Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

When It Rains, It Pours: How David Got His Groove Back

March 31st, 2008 14 comments

When it rains, it pours. We’ve all heard that a million times, and though it’s a generalization with no real basis in fact – it’s also true that when things get overwhelming, they only seem to get crazier. This year has been that way for me, so I figured I’d take a day here, write a post and see if I could put it in perspective.

For several years I had very little published…those were recent years. It happened because, as most things do, publishing seems to come in cycles. You don’t necessarily see things that you have sold come out near the time they are sold. During the years in question I had some short stories published, and my last White Wolf novel was published – a High Fantasy book titled “Relic of the Dawn”. I was writing, and even selling, but things just weren’t appearing on shelves, and sales without books did little to help with the fact that the readers I’d worked years to cultivate were forgetting I existed.

So enter 2007. Things picked up a little. I had a collection come out from a small press publisher in the UK – it got some notice – a nomination for the Bram Stoker Award, and it sold out pretty quickly. That was followed by my novel “Ancient Eyes,” also quickly sold out. I spent the summer writing a long novella and I had another short period of nothing…a dry spell, I guess…and then it hit.

I sold another collection. This one will actually have an affordable trade paperback edition which should help my readership and circulation. Then I sold another novel – this one sold not only to a trade hardcover publisher, but to a signed limited publisher as well –simultaneous release planned. Then I sold a novella – the one I’d been working on all summer. It went on sale and sold out in two weeks. It’s a limited edition, yes, but with a trade paperback in the future with decent distribution. Then I sold another novel. Then I sold ANOTHER NOVEL. Well, to be honest, a novel that I’d sold was pulled from one publisher with no ill-will and transferred to one that will actually publish it reasonably soon. Both of these two novels are older books, but both will get decent circulation and very nice treatment from the publisher.

Then I won the Bram Stoker Award for short fiction. Years like this just don’t happen. Not to me, anyway. What I’m doing now is writing desperately to keep the wagon rolling forward. If ever a year was designed to assist an author in leap-frogging out of the small puddle to at least the next loop in the river, this is the one.

It feels very self-indulgent to be writing this post, but on the other hand, this is what we do here. We write about the world of the author. We write about what it’s like to struggle. We write about what thrills us, what depresses us, what angers us. We write about what motivates us to go on, and where the stories are born. This time I’m writing to say that I seem to have done something right. The stars have momentarily aligned in my favor…and it’s difficult to process it.

I’m very grateful for the things that have happened over the past few months. The award is the sort of validation that only those who understand what I do – and why I do it – can understand. My fellow writers found a grouping of my words worthy of note. Publishers found my stories fascinating. Readers are getting excited that new work is forthcoming. It’s hard not to grin, to be honest, and I’m not really the grinning type.

So – for the support of this group, the inspiration of the Gonquin table, the passion of Richard Steinberg, the magic woven words of Thomas “Sully” Sullivan, the worlds and words of Janet Berliner, the long, strong friendship and camaraderie I feel for the group within the group, Mark, Beth, Brian, Wayne – the Pseudocon crowd who have been with me almost every step of my literary career – to Bill Lindblad for reading, selling our work, and caring about our work, to Bear and Sarah, Cody and Alexandra, who I’m still getting to know – to Justine for her deep inspiration … to Rich Dansky, my fellow warrior in the White Wolf wars…to Skipp who makes me smile, and to my old, old friend John Rosenman, who can still beat me at tennis, and who was there when I made my first sales…for all of this, I’m thankful. This is what you all get this month from me. I’m overwhelmed, and I probably have a lot to share, but I needed to get this out. And to all of our readers here at Storytellers Unplugged who validate us every day by reading along and commenting and giving us a sense of purpose and value…we couldn’t do it without all of you.

As I’ve said a thousand times…


Hickory Nuts and Bones – the Past Comes to Life

March 1st, 2008 8 comments

I’m working on a piece for a publisher who has a particular liking for something I wrote in the past.  He asked me specifically to try and recapture what I did in that first piece…not the story itself, or the characters, but the style – and it set me on a short quest.

The older piece was my novella, written for Cemetery Dance years ago, titled “Roll Them Bones.”  In that work I was asked to emulate the styles of several authors popular at the time, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Ray Bradbury.  One problem with this is that none of the three of them has a similar style to the other two.  What I gathered from this fact was that I needed to find a point of similarity – something glaring that I was missing in focusing too tightly on the authors.  I think I found it.

What I determined that the publisher was after was more of a “formula”.  He wanted a group of friends coming back together after long absence to some place from their past to fight or finish some evil they’d faced before.  In essence, that was what I did in “Roll Them Bones.”  As it turns out, that was only one thing I did.

My new quest is different. This time it’s myself I’m seeking – something I did in my writing that worked very well for someone.  I read the story again.  Then I made a short list of other stories similar in style, and found a shocking truth (to me).  Those are my most critically acclaimed stories.  Those are the ones the largest number and diversity of readers found memorable.  One was “The Call of Farther Shores,” which was picked up for 2005: Year’s Best Horror.

The quality that I found in the stories in question is the topic of today’s essay.  The topic?  My past.  All of these stories have at least one setting, or one incident, that is drawn directly from the important memories of my past.  The Call of Farther Shores takes place in a barber shop created from that of my step father and the one my grandfather took me to as a child.  In that same story, the description of the parent’s bedroom is a description of my own parents bedroom.  In Roll Them Bones I brought to life a combination of my childhood home at Charleston Lake, in Illinois and my grandfather’s home town of Flora, Illinois.

The thing is, there are serious depths to the memories, details, and impressions I have saved over the years and when I took off the dusty sheets and dug in deeper, I was able to transfer some of that to the words.  In other words I wrote in a place I’d been before, albeit modified, and it lent the prose a strength and conviction it might not have had otherwise.

So now I’m writing “Hickory Nuts and Bones.”  I remember very clearly walking down the railroad tracks with my grandfather when I was a child.  It was hard to walk – you either walked on the railroad ties, spaced just far enough apart to risk a sprained ankle at ever step, or you worked your ass off trying to slog through gravel made of giant broken bits of cinder.  There were the skeletal remnants of creatures the train had struck over the years. There were odd, sometimes very old bits of debris.

We used to go down the tracks to the persimmon trees – it was the one time anywhere in my life I got persimmons, warm and pulpy – sometimes bitter.  We also went back to groves of hickory nut and walnut trees my grandfather knew.  They were magical times, usually followed by a stop at the East End Cafe, where they had an old Minah bird that talked, ice cream sundaes, and cream in those little glass creamers – I used to drink it straight.

Those are the times I’m after in this story, and there’s a very different feel to such writing…a sense of dropping back into another world.  I hope I find it again…it feels like I’m close.  I think it’s important, and I suggest it to anyone as a starting place.  Find a memory  a place, or a time, that you remember, but when you think about it it feels surreal – as if the memory detaches you from the world.  Build around it and see what comes to you…if it works, let me know.

I’m off down the tracks in search of Hickory Nuts and Bones…I’ll let you know what I find.


