Headbleed: an information age horror story

Headbleed Messy

Are you afraid of someone accessing your passwords? What if they got access to your person? The Heartbleed bug isn’t the most vulnerable part of your online identity, you are. Forget about someone hijacking your accounts. What if someone used your online profiles to replace you in the real world?

There’s more than one way to steal your identity.

If someone vague-booked on your behalf, would your friends know it wasn’t you? If someone took control of your tweets, would your followers realize you’ve been compromised? If someone commandeered your Instagram feed, would your friends notice a change in your point of view?

This story takes those questions to a whole new level. This is a preview of my work in progress, a millennial mystery, a social media thriller, a cautionary tale for those with a high connectivity clout score.

Something about seeing this icons dripping with blood just feels right

Something about seeing this icons dripping with blood just feels right

Continue reading

The Metropolitan (Audio Short)

The Metropolitan

Ever have that dream where it’s your first day on the job and you have no idea what to do, where to go, or who to answer to? Ever have that dream where all your coworkers have an instinctual connection to the corporation, while your link has been severed? This dream journal entry takes place in one of these companies, where all titles are jargon, and everyone speaks Greek. Listen as the hero takes cover behind his cubicle.

Andrew: A Story About Cinema Therapy

Cinema therapy can help you escape reality, but reality is not always so easy to get back to.

Originally a guest post for rachelintheoc.com, this essay reveals my coping mechanism for dark times, side effects and all (follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelintheOC). This story explains why I can’t have a conversation about depression without pop culture references peppered in. It’s one of my best pieces, which is why I had to share it here.

Rectangular

Andrew: A Story About Cinema Therapy

From ages two to six, I spent my waking hours at a living room daycare center. My playmates were the caregiver’s three sons. Their principal forms of recreation were hurling rocks through windows, leaving milk jugs in the street, and beating the living snot out of me.

It was their home, their shield generator facility, and I was the rebel scum who’d broken into it. They had to make an example. Their mother turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to my side of the story. She had stories of her own to watch.

Her boys kept the den locked down, the only window of escape was through the TV. While they amputated action figures, I fled to a galaxy far far away. Watching Star Wars on an endless loop, something happened to me. Turning away from the screen, hyperdrive lines streaked through my vision. Out the window, I watched Tie Fighters chase robins. Looking at the night sky, I saw the moon was no moon.

I ceased to see Mark Hamill on screen. I saw myself. I had slipped into Luke Skywalker’s Velcro boots. I was mourning Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. I wanted to go back to save Obi Wan. When my caregiver switched the TV off, I saw the world differently.

These boys weren’t my peers, they were storm troopers marching across my finger paintings, clones programmed to sit on my face. Seduced by the dark side of the force, they dragged me through the backyard, and pushed me into the Sarlacc pit. When I limped inside, Nanny Vader yelled at me for tracking mud across her carpet. She dragged me to the detention block by my ear.

This wasn’t a day care, it was a Death Star. I wasn’t clogging a laundry shoot full of toys, I was launching proton torpedoes into a thermal exhaust port. I wasn’t waving a tampon at my captors, I was slicing bad guys with a light saber.

When Nanny Vader told me to eat my peas, the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi appeared beside her.

He waved his robes, “Don’t touch them, they’re rife with the dark side. Fling them under the refrigerator for the swamp monster.” Continue reading

In Art We Trust: Writing for more than money

Ever been asked why you write if there’s no money in it?

In Art We Trust

A Writer’s Intervention

There is such a thing as a stupid question. I get asked the same one all the time.

“Why waste your time writing fiction? Don’t you know there’s no money in it anymore?”

There’s no mockery in this well-wisher’s tone, only concern. They ask with all the sincerity of, “Can’t you see, you’re drinking is killing you?”

The well-wisher holds an impromptu intervention challenging my life decisions. They put me through the Socratic method, pulling apart my reasons like Russian dolls, dismissing every one that could be open to interpretation. They keep looking for a motivation they can understand.

“Why not take all the skills you learned building your author’s platform and go into marketing?”

The well-wisher thinks the move from writing narratives to writing copy is a vertical transition, that coming up with a story and a content strategy are the exact same thing, that dialogue written for dramas and advertisements are equally engaging.

