News!! (Sad News)

Squidlings, I bring bad omens, sour news, sad news…

The Bad News

My sweet, tentacular friends, it has come time to announce that The Furies series is unlikely to see its third installment published.  This decision has been in the works for some time.

Let me first apologize, and then explain myself.  This has been a difficult and trying balancing act, and, unfortunately, I don’t believe I can pull it off.

As much as I loathe to admit it, this is, in large part, a financial decision.  While I’ve been working on selling stories, writing a podcast, and working alongside agents and editors to break into the trad-publishing scene (and the promise of a decent advance), the penniless work of The Furies has fallen by the distant wayside.  With so many other paying opportunities, and so many ideas overflowing my skull, there seems to be less and less time to work on the story that was supposed to be No Peace.

The second reason for this announcement has to do with my own drive.  Not long ago, my agent advised me to take some time off from my current Big Fucking Project and work on something else.  I went to the last draft of No Peace and…felt quite uninspired to begin the revising/rewriting process.  Instead, I ended up tooling around with other back-burnered projects and tried to hone my short story craft (I’m still bad at it.)  For 3-4 weeks I circled No Peace, but never got around to starting a new draft.  I took this as a sign.

The third reason is that, paging through the extant draft of No Peace, I struggled to figure out how to fix it.  The extant draft felt like one-and-a-half stories crammed into a single story line.  It was overcrowded, too long, and littered with too much detail.  It was the War and Peace of contemporary fantasy fiction, and I had no idea how to shorten it.  The current draft is objectively oversized (coming in at just around 600 pages) and the idea of gutting it to a normal size seemed like a tremendous amount of work…not to mention the labor of writing a second draft of such a gargantuan tale.

Reading the extant draft, I struggled with the weight of the thing–that is to say, the poignancy and prescience of the tale.  It lacks a certain ‘now-ness,’ being a book series set in an increasingly distant past, focused on issues that somehow seem less pressing at this particular cultural moment.

Lastly, it’s been several years since the release of No Grave, and No Peace still only has a first draft.  To put this into perspective, the release version of No Grave was the third revision pass of the sixth manuscript draft.  Considering my issues with length, prescience, and story with No Peace‘s extant draft, it seems silly to believe the path toward its publication would be any less fraught.  And, being blunt, I just don’t have the time to engage with that volume of work without a very different professional and financial situation.

A Silver Lining?

There is the simple silver lining: maybe, one day, given more financial stability and more time to actually sit down and write, I may return to these characters and this story.  If I do, it’s likely I’ll want to rewrite the first two books entirely, having honed my craft substantially since their release, and take it forward from there, updated.

But that is but one possible future, and it can’t be promised.

And so, the more complicated silver lining: I’ve learned a hell of a lot about writing books.  Though, sadly, I still have a lot to learn about short stories, apparently…

While plodding turtle-like through the extant draft of No Peace, I also churned out a number of other manuscripts.  Some were never finished.  Others have been read, rewritten, revised, and edited.  I’ve met agents and assistants and editors and editorial assistants and have had the whole lot of them tear my work apart like feral, froth-mouthed dogs.  This has been a keen learning experience.

I wrote an entire draft of a cyberpunk comedy while drinking.  I’ve been told that it’s hilarious but also utterly unpublishable in its current form.  I wrote four drafts of a story about an author whose self-destructive tendencies accidentally tear a hole in reality.  It’s an autobiography, obviously.  It also still needs a lot of work to be anywhere near publishable.  I’ve written fifty short stories and managed to get 5-6 of them published by people who aren’t myself.  I even wrote a podcast.

And, then, there is my work in Oceanrest.

Which brings us to…

The Future, Dark & Screaming

I’m trying not to make promises, even though promise-making is the heart of storytelling.  Every story is a series of promises we make to a reader, and every twist, reveal, or conflict is a choice to make good on that promise, or to break it, or to subvert it.

I’m subverting this entire thing by promising not to make any promises.

But here’s a promise: I’ll obviously keep writing.

(See what I did there?)

My current project, praying to break into trad-publishing, praying to take this semi-profitable hobby into a fully-fledged profession, is a little world-building venture I call Oceanrest.

I’ve written eight manuscript drafts of Oceanrest Novel #1, a novel my current agent swears we’ll be able to sell if I can shave off just a few more words.  I’ve written two manuscript drafts of Oceanrest Novel #2, because hope springs eternal.  I’ve done a skeleton-outline of Oceanrest Novel #3.  Oceanrest Novel #4, if I have my druthers, would be an updated version of the first novel I ever wrote, a project I worked on parallel to No Reflection but never felt was quite “right.”  I have five drafts of it already, and I feel like I only figured out what it was “about” on the last one.

But what makes Oceanrest special to me, as an author, is that it’s conceptually non-linear.  It’s a setting, a town, a world, where any number of stories could unfold.  Oceanrest #4, my first completed novel ever, would take place in the year 2000, for instance.  Oceanrest #1 takes place today, and #2 takes place about 15 months after that.  I have a brainstorm for a story that would take place in the 19th century.

What I need, right now, as an artiste, is flexibility.  I have faith in my current work because I’m giving myself flexibility.

And because, hopefully, my agent is right.

“Well,” you say, “we hate you, now.”

Please don’t?

If you adored the characters and storyline of The Furies, know that those characters and stories still live in my head.  If things go well in my life, The Furies will see rewrites and re-releases, and eventually continuation…but I can’t promise that, now.  I don’t have the resources.

But Nicole and Angie and Jimmy Sacrifice and Tristan and Alex and Harley are still tearing around in my skull.  Matthew Crowe and Charles Goodwin still pull marionette strings between my neurons, beneficiaries of corporate structure and privatized surveillance culture.  Parts of them will likely end up scavenged and mounted on other faces, attached to other names.  Human pain, coping, and overcoming will remain woven through my every tale.

Stick with me, please.  I promise to tell more stories.  I promise to take you on terrifying journeys.

Stay tuned.

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Radio Man I, or: A Man Wakes Up Any Morning

(Originally published as “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning” in Sanitarium Magazine, Issue #38.)

Radio Man I, or: A Man Wakes Up Any Morning

 

He woke up, again, to the same alarm as always: static hiss of radio underscoring the accentless newsman as he said, “…he went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.”  He slapped the radio off before he heard the rest of the story and pushed himself up out of bed.  Sarah shifted on the mattress next to him, an airy sigh slipping from her lips as she curled up in the covers.  She never heard the newsman, no matter how many times he said the exact same thing.  They’d had a fight about it, once.  She always heard a rock song, from Oceanrest Rock & Blues Radio.  The same song, every time…something by Nine Inch Nails, but he couldn’t remember the title.  He only ever heard the news report, the same news report, over and over again.

“Steve?” Sarah’s voice was sleepy-soft.

“Yeah?” he asked, pretending not to know the question.  Pretending not to have heard it every day for as long as he could remember, going back more days than he had any reason to keep counting.

“Could you make breakfast for the kids?  I had a late night.”

“Sure.”

The form of her was invisible beneath the sheets, but he knew she smiled.  It was a small smile, no teeth showing.  He’d maneuvered a glance at it on one of the hundreds of days that were all exactly alike.  Within minutes, she’d be back in the depths of sleep.

*****

He scrambled eggs in the frying pan.  They spat oil and sputtered as he chopped at them with the spatula.  The dog, Shep, wove between his legs excitedly, as if expecting a helping herself.  He stared at the pan, listening to the sound under the sizzling eggs.  Radio static, in crescendo.  The clock on the stove blinked to 7:35 AM.

The television flickered on in the living room.  The news anchor sounded exactly the same as the Radio Man, sounded exactly the same as his boss, sounded exactly the same as how many other people he’d met living the same day over for months on end.  The anchor leaned toward the camera, “His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still sleeping when the slaughter began.”

He walked over to the set and turned it off.  He stared at the blank screen until the smell of burning eggs brought him back to the stove.  He swore he saw something move behind the black veil of the dead screen, but he could never make it out.

*****

He didn’t remember buying the gun.  He remembered the code to the safe, the number he punched into the keypad to unlock it, but he didn’t actually remember buying the thing.  It was as if it had always been there, waiting, whispering in his dreams.

The safe was in the closet of their bedroom, on the opposite side of the house from the twins.  He remembered it being there when he brought them all home from the hospital.  Had it been there when they’d moved in?  Had it been there when they bought the house and he carried Sarah over the threshold like a second wedding?

The question hurt his head.  He walked back to the kitchen, closing the door quietly behind him.

*****

Amy was up, first.  She came out of her room so fast she would’ve crashed right into the wall if he hadn’t been there to catch her.  He’d learned that from the first few times the day repeated: same time, every morning, Amy careened out of the room fast as a bullet right into the wall.  Being there to catch her saved him twenty minutes of crying.  It saved her a nasty knot on the side of her head, too.

“Watch it there, kiddo,” he said, smiling down at her.

She was very small and young and knew little about pain.

She pulled herself out of his hands and ran toward the kitchen table.  “You’re coming to the play tomorrow!” – not a question, a statement.  Amy had a role in the school play, and had been increasingly excited about it during the lead up.  She was bubbling over.  Except tomorrow never seemed to come.  All her enthusiasm was trapped in the present, imprisoned in the same endless morning.

