Category: For Readers (Page 1 of 13)

The Learned Something New Blues

Side note – I’m trying to write more articles for readers (instead of or in addition to helping writers get better at their craft).  Normally, the advice that writers get on “what to blog about” is to write about the same thing that you’re researching for your current works in progress.

Right now, I’m working on a story about a cat who travels dreams.  So what do I write about?  Cats?  Dreams?

I sat down this morning and went, “Well, what do people who read my stories actually find interesting?  They like cats and dreams, sure, but is that what I’m really writing about?  Is those the kinds of articles that I’m passionate about reading?”

Eh…no.

If you look over at my Facebook feed, what you’ll see me reposting are:

  • Posts about people discovering that they were wrong about something.
  • Posts that dig deeper into a commonly held narrative, to find something not commonly repeated.
  • Psychology and mental health stuff.
  • Pop-culture jokes, memes, and puns, but usually the second-generation ones that are a little meta.
  • Gothy art.
  • Snark.

I like the idea of writing about the things I actually like, not the things I research so I can write about the things that I acutally like.  I think I’ll go with that kind of thing as my “for the reader” posts.  It’s an experiment 🙂

Today, I’d like to talk about learning new things.  It’s hard.

I have had this discussion before; often, when I say that “learning new things is hard,” there will be that one person who bravely makes the stand that learning new things is not hard.  That person will often lash out at me personally, either within the same conversation or (and this has happened more than once) on via some other post or even a private message to tell me what a terrible person I am.

There is a psychological term for learning new things being hard; it’s called “cognitive dissonance.”  The definition is actually is that cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two contradictory beliefs, values, or emotions.  But one of those beliefs is held before the other one.  Ergo, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of learning something new.

So, to repeat my previous statement: learning new things is hard.

I don’t believe pretending otherwise makes learning any easier, although doing so literally is one of the techniques for reducing cognitive dissonance: pretending that the new belief doesn’t actually come in conflict with the others you hold.  I have a suspicion that the people who lash out at me for saying “learning new things is hard” are using this technique.  “Learning things is not so hard!  Therefore I don’t have anything to fear!  How dare you tell anyone otherwise!  It’s discouraging!”

Well, okay. That’s one coping technique.

The rest of us cope with the difficulty of learning new things by:

  • Avoiding learning new things.
  • Overestimating how difficult learning new things will be (if something is impossible or takes too long, you don’t even need to try!).
  • Learning new things “at any cost,” and then not being prepared for the actual cost.
  • Start learning the new thing, then quitting as soon as learning triggers difficulty or cognitive dissonance.
  • Becoming angry at the new thing, mocking it, devaluing it, “I didn’t want to do that anyway, it was stupid.”

We have a lot of mental tricks to help us avoid learning anything truly new.

What’s a healthier, more effective way forward?  It’s going to vary from person to person, obviously, but here are some strategies:

  • Set priorities.  How important is learning to you in general?  How important is it to you that particular day?
  • Admit that learning something truly new is hard on every level, and treat yourself as though you are having a bout of physical illness and/or depression.  The mind can get melodramatic about this.
  • Limit your focus to one truly new thing at a time.
  • Accept that other elements of your life that require willpower to accomplish will slide on especially difficult learning days.
  • Acknowledge negative self-talk (“I suck!!!”), and remind yourself that it’s likely part of how hard learning really is.
  • Acknowledge arrogant self-talk (“This is stupid!”), and remind yourself that it’s a defense mechanism against feeling like you suck.
  • Be ready for an especially bad negative reaction on days when you get feedback.  Even positive feedback can be shattering.

Learning something truly new at some level involves changing how we think about ourselves, even changing our identity.  If you take a class on learning how to cook like a chef, for example, there’s part of your brain that goes, “I am supposed to be as good as a professional chef.”  That can be painful on days when you screw up a meal; that can also be painful on days when you make the best meal ever and you’re like, “Why am I not as famous as that one TV Chef?  I’m just as good.  Maybe even better.”  If you are a chef, the mental consequences can be even worse–because it’s your livelihood at stake.

There is some good news, though.  Once your identity has recovered from the hit that learning something new delivers, the learning gets easier.  It’s like taking that chef class and telling yourself, “Okay, at first I sucked at this, but then I got better, and now when I screw up, I know how to fix or disguise that.  I’ll know that I’m not perfect, but nobody else will.”