They see writing across genres as a diversity of brand voice. They see putting in your 2k a day as a clear workflow. They see editing as back end development.

They think that intensely personal memoirs and top ten lists are created equally, that the words are interchangeable, that all writing should have the same goal: get the reader to open their hearts by way of their billfold.

If your thought cloud doesn’t have a dollar sign on it, the well-wisher brushes it away. Having pursued financial incentives long enough, they forgot why people do things for any other reason. They only understand you if you’re trying to get paid, laid, or famous.

Conjuring up a smile, I rub my hands together. “Yeah but, there’s this story I have to tell…” I give them my pitch like my dignity depends on it. When their eyes roll, I warp my story to fit their sightline.

The well-wisher gives my life’s work a wishy-washy hand gesture. “Tell it in your free time. Trust me, I know people who’ve been published. They’re dirt poor. The printed word has no future.”

Their anecdote about a small publisher releasing a book with no promotion has become the best case scenario they tell everyone. They warn me about going down the same road, for they have found the dead end.

I try to tell them that they found a dead end, that their are brand new avenues for authors to pursue.

Shaking their head, they give that look that’s both a smile and a frown. Signing their tab, they calculate for tip. “If you ever want to eat again, you need to apply this talent of yours to digital content creation.”

I see flashes of headlines on a thumbnail grid, over pictures of movie stars, kittens, and kids. They’re all some variation of “AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.” Feeling ill, my inner punk persona wants to bubble to the service. I want to Hulk out, flip the table, and quote Bill Hicks. Instead, I just sit there and take it. In the absence of a rebuttal, the well-wisher believes my argument has been defeated.

Inspiration

Childish Things

When it comes to finger painting, parents nurture their children’s creativity. When the time comes to purchase an easel, they suggest an alternate activity.

I imagine this reaction transcends artistic mediums. The well-wishers of the world see your sketchpads and think you’re hoarding. They hear your demo tape and think it’s a cry for help. They watch your monologue and wonder why you’re talking to yourself.

The well-wishers want to help with your recovery, and the first step is to figure how to fit your artistic pursuits into a job with a suit. Do you like to draw? Get a job in design. Do you make music? Get a job writing jingles for commercials. Do you like to act? Get in front of a white backdrop and shill.

It’s not about living your dream, it’s about defining your brand. It’s not about getting your message out there, it’s about establishing a presence. It’s not about inspiring people, it’s about making sales.

To them, the highest form of human communication is a dollar exchanging hands.

When I was young, it was easier to get away with doing things just to do them. While I thought I was bringing something to life, the well-wishers thought I was killing time. It didn’t matter if I was writing pros or playing Super Mario, I was being quiet and I wasn’t breaking anything. When the well-wishers saw a division of labor between my art and homework, they saw cause for concern. When I was filling notebooks with poems while my peers filled out college applications, the well-wishers confronted me about my addictions. The time had come to put away childish things.

When I went off on my own, my actions suddenly required an explanation.

Roommates would ask, “Why are you smashing frozen vegetables in the bath tub?”

Prying my hammer out of the bunch of celery, I hit the pause button on my cassette recorder. “Because I needed something that sounds like bones snapping.”

Bystanders would ask, “Why do you keep stopping every few steps to set up your tripod in the middle of the sidewalk?”

Taking a snapshot, I glanced up from the viewfinder. “I’m making a stop-motion music video by walking the length of Hennepin Avenue.”

Park patrons would ask, “Why does your football have a power screwdriver sticking out the back?”

Mounting the contraption beneath my telephoto lens, I flicked the switch, letting the ball spin. “So I can show the world what a groin hit looks like from the football’s point of view.”

I got accustomed to their look of confusion.

Creativity

My Relationship with Money

At family gatherings, I let the well-wishers define my blogging as some form of training. On Thanksgiving, they went around the table giving suggestions.

“You like movies, right? You could write reviews for a living.”

“You like giving advice, have you looked into life coaching?”

“You like technology, I just saw an ad looking for someone to write code for smartphone apps.”

I rub my forehead, “‘Write’ is a verb with many meanings, literature and programming languages are not the same thing.”

Any time I mention I’ve had a successful article they point out the black hole at the end of my rainbow.

“Now if there was only a way you could turn that into a paycheck.”