“You bet,” he whispered back, knowing she couldn’t hear him.

Charlie came out of the room next, rubbing his eyes.  “I don’t wanna go.”

Steve reached down and ruffled his son’s dirty blond hair.  “Too bad, Chuckie man.”

“It’s a stupid play.”

“It’ll only be one night.  You’ll be fine.”

Charlie grumbled his way into the kitchen and sat down at the table.  He poured too much ketchup on his eggs.

*****

He brought them both a glass of milk and half of an English muffin with peanut butter and jelly.  It was what they had in the house: milk, eggs, English muffins, peanut butter, jelly, and four cans of tuna.  Groceries had been tight.  Everything had been tight since they’d discovered they were having fraternal twins instead of a single child.  It didn’t help that Sarah hadn’t had a successful book in four years.  Or any book at all.  A sales job in telecomm wasn’t enough to feed a family of four.

The debt had worried him until the calendar stopped moving.  Now it seemed like a funny joke.  If a collector called, he would cheerily give them all the appropriate information and hang up the phone, knowing nary a dime would go missing from it.  Another of the fringe benefits of not having a future.

“Never put off till tomorrow,” he muttered to himself, watching his children eat.  It was a joke he’d made, before.  It wasn’t funny and it wasn’t aging well.

“You’ll break,” the dog had the Radio Man’s voice.  Its mouth didn’t move, but Steve could hear it in his head.  “They all break, eventually.  One way or another.  What do you think you have in you?  A couple more months, maybe a year?  How long can you make the same breakfast every morning?”

He glared down at the dog and found it jumping up and down around the kitchen table.  Charlie slipped it a palm-full of egg and ruffled its ears.  The animal glanced back at Steve with mischief in its eyes.  Charlie loved the dog, of course.  Charlie couldn’t hear it whisper in his head.

*****

How many times had he done this?  How long had he fought?  How many ways could he avoid doing it?  How many times could he wake up in the same bed and hear the same news report and decide not to let it happen?

Over.  He just wanted it to be over.

*****

The bus picked the kids up a few minutes late.  8:39 instead of 8:30.  Of course, after the first few times Steve had just started taking them out to the curb at 8:35ish.  He waved them aboard the yellow bus and watched it drive away.

There was one thing he hadn’t tried, yet, but he didn’t want the kids to be home if it worked.

*****

Sarah was still sleeping when he tip-toed back into the bedroom.  He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  It was a 30.06 and held five bullets.  He loaded it up and listened to the safe sing static in his ears.  It was always static.  Static and the radio voice, out of every pore of the world.  The dog had the voice.  The stray cat had the voice.  The birds had the voice.  The mouse scurrying across the sidewalk had the voice.  He could hear the news report shivering beneath the earth’s skin.

But problems do have solutions.

He left the bedroom with the gun and walked out to the backyard.  It was a quiet neighborhood.  The only sound was the pop and crackle of the thing living inside the air, the rustle of leaves scratching each other like record needles.  He took a deep breath.

His teeth felt strange against the barrel, like biting into a piece of flint.  It was cold and hard and it made his enamel itch.  He closed his eyes and fumbled for the trigger with his thumb, awkwardly hunched over the gun.  He tried to block out the gritty texture and the coppery taste of metal.  He struggled not to gag.  His thumb found the curved edge of the trigger, and he heard himself whimper.

He squeezed.

*****

The radio man said, “He killed his son, first, splattering blood across scrambled eggs like watery ketchup” and Steve reached out and slammed his hand on the alarm clock.  He rolled over and pulled Sarah close to him, feeling her body ease into his.  She helped his lungs expand.  The alarm clock turned back on.  “His daughter tried to run away, screaming for her mother, but he shot her in the back of the throat before—”

He turned away from Sarah, grabbed the alarm clock, and wrenched it from the wall.  He pushed himself out of bed and threw the clock on the floor, watching its plastic pieces break apart to reveal electronic guts.  He picked up the remains and threw them down, again, watching them shatter and spin away from each other.  The floor was covered in debris.

“What the hell are you doing?” Sarah sat up in bed.

Steve swallowed air to drown the fire in his chest.  “I’m sick of it.”

Sarah seemed small in the center of the mattress, caught in the whorl of sheets.  Her voice seemed smaller still.  “My parents said…if we have to…”

He shook his head at her, bull-like, “No.  That’s not—I’m not living in a basement with two kids, the dryer banging around all night, living behind walls we make out of shower curtains.”

Moving would be a waste of time, anyway.

“Just until I finish the book,” she offered.

He took a deep breath and started picking the shattered radio pieces up from the floor.  “It’s fine,” he muttered.  He bit his tongue to stop himself from talking about the news report, the Radio Man, the repeating day.  She never believed him, anyway.  “Keep writing.  I’ll figure it out at work.  We’ll figure it out.”

He hadn’t even gone to work for months.  It seemed pointless, now.

“I’m sorry,” he dropped the radio innards into the bin at the foot of the bed.  “Just…work stress.  The boss.  We haven’t had a cost-of-living raise in years and…nevermind.  I’m just sorry, okay?”

She nodded, not replying.

“I’m so goddamned sorry.”

“Come here,” Sarah reached out with open arms, “let me hold you.”

*****

One day, to kill the monotony, he told the kids to skip school and go to the zoo with him.  He snapped at Amy when she tried to turn on the car radio, smacked her hand harder than he wanted.  She didn’t cry, but she looked up at him with wide, scared eyes.  The tape deck grinned at him, spat out a tape like a tongue.  He grabbed it and threw it out the window, watching it shatter against the road behind them.

The day was muffled and distant inside his head.  The kids jumped around and took photographs on disposable cameras, snapshots of big cats and exotic birds.  Steve tried to keep his eyes on his feet, feeling the gaze of every animal branding his skin.  Monkeys howled at him, teeth bared, “His daughter tried to run away!  His daughter tried to run away!”  Their laughter chattered in his head.  One of them threw crap at him, spattering his slacks with their shitstain.

The kids got tired and grumpy and started to whine, so he took them to lunch at a cheap burger place down the road.  His wallet was out of cash, so he paid on a credit card.  The kids’ faces got gross with condiments, their fingers sticky.  Steve wiped them off with sanitary napkins despite their arguments.  Amy was particularly against it.  “Daddy, stop!” she yelled, drawing the attention of parents at another table.  As if they were any better.  As if their children were so polite.  He wrangled Amy still and wiped her mouth with the moist towelette as she squealed.

The overhead speaker snickered at him in Radio Man static.  “The only way out is through.”

“Come on, let’s go,” Steve muttered, angrier than he wanted to sound.  He grabbed his children by the wrists and ferried them out of the restaurant.  He sat them down in the back of the car and locked them in.  He paced around the parking lot for fifteen minutes before he joined them, begging God or the Universe or anyone for an answer, for a tomorrow, for something to do.

A young woman, maybe fifteen or sixteen, walked around the side of the lot.  Bleach-white hair sat mop-like on her head, the sides shaved clean down to the scalp.  She was fatally thin and smelled of unwashed summer heat.  She scanned the parking lot until her eyes fell on him.  “Sir…?”

The stench of her made him recoil.  He fished a couple crumpled bills from his pocket.

She took the money and ferreted it away in the folds of a tattered, XXL hoodie.  “Thank you.  But that’s not what—”

He was already walking away, unlocking the driver’s side door of the car and sliding into the seat.  She stood outside the burger joint staring at him, something behind her eyes making him think about police detectives or psycho-analysts.  He turned his keys in the ignition and tried to clear her smell out of the back of his throat.

“Daddy?” Charlie asked.  “Who is that?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled.  It didn’t feel like a lie.

*****

One day, he told Sarah, and she didn’t believe him.  He told his boss, and he didn’t, either.  He told a therapist and she prescribed him drugs.  He told a cop and spent the day in a cell.  He told anyone that would listen and nobody did.  There was no point in keeping it secret, day after same-day.  The Radio Man didn’t seem to care, either.

“Tell everyone!” fifty televisions called out inside a Wal-Mart, “Tell everyone and maybe they’ll start tuning in to the same channel!”

*****

Shep slept on the floor in front of the dead TV screen.  Steve stared into the flat black and drank espresso.  Something moved behind the screen, inside the darkness, he was sure of it.  He just had to see it.  It was part of an answer.  It had to be.  Because there had to be an answer and he had to find it.  He finished his fourth coffee of the morning and heard Sarah open the bedroom door.

“What are you doing out here?”

“Called out for the day,” he answered, his words caffeine-sharp.  “Needed time to think.”

He could feel the words she wanted to say, feel them like static around the hairs of his arms.  You shouldn’t skip work right now, maybe, or: we really need the money.  But she kept the words to herself and set about making her own clone of the kids’ breakfasts.  Eggs, English muffin, milk.  The tuna sat in cold cans uneaten.  He refilled his mug while she ate and sat back down in front of the screen.

“I’ll go back in tomorrow,” he said, feeling her eyes still on him.  “I just needed a day off.”

“You deserve one.  I’m sorry about…” a pause, more words unsaid, “I’ll start freelancing again.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he waited for the screen to pulse, for something to writhe inside it.

