Such a Little Thing

Jeff was gone. He left, and the clouds came in, darkening the sky, the house, and my mood. It was midnight-dark. Black. All of it, and everything.

It was the little things, I think—why he left. All those little things that go unspoken, but you can see them building in his eyes; feel them growing in the room. I’d known he’d been unhappy for a few days now, really since the baby was born, and I watched his face change, and I swear it changed just like the sky as those damn blackened clouds billowed in and pushed everything down as low as it could go.

His eyes held the worst of what he wouldn’t speak, and for three days, I had waited for this. No, I didn’t speak what was in me either. The pain, the resentment—goddamn, he had wanted this little boy just as much as I had. But his eyes, his beet-red face, brooding, yet fearful at the same time—if he spoke, I knew I’d speak back, and we waited, tense like that until just now when it all came pouring out.

It’s those small things that simmer inside—that grow to be monsters. All these thoughts, each one, born from something so damn small.

There was still a tremble in my hands from the fight, and now I was pacing around the house, through the living room, down the hall, and then back to the window, a million times, hoping those headlights would return, trying to recount exactly what happened, exactly what was said.

The fight, Jeff’s anger that came pouring out of his scrunched up face, it all seemed so misplaced, like it didn’t belong in our reality at all—our perfect little world. What was worse, it might have been one of the only real fights that we had ever had. It was such an unusual thing, really.

Such a little thing.

And it was odd for him to leave like that—storming out of the house, slamming the door behind him on his wife who had just (not literally of course, but damn near), given birth—leaving a new mother scared and alone with a baby as she stood by the window in the living room with tears in her eyes as his car sped down the drive. He’d have never done that.

Ever.

Yet, he did.

I’d have forgiven him that if he’d come home sooner. Now the sky was a slick of oil, with wet-looking swirls of plum swimming about. Tendrils of fog had begun to snake their way along the grass, coming in with the cooler air of the nighttime storm. As I wiped at the windows, clearing away some of the condensation from my breath, little sparks of light popped inside of far off clouds, glowing behind them, illuminating them like giant, iridescent jellyfish in the deep, black parts of some far-off ocean.

Each time a low rumble of thunder shook the china in the cabinet even a little, I cursed under my breath. I was waiting for that one clap of thunder loud enough to startle the baby and set him screaming. I clenched my jaw, just staring out the window, waiting, praying for Jeff’s headlights to cross into the driveway.

The storm hadn’t woken Billy yet. My sweet, little Billy—three days old and as cute as a button—lay soundlessly in his little swing, swaying back and forth. I watched him on the screen of the video monitor linked to my cell phone, and I tensed with each flash and each rumble. He was so quiet, such a good sleeper, and this mommy was proud.

Such a little thing.

The wind picked up. The great branches of the oak tree that towered over our lawn swayed and churned through the flashes of lightning. Leaves swirled like schools of fish outrunning the gaping maw of the exploding thunderheads, growing and churning in the purple sky. The frame around the window creaked and then cracked loudly as the head of a strong gust caught the front of the house, and then the rain began to fall. It was just a few drops at first, but it abruptly turned into a wall of water, obscuring and twisting everything into some malformed version of itself, until even the streetlamp began to look like an old lantern held by a decrepit old crone. I shuddered and closed the curtains as I headed down the hall to where our baby lay.

I peeked in at him where he was sleeping in our bedroom, swinging quietly away. I almost dreaded him waking. Part of me knew that he wouldn’t (a good mother is supposed to know these things after all), but the idea of it suddenly filled me with dread.

What if he had? A storm raging outside and his father nowhere about? How would I ever calm him?

The light in the room dimmed as I began to shut the door. Silent flashes of lightning cut the darkness in intervals, vibrating muted flickers of amethyst along the walls in short bursts. I left the door open a crack so that a cool, yellow light from the hallway fell in a sliver across the baby’s face so he wouldn’t be scared in the dark if he were to wake.

The door squeaked as it moved, un-oiled, and in disrepair—another one of the things Jeff had said he’d get to, but never seemed to get around to doing. I should have brought that up in our little fight, or something of the sort. He was so adamant about dredging up every little tiny thing that was wrong with me, I should have been able to come back with something that was wrong with him. But, even as he yelled at me, the door squeaking, or anything else he failed to do around the house, didn’t seem important enough to say. Not really. Not when you compared it to all of the other things that he did do. That’s what had made the fight so bad, I guessed. Not just that it was such a rare event, but that Jeff was always so good to me, and so helpful, but right then, so ugly in the way he spoke. I should have defended myself better. Instead, I just cried, and he walked out the door.

But really, it was such a little thing.

He had to go, he said. He had to go get help. You need help, he said, as if we weren’t in this together at all, and worse, implying that I couldn’t take care of little Billy on my own.

Well, that was true, mostly, and as the thunder rumbled closer overhead I was too-well reminded of that. The idea of being a mother had seemed much easier before actually giving birth. I pictured Jeff and myself together, raising Billy as complete equals, hand in hand, sharing everything as fully as we could. After the fight, I questioned myself incessantly about whether or not I’d be alone.

I thought I’d answered that question every time I unlocked my phone, hoping
desperately that I’d see a text message or a call from Jeff, and there was nothing there.

Every time I’d open my contacts, my recent tab, and my finger would hover over Jeff’s name, one press, and the call would connect, I prayed that my phone would vibrate in my hand, and Jeff would be there on the other line telling me that everything was all right, and that he was coming home. Every time that didn’t happen, and I’d locked my phone and the screen had gone black, I told myself that Jeff didn’t love me anymore at all—me or our baby—and that he was gone for good. I could have been wrong. I had been wrong about a lot of things.

I started to feel a bit sorry for myself and began walking back to the window to look out for Jeff some more, but before I had made it all the way back to the living room, a roar of thunder made the house vibrate under my feet. My heart seemed to stop and slam itself back into beating again as the lights flickered, and every inch of my skin raised in a sudden tingle. Before I had the chance to settle my breathing just a little bit, I swore I heard Billy begin to cry. I sighed loudly, feeling my breath tremble at the back of my throat, but somehow, I smiled a bit with the anticipation of seeing his sweet, little face; scooping him up in my arms as he stretched from his overly-long nap. The feeling gave me chills.

I walked back toward the bedroom as fast as I could and began opening the door, expecting to see his little head turning from side to side as he began to sputter and cry for comfort. Instead, I opened the door to stillness and silence. Little Billy was fast asleep as if he hadn’t heard a thing at all. I had always heard about things like this happening at odd times throughout the day; a mother’s focus never lightened—always thinking you’re hearing your little one cry.

Oh well, I thought. I was safe for now, as I really hadn’t much wanted to feed the baby at all without Jeff there to give me a hand. Still, I would have to wake him soon. It had been almost three hours since I had last tried to feed him, and I didn’t want to go over four. One hour, that’s how long Jeff had to get home. Damn him, but he was right. I did need some help.

I had done my fair share of pacing throughout the day, from the window, down the hall, and to the bedroom, and back again, so I tried to find other ways to keep my mind occupied. I had a pile of large, wood-carved letters from A to Z that the women at my baby shower had decorated for us. They glued construction paper to them that was different shades of blues and purples and other colors, and they fancied them up with stickers of different bugs and animals, until they were something fit for a little boy to have hanging in his bedroom.

As the rain poured against the windows and the roof of the house, and the thunder and the flashes of lightning came and went, sometimes making me jump and shriek, and other times, almost without a sound, I worked on putting those letters up on the walls in Billy’s little room. They were bulky and a bit heavy, but I got them to stick tight with balled-up bits of poster putty.

As I began hanging them, I began to wonder if I somehow were doing the letters a disservice, being so limited by their ordained order. The A was already placed, as well as the B. But as I stared at them, I searched for words to hang that were more bright and meaningful than just an A to Z. Following the B I could have written BOY, but that seemed somehow unfitting, like I was just giving a label to my son. I could have written BOUNCE or BATHE—a litany of other words that would have fit, but would have all seemed too Goddamn ordinary for such a handsome little man. All except the ones you needed double letters to spell out. I just wished I could have spelled out BABY. That alone would have made me happy, and, out of the blue, I wished then that we could do it all over again. Have another.

Anyway, I could have spelled whatever the hell I wanted in his little blue room. But I would need another B, or another whatever for every damn word, it seemed.

Another B for baby, the thought of that had already sparked and caught fire in me then—the need for another. Not just the need for Jeff to come back home, but the need for another, entirely. Another baby.

Of course, it was too early even to try for one. Everything we had read had said no sex until at least six weeks after birth, and that was if everything had gone well. Which, I thought it had. We had gone au naturel. No hospitals or ERs. No cesarean. Not even a midwife. We did everything we could to let nature take its beautiful course, and Jeff, bless his heart, had been all aboard from the start. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It had taken a tiny bit of convincing on my part.

