Spooky Flash Fiction

These were written for a Halloween contest I did not win, so here ya go, world. Trick or treat. A sea monster story, a devil dog story, and a story about demons. Sort of. Count on me to mess with the concepts.

Grief’s Reward

I heard her call, in the chill night after an autumn storm, and I went to her. How could I not? She sobbed as she sang, and her lonely pain plucked at chords within my empty heart. She sang my pain, and it touched me as no one else ever had.

The surf was cold, roaring high, and the stones tore my bare feet to shreds. I bled into the salt foam between land and water, before she rose to embrace me. There was beauty in her coils of iridescent scales, and she sang of joy and warmth beneath the waves. She tied me to her body with strands of kelp, and she tied me to her soul with song, and her sharp fins cut my flesh as she took me under the sea.

She brought me deep, where lay the bones of those gone before, but I did not care. They had fallen prey to her frustration and rage. This time happy accident brought a widowed fishwife when she called, not the tall fishermen her lure had ensnared in the past. She had sought always the biggest, strongest mates, not understanding how my kind differed from the creatures of the sea, and she laughed, when I explained. We shared that joy and more until dawn came, when she brought me safe ashore.

She left me, but I am no longer alone. I watch the sea in springtime now, under warm hazy skies, and life grows inside me. I watch the surf, and I hope for storms.

Good Dog
Dog was adorable when he was a baby. When Jim looked over the litter of nine–born who knew where, abandoned at the animal shelter–the pup was a palm’s worth of black fluff, with shiny button eyes and a tiny pink tongue that got stuck between his teeth when he barked. Jim tucked him into a coat sleeve for the bus ride home.

The shelter said he would probably grow to fifty pounds. Perfect, Jim thought. Fifty pounds was the perfect size for a country boy who was willing to admit that he wanted protection on the mean city streets. No mugger would ever beat

 him again, not with a dog like that. He named the puppy Dog, because nothing else fit. Dog grew. He read training books. Dog grew. They attended obedience classes. And Dog grew.

Devil dog, the landlady called him, and made evil-eye signs at them in the hall. “He’s a good boy,” Jim would say, and she would spit on the floor.

By six months, Dog had left fifty pounds far behind. He was big enough to pull Jim off his feet and run loose to chase rats in the alleys. When Jim would catch up to him, Dog would look up from his prey and let his teeth show. His eyes would glow red, above his red-stained muzzle. He looked evil, when he wagged his tail.

Evil? No. Not my dog, Jim would tell himself as he picked up Dog’s leash. He can’t be evil. He’s a good boy. “Who’s a good boy?” he would say, and Dog would let his pink tongue loll out between his bloody teeth. He never left a scrap behind.

When he was a year old, he killed his first mugger. “Who’s a good boy?” Jim said, and he smiled when the landlady opened her door.

Once upon a time, when I used to hike the woods at night, I saw portals on every trail. Every gap between curving beech trees was a gate into another world. Every fallen tree hid the entrance to some strange place filled with ancient, forgotten treasures. I walked through each archway and listened to things rustle in the undergrowth with hope in my heart, praying that this time it truly would be a gate to Beyond.
I wanted those other worlds to be real, when the pale bark of the beeches glowed white by moonlight, and each firefly blinking in the darkness promised magic. When I was young and innocent, when I still walked outside after sundown, I saw passages to worlds wondrous and strange everywhere I looked.
There are doorways between worlds. There are. I did find them, in the end. I was right about that, but I was so very wrong about the rest. When the gates opened, when the hunters came through, I saw–oh, what I saw–and I knew my error. Too late.
Now I pray that those gates close, because those other worlds are filled with horrors. I have seen them. They came for me, with eyes glistening, and the skins of their victims buckled around their slimy throats. They heard me; they heard me calling, there in their dark lairs, and they came.
They sit outside my door, when the shadows grow long, and they rustle in the bushes.
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Electronic Publishing For Smartypants

Today’s installment of Inside Karen’s Head is about ebook production. I refuse to call it “For Dummies,” and not because I’m afraid of copyright infringement. I don’t like the phrase’s implicit judgment that people who want to learn are stupid. Ignorance is not stupidity. Stupid people don’t seek out knowledge. /mini-rant.