The best thing, I think, is to identify the way in which the new thing is making you question yourself, and address whether you want to change that about yourself–or not.

Do you really want to be a chef?

Yes?  Okay, then.

No?

Sometimes we start on something new, not knowing that it’s going to take us to a place we don’t actually want to go.  (“I don’t care how much better of a chef it would make me, I just don’t care about food costs.”)

Sometimes we just want to obsess over the easy early part of learning something and move on to the next relatively easy thing–sometimes we just want learning to be easy, a kind of distraction from the real stress of the day.  And that’s fine, too.  As the saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none–but oftentimes better than master of one.”  It’s no bad thing to know how to make homemade mayo, even if you’re never going to be a professional chef.

Sometimes learning gets to be easy and fun.

But other times it’s hard.  New jobs, new tasks, new expectations, new attitudes.  Admitting that you’re struggling won’t defeat you.  But pretending that it’s either always impossible or always easy–that just might.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!

 

 

 

Interview with Jamie Ferguson, author of Bundle Up!

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Welcome to fellow author Jamie Ferguson!  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan RutterJason Dias, MJ Bell, and Shannon Lawrence are also available.

1. First, tell us about bundles and other beasts.  Briefly, what are they, who should buy them, and where can you get them?  Optional: what’s your favorite format?

Until I started writing Bundle Up, I’d never realized how confusing the terminology can be. 🙂 I finally switched to using terms like “multi-author project” in the book to make it clear the concepts could apply to different types of projects.

Some people use “bundle” to apply to any collection of stories or books that are packaged together for sale. I’ve found that while this makes logical sense, it tends to confuse people, so I use “bundle” to refer specifically to collections of ebooks that are created using a bundling website. These sites handle splitting royalties among the participants, and may offer the option to donate a percentage of the proceeds to charity.

Other beasts include anthologies, which are collections of stories packaged together into a single book; magazines, which are similar to anthologies, but may include additional content, like essays; and boxed sets, which are collections of books in either print or ebook format. And there are even more permutations—for example, you could create a bundle of audiobooks, or a bundle of bundles of ebooks.

The three main sites where you can purchase ebook bundles are BundleRabbit, StoryBundle, and Humble Bundle. Bundles created via BundleRabbit may also be available for sale on sites like Amazon. Anything that doesn’t qualify as an ebook bundle can be sold at any retail channel that sells books.

I don’t have a favorite format—I feel that there are situations where each format works well. That said, for collections of short stories, I prefer the anthology format to the bundle format. A bundle of short stories is an ebook that contains other ebooks, so the formatting can vary quite a bit between the items in the collection. An anthology is a single book, so the formatting is consistent across all stories in the collection.

 

2. I’ve worked with you on a bunch of different projects (and, in fact, I did edits on Bundle Up!), and I know that you’re super organized, to the point where it’s almost a minor superpower.  Please gimme a story about how you came to appreciate that about yourself. I’m always interested in how people find their minor superpowers 🙂

My organizational superpower has always been there, so I can’t really remember a time when it wasn’t present. My mom says I made lists even as a small child. 🙂 What isn’t apparent to most people is that I’m super organized in giant swaths, but will ignore other areas if they’re not as important to me at the moment.

For example, once a month or two I’ll have built up a pile of papers and books and random things that eventually gets so high it starts to block my monitor, or I won’t have any room left to put my tea. At this point I “clean my desk,” which usually involves sorting through some things, and moving the rest to a pile elsewhere in my jam-packed office. But the colorful spreadsheets I use to track the writing and publishing projects I work on are very detailed and structured.

It’s kind of like synesthesia. I associate letters and numbers with colors, and didn’t realize until I was well into adulthood that most people don’t do this type of thing because this seems so normal to me that I rarely even think about it.

 

3. Your book is featured in the Nano Writing Tools Bundle aimed at writers doing a project for the National Novel Writing Month.  How did you get involved with that bundle, and has it been a positive experience?

I’d been planning on writing Bundle Up! for a long time, but kept putting it off partly because I felt I didn’t have enough experience, and partly because the idea of writing a non-fiction book was a little frightening. In the summer of 2018, Mark Leslie Lefebvre interviewed me about bundles, curation, and collaboration on his Stark Reflections podcast. I mentioned writing my book during the interview—I figured that by committing to the project in a public forum I’d put pressure on myself to finally start on the project—and my plan worked! I told Chuck Heintzelman, the founder of BundleRabbit, that I’d finally started working on the manuscript. He mentioned it to Kevin J. Anderson, the curator of the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools bundle, and Kevin contacted me and extended an invitation—with the obvious caveat that my book would have to be done.