BURDEN.

That was another word I could use up on the wall (it would fit, anyway), and that word was something I wished I never was.

It hadn’t seemed that way, though. Jeff did much of the research himself, too, looking up which type of candles, essential oils, and music would be best for home birth.

BIRTH. Another word that would fit.

Lightning cracked outside, so bright and close that I jumped again and heard myself yelp before I could think to make an effort to stop. I could feel the electricity in the air make my hair begin to stand, and I noticed I was grinding my teeth, waiting once more for the baby to cry. I tilted my head, putting my ear as close to the door as I could without having to stand up, and I listened as carefully as I could—the kind of listening you do where you can actually hear the blood inside of your ear move; feel a growing pressure move in a wave throughout your skull, as if you were subtly calling in the sounds you were searching for, quelling all of the other noises of your home, all of it, just to draw in the ones you wanted until they swam inside your head.

There was silence. I looked at my phone and saw that I still had close to that hour
before I had to wake him. Jeff, where are you?

I called him, then. I told myself I wouldn’t, but I did it anyway. The line rang and it rang. Six times it rang, until an electronic voice told me to leave a message. I hung up instead, and as I did, I felt panic as I imagined giving birth or going into active labor without Jeff by my side. What if I had had to call him only to reach his voicemail? What if it had been a night like this—torrents of rain preceding a looming tempest, and all I could speak to was a robot who recited Jeff’s unanswered number, telling me it was unavailable?

What if?

BROKEN. Would that suffice?

The storm grew closer—you could tell by the sound. When I was a girl, I learned to gauge the distance of a storm by counting the seconds between the flash of lightning, and the sound of the thunder. I wanted to know how long until the worst of it was right overhead.

Before I could begin counting, I needed to make sure my baby was all right, so I poked my head in to look at him one last time, and then I made my way back to the living room to watch for Jeff and to look at the lightning. I waited then for a flash so I could start counting. I stood there, again wiping my breathy fog from the window, staring at the drive and at the clouds. Down again to the street and back to the clouds.

The rain was pouring in sheets again, a solid wall of wetness with droplets so big it seemed they’d hurt you if you were to step outside. The fog curled under the droplets, rising up and twisting in the air, dancing like ghosts in the cool of the night.

One, I counted after a flash lit up the sky. It cut its way across the night like etchings in a language long forgotten by time itself. The irony of counting such a thing—ancient forces crashing and spelling out their illegible doom in the sky, and there I stood, counting like an idiot.

Two. Such a feeble thing. Like counting and timing contractions. The pain—so sharp, so all-encompassing—like being stabbed through the guts with the biggest knife in the world. Every single contraction toward the end brought me to my knees, the gravity of it all, my baby getting closer, pushing his little head against my cervix with each downward thrust of my uterus, shoving him down, willing him to break free before he was ready. It felt so big, so life changing, that being curled up on the floor, bawling and screaming, I laughed at how small, but how important it was to time what was happening to me—to count toward the epoch that would define my entire life.

I smiled to myself, felt my still-swollen belly, and I was just about to speak the word three as the thunder hit. The glass in front of me shook in its frame, and somewhere in the house, I heard something thump to the ground. I unlocked my phone, and the screen opened on the app that allowed me to see my son through the little camera in the corner of the room, still sleeping so sweetly in his swing. Sweat beaded my forehead and I wiped it before it could drip on the screen. He was safe, but the fact that I knew it had been something else that had made the noise and I was alone in the house made a cold shiver run from my head to my feet.

The urge to yell for Jeff had almost made me call out to him, and I swear the words were on my tongue before I remembered the truth of the situation. Normally, I’d have sent him to see what had made the thump, but on this night, it crept in deep inside of me that I was on my own.

BETRAY.

I had to do it myself. Fucking Jeff. Pulling this shit now. A sweet little baby alone in a room, his mother, body aching, still bleeding and swollen from the place her husband left his seed, heaving in the dark, happier than he had seemed since I had sprung the news on him, which should have been a wonder, should have been a miracle under the eyes of God, oh God, how we had tried, but every time, left a forsaken empty womb of a would-be mother aching for a child; but that look in Jeff’s eyes, the one he gave me when I told him we were to have a child, that look had told me that he would have taken back every ounce of pleasure, every moment of love-making, if it had meant that the little boy that grew inside of me would suddenly disappear.

Was it that? Did I imagine it? Hadn’t he been happy? Somehow it all blurred, his face as he turned and slammed the door behind him, melting, obscuring every clear thought I believed I had.

Hands shaking, I searched the house, starting (of course) with our bedroom where Billy slept, thinking of awful things that skitter along the edges of nightmares, broken free, clinging to the darkness that rested in the corners of our home. Thunder roared overhead, amplified by the empty space of the high ceilings in Jeff’s awful, cold, dark house; those ceilings tall enough to be bathed in shadow, hiding whatever malformed creature of hell that stalked my every step, and up there, somewhere out there in the dark,

I swear I heard it moving, a sloshing, rhythmic sound, folded under the heaving of the thunder. As it wandered somewhere on the ceiling, squelching in my ears, I swear, I could somehow feel it in my guts. The smell was awful. Whatever it was, it smelled like it crawled from a grave.

Still, I searched. If not for my own peace of mind, for the protection of my child. I started again in the kitchen by the door where Jeff had left me crying and alone. The floors were clear—swept cleaned, mopped and polished, just as they were when Jeff left, no thanks to him. As the baby slept the day away, I cleaned, and I’d checked him as Jeff paced with that horrid look on his face. I’d nursed him, trying not to yell in frustration at the tepidness of his shallow little latch, and I had to hold off the urge to shake him silly. Jeff couldn’t bare to be in the same room.

Before today, it had seemed that Jeff was always trying to help with things like this. He tried to comfort me, telling me that things were going to be all right. I remember shrugging him off. The remembrance brought me pain at my frustration and brought a longing for my husband to be home again, for good. My anger with him was misplaced, and ill-contrived.

Such a little thing.

Jeff had cried as I had. He had held Billy, nuzzling his forehead up to our son’s—I think, willing him to suckle like he was born to do. I hadn’t wanted formula—breast is best, they said—and even in that time, Jeff hadn’t offered it, respecting my wishes, whole.

I wished I could take it back, my fury with Jeff, but his words had seemed to open something inside of me, and all the things that were bouncing around my skull must have been there all along, but they had just been hidden from me, and God, I wished they still were. But as I searched the house for that awful thud, and the thing that snaked around the shadows, unseen—whatever horrible thing I might find—something couldn’t let go. His words were ringing in my head: “You need help,” and for that I resented him, even if it was just a little bit.

I was a mother, Goddammit. In our bathtub, through all the pain, and the blood and amniotic fluid, I pushed a tiny baby, our little Billy, out of my womb and into this world, for better or for worse. And, for better or worse, I could care for him myself. I had the tools, and my breasts were aching just at the thought.

My muscles throbbed, ready to pounce on whatever had come with the storm to threaten my baby boy. I stalked the halls and turned on all the lights. I could feel anger flushing my cheeks, my resolve was forged in the lightning that hammered the night as I searched for the maker of that grotesque slithering in the darkness of my house. My house. The house where my child slept.

I checked my phone again for the time, remembering with a sick feeling in my gut that the baby needed to eat quite soon. It was growing closer when I would need to wake him—such a little tiny thing that needed so desperately to grow.

Thirty minutes now, I ran the dark hall again to peer in the bedroom. The tiny sliver of light illuminated my baby’s sleeping face, which wasn’t an inch’s stir from where it’d been the last time I had checked. I walked back toward the kitchen and resumed my search. I prayed that it was nothing, no matter how protective I felt. Maybe a mouse who’d toppled something down while looking for food. Maybe just the storm, knocking something from a shelf, and that noise, the wet, sluggish dragging, maybe just water leaking in from a roof in disrepair.

A girl can dream.

I called Jeff again. I’m not really sure why, as I knew he wouldn’t answer. It rang the whole six times as I scanned the dining room and the family room, and looked in the bedroom again where I’d begun my search. Still, I saw nothing.

I hung up and went to the window. Rain was coming down so thick that I couldn’t see the giant oak in my yard anymore, but I swear, I could hear that ancient thing groan—roots deep within the earth that gave it life, straining, dying to stand strong and keep it upright. So mother-like, it was, as I was then, too.

BRANCH: there was another.

BREAK.

I thought of our family then as I thought of the tree—branches snaking out, withering or thriving in the wind and the rain. What would little Billy’s branch be now—just a nub on another limb, shuddering in another storm.

He needed more support, from me and from his father, both—our love like towering limbs of our family tree—protecting and encouraging health and growth of the littler branch.