I don’t sell much, but I have collected a lot of experience on the make-and-sell side of ebook publishing.  I’ve decided to throw some knowledge up here before I forget it all. I have a memory like a steel sieve, and months pass between completing projects. Details disappear. Notes disappear. Memory fades. My computer implodes. The internet is the one thing I can’t quite manage to lose or destroy.

This isn’t a how-to. Other people have done those, much more concisely than I will ever do. Exercise your Google-fu if you need specific assistance. I’m providing an overview and a healthy dose of my opinions about the three systems I’ve used. My main point: you don’t have to be a techhead to self-publish. You do need to be patient with yourself and develop your ability to meticulously follow instructions. That’s not a snark comment. It’s hard to follow step-by-step directions. It’s even harder to write good ones.

My process, such as it is, is set in a solid foundation of miserly laziness and errant curiosity. I’m too much of a cheapskate to pay for someone or some program to convert my manuscript for me. Thus, I learned to format and upload my own manuscript files directly to sales channels. I’m too slothful to keep track of more than two channels, so I picked Smashwords as a Davidly alternative to the Goliath of Kindle Direct Publishing. And then, because I like to fuss and play and learn, I’ve also learned to format ebooks directly using a conversion program .

Let’s look at that last one first. Calibre is a free computer program marketed as a way to “manage your ebook library.” This means, “I bought a Kindle book, but I want to read it on my Nook.”  It converts things from one format to another. From Calibre’s  excellent instruction manual, I learned an interesting trivia tidbit: all ebook formats are basically HTML files like a web page, only dressed up in a lot of fancy clothes. Who knew, right?  Calibre lets you create a new wardrobe, so to speak.

You import a document file saved as HTML and then…well, it is a bit techie, I guess. I poked around  until I got a consistent output I liked, and now I follow a rote routine. The instructions are clear, there is a help feature,  are plenty of online tutorials, and every little option in the program is tagged with immensely useful help icons that list directions and suggest actions. I’ve rarely seen such a complex program so well designed.

Second, let’s talk about Kindle Direct Publishing. This is the 600 lb gorilla of ebook publishing. Theoretically you can upload doc, rtf, docx, or PDFs straight to to their formatter, and it’s fairly forgiving about accepting whatever you upload.   THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING. The burden is on the author to make sure the results are readable. Your beautiful manuscript may become a thoroughly mangled ebook. KDP does not care. I use Word for Mac. Don’t judge. (You did read the words laziness and cheapskate, right? It was free.) I’ve been using Word for decades. I could switch to Pages or OpenOffice, which are also free, but they are just as twitchy in their own ways as Word, and I’m used to the the devil I know. I would have to learn new things that aren’t interesting and forget all my Word-related tricks. Nope.

But I digress. My point is this: my edition of Word for Mac and KDP do not play well together.  Mac PDFs are ridiculous huge and give KDP fits. It ignores my docx files and turns my doc files into gibberish. Soooo…..I use Calibre to turn my docs into .mobi files and upload those to KDP instead. So far, that’s worked fine. I strongly suggest checking your KDP results on every version of Kindle you can test. Enlist friends to help. Your work is judged by its appearance. Make sure your hair is combed and your fly is zipped. So to speak. The formatting and set-up instructions on KDP are recursive, obscure, and so maddening that I suspect deliberate gaslighting.  Luckily for authorial sanity, advice and step-by-step instructions are available from the Amazon author community and a half million blogs. Search engines are the author’s lifeline.

Third, I’ll mention They’re an online ebook distributor. Authors open accounts, set up a profile page and upload manuscript files to be converted by Smashwords into as many output formats as the author likes. I use them for every retailer outlet except Amazon. When discussing their ebook converter, the word idiosyncratic springs to mind. Also, obsolete, irritating and inflexible. You can upload a few different word processor-friendly formats like rtf or doc, but the converter is called the “Meatgrinder” for a reason.  My opinion? They aren’t keeping up with advances in ebook production technology– any formatter that won’t even look at docx files is behind the times.

I’ve had no success uploading any Word file that’s been revised more than once.   If you follow their extensive step-by-step instructions precisely, you’ll be fine, but I cannot fathom spending the time to strip my files of ALL formatting and reformatting from scratch merely to please their archaic system. I cheat and upload epubs I make with Calibre. Their troubleshooting and support are timely and effective. Mileage may vary, of course

Once you get your file past the automated formatter,  Smashwords then offers your work for downloading directly on the site, but far more importantly, it handles all aspects of distribution to a ton of outlets like Scribd & Oyster. Uploading is free, profits from direct sales & distribution are priced on percentage. I like it for the additional exposure, and as venue for getting my free short works to readers. I don’t think it’s generating sales, though, and I doubt I will use it in the future for anything that I want to sell strictly as an ebook.