Shep roused with the smell of food.  The squeak of dog-yawn made Steve wince.  Radio Man came through Shep’s mouth: “Police won’t comment on what the man said, but one local neighbor said it was ‘disturbing.’”  The dog panted a couple times and trotted to the kitchen.

Steve kept staring at the screen.

Sarah did her writing outside, that day.  In the quiet neighborhood with the nice grass, blissfully unaware of the thing vibrating under the skin of the world.  Steve just sat in front of the television, eyes glued to the blank, endless black.  The kids came home, troubled their mother, and went to bed.  Sarah came back inside, laptop under one arm and children’s toys under the other.

“Nice show.”

“Trying to meditate.”

“Okay, then.”

She vanished into the bedroom, where he could still hear her fingernails clack against keys.  The clock ticked forward.  9:30pm, 10:00pm, 11:43pm…it rolled over to 12:00am, 12:15am, 12:23am.  Steve felt his breath get short.  It was tomorrow.  A smile crept across his face and he started giggling.  1:17am. He jumped up off the couch with a laugh and—

“…but his behavior had been bizarre leading up to the incident…” he turned over in bed and shut off the radio.  A sob wracked through his body, and something hot lashed back at it.  He stood up.

“I’m going to kill him,” he muttered, pulling on a pair of beaten sweatpants and a t-shirt from under the bed.  “I’m going out there and I’m going to kill him.”

It was such a simple solution, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t tried it, already.

*****

He walked out into the front yard and the grass smelled like disinfectant and absence.  He wasn’t sure if Sarah would follow, and it didn’t matter anyway.  In less than 24 hours she would forget anything she’d heard him mutter that morning.  For her, a rock song would play on the radio and she’d curl back up in bed.  He crossed the lawn and reached the sidewalk.

Shep was there, waiting, staring up at him.  A stray cat sat next to her, staring with the exact same eyes.  Their mouths opened at the same time and a rush of static washed through his head.  Radio Man came out of their mouths: “You can’t kill me, here.  You can’t die.  Haven’t you figured it out?  Go to the gun locker, open it, and take out the rifle.  It’s easy when you do it.  Wake up and it will be tomorrow.”

He rushed the animals and they scattered, running along green grass in different directions.  He roared after them.  When he turned back around, he saw the blond homeless girl staring at him from behind a tree.  Her hood was up, but the look and the smell were unmistakable.  “What the hell are you doing?” he snarled, stalking toward her, hands balled into fists.  “Did you follow me?  Did you follow me to my house?”

She retreated as quickly as the animals had.  Something about her didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t place what.

*****

Oceanrest Rock & Blues was in a tiny building on top of a hill northeast of town.  It took him four hours to walk there.  He could’ve taken a car, but he didn’t.  The time gave him space to breathe, to brood, to let the answer solidify in his head.  He had to kill the Radio Man.  That was the only other option.  Then it would finally be over.

He expected to find a reception desk when he threw the door open, but there wasn’t one.  There wasn’t anything.  The place had been torn apart.  A dented air vent hung from the half-collapsed ceiling, exhaling cool, sweet air into the dusty room.  The remains of four destroyed chairs lay scattered across the floor like limbs after a bomb.

His loafers were quiet against the floor as he made his way into the station.  Broken wires like nooses hung from everything.  Ceiling tiles had been pried away to reveal leaking pipes and busted vents.  Something had come through here and destroyed the place.  He found no one waiting in the hallways as he went.  The building was catacombs-empty.

The window that looked in on the recording studio dripped with opaque gray sludge.  Steve reached out and touched it, feeling it cool and mud-like oozing around his fingers.  He wiped the viscous residue on his pants and turned the corner.

The door to the studio hung open.  Static crackled from inside the room.

Steve walked in.

The Radio Man stared at him from the center of the room.  He had microphone heads as eyes and a smile that anyone in America could buy into.  He tilted his head to one side and spoke in the same voice Steve had always heard, “Do you think you’ll wake up and it will be tomorrow?”

Steve charged him and put a fist in his everyman smile.  His skin split around the Radio Man’s teeth.  Radio Man stumbled back and crashed spread-eagle on a small, worn table.  Steve rushed forward and hit him, again, this time in the throat.  Electric feedback warbled from Radio Man’s mouth, loud enough to make Steve grab his ears.

“His wife was out of the room two seconds later with a small pistol from the same safe.  She fired and hit him in the stomach.  He returned fire, spilling all her love out of her chest,” the Radio Man was back on his feet, his voice deafening in Steve’s head.  “He was found strangling his dog on the front lawn, screaming.”

Steve dove at the man and tackled him to the ground.  He was deaf and blind from all the sound, but he didn’t need to see or hear to keep punching.  He lashed out with his fists until his knuckles were broken and all his skin was flayed by splintered bone.  The Radio Man laughed through it all, bursts of static snicker and radio-persona crack-up exploding from his mangled face.  He never fought back.

When the sound died away, Steve stood up.  All the pain shrieking in his hands seemed like a distant, foggy memory.  He staggered back through the empty radio station and walked out the front door, leaving twin trails of blood in his wake, dripping off his fingers.

Outside, a bird peered down at him from the boughs of a tree.

“The only way out is through,” Radio Man’s voice teased from its beak.

*****

Amy’s play never came.  Charlie never wanted to go, anyway.  Steve ran lines with her every morning, a rehearsal for a show that would never go up.  There were always eggs and English muffins and not much else to eat.  The safe whispered static in his dreams.  The world whispered static in his daylight.  The night ate the day and yesterday ate tomorrow.  Amy and Charlie never grew older, never grew up, never complained about dating or learned about unemployment.

They smiled and laughed and sometimes they ran into walls and that was as bad as things got for them.

*****

Static sizzled under the burning eggs.  Steve’s knuckles were bone-white around the spatula handle.  How long had it been, now?  How many times had he cooked the same breakfast?

“He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.”

Was it a threat, or a promise?  Was it the end, or the beginning?

*****

The eggs sputtered on the pan.  Shep wove between his legs.  “Go to the gun locker!” the animal yipped in Radio Man’s voice, “go to the gun locker!”

Steve picked the dog up and threw it against a wall.  It landed with a whimper on the kitchen counter.  “What the hell do you want from me!?” he screamed, grabbing the furry animal in his hands and shaking it.  “What do you want!?”

“His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still sleeping when the slaughter began.”

He smashed the animal down against the countertop, hearing more bones splinter.  “Why are you doing this to me!?”

“You’ll break,” Radio Man’s voice was quieter, distorted, coming from a broken speaker inside the dog’s body.  “They always break.  The only way out…the only way…”

He lifted Shep’s body in the air and brought it down again, until the Radio Man stopped talking and the animal’s corpse painted his hands red.  Amy and Charlie went to stay with their aunt in Portland, and he spent the rest of the day in one of the police precincts.

*****

The voice got more persistent.  He unplugged the alarm clock and the birds outside would sing the report for hours.  The dog would bark it, the stray cat would mewl it.  The eggs started talking to him, the voice whispering beneath the sputtering oil.  The television would flick on and the Radio Man’s voice would come out of the news anchor, children’s cartoons, Tony Soprano’s mouth.  It was all he heard all the time every day.  It was in his head like a brain worm, eating his mind.

*****

He opened Sarah’s laptop and typed:

He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  He loaded it with five rounds and leaned it against the fridge as he cooked breakfast for his children.  He walked back to the bedroom and kissed his wife on the forehead.  She smiled faintly and turned over in bed.  The walk back to the kitchen took the longest.  It was time.  There was no way out but through.  He ruffled his children’s hair and opened the fridge to reveal empty shelves.

His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still asleep when the slaughter began.  He killed his son, first, splattering blood across scrambled eggs like watery ketchup.  His daughter tried to run away, screaming for her mother, but he shot her in the back of the throat before she could make it to the bedroom.

His wife was out of the room two seconds later with a small pistol from the same safe.  She fired and hit him in the stomach.  He returned fire, spilling all her love out of her chest.  He was found strangling his dog on the front lawn, screaming.

Police won’t comment on what the man said, but one local neighbor said it was ‘disturbing.’  His neighbor alleges he was screaming at the dog, sobbing, “Is this enough for you?  Can this all finally be over, now?” when the first cop cars pulled up across the street.

Neighbors say Steven Clarke is a good man, but his behavior had been bizarre leading up to the incident.  He’d written a grim short story on his wife’s laptop depicting a similar scene to what happened that morning, and hadn’t been to work for two or more days.  Was it a psychotic break from reality?  One witness might know the truth: a young homeless girl found on the sidewalk across from his home, crusted white hair cresting her otherwise shaved scalp…

*****

He hit ‘snooze’ and climbed out of bed.  He pulled on a pair of boxers and a dirty t-shirt.  He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  He loaded it with five rounds and prayed, hands so tight around the barrel he hoped it might break.  Heat burned his cheeks as he begged the universe to intervene.  Maybe someone would remember something: maybe Sarah would find the document he left on her laptop, or his boss would remember him screaming in the office, or the cop would remember locking him up—they’d remember, and they’d stop him.  But he couldn’t keep doing it, anymore.  It had to be over.

