Writers feed off of rude people. Their grinding gears are music to our ears. We serve their words to hungry paper. We steal their souls with our typing fingers. When we’re around, they ought to keep their behavior in check, because there’s always an eavesdropping advisory in effect.
Who needs to shadow interesting subjects, when there’s the general public to draw from? Who needs to research villains, when we can just go out and cast one? Why fret over the words that break our hero’s routine, when there are so many rude people giving away free dialogue?
Crowdsourcing scenes, we set our buckets beneath brainstorms. Derailing conversations, we guide trains of thought into our stations. They want to give us a piece of their mind, they don’t care how we use it. They’re never going to demand creative control. Delivering line after line, they’ll never ask for script approval.
Charity begins at the checkout counter. We’ve gone out into the world to find ourselves some donors. We know that wherever the staffing is short, they’ll be there. Wherever the wait times are over an hour, they’ll be there. Wherever there are captive audiences in uniforms, they’ll be there.
When they cut us off in traffic with a harsh gesture, we get to play interpreter. When they emit hot air into our atmosphere, we get to play dehumidifier. When they sling vulgarities, we get to play catcher.
When they ask to speak with a manager, we’re tempted to step up, even if we don’t work there. When we can’t get close enough to hear anymore, we’ll lip read from across the store. Their subtitles are in caps lock, all we have to do is highlight, copy, and paste.
Eavesdropping Advisory is my most liked and commented on entry to date (it doesn’t hurt that it was featured on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed page). Many writers have confessed to sharing my process, a process I’ve put to use several times since.
For the audio version I wanted to harness that same aggressive attitude. Laying down a driving hip-hop beat, I mixed an collage of angry voices, and topped it off with a distorted melody that occasionally goes full dubstep. Despite the song’s bombastic push, it maintains a subtle creepy undercurrent. Check it out.
Writers, are you looking for a crutch to improve your characterization, a trick for easy subtext, and a way to enshroud what you’re foreshadowing? What if you could learn all of this as part of a game? Interested? Then let me ask a few more questions.
On Sherlocking: How to Use the Deduction Game to Improve Your Writing
Do you find yourself mirroring movements? Have you walked into a pedestrian’s path, pivoted in the same direction, and paused to break the connection? At the bar, do you find yourself raising your drink in unison with other patrons? In conversation, do you cross your legs at the same time as your friends? Do you scratch your cheek when someone else starts itching? At the end of the night, do you finish other people’s yawns?
Are you so in tune with your surroundings that you can see bathroom breaks coming?
Do you bless sneezes before they happen? Anticipating farts, do you switch seats before you’re caught down wind? Do you look up in time to make eye contact with people pretending not to look? Are you a social psychic?
Can you read reactions? When you watch someone lean back in their chair, do you see relaxation in your runes, or withdrawal in your crystal ball?
Can you eavesdrop from across the room? Are you a telephoto lip reader, or do you have a fluency in body language? Watch the couple across from you, can you tell if this is their first date or their anniversary? From their posture, can you tell if this is going to be an early night, or a late one?
If this foreknowledge sounds familiar, then you’re ready to play the game. It’s called Sherlocking; the game of deductions. Once honed, this skill will greatly improve your writing.
Let’s set the board. This is an open world game, not in that you can do whatever you want, but that you have to play it in public. Coffee shops are good, as are campuses, clubs, or wherever else people congregate. Stake out a position with a view. We’re going to give you something to do with all your excess intuition.
Eavesdropping is a skill worth developing, but for the sake of this exercise I recommend going at it with headphones on. We’re refining one sense at a time. The aim is not to confirm our suspicions, it’s to keep us looking.
Absorb what you observe. We’re gathering points of reference to be used later. We’re researching the human animal. Ignore the extreme examples: the tell-offs speeches, the overtly rude people. Today we’re looking for something a little more subtle. This is advanced people watching. We’re reading between the lines of faces, keeping a log of nonverbal cues, gathering tells for our readers to peruse.
Over my shoulder, I watch a middle aged man buzz around a college girl’s table without landing. His hips can’t find a position to settle in. His fingers keep trying to find his waistband. She takes off one headphone. Nods a couple of times, slips it back on. He says one last thing. She slips her headphone off, but he’s already spun around. Turtling up, she gets back to typing.
On the far side of the counter, a man sits with no accessories besides his tea; no newspaper, paperback, memo pad, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone. Laying his hands on the counter, he rests his eyes and bobs his head. For two hours, he says nothing to anyone. He never checks his watch, never looks to the door for anyone. He nurses his tea and moves on.
Take a close look at the variables. Make your covert calculations, show your work. Draw a connection between what you see and what you think you know. Solve for X. There may be more than one solution.
The guy to my right is tracking an iPhone on his computer. Compulsively refreshing his browser, he watches it move across the Mississippi through downtown Minneapolis. Nibbling his nails to nubs, he shifts in his seat. His movements can be felt along the bar. Clicking on his tabs, he checks a Facebook page. The user’s name is the same one attached to the phone in the map tab.
Recognize the patterns? Make your deductions.
A girl on the couch watches a man in a tattered jacket enter the coffee house. His beard does little to conceal the frost bite at his cheeks. Weaving through the customers at the counter, he makes a beeline for the men’s room. She moves her computer up her lap. When she has to go to the ladies room, she brings her laptop with her.
Don’t default to stereotypes, flex your imagination. There’s the obvious reason this happened, but what if there was another one? Play with your audience’s prejudice, turn it into a red herring. Gather up these visual cues and toy with their expectations.
Sometimes the cure for writer’s block is a little risk. Sherlocking adds danger to the process. It puts the spark back into the romance.
I’m recording a first date from my front row seat, documenting deep sighs, and nervous ticks. Hanging on long pauses, my fingers tread the air before they resume typing. I’m live-tweeting a missed connection as it happens, catching more out of the corner of my eye than either of the participants.
The boy hovers over his seat before committing to standing. He’s in a sweater, dress shirt, and jeans. His date has a cocktail dress on. Opting for the hand shake instead of the hug, she smiles with her cheeks, but not her crow’s feet. Setting her phone on the table, her fingers walk toward it during lulls in conversation, a game of red light green light played with just one hand.