Money and I are spending some time apart. We were never madly in love. I was never rolling in it. It played hard to get and I got tired of pursuing it. It didn’t leave me broke, we’re just on a break. Of course my parents don’t understand. They thought we were good for each other, but really I’m just no good with it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for things to work out between us. I’d love to write a novel that woos the riches out of the world. I’d love for my debut to dispense with all my debts, for release date riches to release me from rent, for premiere profits to payback my parents.

I just can’t have money be the focus in my writing room. It makes a terrible muse. It never has an original idea. The unfamiliar scares it. Its notes suggest I change my story to resemble a young adult film franchise. Money talks, it prattles on and on.

Money can be sweet when it wants to. It’s always so much more attractive in someone else’s embrace. It’s hard to call its suitors “sellouts” with a straight face. Every writer wants love. Every writer wants to get paid.

Revelations

Why Write, if not for the Money?

Because my mind is a frontier worth exploring, a genome worth mapping, a record of all my findings. I need to show my evidence, to externalize my emotions, to share my experience with someone, with everyone. It would be such a shame for this vision to go to waste, for this spark to fade before anyone can see it, for this brainstorm to run down the gutter into a puddle of pipe dreams.

Inspiration is my incentive. Creativity is my currency. Revelations are my restitution.

I do this because I have a hypothesis to test, a hunch to lay to rest, an experiment in artistic inventiveness. Every canvas comes with its own discovery, every study piques my curiosity, and every brush stroke an epiphany.

Brainchildren are my benefactors. Daydreams are my directors. Ideas are my investors.

I do this because I enjoy experiencing the fruits of my labor as I’m tending to them. In this result driven world, sometimes the process is the payment. Sometimes mastering a new medium feels like an accomplishment, even if I don’t show it to anyone.

The world needs disruptive innovators if it’s ever going to change. Franchises have turned into dynasties with simultaneous sequels, reboots, and spinoffs veering into their own realities. Hollywood keeps trying to sell our old action figures back to us. Actors who’ve played the same role are stepping on each others toes. I want to put my disgust to use.

I do this because I’m not satisfied with the offerings on the billboard, bestseller, or box office list. I don’t hear myself in their lyrics. I don’t find myself on their pages. I don’t see myself on their screens. I imagine I’m not the only one looking for something worth relating to. Something that took the words right out of our mouths, said what we all were thinking, and told it like it was.

I will pursue my foolish endeavor, until I’m wise for my efforts. I will write until I’ve written the book I’ve been waiting to read. Life is short. Art is long. Writing is telepathy, and my thoughts will be my legacy.

Why do I do what I do, if not for money? If you still have to ask, then you’ll never know.

Art is long

The Ritual (Audio Short)

The Ritual

Ever have that dream where you stumble into the middle of a black mass with nothing to sacrifice? Ever crash a red ritual with nothing but casserole? Ever realize you’ve entered a black robe and hood affair when it’s too late to go home and change? That’s dream logic for you, never sure whether it’s more important if you feel afraid or embarrassed.

In the dream, cultists chant incantations with midwestern accents. Beneath their masquerade masks, they might just be your friends and neighbors. Perhaps that’s the little league coach drawing a propane pentagram, and the leader of the Boy Scout troop setting it aflame. Perhaps that’s the head of the PTA, drawing a dagger from her sleeve.

Your subconscious got tired of high school settings, of locker rooms and hallways, it wanted try it’s hand at a new landscape.

This is a story about what happens when your subconscious forgets its plotting a nightmare only to resort to the oldest dream cliché in the book. Come for a scare. Stay for a punchline.

Facebook Buys Drewchial.com

Celebration

Facebook is set to purchase Drewchial.com, a blog best known for entries on the burdens of self-promotion, in a $1 billion acquisition. Though the site was created to promote the unpublished works of Drew Chial, Facebook plans to use it as an extension of its platform.

In a conference call with shareholders, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer said, “The next frontier of social media is self-deprecating self-promotion and Drewchial.com is at the forefront.”

Drewchial.com is known for articles on the futility of trying to go viral, making insensitive comparisons between self-promotion and panhandling, and premises for film reboots Chial is in no way involved in. Drew Chial himself, is known for being voted “MOST LIKELY TO CHANGE HIS NAME INTO A SYMBOL” in high school and little else.