He leaned the gun against the fridge as he cooked breakfast for his children.  He wrung his hands in front of the stove and pursed his lips in another prayer.  Shep looked up at him with microphone-head eyes, “After this, everything will be okay,” Radio Man promised.  “It’s easier than you think.  And then you’ll all be free.  All of you.  They’ll be free to dream what dreams may come.  You’ll wake up tomorrow.”

Steve opened the front door and let the dog out into the yard.  He walked back to the bedroom and kissed Sarah on the forehead.  She smiled faintly and turned over in bed.  Amy and Charlie laughed from the kitchen table.  Silverware scraped against plates.  Footsteps crunched the green grass outside, cutting across the front lawn.  Maybe it was a teenager on the way to school.  Maybe it was a cop coming to gun him down.  Maybe it was all in his head, anyway.

The walk back to the kitchen took the longest.

“Daddy,” Amy called, face covered in peanut butter and jelly, “is mom coming to the play?”

“She wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replied, voice quivering like his guts.

Charlie rolled his eyes when Steve ruffled his hair.  The fridge was nearly empty.  Groceries had been tight for some time.  Everything had been tight for some time.  Sarah’s parents had an unfinished basement they could use for a while, but they’d have to bring their own walls.  Tuna sat uneaten in the pantry.  The sun rose at 6:45 AM and set at 8:20 PM.  Everyone breaks, eventually.

Steve licked his lips and felt a shuddering breath force its way into his lungs.  The children were very small and young and knew little about pain.  At least this way they would never have to find out.  He closed the fridge and picked up the rifle.  The only way out was through.  Maybe, if he was lucky, he would die from the stomach wound and it could all really be over.  Maybe tomorrow could be born without him in it.  Maybe the footsteps crossing the lawn were headed toward the front door.  It sounded like it.

He imagined a young homeless girl, smelling of unwashed summer, swinging the door in.  She would hold a knife in her hand and it would go up into his shoulder, on the inside, finding an artery on the way, and he would bleed out on the floor.  His family would never know why, and eventually they wouldn’t need to know why.  They would just live.

The doorknob turned.

He wrapped his finger around the trigger.

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Cosmic Horror vs. Urban Horror

Allegedly, Cosmic Horror and Urban Horror are different genres…however, as more and more authors genre-blend, genre-hop, and layer thematic motifs on top of each other, the lines have (thankfully) blurred.

They are more alike, my friends, than they are unalike.

Cosmic Horror

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is considered the godfather of Cosmic Horror the same way William Gibson is considered the godfather of Cyberpunk– they might not have invented it, but they sure as hell defined it.

Lovecraft’s main point of terror was that of smallness and unimportance.  In cosmic horror, an indifferent universe manifests itself in the form of aliens, supernatural foes, or other bizarro entities.  The tales recount the cruel indifference of space and time.  Nihilism begets mind-breaking terror.  The human brain can’t process our own unimportance, so we go mad.

Cthulhu isn’t an alien, Cthulhu is a metaphor for monstrous indifference and cosmic vastness.

Then again, monstrous indifference doesn’t need monstrous countenance.  The case of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese proves that.  So does ongoing indifference and complicity in a thousand areas of modern life.  In fact, for many people in the world, “indifference would be such a relief.” (Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom.)

Which brings us to the topic of…

Urban Horror

Urban Horror derives from Urban Gothic, which, of course, derives from general Gothicism/Victorian Gothic, etc.  We can trace the roots of this particular devil back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and, arguably, earlier.  The focus of these tales generally resides in dark flaws and sinister proclivities in human nature, usually with a supernatural bent.  Because of the genre’s usual examination of the darker threads of mankind’s cloth, the stories tend to be more personal and character-driven than the machinations of cosmic horror.

Urban Horror focuses its lens on mankind, not on the indifferent universe around us…or, well, maybe that’s not quite true.

In many Urban Horror stories, monstrous indifference is merely part of modern society.  A string of murders goes uninvestigated.  People go missing without anyone looking for them.  Often, agents of the law in such stories are either incompetent or on the take, just as likely to be working for the villain as against the villain.  In Urban Horror, widescale indifference is standard…and where indifference isn’t present, maliciousness replaces it.  In fact, the crushing indifference of cosmic horror is often just as present in its urban counterpart, but whereas indifference is a cause for terror in Lovecraftian cosmicism, it’s barely shrug-worthy in many Urban Horror tales.  Of course the universe doesn’t care–people barely care.

But, unlike in cosmic horror, the villain is almost always human, humanoid, or taking on the glamour/semblance of humanity.  The villains, you see, look just like us.  In many ways, they are us.

The Monster at the End of the Story

There are many commonalities between Cosmic and Urban Horror.  Crushing indifference, monstrous cruelty, and tragic disasters that go unnoticed.

Lovecraft has been dead some 80 years.  Frankenstein is nearly 200.

Times have changed, man.

Let’s look at the biggest difference I considered between these genres: the monster at the end of the story.  In Cosmic Horror, the monster manifests the cruel indifference of the cosmos.  In Urban Horror, the monster represents mankind’s darker natures, our perpetrated evils.  But perhaps even these beasts have more in common than we initially assume…

I’ve already written about the inhuman monsters grinding us away in their teeth, but I’ll go over it again briefly now.  There are vast monstrosities destroying people’s lives, and both the universe and the world-at-large are mostly indifferent to their deeds.  Most people could easily recall at least four of their names: War, Famine, Pestilence, Death.  But what about the hungry Lovecraftian god of Nationalism?  What about the festering, many-appendaged grotesquery of White Supremacy?  What about the crawling, fungal consciousness of Revenge, spreading its power airborne at the site of every recrimination?

Cthulhu is a metaphor, remember.  So is Dagon.

In Stephen King’s It, the monster slumbers for 27 years.  How long slumbers the ravening beast of Misogyny?  It doesn’t.

This is a story, in brief: a cult of killers ritualistically sacrifices victims to a squamous god of Nationalism.  Our protagonists find themselves drawn into the dangerous plot, twisting through a nightmare of localized madness.  The cult is routed.  The cult leader is the monster at the end of the story.  Our protagonists stop the cult leader.  The squamous god of Nationalism slumbers, but not for very long.  Our protagonists observe the night sky, understanding the smallness of their efforts against the vast shadows of mankind’s character.  An epilogue: two cultists escape, driving westward, vowing revenge against a system designed to oppress their beliefs.

Cthulhu, the Darkness of Human Nature

Something roars from an unseen sky and cataclysm rends the earth.  You hear screaming.  Rubble smolders, guttering black ash from outside your window.  An eruption deafens you, and some of the screams die in suddenly muted throats.  You scramble for an exit.  Desperate, staccato gunfire surrounds you.  An apocalypse rages through your town.  This happens, somewhere, almost every day.  The stars don’t notice.  Neither do most people.

Vincent: …you ever heard of Rwanda?
Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.
Vincent: Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?
Max: What?
Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, something? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.
Max: Man, I don’t know any Rwandans.
Vincent: You don’t know the guy in the trunk, either.

Collateral (2004)

He attacked her with a knife at 2:30 AM, to kill a woman.  She screamed, cried out, and ran.  He followed, stabbing her two more times as she shrieked, “Oh my God, he stabbed me!  Help me!”  On the ground, then, he continued stabbing.  He used both a knife and a personal appendage, his existence a force of violence against her.  A man shouted, almost directionless, “Let that girl alone!”  Moseley fled the scene with $49.  Sophia Farrar found the raped and bloodied woman and held her until police and emergency workers arrived.  The exact time of death is unclear, but the woman died either in Farrar’s arms or in the back of the ambulance, unrevivable.  At least 17 people had heard the screams or seen the attack, only 4 or 5 responded.

The earth orbits the sun, waiting to be eaten.  One day, the sun will glower its molten countenance, spread its hungry jaws, and devour the whole world’s history.

The sun is not the monster at the end of the stories.

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The Treeline – Oceanrest Flash Fiction

She dreamt of the tree line.

In the dream, autumn slouched toward winter, and all the leaves had lost color and wilted.  The sky froze, the sun lanced warmth through cold clouds.  The clouds won, filtering the world into graywash dimness.  The trees, pale white and dull brown and mostly naked and leafless, reached out with kinked branches as if desperate to touch each other, and they almost never touched.

In the dream, she sat alone in her room, watching the sprawling wilderness from behind cold glass.  Her breath fogged the window.

The thing in crimson appeared, a slash of violent color against sludgy grayscape.  It wore a deep red robe and had an ivory skull the approximate shape of a deer’s.  Its thin antlers mirrored the tree branches.  They wanted to touch something with their sharpness.

It moved unnaturally, approaching the treeline.  It had an uneven gait, listing slightly to one side, as if unacquainted with bipedal movement.  When it reached the last of the trees before the sprawl of the Estate’s vast yard, it stopped.  It tilted its deerskull face up toward the window, gazing with eyes that were long gone their sockets.

In the dream, Nora couldn’t catch her breath.  She steamed her panic against the glass in short gasps.  Her fingers touched the cross around her neck.  She prayed, under her breath, in short staccato words.

The creature (or was it human) cocked its ivory skull, curious.

When she’d first come to the Estate, Ambrose had told her that the wards were ancient and powerful.  Later, when Ambrose died in Egypt, Victor reiterated this.  The wards of the Estate had protected the Blackwood’s Mansion for generations.  Nothing supernatural could cross.

