A Brown Bird, Flown Away

I have nothing wise or comforting to say about the death of David Lamb of Brown Bird on April 5. I knew of their music for just over a year and I saw them perform live nearly a year earlier to the day. In the review I wrote of their gig at The Ark, I mentioned how personally important “Fingers to the Bone” had been for me that week. The lyrics take on a stronger meaning now given the sudden departure of one of singing voices. The sense of mourning I have over his death is weird, of course. I didn’t know him “personally” — but that’s the strange magic of art, isn’t it? — that we “know” artists deeply even when we know them only through their work. Permit me a drop of sentiment here, OK? Listen to the lyrics and consider how you are living your life, how you are “making your living.” Make changes as necessary.

And buy all their stuff! (http://brownbird.bandcamp.com/)

Life Lessons from an Active Shooter

bangbangI am not the bad-ass in life that I am in my dreams but today, I learned that I’m not very bad-ass even in make-believe. I “survived” a two-hour scenario-based training session designed to model responses to an active shooter in my workplace. It was not at all what I expected and in particular, my responses were not what I expected.

I thought there’d be little new for me. Heck, I’m a horror writer, who has researched mass shootings for my writing. I’m a gamer who has played my share of “First Person Shooter” style games. I have fired a variety of hand guns during my life from flintlock to nine millimeter. Ho-hum. Come to find out, however, I have not really been shot at.

The training started, as all training does these days, with a slide presentation. It was boring and factual and though it presented horrifying information, numbers can induce only a limited amount of shock. There were technical difficulties, but when the closing video finally did play, my heart began to beat in a different way. I’ve seen surveillance footage of school shootings, listened to numerous 911 calls but somehow this was different. I was being encouraged to actively imagine myself in this context, to learn from what was happening. The presentation took so long that I thought, maybe, there wouldn’t be enough time to run the scenarios, that we’d be let go chastised with a bit of book-learning. I was wrong. There was plenty of time. Many of the worst shooting incidents in history were over in 8 minutes.

We broke into groups, roughly the same number of students in an average class, and filed into classrooms. There were to be three scenarios where we were to model three different techniques: lockdown, barricade, confrontation. We waited until we heard the shots to start our reactions. The shot sounded fake, too high, lacking the presence of the rounds I’ve fired on a shooting range. If I didn’t know what to expect, it would have been extremely easy for me to dismiss it as something innocuous. I dove beneath a table, knowing we were sitting targets if the shooter came in our room. Then someone noticed an attached office. We regrouped into this smaller space, blocked the plate glass windows as best we could. The shooter entered and fired, describing the people he could see, naming his victims. I cowered behind a filing cabinet, out of sight I hoped.

The second scenario we were to barricade the doors. These doors had no internal locks, but the lever-action door handles meant that we could wedge a chair leg in such a way that kept it from opening. That was the idea at least. Our wedge slowed down our shooter for an instant but he still got in. We’d piled flimsy desks in front of the opening too, but since the door opened outward, they simply toppled out into the hall. When the gun shots started, some of us retreated to the back office to a secondary barricade back there. When this scenario ended, my back was pressed against a short cinderblock wall. It was difficult to coax my body to move.

After this second scenario, I began to realize I was no bad-ass. I could not feel my fingers on either hand, my lips were numb, I could see my pulse throbbing in my vision. I felt fundamentally weak in my upper torso, just above my solar plexus. I thought “Do they have many casualties during these trainings, old fat guys like me who keel over with heart-attacks?” Part of what I was feeling was dread though. In the first two scenarios I had not actually seen the shooter. I hid. The final scenario was to role-play confronting the shooter. I knew that in a couple minutes, I was likely going to be shot.

I mean of course “shot.” The shooter was a well-trained professional, skilled in the use of blanks. Still there was the scent of a discharged weapon in the air, that dry spicy smell, something like burning leather. It seemed so wrong, so out of place to smell gunfire in a classroom. The shooter entered. He fired. We began throwing things at him to distract him. We’d been equipped with foam balls to represent objects we could throw (water bottles, a stapler), but it didn’t take long to run out of easy distractions. He kept shooting. In the end, the most effective thing I did during the entire training was to toss a stack of index cards. They fluttered through the air in all directions, buying someone a couple more seconds of life. Then the shooter aimed and shot me. Dead.

And it was over. The scenarios had taken roughly 15 minutes. The survivors and the slain helped re-arrange the classroom. We’d broken three of the desks. The trainers warned us that sometimes the people portraying shooters are actually wounded by over-zealous participants in the confrontation phase. I had made a mental note, don’t be too rough on him since I still thought I’d be a bad-ass. The closest I ever got to the shooter was after everything was done, when I went up to shake his hand, to thank him for the valuable lessons I’d learned.

