Existential Retail Christmas Post

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'Santa' and 'Satan'--just one typo away.

An Existential Retail Christmas

Here’s a great way to tell, if you’re slightly sadistic, whether or not your significant other has spent a good portion of his or her life working retail.

Wait until your bundle of joy is asleep. Creep closer, ever closer, to that cherubic slumbering visage, snuggled up by its pillow. Inhale, softly, and whisper into one shell-like ear:

“Wake up! It’s Christmas!”

Does your beautiful angel awake with a scream or a groan? Does he or she begin weeping, throw the pillow, attempt to hide under the bed? Does he or she mutter, with no provocation, the phrase: “no returns without a receipt?”

Your significant other has spent at least two Christmases in retail.

If your significant other is still working a retail Christmas, engage in this experiment at your own discretion. Ugly things might be said. Ugly things might be done. You might end up spending Christmas single.

You see, Christmas is a merry season in which people shop compulsively, usually at the last minute, for items that may or may not be appreciated by another person (they’re called gifts). These gift things don’t just grow on trees. They’re produced, often somewhere very far away, and are shipped in finite amounts to the retail location at which you’re currently shouting at someone because there are no more blue blenders in stock. That tired looking person who is patiently explaining to you, for what’s probably the fifteenth time today, that the next shipment will be in Monday, and if you really need one there are a few red ones in the back, has little to no control over whether that blender is there or not. The nametag on his or her chest brands him as one of the lowest-paid cogs in a vast grinding machine. Or, if you prefer, that person is an expendable human sacrifice, thrust out in front of you as a distraction tactic from the inexplicable rage you feel as another human pawn piece being slung across the board in a game of the consumerist gods.

Simply put: it isn’t that person’s fault your blue blender isn’t in stock. And, when you send off that email to corporate in a fit of pique, this person will get not only shit from you, but shit from management, where the blame for your absent blender could be more justifiably placed.

So. This Christmas, in the spirit of peace, love, and brotherhood that everyone is supposed to espouse, try not screaming at a sales representative for something that representative can’t control.

If your significant other is the nametagged cog placed in front of angry shoppers on a daily basis in the month of December, here are some tactics you can use to help make his or her Christmas nominally merrier, which in retail terms means ‘make it suck not quite as much’:

1. Don’t complain when the light is on early in the morning.
Your spouse is getting up before dawn to get paid a very small amount of money for making sure rich people have all the rich people things they need. The bathroom light is on because he or she has an existential horror of getting dressed for this day of torment in the dark. Don’t complain if the light wakes you, or the sound of the coffee maker, or the smell of the curling iron heating up. You can go back to sleep. Your life, for the next month, isn’t a raw vortex of mindless purchases. No one wants to be able to answer the question ‘did you get dressed in the dark this morning?’ with a guileless ‘yes’.

2. Buy liquor.
“Merry Christmas! Here’s a fifth of vodka on December 5th, so you can drink to forget.”

3. Do not, DO NOT, play Christmas music at home.
Thanks to the years I spent in big box retail, I now know every single word to ‘Santa Baby’, ‘Feliz Navidad’, and that Mariah Carey pile of bullshit. It’s been five years. I still froth at the mouth whenever a store’s muzak releases one of these little gems of excrement in my vicinity.

4. Let ’em bitch.
Retail Christmas is a horrible, soul-sucking thing. Your partner is working retail, and therefore can’t afford therapy. They do, however, have you. Nod and look sad when the stories begin. It might not mean a lot to you that some old dude patronizingly patted your S.O. on the bottom, but it sure does to them. If the stories become too much to bear–and there will be a lot of stories, so they might–learn to tune out. Sympathetic noises are all you need.

5. Make dinner.
You know what the worst part about coming home after fourteen hours of retail hell and transportation is? It’s making dinner. Why, by nine in the evening, is this not done already? Trust me, she isn’t spending her shift planning a four course meal for the late evening. She’s spending it contemplating the endless void of greed and self-righteousness into which humanity, for one month a year, sinks.

If you can’t cook, invest in some ramen and mac n’ cheese. After all, during Christmas, the body is a mere walking vehicle for information about coupons and return policies. Give it something to sustain it, sit back, and pray the end is in sight so you can have your spouse back.

Long story short: Christmas has become a vaguely symbolic pan-all holiday during which we ostensibly celebrate the birth of a penniless child in a manger by throwing as much money at retail giants as we can. If you want to celebrate in the ancient spirit of the holiday, try honoring the poor, like Jesus did: don’t scream at sales associates. After all, they spend your ‘holiday season’ working like dogs. Because of your need for a ten speed bicycle, many of them won’t get to spend Christmas with their families, or get more than one day off of work. Yes, we’re all sorry you won’t have that toaster oven in time to bring it down to the beach house when your vacation begins on the nineteenth. But somehow, somehow, it’s difficult to feel very sorry for you.

It’s been a while since I’ve done the big box thing, and Christmas still bums me out.

Happy Holidays. I hope you spend them somewhere far away from humanity, admiring the beauty of nature with the people you love most and neither giving nor receiving presents.

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Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween, kids. As this is my favorite holiday, and I love doing Halloween makeup, I’m going to post a totally unprofessional picture of myself.

