Archive | November, 2014

Numbers and Words

21 Nov

The first time I wrote something that was more than a couple thousand words, I really thought, “Wow, I could be a writer.” I’m sure it was high school and when I broke through that multi-page barrier, it probably felt like a major breakthrough. It’s hard to put that into context now. On a regular basis these days, I will write a few thousand words and just abandon them – or at the very least, just put them aside, in perpetuity.

When I wrote a story that broke the five thousand word limit, it kind of blew my mind. It was double digits in page count and I couldn’t believe it. There was such a sense of empowerment in the work that I totally ignored how terrible it was. I kept going, and every artificial milepost impressed the hell out of me. About the time I hit 30,000 words my storytelling muscles had been completely exhausted. I’d written myself in circles and had no plan for moving forward.

I stuck to short stories for a while after that, and loved carving out tiny pieces of madness. I could embrace the fire for a brief time, but not get burned. And then I wrote a gigantic mess of a novel, hammering out thousands of words a day – writing in the morning, at night, anytime I could find to work. In a couple of weeks I had blown past the fifty thousand word mark and sailed higher and higher. It was a good feeling. Unfortunately, there was nothing in that steaming pile of crazy that could be salvaged. It sat there, mocking me with how terrible it was – goading me to knock it off its smug perch. And when I set out to surpass that record, I hit 60,000 – then 70,000 – on a new project. It was awful too, but in a much different way. There was all the structure and story elements a book needed to be a living thing.

My current and most recent record is just a hair over 110,000 words in length. I know it can be trimmed down – in fact, I’m counting on it. But the size of the work isn’t what matters. This time around, I know better how to put a story together, and what order the bits and pieces need to be in. Whether you think of it as building an engine of interlocking pieces, or sewing up body parts to build a new Frankenstein’s monster, if the gears and guts and motors and organs aren’t where they need to be it is going to be a messy failure. And although I have plenty of bad things to say about my latest/greatest work (so far), I know that it a complete thing, all on its own. I can see how it works, and I’m proud of it.

When I think of works that I’ve read and enjoyed – or fallen in love with – the size of it doesn’t matter so much. Of Mice and Men, or The Old Man and the Sea are incredibly short and packed with power. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books are impossibly huge by comparison, but couldn’t be done with less. The range in size of the most famous books, or my favorite books, is vast. In my attempts to tell a story, the hardest part is not figuring out how many words to use, but which words to use. When I look at infographics, like the one below, my brain doesn’t know how to process it. Which is partly why I enjoy this particular one so much. There is a lot of information, but very little commentary on it.

Like so many other things in life, it is easy to get caught up in looking at the wrong criteria. The price, or color, or perceived value of a thing can be misleading. As a writer – and especially as an editor! – my best work comes through when I can cut away the crap, and focus on the utility. Does this work? What doesn’t work? Did I say what I needed to say? How can I make it better? It’s a messy process, it’s a deeply personal affair, and there is no guarantee of success. What do you do? What can you do? You go to work. You write. That is the only way to make things better.

Δ

Word? Words.

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The Worst Fear

14 Nov

I first saw this about a year ago and didn’t give it much thought. Of course, I mulled it over, but it didn’t have a significant impact. But now, as I am writing down details of the Big Plan, it has returned to the forefront of my mind.

The ‘worst’ fear to me isn’t that nobody will read my work. No. That’s an easy thing to consider – only a handful of people have read any of my work as it is. Ha! It is far more horrifying that some people will read my stuff – and then get too bored to finish it. An indifferently hostile world is pretty damn scary.

Perhaps I need a fire under my butt, to encourage me to clean up my work. I know that it is impossible to please everyone. Hell, with the way I write, I’m pretty sure that I can’t please most people. But maybe I can use this as a checklist of sorts. I’ll add it into my other lists of “do’s and don’ts” – as some kind of magical proof against failure. Is it a kind of magical thinking? Perhaps. I’m okay with that, if it keeps the fear at bay for a bit.

The Word of the Day: Tmesis

12 Nov
"These tmesis words are un-freakin'-believable!"

“These tmesis words are un-freakin’-believable!”

I don’t think I’ve done a “word of the day” before, but maybe we should start doing that. Every now and then I run into a word that stops me in my tracks. And today, that word is TMESIS. Damn, that’s a hot word. It is a word that is interrupted, or broken up, by another word. Although it has its roots in very old Greek and Latin, our beautiful and modern English language does it quite well. It is un-fucking-believable how common it is. (Aha! See what I did there?)