I know where this Match.com meet up is going before the couple can pronounce each other’s names. Neither of them have caught me rubber necking.
There’s a line between reality and the game. Not everyone is roleplaying, they’re actions can’t always be explained. There might be a science to deduction, but for our purposes we’re treating it like an art form.
You’ll find your powers limited when you go out looking for affection, even more so if you’re trying to catch someone cheating. This isn’t about calling out liars, taking tells to task, or hurling accusations at lovers. If polygraphs are a junk science, you’re not about to break any cases with your ability to read faces. Your formula for recognizing patterns isn’t as strong as sodium thiopental.
You’ll never know exactly what anyone is thinking, so just chronicle the things they’re doing.
This is a game, if you add stakes, you’re playing it wrong. It’s about collecting mannerisms to be used later. If you can reverse engineer these deductions, then you know how to build subtext into your scenarios.
Let people give you character description that goes beyond clothing, traits to help your readers with their imaginary casting. They’ll give you actions to replace “said” before dialogue. They’ll give you expressions that contrast their words. Good characters aren’t what they say, they’re what they do. Great characters betray banter with bad behavior. Jumping from scene to scene, you can juxtapose their cool exterior around company with their burnt interior when they’re alone. Plant your setups in their awkward moments. Their expression can be the last notes for your chapters to go out on.
If you want your words to feel authentic plagiarize from real life. This doesn’t mean copying and pasting your journal into your work in progress, finding and replacing your name with that of your protagonist. It means replicating these little things, the observations that infer meaning.
The truth is only fun when it’s subjective. Good writing invites readers to sit in the jury box. It gives them all the evidence, but doesn’t draw their attention to the right exhibit until just before it becomes relevant. It deceives them by making appeals to their emotions, lining up a collection of red-herrings. Exposition is a bad witness, their testimony is hearsay, robbing the reader of their epiphany. Planting payoffs, good writing gives the reader several opportunities to have their own “Ah-ha!” moment.
By the time the author makes their closing remarks, the reader should feel validated for what they knew all along.
Last Monday, I was invited to answer some questions on my writing process by @West1Jess. Check her entry on her answers at Write this Way.
1) What are you working on?
I’m writing a story about an abductee forced to aid her captors in hijacking her online identity. Cameron is one of many college students corralled into cages, marched out whenever her captors need information. She suspects they’re intercepting money transfers from the students’ parents, staging murder suicides when they’ve tapped all their victim’s funds.
What her captors didn’t realize when they took her, is Cameron is an aspiring author. She’s been hyper-blogging, tweeting up a storm, building up a massive following, a following that requires constant maintenance. Looking at all of her accounts, they realized they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
Forced to pose in couple selfies, Cameron is paired with a boy who’s lied about his sexual orientation online. He hopes the friends he’s confided in will see these photos and know that something’s wrong. Cameron realizes her captors are staging this relationship for her followers. They’re using it as the reason to explain her shrinking online presence, and to setup her inevitable end.
Together the mock-couple conspires to screw up their captors’ plans.
2) How does your work differ from others in your genre?
Writing horror and urban fantasy, I’m not interested in using ready made monsters. Zombie stories are a dime a dozen. Vampires have been devalued, shelves are filled with books by different authors that use the same lanky cover models. Abandoning Victorian era villains, I aspire to invent entities for the age we live in.
3) Why do you write what you do?
I write the kind of stories I’m hungry to read: Twilight Zone fan fiction. I’ve always been attracted to heightened realities where symbolism is made flesh. Sometimes I use fantasy to cope with real world problems. Rather than approach subjects directly, I come at them askew. Anyone can write a journal entry about being lonely, but it takes a twisted imagination to write about an NSA agent using their tech to stalk someone.
I write a lot of what-if scenarios like:
What if a landlord tried to evict a tenant who was possessed?
What if the boss from hell didn’t realize he was interviewing an ancient Sumerian Demon?
What if someone’s future memoir started narrating their life in the present?
4) How does your writing process work?
I’ve stopped drafting. I used to write character bios that answer questions regarding their religion and their upbringing, now I like to discover those things. I call this “Writing Commando.” It’s writing without the tight binding underpants of scripted events. This method keeps me interested. Sure, I have an idea where the story is going in the back of my head, but that idea is fluid. You’d think I’d get writer’s block going at stories like this, but whenever I get stuck I ask myself, “What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?” Conflict usually does the trick.
Hate to break the blog chain, but I’ve been too busy to reach out to too many folks. If you’re interested participating in the Blog Hop on March 4 drop me a line in the comments, include your bio, post your answers to these 4 questions on your blog, and I’ll edit this post to point folks in your direction.
Introducing the Facebook “Beg” button, for when you’re not “Liking” or “Sharing” something you’ve discovered, but “Begging” for hits for something you made. Simply click the “Beg” button and your followers will see this message:
(your name here) asks if you have any spare attention for their link, God bless.
The “Beg” button gives your followers something to turn away from, while they spend their time clicking on Buzzfeed lists, misleading Upworthy titles, and misattributed celebrity quotes.
As insensitive as this analogy is (there’s no comparing those with passion projects to the truly needy) self-promotion can come across like panhandling. I wrote a blog about the feeling called “Every Little Hit Counts.” Here’s the premiere of the audio version.
As a blogger, I’m willing to do what it takes to direct traffic to my site. I have faith that if readers see my work, a few of them will enjoy it. My end goal is to sustain myself writing. Not fame or fortune, just the ability to do what I love for a living. This means I have to build a brand, to sell my work by selling myself.
Lacking a blueprint, I can never get the balance between humility and vanity right. I come across as a passive aggressive narcissist. This has more to do with my fledgling marketing abilities than how I see myself. For authors in the information age, embarrassment is part of the process.
Regarding this uncertain future, Neil Gaiman put it best, “Try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. And succeed in ways we never would have imagined a year or a week ago.”
Aspiring authors have to build up an audience before abandoning our books on Amazon. We can’t be too proud to beg.
So I put my hand out, “Every little hit helps.”
Twitter has been generous, most writers understand that tweeting the occasional link is part of the self-publishing process. Facebook has been less forgiving.
