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Posts published in “Writing”

Narrative Magazine Spring 09 Short Story Contest

Matt Toder of the inimitable Steve’s Word sent me this today. It’s a short story competition held by Narrative Magazine. I’ve never read or seen Narrative Magazine, and with the current downturn in the print industry, who knows how long it will be around, but a contest is a contest and who am I to turn down the possibility of earning a little money? So I intend to enter. And since the deadline isn’t until July 31, I have time to write a new piece. What the hell, right? I’m going to try for the full 15000 words. I’ve never written anything that long before; I think the challenge will be exciting. I know that when writing for Hunter I thought I was going to have a hard time getting to 20 pages with my idea, but really I ended up having the opposite problem. I think that Julian & Clive suffered because I was trying to shove so much into 20-25 pages. I ended up cutting a bunch of ideas that probably would have made it better, or at least made the plot make more sense, feel less stilted.

Now I just need an idea.

Anyway, Matt Toder you get the seal of approval.


02 – Darkness Wails

The cave stretched out dark and long ahead of the little band of travelers now irretrievably lost.  The light of their torch sputtered and wavered in the unearthly gusts rising from deep within the ground.  The bottom of the cave was slick with bat guano, moisture, and some slimy substance they tried not to think too much about.  Death sat heavy in the hot dark air around them, suffocating, threatening.  And then from behind them came an unnatural wail that drove itself through their heads, scraping at the fragile walls of their slipping sanity.  

“What was that?” one asked.  

“The wind?” another answered.

“It must be.”

“The wind.  It must be.”

They knew that it was not the wind.  They waited to hear if the wail would come again, but it did not.  They continued their trek through the sweltering shadows toward the perceived source of the wind.  The wind must signal a way out of this pit, they had reasoned.  Where the air moved they would find their salvation.  Where the air moved there was life.  

01 – The Biker Kills a Mexican

The motorcycle purred beneath him as he ripped across the desolate highway stretching off into forever lit only by the single light on the front of the bike.  The wind whipped his hair against the worn leather of his jacket, singing the sweet song of freedom past his ears.  His beard collected whatever unfortunate insects happened to be in his way on this still, cold Southwestern night.  The pistol in his belt felt empowering, assuring, like three and a half pounds of steel confidence.  

Hell was in his veins.



Oh well. I can’t say I’m not disappointed by this news, but what are you going to do? It’s not fruitful to sit and fret about why I was not selected since there’s no possible way for me to ever know the truth. And, luckily, it was not the only thing going for me. Still, I’m bummed out about it. I don’t feel personally rejected, just disappointed not to be able to pursue something I was really excited about.

I guess there’s always the long shot that they come back to me as potential filler for a longer list if there are still empty spaces, but that’s an even slimmer chance than this was. I’m not even going to think about that.

There is, of course, always next year. I didn’t get into NYU the first time I applied either. Maybe history will repeat itself. Or not. Just got to keep creating, I suppose.

Now, let’s never talk about this again. Well, a few weeks at least.

Update to the terms of The Year of 5000 Photos and 50 Short Stories

I’ve been thinking a lot about my progress on the Year of 5000 Photos and 50 Short Stories. So far, I am doing well on toward my total of 5000 photos for the year, currently at just under 40% after only 2 and a half months. That’s 1904 photos in 10 weeks. In 2008, before the arrival of my new camera and my decision to embark upon this theme for 2009, I only shot 2325 photos. After the new camera and my 2009 theme decision, the total was 2084 photos, but I think that the former count is more representative of my pace than the latter. 1904 photos in 10 weeks versus 2325 in 11 months. It is clear how much more productive I’ve been this year in regards to my photos.

I think that’s because I’ve not limited myself in any way regarding what constitutes a “photograph”. Well, I did make a differentiation between test photos and photos I keep, but that is, to me at least, quite clear. Test photos are just that—for testing new equipment or familiarizing myself with equipment I haven’t used in a little bit. Obviously I shoot more test photos with new equipment than with old, but test photos are test photos and don’t count toward the 5000. In case there is any curiosity, warm-up photos DO count. Specifically, warm-up photos are whatever photos I shoot at the beginning of a shoot while I am still getting into the feel of the thing. Sometimes they can be as many as 100 or as few as 10, but there are always warm-up photos. Since I shoot these with the same intent I do with later photos in the set, I count them. Test photos are shot with little concern for subject matter or composition; warm-up photos are just the bad photos early in a set while I’m getting my bearings.

