News and updates about Gordon's fiction, available at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, courtesy of Oghma Creative Media.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Shadowboxing (an excerpt)

Zach Davidson is an average seventeen year old -- decent student, athlete, lots of friends. Until the day when he's in the locker room after track practice, and his teammate Andy Traylen tells Zach that he can read Zach's mind.

This event starts Zach and Andy into an increasingly intense and disturbing relationship. Finally Zach realizes that he's losing everything -- his privacy, his friends, his girlfriend, his status in school, and perhaps even his mind. But by the time he decides that he has no option but to sever the connection between his mind and Andy's, it may be too late to stop it.

Shadowboxing is a frightening view into the mind of someone who is not certain he is sane.  It is available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.



In the following excerpt, Zach has realized that there might be a useful side of being in contact with Andy's mind; and he is (for the moment) trying to strengthen their link.

************************

I couldn't sleep that evening.  Part of the problem was the weather; it was the first really hot day we'd had that year, the kind of sweltering, humid, still air we usually don't see in upstate New York until August.  I was lying spreadeagled on my bed, stripped down to boxers, trying not to think about how uncomfortable I was; and my mind kept returning to what Andy had said.

The skeptical part of me figured it wouldn't work in any case.  So far, I hadn't been able to sustain any kind of contact with Andy for more than a few seconds.  Andy had been more successful, I suppose,  but even so, what we'd done seemed pretty far away from the kind of intense communication you'd need to be able to actually communicate information.

But why not? I thought.  You get better at running from practicing.  Why would this be any different?  So I decided to try.  I figured, I'm not sleeping anyway, I'm just lying in bed doing nothing but sweating, so what the hell?  I had done it once, even if it was just for a few seconds.

I was guessing that Andy was also at home.  He didn't seem to have much of a social life.  I closed my eyes, trying to see what he was seeing.

I felt like I was in a tunnel looking for an exit; or in a darkened room looking for a window.  I was padding barefoot around my own brain, feeling here and there, probing, looking for something that wasn't my own thought.  There was nothing there but darkness and my own brain.

I lay there for probably fifteen minutes, encountering nothing but the inside of my own skull, when I had a strange sensation; I distinctly felt fingers slide their way through my hair.

I sat bolt upright, and my eyes snapped open.  And how do I describe this?  The only way I can say it is that my other eyes snapped open, too.  The lights in my room were off, so all I saw was darkness and shadow; but I knew it was two layers of darkness.  I was seeing two things at once.

Then I felt tentative fingers moving in my mind; Andy was aware of me.  I could sense his fear; a tremor rippled through my body, and I knew it was him shuddering.

My eyes narrowed to a slit; I saw light, bright light, even though my room was still dark.  I forced my eyes to open, and saw a sweeping vision of the four walls of a room -- pictures on the walls, a desk, a dark window, a rumpled bed.  I felt like I was on a carnival ride -- the sensation of the world turning without my body moving at all was something like motion sickness.  I lay back down, fighting nausea.

There was no other sound than crickets and the occasional car on our street; my parents were both in bed, my little brother long asleep.  I could still see, as if through a dark fog, the walls of Andy's room.

That's when I heard the voice; a single word.  My name.  I immediately knew it was Andy, calling me,  but there was something so bloodless about the quality of the voice that it didn't sound human.  The voice had no breath, no warmth.  It sounded like someone had struck a bell inside my skull, and the bell had spoken my name.

It spoke again.  Just my name, no more.

I tried to respond, but couldn't.  I mouthed Andy's name; I tried just to say the word "yes," but none of it projected.  I felt like a passive receiver, like a television set capturing the signal from Andy's thoughts and turning it into pictures and sounds.

Another bloodless, breathless voice in my head, a phrase this time:  Turn the lights on.

I got up, sweat streaming down my chest and back, my knees wobbly, and flipped the light switch.  I caught sight of myself in the mirror on my wall; I was pale beneath the beginnings of a summer tan, my eyes wide and frightened.

I could still see, superimposed on the familiar walls of my own room, a ghost room; transparent images of other furniture, other colors and shapes.  I stood, hand still on the light switch, not knowing what to do.  A feeling of horror, that felt like it came from the pit of my belly, rose up in me: Break this connection.  Do it now, before it's too late.  But I was physically frozen to the spot.  All the energy seemed drained from my body.  And I had no idea how to break the link in any case.

The bell sounded in my skull again.  Open a book.  Any book.