Layering Fiction – A Genre Fiction Burden

January 1st, 2008 11 comments

I had a lot of ideas this month that I thought would make fabulous essays, but in the end, I settled on one that came to me while reading someone else’s writing. It’s important to be able to shift through the many hats of our craft, I think, author, editor and reader, and to grasp what is important to each. As a reader, I’ve come to classify genre fiction most judgmentally on one particular criterion. How real is it?

I’ve mentioned this in passing on other occasions, and it is in no way limited to genre fiction. I have found that different authors tend to dive into, or run away from, layers of reality. For instance, legal thrillers. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a perfectly plausible story – up to a point – only to have the characters start bemoaning circumstances they claim as blockages to the progress of the plot that – in real life – are neither plausible, nor correct. I can continue to read a book like that, but every time the issue comes up, it stops me in my tracks and irritates me.

Stories don’t happen in a vacuum. The world around the characters and the events of your fiction must react to it – and the more fully you allow this to happen – the more believably the interactions and reactions are presented – the deeper readers are likely to be drawn into the story. You can enjoy a story from the surface, but it’s not the same.

A true artist at this is Stephen King. He seems to know intuitively what details will matter. When I am done reading one of his books, I feel an actual disconnect, like I’m unplugging from a familiar world and plugging back into another one. His reality is full, robust, and has the ability to surround me and “take me away”. Most fiction never reaches or even aspires to this level. We work at the depths we are comfortable with, I think, but I have challenged myself lately to try to dive deeper.

When truly remarkable events take place in a city, the police, the citizens, and the press are going to take notice. There’s no way around it in the real world. In fiction, you can just tunnel-vision your way through. If you don’t mention it, it doesn’t happen. If your characters seem to be the only living things in an entire cityscape it’s going to be a problem for some readers, but others will read blissfully on, then forget the book the moment the covers snap shut. The nagging, itching doubt created by things that you know should be there and just aren’t can drive you to distraction, and distracted is no way to enjoy reading.

I don’t think that detailed information is the answer, in most cases. What I see as the magic power of authors whose worlds sweep you up and take you away is their ability to pull back and see the bigger picture. I can follow my plots from beginning to end, and create them as I go. When I’m done, I can usually sit back and grasp the entire project as a whole and see where it went well, where it digressed, and where it really needs help. What I think I need to work on is the ability to draw further back and see larger chunks of the plot at once. I may not immediately, even with conscious effort, be able to pull far enough back to see the novel as a whole … but the wider I can make my lens, the more likely I am to see the interactions, the missing elements, and the errors.

I think that this layering process is a learned skill, at least for most of us. In every artform there are naturals, and I guess they have keys to doors and windows I can only make out through the dust. I know that as I have progressed, certain things that were once difficult for me (or seemed impossible) are things I now take for granted, while new problems I never even dreamed might bother me have surfaced. I can, for instance, apply the pulling back and analyzing process to books I’ve already had published, but was unable to view them in the same way when I was writing, or revising them. I am finding that the realization of this, mostly gleaned by a subconscious evaluation of books I’ve read over the last couple of years, has caused a shift in my mental approach to new work. I find myself stopping and thinking about things in new ways. My characters are getting “smarter,” as I sit back and talk to them, explaining that only an IDIOT would do what I’d just posited that they do, and it didn’t matter how easily it progressed the plot – no character of mine was growing up to be an idiot unless they were INTENDED to be one.

A good example of tunnel vision writing is the TV series CSI. They regularly gloss over things I know can’t be true, and I allow it, but if it was a book I might feel differently. I know you can’t get DNA results as fast as they claim to. I know that you aren’t getting a whole CSI team for one case a week at a time. I know you can’t enhance the quality of an image reflected off of someone’s pocket watch into a rear-view mirror so that you can read license plates in it. I like the show, but I never feel like it’s about the real world. Every member of their team has had a turn being investigated, having an addiction, or being associated with some crime somewhere. Every one of them seems to know more science than your average college professor – snapping off chemicals and ingredients and somehow knowing without thought that it’s a particular cleaning product, or plastic, or paint. Their reality layer, then, is very thin. If I was reading the same stories in book form, and they handled these things the same way that the hour-long time-frame of a TV drama demands, I’d either read it very quickly and forget it immediately, or I’d put it aside and pick up something that could draw me in.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s just like hindsight. Readers see what your characters are doing, and what they’ve done, and they evaluate it against what THEY might do, or have done. If they can’t find a match in their imagination for a type of person who’d react as your character does, it’s going to itch at them, or outright irritate them. In your mind, your characters must be alive. Their world must function as a real world with all the associated problems, pitfalls, emotions and drama that real life presents, honed and crafted into something more intriguing than the real life it represents. Most real stories could benefit from some creative editing, but you can’t hack and slash them into nonsense, and you can’t ignore something important just because it would derail your plot to do otherwise, if you want to be remembered.

It’s perfectly possible (and apparently acceptable) to write very lightly layered fiction that moves very quickly and only holds the attention long enough to drag a reader from page one to the end. It’s an entirely different thing to draw them in and make them sorry they have to go when it’s over. I want people to have that slightly dazed sensation at the end of my books – the one I get when I finish something I have absolutely loved, where I’m simultaneously satisfied with the resolution and wistful – because it’s over and I wanted more. I want people to believe in the worlds I create and to miss them when they’re gone.

My New Year’s Resolution is to try and draw back another few feet from my fiction and to test its depth. This is a business, a craft and an art form that is never fully mastered; I hope I never lose sight of that, and that I continue forward; no retreat, no stagnancy. I am a writer. Welcome to my world.


The Embarass – Do You Remember?

November 30th, 2007 4 comments

— A memory – first published in a very limited circulation book titled “Personal Demons” I found this doing some file cleanup, read it, and got lost in the memory all over again. Hope my buddy Randy forgives me…hope you find it of interest.

—David Niall Wilson

Some memories never leave you. Some things you can shrug off, walk away from, squash into the back recesses of your mind, and some others have a will of their own. In other places, on other pages, I have put a name to the moments that lend themselves to such memories. I call them defining moments. Some of them haunt me still.

The hill I lived on as a child overlooked Charleston Lake in Illinois. We lived at the very top of the hill, where a single road wound around and up and one end and down the other. In the winter, this road was a menace because you had to ride the Illinois snow and ice down from the top and make a very sharp turn at the bottom to avoid going over the edge of the road and into a large field. In the summer, that same hill was a place for the release of insanity – two hands gripping the handlebars of a green “Hiawatha” stingray bicycle from Western Auto, no way to hit brakes on a hill that steep, not on the old bikes. There were no hand-grip brakes on those machines. You reared up, kicked back, and sent the rear tire into a skid. On that hill, you didn’t use the brakes at all.

I lived on that hill for over a decade. I survived that stingray bicycle and two others, graduating through five and ten speeds. I survived my mother’s driving, despite the ice and snow. I survived things, in short, that should have scared me, creating those memories you can’t ignore.

What I remember most, though, is the lake – and the river below.

I lived by the water. Not in the sense that our home was near it, but in the sense that I fished nearly 365 days a year, threw stones to skip across the surface, swam in the small ring of cable-tied barrels each summer where the city posted a lifeguard, flew down the river with my step-dad in his air-boat, and generally made the water a part of me. I took it for granted, ignoring most dangers – poisonous snakes, steep cliffs, deep pools – combinations of the above.