Almost nothing, at least.  People could still cross over.  Human beings.  Even if they were psychic or if they knew witchcraft or if they knew nothing at all but how to wield a knife and put it to places that would hurt more than words could describe.

Nora prayed that the figure in crimson was not human.

It stood at the wards, head cocked.  The shade of its robe reminded her of the curls of life that swirled in the bathwater when she razored her skin.  It reminded her not just of blood, but of blood shed in a specific way, for a specific reason.  Its robe, the color of precisely reasoned bloodshed, was the only gash of color in the grayscape.  It unnerved her, how important that seemed.

The figure crossed the treeline, shambling, and began its uneven gait across the breadth of grass.  It paused, halfway to her window, and peered up at her with those empty skull eyes.  Lifting a robed arm, it extended a slender, sapient finger, and pointed crookedly at her.

you are chosen, a voice said in her mind.

The figure vanished.

A hand grabbed her shoulder.

She screamed.

“Whoa, there, Miss. Nora,” Victor said, jumping back from her reaction.

Awoken from slumber, she sat slouched in an office chair in the library.  Her eyes darted around, a panic of disorientation.  She leapt from her seat, spinning in circles, searching for a threat.  Her better hand went for the shiv she kept in the front pocket of her hoodie–one of the keepsakes from her homeless days.

“You okay?” Victor asked, brow rucked and gaze uncertain.

“Just a dream,” she said, panting against cold nightmare sweat.

“The bad kind?”

She nodded.  She was no psychic, her dreams contained no visions of possible futures, no premonitions of things to come–but they often arrived as omens, as metaphors, as threats.  Nothing she ever saw in her dreams came to pass literally, but the dreams always seemed so obvious after the fact.

She picked up the book that had fallen from her lap when she awoke.

“We need to prep anything?” Victor asked.

“I don’t know yet,” she answered, turning the book over in her hand.  “I mean…probably, yeah.  But.”  She shrugged, and flipped the book open to where she’d dog-eared the story before dozing off.

…’and the red death held sway over all,’ the bottom of the page told her.

A slash of color in grayscape.  A mask of something dead and age-bleached.  A finger, pointing.  you are chosen, it whispered, its voice coming from that distant place in the mind where dreams are real.

She set the book aside and fidgeted with her necklace.  She thumbed the cross and thought about how the old silver flatly symbolized two wooden boards.  Thought about what it must’ve felt like, being chosen, as people drove nails through a good man’s hands.  What must it have felt like, being chosen, when the hungry birds began circling overhead?

“You want breakfast?  Coffee?” Victor asked, trying vainly to pull her out of her thoughts.

She let go of the necklace.

Being chosen seemed like a raw deal.  Seemed a lot like being condemned.

“Coffee,” she said absently.

Seemed a lot like being damned, actually.

Or sacrificed.

Abraham wasn’t leading Isaac up the mountain to have a picnic, after all.

you, the dream warned her.  you.

chosen.

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The Hollow: A Podcast

I wrote a podcast and you can listen to it right now!  It’s called The Hollow and it’s an anthological horror fiction podcast following a different story and characters every season.  Season One is airing now!  Check it out!  I promise it’s not bad.

Season One follows the plight of a lonely, self-important (and self-flagellating) author as he flees his real life and personal responsibilities to stay at a nearly empty inn and Work On His Book(TM).  Of course, things aren’t quite what they seem in this little hamlet, and both the inn and the author have quite a history to unravel…

You can find the podcast on The Hollow official site and on iTunes.  You can also follow the podcast on Facebook and Twitter for updates.  Please give it a listen!  And, if you like it, please leave a review on iTunes.

Seriously, please leave an iTunes review!  It would help us enormously!

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A Test : Oceanrest Flash Fiction

The woman across from me wears a plague mask.  Except she’s not really wearing a plague mask, she’s making me think she’s wearing a plague mask.  She thinks I’m one of them–someone like her.  But I’m not one of them.  I’m not one of anybody.  If I was somebody, I’d have a real job, a real life.  I’d have a home.

“Are you paying attention?” she asks.

“Sure.” I lie.

She shows me a card.  The back is absence-white, color of nothing and everything at once.  “I need you to focus on the card,” she says.  “I’ll know if you don’t.”

She’s not lying.  I’ve danced these steps a dozen times.  I haven’t had a choice.  Legally speaking, I signed up for this.  Technically.  There’s a contract somewhere, my name’s on it.

I focus on the card.  Blank white.  Nothing white.

“What do you think is on my side of the card?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Guess,” she says.

“The number seven.”

She nods curtly, sets the card aside.  From the stack of exact-same cards, she plucks a new one.  Holds it up between her fingers, nothing side facing me.  “Is this one also a number?”

“Sure.”

“Good job.  What number do you think it is?”

“Fucking thirteen for all I care.”

Another short nod.  “Interesting,” she says.

“What’s interesting?”

She sets the card aside, replaces it.  Blank back.  Everything is so white in this place.  Her coat: white.  Her mask: white.  The back of every card: white.  The floor tiles, the walls, everything.  Except the meds I’m allegedly ‘testing.’  Those come in all colors, shimmering like oil, glowing like a rainbow or the scales of a dead fish.

“This one is a picture.”

“Okay.”

“What is it a picture of?”

“The moon?”

“Right.”  She sets the card aside, shuffles the stack a couple times, cuts the deck, re-cuts it, re-shuffles, and fans them out in front of me like a row of too many teeth.  “Could you pick out the number twelve?”

“Probably not?”

“Give it a guess.  Go with your gut.”

I roll my eyes.  Pick a random card.

She turns it over.  Twelve.

“You have an eighty-percent success rate across two hundred guesses, in the time you’ve been here.  Are you sure you’re guessing?”

“Yes!” I slam my hand on the table.  She tilts her head.  I’d stand up, but my feet are chained to chair legs.  I slouch, instead, curled in.  “Of course I’m fucking guessing, they’re a bunch of blank cards.”

“Right.  On one side.”

I show her my middle finger but she doesn’t react to it.  Not that I can tell, at least.  But maybe she’s done that to me, too.  I can feel her in my head, tinkering around with my retinas, my eardrums.  Picking at the folds of my brains like a groping pervert.

“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” she asks.

“I signed a contract for ninety days.”

“And how many days has it been?”

I open my mouth.  Balk.  Close it.  How many days?  “Fifteen?  Twenty?”

She nods.  “Interesting.”

“How many fucking days has it been?” I yell.

An enormous figure shifts against the wall behind her, a blur against white paint.  She holds her hand up and the blur vanishes, melting back into nothing.  But I know something’s there, now.  If I blur my eyes I can make it out.  Man-shaped, but huge.

“Please don’t yell,” she says.  “I assure you, we will release you.”

“How many days?”

“Nine.”

“Out of ninety?”

“Yes.”

A cold pain rolls through my veins, rooting itself in the fabric of my lungs.  My jaw slacks, my eyes burn.  I clutch the edge of the table like a drowning man clutches the side of a lifeboat.  “No.  You’re lying.”

She sets a small amber pill down in front of me.  I know this one–tastes of honey and campfire, gives me tatters of dreams I can never quite remember the day after.  What kind of drug company is this?

She sets down a glass of water (where did it come from?) and pushes it toward me.  “Exit of the study is considered forfeiture of pay and all other signed gains.  The NDA, inclusive of all fine print, will still apply to you, however.”

“What are you doing to me?”

“We’re studying you.”

“Who is ‘we?'”

“Unfortunately, due to my own NDA, and my personal interest, I can’t answer that.”

“Who are you people?”

“Please, take the pill.  We will give you a break from memory and guessing tests for the next four days.”

“I can’t do this…” I half-collapse forward, losing all balance, suddenly nauseous and wet-faced, tears streaking my cheeks.  “I can’t–I can’t–I can’t…”

“You can, actually.  And you’ll be better for it.”  She puts a gentle hand on my shoulder, consolation for her own victim.  Squeezes.  “There is a power sleeping inside of you.  We’re just trying to help wake it up.”

“Don’t touch me.”

But I like it.  It feels good to have human contact.  Has it really only been nine days?

She withdraws her hand from my shoulder and pushes the water closer to me.  I take the pill.  When I look back at the room, she’s gone.  Or she’s making me think she’s gone.  She can do these things.  My ankles are uncuffed, unchained from the chair legs.

I wonder if the manacles were ever really there at all.

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Things Not To Say In a Horror Movie – A Clickbait Listicle by Me

THIS IS HOW I SCREAM INTO THE VOID.

Hey, readers, it’s me, again.  If you haven’t noticed, I don’t make very frequent use of my blog, and am always working on habits to change this.  So, today, I’m writing a brief listicle about something I have a fair knowledge of: stupid shit characters say in horror movies and books.  It’s almost like the characters aren’t even genre savvy!

Although I generally write contemporary supernatural fantasy, I usually include horror elements and use a lot of traditional horror tropes and plot devices.  This is because I love horror.  I read significant volumes of horror literature.  I watch significant amounts of horror film.  Through these vehicles, I’ve managed to gain a knowledge of what NOT to say during tense/terrifying moments.