This came to my attention when I read something only tangentially related. I could point to several different instances of it, in colloquial use of course, but our language is so fluid and ever-changing. There will always be possible variations of this kind of grammar-bending. The best use that I’ve seen is “a whole nother thing”: the word ‘whole’ is just dropped, rudely, into the middle of ‘another’. It is abso-fucking-lutely beautiful.

Like many weird aspects of our language, we employ it every day, without noticing. Any time you have an odd verb that is just clinging in there on its own, chances are good that tmesis is in play. So, “turn it off” or “turn it up” or “turn down for what?” or whatever. I’m amazed that I’ve never noticed this beautiful element of our mother tongue before. And because I’m kind of in love, it gets to be my first ‘Word of the Day.’ Enjoy!

A Glutton for New Projects

10 Nov
(original image: wikipedia commons)

(original image: wikipedia commons)

Þ

Who has two thumbs and likes tackling new projects? This flaky procrastinator right here. Ha! It is the bane of every writer, isn’t it? We slave away and grind and burn the midnight oil, but our biggest enemy is always going to be ourselves. Unless, ya know, you are lucky enough to actually have a nemesis or something. Most of us aren’t that cool though. One of the most aggravating distractions that I deal with is the New Project problem. It’s like some kind of ‘seven week itch’ or something.

“Hey Brain, you know what would really derail my progress on this project?”
“Um, a brand new, totally different project?”
“YES! And what a coincidence…”

Now, I keep a ‘master list’ of story ideas, and I make lots of notes on things that inspire me. It’s a good way to mitigate the overwhelming desire to ditch this current piece of work for some new, sexy project that isn’t all up in my business. It’s saved me from quite a bit of heartache, but it’s not perfect. What if what I’m working on really isn’t very good? And what if this new thing really is perfect for me? Maybe it is super enticing for a reason? There isn’t any way to know for sure, unless I dive in and start writing. Right? Well, kind of…

Confession: I am a hedonist. I love everything that is good and delicious and fun – in heaping amounts. The reason I’m not dead of some weird, food-related overdose yet is that I am not a slave to my impulses. Really. Well, maybe a little. See, the point is that I can make a distinction between what I really, really want and what I need. The same has to be true for my work. Writing new projects is just like taking a bite out of a cookie, or digging into a chocolate mousse. That first tiny taste is divine, isn’t it? But I am well aware that if I indulge my every whim, I will get nowhere at all. It feels so damn grown up to say it, but I’ll do it anyway: Discipline. It is a skill, and I’m working on it. And when I flex my meager willpower muscles and succeed over my flighty urges, it feels like a win. I feel like a better writer.

However.

After ten thousand words into my newest novel, I totally got distracted by a shiny, new project. And for very good reasons, I am not concerned. I know that in the face of all of what I just wrote it might seem absurd – or worse, hypocritical – but I’m on to something here. I just got done with a hefty novel a month or so ago. It’s a damn good thing to jump back into the saddle, but word counts and artificial targets aren’t the end-all, be-all of being a productive writer. Not only do I need to keep my eyes on what inspires and engages my creativity, I need to keep my mind on my business.

I started a new, side project on a theme. As eye-rolling and cliché as it might be, I planned out a multi-part short story series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Sure, it’s been done – by better, smarter, and prettier people than me – but I immediately figured out my own path. It’s engaging to me, of course, but I also think I can sell it. And for all the weird, awkward, and disturbing things I’ve done in the name of writing, I have done very little to push myself down the Big Plan. The Big Plan is, of course, getting published, getting paid, getting rich and famous. All that good stuff.

I’m going to follow my instincts. Even if my instincts are telling me to dig in, have another serving of New Project. Maybe I need to take advantage of my enthusiasm while it’s there. After all, I’ve had plenty of “famine” – why not enjoy some “feast” for a change?

 

Another Page from the Forsaken Disks

5 Nov

            Somewhere in the forgotten folds of my brain, this story has been tickling me for years. About 15 years ago, a dear friend was trying to put out a horror (or macabre) themed magazine. I was very happy about that – not the least because I wanted her to publish my stuff. I was still trying out my writing muscles, and struggling to put together a cohesive tale. Everything was hit-or-miss, and shot straight from the hip.

            I sent this to her, she told me it was grotesque and made her happy. But I don’t think it ever saw any more attention than that. It was saved in some kind of no-longer-supported file format, and the computer was probably recycled or blown up not long after. However, I was smart enough to make backups on the best storage media that was available to me at the time: 3.5 floppy disks. Oh hell yeah.

            This story – and many more like it – were lost, gone, for all time. I can barely believe myself how lucky I am. Just having all this stuff again is like opening a time capsule. I’m going to rewrite this at some point – it seems like it deserves more love and attention than it got. But hey, that’s enough jibba jabba. Here. Here is the thing. I edited it only for spelling and punctuation, but oh man does it need some work. I hope you dig it!