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I know, I know. I haven’t applied nearly enough Instagram filters to this to be pretty. AND I’m not quite done on the chest. But, erm. Pretty isn’t really the point of Halloween.

At least, not to sane people.

Anyway, I hope you get a lot of candy this year–or, better, a lot of drinks bought for you. Much love on my favorite holiday to all my blog buddies. Maybe I’ll go to work like this on Monday, just for a lark. Wonder if my boss’d spot the difference?

Fright Week Flash Fiction VII: The Alternative

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Photo by joe burge at freeimages.com.

We’re ending Fright Week on a spooky yet blackly funny note–and we’re talking about the scariest thing in our modern world, student loan repayment. Ooo-wee-ooooo. Might not be the most startlingly original story in this collection, but it’s my favorite.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the week of spooky flash fiction. Have a happy Halloween.

The Alternative

“If your loan goes into default, your paycheck could be garnished up to fifteen percent,” the nice lady on the phone tells me, concern infused in every syllable. “If you get refund money at tax time, the government can take that, as well.”

I stare at the wall. I know I need to do something–something–but what can I do? I have rent and utilities to pay, just like everybody else. My parents won’t give me a cent. I’ve pissed off just about every friend I have.

I need to pay off my loan. I know I do. But I also need to eat.

“I just…I don’t have any money,” I mutter. This conversation is probably being recorded–don’t they record them? I want to scream, and curse, and throw things, but she’s a thousand miles away in some cubicle, and besides, she’s just doing her job. And it’s probably a shitty enough job already. I’m sure a lot of people do scream and curse.

“Times are pretty hard,” the lady says. God, that concern. Do they train them in the precise inflection necessary to make us scumbags feel like total wastes of breath? Do they play recordings of someone’s mother to them, educate them that way in disappointed sighs?

But what she says next catches my attention. It’s something no one has said before.

“Of course,” my loan lady says, “there’s the alternative.”

“What alternative? Bankruptcy?”

“We’re starting a program. It’s called A Pound of Flesh–you can look it up on our website, if you’re curious.”

“I’m curious.”

“Well, it’s one of our charity initiatives. If you’re lower income–if you make less than 15,000 dollars a year–you can donate a part of yourself for forbearance time. A piece of your liver earns you six months, an eye or a lung earns you a year. If you’re interested in loan forgiveness, you might want to look up our Kindly Kidneys initiative. The parts go to your local hospital, where they’re donated to a lucky person in need.”

I’m glad she can’t see me. I can feel my jaw hanging open. “You’re kidding me,” I say at last. “You people are accepting body parts in lieu of payment? Is that even legal?”

“We want to provide everyone the opportunity for good credit,” my loan lady says. Which isn’t exactly an answer.
I shake my head. I know she can’t hear me do it, but I imagine she’s had this conversation enough times to know it’s happening.

“Shit,” I say at last. I don’t care if they’re recording. They deserve to hear someone cuss over this–deserve to hear how ridiculous it is.

“I’ll email you one of our Pound of Flesh information packets,” my lady says, voice cheerful and carefully modulated. “It’s a good option, for someone young and healthy such as yourself. You won’t be disabled by the loss of one kidney, or one lung, or one eye. And the organs, I promise you, do go to a good cause.”

“Wait–how do you know I’m healthy?”

“Medical records.”

I don’t think my jaw can sag any closer to the floor without falling off. Hell, I kind of wish it would–then I could just give it to them and get some money back.

“I’m not interested,” I manage to say at last. “I’m–holy shit. I’m so not interested.”

And, for the first time, I hear a hint of personality in my loan lady’s voice. It’s sly, and amused, and I don’t like it one bit.

“That’s what they all say,” she tells me. “At first.”

“I’ll call you back once I’ve looked at all my options,” I tell her. I hang up.

For a while I just stand there, phone in hand, looking around my apartment. Dark, this late–I try to save money by only turning on one light at a time. Blank walls, unmade futon, empty mac n’ cheese boxes lined up like dead soldiers on the kitchen counter. The steady drip-drip-drip, from the bathroom, of a leak maintenance hasn’t been by to fix for two months. I hear money in that drip. With every liquid splatter against the sink, I hear a penny clinking, never to be seen or heard from again.

I sigh.

I open up my laptop.

*****

A few week later, I wake up in my own bathtub, surrounded by ice. Someone has placed a Sandy March Loan Company bathrobe on the toilet seat for me, next to a chocolate bar and a big glass of water. And, of course, a stack of papers. Seems like there’s always a stack of papers.

I can feel the stitches, like burrowing worms, in my abdomen. The ice has a pink tinge to it, a strange antiseptic smell–when I breathe the smell in I’m reminded of the medical personnel who filed in here a few hours ago, green scrubs bearing the Sandy March logo, full of smiles and good cheer and reassurances.

“You’re doing a great thing,” the doctor tells me. “Thanks to you, some kid’ll have kidney function for the first time in years. He’ll have a future away from hospitals, dialysis machines, doctors. He can go to college like a normal person. Now just sign here. And here. And here.”

Going to college, I want to tell him, is what got me into this mess. But I sign all the papers, I shake their hands.

What else can I do?

What other choice do I have?

