, I remembered exactly who had been standing there, because he had been standing in front of me. I, as the tallest, was center back. He was two inches shorter than me, with a personality like a big, goofy magnet. Everyone had wanted to be Matt’s friend, and he was the kind of guy who would return the friendship. I’d had the biggest crush, and had been so excited that he was positioned exactly in front of me.

And now, he wasn’t there.

The tiniest suspicion started to form. I dropped the underwear and closed the drawer, picked up my phone and opened social media. Matt had been one of the first guys I connected with when social media came out. We had a ton of mutual friends from high school. And now, as I scrolled through my feed, every one of them was expressing a torrent of sadness.

“Matt, we miss you, can’t believe you’re gone.”

“All the best to Matt and his family—he was a true light.”

“RIP Matt; can’t believe you’re gone.”

Plus, lots of emojis and gifs. People in their forties love sprinkling emojis and gifs into everything, even mourning posts.

I added my own message to the list—My condolences to your family sad face emoji * heart emoji* and closed my phone. I never did finish organizing my underwear drawer.

Matt and Jennifer Anne weren’t the first people my age to pass. The first person I’d known was a friend from college who passed away in a car accident when we were in our mid-twenties. Since then, it wasn’t a common occurrence to lose a friend, but it wasn’t unknown, either.

Still… Jennifer Anne had passed away a few months ago. Then Matt. I wondered if the same thing would happen, if someone else’s face and body and those crazy clothes we all thought were so on trend would all fade from the photo like they never existed.

The answer was yes.

I didn’t know the next person to fade, and try as I could to search social media, to connect with mutual friends online, I couldn’t figure out who they were, or if they had died. But two weeks later there was the hole, nonetheless, where a teenage girl had once stood on the top row.

After that, that holes started showing up faster and faster. At first, they disappeared about a week apart. Some of them, I could track down. Find out what happened. Car accident. Suicide. Military service. Heart attack. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing connected. Just… life. And death.

The last few, though. Those have been coming faster and faster. Six days apart. Five days. Then, three holes, three days apart.

I see what’s coming. And I don’t know if I mind so much the fact that it is coming, as I mind the fact that it’s happening now. I always thought if I was going to go out in a blaze of glory, it would be a righteous party and a bender of truly epic proportions. But nobody’s leaving their house now. I’ve gotten used to this strange hermit existence. Even if I wanted to go out, I can’t imagine trying to explain to a friend why I would be worried about catching anything.

I’ve been staring at this photo so long, the final figure just melted away, another hole, leaving me standing there at the top and center of the risers. I forgot I had that pair of Chuck Taylors, the red ones I’d saved up for, so proud of them, wearing them with those super baggy jeans and that flannel shirt.

Perhaps I won’t fade. Perhaps I won’t be just another hole in the photograph.

I’ll find out soon enough.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 14: Chickens

I was going to go with something feathery and terrifying because, if you’ve ever met a chicken, you know they can be feather and terrifying. But somewhere in the past couple of days, I happened to view a PSA about not venturing through a railroad crossing when the warning signs were down, and that became this microfiction piece.

Day 14: Chickens

Come on, do it! Just do it! What are you, a—

“Fuck you, all right?” Cash flipped his friends off, then dropped his hand to the stick shift and yanked the old Jeep into neutral.

Against the backdrop of his friends whooping and getting out their cell phones to stream the moment, Cash looked back and forth.

The red lights flashed back and forth. The bells clanged.

Everything was still empty in both directions. There was just enough of a gap for him to swing the beast around.

He almost hoped would catch a glimpse, give him a reason to slam on the brakes. But no, the coast remained clear.

“Do it, DO it, do IT, DO IT!”

For just a second, he heard his dad’s voice over the din his friends were making.

No, Cash, don—

He pressed the clutch, shifted to first.

Cash.

The Jeep leapt toward the tracks.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 13: Symbiotic

Today is the first day that I don’t have a full beginning-middle-end short story or poem to offer. Part of that was I spent most of the day cleaning and unpacking (still… I’ll be unpacking forever, I feel like). Part of it was the idea that the word “symbiotic” prompted came out… not what I was expecting. And I wanted to both fulfill the challenge of writing a finished piece a day, and also stay close to the idea of letting the words play and come out how they want to.

What started out as an idea that two people shared something that they would die without (the symbiosis in the relationship between the two of them and the thing), eventually decided that it wanted to be a darkly comedic plot about two polyamorous lesbians in a retirement community who share a special kind of luck… that then gets stolen from them. Hijinks ensue–or rather, they will if I ever get back to writing this. Will I finish it? Will Gerry and Linda get back their luck and have their revenge on Arnold, the smiling bandit? Will my kids ever actually go to bed when they’re supposed to? Stick around. Maybe someday I’ll know the answer to at least one of these questions…

Day 13 Symbiotic

It was Gerry’s turn to have the luck. She’d been pretty patient while Linda’d hung on to it for what had ended up being three weeks past her fair share. Gerry hadn’t minded. Linda had a younger man on the hook, Mr. Arnold Jefferson from two units down, and she’d wanted the luck to make sure she caught him.

Again, Gerry didn’t mind. Once she got the luck back, Linda would come home like she always did, like she always had. They’d been together since college, and Gerry had never been the jealous type.

Still, she was heading outside the carefully manicured lawns and had a ton of errands to run, and in this town, you never knew who was going to hack and cough and spit and not wear a mask. She needed the luck. What if she had another experience like the last time she was out, waiting at the drugstore for Linda’s prescription to be filled, and the lady in front of her just started coughing, her lungs going to town, the spray visible in the air—and nope, couldn’t be bothered to even cover her mouth with her elbow, let alone wear a mask like it said in the three or four signs the woman had to walk past just to get to the pharmacy.

Gerry knew she shouldn’t have let Linda talk her into moving out of New Jersey. The weather was better down here, but forget trying to find a good bagel, or just ask people to go out of their way to wear a little piece of cloth over their faces for ten minutes while they got a flu shot.

No, Gerry needed that luck. And her wife had had it a little too long now. If it wasn’t going to help Linda land that hunky fish, she needed to come on home and hand it over.

“Gerry?” Linda’s voice sounded as the screen door to the back porch opened and shut. By the waver in her voice, Gerry knew that she had bad news. Whatever it was, she’d be picking up two bottles of wine at the grocery store and a cheesecake. The kind with the strawberry jam drizzled all over it. Whatever put that waver in Linda’s voice was going to require cheesecake for the telling of the story.

The wine was for Gerry.

“Yes, Lindy Hop, I’m coming.” Gerry pushed herself out of the chair, trying not to think about how that was getting harder and harder these days. She headed into the kitchen.

Linda was already seated at the table, slumped, tears smearing her mascara. It looked like it might be a two cheesecake mess.

“He…”

“What happened?” Gerry asked, sitting down across the table. “Did he show up for your date in a red hat?”

“No.” Linda hiccupped, and now Gerry was really concerned. Linda’s hiccups could last for days. The only thing that could stave them off was—

“Wait, where’s our luck?” Gerry asked.

“He… he stole it!” Linda wailed and put her head down and sobbed.

“He stole the luck?” Gerry was confused. “How did he even—?”

This wasn’t possible. They’d found the luck when they first started dating their freshman year of college, passing it back and forth when each had a test, a paper, their coming out talks with their parents. Gerry’s hadn’t gone so well—they hadn’t really known how it worked back then, and, well, that memory required a third bottle of wine to revisit.

Linda wiped her eyes with one of the paper napkins from the holder shaped like a yellow plastic sunflower, then blew her nose in the napkin with a giant honk.

“Okay, tell me slowly, honey,” Gerry said. “How did Tall, Dark, and Denture-Free steal our luck?”

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 12: Tangled

I’m not sure where this creepy little singsong of a poem came from, but again, I’m opening my creative brain here and saying “Yes” to whatever happens to pop along. I was thinking, here, of a story a friend told of a diver searching for abalone in a kelp forest along California’s coast, and well…

Day 12: Tangled

Under the waves, so cold and dark
Drifting along in the brine,
The little fish nudges the cold, blue skin
All wrapped in the soft, green vine.

Under the waves, so cold and dark
The abalones grow
Nestled amid the strange, strong limbs
As the currents shift to and fro.

Under the waves, so cold and dark
With face turned towards the sun,
But no rays can reach beneath the deep
And the kelp is grasping, and tangled, and creeps
Around the legs to hold and to keep,
Its prize so cruelly won.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 11: Hair

I started drawing a blank today, wondering if I had it in me to keep going with the challenge. My brain started in with all the classic symptoms of overthinking my way into stagnating and giving up, and I wondered if what I was doing was even any good. Are these worth anything? Is what I’m putting out there going to show anyone that I’m a writer? Or worthy of editing other people’s horror prose? Yeah, that’s the little voice inside that starts up whenever I start making progress. I used to (still sometimes do) listen to that voice a lot.

But today, I told myself to just go with it. Start typing and see what comes out. It doesn’t HAVE to be polished, perfect, Stoker-worthy–it just has to be. And so, here it is. A little horror microfiction to meet today’s challenge. A chance to play with words and see what comes out, and if it’s “good,” then yay, and if it’s just here, then it’s words I didn’t have before, and so also yay. I hope you enjoy, and if you’ve been feeling the same way about making your particular art, then I say: Go for it!

Day 11: Hair

There was blood on the razor, but it was dry. Little flecks dusted off as she moved it back and forth, back and forth, fluttering down to land, brown spots against the white tile and black strands.

The scissors rested on the side of the sink, the once bright red blood faded and congealed, sticky. She’d pulled it out and used them to chop, chop all the long pieces first, sowing and reaping down to the fuzz that she now scraped away with the razor.

She’d waited a long time.

Maybe she could have waited longer.

She’d been good at following the rules. Her closet full of skirts, no pants, hurrying home every day after school. Not talking to anyone, following their script.

And then school became a computer window, and there was no more hiding. She had followed the rule—don’t turn on your video, don’t move, don’t tell. Don’t tell.

Don’t tell.

She still felt their fingers in her hair, even as the sharp metal smoothed away the last bit from around her ears. They had braided it, curled it, let it hang loose, let it grow until it reached the floor, but they had never, ever, ever let her cut it.

And now it slid across the floor, merging with the red flood, the lake that filled from the streams at their neck, their stomach.

Satisfied, she ran a towel over her head and dropped it to the floor. Nothing they saw now would make them love her. Nothing of hers was theirs to love.

She turned off the lights and flipped the lighter. There was another puddle in the middle of the hall, one that caught the flame and sent it on its merry way.

In the front hall, she gestured to her sister, younger than her, sweeter, obedient.

“Let’s go.”

Holding her hand, she led her outside as their lives and rules and “love” burned behind them.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 10: Spiders

You all may have noticed there was no Day 9 yesterday. That’s pretty much thanks to the migraine I’ve been fighting the past two days. I do have meds I can take, and it makes it almost bearable to get work done, but I gave myself a break and let it go. I was actually not intending to do anything for today, either, but I came down to the office to check an email and a story idea popped up. I can’t promise it’s coherent or edited or free of typos, but I hope you will enjoy it…

Day 10: Spiders

It was just a joke, barely a thought. They were on the playground again—the one they weren’t supposed to play on. The jungle gym was old and rusted out in parts, but it was fine to play on, as long as you didn’t push it on the swings.

There were two metal animals shaped as seats, a tiger and a seahorse, mounted on heavy-duty springs. They were so old you could barely get them to move, and they kept talking about bringing a can of grease or something the next time they snuck out, but no one ever remembered.

Eloise, with the funny, old-fashioned name, had started hanging out with them at the playground. Or rather, they’d decided to defy town ordinance and parental warning and head down to the old park where they could each smoke half of the cigarette Bella’d stolen from her older brother’s pack and play on the sets that were too young for them, and too old for anyone in the town that cared about their children’s wellbeing. Eloise had been waiting there that first day, and they’d just kind of said hi and started including her in their conversations.

This was the old park, after all, as opposed to the New Glen Ridge Activity Field, all plastic and safety and shining off down the road. There was a soccer game going on over there today.

“Hey, Eloise.” Bella nodded to the girl, who was sitting on one of the faded red sections of the red and yellow merry go round. The paint on the railings had worn off long ago, making it hot to the touch on a sunny day, but now the day had clouded over and it wasn’t too warm for Eloise to stretch her arms above her head, holding onto the railing, as she used one foot to push herself along.

“Woohoo!” Genevieve screeched and jumped on the merry go round, hopping up into the center and bending down to grab a railing on each side of the open space. “Let’s see who gets sick first!”

Bella didn’t take the bait. Instead, she sat down across from Eloise, leaning against a railing, mirroring the other girl’s position. “What’s up? You okay?”

Eloise shrugged, rubbing her back against the metal pole.

“UGH.” Gennie flopped dramatically on her stomach between them, letting her head, shoulders and arms hang off the edge. “She always looks…” She trailed off and waved her arm up and down in Eloise’s general direction, as if to indicate what the other girl was wearing.

It was her usual outfit. Black skirt, black tights—not pantyhose, tights—black turtleneck sweater, and saddle shoes. Bella didn’t even know what they were called until she had described them to her mom, who’d seem surprised that they still made them, and that people still wore them. As always, Eloise’s hair was parted in the middle and pulled back into two long, black braids. It wasn’t that unusual of a hairstyle, not that Bella could tell. She wore hers cropped into a pixie cut, and Gennie had had her hair in locs since the seventh grade, so maybe it was what you did with long, straight hair.

Eloise rubbed her back against the metal pole again.

“Ha, you look like a bear in a nature video!” Gennie grinned. “All you need is some honey.”

It would have sounded insulting coming from anyone else, but Gennie had a natural infectious laughter that she turned as easily against herself, and even Eloise cracked a grin at that one.

“Rawr,” she said, making a halfhearted claw swipe with her curled fingers. “I want a nap.”

Now that the ice was broken, as it always did, their conversation picked up. Eloise didn’t talk as much as the others, but she would listen as they discussed kids at the school Eloise didn’t go to, or promise to make a shopping date once their parents started letting them go places with other kids again.

