Rob Smales.com 

I write character-driven dark fiction.
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Writer In Progress

Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.

~E.L. Doctorow

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This Is The End

Posted by [email protected] on January 1, 2018 at 9:45 PM Comments comments (2)



Okay, here's the deal: I hate blogging. I have for a long time.

I started blogging as a way to reassure my friends and family who were worried that all I was writing were dark stories, mostly with monsters and somebody (or somebodies) dying. I wanted them to see that I still had what they would refer to as fun. A good percentage of my posts had to do with my son and me, and were a way to keep my family aware of what was going on with him as well.

He's fifteen now, and he has school, and video games, and a girlfriend (whom I love, she's a terrific kid), and most of all he's fifteen, so the last thing he wants to do is spend any time with his parents. Hasn't wanted to for better than two years, really. And without doing stuff with him anymore, all I have to blog about is myself . . . and I think I'm done with that.

See, there are people persons, and then there are people like me; shy, lacking in self-confidence, socially awkward, having social anxiety—call it what you will—I'm usually uncomfortable talking to people, and it's because of one main fact: I'm 99 percent sure whomever I'm talking to, whether friends and family or total strangers, couldn't give a shit what I have to say. It's not them, it's me. I'm positive my opinions are shitty, or if what I have to say is okay then the way I'm saying it is shitty, or it could be something wrong I haven't even thought of yet, but I'm pretty sure they're wishing they were somewhere else right then. Anywhere else.

That carries over into my blogging, too. No matter what I write about, if I'm writing as me, I'm convinced no one's really going to care. I stumble over words and phrases. I struggle to come up with sentences.I rewrite passages again and again, then edit the whole thing a half dozen times, just looking for the part (there may be one, there may be many), where my reader will say What the fuck am I reading this shit for? and bail, lip curled in disgust at my wasting his time.

I know people—bloggers, good ones, you should read them—who complain that it may take them as much as an hour to write a blog post, when ususally they bang one out in thirty to forty minutes. They whine about the wasted time. The New Year's post that I kicked aside this evening when I decided to call it quits was just over a thousand words long and took me eight or ten hours to write, spread over the course of three days. Let me repeat that: eight or ten hours. A thousand words. And I hated about seventy-five percent of them. The other twenty five percent sucked. And I grew more frustrated and angry the longer it went on. This is what blogging often is for me: hours of frustration and trying to get the words out while convinced no one's going to read them anyway.

I've tried to draw out some kind of response in the past, asking questions, requesting suggestions, even posting polls. They've never worked. And I'm not pointing my finger at anyone and saying You people didn't support me, either; I simply can't draw people out like some other bloggers can. I get the occasional response on Facebook, but I could do that without the blog, without the aggravation and frustration. Without the wasted eight or ten hours.

When I write stories, though, people respond; I'm enjoying it then, and they're enjoying it with me. When I speak as a character, I don't stumble. I struggle a lot less. I have fun then, and love what I'm doing. Is it really any wonder that I'm more comfortable writing in someone's fictional skin when I'm so uncomfortable living in my own? I could have taken that eight or ten hours and worked on the novella I'm writing right now, or banged out a chapter in the collaboration I'm taking part in again, or maybe outlined something for at least one of the three submission calls I saw today that I want to respond to. A few people asked me over the course of 2017, Hey, isn't it time we saw a novel or something from you?

I think they're right.

If you're one of the dozen or so people who've actually been reading along with me here every post, please, if you've not looked me up on Facebook, do so now. I'd love to hear from you. We can keep in touch. You'll know what goes on with me even better over there. If you get a kick out of my writing, and want to keep reading it every month, check out my Monster Movie Madness column over at Cinema Knife Fight—I understand my reviews can be pretty entertaining.

For me, though, I'm going to focus on what feels better for me, and what people seem to enjoy more—and more people seem to enjoy. The banner at the top of the page says I write character-driven dark fiction, so, for now at least, fuck this blog, I'm out of here.

I'll see you in the story books.



I'll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want.

Posted by [email protected] on December 5, 2017 at 7:45 AM Comments comments (0)



Hey there, Readers!


I was wondering aloud what to write for this month’s blog post, and someone pointed out that I’d recently finished reading for an anthology I’m editing, and I could write about all the fun I had doing that. And she was right, it was fun, and I read a lot of really good stories. But that’s the thing: there were a lot of stories.


Now, I’m not complaining about the actual number of stories—in fact, I’m thrilled with the sheer quantity of submissions we received, both because it spoke to a lot of interest in our project and because it gave me plenty of material to work with in creating the best book I could. That was the goal, of course, to put together the best book possible. That meant I had to read through the entire pile of stories searching out the ones I thought best fit our theme. Knowing I was going to have to do that, and to help funnel stories I might be able to use in my direction, before we actually began soliciting work we created and posted a submission call.


A submission call, for readers who may not know, is a statement of want. It’s a written indication of what an editor or publisher is looking for to help give writers the best shot at getting their work seriously considered for publication. Sounds pretty simple, right? It’s something we’ve all been doing since we were children: we tell people “I want this.”


So, since I was putting together a humorous horror anthology, I didn’t just say Send me your stories. I said Send me your funny frighteners. Make me shiver and giggle. I said, and I quote: “What we’re looking for: Original stories that are both entertaining and fall firmly in the horror genre. Think Jeff Strand, Joe Lansdale, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland. Make us die laughing.”


While going through everything that came my way, however, I read romance stories. I read fantasy tales. I read some straight horror and I read some funny stuff with not a whiff of the scary. And some of those stories were good, I mean really good, to the point that I was sad I couldn’t accept them. But I couldn’t. Because they didn’t fit the theme—you know, that I outlined in my submission call.


Now if you’re a fledgling writer, someone new to the writing for money game, you might not know about submission calls. You may have heard of them but never dealt with them. If that describes you, then ignore this next bit. It doesn’t apply to you. We all had to start somewhere, we’ve all been where you are, and we’re not going to fault you for not knowing stuff you don’t even know you need to know. You can, of course, read along and learn from others’ mistakes.


If, however, you’re not new to the writing game, and you’ve been doing this for a while, and you know what a submission call is, and you knowingly submit something—no matter how well written or loving polished—that is obviously outside the parameters set forth by the editor/publisher, well . . . you’re kind of an idiot.