I was super excited about this opportunity. Not only had I started writing my book, I also had the opportunity to be part of the annual NaNoWriMo bundle! Having a super firm deadline meant I had to buckle down and focus, which I did. I’d probably still be poking at the manuscript if I hadn’t had this opportunity.

In addition to all that, it’s not only been a really fun experience to be a part of this collection, I’m also a fan of the charity we’re working with. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a non-profit education organization founded by the families of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, gets a portion of the proceeds from the NaNoWriMo bundle.

 

4. If a writer wanted to get involved in a bundle, what would be the best way to do that? What would make it worth it for an author to organize a bundle of their own?  

Networking is by far the best way to get involved in a bundle or any other kind of multi-author project. It’s not the only way, of course. You can submit a story in response to an anthology call, put your ebook up in BundleRabbit’s Marketplace, etc. But if you connect with other authors, they’ll be more likely to invite you to participate in a project.

There are a lot of things to take into consideration if you’re interested in organizing a collection. Most people just decide to do it and jump right in, which is exactly how I ended up curating my first collection a few years ago. 🙂 But I know several authors who organized one collection and then swore they’d never do it again, and there are several main reasons why. There’s a lot of cat herding involved—as the curator, you need to make sure the authors sign the contract, get their stories/ebooks in on time, give you biographies, and so on. You also need to plan on doing a fair amount of promotion, and/or rely on the authors to help out—but not all authors understand how to do this. One of the most common complaints I hear from curators is that they expected the authors to pitch in more on the marketing side.

 

5. If you had one tip for authors on how to make the impact of the bundles (and anthologies) they’re in more effective, what would it be?  

I’m going to cheat and give two tips, since I consider them both important. 🙂

The first is to figure out what you can do—and are willing to do—to promote the collection, and do it! Ideally, think this through ahead of time so that you can schedule time to write promotional posts, put together marketing images, and so on.

The second is to collaborate on promotion. I’ve found collaboration with other authors to be a huge benefit of multi-author collections. Not only can this help promote the collection, by working on marketing with other authors, you’re also promoting each other.

 

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint: the additional promo question.)

Be creative! 🙂

One of the sections in my book is called Think Outside the Boxed Set. It contains examples of less common ways to use story/book collections, like creating a collective of authors who share tasks related to a series of collections. (Examples of this particular approach include the Uncollected Anthology, which I joined in 2018, and Boundary Shock Quarterly, a speculative fiction magazine created by Blaze Ward.) There are always more ways of doing things! Don’t allow yourself to be constrained by what you’ve seen others do—give yourself the freedom to think of new ideas, and try them out!

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 16: Structure, Part 4

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scenes vs. Summaries

Beginning writers are told to show, not tell.

But intermediate writers start to learn that show and tell are both necessary, and in fact aren’t exactly opposites.  The two techniques can, and often must, coexist if you’re going to get a story told.

I find it a lot more useful to ask not whether to show or tell, but whether something should be a scene (with a beginning, middle, and ending structure and acted out more or less in real time) or a summary (which is not acted out in real time, but summed up to condense the story).

In general, events should be spelled out when the content is used to increase the tension of the story.  Events should be summarized when the content is used to anchor the world of the story (this includes the characters’ backstories or explanations of the situation in general, not just the literal world of the story).

Scenes increase tension in fiction.

Summaries provide context.

Let’s use a hypothetical section of backstory as example.  You’re writing a story in which you need to reveal to the reader an important event that occurred in the past–in this case, let’s say the main character’s father drowned in a boating accident.

In most cases, the backstory will simply serve to provide context to the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and should be summarized.

In some cases, however, the backstory will increase the tension of the scene.  Let’s say that you want to provide clues to the reader that the father wasn’t just drowned but that he was murdered, but that the main character hasn’t really put the pieces together yet.

You would write out the backstory as a scene so you can a) set up the clues, and b) increase tension.  The reader might not pick up consciously on the clues, but they will still feel the increase in tension, and associate it with that scene–they will know, at least subconsciously, that there was something important about that scene.

If you write out every event in a story as a scene, every event will serve to increase tension, no matter how minor.  There’s a famous film director who tends to do that; it’s Michael Bay.*  So unless you’re writing over-the-top thrillers, you may want to include some summary in your work.

