Writing What Hurts
David Niall Wilson
One Off From Prime
The walls of the shelter were dingy and gray. The paper was white, or had been white. Too many hours stuffed in the bottom of Angus’ bag had dampened the sheets and marred their sheen. Most of the pages were empty, windows and doors to places the words hadn’t yet taken him; even doors need a new coat of paint now and then – a hinge, or a knob replaced. Angus’ paper, as his mind, remained unhinged and without knobs or slots, collecting flecks of dust and smears of sweat and blood.
He wasn’t alone in the room, but he might as well have been. Angus stood adrift in a whirling miasma of images and words so thick they obscured the bland walls and walking, talking worlds that orbited him.
A thin, wisp of a woman sidled up sneakily and glanced sidelong into Angus’ vacant eyes. She eased along the table, trailed her bony fingers over its surface and watched with bird-like intensity for any reaction. Angus didn’t flinch. The woman’s dry, pale lips curled into a cruel grin. Like a striking snake her hand darted past the sheet of paper Angus held flat on the table and gripped the strap of his old, green duffle bag.
There was a blur of motion, and the woman screamed. Between her fingers, gouged into the surface of the table and quivering, stood Angus’ pen. It didn’t touch her skin, but it prevented the sliding of the duffle across the table. The plastic shaft of the pen was shattered, but the inner plastic tube and the ballpoint were intact, quivering from the impact.
Without a word, Angus worked it free of the table. The woman fluttered back and away. She sputtered words that died in strangled bleats of sound and a yellow mist of spittle. Angus paid no more attention to her departure than he had to her approach. He stared at the paper in front of him and willed the words to stop spinning and sort themselves. He had to capture them and bind them to the paper to get them out from in front of his eyes and behind his ears.
He thought – no, he knew – that there was one word among them that could set him free, if only he could unravel the rest and place it properly. He vaguely remembered others who had once helped with the placement, but though he knew there had been three, he couldn’t recall names or faces.
None of those around him saw the words. They saw a thin, emaciated man of thirty or so years with thick black hair that dropped over broad, muscular shoulders, their strength belied by thin, protruding shoulder blades. They saw wide eyes that stared at everything except what was directly in front of them and long, slender fingers perpetually wrapped around a pen, or a pencil, or a paintbrush.
One time the counselors found Angus in the alley behind the shelter with a piece of charcoal in his hand. He’d covered half the back wall with a single long, rambling sentence.
A young woman, thinner still than the insectile Angus, stood midway along the wall, reading. Her slender, beak-like nose was pressed so close to the wall that its tip was black from accidental encounters with charcoal and brick. Her hands were filthy from trailing along behind. She wore thick cats-eye glasses that slid down her nose and had to be pressed back into service every few minutes. This action streaked her face with more of the charcoal.
When the counselors led the two back inside she looked ready for a combat raid, camouflaged and intense. Angus looked confused and on the verge of saying something he couldn’t quite remember. He’d written it down, but she’d caused it to blur. She’d taken the words into her pores or her skin and the ridges of her fingers. The counselors took the charcoal, and by the time anyone thought to try and read what Angus had written, the words had faded and smudged.
Angus didn’t remember the wall. He remembered that there had been words, but not what they’d been. He remembered the young woman’s face. He remembered the dark swatches of charcoal embedded in the pores of her skin. He remembered her expression, and her eyes. He’d wanted to reach out, brush his fingers over her cheeks and drag the black, dusty smudges back into the proper order. He’d memorized her features in an instant and imagined them covered in letters, the words merging to one long statement encompassing everything he was unable to say. He thought she was more beautiful without the words, but had no way to be certain.
Now he stared at the blank paper, clutched the shattered pen and tried to bring her face into focus and transfer it to the page. He imagined the lines of letters, like soldiers, or the bricks on a wall. His lips moved, but before he could record the wispy words they slipped away and new ones took their places, always a step ahead. His hand trembled, but he didn’t touch the pen to the paper.
The girl sat in the corner of the room, huddled in a severe chair of hard wooden slats. She clutched her knees to her chest and her chin rested between them. She gazed in unwavering concentration at Angus’ profile. She saw the paper clearly, and the pen. She knew the tremble in his hand and the nervous shake of his head. She’d seen both so many times they’d become a part of her.
She didn’t have to huddle in the shelter. She didn’t have to watch this skinny man stare at his paper and chase the words flitting through his head. She had a home, and a name, a family who wondered where she had gone, and friends – acquaintances, really – who noted the empty spaces she would have filled in their own small worlds. But none of that was real. They knew the thin, wispy shell of her, but her connection to Angus was much deeper. Given time, she’d fade from their minds as surely as angus’ words had faded from the alley wall.
Angus knew she was there. He felt her. He sat, and he tried to imagine the lines of her face on his paper, but he refused to turn and watch her watching him because it was no good. The face smudged with charcoal had been cleaned. The words, if they were still there, were hidden too deeply for him to recapture. If he looked at her now, the earlier image of her would dissolve, and be lost. He would still have her eyes, of course, and that was a temptation. They were eyes that had watched him without guile, and without judgment. They were hungry eyes as eager to see him find the order in the words, or behind them, as he was to provide it. They had seen the words, if only for a few intense moments.
Others watched, as well, but not for long, and not with much interest. An old Italian man in a faded army uniform shirt covered in colorful patches shuffled by. He looked like an ancient, rotting parody of a boy scout. He wore two pairs of pants and had a variety of odd items tied to his belt, protruding from his pockets, and slung about his neck. His hair, which would have been a fine blend of white and gray had he bathed, was dark and greasy and clung to his liver-spotted scalp in sparse patches. The man glanced over Angus’ shoulder at the blank page and snorted.
“Shouldn’t write it down,” he said. His voice was weak and formed of shrill, reedy tones that shattered in the air like thin icicles. “They’ll read it. They’ll know. Never write it down.”
Then he shuffled off with his hands covering his pockets as if afraid the things he carried would leap out and escape. Angus didn’t look up. He sat with his hand hovering over the page expectantly.
Some spoke as they passed. Some stared at the paper, or at the back of his head. Some made faces behind his back and then walked on. A tall black man walked around to the far side of the table, directly across from Angus and stared down at the point where the pen had slammed into the tabletop. His lips moved constantly. Now and then his shoulder dipped, or he shuffled his feet. His hips swayed to music no one heard.
He leaned in and inspected the table. A small pile of dust and shattered plastic circled the point where Angus had slammed his pen into the wood. The black mans studied it. He cocked his head, checking perspective, and then seated himself in a chair. Angus didn’t look up. The black man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pouch. From this he extracted a razor blade. The cold steel glittered like fire in the dim light, catching stray flickers from the bare, yellowed overhead bulb that illumined the room. It was the kind of blade used by artists and carpenters, braced on one edge with a rounded shield to protect the fingers.
The man’s hand darted out. He smacked the blade loudly on the table and drew it toward himself. The razor swept the plastic shards and dust across the surface, his fingers nimbly dropping and dragging, scooping the remnants into a pile. He was careful and he missed nothing. When he had it all in a heap in front of him, he raised the blade and chopped at the pile.
Everyone in the room except Angus, and the girl, looked up sharply. The man brought the blade up, and down, up and down; his fingers flew and quickly pulverized the larger shards of plastic, cutting them to dust, reshaping the mound, and cutting again, each run through making a finer powder. No one in the room spoke. The black man’s lips never stopped moving, but if he spoke, there was no sound to accompany it, and if he was answered it was not from within the room.
When the plastic was reduced to glittering dust, the man stopped and studied it. He drew the blade through the center, split the pile, and then split those piles. He cocked his head again. His shoulder dipped. He squinted with one eye and shivered, as if a particularly beautiful rhythm had rippled through his long, lanky body. The ripple ended at his fingers and they danced.
When he was done, there were six lines on the tabletop. Three of them were broken lines. Each of the six lines was of equal length; all were perfectly parallel with one another. The man carefully returned his blade to its pouch, rose from his chair, and did a careful quickstep in place, dropping his hip and throwing his hand out to one side. He turned and walked away.
Angus looked up. The girl rose, came to stand beside him, and stared down at the lines.
Behind them, the door to the room opened and the world poured in. The sudden shift in air pressure sent the dust whirling off the table and away, erasing the trigram.
A voice called out, “Angus Griswold?”