Seriously. If I’ve told you what I want, what I need, why the hell would you waste your time and mine submitting something you know I don’t want? I’ll give you an example I’ve used in the past. We’ve all gone out to eat, right? Been in a restaurant? I don’t care what restaurant— from the biggest, most expensive steakhouse (sushi bar, vegan establishment, whatever) down to the shittiest, dingiest roadside diner, they all work for this example.


You check the menu, tell your server what you want . . . and they bring you something completely different. You ordered the steak, they bring you the chicken. You asked for the vegan special, they slap a big juicy burger down in front of you. You clearly said “The meat lover’s pizza, please,” and they bring you a caesar salad.


Are you satisfied? Are you happy? Or do you look at the server and say, “This isn’t what I ordered”? They’re not short staffed, they’re not in a big rush, they had plenty of time to look at the pad they wrote the order on, and you’re paying for this meal.


You send it back. Of course you send it back. And maybe they’re just having a bad day, but you’re going to think just a little less of them than the server who gets it right for you every time—and the next time you go there, you’ll likely remember your disappointment and hope to avoid that server if you can.


The editor/publisher is the customer in that example, and you, the writer, you’re the server. You’re also the cook, the one in the background putting your heart into the product you’re handing out. Wouldn’t you do everything you could not to be that server, delivering that lovingly prepared food to the wrong people?


I seem to go on about this again and again, but whether you’re an inexperienced writer who still has that new car smell or a seasoned scribbler with leather skin and ink for blood, submission calls are important. They’re a direct communication from the one you’re trying to sell a story to, where they’re telling you how to do it. Some of those stories were too long, some to short, some, as I said above, were even the wrong genre and seemed like the writer hadn’t read the submission call at all, but I’m serious when I say some of those stories were terrific. I would have loved to have read them in some other context, but here, in this context, all I could do was wonder why these people were shooting themselves in the foot.


There’s another category I want to talk about before I go, another level to this scenario (new writers, pay attention!): if your story’s been rejected for being outside the parameters of the submission call, for any reason (it’s too long, too short, wrong genre, didn’t include the one specific thing the call was asking for, whatever), don’t argue. Don’t tell the editor (the customer) your eighteenth century period piece would work well to offset the other stories in their Sci-fi book. Conversely, don’t voice the opinion that your romance set on the planet Kerfuffle in the year 3,071 would add spice to their old west mystery anthology. And your five hundred word story might just be fast moving and full of action, but arguing that it would inject some life into their tired, slow-moving book filled with stories from 4,000–8,000 words doesn’t make you a good salesperson.


It makes you, in their minds at least, an asshole.


Just to check, let’s go back to the above restaurant example and see what we think of our fictitious server when he offers us similar responses when we say we’d really prefer to eat what we ordered.


“Oh, forget the steak—I know you’ll like the chicken better.”


“I know you ordered the vegan meal, but, seriously, you need to get some protein into you. You’re looking a little peaky.”


“What? The pizza? Look, honey, do you really think someone with your hips should mow down on a meat-lover’s?”


Asshole. Asshole. Asshole. And the worst part is that while looking a little like an idiot could be someone merely having a bad day, or not knowing any better, being an asshole actually takes a little effort—and it definitely gets you remembered.


So, writers out there both new and old: submission calls are important tools and following them works in your favor; people do have bad days, and every once in a while we all look like idiots, but we should try to avoid it; and, for God’s sake, try not to be an asshole.


Now, I have to go write a story for a submission call I’m following, for a publisher looking for pizza-based horror. Yes, there are some weird submission calls out there. And though I already have a few unpublished horror stories I could send them, even some of the proper size, none of them fit that submission call exactly; they’re all missing one key element. So I’m writing a new story.


It will be from 1,000–5,000 words. It will be horror. And, by God, there will be pizza.


 

Talk to you later.



Author’s Note:


While preparing to post this to Writer in Progress, I’ve noticed I sound a little bitchy. I’m leaving the bitchy (it was how I felt when I wrote it), but wish to make one distinction: asking the editor/publisher why a particular piece didn’t work for them is not the same as telling them they’re wrong or trying to change their minds about what they want. Asking why a piece didn’t work is simply you as a writer looking for feedback, something we all crave in our efforts to do this better. Some editors will provide feedback, some won’t (sometimes there’s just no time), but no one will fault you for looking for it.


Author’s note recap:

Asking for a little feedback: a writer looking to improve, which is a good thing.

Insisting they accept the caesar salad: asshole.



~fin~ 

Unpopular

Posted by [email protected] on November 6, 2017 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (0)




I’m going to let you in on a little secret about myself today. It’s nothing huge, simply an unpopular opinion I have that I usually keep quiet about. But what the hell, I can let my thousands of readers in on it, right? Okay, hundreds. Tens? Uh . . . readers. I can let my readers in on it. Reader.


Hi, Mom!


For the love markets. Those websites and ezines—or even print anthologies destined for Amazon—where there’s no pay involved for the authors. Where we’re asked to just give our hard work away, for free, for the love of the genre, or writing itself, or exposure, or somesuch bullshit. I hear all the time about how evil they are, both online and when I attend (and sometimes sit on) event panels about writing. I was on a couple of panels last month (October is the horror writer’s busy time), and it was said at both of them: writers deserve to get paid; FTL projects weaken the market; don’t fall for the line we’ll pay you in exposure because (pro tip: ) people die of exposure; you should never, ever give anything for an FTL publisher, because it means even you don’t think enough of your own work to insist you get paid.


I’ve heard all that. Hell, I’ve said all that. But here’s my shameful, dark little secret: I don’t really think FTL markets are all that bad.


I’ll break the litany down for you.


Do I believe writers deserve to get paid?

You bet your ass we do. I know we do. Unless you’ve done it, you have no idea what kind of work goes into even the shortest piece of good writing—hell sometimes making it the shortest takes the most work!


Do FTL markets weaken the writing market as a whole?

I don’t know. I know I’ve seen essays insisting they do, and I’ve found some fairly persuasive arguments in there, but for myself, I’m just not sure. Perhaps I’ll come to a decision about this someday—I’m growing in this business all the time—but for now I’m content to read all the essays that come my way without comment: I just don’t know enough yet.


Do people die of exposure?

Of course they do, but not the kind of exposure certain publishers are talking about. What they mean is they’ll help you get your name out there, put your work in front of a bunch of eyes, and isn’t that something every writer wants? If people just see what I’m doing, the new writer thinks, they’ll love it, and look for more of it. They’ll clamor for it, I know they will!


