Tag Archives: writing

Tunnel Vision

What would you do if you woke up to find an endless tunnel in the middle of your home and  that your cat was missing?

Dreams drop us in the middle scenes with no set up and no direction. We enter the situation, “And… action!”

The difference between a good dream and a nightmare is our ability to improvise with the material we’re given.

This nightmare was set at the height of winter out on the roof of a snow-covered skyscraper. The skyline was as flat as a matte painting. The low hanging moon provided the spotlight and the low roaring wind supplied the soundtrack.

From where I stood it seemed like I’d come in at the end. The supporting cast fanned out from the roof access hatch. These were people I’d known very various stages of my life: work colleges, college classmates, good friends, and lovers I’d left on bad terms. Each of them drudged through the snowdrift with their gloves up, like I was a threat. All eyes fixed on me.

I was perched on the ledge wearing nothing but my quivering arms and I must’ve been out in the cold for a while because my goose bumps were as raised and thick as brail.

My supporting cast inched closer. The urgency on their faces was undercut by the cold. They clutched the elbows of their long down coats, scarves fluttered into their faces, and their breath spiraled through chattering teeth.

The cast was restless, teetering on their marks, waiting for me to get back on script.

An ex girlfriend in a long goose feather coat stepped forward, rubbed her mittens together, and pointed over the ledge with her chin. “Yes, and?..”

“Yes, and…” is the foundation of improv comedy. It enables comedy troops to cobble together a story from suggestions from the audience. The “Yes” means you’ve accepted the contribution of your cast mate. The “And” means you’re ready to build on it. There is no “No” in improve comedy. You just have to go with the flow.

This ex of mine hadn’t given me a lot to work with, but nothing would be more embarrassing than brain farting through her setup. So I “Yes, anded” over the side of the building.

The set melted into a blur of streetlights and fire escapes. The full moon whirled into a straight line. I stopped rolling just as the street came into focus. I could just make out the steam vents and the cinders rising from the burning barrels. Ashes to ashes we all fall down.

And… Scene.

•••

I woke up to an earsplitting hissing and metallic gong. I followed a trail of business cards to the desk at the foot of my bed. The white noise machine was swinging by its cord, a fist-sized mallet tapping a rhythm on the aluminum. The devices usual calming brown noise had shifted to a piercing white. The box roared like a blizzard through a canyon. I dialed it down as I pieced together what had happened. My cat, Dexter, had had some fun pawing at the flashing blue buttons, gotten spooked, and fled the scene in classic Dexter fashion. He’s a bad boy. He knew what he was doing.

I sat at the edge of the bed deconstructing my dream death waiting for the sobering sense of relief to come. When it didn’t I wandered around the apartment flicking on the lights, calling for Dexter as I went.

“Dexter. The big mean droning sound is gone. You can come out now.”

It was in the living room where a chill set my arm hairs on end. I turned to the windows expecting shattered glass and swinging blinds, perhaps a brick from a secret admirer on the floor, but no. All the glass was intact, closed up, and locked down.

The chill crept around me and tapped me on shoulder. I felt the kitchen wall, flicked the light switch, and staggered over the trashcan with all the grace of a cartoon waiter.

Between the litter box and the refrigerator a two-lane tunnel stretched as far as I could see. My 400 square foot apartment now ran on for miles. The carpet and ceiling stretched so far off into the distance that they came together into a vanishing point.

“That’s new.”

With the acceptation of the kitchen table and chairs the dining room’s features repeated forever. The tunnel must’ve cut through the complex, the back lot, and the neighboring buildings. It was like a beige superhighway stretching off toward the ocean. Long red pasta stains marked the lanes. Clumps of cat litter and outlets marked the shoulders, and the accumulated ceiling fans, with their low emitting bulbs, looked like lamp poles in the distance.

“Cool. So I’m crazy now.”

I laced up my sneakers and ran out to the back lot. The dumpsters were brimming with discarded mattresses and beer cans, and the lot itself was in dire need of plowing, but there was no skyway expansion extending off the complex. On my way back I ran into a neighbor corralling her terriers into the hall for a late night potty break. I ogled her puppies and we exchanged a smile. We Minnesotans are notorious for holding in our opinions, but if she’d seen a tunnel cutting through her apartment she would’ve said something. Instead she just tugged her terriers by their leashes to give me room to squeeze past.

When I got back into my apartment the tunnel was still there defying all architectural logic.

“Okay, point one for crazy.”

I hurled a cat toy into the tunnel: a little ball with a bell in it. It jingled for a moment and came to an abrupt stop. Then something occurred to me. Where was Dexter?

“Dexter? Here boy.”

Dexter wasn’t a dog. Odds were he thought his name was what all humans said when they’d lost something. I found a can of tuna. Tapped the lid. Took my time peeling it back and spilling the wet food onto a plate. I set it on the table, but Dexter failed to show. I’d used up all of his Pavilion programing. Now we had a problem.

Ever the boy scout I filled a backpack with a handful of granola bars, cat food, a flashlight, a first aid kit, and a water bottle.

I took my time stepping over the threshold half expecting to hit an invisible wall. When my toe touched down I realized the tunnel was real and Dexter was really gone. The thought had me powerwalking, jogging, and ultimately sprinting into this strange impossible void. The support beams groaned beneath me. Each footfall echoed on the ceiling. I had no clue who or what resided below this corridor, but they didn’t seem to mind the ruckus I was making. So I kept going until I ran out of steam. I jogged until I felt it in my sides, and powered walked until I had to take a breather.

I sat, rifled around my pack, took a swig of water, and tapped my smartwatch. I was one thousand steps in, which was roughly half a mile.

I shouted. “Dexter!” My voice boomed down the tunnel. I was taken aback by just how loud it got.

It occurred to me that I had no idea what would happen if I got turned around in here. So I dug out a sharpie and drew an arrow on the wall pointing back the way I came. The marker screeched. The tone echoed all around me. The tunnel had a strange way amplifying sound.

