Scene From a Waiting Room

Two of my favorite hobbies have always been people watching and eavesdropping, long before I declared myself a writer and could claim such behavior as “research.” In fact, if I watch people long enough I’ll usually give them names, and sometimes even backstories.

For instance: I have a neighbor I named Jim, who I decided works for the water department and recently went through a nasty divorce, after he caught his ex-wife cheating on him with a 19 year old from the Geek Squad. Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of that is true (although it certainly could be), but that’s what I came up with one day, when I saw him standing outside his apartment angrily smoking a cigarette.

So, it is with great delight that I share one of the best conversations I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening in on. This was Friday morning.

A crowded waiting room, full of mostly miserable people. The morning is stormy on and off; many in the cramped sitting area still have rain drying on their clothes. Across from me sit two people appearing not to have much in common: One a young black man, mid-twenties. He’s clean shaven, short hair, wearing beige cargo-style pants and a gray hoodie. He’s holding a hardcover book with a library barcode across the cover. Specifically, it’s The Widow by Fiona Barton. I decide he looks like a Kevin.

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A book that, I find out later, is a New York Times bestseller and came out just five months ago, which leaves me feeling a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it.

The other, a fifty-ish white guy who looks like he’s seen better days. His hair is greasy and slicked back. He has a bushy mustache, his cheeks look like salt-and-pepper colored coarse grit sandpaper. Grease stains and paint spot his jeans up and down the legs. He’s quite tan, with pronounced crow’s feet and deep wrinkles in his forehead. Despite being  rather small, I decide he worked construction when he was young and verile, and wonder if he works now. Possibly a house painter, I think, judging from the paint. I name him Larry.

Kevin initiates the conversation, which for some reason surprises me. It starts, as most conversations between strangers seem to, with the weather. Larry replies amicably, and they exchange observations about the rain that had fallen and what that means in regard to the heat and humidity once the sun eventually comes out (spoiler alert: miserable). Before long, however, it becomes clear that Kevin has a bit of a one track mind.

“I’m reading this book, The Widow, have you heard of it?”

Larry says he hasn’t.

“It’s pretty good so far, I like it. What do you like to read, fiction or non-fiction?”

Larry mumbles something I can’t make out, then says non-fiction. I wonder if his answer is an attempt to politely indicate to Kevin that this is not a subject to which he can easily contribute.

“Oh yeah, non-fiction?” Kevin says. “I don’t like non-fiction too much. I love fiction, though. What’s your favorite book?”

Larry again mumbles something incomprehensible, perhaps as a stalling tactic. I wonder if he has a favorite book. He finally comes up with an answer, which I don’t hear, that apparently is about space travel. Kevin shows interest and asks him a follow up question about science fiction, and Larry remarks how incredible it is that things that seemed futuristic in books when he was a kid are becoming reality.

Kevin nods, then moves on to describing the plot of The Widow, which he likens to Gone Girl, but without all the big plot twists. It’s clear from the look on his face that Larry is not familiar with Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book or David Fincher’s film adaptation.

Larry seems clearly uncomfortable with the topic at hand and manages to turn the conversation back to the weather, saying he rode his bike in the rain to get there. Kevin says he used to ride his bike a lot but turned to running instead. I wonder for a moment if Kevin realizes that for him biking was recreational exercise while for Larry it’s apparently his primary mode of transportation.

There’s a slight look of relief in Larry’s eyes, though, perhaps because he thinks there might be a chance of turning the conversation back to a subject (bikes or weather) he can more easily speak to. There’s a beat of silence, then Kevin asks another question. The relief leaves Larry’s eyes as quickly as it had arrived.

“So, which do you like better, ebooks or printed books?”

At this point I smile, stifling a laugh.

Larry replies with something about “real books.”

Kevin agrees, stating that in his opinion, while ebooks provide a convenience that is unmatched, there is nothing quite like the feel of a printed book in your hands (an opinion I happen to share). He then gushes about the smell of books, and how, above all else, it is that smell which makes printed books superior.

Not long after this (perhaps due to Larry’s increasing lack of response) Kevin finally relents some. He steers the conversation away from books and reading, telling Larry a little about himself. He says that he works full time in the evening and goes to school full time during the day. He’s just gotten his Bachelor’s Degree and is now pursuing his Master’s, with hopes of going on to get a PhD. (I desperately wish I could’ve heard what he does for a living and his field of study at school–for once these are two items I’d rather not make up.) He says he goes to school, goes to work, then with what little free time he has–I’m assuming somewhere around 1 or 2am–he enjoys some form of entertainment, typically a movie or (big surprise) reading. The conversation dwindles, then Kevin’s number is called. He bids Larry good day and walks off. I feel a little tinge of sadness as he goes.

