There is a quote that’s attributed to Abraham Lincoln by some and Mark Twain by others. Regrettably, we don’t know who actually said it. Still, there is a punchy sort of wisdom to it that’s hard to dispute. It goes like this:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

The picture above echos a similar sentiment. If you can’t say something worth saying, keep quiet. Silence is better than foolishness, lies, nonsense or filler. Better, in other words, than bullshit.

I have three thoughts on this as it relates to writing.

1. All first drafts are shitty. First drafts are rarely gems. More often, they are sloppy and crude, but they are also private. Very few people are going to parade their first drafts around like proud parents, and the few who do are badly in need of a true friend to pull them aside and quietly say, “No. We don’t show that to people. Put that away…” Writing crap is simply a part of the writing process. I don’t know of any writer that can help it, famous or not. Truman Capote is credited as saying, “Good writing is rewriting.” I’m inclined to agree.

You can’t apply the silence-is-better-than-bullshit principle to first drafts or you’d never write another first draft again. My first drafts are full of holes–characters are inconsistent; sub-themes (and sometimes the main theme) are all over the map; the dialogue often sucks; and, perhaps worst of all in terms of end result, first drafts are learning experiences for me as the writer. I don’t really know where things are headed in the first draft. That’s when I find out.

All that to say, first drafts (or anything you write just for yourself, like a journal) are exempt from this rule.

2. Everyone has something to say that is worth saying. I think this point is pivotal, or else I end up sounding like an ass in the next point. (Generally, I try to avoid sounding like an ass. It pisses Vye off.) No matter who you are or what your perspective on life is, there is some message you are meant to speak. Once you discover that message, once you know what it is, speak it without apology.

Everyone may not be crazy about your message. Some may even call it bullshit. However, if you know it’s a message that resonates with you, then it’s not bullshit no matter what anyone else says. It’s your message and you are most yourself when you’re speaking it.

3. Say things that are worth saying; the rest of the time, shut the hell up and listen. My experience is that most of us like the sound of our own voices, even in print. As a result, sometimes we say things that deviate from the important. We sputter nonsense and fluff because we want to be saying something and we haven’t put in the hard work to figure out what is worth saying.

Let me reiterated the first two points: It takes work to find your message. The things you ramble to yourself and your close friends during that period are okay, even if they aren’t particularly amazing. But there is a message (or more likely, messages) you are meant to deliver. When you find one of those, speak it loudly and clearly and without a hint of embarrassment.

When you aren’t sure what to say, or when you’re certain that anything you speak will be (at best) a shot in the dark and (at worst) an outright lie, keep quiet. Take those opportunities to listen to others who are speaking and learn from them. Grow. Allow your own voice to form itself. A balanced life, whether you’re a writer or not, should be made up of times when you speak and times when you listen. Make sure you’re doing both, and try to time them well.

Silence is better than bullshit. When you speak, make your words count. Say the things only you can say that are worth saying.

I’ve been asked a handful of times to participate in various blog hops. (A blog hop is a pass-the-torch style post in which one blogger highlights several other writers he/she likes, who then highlight other writers they like, and so on. The idea is to promote fellow writers.) Often, I pass on these. I’ve done a couple, but there are so many different chain blog posts going around that one could easily get sucked into spending entirely too much time community building and too little time writing. I’m all for community building, but writing time is important, too.

“Where is this going, Dex?” you ask.

All of that to say, when I accept an offer to participate in one of these, it’s typically because of who asked me. In this case, the asker is a seriously talented writer who, like me, maintains two blogs–one for fiction and one for various other stuff that sometimes includes fiction. Her writing is poetic and touching, often raw in a very intimate sort of way. I want to support her as a writer because I want her to keep writing. It’s not a noble motive on my part. I just want to be able to read her stuff.

Alana Agerbo writes out of Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Starting her blog in March of last year in an attempt to pin down the words skittering through her mind has inspired her to write on an almost daily basis. She has a dusty old manuscript lying in the drawer, complete with, more than a few, letters of rejection. She is hopeful to see her work on a shelf one day, not a speck of dust to be found.

Alana has had some works published on Ezine.com, which can be found here.

She blogs here and here, tweets here, and hosts a writer-inspired facebook page here.

And now, per the protocol of blog hopping, here’s a little more about me and what I’m working on.