Then there were other times.

On the day in question, I had a friend visiting, and we started out as days on Charleston lake usually started out. We went fishing. The fishing hole of choice was the pool that gathered at the bottom of a concrete spillway. Giant carp would leap at the base of that slanted surface, vainly attempting to move from the bottom, which flowed off into the Embarrass River to the more placid lake waters above. Catfish gathered at the base, as well, and even a few Crappie and Largemouth bass sweetened the pot.

Old and middle-aged men would drive down to that small stretch, following a gravel road that brought them to the shoreline. Each had huge coolers, tackle-boxes that opened to three-tiers, and station-wagons with wood paneling, or large trucks filled with minnow buckets, fancy spin-casting gear, fly-rods – the works. Each of them tried to outsmart my lake, and, for the most part, they failed. They didn’t know the secrets.

I would slip up with my Zebco 202 rod and reel combination, crab-walk across the slanted concrete slab angling away from the very base of the spillway, toss a line in with a single weight and a hook, baited with whatever form of insect or worm was handy at the time – or even a bit of kernel corn bread dough, and drop it in the corner nearest the spillway. I knew the secrets, you see. I’d watched, and I’d learned. I didn’t have much money for fishing equipment, or fancy bait, but it never mattered. I always caught fish – mostly given away after the thrill of the hunt to the men and women in the big trucks. For me it wasn’t the fish themselves, but the secrets.

That was how the day started. If it had ended as most other days at Charleston Lake ended, all might have been different, and my dreams might be troubled by hair-rasing rides down the side of that hill beside my house. That isn’t the story.

There were others who came to that spillway besides the fishermen. Eastern Illinois University wasn’t far away, nestled in the center of Charleston itself, and the students would come to the lake in droves, mostly drunk on beer, or whiskey, or life and the reckless, never-going-to-die attitude that permeates the world of those who have yet to suffer enough defining moments.

A favorite pass-time at the lake, despite the threat of arrest, or fines, was to swim across the top of the spillway, then slip over the top and slide down. It was like a big, concrete water-slide, coated in green, smooth algea, and water flowing over concrete about a half a foot deep. The current, on most days, wasn’t so strong you couldn’t hit the bottom and pop free, swimming past the angry middle-aged fishermen and the two kids squatting at the bottom, actually catching fish. You could come over that top, bounce free, and swim to the side before the water poured over the next small, man-made structure – a wall of concrete – and two feet down to the river itself. Then you climbed back up the slanted concrete side to the top, hopped into the water, swam out to the middle and did it again.

I was only about ten at the time, and though I could see the merits of such insanity from the side of fun, I was also afraid enough to remain where I was, watching, fishing, and dreaming about the day I’d be in college and brave enough for such foolishness. That was most days. This day, Randy Overton was visiting – my best friend – and there is something about the proximity of friends that lessens the intellect and raises the courage.

So there we were. The sky was relatively clear, the sun was shining, it was warm out, and there were idiots galore slipping over and down the spillway, ruining the fishing for those below and screaming at the top of their lungs. Somehow, with so many bodies lined up along the top of the spillway, it didn’t seem big. The other side seemed very close – you could see the people clearly on both sides of the concrete, and you could even make out the winding road that led from the main highway into the park on the far side of the river. It was the kind of day that made everything seem safe and possible all at once.

I’m not sure where my younger brother Bill was, but if he’d been there, he might have prevented the whole thing by his presence. No way would I have risked his safety. For some reason, though, he was absent. Randy and I slipped into cut-off blue-jean shorts and t-shirts and waded into the lake at the top of the spillway.

I had feared it would be deep, that we would be fighting current with only our ability to swim protecting us from slipping over the top, but this turned out not to be the case. There was a concrete ledge, just along-side the curved top of the spillway, where you could get your footing and brace against the side just enough to keep your balance. Laughing at how easy it was, we set off across the lake. Somehow, as we progressed, we failed to note how the others were disappearing. The fishermen were packing up their things and driving off up the road. The college students were growing fewer, quieter. The sky – in fact – was darkening, and it was far too early in the day for sunset.

I mentioned the river earlier. I see that river in my dreams, some times, dreams where I wake up every bit as wet as I was that day, crossing that lake – coated in sweat with the whirling, out-of control waters of the Embarrass river swirling through my mind. When the rains came, and the lake rose, the river was not my friend. Most times I could camp along those banks, swim and fish, toss stones at the snakes and turtles, and go home with a smile. When the water was up – and the Earth had shed her veneer of calm for a more honest glimpse at the raw power beneath, the Embarrass was a huge, roiling monster.

I remember clearly watching that river slash trees from the banks, rolling the logs up and under and crashing them through rapids. I remember watching boats overturn, slide beneath the water, and not come up again until they were nearly out of site.

I looking back and seeing that the water was pouring over the spillway, twice as deep and twice as fast as it had been when we started across.. There was a large branch that had not been there when we first crossed, caught halfway with branches reaching down the spillway, trailing tendrils of moss and algae.

In Illinois, when it storms, the sky goes greenish yellow – hints of brown around the edges – and you can feel the crackle of the lightning in the air. Things break, in those storms. From wind, lightning, the force of the water. Colors change and you can almost believe you have shifted partially through some sort of veil into another existence to a darker place. Things that were safe are not, and that veil is never quite the same once you’ve seen past it.

All blustering and courage were gone. We were cold, stranded on the wrong side of the lake / river – the park we stood in was within site of home, but the only way to reach home by foot was to trek a mile or so up the dirt / gravel road, find the main road, and another two miles down that to turn back into the drive leading up and around my hill. Too far in bare feet, thunderstorm, alone and hungry. Too far, too dark.

The next few minutes, which seemed to drag into hours, are not completely straight in my head. I believe I’ve relived those minutes in dreams, but they are no more clear when I wake than they are now as I try to sort them out. I know that we went down to the river, tried to find a narrow / shallow place to cross. The storm had raised the level everywhere, and the water was whipping along with unbelievable force. I remember stepping out into it – the sensation of my feet being snatched away, the force as I gripped the roots of a tree on the bank and pulled and prayed and pulled some more until my body dragged free, back to the muddy bank. Colder still than I’d been, and shivering with fear.

And that is when the real nightmare began.

There are times when you come up against a test you could never have expected – times when your heart hammers so hard against the inside of your chest you feel like it might explode, and you shiver until your bones rattle. Those sound like cliches until you live them.

Randy and I stood at the top of that embankment overlooking the spillway. It was nearly dark, though it couldn’t have been more than four in the afternoon. No one was in sight. No one. Our parents didn’t know where we were, though by then I know they were starting to worry that we were out in the storm. We were alone, and we had one choice – a bad choice. We took it.

At first I thought the battle would end before it had begun. The water pressed me against the wall of concrete so hard it nearly took the breath from my lungs and dragged me over and down. Somehow, I hung on. I clung to the top of that spillway, that tiny ledge, only my head above the water, and I started across. It wasn’t as cold in the water as it was out, with the wind, and by some miracle, the rain hadn’t hit yet. There was lightning. You could catch the scent of ozone, and I was never more acutely aware of being immersed in water around electricity. I knew if the lightning hit nearby, it was over.