It wasn’t a long encounter, definitely less than ten minutes even with awkward pauses sprinkled in, but it had a pretty big effect on me. I can’t remember the last time I saw an adult–male or female, black or white–show that much enthusiasm for books and reading. It almost thawed the cold, black stone in my chest that passes for a heart (almost). It wasn’t just that he had such passion, it was that he unabashedly shared that passion with a perfect stranger, in the form of Larry. That’s awesome. I wondered if after Larry left his appointment he might think about his conversation with Kevin and ride his bike over to the library to look for a book to check out. I wonder if he’d like The Martian.

Surely there’s something to take away from this encounter, right? There must be.

I guess it’s this: Don’t be afraid to share your passion with people, whatever it is. Don’t worry about what other people are going to think about the stuff you like. Don’t stop yourself in the middle of what you’re saying and apologize, or say “I know, it’s dumb.” It’s not dumb. Who knows, you might make an impact on the person you’re talking to, or the introverted weirdo who appears to be staring with serial killer intensity at his phone but is actually listening to everything you say. Either way, don’t be shy about it. Let your freak flag fly–spread that passion around, and liberally. Be a Kevin.

 

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Demon House

A change in my schedule has landed me temporarily on the night shift and allowed me a relatively large amount of free time during the hours when most people are dead to the world. I’m trying to use that time to get back on the proverbial horse in regard to my writing (of which I’ve done woefully little this year), and started with this relatively simple story. Anyone who knows what I’ve been dealing with the past few months—and the last week in particular—should have no trouble spotting the metaphor.

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The foundation had cracks. The floorboards were warped and swollen from moisture. Shingles were missing from the roof and there was a hole over the kitchen where a hailstone the size of a baseball had broken through during  a storm the previous spring.

None of that phased Doug. Nor did the termite damage, the poor insulation, or the rusted old pipes that jetted brown water out of the faucets before clearing up. The first time he looked at the house, the realtor’s apologetic tone fell on deaf ears as Doug gazed at the small patch of blue sky visible through the hail-born skylight.

“It’s perfect, he said. “I’ll take it.”

The realtor’s jaw hung open momentarily. He blinked. “You’ll take it? You want to make an offer?”

“I want the house.” Doug found it difficult to put what he was feeling into words. He looked at the scuffed up wall where an old refrigerator had presumably stood for decades, crying for a fresh coat of paint and gestured around the room. “It’s got character. This is the house for me.”

The realtor was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and get Doug back to the office to start the paperwork before he changed his mind. Fourteen days later, Doug had the keys.

It went smoothly enough, to start. Doug patched up the hole over the kitchen and replaced the missing shingles on the roof, then began slowly replacing floorboards and installing new plumbing. He adored the house in spite of its imperfections. Possibly even because of them. It was about a month after he moved in that the real problems started.

At first it was little things—a faint puff of air that sounded like a whisper but was probably just the wind, things falling off of shelves that he must’ve left too close to the edge—Doug didn’t think much of it. Soon doors started slamming behind him and the faint whispers became moans and groans. Doug got less and less sleep, spending much of the night picking up broken knickknacks, the rest of the time forcing himself to keep his eyes shut while he lay in bed and ignore what was happening around him.

He soldiered on, fixing what he could and picking up the pieces as more broke, never asking himself what he should do about it. Things were just the way they were. He dealt with the issues as they arose and carried on, slowly realizing he was absolutely exhausted. Months went by until one day he mentioned his woes to a coworker who asked him a question profound in its simplicity.

“Why do you still live there?”

Doug frowned. “What do you mean? It’s my house.”

“There are houses everywhere. Literally, everywhere. You can find another. It sounds to me like the one you’re living in has some ghosts—demons.”

The notion hung in Doug’s mind. Was that really all there was to it? Could it be a matter of just finding another place? Something about it seemed to him like cheating, like he was taking the easy way out. Was it really that simple?

Over the next few weeks Doug began to seriously consider moving—usually when he was somewhere else, lest the  house know what he was thinking—and the idea started taking hold, putting down roots in his brain. His co-worker was right, his house was haunted, and he’d gotten so used to dealing with the moans and groans, the slamming doors and breaking knickknacks, that it had become commonplace. The thought of living in a house where those things didn’t happen seemed almost too good to be true.

