I wasted 1/3 of my life worried about this part of my writing identity.

Have you ever had a fantastic idea for a children’s book, for a personal essay about dating in your 20s, for a political op-ed, but stopped yourself because you write (fill in the blank)?

I’ve realized that I sabotage myself this way all the time. I identify as a fiction writer first. Horror writer second. Before that, a “literary” writer. Which means I didn’t let myself dabble in any genre fiction or nonfiction. For eight years, ideas for crime fiction, science-fiction, children’s books, and personal or political nonfiction would pop into my head, begging to be written. I would admonish myself, “NO, Tom, you’re a literary fiction writer. Stay in that lane.”

There’s one specific type of perfectionism I’ve been haunted by. It’s absurd and embarrassing. Heck, I almost hesitate to admit it, but it’s my truth, and maybe it will help someone.

I worry about legacy.

I know. Yikes. Here I am, most assuredly a Nobody, worrying about whether my ideas are on brand or not, instead of finishing manuscripts and publishing them. Worrying about how the public will view me when the dust of my golden years settles.

I always sought to write in ways that satisfied a particular self-image I wanted to conjure. At first, at my most naive, I wanted to be Hemingway; then, as I matured, it turned into wanting to be Stephen King, Denis Lehane, Ray Bradbury, Laird Barron, etc al. So I would have these phases where I would, again, put blinders on to all of the things I want to say about the world, and write exclusively in my “genre-of-the-week.” Of course, when you do this, last week’s writing may get thrown out the following week. After that cycle repeats itself enough, you have years without publications, nor even submissions.

Does this sound familiar? I think it might. A lot of us love literature and love writing fiction, but a lot of us also, if we’re honest, aspire at one point to achieve household literary fame. It’s strange to state that so baldly, but now that I have, I understand that it has kept me from expressing myself genuinely for three-quarters of my life. Gulp.

I encourage you to write whatever the heck your heart desires. But to be more practical, let me remind you that every writer of status, did not stifle their creativity. They wrote journalism and they wrote weird essays and average poetry and short stories you have never seen because they haven’t been put in collections. Nowadays, the big writers of tomorrow probably do freelance copy writing and content writing and also write strange flash or micro fiction we’ll never know about, even when they’re NYT bestselling authors.

Cormac McCarthy is my favorite example. He worked as a mechanic back in the day, and wrote these complex, regional, literary novels that on the surface would only be appreciated where the stories were set, in Appalachia. Suttree had a first print run of three thousand copies, and his number of fans hovered around that figure for years, as he plodded on writing Appalachians and some Westerns. Blood Meridian, held by many as one of the greatest novels ever was his sixth book. And then, All The Pretty Horses came along and became a bestseller. It took seven books. And then, boom, his back catalog went back into print and his new releases sold like hot cakes.

Imagine if McCarthy had cast aside his five ideas prior to Blood Meridian? Imagine if he was so caught up in his “image” he hadn’t written those (“I’m gonna wait until I can write a Western, I’m a Western writer!”) and therefore did not have the publishing credentials to get his sixth and then bestselling seventh books published. Furthermore, he might be a mechanic in El Paso, Texas right now who writes as a hobby…

The point here is to express yourself for your own well-being. Be congruent with yourself, your worldview, and what interests you. Write what you believe and finish things. The genre or categorization doesn’t matter. Submit your work and then publish it. Make a difference however you can. Lest you look up at thirty, like me, and realize you’ve wasted a solid chunk of life fretting about nonsense.

So long as you can see the way back to the main trail, don’t fear the sun setting through the trees.

I’d love to hear if you relate to this.

I’m in the early stages of brainstorming for children’s books about American History. This is a huge departure for me, but I think it’s a way I can make a difference in the world, perhaps moreso than escapist fiction.

What are you currently writing/struggling whether or not to write?

 

Blood Sugar Cauldron: Lovecraftian Flash Fiction Inspired by an Existential Candy Meme

BLOOD SUGAR CAULDRON

by Tom Scanlan

I remember when War Heads sprang into existence because it’s when my problem started.

As a kid, I used to consume the hard sour candies until my tongue split and bled. The sugar (C6H12O6) became inseparable from my blood.

I changed.

I yearn for Sour Patch Kids and the lesser sour candies still. I eat them until the roof of my mouth turns into dry whale ribs that I can run my tongue over, a xylophone that produces not sound but pain. I gorge myself on them at the expense of my body, which turns the sugar into fat that stuffs my skin like an overfilled sand bag.

I’m in the 24-hour Seven Eleven. I come here while the world sleeps. I’m studying the candy section for my next selection, when I hear the universe chant unintelligible words. I see a vast cauldron nested in a corner of the cosmos. Dark amber glucose tar churns inside, popping, sizzling, letting off a sweet hot candy reek. The presence from whose mouth the chemical song comes ignores the spitting liquid scalding its space-time flesh.

Does the presence notice me notice it? I think it does.