Lastly, I know several writers who swear by Scrivener, which is a hybrid animal of a Writing Program. Word processor. Outline generator. Mind map maker. Formatter.  I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter, so its many organizational bells & whistles aren’t worth the cost for me. It’s reputed to make the ebook conversion process easy (so say those I know who use it and swear by it.)  I think its screen is cluttered with daunting, distracting, extraneous crap, but again, that’s me. If you don’t want to muck about with the minutiae of formatting, I’m told Scrivener is a good option there as well, producing clean copies of all kinds of upload-ready formats.

Choose your toys and play wisely with them, so that your writing can be enjoyed by others. That’s the point, in the long run.



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A Personal Story about Stories

Let me tell you a story of me and my stories, and how I came to write.

I don’t like being a writer. That seems an odd statement, I admit, given the Books page on this site. Leaving aside whether self-publishing “counts,” there is still no doubt that I have made and published stories.

I am a storyteller, not a writer, and yes, there is a difference.

It started with a box in the bedroom closet. On certain days when my mother needed to attend to boring grown-up activities without being interrupted, she would pull out a wooden box of knick-knacks.

“Promise to be careful,” I would be told as the box lid rose.

A secret collection of treasures.

Green glass elephant. Tiny, tiny lambs of silky white porcelain, and siamese kittens, one, two three. Two calico kittens, each one larger than all three of the Siamese together.  A frowning metal sheep with a broken leg, showing his hollow insides. A statue of a boy in shorts with suspenders, giant compared to the rest, with his hands in his pockets and his mouth perpetually open in a little “o” of surprise.

Each one would be unwrapped from soft, colorful scraps of cloth, one by one, and placed on my nubby bedspread.

The wood box had a certain smell, one I can still bring to mind with a thought. It’s the dusty smell of old and precious things, a smell that evokes reverence for whatever it surrounds. To this day I have a weakness for boxes and containers that hold things in a tidy, neat timeless style.

Those figures were alive to me. They argued, they explored, they endured tragedies and disasters, they talked endlessly to one another in my hands, and my mother got hours of peace and quiet to do exciting things like dust, vacuum and tend my younger sister.

I don’t recall anyone ever asking what I was doing, not then, nor later when the statues moved to a shelf above my dresser. The dresser was so tall that I still remember the day when I could rest my chin on its top. (I was nine.) I was so proud, when that shelf went up. The statues were not mine, but I was trusted with them. I stood on my desk chair and told stories with my friends after school when other children played games outside.

Stories were my secret

The thought of confessing to anyone that I was telling myself stories to work out my problems felt more terrifying than the idea of stripping my body naked. (Much more terrifying. I threw tantrums when my brother played outside shirtless because I couldn’t play shirtless too.)  

In any case, stories were always private. I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t want to share, only that I felt threatened by the thought.

And then I learned to write and read.

Books blew holes in my everyday universe and opened up infinity. I took to reading like a rat to water (ungainly, ugly and yet surprisingly effective at the requisite skill)  I went from Bob & Sue to Charlotte’s Web between May and November of my sixth year, and it was a thrill to throw myself into world after world. I. Loved. Reading.

Writing, in contrast, meant criticism, correction, frustration and failure. My handwriting was awful, my thoughts did not develop in sequence, and getting from idea to sentence was a process both long and painful. Rough drafts were things of asterisks, stars, arrows, crossouts, false starts, and endless, excruciating revision. Nothing ever came out right. I never once considered exposing my stories to the kind of analysis my school writing received in class and at home. Not once.

I’m only playing pretend, I would say when I was caught making stories in my room. It doesn’t mean anything.

Stories meant everything to me, and so I could not risk them being flayed to bloody shreds. They were fragile, and personal, and full of pains I did not want anyone else to know I felt. Crybaby, that was my most hated nickname, and it was a fair one. Being strong meant pretending weakness did not exist. Being smart meant getting things right. Stories were about learning how to pretend to be strong. If I’d let anyone tell me I was doing it wrong, I would have had nothing. Silence was safety.

