Category Archives: writing

The Albatross

Remember the story of the intrusive old woman who went on a B&E and vandalism spree, breaking into the Three Bears’ home and trashing their stuff?* Not long before she was brutally punished for that series of offenses, she discovered that some of the Bears’ food and furnishings were not too big, and not too small, but just right.

That’s how I feel about Redemption Road, a story I have come to think of as my albatross, a story I may never be able to sell.

I just sent the albatross off to another publisher, but I’m not holding my breath that they will take it.

Redemption Road is as dear to my heart as it is a hard sell, because [1] it is a mix of surreal horror and Christian mythology (think LOST if written by Stephen King for the tone of the story), and [2] it has a plot line that is hard to to summarize (what the hell is that squiggle up in the sky, and what is the deal with the three-legged dog?) which would make selling it to an anthology with a set theme a real challenge, and [3] it has a 42,000 word count, which means it was born in an unincorporated part of Storyland on that dangerous turf between Novella Town and Novel City, and that has always been a troublesome place. For a lot of publishers it isn’t worth the work that would go into a full novel, but it would take a lot more commitment from a publisher and a reader than a short story. There is also the chance that Redemption Road is a steaming pile of human waste, but positive feedback from complete strangers makes me doubt that.

I could have cheated and padded the story with pointless bullshit (I’ll pause for the inevitable shout of, “Isn’t that what you do with all of your stories, Swain?”), or cut out material I thought was important (“Let me be the judge of that,” said every editor ever), but in the end the story is its own thing. It ends when it ends, and there isn’t a whole lot I can do about it.

And as much as I bitch about it, I truly love my albatross. If I didn’t love it I could have cut it down or overworked it until it conformed to a certain standard, but I didn’t. It’s pure story, and since I write for me first, it’s a part of me; the gruesome deaths, the bizarre landscape, the unanswered questions, and even that goddamned rocketship.**

Do you have an albatross? If so, let me hear about it – and let me hear if you’ve had success selling novellas too!

Don’t Ignore that bird hanging around your neck – wear it with pride! And keep trying to sell it every chance you get.

Gustave Doré, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1876).

*This is referring to the original version of the story we know as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Eleanor Mure’s 1831 tale that ended with the disgruntled ursians trying unsuccessfully to burn the old woman alive, and then drown her, and in what can only be seen as a final act of frustration, flinging the intruder into the air and impaling her on the steeple of St. Paul’s. Jesus!!!

*The rocketship is the power of hope, the last thing an artist will ever let go of.

The Con Must Go On

(The following is an excerpt from a work in progress…)

Author’s Introductory Note

Everyone believes they know William Shatner, the real William Shatner. He has played Captain Kirk, T.J. Hooker, and Denny Crane. He is a spokesman and an author. He’s been an enduring and entertaining presence in our lives for decades now.

Yet there was a time, a dark time, when Shatner had to struggle to find work. Between 1969, when the original series of Star Trek was cancelled, and 1978, when production began on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Shatner struggled to get by. He kept working wherever and whenever he could. He did B movies and TV guest appearances, including game shows and talk shows. He worked hard to get Star Trek back on the screen, and he worked hard to provide for his children.

What follows are the shocking, moving, alarming and amusing true stories from what William Shatner has referred to as that period, when he toiled in obscurity just to pay the bills, unwilling to take a handout, yet willing to risk humiliation if that’s was what it took to put food on the table.

These incidents have been carefully reconstructed after years of archival research and interviews, and I have made every effort to be as accurate as possible in presenting the chronicles of Shatner: The Lost Years.


The Con Must Go On

San Diego, July 1977

William Shatner was in a foul mood. He was sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair in a stuffy room behind a stage in the El Cortez Hotel. He sipped watered-down bourbon, checking the pockets of his out-of-date blazer to make sure he had some honey-lemon Halls. It simply wouldn’t do to breathe booze over the crowd of pimple-faced geeks waiting to see him.

Be nice, Shatner thought. Those geeks are the future, your future.

The entire Enterprise crew had their velour-covered asses handed to them by NBC eight years ago when Star Trek was cancelled, despite the freakishly obsessed fans and their letter-writing campaigns. Since then life had been a mixture of middle-class humdrum and scrabbling for roles, any roles that would pay the rent and keep his three girls clothed and fed.

Shatner looked around the room, taking another sip from his drink and making a mental note to skip the ice when he got a second one. The bourbon was bottom shelf swill, and the room was so warm the ice melted instantly, watering down the booze.

Damn it all to hell, Shatner thought, I’ve had stronger cough syrup.

A comic book writer left the room and the crowd went crazy when the guy reached the stage. His stories must be good, Shatner mused, because the guy looked like a sweaty-palmed, panty-sniffer. Then again, he thought, so did most of the convention attendees.

The only other person in the room smiled and nodded at Shatner. The man had a spectacularly awful comb-over and he reeked of pot.

If I start balding to that extent I’ll never resort to covering up like that, Shatner said to himself.

The man opened his mouth to say something. Shatner got up and went to the bar to pour himself another drink.

Christ, Shatner thought, I hope Gene can get the ball rolling again.

Roddenberry had been leading a one-man assault on Paramount for years now, relentlessly hammering the studio with storylines for a theatrical Star Trek feature film, and Paramount had finally gave Gene a green light, before shutting down The Planet of the Titans while it was still in pre-production.

Shatner tried to convince himself it was for the best, because the proposed feature was ludicrous horseshit with more writers on the payroll than cast members . . . but ludicrous horseshit paid the bills, as he knew all too well, having recently read an appalling script about a town overrun with spiders. Shatner was willing to take the role because cash was cash, and it would be a quick shoot.

