One day, an easer said to a pencil: “Maybe I should do the writing.”

“Sorry, friend,” replied the pencil. “You’re just too dull.”

The eraser considered this. “Well, I guess you have a point there.”

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“I guess those are all okay,” she said, “I liked the way that Mona appeared in every piece. But I don’t like the way they all include that weird Motley Man.”

“I based it off the creepy clown in My Friend Pierrot painted by Max Ernst,” I said. “It was in the art prompt folder.”

“Really?” She scrunched up her nose. “There was some awfully weird stuff in there, like those house-birds and that wall-face and stuff. Can I see it?”

“Sure,” I said. I dug through the art folder–clipped from a coffee table book of Max Ernst art that had died of a broken spine–trying to find My Friend Pierrot. Then I looked a second time. And a third.

Ernst’s coral towers, his jungles teeming with teeth, his architecture with organics…it was all there. But the motley fool capering with an impossible hat beneath an impossible moon…that had vanished.

“Huh,” I said. “I wonder what happened to it.”

The Motley Man, leaning quietly in the corner, smiled a jagged smile. “I wonder indeed,” said he. “I wonder indeed.”

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They call it the third place.

Neither work nor home, a third place comes without the marionette strings and strong negative associations that come along with a workplace. It’s free of the endless distraction, chores, and laundry that swirl about the home. A third place is a sanctum apart, a place of peace and productivity.

For many, their third place is a library. Ample seating, books leeching the musty odor of delectable knowledge, and–most importantly–free internet access. But for a librarian like me, libraries ARE work, which means that relaxation and creativity and free internet access without dirty laundry must happen elsewhere.

What better place than a coffee shop? Life-giving, elixir-of-the-morning coffee (iced, of course, even in the dead of wintry mix February) plus wireless that usually works when you don’t have anything important to do plus a generous supply of tables and comfy chairs. Plus, for a hermit like me, the constant comings and goings of people jonesing for java can lend an air of sociability to a solor witing session.

Starting in 2010 or so, my third place was High Point Coffee just off West Jackson Ave. It wasn’t ideally placed, being in a strip mall perpendicular from the main college causeway and not easily visble unless you knew it was there. For the first few years I lived in town, in fact, I had no idea it existed. But for National Novel Writing Month 2010, I was invited to a write-in there by a fellow scribe.

They never showed up, but I kept coming. It wasn’t even for the coffee at first; I fell in love with the armchairs that let you sink in deep and nest, the titanic ottoman that could hold an entire disseration or novel revision, the crackling gas fireplace. With a double-bank of windows there was always plenty of sunlight, and an airy open layout allowed for maximum customization of tables, chairs, and snaking cords seeking the four precious outlets.

In time, once I realized that the caramel frappuccino I’d been drinking was a little too cold and a little too sweet, I fell in love with High Point’s iced mocha and iced vanilla (without whipped cream, of course, since I’m watching my figure). The large size of each was enough to fuel an entire session of third place noveling or blogging, augmented on occasion by a delectable $1 jumbo chocolate chunk cookie (but not the raisin cookies, since those imposters are disappointment made real and set loose upon a sinful world). It was to the point where, when I approached, the baristas sometimes had my favorite already started.

I only threw them a curveball by asking for the pumpkin spice a few times.

It’s kind of funny, and maybe a little embarrassing, how much someone can get wrapped up in their third place. Half of the pop songs on my iPod were yanked from the very air of High Point by SoundHound fur purchase. The baristas often became my friends as they came and went; I think half of the stylish people in my local circle worked there at one time or another. I took out-of-town visitors there, took dates there, even glued foam heads to their wooden coffee stirrers in one memorable art session. When I became a National Novel Writing Month honcho in my own right, our most informal and celebratory meetings were always advertised on Facebook with a coffee bean motif.

A Starbucks opened up just down the road on the site of a bulldozed Burger King the other year, and another indie coffee shop–much narrower and less well-lit, with uncomfortable wooden hipster furniture–not long before that. Both places fronted the main drag, meaning they were more easily visible. And though there were certainly busy times, especially near exams or after football games, the great draw of High Point as a third place was that you could always find a place to sit and spread out.

I had long feared that my third place would close, and gave them plenty of business to try and forestall such a horror. Every NaNoWriMo write-in had a table tent admonishing attendees to buy all the java they could. And yet, when they announced with less than two weeks’ notice that they’d be closed forever by Valentine’s Day, it hit like a sledgehammer. I’d built so much of my routine as a writer and as an (attempted) leader of writers to that one place. All but a few of my friends were out of a job. Generous tips in the last few weeks and a souvenir keep cup were all I could manage.

