Prepping for NaNoWriMo!

OK, I admit it–I’ve been slacking off.

There are excuses, of course: My mom has been dealing with some health issues; my job has been psychotically busy. But there’s always something, right? You have to figure out how to make progress anyway.

So it’s time for me to shake off the cobwebs and focus hard on writing, and I’ve decided that NaNoWriMo is the ideal thing for that. I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo for a while, but I’ve never participated; I’ve always been in the middle of some other writing project that I didn’t want to suspend. Now it’s the perfect event to get me going again.

I’m looking forward to the energy, the community, and to breaking through the inertia that’s been slowing me down!

P.S.: If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know what NaNoWriMo is but, if not, go check it out at nanowrimo.org.

Writing Prompt: Imagine Life as a Ghost

The writing prompt “Imagine life as a ghost” was posted on reddit today–this was my take on it:

I stood in the rain and it passed through me. The jackets and umbrellas of my family flapped and bucked in the October wind, but I didn’t feel it or smell the wet leaves that covered the ground. Preacher Davis read from his Bible only a few feet away—I was sure I’d recognize the words if I could hear them, but he was as silent as empty space.

The world was no more muted to look at than anyone would expect for a dismal autumn day, but every other sense was gone. I couldn’t feel my own weight on my feet, or the fingernails of my clenched fists biting into my palms. I only knew I was naked by looking down.

It was like a terrible dream. I’d tried to get their attention for the whole first day, but no amount of yelling or grabbing seemed to reach them. It was simple exhaustion that had finally made me accept the inevitable. If I couldn’t hear and feel my own sobbing, how could I expect them to?

I stood behind my wide headstone through the whole silent service. My buddies and my cousins hustled to their cars as soon as it was over, ducking out of the rain and the cold. My son stood there crying for a long time, his wife’s arm wrapped around him and her head laying against his arm. She held my grand-daughter too—a precious little bundle with alert brown eyes.

Finally even they were gone.

As soon as they were out of sight, the workers hired by the funeral home stepped in. It took them only minutes to bundle up the soggy sheet of artificial grass that they’d spread to keep the mud down and pull apart the metal frame that they’d used to lower the casket. My casket. It held a body that didn’t seem like part of me anymore.

They backed a small dump-truck of dirt up to the open hole and in seconds the casket was hidden forever. They gave it a lick and a promise with a rake and then they were gone too. I stood there alone, looking over the field of carved stones and feeling no more alive than any of them.

Something moved at the corner of my eye and a gravelly voice spoke. I hadn’t heard that voice in more than twenty years, but I knew it instantly. “Well, boy? Are you gonna join us or are you just gonna stand here and mope all day?”

I took the picture above in Drake Cemetery (Adams County, OH) in December of 2015.

Recommended Book: “The Devil Prayed and Darkness Fell” by David Corbett

Crime thrillers and military thrillers are two of the largest sub-genres of the thriller family, and I’m not a big fan of either.  There, I said it. You can revoke my thriller card now.

In The Devil Prayed and Darkness Fell, David Corbett packs both a crime thriller and a military thriller into one small novella. By all rights I should hate it, but the truth is that it’s great. The story begins when a decorated veteran of the Iraq war kills a well-loved police officer, and from that beginning we’re treated to a thoughtful, realistic exploration of the many ways in which war reshapes people.

If you’re a fan of either crime or military thrillers, check this out. If (like me) you aren’t, I think you should check it out anyway. It’s only 79 pages so you won’t be making a huge commitment for a great payoff. It might even make you decide you like these genres after all.

Vignette: “Worse than Death”

Getting sentenced to death is bad. Reading about your own execution because the St. Louis Post-Dispatch accidentally releases the story on their web site early is worse. After that, you would think that waking up in a pine box three days later would be a nice surprise.

Not so much.

Waking up didn’t surprise me—that’s what always happens when I die. The surprise was being in an actual pine box. I had given my attorney clear instructions and plenty of money to make the arrangements. I should have been in a nice padded casket with several useful hand-tools that were supposed mementos of my supposed earlier career as a carpenter. That was partly an inside joke and a nod to my famous ancestor for starting the whole mess, but mostly it was just practical. You can eventually break out of a casket and dig your way out of a grave with your bare hands if you keep coming back to life every time you suffocate, but I don’t recommend it. You never really get over that kind of thing.

So I had a moment of panic. OK, it was a lot more than a moment. I’ve been around long enough to accumulate a few PTSD triggers. With help and time, I’ve worked through some of them, but this is one that has stuck. You don’t want to know all the details about the next few minutes; let’s just say it got very loud and very messy in that box. I hammered on the boards until my hands bled. I’d have had broken fingers if there was enough room in the box to swing that hard.

