The Beardly Writer

Some write from the heart. I write from the beard.

Month: November, 2013

What It Takes.

There’s a lot I don’t know.

And I know it.

I made a mistake this week. A boo-boo. A no-no. I compared myself with other writers. I surfed the blogs and found some really funny, interesting, wacky, nuanced, brilliant, mad and otherwise wonderful authors. And a question wormed its way into my brain, made a nest, and had kids: Why can’t I write like that? Am I really that boring? Where did they learn to get so good? Why are there little blue men running in circles around my living room?

My doctor could only answer one of those questions (don’t mix medications), leaving me to find answers to the other three on my own. But I won’t, because they are stupid questions. Stupid and useless. Stupid, useless, and insulting. I’m a writer closer to the beginning of his journey than the end. Why should my work resemble authors who’ve spent years mastering the craft? There’s no reason my writing should be as polished, as perfect, as preternatural as the work of someone with much more experience. Yes, some people come out of the womb as expert word-smiths, or so it seems. Many more of us have to work at it, and work hard. Effort isn’t so bad a thing. A lot can be said for paying your dues, a lot is given back when payment is received. Character. Confidence. Humility. Endurance. What do you get from natural uber-talent? A sense of entitlement and people trying to take advantage of you at a young age. No thanks.

Doesn’t mean it still doesn’t sting, occasionally. Doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes get jealous and fed up with trying and waiting. It does mean I put on my big boy shorts, stop whining, and get back to work. Because there’s a lot I don’t know about writing. But I want to know it. I want to know it all. I want to be able to look back and say I didn’t make any excuses for myself, that I put in the effort and achieved my goal. What is my goal? To be a Writer, dammit. And I know I clarified in my first post that I already am a writer simply because I want to be, but I’m talking about being a WRITER, for real, by career, successful, book signings, my name on book covers and screenplays and movie credits. I am, and will be, a writer. There’s a lot I don’t know. But there’s a lot I do know, too. And everyday I take one thing from the first list and move it to the second. That’s progress. That’s learning. That’s being a writer. Sometimes the thing I take is from another writer. Comparison is inevitable, but I don’t have to invite it into my bed. Compare, then get over it. As long as I learned something of value. Something I can use in my own writing.

So just like I push through the bad writing until I write something good, I’ll push through the insecurities until my work stands on its own merits. I suppose the same could be said for any artistic endeavor. I know I haven’t stumbled upon some great, new revelation, but I think each artist needs to have certain revelations for him/herself. Otherwise we don’t own it. And if I don’t own it, I’m not responsible for it.  But I do, so I am. Now if only I could figure out who’s responsible for sending the little blue men back into my house. I think they’re stealing my snacks. Even the ones I hide on the top shelf. All my fig newtons, gone. And then they put fig newton crumbs in my bed, the little blue buggers… crafty blue devils… quit running in circles… I’m getting dizzy…

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Style

How does a writer find his or her own unique writing style? I’ve mentioned in previous posts my experimentation with style, and even posted the beginning of a short story in which I tried to emulate the writings of Jack Kerouac. But as to my personal writing style, the one all my own, how does it happen? Where does it come from? And why am I so concerned with it?

Once before, when I was seventeen, I tried writing a novel. I didn’t get very far. I had a general story in mind (although I’ve completely forgotten it now), I wrote a rough outline, and even began putting pen to paper. I remember sitting in the summer porch of my parents’ house where the computer was kept and working on the first chapter. I don’t think I got more than a page or two into it because I got hung up on back story. The main character’s girlfriend’s grandfather’s Ford Edsel collection, or some such nonsense. It was important to me to make each character real, to give them a rich, detailed history. It obviously wasn’t too important, though, as I abandoned the work almost before it began. This was before college, before my film and storytelling education really began. I’d taken the odd creative writing course, and even a film critique class in high school, so maybe I picked something up there. Maybe it was due to conditioning, how I was raised. Or maybe, it was in me all along.

I’m not writing what I think people want to read. Singer/songwriter Chris Staples once sang, “I still don’t know what kind of music people really want to hear, but if I did I don’t think I’d want to make that kind of music, anyway.” What would be the point? Money, I guess. And yeah, it’s nice to have money. But as Chris goes on to sing in the same song, “Look at this money I made, just… money.” Speaking personally, money isn’t going to fulfill me. Writing does a lot more for my soul than money, as it should for any serious writer. That being said, it’s still important that at least someone enjoy what I write. I’m an avid reader, again like any serious writer should be, so I’ve been exposed to countless authors and writing styles. And I liked most of them. Why should I think other people won’t like mine, or that mine is so radically different as to have no audience? Those are stupid thoughts, and I need to stop thinking them.