1. What is the working title of your next book?

Parsons Crossing

2. Where did the idea for your book come from?

Years ago, a couple of friends and I were talking about how much fun it would be to create a haunted attraction. We dreamt up this elaborate haunted forest idea, complete with a ghostly backstory. That ghost story became the rough basis for this book, though it’s changed a lot in my mind since those first conversations.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Dark fantasy.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’ll tell you right now, I hate this question. I have agonized over each choice, and I can’t say I’m 100% happy with what I came up with. It’s silly because the book isn’t done and I’m not actually casting a movie, but each choice seemed so deeply personal, putting a face and voice to characters I’ve only seen in my mind. I’ve spent more time on this question than any other on this list, and yet, blah. That’s what I have to say. Blah.

Nevertheless, here are my choices:

Nate – Paul Dano
Annabelle – Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Father Daughtry – David Thewlis
Chief Collins – Jeff Bridges
Mrs. Sinclair – Fionnula Flanagan
Jake – Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Parson – Jackie Earle Haley

Yes, yes. I know that list means nothing to you, dear reader. Those are just names with actors listed beside them. I’d give descriptions, but in some cases I can’t without giving away key plot points and I’ve already spent enough time on this question. Please forgive my vagueness.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Oh, geez. Another really hard one. Okay, here goes:

Something evil has woken just outside the east Texas town of Parsons Crossing, and only a small group of mismatched guardians can stop the coming destruction.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Don’t know yet. I hope to find an agent when I have a workable draft of it. That would be my preference. If I cannot, I’ll self-publish.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It’s not yet done, but when it is done, it will have been about 4 months.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I wouldn’t, not because there aren’t comparable stories out there, but because I’ve gone to great pains to avoid doing that in my own head. I don’t want to pull from other stories while writing it.

I hope that fans of Jim Butcher‘s The Dresden Files, Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods, Martin Millar‘s Lonely Werewolf Girl and Simon R Green‘s Nightside Series would enjoy it. I’m not saying my book is like these books–that would be more than a little cocky as I’ve just listed some amazing works. I’m just saying these are authors and books I appreciate whose dark tone I hope to match.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Love of writing. I’ve always wanted to write a book. Books, really. Yes, it would be nice to get published and be rich and famous and all of that, but I’m writing this book because I want to. If you told me today that I will never be published and that no one, apart from friends and family I inflict it upon, will read my book, I’d finish it anyway. Vye deserves as much. The story deserves as much. And, it’s kind of fun.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

I plan for it to be the beginning point of at least two series—one that will follow Nate and one that will follow Annabelle.

And now, here are a few other writers you really should be reading:

Mike Allegra
Mike Allegra writes a lot. His first children’s book, Sarah Gives Thanks, was published in September 2012 by Albert Whitman & Company and is now in its second printing. His plays have been read and performed around the country. He has a day job, too; Mike is the editor of The Lawrentian, the nationally award-winning alumni magazine of the Lawrenceville School (Lawrenceville, NJ). He is also known to enjoy a nice, toasty Belgian waffle.

Blog  |  Facebook

Stephen Green
A full-time worker, full-time father and full-time husband with dreams of becoming a full-time author without coming off as being full of it. Currently he is in the midst of revising his first novel in hopes of shopping for an agent this fall. From week-to-week he shares his experiences in writing at The Parking Lot Confessional for all to gape at, point and giggle, or hopefully, commiserate. For all other random ramblings and musing, you can find him sullying the web at The Shadowed Quill.

Blog  |  Twitter

Julie Elizabeth Hill
Born in Toronto, Ontario, Julie Elizabeth Hill exported herself to Vancouver, British Columbia after many years of staring longingly at the map following every snowfall. For as long as she can remember, she’s been making up stories, but it wasn’t until high school that someone suggested writing them down. Since then, she’s been hopelessly in love with story crafting, often forgetting about everything else in the process.

Blog  |  GoodReads  |  Twitter

Amy K. Nichols
Amy K. Nichols is a YA author from the Phoenix area. She is represented by Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary. Her first novel, Another Here, Another Now, will be published by Knopf BFYR in fall of 2014. You can read samples of her work here.