I decided to press on a little further. The arrow repeated like a background from a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

I stopped, drew an X on a can of tuna, and set it in the center of the tunnel. I took five steps forward and found another can with an X and another. I picked it up, examined my mark, and slipped it back in my pack. The duplicate cans disappeared after that.

The physics of the tunnel didn’t make sense. The arrow had repeated, the tuna can had repeated, but the cat toy I’d flung in from my living room was nowhere to be found.

I checked my watch. I was now a mile in. I scanned the vanishing point. The tunnel dipped over the horizon. I had a sneaking suspicion it stretched across the continent.

I couldn’t see Dexter venturing this far into a new space on his own. One time I took him down to the laundry room to give him a change of scenery. He crawled between the machines and parked his little limbs beneath his belly, a little loaf of kitten too scared to go exploring. He had his safe spaces. I had a hunch he’d hidden behind the bookshelf upon spotting the tunnel.

I turned back and that’s when I saw my exact double spinning on his heel. The didn’t notice that the top of his pack was hanging open. I reached under my shoulder and found my own zipper dangling. My double zipped his pack shut and turn to look at me. I faced forward and saw nothing but the vanishing point. I turned back just as my double turned forward.

“Hey handsome!” Our voices boomed in unison. There was no echo. No delay just a broken mirror reflecting light the wrong way.

The hairs on the back of my collar stood straight up. I turned sideways and craned my neck. My double mirrored my movements, revealing a triple, quadruple, and quintuple of me standing just beyond him. Each of these copies shuddered in unison. It was like facing a camera to a monitor and stepping in between the two. Except this feedback loop was framed by dining room.

I don’t know why my first instinct was to reach into my pack, draw out a can of cat food and chuck it at my double’s head, but that’s what I did and it clipped him right where it clipped me.

I took out my flashlight and shined it back the way I came. A chain of beams gleamed all the way to the vanishing point.

I ran after my double, thinking I could tackle him and break the cycle, but he matched me step for step. After several minutes I watched him clutch his side, feel his carotid pulse, and stagger. Winter had frozen our running regiment and we were both out of shape.

I watched my double slap himself and felt it upon my cheek. We wanted to wake up, but time and space were broken.

This had to be a dream. The only problem with that theory was how consistent the architecture was. The subconscious has a short attention span. It can only keep so much of its surroundings in place before shuffling them again. This place remained fixed. The tunnel never shifted dimensions. The carpet stain remained consistent. The arrow never changed shape.

It occurred to me to check my watch. I’d run a thousand steps since last I’d checked, which meant I was a half a mile from home.

I wondered what would happen to my copies once we got back. Would they cram together in the living room, divvying up a box of Diet Coke among them? Would they blink out of existence? When I made it back into the kitchen table would I turn around to find the dining room wall had returned? What would I do if it hadn’t, call the landlord and have them send a maintenance technician in with a long piece of string?

“You don’t want to go in too deep or else the Minotaur will get you.”

I walked another half mile and you know what I found? The tunnel kept going and the chorus line of me were waving our arms around, struggling to understand what was going on. I’ll be honest we were losing our collective shit.

I took out my phone, opened the photo application, and zoomed in on the tunnel’s vanishing point. It kept right on going. We didn’t take that news so well. My double flung his phone like he was skipping a stone. A phone spun between my legs, slid between his ankles, and settled at my toes.

That’s when we started punching the wall. We hammered at it until cracks spread, dust rained down, and blood trickled through our knuckles, until our wounds filled with plaster, until it seemed like the whole goddamn wall was vibrating, until each of us had made his own little hole.

I chipped at the gap until I could get a good grip, pressed my heel against, and pried off a good chunk of drywall. Not enough for me to fit myself through, but enough for me to get a good look at what was on the other side.

All I saw was the same damn dining room, but from a new angle. There was another copy of me. This one was chin deep in a hole like the one I was looking through. This was no way out, just another way further in. If I tore up the carpet, pried up the floorboards, and jumped through gap I’d probably fall just forever. The world was gone. There was only an endless honeycomb of dining rooms going on forever into the astral plane.

My pulse throbbed throughout my fist. I scrapped the plaster off my knuckles, dressed the wound, and lay in the mess I’d made with the cat litter and the salsa stains.

•••

My eyes opened to a ceiling fan whose blades were in dire need of dusting.

Wrenching myself up I got a palm full of drywall. My earlobe ached. I must’ve positioned my backpack like a pillow and the pain I was feeling was from resting on the zipper. I sat up to find the dining room still went on forever, as did the mile of me’s.

“Oh, come on!” We said collectively.

This nightmare wasn’t fading. It was doubling down.

I ate my breakfast on the go, discarded the granola wrapper on the floor, and counted five paces between where I dropped it and where it reappeared. I passed it for several miles before I got sick at the sight of crumpled foil, scooped it up and put it back in my pack. It wasn’t long before I’d eaten every the bars I’d packed and my stomach kept right on rumbling.

I wish I could tell you I’d rationed the four cans of cat food over several days, but I didn’t. The moment that first little bit of tuna passed through my lips I had to have rest. I slurped up the fourth so fast that I didn’t think much of slinging it over my shoulder when I was finished.

I walked three more miles before my watch flashed a low battery warning and shut down. My phone died shortly after leaving me alone with my thoughts, which also went dark.

A thought had been pecking at me for miles, but now it was weighing me down. What if the dream where I was out on that snow covered roof wasn’t a dream at all? What if I had staged a twisted reunion with long lost friends just so I could fall to my death in front of them? What if I was dead and this was hell?

Would Rod Serling come out of the woodwork to confirm my suspicions?

“Submitted for your approval a lost soul who will never reach his goal. A man who mistook real life for a dream only to awaken in the endless void of The Twilight Zone.”

At first that theory didn’t explain why I was able to exit my building or why I could interact with my neighbor and her terriers, but then I considered the possibility that hell had toyed with me, lulling me in with a false sense of security before clamping shut around me.

Still I couldn’t remember what had inspired me to take a swan dive from a skyscraper. Perhaps this infinite hallway was here to give me time to remember.

