Toxic town down to last six residents

Picher, Oklahoma, the Mick's old hometown, has been condemned. Boy, there's a story in there for sure...

Also, be wary of doing a google images search for radiation mutations. Not for the faint of heart.

Just received notice that a story that's been out on submission since last May (!) has been shortlisted with a publication I really dig. It's a fun story--kind of sad--about a fellow who begins to receive some strange charts and graphs in his mailbox.

It's based on a bizarre series of charts that I was getting in my mailbox last year. I kept those strange little boogers, they're somewhere in my office...man, those were fun, interesting days.


The Fable of the Bees

Many years ago, in simpler and less turbulent times, there existed a colony of honeybees. These honeybees, while industrious and social creatures, lacked a home. They flew from orchard to orchard, all throughout the territory of North America, searching for a place to raise their families and build a lasting civilization.

One warm summer day they stumbled upon a magnificent parcel of land. There were flowering trees as far as the eyes could see. There were cool brooks and temperate winds. There were green pastures and docile cows with which to share the land.

"I like it here," a young female buzzed. "I think this would be a wonderful place to make our home. Let's call it the Kingdom of Wisconsin."

The bees put their heads together and agreed. They liked Wisconsin, and they worked very diligently in creating a wonderful hive. Because she had discovered the land, they decided as one to make her their queen. Then, they elected her attendants--those tasked with ensuring the safety of future generations so the colony would thrive.

"But wait," one young drone said. "Shouldn't we at least get some assurances that this will be a fair society? We're giving power over the many to just a very few! And, if it's our sweat and our toil that builds this world, we should have every protection that the queen and the council should have as well, shouldn't we?"

The young bee was persistent, and he brought his concerns before the queen and her attendants.

"If ours is to truly become the best hive in the kingdom, there must be equality for all," the queen agreed. "The workers will be well looked after, so they and their children can get help when they are sick. Our children will be nurtured by their elders in the way of the bee, so they can take their place one day in our hive and do the same for their own children. It will be hard work to build our society, and the compensation will not make many of you wealthy, but you will be looked after and you will have rights and this will be a good life."

The drone was still skeptical. "Do we have your solemn oath? Are we really to trust that you'll do these things you've promised?"

"I promise," the queen said. "Now it's off to work with you, drone. Make the Kingdom of Wisconsin the envy of all of North America."

And so the drones began to build. There were so many of them, and with the sweat of their fuzzy brows they created a hive to rival the pyramids of the Giza Plateau. For the queen and her council, they built chamber upon chamber of lavish honeycomb. The queen even had a walk-in closet for her impressive collection of shoes (honeybees have many feet, so the workers thought the queen's collection a justifiable expense of their overall honey production).

The colony steadily grew, attracting wayward bees from other orchards until it was the largest in the area. The queen and her council lived in luxury and, while the workers never grew wealthy, they had a roof over their heads.

They built the hive. They worked to educate the younger swarms in the way of the bee. They gave their lives (and their stingers) in defense of the world they had created.

And then one day, the queen demanded more.

"We need to attract more drones to our kingdom," she proclaimed. "While I appreciate all the hard work you've done in creating our world, you'll need to get by on less. We know that it might be tough in the short term, but in the long term it will all be worth it."

The drone, who was not so young anymore, but still spoke on behalf of the workers, asked the queen for her word. "Do you promise that it will all be worth it?"

"Of course! I promise you that the future will be better!" she said.

The council buzzed their support for her plan and the drones grumbled about it, but life went on.

Only, things didn't get better. Fewer youngsters learned the way of the bee. There were fewer teachers, and those that remained lacked resources. Many of the younger bees left school early, poorly prepared for life in the Kingdom of Wisconsin.

The queen demanded longer hours from the workers, and building conditions weren't always safe. But the queen and her council thought regulating safety was wasteful, especially if the cost were only the lives of a few hundred drones.

When the drones became injured, they had to devote more of their already scant resources to paying for visits to the nurse bees, which left less pollen in the storeroom at the end of the month.

The drone didn't like the way things were going. He didn't think that life was getting better, and he started to talk with the other workers and the nurses and the teachers and the ones who protected the hive.

"We already do too much and receive too little," the bees said in unison, "while the queen and her council have the best, most comfortable lives. We are the ones that created this place!"

The drone didn't disagree. Except for their ability to use language and make speeches (and even those were often bungled; the drone dared anyone assembled during their debates to refudiate that particular claim), the council contributed very little to the quality of life in the hive.