Doug began mentally taking stock of what he would pack up first and and browsing through the real estate section of the newspaper. Excitement and anticipation grew in his belly as moving out of the ghost-riddled pit that had been his home became closer to being reality.

As if it knew, things began to escalate at the house. One night as Doug was padding into the kitchen for a glass of water, the cabinet door opened and slammed shut hard enough to rattle the windows and the chef’s knife that had been siting on the counter teetered and fell point down, stabbing the top of his foot. Doug shouted a wave of profanities, knowing it was no accident. It wasn’t a coincidence. The house was actively trying to hurt him.

After his second time tripping over and stepping on things in the night that hadn’t been there when he went to bed, Doug slept with all the lights on. He started parking in the driveway after waking one morning to find his car running in the garage and the house filling with exhaust. The house wanted to keep him there, all to itself.

With a lot of searching and a little luck, Doug found a new place. It wasn’t as big or nice as the house he’d be moving out of, but he could feel the different energy in the new place. No ghosts. No demons. Nothing but walls and a roof and a floor.

On each subsequent trip back to the house to pick up the last of his things it got a little harder for Doug to leave. Not necessarily for sentimental reasons but because the house made it physically difficult for him to get out. A bookshelf falling over, blocking the door; his car battery somehow going dead despite being brand new; the couch sliding in front of him when he had his arms full in an attempt to trip him.

The last time Doug was in the house, he was having a look around seeing what was left to be taken out. There were still some things he wanted to grab, but most of the essentials had already been taken to the new place. As he was walking down the hall, Doug noticed a chunk of drywall that had fallen away at some point since he’d been there last, exposing a stud full of rot and mold. Frayed electrical wiring hung haphazardly along the the board. Doug stared wide-eyed at the potential disaster, wondering how he’d lived there as long as he had relatively unscathed.

He reached up instinctively with a pointed index finger to touch the frayed wire then hesitated and took a step back, something telling him to use caution. As if on cue, the wire sparked and Doug recoiled. A second spark shot out and the wire began to smolder upwards. A chunk of the stud crumbled away and a puff of dust floated down from the ceiling, surrounding Doug’s head, and the ominous feeling grew inside him. Something bad was about to happen. Something worse than bad. Another piece of the beam crumbled and the ceiling above him buckled. Doug took a step back and a piece of tile crashed down, landing where he’d been standing five seconds earlier. A faint rumble carried through the house and the rotted, exposed stud gave way. The ceiling fell in a domino effect through the room and Doug took off in a sprint. The house collapsed behind him as he ran. At first he thought it was chasing him out, then he realized he was wrong—he was outrunning it as it tried to trap him inside.

Doug burst through the front door to the driveway, the house quaking on its foundation. He made it to his car before turning back to look, just in time to see the place he had called home collapsing in on itself like it were being consumed by a black hole. A small mushroom cloud of dust plumed up from the rubble, and for a moment Doug considered trying to go back and sift through the debris for anything left that could be salvaged, before wisps of smoke wafted up from the heap. The stuff went up like tinder; flames licked at the dry, brittle wood that had made up its frame, engulfing it all in under a minute. Doug leaned against his car and watched it burn as he called the fire department. He could hear the sirens but there would be nothing they could do. It would be little more than ash by the time they got there.

When he thought back, he had mixed feelings about the time he spent in the house. Although it ended in a flaming pile of rubble he would still always have fond memories of those early days—gazing through the hole in the roof over the kitchen, thinking about all the potential, how much could be done to turn it into the house of his dreams. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. As far from it as you could get, actually. But in the end one thing went through his mind like a gunshot in an echo chamber:

At least he got the fuck out of that godforsaken house before it collapsed and trapped him inside forever.

Wonderbook: Worth its Weight in Gold

We all had the “cool” teacher in school—do you remember yours? Mine was Coach Mahr (I think that’s how he spelled it). He taught anatomy and physiology, and was also the track/cross country coach at our high school. He was younger than a lot of the other teachers (probably mid-thirties), and could often be seen out on the track, running alongside his team. In the classroom, he was funny and engaging, and his class was a lot of fun. In contrast, my 12th grade English teacher was Mrs. Simons, was an uptight Irish woman who ran a tight ship and made her class dreadfully boring to attend.

In books about writing, we have Strunk and White on one end of the spectrum (indispensable as it is, The Elements of Style is a bore—stuffy, and a chore to actually try and read), and on the other end, the “cool” one, is Jeff VanderMeer and his awesome writing tutorial Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.