I’m not going to lie I’ve been low before. I’ve sat in the shower for hours, watching my fingers prune up in real time. I’ve lain on the carpet as sun lines showing through the blinds stretched across the ceiling. I’ve slumped onto the kitchen floor as Dexter knocked Tupperware off the countertops.

I’ve imagined my family struggling to plan a cost effective funeral. I’ve wondered which friends would bother to give a eulogy and if anyone would tell the priest I was agnostic.

I indulged this fantasy more often than I care to admit, but I never had a quit plan. I never looked up what pills to take, never tried to access a firearm, never bothered to trace my veins for a quick anatomy lesson.

With depression the void is always calling, suicidal suggestions always running in the background, but I’d gone through a long bout of tuning them out.

And how could I take my own life when I still had Dexter to take care of? That would be kind of a dick move on my part.

That was the detail that poked the hell theory full of holes. If I was already dead then why was I so hungry? What happened to the cat toy I threw into the tunnel earlier? For that matter what happened to the can of tuna I’d flung over my shoulder? Why wasn’t I seeing that every five steps? And why did my phone loop back around when I skipped it like I stone? Did it have something to do with the direction it was thrown?

I turned away from my doubles. The arrow on my right was on my left for the first time in a while. I took my phone out, cocked my arm back, and flung it as far as I could. It clipped the fan blade, scrapped the ceiling, and disappeared into the unknown.

You know what they say about guys with big feet? They wear big shoes. I wore a size 13, which was roughly twelve inches long. I walked heel to toe along the wall drawing a notch for every foot. The dining room was a mere ten feet long. I drew a line across the carpet to mark where it looped around. I looked back to see my doubles had done the same thing. I peaked through the hole in the wall to see the grid extended in all directions.

I gripped my pack by the hook, spun it like I was winding a discus, and hurled it as far as I could. It flew over the first line and dematerialized over the second and was gone in a blur of movement. That was all the proof I needed.

“Well, here goes something.”

I got into a starting position, dug my toes into the carpet, and counted down. “3… 2… 1!” I charged with all the energy I could muster, hitting my stride ten quadrants in, but I leapt too soon and touched down just shy of the line. I didn’t bother to catch my breath. I sprung right back up, charged at the grid, leapt, and dove. I rolled across the carpet several feet from the line.

I kept missing the mark, leaping too soon, overthinking each jump, until I just lost it.

“I’ve always hated this dining room.”

I closed my eyes, ran at the dark, and roared, leaping into the air with perfect long jump form.

•••

I hit the wall, fell back, and opened my eyes just in time to see the framed photos come raining down. When I landed I was sprawled out on the kitchen table. Delinquent bills slid off in all directions.

Dexter meowed in protest to all the chaos he’d just witnessed from his perch atop the fridge.

“Have you been there this whole time?”

Dexter shrugged and returned to a cat bath already in progress.

“Dude, you could’ve said something.”

I starred at the ceiling fan, struggling to process the glitch in reality I’d been trapped in for God knows how long.

That’s when those terriers started barking up a storm. There was bickering on the other side of the wall. My neighbors were not happy about the explosive crash that had just woken them up. Shadows gathered beneath my door, the bell rang, and the police eventually came knocking.

I was holding a bag of frozen hash browns to my forehead when I let them in.

“What seems to be the matter officers?”

One officer stood with me in the entryway as her partner scanned every cubic foot of the apartment with his flashlights. It would’ve been easier to just switch on all the lights, but he preferred to keep things dramatic so I let him. I stood in the hall scratching Dexter beneath his chin.

I couldn’t help but notice the backpack, phone, cat toy, and empty tuna can in a heap beneath the kitchen table. There was no sign of any hole, seeing as how that side of tunnel was now an opening leading into the kitchen.

When the officers asked why I dove at the wall like I was the Kool Aid man I just played dumb, said I was sleepwalking, that it happens when I’m burning the candle at both ends.

“I’m adjusting to a new schedule and it has me powerwalking at inopportune times.”

The bump on my noggin corroborated my version of events. Apologies were made to the neighbors and the officers let me off with a chuckle.

I’m just glad no one thought to ask why there was an arrow on the wall and a big black line drawn across the carpet.

There were only two months left on my lease after that. During that time I kept Dexter confined to the bedroom. He hated it and clawed at the door in protest, but it was for his own good.

I slept with the TV on and dreamt about Rick and Morty. I slid the kitchen table into the living room, ate most of my meals on the couch, and I never set foot in that dining room again. Continue reading Tunnel Vision

Drew Chial’s 10 Rules for Writing

I’ve noticed a number of authors putting their own spin on Jonathan Franzen’s 10 rules for writing, because nothing deepens a creator’s appreciation for their beloved medium than a set of strict limitations. Well worry not dear parishioners for the good reverend Drew has been to the mountain and he’s come down with his very own commandments for writing.

Screw the Noun, Do the Verb

Austin Kleon once wrote “Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.”

Trust me, introducing yourself as a writer is an invitation for embarrassment until you’ve gotten something published. For every minute you spend talking about your writing you need to spend an hour with your ass in the chair actually doing the work.

Trick yourself into writing

Day jobs can be emotionally exhausting leaving you with only so much creative energy to write with. I’ve found the easiest way to play double duty is to trick myself into thinking I’m not. I do this by taking all the formality out of my process. I make do without a silent writing room, a bottle of wine, or a fixed amount of time.

I’ve tapped out a short story on the bus by convincing myself it was going off the rails so I might as well sputter out with it. After a few edits it turned into something I really liked. I’ve dictated descriptions of creepy environments as I’ve walked through them. I’ve written dialogue on dance floors.

Inspiration doesn’t always strike under controlled conditions. (It does the more you put yourself in the conditions, but you get my point.)

Wait to tell people you’re writing a novel

First drafts are fragile things, especially when you’re laying the foundation. It’s good to be excited about your blueprint, but resist the urge to share that vision too soon. Pitch to the wrong person and that castle you’re building will fall apart like a house of cards.

