Tag Archives: Stephen King

Not Monsters


I’m just gonna let you ruminate for a minute on what that book means to you.

Go on, take your time, I’m in no hurry.

Have you got it fixed in your mind? Good. Now this isn’t a post about Twilight. In fact when I was composing my thoughts for this post in my head Twilight didn’t enter the picture until very late in the game. But once it did enter the picture, everything else seemed to fall into place.

Because Twilight is a book about vampires. The book didn’t invent vampires. It didn’t even invent the vampire romance. But what it did do (in my mind) was place the final nail in the coffin of true vampire horror.

You might think that I’m writing this as an indictment, but in reality this was inevitable from the beginning. Let’s look at that beginning, shall we?

I know you’re going back in your mind to Dracula (or perhaps if you are particularly well read, to Varny the Vampire) but you need to go back further. You need to go back to the time before vampires entered fiction. You need to go back to the time when they lived in the minds of men, passed on from mouth to mouth as folklore, whispered from the lips of mothers as a warning against unruly children. “If you’re not good, the vampires will get you.”

In the beginning vampires were monsters. Mindless, brutish, forest-dwelling monsters.

Then came the books. The notion of vampires passed from folklore into fiction. But in the passage something changed. The vampires were still evil, still frightening, but now they had become just a little more human. No longer were they forest dwelling brutes, bloated like rotted corpses and bereft of all but an animal intelligence. Now they were suave and sophisticated. Now they could walk the streets with their prey. They could pass for human until it the moment it was too late for their victims.

And from a certain point of view that change made them all the more terrible. After all, what is more terrifying that the monster who looks just like you? But it was the first nail in the coffin, the first step down the slippery slope that would end in stunning, sparkling, and above all safe Edward Cullen.

But like I said, this isn’t a post about Twilight. This is a post about monsters.

Because monsters have a problem. Monsters are cool.

I mean think about it, what little kid doesn’t like monsters? Dinosaurs, dragons, C’thulu? Show him those things, and he’ll say “Awesome!” and start wailing on them with his G.I. Joes.

Zombies? Ditto. Don’t even get me started on our cultural obsession with zombies. We’re not afraid of them. We’re fascinated.

And that’s the problem. Because in theory monsters are supposed to be scary. You’re supposed lie awake at night, afraid to go to sleep lest they show up in your nightmares. But instead we idolize them, we put them on a pedestal. Technically they’re still the bad guys, but really that just makes them all the more interesting.

But as someone who’s interested in fear in fiction, in making people uncomfortable with what they’re reading, I’ve noticed something interesting. Generally the most genuinely frightening parts of a story happen before the monsters ever show up.

Take for example, the horror film The Descent. In this movie a group of female spelunkers explore a remote cave and encounter human-like cave creatures who have become sightless because…I don’t know, they’ve lived down there for generations and they’ve evolved past the need for light? I mean, granted the movie shows that they kill stuff outside the cave for food and you’d think eyes would be an advantage there even if they hunt at night. Especially if they hunt at night. Nocturnal animals have amazing eyesight. Whatever.

Anyway, there’s some great scenes where these blind monsters are searching for the protagonists, and they’re walking right next to where they’re hiding, but they can’t see them (you’d think they could smell them or hear them breathing or something; I mean really, if you’re going to evolve away from using your eyes you could at least compensate through your other senses. But like I said, whatever.) These scenes are interesting, but in my mind they’re not really scary. They don’t reach into my stomach and twist my guts into knots with fear. Sure they might be good for a few jump scares, but that’s not really the same.

But there are truly frightening moments in The Descent. There’s the moment when one of the women is trapped in a claustrophobic tunnel with the cave shuddering and shaking, threatening to crush her under a thousand tons of earth and stone. There’s the scene where one of the spelunkers has to cross a yawning chasm using ancient equipment that starts to fail halfway through the traverse. These moments work because we can relate to them. We can empathize with the terror of claustrophobia, or with the fear of falling a very very long way down. These are examples of what I’ve started to refer to as the “not monsters” moments of movies, and personally I think there is far more to learn from their common earthy kind of terror than will ever be found in the pursuit of the supernatural slasher or the growl of the green skinned mutant.