We’ve already talked about how to write scenes; let’s take a moment to talk about how to write summaries.

Writing Summaries

The key to writing a good summary is focus on the style of how it’s told–not the content.  There, I said it!  Sometimes in writing, you have to value style over substance, and this is one of those instances.

The tension in a scene, where a character tries and fails to do something, is what drives a scene forward.  It is what, in general, drives a story’s plot forward.  So without an increase level of tension, what’s left to hold the reader’s attention? What makes a series of events inherently interesting to read, if the reader already knows that the conflict being described has already been resolved?

First, let’s look at a famous summary:

All right, all right, let’s see, she was inna water, the eel is comin’ after her, she was frightened, the eel started to charge her, and then–

I’m back to The Princess Bride, of course.  This is the scene when Buttercup is in the water as the Shrieking Eel is about to eat her, after the Grandson has interrupted the Grandpa and made him lose his place.  He’s skimming through the text, summarizing out loud.

The funny part isn’t that the eel is or is not about to eat Buttercup; it’s that the quick summary is told in the Grandpa’s voice, briefly breaking the immersion of the story.

Another one:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled–but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

This one is the opening paragraph of “The Cask of Amontillado,” of which I have also made frequent mention.

A lot of openings of scenes are, themselves, summary.  Before the main action of the scene starts, there is often either a) a description of the setting and/or characters, or b) a description of the situation/problem…presented in the form of summary.

The beginning of a scene should not, by itself, increase tension.  That’s the task of the middle of the scene.  Summary and/or description are used to set the scene and give context.

So what goes into a summary, if it has no inherent drama?

  • The deep perspective of the POV character or narrator.
  • Some information that adds context to the rest of the story.

That information can be as simple as “Time passed in traveling from one place to another” or as involved as Stephen King explaining what’s been going on with Edgar Freemantle at the beginning of Duma Key.

Sometimes the information in a summary is provided after it’s relevant.  Normally this is a mistake.  Readers get upset about finding things out after they need to know.  One sentence too late is still a screwup; nobody liked being made to feel ignorant and stupid.

However, if there are two ways something can be interpreted, then it’s usually better to set up the simpler, more obvious explanation before the event, and the deeper, more complex explanation afterwards.

For example, in The Princess Bride, we learn that Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts before we meet the Man in Black, and that Westley replaced him, after.  The information that Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts cannot be revealed until after the reader has a chance to look at the actor and go, “Wait…that dude sure looks like the farm boy.”  You have to give the reader a chance to guess; and, if they don’t, a chance to be surprised.

What does that have to do with summary?

Summary is for context, right?  We don’t need a whole scene of the Dread Pirate Roberts on the high seas.  Instead we get the following:

Westley didn’t reach his destination.  His ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never left captives alive. When Buttercup got the news that Westley was murdered–

“Murdered by pirates is good,” the Grandson interrupted.

–she went into her room and shut the door.  For days she neither slept nor ate.

“I will never love again,” said she.

We won’t find out the truth until Westley is rolling down the hill and he shouts, “As…you…wish…” And we don’t find out about it as a summary, but as part of a scene.

The information before the Westley reveal is given in summary; the information afterward, in scene.  I would say that that’s a good way to do it–but it will depend on your story.  If you were working on a mystery or suspense story, you might provide the initial information in a scene, then let the detective sum up the truth at the end of the story.

Sometimes you want a plot twist that shouts; other times, you want a plot twist that whispers, for greater impact:

Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

That’s the end of “The Cask of Amontillado.”  The line For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them is pure summary–and redefines everything that went before it from the possibility of just being a cruel joke to the definition of revenge itself.

Scene vs. Summary Redux

I like to think of scene and summary as inhalation and exhalation, wax on and wax off, rise and set.  One of the techniques increases tension; the other doesn’t release the tension but provides a moment of calm that interrupts and defines it.

Some stories are going to need more summary than others; a thriller should have less summary, scattered lightly; an epic fantasy is probably going to have more summary, laid on with a trowel.  How much context do you need?  Do the characters live in the moment, or do they constantly consider the past and how they got where they are today?

A story with too little summary can feel like an onslaught of events with no meaning; a story with too much summary can feel like it moves at a crawl–because tension is not increasing on a regular basis, merely being maintained at a status quo.