No, they won’t, little lads and lassies. Not the way you’re thinking. FTL markets vary about as much as smaller paying publishers do, but chances are still good that if they’re not paying you, they’re not going to pump all that saved cash into professional editing or a decent cover. Those things cost money, boys and girls, often (and sadly) more than what the authors would be getting paid anyway. Without those two things, your FTL market isn’t going to have a distribution higher than the number of friends I have on Facebook, and hell, I can reach all those people myself.


I’m on the fence about this one, though, as I have had a certain amount of success getting my name out there with work I’ve given away. I write a monthly movie review column for fun and exposure. Has it been fun? Big yes on that one; looking for films to review has gotten me to see some gems I may have otherwise missed. The exposure part . . . well, that’s harder to gauge. I can say that after writing reviews of the films I did pick up Twitter followers from the cast and producers of the movies Wolfcop and Wyrmwood: Armageddon Road, and I have been approached by a production company or two about reviewing their films. I suppose it depends on where you’re putting your FTL work, and I may have simply been lucky.


Does giving something to an FTL publisher mean even you don’t think enough of your own work to insist you get paid?

Possibly. But at the beginning of our writing careers, some of us actually feel that way. And you know what? We’re probably right. We’re just happy to have anything we can point to and say That, that right there; someone else, someone I don’t even know, likes that thing I wrote enough to come out and publicly say “I want it.”


I know of writers who are bastions of self-confidence, who assume that if they wrote it, it must be good. But not every writer is like that. Some writers, myself included, walk on the scene with almost enough self-confidence to fill a peanut shell. Without taking the nut out first. I’ve been doing this since the end of 2010, and I still lack self-confidence; pushing the SEND button on a submission fills my stomach with Mothra-sized butterflies because I’m sure I could have done something better, or written a more powerful story, or something.


The first story I ever had accepted was to an FTL market. I knew what it was, and didn’t care: I wanted to see my name somewhere. Anywhere. The acceptance email, for all it’s bland, form-letterness, still gave me that weepy They like me, they really like me feeling. The queue of accepted work was so long for that ezine, the wait between acceptance and publication so prodigious, my second accepted story was actually published first—in a paying market.


For a while there I was submitting anywhere, pay, non-pay, I didn’t care, just so long as I didn’t lose my nerve and stop submitting. I got acceptances—some for pay, but more for non—and my confidence grew. As it did, my target audience for submissions changed, and I was looking to get into more and more paying markets. It’s more challenging to get into a paying market; there’s more competition, and it’s just all-around cooler if someone says they like your stuff enough to pay you for it. And, like I said above, it’s a lot of work putting out good fiction; just because my work has been getting better, doesn’t mean it’s been getting any easier. Actually, doing all the things I didn’t know to do when I started means it’s actually more work than back then.


Good thing it’s work I love.


That was all in the beginning. Now, every market I submit to is—with a couple of notable exceptions—a paid market. Every small accolade I’ve received has been for something that was, in some way, making me a little money, as is everything you’ll see me mention in a bio or query letter. I’ve come a long way as a writer from those first submissions, and though I still have all the self-confidence of Dumbo without his feather and an anchor strapped to his ass, I’ve been doing this long enough and gotten enough feedback to suck it up and say that yeah, I’m a pretty damn good writer, and if you want my best work you’re going to have to pay me.


When I hear the arguments against FTL markets though, for all that they make sense to me, I can’t help but remember that terrified younger me, convinced what I was writing was shit but writing it anyway, and just hoping for a little encouragement. I remember that guy and I remember a couple of well-timed acceptance letters, and I thank God those for the love publishers were right there, right then. If you’re an established writer who never needed a crutch, or a new writer who doesn’t want one, then good for you. I’m honestly happy for you, and wish you tight writing and rocking stories for the rest of your days. If, however, you’re more tentative—even terrified—then FTL markets might be just the confidence builder you need. You can always outgrow them if you want, and leave them behind.


After all, you, like me, are nothing more than a writer in progress.



Our Collaboration--Part 3: Is It A Book?

Posted by [email protected] on October 7, 2017 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)





I've been blogging lately about the experience I had writing a collaboration with my writing partner, Stacey Longo. Coincidentally, she has, too. If you've just stumbled across this post and not read the ones that came before it―or even just skipped one in the series―this will all make a lot more sense if you go back and read what you've missed before trying to make sense of what I'm sharing today. The best thing would be to read them in their order of appearance:

My First Post     Stacey's First Post     My Second Post     Stacey's Second Post


Yup, it seems we even collaborate when writing about collaborating. All caught up? Good! On with the show.


~ ~ * * ~ ~


So Stacey and I had this thing.


It looked like a book. I mean, there were lots of words―lots of chapters, even―and there were quite a few characters in there doing all kinds of stuff. So it looked like a book.


I shipped the file to the printer and let it run awhile―and it ran for a while. And when it was all done I took the whole manuscript over to my comb-binder, punched the holes, slipped the sheets into the open comb, took it out of the machine, and hefted it.


It felt like a book.


I dropped it on my desk from about a foot up, grinning at the healthy thunk.


Christ, it even sounded like a book. But was it a book? Or was it, as I've had happen in the past, merely an attempt at a book?


I was about to find out. I sat down to read the manuscript all the way through for the first time, settling in for the long haul.


Now, what usually happens when I try to read anything of mine, especially first draft, is I read it in fits and starts, stopping along the way to repair fractured grammar, fix typos, and rewriting bad story elements on the fly, sometimes adding or deleting whole pages of text. It makes for a very slow read-through, and effectively keeps me from looking at the work as a whole, as, well, a story. But that's when I'm reading my work on my laptop, Chromebook, or tablet―hell, even my phone―and we'd kind of edited this thing as we wrote it, passing it back and forth, each of us reviewing the chapter we'd just been handed before trying to write our own to follow. I think I mentioned last month that we'd even gone back and added a needed chapter close to the beginning before we'd even finished the first draft. I'd printed out a hard copy specifically so I couldn't do any rewriting on the fly. Oh, sure, I had the manuscript in one hand and a red pen in the other, line editing as I went because I just can't help it anymore, but I was going to look at this as a whole story; as a book. And you know what? It was―


I'm going to break away for a moment to let you in on a little secret: at a certain point―usually while I'm still writing the latter half of whatever the current project is―I don't like a lot of what I write. It always seems fantastic when I start, but sometime while I'm finishing it up or reading the first draft, it all goes retroactively bad on me: characters seem flat, dialogue sounds stilted, and whatever twists or turns I've tried to instill into the plot suddenly read as so obvious it's like I'm trying to insult the reader. I have a bunch of stories banked I should be submitting—getting them out there making the rounds looking for homes—but I'm kind of . . . not. And, yeah, part of that not is that I don’t have a lot of time right now for my own stuff, but another part—probably the larger part—is that I’m pretty sure that somewhere in everything I’ve written, something somewhere sucks. I’ve been told it’s a self-confidence issue, and I understand that intellectually . . . but I still can’t help it.