“Is it hard?” I asked him, “to play the shooter?”

He smiled, “Not really. I don’t cuss in everyday life, though.”

Maybe we were all role-playing, pretending to be someone other than who were really are. Maybe really, deep down, I am a bad-ass and I’d be a hero if the moment came. After today’s training, I hope I never, ever have to find out. But I did learn that it doesn’t take much to make a difference. A few seconds of delay, a bit of distraction, a frustrated entrance, an obscured shot. The scenarios –like the real-life incidents they model– were over before we knew it. Moral of the story: stay alive, keep responsive and keep looking for options, do whatever you can.

That’s probably good advice even for days when you don’t encounter an active shooter.

“Changed” — my Poem is Now on Youtube

My poem, “Changed” that recently appeared in 13 Quick Shivers: from Dailynightmare.com is now a movie, er, sort of. The weirdos at the DailyNightmare.com transformed it into a promotional video of sorts complete with me stumbling through a reading. Check it out!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9dltUbgB60

An embarrassing behind the scenes tidbit: The piece only has 100 words in it, yet it took FIVE attempts for me to record it in a form the producers thought was barely acceptable. And dig it, when I say “rotting leaves” you can still hear me stammer as if I was going to say “rotting flesh.” Guess who read too much zombie literature as a child?

The DailyNightmare.com folks have made a Youtube channel and hope to put up more of these promotional videos in coming weeks. I can only figure they chose me to go first because I was convenient.

“Changed” my lycanthrope poem in 13 Quick Shivers from DailyNightmare.com

My poem “Changed” just appeared in 13 Quick Shivers: from Dailynightmare.com a weird collection of 100-word prose poems. Full Disclosure: I’m a contributing editor at DailyNightmare.com so I was able to get in on the ground floor of this project — and I even got an “editor” credit on the book… at least partially because no one else wanted their real name on it.

They shouldn’t have been so coy; it’s a glorious experiment. The collection bridges the genres of poetry and prose by introducing the element of expressive typography. We at the DailyNightmare are fans of that 90’s era “new typography” that appeared most notably in Emigre, Plazm and Raygun magazines, the first flush of insanity afforded by digital typesetting. Each one of the prose-poems in 13 Quick Shivers is individually typeset with such weird, expressive typography. Reviews have been… honestly mixed with some folks just seriously not getting it. But that’s the risk of experimental projects.

My poem “Changed” is based on a nightmare, as are all the pieces in the volume, but this nightmare is one I’ve had recurrently quite literally for decades. The experience from this nightmare, the very physical sensation of running on all fours, is one of the reasons I describe myself as a part-time werewolf. I’ve been carrying this poem around with me for nearly as long as I’ve been having the dream, fiddling here, futzing there. But I have to admit, the sexual undercurrents didn’t emerge into the poem until the last few drafts. When that language started to appear, I smacked my head with a “Of COURSE” and went with it.

I feel morally obligated to note that DailyNightmare.Com intends to make the 13 Quick Shivers into an annual affair. Submissions will open again in January and I’ll probably throw up a link here.

“The Laughter of Dead Children” my poem in GrimCorps II

My creepy poem “The Laughter of Dead Children” is included in the second edition of GrimCorps, that classy dark literary journal from the Great NorthWest. The electronic copy is a free download and I’m pleased to be included in a collection of such nice work. It’s available now so, please check it out.

The poem itself came to me in a flash of inspiration after ReaderCon this year. One of the folks I really connected with was Daniel Jose Older, a writer of dark urban speculative fiction, rich in setting and actual grit. There’s a lot to like about his writing — and even more to like about him — but one of his stories in Salsa Nocturna
features the ghosts of dead children appear and what struck me was that he was wrong. That’s not what REAL child-ghosts are like, I thought, slightly aware of how psychotic that assertion might sound to some folks. I scrawled the first draft of the poem quite literally on the corner of the bookmark I was using and I carried that scrap around with me until I had a chance to tap it into my smartphone for further revision. Whenever I had a spare moment, waiting in line for instance, I’d fiddle and brood over the piece. Eventually I polished the language and clarified the vision until it became the weird little gem that it is now.

But please, let me know: Did get it right? How do you experience the ghosts of children?

“The Ghosts of Wildrum High” – First Draft, No Fanfare

I basically forgot to mention a rather major milestone: two weeks ago I finished what I’m calling the first presentable draft of my YA novel, The Ghosts of Wildrum High.