The years added more figurines to my shelf with every summer visit to Aspen, every birthday trip to Disneyland. I chose carefully, and not all everything made the cut. ONly the story-worthy pieces stuck around.

In due time, my growing Breyer horse collection took over the burden of expressing my dreams, my hurts, & my trials.

I was a horse-mad fanatic in my childhood. My found pennies, my tooth fairy quarters, and my birthday money went to picking the best horse to add to the herd. A blue roan palomino was the first, a proud matriarch with a friendly arch to her neck, followed by Man o’ War, then a delicate gray Arabian mare and her foal, but not the stallion, because I didn’t like his arrogant face. Each had their own personality & many a tale to tell, and the stories I read became their stories too.

I did make friends, not easily or many, because I was a weird and awkward creature, but I did make them. Making stories with a friend was a joy that never wore out, an act of trust that taught me the risk of rejection was worth taking, with some chosen few.

Friends grew out of play-pretend fun long before I did.

I was putting stories on paper by then, as I learned that putting thoughts down let me get past one scene into another and another in my head. Never in words, though. I drew pictures. I could draw a story that I could follow with my pencil and never have to explain it to anyone else. Stories were safe from destruction, hidden in images.

Writing remained a joyless, stilted process that resulted in paragraphs that were never right, never reflected what I meant them to be. I got excellent grades, I produced reports and essays and so on, but I never once enjoyed it. By my teens I was leaving cartoons behind,  telling my stories in my head, adding myself to the tales I read. Oddly, I almost always made myself the sidekick, the foundling, the tagalong, never the heroine. I put myself in the edges of the story, like the muskrat in Rikki-tikki-tavi, who never went out in the middle where things were dangerous.

Then I took a summer job as a camp counselor.

I learned to lead campers in song, and to lead them down trails, and I learned to teach them about knots and plants and how to fall out of a canoe. I was only a few years older than my students, and barely more knowledgeable, but I learned that what matters is throwing passion into the lesson. When you spin facts into stories that capture attention, you create understanding. It’s a kind of storytelling, teaching is, and I got lots of practice doing it.

Best of all,  I learned to tell campfire stories.

No one cares, when you’re going over the creepy tale of Jim Peters for the tenth time, if you tell the events out of order, or have to put in a detail later because you forgot it at the beginning. Perfection isn’t the point. Rhythm and mood,  repeating words and building emotion, chiseling away skepticism with confidence and emphasis– those are what matter, in the dark, with pine needles crunching underfoot and smoke riding to the stars.

Kids saw gollywops between the ruler-straight lines of plantation pines, when I was done spinning that story in the Enchanted Forest. They felt a touch of mystery in the warm night air full of frogsong and crickets chirping. I gave them the gift of belief, and they gave it back to me tenfold. Stories were made stronger by the sharing: it was a lesson I took to heart.

I got into roleplaying in my teens and then in college, and that underscored the storytelling lesson over and over again.

A story shared is a story made real.

Far better than having a story in my head was having a story that someone else knew as well as I did.  Everyone who shared in a session shared the same excitement. We made stories together than none of us would have made alone, and new horizons opened with every new perspective, every different life experience brought to the table. It was spectacular. It was a revelation.

Storytelling is older and more powerful than the written word. There are thrills to be found in oral tradition and shared creation that exceed the genius of any novel I will ever read (or write, for that matter.) That’s what I learned before I learned to write. Those successes gave me hope that I could someday bring my own private stories into the open. They inspired me to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could risk baring the tender flesh of my imagination to the world.

Without the invention of the word processor, I would not be a writer.  

My first attempts all but drove me to despair. I do not draft. I craft. The word processor freed me from written drafts full of asterisks, crossouts and lines like cat’s-cradles draped over every paragraph. It freed me from the frustration of sentences that needed to be written a hundred times to get seven singular words chosen and ordered.

The sequential product of my writing has zero relation to the images and voices and elements that spark to life in my mind. Every word in this post has been shifted up and down the page, more letters erased than typed. Not one phrase was put down in place and left unmoved.

It’s why I never bothered learning to touch-type. Typing faster is pointless when then thoughts emerge in scattershot splatters. I have to reorganize and polish even the shortest written communications.

Yes, I know that no writer puts down gems of classic prose in the first draft.

