Oct 292014
 

Here’s my contribution to the wonderful Rocky Wood‘s Horror Selfies for the Horror Writers Association. Anybody can submit a photo, whether you’re a member of the HWA, a horror writer who’s currently an aspiring member, or just a crazy rabid horror fan like myself. The deadline to get yours in is November 6, 2014, and first prize is a ton of signed books by some noteworthy authors. So what do you got to lose? Like they say, you can’t win if you don’t enter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 October 29, 2014  Posted by at 5:32 pm writing No Responses »
Sep 212014
 

I knew I wanted to write when I was seven. Around nine or ten I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, just to name a few. I still wanted to write, and was constantly holed up in my bedroom pounding out weird stories while my brothers played outside. I emulated all my favorite writers, but was still looking for my own voice.

Carrie was released in 1974, but it would take another eight years before Stephen King even registered on my radar. I happened to pick up a copy of The Stand in 1982, four years after it was published. That novel changed everything for me. First of all, it instantly became my favorite book, and has remained so ever since. Secondly, I became a loyal King fan from then on, one of his “constant readers.”

Finally, it helped me to find my own voice as a writer.

Stephen King said that where other writers were filet mignon, he was a Big Mac. I know what he meant by that humble statement, and though there is some truth to it, I think he was really selling himself short at the time. And history has proven that he is a hell of a lot more substantial and significant.

He combined the fantastic with the mundane in a way that no one had ever really done before. And he made the horror feel more real by having the monster walk into a Burger King rather than a “fast food restaurant.” Or by showing the villain sipping a Pepsi instead of a “soft drink” or “soda.” You get what I mean. He not only put the reader in the make-believe world, he brought the make-believe into the real world, and the reader was like, “Man, this could happen.” He made it more intimate, somehow.

I know some people who refuse to read King because they say they’re not into “that kind of stuff.” And I get it. The guy made his bones as a horror writer. But those people who see him as nothing more than the Wes Craven of the literary world are really missing out. Stephen King is a philosopher and an astute observer of the human condition. He is a master of characterization. And, most of all, he’s a great storyteller.

I remember reading that King was in a grocery store, or some such place, when he encountered a woman who said she was not a fan of his, that she detested the sort of books he wrote. When they got on the subject of the movie adaptations of his stories, Stand By Me (originally titled The Body, from the collection Different Seasons), The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption (originally titled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, also from Different Seasons) came up.

She said, “Oh, you couldn’t have written those.”

When King asked her why not, she replied, “Because those are all wonderful stories.”

I love that.

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 September 21, 2014  Posted by at 10:15 am writing 2 Responses »
Sep 032014
 

This story is a little off my beaten path. There are no monsters, or time travelers, or space aliens. But it is dark. And that, my friends, is most definitely up my alley. Hope you enjoy it.

 

Airplanes and elevators. I hate them both. And it seemed no sooner had our stressful four-hour flight on the one ended (our brief cab ride through the dark, silent city being my only respite) than we found ourselves being hoisted aloft on the other. I’d left my stomach somewhere over Kansas. Figured I’d pick it up on my way back to California.

Naturally I’m not too keen on hospitals, either. Yet here I was in one—indeed, the very one in which I’d been born. It occurred to me (not for the first time) that the past is always reaching out to drag us relentlessly back, like a black hole from which even light cannot escape. It was a depressing thought. I squeezed Ellie’s hand and she looked up at me with a little wrinkle in her brow.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, although we both knew it wouldn’t.

We were alone in the small space, and I began to feel claustrophobic. My heart started pounding to beat the band and I realized I wouldn’t need to retrieve my stomach on the return trip after all. It had tracked me down and was in there now, doing somersaults.

When the elevator doors slid open on the ninth floor and the overwhelming smell of disinfectant (not to mention the underlying stink of sickness and dying) wafted in, it certainly didn’t help matters much. We exited the car and followed the signs to the ICU, an enclosed area made up of large-windowed rooms with a nurses’ station at its hub.

Hospital workers, some dressed in brightly colored smocks, others clad in green scrubs, bustled about on their various errands. Still clasping hands, my wife and I approached a mid-thirties brunette seated behind a horseshoe-shaped counter, intently tapping away at her computer keyboard. In one of the rooms I could hear a woman weeping softly.

The brunette looked up at us expectantly, and I was about to ask her which room my father was in when another  woman’s regrettably recognizable voice said behind us, “So…the prodigal son returns,” although she pronounced it prodijal.