“Enjoy your year of forbearance,” the doctor tells me, smiling. He slides the IV needle into my arm and there’s a little pinch, a few moments of waiting, and then–

–well. Then, I’m here. Strangely peaceful, lying in my tub of ice.

And the worst part about it is, the doctors were right. It doesn’t hurt so much, and I don’t feel any different.

And I’ve still got most of my liver, a lung, and a kidney to spare.

Fright Week Flash Fiction III: The Chair

Definitely Not Dave, my magician manperson, wanted me to write one of these about a massage chair. So I did.

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THE CHAIR

The kiosk is disgusting, a deserted island of cracked leather chairs in the middle of the empty mall. On a folding chair, an old man–from somewhere in Southeast Asia, or maybe Mexico, hell if I know–sits snoozing, a paperback book loose in his lap. Lucky for me, I don’t need him: though I have to say, it might be worth a complaint to whoever management is. You put your money straight into the chair here, but still. Attendants should attend you. It’s what they’re paid for.

The sign by the old man reads ASSAGE. There’s a slightly cleaner patch of sign backing where the M once rested. I read the sign’s smaller letters, scrawled in Sharpie:

5 MIN=5 DOLLAR
10 MIN= 10 DOLLAR
30 MIN= 20 DOLLAR SPECIAL PRICE

I plunk my purse down by a chair and try out the surface with a tentative palm. It’s springy, and maybe I’m crazy but I could almost imagine I feel a little vibration in there already.

Lana from HR said I need to try it. She said I looked tired. I don’t know why the hell that’s okay now, telling another woman she looks tired–and Lana’s not the one to talk. She hasn’t gotten her hair done in months, and last time I saw her her panty hose had runs in them. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking to Lana in HR. Maybe I should be talking to HR about Lana. She’s a blight on the office environment. Not me. I just work hard.

But I took a long lunch today anyway. And I don’t have time for a real massage, but the mall’s right across from the office, and this, maybe…

Lana recommended the stupid chairs herself. And it’s so cheap! she said. And that giggle. That stupid airhead giggle. I don’t care about cheap. Doesn’t she know that?

I take off my jacket, fold it over my purse where it’ll maybe keep it hidden from purse-snatchers. Mall like this, you never know who’s around.

I sit down in the chair. I slide my money in–ten dollars. I don’t have all day. 

I close my eyes and lean back. It’s the funniest massage chair I’ve ever sat in, but it’s soothing–a faint prickling pounding, like millions of little pistons are wearing themselves out against my back. I should’ve brought some disinfectant with me. Woken up the Chinese guy, asked him for a towel. Who knows who sat in this thing before me? Some fat old housewife, probably. A hoarder, out at midday, puttering around the mall. Ugh. I don’t want the shit from some filthy house all over my skirt.

But I can’t help it. I press myself deeper into the chair. The feeling–it’s an interesting feeling. I like it. I wish it was just a little bit stronger, but there are no adjustment controls on the chair–no space-age technology, this.

I press in deeper. Christ. It’s almost working. I can almost feel the knots in my back releasing. Whoever designed this thing was an evil genius–I’m going to put another ten dollars in, I can tell it already. Maybe there’s a market for this, a product that almost works. Something people have to buy over and over again. Like cigarettes, but without all the bad PR.

I press. I can feel the cheap crappy leather against my hose, my skirt, my nice new work shirt. Probably going to wrinkle. I don’t care. I want more.

I press in as hard as I can, clutching the tattered chair arms and forcing myself backwards. That feeling, Jesus. It’s almost working, almost perfect. Like an itch you can’t quite reach.

Something in the chair shifts, and I feel an opening, slotlike, where the back of the chair joins the seat. Whatever. Come on. Just give me a massage. A real massage. Come on, chair.

The opening widens, and there are sudden needles of pain along my back. I don’t have much time to feel it before the opening gets wide, wide, wider than it should be, wider than it can be.

I see something on my way in.

Teeth?

*****

Out in the deserted shopping mall, in a lonely kiosk filled with shabby leather chairs, a sound rings out.

It’s a single burp. Low, sinister. Satisfied.

The man on the folding chair drops his book, jumps. He looks at the chair for a few seconds, stands up, stretches.

“Are you happy now?” he asks it. “Did Lana send us a good one?”

The chair burps again. A tiny bit of blood, fresh red, seeps out between the backing and the seat.

“Eh,” the old man says. “You fatty.” He chuckles.

He takes a towel from his pocket, wipes the blood away. He picks up the purse and the jacket, balls them up with the towel. He throws the whole mess in the trash, and returns to his book.

Fright Week Flash Fiction II: Prince of Darkness

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Original image by jason aaberg, on freeimages.com.

PRINCE OF DARKNESS

“Very well,” Satan says, flipping the final page of the contract and neatening the stack. “All seems to be in order. It’s an unusual request, writing up your own deal, but I can’t say I see anything in here I’m unsatisfied with.” He winks one blood-red eye. “After a few aeons of torment, I might consider asking you to work for me. It’s getting harder and harder to find good lawyers in Hell these days.”

“So you’re satisfied with all the terms and conditions?” I ask. I wipe the sweat from my palms off on the sides of my suit jacket.

