Some Author Thoughts on Kindle Vella

One of the hot topics right now in author groups is this new app, Kindle Vella. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Amazon is basically trying to get into the serialized fiction market, and has been pitching this publishing service to authors for a few months now. The app is poised to go live in July, and will be available on phones and tablets, which is primarily where people are reading short serials already. You can buy tokens that will “unlock” episodes, and then Amazon and the author will share in the bounty.

So of course — we all have questions. Will it be worth it to get in there as an early adopter? Which genres might fare the best? Will we be able to write fast enough to post a regular episode, or should we serialize a finished–yet unpublished–project? (Be careful not to try to put up anything that’s already been published somewhere else, even if you have taken it down. Amazon wants new, fresh content to entice readers to come on board.)

In the interest of full disclosure — I really don’t have all, or any, of the answers. I’m just someone who enjoys reading, enjoys writing, and happened to have an unpublished project that I didn’t have any plans for until Vella popped up as an option. However, when this topic came up in my Facebook writing group, I ended up dashing off a response based on what I’d been reading about the app, as well as some of my experience using the app from the author end, plus reading and learning as much as I can about what readers of different genres might go for. That post was kind of long, and I thought, you know, that might make a good blog post, so with a few revisions and expansions, here it is!

BLUF (or bottom line up front): From an author/publisher perspective, this interface is very easy to use, so if you have an idea that might work, I highly recommend that you go in there and play around with it. The worst that could happen is that it doesn’t quite work out, and then you can unpublish your work as a Vella project, and re-publish as an indie project on either KDP or another platform.

So, here is what I’m thinking and doing with Vella. My plan right now is to put up my paranormal romantic suspense novella that I was planning to use as a reader magnet for a longer series. I worry that having a novel-length project might result in too many episodes, which might then make a reader who is frugal with their tokens decide to take a chance on a series with less episodes. The reader magnet is about 12,000 words right now, with my plan to write about 10,000 more. I have the basic scenarios for the rest of the book series planned out; based on the reader/audience reaction, I may either continue to write the series in Vella, or keep Vella as a reader magnet to lure readers to the indie-published books that come next.

I chose to dip my toe into the waters using my romance writing, given that many of the readers who already consume serialized material seem to be romance, fanfic, graphic novels/manga, or YA. Will those audiences leave their current platforms and head over to Vella? I don’t know. But I think that I, as a reader, would be willing to return to serials on a platform run by Amazon if I could one-click and “Buy Now” a selection of tokens, and be updated when new episodes go live. Are all readers me? No. But until it launches, I have to unscientifically extrapolate from experience.

Also, it seems that more established writers are able to serialize work through Patreon, so perhaps this serialized format has become normalized enough to easily translate to readers in other genres. I know that Amazon bends over backwards to the readers to get them to invest in the platform, so I feel like they’ll probably make it easy for readers to find series in the genres they read–and then poke them to remind them when new episodes are available.

There was a good Medium article on this the other day, Why Kindle Vella is Not Going Away by Monica Leonelle, that noted that Amazon was an early player in the ebook market, but when it comes to serialized fiction, they’re playing catchup. So… I think that if you are a more established writer already benefiting from Amazon’s reading platforms, you may be able to expand reader expectations as far as the genres they’ll find and enjoy. I think if you are a writing in a genre where readers are already accustomed to serial fiction, you may, as a less established writer, have an easier chance of breaking in. This is why I chose to go the PNR route, as opposed to putting up something else.

Note that Kindle Vella does not allow you to publish anything that has already been published somewhere else. They really want to differentiate their market from the other serial platforms out there, and if you do try to upload something that’s already been published, they’ll kick it off (not sure if they kick you off entirely). This could be a good opportunity, especially if readers are going in with the mindset that they’re going to get new stuff, although they might also want new stuff from the authors they already know, so maybe they’ll get disappointed if they don’t see that – or maybe they’ll take a chance on something in a similar genre.

