Writer, Unwritten, Dyslexic

If you achieve any measure of success in the fiction writing field, measured here by if you manage to be published and be paid for what you wrote, it becomes common to hear the words “talent” applied. People assume you were born with a pen in your hand, you have something other within you that allows you to fashion words in a way that other people are simply lacking. You possess a knack for wordsmithing intrinsic to your internal self.

I can’t speak for the legion of writers who argue the talent versus persistence argument or derivations thereof; what I know is that I was not born with it. Gasp! I know. Blasphemer that I am, I wanted to confess.

I was not born with a muse astride my shoulder, I was not born with a pen in hand. If anything, I had the opposite experience.

Hard to say what happened to the wiring in my brain. I was a bright, laughing child thrown into odd circumstances with numerous challenges. But all in all, I was given the tools to explore, to learn, and to engage with my environment in every way possible before I even set foot into grade school. However, as the deadline neared, it became apparent something was off, something was different.

When they sat me down with pen and paper in an effort to teach me to write my name, the elements of writing could never coalesce. It wasn’t merely that I was learning something new — I could not make sense of the cyphers and figures. Words bent and mirror scripted. Walked backwards and crawled up the walls and off the paper. These sessions ended with hair raising screams and running away. I was not a loud or noisy or greedy or disruptive child. From the start, I presented as introspective, analytical, and weirdly older than my age. For me to throw pen and paper to the ground was unusual.

I was diagnosed with the learning disability of dyslexia. I laugh with the common jokes that come with the territory, but it doesn’t describe the shape and form of what happens inside my skull — things turn backwards and inside out. I would go to the wrong side of doors and cars, put on clothes backwards, shoes on the wrong foot, and time itself was illusory, difficult to wrangle and catch hold of. Buildings did not seem correctly built for my needs and shifted their exteriors, doorknobs slippery and turning in the wrong direction. A switch tripped between what I saw and what the reality was.

Words, nor numbers, then, were not my forte. Instead, teachers and parents forced me to learn the language of the masses, not the language of my native senses. From the start, I was constrained and frustrated; at the time, it was miserable. I had to restart the school year from scratch. They put me into the “slow classes” where I stayed until they advanced me in middle school. There, I did not fit in with either those children, nor the ones in the regular classes. From the beginning and ever after, I would always be fringe, liminal, and between worlds, belonging to none, in the world but not of it. Uncanny, by my very nature.

It was a miserable son of a bitch teaching fifth grade classes who inadvertently forced my thinking into another direction. When the time came to sort students out into different groups of readers, with assignments of varying difficulty, I was relegated to the bottom level. I became incensed. After all this time finally mastering writing and reading along with my peers, I saw no reason why I should not have a say in my own education. My anti-authoritarian identity became restless; I took matters into my own hands. Though I could not promote myself in the class, I swiped a copy of the book the advanced readers were assigned, and read it on my own, without help. The book was Watership Down by Richard Adams.

This was but the beginning. Many encounters with written works, words, and writers, would slowly take part in my formation as a writer. I wrote in earnest, awful, limping stories that barely made it over the finish line. Novellas of the worst nature, fit for firewood and not much else. Yet, they were the beginning, and I sent the first of my god-awful stories out when I was thirteen or fourteen, in 1994, when print markets had to be submitted to by mail, and earned my first rejection slips.

Today, I’m actively submitting stories to pro venues and sometimes, they publish me and pay me enough money to keep the electric on. Better yet, Skyhorse Publishing has taken me onto their roster and published Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell, my debut last year, and this year, My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart.

The assumption becomes that I must be really good at this writing thing. Kinda, sorta, maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that I still reverse my words from time to time and reading words inverted is effortless. My co-workers in my graphics department have a laugh about how I’m the only one who works on advertisements upside down and sideways without changing the layout to suit myself. I don’t see why I should — the words are still the same no matter which direction they go in. It has become the strength through which I solve problems, to look at the world from a dynamic perspective, and perceive totalities and patterns others miss by inverting the way we define things. And this often bleeds into the stories themselves — characters whose viewpoints are challenged, their fundamental understandings shaken, and unable to take the most commonplace ideas for granted.

The point is, I started out with strikes against me. I started out with a learning disability and through sheer stubbornness and contrariness, learned the craft and will always be learning it. Mistakes will be made. Tears will be shed and blood and sweat spilled. I compete against people far more intelligent and competent than I and I expect, nay, demand, no quarter be given. If writing is something you want to do, pursue it. Don’t hold back because you think, not me, I’m not good enough, I wasn’t born with the right talent, the right skills, the right abilities. I sure as hell wasn’t. By no right or stroke of fortune should I even be here, doing what I do.