I think it wants me to know.

Its ululations increase in volume. I need to blot out the noise. It sounds like something is being willed into existence…

Is the time now?

The bag of sour Now & Laters my glassy eyes have been looking beyond shakes. One by one, bags of Sour Worms, Sour Skittles, Air Head Xtreme Sours, Sour Jolly Ranchers, Sour Trollis, and the War Heads that started this journey, tremble. The plastic containers crinkle. The loose grains of sugar inside them shake like sand in maracas.

“YO.”

A pale employee with a neck beard looks at me intently.

“What?”

“I’ve been asking if you can hear me. Lay off the weed, dude. For fuck’s sake.”

“I’m not high,” I say. “I–” I can’t tell another person that I’ve been communicating with a deity I call (C6H12O6) about the progenation of its offspring.

I keep my mouth shut.

The cashier shrugs. “Fine. Whatever then. Stare at the candy until you get your heart’s fill.”

“Wait,” I say, before he walks away.

“Yup?”

I cough. My throat’s felt tight, but now I can breathe. “Bags. Please get me bags to carry my selection up. I’m going to need a lot of candy tonight.”

END


gummy bear horror

I started this post as a means of sharing this hilarious meme about gummy bears becoming a singular consciousness because they melted in a car. I thought I’d leave a funny line about how my die hard consumption of War Heads, as a 90s kid drawn to their “extreme sour” allure, contributed to candy somehow acquiring consciousness.

Then this flash piece took on a life of its own, and then a half-decent form, and then after a couple hours with it, I realized it’s kind of a cool story.

You know… “what if…

  • you took a sweet (sour) tooth to its illogical extreme?”
  • gave that creeper in the late-night convenient store setting a cosmic backstory?”
  • considered that environmental forces and nutrition are already changing our bodies in ways no one could’ve foreseen in the 1950s, and gave that horror a dollop of glucose?”

Anyway, I don’t try flash fiction often. Let me know if this makes you think/feel anything!

HINNOM MAGAZINE ISSUE 006 TOC REVEAL — Gehenna & Hinnom Books

I pre-ordered mine before tomorrow’s release. You should do the same. The industry’s best Cosmic Horror for only $3!

Greetings from the Ether, As a lot of you probably saw in our newsletter this morning, it is time to reveal the table of contents for Hinnom Magazine Issue 006. We have ourselves a stacked issue with immense talent, new and veteran alike. We can’t wait to share this issue with you, and we hope you’ll […]

via HINNOM MAGAZINE ISSUE 006 TOC REVEAL — Gehenna & Hinnom Books

Writing Craft Lessons from Bird Box by Josh Malerman Pt. 1

I can’t recommend Bird Box by Josh Malerman enough. Maybe I’ll link to my Goodreads review of this masterpiece. But seeing as most of us are writers, I thought I’d take things from “read this” to “read this to learn how to write” territory.

josh malermanJosh Malerman made a number of technical writing craft decisions in this novel that we can learn from.

Here’s a list.

  1. Present Tense
  2. Limited Third POV
  3. Alternating Story Line Structure
  4. Simple language / “Minimalism”
  5. Delayed (or Late Entry) Planting & Paying Off

Last thing. Bird Box was published in 2014, so I’m not concerned with spoilers. Having said that, I’ll do my best not to ruin the book for you.

Let’s do this.

1. Present Tense

Sustaining a narrative in present tense is difficult. This is because the main desired affect of present tense is to give the story immediacy.

This is happening now.

Done well, the reader feels as if they’re living the action.

The pitfall is that the longer any gimmick is used, the less effective it becomes. Maybe it even becomes tiresome. The trick is to not do it in such a way that anyone in their right mind would call it a gimmick.

My take on present tense is that it’s most successful when the book couldn’t possibly be written in past tense. In workshop speak, “Justify its existence.”

I take it a step farther. I’d advise a writer to justify present tense in the first place, but then, in addition, provide mechanisms in the book that allow it for it to work at sustained length.

Josh Malerman does this masterfully.

Reasons why Josh Malerman Teaches Us A Present Tense Masterclass

The setting of Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic suburb in Michigan. There are two alternating storylines. One takes place in a house. The other on twenty miles of a river, located behind that house, as Malorie and Boy and Girl seek Rick’s promised shelter.

To begin with, in a post-apocalyptic world, the past does not matter. As a matter of survival. Modern conveniences go right out the back door with the filthy bath water, and in order to literally survive, people must live moment by moment. Where’s your next meal? A simple injury could mean infection and death, et al.

In the world of Bird Box, society was destroyed because when people see creatures from another plain of existence, their minds cannot comprehend it. As a result, they become violently mad, killing others and/or themselves. Thus, Malorie, our POV character, and every other character in the novel spends the majority of their “screen” time blindfolded.

When one’s senses are deprived in anyway, we rely more heavily on the others. Common knowledge. But think of this. Losing the (arguably) more important senses of sight or hearing, would cause you to have to focus much more carefully on the minutiae of making it through a moment-by-moment existence.