“Sure, sure. It’s the standard deal, ain’t it? My power and wealth and fame, your soul. Pfah. You people are never original.” He looks down at the stack again. Maybe I’m imagining it, but there’s almost a hint of sadness in his big red face. “Just once,” he says, “I’d like someone to sell their soul for a loved one’s life. Or the ability to cure cancer, ebola, AIDS. But I guess that kind doesn’t come to me.”

There’s no mistaking the sadness now. “They never come to me.”

I haven’t been dealing with Satan very long–just the same old contract, as he’d say–but he’s not what you’d expect. He’s getting old, I guess. Weary. The Light-bringer, remembering the color of sky. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard him wish for love in the world, health, kindness.

It makes me a little uncomfortable, to be honest. You should know where you stand, with Satan. You should be terrified, grovelling, subservient. A guy like me should maybe be a little opportunistic.

But sorry for him? Never.

I clear my throat. “I’ll go ahead and sign now, shall I?”

“Sure. Sure.” Satan produces a wickedly serrated fountain pen from the depths of his own coat pocket. “You know the deal. Sign in blood, forfeit your soul, et cetera. Then I sign. I’ll send you a hellhound or something. We’ll keep in touch.”

I take the pen in hand, run the nib over my finger. The blood wells up, dark and deep.

I do the deed.

There’s nothing. No feeling, no fear, no crackle of hellfire, no demonic cacophany.

Nothing.

Satan takes the pen after me, changes the nib with all the persnickety care of an old woman. Blood is, as I’ve come to understand it, very important in the legal proceedings of Hell–should he use the same nib as me, should a trace of my blood wind up in his signature, his power over me is lessened.

Guess it’s good he’s still careful about some things.

He signs the same way he’s signed all my friends’ contracts: a simple red X, smoking and bubbling with all the foulness of the demon blood that created it. He looks down at the X for a long time, and perhaps this is how I’ll remember him: the great red body stuffed into a suit that doesn’t quite fit it, black hair combed back, cuffs damp with yesterday’s blood. A used car salesman in Hell. A has-been, focused on the past.

Which is why I’m here, to be honest.

“Lucifer,” I say, almost gently. “Satan. Buddy. Do you realize what you’ve done yet?”

It’s at the sound of his own name–Lucifer–that the knowledge comes into his eyes. “I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” he murmurs. “And, now that you mention it–I didn’t see it anywhere on that contract.”

“Nope.” I can’t keep from grinning any longer. Hell–if you tricked Satan, would you? “I just made a totally legally binding deal with the Prince of Darkness. My soul for neverending power–same old deal, Luke, you always make. There’s just one little catch.”

The flames flicker across the blade of my new-drawn knife, send lines of pulsing orange neon dancing down it. I look Satan in the eyes. There’s fear there, surprise, and maybe–just maybe–a little bit of relief.

Simp. Stupid simp.

“The Prince,” I whisper, “doesn’t have to be you. It might as well be me.”

He carves up beautifully, like a big red Thanksgiving turkey. You’d think there would be more fight in him, but I guess sometimes folks just know when it’s time to exit stage left. It’s been time for him for a while.

I should feel remorse, staring at the gobbets of unresisting red meat steaming in front of me. I don’t. I feel like a stranger, looking out across the surface of Mars. I feel like a warrior, bathed in the blood of my enemies.

I feel like the Prince of Darkness.

I feel fine. Just fine, just fine, just fine.

I pick up my contract. I tear it in two.

FRIGHT WEEK!

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Lovely original image by jaime cooper, on freeimages.com.

Okay, I have a real post coming up for you, but I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction lately and I have a project to tell you about. And I am JUST. SO. EXCITED. And full of coffee. AND EXCITED.

Anyway.

This is like my favorite time of year ever. Working retail has effectively ruined Christmas for me, and has also effectively meant I rarely get home for Thanksgiving. My birthday is boring, and I’m not religious, so Easter doesn’t mean much. Valentine’s Day is overhyped.

So that leaves me with Halloween. Which is all right, because I can’t think of a holiday more meant to fit me–we can wear a lot of black, talk about serial killers, and not pretend to be thankful for things? ALL RIGHT. That’s like the best holiday an Emily could ask for. AND I get to dress up like a zombie? Megasweet.

AND I GET CANDY?

You’re fucking kidding me!

Anyway, with that said:

I’m going to do something a little different this year, and celebrate this lovely holiday with SEVEN DAYS OF FLASH FICTION. Yes. For the week leading up to Halloween (starting tomorrow, 10.24), I’ll post a mini horror story (1,000 words or less) with fun overfiltered horrorshow graphics ONCE A DAY. (Isn’t that font just full of camp?) Why, you ask? What good can this possibly do?

Probably none. But it’ll be fun.

An advanced warning, just in case you don’t usually follow this blog and don’t know me: none of these stories will be appropriate for little ones. Unless, of course, you take a laissez-faire view of parenting, and your bitty monsters have already seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or heard you drop the f-bomb in traffic. In which case, bring ’em on. 

We’ll see how I do. I don’t usually write a lot of horror, so this might be pretty terrible. But that’s what this blog is here for, right? Experiments. On you, my captive audience. Muahaha.

Political Notes From the South

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Political Notes from the South

Usually, I try to avoid talking about current events on this blog. They don’t have much of a place here, it only starts a lot of unpleasant arguing, and, frankly, most of them are painted in such lurid colors across the media canvas I hardly feel the need to add my own voice into the mix.