Try to approach writing a novel like quitting smoking. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing until you’re too far into the process to turn back. You’ll feel less ashamed if you falter and friends will take you far more seriously if you see it through.

Don’t give anyone other than your editor veto power

I’m a horror author in that I write supernatural fantasies not slasher-centric torture porn. That distinction might seem toothless, but aspects of my subgenre get me into trouble with my politically correct peers. Horror authors are shameless for mining other people’s strongly held religious beliefs for monsters, misrepresenting easily accessible information with a shroud of mysticism. Yeah, we’re probably the reason that Gypsies are still associated with curses, or that nature loving neo pagans are mistaken for devil worshipers, or that Voodoo dolls have anything to do with true Haitian Voodoo. Sorry. Our bad.

As new school horror writer I’m trying to be as progressive as possible. Historically if I felt iffy about an aspect of my stories I’d survey my friends. What I found was that the dismissive blanket term “problematic” came up when people had a bad feeling about a pitch but didn’t know how to put it into words.

Others were better at elaborating what was off about an idea, proposing alternatives and suggesting research avenues for me to pursue. When you ask for people’s opinions it’s on you to critically consider them, just don’t grant everyone veto power over your writing or you won’t dare write anything.

There are two types of feedback to consider

The first type is emotionally reactive feedback like, “This is garbage” which tells you nothing. Every pore of the Internet is clogged with emotionally reactive “feedback.” Trolling, name-calling, and dismissive blanket terms are the kinds of feedback worth ignoring.

Feedback worth considering comes in a longer form from people with the credentials to recognize what you were going for and the know how to fix it. It’s constructive.

Recycle your darlings

You’ve heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings.” As an editor you’ve got to be merciless, gutting your some of your favorite b-plots to keep the a-plot flowing. That said, don’t just highlight and hit DELETE, not when it’s an entire subplot that’s got to go. COPY and PASTE that into another document so that one day it may be recycled into something else.

Repurpose your fanfiction into original works

Face it. As an unknown author no one is going to license shit to. Mulder and Scully won’t be yours to order around. The mayor of Silent Hill isn’t giving you the keys to the city, and a new Highlandermovie is already in development rendering your fanfiction irrelevant.

It’s fun to fantasize in established universes because all the world-building and characterization has been done for you. All you have to do is come up with the situation. If you find yourself visiting someone else’s intellectual property in your mind I urge you to transpose your original situations into something that’s yours to copyright.

E.L. James did it with her Twilight fanfiction and look where that got here. (Not my favorite example, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.)

Be mindful of your soundtrack

Orchestral film scores that are too emotionally engaging have a way of tricking me into thinking I’m writing more effective scenes than I am. My hero’s emotional revelation might seem melodramatic without the soundtrack.

Find a soundtrack that leaves room for your imagination. I like dark wave synthesizer film scores and noir piano jazz.  Both genres fit the tone of my writing and both are slow and repetitive enough to fade into the background when I need them to.

Creating the perfect playlist can devolve into another distraction from your writing. Case in point: the playlist for my first novel is a nonstop month of instrumental music. These days I usually go to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Spotify page and hit PLAY.

Hold something back

I feed too much of my art into the gapping maw of the Internet with its insatiable appetite for fresh content. I want people to check out my books, but I’ve found the only way to get them to look in my direction is to post something on the blog. Sometimes that’s an on brand article and sometimes it’s a short story I probably should’ve sold to somebody. I’ve given too much of myself away for the short-term benefit of a few measly clicks.

It’s gratifying to get an immediate reaction from something you’ve written. Try finding that gratification offline. Find a writer’s workshop or pass printed copies to friends.

Your writing should be a collaboration with your readers

Leave room in every story for your reader to make a contribution. You don’t need to play costume designer by describing every stitch of clothing on your characters. Give a partial description, like an idea of the character’s fashion sense. Leave it to the reader to choose the garments. Describe your settings to a point, but leave some abstractions for readers to fill in. You can describe the look on a character’s face without explaining the meaning behind each micro expression.

If your writing is entertaining readers will want to suss out the subtext and add their own meaning. So let them. Continue reading Drew Chial’s 10 Rules for Writing

Post Halloween Depression

It’s early November in Minnesota and they’re draping tinsel around the light poles. Shop windows are full of Christmas trees and holiday ballads are following me from sliding door to sliding door.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like commerce everywhere you go.”

Bah Humbug to sweater season. Bah Humbug to politically polarizing Thanksgiving conversations. Bah Humbug to daylight savings ending. Bah Humbug to dusk at 4 PM. Bah Humbug to seasonal depression. I already miss Halloween.

WHY I CLING TO HALLOWEEN

Every October I watch my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, I riffle through The X-Files, explore The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror, and host a horror movie marathon for one. Every November I try to keep that party going, to keep myself in the headspace of Halloween, to self medicate with macbre media. My calendar has 62 days of October. My cat continues to paw at the skeleton decorations, while I attempt to treat myself with black light therapy. It’s a hard thing to reason with seasonal depression when you late it settle in, which is why I’m stalling.

Any shrink worth their salt will tell you that it’s important to have something to look forward to. October had me conjuring up costumes for parties. That’s right “parties,” plural. I’m a man in my thirties who prepared multiple outfits for Halloween week. You may call that immaturity. I call it therapy.

Now I need to come up with a new short-term creatively engaging obsession without the seasonally appropriate community reinforcement. It’s always a challenge. One November I tried to start an alternate reality game. Another I recorded an audiobook. I think this year I’m going to try blog hopping and see where that takes me.

Still that’ll another variation of doing the same thing expecting something different to happen.

I stock up on projects every winter, but it’s a challenge to make time for creative endeavors when my schedule narrows to work and self-care. Suddenly it’s hard to write when so much of my creative energy is spent on personal upkeep.