I looked around and there she was. My stepmother. That feeling I mentioned before about the past being like a black hole engulfed me, and suddenly I was ten years old again and sitting in the backseat of my dad’s ‘65 Mustang. We were at the drive-in, the sun having just dipped below the horizon, and we were waiting for the first picture to start. Don’t remember what it was. I do recall Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” coming from the tinny speaker hooked on the driver’s side window. And I remember her turning around in her seat with that smug look on her hatchet face, telling me convincingly, hatefully, “You’ll never fill your father’s shoes.” My dad had been right there beside her, stuffing his mouth with great handfuls of homemade popcorn from a grease-stained brown paper bag. He never said a word.

Back then my stepmother wore a whorish amount of makeup and cheap perfume, the way some dull-witted women are wont to do. Standing before her now, I still found her scent overpowering, except it had become that sickeningly sweet old lady smell, which joined forces with the other offending odors in the air to really do a number on me. I breathed through my mouth in self-defense. It appeared she’d eased up on the face paint, but that judgmental look still sat perched on her pinched, just-sucked-on-a-lemon face. Her disapproving eye fell on Ellie for a second, then fixed back on me.

“I didn’t think you’d show up,” she said.

I shrugged. “Guess you were wrong.”

“I thought you’d be too busy living the good life out there in California to—”

“Where is he?”

She glared at me, and I wished I had a dollar for every time she’d ever looked at me that way.

“You know,” she said, her eyes drilling into me, “you never showed any respect, even as a kid. It’s so flustrating.”

I was struggling to keep my temper (and stomach) in check.

“Listen,” I said, “I  don’t have time for this. Just tell me what room he’s in.”

My wife, God love her, stood there holding my hand, not saying a word.

Meanwhile, my stepmother impaled me with a look of pure hatred. That look (along with everything else she had said and done to me over the years) might have hurt, had I ever given half a damn what she thought of me. But you have to care about somebody before they can hurt you in that way, and I never cared for her one lick. My father, on the other hand…

“He’s in nine-o-seven,” she spat, and there was enough venom in it to bring down a horse. Then she gave a parting shot as we brushed past her: “If he could talk anymore, which he can’t, I’m sure he’d ask you why you never call.”

We left her standing there in a cloud of her own poison and crossed the ICU to the room where my father lay dying of cancer. Ellie remained at the threshold while I stepped into the dimly lit space beyond.

And there he was. The man who had ruled my world like a towering, mad king…brought low at last. Standing there at the foot of his deathbed, watching his narrow chest rise and fall in short, shallow breaths, I thought, This is what I was so afraid of? I felt sudden anger well up inside me, and my stomach churned again in disgust at the sight of this weak and withered thing before me. The image of a dried up, dead leaf skittered across my mind, and I shuddered.

Then a flood of unwelcome memories rushed over me: how, when I was twelve, my uncle Jim had been visiting, and at one point had begun casually to flip through a story of mine which I’d left on the coffee table; how he had declared indulgently to me that someday I would be a great writer. And how, to my immense heartbreak and disillusionment, my father had rolled his eyes and countered simply, “I doubt that.”

I remembered being shamed into calling his wife my mother. I recalled the routine beatings. The endless, exhausting fear. And the crushing hopelessness, which became my constant companion.

I thought of the year my grade school elected to hold a sort of practice prom, I guess you’d say. To my delight and horror, I was voted king, and Julie something-or-other was chosen as my queen. It became the talk of our little town. But my dad balked at the idea of buying me a suit for the occasion. Over the next week I cajoled and complained. He wouldn’t budge. Finally, hours before the event, I lashed out in desperation. This got me banished to my room without supper that night.

For the next month or so everyone at the school (teachers included) shunned me for spoiling the festivities. I could offer only flimsy excuses, being too ashamed of the truth. Of course, it means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but at the time it was a big deal, and I was mortified. I mean, hell, I was just a kid, and the whole damn town was mad at me. Because of him. It was too much to bear. I hated him for putting me through that. And, moreover, for never simply saying he was sorry.

I looked down at what was left of the man of whom I had once been so afraid, yet had still somehow loved. Now his life was receding like his hairline.

I stepped to the bedside and he opened his eyes. When they finally focused on me, they became shiny with tears and a tired smile touched his lips. I leaned closer to him.

“Can you hear me?” I whispered.

He nodded.

“Good,” I said, “because I’ve got something to tell you, and I want to make sure you understand it. It’s this: you were a shitty excuse for a father.”

The smile melted off his face like candle wax. He now stared up at me with a mixture of hurt and disbelief.

“That’s right,” I said. “All those years ago, it wasn’t me who wasn’t good enough. It was you.”

He blinked in amazement, and a tear spilled down his gaunt cheek.