Gene was now shifting gears and trying to get another series on the air. He wanted to call it Star Trek: Phase Two. That title wasn’t very exciting, it was silly, in fact, but Shatner didn’t care. He would be on The Show again; all of the old crew would be together again, except for Leonard Nimoy.

That had surprised and annoyed Shatner, but he knew why Leonard said no. Roddenberry attended conventions on his own, and he showed a crude blooper reel at every one of them, shots of the cast flubbing their lines, dropping props, and walking into the sets. For some reason, people laughing at Spock got right up Leonard’s ass. Didn’t he realize these conventions were a joke?

Shatner had already done a few of these conventions, and they seemed to be growing in popularity. For a modest per diem and a free meal he would endure an hour-long Q&A session because it was a chance to promote The Show, keeping it alive in the public consciousness and encouraging the fans, these paragons of social ineptitude, to write letters to the studio and demand more Star Trek.

The downside was that he would inevitably have to answer questions about what Jim Kirk was thinking or feeling during a particular scene, focusing his thoughts on a single moment within a hectic shooting schedule years ago. It was ridiculous, but he had to keep the fans happy, masturbating, pizza-faced fatties, the lot of them.

Now, if they asked him what it felt like having Nichelle’s photon torpedoes pressed against his chest, or demanded that he confirm the rumors that Majel often came to the set in her Nurse Chapel getup without any panties on, brother, that he could certainly—

“You look troubled, my friend.”

Shatner looked over his shoulder at the man with the comb-over. Odd way of speaking, he thought, as he poured a drink. After a moment he realized he had seen the man before. “You seem . . . familiar,” he said.

The man gave him a wide grin.

“Got it,” Shatner said. “You’re that astro-whatsis who’s always talking to Carson on the Tonight Show.”

The man nodded, and as Shatner came closer he could see that the man’s eyes were thoroughly bloodshot.

“I’m Carl Sagan,” the man said.

“You’re . . . stoned,” Shatner said in awe. “Stoned out of your . . . goddamned mind.”

Sagan responded with a deep laugh.

Shatner sat facing the man. The plastic chair creaked under him. Christ, he thought, if we do get the whole wagon train to the stars back on the rails, I’m going to have to hit the gym and lose this belly. He looked Sagan up and down, figuring the man was one of those skinny pricks like Nimoy who could eat all day and still stay slim. He’s tall like Leonard too, Shatner thought.

Sagan looked up at the ceiling and smacked his lips.

Shatner decided he despised this man. Tall, thin, carefree pricks really got under his skin at times.

Sagan was wearing one of those ugly leisure suits so fashionable these days. The houndstooth jacket had wide lapels and epaulets, and both the jacket and matching trousers were made from a double-knit synthetic. Under the jacket was a turtleneck sweater.

Shatner glanced down at himself. He was wearing a blazer thinning at the elbows, a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and his old dusty boots. He was heading to a friend’s ranch afterward to do some riding. Whenever the pressure started to build he was always able to blow it off by saddling up a horse and just heading away from people.

“We’re working toward the same future, you and I,” Sagan said.

Shatner held his tongue, thinking the man sounded as loopy as fuck.

“We see a world in which science moves us toward unity and enlightenment, sating both physical hunger and man’s thirst for knowledge, a world of physical comfort and intellectual bliss. A world in which we realize the truth of this existence.”

Shatner raised his eyebrows and sipped his drink, thinking he made the right call. The cheap stuff had a better kick without the ice.

Sagan raised his hands, his fingers moving. “A world in which we realize that we are God, awaiting realization.”

Christ almighty, Shatner thought.

“You look dooobious,” Sagan said.

Shatner shrugged. “You’re . . . out of your tree, buddy. I’m just an actor.”

Sagan gave him another toothy smile.
“All we need is love and science,” Sagan said. “Hardcore love and science.”

Shatner watched as Sagan pulled a bent joint out of his jacket and lit up with a pink Bic lighter.

“The doorway to cosmic enlightenment,” Sagan whispered, holding the smoldering spliff between finger and thumb. He took a deep draw and held it, pursing his lips. He offered the joint to Shatner.

“No thanks,” Shatner said, swallowing the rest of his bourbon in one gulp. “I like a clear head.”

“Head,” Sagan grunted. He pursed his lips again and started to laugh, releasing yellowish smoke in short chuffs.

Shatner waved away the smoke and made a face. He wasn’t a prude, hell, he’d taken a hit of LSD once, and aside from the enduring mystery of his morning-after discovery that his genitals had been painted green, he had enjoyed the ride. He just didn’t like the foul stench of pot.

Sagan frowned and took another deep hit, speaking in soft gasps. “Anti-intellectual asshole.”

“New-age freak,” Shatner replied. He got up to get another drink. He would never know if it was intentional, or just bad timing, but Sagan stretched those long legs, tripping him up. He stumbled and knocked over his chair.

Sagan laughed tiny clouds through pursed lips. “fff-fff-fff-fff.”

Shatner turned to face Sagan. “What . . . the hell is wrong with you?”

Sagan flicked the remains of the joint and it moved between them like a tiny meteor, an orange streak. The roach ricocheted off of Shatner’s forehead in an explosion of sparks and ash.

Shatner roared something unintelligible and reached for Sagan, who scooted backwards, pushing his chair across the floor.

When Sagan’s chair hit the far wall he jumped up and looked back at it in surprise.

Shatner said, “You’re completely baked!”

With an unexpected quickness Sagan grabbed the plastic chair and tossed it at Shatner’s head. Shatner somehow caught the chair, and as he raised it overhead to throw it back, Sagan ran directly at him, bending at the waist.
Sagan let out a laugh, ramming head first into Shatner’s round Canadian gut.