Randy was very close. I know he wanted to cling to me as we went, I felt the same, but we had to hold on to things that were solid. Things that were not likely to go plunging over the spillway and down, churning off along the length of the Embarrass. I would love to describe what he said, what I said – how we shared the moment. We didn’t. My memories are a very selfish, self-preserving wash of fear.

Not long after we left the far side of the lake, that log-sized branch in the center of the spillway gave way and slipped over the side. I remember stopping. I vaguely remember Randy pressing up behind and slapping at my back, desperate for me to move on. I watched that log slide to the bottom, twisting as it went in a sort of slow-motion dive. It hit the churning, white-crested waves at the bottom, and it dove. One moment it was there, the next, it was gone, and then it burst from the surface of the lake, nearly clearing the water, and shot toward the river, rolling to one side and smashing into the rocks that lined the shore, only to whirl off and away.

I think it was about that time I heard thunder, and I started to move again. It took forever. Mechanical motion, one hand in front of the other. No swimming involved, the current a lot stronger near the center. We dragged ourselves across that lake, and onto the bank on the other side – at last, and part of me never left the lake.

I know it is there, still. I know it slipped over that edge, and down, because when I dream of that river, I can feel the churning, the vertigo brought on by being held, helpless, in the grasp of something that is part of nature – -uncaring, powerful, and deadly.

Some memories never leave you, nor do you really leave them.

I still fear rivers when the water runs high, but I love thunderstorms, and maybe . . . just maybe . . . that river saved me from endless nights gripping my sheets like handlebars as I plummeted down the hill from my house. One day, I’ll have a beer with Randy, and I’ll ask.

Do you remember?


Planning is Not My Forte & Other Obvious Facts

October 31st, 2007 9 comments

I’m a little overwhelmed, as usual, with things clutching and dragging at me, but I wanted to take a little bit of time to talk about how schedules and best-laid plans can go to Hell in a handbasket, as my step-dad was fond of saying. I’ve spent a very chaotic few years bouncing form personal disaster to personal disaster, writing in mad sporadic bursts and not writing in molasses-thick periods of lethargy. I have written novels that are better than they should be, and others that are worse. I’ve bounced from project to project like a ping pong ball. It’s no way to make ice cream.

In any case, I find myself in one of those weird transition periods in my career, and standing at a crossroads. It will be November 1st tomorrow, and National Novel Writing month will commence. Normally I’d flip into high gear, drop everything else, and write a new book. I’m not doing that this year. Instead, I’m expanding the new habit of outlining that Nanowrimo has given me into a larger, more over-reaching outline of the next year.

I have a novel, “The Orffyreus Wheel,” that shows great promise. Most of it has been published on Amazon.Com as a series of digital shorts, but I never wrote the final installment. The college blues, the new job, and a host of other things contributed to this glitch in my productivity, but I won’t try to blame those things. I just didn’t “Git ‘er done,” and so the novel remains unfinished.

Last year during Nanowrimo I wrote over 60,000 words of a novel titled “Gideon’s Curse,” but the intended market decided to go a different direction, and as much as I love that book – it fell under the tread of Algebra and Biology along with the other novel, and it — too — remains unfinished.

So, here is my plan. I’m going to carefully revise both novels in November, instead of writing something new, and when I reach the point where I quit writing, I’m going to finish them. I’m going to patch the holes I previously ignored, flesh out the characters, and make sure these two books are worthy of prime-time appearances – then hand them to my agent and regroup. I have the bare beginnings of a new idea that I will work on (slowly) when this is all done – trying to be more complete and careful, at least until my “groove” returns.

I feel like I need to get this old work off my plate before I can really figure out where to head next, and I also feel like I need to come at this strategy with my mind “in the game” and the output clean and as good as I can get it.

The point of all of this is that it is very easy to get caught up in too many things at once and rush int and through them, and that when you do that quality is at least questionable, if not sacrificed on some level. My writing during this past year has slowed to a near halt, and in that period of inactivity I’ve had a good chance to look over the body of words that came before and take stock of the next level of the cliff. I have pitons in hand and my climbing ropes have been checked for fraying and cuts. I’m off to the summit in 2008.

Anyone with the urge to join me can (as every November) sign up to read along with my November work by sending an e-mail to: – I’ll be posting the novel as I revise it. Normally you’d have to pay .49 a section for the first book, but this will be the revised version, and If you sign up…you read for free. You’ll get two novels before November is done, or close to it, and I won’t be stopping until both are complete, in any case.

Welcome to November in the Year of Dave – 48.




October 30th, 2007 12 comments

I have been making the same drive back and forth from Hertford, NC to Chesapeake, VA for over five years now. It’s a long, solitary stretch – and over time, things have added up in my mind until it’s like navigating some other dimension. On the drive home last Sunday, a final pin dropped in the silence, and I heard the echo. I wrote this specially for my extra Halloween Storytellers gift to you all…

Since we have no poster for the 30th, or the 31st this month, I’m sharing today with Sarah and will let this ride through Halloween, when … well … when I’ll be due to post again on the 1st. Hope you don’t get tired of me.

Without further ado…


by David Niall Wilson


The moon peeked out from behind early evening clouds, a half-crescent of white against shades of violet draining through purple to black. To the right of it, a sequence of clouds resembled a cross, or a man, arms outstretched.

Nickleback rolled from the scratchy speakers in the old Saturn, and Dave sang along.

“This is how you remind me of what I really am…”

A silver Toyota pulled up too close behind. The car hung at his bumper for a few moments, until he averted his eyes and ducked to avoid having to shift the rear-view to night-vision. Then the other driver shifted left to pass. The guy flipped on his brights as he changed lanes, causing a flash of light. Dave cursed, and waited for his vision to clear. He glanced up.

The moon hung a little higher in the sky, almost directly ahead. Half bright, half dark, it gleamed with a back-light glow of luminous promise. Farther to the right, the cloud had shifted to an equal armed cross with a circle at the top and bent at an angle. Beside it, another formation was an elongated, feline eye. The iris and pupil were perfectly formed, and it glared down over the tree line as he took the gentle curve where highway 17 swerved out and around the swamp. Something itched at his mind, but Nickleback had shifted to Uncle Cracker, and he was singing again, the jerk in the Toyota forgotten, and the giant eye in the sky only a minor distraction.

“Give me the beat boys; to free my soul…I want to get lost.”

It felt a little like being lost. The shadows were taller than usual, and storms had painted a different world over the backdrops of sky and road. A sign proclaimed bear crossing, and, as always, he glanced out into the fields and scanned the passing trees, hoping to catch sight of one. One morning, heading the other direction, he’d seen a huge, furred mound lying beside the road that he’d been certain was a bear run afoul of a car, but on the return trip – it was gone. One of many moments where that road had seemed to shift dimensions over a relatively short period of time.

