Category Archives: Writing

An Excerpt from Retail Hell

The following is an excerpt from Retail Hell, my new short story (at 8,600 words it’s more of a novelette) now available on Amazon.

The Customers Cometh (an early chapter from Retail Hell)

Jezebeth led Barbara to a cliff side overlooking an endless subterranean shopping center. To Barbara it felt less like a cavern and more like another world with a rocky skyline. Great walls of shelving stretched in all directions, cut from lopsided stones, like catacombs with sale signs. Barbara could just make out the checkout counters on the horizon.

Jezebeth pinched Barbara’s shoulder.

“Do you mind if I give you a bit of fearless feedback?

I couldn’t help but notice that you were lagging behind on the way out. I know it’s your first day and you’re trying to contain your enthusiasm, but don’t worry about it. Just let loose. Run headlong into each new challenge. Alright?”

Barbara half nodded.

Jezebeth slapped her on the back. “Don’t worry. You’ll get another opportunity after the meeting.”

Barbara turned away, preferring the endless hellscape to her micromanager’s wild unblinking eyes.

Greeters, in red and black uniforms, ran out and scattered along the plane below.

Jezebeth clapped her hands. “There they go.”

The greeters scurried behind volcanic craters, like townsfolk fleeing bandits in the old west. Some fought over hiding spots, while others helped each other bury themselves in the dirt. Continue reading An Excerpt from Retail Hell

The Straw House Lament

I found this 8-year old poem in my archives. I never shared it because I thought it was too short. Now I think it’s the perfect length. It’s succinct, brutal, and fatalistic in a fun refreshing way. It reads like anti-wedding vows, like a two verse curse, like a Hallmark card from hell. Enjoy.

Plant your vows at the foundations
With all the other dead masons
Pack promises into the clay
With twigs, with straw, with bales of hay
Grind your love up in the mortar
Insulate every last pillar
Then take it all in
By every hair of your chinny chin chin

Bonding agents, mouths to feed
Sheets to tuck, bills to bleed
A bed with walls of paperbacks
You’ll never get your youth back
Big bad wolf has a station
On your home owner’s association
You will run, you will roam
But your straw house will never become a home

The Difference between a Good Muse and a Bad Muse

I’m going to be using the word “muse” a lot in this post. When I do I’m referring to people with the power to influence your material, not the arpeggio-laden rock band, or the nine daughters of Zeus and any of the sexist connotations that go with them (that conversation is being held in the lecture hall across campus, if you hurry you can still make it).

Call me a cosmonaut but I believe the arts are a form of telepathy, a way to express thoughts and feelings that simply talking (or texting) fail to do. I believe a subtle story of heartbreak has more power to resonate than a loud I feelstatement. By showing instead of telling the story draws out the reader’s empathy. It compels them to put themselves in the hero’s shows. The abstraction makes the expression all the more genuine. It forces the reader to participate, to draw their own conclusions, and unearth their own theme.

So if art is telepathy and artists are psychics it stands to reason many of us have ideal minds we long to inhabit. Let’s call them muses. These muses could be family members, romantic partners, or associates with mutual interests.

Good muses enhance our writing. When we write with a close confident in mind we put our guard down, get intimate, and create work that resonates, but when we write with the wrong muse our work gets guarded, diplomatic, and disingenuous.

So how the hell are we to know the difference?

Lessons on Screening Muses from Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony the Great is considered to be the father of all monks (and more importantly one of the first Obi-Wan Kenobi figures). Anthony started life with every advantage. His parents were wealthy landowners. He had a stable full of camels and a pocket full of bling, but when he heard Jesus’s message of trading material treasures for treasures in heaven he gave away everything.

Anthony cast off his inheritance, ventured into the desert, and wandered the land. He abandoned human companionship in favor of the divine. He fasted, exposed himself to the harsh Egyptian sun and eventually he started to see things. Anthony had visitations from ethereal figures whose divine leanings weren’t always clear to him.