Like a sleepwalker, I stumbled over to my desk.  Macbeth lay face down on the desk top, where I had left it after another unsuccessful visit to the Scottish moors.  I turned it over, and my eyes traced their way over the words:

Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,' the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast...

I felt a hand, that was not my hand, moving, for a moment.  The ghost images seemed to shift and melt.  The connection was breaking up; it felt as if we were linked by an elastic band, and the band was stretched to the verge of snapping.   I looked back down at the page in Macbeth, and the words seemed to shimmer.

I felt the link give, and the ghost images collapsed and vanished.  There was a recoil I felt in the pit of my stomach.  I only just made it to the bathroom before the vomiting began.


The next day, Andy came up to me in the hall.  He looked pale and drawn; I probably didn't look much better.  He slipped off his pack, unzipped it, and reached into the pocket, and drew out a ragged piece of paper.

There, written in pencil in a shaky hand were the words:

Methought I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more!'

I closed my eyes for a moment, as the clamor of the school halls rose and fell around me.  I tried to think of something to say to him, but nothing seemed adequate to respond to that scrap of paper in Andy's thin right hand.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Opening statements

There's a unique art to writing a really snappy opening line.

I don't think that it's a make-or-break affair; that honor falls to the first ten pages, in my opinion.  I'm not an especially impatient reader, who expects sword fights, car crashes, or sex scenes in the first chapter, but I will say that if you haven't grabbed me in some fashion by page ten, it probably won't happen.

That said, I do really appreciate a memorable first line.  I'm not entirely certain what it is that distinguishes a first-class start from a more mundane one.  Something about unexpected wording, a particularly piquant turn of phrase, a sentence that makes your ears perk up and leaves you saying, "wow, that wasn't what I expected."

As a brief aside, I think this is why I love Chris van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.  In this one-of-a-kind book, van Allsburg gives an illustration and a single line from fourteen (imaginary) novels, which were left at a publisher's office by the enigmatic Harris Burdick.  Burdick never returned, leaving the editor with fourteen mysteries -- what were the stories that went along with the lines and the illustrations?  (One particularly memorable example; a drawing of a girl and a boy, done in van Allsburg's inimitably beautiful style, standing next to a lake.  The name of the story is "A Strange Day in July."  The line from the story:  "He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.")  I don't overstate my case by saying that every writer should own this wonderful, mysterious, fascinating book.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to pick out five of my favorite opening lines.  These are ones that grabbed me instantly, the first time I opened the books, and stand out to me still as some of the catchiest beginnings ever.  I'll be interested to see if you agree, and if you have some of your favorites you'd like to add.

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."  -- C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

"The Morris dance is common to all inhabited worlds in the multiverse."  -- Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

"There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood."  -- Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison

"My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o'clock p.m. on 27 December 1958, at which time I was ten years and seven months old."  -- Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

"The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted."  -- Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

And it may seem completely self-serving to do so, but I have to include my favorite first line I've ever written.  It's from my novel Periphery:  "Really, the whole thing started because of Marie-Solange Guidry's cheesecake."  I remember writing that, and then sitting back and indulging in an entirely gratifying moment of "hell, yeah, that's good."

An opening line isn't everything; there has to be a good story to follow.  And of course, plenty of awesome stories have unremarkable first lines.  But crafting a sizzling opening pitch is not a bad thing for a writer to aim for.  Knowing the way that brilliant first lines have stood out in my memory, some of them for many years, makes me all the more cognizant of how powerful a lure that can be to draw readers into the world of your story.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Musings on the origins of creativity

I've been asked a number of times where I get my story ideas from.  Given that most of my writing is about the paranormal, speculations vary from my being a closet Believer (I'm not) to my having been dropped on my head as an infant (I wasn't).

The fact is, for most of what I write, I really am at a loss to explain where the idea originated.  There are a couple of exceptions, of course.  My novel Adam's Fall was inspired by the (true) story of Kaspar Hauser, the German "mystery child" of the early 1800s whose strange appearance, and even more peculiar murder, are still being discussed today.  My current work-in-progress finds its origins in the urban legend called Slender Man (if you don't know about this creepy cryptid, you can read my blog post on the subject here).

But most of the rest of 'em came from who-knows-where.  Often, it starts with an image; usually a single, powerful visual image, which I then dream up a story to explain.  For example, my short story "Retrograde" began one evening with my suddenly visualizing a young woman standing behind a counter in a deli, who sees a total stranger walk in and begins to cry.  My novel The Hand of the Hunter came from picturing a woman with a flashlight, searching in an abandoned house at night.  Periphery started with someone seeing a little scaly monster out of the corner of her eye -- and the monster turns out to be a tree branch.