I do think that it’s worth trying out if the pace and format works for you. The worst that could happen is that nothing happens, and then you take your work down and publish it as usual (although you might only be able to indie publish at that point, as I think most larger houses won’t be open to publishing something that already launched, except for those presses open to re-launching series.) I also think that anyone trying to prognosticate about what’s going to happen with this, or what might work or not, probably has about as even a chance as anyone of being right, so honestly, take what I say with a grain of salt and check it out for yourself.

Speaking of which, at this point, I’ve spoken to a number of authors who seemed interested in Vella, but had some trepidation. Would it be difficult? Were there some ins and outs that might take a while to learn? What’s going on? I know that I personally find it a little easier to try something new if I have a good idea of what to expect, and so following are some screenshots that will take you on a little tour of what it’s like within the interface. As I mentioned above, first, this is for an unpublished novella that is meant to be a reader magnet to a paranormal romantic suspense series, and so I’m writing under my romance pen name. (Shameless plug: For my non-PNR romantic suspense, check out Negotiating Her Release!) Second, this was originally posted as part of a discussion in a Facebook group, so these were screenshots I took from my phone. They’re not super fancy, but the interface is not complicated, and so this is pretty much what it looks like when you go in.

So, when you log into KDP, and click on Vella (it’s all the way at the top, above the create ebook and paperback choices), you get this:

If you click “Start a Story,” it will ask you for the title, name, tags, genre etc. You will also need a graphic for the circle — you don’t need the title or author on the graphic, because the title and and author will pop up on the screen anyway. This is what mine looks like — a user-friendly, attractive interface, not too crowded. Your blurb can’t be as long as a typical blurb — think more logline length.

If you are coming back, this will pop up, and you just hit “manage story” to get back in and get to work.

Each time you post an episode, it will go through a review. You can title the episode, and edit within the text even after it goes live, but the amount of tokens is based on the word count. (Also, you don’t have to add the episode number and/or title inside the text box, because that is part of the interface, and it’ll just look like it’s repeating. That’s why some of my previously published episodes in this screenshot are gray — I went in, changed some stuff, and now they’re waiting on a second review to go live.

The neat thing, too, is at the end of the episode, there’s a spot where you can leave a note to the readers. This is a great place to tease the next episode, commiserate with your readers, and generally just connect to them. One of the reasons I enjoy things like Patreon or following authors online is to learn what’s going on “behind the scenes.” So here is a built-in option to allow you to do that. This example is from the last episode I was working on this weekend:

Anyway, like I said above, Vella is super easy to use, so if you have been thinking about it, go on in and play around with it. You can import a file, copy and paste, or just write the episode in there. I personally don’t recommend that last option; I’m using Scrivener to plot and write the episodes, and do some editing before I upload them. This is to make sure my readers get the best possible experience, and to also make sure that if at some point I do want to unpublish and re-publish elsewhere, I’ll have the original file as a whole. I don’t know much else except what I’ve posted, it if anyone has any questions or wants to toss around ideas, I’m available to chat.

As the Vella app goes live, and we start to get feedback from readers, authors, and Amazon, I’ll keep you updated about what happens with this project. I think it will be very cool to check out, and I’m hoping this will be another method authors can use to get great stories in front of their fans.

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Side Roads, Reading Projects, and Werewolves

The countdown has begun to the launch of Side Roads: A Dark Fiction Collection. Author proofs of the paperback copy have been ordered, promotional graphics have been created and scheduled on social media, and ARCs have been sent to my mailing list, as well as writers and publishers who have graciously accepted copies for blurbing purposes. This is always one of the most nerve-wracking times, as I tend to stress and overthink every single thing at the best of times, let alone when a project is on its way to fruition.

But then, when those writers and editors send back these words:


“Whether she’s carving up tales of supernatural hit squads, steam-punk demon folk, or warped-reality TV shows, Iraq War veteran (and defender of the nightmare hordes) Rachel A. Brune writes with butterfly-knife dexterity: Always a flashy cut, a dreadful twist, a sideways chance at hope. And then, things usually get dark. If you love Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson short horror stories, be sure to read this book!”