Twitter followers, with shared interests, embrace my goofy Photoshop self-portraits, while my Facebook friends require an explanation. I have supportive followers who comment on my entries, and a few proximity acquaintances who don’t care for me clogging up their feeds. Fair enough, you can always select “Hide all” or “Unfollow.”
This is why writers have separate Facebook author pages, that way users have to “Like” the page to see our links. The problem is that Facebook’s algorithm pushes my posts to less than a third of my followers, while links from my personal account get twice as many views. It’s a catch twenty-two, damned to obscurity if I don’t share, declared a self-obsessed self-promoter if I do.
I’m curious how the rest of you handle this. Have you had to lose followers to gain followers? Have you found a magic number for weekly links you can get away with sharing, or do you leave your website in your profile and hope people will discover it? I’d love to hear your answers in the comments.
Has this ever happened to you? You felt like posting a controversial opinion online, but feared the fallout from your followers. You could’ve let the whole thing go, but you wanted to say something, so you came at it from an awkward angle. You chose to be confusing instead of controversial. The greater your social media presence, the more eyes of judgement are upon you, so you vague-booked. You blogged ambiguously. You committed crimes against clarity. You reached out with oven mitts on, because you were afraid of getting burned.
I’m just as guilty of these lies of omission. This is my confession.
I Wrote A Bad Article
I had a sensational headline with a hook that guaranteed it would go viral, but for all my promises of heated debate, I’d written a tepid article. Expecting their triggers to be set off, the reader would find themselves shrugging. For all my big bold print and explanation points, my title was misleading. It was edgy in tone, but not in content. Rather than go to bat for my cause, I played it safe. Rather than tip the scales, I barely weighed in on the subject.
In my mind, coworkers were reading over my shoulder. Dating prospects were crossing me off lists. Relatives were filling up on conversations for next Thanksgiving. I saw my social media followers scattering. This wasn’t my usual platitudes with attitude. It wasn’t inspiring, it was alienating. I found myself revising more than I was writing.
My literary voice cracked. My writing persona got stage fright. I bit my tongue, I choked on it. I wasn’t about to showcase my untested material. I wasn’t about to go dropping any microphones.
Afraid to let my controversial idea slip, I reported the controversy. Sighting polarizing extremes, I said there were two sides to every story. Then I implied they both had equal validity. I was a shepherd, shaming my readers toward the center. I walked my flock down the middle of the road, because I thought it was safer there.
It turned out my muse had centrist views.
My position didn’t support the facts. My neutrality was a non-reality. I tiptoed around the issue, and lied about the topography. I built a straw man, not to misrepresent the opposition, but to obscure their identity. Careful not to name names, I went after their behavior, and ignored the cause of it. I condemned easy targets like I was the only one brave enough to do it. I was a voice in a choir of condescension, pretending to be the most outspoken. Meanwhile, a grave injustice passed by unchallenged.
I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t the message that mattered, it was the wordplay. My readers wanted wit, not truth in jest. Piling on pointless alliteration, I spruced up the form to conceal the function. I turned prose into poetry. I distorted a clear picture into an abstract painting.
Rather than acknowledge the opposition’s argument, I addressed the logical fallacies in how they presented it. I didn’t go high or low, I took the off road. I sidestepped the issue. Rather than attack a dangerous claim, I lashed out at how it was said, putting semantics before substance. My fallacy was thinking that pointing out the opposition’s deceptions proved them wrong.
I was afraid to make a statement until the court of popular opinion had rendered a verdict. I wanted to take a stand, but I was afraid I’d be crushed beneath the bandwagon. Those big wheels keep on turning. They have to pass before Captain Hindsight can say something.
As I typed, I saw the rebuttal editorials forming. I saw the trolls frothing. I didn’t feel like curating the comment section. I didn’t feel like I owed everyone an explanation. I wanted to speak my piece, not have a conversation.
I saw myself seated at the misfit table at the next wedding. I saw my classmates avoiding me at the next reunion. I saw future in-laws, armed with confrontation ammunition.
While other causes are finally coming out of the closet, my lobby isn’t exactly making a lot of friends. Our delegates come across as elitists. They’re not winning hearts and minds so much as getting the rest of us condemned. When speakers list different groups to celebrate a diversity of opinion, we’re rarely mentioned.
I couldn’t find a mouthpiece to hide behind, a source to quote that said exactly what I was thinking. So I laundered my opinion through a complicated analogy, hoping that no one would see my words for the story. Afraid to talk politics and religion at the dinner table, I peppered them into a different conversation. I made ambiguous allusions, so I could get off on a technicality. I made noncommittal statements in case I needed to shrug off my beliefs.
I wrote a bad article. It compromised the truth in the interest of fairness. It compromised my journalistic etiquette by being politically correct. It committed a wrong by not fully addressing another wrong. It omitted evidence in the interest of balance. It looked down on the reader from the middle ground. It turns out the half way point between the truth and a lie, is still a lie.
Valentine’s Day is here. For some it’s the biggest date night of the year, a time for hard won reservations, and subpar service. When collective expectation is at a fever pitch. A time to feel put on the spot by romantic peer pressure. A day when one-upmanship makes lovers jump through flaming hoops to prove their feelings.
For some it is a day to abuse social media with forced romantic sentiment, a day for contrived vows that could only feel genuine if delivered in person. Some clog news feeds with couple’s selfies, while others clean house with mass-unfollowings.
After Christmas and New Year’s, Valentine’s Day is the last note in a overwhelming chord. For some it’s a victory lap, a day to celebrate the love they’ve been given. For others it’s the last stretch of a gauntlet of loneliness. V-Day is when they cash the last of their resolutions in.
Permit me to speak from the heart, with some help from the gut, with a little bit of bite, and a twist of the tongue.
My volatile Valentine’s vendetta derives its viewpoint from a bevy of vulgar visuals. Vapid vagrants with malevolent intent, visiting taverns to vocalize a variety of vacuous vows, proverbs with vanilla verbiage voiced verbatim, inviting victims to venture beneath their duvet for a vigorous vault through venerial viruses.