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Have you ever had the experience of intrinsically knowing something, and the first time you hear or see that something explained a flash bulb goes off in your brain? That’s kind of what reading Wonderbook has been like for me.

See, one of the most common pieces of advice for writers is, ‘you have to read a lot.’ And that’s good advice, because it’s really the only way to see what you do and don’t like, what you think works and what doesn’t, etc. But in the end you pick a lot of those things up almost subconsciously, to the point that you may know what to do but you may not be sure just why (or sometimes, how). Then along comes the amazing, all-knowing wizard Jeff VanderMeer to break it all down for you.

This book explains things I’ve never seen anyone even attempt to explain before (and believe me, I’ve done my share of research and studying). Most writing books lean more to the Strunk and White side of things—a focus on grammar rather than constructing a story. VanderMeer talks about all aspects of creating: from story structure and pacing to character development, and even the act of creating itself, and recognizing and nurturing your own imagination to be your most productive. What’s more, there are a multitude of essays from renowned authors such as Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, to name but a few.

Wonderbook is also chock full of illustrations, some to help drive certain points home, but also just to keep your brain engaged and make the book entertaining. I’m sure I’m probably violating some kind of copyright laws by putting this on my blog, but somehow I think Mr. VanderMeer would be okay with it. It’s one of my favorites:

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The book is chock full of similar illustrations, getting even more bizarre and surreal. The book is so densely packed with useful information that within the first few pages I was asking where this marvelous thing had been all my life. It’s also worth noting that I haven’t even finished the book yet. I was going to wait until I was done to write up this piece, but I soon realized I’ll never really “finish” it, because aside from the text, there are also writing exercises and supplemental online content to further the Wonderbook experience. Not to mention the fact that Wonderbook will also serve as a sort of reference manual for me for years to come.

Add to all this the fact that Jeff VanderMeer isn’t just some guy telling other people how to do what he hasn’t had success doing. If you’re not familiar with the name, you may recognize his acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy—Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance—which came out to rave reviews last year and are now on track to become a series of movies as well. It gives the advice in Wonderbook a little more weight, somehow.

If you’re a writer or know someone who is (or is thinking about becoming one), they need this book, even if they don’t know it. It’s slightly geared toward fantasy and sci-fi writers, but they’re hardly the only people who will benefit from reading it. I can’t think of a single more useful tool to writers at all levels of competency, and in all genres.

Check it out at amazon here.

Sleep, who needs it?

Subway is a nefarious band of lowly olive hoarders. This really doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but I have to get it off my chest. With all the meats and cheeses they have that you would think cost them so much more, how has the simple black olive come to be the most valuable ingredient under their roof?

Black gold.

Subway’s black gold.

They put, like, six little rings on a footlong, and only a few more if you ask for extra. Maybe they’re regulated by the fearsome Black Olive Mafia (BOM, for short), and are only allowed one olive ring per two inches of sandwich, or risk severe fines and penalties. And you don’t want to piss off the BOM.

Anyway, moving on…

I did have one piece of writing-related news I forgot to mention in my last post: my short story Of the Beholder is being published in the horror anthology Robbed of Sleep: Stories to Stay Up For, Volume II, which is out in e-book format TODAY! (and coming soon in paperback) RoSV2 features 19 authors and is edited by Troy Blackford. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and I really like the story included for a couple of reasons:

1) It was the product of a writing prompt, which I had never thought of as a way to produce a good, viable story. I saw prompts just as a way for people to get over writer’s block and nothing more. I know now I was wrong.

2) I rewrote, edited, revised, and ultimately finished the story while I had a lot going on in my life, both personally and professionally. I had become incredibly unhappy at my job and was deliberating the pros and cons of looking for work elsewhere, and this was around the time my wife spent 3 nights in the ICU. Working on the story provided me with both a distraction from my problems and a release of frustration.

During the writing of this story I realized that writing was more than just something I did in my spare time. It had become a part of me and who I was—I realized I need to be writing to be happy (although for a few years writing was replaced by making music, so maybe I just need a creative outlet), and that’s around the time I really tried to kick myself into high gear in regard to my productivity, with mostly positive results.

I say all that so to say this: check out my story, Of the Beholder, in Robbed of Sleep: Stories to Stay Up For, Volume II. It’s an awesome assortment of scary stories told by some really talented writers. Besides, sleep is highly overrated anyway, don’t you think?