I don’t know about other authors, but I tend to write how I speak. I read somewhere, I think it was in Wired For Story by Lisa Cron (although I could be wrong, my books are all packed in boxes and I can’t verify), that fiction authors should always try to write how they speak as it comes across more naturally. Whether this is good advice or not remains to be seen by me personally: I don’t have any book sales to confirm it. But yes, how I write on this blog is how I speak, when I’m at my best. I admit, however, it is slightly censored to keep a PG rating. But more than just grammar and syntax, the styles of both my speech and my writing come from how I wish to communicate. I hit on this topic, too, in my second post on this blog, Lost in the Preface Forest. To quote myself, “I am compelled to always preface what I want to say with what I feel I must say in order for what I want to say to be properly understood.” This is becoming more and more evident as I write my novel Isolation. I passed the twenty-thousand-word mark yesterday, so I’m approximately a fifth or a sixth of the way finished with the rough draft. A definite style has emerged. I’ve never been too interested in action, but rather with the interior workings of the mind. Which is an odd thing to say for a self-professed screenwriter as they write only action and dialogue. But the trick is a screenplay is to write action that allows the audience entry into the characters’ minds. Now that I’m writing a novel, I feel like a kid in a candy store, or a kid on an enormous playground. The majority of the twenty-thousand words are inside the protagonists head, and the remainder are begrudgingly given to the action. It’s not really stream of consciousness in the way of Joyce, but more a stream of memories, emotions, and experiences all presented to the reader in order to better understand the main character. While writing this first draft, I’m exploring him at the same time you, my readers, are learning about him. I don’t know any more about him than you do. Okay, that’s not entirely true because I know how the story ends. But I’m inventing this little rabbit trails as I go, and I absolutely love it. But my nagging worry is, will anyone else?

Regardless, I have to finish this book. It’s in me, and I need to get it out. Whether or not anyone reads it is less important now than writing it. I am doing this for me. My many thanks to all of you who have come with me so far, and I hope you’ll stay with me, at least through the end of this Isolation journey.

Isolation: Chapter 6

The downside of posting rough draft chapters as I finish them is, the more I write, the more I need to revise previous chapters. It’s not much yet, just little details here and there. But anyone reading along will notice the inconsistencies. Oh well. You’ll all just have to buy the book when it’s finished. Thanks for reading!

Isolation: Chapter 6

Richard felt for a brief moment as if he were hovering in midair. That, or time must have slowed down. It was amazing to him that he could have several thoughts in so short an amount of time, and then to have the self awareness of having those thoughts while still falling was almost enough to make him forget he was falling at all. Almost. But beyond all of that was the most prevailing thought, and the accompanying fright, that someone had been watching him through the window.

He wasn’t sure how he came to be falling. It happened so fast that it escaped his attention, like his first and last visit to a haunted house. It wasn’t a real haunted house, just one of those attractions that spring up in late September every year in preparation for Halloween. He didn’t particular like being scared. When he was very young his father played a practical joke on him. The two were on a father-son day hike in Baxter State Park on their way to see Little Abol Falls. Little more than a creek tumbling over some rocks, it was still impressive to young Richard, being the first waterfall he’d seen in person. On their way back to the car he needed to urinate so his father told him to go off the trail and behind a tree to do his business. After using his stream to knock a few ants off of the tree, he zipped up and went back to the trail. Only his father was gone. Richard’s mind immediately brought forth the stern warning his father gave before they got out of the car to hike the trail. He leaned over from the driver’s seat, leaned in close to Richard’s face and said in as serious a tone as he could:

“Be careful, Dick. There are wild animals in these woods. This isn’t our backyard. These animals don’t want to play with you. They want to eat you. If you give them the chance, they will eat you. Stay by my side and don’t wander off the trail, understand?”