Baffling analysts, Facebook sees something that’s crucial to its business.

On his profile page, Zuckerberg outlined scenarios where other authors might adopt Chial’s methods, launching smear campaigns against their own work, calling themselves out in a feedback loop of what he calls, “meta media criticism.”

“Imagine getting away with clogging your friend’s feeds with links, because you’ve already blasted yourself for doing it. That’s the kind of experience we’d like to share with the general public.”

This risky purchase is just one of the many bewildering tactics Facebook is using to stay ahead of the competition.

Staggering into the office in sunglasses and a bathrobe, Zuckerberg addressed his developers, “Every aspect of teenagers’ lives are filled with commercials; from the military murals stretched across their lockers, to the Hotpocket coupons in their health books. They tune ads out, skip them on YouTube, block them with plugins. Backhanded brand awareness is the best way to snag those cynics.”

Kicking his chair out, Zuckerberg wobbled to the whiteboard. He lifted a lever in the shape of a dry erase marker. The board spun around revealing a fully stocked bar. Climbing up on it, Zuckerberg pulled several bottles off the top shelf, hopped down and mixed himself a martini.

Swirling the concoction, Zuckerberg took his seat. “Advertisements aren’t cool, but making fun of them is. Drewchial.com comes with its own ridicule built in.”

Downing his drink in a single sip, Zuckerberg slapped the table, “I’m talking about millennials, bitches. That demo is my shit.” Then he collapsed.

Thumbds Up

The acquisition is a huge advance for Drew Chial, who at the time of this writing, does not have a published work to his name. Chial, a self-declared introvert, was surprised to find the social network showing any interest.

“I’ve come to accept that Facebook works in mysterious ways.”

Chial says he plans to use the money to host a martial arts tournament on an island far from the United Nations and their “meddlesome human rights regulations.”

Financial analysts are critical of Drewchial.com’s low reach, low views, and lowbrow humor. They’re concerned by the site’s inconsistent subject matter.

One analyst said, “I don’t get it. Does Drewchial.com promote a humorist or a horror writer? Sometimes it offers writing advice, sometimes it’s just journal entries on how this sad sap can’t score. Where’s the hook? How does the author plan on retaining visitors?”

Flicking off a limo driver, Zuckerberg said, “To truly appreciate Drew’s genius, you have to look at the traffic he’s not getting.”

Unzipping his fly, Zuckerberg urinated on a fire hydrant. “I just wanted to snag his site before Google or Apple got their grubby little hands on it.”

Twenty-Bucks

Facebook does not yet have a business model for Drewchial.com. Chial says he plans to post entries openly complaining about the transition so that his audience can still respect him.

His next article “The Self Righteous Sell Out” promises the same high caliber hypocrisy, and shameless selfies, his audience has come to expect.

Planting Evidence: How Atmosphere Can Improve Your Writing

Pondering Bones

Stealing Reference Material

The bridge was a tunnel of chain length fence. It rattled with every step, a giant slinky bouncing. Waves rippled through the diamond patterns. Industrial lights swung from their hooks. My goggles turned them into spirit orbs, ghosts of urban explores who’d fallen through the gaps. With a GoPro mounted to my helmet, I struggled to maneuver around them.

The miner’s cap was heavy enough already, the camera made it dig deeper into my scalp. It hurt, but nothing chafed like the breathing mask. Tracing my muzzle, its straps cut right through a cushion of facial hair. The apparatus recirculated this morning’s coffee with every breath.

Seventeen stories beneath me, the river raged. This rickety structure was all that kept me from diving into it. I threaded my fingers through the rusty wires, incase the boards weren’t up to the task.

When a swarm of mayflies filled my headlight, I knew I was getting close to the other side. Something gleamed up ahead. It took a moment to recognize the grated treads of a step. The stairway felt even less secure than the bridge. Stretching for three city blocks, it creaked back and forth with every step. My oxygen tank slapped against my back. My bolt cutters hammered against my thigh.

Buried under all this gear, I was feeling claustrophobic already, the sewer pipe at the top of the staircase only made things worse. Someone had lined the mouth with glass. Brushing it aside with the bolt cutters, I leaned in. There was a crunch beneath my kneepad. The path sparkled before me. The last guest must have excreted shards on his way in. From elbow pad to kneepad, I bore the brunt of each of them. My palms pressed the walls, while the oxygen tank scraped the ceiling.