In Richard Matheson’s book The Shrinking Man which chronicles the life of a man who is (you’ll never guess) shrinking, the most powerful moments are not the battles between insect-sized man and monstrous spider, but rather they come when the eponymous shrinking man is midway through the process, trying to cope with the fact that his wife has begun to think of him as a child and his young daughter has lost all respect for him.

In Stephen King’s It the single most unnerving moment of the book (for me) had nothing to do with the supernatural clown/spider and everything to do with a simple-minded bully who locks puppies in an old refrigerator until they die of asphyxiation.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. We are human, and the terror we know the best is human in origin.

Most people I know don’t drive to work or go out with their families thinking, “I hope I don’t get bitten by a zombie today.” But they do think, “How am I going to pay my bills?” “What if my wife doesn’t really love me?” “A hundred years after I’m dead, will it matter that I lived?”

That isn’t to say there’s not a place for the monster in our stories. But if we truly want to gnaw at our readers, we must keep in mind that the ultimate terror is not in the fantastic but the mundane; it is in the known more than the unknown. The monster when used correctly is not a thing unto itself. It is a vehicle for something darker, something deeper. It is merely a shadow cast by the true terror that lies latent in the hearts of every one of us.

Lady Gaga and the Zen of Weird

Lady Gaga is ugly.

Which is an okay thing. Really, it is. Not everyone was born beautiful. In fact, in a way, it’s inspiring. Because if you think about the rest of the women in the music industry you’re going to come up with a whole pile of gals whose talent is riding on the coattails of their sex appeal.

That isn’t to say that Lady Gaga doesn’t have sex appeal. But it’s a different kind of sex appeal. She draws people in by being completely and inscrutably weird.

And the thing is, I’m not even sure its real. Every time I hear about this woman making some bizzare fashion statement, wearing a dress made out of the bodies of still-living iguanas (give it time; it’ll happen) I think to myself, “That woman is a genius,” not because I think that she’s making a brilliant fashion move, but because I understand she’s making a brilliant career move.

Weird sells.

And since I’ve got a certain vested interest in what sells, I sit up, pay attention, and start taking notes.

Which brings me to the topic at hand. A few days back Chuck Wendig made a post about how writers should try to be more like rock stars. And then, less than a week later, he issued a disclaimer which basically said, “Ha, ha, just kidding guys, maybe don’t take things so seriously, yeah?”

And while I understand what he was doing with the disclaimer, I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. I think he was right the first time. Writers should be more like rock stars.


Because there are eleventy-six billion of us on Twitter alone. We’re drowning in a sea of #amwriting hashtags and “Got my wordcount goal today. Hooray for me!” Tweets. There’s nothing wrong with that, per say, but if we’re going to make an impact we have to do something to stand out.

And yes, before you say it, I know that writing a good book is the most important thing. But it isn’t the only thing.

Because writing a book is about telling a story. But turning yourself into a rock star is about becoming a story.

People want to know an author’s story. They want to know that J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter in some coffee shop. They want to know that Stephen King threw out his first draft of Carrie and only kept working on it because his wife liked it. They want to know that Stephanie Meyers is really an alien from Raxacoricofallapatorius cloaked in human flesh.

So get out there and be at least a little weird. Make some crop circles. Do some graffiti. Make a drunken death threat against your mayor.

Get noticed. Give people a reason to care. Become your own rock star.

People will say, “Oh yeah, that’s that book by Joe Schmoe. He’s the guy who lit himself on fire and swan dived off Niagra falls last year.”

People will also say, “You mean there’s actually some dude named Joe Schmoe? Far out, man. Far out.”

And no, I’m not kidding.

(Except maybe about the death threat thing. Don’t do that.)