Shatner mouth a silent oh, doubled over, and then vomited cheap bourbon as Sagan stepped back, smoothing his comb-over into place. Shatner caught his breath and leaped at Sagan in a flying leg kick, his old boots connecting with the astronomer’s forehead.

Boot heels clocked against skull and Sagan was slammed against the wall, where he slumped onto his ass just as Shatner completed a shoulder roll and bounced to his feet.

“What’s your name,” Shatner asked. “Who’s your daddy?”

“I see stars,” Sagan said. “Billllions and billllions of them.”

“I don’t like head butts,” Shatner said, setting his chair on its feet and sitting down. “They give me a bellyache . . . and I’ve got a beauty right now.”

Shatner rested a moment, and then he got up and went to Sagan, trapping the man in a headlock. Sagan got to his knees, his long arms swinging. A fist cracked against Shatner’s chin, then connected with his left eye, and his balls.
Christ, this is like fighting an orangutan, Shatner thought woozily, as he began slamming Sagan’s head into the wall.
A moment later Shatner reeled and collapsed.

The door to the waiting room opened and two young men stared in disbelief.
One of them said, “Oh my.” On one side of his nose was a pimple so massive it caused the plastic frames of his glasses to lean off center.

The other smacked wet lips that were as red as slabs of beef liver. He was as white as paste and he looked as if he were about to cry.

Shatner was lying on his back. One eye was swollen, and blood was running out of his nose. He had damp spatters of puke on his flannel shirt and his left knee.

Sagan was slumped against the wall on his knees, his head hidden inside a hole knocked into the drywall. He looked as if he had been decapitated.

“This can never be made known,” Canted Glasses said. “This atrocity must remain secret for all time. Nothing can stain the sacred nature of the Con.”

“The Con must go on,” Wet Lips said.

The room was cleaned, chaos restored to order. The men were revived and generously compensated and sent home. New convention programs and posters were printed, minus Shatner and Sagan. Anyone who had seen the dishonorable guests there that day was sworn to secrecy.

Shatner and Sagan had never been there. Their names were stricken from the history of Comic-Con. The reputation of that sacred venue remains untarnished to this day.

The Con must go on.


Writers Never Change

I recently stumbled across a collection of complaints from medieval scribes, and since writing is my thing, I found these centuries-old comments amusing and moving. As you can see by my modern equivalents, nothing has changed in the last 500 years.

#1 New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more is the same as, ‘God damn you Microsoft, your latest Windows update completely fucked up Word!’

#2 I am very cold was me before I moved from Canada to California.

#3 That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it is almost a word for word quote of comments recently left by editors tidying up one of my stories.

#4 Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen is what every writer hopes for.

#5 This page has not been written very slowly is when you write a perfect page of prose that slides out of you like a turd from a healthy anus* instead of laboring over the same paragraph for hours and hours.

#6 The parchment is hairy is when your own relentless typos really start to wear you down.

#7 The ink is thin is the same as ‘my laptop/tablet battery is dying.’

#8 Thank God, it will soon be dark is when you have to throw in the towel and step away, cause you ain’t gonna get ‘er done tonight.

#9 Oh, my hand is me, because I never learned how to type properly.

#10 Now I’ve written the whole thing: For Christ’s sake give me a drink is what every writer thinks when getting a story in just under the deadline.

#11 Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides is truth, especially that last part, a clear reference to bad reviews from armchair critics.

#12 St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing is when you wonder why you put yourself through this shit and cannot find fulfillment in simply sitting on the couch and watching football while eating Doritos.

#13 While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight is when you are gonna finish this goddamned thing, and you are gonna finish it TODAY!

#14 As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe is completing a story and having it turn out as you expected instead of collapsing like a house of cards and making you throw shit across the room.

#15 This is sad! Oh little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, “The hand that wrote it is no more” is every writer’s epitaph.

 * Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs


Welcome to Medieval Times!

On Spoilers, and the Self-Flagellatory Joy of ‘The Wait’

There’s a video going around online that features 5 minutes of footage from The Force Awakens, a video made up of scenes from trailers, all of it stitched together in chronological order. This is just another form of spoiler, and with Star Wars, spoiler-fever always hits a peak.

When it comes to spoilers, I always say NO THANK YOU.

I work hard to avoid spoilers. I have no problem with teasers and trailers showing random scenes, but other than that I want to wait until the movie comes out to see where the movie takes me. I want to be delighted, and surprised, and feel sad, and get excited, and shout holy shit! when something awesome happens. I want to do all of that instead of shrugging and saying, “Yeah, I knew that was coming,” like some blasé dipstick. I want to enjoy the wait.

If you let the story unfold as the creators intended to present it, I promise you that you won’t be disappointed. What will disappoint you is bypassing the agonizing pleasure of the wait to feed the beast called instant gratification. That will lead to you becoming jaded, and impossible to please.

When the first Star Wars film came out there was no internet; all we had back then was the rare TV show that might make passing mention of something George Lucas said, or sci-fi-geek magazines like Starlog, and the information on what was to come was thin and scattershot at best. Only a relative few of us cared enough to want to know more, because at that point sci-fi fandom’s big bang had not yet occurred (and I’d argue that the first Star Wars trilogy was the prime mover in that social movement, but back then admitting that you really dug things like Star Wars and Star Trek would get you the same looks as if you admitted you liked jacking off to Casper the Friendly Ghost comics).