The room they put him in was white-walled. The table he sat at was covered in white Formica. There were windows, but they were the kind that was only transparent in one direction. On his side, they were mirrors. Angus stared at one for a long time, intrigued by the lines of his own face staring back at him. He wondered briefly if, on the far side of that mirror, the words made sense. He had the odd sensation that he recognized himself, and then it was gone.
They had the girl too. She was in another room. He felt her presence, though he hadn’t seen her since being closed off. He hadn’t seen anyone, in fact, since a very stiff-backed young man in a white jacket had brought him a white cup. He half-expected it to be filled with milk in the colorless void, but it was coffee. Angus loved coffee, but he hadn’t touched it. He wasn’t afraid of being poisoned, he was concentrating. The room was white, but the coffee was dark, like the words, and it distracted him. He watched the white walls and day-dreamed that ink might sweat out through hidden pores in their surface and flow into words and phrases.
In another room, not so bright, and not so white, the girl sat. On the desk in front of her was the remnant of a day planner. The spine had cracked and worn away and the pages were loose. She kept them bound in a pair of large rubber bands she’d stolen from the post office.
She glanced up as the door to the room opened. A tall black man in a dark suit entered, closed the door behind him, and crossed to the far side of the desk. He took a seat and placed a folder on the table in front of her. His eyes were dark brown, so dark they seemed black, and she saw that the cuticles of his fingers were meticulously groomed. He steepled his fingers.
She glanced up at him. He wore thick framed glasses. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes looked as though they might be accustomed to humor, but in that moment his gaze was flat and serious.
“Why am I here?” she asked.
“I think you know the answer to that.” He replied. “I am Mr. Johnson. You don’t know me, but I believe you are very familiar with a former associate of mine, Mr. Griswold. You may also have heard of my employer, Mr. King.”
“I don’t know anyone named Griwsold,” she said.
“His first name is Angus.”
She didn’t answer.
“Do you have any idea what Angus did when he worked for us, Miss Prine?”
Her head jerked up. She had not known that they were so close to knowing her name. She smiled, but she tucked her head to hide it, and she didn’t answer.
“That’s unfortunate. It seems that Mr. Griswold has also forgotten.”
Johnson fell silent for a moment, then flipped open the folder on the desk.
“Angus Griswold was a financial analyst. He was very good at his job. Possibly too good. He and his team had the task of scanning pages and pages of computer data and…anticipating.”
“I think that’s the best way to word it. Angus had a way of seeing a very large amount of data at once. This ability of his allowed him to anticipate trends, predict problems, and circumvent inefficiency. One thing my company loathes beyond all else, Ms. Prine, is inefficiency.”
A sharp jangle of sound cut off his reply. Johnson slid a thin cell phone from his pocket.
She watched his face, but his expression never changed.
“You’re sure,” Johnson said. “Four hours, then? I see.”
He flipped the phone closed and turned back to her.
“There’s not much time. Mr. Griswold has been working on something very important for a very long time. He indicated to us that he’d discovered something big – something profound. That knowledge could prevent a very large disaster from taking place, and Mr. King is very interested in obtaining it. Mr. Griswold told us the nature of the disaster, and even gave us a rough idea of when it might take place. Unfortunately, we did not immediately see the importance of what he told us, and at that point his behavior had become…unstable. The file he left behind is incomplete. The single data point he failed to mention before disappearing into the streets was how to stop it.”
“He doesn’t know,” she said. “He’s been trying to figure it out. He believes that he will be able to write it down.”
“How do you know?”
“He wrote it on the wall. I read it. It was too much to take in at a single reading, and they came and took us away. The words were gone, smudged and ruined. I had them…but they slipped away.”
“Do you remember?”
“No. Not all of it. I’ve written some of it down, but it’s not perfect. There was a design.”
“Six lines. It was a trigram, like in the I Ching. I drew it.”
She fumbled at her ruined day planner. Her hands shook, and she had trouble spreading the pages. When she found it, she slid it free and turned it to face Johnson.
“What is it?” Johnson asked.
“It’s a Hexagram. I looked it up at the library. It means Obstruction. Stagnation.”
“He wrote this?”
She shook her head. “No. He caused it.”
Johnson stared at her a long moment, then made some unspoken decision.
“You have to help us. There is not time to explain the entirety of what is at stake, so I will be brief. I believe that you understand a lot more than you let on.
She held her silence.
“If we do not find the answers we seek, a few tiny calculations in a very large algorithm will return bad data. At first, no one will see. It won’t even matter. Over time, the errors will multiply. There is a critical point after which, even if we were to discover the original error, nothing we could do would halt its progress. That error is embedded deep in the database behind the world’s largest finance and credit system.”
“What can one tiny error do?”
“One error is incorporated in a thousand calculations, the results of which will fuel a hundred thousand more. The integrity of the data will be compromised within minutes. When the world gets the first hint that we do not have control of the system – that their millions of dollars are suddenly in question without even a good direction to point their finger, there will be anarchy. Mr. King believes that within only a few moments, automatic fail-safes and security protocols will shut down everything.”
“Everything?” she asked. “Surely there are backups? Contingencies?”
“Also corrupt. We do not believe we will be able to pinpoint the entry point of the error. We believe it is possible that Mr. Griswold can, or already has and has forgotten. We believe, in fact, that he’s been trying to put what he already knows in words that others can understand. Even if we found the error and returned the system to its current state it’s likely trust and confidence will have eroded sufficiently by that time to cause worldwide panic.”
“Where is he?” she asked.
“He is safe, for the moment. As safe as any of us can really be.”
She stared at Johnson for a long moment.
“I need to see him.”
“He needs to remember. He believes that I can help. He won’t look at me, and I think this is
because, in his mind, he will either find what he is looking for in the lines
of my face, or will find that it is lost forever, and he’s afraid.”
“I see,” Johnson said. “We will give him time, then. The room we put him in is one giant blank canvas. The walls are made of dry-erase white board. The windows are mirrors. The table is white, the floor is white. Soon he will be given markers. We have, at the best estimate of those who have an inkling of what Mr. Griswold has seen, about four hours. If he can’t write it down before then; if we get so close to the deadline that there is no hope, I will take you to him. You may be that hope.”
She continued to stare at him. Johnson remained unruffled.
“Coffee?” he asked.
She nodded, and then looked away, trying to see through the walls to where Angus was seated. She had visions of her own, had been having them since the first time she laid eyes on him so very long before. In her dreams, the angels warned of fire. They warned of destruction. Each of them wore a very large, ticking clock on a golden chain, and the clocks were winding down. In those dreams, men worshiped idols made of shifting symbols and scrolling numbers, falling away to dust.
Johnson slipped out of the room without a sound. The door closed behind him and she stared at it, just for a moment. He had not hesitated, or fumbled with the knob, but she knew it was locked. Less than four hours. The room didn’t even have a clock.
Johnson stood behind a row of three chairs. The chairs faced a bank of huge monitors across which columns and patterns of numbers shifted and scrolled. Each screen was divided into terminal windows, and different events triggered flashes of color. In the chairs, a young Asian woman, an old gray-haired man, and a boy of about sixteen sat. On the backs of their chairs, the names Meshe, Shad, and Abe had been scrawled across white nametags. They watched the scrolling numbers, working keyboards, trackballs and a bank of peripheral controls without once glancing away from the screen.
Johnson wanted to question them, but he knew that either they would ignore him, as per their instructions, or he’d likely cause a new set of problems by his interference. When Angus had worked with them, there’d been a fourth chair. Mr. King had removed it when the prodigal walked out.
Johnson watched the numbers for a moment, but they meant little to him. When they had been sifted down to spreadsheets and balanced equations, he’d understand them well enough. In their current raw state, it was beyond his ability. That was fine – it wasn’t his job. His job was to be certain that the numbers did balance. In the upper levels of the company, they joked that every transaction since the beginning of time flowed across those screens – that the Templars had kept records, and the Egyptians had been meticulous
The woman, Meshe, gasped suddenly. She didn’t stop working her controls, and she didn’t look away from the screen, but he knew that she’d caught something. Her distress passed, and he knew it couldn’t be what Angus had seen. These three were very good. There had once been more than two dozen “watchers” working in shifts, and they had all been good. None of them had borne Angus’ singular gift – or his neuroses. Now there were only three, and though Angus had spoken to them before leaving, none of them could find the fault, though they would no doubt remain vigilant.