“I just wanted you to know that before you died—that you weren’t good enough. Not even close. I’ll never visit your grave, wherever that might be. And I promise you this: after I leave you here to rot, I’m going to do my damnedest never to think of you again.”

Then I went to the door, took my wife’s hand, and we got out of there.

That was two years ago. Other than writing this down, I’ve kept the oath I made that awful night. Because you should always keep a promise you make to someone on their deathbed.

It’s only right.

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 September 3, 2014  Posted by at 11:46 am writing 4 Responses »
Aug 182014
 

FEMBOTS!! I think we all know where this is going. Remember Westworld? And of course, there’s Blade Runner. Seriously, though, this is very cool. Kinda creepy, but cool nonetheless. I had no idea that the technology had advanced this far. Watch this robot, notice her mannerisms. Yes, I said “her.” My head keeps trying to remind me that it’s only a machine, nothing but wires and circuits. But after all, isn’t that what we’re made up of for the most part? Where is this leading? Will robots one day be able to feel love? Will they develop souls?

 

 

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 August 18, 2014  Posted by at 9:42 am writing 2 Responses »
Aug 112014
 

So Robin Williams is gone. Goddamn it. We lose him while soulless pricks like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh keep right on going, sucking up the oxygen and spitting out vitriol. I know my left leanings are showing here, but those are simply the first worst that came to mind.

I’m going to miss Robin Williams. He was one of those people whose humanity shined through so brightly, it was easy to see that better angel within. It’s sad to think of all the films and appearances he won’t make now. We’ve lost one of the good ones. I can’t think of anyone who didn’t love him. But I guess that’s just not enough sometimes.

It seems it was because of depression. I understand a little bit about that. I’ve had my own issues in that regard, which I plan to talk about in a future post. But for now I just want to say goodbye to a wonderful man, someone who gave the rest of us so much happiness while himself being fraught with despair.

And for those who will say that he took the coward’s way out, I’d just like to say go fuck yourselves. Making a statement such as that only proves someone’s limited understanding—or even capacity to understand—what people with depression are going through. And for all anyone knows, he may have taken the hero’s way out. None of us is God, and none of us has yet to unweave the tapestry of the great scheme of things.

You can’t hate someone for being sad. If you do, you’re an asshole.

I’m not a religious man. The closest thing I would come to calling myself is spiritual. But I’d like to believe that Robin Williams is in a better place. I know how trite that sounds, but it’s all I have. And I can’t see a shining light such as his simply being snuffed out for good and all. I just can’t.

So long, Robin. Love ya, man.

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 August 11, 2014  Posted by at 5:50 pm writing 2 Responses »
Aug 052014
 

I wasn’t a very good father. I could use the excuse that my own father wasn’t a very good one either, that I had no example to follow, so therefore I didn’t quite know how to go about it. And maybe there’s some truth to that.

But it’s not the whole truth.

My first marriage was a dreadful mistake. We “had” to get married. But we were desperately young and didn’t even know who we were yet. And it became immediately clear that whoever we were (or whoever we were on our way to being), we were two people who had absolutely no business being together. For one thing we both wanted something completely different out of life. This made us resent each other bitterly. But no matter how hard you try, you can’t make someone else want the same things you do. Just like you can’t live your own life according to someone else’s expectations. In my opinion, it’s folly even to consider it. But as I said, we were young.

The wedding was a dismal civil ceremony. That night, we went to my band practice and the guitar player gave us a bag of weed for a wedding present.

We ended up living with her mom and step-dad, which, I probably don’t have to tell you, was a tad tense. I remember coming home drunk one night and falling on my mother-in-law, who was sleeping on the couch at the time. I felt trapped, constantly scrutinized, and I resisted all attempts to domesticate me.

By the time my first son was born we had our own apartment. I tried to be a good dad, painted a picture of Raggedy Andy on the nursery wall, quit playing music, and went to work in a factory every day (mostly). But my heart wasn’t in it.

So I escaped. I joined the Navy on the pretense that I needed steady work, since the factory kept laying me off. But joining the military as a remedy for my ills was like removing a wart with a shotgun. I eventually brought my wife and young son out to California, where we lived together briefly in a decrepit little trailer. She hated being there, and the feeling was mutual. Finally she fled back to Indiana. Soon after I received word that she was pregnant with our second son. I got through my tour of duty and came home with an honorable discharge. But by that time I was divorced.

I hardly saw my sons after that. I have no excuse, really, only a reason. There was so much animosity left over after the disaster of my marriage that I found it abhorrent to be in the same room with my ex-wife (not to mention her family, who were there much of the time). I know that’s nothing new in the history of wrecked marriages, but it was a first for me. When I showed up to collect the boys, her family’s thinly-veiled scorn for me was like standing in front of a blast furnace. It turned me into a coward. Or rather it brought the coward out of me.