Gennie stayed on her stomach, picking up rocks out of the overgrown weeds and chucking them towards the woods.

“UGH, we need to go somewhere.” Gennie turned over and scootched herself up so she could lay on her back, resting her head on her hand. “I mean, how long is this going to—” She stopped and looked at her other hand. “Gross, what is that?”

The white, spherical object stuck to her hand, even when she turned her palm down.

“Oh, God, oh gross, it’s on me, it won’t get off.” Gennie sat up and started waving her hand around.

“Stop.”

Eloise grabbed Gennie’s arm, arresting it in mid-flail.

“What is it?” Bella asked.

“Be careful.” Eloise’s voice sounded strange.

Gennie scrambled to a sitting position. “Hey, let go.” She wrenched her arm away, but Eloise didn’t let go.

“She is a mother,” Eloise said. “A mother of all.”

“Oh, come on.” Bella rolled her eyes. “It’s just a spider egg sac.”

And without thinking, she leaned forward and plucked it off of Gennie’s palm. Her friend scurried off the merry go round, dusting herself off in case any other unwanted visitors had hitched a ride.

“Ew, ew, ew. Bella, come on, let’s go back to my place.”

Bella wasn’t listening. Instead, she stared at Eloise, who had fixed her gaze on the sac held gently in Bella’s fingertips.

“Give them to me,” she whispered.

Bella didn’t know what she was thinking, it was more like a reflex, a joke that crossed her mind. “Sure, here they are!”

And she tossed the sac straight at Eloise’s face.

It stuck to her cheek. At first, Gennie began to giggle, and Bella smiled, waiting for Eloise’s reaction. But she didn’t jump up and down or get mad or cry.

Instead, the tiniest, thinnest line of black began to trickle out of the sac and make its way up Eloise’s cheek.

“Oh… oh my God, Eloise, I’m sorry.” Bella ducked under the railing and slid off the merry go round, taking a step toward the other girl.

Eloise held up a hand, and Bella stopped in her tracks.

The thin black line was joined by another, and then another, and finally a fourth line, all creeping and flowing up her cheeks. Two branched across her nose, seeking the white orbs of her eyes. White orbs that the black lines crept into. And now, Bella could see the tiny, individual moving dots that made up those lines as they climbed into Eloise’s eyes, creeping, crawling.

The white eyes that gradually filled to dark black pools, congealing, overflowing, seeking.

And now, Bella was backpedaling, Gennie was already running, the girls screaming, crying, stumbling away as Eloise stood, her skin bubbling with its dark carapace, growing, changing, stretching, bleeding.

“The mother…” Her mouth dripping with ichor, drooling around a set of pedipalps that waved, sensing. “I am… the mother…”

And a mother must feed its young.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 8: Eviscerate

The other night, I was sitting up late in my office, trying to finish up some work, when music started filtering through the open window. It was kind of a kicking beat, but the only lyrics I could make out were: Outta my truck,  outta my truck,  outta my truck,  get outta my truck. After a while, I started wondering if whoever it was would ever get out of the dang truck. A few years ago, a friend of mine posted about being someone who got very easily distracted by noise or any auditory stimuli, and how that made it hard to get work done with the windows open. And then somehow, all that mixed and mingled together with today’s prompt, “eviscerate,” and become this story. Enjoy!

Day 8: Eviscerate

“Two, four, six, eight, who do we eviscerate?”

The children had to be a few yards down, their voices ringing together in a ragged chorus. Mella looked up from her desk in annoyance. The window was open to catch the October breeze—one of the first nice days so far in a fall season that had been unusually hot, even for Fayetteville.

“One, three, five, seven, send her soul to search for heaven!”

That was a super creepy nursery rhyme. Not one she remembered from when she was a kid.

She grimaced. The neighborhood they’d moved into had seemed very specifically non-kid friendly. There was a school maybe a mile away, and sometimes late on Friday nights they’d hear the marching band at one of the interminable football rallies, but she and Liza were usually kicking back on the back porch with a cold drink at that point, not trying to merge client files in an Excel spreadsheet that was currently defying everything spreadsheets were supposed to do.

A bloodcurdling shriek, followed by maniacal laughter. Kids really were little sociopaths. Should she close the window? Whose yard was that, anyway? And how old were the kids?

They’d looked at houses on the other side of the neighborhood, ones with wide yards, flat driveways, that came with pre-standing playsets and jungle gyms. But none of those houses had caught their eye, and they’d been in the final stages of deciding that path wasn’t for them, anyway.

This side of the small pond that bisected the neighborhood, they had thought was quieter, the homes larger, the cars more expensive. People who lived here had grandchildren and dogs, not lawns full of screaming children playing weird games.

The giggling devolved into another shriek, and then some shouted back and forth, unintelligible. It sounded like the game had gone the wrong way for some of the players as the laughing and shouting died down, grew angrier, then faded away.

Mella rolled her eyes and whispered, “Thank you!” She pushed back from her desk, briefly wondering if she should go upstairs and make some fresh coffee, take a break, stretch her legs. Come back to the spreadsheet with fresh eyes.

“Two, four, six, eight, who do we EVISCERATE?”

She groaned and slumped forward, resting her elbows on her desk, her forehead in her hands.

“Ten, TWELVE, the Devil’s MATE, Fourteen, SIXTEEN, she’ll meet her FATE.”

Their voices chanted in unison, more together than the music group she and Liza met up with once a month to sing shanteys with. Guess they’d made up and started playing together again. It wasn’t a nice rhyme, whatever it was, but Mella had given up trying to understand kids once they’d passed on the opportunity. She couldn’t remember ever running with large packs of other kids her age even when she was younger, no reason to spend time trying to figure it out now. She hoped that there was at least one parent supervising.

Another scream sounded. This one seemed closer. Were the kids on the move? Now she really should get up and close the window. But even if they did go by the house, it was set up on a hill, back from the street. They wouldn’t even see her, let alone… what would they do if they did? Procrastination was giving her too much time to think about this. They were just kids playing.

She really should get a cup of coffee. As the thought crossed her mind, something thumped upstairs.

“Luna?” She sat up, alert now, and waited. Their cat was constantly jumping up on things and knocking knickknacks around. “You better not be on the table!”

A shuffling sound answered her.

“Liza? You home early?” There were at least four more hours to go on Liza’s shift at the urgent care clinic, but she’d been known to come home for a quick bite when she forgot her lunch. “Hon?”

The normal sounds of the empty house settled back in. Mella held her breath just a few moments more, but the kids’ screaming had vanished. Maybe they’d all gone back inside to watch TV or play video games or whatever. Maybe they’d been on a break from class, and now they were back in front of their computers.

She really did need a break of her own. Sighing, she jiggled her mouse to wake her computer back up. As the computer grudgingly came back to life, Mella looked out the window.

“Dammit!” Mella jumped up from her chair. The kids had gone too far, clustering at the bottom of the hill, gazing up at her. She opened the window wider and raised her voice, pitching it to carry to the street. “What are you kids doing?”

They looked up at her and smiled. She stepped back from the window. They crowded around, inches from the screen, peering at her, in the office, all smiles and teeth and jeans and T-shirts.

“Get back.” Mella stepped back and pointed behind them. “You all are trespassing. What house do you live in?”

And then they were crowded into the little office, pushing aside the files and binders, the books that had not yet been stacked on the shelves, reaching out with almost gentle tenderness, touching her clothes and hair and hands.

Two, four, six, eight, who do we—

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Days 6 & 7: Absorb, Regret

Yesterday, I had a massive push to finish up a client edit (which I did, at around two o’clock this morning), and my daily challenge fell to the wayside. I woke up this morning, ready to pick back up and regain momentum. After, it goes without saying, a whole metric fuck ton of coffee. In fact, I probably could go for another cup right about now…

Anyway, yesterday’s prompt was “absorb”, and today’s was “regret”, and the two of them started swirling around in my head until I started thinking about sin eaters and how once we act on what we think may be what we want, we may realize that we’ll regret it for the rest of our lives… or afterlives. While I originally meant to do one piece for each word, this story idea popped up, and so today’s challenge piece combines two in one.

Days 6 & 7: Absorb, Regret

The little creature squeak-slurped happily, tiny teeth chittering as it gnawed away at its meal. Between every bite, a pale pink tongue licked out, sweeping a few liquid drops from its chin, before diving back in. The black, matter fur glistened as its body trembled with delight.

A noise from the other room froze it in place. The creature waited, jaws half open, listening with its bell-shaped ears.

The moan sighed down the hallway, ecstatic agony that could not give itself full voice. The creature waited until the sound faded away, its small brain dimly wondering if it had been so smart to take advantage of a meal so bountiful. Another moan came, but no footsteps or approaching shadows followed, and the creature bent back to its feast, chittering faster. Something told it, it would not be wise to linger longer than it took to fill its belly.

***

It was everything he’d wanted, planned and executed to the letter, and yet now that he had it, he sat on the floor of his son’s room and cried huge, wrenching, gulping sobs. He’d only come in there to cracking the window a little more, smear a little blood on the frame, the last step of planting the trail that would lead the eventual investigators back out of the house and down the street to where the registered sex offender had moved in three weeks ago.

He’d thought through it many times, always coming up short on that final step. Who would come in to his son’s room, find him gone from his bed, search for him through the house, surprise him in his parents’ bed, his mother asleep—waking to the intruder, who must needs then take care of her before launching his attack, while his father, who’d been having trouble sleeping, it had been documented carefully by the family physician when she prescribed the pills, had lately been passing out on the downstairs couch to avoid being awoken by their son’s midnight trips to their bed. He’d told himself the same story over and over, shed real tears at the thought of it, of them ripped away—his whole world. But he didn’t have that final piece, didn’t know to which house to follow the intruder’s bloody path.

This night, though, this night he had told the story, creeping into his son’s room to place the blood under the window. He’d turned, meaning to go outside, see the path where further spoor could be found, to see where the heavy metal object in his gloved hand should be seen by patrolman on foot.

And yet, as he’d faced away from the colorful cartoon curtains, to look across at the dresser with all the stickers placed on it, the racecar toddler bed with its empty, mussed sheets, he’d sunk to the floor overwhelmed with grief.

And that is when it had crept up behind him, placing gentle claws on his hands, guiding them, whispering to him, the metal still warm on his skin.

“Who… who are you?” he asked in not more than a whimper. His voice sounded very far away to him, his hearing dampened.

The creature hefted itself up, and he felt another set of talons digging deep into the skin of his arms. Leathery wings caught his peripheral vision, and he squeezed his eyes shut “What are you doing here?”

“There isss ssssssin here,” shriveled lips whispered in his ear. “And where there isss ssssin, sssso there am I to abssssssorb it… to eat it…” Its tongue flashed out, licking his ear.

He shuddered, and yet… Regret turned to hope, a desperate flash in the deep, hidden pieces of himself. “Eating my sin?” He opened his eyes. His hands had fallen to his lap, limp, unmoving; the pallor under the skin, waxy and gray, swallowed the light from the hallway. “What does that mean? Will I be absolved? When I die, will I—”

In the darkness above, the shadow’s eyes, burning orange hot in the black against the black, the claws firmly piercing cold skin and shoulderbone.

“Abssssolution, no…” The voice trailed off into a breathy chuckle. “When you die, indeed. Can you not sssssseeeee…?”

No answer, only a dry sob. A child’s toy winked at them from across the room, a bear’s eyes, the glass catching the light.

“You are dead, sssssssinner, and this room shall be your absssolution, and you will be my feassssssst, forever…”

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 5: Corrosion

Today’s #31DaysofArt2020 challenge got a little philosophical, even though I, as a rule, am usually not (unless I’ve had a few beers and we’re hanging out around a firepit. I challenge anyone to remain un-philosophical in such a situation.) I started thinking about a theme/narrative I’ve seen pundits repeat multiple times in the past few years, the idea that our system and institutions have somehow “eroded.” And I’ve often thought that framing doesn’t quite hit the mark, so I got all poetical to explain why.

Day 5: Corrosion

Erosion was the word they used, and it was a good one—evocative, eternal, personifying the daily, deadly drip drip drip of the words and thoughts that reached out from the screen to wrap you up, muffle your head. It nagged, as you brewed another cup of coffee. The hot, dark bitterness would slice through the fog for a short while, long enough to get out another sentence, read two more emails.

But it didn’t last as long as it used to, and instead of alert energy, the end of the cup would leave you with granular detritus and the feeling that something could have been done much earlier and now every single action or motion was an uphill battle in a fight in which you were already standing in calf-deep mud on the low ground. Erosion. Like the rain that washed down the denuded hill, piling mud and roots and earth clots against you, burying you deeper and deeper.

Erosion was the beach sand, carted to the shore to make space at the hotel’s edge for those who gathered with bare faces and expensive drinks, not as watered down as they used to be, not as powerful as they could be. The waves would come in, bit by bit, day by day, year by year, eating way bite by sandy bite. Perhaps they would feast one night or two in a larger storm, washing everything away, leaving a narrow strip of dirt until the men came with trucks and loads and sanded over everything, maybe planting a futile strip of ice grass to prevent more erosion.

That’s not this. This is the creeping chemical combination that leaches into the once sturdy framework of the carnival wheel, the abiding onslaught of water and wind as it eats away at iron and steel, subverting the strength of the once indomitable bulwark.

Erosion is a granite rock, a mountain shelf, an encroaching root system, a thousand years of rain, and a final crack and split of a once-mighty boulder. The boulder doesn’t rage against the rain nor the root, nor does the mountain spare a regretful thought for its once-whole profile.

That is erosion.

These are acid pathways of bile that lace themselves through your feed, some of them fed and fractured in the words from one you once called friend. These are images and words ejaculated context-less into the void, landing with sharpened claws and nails into the soft frames, perfectly fertile ground for the grooves and trenches to form between each thread-thin connection. These are soft, stinging whips of hatred and insincere smiles, applied in an afterthought of malice. This is the collection and confusion of pity met with scorn.