(You’ll notice a large volume of capitalized words in this listicle– they’re capitalized to indicate that they refer to tropes/cliches and literary/movie shortcuts.  If you don’t know what I mean, already, you’ll figure it out.)

“Let’s Split Up!”

The most grievous sin in the world of horror: splitting up.  It might’ve turned out okay for Scooby & The Gang, but in most horror/supernatural situations, it ends with grotesque, anguished death.

PROTIP: if you’re ever in an allegedly-haunted mansion, creeping through dusty hallways and ducking around strained, limp cobwebs…stick together!  If you’re exploring the dark, overgrown woods surrounding the way-too-cheap cabin you and your friends rented for your weekend vacation…stick together!

When to say it: literally never.

How to survive: use the buddy system!

“I’ll Be Right Back.”

No, you won’t.  This tethers into the “Let’s Split Up!” situations.  Often, the person who will “be right back” (LOL) is going to check on a strange sound, or fix a broken generator, or get a spare tire.  Sometimes there’s a broken down car and our poor victim (I mean “volunteer”) goes off to get his/her own vehicle for a jumpstart.  No matter what the reason is, you can rest assured that this person will most certainly NOT be right back.  Ever.  At all.

PROTIP: if you’re ever trying to escape a horror situation, and your car breaks down…stick together!  Did a masked killer cut the power to your (aforementioned) weekend cabin?  Better turn on those flashlights and, I cannot stress this enough, STICK TOGETHER.  Is the generator out of fuel during a zombie apocalypse?  Maybe that’s the world’s way of telling you to move on.

When to say it: when you really don’t want to be right back.

How to survive: bring another survivor with you, and be prepared to spend a significant amount of time away from the party.  You’ll still probably die, but if you’re not alone and you have a lot of patience, you might last a while.

“Most Cops Never See Action.” / “Most Cops Never Draw Their Guns.”

This only applies to cops.  If you’re not a cop, feel free to say it!  But if you are a cop, using these phrases at any point during the story means you will 100% definitely “see action” and, if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to “draw your gun.”  Unfortunately, most horror story killers/monsters are pretty smart about ambushing police officers, so there’s a decent chance you won’t get your sidearm unholstered before being machete’d in half or eaten alive.  But good news!  If you’re in a haunting scenario (a la Last Shift), your gun wouldn’t have saved you anyway.

PROTIP: don’t be a cop in a horror movie or book, it dramatically reduces your chance of survival.  If you are a cop in a horror movie/book, you’ll want to be a (Wo)Man on the Edge, a Loose Cannon, or a Hothead.  Being quick to draw a weapon might lead you to shoot one of the other survivors during a self-damning Fall From Grace, but it’ll give you a better chance against the masked murderer or supernatural monster coming for your blood.

When to say it: (1) if you’re not a cop, (2) if you Don’t Fear Death, or (3) you’re a Survivor Girl/Guy from a previous entry in the franchise.

How to survive: once you’ve said this, you drastically reduce your options at survival.  You will most certainly see action and need to draw a gun, so just get your gun out now and never holster it again.

BUT ALSO

“Three Weeks From Retirement.”

Sorry, buddy, but the chances that you’ll be seeing a pension don’t look great.  Although this phrase usually issues from the genre-blind mouths of cops and soldiers, anyone close to retirement at the beginning of a story is likely to die by the end.  If you’re a mechanic or other blue collar worker, however, it’s likely you’ll Sacrifice Yourself for the Greater Good, so at least your death might have some meaning.

It gets worse.  If you’re a cop three weeks away from retirement and you’ve Never Drawn Your Gun…I’m really sorry, I really am, but you’re already dead.

PROTIP: be a Millennial– we’ll literally never retire!

When to say it: you might be able to pull it off if you aren’t a cop or soldier…but the odds still don’t look good.  Try to be a blue collar worker, if you can, because then at least you’ll have a chance at Redeeming Your Dark Backstory when you Sacrifice Yourself for the Greater Good.

How to survive: instead of retiring, have a big blow-out with your boss at the beginning of the story and lose your job.  Or: hopefully you recently Lost Your Life Savings paying for a friend, family member, or loved one to undergo medical treatment.

“I Think He’s/She’s/It’s Dead.”

To quote Kevin Spacey from Superman Returns

WRONG.

The masked killer/supernatural monster is never dead.  As soon as you turn around, he/she/it is going to get right back up and kill you.

PROTIP: kill him/her/it harder.  Do you have a gun?  Keep shooting!  Did you somehow swipe the killer’s machete?  Better act like the Red Queen and get enthusiastic about beheadings!  Short of running the thing down with a steamroller, you probably haven’t finished the killer/monster off quite yet.

When to say it: once there are brains and skull fragments all over the floor and/or once the killer/monster has been literally steamrolled.

How to survive: once you’ve sufficiently slaughtered the Bad Guy, remember to Set the Corpse Ablaze.

“It’s Probably Nothing.”

Next to “Let’s Split Up!” this is the dumbest thing to say.  It’s almost never ‘nothing,’ in a horror story.  The scratch at the window, the strange sound outside, the ruffling foliage…none of that is ‘nothing.’  Oh, do you think It’s Just the Wind?  Hahahaha, I hope you like getting murdered!

If you’re in a strange place and think you maybe saw a ghost…assume you saw a ghost.  Did your doorbell ring but then nobody was at the door?  Better get ready for a nightmarish struggle for your very existence!  If you’re hanging out at that creepy cabin with your friends…pay attention to strange twig snaps and unexpected bush ruffling.  Oh, and the generator never just runs out of fuel.

PROTIP: JUST ALWAYS ASSUME IT’S PROBABLY SOMETHING.

When to say it: if you’re in a romance story or a literary tragicomedy.  I mean, you’ll still be wrong, but you (probably) won’t end up dead because of it.

How to survive: assume it’s probably something, retreat from the area, and ALWAYS USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM.

 

So that’s it for my lame clickbait listicle.  I hope you’re all a little smarter, now.  And, if you’ve already said some of these things recently, just remember: death is inevitable, and hopefully it will be over soon.

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Progress Blog: Random Writing Advice

Is it time for another progress blog?  You bet!  Today, I’m going to give everyone some unsolicited random writing advice!  What will we cover?  All the stupid basics!

Writing Advice is Silly

Rule #1 of writing advice: shrug it all off.  Every writer seems to have different and often contradictory ‘rules’ about writing.  People generally agree that every author should have a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style but beyond that, well, it’s just experience and opinion.  Some experience and opinion is valued more highly than others, of course.  For instance, most writers I’ve met (especially genre writers) have a copy of Stephen Kings advice/memoir book On Writing.  I’m personally a huge fan of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing.

But if we’re all being completely honest, if writing were a science, computers would already be doing it.

Thankfully, current AI only seems able to generate acclaim-worthy work with about 80% of the heavy lifting being done by humans.  So the work of the writer remains unmechanized for now.  Though anyone working in print should murder the hope of any sort of retirement, if they haven’t already.

Point being: this isn’t science.  It isn’t math.  And considering the ever-evolving state of slang, colloquialism, and grammar, particularly in the fast-paced American language, maybe we should be careful about marrying any specific rules set, especially early in the game.  But anyway,

Never Ban Words

Almost every writing-advice listicle I read includes a list of words to avoid.  Commonly, “don’t use adverbs” (see what I did there?)  Injunctions against filler words, filter words, and frilly words follow.  Passive voice?  Cut it.  Too many syllables?  Cut it.  Does it end in -ly?  You should be ashamed.

A sentence should be short, no?  Sure.  That makes sense.  But a sentence should also flow, describe, evoke, and build.  It should sound nice.  It should look nice, too.  There should be rhythm!

Arranging words is similar to arranging music.

Don’t limit yourself or box yourself in.  Step 1: write.  Sometimes you’ll use adverbs.  Sometimes there’s an aesthetic pleasure to multi-syllabic verbs and adjectives.  Even passive voice has its place.  There’s an old adage somewhere about moderation but who can ever remember it?

If you bind yourself too tightly with banned words and grammatical restrictions, you’ll shrink your toolbox.  You’ll narrow your knowledge.  Try, instead, to expand your toolbox.  Use fuckin’ everything.

But don’t bother showing anyone your first draft, because it’s probably awful.

Instead, after you’ve got it down, focus on

Editing, Editing, Editing…

Did you think writing was about writing?

Oh you poor, sweet summer child…

Writing is rewriting, as the saying goes.  Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again, and then, once that’s done, revising and revising and revising.  Whether you’re self-published, indie-published, trad-published, or if you’re selling handbound chap books on the subway platform, it doesn’t matter.  If you’re selling your first draft, or even your second draft, you’re probably selling shit.

More than half of your first draft is garbage, I hate to say.  I usually start my second draft from scratch, from a pure-blank page, just to avoid using the same garbage prose of my first draft.  The first draft anyone besides yourself should see is your second draft.  More realistically, your second draft after a couple rounds of polish and revision.

That’s because you probably have a ton of stuff to fix.

A List of Questions, or: Fixing Your Terrible First Draft

Approach your first draft as you would approach a vile, pulsing heap of red-green biomatter squirming on your kitchen floor–that is: with revulsion, disgust, and a weapon.