 

<> <> <>

That is some creepy formatting, right there...

That is some creepy formatting, right there…

 

Dear *****,

I have no idea why I felt compelled to write this insane piece of weirdness. It just came to me in the night like a virus or an obsessed ex-lover with a foot-fetish. I dunno.

Anyway, since it might fit the parameters of a horror story or maybe a macabre story, I thought I’d give it to you to look at. I think it’s very rough (it is a rough draft) but could be very good. If you like it and want to use it, or part of it, for R******* please do so. Feel free to edit it to your pleasure. If you’d rather just give me feedback or editorial advice, and have me work on it, that’d be cool too. What-ever.

Patrick

 

THANK YOU MR. BUS DRIVER

It was raining. It seemed like it had been raining forever. Especially while I was waiting for the bus to school. I was the last pick-up stop for the bus, and I had to wait by myself. I used to talk to Rick when he was around, but he moved all of a sudden last year. So I got to stand, by myself, in the rain, every single day.

It wasn’t the rain I hated so much, or the fact that I was alone. If you’ve never had to do it, being the last person on the bus sucks. You never get a good seat. I either ended up sitting by Martin (who spits when he talks), or I got the emergency exit seat – which is so small it hurts your legs. Given the choice, I’d rather walk the ten miles to school, which isn’t much of an option.

The bus finally came, sputtering around the bend. The evil creak of its windshield wipers was louder than it’s diesel engine or the shade of yellow our school district chose. Water splashed up from the gutter as it grunted to a stop in front of me. The doors flapped open and I climbed up the steps. Our bus driver, Burt, glared at me over his huge nose – I tried not to look at him too much – and his big, wrinkled face cracked a smile.

Burt the bus driver was not normal. He seemed to take perverse pleasure in not being attractive. He’d only been our driver for about a year, but he’d already worn out my patience. Every morning, he leered at me and said the same thing.

“Mornin’…Paul.” His fat tongue rolled over his yellow, pointed teeth. “Good to see you.”

“Yeah…mornin’.” I muttered, as I avoided his gaze. I moved my way down the aisle.

As usual, I made my way to the emergency exit seat, and sat alone. Legs cramped, I shook the rain off my coat and looked around. The bus was packed, but everyone looked tired and worn out. So it was pretty quiet as Burt ground the bus’ gears and pulled away down the road. As we left Meadow Village (our housing development), I couldn’t help notice something different in Burt’s behavior. Every few minutes, he’d look up at his big rear-view mirror, and stare at me for a second or two. Then he’d snap his eyes back to the road and cough and wheeze for a bit. Then he’d look at me again. Burt kept this strange process up the entire trip.

When we pulled into the Lakeview High parking lot, the rain had let up a little. We all got up and began to file off the bus. As I passed by Burt, he started to cough and wheeze again. I looked at him (not pleasant under normal conditions), and quickly backed off the bus.

He’s not coughing, The thought hit me, he’s laughing. What kind of freak is he?

The bus doors slapped closed as the last kid stepped off. I pushed the thoughts from my head and started for my locker, but the sound of his laughter kept coming back to me. I shook my head and dismissed it.

I was a fool.

*          *          *

There was one thing on my mind when the school was out, and we got on the bus: Trisha Bower. She was so fine. And she liked me! The thought kept running through my head. We have a date! We’re practically going out! Here I was, a sixteen year-old sophomore, and I had a date with Trisha Bower! Every male with a pulse had a stiffy for her, and she wants to go out with me. I was so wrapped in it, I didn’t say two words on the ride home. I also didn’t pay any attention to Burt.

As the bus wound its way through Meadow Village, kids got off at their stops. But my mind was absorbed in Trisha; her body, hair, voice and smell. It wasn’t until the bus was leaving Meadow Village that I realized I’d missed my stop.

“Hey,” I shifted towards the aisle, “Burt! I needed to get off back there.” His head whipped up, and he looked at me in the mirror.

Burt threw his head back and laughed; an evil, lung-wrenching cackle that echoed through the empty bus. My heart leaped up to my throat, and I got seriously worried.

“Burt,” I said, laughing nervously, “have you, like, totally lost it or something?” Burt’s cackling subsided, but he just kept driving. “Hey… um… Burt? This ain’t funny, okay?”

For a minute he just drove in silence. When he looked up in the mirror again, his face – his eyes – looked grimly insane.

“Don’t you worry, Pauly!” he bellowed gruffly, “I’m gonna get you where you needs to go!” And at that, he let loose another cackle that rolled on as the bus plowed through the rain.