After a while it became a moot point, because she remarried and moved away, taking the boys with her. I hated myself for years after that, for allowing my weakness to best the love I had for my sons. I cried for them more times than I can count, which I know doesn’t account for much.

My sons are grown now, with kids of their own, and they’re each a better dad than I—or my father—ever was. I don’t think they realize how extremely proud I am of them, or how much I love them. Because my actions over the years have shown otherwise, and actions speak louder than words, which can be cheap.

I have a friend who’s raising two sons in Hawaii. She’s the most wonderful mom! I look at her frequent Facebook posts and marvel at the love and affection she showers on those beautiful boys. And I think of my own sons and say to myself, if only.

If I had it to do over again, I’d do things a lot differently. I’d be a better man than I was the first time around. I wouldn’t make those same mistakes. My first marriage (like a number of other things in my life) was something I handled badly.

But my sons are the best thing I’ve ever done, or ever will do.

 

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 August 5, 2014  Posted by at 9:45 am writing 2 Responses »
Jul 162014
 

While eating dinner with some friends in a restaurant last night, I was having trouble keeping track of the conversation. For one thing, the place was loud and my days as a musician have left me saying “what?” a lot. But that wasn’t really it. There was an odd little woman sitting at a table a few feet away. She looked to be in her mid-to-late thirties. But she was as small as a child. Her feet didn’t even touch the floor. And she was blind. A pair of dark goggle-like glasses hid her eyes, and her head turned and tilted toward the rest of the room as if picking up snatches of conversation. She wore a little flower-print dress, a child’s dress, worn and faded.

A man and a woman sat at the table with her, but I paid them no mind. My attention was focused on the tiny woman. I watched her every movement, her careful and deliberate grasping for her drinking glass and utensils, her hands placed flat on the table as she listened to her dinner companions. She fascinated me.

It’s not my intention to objectify her here, to make her out as some sort of cheap sideshow attraction. I saw her as a unique person, and from the moment she sat down she was more real to me than anyone else in that room. My heart hurt for her. I wondered what her story was, what happened to cause the burden she bore. What was her life like? What were her hopes? I could well imagine her fears. Though I’m sure she would have met my pity with resentment had she known how I felt, I still couldn’t help feeling it. She seemed like such a tragic figure. And what is pity anyway, but a sad kind of love?

I understand I’m probably sentimentalizing her. After all, I don’t know her. I might not even like her if I met her.

But somehow I doubt it.

A a writer I always people watch (some might call it eavesdropping), filing things away—mannerisms, quirks, whatever—for later. Sometimes someone jumps out at me in Technicolor, demanding to be seen, to be considered. To be remembered.

She will probably wind up in some future story of mine, and I only hope I can treat her with the respect and dignity she deserves while I try to understand her. And in the process, maybe come a little closer to understanding the rest of us.

Because I’m a writer, and it’s what I do.

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 July 16, 2014  Posted by at 3:51 pm writing 2 Responses »
Mar 242014
 

I’m personally not a big fan of serials, with a few exceptions (Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series and Hugh Howey’s Wool Trilogy being two), although I may be adding Matthew Mather’s Atopia Chronicles to the list. Mather gives some solid tips here on self-pubbing, which he calls his SHAKESPEARE system. I’m currently reading his novel Cyberstorm and I gotta say, it’s a damn engrossing story. So without further adieu, I give you Matthew Mather:

 

17699389I get a lot of requests from new authors looking for tips and advice on how to navigate the self-publishing book market. I created this document to summarize the approach that worked for me in getting started.

Exactly one year after publishing my first novel, Atopia Chronicles, a science fiction epic (followed a half a year later by CyberStorm, a present day tech-thriller in the vein of Crichton) I’ve managed to achieve some impressive success: 20th Century Fox purchased the film rights to CyberStorm, over 120,000 books sold, and ten foreign language publishing deals…tooting my own horn a bit but just trying to illustrate what’s possible.

My background as an entrepreneur shaped my thinking in approaching self-publishing. In the past I’ve managed my own successful start-ups, as well as helping start many other companies get started–handling everything from writing business plans to raising venture capital. I applied that same structured way of think about starting a new business to the business of marketing a book, and below I am sharing my SHAKESPEARE system for helping new authors reach their own self-publishing success.

I’d like to stress, however, that success comes by many routes, and luck is often a major contributing factor (whether people admit it or not!) But, in many ways, we tend to “make” our own luck, just by getting out and trying enough things, so I encourage everyone to try anything and everything they can!