In some cases, resistance is not the thing that prevents one’s success, but the very force that propels it.

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Writer, Unwritten, Dyslexic

Interview with Maggie Slater

IMG_0380Maggie Slater is many things: accomplished writer, an experienced slusher, a parent. Today, she shares with us her take on the writing life and its many facets.

Do tell us your genesis as a writer. How did you become the writer you are now?

Although it probably sounds a bit cliche, I’ve been interested in telling stories since before I could write. In fact, my mother—saint that she was—used to write down stories I dictated to her when I was really little. I also told atrocious jokes that made no sense.

I started getting serious about writing—and by serious, I mean completing short stories and submitting them—my freshman year of college. I sent out my first short story to the Fantastical Visions new-writer contest, and wouldn’t you know it? The story was accepted! First thing I ever submitted! Wow, I thought, this is it! This is the start!

And then, although I did continue to write short stories and even submit some of them, I pretty much sat on my butt and waited for that story to come out in print. Fast forward five years later, after many delays, it finally did, but I’d been so hung up on that one publication, I hadn’t done much during the waiting time. I’d had one other short story published for no pay, but otherwise, I wasn’t much further than where I’d started.

But I’d done a lot of writing, so I had improved a lot. During that time, I’d completed what my mother and I call “The Chekhov Year” in which we both tried to write one short story a week for a year. In the end, I wound up with forty-two rough drafts, most of them crud on a stick, but I’d learned how to cull my ideas down to short story size. Since then, I’ve even sold a couple of those Chekhov Year stories, after some decent editing!

By that time, I was married, had a full-time job, and had started working for Apex (the anniversaries for both my marriage and Apex fall within a two-week period, actually). I wrote extensively during my hour lunch breaks, slushed for Apex in the evenings, and reviewed fiction for Tangent Online on the weekends. I even sold a couple other stories to Jason Sizemore on a pair of independent projects he was doing. Then I retreated into longer-form fiction for a while, and am just now—on the heels of Zombies: More Recent Dead reprinting my short story “A Shepherd of the Valley”—emerging back to short fiction again, and collecting those rejection slips!

Do you have any particular influences, or books that stand out?

Hmm, tough question. I am completely enamored with Edith Wharton’s ghost stories (and all her work, if I’m honest), and Roald Dahl’s adult dark fiction. Haruki Murakami has been a huge influence recently. Asimov’s short fiction was really what got me into the short-form, and Octavia Butler’s longer SF—it’s dedication and approachability—really rocks my socks.  Maureen McHugh is a huge favorite in the SF field, also, and I recently discovered Shirley Jackson’s longer fiction, particularly We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Jack London has always been a favorite, too. I read Martin Eden not that long ago, and honestly, it’s a book I think almost any aspiring writer ought to read. That, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, and Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (which has one of the best sequences discussing artistic talent I’ve ever read).

I think it takes a special kind of writer that wades into the slush pile. Is there anything you can share with us about the experience? Did the slush pile teach you anything about writing you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?

It was a wonderful learning experience. It’s one thing to read a market’s guidelines and guess at what they want. It’s another thing entirely to see the inner workings, how editors choose what stories to publish—and why or why not! I saw some really great stories get passed on because they just didn’t quite fit what we needed or wanted at the time; I’ve seen how badly authors can respond when given even a pleasant rejection. It taught me why most markets don’t offer feedback with rejections (in terms of time, author response, and clarity—sometimes a story just “doesn’t work” for you, and it may hit another editor at a different market just right). It also taught me how hard editors and slushers work behind the scenes, often just for the love of fiction. And it taught me how tough the competition for publishing slots really is: as a new author you’ve got to bring your A-game, because the other authors getting to the editor-in-chief’s desk are pros and you’ve got to be that much better to knock them out. It’s mortal combat!

Perhaps most importantly, slushing taught me why reading a market before submitting to them is important. When I was just starting out, I used to balk at a market suggesting that I buy a copy of their magazine to see what they publish. It struck me as a cheap way to make money off desperate writers. But the truth is, most submissions are rejected because they just don’t fit what the market publishes. A familiarity with a market guarantees you’ll be sending them stuff that at least generally fits the mood and tone of what they publish, and that’s bound to get you into the top 20-30% of submissions. Whether that helps you sell your story to them is another challenge entirely, but knowledge of the market will at least give you an edge-up on a vast majority of other submissions.