So with all that in mind, I sat down with my red pen in hand, opened the manuscript, and started reading, looking for the suck.


And didn’t find it.


Stuff I’d written was supported by things Stacey had added in. Some of her work was supported by my crap. She’d taken ideas I’d slipped into the story and run with them, often in directions I’d never even considered, and I’m pretty sure I did the same with her. Between the two of us, nothing ever seemed flat, stilted, or obvious, and the whole thing was just . . . fun.


And as I was reading it faster and faster, that damned red pen lying forgotten on the desk, the little part of me that was still trying to analyze things realized just how much my this sucks attitude about my writing really is a lack of self-confidence, and that I was getting an added little surprise bonus out of this collaboration, because—and here I have to let you in on another little secret:


I really like Stacey’s writing, and have a huge amount of respect for her as both a writer and editor. As a writing/editing partner, she’s sometimes sent me pieces to look at with a little note attached, some variant of either Does this suck? or How can I make this not suck? I’ve yet to receive anything from her that actually sucked, and often I’m at a loss to even identify what she thinks the problem is. I have a tremendous confidence in her as a writer; what I didn’t count on was that offsetting the lack of it I have in myself. In a blog post a couple of months ago, Stacey listed five things to look at before embarking on a collaboration:


  1. Compatibility.
  2. Who is going to write what.
  3. Writing style.
  4. Legality.
  5. Post-writing workload.


To this list, I’d like to add a sixth thing, of special importance if you (like me) are a bit lacking in the aplomb department: team up with someone you’re kind of a fan of—it makes the experience more enjoyable all the way through.


So, with all that in mind, is it really any surprise that I read to the end of the last page, all the way to the little ~fin~ I’d added down there as a reminder I could stop looking for the suck, dropped the manuscript on the desk so I could hear that hearty thunk again, and spoke aloud through a huge grin?


“Son of a bitch, I think we have a book!”




Our Collaboration--Part 2: Letting Go

Posted by [email protected] on September 10, 2017 at 7:30 AM Comments comments (0)




Okay, did you see up there where it said "Part 2"? You missed that? No worries. You can click here to go to "Our Collaboration—Part 1: Two Heads?"


Oh, you have read that already? Well, did you know there's kind of a part 1.5 over on a completely different blog? No? Well, you can see what Stacey herself—the other half of this collaboration I'm telling you about—by clicking right here and going to "Collaboration" over at All Things Stacey Longo. Right now, though, I'm going to tell you what happened when we got started.


We got started.


We had our outline—and better, had agreed (quite strenuously on both sides) that it was really no more than a guideline; we had a starting point and a tentative ending, but were both completely free to veer wildly from the stated path while making the trip. But it had been my idea and I’d written the outline in question, a situation I think Stacey found somewhat daunting with regard to who was going to light the fuse on this bottle rocket. She stood back and let me write the opening chapter.


I thanked her for the chance to go first. I looked at that fairly detailed outline, thought of our vow to use the thing as a guideline at most, checked the outline again, reveled in being completely free to veer wildly from what was in the damn document, and then . . . wrote exactly the scene I’d had in my head when I’d written the outline. Oh, sure, there were little things I’d not thought of before, things informed by the characters as they developed and moved about the scene, but the scene itself was pretty much what the outline stated—excuse me, what the guideline suggested. I went over it a couple of times—the thought of sharing something first draft made me feel queasy (still does, really)—and sent it off to Stacey. I checked the out—guideline, tried to estimate what she’d cover in chapter two, and started thinking about the stuff I’d be putting into chapter three.


A week later an email from Stacey hit my inbox with the growing document attached. Excited, I cracked that sucker open, eager to see how she’d handled the next part of the outline. If she’d written through where I thought she would, I needed to see if what she’d put down would support my . . .


Hang about. What the hell was this?


She’d glossed right over some stuff that would have been gold, just gold, and written some of the scene I’d been preparing to do. And said scene wasn’t what I’d envisioned at all! There were a lot more characters, for one thing, and they weren’t at all like the characters I’d been going to . . . Hot Jugs? The mother’s nickname was Hot Jugs? But that’s . . . And the grandmother was a tippling wrestling fan? Hold on.


I kept reading, going faster and faster once I’d stopped my silent bitching. And I had stopped, interested in the interplay between these new people I was meeting for the first time—people I’d be getting to know very well, if this project moved forward. And I saw how it could move forward. The way the mother and father spoke, and the relationship between both of them and the grandmother, well, it wasn’t what I’d had in mind, but if I . . .


I sped through to the end, amused and entertained and slightly awed in turns. Then, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I read it again.


The third time was just for fun.


And that was the last little bit of solo-writer reaction I had to anything Stacey did, the final but what’s she doing, this is mine! Editors—the good ones, anyway—never look at a manuscript with the idea that they would have done it differently. They might have, if they’d written it themselves, and it may have turned out better or worse than the story they’re currently editing, but that doesn’t matter. Ever hear the saying My sandbox, my rules? Editors are constantly working in someone else’s sandbox, so they have to cultivate the mindset How can we make this better, rather than How can I make this better. They have to fix things grammatically and make them fit whatever style guide they’re following, all while maintaining the author’s voice, characters’ voices, and story tone—and that, friends and neighbors, is pretty much impossible if all you’re thinking is me-me-me.


So, after that one hiccup, I stopped thinking about me-me-me, and started thinking about it-it-it. No, I’m not talking about the Stephen King tale of Pennywise’s playground, I mean the manuscript in progress itself. I wasn’t working on my book, we were working on the book—or, at most, our book. We started shooting the manuscript back and forth in earnest, and I started really enjoying the ride. And if any readers out there are thinking Hey, now we know you wrote the odd chapters and she wrote the even, good luck with that. It didn’t take long for us to get to the point where one might say, I know I’m supposed to be writing this chapter, but [blah-blah-blah] is happening, and I think you’d be better at that scene than me. Why don’t you take this one and I’ll take the next one? So we swippy-swapped, and skipped turns—even went back and inserted a chapter at one point, completely messing with the chapter numbers—and tried pretty hard to mesh everything together.