Blog  |  Twitter

Erin Brady Pike
Erin Pike is an attorney by day and a fiction writer by night. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Erin attended the University of Louisville, where she majored in philosophy and graduated with honors. She was a member of Golden Key and was later admitted to Mensa International. She went on to receive her law degree from the Brandeis School of Law. Having spent several years establishing her legal career, Erin now spends her free time writing novels for middle-school and high-school aged children. She hopes to find a publisher that loves her characters as much as she does.

Blog  |  Twitter

Accountability works best when there are at least two people involved. Granted, I’ve got Vye to hold me accountable, but she’s not really a people. She’s a muse, and they see things their own way. Her method of holding me accountable is to sulk quietly and then, when I’m not looking, slip out the back and refuse to return until she feels like it.

Don’t get me wrong. When she does that, message received. But it doesn’t do much to push me toward action when I’m slogging through my day-to-day not as on task as I should be.

So, accountability. Vye isn’t going to give it to me. And I try to do it, myself, but that’s tough. If I’m the one not churning out the word count I should be, I’m not a good candidate for kicking my own ass into gear. I end up just telling myself I suck. Again, this gets the message across (ie, “You should be doing something!”), but isn’t effective motivation.

One thing I learned from NaNoWriMo is that I am perfectly capable of writing a shit-ton of words a day. On my writing days, I didn’t have a single day of less than 4K. My word count since NaNoWriMo ended? Um, yeah. Not as impressive.

Writers can hold one another accountable, and sometimes that works, but sometimes (I suspect more often) it doesn’t. If someone who’s churning out words at break-neck speed tried to encourage me on a 12 word day, I’m afraid I would feel a considerably stronger urge to strangle them with their laptop cord than to run back to the blank page and type.

What is a writer to do, then? Practice, I think, and be okay with failure. Set goals and track them. It’s irritating, but telling. Experiment. What environment works best for you? What music? What time of day? What days of the week?

And then, rinse and repeat.

I’ve always liked that people who do yoga call it “practicing” yoga. Really, that’s what writers do, too. We practice. Sometimes all the stars align and our efforts are wildly successful. More often, we struggle through, hopefully meeting our goals more often than we don’t. The great challenge is just to keep writing. There are going to be times when you won’t want to and there will always be good reasons not to.

But words don’t write themselves. Writers do. Fallen, ego-driven, lazy, unorganized, undisciplined writers. Push through your faults, lay aside your ego, stop being lazy, find some way to organize your thoughts and, for God’s sake, embrace discipline no matter how prickly it feels. It’s the only way.

And if you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who will hold you accountable in a way that doesn’t make you feel like shit, use that, too. Use anything you can to keep writing. That’s the hard part.

NaNoWriMo is in full swing and I’m happy to announce that I’ve written 36,456 words so far. At my current pace, I’ll easily finish on time, but my book is almost certainly going to exceed the 50,000 word minimum goal by a good bit. The story is growing as I write, and I know when I’m done I’ll have nothing more than a foundation–a ‘shitty first draft‘–that I’ll have to rework and finesse if it’s to become a publishable novel. 

Still, I’m happy with the progress, as is Vye. It’s a wild ride, writing at this pace, but it’s fun.

For this week’s flash fiction, I’ve returned to a prompt from the 500 Club. The story is a simple one and I’m hardly the first to tell it, but I think it turned out well. Please feel free to give me your thoughts in the comments.

Here is the prompt:

Sometimes the best laid plans lay in ruin due to one simple mistake or happenstance. Write 500 words about that little mistake or happenstance.

Best of luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMo writers. I hope you’re enjoying the journey as much as I am. 

brother’s keeper

The rock dropped from his hand.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, he thought.

The sun was low in the afternoon sky. Around him stalks swayed in the breeze, the breath of God rolling over the land. He could smell the earth–the plants, the soil, the cedar trees at the edges of the field. This was his place. This had always been his place. Suddenly, it felt alien and a deep sadness gripped his heart.

At his feet lay the body. It wasn’t moving. He could see blood pooling around the head, the eyes rolled back. The tongue hung out of the mouth, lifeless. He had no word for what he was looking at. No way to categorize the sight. The wound was grievous. It didn’t surprise him that the body lay still, but questions hung about him in the air.

Would he wake? Would he heal? Would this be like so many other scrapes, cuts and bruises? Maybe he was only sleeping. Had it not been for the way his eyelids remained open he might have been able to believe that.