None of this, of course, is any closer to explaining where the ideas actually come from.  When writing is going well, it often feels like I'm channeling something; that the ideas are coming from outside.  Now, mind you, I don't think this is really what's happening.  It's just what it seems like.  Moreover, when that doesn't occur, my writing seems to take twice as long and comes out half as good.

I find creativity a peculiar thing.  The idea that somehow, I am able to take my experiences, thoughts, and feelings, and without any particular conscious volition distill those into a single image, and then use that to develop a story, seems a little like alchemy to me.  Perhaps this is why outlining, or using storyboards, has never really worked for me -- my best writing seems to happen fluidly, and to take me in directions I never expected.  As an example of this latter phenomenon, in my novel Convection, the character of the convenience store clerk Jennie Trahan started out as a minor player, a snarky and saracastic foil for the point-of-view character's steadfast compassion.  Jennie, however, didn't see things that way.  The only way I can explain it is that about a third of the way through, Jennie wasn't satisfied with her part and decided to write herself a starring role.  And I let her.  Perhaps because of this, I've been told that she is one of the best-drawn characters I've ever written.

I've talked with some fellow writers about this phenomenon, and it seems that I'm not the only one who has had this sort of thing happen.  None of this, of course, explains what is actually going on in the brain, or identifies where these ideas are really coming from.  It does, however, point to a common experience amongst writers of fiction, and that by itself is pretty fascinating.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Behind the Frame (an excerpt)

Christopher McIntyre, Kit to his family and friends, was an average seventeen-year-old. He lived in Issaquah, Washington with his mother and younger sister, and until one summer morning, the only unusual thing about him was that he was prone to having extremely vivid dreams. Then he paid a visit to his neighbor, the celebrated author Philip Amirault, and found himself pulled into an alternate United States -- one in which his family, friends, and school, and, in fact, his entire home town, do not exist.

Kit's arrival in the small Adirondack village of Finn Hill launches him on an adventure in which he has to figure out not only how to survive, but how to get back home before his presence tears apart Finn Hill itself. Because when Kit jumped from Philip Amirault's apartment in a town in Washington to a wooded hillside in Upstate New York, he seems to have brought something else along with him -- something that may ultimately destroy both worlds.

Behind the Frame is a young-adult novel of the paranormal, but ultimately is more than that -- it is about the value of taking a risk, even if that risk places you in danger of losing your life, to protect the people you love.

It is available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.



The following scene occurs in the first chapter, and begins with Kit's arrival in Philip Amirault's apartment.

******************

The door opened.  Just a crack at first, and then wider.

"Kit, yes, come in," said a voice, and the door opened, although it was still impossible to see the voice's owner.  Kit walked in without hesitation, and the door shut behind him.

Kit turned to look at his friend.  Philip Amirault was one of the ugliest men Kit had ever seen -- short, fat, with a great quantity of straggling gray hair on his face and very little on top of his head.  He had a large mole on the side of his nose, and one eye turned in slightly -- this latter characteristic had the unsettling effect of making it nearly impossible to figure out whom Philip was looking at.  Philip's grin, certainly meant to be welcoming, revealed a row of yellowed, horsey teeth.  You'd never guess, thought Kit, that this man wrote a book that had spent fourteen weeks on the bestseller list.

"You're late," Philip said, still grinning.

"Sorry.  My fault.  I wasn't watching the time."

"That was the right answer," said Philip, with a casual motion of one hand, and turned and made his way into his apartment.

In terms of floor plan, Philip's apartment was a carbon copy of Kit's; but it would have taken someone with incredible powers of observation to draw that conclusion.  Philip's apartment was a continual source of fascination for Kit, and (though Kit did not know this), he was one of the very few people who had ever seen the inside of it.  The windows were all but blocked by thick tapestries, which Philip claimed kept the cold out.  ("If it was good enough for Charlemagne, it's plenty good enough for me," he had once told Kit.)  The result was that the apartment looked like a disorderly attic -- clutter, dust, and little light.  Thousands of books -- everything from The Decameron to Stephen King -- lined bookshelves, and lay tumbled on floor, table, and chairs.  A moth-eaten stuffed coyote sat at attention by the front door, casting its dusty glass gaze on any newcomers.  A huge Ugandan tribal drum occupied the same corner of the apartment where, one floor up, the McIntyres' stereo dwelt.  The walls were hung with various objets d'art, most of them African or Native American, although some were simply weird -- such as a necklace of galvanized wingnuts carefully wound into a piece of jute twine, which hung on a nail next to the kitchen light switch.  Kit had once asked Philip where he had gotten that, and what it was for.  "Heck if I know," Philip had responded.  "If I ever need to know, I suppose I'll remember."