We even started playing kind of a game, showing just a little bit of one-upmanship. We each like to end our chapters with a little tug toward keeping the reader reading—maybe not a full-fledged cliffhanger, but a little something. Those little somethings grew, and grew, until it got to the point I’d read each new chapter sent my way, tearing through the new addition, only to find the chapter ended much like the Coyote wound up in those old Road Runner cartoons: ten feet away from the wrong edge of a cliff, hovering over a thousand-foot drop, with just enough time to hold up a Yipe! sign before the plummet began. Shit, I’d think. Where the hell do I go from here?


Then I’d find a place to go from there, working the chapter toward my own yipe! moment before sending it back. The yipes got bigger and bigger, until one day, shortly after I’d sent off my newest chapter, Stacey emailed me back: Shit! Where the hell do I go from here?


Success! [insert evil laughter here]


She figured it out. We always figured it out. And this was the most fun I’d had writing in a long time. And with all the back-and-forth, and all the one-upmanship, and there was never a feeling of God damn it, that bitch really screwed me this time. What there was was a whole lot of admiration, glee, and the feeling God damn, but this is all making a really great story! Because after that one hiccup it wasn’t about me.


It was about the story.


At the time of this writing, the first draft is complete, but I haven’t yet gone back and read the whole thing from start to finish. I’ve been looking forward to it—hankering might be the word here—but putting it off until I could sit down and read it through, without having to do it a chapter or two a day (I’d like a time machine for Christmas, if anybody out there is paying attention) to get the full effect.


That day is coming soon.


(On to Part 3 ->)



Our Collaboration--Part 1: Two Heads?

Posted by [email protected] on August 14, 2017 at 1:40 PM Comments comments (0)




Fʀᴏᴍ Mᴇʀʀɪᴀᴍ-Wᴇʙꜱᴛᴇʀ
Collaborate:


\kə-ˈla-bə-ˌrāt\
intransitive verb
: to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something
: to give help to an enemy who has invaded your country during a war


This is very important, and the main thrust of today’s post: one of those definitions above is a good thing when writing; the other is not.


Hickman & Weiss
Golden & Moore
King & Straub
Preston & Child


There are many good writing teams out there, and we enjoy their work so much. The question is: how do they do it? My answer: beats the shit out of me. You want their secrets, go check out their blogs; I can only tell you what’s worked for us, and take a stab at explaining part of their success—and please keep in mind this is what’s worked for us so far. This blog is called Writer in Progress, not Guy Crouching Beside His Best-Seller, Shouting “It’s Alive!”as It Lies Hand-Twitching Upon the Slab. What we’ve got so far has a good beat and we can dance to it, so we’ve jumped on the floor and started to boogie. Stick with me here long enough and you’ll either see us holding up the dance trophy as the end credits roll, or watch as we slip on the freshly waxed floor and fall on our asses. But I really have my fingers crossed for that trophy.


Full disclosure time: what I’m writing about today is not my first attempt at a collaboration. I tried one a few years ago, when I was a much newer writer than I am today. I liked my experimental partner’s writing, and she liked mine. But she came to the project with a particular story in mind, and so did I . . . just not the same story. We were each in the process of convincing the other that our story was the one to write—which was not a lot of fun, by the way—when we each had other things come up, each developed other things to write, and the head-to-head collaboration fell by the wayside. Rather than working together, we’d each tried, in some fashion, to sublimate the other to our will and make our ideas dominant, intending to simply allow the other to help . . . which sounds a lot like that second definition above.


Not a success story.


Fast forward to last year. In our writing group, The Storyside, the concept of collaborations was thrown around one day, kind of like a beach ball rolling atop a concert audience: everybody touches it, but no one really keeps it. Then it was mentioned at the next meeting. And the next. And eventually, because we were tired of the beachball rolling into our heads and blocking our view (we’re the somewhat cranky old people at the concert), Stacey and I had a brief side conversation, consisting, basically, of We already work pretty well together, we could give it a shot. So we took the ball and went to our respective homes . . . where we then sat and wondered what the hell we’d just done.


A quick word about us already working well together: we’re an editing team and, I think, a good one. For both The Storyside and our clients over at S&L Editing, we try very hard to maintain cohesion: you get two editors’ opinions, but it’s just one edit rather than two competing edits running side-by-side. We don’t always agree on everything, and when we don’t then the client is told what we differ on and why; in other words, we’ve already discussed it.


Communication is key.


Back to me and Stacey. I had an idea on a back burner somewhere—I have a ton of back burnered ideas—that had a pair of teen girls as protagonists. Now, I have never been a teen girl, but Stacey has, and she writes them well (he said from his 48-year-old male perspective). It seemed like a cool idea, something that would be fun to write, but I did have that failed collaboration attempt in mind. I tentatively pitched the idea to her, trying hard not to sound like I was saying, This is what we’re writing.


“That sounds like fun,” she said. “Do you have an outline?”


I did not. I’d tried working from an outline once or twice, but I’m a bit of a pantser (meaning I tend to make it up as I go along) and I found them impossible to strictly adhere to. I wrote one up anyway and shot it her way. I was a little nervous sending it, as the two of us seem to be a small study in contrasts: she reads lots of true crime, I have shelves of fantasy and science fiction; when she types it sounds like a teletype machine set to ludicrous speed, while I hunt and peck a bit like a narcoleptic one-legged chicken; when she writes she’s sharp and to the point, skipping unnecessary descriptions for brevity, while I tend to meander a bit, getting to the point eventually and having a fine time on the way. I don’t use outlines, so I assumed she would be all for them as a logical tool to get the job done. My outline, I was convinced, would suck.


“Wow, this is detailed,” she said, and my heart grew and cringed at the same time. Then, as tentatively as I’d pitched the idea, she asked, “Do you want to stick right to this? Because I’m kind of a pantser, and I figure I’m going to have ideas of my own to add, and we’re really going to have to work together to pull this off, and . . .”


I’m sure there was more, but I was busy melting.


We got started.



(On to Part 2->)


Winner!

Posted by [email protected] on July 17, 2017 at 11:10 PM Comments comments (0)


It all started with a raffle.

The raffle was a part of the Haverhill Holiday Bookfear, a dark/horror oriented book fair put on at the Haverhill Public Library last December. As a last-minute prize (there were lots of prizes in this raffle) they added the authors themselves: fill out one of your tickets, drop it in the bucket at any of the participating authors’ tables, and you’d have a chance to be written into one of that author’s stories. I was one of the participating authors, and I had three winners.