Slushing is an absolutely amazing way to learn about the industry and about writing short fiction. I’d recommend it to any aspiring author if they can make the time for it.

I admire that you’ve taken a leap into another arena involving a lot of hard work: motherhood. Is there anything you’d like to share about learning to balance the creative life alongside parenting responsibilities? Any advice for the many mothers and fathers who wear these different hats?

This is actually something I blog about quite a lot these days, maybe more for myself to keep track of the ebbs and flows of my current creative process. When I was pregnant, I looked around for information about how people dealt with babies and writing, and didn’t find a huge amount. Maybe I looked in the wrong places. But I wanted to be honest on my blog about how challenging this chunk of life can be, balancing kids and writing.

Having the Little Man around has certainly changed a lot in my writing life, mostly in terms of time and being able to sit down when I want to and write. When I worked full-time, I could brainstorm during the day and then come right home and write. Or I could write on the weekends. Now, there’s no guarantee I’ll get any time at all during the day to write, or in any of the days to follow. My husband is finishing med school, and for the last year has been rotating at a hospital a state away, so I’m pretty much on my own with the Little Man. No breaks for this lady! It’s made me much less of a procrastinator, because when I’ve got something I want to work on, when the Little Man’s eyes close, I’m writing! Now if only he’d nap more regularly…

I’ve also got some great friends and family who are willing to watch the Little Man for a half hour to two hours (if he lets them! Lately, we’ve been hitting a separation-anxiety wall, and a half-hour with someone else in a home not his own is about his limit). That’s been immensely helpful. Oddly, I’ve gotten a lot more fiction out in the eight months since he’s been born than I have ever previously. I think that comes from the perpetual distraction: I’m finding it much easier to edit than to compose new work, so I’ve been on an editing binge, getting things fixed and submitted. It’s been a nice change!

The main thing I would advise is something I’m still working on myself: cut yourself some slack and enjoy this time. Don’t guilt yourself. You’ve got enough on your plate. Babies disrupt everything, and if holding yourself to too-strict goals or timelines just makes you miserable, let the goals go for now. If you get time to read, read. If you have an idea you really want to work on that is burning a hole in your brain, see if there’s a family member or friend who can give you a little time to focus on that. But most importantly: just relax. You’re sleep-deprived, you’re worn out, you’re on this huge learning curve as a new parent (or new parent of two or more—gosh, they especially need to cut themselves some slack!): it’s okay to not write everyday if you can’t. Or write one sentence. There was a time even before the Little Man when I couldn’t get ten minutes to myself. I used the “write one sentence” goal to get a tiny bit of something done every day, and that assuaged a lot of guilt. And someday, the kiddo will nap again, or play at other kids’ houses, or go to school, and you’ll have a lot more time to get things done then.

Could you tell us about your short story appearing in the recent anthology edited by Paula Guran, Zombie: More Recent Dead?

Sure! “A Shepherd of the Valley” is a story about a man left completely alone after the zombie apocalypse, who is struggling to find meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. He’s lost and lonely, searching for a faith that left him long before the zombie uprising, something that can justify his existence and forgive his past. When an injured girl who reminds him of his long-lost teenage daughter enters his life, he comes face-to-face with the man he’s become, and reevaluate his new life’s ministry. Is it worth trying to save the souls of the already walking-dead?

I wanted to write a story that examined what happened after the apocalypse, after almost everyone was gone. What kind of life can one have in such isolation, when the only others around would be more than happy to chomp on your brains? What does that do to one’s faith in a higher power, or lack thereof? It’s a ships-in-the-night kind of story about two lost souls coping with a ruined world in very different ways.

Do you have anything you’re working on at the moment that you’re excited about?
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Actually, with all that “free time” I have, I’ve recently started an Etsy shop selling “snake-oil” designed bottles for writerly ailments. I usually put Tic-Tacs in mine, and use them to “cure” writer’s block, the blues of rejection, and to spur productivity.

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Obviously, as placebos, the Tic-Tacs themselves don’t actually *do* anything, but it makes me laugh and they’re still tasty. They’re quite fun to design, and it’s a wonderful creative outlet for my graphic art interests.

DrE_RutRemedy_FrontI’m somewhat slow to get them listed, but I’ve got a whole line-up of them coming soon. You can see the current postings listed here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ThePlaceboEmporium .

 We thank Maggie Slater for taking the time to share her insights and experience with us. She has a blog where you can keep up with the latest in Slater’s writing life.