One day he appeared before the queen. "We, the workers, have given more of ourselves to build your hive, and yet our lives are harder. You promised a better world, and yet things have only gotten worse!"

"Is this how your people feel?" the queen said?

"Hey," the drone replied, clearly offended, "what do you mean 'your people'? And yes, as a matter of fact, we do think this is unfair! It's already difficult raising a family here, and you're asking us to get by on less with every passing day. Our life cycles just aren't that long, Your Majesty!"

"I see the error of my ways," the queen conceded, bringing a momentary smile to the drone's face. "From this moment forward, you have no voice in my chambers. I decree that there will be no hive-minded bargaining on behalf of the drones. You will follow my instructions, worker, as will the rest of your ilk. It's the only way our hive will prosper."

The drone was furious. He returned to the masses and told them what the queen had said. The populous shared his anger, and life in the hive ground to a standstill. Chambers filled with debris and went uncleaned. Classrooms sat empty, young bees went uneducated, and bee crime skyrocketed.

And yet the queen dug in her heels.

One day, the drones were talking. "You know, I spoke with a bee recently from a place called Indiana," a large honeybee said. "He told me they have the same issues we do. He said they are electing a new queen. That this new queen has made promises that things will be better."

And the drones became excited. They searched high and low for a new queen--for a bee that was fair and honest, and that would keep the interests of the many in perspective as she ruled. A suitable replacement was found and the queen and her council were replaced. They grumbled and they didn't agree with it, but they soon took their place among the drones.

"Thank you for choosing me to be your queen!" she said on her first day in the royal chambers. "I will make life for you here very prosperous! Our first order of business is getting back to work, and making the hive a safe place that honors the education of our greatest asset--our youngest bees!"

She vowed to fund education, public safety, and health care. She outlined a path to prosperity that was filled with optimism and pollen.

"Do you promise?" the drone called.

"Of course I promise," she said, and a great cheer rocked the hive as the drones returned to work.

The queen retreated to her chambers and began to lay eggs. The drones went back to their jobs, and the hive thrummed with activity.

And, just as life was returning to normal, the gray skies split wide and fat snowflakes began to blanket the Wisconsin orchard.


Shifting Topography

In the wake of Borders restructuring and stories like these, about the venerable Powell's Bookstore and its profitability prospects in the face of an ever-expanding digital marketplace, publishing is following the exciting developments that have reshaped the music landscape in the last decade.

I'm reading Peter S. Beagle's The Line Between right now, and I'm struck by how different the writing life is for contemporary authors, as opposed to the many decades of Beagle's fine career. Beagle, like Toni Morrison (who turns 80 today--happy birthday!) and Ray Bradbury and Elmore Leonard, published the vast majority of his work in the Twentieth Century Model. These authors became literary stars, writers whose output made Weyerhaeuser rich and forests frightened.

They excelled because they are wonderful storytellers. They write beautiful, interesting stories. That will always be the key to building an audience, but the means of reaching an audience is definitely changing.

Push-button publishing allows everyone a voice, which is kind of a double-edged sword. There is just so much content out there that the trick to getting your work read is to write well and get it to the right audiences. Writers like Joe Konrath have seized on that, putting lots of quality content online and in print for their audiences. Konrath's formula (write a good book, have quality formatting/cover, price the book low) is clear, and he's making a good living by following it.

It's kind of liberating to consider how Joe has made it all happen, but it's also a little intimidating. It's a mighty big pond out there, and it's often on the writer alone to write well, package the work effectively, get the word out, and cultivate the content.

The way I see it, I've still got pretty traditional goals.

I want to work with Bernadette to get a book into the hands of a publisher that will pay us a fair sum and promote the book.

But I'm taking other aspects of my writing into consideration as well. I'm thinking about taking a graphic design class at the college to learn how to do my own covers. I'm taking some steps to better understand web formatting. I'm still submitting short stories to traditional markets, but I think the Internet markets (there's a list of my favorites on the right side of your screen) offer a clear advantage over the print venues: instant feedback.

I've been playing around with an idea for a series of short stories that I'd like to release digitally. I've been thinking about how a participatory narrative might work out, and what it might look like online.

These are exciting times for writers, to be sure.

At the end of the day, though, it always comes down to the writing. I read all the success story's on Konrath's website, and the one commonality that I find is that these folks are telling entertaining stories.

I'm thinking about getting an i-pad, whose primary purposes would include grading on Blackboard and using it as a reader. It's a major shift, to sway the bulk of my reading toward that one little device.

It's a major shift, but the digital ink is on the screen, I suppose...