Richard hadn’t wanted to get out of the car after a speech like that. But this was also the first time his father had taken him on a special trip, just the two of them. He loved his father and didn’t want to disappoint him or waste this opportunity. Now he was wishing he’d stayed in the car. He looked up and down the trail but saw no sign of his father. Before he could do anything else he heard a low growl from behind. He froze in fear. Only eight years old and his first time out in nature, Richard was terrified without his father. The growl rose again, this time accompanied by the rustle of brush. The young boy managed to turn around to see what his attacker would be. In his mind he pictured a ferocious bear, fifteen feet tall with twelve-inch claws and teeth and red eyes. A loud growl issued from a nearby bush which shook violently. This was it, Richard knew it. The monster behind the bush jumped up, and Richard’s bowels gave up. He let out a cry that could be heard for miles, a cry that would chill the heart of any parent. Especially the parent that evoked the cry, the one who jumped out from behind the bush as a practical joke on his son. Donald immediately realized he’d been a fool and done a terrible thing and rushed forward to hold and comfort his soiled son. That was their last time in the woods until the family camping trip three years later. For years after, Richard associated the experience of being scared with the emotion of abandonment, and so tried his best to avoid frightening situations. And he was generally successful until he was fifteen when two older cousins, visiting while their parents got a divorce, pestered him into going to a haunted house with them.

The cousins had been to every haunted house in New Jersey and prided themselves on never being scared. Richard didn’t understand the attraction. Why go to a haunted house, a place intended to scare you, if you knew you wouldn’t be scared? He was old enough to understand that some people would do it to impress a date, but his cousins never took girls. They weren’t going in order to impress anybody, just proving over and over to themselves that they weren’t scared a’ nuthin. In a weak moment of trying to fit in, Richard agreed to go to the haunted house nearest his home to show his cousins he could be just as fearless. But once in the car the older cousins, who could drive and shared a car, drove right passed it.

“I think you missed it. It’s back there on the right.”

“That place is for sissies and little girls. You ain’t a little girl, are you Ricky?”

“Shut up, Manney.”

“We’re heading into Portland. We hear there’s a haunted house there that’s so scary it makes kids puke. You ain’t gonna puke, are you Ricky?”

“Shut up, Michael.”

They pulled into the makeshift parking lot of the haunted house. It was built in a farmer’s field just outside of town. Rumor was the farmer did all of the preparation himself. Took him months. Some say most of the year. There was a corn maze and a pumpkin patch for families during the day. But at night, the junior high and high school kids came out in droves to test their nerves against what was billed as the “Scariest Night of Your Life.” The year Richard and his cousins visited was the last year the attraction opened. A few days later a terrible accident took the life of a local teenager and the farmer was blamed. The haunted house wasn’t even a house at all. It was made up of three buildings, each progressively scarier. The first was an old barn, converted and used for the more cliché horrors like jump scares, ghosts on wires, shadow figures, etc. Younger children and their parents had the option of going through this building, so it wasn’t all that frightening. Really it was just to leave the older kids wanting more, so by the time they made it into the next building, a large cattle barn, they’d be easier to scare. Here, the haunts were amped up to include horror movie characters like Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Meyers. Blood, guts and gore filled the stalls. Terrible scenes of car crashes and grisly accidents. People missing legs, arms and heads. Shrieks and screams filled the air. This is where girls jumped and grabbed onto the arms of their dates and the boys had a chance to play protector. But beneath their tough façade, many still felt uneasy. Richard took it all surprisingly well, much better than he suspected. He was nearing the end of the second building having endured only slight trepidation, and a little nausea at all the fake blood, and could see the exit door at the end of a hallway. Just in front of the exit, the hall took a small crook, about twenty inches, so that he’d have to move right to follow the path out. The hall was well lit, and with the door in sight, he let down his guard just as the twenty inches of wall facing him opened and a masked figure sprung out at him. It happened so fast, all he could remember was seeing the door and walking toward it, and then being on the ground staring up at the ceiling. The fall itself held no place in his memory. What he did next surprised even him. He discovered he wasn’t frightened; he was impressed. As his cousins helped him to his feet, he found himself applauding the man who emerged from the wall. The man bowed ever so subtly, stepped back into his hiding place, and closed the trap door. Richard was amazed at what he was feeling. Perhaps there was something to be said about this whole horror business he thought as he exited. What he had forgotten, was there was one final building to traverse: the slaughterhouse.