Of Bookies and Butterflies

Okay, so I know I promised you guys I wouldn’t write about writing while I was on vacation, but a recent post by Jody Hedlund got me a little fired up and I thought maybe I’d throw in my two cents.

The post was entitled, When You Feel Like a Nobody, and it was practical advice for writers facing the discouragement that comes from the realization that there are millions of other books out there, and what exactly do you think you’re doing adding to such a huge heap of fiction anyway? I’d encourage you to go an read her remarks because some of the things I’m going to say will be in direct response to that post.

Here are just a couple of somewhat scattered thoughts that came to my mind:

1. The Odds

In her blog post Jody posted numbers that said that a million new books are published each and every years.

A million.

That seems like a lot right? Well, yes and no. I’m not sure where Jody is sourcing her numbers from (not that I’m calling them into question), but the first thing you have to consider is that that number is going to include (I assume) non-fiction books, things like history books, cook books, and car repair manuals.

You also have to take into account the fact that since Jody’s stats include self-published eBooks that means that many of those are likely short stories or novellas for sale on Amazon.

But even if we assume that every singe one of those books is a full length novel of reasonable quality (which is a pretty big assumption) that still means that the ratio of writers to non-writers in the United States alone is over three hundred to one. Assuming that approximately half of non-writers don’t read brings those odds down to one-hundred-fifty to one. Now if we consider that most writers don’t have the clout to grab all those people’s attention and that most books sell less than a thousand copies, a whole range of potential opens up for us.

I’m not much of a betting man, but I’d say the odds aren’t nearly as bad as you think they are.

There is someone out there who wants to read your book. They just don’t know about it yet. It’s up to you to tell them.

2. The Truth

This may come as a shocker to you, but you are a nobody. What you are doing today, the words you write or don’t write will likely have minimal impact on the world at large.

Yes, I know about chaos theory and the butterfly flapping his wings causing hurricanes in Florida (thanks a lot you stupid butterflies), and I’m not saying your work won’t have any impact at all, but let’s be real here: your book isn’t that important. Neither is mine. Neither is Stephen King’s. Neither is Shakespeare’s.

Yes. I said it. Shakespeare wasn’t all that important in the larger scheme of things.

See, I was brought up to look at the long view of the universe. The odds of your work even still being around in a thousand years are slim at best. Even some of Shakespeare’s plays were lost. And the odds of your works becoming famous enough for people to care very long past your death are vanishing small.

On the bright side it won’t matter to you because you’ll be dead.

And when I say “you” here please understand that I’m talking to myself as well.

I think it’s important for all us to face the cold hard truth. Are we writing to leave some kind of legacy? Are we writing because we want people to know our names? I don’t know about the rest of you, but for a long time for me the answer to those questions was ‘yes.’

But I’m starting to think a little differently. I know I’m a nobody. I know the odds of my works rising above the madness to become paragons of literature are thin at best. But the reason I do what I do is love. A love of words, a love of stories. And even if my writing career never takes off, I’ll always have that.

I hope this doesn’t come off as an attack on Jody’s post. She’s got great information there, and it’s well worth your time if you’re a writer to follow her blog. I just wanted to try to put things in perspective. And to ask you this one simple question:

Is it okay to be a nobody?

Zombie Tuesday: Burnout

So you’ve made it this far. You’ve kept your head in the game and you’ve remembered to think long term about this whole zombie apocalypse thing. You’ve likely witnessed the deaths of friends and family members, and now you’re living in a ruined shell of the society you once knew, doing your best to keep from getting devoured by the dead-things.

This is probably a bad time to mention that I’ve been holding out on you.

I had my reasons though. I needed you you start thinking differently about this whole apocalypse thing. Like I said in last weeks post, you may be the last hope for human civilization. You need to start thinking about your life in terms of years and decades, and you need to start thinking about the centuries that will follow after you. The light of humanity must go on.

Which means killing zombies. All the zombies.