Interview with Maggie Slater

What The Vultures Showed Me

I watch vultures, when I get the chance. I mostly see them the same time you see them — when a truck snags a deer on the highway and you roll past the carnage. By the time you come along, the deer might look as though it laid down and went to sleep by the side of the road. Depending on what condition it’s in, it might look like it had a bar fight just before hand. And if it’s warm out, even if you’re in a more densely populated area, the vultures come.

There are vultures, and then there are turkey vultures. Turkey vultures are huge and monstrous and the best way to describe them if this were a 1 star Amazon review is that they look like understudies for Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. They look like hamburger meat ice-cream scooped onto a scare crow’s body, a scaly beak skewering vomit. One Thanksgiving, I came around a bend of road and nearly took one out with my car. His wingspan encompassed the entire windshield and for an instant I was pinned, helpless in the driver’s seat and eye to eye with this reptilian beast, as though I could see right back into his retina, all the way into pre-history where his ancestors fed on the meat of fallen dinosaurs. And then he was gone. I never really forgot him, but that had not been my first run in.

By the gods, they’re hideous. I’ve seen people scream at them, shudder at the mention of them. There was a time I perceived them as ugly, too. Even in our lexicon, we tend to use it as a derogatory term to describe people who steal from others unfairly, who have not earned what they took. That’s well and good in our human community, but out in the indifferent universe, vultures will never hang their heads in shame to be vultures. Try looking one in the eye, like I did. You’ll be the first to look away. And after all — what did they take that was not going to go to waste in the long run, anyway?

In 2001, I was 22 and trying to find employment before the school semester ended. That same week, I got a call back to work at a New Jersey State Park. When I try to look back and remember that time, time itself is disjointed. That year was book-ended by a death and then the WTC on September 11. I was reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves in the middle of the Jersey Pine Barrens, home to the rumored Jersey Devil. A chaotic and strange period of life that they say I will never really grow past — that I will, internally, be arrested at that same age for all of my life. They say the same of Kurt Vonnegut’s own pivotal experiences — his biographer speculated that it was not the bombing of Dresden, but rather, the cumulative effect of being forced to enter basements and pull out corpses in the stifling air at gun point afterwards, that stopped Vonnegut in time, forever and ever.

And so it goes.

But at the time, I found myself weirdly employed at a State Park and the employment itself wouldn’t last long. But while it did last, every morning I put the flag up the pole at the entrance and then trudged in to open the public areas, among which was an outbuilding at the lake shore. In another hour, other personnel would arrive, but for this hour at dawn, I had the place to myself.

The sun would rise over the rim of the mixed oak and pine trees. Scattered over the shore in one long line at the water’s edge, vultures gathered there. I had never seen this in my life, though I had seen many strange things in the wild. With their backs to me, they could not see me, but they waited for the sun to come over the horizon and then they opened up their wings and balanced there, soaking in the sun in their communal salutation. It was indescribable to explain how birds so wretchedly ugly underwent a golden metamorphosis, to spy upon them at their effulgent congregation. They brought a silence with them, deep and everlasting. They’d stay for as long as possible until people began to file in, and then they’d leave as though they’d never been, and reappear the next morning, to do it all over again.

It wasn’t that they had anything to tell me in particular; but what they showed me, by the shore, was like seeing a seam pulled wide in the curtain of the universe and catching glimpses of this ancient machinery. The chance to ponder the construction of it, to know it at last, this thing greater than yourself, and how small it renders you. Vultures are a brutal reminder than no amount of hubris and opinion, righteousness and good intentions balance out your scales at the end of life. The vulture knows no shame, exalts in the sun, and then leaves quietly, without notice, an invisible presence beyond the sight of humanity.

I took strict lessons from my fellow vulture. Like the vulture, I hide away at my desk. I roll in this carcass I call a novel,  pull it apart with my beak, rearranging sinew and muscle. I toil in secret, and disappear at the first stirring of life. It is the work itself that humbles; and when you take us all in our totality, and you realize that indeed, there is an invisible fleet of us at work in like fashion. We are all the same, seeking warmth and comfort before we scatter and separate. You need only look past your shoulder, and discover a long line of others just like you, wings outstretched. Faces, turned. Awaiting the sun.

What The Vultures Showed Me

Interview: Ben Eads of Cracked Sky

Everyone, welcome Ben Eads to the blog. His novella Cracked Sky launches this month. From the synopsis:

Reeling from the loss of their only child, Stephen and Shelley Morrison learn that her killer has been found dead. What they don’t know is that his agenda goes far deeper than the grave. Beyond the storm, beyond the crack in the sky—where their daughter lies trapped with The Lost Ones—something is using Stephen and Shelley’s agony to fulfill its goals: Terrorize. Consume. Destroy.