Richard’s head hit the cabin floor with a solid thonk. Ouch. He rolled over onto his knees and crawled to the hutch, sitting back against it harder than he meant and rattling the cabinet doors. Someone was outside the cabin. Watching him. Brady rushed to his master’s side and licked his face in concern. Richard pushed him aside and leaned forward to look out the window but pulled his head back before he could see anything. He took a deep breath and held it, listening for any sounds outside, but all he heard was his heart beat, pounding in his head. His eyes caught sight of the west window and a cold shiver took hold of his body. I’m too exposed here. Then he realized the door was unlocked. His impulse was to jump up and lock the door, but his body didn’t respond. Move you idiot. He didn’t want to see that face again, didn’t want to be seen by it. Him. Whoever it was. Who was it? Who could it be? Lock the door. Now. Richard’s joints thawed and he crawled to the door. He felt eyes boring into him from the window behind. Reaching for the door his hand trembled. His whole body trembled. The handle clicked as he grasped it. Sshhh. He fastened the lock on the handle and reached higher for the deadbolt. Iron grated against iron as it slid into place. He tried to control his breathing. The cabin felt cramped, alone. A million miles from anywhere. He had to turn around. Turn around. He braced himself against the door and stood to his feet. His legs felt as if they were made of stone and treacle. He suddenly felt he was acting very silly. Acting silly? A man appeared in my window! Had he really? One way to find out. Richard took several large breaths, counted to three and spun around.

All that greeted him through the windows was the forest, brightly lit with morning sun. Well of course he won’t still be there. Go outside. Richard collected his nerves and grabbed the rifle. Making sure it was loaded, he unlocked the door and was about to throw it open boldly but then thought better of it and opened it only a crack. He stuck the rifle barrel out the door first and pushed it open slowly. The duct tape covering the gunshot hole was already peeling back. Should have sprung for the good stuff. For the second time in as many days Richard found himself wielding a gun out of fear and possible self-defense. He was supposed to be the one doling out the scares. It was probably just some hunter or other. What season was it, anyway? Deer? Turkey? He had no idea. He didn’t even know who all this land belonged to, hadn’t bothered to ask Kevin or Cheryl how much of the property around the cabin belonged to them. Maybe it was Richard who trespassed the night before while chasing after Brady, provoking some unknown neighbor to investigate. Maybe he hadn’t seen anyone at all. He had gotten himself pretty worked up over the books. And let’s be honest, it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Shut up. We’re not getting into that now.

Standing on the porch, the rifle lowered at his side, he scanned the forest.

“Hello? Anybody there?”

He felt nervous giving himself away by calling out. The image of the face in the window was already fading, or maybe it was obscure to begin with: its features mercurial and indefinite. Brady jogged passed his master and padded aimlessly around the yard, sniffing here and there. He doesn’t smell anything. Richard didn’t know which was more disconcerting: that a stranger was watching him, or not. The implications of either were more than he wanted to think about. Better at least take a look. Keeping the gun ready at his side he traipsed around the cabin. He looked down at the ground outside the window he saw the face through but couldn’t see any tracks in the grass. But, not being a tracker, he didn’t really know what he was looking for besides obvious footprints. He looked at the window, into the cabin. There really should be curtains on these windows.

“Brady!”

The bloodhound approached his master obediently. Richard pointed at the ground. He needed to know.

“Smell anything, boy?”

Brady sniffed around Richard’s feet and along the edge of the cabin, then sat down and looked up at his master. Nothing. Richard knelt down and scratched Brady’s head. A part of him, he wasn’t sure how large, wanted Brady to catch a scent.

“Good boy, Brady. Good boy.”

Back inside the cabin, Richard locked the door securely. He needed to shrug this off. He had far too much work to do. Thirsty. He remembered the water cooling down in the sink and entered the kitchen. It was warm, and all the floaties had settled to the bottom. Richard lowered his head into the sink, put his lips to the water and drank, slurping great mouthfuls of water. It tasted terrible. He stood up, forcing himself to stop and save some for Brady who was already wagging his tail at his feet. The dog nearly knocked the pot out of Richard’s hand in an attempt to get to the water as he lowered it to the floor. He realized this would be a constant process until he got the gutters cleared and it rained. As soon as Brady finished the water he’d have to refill, boil, and cool more. He began to worry he wouldn’t get any writing done. But he realized he could do something about the flavor.