I kinda freaked at this point, but not ‘cause he called me ‘Pauly’. I hoisted my backpack and marched to the front doors. I put a hand on the rail and said, “Look, Burt, you can just let me off here. I’ll walk home.”

Too my surprise, he pulled the wheel to the right, and brought the bus to a quick stop on the shoulder of the road. The windshield wipers creaked their last, and Burt ground the e-brake into place. I thought he was going to open the doors, I couldn’t even fathom that he wouldn’t. But he just sat there for a second, with his huge, meaty hands on the steering wheel and his face studying the windshield becoming covered with rain. And then he spoke, his grumbling, ugly voice low.

“It’s your turn, Pauly.” He didn’t move, but he somehow got bigger. “I don’t wanna do it Pauly. But it’s your turn.”

“Wh-What are you talkin’ about?” I backed down the aisle. “Just… just open the door Burt.” Burt stood up and turned towards me, with his head down and shoulders hunched.

“It’s not like I gotta choice here,” he snapped, “You don’t get it. It’s outta my control.” He was looking at me like I was a piece of bacon at breakfast. His face contorted into a snarling mask of repulsiveness.

I had backed all the way to the middle of the bus, and the thought struck me. Yes, Burt has finally gone bye-bye. He raised up his huge hands as he started to plod towards me.

“Relax,” he growled, “it won’t hurt as much if you don’t fight it.”

Okay, that’s it for me! I thought, as I spun and grabbed at the emergency exit door handle. With both hands, I twisted it down until it clicked, and threw my shoulder against it. AND NOTHING HAPPENED! I slammed it again – and it refused to open! I heard Burt laughing, his raspy, wheezing laugh.

“Pauly,” he chortled, “You sit there every day. You think I wouldn’t lock it?” His laughter stopped, but his cracked smile remained – twisting his big face even further. “It’s time.”

He lunged towards me, and I tried to jump clear, but his fat arms latched around my shoulders and he slammed me into the seat. He twisted me around, my arms pinned to my sides, and brought his face close to mine. The sweaty folds of flesh on his pock-marked face seemed inhuman. His eyes glittered with evil, and his tongue snaked out of his mouth to wet his milky, cracked lips. The smell was indescribable.

This can’t be happening! My mind screamed, I’ve got a date with Trish! I can’t die now! I can’t!

“Burt! Burt,” I stammered, “you don’t want to kill me! You can’t do-”

“Kill you?” he leered, his head tilted, “Why would I wanna kill you? After all, you kept me company at the bus stop every day. Every day since junior high, just you ‘n me waitin’ for the bus.”

My mind scrambled. I sat there at looked at him, and he looked back with that insane smile on his face. Somewhere, deep beneath that grisled, hideous face, I saw the impossible. Ricky. “No! No!” I squirmed in his vice-like grip, “That’s not possible!”

He just held on and said, “It’s your turn Pauly.” He inhaled, a deep slow breath so big I thought he’d pop. My eyes froze. I was paralyzed with terror. And then he…breathed on me.

Waves of odor attacked my senses: pickles and mayonnaise, tuna fish, cigarettes, moldy milk and stale beer, spoiled meat, athlete’s foot, cheese, breath mints and maybe a hint of curry – too many smells, too much sensation for my mind. I screamed, I think, though I know I flailed. Ricky had let go of me, and I spasmed on the seat. The olfactory madness was everything. The smells covered me, sank into my skin, poured into my lungs. I felt myself convulse, but couldn’t vomit – that smell had added to the overall effect too, along with sweat and methane, urine and pork.

Suddenly, I felt my body swell. It started in my feet first, but my head was the worst. My cheeks puffed and expanded, my forehead bulged and lumped at unnatural angles. I clawed at my mouth, with my mitten-like, hairy fingers. My lips curled and cracks formed, with drool and spittle filling them. Inside my mouth, my tongue probed at teeth that crumbled and at new molars that twisted and warped my jaw. Joints popped, my stomach inflated and sagged, my nose bulged and pits formed on my face.

It ended quickly. Shuddering, I sat up. Ricky stood over me. He bent down and hefted me to my feet. I wobbled, mostly upright, with a severe hunch in my left shoulder. My senses had been altered along with my body. The smell of the bus wafted to my disfigured nostrils. And I liked it.

“R-R-Ricky?” my new, scratchy voice intoned. “What…happened?” I glanced at him through my squinty, swollen eyelids. It occurred to me that his blue and brown flannel went well with his green slacks.

“My name’s Burt now,” he rumbled. “You gotta pick a name for yourself too.” After a moment he added, “Well?”