Unscrewing the vent, I lit the basement on the other side. There was a bed of nails waiting for me. Someone had taken a page from the Home Alone school of building security. Too bad they didn’t realize the sewage vent made the perfect platform for an intruder to stand on.

Hopping off the makeshift step, something crackled beneath my boots. There were grains of salt as big as pebbles sprinkled around the entrance. Someone sure didn’t want any of those spirit orbs getting in.

The room was hot and clammy. Sweat trickled into my goggles, pooled at the bottom of my mask, and dripped down my breathing tube.

Chemical stalactites hung from the pipes. Paint chips rolled off the support beams, wedged into cracks in the foundation. The concrete lining the walls had turned to gravel. Twinkling in the air, fibers spilled through a gap in the ceiling. My beam stretched all the way to the roof, where there was a flutter of panicked batwings.

An unholy trinity of toxins were in the air: asbestos, lead, and radon.

Scanning the walls, florescent tags glowed in my beam. There were no words, no gang signs, only esoteric symbols. These ones were unlike any of the charms I was familiar with. There were none of the traditional spiral hands, helms of awe, or grand pentacles to ward off demons.

These symbols were far more intricate, patterns stretching from the floor, up the brickwork, arching over the ceiling. They had impossible symmetry, resembling the complex exoskeletons of marine life, like corals growing on the wall. Their spray painted tentacles didn’t stretch toward me. They stretched away.

This wasn’t a protection spell. It was a binding.

Ever the Boy Scout, I reached into my satchel. With the flick of the wrist, my extendable baton doubled my arm span.

Looking Up

The tentacles led to a spiral staircase. I had some good material, but the footage I’d come for was somewhere up there. The climb did my back no favors. The GoPro forced me to go up hunched over. This put me at eye level with the rusted bolts, rattling with my every step. I felt compelled to push them in every time I looped around.

Half way up, I heard a creaking, followed by a loud crash. Looking down, I saw the stairs collapse beneath me. I ran the rest of the way. Hitting an edge, my helmet got knocked sideways. Sparks flew off my oxygen tank. Nearing the top, I spotted a row of hypodermic needles with their points ready to stick me. Kicking them away, I slid onto the ground floor. The last step fell out from under me.

“A little redundant.” I addressed the facility, “If you didn’t get me with the glass or the nails, what makes you think you’re going to get me with another trap on the floor? If anything you should be trying to get me from…”

It occurred to me to duck. There was a twang. A trip wire snapped. A jackhammer came down on the GoPro, knocking the helmet clean off my head. The light tumbled end over end into the dark. The pummeling pendulum whooshed back and forth.

Jabbing at the dark with my baton, I tried to follow the trajectory of the helmet. I spotted a faint glow. The helmet must have gotten some air before it hit a wall. It cast just enough light to let me see my goggles fill with cobwebs.

Dusting off the helmet, I screwed it back on. I couldn’t help but smirk, thinking about how cool the footage was going to look. That’s when I saw that the floor and the ceiling were covered in the same coral markings as the basement. These florescent tentacles lead toward an empty corridor.

I spoke to the facility, “Your traps say, ‘Go-go,’ but your symbols say, ‘Stay-stay.’”

Someone exhaled beside me. I turned to find a shirtless emaciated figure. His frame was all ribs and hips. His skin was pale enough to glow. His cheeks were littered with cysts. His nose had been broken, the bridge curved like a face in an abstract painting. His eyes had sunk in. The pupils were washed out, nearly gone. When he opened his mouth, a layer of skin streaked across his lips.

He looked to the extendable baton, “Is that your probe? Are you an alien?”

Anticipating my response, his boney shoulders shifted back and forth between fight and flight.

I cocked the baton back, “It is, and I am.”

I put my money on flight. Lunging at me, he bet against the odds. With one swift blow, I called him. He went down like a house of cards, waving his arms, fluttering to the floor.

Blood spurt from his temple, shooting across my boot, painting it red. Then it did something unexpected. Dripping down my toe, the blood left no sign that it was ever there. Running around my ankle, it merged with the other droplets, swirling with the magnetic pull of mercury. Ignoring a dip in the floor, the blood seeped upward along the tentacle patterns. A serpent with a long red tail, rounding the corner into the corridor, weaving from crack to crack. The blood wanted me to follow.