With the pot cleaned of Brady’s slobber, Richard set it down, full of stagnant water, on the stove top. He added fresh fuel to the fire and stoked it hot again. From the pantry shelves he opened a box of earl grey tea bags and dropped four of them into the water. From his shirt pocket he pulled a handful of fresh pine needles he’d picked up outside and dropped it into the pot, too. He could hardly hope to remove the horrible taste altogether, but maybe he could at least mask it. It couldn’t hurt to try.

With the water on the stove Richard sat again at his typewriter. He stuffed the book and two of the manuscripts back into his satchel. The third he stared at for a moment before picking up. It was the original manuscript for Dead of Night. From its pages protruded countless sticky notes with revisions, notes, and addendums scrawled in chicken scratch. He leafed through its contents, pausing here and there to read or reminisce. Eventually the final page lay open before him, the italicized words

The End

mocking him with their inky-black permanency. A single blank yellow note stuck to the bottom right corner of the page, like an open-ended conversation or an ellipsis. Maybe a teaser of more to come. Richard fiddled with the note absentmindedly and let his eyes drift to the as yet still blank page in the typewriter. More to come indeed. He hadn’t had an original idea in months. It’s in there, in my head. Somewhere. I just need to find it. He decided he couldn’t work just yet. The business with the face in the window, and the water: he needed to get out. To stretch his legs. Back home his daily walks usually did the trick. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work out here.

Richard stood up from the chair with resolution. He would trek out into the woods, Brady at his heels and gun at arm, and explore. He would familiarize himself with his surroundings. It would at least give him room to think, if not also grant him peace of mind. If he found no people or signs of their presence he could more easily shake off the morning’s misfortune. The tea was removed to the sink where Richard filled his water bottle with the hot beverage. It still tasted bad, but not nearly as before. He checked to make sure the rifle was loaded, and put a few extra rounds in his pocket. You never know. He might run across a bear. Maybe he’d shoot himself some dinner. Richard donned his jacket and opened the door, ushering Brady and then himself out. With the door locked and the cabin secure, Richard confidently set off, allowing Brady to lead the way.

Isolation: Chapter 5

I promised last week that I would post a new section from Isolation today. Maybe I shouldn’t have. This last week was crazy and I didn’t have the time I thought I would. Most of that was my fault. But here it is, as promised. More hastily written than I prefer. But again, this is only a first draft I have to keep reminding myself. Here is chapter five, take it as it is.

Chapter 5

Richard’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. It felt swollen and dry. His body wrestled consciousness, craving both more rest and hydration. The need for water tipped the scales and his crusted eyelids peeled back, allowing light to pour into his brain. He raised a hand involuntarily to block the light and sat up in the bed, which creaked like a gaggle of witches being burned at the stake. His throat sympathized, as it too felt on fire. He needed a drink, a big one, and soon. But soon was not in the cards.

He stepped into his khakis and pulled them to his waist, then threw a flannel over his bear arms and chest. Brady padded around the cramped room eager to see what his master would do next. The dog watched intently as Richard first donned socks and then laced up his boots. He then followed Richard out of the cabin and around back to the rain catch. Brady knew very little other than what immediately concerned him, and what concerned him most at the moment was the dryness of his mouth and throat. Beyond that, the actions of his master were disconcerting because he seemed to be getting taller. Brady had momentarily caught a whiff of an interesting scent and followed it for a few yards, but turned back when he heard a loud smack. He walked up to his master who was now several feet higher than Brady was accustomed to him being. The dog sniffed the air for a clue and then realized his master was standing on some sort of thin, cross-hatched wooden structure that hadn’t been standing there moments earlier, but was instead lying down against the building. It didn’t look at all sturdy or safe. He whimpered, hoping his master knew what he was doing.

Richard looked down from the ladder when he heard Brady whimper. The dog looked pitifully up at him, wagging its tail. Richard resumed the short climb and found himself eye-level with the gutter. He planted his feet as firmly as he could on the round ladder run and using both hands began to scoop out the leaves and twigs and dirt that clogged his only source of fresh water.

Fresh water. It occurred to him that, even if he cleared the gutters for the rain catch, he would still have to wait until it rained to collect any drinking water for him or the dog. He descended the ladder, much to Brady’s relief, and stepped round to the chopping block. Dehydration must be clouding his ability to think clearly. He needed to stop and make a plan. Water was priority, and right now his only source was the stagnant water in the catch. It would have to be boiled to make it safe, and that meant getting the wood-burning stove going. He looked at the small stack of dry firewood, grateful to whoever had left it there. He filled his arms with as much as he could carry and brought it into the kitchen.