But I DO have something to say about all this Confederate Flag nonsense.

Let me start off with a little autobiography. I’m a woman, twenty seven years old. I have traveled north of the Mason-Dixon line twice in my life, and I’ve spent a total of three days–THREE days out of the roughly 9,500 I’ve been alive–outside the South. I haven’t received an especially rigorous education. My family isn’t especially progressive, or especially regressive. Nobody’s a flaming racist (well, nobody much, and certainly not me). I’ve lived a fairly normal life, for someone south of the Mason-Dixon.

I–and most of the people I know down here–think flying the Confederate Flag is pretty dumb.

I do NOT think the Confederate Flag stands for bravery, or loyalty, or anything much except a war that should’ve been over 150 years ago, and has been romanticized, perfumed, and anointed far beyond its use except as a lesson in history books, drowsed over by kids more interested in what they’re having for lunch than class content.

I do think people (individuals, please read) have the right to FLY the Confederate flag outside their own homes. I think it’s a pointless and moronic thing to do, and, yes, a racist thing to do as well. However, letting your freak flag fly is a right protected by the first amendment, as is my right to tell you you’re a moron.

But that’s all whatever. Because, in spite of some of the alarmist stuff I’ve been seeing, I don’t think anyone much is interested in repealing your first amendment rights and ‘banning’ the Confederate flag. Stores have taken it off their shelves? Well, tough, that’s their right. And what goes up in front of government buildings is a matter for the government to decide, and has no bearing on the first amendment. God, people, get it together. Not everything you dislike is an attempt to take away your freedom.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. All that shit’s been said to death, and I’m tired of all of it.

What I’m here to say–PLEASE stop assuming this nasty mess gives you the right to blanket-refer to an entire region of the country as rednecks, hillbillies, hicks, morons, undereducated, etc.

Please, Jesus.

I don’t give a shit about my ‘heritage’ as a Southerner. But that’s not what you’re attacking, when you say ‘all Southerners this’ and ‘Southerners that’–when you say those things, you’re attacking me, as a person who happens through pure accident of birth to live in the South.

I’ve seen plenty of questionably-spelled post-vomit coming from our nothern states. Plenty of racism, plenty of ugliness, plenty of stupid. I wouldn’t say you assholes up there are, en masse, any smarter than us assholes down here.

No, none of your rejects are clinging to a Confederate flag. Of course they aren’t–you guys won that war, remember? This does not, however, mean your rejects are all shining examples of human equality and compassion. They just don’t have a handy banner to unite behind for the Great Moron Crusade that is our current century.

So yeah. Flying the Confederate flag is dumb. I’m not arguing with you here. Hell, I’ll join you in calling the people who do it idiots.

However.

We’re not all racist morons. We’re not all undereducated, ignorant, inbred, potbellied, alcoholic, all those other fun labels your blowhards have been flinging like poo-laden orangutans all over the internet. As someone who’s pretty proud of her brain, seeing this blanketing happen just makes me grit my teeth.

So please. Please. Don’t lump all of us in with those flag-waving dickheads. All right? Can you do that for me?

Otherwise, I want you to take that piece of lox slathered bagel you’ve been munching and blow it out your Yankee ass.

Got it? See how not fun that is? How totally not cool? I feel a little bad for saying those things, even as an example.

However.

Call me ignorant one more time. I fucking dare you. But if you do it, here’s the deal–any arguing we do in the comments thread will be conducted in sonnet form. Petrarchan, because I hate you and want you to think better. If you get me mad enough, we’ll move to sestinas. FULL sestinas.

The first person to break meter probably fucks his own sister in the mud patch outside his doublewide. I mean, obviously. You’re from whatever arbitrary place in the world you’re from, so that’s what you’re about, right?

Writing: My Process

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WRITING WEDNESDAY: MY PROCESSES THAT AREN’T POOPING

WARNING: This post is more fun process-related ramble than educational, or even really about outlining. But I never tell you guys stuff about me, so here goes.

I would like to take this moment, random internet viewers, and lie to you.

I would like to tell you I wake up at five in the morning, so I have a few hours to drink coffee and let my day begin before work. I’d like to tell you I’m typing this in some super-fancy writing room (we’ll call it ‘The Solar’,) in a lovely Frank Lloyd Wrightesque split-level somewhere picturesquely deep in the woods.

I’d like to lie and tell you I’m wearing a smoking jacket and a fez, I have my life in order, and most of all, I would like to lie and tell you I use outlines.

However, none of this is true. I’m wearing a work dress and shoes that are, even by my approximation, shitty (and they’ve been broken down and shitty for two years). I am literally typing this up with tablet on knee during an hour-long inter-city bus ride into Raleigh. And I have never–never in my LIFE–seen any point to a fucking outline. Outlines are the devil. Outlines are a plague worse than diphtheria, malaria, and typhoid combined into one Victorian heart-of-darkness-style masterfuck.

Some people disagree. Some people–probably people who make dinner at night instead of throwing up their hands and going ‘eat whatever we have’–like them, even need them, to write a good story. And that’s all well and good. Different strokes and whatnot. I’m not saying everybody functions like I do.