Kit had spent many hours in this apartment, conversing with the old man.  The ritual was set; they first shared a cup of tea -- never plain tea, of course, always some sort of herbal tea that Philip had concocted himself.  Some of the herbs he used Kit knew well enough -- catnip, lemon balm, spearmint -- his mother had grown them in their vegetable garden when he was little, before his parents split.  Others were strange, with wonderful and mysterious names: wood betony, pennyroyal, angelica, fenugreek, elecampane.  The last was administered when Kit came for a visit while suffering from a cold, and was docilely consumed, even though Kit later reported to his sister that it had tasted like stewed horse crap.  He did admit that it had helped his sneezing and coughing, but afterwards he carefully avoided visits when he was ill.

Today it was chamomile tea, which was sweet and fruity and altogether pleasant.  They drank their tea in silence, and Kit waited for Philip to bring up the subject of why he had been invited.  The old man had to do things in his own time.

Philip drained his cup with a noisy slurp and sat back, looking at Kit with one dark, intelligent eye; the other seemed to gaze over Kit's right shoulder.  "I want your opinion on something," he said, with no preamble at all.

Kit did not respond, but waited for his host to complete his thought.

"Some years ago I made an acquisition which I never have attempted to test thoroughly or explain.  As you know, I tend to be rather skeptical of claims of the paranormal, and other such hocus-pocus."  He stood up, left the kitchen, and returned a moment later with a long, rectangular black box of considerable age.  He dropped into his chair with a grunt, and continued.  "Bought these in a second-hand book store in San Antonio, Texas, three years ago.  Was there for an interview -- book tour, you know, when The Broken Coin hit number one."  The Broken Coin  was Philip's most recent book.  "TV reporter took one look at me and had second thoughts about putting me on his show."  He chuckled under his breath.  "Guess he felt that ugly people shouldn't write bestsellers."

Kit started to object, but Philip cut him off before he could get a word out.  "Look, Kit old man, I've lived with this face for a few years.  God knows I have to look at it in the mirror every morning.  Don't argue with me.  Anyway, I had some time on my hands, and found a used book store.  Guy behind the counter said I looked like a man who could use these."

He opened up the box, and inside were several pairs of old wire-rim glasses.  "He called them the original rose-colored glasses.  My opinion is that he was a jackass who wanted to turn a quick buck but had no idea what they were.  I tried them on, but you know my eyes are completely shot -- I'm blind in one of them, and not much better in the other, and all I could see through them was fuzz.  Some rose-colored glasses.  I don't know what I expected -- that they'd give me my 20/20 back, or what.  Stupid of me.

"Still, the idea appealed to me.  Don't know why; superstitious crap is just that, and I've never subscribed to it.  I thought I might be able to use the idea in a story or something, and he only wanted thirty dollars for them, so I paid him and took them home.  I lost them for a couple of years, and generally forgot about them, and found them again last week.  I thought; maybe Kit will be interested, and at least he could put them on and tell me what he sees.  If he sees Brigadoon or the Pearly Gates then he and I can sell them for a million dollars and split the money."

Kit looked at the old, tarnished spectacles with their flat glass lenses.  He knew enough science to recognize the fact that they were not prescription lenses -- they were thin and perfectly flat, like costume glasses used on stage.  They seemed completely unremarkable.  Without speaking, he picked up a pair, unfolded the arms, and slipped them on.

As he put the glasses on he was looking at the table, set with two empty teacups, the black box with two more pairs of glasses, and several books.  The flat lenses, as he expected, didn't distort what he saw; it looked just like it did before, only a little smeared and dusty.  He looked up, to tell Philip that his magic glasses didn't work, but stopped in mid-sentence.  Philip was gone.

Kit stood up and put out his hand, knocking over his teacup.  "Philip?" he said, alarmed.  All of the sounds -- including his own voice -- seemed distant, thin, like an echo from fifty miles away.  Kit stared at Philip's empty chair; and as he watched, the chair began to shift shape as if it were melting.  The table sagged in the middle, like it was made of thick syrup, and the cups, books, and the box with the glasses slid down into a hole in the center, stretching and distorting like a Dali painting before sliding into nothing.  "Philip!" he screamed,  but his voice sounded to him no louder than a whisper.