A dead bear would be heavy, and the North Carolina authorities were never quick to remove road kill. It was possible the animal had only been stunned, or that some red neck had stopped with his eight cousins to lift the thing into the bed of a pickup truck and haul it back to the farm, but it didn’t feel that way. The more he thought about it, the less he remembered the exact shape of the lump beside the road. The less certain his memory became, the more possibilities opened up in his imagination – impossibilities, more accurately, but he couldn’t push them aside.

He glanced up. His hand shook on the wheel as he noted the half-moon hanging overhead. Far to his right, the clouds had stretched and elongated and the cross was more a sharp, driving spike hammed into the sky. The eye had disappeared completely but it didn’t ease his mind. It only seemed that whatever had watched the road was now hunkered behind the trees and out of sight. All the colors had shifted again, deep dark greens washing out the purples. He knew the rain would hit once he made it to the bypass. Another forty minutes to home. He gave the tree line a last glance, but saw nothing moving.

The road curved to the right slightly as it rejoined the old highway. On countless previous trips he’d driven that older road, running parallel to the Inter-Coastal Waterway, which stretched all the way to Florida and had its roots firmly in the nation’s historical registers. George Washington had played a hand in its creation. When the last hurricane had ripped through and smashed trees like weak toothpicks, he’d had to follow that road to work. State workers went through with huge chainsaws on trucks. They couldn’t really clear the trees, but they cut them all off even with the edge of the row. It was like driving through some sort of primordial phalanx, gigantic lances turned toward the road.

One morning, shortly after the storm, he’d found deep ruts dug into the side of the asphalt. They must have been caused by some heavy equipment – that’s what he’d told himself. It didn’t ring true. He’d actually stopped the car and gone back to photograph those ruts. When he followed the direction they seemed to point, he saw a line of trees smashed flat. At first, this seemed natural, with the damage from the storm. Then he looked harder. Looking harder on that road was always a mistake.

The trees he’d noticed were broken off pointing away from the waterway, and away from the swamp beyond. All of the damage from the hurricane leaned the same direction. The opposite direction. His skin had prickled and though he kept himself from breaking into a run as he returned to his car, he averted his eyes from the claw marks on the asphalt until the state repaired them, and he never glanced into the broken trees.

He hit the last of the widely spaced stoplights and halted. There was no other traffic. Only the dim glow of lights from nearby towns broke the misty gloom. Before he could think better of it, Dave turned his gaze up to the three quarter moon. His mouth went dry. The road ahead stretched into shadows. The light shifted to green. He pulled slowly away from the stoplight and rolled at a steady fifty-five miles an hour toward the bypass and home.

He rounded the curve and shot under the overpass that dipped off to Elizabeth City. The speed limit was 65 on the bypass, and he breathed a little easier – until he glanced ahead and saw the wall of shadow he knew was the storm. He sped into its mouth and felt the Saturn shudder. He slowed and the car shimmied. He thought he saw dim glowing eyes ahead, then thought they were taillights, then saw nothing. He slowed further, imagined another vehicle roaring up from behind and clutched the wheel too tightly.

Rain pounded the car, and the overworked wipers could barely give him a foot of visibility. The dashed centerline was the only guide he could find, and it made his eyes water staring at it. Something large loomed, and his heart slammed in his chest until he realized it was the second overpass. He slowed and rolled to the side of the road beneath it, pulling as far to the side as he could. The rain cut off like a switch.

The silence was eerie. Even with the hammering rain echoing all around him, it felt like a hole in the universe. There was a roar of sound, and a flash of light. He closed his eyes as a tractor trailer roared past, barely slowing for the storm. His memory flashed on the ruts in the road near the swamp, and he thought of dragons. He opened his eyes and watched as the rain slowed again to a drizzle. Looking carefully behind, he pulled back onto the road. A mile later he spun onto Highway 17 and headed for home.

He concentrated on the road. It seemed like hours, days, maybe years since he’d climbed into the Saturn. Ahead, at last, the road to home opened up on the right. He slowed, turned, and glanced up again. The full moon winked down at him as he passed beneath a canopy of trees and tried not to watch the shadows. Tried to remember which was real and which the dream. Shifted down through layers to life.

He stepped from his car and mounted the steps to home in shadow, deepened by the moonless sky.

—- David Niall Wilson

The Deep Blue Journal

Miracles in the Night

September 30th, 2007 9 comments

Here at Storytellers Unplugged we started a semi-traditional practice last year of posting fiction during October to celebrate Halloween. When we started out, there was a predominance of horror writers in the group – we are much more diverse now. Some of us will still be posting fiction this month, and for my own entry I’ve chosen a very old story of mine. It was written for and published in a fanzine titled “Norfolk by Night,” and it’s a vampire story. It’s not extreme horror – it’s almost philosophical in nature. I still smiled when I read it, though I wrote it back in the 1990s. I will probably be reading this for a podcast version in the next day or so…and if so I’ll get the link added to the post…for now…Vintage Dave – vampires – and welcome to October!

By David Niall Wilson

I have traveled roads long and weary, darkness my companion and destiny my guide. I have seen the sun rise and set on the courts of kings, and I have seen those kingdoms crumble back to dust. I have shared wine with women, war with men, and the night with no one. I have no name, and yet I am. Death does not stalk me; not though I dream a thousand nights for his cold embrace. This is my destiny.

Though I was born to poverty and ignorance, I have aspired to eloquence and power. I am a success story on an epic scale, one with a tragic footnote. This story I have put down that those who follow in my footsteps will understand that I was here, that I endure, even now, even in the social wasteland of this place that they now call Norfolk, but that has none of the charm, or the old-world civility, of the original city of that name.

I came here out of boredom, out of an incessant need for travel, a yearning for change. I have spoken with derelicts, madmen so soused on wine and midnight dreams that they could barely remember their given names, but whose words wove the tapestry of society with clarity and vision. I have stalked men, and women as well, from upper to lower class, knowing each, loving few, ending the existences of all but one. That is my story.

I prowled the docks, for they are near the sea, near those whose adventuresome souls and yearning hearts mirror in some small way the eternal quest that drives me onward. The men of these later days do not have the heart, nor the strength, of those whom I knew in earlier times — in greater times — but the spirit is still there, and it was that I sought. Something different, something new. Someone who might relieve the unbearable weight of boredom that bears down on my shoulders every waking moment of the night. I never dreamed of entertainment, I sought only a moments relief.

I thought momentarily of the bars. There is always music. Caustic and violent as the modern groups tended to be, there was still the allure of poetry, still the message of their souls to be picked free. I decided against it. It was a night to wander beneath the stars, to find something unique. Somehow I felt it, and I have learned to trust my instincts.

And so the docks — the waves — the moonlight dancing on choppy, off-shore swells and glistening in the captured pools of salt-spray on the rocks. I moved as silently as the breeze, as effortlessly as the gulls who owned the day-time sky.

I dream, at times, of those moments — the price of immortality — the daylight lives and trivial pursuits of those upon whom I fed. I can remember, even now, the graceful swooping movements of birds, their arrogant cries. Such dreams are an empty pursuit — painful.

I saw him as I crossed from one darkened alley to another, walking along a row of abandoned warehouses without concern, despite the hour and the solitude — despite the danger. We were not in one of the better neighborhoods, those held no interest to me. It was the edge of things, the borders of the “real” world, that caught at my senses and gave me a reason to go on.