Johnson turned away and left the room as silently as he’d entered. He headed down a brightly lit hall and entered a glass-doored office at the far end. An elderly man, grey at the temples glanced up from where he’d been scouring reports on his desk.
“What has he said?” the man asked.
“Nothing. He’s confused and barely coherent. The girl isn’t much better. I think it’s time to put them together and see what comes of it.”
“It’s our last shot. If they can’t get it back in time…”
“I know,” Johnson said. “Don’t think I haven’t considered walking out, buying a bunker in a survivalist camp and stocking up. We haven’t got much time. For all we know we don’t have any time at all. We have to try it now.”
“Take her in,” the man said.
Johnson turned, hesitated, and looked back.
“It’s been good working with you, Ezekiel.”
The older man smiled. It was a fleeting expression that looked lost in the patchwork of stress-fractures that made up his face. Then he turned back to the papers, and Johnson slipped into the hallway, closing the door quietly behind him.
When the door opened, Angus didn’t look up. The girl entered, and the door closed behind her. She sat opposite him at the table. He stared at the white surface, refusing to meet her gaze.
“You wrote it down once,” she said. “In the alley. You wrote it down, and it was all there.”
Angus twitched, but did not look up.
“I knew you’d get it. I knew you’d find the words. It’s why I watched, and why I read. “
“They’re gone.” Angus said.
She shook her head. She rose, circled the table, and stood directly beside him, but still he did not look up. She reached out and stroked his cheek. He didn’t pull back, but she felt the inner struggle. He quivered as if unable to decide whether to press into her fingers, or to lean away.
“The words are not gone. If they were gone, you’d be at rest. They are there, buzzing and crackling with energy, and you need them to stop. We both need that. The world needs that. You started it, and only you can finish it. It’s up to you.”
She stepped behind his chair, pulled it gently away from the table, then slid around and straddled him. With one hand on each cheek she raised is head until he stared directly at her.
“It’s time,” she said.
Angus shivered, but he didn’t look away. She leaned closer, and her features blurred. At the end, he saw her lips, red and moist, and criss-crossed with tiny veins that shifted and rearranged. They kissed and those crooked, wretched lines clarified. Angus pulled back, just for an instant, but she held him fast.
His mind flooded with memories. Lines of figures flashed past on mental monitors so fast it should have been dizzying, but he already knew them. He felt each ripple and saw the tiny bugs nibbling away at the heart of the pattern.
He was vaguely aware when she began stroking her hips up and down. He rose to meet her and wrapped her in his arms. He was so close. He had walked so long in a world that buzzed and whirled that the clarity was painful. The haze beckoned. He itched to hold his pencils, or a piece of chalk. The white walls streamed with row after row of symbols and numbers and he wanted to fill them in and trap them. He felt her unbuttoning his shirt and then the hot touch of her flesh and then…he let them go.
Johnson and Ezekiel stood before a huge video monitor. On the screen, Angus stood, disheveled and coated in sweat, before one of the white walls. He held a dry erase marker in his hand, poised. Behind him, the woman lay back across the table, spent. It was difficult not to stare at her; something in the aspect of her pose gave her a sensuality her street-urchin attire and schizophrenic actions had hidden. She did not look at Angus, but instead stared back at them through the monitor, as if well aware her naked flesh was on camera and reveling in the attention.
“My God,” Ezekiel said. “Who is she?”
“You know who she is. You know what she is. What neither of us knew was how profoundly … real … she would turn out to be.”
“She calls herself Prine?” Ezekiel asked absently.
“I think we may have been mistaken. It sounded like Prine, and we have assumed that to be correct, but upon closer examination of the original document, I believe she is called…Prime.”
“It’s her last name?”
“It’s her only name.”
“Not exactly, but…wait! He’s writing.”
On the screen Angus reached out with the marker. He started drawing horizontal lines. After only a few seconds work the hexagram was complete. “Obstruction”. He stares at it, and then turns.
“There is no new flaw in the numbers,” he says.
It’s not a question, but it’s directed to the girl.”
“Of course not.
There is only the one flaw. You
knew this once.”
“I know it again,” he said.
He dropped the marker on the floor and it rolled under the table. He walked to the table and lifted her to a sitting position. She smiled into his stern gaze. Angus leaned in and kissed her, and then turned toward the cameras.
“Numbers are pure,” he said. “The system by which you calculate them is a language, and it is the closest to perfection man may ever come, but there are flaws. There have always been flaws. You have built a world on numbers, filled in the cracks when the foundations shifted, and applied new paint, but the central flaw was always there. It’s eaten at the foundations since the first dollar was saved and reinvested. It’s the root cause of all the tiny cracks I patched for you, and the thousands more rising to the surface.”
“Tell them aboutSchrödinger’s Cat,” she said.
He turned and frowned at her, and then the frown cracked into a crooked smile.
Ezekiel turned and started to ask Johnson a question, but Johnson held up a hand. He focused intently on Angus.
“I spent my life looking for flaws in the perfection of the data. No matter how many times I found and fixed a problem, the imperfection screamed at me, and I had to go on. All I was doing was plugging holes in a sinking ship. There was never any perfection to mar, only a crumbling façade.”
Johnson stepped back from the monitor. Behind him a red light began flashing slowly, and then another. Alarms sounded. Ezekiel turned and glanced at them. He touched Johnson on the shoulder, but Johnson shrugged him off.
“It’s too late, Ezekiel,” he said.
Johnson reached out and pressed a button. He leaned down and spoke into a microphone on the desk beside the monitor.
“Angus,” he said.
Angus turned and looked directly into the camera.
“I cannot speak to you,” he said. “I have a message for Ezekiel.”
The old man stood very still. Johnson turned to stare at him, and then pressed the microphone button again.
“Ezekiel is here.”
“Now is the time, old friend. You must remember. Mr. King and his minions have built this false idol of greed and gold, this mountain of numbers. You know what will happen should it crumble, and yet, the choice remains yours. Worship, or be taken by fire.”
“Your name is not Angus,” Ezekiel said. His voice was soft, as though he was forcing memories from somewhere deep inside.
“What are you talking about?” Johnson said. He shook Ezekiel hard. “What do you mean he isn’t Angus? Who is he?”
“Call the main office,” Ezekiel said, ignoring the question. Get Nebbu…get Mr. King on the line. Tell him … tell him that we choose the fire.”
The blinking lights and alarms lit the wall behind them like a holiday celebration. Johnson ignored them. He stared at Ezekiel, and then turned back to where Angus still stared through the camera and into his soul.
“Who are you?” Johnson asked. “Who, in God’s name, are you?”
“Names are only patterns,” Angus replied. Then he smiled. “I am many, and I am one. I would tell you that I am the way, the truth, and the light, but she – pointing at the girl – would tell you I am Hermes, or Mithras, or Odin, and she cannot lie. It does not matter who I am. What matters, and what has always mattered, is who you are, and what you will become.
“The numbers have failed. In the beginning, there was the word – and that is all there has ever been. Plurality is divisive. Heaven isn’t a chord, it’s a single, pure note. Go, and learn to sing.”
The monitor went dark. Power in the building flickered, and then dropped. For a long moment auxiliary power tried to kick in and bring it back to life – and then died. Ezekiel had gone. Johnson’s sifted through unfamiliar memories. He thought of the three in the other room, staring at blank screens that had been filled with numbers only moments before. He mouthed their names, and almost laughed.
“Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego,” he said softly. How had he not seen?
It didn’t matter. Without a backward glance he turned, left the room and the building and walked out into the world. Behind him the monitor blinked to life without external power. Angus and Prime stood, wrapped in a tight embrace. Dark flecks danced up from the floor, peeled off the walls, and began to whirl. The flecks grew, diving and dancing through the air until they enlarged to numbers, and words, letters and symbols. The cloud whirled faster and darker until the room was obscured by a tangle of dark images and shifting patterns.
And then it was gone. All that remained in the room was a battered spiral notebook and a number two pencil. On the top sheet, the Hexagram symbolizing “Obstruction” had torn down its center. On the streets beyond the building, men and women stepped out into bright sunlight…so bright, it burned.
Click on the big BB to follow me on Bookbub… you will only hear from them if I have a new book, or if I recommend one by someone else… but it helps.