He heard, or thought he did, a paper-thin hissing, a two-dimensional parody of Philip Amirault's voice.  "Take them off.. take off the glasses... Kit, take them off..."  His hands reached up, but he could not see them, and they could not find his face; or perhaps, where his face once was, there was now nothing solid.

Then the walls of the apartment began to twist, like water going down a drain.  Kit was caught in the spiral, and as if in slow motion, he turned and fell over onto his back, and the darkness swallowed him up.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Summer camp for writers

Last fall, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.  At first, I thought, "No way."  Actually, what I thought was "No way" with a highly impolite intensifier inserted in the middle.  It meant writing an average of 1,666 words a day, every day in November.  This, while I was teaching full time, practicing and performing with a band, and trying to have an occasional moment to breathe -- and already writing daily on my other blog, Skeptophilia.

I was encouraged to sign up, however, by two people, one of whom was my cousin Carla, whom I referenced in my previous post.  The other was my former student and current friend Martha, who is a musician and writer of astonishing talent.  Both of these individuals are persuasive like the Mafia is persuasive.  "Let's discuss this like civilized people," they said to me.  "Sign up for NaNoWriMo, or we'll break both of your legs."

So I did.  The result was Adam's Fall, a novel of the paranormal set in 19th century rural England.  I was pleased enough with the result to offer it on Amazon -- you can read about it (or download it) here.  Endeavoring to be gracious in all respects, I dedicated Adam's Fall to Carla and Martha -- because without them, it literally would never have been started.

Anyway, having made it through NaNoWriMo, exhausted but substantially unscathed, I sort of thought I had at least a year to recover, before I'd have to start giving some thought to crafting excuses for why I can't participate this year.  (I was thinking about "I'm planning on doing a lot of laundry in November.")  But the fates were against me -- the leaders of NaNoWriMo have come up with a new event, Camp NaNoWriMo, because apparently enough participants decided that (1) once a year was simply not often enough to go without sleep for thirty days straight, and (2) pain is more fun if large quantities of people are experiencing the pain with you.  So apparently the plan is that August will be a new, additional NaNoWriMo.

Of course, the moment the notice came out, my writing buddies Carla and Martha started clamoring for me to join in.

And I probably will, because I am a weak-spined namby-pamby human jellyfish who wouldn't say "boo" to a goose.  Plus, I have to admit, last year was kind of fun, and the result was gratifying -- besides having what I think is a really fine story at the end, the daily reward of watching my word tally go up and hit the goal was amazingly reinforcing.  It was like going back to elementary school, and getting a gold star every day for a month.

The problem now, of course, is that I have to come up with an idea.  That's always the hard part for me.  I've often wondered where I get my ideas from; they seem to spring, unbidden, from the darkest recesses of my subconscious.  More problematic is that they don't seem to come when called.  I know I have two and a half months to come up with a viable plot, but I'm already fretting about it.  I think I'd like to write something of a post-apocalyptic nature, but that doesn't get me all that far.

Of course, what I'll probably end up doing is what I usually do -- start with a single image, then a scene, then just start writing and see what happens.  I once commented about a story I was working on that I had to keep writing so I could see how it ended -- and more than likely that's the approach I'll take again.  Jump in, see where the current takes me.

No wonder I fret.

I'll end with my favorite quotes about writing.  They seem appropriate.

"If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style.   The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy." -- Dorothy Parker

"Writing is easy.  All you do is stare at a sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."  -- Gene Fowler

And last, one which could apply to anything, but seems apt in connection with my current pursuits:


"You don't need a parachute to skydive.  You just need a parachute to skydive twice."  -- Jessica Northey

Monday, May 16, 2011

e-Publishing and cunning sales techniques

I made the decision to e-publish after some degree of cajoling by my cousin Carla, who is herself a writer of considerable talent.  I accused her of devising a cunning plan, in which I would act as advance scout into the Kingdom of E-Publica, mapping out all of the pitfalls and traps, figuring out the dodgy bits, and generally scoping out the territory, with her all the while sitting in her boudoir eating bonbons while I run all the risks.

"Of course I am," Carla said.  If there's one thing that runs in our family, it's straightforwardness.