I watched the drive for a while, listening to the thunder crash and shake the house, when suddenly I thought of something worse than the storm, worse than my irrational fears of a monster in the house, and worse (much worse) than Jeff’s and my little fight.

BREAKDOWN.

I pictured it on the wall, written up there with baby-colored print among the stuffed animals and toys, before I pictured it in reality. Jeff—rain pouring down, sounding like hammers hitting the metal of his car—standing there on the side of the road with his thumb out.

BYSTANDER.

I pictured him waving a car down in the storm, being a little too close to the road, and that car not able to see as their headlights reflected the downpour right back into their
vision.

BRUTALIZED.

In my head, Jeff, wasn’t just out. He wasn’t off running errands or blowing off steam at his mother’s house or wherever he had gone. No. He was dying in a ditch, every bone in his body broken, every muscle torn, lying in a mangled heap at the bottom of some slick ravine he’d slid down after being struck by a car that never stopped or turned around. I pictured his face covered in blood, dirt, and meat, teeth missing, and eyes bulging from their sockets.

I closed my eyes as I tried to squeeze the picture away, but I couldn’t. I was sure that what I was envisioning was more than just a fear—more than just the most violent representation of the worst thing I could imagine—but that it was a vision into truth, itself. That somehow, in my focus on him, my anger, my wonder, I had torn a small hole through the space that had us separated, and I was peering through that hole, then.

I raced back through the house, away from that window and that terrible storm, and I pushed into my bedroom and scooped little Billy from the swing. I prayed that I was
wrong. I prayed that Jeff would pull into the driveway any moment, and he would hold us and squeeze us, and he would apologize for leaving me, apologize for saying I needed help, and he would kiss me, and he would kiss Billy on the head, and we’d sit in the living room the rest of the night, and we’d watch the lightning streak the clouds, and we‘d laugh. Oh, we’d laugh away the thought of some creature clinging above our heads.

Without hesitation, before he could even cry, as if he would anyway (he was such a good baby), I pulled down the front of my shirt, pinched my breast, and placed the nipple into Billy’s mouth. He wouldn’t latch again, and I was squeezing him so tight I couldn’t tell if he was fussing about or if it was just my shaking arms, and I tried to calm myself, tried to think of something other than Jeff being dead, so I walked to the nursery and sat in the soft rocker, blowing on that baby’s face, trying to get him to latch. I thought of the unfinished alphabet, just the A and B in place.

BREAST, I thought, and I smiled. I looked down at Billy’s little face, nuzzled in against my skin, his short black hair standing up where he had slept on it. As sweet as he looked, my smile couldn’t last. He wasn’t eating and it was starting to show, and I dreaded what I would see when we weighed him again.

I lay him down across my knees, making sure to keep his head up, and I cradled his body still so that he couldn’t wiggle his way off my lap. Once I was sure he wasn’t going anywhere, I got a baby spoon from the drawer of his nightstand, and I expressed some colostrum for him to eat.

BLAST. I pictured that up the wall as I did it for some reason, expecting a spray, but only getting a few drops. The frustration made me grind my teeth. I couldn’t wait for it to happen—to have my milk come in—to have my breasts feel full and heavy, unloading them on that little boy when he could finally eat. But for now, I only had a little, and I wiped the spoon inside the baby’s mouth, but most of it ran down his cheek.

BASH. It just popped in my head so quickly, brightly colored on the wall with construction paper and little animals, but so dark and sinister, too, and God, I could picture crushing him right there, just tightening my hold on him until I felt every bone in
his body pop.

Just as quickly as I thought it, my heart hurt for my baby, but my mind also sped back to that horrid image of my husband dying in the rain. BLOATING, crying out for me, for Billy, for anyone that could hear. I knew there wouldn’t be anybody to help him, though.

Living out here was such a mistake, and God, I had loved the seclusion at first, so much so that it was what had inspired me to give birth naturally, without the interference of the modern world, but now, all I could think of was how stupid I had been.

This love had come over me, this obsession with the country and the forest, and this longing to go back to the way things were before—a world without conflict and taxes
and bullshit, because, God, who wouldn’t want that? But I had failed to live up to it all, and I had given up on so many of my dreams, and now, I wished I could take back so many things.

I had caved on so many of my beliefs, but never once concerning my baby, and I made a vow that this would be different. The birth would be perfect, and if I couldn’t live my dreams of purity in nature, at least this could be a start.

Jeff and I had dabbled in acupuncture and anthroposophic medicine to help with the pains of being pregnant. We used peppermint oil for nausea, and we used lavender for
anxiety. We tried rubbing marjoram oil on my belly during contractions to help fight the pain, but to be honest, I wasn’t so sure that it had done anything at all. All of this, we had done. So much love had flowed between us, and into my womb, wrapping our baby in an invisible blanket of protection, that right then, thinking about it, tears began to stream down my face. I rocked the baby, not so much to soothe him, but to calm myself, because no matter what I did, I couldn’t forget that picture that was stuck behind my eyes—that image of Jeff, dead or dying—and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get Billy to eat a damn thing.

Without warning, the A that had been attached high on the wall above the crib came unstuck and fell, bouncing off the rail of the crib, making an awful thud. I laughed—a sharp bark that I quickly stuffed back down in fear of startling little Billy who lay nuzzled up on my lap, mouth again to my breast.

The B was gone, too. God, how hadn’t I noticed when I walked in the room? It wasn’t some dreadful creature slinking about my darkened home, lurking after my child and me, no, not at all. Just a stupid wooden letter. Lifeless. Obsolete, lying dead inside the crib.

Such a little thing.

Thunder shook the house and I nestled Billy tighter to my bosom. I felt in my pocket again for my cell, hoping, yet doubting all the same that Jeff would answer and tell me he was almost home. My fingers felt nothing, and I shook as the thunder rumbled again.

Even with the knowledge of what had made that thud when the thunder rumbled the walls—knowing there weren’t glistening teeth hiding in the darkness, yearning for my
neck—that fear, that primal fear of being hunted still had its hooks in me.

Goosebumps prickled on my arms as I buttoned my nursing top and lay the baby in his crib. I wished, feeling my eyes well up again, that Jeff was right there with me. He could have probably gotten the baby to eat, and he could have searched the house, himself.

I found my cell phone on a table in the living room, and I found myself at the window as the phone continued to ring on the other end with no answer. The thunder was almost continuous, and lightning arced across the sky in bolts that seemed to never end. I thought of giving birth. The last bit before the baby had come had seemed like a contraction that never ended—like something inside me had coiled up like a snake and was squeezing me to death. It pounded and throbbed, and in my head I saw stars and flashes and blackness and fire.

The rain pounded the window in front of my face, so hard, I thought it might break, and the tree limbs swayed and thrashed on the verge of breaking and crushing the house and my baby didn’t cry, didn’t even make a sound, and somewhere far off, maybe in my head, maybe just a memory in the walls of this awful house, brought out by this awful storm, I heard Jeff calling out, yelling through it all, telling me: “Push, Sarah! You have to push.”

I covered my ears now as Jeff’s voice grew louder, louder now than the churning, roiling storm, and I tried to push it all away, but I remembered, I remembered everything.

In my head I saw myself lying naked in our tub as Jeff knelt over me, his hands in the water ready to catch the baby. I could see myself slipping in and out of consciousness, trying to push as the hours slipped by without so much as a crowning.

I opened my eyes then, trying to see anything else, trying to force away the memory as it brought me back. I could feel the pain as if it were happening again, being torn apart, pushing, bleeding, and shitting in the tub.

Far off through the trees, lights flashed so bright they lit up the night. It wasn’t the lightning; it was bigger than that, encompassing, flashing repetitively, blue and red, blue and red.

In my head, Jeff still yelled: “Push, Sarah. Please! You have to keep pushing.”

The storm cracked and roared, and I could feel it all in the floors, vibrating up from my feet, through my legs, and into my belly. Above the thunder and rain verging on breaking the glass, sirens wailed through the trees. They sped closer, and I could see the headlights. One car leading another, and a van following behind.

Jeff, I thought. I couldn’t put my feelings in place. I felt between my legs, sure that I was bleeding, losing my water, expecting to feel the soft head of Billy again, but that was impossible, it couldn’t have been, and I was right. I pulled my hand away, and it was dry.

The police were speeding up the drive, and at once, all of my fears realized, but fears I had tried to deny for so long. God, each thing I had feared, each thing I denied, and refused to say aloud, coming to light, approaching faster by the second.

They were almost to the house.

I was back in the nursery before I knew I had moved, and I had the baby in a blanket, cradled as I ran back to the living room—the living room, where any moment, there would be a knock, and there the police would tell me what I had known all along, God, Jeff! Why did you have to go?