The Anatomy of A Day

Woke up quick, at about noon, just thought that I had to be in Compton soon...

Nope, not really. We rise around 5:45 around these parts, as Lyla has her old man's genes. I suppose the years of swim team practices and early morning Gumby watching (back-to-back episodes from 6:00-7:00 in John Day, Oregon) burned a toughness groove in that little baby's brain.

At any rate, Lyla and I had a hell of a morning. Lots of good play and some serious gains in the field of counting (specifically, five through ten).

I dropped her off at school and headed into the college, and I rocked the edit on my first completed short story of the year. I sent the piece, a longish interpretation of a very simple, monosyllabic word, to a magazine I admire, and then I drove out to the Round Marsh for a long jog.

Got out there to the end of the trail and found that the tide was out. It was easy to see that a bunch of bait fish, and maybe even a few slow big'uns, didn't read the tide quite right. I laughed as a big brown pelican ate three times in five minutes. That ol' bird had his stuff figured out, and he was fishing those waters like he had a show on Discovery. I watched him for a good long while, and I'll just admit it: the pelican is my favorite bird.

Picked up Lyla and dinner and said a brief and silent prayer for finished tales and tenacious pelicans. Damn, Florida really grows on you...


A Few Quick Thoughts...

I just finished reading The End of the World, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, and The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010, edited by Paula Guran. The books share at least a couple of commonalities: both are excellent values ($12.95 for the former; $19.95 for the latter), and both need a thorough copy editing. Almost every story in either text has a typo or two, and many stories are simply riddled with them. These small mistakes don't diminish the impact of the stories, but they do present minor annoyances and I'm a little surprised that so many made it through in these professional publications.

Greenberg's anthology is divided into five sections, each dealing with different aspects of the apocalypse. The stories represent a solid cross section of 20th Century interpretations on the end of the world, with a couple inclusions dating from the 1940s and 1950s. There's only a single entry, however, by a female writer (a good story by Nancy Kress). That's a bit disconcerting, as I enjoy the different perspectives on the subject that are shared by writers from either gender. I passed over a few tales, but on the whole I liked it and would recommend it at that price (Skyhorse Publishing).

Guran's anthology is a titanic effort. It includes dozens of stories and checks in at almost 600 pages, much of it excellent fiction. The editor's endnotes were illuminating and the stories seemed to build toward the macabre finish, Michael Marshall Smith's haunting "What Happens When You Wake Up In the Night." I liked Kurt Dinan's "Nub Hut" very much (excellent, chilling short look at the dangers of isolation and esoterism), Joe Lansdale's "Torn Away," John Mantooth's "The Water Tower," Gemma Files's "The Jacaranda Smile," Ramsey Campbell's "Respects" and "The Crevasse," by Dale Bailey and Nathan Balingrud, as well. The best tale in this bunch is the Stoker-winning "In the Porches of My Ears," by Norman Prentiss. It's a tender, sorrowful dip into voyeurism, a story that dashes reader expectations in the last 100 words to dizzying narrative effect. This, despite the errors in copy editing, is a shelf tome--you'll find yourself dog-earing it long down the road, I think--recommended...

The Rite (2011) is a pretty pedestrian horror film, and an average analysis of faith. It's a nicely shot film that trots out a laundry list of cliches (young priest with a crisis of faith needs to discover himself in time for the greatest fight of his life, being the largest) and includes a few tense moments, though no real anxiety. It's my first time seeing Colin O'Donoghue (he looks just like Jake Gyllenhall). Basically, he makes one facial expression (pained) until the final act, when he busts out with a little emotion. He's severely overmatched in a few contained scenes with Sir Anthony Hopkins (Father Lucas Trevant), whose skin changes color like a chameleon. Who knew demons preferred blue? Hopkins is good, not great, but it's a delight to see him changing voice tones late in the film and prancing around his Rome cottage. It's a pretty good Saturday night pizza flick (although I know my wife will fall right asleep during it--it's one I went to by myself on a Friday matinee), but that's about it. C/C-...

I'm re-reading Boy's Life for the third time, and I'm always amazed by the story's first thirty pages. The pacing and the ability to sketch time and place and build character--this is expert storytelling at work here. Love Robert McCammon's work!


I'm Grateful...

As I write this, I'm sitting at my desk watching a cold rain trickle off the roof, soaking our dormant lawn. Joe is asleep in his usual place and, aside from the house making house noises, the place is quiet. It's a good life, and I'm grateful for it.