To be fair, I only had three entrants, so it wasn’t like I had to paw through a goldfish bowl filled with tickets trying to come up with a winner or anything. Three people, three stories; over the course of a year, no problem, right?

Right.

See, I’m still new enough to all this that I actually thought that was true.

I wrote the first story, and had quite a bit of fun with it. I actually knew the person I was writing about, and that did add some enjoyment to the experience. The second name I’d pulled out of my bucket, though, was new to me: for the purposes of maintaining her privacy, I’ll call her Frankie Blithersbottom. When I’d come up with what I thought was a good story idea—something where nothing terribly graphic or gruesome would actually happen to Frankie, I gave her a call.

I got voicemail.

“Hello!” I said. “This is a message for Frankie Blithersbottom. My name is Rob Smales, and I’m calling about a raffle you entered back in December at the Bookfear. I was one of the authors, and you put your name in my bucket, and you won. I know it was a few months ago, so you may have forgotten, but I’m supposed to write you into a story! Now, I can either just use your name or I can try to write the character as you. I only have your name and number, though, so if you’d like to go with that second option I’m going to have to talk to you and ask you a few questions—kind of get to know you. I’d love it if you could give me a call back so we can decide which way you’d like to go with this.”

The call back came while I was driving home that night, of course, and I missed it. I got in the house, got comfortable, and checked my own voicemail.

“Hello, this is Florentine Blithersbottom (also not her real name, thank God). I’m calling regarding a message you left for Frankie.”

A little baffled as to why Florentine would be calling back for Frankie’s message, I called right back.

“Hello?”

“Hi, I’m calling for Frankie?”

“This is Florentine. Can I ask what this is regarding?”

Was Frankie ducking me? Avoiding my calls for some reason? Maybe she’d had second thoughts and didn’t want to be in a story anymore. Or maybe . . . maybe she’d had some kind of accident. Maybe she was laid up in bed, or in traction, and couldn’t get to the phone. Coma? Or maybe—Christ, maybe she was dead, and here I was, bothering the grieving family!

Look, I write horror for a reason; my mind doesn’t always leap toward the happy possibilities.

I went through the pitch again—pretty much regurgitated my earlier voicemail message. Unlike when I’d left that message, however, I paused every once in a while to allow Flo a chance to offer up some sound of her own. An okay, or an uh-huh, maybe an m-hmm. Hell, even a clearing of the throat. But Flo remained silent until I’d wound down, and I managed to stop before I started babbling; the whole thing was making me nervous.

We were both silent a moment, then Flo said, “Okay,” but I could tell by the way she said it she didn’t mean all right: it was a placeholder sound while she thought. After another beat of silence—an uncomfortable one, at least on my end—she finally added, “Would you like to talk to Frankie?”

“Uh,” I said, thinking Why else would I call? “Yes. Sure. That would be great, thank you.”

There were muffled handing-off-the-phone sounds, and then a small, very not-yet-adult voice said, “Hello?”

Sitting alone in my room, phone pressed to my ear, I facepalmed.

“Uh, hi Frankie, my name’s Rob.” I went through a truncated version of the pitch—truncated because she knew exactly what I was talking about and seemed rather excited by the idea. The more I heard her speak, the harder I pressed my face into that palm. “So,” I said, when she said she was in. “I’m, uh, going to have to ask you some questions, okay?”

“Okay.”

“All right, first question . . . how old are you?” Please, I prayed, just be one of those twenty-somethings with a babydoll voice!

“Fourteen.”

All that crap I thought of—how could I not think of this? I wondered. Was it any surprise Florentine—make that Mom—had sounded a little unhappy? She’d had a man in his late forties calling out of the blue and leaving a message for her fourteen-year-old daughter, saying he’d like to talk to her on the phone and get to know her better!

 I twitched the curtain aside, half-afraid I’d find Chris Hansen already coming up my walkway with a police-issue doorknocker and film crew; I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the night’s shadows unbroken by camera lights and battering rams.

So far.

“Okay,” I said, rubbing my forehead. “Next question: can I talk to your mom?”

Everything was sorted out, especially when I had the brains to make Frankie’s parents part of the project, but for a while there . . . yeesh!


Talk to you later.



Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!

Posted by [email protected]m on June 19, 2017 at 8:55 PM Comments comments (1)


Image result for surprise public domain clip art

Hey, happy June! Thanks for stopping by.

They say things come in threes. They also say three’s company, third time’s the charm, and go on three! I think I’ve said all those things, but the one that applies today is that things come in threes: specifically, surprises.

There’s a local dark fiction-focused public reading that happens every couple of months, at Koto Japanese bar and grill in Salem MA. It’s called Wyrd, and I tend to go sit in the audience even if I’m not going to read; it’s good to get out and see some of my peers once in a while.

At about 11:30 pm a couple of Tuesdays ago, my Facebook Messenger dinged. Loudly. I was practically lying on the phone, so it actually scared the shit out of me. It was Curtis, the man behind the Wyrd, saying he’d had a cancellation about a day and a half before the event, and asking if I could fill in.

Could I? Sure! I broke out my stopwatch and got together a reading that would fit the slot, went to Wyrd and had a great time. I even sold a few books! So that was surprise number one; a good surprise: I got to go hang with some of my writerly peeps, and we all had a good time.

Moving on. The Storyside (a writers’ collaborative I’ve worked with for three years now) had an appearance scheduled for this past Saturday: we were slated to give a panel discussion to a bunch of library patrons about being in a writers’ collaborative, and what we were doing to try to make a success of it. It was even going to be taped for local television! The appearance had been scheduled for about a year and a half, which was plenty of notice to prepare, but here’s the thing: I work for the postal service, and over the years they’ve gotten a little wyrd . . . excuse me, weird about giving time off. Though the event had been scheduled for eighteen months, I could only put in for the day off forty-five days in advance, and even then there was no way to force some hustle on the answer. Sadly, I’d told the rest of The Storyside to simply assume I wouldn’t be there and plan accordingly—which they did. I acted brave when they could see me, saved my sad face when they couldn’t, and planned to just watch the thing when it hit the local network.

Then, one week before the event, my slip came back approved. I could go! So I did, and that was surprise number two: I got to hang with some of my writerly peeps, and we all had a good time. On television. Manly squee (Is there such a thing? Is there really?)!

Moving on. Again. As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I write a monthly column over at Cinema Knife Fight, called Monster Movie Madness. Just last night I sent in my column for Tuesday. Sadly, it was the last one I had. I try to have one or two in the works at all times—maybe not finished, but with the bulk of the work done, so that if I forget and am in the middle of something big the next time a column is due, I’m not caught completely flat-footed.