I clutched the baby so tight to me, swaddled lightly, and I kissed the top of his head. Car doors slammed outside, but the lights remained, red and blue, red and blue, spinning in the rain, breaking through the shadows, but illuminating the whipping tree and toiling leaves, giving light to the horrors of that troubled wind.

I rocked the baby, maybe too hard, I couldn’t tell, and as the lightning crashed, underneath, I heard the stomping boots of men running up the walk, and I thought again of being naked in the tub, Jeff banging his hand on the ceramic, begging me to stay awake, begging me to push, and I’d wake up, and I’d push with all my might, and at last, I felt Billy come, slipping from me like I’d lost control of my bowels, and all my guts were tumbling out.

I saw Jeff standing over me, holding little Billy, and just then, startling me from the memory, Jeff burst through the front door, in real life, right in front of where I lay, collapsed on the living room floor with my baby in my arms. He had the same look he had back then, but this time the police filed in behind him, and I knew, I knew what he was going to say before he could even open his mouth, and as I peeled back the receiving blanket, hoping to see Billy’s shining eyes, but knowing better, knowing what I would see and what Jeff would say, I cried, and my tears fell silently on the swaddle.

My baby boy was a darker shade of blue now, bordering almost on purple, even black in some spots. A police officer stepped forward and knelt beside me, but I shoved him away as I stared at my child and the sunken sockets of his eyes stared right back.

I couldn’t focus. Jeff stood before me, just as he did after the birth, and it was just like this as we both cried and I held my sweet boy.

“He’s dead,” Jeff said.

It echoed as I struggled to hold onto what was real. He said it in both worlds, the memory of the birth and the now, and in both worlds it was true.

“He’s dead,” Jeff said again. “Sarah…you have to let go.”

The officer took him from my hands, my strength gone, everything I’d held in for days, finally letting go. The swaddle broke and his little arm poked out of the blanket.

BLANKET. Another word for the wall.

My vision blurred as the officer carried Billy through the door with his little arm hanging and bouncing with the officer’s steps. I saw it happen, and I also saw the bathroom, the tub, that little arm bouncing as Jeff handed him to me days ago, limp and lifeless, then, also, and I couldn’t separate the two. I felt the warmth of the water around me, calming me as I pushed, but I also felt the carpet on my back as I lay screaming on the living room floor. I felt myself try to crawl toward where they had taken my boy, clawing at the air. Reversing now, further back in time, cresting the other side of the epoch, crawling backwards up the hill until it stopped, centering me in the memory, making me feel every bit like I was right back there, sitting back in that tub as if Billy hadn’t come. I could feel Jeff’s hands rubbing my feet under the water, and as I felt another contraction coming, bigger than the last, I heard Jeff say, “push,” and I did. I pushed.

Thunder made me scream as the police held me to the ground, and then everything went blank.

BLANK.

The water felt so warm around me as I lay in the tub. Jeff was at my side with a smile on his face. Billy would be coming soon, and, God, the labor felt like a storm.

I pushed.

It was such a little thing.

Thoughts on Fiction: Novice Mistakes, part 2

Yesterday I chose to start talking about mistakes novice writers often make in the hopes that I may be able to help someone out there who perhaps is having doubts about their own writing, and may recognize some of these mistakes in their writing, and be able to improve.

I started with dialog introductory paragraphs, because it tends to be the most immediate indication of a fledgling writer. Again, not all introductions that begin with dialog are wrong, but they can certainly go south rather quickly. Please read the last post to catch up, if you haven’t already.

The next, most glaring mistake I see that indicates writing inexperience isn’t necessarily in the first line, or even in the first paragraph. Regardless, in new writers’ work, it almost always rears its nasty little head.

Tenses.

I see an immense amount of misuse, or switching of verb tenses. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why this is such a problem–possibly the use of too many confusing clauses in certain sentences–but I do know that this is a MAJOR problem. It pops up in almost every single critique I do, where it’s clear the writer hasn’t quite figured out the craft.

The problem with tenses also seems more prevalent in writers who seem to not quite know the most effective point of view in which to tell their story.

New writers often use first person, present tense to start. I’m not sure why on that either. In my opinion, it’s by far the least effective way to tell your story. Some authors have done it, and done it well, but I could never get the emotion to come across whenever I had tried, and maybe that’s why I’m biased. Still, when reading it now, no matter who the author is, I feel less like I’m connected to the author, and more like the character is a tour guide, and I’m just being told things, instead of being moved and made to feel things.

It seems that this POV is also where the tense problems mostly occur.

Examples often look like this:

 

The rockets explode right where we intend. The side of the great machine is awash with flame, hunks of steel and molten metal rained down to sizzle in the snow. The beast slowly wavered and knelt toward the ground. With a groan, it’s knees buckle, and it collapses head-first, burying its face entirely into the powder.

The soldiers and I cheered.

 

It can be hard to catch, but there it is. I switched from present to past tense verbs five separate times. It’s a massive hiccup when you’re reading it through, and it causes any person who is an actual reader to have to go back to make sure they read the damned thing correctly.

Novice writing is rampant with this, especially when writing in first person, present tense.

Another problem with first person present tense, and another area where people tend to royally fuck up their tenses, is when trying to describe what the character is thinking.

Newbies: you don’t always have to write, “I thought: what a well-placed rocket!”

Newbies: you don’t always have to put thoughts in italics.

What’s much more effective in streamlining emotion and thought processes, is to just type the damn thought as its own damn thing.

After the last sentence of the example, “The soldiers and I cheer(ed)”, if you want to show your character thinking that the rocket was well placed, for christ’s sake, just say:

 

The soldiers and I cheer. What a well-placed rocket.

 

Since it is first person present, it’s apparent that the majority of the prose is going to be feelings and thoughts that your character is having. You don’t need to tell us it is a thought, and good god, you don’t need to italicize it.

The problem with tenses being switched, though, seems even a tad bit more prevalent in stories where the character of which the point of view is being written is switched to another character. Where one character was first person, present tense, the next character is suddenly first or third person, past tense.

And that, in novice writing, can be even more muddied, when the change in character isn’t made at a clear break in the the scene or the beginning of new chapter.

We’ll fix the problems of tense in our previous example, and use it again to demonstrate further how tense and POV often go hand in hand, and present problems together.

It often looks like this:

 

The rockets explode right where we intend. The side of the great machine is awash with flame, hunks of steel and molten metal rain down to sizzle in the snow. The beast slowly wavers and kneels toward the ground. With a groan, it’s knees buckle, and it collapses head-first, burying its face entirely into the powder.

The soldiers and I cheer. What a well placed rocket.

Grenn, the solder that fired, the soldier that saved the village, was hoisted up on the shoulders of his brothers. His fingers still shook, adrenaline failing to let his heart slow to a normal pace.

What if he had missed? The village was mostly women and children. Looking at them now as they cheered and sang him praises, tears began to spill from his eyes. It was overwhelming. They all lived now, all because of him. His brothers, his ragtag group of men-in-arms, most actually still but boys, all lived, all because of him.

He wanted to scream out in joy, to cry out in elation. But just as easily, he could have crawled into his tent and cried.

I watch him as he’s carried off, and I smile to myself. Grenn, our savior. He looks back to me with a frown that scars his lips, and somewhere deep down, I understand.

 

Now, even with the writing being good (for the sake of argument, not terrible), the changes in tenses are distracting, and the change in POV is confusing at first. Even though it’s clear whose head you are in with each change, something about it immediately stands out as wrong.

If you read a lot, or if you write a lot, the problem is noticeable immediately.

If you do this, you can avoid it easily. My suggestion is that, especially if you are new, stick to third person, past tense. The section with Grenn’s POV reads the smoothest. It’s the most coherent. There is a reason it’s the most common point of view used in fiction. It works the best.

Also, you must stick to one character per scene while you’re perfecting your writing. Third person, omniscient–where you’re constantly jumping around inside the heads of all of your characters–can be done reasonably well, too, but it’s much more difficult to do, and I would say, really only effective when used by a very seasoned author. It’s use usually has a purpose, and that purpose is to show things like lying, or manipulation, things that aren’t always recognizable right away when you’re limited by one person’s point of view.

For now, stick to one character per scene, or one character per chapter. Write in past tense, and keep your verb tenses in the past. Just like you are telling somebody a story about an action of someone you know. My dad crashed his car. William went hunting and killed a deer.

Don’t overthink it. Remember, simpler is almost always better.

Thoughts on Fiction: Novice Mistakes

Before I go into what I want to talk about, I need to apologize to those of you that still follow this page. I have a well-documented history of posting regularly for short bits of time, and then neglecting this page completely for months, and sometimes well over a year. This is an example of that. As are much of my posts. If you’re still here, I thank you endlessly.