This novella is the first long fictional work that I really feel proud of. I have four, maybe five “trainer” novels buried in various states of completion and buried they shall remain. I don’t regret spending time on them but honestly, writing Ghosts was an entirely different experience.

This version is actually the third time I’ve had a go at this story, more or less. I wrote over half a draft last summer and that was based on a NaNoWriMo winner I’d written the year before. They all tell the same tale but are entirely different with nothing whatsoever in common (grin). I started composing this version the first week of February 2013. Instead of painfully redacting together the previous drafts, I basically set them all aside and began afresh… to tell the story I’d more or less told twice before.

This time everything just clicked. I did not have an outline in any real sense. I did try a trick I’d read from Corrine Kenner that basically draws a card for each step of Campbell’s Heroes Journey. The blissfully arbitrary nature of this technique forced me to think about my story in a new way… though I didn’t follow through by creating an actual outline. It might be interesting to go back through and see if I kept much from this trick. I knew my characters very well by this point. I knew how they spoke and acted and importantly, I knew what they were up to and how my narrator would likely misinterpret what they were up to.

I don’t know how I feel about “The Muse” since I believe it does no one any good to minimize the craft and toil involved in writing. But having said that, someone who wasn’t the conscious “me” sure put some great foreshadowing in the first part of the book that surprised me when it came to fruition at the end. The manuscript stayed fresh up until the very last scene. I have never felt the same amount of joy while writing over such a sustained period of time. It’s hard not to stay infatuated with a short story during its composition but they seem to take much less time. I would dream about my chapters while at work, then rush home to be amazed by what happened as I wrote them. It sounds a bit precious to describe the process that way but darned it, it was actually fun. I am reminded of Holly Lisle’s tagline “write with joy.”

While I am proud of having completed the manuscript and delighted by the text itself, I am most impressed that I was able to meet my own, self-imposed deadline of having a good presentable draft by May 1st.

DearLovingPartner read the chapters one by one as I hammered them into shape. I discovered the pace of the book pretty early on, which allowed me to gauge how much “stuff” had to happen in each chapter. Before I wrote the crisis to climax section, I stopped and re-read the whole draft. I marked up a hard copy and I made a spreadsheet of the scenes, noting what happened and keeping track of every character’s arc. This provided a good rest from writing and it also fired up a bit of momentum that carried me on to the end. I really, really, really wish I could have just stayed home from work and typed but I kept with my habit of hammering out a chapter and passing it along to DearLovingPartner to read aloud. I have some history with theatre and it was very beneficial to hear the words spoken.

DearLovingPartner — an English composition teacher, BTW, always handy to have one of those in the household — re-read a copy of the complete draft as has a Beta reader — a fellow computer tech who reads a lot but who has no pretenses of being a writer. I bought my Beta reader lunch and asked pointed questions.

I have started revisions, notably the first chapter and especially the first five pages. They just didn’t seem to have the same fire as the final section. Some of my descriptions were a bit timid, and when I re-read the beginning I could actually hear what Brandon, my protagonist, *should* be saying instead of the place-holder dialogue I had.

In conjunction with this revision, I have started writing a query letter. I want to make sure that I am absolutley clear about what my story is, both for the query and during the revision. I found a DELIGHTFULLY helpful blog about query letters called Query Shark. My goal is to have a hard drafted revision ready by World Horror Convention in mid-June. It smacks of a happy delusion to think I could have a publishable draft ready with only one revision though I hope to be querying agents by the end of the summer.

Perhaps the experience of completing a book will happen so frequently that it becomes commonplace. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be a full-time writer and the serendipitous magic of composition will become dull. But not this day. This day I’m so happy, I’m nearly incandescent.

Dead In 5, “Hard Rock Freak Show,” Blind Pig, May 10

hardrockfreakshow
The poster for the Hard Rock Freak Show convinced me to attend–specifically the conjoined twin skeleton–and I don’t feel at all shallow to admit it, but I left a true believer in the driving hard rock of Dead in 5. Wow, I can’t wait to see them again. Before tonight, I had never heard of the musical acts but I’d meant to catch the Gepetto Files, quite literally for years and I have soft spot for side shows performers. MyLovingPartner donned her best corset and bustle skirt and accompanied me to an evening of head banging and gentle weirdness. We are usually ASLEEP by the time the first band hit the stage — my 50 year old body wakes up at 5:00 AM with or without an alarm to remind it — so we were burning fumes. The jams fueled me to stay ’til the end, more successfully than my partner, I’m sad to say. But I’m quite glad to say, I am now a huge fan of “Dead in 5,” the headline group.