Erosion is too soft a word.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 4: Curious

For a word with such potential, “curious” had me wondering if today was the day that was going to break my streak. Maybe because there was too MUCH potential. Maybe because all I could think of was Alice in Wonderland, and while I love Alice, I didn’t have anything unique or interesting to say there. So, I gave myself permission to sit down and just start typing without really having any idea where to go… and this is what oozed out of my brain.

Day 3: Curious

It was a strange habit he had, this picking. Pick, pick, pick at skin, at imperfections, at acne, at the scabs that grew over the bone, pick, pick, pick.

The scratch-itch-scratch over half-formed scars until they parted, revealing the moist redness underneath, until they healed over thick white tissue.

So strange. So curious. So fragile.

When there came no injury to open the elastic skin, he scratch-scratch-scratched until the door opened under his nails, and he held the hole to his arm to lick, lick, lick it closed. Then the scab would form, and he would have his next tic, his next pick, his next trick.

So strange. So curious. So fragile.

For days, he would hold his hands hostage, clip the nails to the quick, flick the little toys that kept his fingers ever moving, ever lickety-spit-quick tap-tapping, and finally, slipping his digits into the mitts that should have kept him from picking. And yet, after a few days, he must needs remove his gloves, his nails grow long again, and he’s back at it—pick, pick, picket-pick.

So strange. So curious. So fragile these creatures who squirmed and cried and twisted and begged with their strange, soft tongues and their curious, delicate bodies.

Whatever would happen if he pick, pick, picked to stick, stick, stick those long, sharp nails just a little further beneath the surface…?

* * *

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31 Days of Art Day 3: Membrane

Today’s story came from an earworm and a dictionary search. When I saw that “membrane” was the prompt, I immediately couldn’t get “insane in the brain/ insane in the membrane” from cycling through my head on repeat. So I went ahead and looked up “membrane” in the dictionary to see if anything popped up. In Merriam-Webster, one of the example sentences referenced the use of an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, which pumps and oxygenates blood by pumping it out of the patient’s body, through a membrane, and back in, bypassing the heart and lungs. It’s used to give them a rest when they have been overtaxed. That then led me down a rabbit hole and I ended up looking up hospital evacuation procedures and that led me to… well, this story. I even kept in a nod to the original earworm. Hope you enjoy it, and Happy Halloween 3rd!

Day 3: Membrane

The empty hospital was a horror movie cliché, but the sirens had sounded sixteen hours ago, and now the corridors resembled the paper-and-medical-debris strewn halls of Hollywood’s finest set design.

The evacuation plan sat in its pristine binder in the Director’s office. The pages, crisp and unwrinkled, hadn’t been disturbed since they slid smoothly off the printer, three-hole punched by a clerk, stuck in the binder with its distinctive “Cypress Heights General” stamped on the cover, and deposited to the shelf after the annual tabletop exercise.

From their vantage point under the Director’s large, solid-wood desk, Mel could see the white spine of the binder, lined up in a row with other spotless binders full of protocol and standard operating procedures.

Nothing in there had been remotely useful. Nobody had even tried to open them.

Mel was—had been—a week or so into a student nursing internship at Cypress Heights, barely long enough to learn where the good bathrooms were, and which residents to avoid.

They hadn’t been there last year when the hospital staff had earned high marks in the chosen scenario—a pre-evacuation in the face of peaceful protests turned into violent riots and looting. It didn’t matter than the staff had written its own test scenario, one that included an overwhelmed ER and blocked streets with emergency vehicles unable to navigate. The hospital doctors and nurses and internists and actors dressed in moulage all performed at the highest of levels, and the Director got a plaque and a binder of lessons learned that sat, collecting dust, on the shelf.

The desk was a good place to hide. A good place to stay. Mel swallowed back a cough and wiped their cheek with the back of their hand, the stubble on their jaw rough against their skin. They’d been under the desk longer than they thought. Long enough for the lights to flicker and fade, and the daylight to take their place. Long enough for the alarms to run out of battery and die, for their cell phone to lose signal, for the screams and the feet pounding in the corridors to fade into dead silence.

Mel had been assigned to the respiratory ward, with a resident who kept referring to them as “dude,” and who was supposed to show them the finer parts of working with a patient currently undergoing extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. They didn’t expect to ever work with ECMO patients; as the resident explained, it required a specially trained nurse to administer the anticoagulants and monitor for infections and correct sedation levels. But again, they were new, and the senior nurse did not have much time or patience for explaining things, so Mel had been told to observe, and they interpreted as: “Stay quiet and out of trouble until we find a good place for you.”

The first wave of evacuation had been everyone who could walk or run or hurry, led by a group of nurses who shepherded them through the halls and down the stairs. There were supposed to be more groups after that, orderly rows of triaged patients, but after the first wave, when the panic hit and people started shoving and pushing, everything had gotten muddled.

Mel had been left in the chaos, handed a chart and forgotten, sweating under their layers of mask and gloves and face shield and sterile clothing cover. That resident had stared at them, told them: “Keep an eye on the patient,” and left them there when the sirens went off and the announcements started blaring through the loudspeakers. The words had been completely indistinguishable, an unscripted emergency that no one could comprehend until the chaos was too complete.

In the hours that passed in the silence, Mel had waited. The waiting grew harder and harder. They’d stepped away from the patient only for a moment, to find a bathroom, in hallways that for once were full of people to watch which door they chose to use. The entire floor was quiet and empty, even when they came out.

Mel had tried the phone at the nurse’s station, but there was nothing on the other end when she picked it up, not even a busy signal. Their phone was in their locker on the ground floor, and they decided to go down quickly and come back up. No one was around to notice, and their patient was comatose.

They’d shuffled down a few floors, then stopped to look through the fireproof glass at one of the landings. Out in the hall of the oncology department, they’d finally spotted people. Or rather, bodies. Sprawled. In pieces. Painting the hall in macabre shadows.

There, in the middle of the hall, a figure. Short, thin, almost child-like, it stooped over a wheelchair, like a concerned child. At least that’s what Mel thought, until the figure straightened, and they saw the red smears, the matted hair, the way the arms of its victims flopped over the sides of the chair.

Mel had almost screamed. Instead, they pounded back up the stairs in their plain, white Asics and sprinted to their patient. They’d stood beside his bed in indecision, unsure, then had finally switched everything over to battery power, unhooking the various wires and tubes and rearranging them to prep the patient for transport.

They’d pushed the patient out of the room with it’s wide glass windows, meant for easy observation, the small ECMO device tucked into his side, beeping as it pumped blood from one side of the membrane to the other.

On this floor, the only room without those large windows was the Director’s office. It had a door with a small window, but she had papered it over. Mel had headed for it, pushing the patient bed in front of them, only to come up short against the doorjamb. There was no way they were going to fit the bed with its patient through the narrow entrance.

The silence had been deafening as Mel had stared at the conundrum. With the blood rushing in their ears, it seemed as if the empty halls echoed and clamored. It was only when an actual sound broke the silence that Mel realized how still it had become.

The sound was a thump somewhere, and Mel hadn’t stopped to see where it was coming from. They had abandoned their patient there in the hallway and, with a sob, thrown themselves into the room, closing the door and locking it behind them, then hunkering under the desk until their limbs cramped and numbed.

“Hello?” It came out as a croak, as Mel whispered around the saliva that had dried in their throat. They coughed and tried again. “Hello?”

They hadn’t been wrong. They had heard something, out in the hallway. Was it their patient? No. Their patient was… They had abandoned their patient, left him out there with that… thing.

Mel began to cry, deep, gulping, silent sobs. Shaking, they crawled forward, pulling themselves up, supporting themselves as they hunched over their desk, gritting their teeth against the pins and needles as blood flow returned to their lower limbs.

The thump came again. Not a knock, more like something stumbling against the door as it moved past.

Mel was a student nurse, on an internship. That wasn’t their patient out there. It was a patient. Probably a dead patient. Even the little ECMO couldn’t keep them going. The battery had to have run out. The anticoagulant failed. Something. He couldn’t be alive. They muttered that under their breath as they shuffled to the door, putting their ear to the heavy wood. Nothing. Wishing they had more fingernails, they pried at the paper covering the small window. They were still wearing their face shield, which now sat cockeyed on their head.

Finally, the paper, which was more like a thick sticker over the window, peeled away. Instead of giving them a view of the hallway, there was a film of red splatter that obscured their vision.

Was that another thump?

No. Just Mel once again hearing things in the silence.

They’d only seen one of those things. And it was small. Mel wasn’t that tall, but they could out-power a child, they thought. Or something the size of a child.

They placed their hand on the door handle, the other poised to flip the bolt.

From the other side of the door—only more silence.

* * *

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31 Days of Art Day 2: Winchester

So, as mentioned, I’m currently using Lynne Hansen’s #31DaysofArt2020 as a series of flash fiction writing prompts. Yesterday’s was a bit of a long piece of flash fiction. This was an image that came to me as I was falling asleep last night (albeit after binge-watching half of Season Four of Van Helsing.) It’s not as in depth as yesterday’s, but it was a fun chance to play around with words.

I can’t remember which writer I was reading, but they had posted a blog article about submitting to themed anthologies. One of the main takeaways was, let your first idea settle, and then put it aside and keep thinking. Chances are, the first thing you think about will be the same thing that everyone else reading the submission call is thinking about. That stuck with me, and when my brain was mulling over what “Winchester” meant as a prompt, I thought, of course, of Winchester house, and Mary Winchester, and Sam and Dean Winchester (oh yes, I thought quite a bit about them, and Charlie, and Sheriff Jody… Ahem! Where was I?)

Anyway, I thought a lot about all the Winchester references out there, and decided to go old school. Winchester is also a brand–of rifles, of really sturdy gun safes. How sturdy? Good question.

Day 2: Winchester

“Are they coming?”

Kayleigh and Mackenzie’s parents didn’t know they knew how to get into the gun safe. Kayleigh had cautioned her little sister against giving away the secret. They liked playing safecrackers, slowly turning the shiny metal spokes until the tumblers clicked, and the door with the embossed picture of the cowboy opened for them.

They were less concerned with the contents. There was Grandpa’s old rifle that no one ever used, the one with the fancy etching on the metal, and their mom had a pistol that was never loaded. At ten years old, Kayleigh knew you didn’t play with firearms, and she made sure her sister didn’t touch them. And she didn’t know how many times she’d cautioned her sister against even pretending to close the door while they were inside.

“Can you hear them?” Mackenzie whispered again, the tears on her cheeks wet on Kayleigh’s arm.

Kayleigh mutely shook her head. Her sister was only two years younger, but Kayleigh suddenly felt much older than her.

“Lee-lee?”

“No.” Kayleigh whispered the word harshly. Of course, Mackenzie couldn’t see her in the total dark. She softened her tone, still whispering. “No, Kenz. I can’t hear anything. Shh.”

Mackenzie whimpered and clung to Kayleigh, who felt a wet warmth soak the bottom of her shorts. The pungent smell of Kenz’s pee stunk up the inside of the safe.

“They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming,” Kenz whispered to herself.

Kayleigh clenched her teeth so hard her braces hurt. The door had locked behind them, at least she thought it did. She couldn’t open it from inside. She’d never been in darkness so complete.

“They’re coming, I know they’re coming.”

Her sister wasn’t getting louder. In fact, she whispered softer and softer, rocking back and forth, lowering her voice until Kayleigh could barely hear her.

Something in the room outside fell with the a thump and a smash. Kenz jumped and screamed, but it was only a half-choked squeal as she buried her face in Kayleigh’s shirt.

In. Out. In. Out. Kayleigh panted as if she’d been running the two-hundred-meter dash in P.E. with Mrs. Dodds. The Winchester gun safe was solidly built, and heavy, and she thought it would keep them safe.

But she’d seen those teeth and their claws and what they’d done to Mom and to Dad, and she closed her eyes tightly and hoped the wheel with its shiny metal spokes would not start to turn.

* * *

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31 Days of Art Day 1: Scar

So, I’ve decided to take on a 31 Day Art Challenge. Why? Well, because between releasing a new horror anthology, moving to a new house, trying to re-organize my writing space, taking a look at the work that I am doing to move towards my goals as an author and writing coach, and of course, finishing Winter Run so I can start a new project during NaNoWriMo, I just don’t have enough to fill my day! Ha… actually, I’m trying an experiment. Lynne Hansen, a terrific artist and cover designer, posted a #31DaysofArt2020 challenge, which basically lists a word a day as a prompt for either art, or design, or writing, whatever.

I’ve decided to go ahead and use it as a writing prompt. At the end of October, I may end up with 31 flash fiction stories. I may end up with some flash fiction and some scenes from Winter Run. I may end up giving up tomorrow. We’ll see. Anyway, I’m going to be posting what I come up with over here. I can’t promise it will be good (it’s a writing exercise more than publishing final projects) but if you’re doing the challenge feel free to follow along and share what you come up with!

October 1: Scars

The ground shook under my feet. Not a violent upheaval that threw me to the ground—more like the sensation of the packed-dirt-and-leaf debris sliding in opposite directions simultaneously. A harsh shiver rattled the branches around us, the last dry leaves and seedpods rattling an ominous death knell.

My aging mutt cowered behind me, wedging her graying body tight against the back of my calves. When I’d first adopted her, she’d been abused and displayed a similar stance every time one of our walks brought us within a few feet of a male passerby. She’d outgrown this behavior years ago, but now, she hid her face against me and shook uncontrollably.

An uncanny silence settled around us, broken only by my dog’s plaintive whining. She backed up, pulling against the leash. Distracted, I kept my gaze ahead on the woods, not noticing until she had slipped her collar and taken off back the way we came, her arthritic hips giving her a limp as she picked her slowly frantic way over the roots and rocks that littered the trail.

I didn’t worry—the few times she’d gotten away from the leash, I’d found her waiting for me at home, sometimes covered with muck and cuts from the brambles, but always panting at the back door, waiting to be let in.

A crashing sound from up ahead startled me. It sounded as if a tree had fallen and then just… kept falling. The crash stretched out and kept going, joined by another, then another. I looked over my shoulder. My dog was long gone. Briefly, I contemplated following her back.