After A New Hope blew the minds of kids all around the world, the few details we learned about what might lie ahead—in that limbo between episodes IV and V—proved to be way off the mark, as were curiosities like Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.*

Kids like me went nuts speculating on what future Star Wars films might bring us, and in my case it fueled my imagination even further, because I was already making shit up, and making shit up is one of the most fantastic, amusing, liberating, and empowering things you can do at any age.

I think my best buddy Pete Donaldson was equally fired up; while I wrote absolutely atrocious sci-fi tales that must never see the light of day (and I’m sure a few of you are saying, “What makes you think anything has changed, Swain?”),  Pete built an impressive spaceship from scrap model airplane parts and other bits and pieces he tossed together. We were exercising our imaginations, and that made the torment of the wait vastly entertaining.

The situation was even worse between episodes V and VI, when viewers were left hanging after The Empire Strikes Back concluded with what is arguably the best cliffhanger in the history of American cinema. The wait for the release of Return of the Jedi was excruciating, and now that I look back on it, delightful. I was in my 20s by that time, but my imagination ran rampant whenever I thought of how much the Star Wars universe had been expanded with just two movies, and how much more it could grow, and when I finally stood in line to see the last episode in that trilogy, I felt like a little kid again.

Never underestimate the power of waiting for a thing to be. Waiting is important, it gives the thing you are waiting for weight, and in some cases the wait can be the best part of the experience because your imagination is firing on all cylinders.

Kids, don’t do spoilers. Daydream. Sketch. Build. Create. Write some embarrassing fanfic, or a really good story. Alan Dean Foster’s aforementioned Splinter of the Mind’s Eye proved to be way off the mark, it was still a great tale.

IMAGINE. Work the muscle that is your mind, and when the wait is over and you finally watch the opening crawl for Star Wars Episode VII, you will have primed your mind for a peak experience.

Trust me on this. I wouldn’t lie to you. Not where Star Wars is concerned.

spoilers VS wait

* Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, on Amazon.

Turkey Shoot

Is there any better way to get in the mood for Thanksgiving than enjoying a FREE seasonal tale? And this one comes with a happy ending—depending on your point of view, of course. Enjoy!

Turkey Shoot

“Come on, Manse,” Earlington said. “You gotta pick up the pace if we’re gonna get in and out before nightfall.”

They were on a high, forested hump of rock. Earlington didn’t know if it was a big hill or a small mountain, and he really didn’t give a shit. Below him to the east was Highway 101, and Lake Mendocino.

They’d been chasing a wild turkey for almost an hour now.

Earlington was pissed, and he’d given up trying to hide it.

He’d gotten a call from Manse a few days ago. They both worked on the loading dock at the Wal-Mart in Ukiah. They’d had a few beers now and then, but they weren’t buddies.

He found out later Manse had been calling around, looking for a hunting partner.

“There’s wild turkeys up there,” Manse had said.

“Yeah,” Earlington had replied, “If you got a permit. You got a permit, Manse?”

“No. But I know a guy who bagged a few, last weekend up in the hills. Up in the woods. West of the lake, on the other side of 101.”

“You can’t fucking just—”

“This guy told me where to go,” Manse had said.

Earlington had stifled a laugh. Manse had been whispering.

“I got the exact directions and everything. We roll in, bag two birds, and roll out.”

“So what d’ya need me for, Manse?”

“Well . . . my truck’s in the shop.”

And here they were. They had both called in sick that morning, the day before Thanksgiving. Earlington’s old Cherokee had taken them up into the hills, northwest of Ukiah, following a map Manse had drawn on the back of his Pacific Gas & Electric bill.

Earlington knew he blew it by ignoring common sense the moment they got out of the truck, parked on an incline at the end of a path in the woods. Manse had unzipped his rifle case and pulled out a nice Remington twelve gauge pump. Earlington had started loading his own Beretta and asked Manse about his choke.

Manse had shrugged and said, “What’s a choke?”

Earlington should have shut things down right there . . . but damn, it would be something to bag a wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

“You don’t know what a fuckin choke is?” Earlington had held the end of his shotgun under Manse’s nose. “A choke tube is what stops you from shredding a bird. It concentrates the shot pattern, so you can take off a turkey’s head. Otherwise you’ll be picking shot out of the fuckin thing ‘til doomsday.”

Manse had gotten bent out of shape.

Like Earlington gave a shit.

They had set out uphill through the woods. They spent hours scrambling over fallen trees and climbing up and down the rocky terrain, and then they came across two wild turkeys.

Earlington didn’t know squat about turkeys, but he figured this was a mated pair, because one was bigger and colorful and the other one was smaller, with comparatively dull plumage. A hen and a . . . what the hell was the male called? A tom?

He’d hunkered down and whispered to Manse.

“Let’s take a moment to get settled here. If we’re lucky we can take out both birds at the same—”

Manse’s Remington fired less than a foot from Earlington’s right ear.

The female turkey exploded.

Manse had cheered, racking another shell into the chamber, the sound of the gun blast and his bull roar driving the tom into fitful leaps and bounds as it ran for cover.

Earlington had waited for the ringing in his ear to subside, hoping he hadn’t suffered any permanent damage. He’d watched Manse run forward and proudly hold up a shredded red and black mess by one twisted foot.

“I got one,” Manse had said, sporting a goofy grin.

Earlington had approached him, fighting down the urge to smack the man in the mouth with the butt of his gun.

“You fuckin moron,” he’d said. “You coulda deafened me. You never shoot that close to someone. The fuck is wrong with you?”

Manse had dropped the ruined bird. He looked around and said, “Jeez, I guess the other one booked.”

“No shit,” Earlington had replied, picking up the expended shell from Manse’s gun. “You crazy fuck. Double-ought nickel-plated? We’re hunting turkeys, not fuckin elephants.”