Angels appeared as scrubs. Demons came on as ballers. It was hard to tell the difference between an angel in humble attire and a devil that had cleaned up well.

Antony’s visions were impaired. Not every angel wore a halo made of tinsel and not every demon wore a vinyl smock with a picture of who they were supposed to be on the chest. Anthony had to rely on his feelings to know which of the creatures he’d encountered.

He realized angels left him feeling rejuvenated, hopeful, and optimistic, while Demons left him feeling drained, exposed, and humiliated.

When screening for muses consider your feelings for the people in question. Really consider. Just because someone is important to you, just because you admire them, doesn’t mean they’re the right people to have in mind when you put pen to paper. That person you’ve been crushing on could be throwing you off your game.

The Person You Must Admire Might Be the Wrong Muse for You

I’m drawn to emotionally unavailable people, people who say, “I don’t think I’m ready for a relationship right now. Not anything serious.”

I want something substantial yet I’m drawn to those people. Of course I don’t consciously admit I have a thing for vagabonds. I’m not the one driving when my subconscious decides whom I get to have a crush on. Yet when I do take the wheel I find myself fighting to stay on a winding road that in all likelihood lead straight into a ravine.

These relationships are built on a rocky foundation of abstraction, emotional dithering, and the tension that comes from knowing that at any moment the whole thing come crashing down.

What I’ve learned from my pursuit of these impossible people is they slow my narrative writing right down. People who make you nervous in your heart don’t make for great muses in your art. They do if you’re writing about the individual in question, but not if you’re trying to cover the broad spectrum of human experience. Especially not if you’re delving into a topic that’s outside of the scope of their interest.

Do An Inventor of Your Muses

You can’t always decide who you’re drawn to, but you can decide whom your ideal reader is. Maybe that person shouldn’t be the one you’re trying so damn hard to impress in life. A bad muse will make you feel too embarrassed to write something heartfelt. They will make you censor your life experiences and hide your humiliation. They will have you filing down your jagged edges when you ought to be making them sharper.

If your muse hates horror you’ll find yourself taking all the teeth out of your terror. If they’re prudish you’ll find yourself softening your sex scenes. If they have conservative leanings you’ll find yourself hiding your rebellious streak.

Conversely, if your muse thinks romance is an antiquated notion for sexist baby boomers guess what your stories are going to be lacking? If they harbor a deep hatred of yuppie squares you might get freakier than you really are. If they gag on sentimentality you’ll find yourself getting more sarcastic than you care to be.

A bad muse can stunt your growth or take your writing somewhere insincere. A bad muse slows your flow, they compel you to edit as you go, and ultimately give you writers block.

Closing Thoughts

Just because you want to impress someone doesn’t mean they’re the right person to let into your headspace when you start writing. Use Saint Anthony’s metric for screening demons. Ask yourself: How does this person make me feel the moment they leave the room. Rejuvenated or drained? If they’re someone who consistently pokes holes in your ego odds are they aren’t going to read your writing anyway. So who cares what they think?

Write for the people who hear what you’re working on and ask a slew of follow up questions, for the people who remember story details from one conversation to the next, for the people who make you feel good even after they’ve left.

What Did I Miss?

I thought I’d nailed this subject
Really hammered it in
Drove the last word
Right into the coffin
I thought I’d crushed it
Really broke it down
Buried my feelings
Deep underground

I was dropping microphones
Dunking on your memory
Going around town
Lapping up a victory
I told everyone and their mom
“Ha, I am so over her”
God I say some stupid shit
When I’m stone cold sober

Now I’m taking a shortcut
Through a long dark alley
And I’m not too worried
About what’s going to happen to me
Here I was thinking
I’d hardened my heart to this
Now I’m clutching at my chest
Asking what did I miss?