On the other hand, whatever was going on ahead couldn’t have been planned or legal. Developers had been after this section of the trail for the longest time, attempting to clear and build right up to the edges of the national park property that barely protected the greenway. I had my phone—never hiked without it. I didn’t need to get too close. Just enough to snap photos of the construction equipment and bring it to the authorities. Maybe the Mayor and the town council. Some of them didn’t mind the fat gifts they got from time to time, but surely someone wouldn’t be able to ignore what was happening.

I held my phone out, camera screen at the ready, my thumb hovering over the screen so it wouldn’t automatically shut off at the wrong time and make me have to wait the couple of seconds for the camera to come back to life.

There was more light up ahead, filtering through the trees, than there should have been as I navigated down the short ravine and around the bend in the trail. Had they already started clear cutting? My hands behind to shake, sweat fogging up the phone screen. Some of these trees were over a century old, cleared by the original colonists in this area of north Jersey, then growing back steadily over the years of revolution, civil war, and then the desertion of agriculture for more lucrative industries in the area.

And then, the woods ended. What had been a dark tunnel of reaching tree branches across the trail yesterday afternoon was now an open clearing under a bright fall sky.

The first thing I saw was the large scar that ran the length of the clearing. It was about a half mile long, with about a third of that distance off to my right and the rest extending out to my left in a long, jagged hole. The edges were raw and bare and glinted with moisture that reminded me of blood. I lifted my cameraphone, scanning it back and forth, looking for the large construction equipment it would take to create this big of a trench in the middle of the woods.

A scratching sound came from the inside. Not a thin little scritch-scritch like a dog digging for fleas, but a massive, overlapping chorus of nails and teeth against dirt and roots and fur. I stood mere feet from the edge, the sound slicing at my nerves, my pulse a dull, heaving pounding through my nerveless fingers. Had it slipped through my grasp? No. I still clenched it, now raised it before me, stepping forward to peer into the chasm.

Sweat smeared the phone screen, but it had already gone blank and dead. I tucked it into my back pocket, safe. I did not know what I would find when I looked into the gash in the ground, but I knew it would not be anything so mundane as construction vehicles and men in hard hats.

A wave of vertigo hit me as I inched closer to the opening, and I slowly got down on my knees, crawling. When I reached the edge, I realized that it was not so deep, but the sight before more worsened the dizzy nausea that clawed at my stomach and my scalp.

Ten feet below, a pile of dirt and leaves. No. Now I could see it. Fur and dirt. But the glistening—that was blood. Claws. Eyes opened wide. Claw marks. Canines bared. The bottom of the trench was lined with animals, mostly raccoons and opposums and skunks, but the occasional rabbit and deer and large bear and snake interspersed broke up the gray monotony. They had been digging down, their front paws or hooves, whether designed for the task or not, breaking into the soil and throwing it up behind them.

The exertion had killed them all, dropping them in their tracks, paws splayed out for one, last scoop.

I couldn’t make any sense of it. The nausea overcame me as my vision struggled to take in the macabre corpseyard below, and I vomited everything I had until I could heave no more. I sat back on my heels, wiping my mouth with the shoulder of my T-shirt, when the ground began to move once more.

This time, I served as silent witness as the earth stretched, ripped, then parted in a similar long rip in the ground, parallel, just as long, if not as wide and deep. With the shaking came the sounds of feet and paws, more of the same small animals. At the same time, a curious compulsion gripped me.

I stood.

I followed the path of the flood of fur and teeth that led me to the new trench. Without stopping, I walked into it, losing my footing and landing on my knees beside the wildlife that teemed into the pit. As I reached out, sinking my hands into the dirt, ripping the soil as my fingers clawed and my nails tore from the task, I heard a sobbing.

A deep, heartfelt cry. It echoed through us and we shuddered with it as one.

Make it stop. Let me feel something again. Make it stop.

And I didn’t recognize the voice that filtered through the dirt, but I recognized the pain that broke through the numbness, as we clawed and scratched and cut at the scar on the skin of the earth.

Brandy, the inspiration for the beginning of the story. She’s smarter than my narrator…

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On the Shelf: A Misnomer

Or is it? This week, I am sad to report, I read exactly one-quarter of one book. This was not intentional–in fact I had plans. BIG plans. Lots of reading and writing plans.

What does God do when we make plans?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that somewhere up there, the universal deity is having a good chuckle at my expense.

Anyway, the book I started reading is Autumn Bleeds Into Winter by Jeff Strand, with cover art by Lynne Hansen, who is one of my favorite artists around. When I fantasize of affording fine art illustrations for my books, she is the artist I dream of hiring. Usually, I know, I post a whole review thing, but since I’m only a short way in, I’ll hold off. I will say, the beginning hooked me, and I didn’t want to stop reading, but I’ve been having a hard time waking up with my alarm clock and so I’ve been trying to be very good about putting the electronics down and going to bed.

One of the reasons I’ve been having major insomnia is that we STILL ARE NOT SETTLED IN. Our stuff arrives tomorrow, and then I’ll be able to spend the weekend organizing and unpacking and organizing to my heart’s content, at which point, I will start to feel a little more normal. In the meantime though, there is unrest in my mind, fed by the incredible news that pops up in my news alerts and social media feeds.

And yeah, I know that doomscrolling is a thing, and that it’s not a good thing to just stay immersed in all the bad things happening … but on the other hand, how can you ignore this? The ICE whistleblower complaints, the climate change that has caused the extreme weather effects in the West and the Gulf, the reports of continued roadblocks thrown up in front of people trying to exercise their basing civic duty of voting… I do not want to, nor am I going to, ignore all of this. My Senator’s office got a phone call from me yesterday, and they will get a nice letter sometime this week when I finally sit down and write it.

In the meantime, I am waiting for my printer to arrive so I can make sure I am registered to vote at our new address. I am waiting to purchase a vehicle so I can have freedom of movement to do things like go to in-person drill or volunteer as a poll worker. And I am waiting until November to see if we are going to collectively come to our senses and address the root causes of the systemic issues we face. And yes, it’s “we.”

I’ve also decided to start an indoor garden in order to have access to fresh vegetables and medicinal herbs just in case civilization does take a tumble.

So yeah, I’ll get more reading done this coming week. And more writing down this weekend. Just need to find that place where my mind settles down and my inner organizer has a chance to put things where they belong.

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On the Shelf: Books to Read in the New House

It finally happened–I missed a week of posting On the Shelf. But at least I had a good excuse! Exactly one week ago, we moved out of our camper and into our new house. There were some back and forths with the closing, which meant that we had to re-schedule our household goods dropoff (and then couldn’t get our original date back when the shenanigans were resolved). So, we’ve been camping out in the house using the mattresses and dishes from the RV, making the best of it.

We did manage to get internet and utilities set up, and I’ve been able to make long strides on catching up all the things I should have been doing the past month or so. I also called the mosquito and pest control people because this property had been vacant for a while, and some of the local creepy crawlies were getting just a little too comfortable for this entomophobic writer. In fact, as we speak, I have a stack of horror novels on the bookcase (and two on my desk), and the thing that’s icking me out is the cockroach doing the kickin’ chicken as it slowly succumbs not two feet away from my desk.

Yes. I could put it outside. No, I’m not touching it while its icky little cockroach feet are all waving in the air and stuff.

A little classic horror–and the proof of our next anthology!

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, what have I been reading or looking forward to reading? Let’s talk TBR piles. When we left California, I put a stack of paperbacks and my Kindle into the RV. I read about half the paperbacks and a bunch off my Kindle, and still managed to forget a whole bunch of the paperbacks (we were storing them under one of the bunks, and out of sight, out of mind. So I’ve got a number of titles waiting for me.

I read a bunch of pro reading the past few weeks and am currently meandering my way through a book on writing business plans, but this past week of reading consisted of books for pleasure crammed in between setting up promotions for Stories We Tell After Midnight 2, and making progress on Winter Run. Slow progress. Very slow. Anyway, here are some of the books I enjoyed the past few days. As always, if you’ve read one, let me know what you think. And if you have any book suggestions, drop me a line!

Zombie Cosmetologist Novellas 1 & 2 by JD Blackrose
This two-novella series (which I’ve just listed as the series page because do yourself a favor and just pick up both at once, it will save time when you get to the end of the first one and need to go on to the next) has as its premise that a former Union Soldier gets turned into a zombie after he dies as the Battle of Shiloh, and then decides that the way to make money in the modern world is to turn to the world of makeup artistry. And not just makeup–hair, nails, special FX, anything that a modern celebrity might need. But, since he IS a zombie, he ends up getting wrapped up in some clandestine shenanigans involving shady research, zombie Marine experiments, and a whole host of other hijinks. I enjoyed the novellas–they were funny and fast-paced, without neglecting character development or avoiding hard character choices. I’m looking forward to the next book club where we talk about the books. There was one tiny nitpick, and if you are not military affiliated, you likely won’t even notice. And that was, there were some inconsistencies with the military characters that now and then pulled me out of the story. Not super terrible, just be prepared to roll your eyes and keep going, because the stories are awesome and funny, and Waylon Jenkins is a hoot.

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
I picked this book up because it was (still is of today) on sale on Kindle for $1.99, and it was set in an apocalypse where climate change had terraformed most of the world, and magic and Gods had started to reappear. The main character, Maggie Hoskie, is a Navajo woman who has been apprenticed to a demigod, and who is nicknamed Monsterslayer. The demigod is the sort of guy who goes around killing monsters and then telling Maggie that there’s too much darkness within her before disappearing in the middle of the night. So of course, when the book opens, she’s a giant mess. Plus, it’s the apocalypse. There are things I loved about this book–the characters, the setting, the urban fantasy outside of the normal modern city setting. It reminded me a little of sharing Tony Hillerman books back and forth with my roommate on my second deployment who was Diné. While I was reading, and immersed in the world of the book, I really enjoyed it. I think I even posted on FB how much I did. But when I went back and started thinking about it, I’m not sure if I’m invested in reading the next one. For me, the fact that she has so internalized the whole “evil has tainted me” line that it leads her to do what she does in the first chapter (trying to avoid spoilers)… something about the character was irretrievably lost in that moment, and even the end couldn’t resolve it in a satisfying way for me. But, YMMV, and I know a bunch of people who love this book, so put it on the qualified recommend list.

Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit and Personal Power by Laila Ali
I picked up this book on Kindle right around the time I picked up the memoir by Donivan Blair. Like that book, this one had the distinct voice of an author who is coming to writing after accomplishing a number of other things. Written when she was 24, this memoir takes us from Ali’s earliest memories of growing up the daughter of Muhammad Ali and Veronica Porche to her adolescence, fights with her family and authority, even time spent in trouble with the authorities, to her decision to open her own business and go to school, and then to step into the boxing ring. All along the way, she muses on what it was like to grow up with her father’s fame always there, to see her mother, after she divorced Muhammad Ali, get trapped in an abusive relationship, to go through a similar situation herself, and still keep striving to the goals she set for herself and accept nothing less. I’m a fan of boxing fiction, and enjoy watching women’s boxing and MMA (men’s too, but I’d rather watch the former), and so I found this to be a fun, fast read. I would have really liked to see more of what it was like in the ring, what was going through her head, etc., but as a whole, I’d pick this up and read it.

Anyway, it looks like Charlie (yes, I’ve named him) is still kicking, and my kids are getting suspiciously silent, so I’m going to hope that I don’t have a bunch of typos, post this, and get back to today’s super long to-do list. Enjoy!

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On the Shelf: Reading For (More) Professional Development

When we headed out from California, I packed a stack of books and my Kindle. I brought probably too many for the small space we have, and even then, the selection I ended up with was a small portion of my physical TBR shelf. My thought process was, I would read the fiction I had on my Kindle (such a long list…), and I would read all the physical professional books I really needed to: books on publishing, books on editing, books on writing.

This mostly worked out. I’ve plowed through a good number of reference books on the crafts of writing, editing, and publishing. I’ve also devoured a number of fiction books. And I have, in the interest of full disclosure, bought a number of books from visits to the bookstore and by picking up $0.99 deals that I see on my FB or Twitter news feed and that look vaguely interesting.

One note about these deals–it turns out that if I pay a buck for a book (which I am very willing to do, in fact, it’s almost a reflex at this point) I am WAY more likely to read it than a book I picked up for free. Hm.

Anyway, the point of this is that while I have made some progress on my TBR pile, I think at this point, I’ve replenished each title as I’ve read it. Heh. So, this week, I’ve been tackling a number of professional titles. The material I’ve read has given me some good ideas for my plans for the next couple of anthologies, as well as the Rick Keller Project (more on that later.) There is also one title that was a total break in routine because OMG I NEEDED TO READ IT RIGHT NOW.

I’ve got a session with an editing client in a little bit, so before it gets TOO much later in the day, here is the round up of what was on my reading shelf this week.

Amazon Decoded: A Marketing Guide to the Amazon Store by David Gaughran

I forget how I got to this book. I think it was that John Hartness of Falstaff Books recommended Gaughran’s book on newsletters and then I signed up for Gaughran’s own newsletter, and then maybe this was the free book? Or he offered it for a 99-cent deal? I forget. Anyway. I think that if you can get a chance to pick this book up for a buck, then it would be worth it. But for the full price of it, you’re better off heading over to the 20Booksto50K Facebook group and reading through the information that they’ve organized and put together on indie publishing. It’s not that the information in the book isn’t helpful or important, it’s that I didn’t find much that was new. I did take some notes as I went through, and one of the helpful features is that Gaughran lists various resources (some of which, like Robert Ryan’s Amazon ad book, I did go and buy) for the indie publisher that may be of interest. It also organizes a bunch of info about Amazon and how their algorithms work, and that organization would be very helpful to a new publisher. Full disclosure: I am using this specific info tidbit, namely that the first five days of the launch are the time to make the most of the alg0rithm, to inform the next two anthology launches. So, we’ll see what happens. I do recommend that indie authors and publishers (and really any authors and publishers) go ahead and sign up for his newsletter. There’s a lot of good info there, and hey, you never know when you’re going to spot a sale.