I’ve known Ben awhile through the horror community, and when I heard he was venturing into publication with a novella, Cracked Sky, I couldn’t resist reading the story and then finding out more about Ben and his writing process.

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Omnium Gatherum is releasing your novella, Cracked Sky. Congratulations! Tell us a little about the story without giving too much away.

BE: Thanks! I’m really excited about the release, and working with Kate Jonez was an absolute blast. Cracked Sky is a horror novella about a couple trying to cope with the loss of their only child, Allyson. Once they learn her murderer has been found dead, and that Allyson’s in a very bad place, they have to summon the courage, the hope, to heal themselves, as well as save their daughter from a nightmare-world, birthed from somewhere between the stars.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, either about writing in general or what’s involved in submitting to a publisher and making a sale?

BE: I’ll just say what other writers like Joe R. Lansdale, Stephen King, etc… have said: Read a lot and write a lot. It’s always worked for me. You have to be well read so that you can develop something unique. After all, it’s all about the story. Find beta-readers that are capable of constructive criticism. They’re worth their weight in gold. Trust that. It took me a few years to find only three individuals who are absolutely indispensable. Never stop growing; take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. Inspiration is bullshit—it’s everywhere and around you, always.

I’ve helped a few presses with submissions—still am!—and I find it always comes down to the story itself. What happens? What does it accomplish? Unless your work re-kindles the magic you felt from other magicians, then step it up! Use those as litmus tests. Oh! And emotions…especially horror. King advised in his book On Writing, you shouldn’t come to the blank page lightly. Submit your A+ work. Be professional. Be patient. Know the press you’re submitting to. Do they publish the kind of fiction you’ve written? You wouldn’t believe how many times I would read a story from the queue only to find another with the exact same premise. Be fast! If something news-worthy occurs that you could mine something from, write it as soon as possible and be the first to submit it. You must keep your finger on the pulse. Despite the hits the publishing industry has taken due to economic woes—turn a negative into a positive.

How did the idea for Cracked Sky come to you?

BE: I’m still trying to figure that one out. Ha! I noticed that the theme of loss kept cropping up in my short fiction. And when the concept, the “movie-trailer” of Cracked Sky played in my mind, I realized I needed a bigger canvas. That’s how it began. And, my oh, my, was it big!

One of the things that struck me, as a reader, was the realism of your characters. I wasn’t left with the impression they were cardboard cutouts, and I thought your handling of Stephen and Shelley’s troubled marriage was very genuine. Was that something you intended to come across for your characters or just a natural by-product of the story?

BE: Thanks for the kind words! I’m happy to say the advance praise and support has reflected this. It was both, actually. The strength these characters had in my imagination were easy to draw from, and take over the story. They really started writing themselves and showing me where they were going. However, it was very depressing getting into Stephen, Shelley and, especially Darrell’s head-space. So I developed a routine to keep a balance. Making each one’s speech unique, real. I recommend that aspiring writers read their character’s dialogue aloud.

The foundations of Stephen and Shelley’s relationship came about through trusting my characters. What’s their body language say? These were “tells” to me. I was still refining their relationship during the final edits, just to make sure the perfectionist inside me covered every base.

How long have you been writing, to get to this stage in your writing path?

BE: I wrote my first short story when I was ten. I wrote through high-school, and would write short fiction from time to time. I even submitted work I felt was great, at the time. Ha! But I wasn’t taking it seriously. In 2008, after I was laid off due to the economic disaster, I took it seriously. By seriously, I mean actually submitting my work and seeking help from others who could tear my work to shreds, so I could grow. So…about 6 years.

Do you draw from your experiences in real life at all?

BE: Sure. I think everyone does, to a certain extent. At this stage in my life, I don’t have any children. However, the loss of my career, my house, loved ones, etc… were anchors. There were a lot of emotions to pull from. Millions of Americans were affected by this crisis they had no part in. Many of whom are still affected, sadly. It was palpable. I recall neighbors trading services to fix their homes. One family needed a new tile floor, another needed a roof, so they bartered. It truly was inspiring to see everyone come together and find hope amidst great adversity. I also lost a dear friend due to suicide.

Are there writers who inspire you?

Oh, yeah! Too many to list, but I’ll indulge myself: Karen Russell—especially her novel, Swamplandia!—Lovecraft, Maugham, Barker, Kealan Patrick Burke, Gene O’Neill, Rena Mason, Fran Friel, Lucy Snyder, Lansdale, Philip K. Dick, Bradbury, Maupassant, Machen, Trumbo, Jorge Luis Borges, Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Charles L. Grant, Theodore Sturgeon, O’Henry, etc…

How can interested readers connect and keep up with you?