DARK TIMES AHEAD

Every fall the days get shorter then we wind the clocks back, because we’re in one of the countries that does that. It isn’t that the darkness makes me sleepy (the production of melatonin doesn’t help) it’s that it makes me feel okay about unwinding when I should be writing. It gives me permission to be a couch potato longer than I would if I saw the sun. It makes multi-slacking with a videogame on one screen and Netflix on the other seem like valid use of my time.

There’s debate in the scientific community about whether or not sunlight impacts mood or if Seasonal Affective Disorder is even a real thing. Well I don’t need to be a virologist to know that cabin fever is real. I don’t need to be an epidemiologist to know those of us living in quarantine for the holidays are in for a bad time. I don’t need to see if restless head syndrome has made it into the DSM-5 to know when I have it.

WHY NOVEMBER IS A TOUGH TIME TO BE A WRITER

I take an annual emotional hit just after Halloween. As a horror author Halloween is my peak creative season. It’s when I’m at my most prolific, sharing short fiction and observations of the genre to a hungry audience, but every year my blog traffic plummets come November 1stand I, in turn, hit writer’s block hard (checkout the scarcity of my previous November blog entries).

Celebrations of horror and fantasy cease on social media. The childlike spirit of Halloween gives way to harsh tone of our political landscape. I go from feeling like I’m free to wander the streets with my horns uncovered to feeling a need to hang my strange obsessions in the closet for another year.

To make matters worse this is when most writers start participating in National Novel Writing Month, posting their word counts to social media like unbeatable high scores. Despite the inherent introversion that comes with our craft we writers our social animals. We can’t help but compare how our efforts to those of others.

THE HOLIDAYS DON’T HELP

Jack Frost is knocking and he has a choir of intrusive thoughts behind him.

“Shouldn’t you be getting the perfect someone the perfect something? Shouldn’t you two be drinking cedar by the fire? You don’t want to be a spectator on New Years Eve, do you?”

Yeah yeah yeah. I’ve heard this song before. Bah Humbug to all that noise. All I want for Christmas is the freedom to opt out.

This has nothing to do with any ill will towards the holiday itself. That I’ve always loved. It just sucks to being alone during a time of togetherness and this modern era really has a way of rubbing it in. There’s that social comparison phenomenon rearing its ugly head again.

I’ve lived with people who’ve scrolled through their Facebook feed openly resenting their graduating classmates for having kids before them. I’m not the guy that grits his teeth at cheery Christmas photos, but I must confess they do have a cumulative effect.

EXPECTING DIFFERENT RESULTS

I recognize that I’m thinking aloud, screaming into the void, throwing thoughts into the volcanic mouth of the Internet to see where they land. I’ve been at the edge of this particular cauldron before. This season I need to do something different.

I just had a book published, “He Has Many Names.” I’m exploring ways to get it into more readers’ hands after launch. I’ve written a screenplay based on the first chapter and sent it to someone who manages the local 48-hour film festival. I’d like to have a book trailer in the not too distant future.

As for what I do on this blog, or for that matter what I do with my career, I need to set aside some creative energy to discover something I haven’t tried before. What I’ve been doing has only gotten me so far. I’m happy with my modest success, but I need to knock on some doors and tell my stories to strangers.

HOW DO YOU DEAL?

Hey fellow writers, fellow creatives, fellow human beings in the Northern Hampshire struggling to stay warm at this time of year. How do you cope with these shorter days? What do you do to make sure you’re spending your creative energy appropriately? I really want to know. Continue reading Post Halloween Depression

Getting Lit with Leza: Drew Chial Interview

Here’s a link to an interview I did for the Get Lit with Leza podcast.

As an interviewer Leza has a talent for drawing out honed artistic statements and intimate details from her guests. She effortlessly navigates the professional, the personal, and in this case the paranormal.

We discuss the sleep paralysis I experienced throughout my childhood, the shadow demons looming at the foot of my bed and how I tried to cry out in terror. I never thought I’d get tipsy and joke about it all these years later. It was strangely fun deconstructing the neuroscience behind waking hallucinations with Leza as we unpacked the archetypes that make our minds see demons. Continue reading Getting Lit with Leza: Drew Chial Interview

How Not to Promote Your Novel to Strangers

This is one of those opposite day posts (with a little too much truth revealed in jest). There’s a note to myself: STOP DOING THESE THINGS and some good advice in between the lines. Writers ought to get a laugh out of it.

•••

In this age of hyper capitalism it’s important for salespeople to always be closing, influencers to always be networking, and authors to always be pitching.

If you’re a writer I can only assume you know all that already and that you’ve had a lot of success, naturally, of course you have. Print is more alive than ever and everybody reads all the time.

If you’ve taken the time to put words on paper then you’re probably racking money into your front door, but you know what they say, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Sometimes don’t you wish you had a little less “problems?” Don’t you wish your novels were just a wee bit less successful? Don’t you wish the people you meet on the street were a little less interested in what you’re working on now?

Well, if you’re looking to turn your good fortune down a notch than you’ve come to the right place. Here is my strategy for making sure your writing connects with no one. Follow these steps and you’ll be riding a wave back to that sweet sweet obscurity you crave.

PITCH IN THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME

Pitch your cerebral introspective hero’s journey in places where people don’t go to be cerebral or introspective like karaoke bars, trivia nights, and dance halls. Watch young lovers give out their numbers while you hand out links to places readers can preorder.

Try out your material on every captive audience. It doesn’t matter if they’re a barback washing the counter or a police officer taking your prints. They’ve got ears, put them work.

If your Uber rider rating is too high make it a point of pitching to every driver.

Pitch your story to clerks as lines build up behind you.

THROW PITCHES AT THE WALL HOPING ONE STICKS

Rehearse your elevator pitch until you’re certain you can nail it in fewer than three floors. Give all the major story beats a room in your memory palace and charge down that hall at full speed. Use finely tuned phrases with evocative language to encompass your plot points. Relish in your success when you wow a strange so much that they call a friend over. Then find yourself muddling the retelling because you’re concentrating too hard on trying to make it sound organic. Take your time improvising your elevator pitch like you’re riding the lift up to a space shuttle. When you realize you’re loosing your audience jump ahead to an out of context spoiler that while indeed is fascinating, completely ruins the story you’re trying to tell.