One of the best ways to get a feel for this is (surprise surprise) to type in the work of an author that “feels” about right for pacing, and finding how much summary is actually included in the work, and where it’s tucked in.  Is it in big chunks at the start of a scene?  Is it scattered throughout?  When a character mentions something that POV character already knows but the reader doesn’t, does the POV character make an aside to the reader?  Is backstory spelled out in scenes?  Are the clues of a mystery located in scene or summary?

I can’t answer those questions for you: each writer handles them differently, and has different techniques.  I suggest taking a closer look at your favorite writers and how they handle their choices of scene vs. summary.

You have a lot more options than “show, don’t tell.”

Next time, let’s talk about what order to tell things in, and why.  Why Pulp Fiction?  Why Memento?  Should the reader know more about what’s going on than the character does?  And how can you set that up?

 

*Check out this video and its second half to see an interesting essay about Michael Bay’s style, both good and bad.

Free book and other curiosities here.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 31

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Parents

PROSPERITY GOSPEL

Where was it said, where was it written, that one had to send one’s children away?  To schools, to colleges, to lives and jobs of their own?  It was an uncomfortable situation altogether.  Their children would insist upon making fools of themselves.  They took up basket-weaving and learning about, well, not very nice people, as if that were something that one could make a living at.  They were impressionable.  They could not think for themselves, a condition which they had demonstrated time and time again, and their parents should know; they had raised them.  Had they not taught their children to respect themselves?  They had.  So why these grand yet disgusting gestures of independence?  It was just being stubborn.  They could not stand to be proven to be wrong.

Could they not be trusted to select friends for themselves?  Could they not date someone nice?  Could they not get married, have children, buy a house within walking distance, keep up a yard?  Why were all the good things that they had been taught cast aside?

To be fair, well, there was nothing to be fair about.  They did not come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Their phone calls became increasingly separated by time and distance.  One could see them, mucking about on social media, having lives that they had no business living, pretending to enjoy themselves, not listening.

They were sharp and rude and didn’t understand that their parents were only trying to help; or they were soft and gelatinous, hard to pin down; or they simply pretended to ignore half the things one said, things that had been said to them when they were younger didn’t they understand that they had to grow up? What was all this about tattoos?  Why not stop drinking expensive coffees out of those foolish porcelain travel mugs?  Why not use the machine that they had bought for them, the one that takes the little plastic coffee packets, you can make anything that way? And no one didn’t need to know about their…their significant whatevers, that filth, in our day we wouldn’t have come within fifty feet of those pieces of trash,

Baby murderers! Burn the illegals! Burn the gays! Burn them all!

And then their parents left the house, they were seen in RVs, in restaurants, in cars with someone else’s badly-raised children in the streets in front of them, a foot on the accelerator and a bump under the tires, in wheelchairs, in nursing homes, in badly-upkept or luxurious retirement apartments (depending on whether they’d lived virtuous lives earlier on; of course everyone gets what they deserve), finally having grown up enough to leave their children behind and live lives of their own.

…And that’s about as much normal as anyone should have to take.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 30

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  When company shows up

THE GHOST IN THE ROOM

They had all gathered for an event called Friendsgiving.  A Thanksgiving without family, and almost entirely without friends; for the most part, they were friends of friends, or rather strangers, only the most tentative of connections between them:  work, church, a hobbyist group.    Bearing food, they arrived.  Cranberry sauce, scalloped potatoes, dinner rolls, stuffing, green beans, and so on.  The turkey was in the oven, provided by their host.

Surreal and tense after the first introductions, did any of them have anything in common?  They sat at the table and poured each other wine.  Those who did not drink alcohol had sparkling grape juice.  The candles were lit, the host raised his glass to toast: to absent friends, and to new ones.  The toast was repeated.

But not quite everyone who repeated it had good intentions.

One member of the party disliked another.  The second guest had no strong opinion on the first.  The first not only had reason to dislike the second, but had suffered a personal insult at the second guest’s hands.

The disliking guest had taken a glance at the invitation list, noticed the other’s name, and had delayed answering the RSVP almost until the last moment.  Come or don’t come?  Tell the host this other member of the party had done—which was, in that circle, just across the boundary of being unforgivable—and feel the satisfaction of knowing that they had exiled this other person, as it were, from the host’s pleasant society? And yet it would spoil the evening.  Or say nothing, keep the peace, and know that the pleasantry of the evening had been purchased at the price of silence, even complicity?