–Randy Brown, co-editor of Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War

…I start to feel a little better about the progress I’ve made, the work I’ve done, and the book I’m going to be putting out in the world. Sure, there are still many more bullets on my pre-launch to-do list, but this collection is on its way!

In addition to the pre-publication work on Side Roads, I’ve also been tearing through a bunch of books on my Kindle. Once again, I’m reminding myself that a prolific reading habit actively feeds a productive writing habit as I churn through titles and series, chalking up yet more “completed” statuses on my Goodreads reading challenge (84 of 150 books, if you’re interested.)

One of the standout series that I finished in the past week or so include Paige L. Christie’s The Legacies of Arnan books. Full disclosure — I met Paige in an online writing group, and after finding out that she had contributed a story to an anthology set in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar universe, decided to go check out her stuff. I’m glad I did. This series has an old school fantasy vibe, with magic and dragons and a cast of well-drawn, well-developed characters. I’d have read the whole series by now, except she’s still working on the last book. Definitely recommend.

Another series I picked up was one of those that I probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on if it hadn’t been in the Kindle Unlimited program, but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. This is the Bubba the Monster Hunter series by John Hartness, which is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer if Buffy was a six-foot-plus ex-college football star from the South. I basically picked this series up because I had read all of the Quincy Harker books, and was kind of looking for more in that universe. As a Jersey girl born and raised, I probably would have picked it up sooner if it were a series about Sal the Strega Slayer who hunted monsters while running the family pizzeria in Manasquan, but like I said, once I started reading, I found myself drawn into the writing and characters and ended up bingeing not only the entire series, but re-reading the Quincy Harker series just so I could enjoy the final Bubba, which is a crossover event.

Anyway, I continue to read more, mostly on my Kindle, because I can read at night with the lights off and pretend to my kids that I’ve gone to bed. I’m looking for my next binge-worthy series; not sure if I want to hit up a new one, or go and re-read the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. I’ve had a hankering, lately.

Speaking of reading projects and werewolves, I recently picked up about half a dozen dead tree nonfiction books on Eastern Europe after World War II.

Some of the research bounty…

These books, in addition to CV Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War and a number of German history tomes, are part of a reading project for both fun, as well as research for the Rick Keller Project. I’m doing some revisions of the series, as well as plotting the final book, and much of his background and family history rests in the history of Germany and Eastern Europe, at least the formative part of his history that then factors into the decisions he makes and the things that he wants.

Also, I was planning on re-launching the series right after publishing Side Roads; however, I think I’m going to instead pivot over to my steampunk detective project, and work on publishing those in two volumes of three stories each. This will give me time to work on the Rick Keller series as a whole. I also, and this is where a lot of the Cold War research is coming in, plan to write some short stories of the various missions he was doing with MONIKER during that time frame. They’ll be written as if they’re missions that are being de-classified, which I think will be fun and give me a chance to play around with some of the supporting characters I give a glimpse at in the longer novels.

Anyway, this has been a long post, as usually happens when I forget to update my blog regularly. Hope everyone reading has an excellent week — and if you have some suggestions for my TBR pile, let me know!

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Quick Update, Then Back to Writing

Hey everyone,

Just checking in with a blog update. I swear I keep meaning to post more regularly–even went so far as to set a calendar reminder in my phone, but usually what happens is that, instead of hearing the reminder and sitting down and updating my blog, I turn the reminder off and … well, that’s about that.

Nothing much is happening on the large scale projects front. This week is a lot of little to-do things on the list in my bullet journal, and I’m just going down, checking them off. Things like, update Goodreads, update my business ledger, create dropdown boxes on said business ledger (did my taxes the other day, and the pain is fresh), check my military email, update my GI Bill and MFA status… all the little nitty gritty details that need to be cleared off my plate so I can get back to the big projects.

The biggest project right now is reviewing and incorporating feedback that I got back on my novelette “And Out Come the Wolves,” which anchors my short story collection, Side Roads. (What’s that? You haven’t heard of it? Okay, well, go check it out!) I’m also collecting and organizing my notes for the Rick Keller series bible, and the revisions of Cold Run. On the romantic suspense pen name front, I’m working on a Kindle Vella experiment, serializing my unicorn shifter romantic suspense and getting that prepped for when the service launches in June.