I’ve still been writing through this entire 18 month spree of absenteeism, but it’s almost entirely been fiction related, and I haven’t been too keen on posting free fiction lately. If there is something I like enough to where I would like people to read it, I’ve been reserving it for eventual publication. If it never meets the needs of traditional publishers, I will probably deem it worthy of only the trash bin, and won’t waste anybody’s time by putting it online.

However, I have gotten back into critiquing other people’s writing when I’m not writing myself, and this is where the need to write this post has come from. Years ago, I used to frequent different forums where writers would post their stories, or bits of their stories, or only a few lines or so, and they would ask for criticisms and critiques. I feel like a lot has changed since then, but more specifically in the type of people requesting their work to be read, and the type of people that are reading it.

What has stayed nearly exactly the same, are the things these writers are doing that instantly mark them as a novice instead of someone with experience. I wanted to list a few of these things, and give some tips on how to correct them. So, if you do happen to notice a bit of this stuff going on in your own stories, I hope I can help, even if it’s just a little bit.

 

Beginning with Dialog

First off, I don’t want to say you cannot begin your story with dialog. It most certainly can be done effectively, but it needs to serve a purpose. What I see novice writers doing is using dialog (almost all dialog, no action whatsoever) to either set up their setting and plot in one fell swoop, or to info-dump everything you, the reader, should already know in order to be able to keep pace with the characters you’ve been thrust in with.

This is confusing almost 100 percent of the time and leaves you feeling completely disconnected from the characters you’re supposed to care about. You’re just thrown in without any context, and you’re left trying to study and memorize things immediately, just so you can keep track of who it is that’s even speaking. You don’t get to know the characters. You get to know whatever information the writer didn’t know how to give you, presented by a parlor trick.

It’s lazy. It’s boring.

It often looks like this:

 

“I know that, Jim,” Jane yelled. “I know the dark wizard from Bad Mountain is right on our trail.” She sighed. “Did you remember to pack the magic fucking sword?”

He hissed: “Keep your voice down! You know the dark goddamn wizard from Bad Mountain has spies all up in our camp.” Jim crazily shook his head. “But Jane, we absolutely do not want them to know that I have this wild, invincible sword that the magic old lady in the woods gave me, tucked away under my sleeping bag!”

Jane smiled bigly. “I can’t believe it’s the only thing in the entire world that can kill the dark ass wizard.” She wiped sweat from her brow. “I hope none of the spies that are literally all around us know that the sword can be destroyed by throwing water from the fountain of eternal life on it, which also happens to be right next to our camp!”

“Uh oh,” laughed Jim uproariously.

“Uh oh,” cried Jane inconsolably.

 

So, I hope you can tell that that is a wild exaggeration, but I kind of needed to exaggerate the badness of it in order to illuminate what I’m trying to talk about.

You don’t give a shit about Jane or Jim. You don’t know why the dark wizard is after them. You don’t know much, but you’re forced to know key pieces that are essential for the writer to tell you the story. That’s all that writers like this seem to want to do. Tell you things.

Dialog introductions usually violate several unwritten rules of writing, and the golden rule is one of the first that is broken. Show, mother fucker. Don’t tell.

You can write dialog as an opening and have it still be effective without telling too much. You just need to be careful.

An example:

 

“The thing that follows me doesn’t have a name. It knows mine, though. It whispers to me–usually in my dreams, but I swear, sometimes when I’m awake, too. It asks things of me. It makes demands.”

Jane never looked up when she talked. She whispered down toward her fidgeting hands where they played atop her bouncing knees.

Across the coffee table, sitting cross-legged in the middle of a small, purple couch, Jim scribbled notes in his big legal pad, trying to keep up–trying to catch it all word-for-word. Behind him, floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined the wall, and glass-framed diplomas, James T. Bucher, LMHC, hung above a big wooden desk in the corner. After he was finished scribbling, he said, “And what does it ask you to do, Jane? What does it demand?”

She scoffed. “I can’t tell you,” she said. “It’s telling me I can’t”

 

Granted, it’s not the greatest opening, but hey, I wrote it on the fly. Regardless, you know who is speaking, you know where they are, and you know their roles. You have a sense of what is happening, but you still have questions. Those questions are why you keep reading. It doesn’t hurt that you immediately may have sympathy for Jane.

It’s a set-up. The goal is to intrigue, not to lay all of your cards face up on the table in the middle of the hand.

Try to keep the first line interesting enough to engage a reader. Start in the middle of the story. The small, mostly unnoteworthy antecedents that placed your character at this spot now, where the pieces are moving, can be revealed in exposition later on.

Opening with dialog dumps also exposes novice writers in other ways. Dialog is tricky, and it takes experience to learn that simpler is often better.

He said/she said has never, ever, been wrong. Once you start throwing in adverbs to try to tell your reader the way in which someone has said something, you have already failed. I’ve talked about this a lot in my little rantings over the years, and I believe it as much now as I ever did. If someone said something carefully, or forcefully, or angrily, then it needs to be shown. If the reader can gauge that based on supportive details, either in the dialog itself, or the body language you’ve chosen to show, then your dialog is effective. If you have to tell them, then it isn’t. Period.

New writers do this, because they can’t trust themselves. It doesn’t feel right to just say, he said. It’s easy to be afraid that the speaker’s tone won’t come through, because, honestly, as you’re writing, the characters are alive in your head, and you know exactly how they feel. That doesn’t always translate to the page, and newbies cower from that. They try to make up for it, and by doing so, they distance the reader from the character even more.

Trust yourself. Your readers are smarter than you think they are.

 

So, the plan here was to list about five or six things that stick out in novice writing, but in my usual fashion, one of those things took me about 1300 words to get my points across.

I’ll probably make this a sub-series within my series of Thoughts on Fiction. Usually that keeps me posting regularly for a while, until I finish shedding whatever burden forced me to try to give advice.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the second part of Signs of a Novice.

Thoughts on Fiction: Writing What You Know

The single, most used piece of writing advice ever, is write what you know. It’s good advice. It isn’t great advice, and I’d argue that there are much better (and much less vague) words of wisdom to bestow upon would-be writers. I’m sure I’ll touch on some of that in just a moment, but in the meantime, let’s tackle this.

Write What You Know.

First, why is this good advice? Simple, really; the more you know of something, the more accurately you can build a picture of it in your mind, and transcribe that picture to the page. If you’re a nurse, you should be able to visualize a hospital, imagine care-giving scenarios, and have a healthy vocabulary of all those tricky little medical terms nobody can pronounce.

If you’re a farmer, same deal.
Astronaut.
Teacher.
Musician.

Anything in life, at all. Every single thing that you are, that you do, that you observe with your senses—these are all things that you know, and should be able to accurately describe. Use that. It makes your fiction more real. More honest.

If you happen to be a trash collector, or a custodian, or even jobless, please, don’t despair over the belief that those things you know don’t make interesting stories. I feel like this is where the advice of writing what you know fails. A lot of people think that they don’t really know anything, or that the things they know aren’t interesting enough to constitute story telling. For some of those people, that may very well be true, but that does not mean that you shouldn’t write.

Most of us have within us stories that we need to tell. They come to us sometimes in a dream, or one of those Aha! moments, or even just because it’s a story that we, ourselves, want to read. The truth of fiction is that an overwhelmingly large majority of stories are fanciful, or other-worldly, and if all fiction was the everyday lives of nurses and trash collectors, nobody would fucking read it.

Fantasy authors create an entirely different world, sometimes with in-depth magic systems, sometimes where the entire rules and laws of physics are completely different from our own world. Some of these fantasy books sell a great deal, and there is not much there to anchor the reader in a recognized reality. In the writing, there is very little being written that is write what you know, but guess what, it doesn‘t matter.

How can fiction be good then, if you ignore what your high school English teacher said? Easily. That English teacher didn’t elaborate on what she meant.

Just because a fantasy/horror/sci-fi/whateverthefuck author has created a different world/monster/universe, it doesn’t mean they aren’t writing what they know. I’ll give a couple of examples. I am writing a fantasy novel right now. I created a different world, a different mythology, different races of men and women, different species of plants and animals, and a complete system of magic, loosely rooted in ancient pagan beliefs here on earth. The thing that anchors this fantasy novel to reality, and the thing that readers (I hope) can identify with, latch onto, and root for or against, is bits of familiar realism in an unfamiliar world.

In order to do this, I had to dig into myself and drag out what it is that I know, so I could fucking write it. There are several characters in my novel that have varying degrees of mental illness. One may suffer from depression, and another may be suffering from dementia, and little bits of schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder pop up as well. I can do this, and I can do it fairly accurately, because I worked in the mental health field for seven years. I can take my experiences there—my observations and whatnot—and I can write scenes with firsthand knowledge.

Substance abuse also plays a major role in this story. Several characters deal with it, and I can write those characters especially affectively, because I have dealt with substance abuse, personally, for about as long as I can remember.