Thus, the employment of “survival mode”-justified present tense, operates on the deeper level of sensory-deprivation-justified present tense.

What We Can Learn

Simply put: how to do present tense well, and how to sustain it over the length of a book.

Put another way: the thought that should go into the big craft decisions of our stories.

Sure, part of what makes Bird Box a masterclass in using present tense is Malerman’s amazing premise/plot. But I think if we, as writers, apply this multifaceted approach to justifying the more conspicuous craft choices we make, our readers will thank us.

Farewell

I decided to turn this into a five part series. Each of the five craft lessons we can learn from Bird Box deserves its own post.

But honestly, I also knew that you wouldn’t read a post that looked like it would end up around 3,000 words long.

Hope you enjoyed part 1 of 5.

Behold The Void–Nay, Behold Philip Fracassi.

https://www.amazon.com/Behold-Void-Philip-Fracassi-ebook/dp/B01N7WAWGG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519578936&sr=8-1&keywords=behold+the+void

Buy. It. Now. $7.

Philip Fracassi is the next big name in horror. Get in on the ground floor and be a “horror hipster” who discovered him first–before he is so mainstream.

This short story collection renewed my faith in fiction as entertainment. Especially in the short fiction form.

Too many short story writers think we pay the price of admission for wispy tales, with depressed characters who stare out windows, and end on “subtle,” “ambiguous” notes.

*fart sound*

Behold The Void by Philip Fracassi delivers the goods–each story stands alone as a bolt of lighning. His characters and the plots they’re unfortunate enough to be in make you give a shit.

There isn’t a single bad story. Here are my top three (light spoilers):

  1. “Altar”
  2. “The Horse Thief”
  3. “Mandala,” the capstone novella

“Altar”

I read “Altar” on my Kindle in a cafe. People shot me dirty looks because I kept fidgeting in my seat and swearing in disbelief under my breath. That was only the second story in the book. I knew I was in the presence of a special horror genre talent—a master.

Fracassi handles three dynamic characters, a feat in itself in short fiction: a mother, her adolescent daughter, and her ten year old son. He captures their broken home, split fresh by divorce, and the swirling confusion of growing up/raising kids deftly, all while ratcheting up a tower of tension. The culmination–glorious, glorious cosmic horror!–where we literally see a community pool open up into a void, where a demon who eats children waits, mouth salivating.

Think H.P. Lovecraft without the social ineptitude and misanthropy, and you’ll appreciate how amazing this story (and Philip Fracassi, generally) is.

“The Horse Thief”

I have a special connection to this yarn. My favorite literary writer is Cormac McCarthy, author of Blood Meridian, arguably the greatest novel of all time. Many try and fail to imitate McCarthy’s mystical and effusive style and fall short at the man’s feet.

I haven’t a clue whether he was trying to evoke McCarthy in this story or not. But my God. Pitch wise and thematically and lyrically, it was close. The main character is a Mexican immigrant who steals horses, who gets roped in with a sadistic buyer, so content-wise, the shoe also fit.

I finished the story and thought to myself, if Philip Fracassi ever crosses paths with Cormac, that wise old imp is going to clap him on the back like an approving father.

“Mandala”

This novella is worth paying for as a stand-alone book. You know that tired-ass cliche people throw around about being grabbed by the throat? This novella leaves choke marks.

I can’t remember reading such taut, compelling prose. This story involving two families at their summer homes in Washington State, dealing with two intertwined tragedies, is harrowing. Literal connotation. What separates Fracassi from other writers (in any genre) is the artful way he develops his characters.

Here, the central tension is whether or not our main character Mike is going to drown. His friend leaves him handcuffed to a railing at the shoreline–when the tide comes in he must fight to keep his head above water.

In Fracassi’s hands, Mike is a real boy. We feel each excruciating physical and mental struggle that he goes through–it’s grueling. The act of reading almost leaves you to suffer the shortness of breath and the brutal sunburn that Mike does. I haven’t rooted for a character to survive as much as I did with Mike in “Mandala” since I first started reading fiction as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pup.

Buy Behold The Void

Philip Fracassi is brilliant. I’ve bought all his other work already, and intend on ripping through it like the characters in this collection hurtle headlong into the void.

My story “A Little Poor Taste Wartime Humor” is in issue #6 of Bone Parade

You can read my latest short story, “A Little Poor Taste Wartime Humor” here.

The story is about a couple and their young daughter coping with the on-set of WWIII. I thought it would be fun to write a mid-apocalyptic storyThere’s dark humor and high emotional stakes, along with vivid descriptions of warships roaring across the Atlantic and the mountains of Appalachia.

It’s also a quick read.

What else could you want, right?

If you like the story, it would mean a lot to me if you shared it on Facebook or Twitter. I’ve given up on social media myself because all of the political vitriol is bad for my mental health.