BE: Thanks for asking! The Cracked Sky Newsletter is your one-stop-shop for everything Cracked Sky and, well, me. You can subscribe by going to my website www.beneadsfiction.com and entering your email address. I’m also heavily active on Facebook and Twitter. And you can always drop me a line: ben@beneadsfiction.com

Ben Eads has also recently become the marketing consultant at Crystal Lake Publishing, and we wish him success in this as well as his new novella.

You can find Cracked Sky through Amazon.

Interview: Ben Eads of Cracked Sky

Year’s End, Dear 2014

Dear 2014,

We need to have words, you and I. In the beginning, you weren’t my favorite, but I had no idea of how deep the rabbit hole would go and how bad it would get between us.

Dear 2014, you threw everything at me. We fought and warred with abandon. And when you ran out of weapons, you went after people I cared about. You took shots at my family, my beloved, my friends.

Dear 2014, you threw my heart into a garbage disposal and yanked it out to show me what was left and there wasn’t a whole helluva a lot.

Dear 2014, you beat me raw while I was bent over a typewriter, putting it down into words.

Dear 2014, it wasn’t enough.

Dear 2014, you made me run, fight, laid me out on the floor exhausted and every muscle spent. Reformed my body. You turned the food in my mouth to ash; and when it was all said and done, I came out a philosopher, a vintner, an astrologer, an author, a unrepentant pagan learning the names of forgotten gods. I drank the wine of the centaur Pholus, bowed to Saturn’s unforgiving demands.

Dear 2014, at the very end, all this toil went to the book Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell, and saw its publication through Talos at last, after nearly four years in limbo.

Dear 2014, thanks for giving me the one thing that gave me any semblance of hope.

Dear 2014, thanks for seeing the sequel to my first novel, My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart get picked up by Talos here at year’s end.

Goodbye, 2014. It couldn’t last between us. We knew it was a one time thing. Not gonna lie, I’m happy to see you pack up your shit and leave. That? No, that’s mine. Put it back down. And leave the key. I’ll be changing the locks later this afternoon. Also, you can’t have that Her Name Is Calla album, either.

Dear 2014, get the fuck out.

Goodbye, 2014. You and I have nothing left to say to each other.

Dear 2015. I’ve heard a lot about you, and I look forward to getting to know you more. Would you like to chart the stars with me? I’ve set the mead to ferment, and the seeds are sown in my medieval garden where the spirits dwell. We’ll read cards together and talk philosophy. We’ll read ancient and forgotten books together. I’ll tell you secrets the universe kept hidden. We’ll tell shocking and astonishing stories to chill the blood and quicken us. I’m warning you now, the heart is fickle, 2015 — our love won’t last, but it will burn hot and fierce while we hold it between us. What say you, 2015?

Come hither.

Year’s End, Dear 2014

On Failure, On Rejection, On This Miraculous Life

Recently, “failure” seems to be a recurring subject. Maggie Slater turned my mind in the direction of failure after reading her blog post this morning, “Thoughts On Failure.” Which quickly brought to mind Nick Mamatas, who wrote “Of Success and Failure,” regarding his difficulty in whipping up writers to speak on a panel about, you guessed it, failure.

Talos recently published my first novel, Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell. How it got from pen to shelf is a head trip, but ironically, Maggie Slater was a part of that trip — the failing part. And that’s not in a negative sense of the word in any wise. That is, she was one of the first to reject the manuscript. Being professionals, we were cordial and I thanked her for her time. I was happy to find her blog a few years later as Bring Me Flesh was going to press, and leading us, inexorably, to this odd point in time — to a blog on failure.

I have, roughly counting, about 300 rejections. I know this because I keep a spreadsheet, but the spreadsheet is missing maybe two years worth of rejections, and the spreadsheet doesn’t keep track of the rejections accumulated by various trunk novels, submissions to agents and editors. It could be more than 300. I’ve had published/slated for publication 21 short stories out of those 300 rejections, and one novel. I have a heartbreaking list of held submissions at coveted venues that came to naught, because in the end, “almost” only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. And in all that time, while I knew I was striving for some kind of goal, I was so busy just trying to survive my life, ideas of “failure” and “success” never really entered my head in the same fashion as others.