“Screw you,” Manse had said defensively. “I wanted to be sure I got it.”

Earlington had nudged the mess on the ground with the toe of his boot. “Oh, you got it, all right.”

They had set out after the fleeing tom. Manse had pissed and moaned, saying they had what they came for. Earlington had told him the shredded bird wasn’t worth shit, and he was pretty sure he could bag the tom with his copper-plated turkey loads, a mix of 4 and 6 shot.

Long, silent hours passed as the men did little more than grunt and curse and gesture at each other. They would get close to the tom, and the big turkey would burst out of the undergrowth, fluttering and leaping away in bounds that covered a lot more ground than Earlington would ever have expected.

He figured Manse must have clipped one of its wings, because he was certain wild turkeys could fly.

He was surprised by how quiet the wild turkey was. He’d seen domestic birds before, huge, awkward monstrosities lumbering around and gobbling mindlessly to each other. The big tom was different. It was quiet, knowing when to hide, and when to run.

When he finally blew the turkey’s head off, Earlington was gonna do it quick and clean. The bird deserved that much respect. More respect than Manse, anyway.

“Come on for fuck sake.”

As he approached Earlington, Manse was puffing like he had a two-pack-a-day habit, his face slick with sweat. His chest was heaving, and he was making a lot of noise.

“Ever hear of stealth, Manse?”

“Hey, fuck you, alright?”

Earlington looked up. The trees were still thick and close here, but they thinned out near the gray ridge of rock at the top of the hill they were on. There was enough green brush that the turkey was well-hidden. They were on a steep grade. Earlington didn’t like the thought of the long walk back to his truck empty-handed. It was quiet up here. He could smell pine needles, and the earthy mulch of the forest floor, and wood smoke from a distant fireplace.

He looked back and down. Manse was still a few yards below him.

Earlington heard a rustling in the brush just ahead of him.

Manse stepped on a twig and cursed when it snapped.

The turkey appeared a few feet away, running to the top of the bare ridge of rock. Earlington was amazed at how fast the bugger could run. It hesitated, looking over its shoulder at the men and turning back to whatever was down the other side of the hill.

“Gotcha,” Earlington said. He looked back, and whatever he was going to say to Manse evaporated in a fit of unease.

Manse was pointing his shotgun up the hill, at the turkey. Earlington was between Manse and the turkey. Manse didn’t know how to use the choke on his gun, and he was standing on an incline. His footing was unsteady, the barrel of his gun making little dips and swirls as he tried to draw a bead on the big bird.

“Manse.” Earlington’s voice was a dry croak. “Don’t—”

Earlington knew Manse was going to go for the shot. He turned and threw himself flat as the gun boomed behind him. If he had to get hit, he’d rather take the 00 shot in the ass or thighs than the face or throat.

Most of the buckshot hit the rocky ground beside Earlington, but something hot and fast passed through his right bicep. Earlington heard the clatter of buckshot on stone and felt chips of stone and metal fragments strike his face.

“Fucker,” Manse said, loudly sucking air as he lumbered past Earlington. “I’m gonna get that fuck!”

Earlington tried to open his eyes. Only the left one worked. The right one was numb, and his right cheek was wet.

It’s just grit in your eye, he told himself. Just a few scratches. You’re fine.

He couldn’t bring himself to reach up and touch his dead eye. He was afraid of what he might find.

Earlington raised his head and saw Manse closing in on the tom, and then the big bird jigged to one side and Manse disappeared. He could hear the sound of stone striking stone, and then Manse was calling for help. The man’s voice was high-pitched and filled with terror.

Brushing blood away from his good eye, Earlington staggered to the top of the ridge.

At some time in the past the other side of the hill had collapsed and fallen away. Earlington was standing near the edge of a cliff. There was a wide field of debris far below. Earlington didn’t want to get too close to the edge. The rock on the rim was fractured and looked fragile. He peered over the edge.

Manse was a few feet below the cliff edge. The man was spread-eagle, hugging the rock face, hanging onto nothing. His hands and feet were moving slowly, looking for any kind of hold.

Manse looked up. His voice was faint, merely a breath. “My jacket. I think I’m hung up. Help me, man. Help me.”

Earlington thought about it. He watched Manse grab at a shelf of rock, and watched the rock crumble and fall away. Some hidden part of Manse’s jacket began tearing away. Manse started to cry.

“Son of a bitch,” Earlington said. He got down, his belly flat against the exposed rock. He started inching forward, reaching over and down.

He still had a foot or so to go when Manse jerked and silently tumbled out of sight.

Manse left patches of red all the way down the cliff face, and burst open when he hit bottom.

Earlington panicked. Instead of inching backwards to safety he put his palms against the rock to push away. Fractured stone dropped out from under him.

His left hand found a jutting shard of stone shaped like a rhino horn. He grabbed it and cried out as chunks of gray rock slid past him and out from under him and thundered down the side of the cliff, raising dust and covering Manse.

Earlington tried to raise his right arm. His bicep burned. He couldn’t do it. He tried to pull himself up. The horn of rock moved. Rills of dust fell from the base of the rock.

“Oh Jesus,” Earlington said.

He couldn’t hang on forever. Sooner or later his strength would run out or the weakening horn of rock would break away.

He felt the vibration in his fingers again, and decided he had to try to pull himself up. One shot. Take it, now.

Earlington started to pull. The rock shivered and shifted, but he was sure it was going to hold his weight. He was gonna make it.

He heard the flutter of wings, the rustle of feathers. He heard an inquisitive gobble.