About the time I was winding down from sheer exhaustion, the rational part of my brain finally decided to offer up the observation that I was still breathing just fine. That took a few seconds to percolate. I waited until my heart stopped pounding just to be sure before I luxuriated in several long, deep breaths. Then tried to pretend that I wasn’t a complete idiot while I carefully ran my hands over every inch of the box that I could reach.

It took longer than you would think. There was absolutely no light and not much room to move, but eventually I wormed an arm up and found the air-holes drilled in the boards above my head. They were about an inch wide and, with some twisting, I could get a finger through and hook a knuckle on the outside edge. I could barely feel cool air coming in through the holes, so I guessed there were more holes somewhere else. Probably in the end by my feet.

The bad news was that I could feel nice straight seams between the boards on all sides. The whole thing was made of good solid 2x4s, not plywood. There was no flexing or bowing at all, and no hardware on the inside. No nail-heads for me to pick at or screws to twist. And no hinges.

I got the message, and I was scared. Whoever did this knew who I was, and they knew they couldn’t kill me.

They also knew they didn’t have to.

Manuscript “done”

Finishing a manuscript is an exciting time. It’s a huge milestone, right?

You’ve been working on this project for months–maybe years–and finally you get to see the big stack of pages. You heft it and feel the weight. You take it to the dining table and drop it in front of your spouse or your mother and it thumps like someone just dropped a big-city copy of the Yellow Pages (if you still have one of those laying around). Suddenly everyone can see what you’ve been up to all this time, and you’re no longer the crazy guy who lives in a hole. You’ve actually accomplished something! You’re really a writer!

It’s very satisfying.

For about ten minutes.

Because new manuscripts are like new-born babies. Everyone loves to oo and ah over them, but the truth is that they’re stinky little beasts that have a lot of developing to do before they’re ready to go out in public on their own.

You (being the savvy writer that you are) have been doing more than just writing while you’ve been living in your hole. You’ve been learning. You know that giving birth is joyous and well-worth celebrating, but it’s still just the beginning of a long journey. There are lots of milestones still to come. Lots of challenges and rewards.

The picture above is the “completed” manuscript for my current project. It’s going out to beta readers today. I have my own feelings about it, but I look forward to getting the first opinions from others. That feedback will help me decide if this baby is going to boarding school or to a boot camp for troubled youths.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, World!  I’m sending you my best wishes the day before the holiday, because I expect to be up to my gizzard in food and family tomorrow.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, of course, but I hope that wherever you are, your life is full of things you’re grateful for.

The picture above is the brine that we’re cooking for our turkey this year. I haven’t tasted the turkey yet, but the brine looks and smells great. We’re trying the recipe from The Pioneer Woman.

Why supernatural thrillers?

The awesome Rachel Aaron recently said this:

And it got me thinking about why I’m writing supernatural thrillers as opposed to any of the many other kinds (crime thrillers, medical thrillers, legal, military, cozies, etc, etc, etc). I mean, supernatural thrillers are obviously cooler, right? Right?

Well, I think they’re cooler anyway. But why?

I think it’s because different kinds of thrillers exploit different kinds of fear. It’s perfectly reasonable to fear an axe-wielding psycho, or a plague outbreak, or a terrorist with a bomb, or a corrupt senator. In all these cases you know exactly why you’re afraid, because you know exactly what these things could do to you. In some cases, like the corrupt senator or the psycho, you might even have the forbidden thrill of identifying with the bad guy… understanding how they embody that little bit of darkness that you keep properly hidden inside yourself.

Supernatural thrillers aren’t like that. The fear that they exploit is the fear of the unknown. The Things That Go Bump In The Night are out there in the dark… waiting for you. You desperately want to categorize them and give them names and understand the how and why of them, because that would give you comfort and make you feel like you have some kind of control. You could take steps to protect yourself.

But you can’t. The essential fact of the supernatural is… it’s not natural. It doesn’t obey the rules that you know and depend on to keep yourself safe.

Besides exploiting the primitive fear of the unknown, supernatural thrillers can also offer a primitive kind of joy: They can evoke a sense of wonder. So what if the Things That Go Bump In The Night aren’t real? For the time that we’re in the story we can imagine that we’re in a world where they’re as real as we are. Even if they’re scary, it’s exciting to imagine that strange and terrible things are possible.

So that’s my take on it. Supernatural thrillers are the best because fear of the unknown always trumps fear of the known, and because they help us recapture that sense of wonder.

Boo.