He hadn’t built a fire in decades, since his family’s one and only camping trip as a child. It had been an ill-fated venture from the start. No one in his immediate family had ever been camping, and it might have stayed that way had Richard’s father not been laid off, putting the family’s annual vacation in peril. Richard’s father, Donald, did his best to disguise his unemployment from his children, leaving the house at the usual time every morning and returning, briefcase in hand, at the end of the day. They couldn’t have known the briefcase was full of job applications and copies of his resume: and a hip flask of brandy. He tried to convince them that a camping trip to Vermont would be a welcome respite from their normal beach holiday in Florida: he fooled no one, least of all himself. But the children sensed something was wrong with their father, so they played along so as not to upset him further. And of course there was their mother, Joan, ever-smiling as if all was right in the world, supporting her humbled yet determined husband. Her assurances to her children that camping as a family would be an adventure to remember got them all excited and eager to blaze the trail. The excitement quickly gave way to resentment and despair. Upon arrival at their campsite, several hours late due to a semi-trailer that had turned over and blocked traffic, they were forced to make camp in near total darkness. Donald was able to wrest the Coleman lamp from the rear of the station wagon to supply at least some light, but when he turned the lamp too bright the neighboring campers complained from the anonymous comfort of their tents and sleeping bags. In the end the tent proved too great an adversary for the novices and they were resigned to spending the first night of their vacation in the car.

The task of building and starting a fire was given to Richard, the eldest son, while Donald would drive to the nearest market for food (a chore that had been waylaid by their late arrival). The only fire-making tools they brought were a single book of paper matches. Donald had naively assumed that, like a hotel, the basics would be provided: and in a way they were. The campsite was in a deeply forested area and campers were permitted to collect dead and fallen wood. Richard had only the neighboring campsites as insight into fire-building. As nonchalantly has an eleven-year-old can manage, he watched as the campers to his right constructed and lit their fire. In his estimation these were seasoned woodland veterans as they had a fire roaring in no time at all. Feeling confident, he advanced into the woods for fuel, kindling, and a tinder bundle; words he overheard from his new fire tutors. His plan was simple: first he would stuff his pant pockets with material for the tinder bundle then he would load up his arms with sticks and branches. The plan very abruptly hit a snag as he realized he didn’t know what tinder was. He wished his father hadn’t sprung the camping trip idea on the family with such short notice. There hadn’t been time for him to visit the library and read up on camping and hiking. He even knew the exact place on the shelf to find several books by experienced hiker Eric Ryback he wanted to read, and this would have been the perfect opportunity. Instead he was stuck in the woods with little knowledge and no experience. Richard’s feet never stopped moving while he looked for tinder and bemoaned his predicament. Before long they carried him out of earshot of his family, and his mind having been occupied, he failed to pay attention to his direction. What is tinder? Was it the definite name of what he was looking for, or an item of a general category like the two other items on his list, kindling and fuel? If the latter, he could surmise that since fuel is large pieces of wood, and kindling is small twigs and sticks, that tinder might be smaller yet. Maybe what he was looking for was something that would light quickly and easily, allowing the larger elements to catch fire in turn. Dry leaves crunched under his feet. Perhaps that would do. He scooped up a handful, but they crumpled to dust in his grip. That’s no good. He looked up and spotted, not very far away, the unmistakable sight of a paper birch tree. He couldn’t believe his luck! Just weeks ago he had read about this very tree in a nature guide. He remembered he spent the rest of the day after having read the book searching his neighborhood for this very tree. The idea of a tree producing paper of its own, instead of having to be felled and milled fascinated his young mind. He raced toward the tree and ripped off every loose bit of bark he could reach and stuffed his pockets full. Satisfied, he turned around to start gathering the rest of the materials, when it hit him that he couldn’t see the camp. The forest looked the same in every direction. The calm mind that allowed him to discern the nature of tinder moments before became clouded by panic. He was lost.

Richard shook his head and began loading the stove with wood. He removed from his pocket a magnesium stick and shaved off a small amount into the stove atop of small collection of twigs and a few scraps of his typing paper. Using the edge of the mag stick and his knife he threw sparks onto the magnesium and coaxed the fire into life. He made sure to visit the library before this trip.