Avoiding reverence, evasive lovers veto verses, and revoke overtures. Vexed with a variety of vultures vying for votes, vixens avert involvement. My vehement vows provoke vagabonds to vanish. My devotion advances vamps through a vortex. Their verdict delivers a violent vivisection of vital vascular valves and vessels, leaving a vacated void, a victory for the villainous, a vasectomy of the virtuous, a vestige of St. Valentine’s venture.
A memory memory for the 14th of February, the Saint beaten beheaded, left to rot, I see no reason, the real reason for the season should ever be forgot.
This year, I’m one of those bah-humbuggers. To quote Placebo, “I’m killing time on Valentine’s. Waiting for the day to end.” For me the day completes a trilogy of unhappy holidays. Some days I believe in love at first sight, sometimes I want to tell Cupid where he can stick his arrows. Today is one of those.
If you’re at home reading blogs on Valentine’s, then I think I know which camp you’re in. If you’re looking for something to read, that hits that bittersweet spot then I’ve got you covered. Be you a hopeless romantic or a ceaseless cynic, I’ve got something for you.
May I present my best posts on romance, be they short stories or blog entries, poems or podcasts, I’ve got something to make the time pass.
Sometimes love comes from the place you least expect it, like surveillance equipment. What if the NSA agent building a profile on you wanted to get intimate too? Do you have a secret service secret admirer? Scan the Missed Connections on Craigslist and you might happen upon an entry like this.
A Missed Connection From Your NSA Agent
Twinkling brighter than any other star, you stood out in a wall of monitors. Your features made all the more striking in black and white. I remember the day the lid fell off your Chapstick. It smeared across your phone. It made your selfies look like vintage head shots of Lucille Ball. When you spoke, the crumbs in the microphone made your voice crackle like Lauren Bacall. Through the fiber optic lens embedded in your bathroom mirror, I could tell you had that it factor. Your presence lit up a room, especially when night vision was turned on.
Star struck, I tuned all of my surveillance in on your apartment. Putting you on my watch list, I had to have you to myself. The agency gets every station you could ever dream of, but you were the one I stayed on. When I saw your fingers moving down the guitar, singing David Bowie’s Big Brother, I knew my channel surfing days were over.
You were so cool, silk screening stencils of yourself with your chin up like a revolutionary. You were my kind of geek, reciting the tongue twisting monologue from V for Vendetta, down to the last V. You were mesmerizing, dancing the lambada solo, rubbing the air like a space for me.
You were my must see TV. My nights were spent watching a marathon of you, falling in love with your rebellious antics.
When you were so tired you put the coffee on without a filter, I provided the laugh track. When your supporting cast of cats entered, I provided the applause. When you talked to yourself, I tried to fill in the other half of the conversation. When you said your “Damn the man,” catchphrase I tried to say it in unison.
When you popped in a romantic comedy you were my favorite thing on TV. I loved watching your reactions, how you’d go through such a range of emotions. You went into each lovelorn speech rolling your eyes, but you always came out sobbing, hugging the pillow beside you. You recited lines like they were your thoughts at the time. As your sole audience for each performance, I couldn’t be more grateful.
You introduced me to my new favorite bands, kept me hip in the eyes of my friends. You taught me how to cook exotic new meals: potato pancakes, vegan chili, and avocado salad. You taught me which wines to pair with which vegetables. You broadened my palate. You impressed my dinner guests.
I took up crocheting, so we’d have something in common, but I struggled to keep up with your master level patterns.
Your workout regiment kicked my ass. I threw my back out mimicking yoga positions, but I stuck with it until I could feel my toes in my hands. You increased my flexibility with your full body origami. If only I could show you what you’d taught me.
I wanted to break the forth wall, to be a walk on role on your show, to see if I fit into the scenery. I wanted to patch into your speaker system, to make sure that no sneeze went unblessed. I wanted to do some undercover cosplay, to knock on your door and come inside. I was afraid my opening line would come across like a porno fantasy.
“I’m hear to fix the pizza. I mean, package the pipes. I mean, do you know how fast you were going? You’ll have to stay after class.”
Instead I surveilled from the shadows, a secret admirer with full access to your computer. I had my eagle eye on you. I’m the reason your laptop ran hot. You’d be surprised by how much random access memory was taken up by me. I’m the reason the battery in your cellphone never lasted. I put your location services to work. I’m the reason your alarm clock didn’t go off when it was supposed to. Maybe I thought you could use the rest, maybe I just liked watching you.
Commandeering your reminders app, I let you know when you were out of toilet paper. Intercepting envelopes, I crammed your mailbox full of gift cards for all of your favorite stores. While you were away for the holidays, I ordered covert cleaners to eliminate half your chores.
When you were pulled over for going over the limit, I issued the Amber Alert that got you out of it. When you parked on the wrong street during a snow emergency, I’m the one who switched the days for the entire city. When a jealous coworker made fun of your pink highlights, I made sure she got a pink slip that night.
I was your estranged luck, the director of your destiny, the authority behind your serendipity. I was the hand of fate, keeping you under my thumb. I was your guest login guardian angel, your wiretapping wooer, your backdoor lover with backdoor access. I didn’t want to leave anything up to chance. Fortune favored the controlled. Still, you had needs I couldn’t fulfill.
You know how you told your mother there was a curse on your love life? It seems like I might owe you an apology. I may have rendered your account invisible on OkCupid. I may have told your entire eHarmony inbox that you weren’t interested. I may have informed Match.com that you were dead.
I can tell you with good authority the guys creeping on your profiles had nothing on me. These were bearded bachelors who wore scarves indoors, loft dwellers with piss poor credit scores, and tallboy drinkers with student loans galore. If anything I was doing you a favor.
Too bad I couldn’t stop them from asking you out in person, from inquiring what you were reading, from getting bold at bar close, or biking beside you at a Critical Mass event. I took my jealousy to the DMV, modifying the database, hitting your dates with whiskey plates. I had their art cars repossessed. I revoked their motorcycle licenses. I listed their fixed gears as stollen, but still they came.
On date nights, I recalled every taxi to the garage. I shuffled bus routes, and closed bridges. Canceling your dinner reservations, I narrowed the scope of your plans. Shifting some money around in the Caymans, I bought out theaters to keep the two of you from going in.
