Tag Archives: Chuck Wendig

The Final Word on Endings

The End.

It’s kind of a big old deal isn’t it? Whether it’s the end of a relationship, the end of a life, or the end of an empire we mark our lives far more by endings than we do by beginnings. Lately I’ve learned that even the quintessential beginning, birth, is really just the end of a pregnancy. And when we’re talking about writing, the ending might be the single most important element of the story.

Recently in my review of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds I noted that there was something I didn’t like about the ending, something just slightly out of tune. I also said that the rest of the book was utterly fantastic and totally worth reading. But somehow my slight dissatisfaction with the ending turned into slight dissatisfaction with the book as a whole. Objectively I know that I loved 99% of everything I read, but somehow my memory of that experience has been thrown out of balance.

Now, let’s take an alternate example from the same author. Just days before Blackbirds was released I received an early copy of Chuck Wendig’s pulp epic Dinocolypse Now! (Incidentally in the very same week Chuck Wendig’s vampire-in-zombie-land sequel Bad Blood was released as well. I think I’m going into Wendig overload. Not that that’s a bad thing.) Dinocolypse Now! was….okay. I’m not going to write a whole review here, suffice it to say that it’s not Chuck’s greatest work, but neither is it necessarily bad. But the ending, dude, the ending in that thing was such a kicker. I loved that ending so much. I asked that ending to marry me, and when it spurned me I wrote poetry all night made from the tincture of my tears. Consequently, when I think back on Dinocolypse Now! my brain goes, “Dang, that book was good. Remember that part? And that other part? And that part where the hollow-earth caveman did that thing to the hyper-intelligent ape?”

Why does this happen? Well, let’s consider an experiment wherein researchers read people a list of different kinds of ice cream and told them to pick from any of the varieties on the list. The researchers found that no matter what flavors of ice cream they presented to the test subjects or what order they were arranged in, the flavor they named last was far more likely to be chosen than the others.

The moral of this story is that somewhere in the world there are scientists doing experiments that involve giving away free ice cream. It makes you wonder doesn’t it? Where would you sign up to be one of these experimentees? Did the scientists pay these people? Would it be possible to game this system and get a full-time job eating ice cream?

No, wait, sorry, the moral of the story is that there’s a glitch in the workings of our brains, a subconscious subroutine that causes more recent experiences to be valued over earlier ones. And in terms of writing this is why it’s so crucial to get the ending right. Because unless you’ve got the world’s slowest readers, odds are that the time they spend remembering your book will far outweigh the time they spent reading it. And your reader’s brain will value the final memory of the book above all others.

Point is, endings are important. They’re not all-important of course. There are other story elements you’re going to need to keep the reader interested enough to actually get to the ending. But if you’re going to do anything right, if you can make only one moment in your story amazing, make sure it’s the ending.

Now you may be wondering, “Albert, you’ve written a whole blog post about endings, so how are you going to end this sucker?” Well, fortunately for me, I’m a big fan of self-referential irony which means I can just-

Bizzaro Book Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Let’s start at the end. For those of you just tuning in this is not my usual methodology, but for this book I thought it was important not to give my thoughts on the ending of this book at the end of the post. Because the end, by definition, is the last thing you read. The end of a book, the end of a blog post, whatever it is, the last thing we experience colors our memory of the piece more than anything else.

And here’s the thing: the only negative thing I have to say about this book is about the ending. And because this book is truly exceptional in every other regard I don’t want to risk leaving you on a negative note at the end of this review.

It’s not even a bad ending per say. It wraps up all the pieces of the story pretty neatly, but in my opinion there’s something missing. Here’s the deal: a number of scenes in the book cast shadows toward a particular kind of ending. They hint about sacrifice and the nature of justice, weaving religious iconography (strangely detailed religious iconography for a man who’s so well-known for his love for profanity) into dream-visions featuring a weird specter who claims to be more than the simple product of Miriam’s deranged subconscious.

But when we actually get to the ending, it seems too easy. No, “easy” isn’t the right word. Miriam Black goes through something close to hell before she finds her peace. She’s beaten to a pulp, pushed to the edge of sanity, forced to confront something within herself she didn’t know existed.

But what the ending is missing, the true and final ingredient left out of this otherwise perfect recipe is sacrifice. Miriam Black has to fight for her ending, but in my opinion she never reaches that crucial point where she willingly gives up something truly precious to her for the sake of someone else. That was the capstone I felt the story needed the final piece that would have made the puzzle complete.

Now. On to the good stuff. Of which there is plenty.

The premise of the book is this: Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. She sees it played out in her head like a movie (often an exceptionally gruesome movie) whenever she makes skin to skin contact with you. And as you might imagine this power makes her just a bit…unstable.