Other than that, I’m working on cleaning and organizing the house, working out, making progress on craft projects and, oh yes, recently took over as the Baronial Chronicler for my local SCA chapter. So you could say that my time is well-scheduled.

Anyway, if you are interested in any of the stuff I’ve got going on, stay tuned, and/or sign up for my newsletter. And with that–time to get back to post-apocalyptic New Jersey.

Peace!

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Coming Soon: Side Roads

A few days ago, I sent a message to the 20 stalwart members of my author newsletter. Now that they’ve had a chance to take a look, I’m ready to announce to the world (or at least my 10 or so regular blog readers): I’ve got a new publication coming!

“Side Roads” is a collection of horror and dark fiction short stories (including one novelette), about half of which have been published in various magazines and anthologies over the past ten years. They include stories like the faepunk horror “IronFae,” which first appeared in Aiofe’s Kiss, the steampunk horror “The Terrible, Vast Pyre of Chief Machinist Kirlisoveyitch,” which first appeared in Dark Moon Digest, and the dystopian superhero short “The Peacemaker,” which appeared in Fantasy Scroll Magazine. Additionally, there are a number of stories (and one poem!) that first made their appearance on this blog in October, when I was doing Lynne Hansen’s 31 Days of Art challenge. In addition to the previously published content, I’ve got two brand new stories, one of which is being edited as I write this blog. (I’ve included the full table of contents below!)

Also, if you read on and the stories pique your interest, I want to let you know that I’ll be sending a free digital copy to my newsletter subscribers. If you’d like to come aboard and check it out, you can sign up here. I send out one email a month (usually… I’m trying to get better about staying in touch with readers, but, well…) If you’d like an ARC, but don’t want to sign up to get one, feel free to hit me up via email at unfamousscribbler ~at~ gmail.

So where did this idea come from? The mundane story is, I’ve been working on a writing career for a long time, but never really with any focus and direction. This past year, I’ve settled down and made a plan, and that plan includes relaunching my werewolf secret agent series. But before I did that, I wanted to offer potential readers a chance to dip into some of the work I’ve published so they can get a taste and a feel for my writing. I view this collection as an author calling card, and will be sharing it as widely as I can (thus, the offer to send it to everyone on my author newsletter.)

But there is something more… The titular story, “Side Roads,” is a piece I’ve been working on for a long time that had its genesis in an adventure I had down a dark New Jersey road in the middle of the night. For those who have heard of Weird NJ, it wasn’t Clinton Road, but it was a very close second. Growing up in the Garden State, urban legends like Big Red Eye, The Devil’s Tree, the Jersey Devil, etc., were all part and parcel of the excitement and frisson of Goosey Night (or Mischief Night, or whatever you call the semi-forbidden adolescent antics of the night before Halloween.) These stories–and the name of the Press–came out of dark nights and cold drives and the feeling that, as winter set in and the nights grew longer, there was more out there in the darkness than the shadows were telling us.

I can’t wait to share that feeling with you…

~~~

Table of Contents
Curiouser & Curiouser ~ 31 Days of Art Challenge
Side Roads ~ New Fiction
Spiders ~ 31 Days of Art Challenge
Tangled ~ 31 Days of Art Challenge
Shadow Pool ~ Imaginarium
IronFae ~ Aiofe’s Kiss
The Carnival Ghost ~ Hideous Progeny: Classic Horror Goes Punk
Pierced Monarch ~ Inspired by painting of same title by Marrus
The Terrible, Vast Pyre of Chief Machinist Kirlisoveyitch ~ Dark Moon Digest
Slither ~ 31 Days of Art Challenge
Readers ~ T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Fiction Blog
Membrane ~ 31 Days of Art Challenge
Finding Things After You’re Gone ~ Stardust, Always
Terminal Leave ~ O-Dark-Thirty
Holes ~ 31 Days of Art Challenge
The Peacemaker ~ Fantasy Scroll Magazine
And Out Come the Wolves ~ New Fiction

~~~

(PS: Quick note of thanks to John Hartness for helping me out with the title for that last one. Go check out his stuff–he’s got some great titles!)