I meet rejection with stoic placidity. Ah, they didn’t like it, they hated it, they don’t have room enough for it, my name doesn’t sound like money enough for it, I don’t go square dancing with pink elephants every second Wednesday of the month, whatever the reasons are, they are legion, and that is what the writing life tends to be about. A wall of rejections. When my then agent offered to let me pass on seeing the editorial rejections, I was confused. “So you don’t get depressed,” she explained. I think I might have put the phone down and looked around for someone to explain to me what she was talking about before it occurred to me that wow, people take rejections personally. People cry when they get rejected, people get upset and never write again when they get rejected.

I honestly had no idea. I still have my first rejection slip from when I was 13. Since the moment I had the audacity to be yanked out of the womb, rejection has been the order of the day. I didn’t walk right — they slapped leg braces on me. I couldn’t write — they diagnosed me with dyslexia and held me back a year. One of my earliest childhood memories was winning a contest in school and having the teacher promptly forget I existed and hand the prize to a different person. My unfortunate tendency to be invisible makes this phenomena a repeat event. I remember being told a neighbor strangled our rooster to death and that, apparently, was that. My favorite dog, a bear-sized Newfoundland, died in the cornfield of congestive heart failure and it was the first time I remember crying over something that couldn’t just get better. Broken stalks of corn, and that huddled mass of black fur out in the field. And those are just a collection of small experiences. They would be dwarfed in size by greater heart breaks to come, by astounding reversals of fortune ahead, by the tumult one can only experience when the wheel of fate turns, crushes you, and then turns to do it again until you have the sense enough to grab the spokes and pull out of the rut. Some never realize there are spokes in that wheel. Some never get out.

What does all that have to do with writing? By comparison, rejections, the failings of writing and publishing — are diminished before the more terrible rejections life can offer you. I have no idea if Bring Me Flesh is selling well or selling poorly. I give it what promotion I can without being overbearing, I support it as much as I am able. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the book is a runaway success or it stays weighted to the shelves like a grand piano — I still have to get up in the morning and face the blank page. I still have responsibilities to people in my life who matter to me. I still have to pay the bills, and look myself in eye and ask if I’ve done the best I can in the time I’m given.

There is a lot of truth to the idea that one can’t become a success without failing first — the idea of somehow lessening the sting of our relative failures by suggesting it’s just a stepping stone to greatness — but I’m not going to tell you that.

There is an implied value judgment behind terms like “failure” and “success” — as though to be anything other than successful, is not to matter at all, and you cease to exist. Some people never “succeed”. Some people fail, and fail hard, and never have this elusive success. Failure and success are poor rubrics by which to measure life, and no way to measure our human existence. Van Gogh did not cease to be brilliant or have value simply because he was not successful in his lifetime. And those who count themselves as the most successful, often do not perceive that they’ve accomplished much. I’ve not even talking about a “happiness” quotient as a measure of success; when Julius Caesar turned thirty, he felt himself a total failure because he had not lived up to the standard Alexander the Great set, and had failed to conquer the world.

Got a pulse? In relative good health? Is there food available to you? Do you have shelter? You live in a first world? You have internet access? Running water? Indoor plumbing? Do you have a some what intact nuclear family? At least one other person in the universe who would miss you if you were gone? A community that accepts you?

Do you have the strength of your imagination? Talent? Wit? And the will to learn? An open mind — a communicative heart? Your relative freedom?

You’re the success.

Perhaps that answer disappoints you; you were hoping for more. But there’s people in the world who don’t have the baseline for existence. What some dismiss as a basic foundation for life is unreachable for a great number of people. And that is not a function of their failure so much as it is circumstance beyond one’s ability to control. Without basic conditions such as those, you could have all the best sellers in the world under your belt, it’s never gonna make you healthy if you are sick, it’s not going to provide you beloved relatives who aren’t there, and maybe you can buy friends with the money, but you’re still gonna be alone, and all the healthcare in the world can’t cure mortality. If this wasn’t the pep talk you were looking for, welcome to your next rejection: this post.

Don’t set your values of life on failure and success alone, and most of all, don’t set your life and your identity on your chosen career — which is often what we really mean when we say “failure” and “success”. We’re talking about our jobs. We’re talking about the money we make at those jobs. But your career has more potential to end before your life does. Where will you be then, if you’ve set all your identity and value on something that isn’t there for you any longer? Put these rejections and successes in their context, and think critically about what defines them. Are rejections truly painful enough to stop you in your tracks? How badly do you want success? Do you want it at any price? Is it really worth it?

After awhile, I fail to perceive the demarcation between what counts as a failure and what counts as a success. You come to realize, there’s merely events and experiences, some mystifying, some disappointing, and some astonishing, that happens along the way of this miraculous life.