So, here I am, six weeks after e-publishing my manuscripts.  I have a few reflections on the whole process that others might find interesting.

Years ago, when the only option available to writers (short of vanity publishing) was the traditional route of querying an agent and hoping that the agent could sell your work to a publishing firm, it was damn near impossible for a new writer even to have his/her voice heard.  Agents were swamped with query letters, and only one in a thousand was from someone who had salable work that the agent could successfully market.  The competition was fierce, which explains the success of books like The Writers' Market, which gives tips on "Writing an Irresistible Query Letter" as well as names, addresses, and target genres for thousands of agents and publishers. 

It was an immensely frustrating scene, and one which in my opinion directly excluded up-and-coming writers, even talented ones, from ever having their work see print.  But then e-publishing was invented, and now anyone with a computer and enough tech-savvy to manage the formatting software could upload their work to big-name hosts.

This is both a benefit and a curse.  One of my online writing friends commented, "The upside of e-publishing is that anyone can e-publish.  The downside of e-publishing is that anyone can e-publish."  I took her meaning immediately.  The swamp of query letters has become a swamp of books, all in competition for sales, and all hovering around the bottom of the Popularity and Sales Rankings.  Amazon and Barnes&Noble don't care, particularly; they don't have to edit, or even vet, the books, and in exchange for the minimal cost of hosting your book they get 30% of the profit.  They undertake no marketing for you -- it's all up to the author.  And whether your book sells ten copies or ten thousand, the host company still wins.

So, basically, new authors are pretty much where they've always been, vis-à-vis getting that Big Break.  Not that I'm complaining, mind you.  Having my work online has been kind of a rush, and that alone was worth the trouble of formatting and uploading it.  I've had a few sales, and along the way am discovering how completely hapless at self-promotion I am.  My knowledge of marketing begins and ends with saying, in a wheedling tone of voice, "Please please PLEEEEEZE buy my books."  Not, I will admit, the most inspired strategy in the world.  Fortunately, I've had some help and advice from friends, which has proven invaluable. 

In any case, the publishing world will certainly never be the same.  I suspect there will always be a place for traditional agents and book publishers, but e-publication is, I think, only going to get bigger.  I can only hope that I am able to navigate its twisty paths,  find my readership, and use word of mouth and my cunning sales techniques to get my writing known.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

House of Mirrors (an excerpt)

Shane Callaghan was a graduate student, heading home to visit family for spring break, when he was involved in an automobile accident that totaled his car and put him in the hospital.  Recovering from his miraculously superficial injuries, he returned home to find that no one, not his neighbors, his landlady, not even his parents, seem to remember him.  His apartment is now occupied by someone else, and every trace of his existence seems to have been systematically erased.

As reality shifts every time his back is turned, only one other person besides Shane is aware of what's happening -- another student, Claire Lewis, whom he had never met before being driven together by the bizarre and terrifying experience of being in a world where what things are now and what they were five minutes ago may be entirely different.  Between Shane's intuition and Claire's logical, scientific mind, they work to figure out what is happening -- before it's too late for them to escape from it.

House of Mirrors is available for download as an e-book through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.



In the following scene, Shane and Claire have decided to leave Claire's apartment to see if they can find any information that will help them understand what is happening to them.  They are both fully aware that if they leave, they might come back to find that the world has shifted again and Claire's apartment no longer exists, so that in leaving the apartment they are risking losing the only secure place they have.

************

"I have a feeling that we're leaving this apartment for good," Claire said, as Shane laced up his sneakers.

"I don't know," Shane said.  "But you said it last night; whatever new thing the universe has in store for us will knock us flat.  Nothing that has happened so far has been predictable in any way."  He stood up, then wrinkled his nose, and tugged at his t-shirt sleeve and sniffed it.  "God," he said, "I smell like a gym locker."

"Don't worry about it," she said.  "If I still have an apartment tonight, we can wash it.  If not, we'll have other more pressing concerns."

The weather was still beautiful, the sky a rich blue, the air cool and clean.  It was a Monday morning, and there was still a good bit of traffic up onto the campus, despite its being spring break.  They walked up the hill and over Garland Falls bridge, and followed Jansen Road as it wound its way up the hill toward the Arts and Sciences Quad.  They approached Meeker Hall from the east, heading for the big wooden double doors instead of the row of greenhouses.  The building's halls were empty.

"The offices are on the second floor," Claire said.  "They'll be open even during break."

She trotted up the stairs, and Shane followed.