But the chest didn’t rise and fall. Without breath, he began to draw a terrible conclusion. Is it even possible, he asked himself, to destroy a person? To steal life? To undo what God had done?

From a few feet away, his dog whined. She watched him, and he realized she was afraid. He was afraid, too. He could not hide this, no matter how much he wanted to. In his mind, a desperation took seed and he wished it all away. The last day. The shame of embarrassment. The craving he’d felt for validation and acceptance. The jealousy. The anger that gave birth to rage.

He’d only wanted to talk. Between the two of them, he had hoped they could come to an understanding. There needn’t be a good one and a bad one. They were equals, or so they had always thought of themselves, even though he was older. He’d wanted to reaffirm that and restore his place.

His fingers curled into a fist as another wave of enmity washed over him. Silently, he cursed himself, the sky, the day, the field. A still, small voice in his head spoke then: This is what caused it, the voice said. Your own rage. 

Pain overcame wrath, and his fist fell open as the first tears dropped from his eyes.

“What have I done?” he asked the empty field. The stalks waved back and forth in response, like so many heads slowly shaking. He could feel their judgment. All of creation would mark him for what he was. The agony he felt in his heart threatened to unravel his mind and rob him of what sanity he had left.

“Come,” he said to the dog.

Turning from Abel’s body, Cain walked into the woods, hoping that God wouldn’t see his trail as he made his way into the shadows. But he knew he could not hide.

This scene played out earlier today:

Vye looked at me from across my study. Her arms were crossed. “I don’t care.”

“But all the others have been based on prompts,” I tried to explain.

“I don’t care.”

“But what about the continuity of the series?”

“I don’t care.”

“What about consistency?”

“I don’t care.”

“What about my word? I said all the stories in this series would be based on prompts!”

She narrowed her eyes. “I. Don’t. Care.”

“Fine,” I said in frustration. “What do you care about?!”

She never faltered. Never dropped eye-contact. Never hesitated. “The story,” she said. “I care about the story.”

Vye and I don’t have it out often, but when we do one of two things happens. Either she wins and the story plays out the way it was meant to, or I win and the story suffers for it. I’ve learned the hard way, it’s best to do what your muse demands.

That said, this week’s story, the final piece of the Kinter house series, is not based on a prompt. I knew how the story needed to end, how it wanted to end, and the prompts this week simply didn’t work. They were way too specific or just too out of place in the insanity that is the Kinter basement. So I didn’t use one. I just wrote. 

If you’ve been keeping up with the series all along, I hope this is an ending you can, ahem, live with. Please let me know what you think of it in the comments. If you haven’t read the rest of these stories, please click here, and be sure to start at the bottom and read them in the order they were posted.

into the blinding light

Kinter responded to Carrie’s growl with a grunt of his own. His eyes were all whites and pupils. Blood cascaded down his leg. The torch had burn him badly but failed to cauterize the wound. It was a wonder he was able to stand at all.

Carrie charged forward, her knife hand leading. Kinter opened his arms in a come-to-papa gesture. He smiled at her in a way that was obscene. She let out another war cry just as she was about to collide with him, and then threw her weight to the left, toward the stairs. Kinter didn’t see the change-up coming. He’d been prepared with a counter-lunge and was already in mid-swing when Carrie disappeared on him. He stumbled forward, unable to recover his balance.

He was headed right for Mr. Baker.

Carrie looked down at the knife. It looked unlike any knife she’d held before. It looked like something from a movie about Navy Seals and Delta Force guys, not something you’d expect to see in an old man’s basement. It was heavy, though, and it felt good in her hand. And, of course, it was all she had.

She had never thrown a knife before, so she knew nothing about technique. Still, Kinter’s burnt leg was toward her and he made for a decent-sized target. If she could make contact with the raw, ruined flesh of his leg, even with the dull end, Kinter would forget all about Mr. Baker and chase after her, like a mad hound chasing a rabbit.

Yeah, she thought. Chase me, you fucking bastard.

She gripped the knife by the blade–that’s how they do it in movies–and chucked it at Kinter. It flung end over end toward the charred flesh that used to be his leg and, unbelievably, made contact. More than that. The blade caught on his muscle and easily slid in. Carrie heard it hit the bone. She ran forward and wrapped her fingers around the handle while Kinter thrashed, obscenities flowing from his lips like he was speaking a language made only of curse words.