However, in high school, I was that kid who groaned whenever I saw I needed to write an outline for a paper. I would do it–for the graaades, honey–not even save it, and never look at it again. Because it was a useless piece of paper.

Because I pants harder than Wrangler Jeans. (More on this subject can be found here).

I wanted to take a moment and discuss why it is this works for me, and why I believe in pantsing as opposed to the traditional outline-and-elaborate method. There are, as best as I’ve been able to figure out, two main reasons this works for me. And they are:

1) I am Pygmalion, and my characters are like hideous Galateas..

I approach writing more as a sort of sculpting than a linear a to b style undertaking. I slosh down my first draft with all the abandon of a frat boy at an end of year kegger. I get it done, more or less. I get the plot hashed out as best I can. And then, when I have the tangle of words that serves in this extended Pygmalion metaphor as rough rock, I start chipping away.

Because a story, I feel, is a thing best approached from both ends. When I’ve already written my ending, I have an idea of where I want the beginning to go, and how to flesh it out so it goes there better. I’ve a rough idea of all the little things that are going to make my Galatea lovely, and once I have the whole body of work to move over I can pay them proper attention.

When you employ this method, there are reasons for you to stop and think, even in the creation of your rough draft roughage. And outline, on the other hand, lulls you into the mistaken idea that you’ve already figured it out pretty well (you haven’t) and you know exactly what needs to happen (you don’t). It gives your characters a little room to take on life–I’ve had moments where my characters, instead of doing what I’d like them to do, what would make the plot turn out how I want it to turn out, decide to go do something completely crazy.

If you think this is pointless romanticizing of the writing process, you’ve not been writing for very long. It doesn’t happen because omg mysterious creative juices or anything: it happens because, whether you realize it or not, something you have planned for your plot doesn’t jibe with the way you’re writing your characters. I had this problem in Aurian and Jin, when Jin’s leaving Dern Darien for the last battle with the Bonemaker–in my first draft (and in my head) she let Aurian go along with her, and it just never worked, because Jin’s high-powered controlling ass wouldn’t do that.

It took me about three weeks to realize exactly what was wrong, and I was glad I did. Because it’s an important developmental moment for both Jin and Aurian (spoiler warning!)–Jin needs to learn that needing people doesn’t involve yeast and a floured surface, and Aurian’s passive ass needs to learn that he can be needed, and that Jin can be wrong. Without that developmental milestone, both characters would be flatter, and the climactic scene, where Jin and Aurian kill the Bonemaker together, would lack the emotional resonance of two people, one entirely too independent and one entirely too dependent, creating an equalized unified front.

Had I used an outline, I might never have caught that. Because, instead of writing the story to fit the characters, I would have written the characters to fit the story–which, if you want great characters, is a cardinal sin.

To generalize: pantsing lets your creation magnifique take on a life of its own. And that’s what you want in a story, isn’t it? Life.

2) I spend a lot of time thinking about this shit anyway.

When I say I don’t do an outline, that may not be entirely true. No, I never write it down. No, it isn’t color coded and appended like my grocery lists (I’ll say this for me, I write a helluva grocery list).

But when I’m doing something mentally non-taxing, like cooking dinner or cleaning the house or taking a nice long walk, I let my mind wander. And it wanders, invariably, to whatever I’m writing (a sign, probably, that I don’t have a very interesting life). And I think through these things. I picture my characters, picture what they’d be doing right now, what they wear, who would play Jin in the move (I’m feeling Tilda Swinton, but I think she’s too pretty). I visualize my scenes in living color, pick out scene music.

This might sound a little woo woo New Age write-and-do-yoga to you, and it probably is. But I’ve found light motion helps me think–even restless pacing, if I’m stuck in the house. This might be because I’m tie-me-to-a-jungle-gym levels of ADD. Or it might be because I’m overall a visual sort of person, and seeing the words on the page actually blocks me up a little bit.

In fact, the only thing that helps me with a big block is time to sit back and mull it over. Some people call this writer’s block–unfairly, I think (I’ll do a blog soon on why, precisely, I think the idea of writer’s block is stupid). You’re still performing the writing process, you just aren’t writing any words down. And, just like ninety percent of what you know about your world never makes it to your manuscript, ninety percent of your writing-thoughts never get written down.

This doesn’t make them any less important or useful. It just means they weren’t the best ideas.

If you have the sort of shaggy, visually-focused thought processes I have, an outline quickly starts looking more like a football play would look if Wilkie Collins vomited laudanum all over it. Not a terribly useful document for anybody, even the person who wrotedrew it. So you might as well cut that step out, right? Because The Moonstone, that’s why.

Anyway. This isn’t one of those posts where I give you good advice, or try and tell you what to do. This is just a little glimpse into my process, if there is indeed a process. I don’t need a lot of prewriting, fancy writing tools, etc., and I certainly don’t need Scrivener. What I need, for the most part, is a little bit of time and a repetitive task. And then, at some point, word processing.

Happy Wednesday.

Writing: The Production End of Your Business Plan

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WRITING: Writing as a Business

So, obviously, I don’t have enough to do today. You’re getting two blogs, you KNOW I don’t have enough to do today.
As a result of my laziness, I’ve been online googling and Pintresting things related to writing as a business. My sales are down, I’ve got a mini-launch coming up. I need to be thinking more about the business side of things.