When one of your suitors stayed the night, a team was ready to black bag him by morning. I have to admit, I was a little liberal with where I applied the taser to your boyfriends.
The real shock was to my heart. These bastards were beneath you. You could’ve landed a husband with a Masters of Science degree in Defense, good grooming habits, a great career, and an excellent 401k plan. You could’ve had so much more space to stretch, without having to relocate your coffee table. You could’ve had so much more space to cook, without having to put your cutting board on the couch.
There’s a two story house, in a nice neighborhood full of good schools. Its rooms are empty, despite some furniture covered in sheets. It sits there waiting for a family to come fill it with love.
After everything that happened, I couldn’t control my emotions, so I took control of your life instead. I put limits on your accounts to keep you from going out. I voiced your turn by turn navigation to keep you on the grid. I put you on a no fly list to keep you from slipping out of my jurisdiction.
You must have felt me watching.
Brushing your teeth in the bathroom mirror, you stopped abruptly, oblivious to the line of paste running down your sleeve. Pressing your finger to the glass, you discovered that tiny point where the light bent a little differently. You stared at the mirror, like you could see me. You looked at your smoke detector differently. You saw my all seeing eye in the ceiling fan. You froze in the middle of your apartment. You could hear my lenses focusing.
One day you left the office and never came back. Your car was found sitting in the lot, the windshield wiper bursting with flyers. Your bank accounts were cleaned out. Your social media profiles had been deleted. Your digital footprint had been scrubbed clean. The trail went cold. You’d gone underground.
What gave me away? Was it the U-Haul permanently stationed outside of your building?
Was it the Google Street View car following you to work? Was it my anonymous Valentines Day gift, the Teddy bear with the telephoto lenses where it’s eyes should’ve been?
I might have taken things too far. Not sure why I hacked your garage door clicker, I guess you just had a way of pushing my button. Not sure why I had to hijack your clock radio, if only to whisper sweet nothings in your ear. Not sure why I installed a remote control in your vibrator, if only to play a small role in getting you there.
Installing a full body scanner in your entry way was a bit much, I’ll be the first to admit it.
I broke protocol telling my mother about you. I showed my father a picture and he congratulated me on my good taste. They assumed we’d been together for sometime, based on my intimate knowledge of you. I told them that you’d taught me how to be a good listener, which is partially true.
Now you’re gone, vanished without a trace. I have undercover operatives embedded in communes, still no sightings. I have satellite cameras combing tropical islands, still haven’t spotted you working on your tan. I have an agency algorithm searching for your cyber shadow, still you haven’t logged in.
Next time you pass through a major city, could you please do something for me. Put your sunglasses away, take off your baseball cap for just a few seconds, and look straight into a security camera. I realize that all the facial recognition software in the world won’t bring you back to me. I just want to know that you’re okay.
Have you ever had a job interview that went to hell? This one goes there literally. When I say I write Twilight Zone fan fiction, this is what I’m talking about.
The Great American Tell Off Speech
Wind blew through the office. Lunging after a stray envelope, a mail clerk tripped over his cart. There were no walls to stop it, only pillars. The floor was arranged like a banquet hall, with a series of long tables. There were laptops in place of plates, phones in place of silverware. Sitting with the other applicants, Stewart felt like he was waiting for a reservation, not an interview.
Without walls, this was a hive with no honeycomb, a swarm that never sat still long enough to be a colony. The worker bees were at a constant hum. They buzzed into phones with fingers in their ears. Some fashioned borders out of folders. Some marked their perimeters, putting their hands up on their cheeks, and angling their elbows. Others ducked under tables.
Clicking buttons, they mistook each others’ mice for their own. Passing reports, they made bumper cars of rolling chairs. Waving their power plugs, they played musical outlets, jabbing at each other for juice.
Stewart leaned over to peak into a conference room. A facilitator hopped back and forth, armed with a set of markers and a smile. Pointing to someone out of view, the facilitator leapt up, spun around, and wrote a bullet point on the whiteboard. Giving a thumbs up, he jotted down the word: COLLABORATION. Employees raised their hands, kindergarden students waiting for their turn.
Stewart scanned his cover letter. Words like DISTINCT, INDEPENDENT and SELF-RELIANT stood out.
Giving his outfit a once over, Stewart found his yellow tie full of creases. He struggled to smooth them, only to find he was smearing ink down the length. Checking to see if any of the applicants were watching, he licked the silk clean. The nearest door was made of tinted glass. Stewart stuck his tongue out at his reflection. It was black. His cowlick stood straight up. Spitting into his hand, he tried to weigh it down.
The door opened to reveal a linebacker in a pinstripe suit, square-jawed and broad shouldered. He wore two bluetooth earpieces. They jut out like a pair of tusks. His brown hair had a reddish tint. It clashed with his silver eyebrows. His cheeks were tan and moist, a mannequin brought to life.
“Martin Williams.” He extended his hand, a catcher’s mitt full of class rings.
Stewart wiped the spit on his pants before offering his hand. “Stewart Smith.”
“Of course it is.” Martin winked.
The man had a vice grip. Stewart felt it in his arm socket.
Before Stewart could reclaim his fingers, Martin went in for a second pass. Giving the applicant’s palm another good squeeze, Martin tilt his head, a dancer singling for his partner to follow. Stewart squeezed back, quickly relinquishing his grip. When he withdrew his hand, it was clammy.
Ambling to his desk, Martin positioned himself to sit. Bending his knees, he froze.
Stewart mirrored Martin’s position in the chair provided. They were in a game of chicken over who’d be the first to sit. When Stewart’s footing shift gravity made the decision for him.
Martin raised an eyebrow at this development. Smoothing his blood red tie, he took his seat.
Stewart’s chair was anything but ergonomic. It dictated his posture at a ninety degree angle. With his hips shifting out of the seat, he became painfully aware of the position of his limbs. He crossed his legs, rather than sit spread eagle. He crossed his arms, rather than let them dangle like an ape.
Martin scanned him, a curator appraising the authenticity of an acquisition. His finger hovered over his speakerphone. “Would you like a coffee?”
Stewart didn’t care for what the chair was doing to his bladder. “No. No thank you, I’ve had too much already.”