I thought I’d aced this subject
Got an A plus plus
Then you popped me with a quiz
And I’m back on the short bus
I thought my bruises were healing
Thought I’d satisfied this itch
I thought my fever had broken
Then it made me its bitch

I thought I’d closed this book
I thought I’d solved this crime
I thought history was done repeating
But it rhymes all the time
I thought I was above this
Blue skies as far as I could see
Then I went full blazing Hindenburg
Oh the humanity

Now I’m footing it
Across a desert valley
And I’m not too worried
About what’s going to happen to me
Here I was thinking
I’d hardened my heart to this
Now I’m clutching at my chest
Asking what did I miss?

How to Alienate People By Telling Them You Write Horror

I get around, wheeling and dealing in my hip bohemian community. I’m a man about town, getting recognized in my seasonally inappropriate dark t-shirt and jeans.

“The tall guy with the bulbous nose? Yeah, I know him. Why, what did he do?”

When I go to the grocery store the clerks double bag my eggs because they know I’m walking, at the coffee shop the baristas know that I’m mostly harmless, and at Chipotle they always have a bowl ready because a burrito is just not enough meal for me.

Yeah, I’m kind of a big deal. I shake hands. I make connections. I interject into the conversations when I’m eavesdropping.

I have a talent for reading people. My subconscious Sherlock catches every tell, every raised eyebrow, and bitten lip. No signal is misread. No micro-expression is lost in translation. I see you there giving me the eye by way of the floor. Now you’re rolling those eyes right up into that thought cloud about me. I know what you’re thinking.

You might go so far as to say that I’ve got game… until I make the mistake of telling you I’m a horror writer. Then it’s all down hill from there.

I might as well introduce myself as, “A stranger,” or wear a sash that reads, “Creeper,” or show people a photo of all the mounds in my basement and ask, “Can you guess which ones are mine?”

At least that’s how it feels based on the reactions I get.

In his book On WritingStephen King recalls getting caught selling his first horror story at school. He was a bestseller even then. The principle confiscated as many editions as she could get her talons on. She called young Stephen into her office to review the evidence.

“What I don’t understand, Stevie,” she said, “is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?”

Young Stephen was speechless. He had no answer apart from his hangdog expression. For decades after this encounter he felt ashamed of his work, as if the subjects he wrote about were manifestations of something wicked within him, something best reserved for abandoned Victorian asylums and horror conventions.

Horror Has a Stigma

I feel like young Stevie King whenever I make the mistake of pitching my fiction to a person of the puritan persuasion. Turns out there are a surprising number of devout individuals on the dance floor.

When you tell someone you’re a writer, they may ask, “What are you working on?” If your answer is, “A story about a woman trapped in a hotel with a demon.” they may follow up their question with, “Why would you write about such things?”

That one always stumps me, because I think the answer is self-evident: I do it because it’s entertaining. Any dangerous situation that activates our fear centers is instantly engaging. If that danger comes from someplace supernatural, in the great unknown where our nightmares thrive, then all the better.

I don’t think that automatically makes my stories bleak or nihilistic. Like any author I still have to strike a balance between hope and dread, I just skew a little further toward dread.

Still, I get it. Horror isn’t known for being the most emotionally engaging genre. It rarely enjoys prominent placement in Oprah’s Book Club. It rarely inspires readers’ life decisions. It doesn’t have the allure of a romance novel to inspire travel. It’s not going to give readers material for dinner party conversations.

Horror is the box wine of literature. Not that classy, but it will get you drunk.

I’ve spent many an evening defending my vocation when I should have been, well, dancing.

Should You Hide Your Affinity for Horror?

Is it possible to be a suave socialite when you spend your nights scripting secret ceremonies set in subterranean cellars? I have no clue, but I’ve learned something from all my time requesting songs from before half of the dance floor was born. Being myself is still the best practice. Not because people are more likely to be drawn to me, they won’t be, but because I’ll be rejected for the right reasons. I’d rather be brushed off for the asshole I am than for being a disingenuous creep.

If You Can’t Do Horror How Fun Are You?

I’m done catering to people with delicate sensibilities. From here on out I’m going to let my freak flag fly. I write horror, not socially acceptable thrillers with artisanal serial killers, but horrorhorror with ghosts, devils, and creatures made of tentacles, where villains win and bad things happen to good people.