The gig was criminally underattended, let me say that upfront, though there seemed to be a pasable crowd assembling when the doors opened. The first two bands, ASS and Glass Lung were both no frills, straight ahead hard rock. I bet a “real” rock snob could identify specific variants to their styles, but basically they played tunes with crunchy guitar and a beat insistent enough to bang your head to. The bass player of ASS seemed to be the lynchpin of the operation, hammering a precise, pounding rhythm. (Full disclosure: I used to play bass and I still play cello, both acoustic and electric so sue me if I’m particularly drawn to the lower octaves.) Perhaps an undercurrent of rage ran through the tunes but damn, both bands had the energy and zeal of good garage bands.

DoppelGangerSideShow

The Doppelganger Side Show were, in effect, the freak show equivalent of garage band. They performed the standard stunts (nail in the nose, straight jacket escape, razor swallow, paper money stapled to the body) competently and with dutiful showmanship, akin to the simple “three chords and the truth” needed for garage rock. They weren’t the weirdest or slickest side show I’ve ever seen but I did leave my perfect seat to stand right up front for their act. When you have the opportunity to watch some guy hammer a four penny nail up his snout, you really have to get close for the full effect.

How did I love DI5? Let me count the ways.

The band members are each strongly charismatic and compelling on stage, from the bald guitar-technician who settled in and wailed on his Gibson, to the towering mountain of a lead singer with the commanding voice, the corsetted bass player with a sweet smile and a caustic sneer, the kilted drummer and the rhythmn guitarist who I believe used a beer bottle as a slide at one point. They are a powerful group clearly having a blast on stage and not afraid to give a great show. Damn, the smoke machine made me a nostalgia-monkey for the days when a night at the Blind Pig meant my clothes would smell like an ashtray for a month. It’s quite a compliment that Dead in 5 could make a man as old as dirt feel like a kid again.

DI5-Blue2

DI5-Red

DI5-Green

I had to support the band with a few bucks so I spoke briefly with the lead singer’s partner at the merch booth. Though I love their logo– again, call me shallow but just seeing their design on the back of a work shirt early in the evening was enough to convince me to stay ’til their set, despite the fact that MyLovingPartner napped in her chair. However, t-shirts make me look like a sack of… potatoes so I opted to buy a jar of their “Demon’s Blood XXXX Hot Sauce.” I had some with my toast and eggs this morning–quite the yum. Come to find out the band members hail from all over, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Westland. Another way of putting it: they’re worth the drive to hear, IMHO. They’ve got a gig tonight at Churchill’s in Flint tonight and one in Westland next week. I bet I’ll be at one show or the other.

Standard proviso: for a writer, I have scandalously little interest in lyrics. I have no idea what their songs were “about.” This was music I enjoyed through the thumping in my chest and the shaking of my ass. To be honest though, it’s been too long since I rock and rolled that I forgot earplugs and the music was so loud I nearly passed out… or was it the beer or the sleep deprivation?

GepettoFilesVanGogh

The Gepetto Files were exactly what I expected, that is, a foul-mouthed, beer swilling puppet of Van Gogh who performed magic tricks and berated the audience–and what’s not to like about that?

So just because I happened to see a cool poster, I took a chance on a show that proved to be more than an evening’s entertainment. I walked my sleepy LovingPartner home to tuck her into bed, my ears still aglow…er, ringing from Dead in 5.

WorkInProgress Breaks 42,000 Words

I’ve been tight-lipped about the current Work In Progress, a young adult novel about a haunted high school — and that description of it is so succinct that it’s absolutely mis-leading.

I’ve written long form works in the past but honestly, this novel has been a weird joy. Every time I think I’ve written myself into a corner, I’ve been able to stop, reflect on what I’ve already written and continue. I’m too much of a tough-minded pragmatist to give much credence to “The Muse” but my experience writing this book has given me an appreciation for what that kind of language might be expressing.

I’ve only had one instance where I realized that I’d actually made a “mistake” in an earlier chapter. The scene was correct, the setting, the action but it should have had a different teacher presiding. I recognized the error within two chapters. It’ll be a quick fix when I get to revise.

But I didn’t let myself make the change, not yet. I’m naturally dark-souled and critical so I’ve been trying to put off “editing” until I had a complete manuscript. I’m my own worst enemy at times and whenever I start editing while I’m trying to draft, the demons of my lower natures have a field day. Fortunately, I’m more or less on track to have a complete draft by May 1st (lordwilling, ifthecrickdontrise)