Hopefully you’ve made a good dent in them so far with the methods I’ve prescribed, but now you’re labouring under the ever increasing realization that there are far far too many of these things for you to kill one at a time. You’ve long since given up on the military doing anything helpful. If they’re even still around they’re hunkered down so far the sun could go out and they wouldn’t notice.

It’s up to you.

Good thing you have me here, because I’ve got the answer for you. In some ways it goes against everything I’ve taught you here so far. But you have to know the rules before you can break them. So lets break some rules shall we?

Here’s what you do.

1. Find some bait.

Yeah, right. It’s the zombie apocalypse. Every living thing that can be caught and eaten probably has been. There’s no living flesh within miles. Or is there?

Take a look in the mirror bub.

Okay, okay, don’t freak out on me. I know you don’t want to get eaten, but some risks you have to take.

If you can find something else to serve as bait then do it, but if not you’re it.

2. Scout out a location

You’re gonna need a good solid place, one that can keep the zombies at bay for at least a few days. You’re going to want to have supplies here too. Water and food. Not a lot, but enough to get you through maybe a week of waiting. Hopefully you won’t be in there any longer than that.

Another thing this building also needs? Roof access.  In fact you might spend the entire time camped out on the roof. Lots of big stores have a ladder that leads up onto the roof from the inside. Well, maybe not lots. But Walmart does, so I assume it’s not that uncommon.

Got your location scouted out? Good. Because it time to…

3. Ring the Dinner Bell

By now you probably know all the places where the zombies hang out in big groups. Up until now you’ve been avoiding these places. But now you want to attract attention.

Don’t be stupid, though. Give yourself room to get a decent head-start on them when they finally see you. Maybe get one of those mostly useless shotguns and fire it into the air. Make a lot of noise and then get out of there.

Hightail it back to your location and barricade the doors. Get out on the roof and keep making noise. Shoot off your gun, blow an airhorn, yell at the zombies. Get it all out now because they’re not going to be around for too much longer.

Now all you have to do is…

4. Wait

Odds are good zombies will come for miles, and they don’t come very fast. You’re here to wait them out. You want to get as many of them as you can, so just sit yourself up on that roof and wait. Every once in a while you’re going to want to do something to get their attention so they don’t start wandering off, but mostly its just waiting. Maybe take a book up there with you? Something good and long, maybe a Stephen King novel.

After all, what good is the zombie apocalypse if it doesn’t give you time to catch up on your reading?

5. Burn Baby Burn

Dead flesh gets dry after a while. Like really dry. Your zombie friends have been out in the sun for a long time now so they’ve been dried out to the point that their skin crackles when they move.

Good for you, bad for them.

And you know the great thing about zombies? They have no sense of personal space. You never hear one zombie say to another zombie, “Pardon me, but it would appear that your flesh is rotting away, and I must tell you that I find your rancid breath and horrible odour absolutely repulsive dear boy.” No, given the proper motivation they’ll pack in on top of each other like sardines in a can.

Which is just perfect for what you’re going to do.

So light ’em up and watch ’em burn. You might need a little gasoline to get the party started, but chances are once the flames catch they’ll spread fast.

And since they’re zombies it’s not like they’re going to run away. They’re going to press in closer as their friends in the front row get fried.

The flames will spread from one zombie to the next, until you’ll have a whole sea of dead things moving amongst themselves calling out for your flesh even as their own is burning away.

Sit back and watch the world burn. And pat yourself on the back. You’ve just taken out more zombies in one week than you could have hoped to kill one at a time in years.

6. Rinse Lather Repeat.

There’s a lot of zombies out there, so you’re going to have to do this more than once. If you manage not to get yourself burned alive on the first attempt the second one will be easier. You’ll know your obstacles and challenges ahead of time.

Killing zombies is just like anything else. To get really good at it, it takes practice, practice, practice.


I appreciate all of you who joined me for this little feature on my blog. I hope that you found it both informative and entertaining.