The first guest, who knew the host well, finally arrived at a solution.

“So I have a question for you all,” the first guest said, after the meal was well underway.  “Who is the ghost in the room?”

The ghost in the room, the ghost in the room.  A puzzled whisper went around the table.

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, it’s just a game.  One of the people in the room is a ghost; the rest of us have to figure out who it is.”

“It’s you!” said one person.

The host announced, “I’ve shaken hands with everyone in the room.”

“Everyone’s been drinking wine and eating, so it’s none of us!  Ghosts can’t eat!”

“No, no, I get it,” said the second guest, jovially, who was a teetotaler.  “The ghost will seem perfectly normal right now, but later on, we’ll look back and realize who it was.  Like ‘Afterward’ by Edith Wharton.  The main character sees a ghost but doesn’t realize that it was a ghost until much later.”

“Yes, like that,” the first person said, grateful that they hadn’t needed to mention the story themselves, but annoyed that, once again, the second guest hadn’t the slightest awareness of the first guest’s antipathy or reason for same, although it had given the first guest an ulcer and repeated nightmares.

“What are the rules?” someone else asked.

The first person said, “That’s the fun of the game, deciding what the rules actually are in the first place.”

“Does it have to be someone actually present?” said the host.  “Or could it be an invisible presence?”

That was voted down.  It had to be someone present.

“Can ghosts eat and drink?  Can they shake hands?” asked the host.  He seemed to be particularly adamant on establishing this point, which was understandable, given that he had shaken everyone’s hand.

“They seem to eat and drink, but it’s only an illusion,” said someone, which suggestion was taken up.  Later on, it was decided, the food would reappear on the ghost’s plate, the wine or juice in their glass.

“Can spirits drink spirits?” was a question received only by eyerolls and laughter.  Ghosts could drink spirits, although they would tend to avoid the appearance of doing so—joked one of the guests—because it would be cannibalism.

“What about handshakes?” the host repeated.

“You can feel a chill when ghosts are present,” said one of the guests, who had always been a bit on the superstitious side.  The motion was carried, however; a ghost might shake a hand, but a ghost’s hands would be inevitably chilled.

Everyone felt their neighbors’ hands.  The host’s hands were warm; likewise those of the guest who had wronged the other.  The superstitious guest’s hands were chilled, and so were those of the guest who had started the game in the first place, the one who had been wronged.  The others were of a moderate temperature.

“We’re down to two candidates,” declared the second guest, and gave their names.

The superstitious guest stated, “Everyone knows that I have a talent for mediumship, that is, contacting the spirits.  It’s the presence of the ghost in the room that makes my hands cold.”

That, too was accepted.

The first guest, the one who had suggested the game, was teased for finally being chosen.  “You didn’t think that we would choose you!  And it was your suggestion!”

The first guest smiled, pulled something out from under their chair, and dropped it on the table.  “Feel this!”

It was felt:  “Oh, it’s cold!” “It’s an ice pack!”  “You’re not the ghost at all! You’re only pretending to be a ghost!” “If it’s not either of you, who is it, then?”

The host and the second guest were searched for heating packs, but nothing was found.  The evening finally devolved into other pursuits. Someone took out a guitar and began singing Christmas carols.  The dishes were done.  People began to excuse themselves—“I have to get up early for Black Friday!” “That only proves you’re not a ghost. Ghosts never go shopping at five a.m.!”

Finally only the host, a clean kitchen, and a glass of wine remained.  “What was that all about, I wonder?” he asked himself.  “And planned it out, too, with the ice pack in their pocket.”

Then he distinctly remembered pouring the second guest’s glass of juice, into which he had emptied his last bottle, and which the second guest had apparently drunk to the dregs.

And yet, at the second guest’s place–the host had picked up the wine glasses from the table himself–there had been a full glass of slightly flat grape juice.

The host wasn’t the only one to have noticed. The rumors went ’round.  And the second guest was never invited to Friendsgiving again.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 29

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Pulling into the driveway after a long trip

DUTIES AND OBLIGATIONS

How many times had she pulled up into the driveway after the trip, arms and legs tingling, tired, the backs of her thighs sweaty and stuck to her jeans, turned off the engine, and listened to the fan blow a few last gulpfuls of air onto the hot engine?  How many times had she offered herself up like this?