8: Electronics Technician School
One of the things I had wanted when I joined the Navy was to be away from Illinois and its winters. Fate, of course, dropped me into Great Lakes as the snow and ice kicked in. I had a room in one of the crappy student barracks with a couple of other guys. Before you were allowed into the sacred halls of Electronics Technician class “A” school, you had to complete a self-paced computer-based curriculum they called B E&E (Basic Electricity and Electronics). (Yes, even in the late 1970s there was computer-based training). This (for any younger readers I might attract, was the point where I got the answer to why I had to study things like Trigonometry in high school).
Except, there was a glitch. About a week into the first part of the course, I got sick. Very sick. To be excused from class, you had to walk across the icy, frigid base to the clinic, get a note, carry it to the school, then go back to your barracks. This took, very literally, hours. I started with bronchitis, but, after several days of this long trek to the hospital, class, and my room, it escalated. One day (finally) I did not show up either at the clinic, or at school. They found me and got me to the hospital, fevered with a full-blown case of walking pneumonia. Suffice it to say, my graduation from B E&E was delayed.
While I was in the hospital there was nothing to do – except read. They had piles of old westerns and series books. I read everything they had. I was too sick to talk to anyone, really, but I know I sucked in characters and scenes, details. They weren’t great literature, those books, but they were someone’s work – someone’s creation and life. I connected with them, probably at least in part through the fever and the drugged daze I spent those two weeks drowning in. Influences. They hit you when you don’t expect them, and given that it’s been decades, and I still remember… they linger.
My time in Electronics Technician training was interesting. There were a lot of life events, a lot of things that are probably formative, but it was not a huge time of creativity for me. A few things stand out, and I’ll limit myself to those. Being succinct is not my superpower, but I will try.
I made some of my first lasting friendships in Great Lakes… but, they didn’t last. I wish that I could find Brian Massatt, and Gary Clark. The former had very cool sort of LARP before LARP existed relationship with his soon to be fiancé Susan. She was his princess… they would go monster hunting, with swords and armor, and I (with my guitar that had a broken (and repaired) neck from the bus trip to Great Lakes, was the bard. I wrote songs. I wrote some poetry. I wrote no stories, or books, but I lived. I met a girl who was Susan’s best friend named Cheryl, but that never went anywhere, though it DID land me at a very unexpected (and unlikely) concert… Barry Manilow and Lady Flash.
Two formative things did happen during my time at Great Lakes. One was my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. Long afternoons, weekends, all-nighters, chasing dark lords and evil clerics. We had a good dungeon master, but I can’t remember his name. I remember that Brian played some of the time, but for the most part that period (for me) is mostly faces and memories of portable holes and gelatinous cubes. We did have a girl who played along for a while, and I remember finding it very odd, because she was smart, and attractive, and could have been out doing anything she wanted with whoever she wanted – and chose to fight goblins with geeks.
Later in life, my experiences with that game would land my station wagon in Lake Geneva (shortly after meeting Gary Gygax at the original Dungeon) – and in contracts with White Wolf and their World of Darkness, where I produced a fairly long string of novels that I am still proud of. I’m not always proud of what I’ve written in the past – though I usually am right up until, for some reason, I go back and read it. Writing is an endeavor where the words (from a writer) “You Can’t Go Home Again,” are very true. (Thank you Thomas Wolfe). I recommend, if you want to continue to be productive and creative, that you concentrate on what you are doing, and not too much on what you’ve done, aside from marketing it. Too many authors from my own generation, and those before, have simply stopped writing and are seemingly confused why they can’t continue to make lots of money selling things they wrote years ago… with nothing new to offer. Sort of self-explanatory, unless your fandom is in the millions, and movies are being made from your old books.
But I digress. Random memories from that time in Great Lakes include an instructor staring at the wall, where he’d hung a poster that said: “The only Stupid Question is the One Not Asked,” for a very long time. Gary Clark (who I still have to explain) was from Beaufort, Texas. He had just asked this instructor, during our module on transmitters, if turning the radio on its side would cause the electrons to flow down to the side, instead of taking their normal path. It was impossible to tell from his ridiculous grin if he was serious.
Clark is responsible for my liking beer. When I was young, and I covered my step-father much earlier in this book, I was given beer. It was a “hee hee” moment for Bob… my brother Bill gulped it down and loved it, but I hated it. It’s possible I hated it because, not only was I a child trying beer, but it was godawful beer. Probably Goebel’s or Ballantine. The taste was so bad to me that, for over a decade I could not even think about it. I did not have the same trouble with wine, or whiskey sours, but those are different stories.
Clark decided one day that I was going to learn to drink beer. He took me to the club on base, and sat me down by the pool tables. We were both good at pool, and played regularly. I had brought my own pool stick in the black case – a sad, young sailor attempt at being cool that many have emulated over the years. Clark said, “I’m going to get us some beers.”
When he came back, he had two pitchers. No glasses. He gave me the same grin he’d given the instructor when he asked his question (by definition not a stupid question once asked). It was Shlitz. At first I hated it… but it was cold, and we were playing pool.
I do not remember much about that night. I remember the next morning, though. I had only a mild hangover, but I did not have any idea how I’d gotten into my barracks room. There were two more pool cue cases leaned against the wall next to mine. I had very little time to put it all away, shower, brush the hellish taste (and likely breath) from my teeth, and get to class.
Clark was there, grinning. It seems we’d both won pool cues off of unsuspecting sailors. There was more than the initial two pitchers, at least one more shared… there were stories that were in all likelihood made up on the spot, but that I could not deny or prove to be false. I wondered if the neurons in my brain had flowed down toward my face when I hit the pillow, and I glanced at the poster on the wall.
I graduated near the top of my class in ET “A” school. It was time to move on to something new… real computers, satellite navigation, and San Diego California (again).
There is a very old, and very wise, bit of writing wisdom. “Write what you know…” This can be taken too simplistically, and too seriously, but at its core, it’s truth. The reason most of the characters you will encounter in books, on TV, and in movies do not stick with you is very often they are paper thin. You also must write who you know. Crazy computer hackers always have stacks of monitors, racks of servers, dark rooms with flashing lights and these days at least one screen scrolling symbols like the screen saver that came out after The Matrix. When I see or read all of that, I shake my head.
I’ve worked most of my adult life in computers, computer security, and networks. I have met a lot of hackers and computer gurus. They are more likely to have a single notebook, maybe a server at home with more power… something they can close the lid on and run. Sure, they have gadgets and gimmicks, but what the big banks of monitors and dark rooms tell me is… the creator needed a computer expert, or an evil hacker, and they wrote what they’ve seen others write, rather than trying to dig deeper and find out the truth.
It’s how we ended up with so many Hannibal Lector, high-intellect serial killers, bumbling FBI agents, forensics labs with the time to concentrate a dozen people around the clock on a single case and many other endless clichés. They write well, people “get” what you’re doing and saying… but if you remember those characters it will be for something else they did… not for the characterization, or the dark screen-filled room.
So, how does that relate to writing what you know? You have a perspective. You have your own skills, knowledge, and you have your ability to research. If you write about a plumber, you are going to write about a plumber in the context of your experience with plumbers. You can widen your perspective by reading, actually talking to plumbers about what it is you need to happen, how it would play out in the real world. Even then, it’s wise to limit yourself to writing about your character, and embellishing that character with as much reality as you can without going too far and writing or having your character say something that will push buttons on readers who know more about plumbing than you do. It’s tricky business.
I recently read a pretty good mystery by an award-winning, Internationally bestselling author. It had a lot in it about falcons, and raptors. Repeatedly, he referred to them (and had his character who was purportedly an expert) refer to them as “raptor birds,” instead of simply raptors. I love raptors. I’m not an expert on them, but it was enough of a faux pas to really grate on my nerves, and if it affected me that way – I have to believe that people who know about falconry and birds of prey would be squirming – and they would have to be at least a peripheral market for the book.
It’s even trickier when you start writing about specific characters – say – a theoretical physicist. You are safest writing such a character as a person, and avoiding attempts to cleverly let people into their theoretical thoughts, or going too far in describing things. Most people know about Schrödinger’s Cat, and a few bits and pieces about chaos theory and string theory from The Big Bang Theory and Jurassic Park… but that is the paper-thin character I mentioned above. If you are not capable of thinking like a theoretical physicist, you should write the parts of that character that you can understand, their life, loves, tics and prejudices, but not try to pass yourself off as an expert in their field.
What you know is how you see people, how you see men and women you’ve met and interacted with, the things about certain types of characters that you would expect to encounter in a real-life scenario. Characters who matter to you will matter to your readers… characters who remind them of every other character of a “type” they have ever encountered, will not.