A wooden door with frosted windows in the middle of the second floor had a placard stating, "Botany Department Main Office," and Claire opened it and walked in.  A heavyset woman sat behind the desk, typing on a computer, but she looked up and smiled as they entered.

"Mrs. Cassetti?" Claire said.

"Can I help you?" the woman said.

Claire gave a sidelong glance at Shane.  "Is Dr. Trehearn in?"

The woman followed.  "Dr. who?"

"Trehearn.  Andrew Trehearn."

"I'm sorry, miss, we have no faculty by that name."

"Oh," Claire said lightly.  "I must be remembering the name wrong.  Who is the chair of the Botany Department?"

"Dr. Alicia Thompson."

"Oh, that's right.  I don't know what I was thinking."

"Would you like to leave a message for Dr. Thompson?  She's out for the morning, but will be in this afternoon."

"No, that's okay.  I'll come in another time.  It's not urgent."

Mrs. Cassetti smiled.  "That's fine, then."

"One more thing," Claire said.  "Are there grad students in this department named Lisa Janklow and Jimmy Donnelly?"

Mrs. Cassetti shook her head.  "No.  I know all of the current grad students, and there's no Lisa or Jimmy in this department."

"Thanks," said Claire, and turned, her face deadpan.  She took Shane by the upper arm and propelled him out of the office before he could speak.

When they got into the hall and the door had closed behind them, Claire said in a fierce whisper, "Well, they're gone.  All of them except for Mrs. Cassetti, and you could tell she had no idea who I am."

"Well, it's not like that's a big surprise."

"No," she admitted.  "But it's another avenue closed."

They went downstairs, their footsteps ringing against the tiles in the empty building.  They exited into the bright spring sunshine.

"Where now?" Claire said.  "That shoots down the only idea I had.  Not that it was exactly an inspired one to begin with."

Shane looked out over the quad, which was empty and seemed a little forlorn.  There were only three people in view; a woman who was walking toward the parking lot on the far side, a tall, gray-haired man who was descending the steps of one of the nearer buildings, and a still figure standing on the other side of the quad, near the steps of the library.

A big man, wearing a bright green stocking cap and a raincoat.

Shane said, his voice sharp with alarm, "Claire, it's the guy who was looking into your apartment window!" and shouted at the man, "Hey!  Hey you!"  Before Claire had a chance to react, he began to sprint across the quad toward the library.  A moment later, Shane heard Claire's running footsteps following him.  And suddenly, the man turned and began to stride purposefully away from them.  He reached the corner of the library building, turned left, and vanished from sight.

Shane got there only moments after the man disappeared around the corner, and stared down the shaded corridor between the library and the building that housed the history department.

There was no one there.

Shane just stood there, breathing heavily, and turned as Claire came up behind him.

"Where'd he go?"

"He's gone."

"Gone where?  Where could he have gotten to that fast?" Claire demanded.

Shane pointed to the sidewalk, where there was a line of wet boot prints contrasting starkly with the light color of the dry cement.  The tracks followed the man's path from the turn at the corner of the library, passed where Shane and Claire were standing, continued about ten feet further, and suddenly stopped.  After that, the sidewalk was completely dry.

Shane looked at Claire with a grim expression.  "One of the rules of the game, I guess.  No talking to the fat man in the raincoat."

Saturday, May 7, 2011

We All Fall Down (an excerpt)

It is 1351, and the Black Death has ravaged England. Whole villages have been erased, their inhabitants slain by the plague. Survivors pick up the pieces, try to put what is left of their lives back together, all the while questioning how God could have let such a thing happen.

One of the survivors, Nick Calladine, who had been a member of the guard in a little town in Derbyshire, sets off wandering across the ravaged countryside, trying to find others like him. He comes across four survivors in the guardhouse in Glossop, a village up in the moorlands. But when one of the four dies under mysterious circumstances, and suspicion falls on the others, Nick has to rely on his powers of deduction to prevent another murder -- which next time might be his. And as he is drawn deeper and deeper into the history of the three men who survived -- the simple and superstitious Adam Holden, the dark, gloomy Tom Upstone, and the happy-go-lucky but brilliant womanizer Will Fletcher -- he finds out that all three of them have secrets in their past, that when put together, add up to murder.

We All Fall Down is available as an eBook from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.



In this passage, it is the evening of the Nick's arrival at the Glossop guardhouse.  Night has fallen, and Nick and Tom are headed to the sleeping quarters after a disquieting conversation.