She kept the paperwork in the glovebox, in a separate envelope from her registration and insurance so she didn’t accidentally hand it to the cops if she were pulled over: the deal, the bargain, her inheritance.  It was written in words that she couldn’t read but everyone else involved took for granted, liquid words that moved on the page.  The phrase duties and obligations had swum up to her once, and a priori given in perpetuity to.

Home was a word that she had not yet begun to reclaim; according to the contract—although she couldn’t read it, everyone behaved as if this were true—the word didn’t apply to this place in front of her now, the people who lived there, the memories and attachments she had formed with them, the love.

Don’t be so melodramatic! It’s nothing like that.  What are you even talking about? We should get together more.  

None of that mattered.  All that mattered was the car, the road, the ritual, and passing the boundaries–ah yes, to the place where nobody was allowed to have any boundaries–across the dimensions to a place that didn’t really exist.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 28

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Lazy Sunday afternoons

NIGHTS AND HOLIDAYS

Both chapped hands pressed up against the lazy Sunday afternoon like a kid outside a toy shop window, face pressed up against the glass, looking at a big shiny gift box labeled boredom and knowing it will always, always be out of reach.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 27

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Finding money I forgot about

THE COIN

She was vacuuming, and because the cat hair had built up so much around the edge of the room, she pulled out that little tool on the back of the vacuum cleaner, the wand, and stuck the edger attachment on it.  Vrrrup! went the cat hair, which was a gray haze around the edges of the room, even though the cat itself was black.

She looked at the couch and thought, I should do the couch too.

There was a fabric attachment for the vacuum wand, but she didn’t use it, it seemed like it would be breaking the spell that was allowing her to clean, suddenly she would turn into a pumpkin and go back to her normal work-from-home self, only worse, with no deadlines, no money in her savings account, and no health insurance.  Cleaning was better than worrying.  The small attachment seemed to take forever to vacuum the arms, the back, the ruffles along the bottom, the tops of the cushions.

She shoved the cushions onto the floor and flipped them over to vacuum the bottoms.  The tops were getting a bit worn; she should just put the cushions back upside-down. Then she decided to vacuum the crevices, the hidden places of the couch, which they hadn’t bothered to upholster in nice fabric, only a thin cotton sheet that sagged on the bottoms.

A coin lay there.  She picked it up, carried it over to the kitchen counter, and put it down with a clunk.  The coin was dull gray, very heavy, heavier than the genuine silver dollar she still had in her flat under-the-bed box of mementos.  It was more like putting down a paperweight than it was like putting down a coin.

The vacuum cleaner was still running.  She walked over to it, picked up the wand, and began to run the tip over the sheer under-couch fabric.

There was another coin, right where the first had been.  It must have slid down.

She picked it up, carried it over to the counter, and laid it beside the first.  Where the first should have been, that was.  There was no other coin.

Where had it gone?

She picked it up, turned it on its edge, and tapped it against the counter.  The vacuum cleaner was still running.  She looked over to the couch, still holding the coin. There was no coin on the fabric; she must be getting paranoid.

She put the coin in her pocket and picked up the wand.  She ran the tip over the fabric.  A few seconds later, a coin slid out of the crevice along the back of the couch and came to a stop where the first coin had been.

She reached into her pocket, which still felt heavy.  But the coin was gone. Aha.

The vacuum cleaner was still running.

She picked up the coin again.  It wasn’t a quarter, it wasn’t a half-dollar, it wasn’t a silver dollar.  She wasn’t even sure it was made of metal.  The flat gray surface didn’t look like, not quite like, silver or nickel or even pot metal, like the cheap dangly earrings she used to buy as a teenager.  The face on the front wasn’t recognizable.  It was a woman’s face.  The letters themselves were familiar, but the language wasn’t; she couldn’t read a word of it, front or back.  The obverse held a picture of a monument, or a temple, at which some other people came to worship.

She held the coin in her left hand while she reached for the wand with her right.  She watched the coin, not the wand.  She really kept her eye on it.  As she vacuumed, the coin turned hot in her hand, so hot that she dropped it.

Before it could hit the floor, it vanished.  And reappeared, sliding out of the back of the couch crevice, sliding neatly into place.