When it’s clear that this whole encounter has been socially awkward and your new friends could use an exit undermine your pitch by saying, “Well horror nerds will get it. It’s really for them.” Openly acknowledging that you’ve wasted everyone’s time.

BECOME YOUR BRAND IN THE REAL WORLD TOO

Social media personalities struggle with portraying themselves as relatable, down to earth, authentic individuals and being their actual true down and dirty selves. They work at honing a realistic personality that’s consumable without coming across as calculated and political. Yet the person we’re seeing in those punchy quick-cut YouTube videos is really just for show. It’s a brand.

In the real world writers are more than the niche genre enthusiasts they portray themselves as online, but if your aim is to NOT PROMOTE your novel then you have to be your brand full time so as to alienate anyone for whom you might make a genuine connection.

A great way to do this is to shoehorn book blurbs into otherwise organic conversations. When friends are talking about a film with a similar subject interject how your story does things a little different. Turn their informal chats into pitch meetings. When they share paranormal encounters hijack their breezy banter and give a sales presentations. When it becomes abundantly clear that someone you have a crush on isn’t reciprocating switch from flirting to networking on a dime. If you can’t make a connection then make a conversion.

TURN EVERY CONVERSATION INTO A BAIT AND SWITCH

Pretend you’re fascinated by what someone does for a living. Get them going. Ask about their aspirations, their five-year plan, and how it fills their life with meaning. Keep asking questions about their career path only to veer off into a conversation about what it means for you to be an author, which is really what you wanted to talk about the all along.

A good conversation is like a game of catch, but you’re trying to have a bad one, so it ought to play more like a game of hot potato and then dodge ball, in that you let them speak for a moment before blitzing them with information they don’t want.

CHOOSE A SUBJECT THAT ISN’T APPROPIATE FOR ALL VENUES

Base your story on something you think of as a dated mythological figure, like say the devil, you know a character others still take deadly seriously. Go ahead and name your story after Satan and put his likeness on all your business cards. Hand them out with no concern over alienating anyone with religious convictions. Design your pentagram promotional materials next to a pair of recovering alcoholics while they discuss their higher power.

Pitch your nightmare-inducing story at your day job. Bring up the seedier aspects of the plot around customers and clients.

Replace your social media thumbnails with your cover art and make the creepy iconography your sole identity.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Anyone can become a bestselling author. Everyone has a dozen great novels in them and they’ll all more than likely be made into movies (and in most instances the characters will be played by actors chosen by the author). I know this. You know this, and yeah, sometimes all that success can be overwhelming, but if you follow the above tips then hopefully you’ll sell a little less and have more time for that sweet sweet self-loathing you crave. Continue reading How Not to Promote Your Novel to Strangers

How Horror Bloggers can Milk Halloween All October Long

Another October is upon us and you know what that means: morning show hosts treating pumpkin spice like it’s heroin, think pieces on seasonal depression, and outrage over tone deaf Halloween costumes (this year it’s a slinky short skirted version of the robes from the Handmaid’s Tale).

Oh, and horror writers doing everything they can to get you to look in our direction.

“Hey! You know you’ve been meaning to check out my scary stories out for a while? Well now’s the time!”

That’s right. Now’s the time of year horror writers get to be on brand and topically relevant to the normies in our social media feed. Rather than dig deep for a memoir on how the season shaped our young imaginations (something personally profound no one would read) we need quick clickable articles that write themselves.

Well if you’re looking for a template for sharable Halloween content to steal from you’ve come to the right guy.

Tis the Season to be Listing

Nothing says cheap mindless content like laying on the listicles. Sure everyone who’s into horror has seen trailers for every film that’s come out this year, but you’re a movie maven so inform everyone what they really ought to be watching.

Maybe you’ll be the 10thcritic to finally push them into seeing Mandy, it’s Nic Cage fighting cenobite bikers with a battle-axe (in a slow burning surrealist study with sparse dialogue). What’s not to like?

Maybe you can be the first of your film buff friends to pitch The Endless in a way that makes sense to casual audiences.

“It’s the story of two brothers visiting the cult they’ve escaped from to find the commune stuck in a sentient pocket dimension hell-bent on claiming them.”

“It’s a coming of age tale set in a UFO death cult.”

“It’s basically The Wicker Man meets Groundhogs Day.”

Clearly I haven’t cracked it yet. Why don’t you try?

Or maybe you can be the first amongst to laud praise on the deboot of Halloween, and champion other exhausted franchises to dump their excess canon in favor of a direct sequels to their original films.

Tap some lists out at the bus stop. Here are some suggestions:

  • Best on Screen Decapitations (The Exorcist 3 is obligatory)
  • Best Mirror Jump Scares
  • Best Demon Etching Title Sequences
  • Best Uses of Moonlight Sonata in a Horror Property
  • Best Horror Spins on Less Successful Sci Fi Premises
  • Best Recent Horrific Crimes for Writers to Base New Material on While the Families are Still Grieving
  • Most Violent Moments on Broadcast Television that Would’ve Gotten an R Rating Had They Been Shown on the Big Screen
  • Best Stephen King Tribute References in Stephen King’s Own Novels

These lists practically write themselves.

Review the Shit Out of Everything

There are too many horror shows for streamers to sift through. Isn’t it part of your vocation as a champion of revulsion to grade them with some sort of skull-centric rating system? Halloween is the Oscars for all things horror. It’s your duty as a corrupter of young minds to cast your vote on time.

Mine the Hell Out of the Past

Save your audience a Google search by listing all the Halloween themed episodes available on streaming. Rank The Simpson Tree House of Horror episodes. Add episodes from the revival seasons of The X-Files to your best of posts, and list the top 10 episodes of The Twilight Zone you want Jordan Peele to remake in the forthcoming series.