Martin raised his eyebrow a little higher. “Let’s get right down to business. Your resumé says you’ve been out of work for sixth months now. The next guy coming in has the same qualifications. The only difference is he has a solid job. Why should I hire you instead of someone who’s stable?”
Stewart found his attention drawn to the waste basket at his feet, overflowing with 5-Hour Energy drinks.
He shift his butt in his seat. “Because I’m not stable.”
Martin raised his chin. “Care to elaborate?”
“No, but I will.” Stewart’s seat creaked as he moved to the edge. “Anyone can maintain a nine to five job, but it takes a particular type of person to hold out until they find a place where they’re needed.”
Martin rubbed his chin. “Needed, you say?”
Stewart scanned the bookshelf: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Steve Jobs’s autobiography.
He nodded. “Absolutely.”
The wall was filled with certificates, an Entrepreneurship degree from Columbia, an International Business degree from Harvard, and a slip certifying the completion of a weekend seminar in something called, “Neuro-Linguistic Programing.”
There was a photo of Martin covered in mud, a general whose army conquered a wall, letting out a battle cry. Ropes dangled over the side. Climbers grit their teeth, struggling to catch up with their agile leader.
Plucking the bluetooth tusks from his ears, Martin set them on the desk. Fishing a hand grip tool from a drawer, he gave his wrist a workout. “And what is it that makes you so vital to our business?”
On the desk, a pendulum drew figure eights in a Zen sand-garden. Stewart flicked it. “I’m here to change the flow of things.”
Martin quoted Stewarts cover letter, “And just how does an ‘independent’ ‘self-reliant’ ‘freethinker’ go about doing that?”
Martin slipped his copy of Stewart’s cover letter across the desk, a monologue waiting to be performed.
Stewart slipped it back. “I know what it says, it’s what it doesn’t say that matters.”
Setting the workout tool down, Martin smirked. “What, like the notes a musician doesn’t play?”
Stewart tilt his chin, committing to neither shaking his head, or nodding. “It doesn’t say that I’m a people person. It doesn’t say that I thrive in groups. Nor does it say that I’m passionate about communication, marketing, or social media.”
Martin pinched his pendulum to a stop. “You do realize the position you’re interviewing for is Brand Ambassador? It doesn’t get anymore social than that.” He wiped the Zen-garden down, making sure every grain was right where it belonged.
“You’ll learn that when it comes to emerging markets, none of us are as smart as all of us.”
Martin pointed to the group portrait on the wall. The staff stood in the parking lot with their arms outstretched, gnashing their teeth, lions eager to be fed. No one was smiling. No one was saying, “Cheese.” This was a warring army preparing to charge the enemy.
Stewart leaned forward to break Martin’s sightline. “You have too many initiatives competing with each other.”
“Life is a competition.” Martin blurt out.
Stewart nodded, as if that was a rational response. He took a deep breath. “The firm seems to think that if it throws a bunch of advertisements at the wall, some of them will stick. They need someone like me to offer users something worth seeking out. Someone who knows the difference between begging and branding, between panhandling and marketing, between crowdsourcing and true inspiration. It doesn’t take a village to represent a brand. It takes a delegate, someone to keep the message simple and consistent, someone to embody all the traits the customer is looking for.”
Standing, Martin wiped the last grains of Zen-garden from his hands. “I’ll be frank, you’re not it. I knew this before you even crossed my threshold. I feel like I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you why.”
Martin circled to Stewart’s side of the desk.
He made a square with his fingers, a director framing a scene. “Your posture tells me you’re closed off. You look like a marionette laid to rest, legs crossed, arms over your chest. You have none of the bravado to back up your selling points.”
Uncrossing his ninety degree angles, Stewart stiffened up.
Martin nodded to himself, confirming his assumption. “I knew it the moment I felt your slimy handshake, with your ring finger shorter than your pointer, this isn’t the man I’m looking for.”
Scooping up the workout tool, Martin slipped his finger through the loop. He spun it like a gunslinger.
“From then on you kept confirming my instincts. Staring at the bridge of my nose to avoid eye contact. Not taking the coffee. Being easily distracted by the pendulum on the desk. You do realize that was a test, don’t you?”
Martin squeezed the hand grip, like he was ringing a neck.
“But really, I knew all this the moment I spotted your yellow tie. Yellow is the color of cowardice, of betrayal, sickness and disease. A man who wears a yellow tie to an interview doesn’t want the job. This makes me wonder why someone with no confidence is trying to sell me on his penchant for insubordination. You’re running some kind of unemployment scam, aren’t you? I ought to offer you a mailroom position just to fuck it up.”
Stewart bit his lip. His face went cold. The pendulum began swinging on it’s own, drawing a shape in the sand. Stewart squint. Guided by an invisible force, the pendulum traced a glyph; the hook of a question mark, the zigzag of lightning, and the three points of a pitchfork.
The certificates shook. Photographs slipped out of their frames and slid across the floor. Standing, Stewart stepped on Martin’s muck ridden portrait.
“I too would feel like I was doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you something.” Stewart’s voice echoed through the building, a message delayed by a loudspeaker system.
His cowlick shot straight up, followed by the rest of his hair. The brown follicles turned bleach blonde. Smoke spiraled off the bangs. Stewart’s loafers grazed the carpet. Levitating off the ground, his posture corrected itself.
Rolling over his computer, Martin ducked for cover behind his desk. With the flick of the wrist, Stewart sent it through the wall. The screeching of its feet trailed off until it crashed. A sheet of dry wall collapsed into a pile of pebbles.
“Now it’s an open office.” Stewart’s voice boomed over the screams of panicked workers.
The Zen-garden came down in a heap. The hand grip tool spun end over end, landing in the dirt.
Martin hugged his rolling chair, a shipwrecked surviver with a floatation device. Making a pinching motion, Stewart plucked it free. Catching it, Martin rolled it back. Stewart found himself playing pantomime tug of war. Tugging the chair, he made Martin face plant into the Zen-garden. Whatever he’d slathered his skin in, gave every grain of sand a surface to stick to.