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On the Shelf: Punk Rock Memoir

Getting back to the regular blogging thing after a month off for a (failed but plucky) NaNoWriMo attempt, catching up on some stuff for Crone Girls Press, and dealing with the Thanksgiving holiday and a load of weird seasonal distraction that dumped on me like a load of garbage down a cliff off a back road.

I’ve been away from reading for a little bit, but I did find myself on a memoir reading kick, specifically, a punk rock memoir reading kick. That’s what’s on the shelf this week, so kick back, turn up some Siouxsie and the Banshees, or maybe some Joan Jett or Patti Smith or Le Tigre, and settle in with one of these excellent reads.

As a quick note – I try to include links to the books I’m reading so you can pick up a copy if you feel so inspired. I’ve decided to start using links to Bookshop.org instead of my previous Amazon links. These aren’t affiliate links (although I’m looking into that), I just wanted to direct some dollars towards smaller and indie bookstores. If you want to read on Kindle, however, you should be able to find a copy over there.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

I started reading this on a recommendation from my brother-in-law, and I’m glad I picked it up. The book relates Patti Smith’s time in NYC, her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and gives a glimpse into a world that doesn’t exist anymore except in memory and memoir. This is a fascinating dive into NYC as a place that fostered creativity and art even as spit up and chewed out many of those who came to find their scene. Patti Smith’s unique perspective and engaging writing style made the journey from cover to cover go far too quickly. This one goes up on the shelf to read again.

Violence Girl by Alice Bag

I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this book, and then forgetting, and then remembering, but when a writer friend posted a link to a series of punk rock memoirs in their group, I decided it was time to pick up a copy. When I was creating the character of Luz in the Rick Keller Project, I drew a lot from Alice Bag’s aesthetic, even if it meant taking a punk rocker from LA and giving her military experience as a helicopter pilot. Given that I’m currently finishing up the fourth book in the series (and expanding what used to be a novella-length inter-series offering that introduced Luz), I figured it was the perfect time to check this out.

The writing is compelling, as Bag is open and frank about the challenges she faced growing up. Abuse, poverty, an address that sent her to schools that many of her classmates couldn’t overcome, friends with drug issues, and a burning desire to make music and do art on her own terms and no one else’s–all of these make the book a page turner. It’s written in short vignettes, like photos in an album, or blog posts, leading the reader through Alice’s punk rock life. I definitely recommend this book to anyone with a love for West Coast punk rock. Or just someone who enjoys a good book.

Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus

I just started reading this book, so I don’t have much of a review or discussion except to say that with this book I’m finally reaching into the decade of my life when I started to become aware of things like punk rock, and women rockers, and that there were aspects of myself and my life I could only explore once I had a chance to head out to college (yes… the 90’s are my nostalgia decade.) My politics were more “NYU film student goes to the Matrix and then a goth club) than riot grrl, but the seeds were planted and reading this book brings back some memories. I’m looking forward to reading the rest!

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 25: Cemetery

I’m not sure what this is or where it came from, but today’s writing prompt was “cemetery,” and I couldn’t think of anything horror or spooky. Maybe it’s because I don’t tend to see cemeteries as inherently fear-inducing. I mean, I’m probably not going to go hang out in one at midnight for the heck of it (not to mention, that’s way past my bedtime.) But to me, cemeteries have always seemed peaceful places, where the dead are respected and loved. And so, this came out way more personal essay and journal reflection-y.

Day 25: Cemetery

When I die, he says out of the blue, I think I’d like to be buried in this cemetery.

He thinks about it, mulling over the options. His attention turned inward, I can track him turning the idea over and over, glimpse the moment in his eyes when he dismisses the idea.

It would be very expensive. Yes, it probably would. We’re entitled to a plot in the veterans’ cemetery.