Repackage Old Articles with Seasonal Thumbnails

That old blog on Horror Clichés in Need of an Exorcism is just one jack-o-lantern PNG away from being relevant again. That entry on the art of Building Your Own Monsters is just a Halloween hashtag from being reblogged by readers. You got a few comments from that The War on Halloween editorial just add a devil emoji and share that shit again.

People who know me, should’ve suspected my demon nature for some time.

Streamline Your Short Fiction

Writing seasonal flash fiction is challenging. Those short stories get hits in the moment, but on October 31st they become irrelevant. Why waste your time and energy when you just want readers to click on the books for sale in the margins?

I recommend stocking up on Mad Libs and filling them with monster references:

(Man’s name) Flavius Octavius Davis walked in and opened the (noun) lead lined casket where he found a (adjective) bioluminescent (verb) mangled (noun) alien corpse with rope-like heaps of coiled tentacles. He exclaimed (exclamation) “Sweet Jesus, no!”

Make Your Readers Do the Work

Invite the audience to vote on your Halloween costume options, plans for the night in question, and ultimately your excuses for staying in.

But Whatever You Do Don’t…

Don’t give up them game by telling readers about the cynical click-bait schemes you’ve been concocting behind the scenes. That would be the kind noxious over sharing that would be harmful to your brand. You want to seem like your authentic self to readers without letting it all hang out and actually being authentic.

Only a well-trained transdimensional traveler secure in his meta-musings would poses the strength of mind to even attempt such a thing. (Drew wipes the sweat from his brow while tugging at his collar like a nervous cartoon character.)

Oh… and… uh… Happy Halloween!

•••

Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back 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. The Devil.

Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.

Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?

Pre-order my novel HE HAS MANY NAMES today!

How Being A Writer Makes the Ads I See Weird

When I was researching He Has Many Names, a story about the devil and a sleazy hotel, I Googled my share of strange things. Most of the story takes place in a forest-themed fantasy suite. As the suite’s interior decorator I had to fill the space with the right furniture. Now I can’t scroll through my Instagram feed without seeing ads for live edge redwood coffee tables, cherry blossom desk lamps, Styrofoam stalactites, moon shaped lanterns, and vine-themed sex swings.

My research queries ended up in my cookies and swapped information between all my logins. My inquiries into the etymology of the devil, his many forms, and the Satanic panic of the 1980s follow me like toilet paper on the bottom of my boot.

Thanks AdChoices but no I’m not interested in BlueDevil Head Gasket Sealer, Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners, or New Jersey Devils apparel. Try harder.

When Searches Go Public

In 2006 a large number of AOL’s users search history leaked online. The 2013 documentaryTerms and Conditions May Apply shows what happened when several anonymous users were identified by their search terms.

One AOL user in particular had a most intriguing search history. He’d looked up “How to kill your wife” multiple times along with “decapitated photos” and pictures of “murder victims.” Alarmist headlines dubbed him the scariest user on AOL and several armchair sleuths set out to unmask him.

Eventually the documentary filmmakers caught up with Jerome Schwartz and pressed him to see if these search terms were his. He admitted to looking up all of them and a slew of other macabre things. Turns out he was writer for the TV show Cold Caseand these search queries were research for his work.

In the documentary Jerome speculates what would happen if a government algorithm had flagged his searches and the FBI came knocking. I’ve joked about what would happen if the feds confronted me with my search history going so far as to turn the scenario into a short story. If these invasions of privacy become the norm a lot of authors are going to need alibis (this is why I write in public). #WriterProblems.

The New Abnormal

I have a feeling AdChoices will damn me to awkward public encounters for years to come.

I’ll be scrolling through FaceBook when someone will catch some strange shit in my border columns.

“A rhinestone codpiece, shackles, and a gimp mask? I had no clue you went in for all that.”

“I’m writing a scene set in a bondage club so those keep showing up.”

“And the adult sized Winnie the Pooh costume with the open butt flap?”

“Oh well, I am into.”

My Killer App Idea

What if there was a browser extension that recognized the online behaviors of writers and adjusted searches, ads, and results accordingly? And no I don’t mean constantly showing us ads for Grammarly or Scrivener. I’m talking about ads that are fine tuned to enhance the research process be it the intricate procedures that make up your characters’ careers, deep dives into the mythology you’re drawing from, or visual inspiration for the buildings that fill up your plot of the astral plane.

If our cookies spread our data from one site to another wouldn’t it be nice if the cookies contextualized the data as it went? The app could let sites know when we’re looking for home décor and when we’re looking for props for our settings, when we’re shopping for apparel and when we’re putting costumes on characters.

If advertisers have to mine my data they could at least draw the right conclusions from it.

Until they do I’ll just keep an ad blocker running. Continue reading How Being A Writer Makes the Ads I See Weird

A Poem to Pitch a Novel

Here’s a pitch for my new novel He Has Many Names in the form of a poem.

An aspiring author
A predatory publisher
And a Faustian bargain
A month to pen a novel
In total exile
Confined to an art deco hotel

A forest themed suite
A woodland nightmare
And a shadow figure
An obsessed writer
A paranormal investigation
Through the fourth wall and back again

A meta mystery
An unreliable narrator
An unseen string puller
A lure, a trap, a plan
A pagan has-been
And a satanic showdown

All of these things and more
In the new novella:
He Has Many Names Continue reading A Poem to Pitch a Novel

5 Lessons I Learned Writing He Has Many Names

When struggling writer and paranormal podcaster Noelle Blackwood gets the opportunity to ghostwrite for a bestselling thriller author, it seems almost too good to be true. The only catch is that she has to stay at The Oralia hotel until she’s done. Method becomes madness as she falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of her own story and the demons it awakens. He Has Many Names is a fresh spin on the Faustian bargain, a deal with the devil story in the age of artistic desperation.

•••

WRITING FROM A FEMININE PERSPECTIVE TAKES NUANCE

In the first draft of He Has Many Namesmy editor wasn’t sure if the hero was a man or a woman. The protagonist was named Noelle but she spoke with the stock phrases one might find in a detective film. I’d just been writing a mystery and the lingo had rubbed off on Noelle.