Stewart rose until his shoulder blades dug into the ceiling tiles. The chair rolled into his shadow. Coming in for a soft landing, Stewart took his seat, an emperor on his new throne.
Stewart crossed his legs, blowing the sand off the armrest. “Now that’s more like it.”
Pinching the air, Stewart pulled Martin up by his tie, forcing him into the modified cobra position.
Stewart glanced over his shoulder. “Of the four conference rooms on this floor, you’ve filled each of them. That’s half of your workforce passively listening, while the other half tries to pick up the slack.”
Through the window behind him, Stewart saw the facilitators poking their heads out, their smiles had flat lined, the pep had gone from their steps. Some of the staff stood frozen, while others ducked down, turning the spaces between the tables into foxholes.
Snapping his fingers, Stewart closed the blinds. “Punctual as I am, I had an opportunity to listen in on these meetings. Rather than tell your employees to respect the speaker, the facilitators asked for suggestions on how to do so. The meetings couldn’t start until the group stated the obvious: put your phones away, wait your turn, and stay on topic. The facilitators spoke the least. They drew out answers by asking questions. They confirmed nothing, offered no conclusions, and came to no ultimate ends.”
Twirling his finger, Stewart raised a tiny tornado from the remnants of the Zen-garden. He flung it at Martin.
“I actually knew Socrates, and there was a lot more to his method than that.” Stewart shook his head. “Whenever an employee realized the only way to get the ball rolling was to answer every question, the facilitator stopped calling on them, shutting out the very people who should be leading these meetings.”
The fluorescent lights flickered. Bulbs burst. Martin covered his head as glass rained down. Stewart cracked his neck. There was a flash of lightning, followed by a series of pops trailing off into the distance. The only lights that survived were in the exit signs.
Martin cupped his hands in prayer. “Oh Jesus, oh sweet baby Jesus on Santa’s lap, protect me.”
Stewarts eyes turned white. Sparks flowed from his gaze. His voice rattled the windows. “This company needs my omnipotence to look out for its interests. It needs me to sniff out the time thieves that schedule these meetings. You see, I eat waste. I devoir redundancy, and I am very hungry.”
Quivering, Martin tried not to look at the deity that had invaded his office. Stealing a glance, white streaks washed through his hair. Looking away, he saw the wheels rise off the floor. The rolling chair ascended.
Grains of sand took orbit around Stewart like rings around a planet. He sat in the lotus position. “Employees can only maintain social relationships with about one-hundred-and-fifty coworkers. This team has one-hundred too many. My belly growls just thinking about it. I’m here to pick the group-thinkers out of the herd, whether they’re grazing the carpet or standing watch from a corner office. I specialize in team dismantling.”
Martin groveled. “I didn’t mean to insult your tie, my lord, my-my master. Had you led with this level of confidence, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“But we are having it.” Stewart’s voice echoed from all sides. The rear window shattered.
Martin’s hands shook uncontrollably. His skin was awash with moonlight. Turning to the open window, he found a trinity of orbs floating in an unfamiliar sky.
Glowing neon yellow, the orbs pulsed with Stewart’s words. “With all the blood that passes through these teeth, I would never wear something so garish as a red power tie.”
Martin turned back to find Stewart’s tie had grown longer. With Stewart floating in the air, the tie hung down past his ankles. It stretched toward Martin, bobbing back and forth, a silk snake hypnotizing its prey.
Stewart’s big white eyes turned gold, “Yellow is the color of cowardice, and I’ve made you cower before me. Yellow is the color of sickness, and I am the plague that eats excess. Yellow is the color of treachery, and I am the knife that cuts the wheat from the chaff.”
Martin teetered back and forth, afraid that at any moment the tie might strike. “Please dark lord, spare your humble servant, and he shall make sounder assessments in the future.”
Raising his chin, Stewart sneered. “A worshiper once mispronounced my name whilst offering tribute. I squeezed his wrist until it burst.”
Extending his arm, the hand grip tool flew from the sand into Stewart’s palm. Working it around in his fingers, he reduced it into twinkling specks of dust.
“Do you really want to experience the full strength of my handshake?”
Martin shook his head. Tears streaked down his cheeks. Snot bubbled from his nose. Drool spilled from his lips.
The yellow tie coiled around Martin’s neck. Wedging his fingers beneath the silk, he couldn’t stop it from lifting him off the floor, up to Stewart’s eye level. The deity gripped the air. Invisible talons dug into Martin’s torso, offering slight relief to the strain on his neck. Stewart pulled him closer. The hiring manager and the applicant were face to face.
The whites of Stewart’s eyes filled with downward line graphs. “Your earning reports prophesied the fall of your profits, yet you continued to employ the same methods. You did the same things and expected different results. Lacking inspiration you tried to spark creativity through brainstorming.”
Martin struggled in his silk bonds. “But it’s a democratic process, we defer criticism, we welcome all ideas.” Martin kicked the air. “Quantity breeds quality.” He cried.
Stewart waved his finger, an animal tamer commanding his pet. The tie looped through Martin’s armpits, crisscrossing over his chest. Stewart would see him mummified for his mockery.
Stewart’s eyes filled with a pair of slides featuring a college campus. “In 1963 a group of research scientists, at the U of M, were asked to brainstorm, first together and then on their own. They produced better results when they were left to their own devices. They found that even in a welcoming environment, the fear of judgement persists. The outspoken dominated the conversation, while the soft spoken kept their ideas to themselves.”
Stewart blinked. His eyes filled with a landmass Martin didn’t recognize.
“I could’ve told them this. My followers in the Mediterranean tried to pool their resources to meet my blood sacrament quota. When they failed to deliver every last drop, I sunk their island to the bottom of the ocean.”
Martin’s face turned purple. His eyes bulged out. “You want blood?” He coughed. “The Red Cross is a client. They’re overflowing with donations. I can get you blood.”
Stewart’s irises returned long enough to allow him to roll his eyes. “I have been summoned by your overlords, called across distant shores, to make an example for your fellow employees. All of you hear me now.”
The building quaked. The staff cupped their ears. Blood trickled through their fingers.
Stewart addressed his flock, “I am the lord of layoffs. The father of phasing out. The demigod of downsizing. I make Anubis look merciful. I make Hades look like a humanitarian. I make Satan look sympathetic in comparison. There will be no bargains. There will be no mercy. I know all your sins. St. Peter doesn’t have shit on me.”