Release Strategies: Plan Your Self-Publishing Schedule for Maximum Benefit by Craig Martelle

With one full-length and one mini anthology on the way, along with my own Rick Keller Project relaunch efforts, release strategies have been on my mind. There is some really good info in the aforementioned 20Books group. But if you’re looking for something that condenses it all and gives examples of how someone who is pretty successful at releasing books has put it (the information) together, then this is a pretty good resource. Martelle covers the various options available from releasing one or two books a year, to doing a full rapid release and all the attendant planning. It’s in KU, so if you have a chance to pick it up there, it’s definitely worth it. I think I picked this one up when it was another 99-cent deal, and it was worth the dollar AND worth the read. I’m realizing the moral of this week might be that it’s worth following various writers in their newsletters and social media so that you can take advantage of the inevitable deals they offer.

The Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More by Steve Dunham

I’ve been working on a manuscript for a new client this week, and so thought it would be good timing to start reading this book. I picked it up about a week ago on a family trip to Barnes & Noble. This is a useful reference book, and I’ll be putting it on the shelf for a periodic reminder of things I can do to improve my editorial capabilities. On the other hand, I also tried to read it straight through, and it is really not a book that is a super easy cover-to-cover read. No matter. Some of the information is, I think, a little bit older. For example, the Words Into Type work that Dunham references multiple times appears to be out of print, and the references to typesetting vs. desktop publishing are less and less relevant as we progress through the 21st century. It was worth price, and as I mentioned, I’ll be putting it on my shelf next to Elements of Style and the other professional volumes I’ve collected.

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey

And here we are at the point where I devolve into a giant pile of fan-girl goo. I LOVE Sandman Slim. Like, have extreme fannish reactions to the books. I bought this, the next-to-last installment in the series, way back when it first came available for pre-order. This was a good idea, because then it downloaded onto my Kindle and I didn’t have to wait to read it. This was also a bad idea, because then I read the whole thing without coming up for air, and now I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself for another year or so while Kadrey writes the last book in the series. Probably re-read the entire series while listening Spotify playlists he puts together. I don’t care if it DOES make me seem like a teenybopper with a crush listening to a mixtape… Anyway, if you, like me, are crazy for urban fantasy meets LA noir meets gritty, dark prose that sucks you in from page one and doesn’t let go until you emerge two or three days later having re-read an entire series, blinking and wondering WTF just happened–yeah. You’re going to like this series. Go, quickly, and check it out. And then go read Kadrey’s The Grand Dark, because I love that book as well. I should re-read it soon. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but if you want to talk, hit me up in the comments or drop me a line.)

Anyway, that’s the update for this week. This coming week I’ve got a bunch of great books lined up, but as always, if you have suggestions for the TBR pile, lay ’em on me!

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On the Shelf: Short Stack

This week, I got a bit less reading done than other weeks. Part of this was due to that the writing wheels have been slowly grinding back into gear, but the majority of the reason was that I had my first drill weekend with my unit. It was a three-day extravaganza, which involved driving to Virginia Friday night for a range on Saturday. I shot a rifle for the first time in about a decade (previous qualifications had all used the M9 pistol, and while I was nervous at first, I ended up killing 35 paper targets, so in all, it was a good day.

It was also the first battle assembly wearing my new rank, and it was kind of weird (to use a very technical term. It’s Army jargon, trust me…) I fully expected to hang out in the Reserve as a Captain until I hit my mandatory retirement date or stopped having fun. But then, the Army decided they needed another Major, so here I am. There’s a whole new level of professional military education and expectations, and I’m working on trying to make sure I don’t immediately step in it.

But anyway, that’s where a lot of my focus was this week, plus working on some stuff for getting out the next publications from Crone Girls Press. And cranking the wheels back up on the Rick Keller Project.

Speaking of cranking the writing wheels, let’s get to the books, because two of them helped start the grind and generated two or three pages of bullet journal notes on how to make the series better from start to (the eventual) finish.

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron

This is one of those books, similar to Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling, that purport to use the concepts behind how your brain works (and how other people’s brains work) to help you come up with a plot for a book that will keep those brains engaged. Okay, got it. First, there wasn’t a lot of neuroscience here–at least, nowhere near as much as in Storr’s book. On the other hand, the way our brains process story is a long and winding road, and I’m not completely convinced of how helpful it is as a writer to know all the little nitty gritty science behind it. Second, I think this book will be super useful to a couple of categories of writer–ones new to the journey, or new to working on a novel, or those who like to have a super detailed, incredibly finely drawn plot outline, and be as prepared as possible before starting to write. For me, getting into the amount of detail beforehand would be a death knell to my personal creative process; that said, the information in this book is incredibly useful, whether you want to incorporate it into the pre-writing process or the revising process. I certainly came away with some new insight into how to shape the series I’m working on. It’ll definitely go on my shelf, especially if I’m working with a client new to the noveling journey, or who REALLY REALLY enjoys the pre-writing process.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody

It’s a bold claim, and one that I’ll probably disregard as I enjoy reading craft books from a variety of experiences and perspectives. On the other hand, when it comes to craft books gelling with my personal creative process this book, like Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story, will get a place on my bookshelf within reach of my writing area. This book draws on the story beats from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, in case that title sounded familiar, but lays them out in the context of novel development. The beat sheet with fifteen story beats arranged in three acts might sound too structured and stifling. And yet, this is the process that I have found that is the right mix of laying out what I’m going for when it comes to characters, theme, plot and subplot, and of writing forward while remaining open to discovery writing. Knowing the information about my story that this book invites you to explore both keeps me focused and at the same time gives me the freedom to play. As someone whose goal is to indie publish several series of urban fantasy, which require me to plan, write, and deliver at the rate of about a series a year, this is the structure that sets me up to do that. Of course, your mileage may vary. But I encourage you to check it out and see if it works for you.

Haunted Nights edited by Lisa Morton & Ellen Datlow

The other day, I had reached the end of my rope. Super frustrated, exhausted, stressed, claustrophobic, kids had been fighting all day… my spouse walked in and I was like, hey babe, gotta go! I went to get some yarn for some projects I said I would do, and then, I decided to just kind of drive around. Suddenly, I was at Barnes & Noble. Oh no… Guess I had to go in! I picked up a bunch of books, because why wouldn’t I, even with unread books back in the trailer. One of them was this anthology of horror stories all set on/centering around Halloween (I love Halloween so much!!) I started reading, and found a book of stories that spanned the sublimely terrifying to the straight up scary and horrifying. It’s hard to pinpoint a favorite, so I’ll just say that if you’re a fan of short horror fiction, and looking to get into the mood for fall, pick up a copy of this anthology, and you’ll be all set.

That’s what was on my shelf this week. What have you go next on your reading pile?

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On the Shelf: My TBR Pile

So, here’s the thing. I grew up a reader. Not just a reader—but the kind of kid who regularly got in trouble for, nagged at because I was instead of doing something else, or punished by taking away reading. (Not sure if all the clauses in that sentence make sense, but I’m trying to blog from my phone due to no WiFi at this campsite, so roll with me here…)

One of the things that has remained consistently true throughout my life is the size of my TBR pile—or “To Be Read” pile of books. This isn’t even the list of “want to read,” a list which, by now, is far too long to realistically finish in my lifetime, even if I suddenly became independently wealthy and moved to a remote Scottish castle where it would rain all day, and I would sit in the window seat and drink tea and nod at the children from time to time and take breaks by walking my hounds on the moors…

Oh. Sorry. Got a little carried away for just a moment.

Where was I? Yes. Talking about my TBR pile. There was actually a time in my life when I made it through my entire TBR pile. At the time it consisted of maybe thirty or forty books, all of which I read when I deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006. Then I came home and went straight to grad school, and the pile started growing once more. Never since then has my pile been less than around a hundred physical books. In fact, I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to my TBR pile, and that’s not counting the titles on my Kindle.

So, what’s on the shelf? The two tend to be split by genre. I tend to read fiction on my Kindle, particularly genre fiction. Most of the speculative fiction I pick up tends to be in digital form. I read so quickly that it becomes a matter of storage. With limited IRL bookshelf space (that I have to share with my spouse, sheesh), I am ruthless with which authors I purchase physically. Or their works. For example, I have every single Sandman Slim novel on Kindle, but I bought Kadrey’s The Grand Dark in hard copy. I tend to purchase paperbacks of nonfiction or literary fiction, as I read those a little more slowly, want to enjoy the tactile sense of turning pages, or in the case of nonfiction, can concentrate better with a paper copy.

For example, on my Kindle, I have a bunch of speculative fiction from small presses that I picked up for a couple bucks each and will probably read in the next couple of weeks. I also have some horror novels that I picked up in a Latinx horror author story bundle a while ago. Been reading those one or two at a time and really enjoying them.

Over on the physical TBR shelf (currently packed in boxes awaiting us moving into the new house), I’ve got a bunch of nonfiction on game theory, literary history, history history, biography, philosophy, and literary fiction.

Here in the camper, I’ve read all the paperback fiction I brought with, and now I’ve got a stack of craft and business books. Plus my Kindle. I’m trying to make myself read the craft and business books before I head over to the fun Kindle fiction, and it’s mostly a good idea because the more I read, the more ideas I get and the better grasp I get on the profession I’ve chosen. It also makes me more cognizant of the fact I need to wrap this up and get back to writing.

But hey—distract me—what’s on your TBR pile?

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Guest Post: GISH in the Time of Covid-19

IS Note: It’s been a hot second since I hosted a guest post here on the ol’ blog, but I’ve been seeing people post about GISH on my social media, and was kind of curious to see what it was all about. Jennifer Nestojko, who I have hosted here previously, was kind enough to send her thoughts. Read on…

Jennifer Nestojko, in her guise as Mistress Leofwen, SCA Bard.

It’s the Summer of the Pandemic, or at least what I hope is the only summer of Covid-19, as opposed to The First Summer of the Pandemic. I have been juggling training tutorials and arguing over distance ed options, because being a teacher feels a little like being led to slaughter with the push for in-class education in the fall. I have been wondering what to do. I need to write my will. I need to clean the house.  I decided to try my luck at the GISH Hunt for a novice endeavor. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

              So, here I am, slogging through Canvas tutorials and delving deep into never-ending piles of laundry, with my creativity smothered by anxiety and paperwork – or so it seems. I am also writing strange poetry and roping my children into staging scenarios from old paintings. Dinner tonight will be a challenge, and I mean that literally. There are challenges in this Hunt, and in my team I have taken on a few, and these are the consequences.

              Perhaps dinner tonight will cause my family unreasonable pain and suffering, perhaps that will be caused by the activities we have planned for later in the week, but the family that suffers together buffers together. (Yes, those training videos have left their mark. It is sad, really.) Weird is a way of life, and this week, during the Hunt, we are going to embrace the weird.

              After all, 2020 has already sent us people protesting life saving devices so terribly complex as layered fabric over their faces, it has sent us schools scrambling for ways to reach out to students now confined to home, it has sent us demon seed dreams and presidential tantrums. (To be fair, we had those tantrums happening for a few years, now.) 2020 has separated us from friends and extended family. There were murder hornets, or at least panic about them. I write horror and 2020 makes me wonder why all the good plot lines are suddenly claimed. Why should we allow 2020 to bogart all of the strangeness?

              People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang, and we should revel in that strangeness. We shouldn’t fear it; we should claim it and harness it and use our powers for good, even if that good causes unreasonable pain and suffering in the process. We already have that pain and suffering; we might as well have joy and creativity as well. GISH allows us that opportunity, in abundance. Therefore I am prepared to enjoy the Hunt. After all, signing up seemed a good idea at the time. It still does.

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On the Shelf: Some SF/F and NF

Here, NF refers to nonfiction. Once again, my reading list gets a little eclectic. I guess it’s only fair. One of the things keeping me sane as I hang out in this twenty-two-foot travel trailer with two dogs, a cat, and two energetic children is the fact that I brought a good selection of physical and Kindle books.

Yep. It’s going on week… um, three? And I’m finding that I can read and edit and schedule promotional stuff, but the writing I was planning on doing is evaporating. There’s just not the opportunity for the sustained concentration I need to in order to get quality words on paper is lacking. As I’m sitting here, for example, my oldest, who I told multiple times not to wrestle with her sister, is crying because she was wrestling with her sister, who then pinched her. A normal part of siblings learning to interact without tears, but I’ve learned that rather than try to write and get frustrated, I’d rather do something that knocks an item off my to-do list, but doesn’t require a deep flow state.

Reading in the RV. It’s a little cramped in here, but outside is super hot and humid, and I think I’m developing a pine allergy. Welcome to NC!

Add to this, my spouse is returning to a normal work schedule, which means that I’m home with aforementioned energetic children and no daycare, drop-in daycare, in-home babysitter, etc. Now that we’re back in Fayetteville, I do have a line on a babysitter, but not until we move into someplace with more space and get a little past the time that we were traveling and coming into contact with various people and places, even masked and distanced. Hopefully, we’ll be in that future situation soon, and then I’ll have some time to make progress on the long list of writing projects beckoning to me…

So yeah. I’ve been hanging out reading and editing. And yesterday, went to my first Olympic fencing lesson in a couple of years at the local Academy. And also, I’m knitting up a storm, mostly making dishcloths with profanity knitted into them. I was offering them to people who were making donations to organizations I’d like to support, and am now offering them to people who sign up to support my friend, Ed Ashford’s, Patreon. Ed and his spouse have been living in a hotel scraping by on donations from friends, trying to find ways to support themselves while dealing with disability and disadvantage. So, I’m trying to boost the signal; they put out lots of cool art and poetry, and the more they get out from under the stress of not knowing if they’re going to have a place to live next week, the more they can concentrate on creating. IMO, art and poetry and creativity are going to be what it takes to survive this crazy timeline, and if I can offer something to make it happen, I will. I currently have black, red, teal, white, and a limited supply of a sage green. I’m willing to make other things in other colors for people who hit the five-dollar-a-month and up subscription rate! Comment or contact me if you’re interested–unfamousscribbler ~at~ gmail.com

Anyway, here’s what I’ve got on the shelf this week!