In keeping with the theme of this book I’m writing, don’t forget that you don’t like everyone, and some people you like to obsession, or love, or crave or loathe. If you are afraid to reach that level with the characters, you may write a darn good yarn, but a year after reading the book, no one will remember them.
Immediately after completing my boot camp experience in the California sunshine, I was sent off to Groton, Connecticut- about as different a place as one could imagine from the likes of San Diego – and of course, since I went to San Diego in the hottest part of the summer, they sent me to Connecticut as fall started…I would say ‘story of my life,’ but that would be redundant, yes?
In Groton I was on my own again. I had my seabag full of cool new uniform items, my blue-jackets manual, my guitar, and not much else. I was assigned to the Polaris Electronics Program – meaning I would have been an electronics technician working on missiles. I was still a bit irritated that I’d been given this particular school, instead of just being an Electronics Tech (ET) like I had originally asked, but remember, I had that by-the-skin-of-the-teeth nuclear power-worthy score on my ASVAB test going in, so they put me where it earned them the most points at the recruiting station. Submarines. Movie Stars…
One of the first things you usually do when you start the curriculum at Submarine School is report to the “pressure chamber” where they ascertain that you can withstand a certain amount of pressure on your ears. If you fail this, you are dropped from the submarine program. That is why they put this test up front, before you discover how badly you would like to be dropped from that program. Turns out, though, that on my designated day, the chamber was broken, so they sent us on our way to class and we started learning to drive submarine simulators, tell a potable water pipe from a saltwater pipe, and the history of the submarine service. Yay.
At this point, I was still telling people I was a writer, and writing nothing. I was also still going to church every Sunday morning (and in the evenings on Wednesday) and meeting new people. One thing church is good for – if you are a young man – is meeting young women. You can also do this at clubs, and bars, but the problems associated with alcohol and life decisions are myriad. As it turns out, I did meet someone at the church in Groton, and that is probably why I made it through that school (as far as I went, anyway) without parting ways with organized religion. I was not about to let flagging faith separate me fromm a particular young lady, and despite the very strict boundaries set, she managed to keep me mostly distracted from other things (and other people) while I was there.
Not that there was not fun. There was. We saw Star Wars – the first one – in the theater together for the first time. We survived an accidental 360 in a car, ending in a slide right up to the side of a gas-pump, where our driver managed not to panic, but instead leaned out, winked at the attendant (they still had them then) and asked him to “Fill ‘er up” as if nothing had happened.
In those days, the drinking age was 19 in Connecticut, and as it turns out, I turned 19 that fall. While I mostly kept myself to the straight and narrow, I was not immune to the call of the wild, as understood by young, naïve sailors. I spent my share of nights slipping out with the “boys” – mostly starting around the time that they finally fixed that pressure chamber.
When I had finished school I was transferred to my first boat… a very old boat called The USS Skate. I was not on there a week before I was hauled out of line at quarters and sent off to the pressure chamber (then operational at last. They figured it was a formality at that point). I had other ideas. I am tall – 6′ 3″ in stocking feet, and not particularly graceful. I had dings all over my forehead and that was only in a few days. Also, I’d begun hearing stories about Nuclear Power school, how most people dropped out, how it drove people insane, and how I did not want to go there. I agreed.
When we went into that chamber, and they turned it on, I waited only a couple of seconds before I started fiddling with my ears. Then I raised my hand, my face contorted in (mostly) faked pain. They took me out. They gave me Sudafed and had me wait. They tried again. Again, before long, my hand was in the air. I did feel some pressure, but I probably could have toughed it out. I just couldn’t see being locked in a submarine, an ocean on top of my head. I was immediately transferred back to the school and into “holding” company for re-assignment.
I could spend a good bit of time describing that time (again, I was not writing, but I was soaking up life). I played briefly in a country band we named “Lemon Zeringue and Pie (I was Pie)” with a guy from Louisiana who played and sang very, very well. He’d had some problems with alcohol, and so had opted for the military rather than going on the road as a musician. He’d actually been on tour with Kenny Rogers (a much bigger deal back then than it is now, of course). I remember a Disco called “The Dial Tone,” and a rock club named “The Bach Door” – neither of which, I suspect, exists any longer. Both were in New London, the “big city” near Groton. I still attended church, but found another large chunk knocked out of my belief when I learned that one of the elders of the church was also a DJ part time at “The Dial Tone,” where I found him sipping “Zombies” and hanging out with the very sort of women we were warned about each Sunday. Life is full of accidental lessons.
Anyway, to make what could have been a very long story more succinct… I was taken to an office and asked to fill in some forms. I was asked what I would like to do in the Navy, now that Polaris Electronics was denied me. I told them, again, that I’d like to be an ET, thinking that they’d say (as they had before) that it was full. To my surprise, they smiled brightly and told me they needed a lot of people in that rate. I stared at the guy who told me this, started to say something, and then just let it drop. I no longer felt the slightest guilt over the questionable result of my pressure chamber visit.
So, leaving my girl (hard) and Groton Submarine Base (easy) behind, I again mounted the proverbial “Big ol’ jet airliner” and headed for Great Lakes Illinois for Electronics Technician class “A” school, bringing me full circle back to Illinois, and, of course, with autumn looming, and the very Midwestern winter I’d left behind looming. Yay. The good news? Though it was mostly poetry and song lyrics, at least during this period, I did some writing. There will also be tales of Dungeons and Dragons, a form of “excommunication,” and more.
So there I was. I graduated high school with good grades. I could have gone to any number of colleges as part of the ROTC program, but was told by my recruiter (I’d already signed up as an enlisted man) that I couldn’t go because I’d agreed to their Advanced Electronics plan, and Nuclear Power program. It was, of course, not true. I was part of a quota they had to reach, and had I opted out for the life of an officer, I would have left them with a hole to fill. A particularly hard hole, actually, since I qualified so high on the exams, and made it (by the skin of my teeth) into the Nuclear Power program. They got extra points for that. The joke was on them, in the end, as I found a way out of that particular program, but that’s far in the future.
I could have gone to school in Charleston, Illinois. My mom ran one of the big food services on campus at Eastern Illinois University. I could have gotten into classes for free, or close to it. To do that, though, I would have had to live with those I hated. Many of the kids at the high school would just become young adults with the same attitude they’d always had. My step-father would have been ever-present, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of living even another day under the same roof with him. The only thing remotely good for me at the time was that I’d been attending The Church of Christ, and I’d met a lot of very cool college students. I knew, however, that they would graduate, and leave. I thought, at the time, that I might go into the ministry myself, but not there – not in that town, or that place.
The Navy offered me a good way out. There are many ways to describe the military, but for me it was escape. They paid me. They trained me. They gave me a place to sleep, and had enough discipline in place to keep me from making any truly stupid moves too early in life. I honestly believe that a few years in the military is a good idea for the majority of kids. It gives you some time after school to align your priorities, save for school, learn about the world beyond your parent’s home and control, and figure yourself out.
I left home without so much as a glance over my shoulder. I was just ready to be gone. They flew me to Chicago, where I was processed in – an experience that included meeting a young black man named… David Wilson. Born exactly the same day that I was born. We had a lot of fun telling everyone we were twins, and explaining how it was possible. He is now my long-lost twin, as I never saw him again.
Transience is a constant in the military. You have to work hard if you want to forge friendships that last because every two to four years, you move, and those around you are also in constant flux. You have to build those relationships in that short time period, or lose them as you split up and move on. I have always been a person who either developed very strong friendships or none at all. I’m odd, always have been, and though I try never to allow it to show on the surface, I’m pretty full of myself. I think most people are. You could put the t-shirt my wife loves – it says “C.S.I. – Can’t stand idiots” – in a room full of 20 random people and all of them would chuckle, glance around at some of the others, and think that the shirt was meant for them to wear, but never that it might be directed their way. It’s the way humans work. We all live in tiny, separate worlds where we rule. Those worlds blend, and interact, but really – it’s never quite the same in any moment for you as it is for someone else. It goes back to those influences. All of us have had different influences, all of us believe and know and think at least a little bit differently.
Transience is a familiar sensation to a seasoned writer, as well. You meet your characters for a short period of time. You interact with them, live and love with them, and if you do them justice – come to care about them. You shift into their world, and then, when the story has been told, you move on and leave them behind, hopefully with enough mojo that they can pass on the experience to your readers.