What about my short story count, then? An astute reader would notice that the count in the box on the left has read “0/50” since I put the box there on January 14th. What is the difference? I’ve been cranking out the photos, but why not the fiction? After the creative submission for Hunter which I submitted on January 31st, I took a little breaky-poo from writing every day. Then I went on vacation for two weeks to CA. But, now I’m back, had plenty of time to get something done, yet there is still nothing to show.

Why not?

I think it comes down to the terms I set for myself initially. While my standards for photos are quite broad, my standards for short stories are much more regimented. I think the thing that’s fucking me up the most is the lower word limit. I have ideas, but then there’s this nagging voice in my head that says, “Well, can you really stretch that idea to 1500 words at a minimum?” and then I get stuck thinking about that stupid, arbitrary number I established. The point of the number was to get me thinking about what I’m writing, not to limit my output because I get hung up on it. It has served exactly the opposite of the intended purpose thus far. Not good.

Therefore, I submit this change to the terms of my definition of what constitutes a valid short story.

Here is the original definition:

Short story – a short story is any piece of narrative writing between 1500 and 10000 words. It can be about anything at all, but needs to fall roughly within those two limits. The upper limit is looser than the lower. 1500 words is a bare minimum, but ok since, once I get rolling, I’ll bang out 1500 to 2500 words in a sitting.

And here is my revised definition:

Short story – a short story is any piece of narrative writing up to 10000 words. It can be about anything at all and in any style, but it must be fiction.

Much better. Much less restrictive. Is it possible that some of my stories will be longer than the old minimum of 1500 words? Of course, but it’s just as likely that they’ll be 900 or 1000 words, below the old minimum, but nothing to scoff at. I have no intention of using this new lack of a lower limit as a way of copping-out on the assignment I’ve provided myself for the year. What would be the point? This is just a way of opening the door a little bit so I’m not artificially restricted, allowing my brain to breathe and focus on the task at hand—writing—rather than hitting 1500 words.

Julian & Clive


Julian pushes the supermarket brand hotdogs around the grill growing impatient at the fact that they are not yet ready to eat.  He wishes they would spit and sizzle and flare up the way they do in the hotdog commercials, but they languish on the not-nearly-hot-enough-to-cook-anything grate.  Once there was grass around his cousin Lester’s forlorn little grill, but the battle against the grease and ash from these summer cookouts has been lost, revealing the dry dirt beneath.  Julian turns a hot dog over to check if it somehow had achieved doneness while he had stopped paying it attention for a moment—it had not.  He throws the barbeque tongs on the table beside the grill and contemplates the cooler filled with beer before recalling Dawn sitting directly behind him, feeding their toddler applesauce.  She doesn’t like when he drinks and fear of her has kept Julian sober many nights he’d rather have drunk away.  

An example of what I love about Cormac McCarthy

My first experience with Cormac McCarthy was when I was 16 or 17 and my older brother’s friend Doug Lowney came over and read a passage to me from Blood Meridian. Since 16 year olds are idiots, and I was an idiot, I couldn’t really comprehend what he was reading to me. All I knew was that there was raping and scalping and killing and shit. I imagined a blue-grey morning and Vikings doing the slaughter, which was, as it turns out, exactly wrong. But the point is that it piqued my interest. I later purchased a copy of Blood Meridian which I successfully finished reading on my second or third try during my sophomore year of college. It’s a difficult book, what can I say? Since then I’ve read Suttree, No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain—I am a full blown Cormac McCarthy nut. I even have a two year old Oprah saved on my DVR at home that has an interview with him.