The turkey was standing on the cliff edge. It looked at him curiously, its little head bobbing up and down. It stepped onto the horn of rock.

Earlington had time to think, twenty-five pounds, it’s gotta weigh at least twenty-five pounds, and then the rock broke away.

The man fell.

The bird flew, its flight becoming an awkward glide back to the safety of the deep woods.

(Turkey Shoot is one of two dozen Dark Tales from the Golden State, now available in Califhorrornia. Click on the cover photo to buy it now!)

2012 04 06 Califhorrornia cover

We CAN blame the writer on this one…

I’ll usually be the first person to defend a writer when a story that sounds good on paper turns to shit on the screen. Not this time, not after watching the series finale to CSI…

When CSI first came out I watched it because it was visually different, the hyperactive editing, supersaturated palate and often extremely graphic nature of the visuals making for irresistible eye-candy, but I eventually tired of it because it was too much procedural and not enough character driven TV, and as a writer I like character driven stories. I held out with the show until William Petersen left, and I stopped watching after that, and in truth, the show never again reached the heights of the season 5 episode directed by Quentin Tarantino, the one with Nick Stokes buried alive. That was some damn good TV.

Anyhow, I watched the two-part series finale last night, and it was abysmal. I don’t know how they got Petersen to come back for such utter tripe. I can only assume he felt he owned it to the show that made him comfortably rich, because I sure as hell couldn’t see any other reason for him to be there. If you were thinking of watching this last two-part tale, skip it. It was almost depressing, with a lackluster plot (centered around Lady Heather, the most boring character the show has ever had—please, Hollywood, enough with shows featuring smart guys bewitched by vapid dominatrixes) and even worse, a Villain from Nowhere.

Use of the Villain from Nowhere is a cardinal sin because [1] it is lazy writing, and [2] it always sucks balls, but it is especially egregious here. The production team had 15 YEARS of Crime Scene Investigation to draw inspiration from, and this was the best they could do? To hell with that! You need to pay homage to what has gone before, and if you can’t find a suitable baddie from past years, why not have one of the established cast members snap and turn into a psycho killer? Shit, the show was over anyway, so trash the fucking stage on your way out! God knows some of the characters had been through hell and back, and could be believably unhinged.

Imagine Jim Brass going off the deep end and quietly mumbling one-liners like, “Let me give you a .45 caliber reminder of what is happening here,” while blowing people away, and then using his knowledge of crime scenes to evade detection? That would have kicked nine kinds of ass.

But no, instead of going out with a bang, this once groundbreaking show went out with a whimper.

[It was almost as offensive as the very last episode of Enterprise. Almost. But no finale will ever be as shockingly, inappropriately awful as These are the Voyages, and that wound will never heal. Yes, I’m looking at you, Brannon goddamned Braga.]

I guess the smartest cast members may have been George Eads and Elizabeth Shue, both of whom turned down the chance to take one last spin across the blood-spattered floor, probably after reading that pathetic excuse for a script.

The CSI finale was an absolute failure, and this time there is no one to blame but the writer.

PIC – George Eads and Elizabeth Shue are unable to even FAKE enthusiasm while hearing show creator and abomination birther Anthony E. Zuiker’s pitch for the CSI finale.
George Eads and Elizabeth Shue are unable to even FAKE any enthusiasm while enduring show creator and abomination birther Anthony E. Zuiker’s pitch for the unforgivable CSI series finale.

Writing is hard… but it should also be fun.

Sometimes a typo made in the white-heat of writing is permission to take a moment and have a little fun. I know you’re busy, and I know you have a deadline, but sometimes you just have to blow off some steam and do something silly… even if you delete it and get back to business a moment later.

Thanks to clumsy fingers and autocorrect I misspelled ghoulish in this passage, and then realized it was the perfect excuse for a bit of whimsy in a busy day. Never pass up an opportunity like this.


Ride Your Crazy Like A Horse

When you get right down to it, most writers are probably crazy. Seriously. Wouldn’t we HAVE to be a bit crazy to spend a good part of our all-too-short life span actively involved in the lives of imaginary people who exist in made-up places? My fellow writers will no doubt deny this, but denial is always the first sign you have a problem, and in saying that, I have just burdened my crazy writer friends with a circular logic trap that will drive them crazier than ever.

For some odd reason it seems in vogue to say ‘oh I’m so crazy hahahaha’ when you really aren’t. It is just said to impress, the same way the most painfully insipid individuals will insist to all and sundry, ‘Oh, I’m zany and wacky!!!’

Crazy is the new cool.

Just as some smoking-hot chick who once caught a few minutes of a Star Trek rerun on TV  will put on a pair of glasses from the Marcello Mastroianni Collection and insist she is now a nerd, people will go to great lengths to insist they are crazy by displaying affected mannerisms or posting the occasional monosyllabic outburst online.*

These poseurs don’t seem to understand that one does not simply spritz on a little crazy like a perfume or cologne. Crazy runs deep, my friends. Deep and dark and occasionally… ridiculous.

And the richest vein of crazy running through a writer may not be madness at all, but a shocking clarity of insight. Maybe the characters we write about are actual people who exist somewhere in the multitude of parallel universes. Maybe we are just attuned to these characters, these faraway people. We don’t create them and bring them together and name their children and separate them and kill them off with that cold half smile that puts off our family and friends when we are off and away and wandering the Story Zone, no, we are simply reporters, describing real events occurring in a place only we can access.

Is that idea so crazy?

Most of my friends have heard me mention my dislike of water before. I can swim, barely, but I don’t swim because I once nearly drowned as a kid (in an event that may also have had a paranormal aspect, but that’s another story) . . . and now I know beyond a shadow of doubt that the water nearly got me.