I'm grateful for my wife and daughter. My wife is a marvel, a daily source of inspiration for me and Lyla. Her work as a guidance counselor at an inner-city high school is emotionally challenging, and yet she returns to her family at the end of every day with patience and kindness. I don't know another person whose life is as greatly oriented toward the service of others. I'm grateful for my daughter, who attacks every day with energy and enthusiasm. Most days, when I go in to help her out of her crib, I find her jumping up and down with enthusiasm. She's a fun-loving and sensitive child, and I adore being in her company.

I'm grateful for my family--for parents who sacrificed to give me and my sisters a chance to make our way in the world. I'm grateful that they took us outdoors most weekends and spent time with us as a family, and that they were my first paying writing gig. I'm thankful that there were books everywhere in our home, and that they let us stay outside until it got dark. I'm grateful for sisters who love their brother without condition, and whose intelligence and humor make it such a treat to be together.

I'm grateful for a wonderful network of friends, from colleagues and administrators at the college to the dozens of folks who have touched my life in Oregon, and who patiently deal with my musings by telephone since I can't bug them in person. I'm grateful for the advice they've given and the love they've shown us over the years.

I'm grateful for the consistently stellar creative output of writers like Joe Lansdale, Nick Mamatas, Aaron Polson, Jeff Ford, John Connolly, Kij Johnson, Gemma Files, Jeff VanderMeer, Cat Valente and dozens of others. I love that I'm reminded on a daily basis that the law of diminishing marginal returns doesn't apply to quality fiction. One can delight the world with narrative, it seems, in perpetuity...

I'm grateful for the oases of good humor and insightful commentary that I've been able to find on the Internet. It's really not all anger and bombast and spite out there. Really, it's not. Try the web journals of folks like Karen Schindler, VanderMeer, and Polson if you want evidence. There you'll find people helping each other, people encouraging one another, people building viable communities.

I'm grateful for oysters and cold beer and grilled steaks. I'm grateful for Modern Family and good westerns and new Bruce Hornsby cuts.

I'm grateful that I still have the health to play a solid '3' in pickup hoops and that I can run a couple of miles without needing a cortisone shot. I'm grateful that there's food in the pantry and the lights always seem to work and my daughter doesn't have to worry about the nights that dip below freezing around here.

I encounter a lot of negativity out there--both online and in print--and it gets to me sometimes. Writing occasional posts like these helps me stay focused. I'm an optimist. Even when saturated with negativity, I don't want to lose sight of that.

Sure, it's raining right now, but it's supposed to dry out in a few hours. Rain or shine, I'm heading out for a round of golf at Mill Cove later in the day. That's what raincoats are for, after all...


A Fresh Approach

Sometimes a story needs to loosen up. I wrote a general-interest short story late last year and tested the waters a few times with some literary journals. A pair of editors had really nice things to say about the story, but neither wanted to publish it.

One remarked that it had a bit of a split personality.

I re-read the story last week and I agreed. In parts it's got a mean streak, in other parts it thinks it's in private school. That's a problem, so I've dumped a bunch of hours into fixing it up. I sat that story down, stuck a beer in its hand and insulted its mama a little before punching it in the face.

"Wud you do dat fo?" the story said, bleeding a little from its quickly swelling nose.

"You need character, kid, and I'm going to give it to you. Believe me, this hurts me more than it hurts you."

I cut the pretense and made the story take a few shots of tequila. By the time I was done it had a new title and a little sneer on its face. "Hey, that's nice," it leered back at me before spitting on my floor and sauntering back to the hard drive.

I've been reading some Lansdale lately. It's getting to me...


Should We Be Worried?

Just received a flier in the mail today from the new property management company of our Homeowners' Association:

A Deed Restricted Community
April 1, 2011 is the deadline to remove mildew, clean up the yard and enjoy a bright flourishing neighborhood.
*Those deemed outside of compliance shall be forcibly removed from their homes on April 2, 2011, and flogged with red rope licorice whips in a public ceremony. Any flayed flesh (now suitably cherry-flavored) shall be collected, processed into man jerky, and fed to the hungry neighborhood children. Citizens are encouraged to inform on one another in the interest of mildew-free exteriors. Please join us as we make this a better place for everyone!
* This is actually my language, but you can read between the lines. It's pretty much what they were implying...


52 Stitches

Please consider ordering a copy of 52 Stitches. The proceeds from this anthology of horror fiction will be placed in a trust fund for the children of writer Jamie Eyberg, who lost his life (as did his wife) in a terrible accident last year. Mr. Eyberg's children were 3 and 7 when they lost their parents...

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...