Stewart’s eyes filled with a set of scales. One rose, the other descended. “I find you guilty of tearing down the borders between cubicles, of running meaningless meetings, of over simplifying the Socratic method, of flooding your boardrooms with brainstorming sessions, of misreading micro expressions, of making assumptions based on the shape of an applicant’s hand.”
Pillars of lightning crashed around them, blasting holes through the marble tiles. Smoke shot through the gaps. Shrieks echoed through the building. The room shook as the floor fell out beneath them.
Stewart pressed his finger into Martin’s chest. “Indeed my pointer is longer than my ring finger, and it’s pointing at you now.”
Stewart breached the pinstripe coat. Martin’s flesh sizzled. Smoke billowed up his collar. His red power tie caught fire. His spray-on tan dripped down his cheeks. Hair product bled from his bangs. The yellow tie tightened around its prey. Cinders sparked through the gaps. Ash spilled from Martin’s cufflinks.
Stewart raised his eyebrow. “I deem thee unworthy.”
Unhinging his jaw, the applicant made a lasting impression on the hiring manager.
I wrote 10 Statements for Karen Oberlaender’s author interview series. My answers are as quirky as anyone who follows this blog might expect. They’re up on her site now. Check them out and follow her on Twitter @okiewashere.
What if someone combined the corporate jargon of a Craigslist job posting with the sprawling mythos of H.P. Lovecraft? It would look something like this.
Necronomicon Translator Wanted (Arkham)
Rapidly growing upstart looking to build buzz around tome of forbidden knowledge, The Necronomicon: The Book of the Dead. Job seekers should have a positive attitude, and be versed in ancient Arabic, Greek, and Latin. We want people who are excited to work with mould ridden manuscripts. People who like to solve puzzles, to piece together the fragments of unspeakable incantations. People with the mental resilience to withstand the inherent dangers that come with studying these texts.
We want individuals with good organizational skills, expert multitaskers capable of micro managing multiple realities. Self-starters who perform well under times of increased workload, and prolonged madness. Help us build a platform from the ground up. We want someone who is passionate about raising brand awareness of the coming darkness.
We want tag lines for the end times. We want to see our hashtags written in blood. We want someone on the cutting edge of the ceremonial dagger. Someone with vision, and by vision of course, we’re referring to the rising blood tide washing away the known world in a new era of delirium.
The ideal candidate has already had a dream about this position. They heard the call of Hastur echoing on howling winds. They saw the pallid mask emerge from phantasmagorical depths. They watched the black stars rise over Carcosa. They felt the yellow sign sear through their flesh, branding their very bones. They awoke with joyful tears, and bloodied hands, cackling at the revelation that we are all but the punchlines of the Old One’s elaborate joke.
Candidates must love working with people, have extroverted personalities, and be eager to form lasting relationships. Must have excellent interpersonal and interdimensional skills. Must be able to communicate clearly, concisely, and telepathically. Candidates should have a background in social media, networking, and astral projection.
We want individuals with winning mindsets, eager to succeed in a constantly shifting ecosystem.
Your duties will be to oversee parchment translation, marketing support, and the shoggoth servants that roam the labyrinth halls of Necropolis. You’ll run a web crawler to index the crawling chaos of Nyarlathotep, the Pharaoh behind the firewall. This is a great job for people looking to improve their networking skills. This position serves as a liaison to the denizens of K’n-yan, the tombs of R’lyeh, and the dark throne of Azathoth at the center of chaos.
We work in an open office built on terrifying vistas of reality. Our corporate culture is modeled after the Esoteric order of Dagon. This means our brainstorming sessions result in actual storms, and our problem-solving sessions have a death toll. We’re looking for team players who thrive in a group environment. People who will embrace the opportunity to contribute creatively, independently, and sexually, offering their flesh to the Deep ones and the many fins of Father Dagon.
Candidates must be punctual. Work days begin with peer recognition, a declaration of goals, and a ritual sacrifice to Mother Hydra. Together, we give fearless feedback, exchange pointers on best practices, and discuss positive client experiences. We encourage individuals to tell us what they wish to improve on, what they wish to learn, and what they wish to behold once Yog-Sothoth lifts the veil from the dark portal separating us from the looming cosmic dread.
We believe that our employees are our family, that collaboration multiplies opportunity, that together we can threaten the very integrity of the universe.
Cthulhu lies on the ocean floor deep in slumber. We need self motivated individuals to give him a little poke, to decipher enough arcane script to bring his mass of tentacles to our shores. We require exceptional verbal and written communication skills, and a technical proficiency in blasphemy. We want individuals who think like entrepreneurs, who will dive into the black sea of infinity from the placid island of ignorance. Individuals who don’t wait for Cthulhu to rise, they swim out to meet him.
It’s that proactive approach that empowers our translators to work on their personal development with minimal supervision. It’s the simplicity of our credo that inspires this growth. That’s because there’s just three core competencies: the Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.
“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Will you be the one to give him a wake up call?
Do you have good time-management skills, a strong morale, and an even stronger work ethic? Are you looking for an exciting career opportunity in the extremely private sector? Are you outspoken about stretching the boundaries of human consciousness? Do you want to abandon the hallow vestibules of man’s domain? Do nocturnal insects whisper profane truths to you? When you close your eyes, do you see the King in Yellow parting the nameless mist on the path to the Red Death? Can you drink the Kool-Aid without asking what’s in it?
If you answered “yes” to all of the above we need to talk!
Must submit to a background check into your past lives with onsite regression hypnotherapist
Must have references that can attest to your whereabouts during every international tragedy that took place during your lifetime
Must be willing to relocate to our subterranean headquarters beneath the ruins of Babylon
Valid Pilot’s license
Ability to write CSS, HTML5, Flash, and ancient Sumerian
* Location: Arkham, Massachusetts
* Compensation: The privilege of being one of the first to be devoured by the dark lord Cthulhu
* Principals only. Recruiters, please don’t contact this job poster
* do NOT contact us with unsolicited services or offers
* Start Date: You’ve already begun