Robert A. Heinlein’s second rule of is writing: You must finish what you start.
Neil Gaiman would add: Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
This article is about doing whatever you have to do, even when the spark from your first light bulb moment has gone dim.
What I do When My Inspiration is Incomplete
Ding. A light bulb appears over my head. It’s faint and it’s flickering, but I get the sense it’s one of many lamps leading down a larger path.
Most of my stories come to me like this.
“What if depression acted like a movie producer invading the set of a man’s life and it gave him all these ‘notes’ that ruined his day?”
“What if the corporation that runs reality starts putting features, like gravity, behind a paywall?”
“What if a guy has a different personality disorder for every day of the week?”
These blinking bulbs line the entrance of a conceivable composition. These lamps rarely cast enough light to show a story’s structure. I can’t see the exit from the entrance, but I have a vague sense where the front door is leading. I see movement in the windows, but only catch silhouettes of the characters.
A lot of writers need to see the floor plan before venturing into the building. I’ve found if I keep pacing the block looking for the brightest concept I never go inside. I’m the kind that goes in blind and screws the bulbs in along the way in.
Those first few dings of inspiration might lead me to believe I’m walking into a plot driven mystery, but with a little more light I realize it’s an intimate character study. My skill for lighting depends on my ability to adjust my expectations of the building I’m working on. Continue reading How to Swap the Light Bulbs of Inspiration→
Sometime soon I’m starting a short fiction Podcast in the spirit of The Twilight Zone. I have a library of short stories to draw from, a cover art template, and my own theme music. The only thing I’m missing is a name that has survived a week on the refrigerator (this is coincidentally why I don’t have any tattoos either).
Since most good podcast names are taken I figured I’d add my name to the following options (there are benefits to having a last name your ancestors made up on Ellis Island). These are the names I’ve come up with so far. Help me narrow my them down.
This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.
Before a runner can take on a marathon they have to increase their millage over time, running a little more every day, building their muscles, and getting their bodies ready to go the distance. Before a writer can take on a novel they have to increase their word count, writing a little every day, building mental strategies, and getting into the habit of putting words on paper.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve run a marathon before if you’re taking on another you have to put in that leg work again. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already written a novel, if you’ve been out of practice, your brain will need a workout before its up to the task.
Here are 8 Dreams and Nightmares turned into 8 works of flash fiction, all in 18 minutes of audio. Each one is something straight out of the Twilight Zone: haunting, surreal, and filled with twists. Stream for free or download and pay whatever price you want.
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.
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.
“My favorite jump scares toy with your expectations.”
Cue the Psycho Strings
In horror movies, jump scares make teenagers lose their popcorn, while veteran viewers hold onto their Milk Duds. Veterans know the rhythms of the genre. They know what it means when the score fades beneath a howling wind. They watch the victim tiptoe through a long uninterrupted shot. They know when to expect a cat to jump out, and when to expect a killer. While teens wince at the simple sight of blood, vets yawn at all the spiritless slaughter. If they’ve seen one hook pop out of someone’s throat, they’ve seen them all.
They’ve been exposed to far too many cheap chills, generic gotchas, and bargain BOO’s. Without good storytelling, panic feels passé, alert seems antiquated, and carnage seems commonplace.
Veteran viewers have been inoculated against these dated daunts. They lean back in their seats, with comfortable dry pants, secure in their immunity. What if there was a new strain of jump scare, one that resembled those creep show clichés, but broke through their resistance? Continue reading Cue the Psycho Strings→