Next week, on Tuesday, I’ve got a big thing happening. I’ll be releasing my novella called, A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw on the Kindle electronic marketplace (Yes, it is the same title as one of my short stories. The short story inspired the novella). The story is about a dog who is left behind during the zombie apocalypse and his struggle to survive the horror of the dead-things.

It’s different from anything else I’ve ever heard of in the zombie-survival genre and I hope all of you will at least check it out.

Fingers crossed and counting down the days, this is Albert Berg, writer and freelance zombie survival consultant, signing off.

Long Write The King (And Boy Does He Ever)

Last week as I was sailing through the Twitterverse in my DataCruiser Ultrathon 2000 I came upon a flurry of tweets clustered around a single topic. I turned the DCU2K around and swung back by to take a closer look at the landscape of this factoid planetoid. I peered out the porthole in shocked amazement at the news that had everyone gasping with excitement.



Stephen King had written a new book! Within only six months since his previous release the master of horror had crafted a work of almost a thousand pages.

My fellow tweeters were ecstatic. To their minds this news was the greatest thing possibly since the creation of the Twitterverse itself. To think of it: a thousand pages in only six months!

But I did not join in their frivolities. I sat back in the captain’s chair of the DCU2K and pondered within myself what it all might mean. It was tempting, very tempting to join in the chorus of shocked wonderment that such a long work had been completed in such a short amount of time, but something held me back.

This is the problem. I have read some Stephen King novels. Not all. But some. Some of them were good. Some of them I would go so far as to say they were great. But some were not.

Now before I go any further I want to make one thing clear. This is not, “Pick on Stephen King because he’s the biggest target around day.” I have a fantastic amount of respect for Mr. King. In some respects I could even say he has inspired me. His short stories in particular completely rewired the way I think about written language.

But.  Some of his novels meander on and on circling the idea of cohesion like buzzards circling a dead mule in the desert. And the reason I think this is a problem for Stephen King is because he’s a lot like me.

Hey, you in the back there, stop rolling your eyes. I’m not saying I’m as good as him; I’m saying from what I’ve read the way we think about writing is very similar.

Stephen King loves words. He does not love to outline.

And it shows. The way he says things is incredible. But what he says often is not. Sometimes he manages to meander his way into a fairly well structured story, but even then he’s got tangents and side-plots out the whazoo.

The thing that gives me pause is the hulabaloo about the length of his work. But the simple truth is that long books are not better books. They aren’t worse books either. They’re just longer.

The Old Man and the Sea is exactly as long as it needs to be. Can the same be said for King’s latest work? I don’t know.

It may be that every single one of those thousand pages contains vital words, words working in cohesion together toward a synergistic whole. But my suspicion is that some of those pages are fluff, uninspired tangents King penned while trying to figure out exactly where the story was going.

Maybe I’m nitpicking here, tearing down an idol to make myself feel better. After all, I’ve been known to suffer from *ahem* “length envy” when it comes to fiction. I do not naturally write long stories. My longest work so far is a 90,000 word book called In the Shadow of Doubt. It’s a story about a holy war in a tribe of anthropomorphic squirrels who live in a giant tree that fills the world. No. I am not making that up.

So maybe I’m out of line here. Maybe this is all the result of some subconscious jealousy. But all I really want is to be the best writer I can be. I want to understand what works for others and what doesn’t work.

There isn’t any core lesson to this blog, no deep moral to my ramble. I’m just trying to spark a little thought.

Stephen King wrote a giant book in six months. Is this a good thing?

Four Books Every Writer Should Read

There are no rules to writing. There is no instruction manual that will magically make us better writers. We all know this. But that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit in reading books about the craft of writing.

A few weeks back someone asked me what books I would recommend that other writers read, and today I’m going to answer that question. These are all books that have helped me tremendously as a writer, and I believe they might help you as well.

1. The Elements of Style

Okay, so yeah, you probably saw this one coming a mile away. It’s the granddaddy of all style books, and it still retains a place of well deserved honor at the top of the heap.

I remember the first time I found The Elements of Style in the college library. I took it to a table and just started to read. It pulled me in like very few books ever have.