Writing fiction is hard. It’s harder than hard. It’s impossible, and yet, all of us who write do it. I know that.

That is not the struggle I’m describing, and the reaction whenever I confess my towering difficulty putting ideas into written words is a source of constant frustration.

When those who see only the result say, “but you write so well. It’s hard for anyone,” it makes me want to scream. It’s like telling someone, “but you walk fine,” after successful knee replacement surgery. I don’t need to know that I’m not alone in my writing struggles. That isn’t the point.

The point is this: I do not feel like a writer.

I wish I had a dollar for every author bio that includes a comment about “writing stories all my life” or “I can’t remember not writing.”  Writers keep diaries and journals. They scribble novels in high school notebooks and poetry in the margins of their college texts. They pour out their ideas into the written form as a release, a catharsis driven by an inner need that is stronger than doubts, that overrides rejection, that makes opening a literary vein and bleeding out a story feel like a sensible thing to do. Writers write despite and because, and the creation of a story is its own reward.

Creating stories is not a goal, for me. It’s a constant, private–personal–process. It’s like digestion: both internal and unstoppable. Writing, in contrast, is an exercise in constant public failure & frustration. Storytelling is the only reason I put myself through it.

If I had a choice, I would be a bard.

I spin stories whenever I speak. When I’m not careful, I capture conversations by accident. There’s no joy like thejoy of holding an audience spellbound with the power of imagination. A story properly told brings people together and breeds ideas in ready minds. It is a wonder and a miracle.

Alas, bard is no longer a viable vocation. Even if it was, a lot of my stories are to complex for anything less than an epic treatment, and no one has the attention span for spoken-word sagas these days. Not even me.

So, in the end, I write by necessity and in a constant state of conflicted discomfort. Writing is an activity I endure to share story, because the magic is too addictive to give up. It’s a crude modern means to an ancient end, and in the end, it’s one that I’m stuck using to get my fix.

Bring on the direct neural linkings, I say!

Writing again

Writing & Self-Publishing: Lessons Learned

Flight Plan hits print-on-page September 30. Trees will once again die for my imperfect art. Yes, I know, I published an ebook edition in December 2013, but that was then, and this is now. This is paperback. I incorporated reader suggestions, revised details and re-edited. I doubt most people would notice the changes (other than the typo fixes) but I know they’re there. My second-born brainbaby will become be a Real Book at last. Pinocchio, eat your heart out.
What’s that? That’s the wrong way to go about self-publishing a book? All that revision work should have been done before publication?  Oh, and I should have put out print and ebook simultaneously, not to mention promoting the release for months beforehand, after building up a fanbase through social media? Well, yes. You’re right. Over the last 9 months, I’ve learned that I do pretty much everything wrong that possibly can be done wrong when it comes to self-publishing, according to The Experts.
For some inexplicable reason, this makes me feel proud, rather than ashamed of my failure. Live and learn, to me means Do it, and see what happens. My inner toddler and I, we’re on excellent terms. She is fearless. I am not. Sometimes, I am wise enough to let the toddler lead. I never would have learned how publishing works if I hadn’t gone ahead and done it, stumbling my way through the process and learning how to stand by falling. By e-publishing first,  only pixels were punished for my sins. 

Plus, let’s be honest, my books wouldn’t leap off the shelves even if I aced every aspect of their presentation. I am indescribably proud of my brainbabies, but I am not blind to their flaws. My stories were not designed for commercial or literary success. They aren’t instantly appealing. They’re not catchy, pithy, erotic, or action-packed. They’re possibly stories that only their mother will love. 

I may never sell another copy of either book. Having them run free in the world is still better than forcing them to live out their lives in the lonely splendor of my computer. They’re out there to be discovered. That’s something. It may be everything. It’s enough.

I am grateful to everyone who’s stuck with me through this amazing learning experience, and humbled by the encouragement I’ve received from those who discovered me through my work. I do hope to reach one or two more readers for my quirky optimistic take on a gritty, downbeat dystopian future. I’ll keep plugging away at writing and sharing in my own exploratory, erratic, eccentric, stubborn way. 

And hey, you know what? You know a Real Author. You have bragging rights. Tell friends, enemies and total strangers about my fabulous books and your favorite characters. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned: readers are the ones who make the magic. I can bring words to life, but readers are the reason they live and breathe.