A strange calm came over me, as if the sight of animated blood was soothing. Turned out the encounter had me huffing down the oxygen. I’d have to ease up if my supply was to last through the night.

At the end of the corridor, the blood snake slipped beneath a pair of black doors. I knocked. There was an echo. Whatever was on the other side of this threshold was massive.

The doors creaked open, revealing a field of candles, a vigil the size of a hangar. Stepping into the room felt like walking onto the cosmos. There were no boilers, no vats, and no aircrafts, just a vast garden of light.

Whatever the facility was built for, it had been repurposed. Spinning around, I took in all the footage I could.

Mesmerized by the candles, it took a while to realize there was something wrong with the walls. From a distance, the brickwork appeared to be made of nothing but headers. Stranger still, the courses between them were stacked in intersecting lines, not the strengthening patterns common to buildings of this height. Approaching the wall, I saw that it was riddled with holes and rivets. Not holes, but sockets. Not rivets, but teeth.

These were not bricks. The walls were made from skulls. The facility had been converted into a grand industrial charnel house. There were too many skulls to count, more than enough to account for every missing person in the state’s history.

Wind swirled around me. The candles flickered in a circular pattern, spiraling out to the walls. The room quaked. The skulls rattled. I feared they’d come crashing down on me.

A chorus of voices boomed, “Who dares disturb our slumber?”

The force knocked me to my knees. Candles jut through my fingers. My legs were drenched in a puddle of wax. Struggling to my feet, I gulped. “Drew Chial, aspiring author.”

Their teeth rose and fell, “Why have you contaminated the purity of our domain with your presence?”

“Purity?” I muttered, “Did you see the guy wandering the corridor? You lot must have a lax definition of purity if–”

The room quaked.

I cupped my hands over my mask, “I needed reference material.”

“Reference material for what?” The walls echoed.

I tugged at my breathing apparatus. “A blog entry on how atmosphere can enhance a writer’s scenes.”

“What is this atmosphere of which you speak?” Their voices rang.

Brushing off my knee pads, I raised a finger. “I’m glad you asked.”

Alas with a pipe

Creating Atmosphere on the Cheap: The Ed Wood Method

As a former script reader, I can’t tell you how many screenplays I read that had zero description of their settings. The most the screenwriters would give me was: EXT. CEMETERY – NIGHT, then it was straight to six pages of dialogue. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a radio drama with faces. Film is a visual medium. Give your audience something to look at.

Learning a scene took place in a cemetery, my internal set designer just slapped something together.

Sliding blue gels over the lights, he cranked up smoke machines, dumped dry ice into every nook and cranny. He called for cardboard headstones and Styrofoam angel statues. Teamsters nailed shanty mausoleum facades together. The night sky was reduced to stage lights glowing through black sheets of cheese cloth. The clouds were were just colored clumps of cotton.

The landscape my internal set designer threw together was serviceable, but it lacked fine details. It had all the atmosphere of Plan 9 from Outer Space. That’s why I call this the Ed Wood Method of story telling, because it forces the reader to come up with a slapdash backdrop that brings down the value of the rest of the production.

Cemeteries are scary, but you can’t just set a scene there and expect instant fear from your reader. You have to earn your audience’s anxiety by setting up the ambience. Show us something that doesn’t immediately come to mind. Something that tells us you’ve been there, that you know the lay of the land. Something that sets this cemetery apart from all the other ones.

Presenting Skull Head

Working for Your Atmosphere: The H.P. Lovecraft Method

H.P. Lovecraft had a talent for staging scenes, warping entrails into pagan symbols in the Antarctic snow, dressing lost cities with tomes of forbidden knowledge, glyphs that hinted at what was coming. He littered The Mountains of Madness with all kinds of evidence, long before letting the reader catch a glimpse of the dark presence.

Lovecraft was an architect building tension, mounting dread. He left empty spaces in his cavernous ruins, dark places for his readers to fill with nightmares. Rather than burn his audience out on confrontations with creatures, he chilled them with atmosphere.

Lovecraft’s favorite word was “indescribable.” He’d lead you to the terror below, describe its tendrils in a blur of movement, and leave you to put the rest of the pieces together. He knew that the best horror stories were a collaborative effort between the writer and the reader. He knew that the audience’s imagination was not a screen to present events, but a canvas filled by the reader’s interpretation.