Awaken to it; know yourself as if for the very first time, and If you are reading this, you may be more successful than you know.

On Failure, On Rejection, On This Miraculous Life

Pick Up The Pen, Spit Out The Blood

When I was a kid, I moved around with frequency. Leapfrogging across a few states, I ended up in the East, and at some point, my parents decided that integrating me into social activities was the order of the day. I think, in their defense, they might not have known what to do with me. I was quiet, I was introspective, and self-possessed; I guarded my privacy with the fierce jealousy reserved for spooks, psychopaths, and mad scientists. As such, I never realized that they probably didn’t know what sort of things I liked or enjoyed, what interests or what hobbies would hold my attention. I didn’t know either.

This led me to sitting in an uncomfortable room with several sensei at a Kenpo Karate school when I was ten. My parents were divorced, and being the new kid for the umpteenth time in an area without friends or connection, this was going to be my new routine.

A few days a week, after a trudging myself through fierce round after round of unrelenting bullying (because after all, I was the new kid), I was dropped off at the Kenpo school and they taught me the basics. I got down the forms. To this day I look back and realize I wasn’t having very much fun. I floated in a fog of deep-set depression. There was no reason to continue. Yet, I did. Somewhere along the way, people decided they didn’t like my ugly mug, so braces were strapped on my teeth in a form of medieval torture for people with the money to afford only the finest in pain.

After a small eternity of training with my sensei, they threw me into a sparring ring. All of us stood there, awkward and unsure of how to start hitting one another. We’d watched the older kids before, but never expected to be there ourselves. You could taste the tension in the air alongside the rank odor of sweat and feet.

I took punches. I took punches and kicks and side kicks. No one’s desire was to maliciously hurt a sparring partner, but accidents happen. I drooled around a set of  mouth guards and stared down a series of stretched out, grim faces drooling around their mouth guards, fists up. All of us ugly. I’d get knocked down. I’d get back up. I discovered I was good at sparring, but I was dragging my feet because I didn’t want to knock the shit out of my opponents. But there’s only so long you can hold on to the burning ember within you before it starts burning you up from the inside, so after I’d mastered the art of Human Punching bag, I started moving. Dancing. Weaving. Making moves of my own design to sweep out the feet of my partners, tag them from impossible angles. The mouth guard would end up on the floor and I’d end up on my back, staring at the ceiling. Everything was blood.

“Two!” the sensei shouted.

What the fuck does that mean, I thought.

Turns out, it’s secret code for send in two of the biggest kids with the black belts into the ring to rough me up. Me, dumb fuck kid with the yellow belt gets thrown in with the tigers, with a set of braces and mouth full of blood. It’s like getting punched in the face with a cheese grater on the inside of your lips. You’ll be spitting blood for a week.

I fought. I got knocked down. I got up again. Pain became a new religion. You get on the inside of it and it teaches you things. Like your limitless capacity to bear the indifferent universe and all of life’s vagaries. In only a few short years, I’d drop out of those classes just shy of a black belt myself, and start sending out short stories to fiction markets in 1994, when I was thirteen.

In essence, I traded one sparring ring for another.

This isn’t a meant to be a feel-good anecdote about the triumph of the human spirit, and it isn’t. The greatest opponent, then, as it is now, is always overwhelmingly you. It’s that split second when you’re flat on your back with every muscle burning like a brand, when getting up is insurmountable, and unimaginable. Sometimes, you just don’t get up. Sometimes, you lay blame on the external world for why you can’t get into the ring. You point at the sensei and blame them. They didn’t train you well enough. You point at your opponents. They are too strong, too healthy, too fortunate. They were born with a happy family, many friends. Complications do not dog them.  They aren’t new kids, they aren’t wearing braces that pulverize the inside of their mouth every time they take a knock to the face. You blame the cold hard ground, the gravity, the unrelenting despair of your day to day existence. And sometimes, you just give up. Sometimes, the ring isn’t where you’re meant to be. Defeat and retreat is your best option.

For me, writing is a different animal. Forces corral me, without permission. The fatigue of my limbs, the exhaustion of one’s spirit, the appeals of rationality and reason cannot stop this call. We’re conjured up from the killing room floor, seemingly against our will.

All these years later, I get knocked down. I haul up. Spit out the blood, swallow some, start again. There’s figures moving all around. Hushed voices and some numinous, invisible Sensei watching it all from afar, arms crossed, nodding. Go on, then.

Pick up the pen, spit out the blood, and I do.

Pick Up The Pen, Spit Out The Blood