I’ve often thought about this, myself. The VA cemeteries are calm, peaceful, with their regimented rows of white on green, each stone telling exactly the same and right information.

When I’m feeling melancholy, I picture that stone. There it stands, nestled next to my spouse, our names and ranks and religious denomination square and neat and delineated, two little stubs in a sea of perfectly maintained lawn.

I remember my first assignment on active duty orders after graduating basic training and advanced individual training. With my newly-minted certification in hand, I showed up to my unit. Do you want to join the funeral detail? I’d never thought about it. It’s a six-month order, and you will be paying respects to the veterans.

It was only a one-month gig; the detail ran out of money and was taken over in a rotating duty schedule. But for four weeks, I dressed to the nines in my Class A uniform with my one national defense service ribbon proudly displayed on my chest, and drove around the boroughs of New York City, laying to rest veterans. Mostly elderly, mostly men, but some who were younger, some who were women. Veterans who had served in conflicts I’d learned about in “poignant vignettes” during training. World War II. Korea. Vietnam. One, even, from Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

I was too young, then, to really think about where I would end up, although I found a distant comfort in the pomp and ceremony, even if at that time we played TAPS on a CD player with a remote control. Almost twenty years later, in the midst of a pandemic, I find myself revisiting memories, wondering again where my spouse and I might want to go, if it will be a place our children will want to visit occasionally, if they will be close enough to get together for the weekend and stop by to see our plot, remember the ceremony. If one of them will keep the flag. Where the mementoes of our service will end up.

I make a note to look it up later, a future to-do list, how to reserve a burial plot, how much they cost, who will handle the arrangements. A heavy topic for a beautiful fall day, with the shrieks of our daughters and their cousins filtering in from the outside, where the glorious foliage still clings to the valley. Days like these grow fewer with each one that passes, and I’m not ready to start on that final to-do list.

Someday.

But not today.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 23: Slither

Today I decided to go all in and make sure that I finished a story. It helped that it was The Writing Tribe co-working day, and that the class I was in let out just as the session began. I wanted to write something that wouldn’t necessarily reference snakes or leather or anything like that, so I did a quick internet search to see what the word would turn up. I had to click to the second page of results, past Slither.io and Slither, the Movie, to reach a post for a review of Slither, the board game. It’s a game that features moving pieces from one end of the board to another, and that’s all it took for my brain to start connecting the dots to a new flash fiction horror piece. Again, these are first draft, anything goes, let’s play with what turns up posts, so here is what came out!

Day 23: Slither

The game didn’t seem that hard. In the window that popped up on the glowing screen, it was a five-by-five square box with one black circle and one white circle positioned next to each other at the top center of the box.

The instructions materialized in other pop up.

Welcome to Slither, the game where you slide your way to victory! Find your way around your opponent to the other side of the board. First one there, wins!

That was it.

Mel was in the middle of a language lesson and had run out of extra points, so she had clicked on the option to watch an ad and gain more hearts. This game, Slither, had popped up. Usually Mel let the required time elapse and then just clicked it closed to go back to her Gaelic lesson, but this time, she let her finger hover over the screen.

The touchpad on this new phone was super sensitive. Without even touching the glass, the game had popped up with its easy instructions.

Curious, Mel grabbed the black icon with her thumb and tried to move it. She couldn’t get it to go straight forward; when she tried that and released the ball, the little icon slipped back to its starting position. Next, she tried moving diagonally. This time, she had no problem, depositing the little black ball in front of the white one.

Having played more than her fair share of mindless phone games, Mel expected to see the white ball go around, heralding a game of leapfrog to the end of the square.

Not much of a challenge. Whoever starts first wins.

She looked for the “x” that would close the ad and take her back to her language app, but it had disappeared. Even touching the tip of her finger to the screen didn’t bring it up. Instead, on the screen, the white ball jumped over the black one.

The moment the white ball landed on the other side, the entire screen turned a bright red, even the edges outside the game’s window.