If a small part of you doesn’t hate your first draft as soon as you’re done with it, I advise shelving it for a while and continuing to hone your craft by reading/writing more and more for a few months.  By the time 4-5 months have passed, you’ll have read/written enough more to be properly revolted by your earlier work.

Now it’s time to pick it up, examine it, and make with the stabbing.

I’ve prepared a list of questions for you to ask yourself as you stab.  It’s a list of questions I mutter to myself while editing and sometimes while I sleep.

  1. Are these words necessary?  (for instance, “he saw the biomass pulse, its veins throbbing with red-black fluid” likely doesn’t require “he saw,” and it can probably be rearranged to excise the redundant ‘pulse’ and ‘throb’ verbiage.)
  2. Does the sentence sound good?  (reading a manuscript aloud will help track down and gut all sorts of hiccups and arrhythmia in the prose.)
  3. What is the sentence doing?  (are we learning about the character, action, setting, plot, etc?  What do these words contribute to the work?  If they don’t contribute, kill them.  Think of editing like a sci-fi dystopian world where non-contributors are casually slaughtered.)
  4.  Is the meaning clear?  (an over-clutter of words, uncertain punctuation, or unclear noun/adjective/verb pairings can all confuse readers and destroy prose quality.)
  5. Is this shit boring?  (as Elmore Leonard put it, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”  As a director friend once put it: “The audience will forgive you almost anything, as long as you’re not boring.” — protip: if it was boring to write, it’ll be doubly boring to read.)
  6. Is this repetitive?  (Does every sentence begin the same way?  Have you used the same word too many times in a page, or, heaven forbid, in a paragraph?)
  7. Is there a volume issue?  (Does the lurid text border on purple?  Does the simplicity threaten austerity?  Are the words too much, too little?  This is the most subjective measurement, but very important.)
  8. Why?  (Admittedly, I mutter this question to myself all the time, usually as a hollow whisper, a mournful murmur.  “Why?” I ask, about everything, about everything all at once, from one horizon to the other.  It’s also an important question about writing, though.  There should be a ‘why’ behind just about every word, sentence, and paragraph on a page.)

I think that’s a fine list to start with–though the more one writes, the longer and more complex the list becomes.  I do believe that covers all the basics, however, and some of the intermediate steps.

Don’t Stop

Write several times a week.  Read at least a little bit every day.  Take classes when available, if affordable.  Show your second and third drafts to people and don’t shout down their criticisms (it’s very important, when asking for criticism, to listen to it.)  Probably truer than any other piece of advice, “practice makes perfect.”

Read great writers.  For quality of prose, I adore Cassandra Khaw, T. E. Grau, and Leni Zumas.  For tight pacing, humor, and pulp craft, Raymond Chandler and Charlie Huston.  Victor LaValle mastered the art of music and aesthetic long ago.  A thousand other authors await your eyes, if you go looking.

Read voraciously and write viciously.  Edit with unparalleled self-loathing.  Brainstorm with fervor and madness, outline with enthusiasm, and write like a toothless speed freak.  Review your work like an IRS auditor.  Study the craft as if there’ll be a test on it any day now and you’ll be killed if you fail it.

That’s my advice.  To hell with banned words and meditation.  To hell with a thousand articles condemning adverbs and POV-filters and purple prose.  To hell with anything that constrains your toolbox.  Those tools are there for a reason, we just have to learn when and how to use them.

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Reading Suggestions: International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day!  And I have some reading suggestions.

I know what you’re thinking: dude, nobody cares about your stupid opinion.  I know!  But I’m going to do it anyway.

Of course, there are certainly obvious books to read for International Women’s Day.  Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks.  Girls to the Front, by Sara Marcus.  Cunt, by Inga Muscio.  There are many amazing books on the topics of intersectional feminism.  But I’m not going to write about those books.  Feminism and feminist theory are very important, of course, but I don’t have the breadth of knowledge required to make a list of must-reads in that area.  Instead, I’m going to write about really awesome, amazing books that happen to have awesome, amazing female authors.

For instance,

Anything by C. V. Hunt

C. V. Hunt is, according to her website, “the author of several unpopular books.”

Hunt is also an entertaining, transgressive, hilarious author of dark fantasy and horror.  Some of my favorites include Ritualistic Human Sacrifice and Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, both of which will make you laugh and cringe and wince.

You can pick up Hunt’s books in paperback, kindle, and even audiobook.  If you’re into it, you can also pre-order her upcoming work, Home is Where the Horror Is.

Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins

Do you like prose-poetry?  Do you appreciate beautiful language?  A fan of dark subject matter?  Heather Cousins wrote the book for you.

Something in the Potato Room is a beautiful book, brilliantly written, about deeply unsettling subject matter.  The line between fact and fantasy blurs and quivers in this gorgeous, liminal work.  Relatable and harrowing with an exquisite sense of language, Something in the Potato Room reaches into the dark recesses of the human spirit to find the exact spot where decay blooms into life again.  Or…something like that…

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the Woods is a collection of short faerie tales bundled up with striking illustrations and gorgeous graphic layout.  Creepy, haunting, and even heart-warming, Through the Woods collects emotionally diverse and fascinating stories.

I can’t get these stories out of my head.  Sometimes, out of nowhere, maybe on a subway platform or just walking down the street, I’ll get the lyrical lines of “Cold Hands” stuck in my head.  They’re so good.  So bloody good.  Of course, this isn’t the only work Emily Carroll has been involved with and her site will give you an idea about the breadth of her other work.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Get in Trouble is another collection–this time of short stories.  Kelly Link has been hailed as a bold and brilliant voice in contemporary fantasy and sci-fi–for good reason, too!  These stories are intelligent, charming, and moving.  Her excellent prose and storytelling skills really shine in this award-winning collection, and I personally had a fantastic time reading it.  Link’s ability to examine tropes and genres in fresh and interesting ways is virtually unmatched.  If you haven’t given Link’s works a read, yet, I highly recommend you do…and what better place to start than this cool collection of short stories?

The Listeners by Leni Zumas

If you’re looking for something a little more ‘literary,’ The Listeners is for you.  Leni Zumas’ use of language shows an expert command of English and a willingness to commit to heightened and experimental styles.  Zumas’ sentences are razor-edged and cunning.  Though it uses references and metaphor from the genre world, The Listeners takes place very much in an unmagical reality.  Dripping with meaty imagery, cut wide with sharp and razored prose, and bleeding with emotional turmoil, the book is a brutal crime scene of real-life.  The plot is a bit weak, but the characters are deep deep deep and the language is to die for.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

It’s a thriller.  A supernatural thriller?  Who knows!  Night Film plays with concepts of belief and faith, and makes extensive use of the subjective nature of ‘reality’ and ‘fact.’  The beauty of Marisha Pessl’s work is in the storytelling, her ability to play games with what is known and what is unknown, and how thin the line between.  The charming, enrapturing characters help, too.  A spiral of madness and a thriller well worth reading, I recommend picking up Night Film in any of its various forms immediately.

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra

If you’re a fan of close-to-life fictionalized accounts, Gonzo Girl is fantastic.  Pietra was an assistant to Hunter S. Thompson for, well, long enough, and her time in this role serves as the prime inspiration behind this wild, crazy ride.  It follows a newbie editor out of NYC as she’s pulled into the orbit of a madman writer out in the middle of chaotic, drug-fueled nowhere.

Cheryl Della Pietra has also been a magazine editor and short story writer.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray is a lovely writer.  Her stories are hilarious, personal, deep, cutting, jarring, and dark.  Is that too many adjectives?  Too bad!  They’re all accurate.  And Gutshot is an amazing collection of her work.  More than once, I winced.  Many times, I cackled.  I didn’t cry at any point, but there were definitely very poignant moments.  I highly recommend checking out her work, and particularly picking up this gem of a collection.  Hey, if the New York Times says it’s “bizarre and darkly funny,” who am I to disagree?

Did You Get All That?  Good.

This is just a short list, of course.  I didn’t have anything by Octavia Butler!  And Octavia Butler is a brilliant author.  Kindred is a famous, amazing work!  And it has a graphic novel adaptation.

I also left off several amazing female-oriented collections, such as Sisters of the Revolution (a collection of female-authored spec-fiction works) or She Walks in Shadows (a collection of female-authored Lovecraftian works).  These collections showcase an incredible range and breadth of talented authors, and I don’t think I can finish this blog entry without mentioning them.

And I shouldn’t exeunt stage left without giving a shout out to my favorite guilty pleasure series… My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland, is perfect beach-reading in my opinion.

The Library Is Endless

I suppose that’s a good enough start.  I still feel as if I’ve left out a virtual library of brilliant work, but that’s bound to happen with a list like this.  Anyway, this has been a list of works by some of my favorite female authors, in no particular order, with no particular organization.  Just off the top of my head.

I didn’t even get to do shout-outs to my favorite short story writers whose longer works I haven’t read yet.  But maybe we’ll save that for another list.

In the meantime, I think I’ve put together a really nice starter-list for anyone seeking a good book.

Go forth and read!

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Video Games for Writers

Hello, imaginary friends, and welcome to my process blog.  Today, I’m going to write, believe it or not, about some good video games for writers to play.  Besides reading, obviously, video games are my primary source of entertainment.  This isn’t to speak ill of television or film, but to speak well of the VG media.  Video games are involving, challenging, entertaining, increasingly mature, and more daring than ever.  The better ones involve fully realized characters, involved (if sometimes needlessly complicated) plots, and an amazing sense of pace.  The best of them can even teach us something about the creative process–structure, story, and keeping the attention of the generally inattentive.