To this day I most sincerely believe that water knows things and that all water shares what it knows; it evaporates, it moves elsewhere, it condenses, it rains down. And it passes on everything it learns.

It was only a matter of time before every drop of water on Earth could chortle with malicious anticipation whenever I’d go near it, saying, “It’s him, look, it’s him, GET HIM!” in soft splooks and splinks, if I did so much as dip a toe in a bathtub (which is why I take showers instead).

Now I avoid the water as much as I can, which takes effort, because I spend half my time between a large bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Water is out to get me, any way it can. And the ways of water are most wicked, my friend.

As I was standing on the BART train platform this morning and trying not to think about the fact that I ride through more than three miles of tunnel under San Francisco Bay twice daily (and simple physics suggests that seeing the results of a rupture in the Transbay Tube would be similar to watching ants being flushed down a toilet bowl), I popped the cap on a fresh bottle of spring water and took a small sip.

A small sip.

A raging jet of ice cold water shot up both nostrils and all over my shirt.

A couple of ladies who get on the same train car every morning gave me their usual pitying look that said there’s the village imbecile at it again as I ground my teeth and tried not to shout obscenities.

How do you explain what happened? How? A muscle spasm? A sudden increase in air pressure around the bottle? A poltergeist?

No . . .

It was the water, my friends. The water. The water that is the same everywhere, the water that still remembers having a terrified ten year old in its grasp, the water that burns with a furious, frustrated rage over the loss of the squirming morsel it nearly swallowed, the water that will do anything to finish that foul task begun so long ago.

As I stood on the train platform, the water tried to drown me.

Am I crazy, or am I revealing a great, undiscovered truth?

Am I crazy, or just imagining that ordinary water is actually a malignant intelligence?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.

As long as I keep writing stories fueled by ‘crazy’ thoughts.

And keep away from the water.

*To my fellow nerds who actually SUFFERED for their nerd status in school I say we rise up and take that word back because we EARNED it with every drop of hair grease, oh-my-god-I-actually-have-to-engage-in-social-interaction flop sweat, and pimple pus.

 one does not spritz 3

(This first appeared on JXM’s Dark Red Press blog in August of 2011)

You’re Weird!

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably been there once or twice. If you’re a writer of horror fiction you’re familiar with the neighborhood. If you’re a writer like me* you’ve got a passport to the Land of Weird and you don’t have any trouble crossing the border. It’s where you grew up and where you are most comfortable.

Other (mainstream, regular, normal) people don’t get that.

You write something strange… odd… or downright disgusting. Sometimes you do it for the plot, sometimes you do it to get an image or setup out of your head, and sometimes, as Stephen King once said, you go for the gross out.

There will always be a place for movies that accentuate the disgusting; look at the SAW franchise. There are big bucks there. Normal people can get their little fix of “Eww that’s gross!” and then carry on.

If you come up with strange twists of fate or gruesome scenarios for a living (or hope to make a living doing it) you are weird. If you describe death or suffering in delicious detail, if you write about a violent assault or a rape or brutal emotional torture, sooner or later you will get the look, the uncomfortable, questioning look others (normal people) will give you when they wonder about you; how can you think about upsetting stuff like that? And how can you think about it in so much detail? You are weird.

I don’t know how it works with other writers, but I’m fine with blaming any atrocities on my characters. It wasn’t me, I didn’t do that, I just wrote it down. They said that. They did that. I just watched.

To hell with how many words you can type in a minute. Watching and listening are the essentials. Most writers are really just voyeurs. We watch real people talk and walk and argue and fight and kiss and make up and we store that away in our heads. Appearances, accents, attitudes, it’s all story fodder, resources for our characters to use when you are ready to put the machine in gear and drive.

Writers like me watch and listen to things unfolding in the real world, and then they watch and listen as the story unfolds inside their heads. And when bad things happen in my stories, it isn’t my fault. Blame my characters. It’s true with me, and it’s true with many other writers. And it makes you sound completely fucking insane.

Which of course would make it all the better to be able to make a living writing this kind of thing. You know. Being paid to be insane.

When I write I do plot my stories to varying degrees, specifically the opening, the ending, any major moments and key scenes, and of course any gross stuff that I’ve been dying to get on paper. It is all very fluid, very flexible, with lots of room for change and revision. It has to be.

Usually my characters will begin talking and interacting at point A, make it to point B without any problems, and then suddenly veer off to point G or T or Z. What the hell happened to points C, D and E? Don’t ask me, I just wrote down what happened as I watched the characters walk and talk and fuck each other over.

There is no other way to describe this writing process. Maybe it is channeling. Maybe it is schizophrenia. Maybe it’s just an imagination gone completely off the rails. Whatever it is, that’s the way it works, and it works for me. I enjoy it.

I like nothing better than creating a couple of solid characters and then dropping them in the shit. Sometimes characters the readers are supposed to hate will die. Sometimes characters I like will die. And sometimes, supporting characters will step up and take center stage. The most obvious example of this (hopefully not to the reader) is in my forthcoming release of Made in the USA by Dark Red Press. When writing that novel I had an A character, a B character, about a dozen C characters, and many smaller supporting characters all interacting with each other. Yet something very odd happened when writing that novel. My B character began speaking to me more and assumed a more prominent place in the tale. My B character became the A character and will remain the A character in the sequel to MITU.

I had nothing to do with it. I created them. I let them motorvate when things were cooking, and turned on the GPS when it was time to get back on track. In the end the A and B characters came to a completely different place than I had originally envisioned, and I tossed my original plotted ending in the trash.

It was a bit scary, and really exciting.