The military swallowed me up in Chicago and spit me toward San Diego, where I went to boot camp. I went in the summer. A very dry, hot summer. I ended up dumped into Company 927. We were commanded by an ex-Seal who was about to retire. He had a good attitude, but he was tough. They chose a guy named Fort to be our RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) and another guy I only remember as Catfish as the ARCPO (Assistant). Catfish spent all of his time with his mouth wide open, and he sort of worked it – like a fish trying to gulp air out of water.
A more diverse group would have been very difficult to find. One big scary guy who ended up getting dropped for being too crazy to serve, a tiny little guy named Blankenship we called the Admiral who talked too much, an older guy named Buckholtz who was overweight, and constantly confused, a pair of Mormons, myself (wanting in equal parts to be a minister and a writer) and a ton of others.
My experience there was different than most. We were a “drill” company, meaning that our members served in the Drill Team, with the rifles, the Flag team, and in the Bluejackets Choir (where I ended up). We had it a bit easier than most of the companies, and every Sunday we got to go and perform during church services. It was there that I became more aware of the workings of other faiths than my own (at the time) fundamental Christian views.
Currently, I believe in science, and the wonder of the real world that surrounds us. I think something big and powerful created everything, but can’t imagine it had a thing to do with ancient mythology, Hebrew or otherwise, and am happy to believe that being the best person I can be for no other reason than that I know it’s right is the way to go. I have come to detest most of the organized religions of the world for their narrow-minded attitudes, and the fact that the majority of the wars in history can be tracked back to them. Again – I digress. Believe me, though, I will return to this.
The most important thing I learned in boot camp was how to re-imagine myself. I had been a particular person in high school, but the minute I left home, and all the people I knew, I had a choice. I could be whoever I could pull off. Sure, I ended up with people who liked me, respected me, laughed at me, etc… but it was all new, and all different, and that was an experience the Navy gave me again, and again.
This is where the boot camp experience begins to relate directly to writing. First, I met a lot of diverse characters. I am a born mimic, and I spent a lot of time figuring out their accents, and listening to their stories. At the same time, I learned – as noted – to make myself over into something new. Living as different versions of myself allowed me to experience the world through slightly different perspectives. For a writer, this is the kind of insight that can make the difference between real and plastic. Even in genre fiction, fantasy, science fiction, or horror, the thing that makes all of the unbelievable elements work is the core reality you create to surround those unbelievable elements. The reactions of your characters, and the world you surround them with, need to seem believable to the reader in the context of your plot, or you will lose them very early on. Give them someone, and something, to relate to.
In boot camp, I played the young kid from southern Illinois who could run, and write, prayed every night, and argued with the Mormons. I was there for my friends, smart enough to keep my head down and my mind mostly focused on doing what would get me through with the least trouble. I sang on Sunday, shined my shoes, and worked very hard at creating a suit of armor around myself to hide what was already some fairly serious doubt in my chosen life of faith. I didn’t write – not then. I told everyone I was a writer. I believed I was going to be a writer. How in the world I missed that first, fundamental truth – that a writer writes – is still beyond me.
What I didn’t realize then, but understood later, was that a writer is always working. Sure, once you get going, it’s important to write all the time, but if you plan on having anything relevant or important to say, you first have to live, experience, and grow. For me, boot camp was a period of serious growth – one that I have good and bad memories of, and that has found its way into more than one story, character, and plot.
I’m not going to dwell on that time. There are periods of my naval career that deserve serious consideration, and I’ll get to them in due course. The important take-away is the ability to redesign your thought processes into those of a different person, and the idea that every moment of your life is a learning experience directly applicable to writing. If you are reading this, and you are young –just beginning life and work – this is vital. Pay attention. Keep your mind open. Even if you can’t share the beliefs or ideas of others, try to understand why they believe them, and how those beliefs define their world. If you can’t think like a particular character, you can’t write them believably.
Next stop? US Naval Submarine School, Groton Connecticut, where, again, I did not write…
A lot of people join the military. There are myriad reasons for this – adventure, to see the world, to take some time and figure out whether you want college, and what you want from it. All of those are good, valid reasons. None of them were mine. I spent most of my life in a small town, not fitting in all that well at school and trying to find ways to deal with the abusive, alcoholic step-father life dealt me.
No, he never beat me. He did launch me off the ground with a broom once, but I thoroughly deserved that. My brother and I had been considering getting into an old oil barrel and rolling down a steep hill toward the lake below… Bob – never dad – was a big man. He had his own issues – raised in the depression on or near an Amish farm. Grew up to serve as a police officer and (I believe) a pilot for a while in a non-wartime military. When I met him, he was a barber.
I have never understood the relationship he and my mother shared. She seemed to spend most of her life in trying not to make him angry, while sneaking behind his back to see that my brother and I had some kind of life of our own beyond him. Bob’s idea of how our days should be spent was in going to school – only because we had to – coming home – and working. He was always working on something, a glass of Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up in one hand and a cheap, stinking cigar in the other. We were expected to be part of it. He could build things. He could fix cars. He could fly a plane, and even taught my mom to do it. What he could not do was – in any way at all – relate to people other than his few old friends, and though he seemed to get along well with his own son, he was pathetically inept at dealing with me, or my brother.
After very, very long hours of thought, my brother and I have come to the conclusion he was possibly gay, and just never had the courage to come out of the closet. He and my mom slept in different rooms. He insulated his with cork and air-conditioned it to near freezing. Most of the jokes he made were off-color and inappropriate. He was prejudiced to a fault, and when the family (on the rare occasions we were allowed out of our bedroom) watched Archie Bunker, Bob laughed with Archie while the rest of us laughed at them both. Bob was Archie Bunker and proud of it. He had more ethnic slurs memorized than I do 70s and 80s pop songs, and that is one of my super powers.
I remember one winter how he sent us out to shovel snow off the driveway. Not a bad thing, in and of itself, though we were not very old or large or strong. Here’s the thing, though. It was still snowing. By the time we hit the end of the drive (which was long) it was covered again. Southern Illinois in winter is VERY cold. Our toes were near frostbite. We did this for HOURS and he would not let us stop, or come in. On top of it all – he owned a 12 hp tractor with a snow plow, and when we were finished…then he went out and plowed it after the snow stopped. This is the type of thing that happened any time he was given control of the situation, so – for our own survival – we found ways to avoid as much contact with him as humanly possible.
I remember one day, out in the sun, not allowed to get a drink, trying to hold sheets of particle board siding against the wall without letting them move as he stood back and cocked his head, drank his beer, or whiskey, and took his sweet time deciding to nail it into place. We were so tired – so hot. At some point, I had a spade in my hand. I don’t remember what job required that, but there it was. In those few short moments, I remember considering slamming it into the back of his head repeatedly, and taking my chances – as a juvenile – in the system. I truly, truly hated him. I was told I would get over that when I grew up. I never did, though I came to sort of pity him and the anger drained away.
Later in life, to show he never changed, I visited home with my first wife. At this point, Bob and my mom slept in different halves of a duplex (reinforcing the separate room thing to a ridiculous degree). We were in mom’s half, on a fold-out couch in her family room. Before we woke, he came in, and sat in a chair. Then he grinned and started talking, and very clearly thought if he waited long enough, we’d both get out from under the covers without dressing and prance around for his entertainment. I had to get up and tell him to get out so she could dress. The creep factor was huge. During that trip he also had a near psychotic break because, having hated anything but whole milk all of my life, I had the temerity to buy some and put it in the refrigerator. It might have been the depression years talking, but he was absolutely insanely angry about what he considered a ridiculous waste of money when Skim and 2% were cheaper. Funny the cost of whiskey never came up.
Anyway… why do I mention all of this? Not really for therapeutic purposes, but just to show another aspect of how your life can inform your creative process. All of the things that I blame on that man, and the life I lived before I left for the US Navy, are a part of what I’ve written, what I will write in the future, the decisions I make as a man, husband, father. Writing is like life, when it’s done right, and the things that ache – the things that hurt – the things that drive you near the edge of madness – those are the things that give your words power – side by side with the wonder you find in the world, the love and relationships and success you encounter along the way. These are the influences that insure you have something to say – and if you don’t – why are you writing?
You will find part of my life in those days in the childhood of Brandt, the protagonist of my fairly popular novel Deep Blue. Writing that was therapeutic.