She had to pull hard.

When the knife popped free, blood spewed from the wound with more force and in greater volume than Carrie would have thought possible. He was an O+ piñata.

Clutching his leg, Kinter dropped the knife he’d been holding and crumpled to the ground. He was mewing now, incoherent sobs that reminded Carrie of Kevin. She kicked Kinter’s fallen knife away from his body and took Mr. Baker’s hand.

“Come on. We need to get outta here! Now!”

When she turned back to the stairs, there was Jessica.

“The sister. Fuck my life.”

“What?” Mr. Baker asked.

“The fucking sister. She’s between us and the stairs now.”

Jessica had ribbons of blood across her scarred face. The bright scarlet shining in the dim light was the only attractive thing about her. She looked to Carrie and said, “Don’t you want to be pretty?” She posed the question with mild indignation, the same way Carrie’s 3 year-old sister might ask, “Don’t you want to play with my dollie?”

“No thanks, crazy,” Carrie said. “I’m just fine the way I am.”

Jessica clearly didn’t understand. “You don’t want to be pretty? I thought everyone wanted to be pretty. Like me…” She stared into the middle distance trying to wrap her mind around Carrie’s preference for plain looks. “I’ve never made anyone pretty,” Jessica muttered. “I’ve just watched all these years…”

That’s when Carrie saw Jessica’s hands. In one hand, she held a pair of yard sheers. In the other, something wet and red and small. Carrie could not help but stare at it, horrified. She had to know what it was, but she was afraid to look at Max. She had intentionally avoided even a glance in that direction. Pragmatically, she reasoned that Max was likely as good as dead. He’d lost a lot of blood–so much she could smell it–and even if he lived, he’d never be the same. Her friend was already gone.

In spite of herself, she looked at Max now. His body was ragged, sagging in the chair they’d tied him to. The stump where his right hand should have been was black and, God help her, gooey. But it was his face that made her gag. His cheeks had been sliced open at the corners of his mouth. His lower jaw hung open, unnaturally wide, allowing for a too-full view of the interior of his mouth.

Jessica had been playing. She held Max’s tongue in her hand, her fingers rubbing it like it was a good luck charm.

Mercifully, Max was passed out from shock or already dead. At least, that’s what Carrie told herself.

Carrie looked back to Jessica. There was a twinkle in her demented eyes. Come and let me make you pretty, it said. Carrie had never been one for make-overs. She hated slumber parties because someone was always making her try different kinds of make-up, just for fun. Maybe one day she’d grow into it. Maybe when her breasts came in and her hips acquired curves. Maybe then she’d paint her face and select her clothes strategically. Maybe then she’d want with all her heart to be pretty, but not today.

Today, she didn’t give a flying fuck about being pretty.

Unlike her brother, Jessica wasn’t sporting a severe burn down the length of one whole leg. And Carrie doubted she could taunt her into a charge. She’d be harder to get past.

Mr. Baker squeezed Carrie’s hand. “What’s going on?”

“Mexican stand-off,” Carrie said.

“The sister?”

“Yeah. She’s in our way. How are your legs?”

Mr. Baker’s face twisted in confusion. “Fine, I think.”

“I mean, you aren’t hurt, right? You could run or kick, couldn’t you?”

“I guess so.”

“Good.”

Carrie turned back to Jessica who stood swaying in a breeze only she felt. She seemed entirely unconcerned about the two human beings intent on leaving the basement, even if they had to kill her to get out. Carrie did a quick visual search for Kevin. He was behind her, still sobbing silently, sucking his thumb.

“You wanna make me pretty?” Carrie asked.

Jessica smiled. “Yes.”

“Like…my friend?” Carrie gestured toward Max.

“Oh, no,” Jessica said. “Much prettier.”

“Come and get me, then.”

Jessica chuckled. “Child. You have a knife. I’m not as foolish as you think I am.”

“Fine.” Carrie tossed the knife toward Max. It slid to a stop at his feet in a puddle of crimson. “Now I don’t have a knife.”

Jessica nodded. “And I will make you pretty.”