Knowing my little buffer bank was empty, I sat down while I was over at my son’s house last night to watch a movie to review, making notes as the plot progressed. I’m not going to tell you what film it was (you’ll have to read my column to find out! Muhahahahahaaa . . . ), but quite a few of my notes concerned the way the film was shot: the whole thing was very dark and shadowy—it was a ghost story, I’ll tell you that much—and they seemed to be trying to set a spooky tone. But for Christ’s sake, this was a film I’d heard some good things about, and there were scenes that were so dark I couldn’t see what was going on. I rewatched several scenes, sometimes multiple times, just to try to figure out what the hell was happening. It was a ninety-minute movie I’d been watching for almost two hours, and I still had about a half hour to go when it was time to give my son’s girlfriend a ride home and head for home myself.

I dashed to my room when I got home, notes in hand, determined to power through that last 30 minutes in 30 minutes, and get this damned nightmare of wondering what the hell is going on? over with. I’d even stopped the film in the middle of one of those dark scenes, where I couldn’t see anyone’s faces, and sure it was spooky, but it was also annoying as hell. I powered up the TV, logged into NetFlix, scrolled to the correct film, clicked Resume, watched as that annoyingly black scene began rolling across the screen and . . . could see the whole scene, clear as day.

Wait—what?

I rewound a bit, hit Play. There was the same conversation I’d been listening to before I’d had to stop, but rather than squinting at the screen and cursing, I could now see everything quite well. I backed up to another one of those dark scenes, then another, and could see everything quite well: backgrounds I hadn’t known were there, on-screen actions I’d not seen before—it looks like a completely different film. A well shot, well-lighted film.

Sonofabitch!

It occurred to me, as I was throwing the angry I can’t see a #@$%ing thing! notes away, that the last one to use the television over at my son’s house was my son. Might he not have fiddled with the brightness for some reason? It wouldn’t even have to be a good reason; he’s fourteen, and if I ask him why, he’ll most likely shrug and say I dunno.

So I have to watch that film again, hopefully tonight, if I can fit it in, and that was my third surprise: I wasted two hours of my life—was actually pretty annoyed for two hours of my life—because I dunno.

So there, I’ve had my three surprises. Two were good, but the third was not. The third actually kind of sucked. A lot. Can I be done now, Universe? Can I go back to the whole daily grind thing?

Please?

Talk to you later!


Moving Day (Welcome Back!)

Posted by [email protected] on May 22, 2017 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (0)


Welcome to Writer in Progress—or, if you’ve been here before, welcome back!


I know I haven’t been here in a while, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been sitting on my ass eating bon-bons—and if you’re a WYMOP reader, yeah, I’m about to run through the What I’ve Been Doing list again. Please bear with me.


Since starting this website back in 2011, I’ve had more than two dozen short stories published, written for a couple of short fiction websites, won some small writing contests, written and had published a short story collection (and it’s good) and a novella in an anthology (ditto!), won two readers’ choice awards (one from Preditors and Editors, the other from the Gothic Readers Book Club), been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, joined a writers’ collaborative called The Storyside, edited an anthology (and I’ll be piloting another one shortly), written and am currently shopping around a short book titled Friends in High Places, formed one half of S&L Editing (two editors for the price of one!), for the past two years I’ve written the monthly Monster Movie Madness column over at Cinema Knife Fight, and for six years (off and on, mostly on) I’ve been blogging over at While You’re Making Other Plans (WYMOP).


This is not to mention the stuff I’ve written the public has never seen: more than another dozen short stories, two novellas, two and a half novels, and the collaboration I’ve been working on for the past several months (which is nearing first draft completion, and we’re super excited!) I’ve barely had time to scratch my ass, never mind sitting on it to wrestle the lid from the bon-bons!


Okay, that’s the old stuff, and hopefully the last time I’ll be boring over here. I’m transitioning my blog over here from WYMOP for a couple of reasons, both outlined in my last post over there, but the short of it is this: I need to work on and maintain my pitiful website. The home page says it’s under construction right now, and it’s not kidding. There have been some major changes here already, and there are many to follow—including maybe a name change? Make things less confusing? How’s The Official Rob Smales Website sound? Yes? No? Seriously, I’m asking and any comments left below will be looked at with all kinds of consideration.


So, if you’re someone who was directed to my site via the blurb in the back of a book (either one of mine or an anthology containing my work), from seeing/hearing an interview or review, or even one of my own business cards, and found the place lacking any current information about me, my apologies. I’m working on fixing that now, and I’ll be blogging over here at least once a month from now on—hopefully some entertaining shit from time to time. And if you’re someone who’s followed me over from WYMOP looking for that entertaining shit, I hope you won’t be disappointed.


To that end, on with the entertaining shit! The Storyside has a new book coming out June 6, Insanity Tales III: Seasons of Shadow, and I have a couple of stories in there. One of them, “A Bee,” is a little tale of foster placement gone a little awry. For your reading pleasure, the following is an excerpt from that story.





A BEE 


Rob Smales


“Nervous?”


“Of course.” Judy turned to look at him, but Pete continued staring through the window overlooking the playground, where a dozen or so children ran about in the sunshine. A game of tag was in progress, and he smiled, watching them play.
“Well, don’t be. We’ll do fine.”


She pushed his shoulder playfully. “Oh, don’t even pretend you’re not nervous.”


He continued to smile, ignoring the butterflies holding a rugby scrum in his stomach. “We’ll do fine.”


“Yes, you will.”


They turned toward this new voice, Judy’s hand slipping into Pete’s, gripping it with nervous strength. Elizabeth Davis closed the thick manila case folder on her desk, pushed it aside, and folded her hands on the blotter, dark eyes serious beneath salt-and-pepper bangs.


“You’ve completed all the training and paperwork. I’ve got copies of your CPR certifications, individual evaluations, and results of the home inspection. Everything in here”—she tapped the folder—“looks just fine. I must officially commend you on your preparation for becoming foster parents, and personally thank you for immediately joining the emergency foster home list. There are children out there who need more people like you.”


The little woman’s serious demeanor broke, her teeth flashing a grin. “Let’s stop beating about the bush and introduce you to your new foster child, shall we?”


Judy’s grip relaxed as she sagged with relief. Somewhere inside Pete a whistle blew, and the scrumming butterflies halted the play and took a timeout, milling about the field.