It wasn’t me, it was them.

Then again, I’m weird.

* I like to mix the mundane with the bizarre, it’s like making cookies. Start with your basic cookie dough and then toss things in that might to create new or interesting flavors. Most of the time you get shit. Sometimes you get an absolute delight.

(This first appeared on JXM’s Dark Red Press blog in May of 2011)

The Frugal Writer – Using Leftovers

(I thought it only fitting that for my first post I go with some writing advice, talking about using ‘leftovers’ in a blog post from a site no longer with us.)

For good or bad, I am a pack rat. Not a hoarder, I don’t keep everything (I couldn’t, I’ve lived in different countries, on different continents, and you can only carry around so much stuff), but I do keep anything that one day might have a use. I’ve tossed away once-favored things and retained the ones with which I have a deep connection, or things I think may on some distant day not only have a use but become ‘the perfect thing.’ Any guy with a garage full of treasures (which are known as ‘junk’ when translated into wife-speak) knows what I’m talking about. Some of us have our treasured mementos in boxes, crates, rooms. Some of us can fit them into a single bag. We all keep something, though. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up with a dad who was a child of the Great Depression, but one thing I hate to throw away is food of any kind. The other thing I hate to throw away is writing. Both can be used to add spice or create something altogether new.

It could be a few scribbled lines, the only remnants of an idea never developed. It could be a detail about a character, their appearance, or an incident from their past. It could be a chapter, a short story, or most of a novel. These scraps and fragments accumulated as I wrote myself into a corner in a story or saw something hit market that was almost identical to my work or simply gave up in a fit of frustrated rage when I realized I bit off more than I could chew. Or I just lost interest and moved on to something else. It happens.

Stories are like friends in a way. There are a few we treasure; they’ll always be with us. Others move on and new ones take their place.

I never throw out those old ideas, though. They are leftovers, and a good cook can always create something appealing from them.

I have stories and notes and unfinished works going back many years. In working on Made in the USA, which should be available here in a few weeks, and plotting the prequel, the sequel and one spin-off novel (as much as I do plot; sometimes characters take the wheel and turn left when you wanted to turn right and all you can do is go along for the ride), I took another look at my discarded notes and unfinished stories from the ever-expanding universe that I call the Compound Tales. And I struck gold.

Back in the 90s I wrote most of a short story about a mixed-race woman on the run from a mean son of a bitch named Lincoln Goodcock. Let me digress for a moment. I mention that my character is of mixed-race specifically because I am painfully white, a dork, a square, and sometimes I have to make an effort in my writing to reflect the world I live in, especially since I live in California’s East Bay just outside San Francisco. For me it’s easy to Write White, but these days the thought of an all-white world is ludicrous, and boring, unless you are pining for the Fourth Reich. The tough part is that I have to fire up the Imaginatronic Make-Believe Engine and research cultures and viewpoints I’ve either never experienced or don’t fully understand. The bonus is that sometimes I get lucky and breathe vibrant life into a character. Also, I like names like Lincoln Goodcock. Linc is a mean son of a bitch, but he’s one of mine, so I like him even though he does the most awful things. Anyhow, I got ¾ into the story of this young woman named Cei (pronounced say) and then . . . got nowhere. I didn’t hit a wall, but I did blow out the tires running over a spike strip (while writing a car chase scene, no less) and crawled to a stop.

I liked the characters of Cei and Lincoln (and Lincoln’s suffering partner Big Dog) and I liked the set-up that had Cei on the run, but after a few chapters I realized I had NO idea where Cei was running TO, and instead of the typical girl-in-peril action movie ending (and then she got all girl-power and stuff and kicked his ass and lived happily ever after) I decided to set the story aside. I played with it again a few years ago, but found myself facing the original problem—how in the beer-battered fuck do I end this thing? Back into storage it went, cold storage, like leftovers sitting unnoticed in the back of the fridge.

Around about the year 2000 I was working on the plot for a novel called Sunday Morning, featuring one of my favorite characters from Made in the USA (I work on multiple projects all the time. This is a bad habit for a writer. Very bad. I do it anyway. It’s either that, or try and rewire my brain). I had all the elements I needed, except some believable bad guys that I wanted to throw into the mix (in a nutshell: when a science experiment goes terribly wrong, Deputy Sheriff Al Johnson and the little California town of Sunday Morning are shifted . . . somewhere else, a wonderful place where the sky rains deadly javelins of ice, a bite from a certain insect can make your body literally explode, and there, on the horizon, my god, what is that?). I set aside the issue of the bad guys and wrote out the entire plotline, and the first few chapters.

Here’s where things get even more complicated, especially for someone outside my head, which is all of you. Hometown, the direct sequel to Made in the USA, will also feature Al, the Deputy Sheriff mentioned above, and it will tie together and complete the stories told in three other novels (one being MITU). I really wanted to get my Sheriff to Hometown, but found myself struggling with a plausible reason for him being there, since the residents of Hometown . . . let’s just say that most of them are not like you and me. In fact, many of them are walking nightmares.

At this point I was scratching my head over unresolved situations in two novels and had a nearly forgotten short story lying idle.

Flash forward to yesterday. I stumble across my short story about Cei and Lincoln, and in a flash I have one of my bad guys and a plausible destination for Cei by sending her to Sunday Morning, and hallelujah praise Jesus, a legitimate reason for Sheriff Al Johnson to make the journey to Hometown after all.

If I had tossed out the uncompleted story of Cei a few years back, I would still be spinning my wheels today.

Be a frugal writer. Never toss out your leftovers.

(This first appeared on JXM’s Dark Red Press blog in June of 2011)