The novel is not about mental illness or substance abuse. I did not write a novel based solely on what I know. I wrote a novel about a character who is a reluctant hero, tossed in with a group headed to save the world, who is far more powerful than she or anyone else may ever even realize. That character happens to be chronically depressed, and she abuses drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Fiction is not real. It can be whatever the hell the writer wants it to be. The thing that makes it feel real enough to picture, real enough to see the scene while forgetting the words are in front of your face, is when the reader connects with something they recognize from actual reality. It doesn’t matter that my characters are being chased by a black shadow that can steal the souls of men, or that they found shelter inside the skull of a giant, fallen god. When I write about substance abuse or mental illness, the entire story will seem more real because of it, because those things are things that I know.

The phrase should be more like, “Write with what you know.”

I don’t think the intention was ever to tell people to write entire stories based on the things that they know, and only those things that they know. Phillip K. Dick didn’t know shit about androids. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t know shit about orcs. Stephen King probably doesn’t know shit about burial grounds that bring the dead back to life. Androids, orcs, and ghosts are not what made those authors great. Injecting pieces of what they knew/know into their worlds, their characters, and their situations are what made the stories seem real, whether you’re in Middle-earth grab-assing with Frodo, or your little boy who got hit by a semi somewhere in Maine has climbed out of his grave and is cutting up your wife.

I think what any writer actually ought to do, is write what they like, and write the book that they would want to read. Along the way, it’s best to insert pieces of what you know into your characters and into the experiences in the story.

I would advise against writing a story about being a telemarketer, where the only action is waking up, going to work, leaving work, and going to bed, all goddamn week, just to get shitfaced on Friday and waste your whole weekend being hungover. That book sounds fucking terrible. A call center employee who keeps getting phone calls from his dead fiancé?—you might have something there. You probably don’t know shit about the afterlife, and ghosts, and whateverthefuck, but you damn sure know about call centers. Even though it may be about the supernatural, something completely unobserved by normal, average humanity, the detail and truth you write with while describing the atmosphere of the call center is what will make that story seem real. Also, if you happen to have lost a fiancé, nothing gets more real than that, and your readers will certainly pick up on the honesty.

Write with passion.
Write with longing.
Write with what you know.

It’s a tool, not a rule.

Love Lost

This is the beginning of my next novel. It’s a little different than what I normally write. No fantasy this time. I kind of wanted to try to bridge the gap between literary fiction and genre fiction — focusing mostly on the characters, and what’s going on inside of them, but also giving enough of an odd plot to be enjoyable for genre readers. I’m not sure if I’ll succeed in this endeavor, but I’ll let you guys be the first judge. Let me know what you think. Comments, and especially criticisms are massively appreciated.

 

Branden was talking to that girl again. The one from the bar; the girl with the jean-shorts with the rips in them that showed half of her ass, and the flannel shirt that she tied in a knot in the middle just across her bare bellybutton. Her skin was orange and wrinkled, but Branden was drinking a lot lately, and he seemed more lonely than he’d ever been. He plucked away at his phone, sending little smiley-faces, and apparently laughing out loud — you’d think — for how many times he wrote the damn acronym, but a smile never once touched his face.

Nicole stood behind the couch, watching over Branden’s shoulder with her arms crossed as he texted. He didn’t notice her. He never did. She’d whisper in his ear, and call him dirty names — liar, cheater, asshole — but he never even turned his head to face her. He never looked her in the eyes. He went to bed without saying goodnight, sometimes with that girl, somewhere else, and sometimes at home, his eyes wetting the pillow, with beer bottles littering the bed.

It hurt to see him like that. Nicole knew that he was suffering, but she was, too, damn it, and even worse — she couldn’t talk to anybody about it. At least Branden had that. Someone he could call up, someone he could meet up with for drinks. Someone who could hold him.

The only person Nicole had ever had was Branden, and he couldn’t even notice that she was in the same room. Sometimes when she broke down, and threw something, there’d be some sort of recognition, some sort of reflection of who he was, who they had been on his face, and then he’d shake it away, letting it go like whispers in the wind. Something was there, though just under the surface, so close to realizing the pains she was taking to communicate — acting out, to just get something out of him.

But even that was rare.

“Just talk to me,” she said.

Branden continued tapping the keyboard on his phone, sending: “I’ll be there in a little bit.” He was going to her house again, the fourth time since Nicole had found out about them.

He always stank when he came home. Sweat lingered with the caramelized bitter smell of old liquor and stale cigarette smoke, and something else, sort of fruity and wispy, some sort of spray the teenagers wore, and the women who wished they were teenagers wore. Watermelon breeze, or some other nonsense. His eyes were always heavy, and he’d walk passed Nicole in the doorway without saying a word, and he’d fall into the couch without ever taking off his boots. He wouldn’t turn on the TV. He wouldn’t eat any food. He’d lie there staring at the ceiling until he’d only have a few minutes to shower before going to work, until his work started leaving messages asking where he was. He’d get up, pace around the room, then delete them and go back to the couch.

He was so different now, so far gone. It almost hurt to go on watching him live, just eking through life, scratching his way through one aching day after another. Nicole just wished there was some way that she could fix it, even though, deep down, she knew the truth. Things were over between them.

Forever.

His phone buzzed, and the screen lit up. It was her. Meagan. Nicole watched as her husband opened a photo of some skinny blonde piece of trailer trash dressed in nothing but her tiny white laced underwear, and read the photo caption. It said: “Hurry.”

Nicole felt her face grow hot, burning like the heat of a thousand suns, but it was no longer jealousy, not the jealousy that she had first felt about this girl that burned so bright and violent before. It wasn’t that that she was dredging up, now — that anger where she called him fucker, and traitor, and slime, no, she just felt sad now, and she hurt so so deep within herself; so deep that she thought that if she could cut into her own chest and rip free her dead heart, only then could she stand to feel all right about it all. She felt her eyes begin to burn, and her vision blurred. She leaned closer, almost touching her lips to his ear.

“Stay,” she whispered, her voice wavering as it lumped in her throat.

As the word escaped her lips, she saw it all in slow motion as her breath caught the hair above Branden’s ear. It moved, ever so slightly, just like the way the summer grass does, quivering at the gasp of a looming storm.

He snapped his head to face her, their noses almost touching, lips, everything so close to touching, that she could feel the warmth of his skin, and smell the salt of his sweat, but his eyes, his eyes, they looked right through her. It wasn’t surprise that was there on his face or anger, no. His brow was wrinkled with concern, or maybe it was fear, and Nicole could see the hair prickle on his neck. He shivered, and opened his mouth, his lips parting, floundering for words like there was something there, something fighting so desperately to be said, his face contorted as if he couldn’t believe what thoughts were forming in his head.

Nicole?”

For a moment, she thought that he could see her there, really see her as she was, sitting there, just an inch away, with a single tear rolling down her face. But his eyes, they stared beyond, out of focus, searching for something that just wasn’t there. And she knew again, as so many times before, that no matter how hard she tried, no matter how bad she wanted it, that the living simply could not see the dead.

Thoughts of Fiction: Outlining

There’s generally two camps — both full of ravenous, blood-lusting, ax-wielding psychopaths — when it comes to the topic of outlines.

Extreme camp 1 believes that outlining your novel before writing it somehow streamlines the process, making the victory of the battle to come, the battle of writing your novel, predestined, foreseen in the stars as prophecy. These are your barbarians — typical hack and slash followers of a maniacal diviner who says the outlined path is paved with gold.

Extreme camp 2 is an uptight bunch of mages, relying on their whimsical prowess, and finger magic — no battle plan, just magical reactions to the chaos of the battlefield — to secure their victory. That, being a novel of greatness, crafted by the mysticism of the muse. These are a stingy lot, and curse the birth of the damned barbarian outlining whores.

Most writers fall into one of these camps.

Some writers — many great ones — will never ever start a story without a fully finished outline, and a written ending.

Good for them.

Others would rather die than outline, believing, falsely, that outlining kills the story before it’s written and nothing outlined can grow on its own.

Good for them, too.

The reality is this:

Those two camps are going to clash, and war it out one day, and what you have at that moment, right in the middle, is what I believe, for me, is where good writing begins to form.

I used to be a strict believer in camp number 2, and I would never touch an outline. Not with a 10 foot stick. I believed that your characters could not fully grow and develop if you had already predetermined that growth and development without ever letting the character breath on paper.

I still believe that.

But, there is a but.

Imagine an outline that didn’t involve character growth? Or an outline where the main scenes of the middle and ending had not been written into it yet.

An outline doesn’t have to be a summary of your novel. It can be a skeleton.

As you build that skeleton in prose, you also start adding the organs, the muscles, the nerves, the blood, and the skin.