Lovecraft isn’t known for dialogue or characterization. By all accounts, he was sparse on both fronts, but he was a master of description. Give him a house and he’d fill the walls with rats. Give him an attic and he’d fill the air with things swimming on sympathetic vibrations. Give him a cave and he’d fill it with the remnants of a lost civilization, and the very creatures that did it in.

Angry Skull

Building Your Story on the Atmosphere: My Method

When a premise escapes me, I’ll write a description-centric story. When it hits a wall, I’ll describe the scenery. When I’m all out of life events to reference, I’ll mine the places I’ve been. The narrative that opens this blog is a combination of spaces I’ve seen urban exploring. I grafted the chain length fence from St. Paul’s Island Station Power Plant onto Stillwater’s Tall Bridge. I linked a sewage pipe from White Bear Lake to the bowels of the Walker Art Center. I borrowed the dilapidated ceiling from an abandon apartment complex.

I think of these pieces as studies, like list poems, they’re workouts to keep the creative juices flowing. If I have nothing to say, I’ll just interpret the details of something. It might seem like a waste of time, but it keeps me writing. This method is a great tool for chiseling a sculpture out of writers’ block.

Sometimes atmosphere building can develop into plot structure. The combined settings reveal the stages of a journey. They compel me to go back and plant more evidence along the way.

Angry Alas

I Dare You: a Challenge for Writers

In Screenwriting 101 we weren’t allowed to write dialogue for the entire semester. Speech was a story telling crutch, the professor wanted us to build up our descriptive muscles.

He tapped a dry erase marker against his palm. “Every week I want you to go somewhere you feel out of place and write about it. I want you to exit your comfort zone and enter the great unknown.”

The first week I downed two pints of Guinness and stumbled into the Church of Scientology to get myself a free personality test. After learning I was depressed and in dire need of an audit, I begged my way into their bathroom. The tester waited outside the door, just in case I wandered off and started taking pictures. I already had all the mnemonic negatives I would ever need.

The next week I explored the deadly Mississippi cave system, where local gangsters hid during prohibition.

The third week I went to a lesbian bar called π. Turned out, I wasn’t all that uncomfortable (not for the creepy reasons you’re thinking). They played good music, had an inclusive vibe, and welcomed me into a dance off.

Every week I added new wings to my memory palace, finding new venues to play out my little dramas. I found the perfect dark alley to stage my crime scenes. I found a water tower that looked like it was built by the Knights Templar. I found a seedy night club, complete with its own bondage dungeon.

I dare you to do the same. Go exploring. You don’t need to find an abandon asylum to get the job done. If your true fear is social situations, get into one. Your alienation will make you a better observer. You’ll notice things others take for granted.

Think about all the aspects of your location that you couldn’t come up with on your own. The ones you had to be there to see, the ones that have the potential to make a setting feel unique. This should teach you which details are redundant and which ones are essential. Don’t let your descriptions read like police reports. Don’t overwhelm your reader with an orgy of evidence. Plant just enough to give them a bad feeling. Their imagination will do the rest.

Have a jaw

For more writing tricks, check out: Eavesdropping Advisory for a method for stealing dialogue from rude people, and On Sherlocking for reading the subtext in body language.

The Lookout Tower (Audio Short)

The Lookout Tower

Ever have that dream where you’re alone in a lookout tower with nothing but prairie in all directions? How about the one where a horde of rude people invade your land? This dream journal entry is about what it feels like when the world holds the next Woodstock on your personal space. Listen as a drum circle turns into a rave, and our hero is forced to retaliate.

The Facebook Bait-and-Switch

How Facebook’s changes have made it tough for an author to build a following.

The Facebook Bait-and-Switch

Introducing the Facebook "Pay" button the only way authors can reach anyone

Introducing the Facebook “Pay” button the only way authors can reach anyone

In the past, Facebook provided a great free service for authors. Allowing us to create fan pages to reach our readers, it let us keep separate accounts for our friends and families. Choosing to “Like” our pages, audiences got updates on projects, saving our other accounts for personal status.