From the instant he caught my eye, I knew I’d found what I was looking for. He wore what appeared to be a robe, sweeping to the ground at his feet. It was sewn and patched together of a hundred colored rags, of old shirts and pants, even socks, wash-cloths, towels and sheets. It was multicolored and ragged, and in the moonlight, with his long gray hair and unruly beard, with the staff he held in his right hand as he moved, he might have been an ancient prophet, Moses with his robe of many colors moving through the night.

I swept past him far to one side, coming at him from the front, where he could see me clearly, moving slowly and watching him with wondering eyes.

He never flinched. His eyes were filled with light and energy, the one thing about him that bore witness to an intelligence buried beneath the veneer of madness, of secrets he knew and none would guess. I smiled, and as I drew near, I held out my hand.

He stared at me, not offering his own hand in return, but he stopped as well, as though he’d spotted, or guessed at, my own nature. He did not turn to run, nor did he cower, but he stood there as an equal, calm and self-assured.

“You are Death?” he asked calmly?

I shook my head. “I am not, nor are you Moses, but there is a strange light about you.”

“I am a prophet,” he said matter-of-factly. “I have seen things — many things. They will not listen.” He waved his arm in a gesture that encompassed the world.
“They never have,” I told him. “From one who knows only too well, they never have. Walk with me?” I asked him, but there was not really a question involved. He moved at my side easily, comfortably.

“I did not think you were Death,” he told me, “because I have not yet foreseen my own.”

“You see everything?” I prompted.

“No, only that which matters. To me, life matters very much, so I believe I will see Death, and I will know him.”

“You are not so far from the mark,” I admitted slowly. “I have been as the angel of death to many — too many to count. Does that frighten you?”

“No,” he answered immediately. “Death is for all — I have always known that. If you were Death, I would walk with you anyway — what would be the point in resistance?”

“You are a religious man?” I asked, thoroughly intrigued. We were moving back toward the beach, along the water now. There were the flashing lights of boats — naval vessels — and the occasional backfire of a car’s engine as backdrop to our conversation — nothing more.

“I am a religious man,” he replied, his eyes growing far away, “In a sacrilegious land. I am a prophet in a world of non-believers. I am the answer to questions better left unanswered, and so, am unwanted as well. There is no soul in mankind any longer.”

“And yet you believe in your own?”

“I live within my soul. It is my soul that draws me onward, that shows me ways when others see walls, that opens windows where others see only air. There are veils, shuttered portals all around us, but we have trained ourselves to ignore them. There are windows to the soul, but man has bricked them over.

“There is poetry, still, but it is empty. It is re-played pain and endless unfulfilled dreams. They do not know what will fulfill them, so they build towers to reach a God they do not believe in, hoping that when they arrive they can take over and all will be well.

“There is religion in the world, but there is no passion. The passion is for things of the Earth, things of the flesh. There is no passion for spirit, or for beauty. There is more passion for death — it must be pleasant for you?”

He turned to me then, and I was fascinated. “There is no passion in death, so it is not such a pleasant thing. I take no pleasure in death, my own or those of others. Death is a necessity, to me, the universe — even to you.

“I serve no Gods but the night, the stars, and hunger — only one demands anything of me and the effort necessary to please him is slight. Your Gods, it would seem, deny you nothing except life.”

“I have more life here,” he gestured to his breast, his eyes softening for a moment, almost twinkling, “than you will find in the rest of this city. I learn, I watch, I survive. These are my life. To know is enough.”

“But it would be better if they knew, as well,” I countered. “That is why you try to make them see.”

“I tell them because they ask. Then they laugh, point their fingers, and wander back into darkness. It is not for me to judge, or to desire, but for them.”

The hunger was calling to me, and I knew that if I stayed longer, much as I was enjoying this exchange, that I would feed. Something within me would not allow it. There was something in his eyes, something that reminded even me, after centuries of cynicism and loneliness, of faith. There was a promise in those eyes, and I would not snatch it from the Earth.

“I must leave you now,” I told him. “To you I am not Death this night, but there are others. Walk your paths, prophesy and speak when they will listen.

“Our roads are not so different. We are solitary, we are visionary, and we are free. They are lonely roads, but they are true — keep that nearest to your heart.”

With those words, and looking back only once into the flashing depths of his eyes, I was gone. I moved as swiftly as my heightened strength and agility would allow, beyond the limits of his sight — or perhaps not. He raised his staff, and he waved in the direction in which I’d moved. I did not return that wave, but turned to embrace the darkness with new vigor.

Somewhere behind me, a beacon, a latter-day Moses, walked the streets of his own land, showing miracles to the blind and preaching to the deaf. I moved as he named me, the Angel of Death, the Grim Reaper with fangs as my scythe and hunger as my guide. We both blended with the darkness.

All around me the blood called to me. Somewhere in the shadows of the city the renewal of my own form of life pulsed through another’s veins. For once, I would dine with a clear conscience — I had spared a life that mattered, and he had shared that life with me of his own free will. Such are the miracles of the night.

—– DNW

The First Church of Words and Starry Wisdom is In Session

August 31st, 2007 6 comments

by David Niall Wilson

When I was younger, I had a plan that involved growing up to be a minister. In a way, that plan never left me, since I did become ordained through the Universal Life Church, an ordainment every bit as legal as any other, but probably not taken too seriously in most circles. I also had a plan that involved growing up to be a great writer. That plan is also still kicking and breathing, and the question that keeps cropping up – one I’d like to address in this installment of Storytellers Unplugged, is simple. How is the status of “great writer” achieved? Whose judgment is required to make it so? Similar questions could be aimed at the churches who would not consider me an ordained minister, and I think my feelings on that score reflect a greater reality I can apply to writing, and to other aspects of my life.

Let’s put it into perspective. Good, great, lousy, and functional are all words that can be used to modify other words. If you apply them to writing, you require more input to make their meaning clear. The merit of a thing requires a judgment. So, to really assess what’s what, you have to know up front exactly whose word you’re going to accept as the authority.

In the case of my ordainment, it’s a simple question. The only person it matters to is me. I can make what I want of it, but I’m not likely to have folks debating over whether or not I’m a good minister. When you start looking at other roads to the ministry though – different faiths, organized religions and parochial education, you add layers of judgment, and every time you add such a layer, you add the possibility of layers of failure. You can have a rogue priest or a minister who breaks off from the religious canon he’s trained in, but you will never erase the stigma caused by their decisions, made after the fact, to deviate from set beliefs.

I face no such constraints. I represent a ministry that caters to Druids, Wiccans, Shamans, Christians, and any other faith you happen to believe in. In fact, if you really wanted to start your own religion, the best way to do so would be to get ordainment in that faith through the Universal Life Ministry, write a course on your faith, and submit it to their system to be broadcast to Reverends far and wide (among whose number you’ll find at least one cat that I know of). There are no regulations in my faith against which I should be judged, so I’m left with one criterion. In my mind, how do I feel about it? Do I feel like I’m a good proponent of my faith? Do I feel like a good minister? A great minister? I’ll leave that answer for a different time, but as an example it helps me with what’s coming next.