You thought I was going to talk about boot camp, and I am. I first escaped home by spending a lot of time in a church. I walked in that world for a time, and when I left home, I was still mired firmly in that dream. As I said a few pages back – in 1997 I left for the United States Navy – EVERYTHING changed.
(Author’s Note): Just to say… I have not posted any part of this long-in-the-works book on writing in a very, very long time. You’ll find the link to the parts (and a couple of side posts) on the front page of my website at the top. I am working on re-activating my creativity after a long period of too much time building Crossroad Press and ignoring it. I have to find a way to schedule both… Here is the next installment in this book on writing that I may, or may not ever finish…
I mentioned in the previous short chapter that when I started writing, I chose the short story as my format. There were a lot of reasons for this, but the one I’m going to stick with is – I wasn’t ready to write a novel. What is true for me is not necessarily true for anyone else. A lot of people start out the gate writing novels and never really do much in the short form. Some of my favorite authors are very skimpy on stories, and long on novels, or even novellas. Peter Straub and T. E. D. Klein come to mind as authors who chose their length and pretty much stuck to it. While Peter has written a number of short stories over the years, I don’t believe they are his chosen form… That said, he did beat me for the Bram Stoker award the year my collection Defining Moments was on the final ballot.
For me things have always been a progression. In fact, when it comes to the books that have mattered the most to me, it goes deeper. The first novel I wrote that really mattered to me was This is My Blood. Anyone who is a fan of mine will know that the novel was born as a novelette – first published in Starshore magazine long ago, then reprinted in Karl Edward Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror XIX and a number of other publications over the years. That novelette, “A Candle Lit in Sunlight,” or sometimes mis-titled as “A Candle in the Sun,” was – as it turns out – only the germ of the idea.
It took someone else’s perspective to make me see my error. I was very proud of the novelette. I’d never gotten the kind of notice it brought, and I was even starting to feel a little cocky – the first sense that I had chosen a profession where I had the skill to make a name for myself. Then came my first World Horror Convention. In those days, there were rock-stars of horror. John Skipp, Craig Spector, Poppy Z. Brite, Kathe Koja, David Schow – wandering the halls like the Pied Piper with troops of acolytes and poseurs dangling off them like lichen on a swamp tree. I was a bit in awe of them, but they proved friendly enough, and accessible.
At the time, I was not only starting my writing career, but was in the midst of publishing my magazine, The Tome. I had a table in the dealer’s room, covered in the books and magazines I’d cobbled together to sell and help pay for the adventure. Among those books and magazines were several copies of Starshore with my story. Sales were anything but brisk – there was a lot of competition. Still, I met people. I passed my story on, and on that very first day, it happened.
A short, slender man with a slightly odd accent stepped up to the table. We started talking about vampires. His name, he told me, was Robert Eighteen Bisang. I kind of nodded, thinking it was odd enough to either be true, or an affectation, and that it didn’t matter. He told me he had the largest collection of vampire fiction in the world, first editions of Dracula. I told him that he did not have all of the vampire stories yet. I sold him a copy of Starshore. He promised to read it and let me know what he thought.
I, of course, had heard that a lot since opening the table and seldom seen return traffic. What there was mostly consisted of my fellow small-press editors and authors, and a few people who hoped that, if they stayed close by, I’d remember their names and buy the next story they submitted. Yes – even at the lower levels, we had acolytes. I was pretty new, though, and my “posse” was pretty sad.
Anyway, to make a long story short, Robert came back to my table later that day. He had an odd look on his face, and I’ll never forget what he said. “You know, David, this is really brilliant – but it has to be a novel.”
It took me a bit to get over the “brilliant” part, but I did. His words stuck with me, and so did Robert. In fact, one night out in the middle of the Mediterranean on board the USS Bainbridge, I sat down in the transmitter room I’d claimed as my own (too cold and noisy for most others) and I set to work. I had one of those tiny green Gideon Society bibles that they give you when you go to boot camp. I had my old IBM 386 PC and a Deskjet 500 printer. I had from 4:30 in the afternoon until midnight, day in, and day out.
I went through all the gospels. I wrote down the holes in them, and then I compared those holes to the other three gospels to make sure they weren’t covered somewhere else. I found places where – without changing the original story much – I could insert my characters. I had no idea how long it would end up, but I had a really good idea of where it was all going. This was an important work for me on many, many levels.
Prior to being a writer and publisher, there was a time in my life when, lured to church by good looking high school girls and fun college ministers, I thought my life would go in a different direction. I thought that maybe I’d become one of those fun campus ministers, preach to college kids and high school students, make the church my life. I’m going to stop talking about This is My Blood for a while now, and I’m going to move on to a more memoirish (new word – take note) segment of my tale. I’m going to tell you how a young, naïve man with dreams left small town Illinois, joined the US Navy, outgrew organized religion, and got to the point we just left – the point where this book – this first, important book, was something that had to be written. In no small way, my books are my life. I think that must be true for most creative people – the ones who would create without fame or fortune or fans – the ones that can’t help themselves. We are a sad lot – though the sadness could be dulled by a healthy dose of sales…
In 1977, I graduated from Charleston High School, in Charleston Illinois. Soon after that – things started to get interesting.
- Write what you know.
- POV Matters.
I’m not much for cut-and-dried rules; I write what I write, and I write ‘how’ I write, but sometimes I can go back after the fact and pick out some things that are important. Since this week I’m talking about my novel, This is My Blood, I thought I’d start with that.
When I parted ways with organized religion, the insides of my psyche were not a pretty sight. I had issues. I had some anger, too. Mostly, though, it was growing pains. I was drawn into the “fold” the way many are – I was young, lonely – girls asked me to a Bible study (pretty girls) – it gave me a sense of belonging, and, for a while the notion that I knew something important. I’m not planning on bashing religion in this post. I’ll say that I write fiction, and it can be powerful. Ancient people wrote fiction too, and just because it helped them get through the night, and the stories were passed down from generation to generation, I see no reason to consider them more than they are. Fiction. The world does not need Gods or higher powers to believe in – it needs men to step up and take responsibility for their own good, and bad works.
In any case, there I was. I had recently decided NOT to become a campus minister, but had studied quite a lot toward that end. I had a wealth of biblical knowledge, and some very strong ideas about what I did NOT like about Christianity. It had nothing to do with Jesus, or with God – for that matter, though he seemed (and still seems) far too clinical, judgmental, and violent for my taste. It had to do with rules, with the men who made and enforced those rules, and the hypocritical nature inherent in anything important that becomes ‘organized.’
I started with my plot – it was straightforward. Someone near Jesus would be cursed with vampirism. I did not want to change the main story. I did not want (as many suggested I should) to turn it into some sort of cosmic romance novel. I had something to say, and I needed the proper voice to say it. So I started with what I knew.
Religion – particularly Christianity – is based on faith. You don’t’ get to know things, you have to trust…God, The Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Church. You just take what they say on “faith” and forge ahead. That is the flaw. It is not enough, and it never was enough, because men are creatures of intellect. We can think for ourselves (and should do so) and in a faith-based system, that’s not only frowned upon, but you are told in many cases that the thoughts and facts you encounter are just tests from some dark, evil entity trying to lure you from the fold. Clearly, then, none of the men surrounding Jesus was going to be able to tell the story as I wanted it told. It had to be someone who knew the truth. Someone who had walked where Jesus had walked, had absolutely no doubt there was a Heaven, and a Hell – someone without the false support of faith crumbling beneath their feet.
I chose an angel. I chose to have Lucifer raise one of the fallen in the form of a woman, ostensibly to test Jesus’ will to resist temptations of the flesh, but in my mind, to provide the perspective – the point of view – that could make my book more than a vampire story.
I don’t want to get mired in talking about that book, because I want you to go and read it. I’m greedy like that. I love feedback. The point is, as Mary often tells us in the novel, she has walked the roads of both Heaven, and Hell, and her memory will suffice. She was disgusted by the greed and infighting among the apostles, astonished at the blindness of those witnessing miracles, and five minutes later arguing over points of “law” as if their opinions mattered a whit. She knew what was at stake, and so, as she walked along through the gospel of Judas Iscariot, she was the perfect voice to comment on things that had been left unsaid, to voice the concerns and fears that the Bible ignores.
She was MY voice, my message to my past, and my hope for the future.