“I’ve been trying to pick her out from the photos,” he said, indicating the playground, “but I can’t seem to find her.”


“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. McCormack." Mrs. Davis strode to the door. “You won’t find Abby out there.” She held the door, directing them into the hallway. “Come this way, please.”


She led them down the hall to the elevator, where, rather than pushing the 1 for the ground floor, Pete saw she pressed the button marked B. Judy got the question out just a fraction faster than Pete.


“She’s in the basement?”


“It’s where she feels safest. It’s that bee allergy mentioned in her file—remember? That’s why we asked so many questions about your area.”


The elevator bumped to a halt, the door sliding open to reveal a cinderblock corridor painted an industrial gray. Mrs. Davis took a half-step forward, keeping the door open with an outstretched hand as she faced them, her expression troubled.
“I’m sorry, I know you’ve answered this—and a hundred other questions—but you don’t have any bees where you live, do you?”


Pete and Judy exchanged a look. “No, ma’am,” he said. “Like we said, we live on the coast, on a road that dead-ends at a salt marsh. Not a lot of flowers, I’m afraid, but there never were many bees. What with scientists claiming that bees are disappearing, I don’t think I’ve seen any lately.” 

He looked at Judy, who shook her head, then back to Mrs. Davis. “Nope. Still no bees.”


Mrs. Davis looked at her shoes, out into the corridor, and then back up to not quite meet Pete’s eyes: the very picture of uncomfortable and defensive.


“I know you read about Abby’s allergy, and I’ve mentioned it, and I did note your certificate in the use of an EpiPen. But I still feel compelled to mention it again—can’t stress it enough, in fact. It is severe. Severe. Bees are a serious threat to her life, even with the EpiPens. Am I being clear?”
They nodded, and Mrs. Davis led them off the elevator and down the corridor. “The safest thing, we’ve found, is to simply keep her away from any place bees might come. That’s what we’d officially advise. Indoor activities. She goes along with this much better than you’d think. She’s aware of her condition, and takes it very seriously for a six-year-old. She’s terrified of bees, and—well, like I said, down here is where she feels the most comfortable.”


She ushered them through a door into a large chamber filled with all the accouterments of a child’s playroom: shelves of toys, a long chalkboard, even a plastic indoor play set complete with two tiny swings, a see-saw, and a slide.


Sitting on a checkerboard carpet amid a splash of wooden alphabet blocks sat a small girl, all pale skin, blond hair, and huge blue eyes. As they walked in, the tiny thing put down the block she’d been holding and stood uncertainly. Pete surveyed the room, disbelief and anger washing through him.


I don’t care how nicely it’s set up, he thought, or how bad her allergy is. What the hell is a six-year old girl doing left in a basement room all alone?


He turned to Mrs. Davis, that very question on his lips, when Judy strode past so fast it startled him, dropping to her knees just a step or two away from where Abby shifted from foot to foot.


“Hi, Abby. I’m Judy, and that”—she pointed—“is Pete. We would really like it if you’d come stay with us for a while.” She gestured about the playroom. “We don’t have any rooms like this in the house, but I can promise you won’t be left all alone again. Not unless you want to, that is.” She held out a hand. “What do you say? Will you give us a chance?”


The girl had gone still as Judy spoke. Now she looked at the outstretched palm as if not sure what to do, then reached out a small hand to grasp Judy’s fingers. Abby took a single step forward, and the smile that spread across her face was enough to bring tears to Pete’s eyes as she nodded, throwing her arms about a surprised Judy’s neck.


“I know I go on about the allergy,” Mrs. Davis murmured behind Pete, “because her safety is my primary concern, but it’s her lack of speech that makes her an emergency placement. She can speak—at least, she says her name—but doesn’t. Dr. Skasi, our staff psychologist, believes it’s stress related, and a stable, less clinical environment, one with more one-on-one attention than she can get in a facility like this, will help her regain her speech naturally. We’ll be looking for a permanent placement for her, but if she would talk to us we might even be able to locate her biological parents.”


Pete turned to the door, again with the intent of asking a question—this time about permanent placement—but it slipped from his head when he saw Mrs. Davis: she stood in the doorway watching the tableaux in the middle of the room, file folder hugged to her chest, wearing a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes; they still looked as they had when she’d been unable to meet his gaze on the elevator: uncertain and maybe even . . . afraid?


What the hell?


**********


That’s all of the story I can give you here; to post the whole thing would be unfair to the other writers in the book with me, plus there’s this little thing called a contract. If you want to read the rest, though—and for no more than I was charging you here—all you have to do is go over to The Storyside and sign up for the newsletter to receive a free PDF copy of the whole story, “A Bee,” as a gift (unless you’re already subscribed—then just keep an eye on your email, we’ve not forgotten you). Or you could simply wait until June 6 and buy the book when it comes out, and get my other short, “Tracks in the Snow,” as well as “A Bee.”


Wow, I’m starting to sound like a commercial. I think that means it’s time to go.


Talk to you later, and welcome (back) to Writer in Progress.



Instant Review

Posted by [email protected] on March 31, 2016 at 4:35 PM Comments comments (0)

I was in Portsmouth New Hampshire the other night, at the Author's Night by the Sea, when an older woman came by our table and was fascinated by my Carol of the Bells chapbook.

"Well," she said, "my name is Carol."

"Oh," I replied with a smile. "So is the main character in this story. That's where the title comes from."

"It's only four dollars?"

"Well," I said, "it's very short—just forty pages."

"I'll take it!"

I did warn her that, though the book cover was designed to resemble a Christmas card, it's not a happy Christmas story. I even pointed out the skulls worked into the cover art. Nevertheless she bought the book . . . then walked to a nearby refreshment table where she took a seat and proceeded to read it not fifteen feet away from me.

Yikes?

I couldn't help but glance over from time to time, wondering if she'd gotten to the bad part yet. She was a rather sweet-looking woman, and the temptation to slip on over there and tell her whether the Carol in the book makes it or not was huge, but I resisted. It is, as I said, NOT a happy Christmas story.

Eventually she closed the book, slipped it into her handbag, stood, and, leaning on her granddaughter, started for the door—by way of our table.

Oh, terrific, I thought. Is she coming by to express disappointment that it wasn't what she was expecting? Perhaps ask me why I write this kind of stuff? Wave a grandmotherly finger in admonishment?

She walked right over to take my forearm in a gentle grip, much as she held onto her granddaughter with her other hand, and give it a gentle shake.

"This is good!"

I melted.


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