As brick and mortar book stores crumbled at the feet of e-readers, social-network-self-publishing seemed like a viable option. Author pages became a yard stick for agents to measure the worth of a client. Traditional publishers changed their contract criteria. Now it wasn’t about how many awards a writer had won, or how many short fiction collections they’d been featured in, it was about how many smiling icons they had at the bottom of their profile page.

Social media gurus preached, “The keeper of the publishing gates will look at how many followers you have and judge you accordingly.”

We thought we were paying Facebook, by keeping the social network relevant. As far as we knew, money was exchanging hands. Advertisers were paying to reach users outside of the ones who’d “Liked” their product, while we ground along winning ours one by one.

When we shot trailers for our books, Facebook was where we premiered them. Our revenue came from iBooks and Amazon, but Facebook was where we made our sales. Not limiting us to 140 characters, we filled our elevator pitches with the details that gave our stories meaning.

Writers put everything they had into their author pages. Some used them as a substitute for a blog. Why not? Instead of linking readers to an off site destination, Facebook could make that connection. Livelihoods depended on what they were offering.

Facebook gave authors a broad reach, then they chopped off our arms. Why? So they could sell us all prosthetics. They hooked us on a free service. Made it crucial to our business, then made us pay for what it once was.

It’s a classic bait-and-switch grift.

The Facebook Bait-and-Switch

The Facebook Bait-and-Switch

In the span of a month, my posts went from reaching half of my followers, to five percent of them. Rather than entice me with membership only features, they’re charging for ones they used to give away for free.

Why not pay? Because I don’t trust their brand. I could shell out the cash to reach 100% of my followers, but next month they could throttle me back and ask for a larger chunk of change. I’m just building a following, I haven’t even tried to sell anything.

Recently, I wrote an article on how the hate group leader Fred Phelps accidentally struck a blow for gay rights. Despite having nothing to do with the type of fiction I write, I want all of my followers to see the piece. Still, I’m not going to pay to boost it.

I’m not going to pay Facebook to promote my author page either. Why, because I want to represent myself on social media, finding readers through a direct connection. I don’t want to depend on an impersonal algorithms recommendation.

I’ve considered abandoning my Facebook author page in favor of posting on my personal one. It’s a broader audience, a few friends with shared interests are among them, the rest are relatives, classmates, and coworkers. This is a temporary solution that might cost more “Friends” than it gains. I’ve already written about getting flack for it.

Embracing Facebook’s monopoly on networking, we let it step all over us. While social media gurus still sing its praises, this author has been priced out of it.

Face Palm

Authors should consider which social media plates to spin and which ones to let come crashing down. It’s hard enough to balance life and work with writing. Social networking can eat up even more of that time. You need to be selective about which services you invest in.

At this point, I’d tell new authors that building a following on Facebook is like building your house on sand.

Fred Phelps: An Ironic Legacy

This post comes with a trigger warning. Discussing a hate group and their leader, I had to chronicle what they’ve done. For those of you who come to my blog seeking writing advice, short fiction, and memoir entries, an article on Fred Phelps might seem off topic. I’ve met the man on two occasions, and as a commentator on trolls, cyber bullies, and internet culture, I felt compelled to weigh in.

(Thanks to Achilles Sangster for providing many of the photos featured throughout, check out his blog here)

Fred Phelps: An Ironic Legacy

No, this wasn’t Photoshopped. Back in 2001, I met Fred Phelps

No, this wasn’t Photoshopped. Back in 2001, I met Fred Phelps (photo by Achilles Sangster)

In America, 17 States now allow same-sex marriage. The constitutionality of gay marriage bans are being challenged. Media pundits, who once built followings on anti-gay rhetoric, are losing their sponsorship. Efforts to deny service to gay people under the guise of “preserving religious freedom” are being vetoed left and right.

There are many heroes in this new era of civil rights: plaintiffs who brought unjust laws to the supreme court, students who formed GLBT groups, actors, musicians, and sports figures who outed themselves. Still, few have swayed the court of public opinion as much as one man.

Reverend Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, the group responsible for the infamous God Hates Fags demonstrations.

13 years after my first encounter with Fred Phelps, so much has changed. 2 years ago, my home state of Minnesota shot down a gay marriage ban. Last fall, our first same sex marriage ceremonies happened.

We made this progress, despite the best efforts of people like Phelps, or perhaps because of them.

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