If you won’t go anywhere near things that could give you nightmares then steer clear of here. If you don’t get the appeal of a ghost story around the campfire then I don’t want to share my S’mores with you. If you can’t stomach a schlocky piece of splatter house cinema, but you have time to keep up with the Kardashians, I doubt you’re that much fun.

In other words: if you ain’t into cool shit, you basic.

Closing Thoughts

Much of the above was “inspired” by actual events, not necessarily based on them. Don’t get me wrong. I get rejected a lot. Not for being a horror writer, just, you know, because.

The pulp bins of the 70s and 80s were clogged with forgotten horror novels. Writers dare not admit to working in the genre today. We’d rather say we write dark fantasy, or psychological thrillers, or bizarro fiction, but in our hearts horror is the genre we pledge allegiance.

It’s up to us to destigmatize it. Class it up. Horror is a great vehicle for gross out gags, but it’s also a great vehicle for morality plays, thought experiments, and reflections on current events.

The torture-porn films of the early aughts (Saw,Hostel, etc) have lowered the intellectual capital of the genre. We brave few who identify as horror authors have to raise it up again, even if that does mean pitching stories on the dance floor.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I uncovered this poem I wrote about the Humphrey Bogart classic 1941 noir The Maltese Falcon and thought it had an intriguingly dark mystique to it (spoilers for The Maltese Falcon follow).

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Sam Spade had to turn her in
Not just because she killed his partner
Because she played him for a sap
Him and every man she’d ever been with

The Falcon was a red herring
You could argue that his heart was too
As the elevator doors eclipsed her eyes
And took her down to hell

“When a man’s partner is killed
He’s supposed to do something about it”

He slides Exhibit A to the detective
The thousand-dollar bill
She tried to buy his loyalty with
If only she had thought to buy it with something else

There’s a smile on one side of his face
The truth rests on the other
He’s just made a sacrifice
To himself

“All we’ve got is that maybe you love me
And maybe I love you.”

There’s a cigarette where her lips could be
A fedora where her hands could have rested
A collar she could’ve wrapped her arms around
A lead bundle where his heart could’ve been

He tells his secretary to have Archer’s name taken off the door
His killer’s been sent up the river for twenty to life
It was duck soap when he figured it out
But it won’t make his bed any warmer tonight

“I hope they don’t hang you, precious,
By that sweet neck”

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Writing About Writers

A thought cloud forms overhead. Lightning flashes and you’re struck with the perfect premise, an eerie locale, and a clever twist. The idea is electric. You want to write it down before this thought cloud rescinds, but you’re convinced you need to write some quick character bios before you commit to draft.

Something tells you that your hero needs one of those jobs you’ve see on TV like a detective, or a lawyer, or doctor. Not because your premise demands it, but because it will feel familiar to readers. The only problem is writing about those careers requires knowledge you don’t possess.

You have no clue how to survey a crime scene. You have doubts about what the law considers a reasonable doubt, and you couldn’t do CPR to save your own life. Now before you move away from your inspiring thought cloud into a tunnel of endless research considering making your hero a writer.

Now I know, writers writing about writers is a cliché as old as writing itself, but there are a lot of benefits to centering your adventure on an author.

It’s What You Know

Writers write what they know, but all too often the subject we know most about is writing. This is why Stephen King has written so many stories about writers (I was going to count them all, but there are only so many hours in a day).

Writing is a subject you can talk about with authority. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been published, if you’ve had meetings in New York, or pitched in Hollywood. You know what it’s like to wrack your brain over a single sentence that keeps giving you a hard time. You know what’s it like to draw inspiration from life events, from friends, and your surroundings. You know how writing makes you look at the world differently. You see stories in every anonymous interaction, scan your environment for hidden meanings, and see evidence of fate after the fact.