When asked to make Noelle more feminine I didn’t want to emphasize what she was wearing or file her jagged edges down. Characteristics we identify as feminine like gentleness, tolerance, and sensitivity don’t fit Noelle. The Hollywood studio scene has hardened her. This doesn’t mean she’s stoic, like many women written by men, just that she’s tired embodying all those things people in her field consider feminine.

Leza Cantoral gave me great notes on Noelle’s voice. It helps having a female editor.

Noelle has traits that aren’t traditionally feminine in horror fiction (especially in films). She’s skeptical of the supernatural, ambitious to a fault, quick-witted, a tad catty, a bit jealous, and extremely resourceful.

SinceHe Has Many Namesis a story about storytelling from the perspective of a writer I thought it would be fun for Noelle to comment on what audiences expect from women in stories (especially in film). A producer once told Noelle she shouldn’t write herself into her own stories because she’s not very likeable. They want women to be sympathetic and vulnerable, but so resilient they never waste time whining or sulking. They want women to be gorgeous yet so modest as to be unaware of their beauty. They want women to be driven but not competitive.

I thought it’d be cool if Noelle acknowledged those contrasts before telling the audience she’s not going to write herself like that.

IF YOU PROMISE A DEVIL DELIVER ONE

The title He Has Many Namesis a direct reference to you-know-who.

Who has horns on his head?

Who has skin that’s very red?

Who has a beard on his face?

Who keeps souls in a case?

Horns on head, skin that’s red

Beard on his face, souls in a case

Must be Satan, must be Satan

Lord of the dark realm

In the first draft the entity haunting Noelle was something else entirely. I thought I was being clever setting up Satan and then hitting the audience with a sucker punch, but it was a let down. While the final draft retains many of its twists the true devil makes a grand entrance. Make no mistake Hell factors heavily into this story.

As much as I wanted to play with the audience’s expectations I forgot the “Chekhov’s gun” rule of storytelling: if a pistol is hung on the wall in the first act it ought to go off in the second. In the same sense: if someone speaks of the devil in your first act the devil better rain brimstone down on everyone in the second.

CENTER EVERYTHING AROUND THE THEME

When I started writing He Has Many NamesI had a good concept: horror writer is sequestered in a haunted hotel room, but no clear theme, no thesis statement to leave readers with, no enlightenment to go with my entertainment.

The theme presented itself in the second draft (which was more of a reimagining than a mere edit).

He Has Many Names is about creators’ relationships with their audience. Be it a writer contemplating what horror readers are looking for or a devil pondering the quality of worship their reputation hath wrought. It’s about creators using art to take control of their lives only to then lose control of their art.

Once I knew the theme it informed every storytelling decision I made from then on.

THERE IS SUCH A THING AS BEING TOO META

At a certain point in He Has Many Namesit’s revealed that the story we’re reading is the one Noelle is submitting to her publisher. This is shown in a scene where Matilda McDonald, the publisher, tears everything we’ve just read apart. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written and I tried to replicate that scene one too many times later on.

I’d over-complicated the story by including references to Noelle’s imagined ending, an alternate scenario that pandered to the psychological thriller twists readers had been conditioned to expect. It was my way of playing with the readers’ expectations while promising them that this story was going someplace different.

The problem with Noelle’s prophetic ending is that it made her an utterly unreliable narrator. While it’s clear that Noelle is taking artistic license in describing these events I didn’t want the reader to feel like she was bullshitting them. So I made some adjustments. Noelle references the alternate ending, but assures us we’re reading the one that’s based on actual events.

NOT EVERY SCARY STORY NEEDS TO END WITH AMBIGUITY

Some of my favorite scary stories leave readers wondering if anything supernatural happened at all. For great examples of this type of horror check out Paul Tremblay’s ambiguity trilogy: Head Full of Ghosts,Disappearance of Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World.

He Has Many Namesstraddles the line between psychological and supernatural horror but ultimately it picks a side. I thought about ending the story in such a way where the reader had to sift through clues to suss out what happened, but decided it would be more rewarding if suspicions were confirmed and given a hard “yes.”

I wanted to reward attentive readers for paying attention, while giving everyone a big bold note to go out on. Without spoiling everything I chose a grandiose conclusion over an ambiguous one. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing He Has Many Names

Dear Non-Creative People

Respect One Another’s Creative Energy

Everyone has their own way of recharging. Some join friends at the bar for karaoke. They stumble out of the bathroom with their pants at their ankles to sing along with off-key.

“Sweet Caroline. Bah-bah-bah!”

Some set out wine and cheese platters and go around in circles discussing highbrow literature. Some park themselves in an ass grove and multi-slack, gaming on one screen and crushing half a season of science fiction on the other.

Others sling yoga mats over their shoulders and stretch that tension out, others sprint around the neighborhood at 4AM, and others lift ingredients into pans.

Whatever it is that you do to revitalize your vitality may good vibes be upon you.

My Vice

I write. I love the activities listed above, but writing gives me a sense of agency I don’t get from other outlets. Blogging gives my passing observations a sense of permanence. Poetry gives my abstract emotions a tangible form, and narrative writing turns my daydreams into something worth sharing.

When the writing is flowing it’s a big jolt to my self-esteem. When it’s not it taxes the energy it’s supposed to be replenishing. After a day of dealing with draining customers and a night of staring at a blank page I find myself completely tapped. I don’t even have the energy to make a Netflix selection let alone migrate to the bed from my couch cushions.

Creative endeavors are both risky and rewarding. Measuring the costs and the benefits is an undertaking. A lot of patience goes into fine-tuning that work/life balance.

As artists age we can’t help but compare our status to our career minded friends. How are we supposed to afford children in this economy when our Amazon royalties are but pennies? As our lives fill with commitments our creative careers go on the back burner.

A lot of artists give up and way they reconcile with all that wasted energy is by distancing themselves from their creative identities. Continue reading Dear Non-Creative People