She began to walk forward. When she was about 3 feet away, Carrie slipped her hand from Mr. Baker’s and dove at Jessica’s legs. She was fast, too fast for Jessica to see it coming. Jessica dropped her sheers and the tongue. Carrie hit her at the ankles, wrapping her arms around Jessica’s legs and throwing all her weight into the lowest possible point. Jessica had been walking quickly, eager to begin the make-over, and the momentum of her body carried her forward still.

She was falling–over Carrie, toward Mr. Baker.

“Mr. Baker!” Carrie shouted. “Kick now! Hard!

Mr. Baker didn’t hesitate. His right leg swung forward with as much force as he could muster, his foot making contact with Jessica’s chin. Even with sight, he could not have hoped for a better hit. Jessica’s head snapped back and her body flung over Carrie, landing in a heap where she’d been standing only seconds before. Blood flowed freely from her mouth. She’d bitten her own tongue off and it lay on the floor next to Max’s, tips touching like some kind of sick, sadistic kiss.

“Let’s go!” Carrie declared.

Mr. Baker held a hand out and Carrie took it. She pulled him around Jessica and toward the stairs. “Kevin! Move it!”

Behind her, she could hear Kevin trudging forward.

When she reached the stairs, she said, “Steps.” Mr. Baker nodded and they started up.

They burst through the door at the top of the stairs into the kitchen. The sunlight was blinding, even late in the day. Had it been that dark down there? She navigated Mr. Baker toward the front door. Once in the yard, they would be more or less safe.

When she opened the door, a warm breeze greeted her. It seemed to caress her face, bringing with it the smells of newly mowed grass and hot dogs on a grill and hints of late blooming flowers. It was the sweetest thing she’d ever smelled.

Mr. Baker felt the sunlight, too, and exhaled. Had he been holding his breath? “Is the boy with us?” he asked.

Kevin. Damn it, where is he?

“He’s slow,” she said. “I’ll make sure he made it out.”

She trotted back into the house cautiously, expecting to see Kevin headed toward the front door. But no one was there. She crossed the living room. No one in the kitchen. She looked to the door leading down to the basement.

No, she thought.

Kinter appeared at the top of the stairs. His arm twitched and he was still bleeding, but he wore a smile nonetheless. Carrie searched the kitchen counters for a knife or something, anything, to use as a weapon.

“Go, girl,” he said. “We’ll not make you pretty. You’ve beaten us, an old man and his sister. Go. Tell the authorities and bring an end to the beauty of  the pain.”

Carrie eyed him with suspicion. Was it a trap?

“But go knowing this: we have one offering yet to make.”

Carrie heard Kevin then, crying from somewhere down in the dark. There was another noise, too. A gargled sound, like someone laughing and choking at the same time.

“Oh yes,” he said, his eyes alight. “We will make him pretty.”

And then he closed the basement door. When Carrie heard the lock engage, she ran. When she heard the first scream, before she’d even made it to the yard, a tear traced her face.

Out into the blinding sun she ran, looking for help, but the only help Max and Kevin were to receive would come on the other side of the pain.

First, a disclaimer: If you haven’t read the other stories in this series, click here to read them before getting into this week’s flash fiction. (Start at the bottom and read them in the order they were posted.)

The prompt this week (from the 500 Club) is a perfect example of how unpredictable the development of this series can be, even for me. This prompt was, I assure you, the easiest one to weave into the fabric of this series available this week, and it was no easy thing to fit it in. (Feel free to let me know in the comments if it feels forced or if it works for you.) And yet, I loved writing it…because I had to be creative and work to make it fit. (It helped that Vye was definitely by my side today. She’s a helpful girl when she wants to be.)

While I’m talking about the series, another thing I’ve enjoyed about writing it is that the point of view changes with each installment. That makes each piece feel totally different to me, and allows me to capitalize on the knowledge, experience and ignorance of different characters. (Also, since it’s what Stoker did when writing Dracula, it makes me feel just a little bit–a teeny, tiny bit–like I’m following in the footsteps of one of the greats.)