If you had your character on a straight path from point A to point B and C, but when you’re building that character, it makes more sense to skip point B and go directly to C, than do so. Break that bone fragment, and heal it up. Another scar for your character, another bit of honesty.

The blood of the barbarians and the blood of those prissy mages mixes on the battlefield, and forms something new: A writer who can portray honest characters, and (gasp) doesn’t have a quest line that looks hand drawn by Michael J Fox.

The story line and the movement from A to B to C, can be concise, and straightforward without the little lapses where a non-outliner decided to get fancy-pantsy and just fuck up the flow and direction of the story with their little magical, artistic whim. Instead, that magic can be focused, and honed in on breathing life into characters, and truth into the scene.

Whatever works for you is fine.

Like I said, I used to curse outlining. The serial-defiler of free-written beauty.

I’ve changed.

Switch it up a bit. Test the waters. If you’re a pantser, as they say (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), try adding just a framework of an outline before you start your next story. Just a direction to head in. Stick to it, and use that hallucinatory focus of muse-writing to fill in the holes. If you’re a planner (outliner), throw a little of that tight-ass caution to the wind. Head into certain scenes not knowing what the hell your characters are going to do. Let your subconscious take over.

Get a little bit outside of your comfort zone, and maybe, like myself, you might find that the ways you’ve glued yourself in for all of those years were actually holding you back.

Breathe a little.

It’s all going to be OK.

Thoughts on Fiction: Naysayers

Who here is afraid to tell someone that they write? One of those casual conversations comes up, always, where someone asks what you do, or what you want to do, or what your hobbies are, and you self-cringe at the thought of spouting off anything to do with writing.

Why?

It’s not like it’s dishonest work. The validity of having a lucrative career in writing is certainly viable. Every time you read — pretty much anything — someone was paid to write it.

So why are you looked at like a lazy bum, or a freeloader, or some hillbilly with a pipe dream?

It’s infuriating that 99.9% of people do not take writers seriously, until they’re getting that #1 bestseller autographed on some book they’ll never read.

When I first sat down to write this, I wanted to write about taking criticism in stride. But, I think most people end up getting that one. If you can’t take criticism, you’re in the wrong business.

What I find worse than bad critics are no-good, Nellie Naysayers. They laugh when you say that you write, and then they feel pity when they realize you were serious, because, c’mon, really? Nobody becomes a successful writer…

Do people often tell you that you should pick a trade, or get into computers, because that’s where the future is at?!

Did they tell you to pick a different major in college.

Did your parents tear apart your teenage, angsty poetry when you were a kid, and gave you some obscure Robert Frost poem that they read back in high school as an example of good poetic form. Really, even then you thought, Frost sucks.

It never stops.

The people that beg you to pick something else to do with your life; the people that beg you to study something different in college; the people that dishonor you by telling you that they thought they should always write a book. Because, you know, cubicle mates with copies of The Hunger Games on their cube shelf, untouched, are suddenly so literarily inclined.

It’s demeaning, like it’s just some fantasy for us, like we‘re fat little kids who say we want to be professional wrestlers when we grow up.

You would never go up to a bodybuilder, a fighter pilot, or a teacher, and tell them that you always thought that you could do what they do. It’s fucking insulting to have someone so unstudied on anything relating to words, grammar, literary art, or emotional emptying for someone else’s entertainment, simply disregard all of the years and hard work you’ve put into modestly learning how to craft a proper sentence.

But it happens, and we move on.

Remember, you cannot educate a fool. How could you possibly explain the downfall of adverbs, or passive voice to some drunk girl at a bar who, “has gone through some shit,” and thinks that that “shit” would make a good novel?

You can’t.

So don’t bother.

Same with the people that tell you to do something else with your life. Fuck ‘em. It’s your goddamn life, and if you want to live in squalor while you’re young, piecing together a literary masterpiece only to be paid $40,000 dollars for it (half on signing, to live in absolute poverty waiting for acceptance and then publication), then you go right ahead with your bad self. That’s how it’s done. That’s how we all do it at first. That’s straight up winning in this market.

Your work is your soul.

Aside from those people, there are other naysayers.

I was just having a conversation with my dad the other day about this fantasy novel I’ve been putting my all into for the last, I don’t know, as long as I can remember. I was proud as hell, and wanted to share that feeling.

He told me fantasy sucks and has nothing to teach the world. (As a side note, all he does is read Jesus books, and old classics and biographies. Not good ones either. He hates Hemingway, and his favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald stories (who I adore by the way), are the most hideously boring ones.) My father’s taste in literature, as it stands, is old Shakespeare at the moment. Which boggles my mind. My father, the reader, and apparent expert on literature had to ask me what Iambic Pentameter was. You read Shakespeare, religiously, but you have no fathom of a clue on how his prose is supposed to be read? Explain to me again why my choice in literature is invalid.

I digress.

I went in depth about the honesty of human behavior, and the opportunity for huge lessons of morals within fantasy, gave examples, and even broached the subject concerning the difficulty of fantasy writing, and how talented one has to be to write a successful fantasy novel with a rich history and beautiful world.

He responded by telling me that I have a gift, and it’s being wasted. What I should be doing, apparently, is researching my European lineage, and how it tied in with the downfall of Richard III, and also researching my Irish roots, and the life of my grandmother growing up in povern orphanages.

I love history. I love my family. However, what I am passionate about, and the place where I believe my true skill lies — my calling in life — is fiction. Period.

Because I can write pretty looking prose in my fiction work, my father believes that what I should be doing is writing historical non-fiction?

How does that even make sense? It’s two different worlds. It’s two different brains.

Even as I write this now, it is so so so far away from my style when I’m writing fiction. It’s like reading work from two different people. My non-fiction is a fucking bore.

What’s an even bigger bore, is someone else trying to tell you what to write.

I don’t know if anything makes me angrier.

And I’m sure many of you have gone through this same thing — people shoving little knives in you day in and day out with a complete and utter lack of respect for the work you’re doing every day, just pushing out beautiful chapter after beautiful chapter.

Don’t let these people get to you.

Don’t ever go home and say, you know, that dipshit loser was right. I am going to become an electrician instead. Or a plumber. Or a welder. Or an IT specialist.

I’m not going to degrade those fine, hard working people that love their craft.

The same, no one should degrade you for loving yours, and trying to reach new heights each day. Never be dissuaded.

Ever.

So here’s the sum of the post. People are going to shit on, give you shit, and make you feel like shit about your writing.

Tell each and every one of those people to put a bunch of rocks in their little pockets, and walk out into a lake.

You’re a writer. You’re emotional enough as it is. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life. The only thing you need to do is prove them wrong. All of them. One at a time if need be.

The bird flips here.

Aspiring, they say?

To all of my fellow writers out there — especially the unpublished — I have some advice.

Just like any advice, take it with a grain of salt. Kosher only, and add pepper.

All of you writers — word-smiths , scribblers, even wordcount grinders — I have one wish for you. You all, are writers of words. Whether those words have been mass-printed and sold around the world or not, that fact still stands.

The next time someone asks you what you do, don’t let your identity, your soul, become chained to that shit job you almost walk out of every single day. Don’t say, “I’m a fucking cashier at Walmart.” Be proud. Stand up straight, shoulders back with your chin in the air, and you say, “I am a writer.”

Because after all. That is what you are. Do not dull yourself down with that hideous word aspiring. You can’t aspire to do something that you are already doing.

And if that person that barged into your life and made you answer questions about yourself without your permission, if he still stands, pushing the subject further, and asks, “Sir/Madam, have I read anything that you’ve written?”, instead of asking him if he has ever read a book, ignore that gnawing, and simply say, “you soon will.”

And then…

Prove yourself right.

Thoughts on Fiction: Moods, Muses, and Moments.

There is a lot of information out there specifically intended for writers, and a lot of that information I’ve found to be misleading. It’s copy and pasted click-bait bullshit, posted by someone that doesn’t even write.

These articles usually focus around a few key things. You know the ones, “What you have to do to be a successful writer.” “10 habits of successful writers.” They talk about moods, muses, and time management, when it really only comes down to one thing.

Emotion.

Moods

I’ve read article upon article, blog upon blog, book upon book, that speaks of a certain inaccessible state of being that one has to be in to write effectively.

Sometimes, it’s recommended that you meditate to flush from yourself any ill wants, or wishes. You need to detox — send all of your bad feelings straight back to hell, and tap away at your keyboard with blind sublimity.

Flush that shit down the toilet.

What is writing other than conveyance of emotion? You want your reader to feel something, and you attempt to invoke that feeling through the almighty word of yourself.

So, how can you convey hate, evil, or even sadness for that matter, if you never write when you are down in that dark and horrifying place?