Taking the one pot he brought with him he went back to the ladder and propped it up next to the rain catch. He looked again at the stagnant, filthy water. It needed boiled and filtered. He pulled a bandana from his back pocket and tied it over top of the pot before lowering it into the dark water. Once full he climbed down and returned to the kitchen. With no idea how long it would take the water to boil, Richard sat down at his typewriter. From out of the duffel bag he pulled a permanent marker and a picture calendar, still in shrink wrap. Its subject: twelve beautiful and panoramic views of the Cascade Mountains, the very mountains Richard now inhabited. He peeled back the plastic and flipped to October, featuring a majestic picture of Mount Rainier. Uncapping the marker he blacked out every date except the week of the twelfth through the eighteenth, then crossed out Sunday the twelfth.

“Six days.”

He glanced at the typewriter and the blank page it held. Would it be enough time? Was he just fooling himself? He reached into his pocket for one of the nails he removed from the shutters. Using the crowbar, he drove the nail into the wall near the front door and hung the calendar on it. Six days. Don’t screw it up. Just then he heard the water boiling over and rushed into the kitchen. He moved the pot to the sink to let it cool down. Fanning away the steam he looked into the water and saw minimal particulate, but even despite his thirst he wasn’t excited to drink it. I’ll let Brady have the first drink. He left the water to cool and returned to his typewriter.

Where to begin? Where had he begun? He didn’t want to rely on what he’d used before. Where had it gotten him? A cabin in the middle of nowhere and a dehydration headache. He needed a new strategy, a new plan of attack. He looked at the blank page. It needed words. A title. A title would be a good place to start. Something from which to write, or a rallying point around which to write. Something to keep him focused. He needed to stay focused. Six days. Less than a week. So much was riding on this. He had everything invested in this last effort. Don’t say last. This isn’t the last. It’s the first of many. The third of many. The third of possibly many. The third of three, maybe. A trilogy. His trilogy of failures. They say things come in threes, right? Maybe that’s how it works. Maybe he needed one more failure before he earned a string of successes. But there wasn’t time. There isn’t time! Focus. A title. What makes for a good title? It will take more than a clever title to make it to Oliver’s desk. Don’t you think I know that? So what makes a good title? It has to be sexy, right? That’s what they want nowadays. Sex. Or violence. Sexy violence. Violent sexiness. Something evocative. Or something so banal it becomes evocative. It. The Thing. Those aren’t titles, they’re syllables. But they worked. Because they had good stories. The title can come later. He needed a good story.

The white paper stared blankly at him. Richard delved back into the duffel bag and pulled out an accordion folder. He unwound the red string and reached in, pulling out three thick manuscripts and a book and dropped them on the table. The book was a hardcover, “Dead of Night” by Richard Reynolds. He flipped the book over and read the back cover review excerpts.

“Outstanding! Reynolds delivers thrills and chills in this one-of-a-kind horror experience. Not to be missed!”
Oscar De Cordova, Chicago Sun-Times

“Reynolds explodes on the scene with Dead of Night, a twisted tale of murder, betrayal, and terror that will haunt you for days. This may be the author’s first book, but he wastes no time establishing himself as a master of his genre.”
Miriam Briggs, San Francisco Chronicle

“Very few books have ever given me nightmares. Dead of Night is one of them. I can think of no higher praise for a horror novel than that it continues to deliver the frights even after the story is over.”
Charles McDonald, New York Times

Richard puffed up while reading the accolades for what must of have been the thousandth time. This was years ago, but he still loved seeing his name in print. He turned the book over again and looked at his name below the title. Dead of Night by Richard Reynolds. It just looked… right. His name looked and sounded like it belonged on the cover of books. It was his destiny to be a writer. A successful writer. Except that he didn’t believe in destiny. He believed in hard work, determination, and perseverance. And opportunity. To be successful, you needed to be an opportunist. Richard believed this week was an opportunity, one he wouldn’t let slip away.

He dropped the book and picked up the two manuscripts, the first titled “Altar Dwelling,” and the second “Fangs of Bavaria,” both by Richard Reynolds. Stuck between their pages were letters from his publisher, Kingston Wright Publishers. His lower lip stiffened as he pulled the letters free. He didn’t need to read them again, he’d memorized them. Words and phrases from their pages spun around his head like a child’s mobile: “does not meet publisher’s standards,” “we have decided to pass,” “overly indulgent,” “confused narrative,” “insipid,” “least frightening horror story,” “devoid of scares,” “rejected,” “Rejected,” “REJECTED.”