Okay, the prompt was:

Luck Would Have It: Pick a common lucky item, good (horse shoe, penny on heads, rabbit’s foot) or bad (black cat, monkey’s paw, cracked mirror) , and give it an uncommon story. In 500 words, turn luck on its ear.

the wishing stone

It’s a little thing–something I’ve never even told anyone about for fear of embarrassment. A couple of years ago I was out on a walk, thinking about life and some big decisions I had coming up. I was worried and anxious. I knew what I wanted to have happen, but I felt like it was a long shot. All the stars would have to align, that kind of thing. While I was walking, I found this small, round stone on the street near the curb. It looked like the kind of stone that should be on a beach somewhere, having been worn smooth by the constant churning of water. And yet, it was on my street, less than half a mile from my house, nowhere near a beach of any kind.

I picked it up and, without realizing I was doing it, began to rub my thumb against it as I walked and thought. I thought about what I wanted to have happen, how I wanted the turbulence in my life to settle, and made those quiet, secret wishes we all make but pretend we don’t. When I got home, I set the stone on my dresser.

Within days I knew the outcome of the issues I’d been fretting over. Everything came out just as I’d hoped it would. The superstitious side of me attributed my good fortune to the stone, which I decided must have granted my wishes that day on my walk. Since then, more days than not, I carry the stone in my pocket. It’s small–only about the size of a silver dollar–and I remain convinced it somehow helps. Call it my rabbit’s foot. My lucky pair of socks.

It’s my personal talisman.

As I came to, the first thing I felt was that stone in my pocket. I should have felt my hands, still bound to the chair, or the ball gag, still stuffed securely in my mouth. I should have felt the drool running off my chin or even the tears I’d cried earlier, now dried on my face and leaving crusty reside around my useless eyes. But no. I felt the stone, it’s meager weight reminding me that it was still in my pocket.

I hear steps and sobbing. There were more people in the basement now. I heard a child’s whimper and Mr. Kinter announce that he intended to teach someone how to remove a human ear with a pair of scissors. Then I heard sounds. Horrible sounds. No screams, but cutting sounds mixed with sploshes, splats and hacks.

I closed my mind to the sounds and focused on the stone. Maybe it was just a stone. Maybe it had no power at all, no magic to it. Maybe it was silly or stupid or desperate of me, but I started wishing. I called on it to hear me again. I wished to be out of that basement and somewhere safe.

And as crazy as it sounds, the stone heard my wish.

Ritual is necessary for us to know anything.

– Ken Kesey

There are two things I believe about ritual and art. One, I believe ritual is important for art. I’ve never met or read about an artist of any kind who didn’t have a ritual of some sort. Some rituals are elaborate, and some simple to the point of seeming mundane. It doesn’t matter. Ritual is a part of the craft from what I can tell, and I suspect that at least 99% of all artists use rituals to set the stage for their work.

Two, I believe that each individual’s rituals are their own. What has meaning for you might seem silly and trite to someone else. Conversely, the non-negotiable rituals of the greatest writers of the last century might be entirely meaningless if you tried to incorporate them into your routine. It doesn’t really matter what gets anyone else into their writing head-space. What matters is what gets you into yours.

I tend to listen to music a lot. Either classical or The Crystal Method, most days. Often I light a candle. Vye likes the soft glow of the flames and I like the way they smell. I am almost always drinking coffee, though once in a great long while I’ll substitute it with tea or whiskey. That’s me. That’s what I do.

You should do whatever works for you, and you should know what works for you. Make your writing rituals a part of the joy of writing. Include things that make you feel like a writer, things that get you pumped up or focused or both. Things that put your head in the words. Things that set you free.

Good writing is like a door that opens up to a world of infinite possibilities, and often, ritual is the key that unlocks the door.

Several months back, Letters of Note (a consistently interesting blog) published the letter Nick Cave sent MTV in 1996 after having been nominated for an MTV Video Music Award. In it, Cave declined the invitation in a way I’m am certain Vye would appreciate.

(Even as I say that, she’s sitting here beside me vigorously nodding her head. She’s all wild hair and approval, this muse of mine.)

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

It’s a fine line Mr. Cave walked, no doubt about it. On the one hand, awards (yes, I suppose even MTV awards) are a way that patrons of various arts show their approval and appreciation. I’m sure he had fans who were disappointed that he declined the potential honor. On the other hand, there is something wonderful about his perspective on his art. It’s not a competition. It’s not a vehicle to win him accolades. It’s something more, something deeply personal and even sacred. To marry it with the chaotic glitter of MTV might well have spoiled it.

I can respect that.