I’m finally finished (by which I mean I’m really not even close to being finished at all)

A little over a year ago (okay, it was 06/17/13, I got curious and looked it up) I wrote a post proclaiming I’d finished the rough draft of my first novel. I won’t/can’t go back and read it because it will make me cringe too hard, but I remember not feeling the sense of pride or accomplishment I thought I would or should.

There were a couple reasons for that: the story’s word count was simply too low for it to be considered a novel, as it was solidly in novella territory, but I also just didn’t like the way the story turned out. It was a good idea, and one I’m itching to rewrite in the near future, but that first draft was mostly unusable crap.

I mention all that because after writing still another rough draft that was novella length (one that was much better and will take significantly less to make it into a something workable), I finally have a legitimate rough draft of a legitimate novel. And you know what? It feels pretty good.

It’s a rewrite of a novella I wrote maybe a year and a half, two years ago. I was proud of it then, and gave it to a couple people to read. Their opinions were unanimous—what I thought was a cool cliffhanger ending to the story left them coldly unsatisfied. “It stopped right when it was getting good,” one of them said.

So I went on to other things and kept writing, but the story burned in the back of mind constantly (as all unfinished stories do), until finally I had an idea that I thought might work. Then a few months ago I got to it and started writing, which has left me where I am now—with just over 65,000 words of raw mass. A giant hunk of clay, waiting to be formed into a bizarre-looking ashtray. Or, as Mr. Eloquence Chuck Wendig calls first drafts, a big vat of vomit with a bunch of legos in it. So now begins the task of sifting through the vomit and snapping bricks together.

And it’s not like all the short stories I’ve been writing don’t count for anything—on the contrary, I still have a handful I’m trying to get done and at no point will there never be an end to writing them. They’re fun, after all. But there’s something about knowing I wrote an honest-to-god book, you know?

So now the real work begins. Fleshing out characters, fixing clunky dialogue, shrinking plot holes, all that junk. It’s going to be hard, but I’ve already come this far, too late to stop now. The editing (and continued writing on whatever project I pick next) will continue to eat into my blogging time—if you haven’t noticed, I’ve been fairly inactive on here, and that’s likely to continue, at least for a while—but I’ll get into that with my next post.

In the meantime, I need to find some hip boots or some waders or something: I’ve got to go looking for legos in enough vomit to fill a kiddie pool.

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (1991) — If anyone needs me, I’ll just be in the shower until Halloween

I’ve mentioned before my disdain for books that are slow going out of the gate. My patience is short if something doesn’t happen right away. If American Psycho’s reputation hadn’t preceded it, I may have given up on it as I read 40, 50, even 60 pages in and nothing of note had happened yet. However, knowing there was a lot coming down the line, I stuck it out and kept reading. Man, am I glad I did.

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I saw the film version a long time ago (so long ago that it was in theaters), and I didn’t remember a lot about it. One thing I did recall was some people calling the book ‘unfilmable.’ I never really got why until I read it. This book—the tale of Patrick Bateman, a yuppie Wall Street serial killer—is freakin’ crazy.

First, the good news: once you’re far enough into it, this book is completely captivating. It’s a bit like watching a train wreck—you may not want to look (read), but damn if you can’t take your eyes away. It takes some time to get there, but once it does it sucks you in like few books I’ve read do. Even though there are really no likable characters in the book, you still find yourself fascinated by them.

Now the bad news: it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a good book, but only if you can stomach it. Sex, violence, animal cruelty, all described in incredibly graphic detail. I would put it just slightly below The End of Alice on the skeevy scale I just made up. Which makes it all that much stranger to say, yes, it’s a really good book—you know, that one with the torture and cannibalism? Yeah, really good.

And while it’s not necessarily every reader’s cup of tea, I would recommend any writers out there read it, just to see how far Ellis pushes the reader. The narrative is kind of all over the place. One chapter has no real beginning or end, there are chapters devoted to 80’s pop music, and at one point in the height of the action it jumps inexplicably from 1st to 3rd person, then back again a couple pages later. It’s actually quite amazing what he does with this book.

It takes you on a ride, and whether you like it or not—the ending leaves you with more questions than answers—you won’t soon forget it.

Just in time for Halloween!

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Just a quickie to let y’all know issue #2 of Jitter Magazine hit newsstands today (do any of you have newsstands where you live? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one in person, other than at an airport—inquiring minds want to know!), and features my short story Randy’s Bad Day, as well as 18 other stories and poems from the world of horror.

Perfect timing, really. Get yourself in the Halloween spirit—read yourself some scary stuff and get your spook on here:Jitter Magazine #2.

(Did I really just write ‘get your spook on’?)

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