The most successful books I can think of are tempestuous monsters of emotional toil. They build you up, making something so bright and happy that your skin begins to prick up with excitement as you hallucinate that you’re the character you’re reading about. That’s shortly ripped away, often by someone dying, or some sort of love lost, and you’re left crying into your pillowcase for the next three days.

You feel pain, heartache, true joy, suffering, jealousy, anger, love, and you even laugh out loud. All within the span of 80,000 little black and white words.

The writer of those little black and white words wrote them with his or her heart. That’s why you can feel them, too. The writer most likely didn’t meditate, and drink some odd concoction thrown into a blender to give some seudo rush of dopamine. No. They simply wrote, and they put themselves in the shoes of the characters, feeling those emotions at all times.

It is the most human thing in us to feel all of those wonderful and horrible things.

Your book doesn’t have to be linearly written. When you are angry, write an angry scene, or write the POV of a character with a temper. When you are sad, write that depressing little chapter as you shed a tear on your keyboard. On and on, with everything you can feel. Denying your emotions while crafting art is about the most stifling thing I can think of.

Write with hate. Write with elation. The stronger the emotion, the more honest your work will be.

I promise.

Muses

Lots and lots of writers claim some sort of muse, something that inspires them, and guides the words together as they form them on whatever medium it is they use.

That’s great.

I regret, however, that most of the information out there (bad advice blogs) on muses, tend to dance around the subject, claiming that a muse is an actual, physical thing, whispering to you ideas for stories at every little interaction or piece of scenery you come across.

That’s not a muse. That’s emotional intelligence. Pat yourself on the back if that happens, to you, because it is the very thing that makes good writers.

Nothing whispers in your head. Nothing shows you images of what to write. If you’re truly hallucinating, and hearing voices, go to a doctor, now.

If you’re still here, I urge you to think about this:

Great writers are those that are inhumanly sensitive to the world. Sunsets bring tears to your eyes, or a beautiful, vast, landscape brimming with life — brimming with the lack of human touch, makes you pine for the life of a wanderer.

When you feel something, you feel it with all of your heart.

The Red Wedding still makes you cry just by thinking of it.

Your breath is swept away when your lover brushes their hand across your cheek, and you can see each and every little thing within their eyes that pulled you in all of those years ago.

It’s not a muse. It’s you being more aware of the world than anybody else; you catching that awareness, filing every bit of it away, and saving it to pour out on paper while you relive the whole experience over and over.

Don’t sell yourself short.

Also, lots of writer’s claim physical muses, that I’d argue are more of a crutch, and there’re some people who actually push this way of thinking. This idea that drinking and writing produce great works of fiction is ridiculous.

But, hey, I once fell in with that crowd.

When I would write drunk, I would produce some amazing prose, shit that I never ever thought that I could put into words. I also produced some of the most ridiculous, nonsensical crap that has ever been typed.

You know what I noticed now that I’m writing sober? I more consistently put out good work than I do bad. The swings have gone away, and a bad day for me now would be considered a good day when I was drinking.

People like to quote Hemingway, the famous, “write drunk; edit sober,” which, in fact, Hemingway never even said. Truth be told, Hemingway, one of the most loved authors of all time never wrote drunk. He was an alcoholic, and he wrote sober.

If there’s advice in there, which I believe there is, follow it.

The truth is, drugs and alcohol don’t enhance what words you put down. Generally, I’ve found for the average person, they do more to destroy them.

Artists on the other hand… Well, that’s a conversation for a different day.

Last but not least Mfers…

The horribly horribly misadvised:

Moments

I wrote a little about this yesterday. This, make yourself sit down and write so many words shit.

Don’t do it.

Do: Keep your goddamn eyes open.

Have you ever written a seen where you are trying to describe the way someone reacts to something, and you can’t quite put your finger on what the body language looks like?

Instead of making yourself write when you don’t want to, focus on taking notes. When you are in public, write little notes on your phone or notebook you keep in your back pocket about interactions you have.

What did it look like? What did that rainstorm look like as your drove to work? Get a little recorder, and speak it aloud. What did that foggy sunset look like on your drive home? Record it.

You saw a dog get hit by a car? Write your feelings.

You saw your best friend’s girl/boyfriend out with another guy/girl. Write down your feelings. Write down what his/her reaction is when you expose that heartless swindler for what they truly are.

Everything you see, touch, taste, hear, and smell is a tool in your arsenal, and you are witness to these things 24 hours a day. You don’t have to be writing prose all the time, and especially limiting that, or forcing it up to a certain word count. 1,000 words a day? Gimme a freaking break…

No.

But please, take notes.

Don’t stifle yourself.

And write the rest as you feel it.

 

Thoughts on Fiction: The Act of Writing

In the introduction to Stephen King’s fantastic book about writing, aptly titled, On Writing, he says something very interesting about writers, and I’ve since sort of latched onto it. He says that most writers don’t really understand a whole lot about what they do.

Not why it works when it’s good, and why it doesn’t when it’s bad.

He also says that most books about writing are filled with bullshit, and I’d have to agree with him.

So are most blogs about writing.

I’ve run across these types quite often just by searching words like fiction, or writing in the reader. All are filled with advice that’s simply been copied and paraphrased from famous authors who said some inane comment in an interview just to respond.

They say, “write 1,000 words per day, no matter what.”
They say, “write with your heart and follow your muse.”
They say, “comment below and I’ll follow you.”

They all read the same. Someone having a mid life crisis who sits around daydreaming about being a rich and famous author, but never finishes a god damn book. They post memes about coffee and how they can’t do anything until they’ve had three cups. They post minion memes for Christ’s sake.

I’m not here to bash people about their blogs, or what they decide to do with their time, but I’d just like to warn you to take those advice blogs with a grain of salt. It’s not advice. It’s bullshit, and it’s posted so they can get 600 phony likes on their page and a million other assholes, like themselves, commenting some drivel about absolutely nothing, just so people will, in turn, look at their shitty little blog.

If that offends you…

I was going to say, “I apologize,” but I don’t, so I deleted it.

Anyway,

Honesty.

The reason I title this crap, Thoughts on Fiction, is because that is what it is. I’m not here to tell you how to write fiction, or quote Hemingway’s drunk ass to you. I’m here to give you my thoughts.

Concerning 1,000 words a day:

That is one of the most bullshitty pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. It’s great for someone that actually writes, and it’s even better when it’s phrased as, “write AT LEAST 1,000 words a day.”

The truth is, most every writer that I know, myself included, can whip out 1,000 words in about 15 minutes. If you call yourself a serious writer, and you only work 15 minutes a day, I don’t know whether to call you a genius or an idiot.

Sure, some days people don’t feel like writing. You know what? Don’t write that day, then. Easy as that. I feel that forcing yourself to write 1,000 words would simply result in writing 1,000 shitty words.

And, I feel like this whole camp that constantly blogs about pushing out 1,000 words a day, no matter fucking what, aren’t writers at all.

Ok, right here, I’m going to give you one of my thoughts, but for once, it’s also some serious advice.

You ready for it?

If you have to make yourself sit down. Every day. And literally grind out 1,000 words. Every day. You know what? Writing isn’t for you.

I’m sorry. (not really.)

It’s that simple.

Having several discussions with other writers at writing groups, or online, or anywhere really — writers who pump out good, even great work, and lots and lots of it — they all have the same thing in common.

Never feeling forced to write. Writing, to successful writers, is like breathing. It is something that has to be done in order to survive. They never grind, and grind, to put down X amount of words, so they can go back to taking pictures of a fucking cup of coffee on a nightstand next to a stack of books, and posting a ridiculous blog about it, saying some useless shit about #writerslife.

These were the same people who asked you what you did in college, and when you said, “writer,” they said, “oh, I’ve always thought that I’d be good at writing books.”

Don’t feed these people. Writing is work, and every shitty little post entitled 25 Habits of Good Writers that is just a post of 25 quotes from every cliché famous author, just demeans what you, as an actual writer of words, does.

Also:

You should hallucinate when you write.

I don’t mean on hallucinogens. No. All of those writers that I was talking about, you want to know what other characteristic they share? They start writing, slowly at first, and then their subconscious takes over. They don’t see the words they are typing, they see the scene in their head as they go along, and suddenly, ferociously, 1,000 words was 4,500 words ago.

I’ve gone on sprees where I’ve written over 15,000 in one day.

I’ve gone on sprees where I didn’t write for four or five days, simply because I didn’t have anything to say.

I still get a lot of work done.

And that is what you should be focusing on. Sure, writing a lot does give you practice, and makes your writing better every single day, but I have news for you. Writing 1,000 words a day is not a lot of writing.

The only advice you need about writing is this:

Write when you have something to say, and write like whatever it is that presses on you so urgently, so violently that you have to put it out to the world, is the very something that set fire to the stars.

Because to you, it should be.

Your readers should be able to feel that fire in your words.