Writers are Sympathetic Characters

Writers are insufferable, grammar checking our friends. We’re longwinded, even though we know that brevity is the heart of wit, and we dominate conversation by turning them into impromptu pitch sessions. Writers may be jackasses, but we are sympathetic jackasses.

Why?

Most aspiring writers will fail. And… They… Know… It. Yup. Failure makes characters endearing. Even successful writers have a tall stack of rejection slips in their closet.  Audiences find driven characters endearing, and driven failures are sympathetic.

It’s also must be said the being a writer is a lonesome vocation. Everybody gets lonely, but a writer has to be. Chuck Palahniuk may, as he claims, write at parties, but the rest of us have to go into anti-social mode to get our two thousand words daily in. Even in public we have to tune out the noise in order transcribe our internal monologues.

How many Disney movies star solitary dreamers aspiring for something more? (I was going to count, but there are only so many hours in a day). Writers, even middle-aged ones struggling to get out from an unsatisfying career, are endearing, because they cling to the hope that somehow someday someone will read what they’re working on.

Writers Know A Little About A Lot

Well-read writers have a wealth of knowledge (surface level knowledge, but enough to be useful on trivia night). If your hero is a writer, and you’re writing in the first person, your hero can educate your audience directly. They can discuss story-telling mechanics as a foreshadowing technique, and explain plot devices moments before they happen.

If you ever have to explain how your hero knows something outside the field of their expertise, you can always say they picked it up researching a story.

“I picked up knife throwing skills when I wrote about an underground circus with life and death stakes.

“I learned how to count cards when I wrote about a back alley casino where players bet souls.”

“My lock picking skill came from that story I wrote about the stalker.”

Guillermo Del Toro’s life sized Edgar Allan Poe sculpture. Photo by me

Writers Have a Mixed Relationship With the rest of Humanity

Writers are fascinated with people. That fascination isn’t always full of childlike wonderment. We’re interested in people but we don’t necessarily love them. In fact we find them perplexing. They often act outside of their interest. They undercut their best efforts, and casually hurt one another with no consideration. Their capacity for empathy blinks off then roars back on. We want to understand people because we struggle to understand ourselves and that’s endearing.

As long as your curmudgeonly wordsmith is curious about the human condition readers will find them compelling.

Everyone Wants to be One

Everyone wants to be a writer or thinks they have one good novel in them if only they had the time to write it down. They may have even kicked at the tires of drafting something. That said they might have a pretty good idea what the writing process is like or yearn to read about the extremes another author’s methods require.

Just remember: the more extravagant your hero’s writing process is the more driven they’ll seem.

Writing about a Writer Opens the Door to Meta Storytelling If your hero is a writer they can explain what it means to be an unreliable narrator and then turn around and be one. They can backhandedly refer to scenes that they decided to cut. They can point to a plot hole and promise to fill it or suffer the wrath of the reader’s intellect. They can call out their own clichés before putting a fresh spin on them.

When your hero is a writer you get to play with storytelling mechanics, break the forth wall, and put the reader on the spot. A first person story staring a writer is a dangerous thing. At any moment the hero can go rogue and tell the reader that their theories about the twist are wrong.

Closing Thoughts

Making your hero a writer might feel like a cop out, but it will make your story feel authentic because you know what the job is like.

…and frankly don’t we have a enough stories about doctor, lawyers, and detectives already?

5 Lessons I Learned Writing Retail Hell

It’s said that there are many hells. Each specifically tailored to fit the damnation of the souls in question. Then it stands to reason there’s a subterranean superstore where rude people are put to work. Welcome to Retail Hell, a short story now available on Amazon.

Oppressive Situations Limit Character Development

When we meet Barbara she’s berating both a clerk behind a checkout counter and a call center representative. She’s a familiar Ebenezer Scrooge type character. She’s put through an ordeal. She has an aneurism and wakes up for her first shift in the literal Retail Hell. Just like Scrooge she’s taught empathy through supernatural means, but her journey doesn’t necessarily end with her gifting turkeys on Christmas morning.

My hell is so oppressive it leaves Barbara’s character with few places to go, other than with the flow.