Even more, I can understand it. I don’t know that I’ll ever write anything people want to stand up and cheer for. God knows I hope I do, but I might and I might not. But if I do, however I navigate the accolades that do or don’t come my way, I hope I’m able to do it with reverence for the art and respect for Violet.

Our muses deserve no less from us.

This story is a continuation of the flash fiction I wrote last week for Flash Fiction Friday, though this one has been written based on a prompt from the 500 Club. (If you haven’t read “those screams” yet, you might want to check it out first.) It’s funny–I thought last week’s piece was particularly dark, but that wasn’t the feedback I got on it. And, as I mentioned in one of the comments, no sooner had I posted it than I wanted to go back to it and see what happens beyond the end. 

I knew, even before I looked at any prompts this week, that I would revisit Mr. Kinter and poor Jack. Then, when I saw the prompts at the 500 Club, it was clear I was meant to keep this story going. One of them fit so perfectly with the idea I already had, how could I pass it up? Vye was positively giddy.

Here’s the prompt:

Write a scene with a ticking clock. Figurative or literal, this scene must have a countdown, a deadline, a looming axe about to fall. Go.

Now, let’s see how deep this rabbit hole goes.

make it pretty

James told me not to make any noise. It’s hard, though–like when we were kids and he would make me laugh during church. Momma pinched the back of my arm if I embarrassed her, so I tried to hold it in, but that only made things funnier. James liked to make fun of the preacher. Sometimes we pretended that he was talking about sex instead of Jesus. That was dirty but it always made me laugh, and momma would pinch my arm and put her hand over my mouth to keep me from screaming.

James says that’s where we both learned about the pain.

That was when we were little, though. Sometimes I had bruises on the back of my arm after church, but it wasn’t too bad. James liked it when they were deep and purple, but usually they hardly showed at all, so sometimes he’d help them. When he first started doing it he had to hold me down, but the colors were so pretty and it made him so happy, I ended up asking him to do it. “Make them pretty.” That’s what I said to him.

When we were 12–we’re twins, even though he’s a boy and I’m a girl–James started making the cats pretty. There were tons of them around our house. Most of them were strays, but there was this widow across the street who had at least twenty cats, James said. Sometimes we would make one of hers pretty. As much as I liked the purple on my arms, the red was even lovelier. James was like an artist.

Usually when we made a cat pretty we took it down to our basement. Momma was real sick by then and she didn’t pay any attention to what we did. Besides, that’s where James kept his tools–a pair of pliers, a file, a tack hammer, a funnel, some wire, like the kind they used to hang pictures, and a couple of screw-drivers. Plus, there were lots of bottles of stuff down there. It was always fun to see what would happen if we made the cat drink some.

One time James decided he wanted to make one of the widow’s cats pretty in her own backyard. I carried his tools for him. My job was to be the lookout and to keep quiet. James made my arm pretty before we went to help me remember.

We made the widow’s back porch red. It was beautiful–James said so–and then we hid behind her shed so we could see her when she came out.

She cried for a long time. I’d never heard anyone cry like that. It made me sad, but it made James very happy. He said he liked the sounds of her screams.

He’s going to make this one scream, I think. He can’t see me because James made him blind. I’m just supposed to watch him until James comes back. His tools are all here.

It won’t be long now.

“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.”

– Bob Dylan

For me, writing is more fun than…well…not writing.

When I get into a flow it’s like runner’s high. I feel no pain. The emotional endorphins have kicked in and I’m just cruising. My fingers are barely touching the keyboard. My mind is on fire…in a good way. I feel like I’m channeling something (“Uh-hem,” says Vye). Each word, each sentence spills out before me. I’m just a vessel. The story wants  to be told. I’m little more than the lucky sonofabitch who was chosen as the messenger.

But that is not all the time.

Sometimes I agonize while writing–over the content, over the story arch, over character development and plot points. Sometimes I can’t find the words. At those moments I feel like a blind man groping around on the ground for something, anything, that has solid form. Something I recognize, but there is nothing there. And sometimes, as a writer who ventures to dark territory, I have to scare myself (or work through my own fears, pain and failures) to bring the story to the page.

In short, writing is fun, but it is most definitely work. You should enjoy it most of the time, but if you’re doing it “right” there should also be moments of pain mixed in.

One guy’s opinion. Feel free to disagree.