I call these posts “Writing What Hurts” for a reason. When you are really writing, everything about the words matters to you. Sometimes you are just storytelling. Sometimes you are fulfilling commitments, or putting bread on the table. Other times, like the time I spent writing This is My Blood¸ you are consumed by the work – obsessed with it – invested so deeply that every comment, every reaction, every turned page matters to you. If Clive Barker is right, and we are all books of blood, then our best work is flesh torn from our hearts.
When you decide what your book is about, think about who is involved. Think about all of the points of view from which the story could be told, the problems inherent in each, the gains and take-aways of each choice. Think about how you want your readers to react, and to which characters – and events. Choose your book’s voice wisely, and stay true to it. You may find that, by the time the work is done, you’ve learned as much as you’ve taught.
Now, as I’m certain I’ve caught your attention – Buy This is My Blood now at Amazon.com…
The novel Deep Blue finds its origin in the novelette by the same name published in an anthology titled Strange Attraction. In Strange Attraction, all the stories were inspired by the “Kinetic” Art of Lisa Snelling, each author choosing one of the characters on an intricately detailed Ferris wheel sculpture. I was honored to be among authors such as Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe in presenting our separate visions of what lay buried behind her art. From the images presented, I chose a harlequin, hanging by a noose from the bottom of one of the Ferris wheels seats. I took the image, made it the wallpaper on my computer, printed it out and carried it around with me, and let it sink in. I could have written any number of stories that would have sufficed, but somehow I knew there would be more to this work, and so I waited.
The publishers of the anthology, Vince and Leslie Harper, invited me to have dinner with them one night when my mundane job took me to Washington DC. We met for Mexican food and went together to see the movie PI which, at the time, was newly released. On the way to meet the Harpers, I walked down into a shadowed subway, and I was assaulted by some of the most haunting saxophone music I’ve ever heard. It bordered the blues, walked down old jazz roads, and I never saw the musician. That set the mood for what was to come.
I reached the restaurant without further incident, and we spent a pleasant hour scalding mouths and stomachs with jalapenos and washing them down with beer. Then came the movie. I won’t go into detail about PI, but I’ll say it’s a black and white film, very surreal, filled with symbolism, and it left me visually and emotionally stunned. I parted company with Vince and his wife, found my way back to the subway and my hotel, and called it a night.
The next day, a friend of mine and I set out to visit The Holocaust Museum. I have always wanted to see it, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the images, the displays, and the words I would find in that short hour visit. I purchased a book of poetry written by the victims, and left with so much bottled up inside from those two days that I thought it would be the end of my sanity.
That night, I started to write. I started to write about The Blues, and how deep they might really get. I wrote about pain, not my pain, but the pain bottled up inside the world, as the pain had been bottled up inside me, and I wrote a way out. That was Brandt, his guitar, and his blues. The story, like the pain, refused to be bottled up in just the few lines of that novelette, and so I released it into the novel you now hold.
Everyone comes to their crossroads eventually – the defining moment of life. As Old Wally, one of the novel’s main characters tells us – “Crossroads, or the crosshairs.” Forward or back, but you can’t stay stagnant – that way lies madness. I give you . . . Deep Blue.
Style is a word you see tossed about a lot in literary circles. There have been epic battles fought over stylistic writing vs. plot-driven writing vs. character driven writing. There are authors who understand words and punctuation and the painting of images in sequences of letters so well that they can twist and turn the language into intricate pretzels of brilliance…and there are an even larger number claiming “style” to hide a lack of proper grammatical understanding, or a simple misunderstanding of the term.
My take on it is as simple as my take on most of the big writing arguments. In fact, let me qualify this by stating my opinion on most such squabbles up front. If you are arguing over style, or plot, or who is right about what particular aspect of the craft of writing, you aren’t writing. If you spend all your time worrying over how other work, or whether you are doing it “right” then you aren’t concentrating hard enough to actually create anything useful. Creation requires your full attention – don’t waste it on irrelevant nonsense, because, in the end, if you don’t actually create something it’s all so much wasted breath.
Style is what it is. While I believe you can recognize a style that you like, emulate it, study it, twist it and turn it – it isn’t your style until it develops into something so ingrained in your psyche that it occurs without thought. It’s like I tell my oldest daughter, who is fond of telling everyone how she likes to be random. If you are trying to be random, it’s not random. If you are trying to write with a particular style you may be in a developmental stage, but it can’t be considered completely your own. I would go so far as to say that even if you absolutely LOVE the style of another author, unless it molds itself to your mind and becomes something entirely new, you are writing in someone else’s style, and can never be more than a reflection.
I wrote early on in this piece about influences. You can’t avoid them, and should not try. On the other hand, you also can’t get caught up in them. Like drinking, or television, or video games – if you let yourself get too tangled up in one influence or another, you will lose yourself, and if you don’t personally have anything to say, why are you writing? If you don’t believe your own words, in your own style, will reach out and grab people – or get your message across – or do justice to the voices in your head, what is the point? It’s not arrogance to believe you are as good as anyone out there, it’s mental survival. Never strive to be second best, or the next “so-and-so” – strive to make what you are a thing that others envy and want to emulate. Be the first you.
And with that in mind, a bit about style. Just like everything in the arts, you have to be careful with that hat that says “stylist” on it. The publishing world, and subsequently the world of readers and consumers, is very fond of labels. The thing about literary labels is that they come with their own particularly sticky and difficult to wash off adhesive. If you write a horror novel, and it does well, you are a horror writer. You can overcome this over time – particularly if you are a pretty successful author, like Dean Koontz, or Poppy Z. Brite – but it’s not an easy task.
The problem from the publisher’s side of the fence is a simple matter of marketing. To create a best-selling author, you begin by publishing and marketing that first book – and you build on it. You try to create a recognizable brand – a product you can quantify, qualify, and pop onto the right shelf. If the aforementioned horror writer turns in a mainstream novel or a mystery, you have to either build parallel paths (possibly with one genre under a pseudonym to keep from getting it all messy) or start all over in the new genre, building that brand. I get this – and you should too, if you plan on putting that stylist hat on.
For one thing, if you are going to be a stylistic writer, you had better have the standard styles down pat. You’d better be able to communicate and articulate, punctuate and prove it. If you become a rule breaker, you have to be able to prove that you know you broke rules, and didn’t just do it because it sounded “cool.” You’ll get called on it. The problem with writing as a stylist is that most of the readers who are interested in that type of writing are a very literate crowd, and they are quick to flush out “poseurs”.
Also, think long and hard about your reasons. Some authors, Caitlin Kiernan comes to mind, write the way they do because it’s the way they write. Kathe Koja has a “voice” that has been present since her first novel. It’s not an affectation, in other words, and I believe that to be effective, style can never be an affectation. It has to be a naturally occurring voice.
That brings me to the actual point (sometimes I really get there if you stick with me). The point is, we are all stylists. Your ‘style’ is how the words come out when you are in your ‘zone.’ The Zone, for me, is that place where I’m working – the words are flowing – and I am not thinking about them at all, just pounding the keys and letting it flow. That’s the natural state of your work. It is possible to force that work into other voices, and styles, but a rare occasion when you pull it off without losing something in the translation.
It’s also important to understand what stylistic means. There are any number of quirks that can distinguish one literary voice from another. Short sentences, long sentences, punctuation that uses flips and tricks to reach an end, stream-of-consciousness, quirky first person, clipped phrases …you get the idea. Early in my career, I used WAY too many ellipses. Sometimes I still do. I used to think it was part of my “style” and now I know, sadly, that it’s a flaw in my grammar.
One of my pet peeves in writing could, I suppose, be considered nothing more than a stylistic preference. The use of the word “could” to modify verbs irritates the crap out of me. If you take a paragraph full of “He could see the campfire from where he stood” like sentences and change them so they read in the immediate, real-time way I think they should, you get “He saw the campfire.” Over a few pages, this can tighten and trim up a manuscript with incredible swiftness and aplomb. That’s what I think. In practice, I see everyone from Stephen King to John Grisham tossing the “could” word at verbs and I have to live with it, or not read their work. It only bothers me when I notice it one time in a jarring sentence, but from that point on it can irritate me right out of my happy place.
The point of this short aside is just to note that this is a quirk of my own style. I’m not necessarily right, or wrong about it, but in my own writing you’ll not find me using that sentence structure very often. It’s the tip of a huge iceberg. I will be getting further into my own style as we progress, and hopefully examining where elements of it came from – why they stuck with me while others did not – and how this may, or may not relate to your own writing. Stay tuned.