I’m not the best person at businessing (yes, I just turned that noun STRAIGHT UP into a verb), but I try. When I DON’T sell, I generally know why–I’m not putting enough effort into advertising my wares. I can say this, of course, until I’m purple, but the fact remains: I have a full time job, a long transit time. I have people in my life who want to see me periodically. And…

And.

I HAVE SHIT TO WRITE.

The reason this is in all caps is simple. Paging through suggested business plans for indie authors, I saw a lot of what you’d expect–use social media x number of times daily, make  number of public appearances, set advertising budgets and goals, take the business side of this seriously, save your goddamn receipts. All the stuff you’d expect. And, then, some stuff you wouldn’t: spend a few minutes each day clearing off your desk. Give thanks to the Lord for your successes every night. Once, memorably: don’t forget about your family.

All right, that’s all well and good. Very thoughtful. But there is one thing–ONE THING–almost every single one of the ‘plans’ I checked out neglected.

Can you guess what it is? I bet you can.

It’s the production plan. You know, your manufacturing end of the business spectrum. You know. WRITING.

Not a SINGLE ONE of these plans (and I looked at five or six before throwing up my hands) allotted time, or even SUGGESTED time, for WRITING A BOOK.

Once I realized, I was horrified. Have we gotten so involved in social media, patting ourselves on the back and looking like internet-educated professionals, that we’ve forgotten how important it is to ACTUALLY WRITE A BOOK?

Don’t get me wrong. If you want to sell copies, you absolutely DO need to treat your writing endeavor as a business. You need to have selling goals and ideas. You need to advertise. You need to tweet your little heart out.

But before all of that, you need to sit down and write something.

And if you want that thing to sell, you need to not be thinking about how many social media likes you’re going to get, what suit you need to wear to your book signing, whether or not you’ve given thanks for your successes today, whatever. You need to be thinking about your story, your characters. You need to be writing, at least a few words a day. And you need to enjoy it. Because otherwise, why are you doing it? For fame? Gosh, good luck getting famous with a self published novel on the internet. I know, I know, some people have done it, but they’re few and far between.

And their books were good. Because they took the time to make them good.

I promise you, before they started coming up with elite social media strategies, these people wrote. And they enjoyed it. Because they’re writers, and that’s what they do.

A lot of ‘writing as business’ blogs tend to shame writers a little for ‘not treating their writing venture as a business’, and this, frankly, is toxic and unwise, and IMO part of what kills indie quality. It isn’t a damned business. It’s a book. What happens AFTER is the business, and yes it’s part of your business plan, but so’s production. Can you imagine a toothbrush-making company’s business plan without x number of toothbrushes required for success? No? Of course you can’t. Because in order to sell, they need a PRODUCT. So do you.

I’m begging you guys. Don’t lose sight of your writing for the sake of ‘business’. Selling copies is important if you want to make a living, yes–but it’s a means to an end. It comes after the product. And, while it should be respected, your writing deserves the first respect.

Because, as a retail veteran and not as a writer at all, I will tell you–if the product’s no good, or just plain isn’t there, no one will come back for seconds.

So, when you’re coming up with your business plan, please take a few seconds and allot some time to creating the product you plan on selling. Because, if you’re really busy, that’s the thing that should come first. You might want to consider adding a ‘production plan’ section to your business plan, detailing roughly how much and when you need to write to stay on track. You might not stick to it, I know–but this way, at least you’ll know when you haven’t. And just having it in there will remind you, in all of this mess, about what’s really important.

Because you aren’t writing to get famous (and most of us aren’t doing it to pay the bills). You’re writing to write. Because you have to write. Because you’re a writer.

Thanks,
EFR

Writing: Censorship and Clean Reader

The Right Fucking Word: Censorship Edition

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So I’ve been spending my time today reading about this scary new thing invented by a couple in Idaho: a ‘clean reading’ app.

Does this not terrify you?

How the FUCK does this not terrify you?

What this app does, in case you’re too lazy to click on that link there, is find naughty words in a story–‘naughty’ can, apparently, include words such as breast, but would certainly extend to cover all my four letter favorites–and replace them with harmless Wheaties box alternatives, such as ‘chest’ for breast, ‘bottom’ for ass, etc.

Cleaning up the world one naughty utterance at a time, eh? What’s so wrong with that, eh?

Let me recap. This app takes an ALREADY PUBLISHED novel, the written and chosen words of a published author, and REPLACES THEM. With other words. Computer generated (or possibly self-specified) words. That the author didn’t intend, or control, or have anything to do with.

Would it be socially acceptable to walk into an art gallery with a black sharpie and scribble over someone’s painting of a cow because you’re vegetarian?

Would it be socially acceptable to walk into a newspaper office, stop the press, and change a few names around because you don’t agrees with the ‘bias’ in an article?

Would it be socially acceptable to replace the naughty words in a song with…oh, wait. Hang on a second. That’s NOT socially acceptable, but it happens anyway. Not feeling so good about this clean reading thing all of a sudden.