And I can’t explain it exactly. The book is essentially a litany of grammar rules and advice about writing well, but somehow it weaves a web of magic all it’s own that is sure to entrap anyone with a love of words.

In recent years I’ve read some criticism of The Elements of Style based on the idea that the rules and guidelines presented there are too strict, too authoritarian. While some of that criticism may have merit, it misses the larger point. The theme of the book can be boiled down into two simple words: be clear.

And that is one writing rule we would all do well to follow.

2. Self Editing for Fiction Writers

This book ruined my life. It was the very first book I picked up after I started writing in earnest and it was crammed full of useful writing advice. The problem came when I started reading fiction books after I read Self Editing for Fiction Writers.

I found myself saying, “Woah, hey buddy, easy on the adverbs,” and “Just say, ‘said’ already! It’s not a dirty word!” Reading this book was my first experience with the idea that writing could change the way I read.

And while Self Editing for Fiction Writers may not quite have had the same magic for me as The Elements of Style would, its simple no-nonsense advice helped set me on the right direction when it came to writing readable prose.

3. On Writing

This little memoir/writing guide isn’t quite like other writing books. It’s true that there’s some writing advice in there, but it’s a very personal kind of advice.

This isn’t a book I would recommend following to the letter. For instance Stephen King eschews the concept of outlining pretty vehemently, but that doesn’t mean you should throw out the idea of outlining; you should do what works best for you.

But what this book does provide is a view of the world though King’s own eyes, a compelling story about his own journey as a writer. In a sense On Writing is a love letter to writing itself. And for that fact alone it is well worth your time.

4. Noble’s Book of Writing Blunders (And How to Avoid Them)

This is a book I picked up sometime last year, and I absolutely loved it. There’s nothing really sensational I can say about the content of the book. Much of the advice was stuff I’d already read in other places before.

But it was so much fun to read. If you’re a beginning writer looking for a good foundation of writing principles, I highly recommend checking this book out. The author does a great job of reminding the reader that he is giving guidelines, not rules, and in some cases he even points out when doing the opposite of what he had recommended might make for a better choice.

Also, if you do not enjoy reading this book you can feed it to your dog. My dog ate this book, and he gave it five stars on the taste scale.


So those are my top four recommendations of books writers should read. It is by no means exhaustive; there were several books I wanted to include, but didn’t for the sake of space and time.

Do you all have any suggestions for me? I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment and let me know what your favourite writing book is, and why.

The Marketability Monster

I have a problem people. See, the thing is I’m doing my best to build this whole “writer’s platform” thing so that I can grow my fanbase. I have to say that on the whole it’s a lot of fun interacting with all of you, and writing this blog every day has been a great experience.

There’s only one problem. I’m doing it wrong.

Well, not everything. Just the one thing mostly. But it’s something important. See, I’m supposed to be turning myself into a brand. I’m supposed to be building up the kind of persona online that will hopefully draw people to read my books.

It shouldn’t be that hard. When you think, Heinze you think catsup. When you think IBM you think computers. When you think Toyota you think dying in a horrible fireball of twisted metal that’s hurtling toward a group of unsuspecting preschoolers.

And when you think Albert Berg you think…well what exactly? This is the problem for me. I’m supposed to pick a genre and stick with it. And I know it’s good advice.

Stephen King writes horror. Michael Connelly writes mysteries. Simon Winchester writes non-fiction about smart people.

The problem is I do not want to be pinned down. Let me give you an example.

The story I’m working on currently is called The Mulch Pile. The Mulch Pile is a story about two brothers in a disfuntional family and what happens when the garden mulch pile comes to life and starts wreaking havoc in their already unbalanced lives. You could loosely classify it as Horror.

But the other day I was mulling some ideas over in my head, and I came up with a loose outline for a story about a goth dude who drives a Mary Kay pink Cadillac, a homeless woman, and an everyman sales clerk who all get in way over their heads when they face off with a group of drug-dealing grannies. I’m not sure where you classify that one, but I’m pretty sure its as far from Horror as you can get.