“Ah, fuck.” Mel frantically tried to close the window, cursing again as the red screen persisted. “What the hell is this?”

The red faded and cleared, and the screen was back. This time, the game had multiplied and there were ten squares across each side. Two black balls and two white balls nestled at the top this time. A message popped up.

Welcome to Slither, the game where you slide your way to victory! Find your way around your opponent to the other side of the board. Don’t be the last one there!

“Don’t be the last one there?” Mel read aloud. “Forget this.”

She pressed the buttons that hard started the phone, hoping that turning it off and bringing it back up afterwards would fix whatever issue the game had caused on her phone. She was definitely going to have to submit something to the language app, letting them know that one of their advertisements was some kind of malware.

“Ah, fuck.” She muttered the words, pitching her voice low so her neighbors wouldn’t hear and complain again about profanity in the workplace.

The lockscreen appeared just fine, and she used her thumb to open it up. The first screen of apps appeared as normal, free and clear, but after a few seconds, the familiar grid pattern of the game faded in and took over the screen.

“Crap. I’m gonna lose my streak.”

Mel turned the phone all the way off and tossed it on her desk. She was going to have to get it looked at, and anyway, her lunch break was over. Powering up her work computer, she opened the spreadsheet she had been working on after that morning’s meeting.

The familiar grid lines and cross-sections popped up, color coded and organized, a complete map of her department’s expenditures by the month. It would be a matter of an hour or so to match the expenditures to the receipts, review for anything weird or over the approved limit, sign it, and send it forward. Then, maybe she could grab an afternoon coffee and see about calling someone about the phone.

Her cursor froze on the screen. She moved the mouse around, then attempted to use the mouse pad to unfreeze the little arrow.

“C’mon, dammit.” She glared at the screen. What is it with technology—always at the worst time. Maybe it was time to get that afternoon coffee.

A familiar square started forming on the screen, pale at first, then gradually becoming less and less translucent, until it took up almost the entire screen. This time, the squares had grown yet again, to a twenty-by-twenty box, with three black and three white balls at the top, arranged in an alternating pattern.

Welcome to Slither!

Mel stood up, looking over the three-quarter gray fabric walls that portioned off her little cubicle from the others on the floor. Is someone fucking with me? She couldn’t think of who it might be. Nor, looking around, did she see anyone popping their head up, casting an eye around the cube farm to see who might be reacting to their dumb prank.

Sitting back down, she hovered her fingers over the alt-ctrl-delete button sequence. She’d lose some work shutting down like that, but it was better that than yet another lecture from the geeks in the IT department. Mel wasn’t even sure how playing a game on her phone had infected her computer, but she didn’t want to hear about it.

Without warning, a high-pitched BEEEEEE— erupted from the computer speakers.

Mel panicked, and tried to turn it off, turn the monitor off, turn the volume down, unplug the computer— The sound went on, each fraction of a second seeming like a year. Finally, she lunged for the mouse, clicked on one of the black balls and dragged it one diagonal space.

Like magic, the sound shut off.

“What the heck was that, Mel?” A head popped over the cube wall. Stan, her cube mate on the other side. “You get some feedback?”

She smiled, still feeling the heat in her cheeks and the shake of the post-adrenaline rush. “Yeah. Something. Feedback. Ugh. Technology.”

Stan chuckled. “It’s the worst.” Shaking his head, he disappeared from view.

On the screen, Mel looked where she had moved the ball. She had grabbed it and shifted it to the side, advancing, yet out of the path of the white ball. On screen, one of the center white balls pulsed, then moved, settling directly in front of one of her black balls. Mel, remembering the first game, clicked on the black ball and leapfrogged it over the white one. With a sickening crunch, the white one dissolved and faded.

Mel breathed deeply. She didn’t know what was going on, but if all she had to do was play a game to get her computer back, she could do that. Carefully, she moved another ball, staying out of the line of attack of the white balls.

Slowly, the white and black balls advanced down the screen, Mel mostly in the lead. As her first ball reached the end of the square, she moved it into the line, expecting—hoping—to see it release her from the screen. Instead, another white ball moved into a new position.