(As usual, I will throw in a writing prompt at the end.)

Without further ado, I will present my admittedly biased list of games that writers should play.

Alan Wake

Alan Wake makes the list in part because the main character is a writer, and because writing (and the creative process in general) is a key element of the plot.  Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.

Alan Wake also makes the list because it shows how media can be flexible, experimental, and still engaging and fun.  Alan Wake is a video game presented as a TV-esque episodic, the plot of which centers around a novel (and the creative process that produced said novel).  The game contains elements of all three media…and it doesn’t stop there!  It also plays with mixing and melding different genres. Mystery, horror, thriller, and action genres are all twined together throughout the gameplay and story.  The game is a wonderful example of story over structure.  It doesn’t care to adhere to any specific genre, any specific medium, any specific tropes or expectations–it mixes and matches with reckless abandon, and it’s a game that’s all the stronger for it.

A writer can take a lot away from that.  Alan Wake may primarily be an action/horror game, but it uses motifs and tropes from action/comedies, mystery thrillers, even buddy-cop movies.  It doesn’t force its story (or gameplay) into a media- or genre-specific toolbox, it just keeps opening more toolboxes.  You can do the same thing!  Write a Lovecraftian action-western!  If you run into a dead-end, open the pulp-noir toolbox and fish something out.  Another dead-end?  Open the buddy-cop toolbox.

Alan Wake also makes another important point: you can only pull all of this off if it’s still fun, if it’s still internally-consistent, and if you can keep your audience’s attention.  It does all of that, by the way.  It’s fun as hell.  I recommend playing it not only for its willingness to open all the toolboxes, but also because it’s a roaring good time.

The Stanley Parable

Sometimes, your characters will surprise you.  So it goes in The Stanley Parable, a fun little playable-essay on video game design, narrative structure, and the wild unpredictability of characters.

In The Stanley Parable, you play the role of Stanley.  Your time in the game is narrated by an exacting, well, narrator.  The narrator is trying to tell a story.  Unfortunately, you’re just as likely to work against the story as you are to work with it.  Since you’re the player, after all, you get to make the choices.

I think this is a remarkable game for several reasons.  First: it’s funny as hell.  Second: it’s a real hoot to play through.  Third: it captures, very well, the struggle a narrator can have with their characters.

As writers, we develop characters to be people.  We want them to be complex, to have depth and consciousness, to have contradictions and flaws.  We want them to be as human as possible.  And if we’ve done our job well, they will occasionally surprise us.  I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve written up an outline only to realize, halfway through, that one (or more) characters would never ever follow through with it.  They go ahead and do what makes sense for them and I’m left to scrap the outline and start again.  It’s very frustrating.

A very similar relationship evolves between Stanley and The Narrator.  As Stanley, you are the character.  Yes, you could do everything the narrator tells you to do.  It’s quite easy that way, actually.  But, ultimately, it feels sparse, boring, uninvolved.  You go through the motions without real meaning, rolling your eyes half the way, and the ending becomes a kind of mockery.

I won’t give away more.  It’s a playable and replayable game and I hope you give it a spin.

The lesson is this: well-designed characters will surprise you.  Don’t try to hammer them back into shape.  The more you try to force characters to fit your outline, the less human they will seem.  If you deprive your characters of agency, they become boring.  Readers want human characters.  Characters who make their own decisions (or seem to, at least).  Realistic characters with agency and contradictions and a sense of self!  So don’t fight them too much, or the whole thing will break down…

Spec Ops: The Line

In an action game, you expect to kill people.  You expect firefights and explosions and huge set pieces.  Fierce enemies, intense action sequences, and high-octane plot lines.  What you don’t expect?  Moral consequence.  Judgment.  Guilt.  Intellectual and emotional confusion.

Spec Ops: The Line is an action game that hates action games.  It’s a game that changed the way I thought about war.  And it’s a done-and-done-again adaptation of Heart of Darkness.

My experience with Spec Ops: The Line is lengthy and complicated.  It shocked me into doing research on veterans’ affairs, moral injury, PTSD, and the alarming ways in which we, as a nation, discard our returning soldiers.  It sounds shallow and awful and trite, but this game drove me to interview veterans, to read essays and forum posts, and to pore through articles and books.

It started when I shot a civilian in the middle of a heated, three-way firefight.  She was running through a maze of alleys and Walker (the POV character the player controls) had been harried from all sides by assailants.  I turned a corner, saw a figure charging at me, and reacted.  Then I watched as a woman screamed in pain, dropped to the ground, and died while clutching the wound in her stomach.  Before I had time to come to terms with what I’d done, someone else was already shooting at me.  I had to keep moving.

Things got worse from there.

But I won’t make this article about my The Line experience.  That could be an article in and of itself.  The point I want to make is this: this game changed my emotional response to the world around me.  I’d read Heart of Darkness and seen Apocalypse Now, but it was Spec Ops: The Line that dug its claws into my heart and tore it up.

Are you worried that you’re writing a story that’s been done before?  Don’t be.  Heart of Darkness has been adapted into at least two different films.  Its plot has been mirrored and paralleled in countless novels and novella.  There are callbacks to Heart of Darkness littered all through our media.  I’ve experienced plenty of them.  But this one hit me like a Mack truck.  So if you’re working on a project, and you’re worried it’s been done before…stop worrying.  You never know.  Yours might just be the one that changes someone’s life.

Metro 2033/Metro Last Light

Setting.  Setting is very important.  We’ll have a process blog entry on that point, soon enough.  But setting is also very difficult in storied sci-fi/fantasy settings–it has to be delivered without too much exposition.  Readers don’t want history lessons.  They don’t want long explanations.  They want more story.

The games (based on the Metro 2033 series of novels, which I own but have not read yet) do an incredible job with setting.  At one point in Last Light, an old, gray-haired man is doing shadow-puppets for a group of children.  As the show went on, the children stopped recognizing the animals.  Many of them were extinct.  The old man became exasperated, trying to explain beauty to people who had never seen it.  Eventually, he gives up and tells them to go home and come back the next day.

Most of the setting and world-detail of these games is provided by such events.  A slew of graffiti on a subway wall, a group of children chasing rats with sharp sticks.  A corpse found in the sewer with a hole in its head, an old gun clutched in its rotting hands.  A family who tries to kill you…and when you kill them, first, you find a chopped up corpse in their fridge.

You don’t really need to know the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of these things.  The ‘what’ is enough.  Nobody moans a history at you, nobody drunkenly recounts the long tale of the apocalypse.  Nobody needs to.  The tale is there to be seen.  And if there are strange creatures, unholy mutants, and desperate ghosts in the subway tunnels?  Of course there are.  The world has made it clear that this is not mankind’s kingdom any more.

Play this game because it does the best job of expressing setting and history of any game I’ve ever played.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange is one of the most heart-wrenching, emotional games I have ever played, and I have played a lot of games.

The main character of Life is Strange gets a special power: she can reverse time.  But while most games outfit you with an ability to go tangle with great forces and perform amazing feats, Life is Strange just puts you in the shoes of a teenage girl trying to navigate life.  The reverse-time ability doesn’t let you fight monsters, it just lets you make different decisions.  When you see a police officer harassing a young woman, what do you do?  (1) take a photo as evidence?, (2) intervene directly?, (3) ignore it?, (4) do any of the above, but then backtrack and investigate what really happened?  Each choice leads to a very different set of consequences, and reverse-time powers or not, you’ll have to choose one of them sooner or later.

There’s a lot to learn and unpack from Life is Strange.  There’s the fashion in which the player can rough-draft and brainstorm their decisions.  Or the way it uses magic realism and supernatural sci-fi to tell a deeply intimate story.  It does an excellent job of making small things seem huge and of creating a real, living world that these things happen in.  Life is Strange is, in my biased opinion, the most necessary game on this list.

But the most powerful lessons it has to offer are about character and consequence.  The entire game is character driven, a mess of people with tangled motivations and relationships, each of them complex and flawed and hurting and a little bit beautiful.  It’s a great lesson in giving depth and humanity to even the seemingly background characters.

It’s a greater lesson in the nature and gravity of consequence.  Super powered or not, Maxine Caulfield is still just a semi-normal person trying to navigate a semi-normal life.  And that’s what gives the game its emotional power.  Despite the seemingly magical abilities, we can’t foresee or prevent our actions from having consequence, sometimes to extreme effect.  We can’t be heroes, we can only do our best.  So it goes with a character in a story: their actions should have consequence.  Great consequence, unforeseen consequence, heartbreaking or affirming consequence.  Their actions, however small, make ripples in the world.

If you want to know more, play the game.

Writing Prompt

Write a story outline framed entirely as character choices.  Try a flow chart!  Open with a situation (“Zumi runs down a hallway until she reaches an intersection,” for instance) and then branch through the outline by following the protagonist’s choices.  (If she turns left, what happens?  If she turns right?  When the thing chasing her catches up, what if she fights?  What if she runs?  Etc.)  What happens to the story/outline when protagonist choice is the most important factor?

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