And I really want to write both of them. I know it’s wrong. I know it’s absolutely counterintuitive. I know people want to know what to expect when they pick up a book with my name on it.

But I can’t bring myself to commit. There are just so many wonderful stories out there to write, so many crazy things I want to try out. How am I supposed to narrow it down?

This is usually the part of the blog where I give you some kind of answer, some resolution to the problem presented. The problem is I don’t have one. Maybe I really should just buckle down and forget about my dreams of diversity.

Maybe you’ve got a better solution. Or maybe you’re facing the same problem. If you’ve got some advice for me, I’d love to hear it. If you’re in the same boat, I’d love to hear that too.

For now, all I can say is that I’m enjoying the ride. I may not be making much of a brand for myself, but I’m having a whole lot of fun along the way.

Cleaning for Company

A few days ago my wife and I had a couple of friends from our church over for dinner. It just so happened that the day they were coming over was also the day I was off work, so I was stuck cleaning the house.

I vacuumed and straightened and did all the dishes that had been piling up in the sink.  I worked for a solid hour and a half so that our house would look better than it usually does for our guests.  In fact it looked so good I’m thinking we should have guests over more often, so the house might actually stay somewhere close to clean (Let’s not talk about all those rooms the guests will never see that got piled up with junk.

While I was cleaning it made me think about how we present ourselves to others.  I didn’t just clean.  I gave a lot of thought to what exactly I was comfortable with my guests seeing.

Should I leave the skull salt and pepper shaker holder on the table?  Should I hide the Stephen King short story anthologies? Would they be more impressed with my intellect if I left Jaques Derida’s Writing and Difference closer to the top of the bookshelf?

And while I was thinking on such things I was reminded of a recent post by Chuck Wendig in which he talked about the writer’s platform. Specifically he said,

[N]ow is a good time to slap a new coat of paint on who you want the world to see. Want to know a secret? This should be the best and most interesting face of who you already are. No ruse, no illusion.

In other words, don’t go out and buy a new house just because company is coming. Clean up the house you already have. Think about the things you want them to see, and the things you’d rather throw into that unused bedroom down the hall.  Maybe you’ll decide to leave some of the weirder stuff in plain view and let the chips fall where they may.  Maybe you’ll keep anything that might put people off well out of sight. The choice is up to you.

But remember, if you’re a writer you’re going to want your company to come back as often as possible.

Addendum: My friends totally dug the skull salt and pepper shaker holder. Goes to show you, it pays not to put too fine a polish on your “image.”

Tear Down Your Idols

I’ve been reading most of my life.  I remember back before my family had television that I would go to the library and come out with a stack of books up to my chin, and when the week was over mom would have to drive me back and we’d pick up another load.  I remember getting to the point when I looked at the YA books and said, “I think I’ve read every single one of these that I’m interested in reading.”

I’m not saying this so you’ll be impressed with me (okay maybe just the teeniest bit), I’m just saying that by the time I was a teenager I had a pretty good understanding of how prose was supposed to flow as well as the building blocks of basic narrative structure.  So it often happened that I would be reading through a book and think, “This is pretty bad. I think I could do better than this.”

But for the longest time I never did.  Why?  Because I had tricked myself into a dangerous delusion.  I had allowed myself to believe that published authors were special.

I mean, they must be right?  They’ve got their books on the shelves for sale at bookstores.  Not just anyone can do that.  They must be special people.  And if I didn’t like their book, well, obviously I’m just not getting it.  It’s probably because it’s difficult for me to understand the thought patterns of someone living on such an exalted plane of existence.

Of course, I wouldn’t have spelled it out exactly that way, but in the back of my mind, that’s exactly what I thought.

Authors are special.  I am not.

And even after I started writing I couldn’t quite think of myself as one of them.  After all, I was only a junior college student pounding out his little story between classes.  I wasn’t really a writer.  I would have to settle for aspiring.  And maybe, one day, if I was really lucky, the book gods would look down upon my trite efforts with favor and invite me up into their club.