I believe every story should have a change of some kind. Usually that change involves a character learning a lesson, being humbled then empowered, and rising to a challenge as a better person. BUT… Sometimes it’s the audience’s expectations of the hero that need to change. We go in thinking a toxic braggadocios brute is going to have a sense of modesty impressed upon them, and he does, but it doesn’t take. In those situations it’s the audience that goes through the change. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing Retail Hell

Why Every Horror Writer Needs A Nightmare Journal

Writers are always told our fiction should be informed by our experiences, because the best stories have a kernel of truth to them. With this in mind we smuggle our quote books into our characters’ mouths. We cast colleagues as our leads, and we misappropriate our memoirs into our material. We find and replace our own names and over-share under aliases. We launder tell off speeches through nom de plumes and reveal our truth through jest.

We write what we know until we write the fantastic elements of our story. Then we drop that mantra completely. Without the experiences to draw from we use other methods to ground our stories. We impose rules on the impossible.

A ghost can pester the living from the further, but will be weaker than a person who dares to go there. A magician can project a torch flame across the room, but the heat will diminish 60%. A Jedi can project his consciousness across the galaxy, but the journey will kill him.

We rely on western storytelling conventions to suspend our readers’ disbelief. We hope an internal logic will do the trick. For the most part it works, but what if there was a way to make our fantasies resonate with the same sense of authenticity as stories in our diaries? What if we had fantastic life experiences and we didn’t even know it?

Dreams are Experiences

Dreams are the only place (outside of drug fueled journeys, psychotic episodes, and virtual reality) where we experience true fantasy. Unlike daydreams, dreams push us out of the driver’s seat. When we ride through dream country we’re not creators, we’re experiencers. Our feelings aren’t manufactured, they’re reactive, and due to this delusion of perception, our observations are authentic.

I have friends who check out whenever I pitch them a story, but they lean in whenever I start talking about nightmares.

This is why I advocate the keeping of a nightmare journal, a Compendium of phantasms, an Atlas of the abyss, a Bestiary of bogeymen. You get the idea. Continue reading Why Every Horror Writer Needs A Nightmare Journal

Book Announcement: He Has Many Names

I’m super excited to announce my novel HE HAS MANY NAMES is coming out through CLASH Books this fall (just in time for Halloween). Here’s the press release from yesclash.com:

HE HAS MANY NAMES by Drew Chial is tongue in cheek meta-horror about a ghostwriter named Noelle, sequestered in a strange hotel, under the patronage of a famous & elusive bestselling horror author, where things go from strange to stranger.

This story is a fascinating exploration into the artmaking (or crazymaking) process & the bullshit politics writers face every day in the publishing industry. It’s a fresh spin on the Faustian bargain, a deal with the devil story in the age of artistic desperation.

Cover art by Matthew Revert

matthewrevert.com

Noelle is a Hollywood transplant who’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print. Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo, Dee Ville.

Nevertheless Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by horned shadow with a taste for souls. Desperate Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again in until she’s uncertain of the difference between reality and what’s written.

Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it all a desperate author’s insanity, or is it something else entirely?

Photo by Bryan Politte

 

Drew Chial is a writer who haunts the coffee shops of Minneapolis Minnesota where he lives with his cat Nemo. He’s been a board member of the Minneapolis Screenwriter’s Workshop and a script reader for the production company Werc Werk Works. He’s won the Short Story and Flash Fiction Society’s Flash Fiction Contest. His articles have been featured on Word Press’s Freshly Pressed page and RogerEbert.com. The Fancy Pants Gangsters produced an audio drama from his short story The Narration for the Red Shift podcast. His short story ‘Grieving in Reverse’ was published in the collection Walking Hand and Hand into Extinction: Stories Inspired By True Detective. And he does not use ghostwriters…yet. His latest novel He Has Many Names is forthcoming from CLASH Books. He blogs about writing at drewchialauthor.com. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram @DrewChial where he shares disgustingly cute pics of his cat Nemo.