Writing. I recently participated (and am participating, though I’m uncertain why) in a debate that started with the flawed question “Is a great writer one who writes for a lesser, or greater audience?” That might be slightly paraphrased, but the illogic of it is intact. We now go to the criteria. Who or what group will be the judge of good, great, lousy and / or adequate? Isn’t it likely that a great writer is a great writer, and that the audience, the size of the audience, etc. is totally dislocated from the judgment? I think the answer to that is obvious, and my intention isn’t to bring that odd debate here. The question that I’d like to pose instead is, do we put layers of judgment on our shoulders and allow the possible layers of failure to cause us unnecessary stress?

For example. Say I just sat down to write a story – first time out of the gates, no expectations, just had an idea and thought, hey, I should write this down. If there is no outside expectation at this point, no reader in mind, no audience in mind, no market in mind, and so forth, I think I will write with a freedom that can’t ever be regained once one heads into any other type or level of writing. The more people who look at the work, the more angles it is attacked from and the more levels of possible failure are packed in on top, the deeper, thicker, and more complex the pressures acting on the writer, and the writing, become. Say I show that story to one person, and they love it. I’m likely to be pretty pleased, but the next thing I’ll probably want is to have more people like it. Eventually I’ll show it to someone with a critical eye, a bad attitude, or more experience, and they will tell me – honestly – what they think.

From that point on, everything changes. All bets are off. I will wonder what that person will think next time. I will wonder if the people who liked it really liked it, or just said so to make me happy. I’ll wonder if I did it right. I’ll wonder how to make it better, how to please more people, and I’ll worry over other critics who might weigh in that I’ve never interacted with in the past. In short, it’s a coming of age moment that taints every word I will write from then on, to whatever level that I allow. That, then, is the key.

It’s a matter of perspective, and if you want to write professionally and be happy doing it, you need to grasp it tightly and take it to heart. What you write has got to make you happy. Creating stories and novels has to be something you enjoy doing – that you are either driven to do, or at the very least not driven away from doing. You have to keep yourself in the equation, your sense of worth foremost, and apply this to everything you do. It doesn’t matter if you are writing for a media tie-in, a themed anthology, a stand-alone novel, ghost-writing, or doing articles for the local newspaper. They all need an investment from you, and they all need your personal backing to make the grade. Anything less than this will itch at you. It will chew at the back of your mind and irritate you, and when people bring it up you’ll be instantly defensive – not because they attack, but because you already feel as if the work NEEDS defending.

And in the end you won’t have a choice anyway. If writing is in your blood, then even if you write things that don’t make you happy and don’t make your personal grade, your mind will seek a balance. You will eventually not be able to do it any longer, and you’ll move on to something that matters. I have experienced this. Sometimes it’s like the shedding of an old skin. Sometimes it’s a natural transformation. Other times you have to drag yourself from the muck, dust off as best you can, and find a new “groove.”

And if any of you have a crisis of faith, or feel like it no longer has a point, remember that I’m here for you. The not-quite-right Reverend Dave has a very small congregation, but serves a greater world…you are all welcome in my house. And in my house, all the words are sacred…the quest is to find the proper order, the perfect pattern that will make them sing and prophesy and change the world. It’s likely a futile quest, but any quest that has an ending is not worthy of full attention. It will let you down and leave you without purpose.

I’ll pass the donation plate at my next signing…can I get an Amen?

The Deep Blue Journal
Macabre Ink

The Myth Pool and a Draught of Perspective

By David Niall Wilson

I’m currently reading one of the most recent novels by Stephen King, Lisey’s Story, which is a twist on the old writer writing a story about a writer plot. The story is about the widow of a writer, and is full of insights from an odd perspective. The perspective, in this case, is that of an author, Stephen King, writing through the mind and eyes of a woman who was married to a horror writer. In other words, it’s a way of writing about the writer without doing it in first person, and with the more objective mindset of someone on the outside looking in. I don’t know, of course, if this is an autobiographical piece, but I have to believe it’s likely. How does one resist an opportunity like that? I mean, we all know deep inside what our failings, shortcomings, bad habits and foibles are, and we believe we know our strengths. Given a chance to present our case before the jury, why not take a stab at it?

Simple answer, of course. It’s terrifying. If you could just write such a thing and walk away from it, that might be therapeutic, but not if the world is going to read it, dissect it, and half of them are going to believe it’s all about you — maybe including the woman you’ve been married to for decades. I mean, the characters and situations might be wholly removed from your own world reality, but that doesn’t mean an insightful reader – one close to your heart – wouldn’t see through the smoke screens and know when it was real.

Anyway, none of this is the point of what I sat down to write. What caught my eye (the first of many things) in this novel was a passing mention that the protagonist, Lisey, makes to “the myth pool.” In the opinion of her late husband, novelist Scott Landon, all readers and writers go to the same place to “drink”. Writers bring a buckets full of themselves, I believe, and readers bring dippers, mugs, jugs and barrels to cart the stuff away in, but that central connection is the same on either side of the fence. Sometimes I feel like I’ve set up a lemonade stand by the pool and everyone has come looking for beer, but that’s beside the point — I think King nailed the experience with his metaphoric pool. Maybe he created it by writing about it. Maybe it called out to him for some cheap advertising – and then to me to get a banner up on the web.

When I’m writing well, and the world slips away, the sensation is one of slippage. The things in the story take on substance and importance that made-up things don’t possess in regular day-to-day life. It’s the same when I’m reading. If the words I’m reading catch my attention, the world shuts down while I’m visiting whatever place, time or dimension the author has presented to me. When I have reached the end of a long writing binge, it sometimes takes days for my brain to really disengage from the story. I worry over details and replay scenes in my mind. When I finish reading an amazing book, it’s the same. I don’t want to come back. I want more information. I want to wake up with the characters one last time. It’s a very strange, very pleasant sensation. It isn’t called escapism for nothing…there is a place you actually go. Since Steve named it first, and I think it’s a fine name that will stick, I’m tacking a sign on the tree next to the stream were I serve my words to the world that reads MYTH POOL in big bold letters so people will see it and stop by more often.

And speaking of words, that brings me back to the other half of my entry. Perspective. A long time ago I wrote the first chapter of what I thought would become a novel. The title is “The Not Quite Right Reverend Cletus J (Jehosephat) Diggs and the Currently Accepted Habits of Nature.” That isn’t important. What is important is that I wrote the first chapter of this, and I loved it. I then got derailed, distracted, etc. – life took me down another road. Now I’m working on that project again. I wrote a short outline. I started to write chapter two. I hated it. It was like pulling teeth. I ground through it, and finished it, and was absolutely dissatisfied with the outcome. The worst of it was I was absolutely unable to figure out why.

Then I let it go for a day. Yesterday I was driving home, and I started to run through the plot in my head again to figure out what was wrong. I didn’t get any further than the title in my mind before it hit me so hard I nearly pulled off the road. I had started chapter two as if it were a completely new book. The POV shifted, and since this is — at its heart – a mystery, I was giving away things that I should have been keeping in my notes…things I know, but that neither the reader (Nor Cletus) should know in the second chapter. I cheerfully saved it as a spare chapter and started over last night, writing back in the POV of my protagonist, and all is right with the novella. The title was the key. It’s Cletus’ story I’m telling, and it has to be in his own time, and his own way.