It is the character of Miriam Black that drives the heart of the book, a cynical and sardonic loner using her foresight to pick over the bodies of the newly dead like a blackbird (why yes, in fact that is the title of the book) scavenging for scraps of flesh. Her biting wit warns the world to keep its distance, and her heart seems to be covered in prickles like a cactus. But inside there’s something far different, a scared and scarred girl whose life has brought her to a place where she’s afraid to love or even trust anyone else. Her mocking wit is a shield she puts up lest anyone see her pain, and the more she tries to convince herself she doesn’t care the harder it becomes to believe.

The story properly begins with Miriam having a vision. She’s used to this by now, long since learning to deaden her feelings about the ever-looming specter of death. Only this time is different. This time as the death scene plays out in her head, she sees the trucker she’s only just met calling out her name as he’s brutally murdered by a man she’s never seen before.

Miriam knows there is nothing she can do about this. “Fate gets what fate wants,” she’s fond of saying. Intervention is pointless. Any effort to stop the death she has seen will only help to bring it to pass. She knows this. And yet she finds herself drawn to this man, this innocent, who will die in a few short weeks, and all because of her.

What follows is a tangled web of con men, killers and villains, all leading inexorably to a final showdown with the most powerful enemy of all: fate.

Blackbirds is plotted beautifully, drawing you in from the first page, and making you care deeply about this wounded and lonely soul named Miriam Black. It never falters for a moment. Every page, every sentence, every word work together to create a nearly perfect whole. In short it is an example of what truly great writing should be: fearless, powerful, effortless.

Don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. It’s available in print and for ereaders from Amazon.com, and probably some other places too.

Shark Season

[This Friday in his weekly flash fiction challenge Chuck Wendig asked for a story under a thousand words in seven acts, and after a certain amount of thought, I wrote one. This is not that story. This is the story I wrote the next day; which also had seven distinct movements of plot that matched up exactly with what Mr. Wendig had prescribed. I hadn’t intended to write another story in seven acts, it just sorta came out that way. And since this story sucks less than the first one I wrote, I humbly present it for your consideration.]

It was an early spring that year, or perhaps it might be better said the winter had never truly come. There had been days when the wind blew a chill from the north, nights when heaters had been turned on, but they had been sparse even for a region well-used to mild winters.

And so it was that one David Gabriel found himself looking into the murky, algae-infested waters of his pool one day late in February and thinking that it was about time to get the pump running again.

The pool sat above the ground, and it had not been cheap. David Gabriel knew this because his wife had purchased it two summers past, and charged it to her credit card. Like many of her other credit card purchases, she hadn’t consulted him about it, and like with many of her other credit card purchases they had gotten into quite an row over the expense. He would have made her take it back to the store, but by the time he’d found out about it she’d had the pool set up and half full of water, and at that time the minimum payments had only just been getting difficult to meet.

But all that was water under the bridge, or (he joked to himself) at least passed through the pool filter a goodly number of times. And if even if they were still paying for that pool and a hundred other things his wife hadn’t quite been able to resist charging on that ever-so-handy credit card, what was it to him?

It wasn’t until the next day, when he went out to check the pump, certain that the filter would already be clogged full of algae, that he discovered the strange and wonderful thing that the newly filtered water had uncovered.

At first he was sure it had not been filtered. Quite to the contrary in fact. Because when he looked into the pool the water that had been pea-green yesterday, now held the hue of midnight darkness, as if a gallon of ink had been emptied into it. He wondered if it could be some kind of prank and then dismissed the idea out of hand. There was no one he knew who cared enough about his existence one way or another to play such a prank on him. And it was only then that he looked again and fully understood what he was seeing. The water was dark, yes, but it was far from cloudy. It was clear, and clean and…deep.

Of course it was impossible (or so he told himself). A pool simply did not get deeper over the winter. A little settling might occur perhaps, but this? This was completely unbelievable.

It was still unbelievable when he tossed a smooth white pebble into the pool and watched it sink far deeper than it had any right to sink, so deep in fact that it vanished out of sight. He knew he should have been astounded by this discovery or at the very least a little frightened, but in truth he found himself fascinated by the whole thing. He went into the house and found a spool of cotton string and tied a spoon to the end for ballast  The spoon he dropped into the pool and let the string unravel. For nearly five minutes he stood there feeding out more and more string until the spool was almost completely empty. And then he felt the string jerk and the spool jumped in his hands. He almost lost his grip, but his hands reflexively tightened around the spool, and a moment later the tension relaxed. When he tried to let out more string, he found the pull of the spoon was gone, so he carefully wound the string back onto the spool. When he finished he found to his amazement that in the place where the spoon had been there was a ragged end; almost (he thought to himself) as if it had been bitten off.