Richard slammed the manuscripts to the floor and spun around in his seat. Ignorant bastards! His last two manuscripts were every bit as good as Dead of Night. Every bit as good. He emptied himself into those books, quit his job to devote all his time to writing. All the money he’d made for his publisher and this was how they treated him? That damned two book contract. He should never have signed it. Sixteen years he slaved in that office, yes sir, no sir, staff meetings, business meetings, cash flow statements, five different bosses giving him five contradicting orders. Then finally his big break, his way out. The very first publisher he approached practically leapt out of their chairs to offer him a contract. He was told it would be a long, hard push to get published. But not for him. Not for Richard Reynolds. The moment he signed his name on the dotted line he called his office and gave his notice. He daydreamed about creative and dramatic ways to quit, like the “who’s coming with me” scene from Jerry McGuire. He wanted so bad to piss off at least one person, especially Todd Barnes, boss number two. The guy’s tie was always, always crooked. And a mouth breather. Every time he exhaled it sounded like the sigh of a teenager who just got dumped by his girlfriend who was way out of his league to begin with and so there’s no chance he’ll ever date anyone even half as beautiful as her again. But despite fancying himself a writer, all Richard could come up with to get back at Barnes was to put something in his coffee, and even then he couldn’t decide what and eventually his two weeks were up and he was carrying his things out of the office for good.

Kingston Wright Publishers was just about through with him. It had been four years since Dead of Night, and Richard hadn’t brought them a publishable book since. At first they did their best to be sympathetic. The man lost his wife, they reminded themselves. Doesn’t matter how, divorce or death; when a man loses his wife it’s bound to set him back. And it wasn’t necessarily the time. An author could take any number of years to finish a book, and longer for a great book. Kingston Wright Publishers knew this and believed in giving their authors the space and time they needed. But Richard, he approached them only nine months after Dead of Night was published and presented them with a new manuscript. Hang onto it for now, they told him. Give it some time. Take another vacation. But he was persistent and refused to leave until they accepted it. The next editorial meeting was not a comfortable one for new assistant editor Kevin Breckinridge, who was given the task of taking the manuscript home and evaluating it. He appeared at the meeting visibly agitated, and with a crooked tie.

“Breckinridge. You were given the new Reynolds book, right? What was it called… alter, uh alter something…?

“Uh, yes. Al-Altar Dwelling. With an A.”

“Huh?”

“An A. Altar. Altar with um, a uh, an A. Altar Dwelling.”

“Yes. Right. And your thoughts?”

“Yeah. This is the same Richard Reynolds, author of Dead of Night? New York Times Bestseller, sold over one million copies?”

“Casey, is that, uh… Yes. That’s him. More of the same, we hope.”

“Well… Well I, I suppose there would be two ways of looking at it.”

“Yes?”

“In the first scenario, I have no idea what I’m doing and I couldn’t recognize good writing if it jumped up and bit me in the ass.”

“And the second?”

“Mr. Reynolds wrote the first book through divine inspiration. Because based on what I read over the weekend, well, it may just be the worst thing I’ve ever read.”

Of course Richard wasn’t privy to that conversation. Much like his high school teachers, the Kingston Wright publishers spared him a talk he really shouldn’t have been spared. Instead they chose to ignore his calls for a few weeks, and then suggested once again he take a vacation, an extended one, and get back with them in a few months time. They knew what he was capable of. Dead of Night was one of their best selling books ever, and they wanted more. Richard wanted more than anything to be a success, to be considered a great writer. In his life he’d been a good CPA. Very dependable, so serious errors. But no matter how good a CPA, they aren’t remembered. Great authors, they were remembered. Richard leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He had this week to prove he belonged in their number. That he, too, was a great author. He knew it in his bones. He inhaled again and relaxed his body. He needed to think positive. He took this opportunity to come to the mountains, to get away and write. To prove he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder. He was as determined as he’d ever been. He would write a new novel. And he would take it to those pompous buffoons at Kingston Wright, slap a new manuscript down on their desk, and just walk away and wait for the phone call he knew would come. Richard smiled to himself and opened his eyes, only to see a face staring back at him through the window.