“Uh…I…I dunno, Burt,” My mind began to slow down. “How ‘bout Ernie?”

“Hmmm…I like it.” He turned and sauntered towards the front of the bus. “Well, let’s go Ernie.” I felt like my brain was mush, but I forced myself to want to know.

“Burt. Burt, you gotta tell me what happened,” I pleaded. “What’s goin’ on? What the hell am I?” Burt turned, and put a fleshy hand on my shoulder.

“You’re a creature of darkness now,” I could feel my will slipping away. “Part of a brotherhood, a secret the world will never know.” He paused for effect, but it was wasted – I was losing my ability to reason.

“You are a Bus Driver.” Burt declared, and I knew. I knew it was true.

Moments later, as I eased the bus back onto the road, headed for my initiation, I felt as if a hunger had been satiated. Burt’s words resounded in my mind, “It’s your turn, it’s your turn.”

Yes. My turn to take the wheel.

 

A Treasure Trove of Madness

3 Nov
One point four megs of awesome

One point four megs of awesome

I was cleaning out some junk and odds and ends today, when I came across a stack of old CDs and 3.5 floppy disks. For the most part, these were easy to throw away – you know, stuff like AOL mailers, or drivers for printers that we don’t even own. But some of those 3.5 floppies had very compelling labels on them. Important dates, from 15 years ago on them, or words like ‘Journal’ and ‘S3kr1t Th1ng5!’ Damn. I couldn’t just toss those away. As any writer knows, this kind of stuff could be GOLD, baby.

Fortunately, the PC tower in my living room is old enough to have a 3.5 reader. I plopped myself down with a stack of these square diskettes and got to work. First disk was damaged. Second disk was not formatted. Third disk made a hideous scratching sound. But the next disk had weird, weird stuff on it. It was formatted all wrong, and even with notepad it wouldn’t read correctly. But there were words there. And what I read was from so long ago that it was almost unfamiliar. It was a success! I felt as though I had reached into the past and saved some of my oldest writing from the clutches of complete obsolescence. Damn, I feel lucky.

I am still working through the files. So many pictures, so many words. I am at turns horrified and fascinated. And because I care about you, I will share. At least, I’ll share some of it. Here. Without edit, is an untitled piece of mine from 1999 (at least, I think – it could be 1997!). Enjoy!

<> <> <>

With salamander-like movements, Jack worked his way up the narrow, cobbled street. Even at midnight, the city baked with a stifling heat – transforming shadows to mirages. Pools of humid darkness poured into the gutters ahead of Jack. People milled about, even in this ungodly hour. Jack pulled his trench-coat tighter and tried to avoid the small clusters of people.

Inside his coat, where his right arm should have been, something moved – a squishy, reptilian movement.

“Oh god, oh god”, Jack breathed.

His left arm grabbed his right, as he stopped and stood up straight, eyes closed. “This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening,” ran through his mind like a mantra. The squishy motions stopped abruptly. He opened his eyes.

“Hey man, whatchoo got?” Jack glanced to his left.

A kid – fifteen, sixteen – was swaggering towards him; baseball cap on backwards, cigarette stuck in his teeth and a look of bored violence of his face. Jack tipped his head away, his fedora hiding his face, and coughed.

“Whatchoo got? Inda coat, man?” the teen gestured with his smoke.

“Um.. look, son. I – I…” Jack stammered, his mind racing.

“Too damn hot for coat like dat.” The teen leered at him. “Maybe I take it off your hands, man.”

Jack stepped back then spasmed. “Look, it’s not safe”, he snapped, “get away.”

But he sensed it was too late. The thing where his arm should have been wiggled in gelatinous sort of way. He could feel cool rivulets of ooze seep down his leg. “G-g-get away!”

The youth looked at him confused, his mouth open as if to speak, then his eyes widened with horror.

<> <> <>

And that’s IT. There isn’t any more. What was with the tentacle under his coat, man? What did that youth see that made his eyes go wide with horror? Was it a giant tentacle arm? I don’t even know. I do remember a picture that a good friend drew about that time. It was of a man in a trench coat, limping along a sidewalk, trying to conceal the mass of worms that were where his arm should be. It was a good piece and it inspired this, obviously.

Back when I wrote this, I was just toying with writing. Most of my creative energy was wasted, but I remember struggling to find my voice, or a way to tell my stories. Reading this now, there are a couple of choice bits in there that make me happy. “… a look of bored violence on his face.” “… cold rivulets of ooze…” I was just playing with words, checking out how they fit together.

I’m very glad I found this stuff. I’ll post more, if it doesn’t embarrass me to death.