What if she just left it there?  The thought rankled.  She might be able to look it up and sell it on Ebay, no matter where it was from, make a few extra bucks until she got her next client.  But, on the other hand, she could just leave the coin there, turn off the vacuum, and be done with it.  She imagined herself suddenly trapped in a loop: the vacuum running continuously, the coin appearing and disappearing, and each time the woman’s expressionless face looking off to her left, as though she were watching something just around the corner, something terrible, just out of sight.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 26

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  The window seat

THE WINDOW SEAT

“Travel makes you a better person,” she would say.  Well, it was one of those things, how she was raised, she was an advocate for travel the way some people are advocates for homeopathy or wearable magnets.  Travel was improving; certainly it had improved her.  She was mad for it.  She loved the locals, she loved picking up culture, she loved being able to walk away from the insanity of the Western world and bury herself in Thailand or Japan or Nepal, she got her best work done when she was a stranger, when she lived out of a suitcase, when the monsoons cut her off from everything around her, even the sky.

She moved about once every two years, then every year.  Sometimes the restlessness struck her like a sacrament after only a day or two.  Humanity slipped around her, something glimpsed as she looked out the window seat, flickering past.  She held her seat-mate’s chicken; she comforted a small child as its mother went to the bathroom on a trans-Atlantic jet.  She went “home” to visit, but inevitably left again:  too expensive, too many friends, too many interruptions!

She had always been safe wherever she went; she liked to think of it as being due to her friendly nature and generosity.  And so it came as a shock when half a dozen wide-eyed men took her, blindfolded her, and tortured her in a house made of corrugated steel, mud, and blue plastic tarp with pieces of wire that weren’t strong enough not to bend as they jabbed them under her fingernails, into her ears.  Who are you?  Are you a demon?  Tell us the truth! Is it true that you’re making everyone sick?  They had been warned about her, it was all superstition, certainly she wasn’t a threat, and there was no mysterious wave of illness following her around the globe, the way they insisted upon accusing her.

But it turned out to be fine.  She just transferred her airline points onto their cell phones, and then they let her go.  They had a good laugh about it over bottles of kombucha, at McDonald’s.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

 

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 25

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Binge-watching Netflix

THE SLOW CREEPING HORROR OF BECOMING YOUR OWN TRUE SELF

It was one of those nights where watching television had become like watching a fishing show, the kind where the angler hisses his line into the water, standing in thigh-high wading boots and wearing a vest with pockets, waits for some undefinable moment, then jerks and starts reeling in a fish that never seems satisfactory for some reason, he just throws it back into the water after a close-up shot of removing the hook from that gasping, air-drowning mouth.

A knock at the door; she hadn’t ordered delivery.

“Who is it?”

“Package.”  She heard footsteps.

Tiptoeing soundlessly to the door, she looked out the peephole and caught the edge of a cardboard box in the hallway, and the last retreating edge of a brown hiking boot.  She took a moment to listen for heavy breathing, then unchained and unbolted the door.  Nobody coming.  The enormous box on the floor was heavy, and she shoved it across the threshold and into her apartment with her feet rather than picking it up.

The box was addressed to her but when she opened it with a flimsy steak knife from the kitchen area, inside were things she hadn’t ordered, would never have ordered.  She checked her bank account and didn’t see any sign that she’d been hacked, so…what? She looked at the packing slip again. The return address was for some marketing company.

Geeky refrigerator magnets (pack of six), a disassembled music box kit, a “critter catcher” for spiders, gummy penises, a Bob Ross mug, oh God, action figures from half a dozen anime shows, a fuzzy blanket with snaps, two inflatable sex dolls that weren’t even, um, human, a bicycle pump (!), an enormous bag full of tiny, multicolored rubber bands, a knife sharpener, a suction-based blackhead remover, a blood pressure monitor, a package of twelve different holiday ribbons, a package of generic “thank you” cards that she actually liked, a sonic toothbrush, a microwave crisper, a poo emoji toilet plunger, homeopathic painkiller oil, a pancake flipper, a reflexology mat, a dash cam, a dead mouse, a furniture fixer for sagging couches and chairs, contouring underwear, teeth whiteners, stamp-on eyebrows, more.

She laughed at them as she took them out of the box—at first.  Later, she forgot how odd it would look during a hookup with her two inflatable, non-human sex dolls on either side of her on the couch, wrapped up in her blanket, sharpening her knives, saying, “I know just what we should watch, this new show about remodeling houses where something goes wrong, like bees in the wall, or black mold, or—” She would bat her eyes seductively and pat the place beside her created when Mario Ponetti had reluctantly scooted over for the evening— “human bones.”

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

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