A Fall in Autumn by Michael G. Williams

I actually read this a while ago, but hey, it just won the 2019 Manly Wade Wellman Award for best SF/F novel by a North Carolina writer, and it’s technically on my shelf, so I figured I’d take a moment to plug it. The world the novel takes place in is a floating city, and the premise is that in a world where genetic modification is a normal, accepted practice, the main character is, instead, conceived and birthed the old-fashioned way. Now, there is nothing I love more than the jaded private eye hired to do one last job, and Williams takes this trope and runs–no sprints, zooms, and races away–with it. Reading this–the characters, the worldbuilding, the excellent writing–put me in mind of the classic science fiction that I fell in love with as a young reader. Be warned, Williams will punch you right in the emotions, but by the end of the book, you will fall in love with the world and its characters. I definitely recommend it!

Kill Three Birds: A Kingdom of Aves Mystery by Nicole Givens Kurtz

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the other fiction book I tore through this week is another mystery. I love mysteries, and I particularly appreciate when a book, like this one, blends the genres of fantasy and whodunit. The world this takes place in is a universe where the characters are a blend of human and bird, and this colors their perspectives and worldview. Prentice Tasifa is a hawk-woman and an investigator, who gets assigned to look into the murder of a dove-woman. The case quickly grows to encompass more victims, and Tasifa is drawn into local and family politics as she untangles the thread of the plot. The writing drew me in and I enjoyed the story. I recommend it–and also recommend checking out more from the author!

Even If it Kills Me: Martial Arts, Rock and Roll, and Mortality by Donovan Blair and T.G. LaFredo

I was in the mood to read some martial arts/fighter memoirs, so I bought this book as well as Laila Ali’s book, Reach, on Kindle. I’m a fan of the genre, and enjoy reading books about men and women who train full contact martial arts. I was looking for something like Forrest Griffin’s Got Fight?, or A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan, and decided to give it a try. In this book, Donovan Blair, the bassist for the Toadies, talks about returning to Tae Kwon Do after having to quit as a kid, and his journey to getting his black belt. It wasn’t a long read, and some of the stuff he talked about, like getting older and pursuing goals, was interesting, but I think this book was written for a different audience than my demographic. It wasn’t bad, just not for me.

The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

I have a weakness for books about writing, story construction, and narratives. This book explores how human psychology and neuroscience impact what we get out of stories, what we’re attracted to in the telling of stories, and what stories resonate with people and why. Some (okay most) of the material was familiar from my graduate degrees in communication and criminal justice, as well as from previous reading, but Will Storr puts this information together in ways that provoke thought–and a number of notes in my bullet journal for things to think about and notes for projects I am working on, always a plus! My spouse listened to this book on Audible, and then bought me a hard copy, which shows how much he loves me, knowing that I cannot pay attention to audiobooks or podcasts… Anyway, if you are a writer and have an interest in how stories and narratives interact with what we know about human psychology and storytelling, then I definitely recommend picking this up.

From The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr.

Anyway, those are the books on this week’s shelf. If you’ve read any, let me know your thoughts!

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On the Shelf: Professional Development

As of today, the Brune-Coombs Traveling Circus and Menagerie is still on the road, having traveled from one end of the country to within four to five hours of the other end. It’s been a heck of a trip, starting with the left axle wheel of our JayCo travel trailer catching fire in California, our air conditioner springing a leak in Missouri, and our interior water system leaking all over our under-bed storage in Asheville, NC. Apparently all these things are common problems with the Jay Flight trailer that we have, and they are not all that amenable or helpful, as my spouse found when he finally called them for a heated conversation.

Still, it’s better than the last time we camped across country with two kids, two dogs, a cat and–at that time–a tent. We’ve seen some beautiful sites, and had some fun at things like the Nashville Shores water park, or getting to see good friends for some masked, socially-distant conversations in St. Louis. Pro-Tip–make friends with journalists. They’ll tell you which lake recreational areas to avoid, as they have visited there when they pull out bodies. Always good info to have.

There it is–the 2020 journey. (Except Arizona; that was from an earlier trip!)

My reading this past week has been a mix of fiction and nonfiction, all in the category of professional development. One of the things that I’ve internalized from the military is the idea of reading for professional education. In this case, one of the ways I get better at editing and publishing horror is reading horror fiction, as well as books about publishing. So, this week’s On the Shelf reflects that category.

Also, one quick note–I used to put like a whole citation for each book. At this point, in the interest of making things easier for myself, I’m just going to add a buy link to Amazon in case you want to check out one of my recommendations. If I can find a universal link to the book, I’ll put it there, but for the most part this is the quickest way to get you someplace you can purchase it.

Getting in some lakeside reading in Tennessee!

Dark Blood Comes From the Feet by Emma J. Gibson (2020)

I forget where I saw this collection originally; I follow a bunch of horror fans and reviewers, and I think one of them probably posted about it. The cover looked intriguing, and the price was right, so I picked it up. And I’m glad I did. The stories in here are scary, witty, terrifying, and, in some cases, loving. The characters come from a variety of places, and although in the hands of a less-talented writer might have been in danger of caricature, here they are treated with the depth and sympathy. I’ve been going back and forth as to what my favorites were, but I think that “Black Shuck Tavern” and “Surviving My Parents” would fit in that category. For fans of horror and dark fantasy, as well as those who like a nice variety in their protagonists, I definitely recommend this collection!

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2017)

A friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was reading this book and really enjoying it, so I had to check it out. I started reading it yesterday, am about halfway through it, and plan to finish reading it after I publish this post. The premise is that the town of Black Spring is haunted by the mummified (?) form of Katherine, a witch executed in the 1600’s. And by haunted, I mean that she hangs out in the town, walking around, and causing the townfolk to find myriad ways to conceal her from any visitors. I particularly enjoy the way the author brings in the tension between the age-old curse, and the intrusion and integration of the modern world. The townspeople are cursed with the inability to leave; if they do, they find themselves in the grip of a compelling suicidal urge. So, on the one hand, they have developed an app where people can post sightings of the witch and where she is at any moment; on the other hand, the access to the Internet and social media tempts the younger kids with all that will never be theirs. The writing is well done, and the characters are drawn in depth. I’m looking forward to finishing the book, which is, as my friend described it, good, creepy fun.

Strangers to Superfans by David Gaughran (2018)

This book is subtitled “A Marketing Guide to the Reader’s Journey,” and it does give some good insight on how to determine one’s “Ideal Reader,” as well as how to write and market to that particular reader, and why one should do so. That was the central concept that I got from the book, and it’s a pretty important one. I’m not sure if this was the most useful book I’ve read on the topic, but it was interesting, and a good refresher, especially when read in conjunction with the next book…

Newsletter Ninja by Tammi Labrecque (2018)

I heard about this book from John Hartness of Falstaff Books, an author and publisher I greatly respect, and so I decided to pick up a copy. I can always tell how useful a professional development title has been by the amount of notes that it generates, and this volume has left me with several scrawled pages in my bullet journal. There are some incredibly useful tips and instructions in here–so many in fact that if I started to list them, this post would go on for way longer than I have patience to type. Suffice to say, if you are an author and want to know the best practices for setting up a mailing list, onboarding your fans, and then interacting with them in a way that is beneficial for you AND them, then pick this book up with no delay! The only thing that saddens me about this book is realizing that I’ve been approaching my OWN mailing list all wrong, and I have a lot of work to do on that front. Whoops. Anyway, if you’re an author, you need this book. Click the link and put it on your shelf.

Anyway, those are the titles I’ve been reading this week. I’ve got a bunch more on my shelf, enough hopefully to last until we find a place to live, and the movers deliver the rest of my TBR shelf. If you have a book to recommend, feel free to drop me a line at: unfamousscribbler ~at~ gmail.com.

Thunder and lightning storms–always more fun when you’re not staying in a tent!
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On the Shelf: On the Road

My childhood just called and asked for its all-metal playground back.

This past week, we hit the road, and by “we” I mean the Brune-Coombs Traveling Circus and Menagerie. Spouse, two kids, two dogs and a cat loaded up into Jeep Wrangler towing a JayCo fifth wheel and headed on down the road. RV camping cross country is the main reason we bought the camper in the first place, and this is our chance to see how much we are adapting to the life of a nomad. So far, I’m enjoying it.

We spent four days in Utah visiting my brother and sister-in-law and their two kids, and then drove a nice, leisurely pace into Wyoming. The RV means that only one of us really has to mask up and do some gas station snack purchasing or checking in at the campsite, minimizing our contact with others–and their contact with us. It’s also been quite lovely sleeping in our own bed night after night.

Coulda been wearing this all last winter if I’d sat down with it for ten minutes…

There have been a few changes as we go along, fine-tuning what we’re willing to live with, and changing what we need to stay sane in tight quarters. My spouse and I both have been implementing ideas of how to better utilize space. For me, I’ve had a chance to work my way through a bunch of knitting projects (including one that sat in time out for a year and only required about ten minutes to fix.) I’m getting to work on some business-related items (promo and editing for Crone Girls Press) and back to work on some writing projects that I need to finish.

And, of course, my reading! Since we got on the road, I’ve finished (and started and finished) a bunch of books, both on my Kindle and hard copy. For the first time in a number of weeks, I’m on track with my Goodreads challenge (to read 100 books this year), and I might actually pull ahead! So, since I’m on the road, this On the Shelf is going to share the last couple of books I’ve finished.

I’ve been sharing a bunch of thoughts and pictures from the road, so if you want, you can come hang out with me on Twitter or Insta, or just check back next Wednesday to see what else I’ve been reading…

The Chaos by Sergio Gomez (2016).

I’m trying to remember how this book ended up on my Kindle, a common problem, since I often pick up books for a couple of bucks and then they hang out waiting for my TBR list to shrink–ha! Anyway, I’m pretty sure that I got this when I bought a Bundle (Story? Book? I forget) of Latinx-authored horror. The book takes place after an apocalypse, when the world has been mostly taken over by these monsters the protagonists (Alejandro Ramos and his son, Charlie) refer to as “Los Noches,” nocturnal, carnivorous beasts with preternatural senses of smell. One great part about this book, other than the fact that the sense of perspective was so strongly created that I felt like I was right there in the story with the characters, was that even before the creatures took over, there was “The Chaos,” a period of dystopian churn that would have doomed the world even if the creatures hadn’t. Gomez writes of a time when the spark has lit the powder keg, and humanity did the creatures’ work for them. I mostly enjoyed the hell out of this story, but… and there was a but. There were several times when the author’s lack of familiarity with the US military pulled me out of the story. Things like a metaphor that references a platoon being larger than a small army, or US soldiers waving AK’s. Even weapons and explosives storage. Granted, this is something that probably a small slice of Gomez’s readership would get, but it pulled me out of the story a bunch of times. Still, this was a hell of a good horror story, and even though the end bore down with all the forward motion of a freight train, I still found a great read and something to think about. Definitely recommend.

The Bonding Spell (2015) and The Bonding Blade (2019) by M.L. Doyle.

I had mentioned that I was looking for comp titles for a project I’m querying, and a veteran friend recommended that I check out this series from M.L. Doyle. Although it wasn’t quite right to use for this query, I read straight through and was very sad when I couldn’t go buy the third book right away (please, oh, please let there be a book three…) The premise of the story is that Hester Trueblood was serving in Iraq, taking a group of congress critters to the Ziggurat of Ur, when she sees a shiny coin. Although servicemembers are warned to leave shiny things alone, she picks it up and bonds with the goddess, Inanna. Now, she is living and working with a team of devoted warriors, managing a bar and restaurant, and trying to come to terms with what to tell her family and how they will react. There’s a lot more going on, and if you’re a fan of solid urban fantasy with some romance (and who isn’t?), then you should definitely pick these up. Also, I’m just going to say, it’s so FUCKING REFRESHING to read a well-written woman veteran protagonist. Damn. Read these books. And if you’re nice, I’ll share some of the photos I took the couple of times I went to accompany a tour to the Ziggurat.

The Plague by Albert Camus, trans. by Stuart Gilbert (1948).

One of the Crone Girls Press authors, Edmund Schluessel, had posted earlier in the year, speaking about this book, and I decided to pick it up, given, well, you know… I had intended to get around to it when it arrived, but between freaking out and prepping to move, my powers of concentration were lacking. I started reading it last night, got a few pages in, and then woke up this morning and kept going. I need to get some work done, or I’d still be reading it. The story is of a small town on the coast that sees a surge of bubonic plague. The book focuses on a number of main characters, and gives a few secondary characters their moment in the sun, with the effect that the reader encounters a portrait of the town of Oran under plague, not merely one or two perspectives. Reading this now, I am constantly struck by a sense of deja vu, in quotes such as:

Thus, too, they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose.

Camus turns our attention from those separated from loved ones, to those who see the plague as divine retribution, to the ordinary administrators of the town and its health who face a thousand banal yet life-changing decisions on a daily basis. For all that our modern life has changed the face of the towns we live in, this book shows us that the past is not far behind, and its memory should have served a purpose. It’s not an easy read, but I recommend it.

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Random Thoughts of Randomness

I’m currently in the middle of setting up a series of social media posts. Nothing super complicated, just a daily post on Facebook and Twitter with a hook on a particular story in the fall anthology, and some information on where readers can go find and follow that author. This is the first stage of promoting the anthology, to be followed by another announcement about an upcoming project, and then following straight into the pre-order sales push. Getting this set up right now will pay dividends, as I and the family are heading into a month of movement and upheaval and all kinds of craziness.

What’s kind of hurting my brain is trying to FIND those hooks. Trying to write interesting copy when everything that’s going on is… well, going on. When I put the submissions guidelines out, I asked that if people were going to send a query, for them to include a logline. Some people did, some didn’t, and some included loglines that I didn’t find very hook-y, but still opened and read and accepted the story because it was good. Which, my point is, other than always follow submission guidelines, I’m super happy that some of the authors sent me good loglines, because that makes this part of the job easier.