“Crap.” Mel closed her eyes. Okay, no problem, the rest of the balls are almost there. Christ.

Without thinking, she moved her black ball into the path of the white one. This time, the white one wasted no time in jumping her piece. The screen flashed red, but Mel barely noticed.

Her attention focused on the screaming pain from the shallow furrow along her right forearm. Whatthehell, whatthehell, whatthehell?

The red faded away, leaving the game as before. Mel stared at her arm until a soft warning beep sounded. Once. Twice, a little louder. Three ti—

She cut it off, clicking her last black ball and sliding it into place at the end of the block.

Congratulations, Slither Resident! You have leveled up!

From across the cube farm, a scream started, an anguished cry of pain that went on and on until Mel and Stan and everyone else on the floor had popped up, searching for the source like so many corporate gophers.

“Do you see Luz?” Stan asked.

Mel shook her head. Luz was in accounts receivable, a short, spry woman with a twinkle in her eye and a fondness for bringing delicious home-baked Mexican pastries to share with the office on Fridays.

Oh, God. Had she been playing against Luz? On the game? Jesus Christ, what the hell was happening?

Mel bent to her computer, hitting alt-ctrl-delete as fast as she could. The screen went dark as the computer powered down.

So did the lights.

The rest of the office was still standing, still wondering what was going on. They hadn’t started milling around again, just hanging out in their little cubes, looking at each other. One or two cracked a joke about paying the electric bill.

The darkness grew, cutting off even the small amount of light that came from computer screens and phone flashlights.

No. Oh, God. No.

The light went completely out, the darkness total.

A white light appeared overhead, the illumination slowly spreading until it had evenly lit the entire area where Mel stood with her colleagues. The gray fabric cube walls were gone, replaced by two-inch wide even lines that demarcated where their cubes had been.

It looked exactly like—but how can it be?I

Mel tightened her grasp around the knife in her right hand.

The words formed above them, coalescing from nothing into a familiar, opaque script.

Welcome to Slither, the game where you slide your way to victory!

Like before, Mel made the first move.

* * *

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31 Days of Art, Day 22: Elegance

It may be a little obvious, but I’m a little behind in this challenge. I have an idea that incorporates the prompts for Days 16-18, but Days 19-21 were just too jam-packed with, among other things, launching a mini-horror anthology. I didn’t want to just let go of the challenge, as I’ve been enjoying the discipline and creative spark that’s been brewing, but I also have to come to terms with the fact that there is a finite number of hours in a day, and a limit to how many of those hours are at my personal disposal. So, I wrote down the 16-18 prompt in a quick outline and saved it in the folder I made for this challenge. I also came up with an idea, not related to the challenge, but to a tumblr post I’d seen here and there. That idea, I wrote down on an index card during a break from class. It’s currently inserted as a bookmark in the book I’m reading, and I may take it out later and flesh it out.

Today’s prompt, “elegance,” came to me with an image of an expensive, hand-tooled fountain pen gently scratching beautiful penmanship into a piece of thick, white paper… but the ink is a deep red that dries to brown, and the person writing is not sending a well-crafted letter to a penpal. Again, the outline for the story showed up with the image; however, sitting in class all day, and then setting up promo and marketing for the mini-anthology launch, doesn’t not leave me with many brain cells to flesh out a full story. So I made myself write the three paragraphs that were already in my fingers, and I’ll finish the story up at some point in the future…

Day 22: Elegance

The nub scratched gently across the thick paper, just the right amount of pressure applied to the old-fashioned fountain pen to accent the curlicues, the painstaking dot of the i’s as the words bled onto the page.

The penmanship was the most beautiful thing, aesthetically speaking, filled with an old-school elegance he had not seen in years. Up to the peaks of the strong l’s and h’s. Just so with the sharp stakes of the scrawled p’s. Yes, the handwriting was the most interesting thing about what she was laying down on the paper.

The words… well, they wouldn’t matter as much, would they? Some trite pablum, forgiveness or penance, it was all the same.

To be continued…

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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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