A special thanks goes out to Hugh Howey (of Wool fame), who after reviewing my plan, added the final “E” for “Engaging with your readers”, something Hugh is absolutely the master at!

If you have any questions, suggestions, comments, feel free to email me!

So here it is: SHAKESPEARE

(This is written for writers producing fictional works, but most of the same principles should work for non-fiction as well)

 

Serialize

As attention spans shorten in the online (and real) world, readers don’t trust a new author enough to read 400 pages to get the point. For a new author, a winning approach is to serialize, to create your work as a set of progressively longer stories that connect together through cliffhangers to get a reader hooked. And speaking of that…

Hook

The first short story needs to be punchy and tell a complete story in itself while leaving the reader wanting to know more. Even more than that, you need to hook the reader on the first page somehow, create a mystery, a reason and need to keep reading.

Amazon

To start, focus only on Amazon. I’m not here to promote Amazon, but the first rule of entrepreneurism is to focus, focus, focus. The large majority of revenue in digital books comes from Amazon, with a small minority coming from all of the other players combined. So when you start, focus on Amazon by itself; getting reviews, getting up in the ranking. By only going on Amazon, you force people to buy from one place and thus drive up your rankings in this one spot. Once you have achieved some success there, expand to other platforms (FYI the easiest way to get on other platforms is just to use Smashwords).

Key networks

Make sure to use your personal social networks to maximum effect. Post on Facebook and ask people to re-post your postings for free book offers. Make sure to email everyone at work on the “internal” email (ask your boss first, of course!) Use your LinkedIn network to mention that you have a book out. What other networks are you a part of?

Try emailing top-selling authors in your category when you release the first installments of your work. Ask them to read the first one (by starting with serialized shorts, it makes it easier for other authors to try reading your work), or just ask them to post on their blog or Facebook. When I released Atopia, I had about five or six top-selling authors who posted to their readers for me!

Empathize

It is critical to create a character that you introduce readers to right away that they can empathize with. People read still primarily because they want to feel an emotional involvement with a character they meet in your writing. Keep this front and center of your mind when writing.

Select Program on Amazon

Use the Amazon Select Program: You can offer your book for $0 (free) for 5 days each 3 months. Used effectively, this is an extremely potent tool for reaching an audience. There are at least 40 websites I use to promote a “free weekend” for my books (email me for a list) – these sites are mostly specific to books that go free on Amazon Select and are mostly free to use for promotion.

If you can plan it ahead of time, write out all of the parts of your serialized work ahead of time, and then each two weeks release one of them, promoting it on Amazon select for free and on the promotional websites. I can usually get 4000+ downloads of a free book when I do this.

Perceived Value

Create perceived value by offering a deal. For instance, try and divide your ‘whole’ work into 6 parts, and sell each for $0.99, and then offer the whole ‘collection’ at half price, e.g. $2.99 for all six. This creates perceived value on the part of the buyer when you start to sell the whole collection

Editing

If your work is not edited well, you will get killed in the reviews and in word of mouth. As a first pass, make sure to find some friends or family to have a look. If you can’t afford a professional editor, trying going on Craigslist and find some just-graduated English lit major to edit your book on the cheap. A “real” editor can be quite expensive, but there is no excuse to not get an external editor of some kind, and not getting one will kill your chances of success.

All free posting websites

Craigslist and other free online classified ads are the secret weapon for a new authors. It is incredibly difficult to get outside feedback when you are a new writer. My solution? Post an ad saying you’ll pay someone $10 or $20 to read your book and give you honest feedback. Note that this is not for line editing, but for high level feedback to make your story more engaging in an iterative process.

Bonus: Get 20 people to read your book like this; these people will probably become your biggest promoters and will be happy to write reviews and Facebook and tweet your book when released.

Free PR – When you release your book, create several press releases about different aspects of the book, what it is about, why people would like it. When you release each of the story segments, put these press releases up on the free press release websites. There are about a dozen high quality free release sites out there. Highlight that the short story that is free that week.

Reviews

It is critical to get reviews as this has a direct impact on the Amazon ranking and recommendation system. YOU CANNOT do fake reviews. Apart from the ethical issues, Amazon has an impressive array of technical tools to make this very difficult. Instead, be honest and creative; use friends, family, co-workers; and see my point regarding Craigslist and getting people ready to punt for your project.

Engage

Find any and all ways to engage with your audience once you start to get readers. Do a video blog on YouTube about the process, do a regular blog showing progress on next books and stories, get people to your Facebook page. Just get engaged with them somehow!

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 March 24, 2014  Posted by at 11:31 am writing No Responses »