He went inside to contemplate this odd turn of events, and while he was sitting and thinking the phone rang. He saw it was an unlisted number and let it ring.

Collection agencies. They were relentless, calling at all hours of the day, and only last week they had somehow managed to track him down at his work. They were soul sucking relentless predators (he thought) no better than legalized loan sharks.

Sharks. The word stuck in his mind, and grew, into a plan.

When Carol got home from her shopping, the plan had hardened into a purpose. The days were getting warmer (he told Carol.) There was no reason on this night in late February that they should not go for a swim in the pool.

Carol seemed suspicious of his pleasant manner at first but shortly she agreed that it was unseasonably warm, and that a swim in the pool might be just the thing. But when she stepped off wooden deck that surrounded the pool she sank into the dark water with a bubbling shriek and then came thrashing back up to the surface, sputtering for air.

It was deep (she told him.) How could it be so deep?

But David didn’t answer. Instead he picked up the pole that usually held the leaf rake and used it to push her out toward the center of the pool.

She screamed and asked him what he was doing, but he only smiled and brought the heavy pole down hard over her head. She cried out softly and then sank down into the dark water.

David looked over into the pool, and for a just moment he thought he saw something sleek and white and impossibly large flash past below the surface of the water.

For a long time he sat there on the deck looking up at the endless ocean of stars. But after a while the wind began to blow colder, and so he went back inside, alone.

Love in a Jar

[A micro-fiction story for Chuck Wendig’s latest challenge.]

He brought her love in a jar; slimy, hopping, eyes bulging.

It thudded against the glass, amphibian eyes begging for release. But she left it caged: fearful to embrace it, unwilling to let it go, trapped somewhere between odium and adoration.

And when he left for school she took it into the yard and planted it between the azalea bushes, jar and all.

Salt of the Earth

[So this week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig was to come up with a new spin on the apocalypse, something that’s never been done before. Which is really a doozy of a challenge when you consider all the fiction that’s been written about the end of the world. I think this approach is unique, but I’m fully expecting comments from you lot saying, “Hey loser, Bob Whathisface wrote that same scenario way better back in the summer of 1953.” So whatever. I’ve always said originality is overrated anyway. Enjoy.]

“Did the world used to be bigger pappa?”

“Used to be, punkin.”

“Uncle Mark says there used to be other towns. Lots and lots of them. I can’t imagine lots and lots of other towns pappa.”

“Well it’s true. They’re still out there, I guess. Somewhere under the Green.”

“Where did the Green come from?”

“No one really knows. Some people say it was a government project that went wrong, but there’s really no way of telling now. Anyone who did know is long dead.”

“What’s a goverman papa?”

“Government, sweety. It was the people who told everyone what to do, and kept them safe.”

“Like you papa?”

“I guess so. In a way.”

“What happened to the govermans papa?”

“The Green got them. Just like it got the rest of the world.”

“Uncle Mark says the Green is evil.”

“I suppose I can understand why he might say that, but you know it isn’t. Not really.”

“What is it then?”

“It’s just a plant punkin. Just like the tree that grows in our yard. Or like the bean we grow in the field.”

“But we can’t pull it up like the beans or cut it down like the tree.”

“That’s right punkin.”

“Because the prickers would get us and kill us. Just like they got Mrs. York’s baby.”

“Yes.”

“He swelled up all purple and he couldn’t breath. I saw it.”

“….I know.”

“I’m never gonna touch the Green papa. Never gonna go near it. Because I don’t want to swell up all purple and choke like Bobby.”

“Let’s…let’s talk about something else.”

“But the Green can’t get us. Because of the salt. It doesn’t like the salt.”

“No…it can’t grow in the dirt where the salt is.”

“The Green makes you sad, doesn’t it papa?”

“It’s just a plant.”

“But you cry sometimes when we talk about it.”

“…just a plant.”

“Do you think the Green will ever go away?”

“I don’t know.”

“We could make it go away. We could burn it.”

“They tried that, back when the world was bigger. Back when the government still meant something. They tried…everything.”

“What happened?”

“When they burned the Green…there were these tiny seeds, spores they’re called, and they went everywhere and made the Green grow that much faster. They tried poison too. There was a thing called Agent Orange-“

“That sounds funny.”

“Well it wasn’t funny. It was poison. They thought it would hurt the Green. They knew it would hurt the people, but they thought it would hurt the Green more.”

“But it didn’t work.”

“It worked a little bit, but by that time there was so much of the Green that it grew back faster than they could make the poison.”

“What happened then?”

“I’ve told you this story before.”

“But I wanna hear it again.”

“I don’t like this story.”

“Pleeease.”