But let me say something. In public–sure. I get not wanting to hang a giant painting of a penis in your gallery window, or play an ‘f-bomb’ littered song on the radio. That’s just public decency, and public decency is important. After all, you have no idea who’s walking by your window, or listening to the radio, and we should all at least have the OPTION of not being exposed to what you call filth and I call fun on a daily basis. Public spaces should be neutralish, so that everyone is comfortable using them–or, well. Comfortable-ish.

However. You have the RIGHT to paint a giant penis, if you so choose. You have the RIGHT to write a song full of fucks. You have the RIGHT to make a sex tape, look at porn all day, wear plaid with chevron and stripes. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you have the right to do whatever the fuck you want, and, as long as all involved parties consent, you even have the right to offer it up to the general public.

Should you choose to do this, your work is copyrighted to you. You can apply for a copyright if you so choose, but you’ve actually, as the creator of the work, got one quite naturally. (This is a helpful website, if you want to know more about copyrights and how they apply). There would be some that argue, in fact, that any modification of an original item (such as, you know, A NOVEL) is a violation of copyright, but since a reader has generally bought a copy of the work from an author and ownership of this ‘copyright’ has thus transferred, it’s hard to argue whether this applies in cases like the clean reading app. I’m rather inclined to think it doesn’t.

However.

When I use the word fuck in a story, there is one word I intend, one word that I feel carries through the precise inflections of what I’m trying to say, one word that, ballerina-like, balances the nuances of my meaning against the broad stage of reader comprehension with indefagitable virtue and extends the sanguine hand of hey-read-this to whomever mayeth pass.

And that word is FUCK.

I don’t like you replacing it with ‘feathers’ or ‘fudge’. I don’t like ‘feathers’. I don’t like ‘fudge’. I’m not a maiden aunt, and I haven’t written my story like a maiden aunt. Do I use it for shock value, to get attention? I don’t think so, but even if I do that’s my right of expression. If you want a story where the characters, tippy-toe balanced on the edge of a cliff, exclaim ‘horsefeathers!’ with pinkies extended, search the china shelf in your grandmother’s tea closet for written literature, and good fucking luck to you.

Because I think ‘horsefeathers!’ RUINS my story. I would cry if I saw it included in my novel. Seriously, cry–because it would make the whole story ridiculous. You would be turning my writing, which I worked very hard on, into a steaming pile of maggoty shitbrick. No, not poobrick. Not doodybrick. SHITBRICK. Say it with me, because that’s how I wrote it and how I want it to stay: SHITBRICK.

And if you’re the sort of person who can’t stand the f-bomb every once in a while, you probably shouldn’t have bought my story. And I’d like to repeat it: you bought it. You had ample option to read the first few pages in sample form on Amazon, in which F Primus appears at least once. And you bought it anyway. Half the reviews call it lewd, raunchy, or mention drinking and cursing. AND YOU BOUGHT IT ANYWAY.

My novel isn’t a dress, to be tailored to your form later.

It isn’t a sneaker. You can’t add laces, swop out the insoles.

It might not seem much like a work of art to you, but it is to me. A lot of time and effort went into placing those fucks, and where they lie so shall they stay.

I’m sure the people who invented this app aren’t bad people. I’m sure they’re not evil fascists, word dictators, what have you. They have a kid, they saw a problem. It’s understandable–though, like I said, it isn’t right.

The thing is–in a book like mine, even if you DID replace all the curses with cute little interjections, it’s STILL not appropriate for children. Given, there’s not a lot of sex in there, and the violence is fairly non-gory, but it’s not a children’s book, and the concepts inside it–which include patricide, rebelling against unjust law, and calculated, cold-blooded murder of innocent people–are not child appropriate to my mind.

Just because ‘patricide’ isn’t a dirty word doesn’t make it a clean concept.

And the idea that someone might one day see my book, go ‘oh! A fantasy novel, my kid loves those.’, run it through the clean reader app, and give it to their six year old is terrifying to me.

Words are just words. They aren’t the heart and soul of a story, but they are the tools with which the heart and soul of a story is expressed. If a story says fuck a lot, it probably isn’t appropriate for your nine year old. Because most people, in writing a book for a nine year old, wouldn’t use the word fuck to begin with.

So trust the writer. Don’t change their language; it’s changing the blocks they’ve built the house of their story from. And changing something from brick to straw, or straw to brick, changes everything about it. A roof made from straw but transformed magically into brick will collapse on your head. A brick house turned into straw might blow away with the wind.

Trust the writer.

If you doubt me, here are some famous works of fiction, censored for your viewing pleasure:

The Golden Bottom (from Apuleius’s THE GOLDEN ASS)
Illegitimately Birthed Person Out of Carolina (Dorothy Allison, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA)
A Season in Heck (Arthur Rimbaud, A SEASON IN HELL)
Poop My Dad Says (SHIT MY DAD SAYS)
and, for fun:
Lady Chatterly’s Significant Other (Lawrence of course. Stuffy, stuffy.)

Changes the meaning in some of them, yes? Especially The Golden Ass, which does not in any way refer to someone’s hindquarters.

And, just for shits n’ giggles, here are some other writers who’ve weighed in on the clean reading app, including Joanne Harris’s beautiful and impassioned first message. I agree with every word they say–especially every word Chuck Wendig says, because most of them are naughty.

Chuck Wendig
Joanne Harris