After finishing You Shall Know Our Velocity, I figured it was time for something a little more…gritty? I pulled his first book, The Orchard Keeper, off my shelf and within 40 pages came across a passage that reminded me of what I really love about McCarthy’s writing. It’s primal, it’s fierce, it’s forceful. The prose leaps out at you like a mountain lion, waiting for you to come around the corner of the trail so that it can tear your throat open and drink your blood. It is so good that I just have to share.

Whether he fell forward or whether the man pulled them over he did not know. They were lying in the road, the man with his face in the dirt and Sylder on top of him, motionless for the moment as resting lovers. Something in Sylder’s shoulder traveled obliquely down to his lungs with each breath to cut off the air. He still had one hand locked in the man’s neck and now he inched himself forward and whispered into his ear.

Why don’t you say something now, bastard? Ain’t you got some more talk to spiel for us?

He was jerking at the man’s head but the man had both hands over it and seemed lost in speculation upon the pebbles of the road. Sylder let his hand relax and wander through the folds of the neck until they arrived at the throat. The man took that for a few minutes, then suddenly twisted sideways, spat in Sylder’s face, and tried to wrench himself free. Sylder rolled with him and had him flat backward in the road and astride him, still the one arm swinging from his broken shoulder like a piece of rope. He crept forward and placed one leg behind the man’s head, elevating it slightly, looking like some hulking nurse administering to the wounded. He pushed the head back into the crook of his leg, straightened his arm, and bore down upon the man’s neck with all his weight and strength. The boneless-looking face twitched a few times but other than that showed no change of expression, only the same rubbery look of fear, speechless and uncomprehending, which Sylder felt was not his doing either but the everyday look of the man. And the jaw kept coming down not on any detectable hinges but like a mass of offal, some obscene waste matter uncongealing and collapsing in slow folds over the web of his hand. It occurred to him then that the man was trying to bite him and this struck him as somehow so ludicrous that a snort of laughter wheezed in his nose. Finally the man’s hands came up to rest on his arm, the puffy fingers trailing over his own hand and wrist reminded him of baby possums he hand seen once, blind and pink.

Sylder held him like that for a long time. Like squeezing a boil, he thought. After a while the man did try to say something but no words came, only a bubbling sound. Sylder was watching him in a sort of mesmerized fascination, noting blink of eye, loll of tongue. Then he eased his grip and the man’s eyes widened.

For Christ’s sake, he gasped. Jesus Christ, just turn me loose.

Sylder put his face to the man’s and in a low voice said, You better call on somebody closer than that. Then he saw his shoulder, saw the man looking at it. He dug his thumb into the man’s windpipe and felt it collapse like a dried tule. The man got his hand up and began with his eyes closed to beat Sylder around the face and chest. Sylder closed his eyes too and buried his face in his shoulder to protect it. The flailings grew violent, slowed, finally stopped altogether. When Sylder opened his eyes again the man was staring at him owlishly, the little tongue tipped just past the open lips. He relaxed his hand and the fingers contracted, shriveling into a tight claw, like a killed spider. He tried to open it again but could not. He looked at the man again and time was coming back, gaining, so that all the clocks would be right.

Kurt Vonnegut – How to Write with Style

Let’s celebrate the 100th post on The Black Laser with someone else’s work.


I am a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I mean, who isn’t a fan of his? Breakfast of Champions is incredible. So is Slaughterhouse 5. And Galapagos. And Sirens of Titan. You can’t go wrong. If you’re not convinced, the man was in Back to School as himself. What more do you need?

Consequently, when he writes about writing, you had better pay attention; these are a master’s words and advice. Take heed.

His article “How to Write with Style” breaks down into 7 main points.

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have the guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean to say
  7. Pity the readers

Personally, I feel good about number 1 (the darkness in the human soul) and 5 (can’t you just hear me speak?) in my own writing. Number 3 and 4 are things I can definitely work on. I fall in love with certain things and often have a hard time cutting them out even if they are not working. I also tend to get all retardedly baroque with my descriptions partly because it makes me laugh and partly because I like it, but I think that it is important for me to work on keeping the flavor of those passages without the too-wordy blathering. Streamline.

If you want to read the whole article, I’ve posted it here. Kurt Vonnegut – How to Write with Style.

Happy 100, Black Laserians!