And then one day I had something of an epiphany.  I realized that writers were people just like me.

Shocking right?  And yet, I bet you’ve been there before too.  It’s easy enough to do.  It doesn’t even have to be someone with a big name.  I’ve caught myself doing it with other bloggers recently.  I’d look at their following with wonder and awe and say, “They must be something special.  I could only dream of having a blog like that.”

I’m not saying this to cut anyone down, but those people aren’t special.  They’re just successful.

This is good news for you and here’s why: if they’re not special you can do it too.

Seriously.  I mean it.  Stephen King? Stephanie Meyers?  J. K. Rowling?  They’re all just people like us.  They don’t have some writer gene woven into their DNA.  All they have is hard work, a little luck, and even more hard work.  We can do what they do.  It won’t be easy, but then it wasn’t easy for them either.  It’s time to stop letting our idols have so much power over us.

BUT.  Here’s why this is bad news for you: if they’re not special you can do it too.

No, you’re not experiencing deja vu.  See, once you’ve gotten rid of the idea that famous writers are somehow special, and you realize that with a lot of hard work you can write just as well as they can, then the burden to become a better writer has suddenly fallen squarely on your shoulders. You can’t hide beneath the shadow of your idol any more, and the sun of truth is bright and harsh.  If they are nothing more than mortals just like you, then you have a responsibility, and obligation even to follow in their footsteps, to work your craft until you know it inside and out, to polish your style until it shines.

The truth is scary.  I can’t blame you if you want to go back into the comforting shadows of self-deception.  But if you’re going to do something important with your life and with your writing you’re going to have to come out into the light.  Only there will you see that your idols are nothing more than empty stone.

A Dirge for Brevity

It ain’t like it used to be guys and gals.  And thank God for it.  Because what used to be sucked. Cell phones, the internet, cars, air conditioning.  Go back a hundred years and you’re not going to find any of that stuff readily available.  So let me be the first to say that I’m glad and thankful to live when I live.  I honestly can’t think of a better time or a better place in all of history.

However, as a writer, there is a tiny part of me that pines for the days of fifty years ago, when it was still possible to spot that dying and elusive beast known as the short story in its natural habitat.  And these days ain’t like those days at all.  I recently read a bit Stephen King did about the short story not really being dead, and how there were plenty of authors still writing and selling them, but what he really meant was that he was still writing and selling them, which he can do, because, you know, he’s Stephen King.

Not that I have anything against him for it.  I love the short story form.  I write short stories as often as I can, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed every second of it.

But the short story is dead.  Don’t believe me?  Then consider this: science fiction writer Robert Silverberg got his start writing short fiction at a rate of a million words a year.  And he sold it.  I doubt even Stephen King could find a market for that much short fiction today.  Back in the day, almost every magazine on the rack had short stories published in it.  I heard an interview once with Kurt Vonnegut where he talked about selling short stories to Cosmopolitan for crying out loud.  I can only imagine what kind of story it would have been, but it must have been better the crap they foist off on people these days.

About the only place you can find the short story form these days is bundled together in an anthology and even those are becoming more and more scarce.  Aside from Stephen King, the last single author short story anthology that I remember seeing and buying was T. C. Boyle’s The Human Fly and Other Stories, and that was off of a remaindered rack years ago.

But you know what?  I still write the things.  I harbor no illusions that I’m going to get one of them published anywhere, but I do it…well because I want to.  I love short stories.  I love writing them.  I love reading them.  Why?  Because I remember how powerfully I was affected by those stories back in high school.  Stories, like “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” and “Microcosmic God,” and “Grownups,” and a whole host of others impacted me in a way that no long fiction book ever has.

I don’t know what has happened to the short story.  Given the short attention span of our culture, I should think the form would have flourished.  But it hasn’t.

Instead it’s crumpled off in some dark forgotten corner of the library stacks bleeding out its last.  May it rest in peace.