On the writing front, most of my creative energy this week has been focused on promo and marketing for the next anthology, Stories We Tell After Midnight 2. But I’ve got several folders of notes for my urban fantasy series finish/rewrite/relaunch (The Rick Keller Project), a bunch of notes for my revision of Steel-Toed Blues, and MORE notes for my romance series. After setting up the next CGP projects, I should be back to full-speed ahead on my word count.

Up for some horror poetry? This magnetic set from Raw Dog Screaming Press has been hanging out on the safe in my office. Writing is writing, hey?

I didn’t do an On The Shelf blog this week, although I’m hoping to do one next week. I’ve got a couple of excellent books I’ve been reading on Kindle, and I’m hoping to have some time to sit down and do a quick round-up type review of each next Wednesday. I hope I don’t disappoint any of my fifteen or sixteen regular readers…

In the meantime, I’ve started querying again! I dusted off a couple of old stories, tweaked, revised, polished, and shined, and sent them out. And then remembered how much I hate querying, but whatever. It’s got to be done. Two of the stories are reprints, (and part of the third one), and in searching for markets for horror reprints that actually pay, I’m starting to understand exactly why the Crone Girls Press submissions were flooded.

Anyway, those are the random things going on with me right now. If you’re interested in the play-by-play, come drop me a follow on Twitter, or check out what’s going on over at Facebook.

In the meantime, here is Schnapps. She wants you to stay well and be excellent to each other. Or maybe she wants breakfast. It could go either way…
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On the Shelf: Russian Speculative Fiction

There I was, sitting outside, watching my oldest daughter show me how she can ride a bike without training wheels, feeling quite accomplished. I’d sent off about two dozen packages in the mail of handmade cloth masks and hand-knitted dishcloths that sported this year’s slogan. I then hand-sanitized up and headed to Target for my first mom-shopping in a little over four months, in order to stock up on some things for our upcoming move. I have a few more contracts to take care, but I was feeling pretty smug that I was on top of my to-do list… and then realized that it was officially Wednesday evening, and I’d forgotten to post the OTS blog. Oy.

So, I wandered over to the shelves and decided that it might be time to share my love of Russian speculative fiction literature with the world. First, I love Russian literature. I am not as learned as others, but I did once almost miss my bus stop because I was deeply enthralled in the pages of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Then, one evening, when I was on my second deployment, I wandered over to the MWR building to see what was playing on the big screen. They had a movie I hadn’t heard about, Night Watch, directed by Timur Bekmambetov–a Russian urban fantasy with fantastic, artistic subtitles. I sat, enthralled, and went back and watched it a few more times when I had the evening free. That movie was my intro to the world of Russian speculative fiction, a world I’m just beginning to explore. My Russian language skills are super basic and pretty rusty, but my goal is to get good enough to read books by Russian authors in the original language.

Anyway, I have a small selection, as most of the RSF books on my shelf are in the To-Be-Read section, but here are some fun ones to get you started.

Day Watch
Lukyanenko, Sergei. Day Watch, Trans. Andrew Bromfield, Hyperion Books, NY, 2006.

Night Watch (the movie I saw) was the first in this series. As of now, the book series concludes with Book 6, Sixth Watch, which I didn’t realize existed until I went to look up the link for Day Watch, and now I have another book on my TBR shelf. The movie trilogy ends with Day Watch, although there are rumors out there that Timur Bekmambetov will finish out the trilogy. (Universe, you listening?) Anyway… the premise of the books is that there are supernatural creatures who are divided into the forces of good, or Light, and evil, or Darkness, and they have a treaty that is enforced by members of the Night Watch (Light, because they’re keeping their eyes on the Dark) and the Day Watch (Darkness). There are vampires, magic-workers, shapeshifters, and all manner of beings struggling back and forth in the setting of modern-day Moscow. It is a setting and plot familiar to fans of urban or contemporary fantasy, but with a unique Russian flavor. I definitely recommend starting with Night Watch, and then hitting up Day Watch, as noted above, but the entire series is worth a good read (and the movies are terrific, too!)

Hard to Be a God
Strugatsky, Arkady and Strugatsky, Boris. Hard to Be a God, trans. Olena Bormashenko, Chicago Review Press, original copyright 1964, reprint 2014.

As I was flipping through this book, I realized it might be about time for a re-read. This is a book that is eminently entertaining and readable, and that has a depth that rewards repeat perusal. The book follows Rumata/Anton, who is sent from an ostensibly Communist utopian future to a dark, medieval society, there to observe while playing the part of an arrogant nobleman. That’s the surface of it. In addition to the plot and swashbuckling, this story takes on added context, being written during a time when certain art and writing could have significant negative consequences for the writer/artist operating in Soviet Russia. And yet, even under those circumstances, related in this edition with an afterword penned by Boris Strugatsky, there appears this work, which has outlasted the regime under which it was written. I highly recommend this, both for the excellent story, and for an appreciation of its place in the historical SF canon.

The Winter Men/Зимние Мужчины
Lewis, Brett & Leon, John Paul. The Winter Men, Wildstorm Productions, 2009.

Yeah, I cheated on this one. But what are going to do, call the blog police? Anyway, this is a graphic novel set in Moscow and Brooklyn, and a bunch of other places, with themes of what makes a superman, and what governments will do to… well… make a superman. It’s a violent, gritty comic, and I really enjoyed it, although I almost didn’t pick it up (the guy trying to sell it to me at a ComicCon was a condescending a-hole, who tried to explain modern Russia to me and looked blank when I mentioned Masha Gessen, so whatever…) The pace moves super fast, and I sometimes felt as if the authors were writing this as a plan to be adapted into a television show or movie instead of taking their time, but on the other hand, it’s a graphic novel, and the visuals tell a lot of the story. If you like stories about crime, corruption, loyalty, and government experiments to create super soldiers, this one should be on your list.

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On the Shelf: Let’s Talk Anthologies!

One of my favorite things to read is a good anthology. An entire book full of short, self-contained works, anthologies fit really well in a busy reading schedule, and they are a terrific way, in my opinion, to find new writers to fall in love with. Also, as someone who counts a number of authors among my circle of friends, I find that many of them place their short fiction in these volumes, and so it’s a win-win to support their work.

My favorite genres of anthology tend to be genres and sub-genres that I normally wouldn’t read an entire book in. I love horror short stories–short form fiction is my absolutely most favorite way to consume the genre. But then, I also dig steampunk and mysteries and science fiction, and I’ll happily sit down and read a whole bunch of novels and anthologies that fall in those categories.

There’s just something that’s so elegant about a well-crafted short story. The ability to gather up a reader within a few paragraphs and carry them along to the end is a skill and talent that must be honed and refined. (I remark this as both a reader and as an editor who has read soooo… many… short story submissions.) And the end of a short story–to write one that is powerful, impactful, and that wraps up just enough to satisfy the reader and not too much to become pedantic, well, those are the sorts of stories that I return to again and again.

For this week, I have chosen a couple of anthologies almost at random. If I tried to fit my entire shelf into this post, it would be too long and I’d never finish writing it, let alone get around to publishing it. Instead, I picked up a couple of volumes that reached out to me when I was perusing the shelves. Perhaps one of them will speak to you!

Transgressions
Editor: Ed McBain. Transgressions, A Forge Book, NY, 2005.

I can’t quite remember when I picked up this collection of ten novellas for four bucks at the Barnes & Noble bargain bin. I thought I remembered reading this much earlier in the decade than 2005, perhaps because a number of the stories were set in a world immediately after the events of 9/11. This might be because, while all the novellas in the anthology are terrific, from a bunch of top-notch authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Lawrence Block, the story that stayed with me all this time was “The Things They Left Behind,” by Stephen King. I’ve always enjoyed King’s short stories the most of all his work, and in this story, he is at the top of his writing game. I don’t want to say too much about it, but this story rips my heart out and kicks me in the soul every time I read it. I highly recommend the experience.

Shadow Show
Editors: Sam Weller and Mort Castle. Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, William Morrow, NY, 2012.

Ray Bradbury is one of my most favorite authors of all time, and so I decided to give this anthology a shot, see what authors such as Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood and Joe Hill could come up with. Turns out, they came up with some pretty solid tales. I read this book cover to cover when I first purchased it, and now that I’m flipping through it to write this blog post, I kind of want to read them all over again. Not every story in here hits up that Bradbury blend of humanity and fear and sadness and hope, but a great many do, and they are all entertaining in their own way. I’m going to go put this one back on my to-read shelf, because I think I need some of this right now.

Shadows
Editor: Charles L. Grant. Shadows Volume 1, Playboy Books, NY, 1978.

Given that this anthology was published the year I was born, I did not happen by it on a shelf in a bookstore as I did the previous two titles. Rather, I found this series of anthologies mentioned in the survey of horror literature Paperbacks from Hell, and decided to take a chance. This was the first volume of a series of horror anthologies with stories that epitomized what Grant referred to as “quiet horror.” The horror in the stories comes from human actions and emotions, and the terrible capacity we as a species have for committing evil on each other. When I was preparing to start up Crone Girls Press, I read through this volume–and plan to pick up and read the entire series–finding in its pages a model of the horror and dark fiction I would like to publish.

Black Magic Women
Editor: Sumiko Saulson. Black Magic Women: Terrifying Tales by Scary Sisters, Mocha Memoirs Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2018.

I buy a lot of anthologies at conventions. I’ll be frank–I buy a lot of books at conventions. And I usually go for the anthologies, because they always contain at least one or two gems that make discovering that new author worth the cost of the book. And THIS anthology was worth the cost of several new books, because the stories, mostly by authors whose work I hadn’t encountered before, kept me rapt from page one to the end. Some of my particular faves include “Dark Moon’s Curse” by Delizhia Jenkins, and “Labor Pains” by Kenya Moss-Dyme. The stories in this volume delve into themes of love, loss, terror, revenge, and the implicit context of experiencing these things as a person of color. As the blurb states: “Imagine horror where black characters aren’t all tropes and the first to die; imagine a world written by black sisters where black women and femmes are in the starring roles.” That world is deep and rich and intense, and it’s right here in this book. Do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy.

What We’ve Unlearned
Editor-in-Chief: Carol Gyzander. What We’ve Unlearned: English Class Goes Punk, Writerpunk Press, 2017.

Okay, full disclosure–this one is a little self-promoting, because I helped out as an assistant editor, and this volume contains my dieselpunk take on Beowulf. But bear with me… Writerpunk Press is a slightly anarchic collective that began as a Facebook group of writers who really enjoyed punk in all its literary incarnations: steampunk, dieselpunk, cyberpunk, atompunk, etc. (Ah, who am I kidding, slightly anarchic–ha!) Anyway, several years ago, we all got together and said: Hey, let’s do an anthology where we take classic works of literature, namely Shakespeare, and punk ’em out? Oh, and in the process, send money to the PAWS charity? Several volumes later, here we are, punking English class. This volume, dedicated to the memory of Robin Williams, contains stories like Michelle Cornwell-Jordan’s mythpunk take on “The Little Mermaid,” entitled “Muddy Water Promises,” or Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins’s “Consolidated Scrooge,” a steam-,tesla-, and cyberpunk riff on Dickens’s famous Christmas tale… Check out these stories, and then check out some of the other categories we’ve punked: Edgar Allan Poe, horror, more Shakespeare, and the upcoming myth volume. They are an entertaining read, if I may be forgiven for saying so myself.

Coppice & Brake
Editor: Rachel A. Brune. Coppice & Brake: A Dark Fiction Anthology, Crone Girls Press, Seaside, CA, 2020.

Yeah … I went full-out promotions in this one. On the other hand, I figured if you made it this far, you’re probable the sort who would indulge a moment of self-promotion or two. And honestly, the fact that I love this book so much is not because I really did anything other than find the authors–it’s that the caliber of authors who entrusted me with their works was kind of astounding. There are stories in here that will punch you in the soul and leave you processing all sorts of emotions you didn’t know you had. There were stories in here I had to re-read four or five times just to dull the senses so I could give them a good edit. As I mentioned above, I am an avid reader of anthologies, and I wanted to create a volume of the sort that I would pick off the shelf and read, cover to cover, and then think about for several weeks after. I won’t be so immodest as to claim that’s what this will be for you… but I am proud of what we put together, and so figured it wouldn’t hurt to share this in a post about the anthologies on my bookshelf. Enjoy!

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On the Shelf: Read About the American Constitution

As you can see from the title, I am running out of witty things to name these columns. In this case, if I think of something after this post goes live, I’ll come back and edit it, but in the meantime, here is the blunt, yet descriptive, indication of what this week’s list of books-I-pulled-from-my-bookshelf-concerning-a-specific-topic is all about.

A couple of years ago (oh, okay, more than a couple, but less than a decade), I was teaching a 101-level course to students in the criminal justice program at the local college branch on an Army base in Kuwait. The course dealt with the legal aspects of policing, and in one class, I mentioned to the students (all members of the US military), that my dad has July 4th tradition that I have adopted of reading in their entirety the texts of the American Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. One of the students looked at me and said: “For real? … You read the whole thing?” The question, “Why?” was very much implicit in their tone.

My reply touched mainly on the fact that, as uniformed servicemembers, we swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that, in my opinion, made it worth a re-read from time to time. I still hold this opinion. I mean, neither document is all that long, and some of it’s kind of boring, but the Constitution will never not be one of the most important documents to me. As US citizens, we are the government – and my ideal view of a country is one in which every citizen is enabled and enfranchised when it comes to participation, whatever participation looks like. (Maybe that’s an idea for a future On the Shelf – dust off all those political participation texts from my Masters degree in political communication…) Did I also mention that I think VOTING is super important? Yes. Yes, I do.

Anyway, if you’re reading this and thinking, huh, it has been quite a while since I read the US Constitution in its entirety, then don’t worry! Just go here and you can read the whole Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and all Amendments. When you’re done checking it out, come on back, because I have a list of three books that may be of help in understanding the Constitution, as well as the context against which it was developed and signed.

America’s Constitution: A Biography
Amar, Akhil Reed. America’s Constitution: A Biography, Random House, NY, 2006.