**********

I opened the middle door, and carrying a lamp, I went in ahead of Tom.  He followed, his footsteps on the heavy plank floor strangely silent.  There were ten decent straw mattresses on the floor, in two rows of five each, and the room seemed less damp than the store room did, so I had no doubt we'd pass the night in relative comfort.

I had a light wool blanket in my satchel, but it was a warm night; I spread the blanket across the rough straw, stripped off my shirt, and fashioned it into a small pillow.  I pulled off my shoes, and set them next to the bed.  I extinguished the lamp and then lay down on my back, cupping my hands behind my head.  I had through to puzzle over the day's occurrences, and the different personalities of my three new comrades, but fatigue overtook me within minutes, and I dropped into a dreamless sleep.

It was still completely dark when I awoke.  I glimpsed a crescent moon through the small window high in the east wall, but even so it was dark enough that I could barely see my hand in front of my face.  I heard no sound from the bunk at the other end of the room, where the strange, grim Tom Upstone was sleeping.  I lay there, wondering what had awakened me, as the night was quiet and there was not even the faint trilling of crickets to break the silence.  That by itself was strange.

There was a sudden flash of light through the low window on the north wall of the room; greenish light, like no healthy flame would ever be.  It was like nothing I had ever seen before, but was just as Adam had described it.  Too slow for lightning, and there was no thunder; just irregular flashes of light, mostly green, but sometimes bluish or reddish.

I recalled Adam's words.

They are the candles of the Airy Men...  Bad things happen to people who get caught near Bleaklow Tor at night, especially when the lights come.

I suddenly wondered where Wat was.  If he had arrived after I fell asleep, he would have then wanted to go to bed himself.  Perhaps he usually slept in the same quarters as Adam, but it sounded like Adam had blocked the door.  Wat would have had no choice but to force his entrance or to join us in here, and I doubt I'd have slept through either one.

Still, I had been tired, and he might have entered quietly.  I did not want to light a lamp to check, and in any case, there was something about the shimmering lights coming in through the window that made me want simply to lie still and pray for it to end.  There was nothing overtly frightening in the lights themselves, other than their being unlike anything I'd seen; but they aroused in me a fear that even Adam's childish stories of the Airy Men were not sufficient to explain.  I account myself a brave enough man, but lying there, I felt that no power on earth would have induced me to go outside, or even to get up and walk to the little rectangular window in the back wall and peer out toward the north, the direction from which the lights came.

The flashing began to taper off, after perhaps twenty minutes; there was a succession of reddish flashes, then pause of perhaps five minutes, then a long, low, bluish glow.  Then all was dark.  Throughout this whole time, there had been no sound.  But once the blue glare faded from the north window, to be replaced by the wholesome blackness of night, one cricket in the distance began to trill, soon followed by others, and within a few minutes there was the typical night's chorus.

And that's when I heard another sound.  It was a horrid, low moaning, a sound more animal than human, followed by a dull thump.  Gooseflesh stood out on my arms and shoulders.

I have said that I think of myself as a brave man, but what I did that night is far the bravest I've ever done.  Before, lying in bed watching the spectral lights, I had felt that nothing could have persuaded me even to go to the window; but now, hearing the moan of some poor man or beast in mortal fear, I could not simply lay by and do nothing.

I stood, still clad in nothing but my trousers, and went to where the lamp sat; I took a flint and after a little struggle lit the wick, and then padded barefoot to the end of the sleeping quarters and opened the door into the common room.

The common room was empty.  I made a complete circuit of the room, allowing the little lamp flame to illuminate each corner, and there was neither man nor animal in the room from which the sound could have come.

Heart pounding, I went to where the outside door stood, and tremblingly reached out to the handle.  I pulled it, and it swung open, creaking on its great iron hinges.

Lying just outside the door was a man.

I had seen dead men aplenty in the days previous, but there was something in this man's aspect which terrified me more than all the bodies of the plague victims, whose poor corpses had aroused in me nothing but pity.

He was my age, perhaps a year or two older, with cropped light-colored hair.  He lay full on his back, but in death he had found no peace; his eyes were staring, staring in horror up at the empty sky.  A lumpy cloth bag lay fallen to one side.  One of the man's arms was flung up across his face as if the last thing his dying eyes had beheld had been something so terrible that he could not bear to look at it, and his final gesture had been to try to block it from sight.

One look at his wide eyes, glittering in the lamplight, was enough to tell me that he had failed.