“…we ran away. It was hard because there were a lot of people trying to get away from the Green. There wasn’t much food or water. All the gas to make the cars go was gone.”

“And mommy was there?”

“Yes…mommy was there.”

“Was I there?”

“You were there too.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You were very little. Anyway Uncle Mark said the Green was slower by his town because of the cold, so we were trying to get there. But there were a lot of other people doing the same thing. They all wanted to get away from the Green. And there wasn’t enough food…”

“What happened then?”

“We kept walking. For a long time we kept walking without food. There weren’t so many people with us then.”

“What happened to them?”

“A lot of them died. Some of them just sat down and gave up.”

“But not you.”

“No…no not me. We had you to think about, see? So we kept going. We kept going until we couldn’t go any further.”

“And what happened then?”

“We just…stopped. Sat down and…waited.”

“Were you hungry?”

“…so hungry. So hungry…we couldn’t move.”

“But mommy found the food!”

“…”

“Tell me about mommy and the food! Its my favourite part.”

“Not today.”

“But she saved us.”

“Yes…yes she did.”

“Even though she was dead.”

“…yes.”

“You woke up and she was dead. But then there was food! And you cooked it, and we ate, and mommy was the hero!”

“…”

“Why are you crying daddy?”

“I’m sorry punkin. I’m so, so sorry. I never should have…”

“Don’t be sorry papa. We were safe then. We were safe because mommy was the hero.”

“Yes…she was.”

“Tell the rest.”

“We walked the rest of the way. It wasn’t far. Just…just over the next hill. So…so close.”

“You’re crying again.”

“Sorry…”

“But we were saved.”

“We were saved….we were damned.”​

“You miss mommy.”

“Yes…”

“I wish I remembered her.”

“It’s okay punkin.”

“She’s gone and I never got to know her. But Uncle Mark says she’s a part of me now. Is that true daddy? Daddy?”

“…”

The Fisherman’s Nightmare

You will find my latest entry into Chuck Wendig’s short story challenge (the one from last Friday) here. I’m linking it instead of putting it in a post, because this sucker is kinda long (there wasn’t a wordcount limit on last week’s challenge, and I might have gotten a little carried away.)

It was a lot of fun writing this story, but because it came right down to the wire, I didn’t get the opportunity to go over it as thoroughly as I would have liked looking for typos. Hopefully I will be able to come back to it, and do a proper edit someday soon. Until then…enjoy.

Blogging about Blogging about Blogging

Woah. You guys…the comments section on yesterday’s post. Just wow.

You guys gave me a lot to think about with this blogging thing, and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one struggling to find my niche. And after hearing all of your thoughts, concerns, opinions, et cetera, I think I have a little better focus now.

To me, the overarching theme in the sentiments that almost all of you expressed was this: different people like different things.

For instance some of you expressed a desire for a blog to be focussed on one topic, for it to have some overriding theme that connected all of it’s posts together. Others said that as long as a blogger speaks with passion in his own true voice, that is enough to build a following.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think either side is wrong. There is no blog that is going to appeal to everyone. This is something we bloggers know, but then often manage to ignore.

Also, some bloggers are far better at writing topically than others. For instance, I love Jody Hedlund’s blog where she writes in a very informative manner about writing and social media, but I also enjoy Jess Witkins blog where she talks about her life and occasionally discusses the speed bumps she encounters on the way to writing her first book. And my main man Don Whittington somehow manages to combine the two by talking about a particular piece of art each week, and then transitioning into incredibly moving and deeply personal thoughts inspired by the piece.

So I’m here to tell you that no one has the definitive answer as to what to write about on your blog. Chuck Wendig is proof you can get by rather handily writing about writing (though as we saw yesterday, not everyone is going to like his approach). But you can’t be Chuck Wendig and neither can I. That’s not to say you can’t write about writing. Just do it your way.

Which leads me into the first of my two rules for bloggers:

1. Be yourself.

Unless you’re a serial killer. Then maybe try being someone else.

Actually you know what, scratch that. I bet people would throng to read a blog written by a serial killer.

You can fake being someone else for a little while, but in the end you’re going to burn out. Which leads us to rule number two.

2. Stick with it.

And really this is good advice for anything you want to do in life. You want to write a book? Stick with it. Want to build a good marriage? Stick with it. Build a one to one scale model of the entire world in Minecraft? Stick with it.

Because lets be real here: you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to have posts that bomb. You’re going to have moments of crisis where you wonder if your blog is going in the right direction. All of that is fine.

Screwing up is not the end of the world.

Giving up is.

Huh. That’s has a nice ring to it.

Anyhoo that’s it. Really. On those two principles I believe you can build a successful blog. It’ll take time. All good things do. But if you keep pressing forward eventually you’ll find the right path.