This book is the most powerful, thorough, and accessible exegesis of the Constitution that I have found. The subtitle describes it as a “biography,” and that is exactly what it is–a document that leads the reader through each portion of the document, from conception to inception to current interpretation. Along the way, Amar discusses the conversations and debates that occurred at and around the Continental Congresses and the newspapers and pamphlets, the final wording, and then how that section has come to be interpreted through case law up to the modern-day. There is a meticulously referenced copy of the Constitution in its entirety, with page numbers in the margins at each section for easy reference as one reads through. The endnotes and index are fantastic, and there is a short section of frequently cited works, although not as extensive a bibliography as one might expect. To be fair, however, this is a lengthy tome, and the notes include a number of references for future reading. If you are going to pick one book to do a deep dive into the document that is the foundation of the USA, this is the book you want to pick up.

The Bill of Rights
Amar, Akhil Reed. The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1998.

I have a terrible confession to make. This book is on my shelf. My to-be-read (TBR) shelf. As such, I’m not necessarily going to speak of the experience reading it, but rather, why it’s on there. As you can see from the description of the previous book, Akhil Reed Amar knows his constitutional scholarship. After finishing America’s Constitution: A Biography, I wanted to keep reading. Although Amar does include the entire Constitution in the latter volume, this book offers the opportunity to do a deep dive into the Amendments making up the Bill of Rights. As in the previous volume, he lays out the methodology he used to explore the topic, and examines the Bill from the context of its writing and its place in the Constitution and subsequent case law. I recently picked it up off my TBR shelf and started reading it (which spurred the selection for this week’s OTS), and it’s a fascinating book.

Infamous Scribblers
Burns, Eric. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, PublicAffairs, New York, 2006.

This may seem like an odd book to add to this list. And indeed, it maybe pop up later should I decide to do an On the Shelf of First Amendment reading, or early American history reading. (For this selection, I recommend Part III: The Tumult of Peace, Chapters Thirteen to Sixteen.) And yet, this book tells of an aspect of history that maintains its relevance until today–that of the relationship of the press to the government and to the people who make up the citizens of that government. There is a lot of telling and relevant history, all conveyed in fine, narrative nonfiction style, that does not refrain from spilling all the tea on the cast of founding characters. This section describes the public debate surrounding the Constitutional Conventions and how it played out in the essays and articles published by the men involved in its creation. That this book is first and foremost a history of journalism, and yet should provide so keen a perspective on the history of the founding of the Republic, should perhaps provide the modern reader some reflection on the importance of the press, and what our current times may look like to future historians as they peruse the articles and Op-Eds written today.

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On the Shelf: Write Your Story

Good morning, and welcome to Wednesday! Last week I talked about setting up this On the Shelf feature, and in keeping with my long history of trying to remember to blog regularly, completely forgot about it when next week rolled around. So, by the time I post this, it may actually be afternoon.

I was staring at my shelves this week, trying to find books that would seem relevant to current events. Should I share books by authors who are people of color? Should I share nonfiction works on civil disturbances and social justice? Should I go for escapist fare? If you’ve never seen an author and blogger overthink something, please, let’s video chat, because I’m really good at it.

In the end, I decided to pick out four books that might seem unrelated at first, but, and bear with me here, I think are good to visit today. Let me explain. I am a big advocate of making space for people to tell their story, and for encouraging them to do so. My goal is to find ways to publish, promote, and signal boost the greatest variety of experiences and lived narratives. I’ve been able to do some of this with Crone Girls Press, and I’ve been lucky to have the privilege of listening to and reading stories as people share them with me.

When I joined the military, I came from a pretty standard middle class background in upper northwest New Jersey. It was a great experience, but it wasn’t really one that exposed me to the great breadth and depth of the experiences of other Americans. Joining the Army gave me the opportunity to meet people, to move to other places and meet more people, and to listen when they talked about their lives and how they grew up. My eyes were very slowly opened to the realization that I had a lot to learn (and still do) about the experiences of people of color.

So, in the spirit of thanks to people who HAVE shared their stories with me, I wanted to highlight four books that center around ways to write down and amplify a story, in particular, a nonfiction story. I offer this with no expectation that the onus is on people of color to do the emotional and physical labor of pulling together and writing it down. I recognize that there are many books and resources out there that already exist for people like myself to do the work of self-education. I offer these merely in case you or someone you know has a story to tell and is looking for someplace to start.

And one quick offer that I was going to put at the end but wasn’t even sure you made it this far. I bill myself as an author and writing coach. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not as well-established as some others who have hung up their shingle. But, I’ve had good feedback and word-of-mouth support from those I have worked with. So I will make this offer. If you are a person of color looking to tell your story, I would like to offer you my help. If you would like to take advantage of that, I am open to doing a couple (1-2 one-hour segments) of coaching sessions to get you started, or to take a quick editorial look at your drafted proposal (first 1-3 chapters and outline.) I think my blog has about ten regular readers, so I don’t anticipate I’ll be overwhelmed–if for some reason I experience a flood of request, I’ll cap it off before I can’t meet my other obligations. Shoot me a line if you’re interested: unfamousscribbler at Gmail.

The Weekend Book Proposal
Van Cleave, Ryan G. The Weekend Book Proposal: How to Write a Winning Proposal in 48 Hours and Sell Your Book, Writer’s Digest Books, Cinncinnati, OH, 2014.

So, say you have an idea of a nonfiction book you want to write. Maybe it’s a memoir. Maybe it’s a book on how to community organize. Whatever it is, you have the idea and are looking for a way to pull it all together. You may want to shop the proposal to an agency or editor. Or, you may intend on indie publishing it. Whatever your intended direction or eventual goal, this book is an excellent primer. The author leads you through the nuts and bolts process of not just writing the actual proposal, but for packaging it–and yourself as the author. The angle here is that he wants to show you how to put it all together in a timely fashion, and so there are “Hit the Gas” features to motivate you to get cracking on a particular section, as well as insider tips, lists of resources for further information, and info on the overall publication process. As I mentioned, even if your goal is to indie publish, this book addresses all of the important areas you will need to consider as you outline, draft, revise, and finally, promote and publish your book.

How to Write a Book Proposal
Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal: The Insider’s Step-By-Step Guide to Proposals That Get You Published, Writer’s Digest Books, Cinncinnati, OH, 2017.

One quick note–I’m writing this summary from the 2003 3rd edition of this book. I’ve included a URL to the most recent addition above; just be aware there may be new features in the latest edition. So, how is this book different from the first book listed? If you think of the first book as the racecar version of Ted Talk (how’s that for imagery?), this book is the staid syllabus of the class you’re taking to cover the nonfiction credit for you MFA. The information is organized a bit differently, but still covers all the basics – from the hook to the length and organization to the promotion and marketing, etc. This book, along with the first one, have had a place on my bookshelf for a long time (as have my dusty, long-neglected book proposal drafts … sigh …) and if you are going to pick up one or two books on how to get started on writing this sort of project, I highly recommend you start here.

Bang the Keys
Dearman, Jill. Bang the Keys: Four Steps to a Lifelong Writing Practice, Alpha Books, NY, 2009.

This is one of those books that I recommend for people who are looking to find a place to start writing … and that I return to when I haven’t been in the habit of writing for a while and need to motivate/spur/flog myself to get my butt back in my seat and words on the paper. There are four sections to this book: Begin, Arrange, Nurture, and Go, and they each address a different part of the process. Some areas are kind of pep-talk-y, other areas give you some tips to try things to break out of your own head or habits. There are a good number of writing exercises, as well an index and an appendix that consists of a chapter-by-chapter list of further resources for writers. This is a handy book to have in your writing toolkit, and can be read through, or dipped into from time to time to re-light the spark of your writing habit. (And I think that, from what I’ve been reading from my fellow authors, many of us are facing that challenge right now.)

Build Your Author Platform
Jelen, Carole, & McCallister, Michael. Build Your Author Platform: A Literary Agent’s Guide to Growing Your Audience in 14 Steps, BenBella Books, Dallas, TX, 2014.

Whether you intend to submit your proposal to an agent or editor, or publish yourself as an independent author, or even if you just want to put together a book to publish through one of the many digital platforms out there with the expectation that maybe some friends and family might pick up a copy, it’s still a good idea to begin developing your author platform. This book is solid gold when it comes to finding ideas to do that. It’s one of the books on my shelf that has dozens of different-colored sticky bookmarks poking out of it, denoting all of the ideas that popped up as I was reading. The authors address promotion and marketing tactics that are applicable for authors large and small, and even if you have a robust presence online, you will likely find something of use in this book. There is an index and a list of further resources organized by topic, as well as–and this is super useful especially if you’re starting from scratch–a tear out sheet with a step-by-step author platform publicity plan. If you’re looking to start writing and build a presence from which to launch your finished manuscript, or if you already have an online presence and are looking to shape it to support promoting your message and creative content, I highly recommend checking this book out for ideas and inspiration.

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On the Shelf: Women at War

It’s been radio silence since January, not necessarily because I haven’t been active online, but because I’ve been spending the majority of my time over at Crone Girls Press, doing editor- and publisher-type activities. And then, let’s face, the world tipped head over heels into crazy-town, and wham-bam-without-a-thank-you-ma’am, we ended up wherever this is.

Case in point–this year I applied to be and was accepted as a guest at ConCarolinas. Woohoo! Cue the big rejoicing! And then, everything got dumped in the turdbucket along with my powers of concentration and ability to follow a to-do list. So now, the next best thing. I’m still a guest and panelist at … ConCarolinas — the Virtual Con! (If you read that in Yogurt’s voice, we can be best friends.) My panel, which will be live and virtual, is called Herstorically Speaking: Meet the Women of War, and will be online Friday, May 29 from 7pm to 9pm EST. Yes, I realize this conflicts with the big Dropkick Murphys streaming concert. Believe me, that will be on in the background … Anyway, if you’re interested in more Con content, check out their virtual schedule for the next few days.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been meaning to do is set up a regular blog feature about books. My reading tends to include huge chunks of fiction, and then clusters of nonfiction books around topics I find myself wanting to deep-dive into. Sometimes I’ll read two or three and move on, sometimes I’ll continue to return to the topic. My idea for this feature came about because first, I needed an idea for a recurring blog post topic, and second, I firmly believe that reading can make you a better writer. So, here is my new blog feature: On the Shelf.

On the Shelf will be an annotated bibliography introducing three to five books on a particular topic that I think might be helpful as well as some thoughts on why I’ve picked them, and what I think you might get out of them. In this case, I’ve chosen a few books from my shelf that relate to the topic of Women in War. Think of this as an annotated reading list that I’m putting together to inform my participation on the ConCarolinas panel on Friday. If you have any questions, or want to talk books, drop me a line!

Uppity Women of Medieval Times
Leon, Vicki. Uppity Women of Medieval Times, MJF Books, NY, 1997.

I picked up this book at Barnes & Noble way back when I was first getting into the SCA. It was one of the books you’d find in the bargain section (which is, indeed, where I found it.) Inside, you’ll find a quick, snappy introduction and then ten sections of short, snarky profiles of women who lived and made waves in the medieval period. Some of these women even picked up a sword or two (see Aethelfled, pp 30-31, Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun p 31, or Caterina Sforza pp 38-39.) If you are looking for depth, this is not the right book for you, nor is it if you only want tales of women wielding swords (check out the poet Walladah al-Mustakfi pp 94-95.) However, this is a great reference book to start with, especially because the short profiles allow the author to pull from a variety of geographic areas and professions. And, bonus, there is a pretty solid bibliography and index to help guide your future studies.

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War
Blanton, DeAnne & Cook, Lauren M. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, Vintage Books, NY, 2002.

One of the few times I’ve read a book because the author contacted me through Goodreads, and this time the gamble paid off. This is a well-researched, in-depth work of history with an extensive bibliography, notes section, and index. In it, the authors use historical primary sources to tell the stories of women who dressed as men to go to war. They lead the reader through the reasons why women enlisted, how they pulled it off, and their actions once they found themselves living in uniform. Along the way, they address such issues as hygiene and bathroom issues, training, the attitudes towards the women who were discovered, and the fact that there even were so many women who dressed as men to fight that it necessitated a full-length history book to relate. This is a terrific book, well-written and informative, on its own. If you are writing a war and want women characters in there (or even if you don’t, by the way, because these women weren’t really supposed to be found in the ranks either), then this is a book you want to crack.

Women Heroes of World War II
Atwood, Kathryn J. Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue, Chicago Review Press, 2011.

I can’t remember exactly where I picked up this book, but when I sat down to write my werewolf urban fantasy, I cracked it open. Why? Because I was writing a character whose grandmother was a member of the OSS during World War II, and I wanted to get a feel for what it was like for the women who were fighting on behalf of the allies during that time. This book contains profiles of women who fought in one capacity or another, from resistance fighters to spy/singers (hello, Josephine Baker!) to agents who infiltrated the enemy lines. Not all of the stories have happy endings. The profiles are organized by country, and introduced with a short two to three page blurb about the efforts of women in that country. Each profile is bookended with a “Learn More” section that points the interested reader in the direction of more books and articles about that particular woman. The book contains an excellent bibliography and thorough notes section. This is one of those books that is super helpful on a writer’s bookshelf–a collection of profiles to read through and get inspired by, and the list of further reading just in case you want to take off down a rabbit hole.
(Note: After going to get the URL, I realized there is a newer edition with six more profiles; I have linked to that in the title above.)

Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War
Brown, Randy & Leonard Steve, eds. Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War, Middle West Press, LLC, Johnston, Iowa, 2019.

This is a bit of a different choice, as the essays in this nonfiction work are, for the most part, personal narrative, not all of them are written by soldiers, and not all of them are penned by women. However, everyone in this volume has experienced what it’s like to serve during wartime, whether as a soldier or journalist or teacher, and their words can open a window in that world. Many of the authors in this lightly-edited volume can be found participating in online conversations. Many have longer works available for the curious reader. I think this book is an important project, and if you are writing modern military or military-affiliated characters living and working and acting in modern military settings, you should grab a copy of this book, and let it set you up to look over the field before you find the right rabbit hole down which to dive.

Like what you see? Come on over and find me on Facebook and Twitter. I’m a touch more active over there … for the most part. Got some thoughts? Drop me a comment.

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