The lesson in this case is that no matter how many times I tell people something about their writing, or writing in general, I still have to remind myself. I have to watch tense and POV and keep the timeline straight for all groups of characters involved and make sure that I don’t write about a character’s reactions to things they couldn’t possibly know…

I was told once a long time ago that you can’t write a story in multiple POV. That was, of course, silly. What IS true is that you can’t do it without extreme care, and if you can avoid shifting POV, you almost always should. The characters Cletus will encounter are a hell of a lot creepier revealed in tiny bits and pieces than they ever could have been if I told their story in the beginning. I may make it to chapter three yet. All I have to do is drag them out of that pool, pour them into pewter mugs, bowls, and goblets, and wait for someone to drink…

I wonder if the pool is filled with ink?



Channeling John Hancock

June 30th, 2007 5 comments

By David Niall Wilson

There is a venerable ritual in the halls of wordsmiths everywhere that I thought, considering my current odd and pretty pleasant situation, would be worthy of a bit of thought. What better place to record those thoughts, and who better to share them with?

One of the images we all have of successful authors is the tabletop full of books piled up next to a drink glass sporting an umbrella or a well shaken (never stirred) martini, and a long line of smiling, eager faces stretched off into the distance. The author is chatting up the crowd, smiling a lot, and signing his John Hancock across the pristine pages of his current bestseller. In the line, the ranks of the faithful hold white-knuckle gripped books with a variety of covers – the writer’s past – brought to him for an ink anointment and the chance of a few words about a favorite story. Somewhere in the lot is a young guy with bad hair who stares at the ground a lot. He’s hoping to find the courage to ask if his idol will read something he’s written. Another arrogant prick somewhere near the middle intends to try and bully the author into showing something to the agent that made him famous.

That’s the image I had, anyway. I used to see it in movies, even in cartoons, and during the early years of my life there was nothing to dissuade me of the truth of it. I saw one or two famous people sign books. They had the lines, and in those days none of them was important to me, so I never got into the line, and was left with my misconceptions. Now, of course, all of that has changed.

Signings are a nightmare for me, most of the time. I always get enthusiastic up-front support, followed by mediocre advertisement of the event and a small to middling to non-extant crowd on game day. The last signing I attended, a local bookstore owner asked me to come because the other guy was nervous. It was his first book, his first signing. I agreed.

I arrived to find that “other guy” and his wife had brought boxes of wine and squares of cheese. OG was a college professor. He was expecting his colleagues to show up, and was nervous beyond belief. He started on the boxed wine early. Every ten minutes or so, his wife, who was obviously already spending the huge money her author husband was about to start raking in, kept urging him to read from his work, though there were only three or four people there, all of whom came with the OG family. Another professor did show up, from a different school. He came to talk about his own crazed book involving time travel and future Baptists. OG – by the way – published his book with a very plain, very forgettable cover through Publish America. He actually asked me if I’d been paid for my books by my publishers, and seemed uncertain that this ever really happened. I didn’t stay long. I signed and sold one book. As far as I know OG sold one book as well, to the same guy – the other professor.

None of this is really what I’m here to write about, though. I want to talk about signing books. I want to talk about how cool it is to personalize the final product, the thing you slaved over, marketed, edited, revised – and waited far too long to see. It’s a very interesting sensation, and not everyone handles it the same way. Some people quickly scribble something vaguely resembling the first letter of their name and some ripples onto the page. Some people write personal messages to each and every person they sign for. Some have cute little “remarques” they add – spiders dangling, or skulls surrounding their names, and others always use a particular color of ink. I like that sort of thought in something signed to me. I like that they care about the few extra words they are adding to their book enough to take time over them and make them as memorable as possible.

I don’t always do that, of course. When I get a sheet of names for an anthology I sign fast and hard. My name will get lost in the Stephen Kings and Peter Straubs anyway, and no one is standing by, eager to get my name scribbled in their book. They don’t mind, but it’s less important (usually) than the rest. Now I face something different, and I have to tell you…it actually made me smile.

The other day I got a box in the mail from a publisher. I have a signed limited novel coming out later this year. The book has gorgeous cover art done by a close friend, will be beautifully bound and well handled, and people are shelling out a good bit of cash to own a copy, not because Stephen King is in it, but because they want something I wrote. The box contains 500 signature sheets. These aren’t just plain paper, or a page with border and a number line at the bottom – the publisher commissioned my friend the artist to create a unique signature page for me. They are gorgeous, and I intend to spend some time on them, using a calligraphy pen, and to do my best to add to something already impressive, knowing each signature will eventually be shelved next to similar books signed by others equally proud of their work and their words. These aren’t the sort of books people buy to read on the subway, but books people buy because they love the feel of leather covers and the scent of acid-free paper. And, for whatever reason, they have deemed me worthy.

That was the start of my week. Today, I got two more boxes in the mail. These came all the way from Cardiff in Wales. They are copies of my short story collection, “Defining Moments,” and about half of them are going on from me to a bookseller and then on to collectors. These stories comprise decades of my life, and the process of choosing them from the hundred and fifty or so possibilities was both unique, and rewarding. This book means a great deal to me, and, of course, I’ll be signing all those that aren’t already signed. Then they go on to the artist (the same as on the other book, my pal Don Paresi) and they will get small “remarque” sketches on their title page, making them even a bit more special and collectible than they were before, and on to collectors and readers literally worldwide. People who want to read my words…and keep them. People who want me to scribble in their new book.

Then, to top it off, I got an e-mail from fellow author Matt Cardin today. He was cheerfully informing me that the signature sheets for an anthology he and I are both in were winging their way to me as he typed. I sat, and I laughed, and today I bought another pen.

Someday, I suppose, I’ll lose the edge off the sense of wonder this process still brings me, but not this week. Not today, or tomorrow. I can imagine John Hancock signing important documents, and I can imagine the things I sign are important in their own right. I try to picture that flowing script and the bold lines of his name, and to be worthy of the moment.

I may never get my tabletop full of bestsellers, or a line headed out the door filled with people dying to talk to me, but I know that there are books on shelves with my name scribbled in them. There are others with short notes, greetings, haiku and lines of poetry. There are a couple with odd little pictures that came to me on the spur of the moment. Some of them are cherished. Some of them are forgotten. Every one of them was a moment I spent at an odd, writer’s altar, sacrificing ink to the memory of my own words. It’s a connection between myself, and the book, and when it’s a personal inscription, it’s a connection through the book to the reader. It changes the way they hold the book, how they view it, for better or worse. Some will, of course, rush off to see if it’s worth a buck on eBay, but others will want to read it more than they did, and they’ll enjoy the experience in a slightly different way. When they open the book, they’ll see the name and maybe they’ll remember how it got there. I can always dream.

After all, we remember how John Hancock’s signature got to be the icon for this phenomenon in our country, and not a one of us stood there and watched him do it. For a couple of days I’m going to be channeling John Hancock…and smiling.

Until next time,