If that sounds a little silly, getting all busted up over a java joint closing, consider this: of my 2200 blog entries, perhaps 20% were written there in the grip of a chair deeper than a philosophy course. Every novel I tried to write from 2010-2015 was attempted there as much as it was at home; I owe three finished drafts and four unfinished ones to my third place. When I had mind-numbing chores to do at work and an open schedule, I’d sometimes retire there to work in peace and rate undergraduates or read faculty applications.

Worse, no other place is as close or as bright or as comfortable; ever since the library where I work installed a Starbucks above my office they’ve lost whatever luster they might once have had (their coffee is awful too). The other indie shops in town are either too far away or too uncomfortable. There’s one other High Point location, the last survivor, but it’s downtown where the parking is meager and the drunks run thick. It’s always packed to the gills and overrun with weirdos, like that creepy dude who takes surreptitious pictures of ladies’ lower limbs.

I’ll live. I’ll find another third place. But you never forget your first, whether it’s your first third place or your first indie java joint. Farewell, HPC West; we’ll always have the writing.

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“Well,” belches my muse. “You really screwed it up this time.”

“What?” I said. “I made it to 50,000 words. 55,000, even! I won and kept my streak alive.”

“Ah, but you didn’t finish the story this time,” he said, waggling a fat finger. “You notched your lowest wordcount since 2012, too.”

“Does that matter?” I said. “It was an ambitious story without a real outline, and I had a life this time around instead of just free time.”

“You won’t finish it,” my muse said. “It’ll go on the pile with those other half-finished books. The YA book. The noir. The action comedy. That pathetic attempt at political fiction.”

“Look,” I said. “I don’t care if I finish it or not.”

“In this case not.”

“I wanted to tackle some quasi-serious science fiction, some big themes, and try writing some more diverse characters…all at the same time. It was a lot to chew on, but I’m not sorry I bit it off.”

“Oh, you bit it all right,” my muse said, cracking open a fresh brewski. “You bit it.”

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Some people say I’m only a horror writer. Now, that’s not fair. Sure, most of my works have oozing guts and dripping eyeballs, but so what? That’s the culture I was marinated in, a world of cheap slasher movies with gory covers lining rental shelves made of repurposed gutters. I wrote what I knew, and it got me a little money, so I kept writing it.

But I can do stuff other than horror. I wrote a fantasy once, you know? Published it under a pseudonym with Tobor Books. No one’s ever found out about it, but it did make the list of notable new books that year. Granted, it was under the “worst genre fiction” heading but hey, that takes a certain amount of talent too. And considering how blitzed I was when I wrote it, anything other than mediocrity is a win.

And science fiction, too! I wrote for one of those anthology series for a while, you know, the ones they were crazy about in the 80s. A different story every week. Mine never aired, though, since the series was canned, but just you wait until they put it out on DVD. Then you’ll see.

Inspired by the song ‘Plan 9’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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I roll to my feet, giddy with dehydration and dizzy wth sickness. The pharmacy’s worth of meds coursting through my veins is the only thing allowing me to get even that far. My objective: the computer screen across the room.

“Oh come on now,” grunts my creative muse. He sprawls out over the couch that I had occupied until a moment ago in wifebeater and boxers, beer in hand. As always, his metaphysical appearance is a direct invitation to litigation from Stephen King’s On Writing that only my obscurity prevents from making it to Maine Superior Court.

“Come on what?” I say, rolling a pair of kleenex pills and jamming them in my nose to dam up the flow.

“You’re stick with the Bug that Will Not Die,” my muse cries. “Every time you think you’ve licked it you wake up with a headache measured on the Richter scale and more goo than a Jell-O factory gumming up your various ducts.”

“Yeah,” I croak. “So?”

“So how do you expect to write, much less finish, a book under those conditions?” my muse cries. “Especially when it’s the most nebulous idea yo’ve had in years?”

“I’m working on getting it nailed down,” I reply, slumping into my chair. “It’s gonna have themes, more complex themes than a John Williams concert. You’ll see.”

My muse snorts. “Or it’ll be more wishy-washy than a drive-thru no-touch,” he says.

“Hey,” I snap, inasmuch as my gooey passages allow such sharpness. “I finished a book for Camp Naonowrimo this year already!”

“Yeah, and it was a flabby, rushed piece of…stuff,” my muse says. “You wrote it under ideal conditions, too, with nothing going on at work and even less at home. How do you expect to jam a full book into the time you have this month, especially if you want to get all of those so-called themes in there?”

“I’ll find a way,” I say. “I always do.”

“We’ll see,” grunts my muse. “Oh, we’ll see about that. Aim for the stars with science fiction and burn up in the atmosphere. Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last.”

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Author Adriana Schmeidler’s provocative new book was a fictionalized tale of her struggle with eating disorders. Provocative partly because of its subject matter and partly because of the way it commingled the serious health risks of “the Nervosa Twins,” anorexia and bulimia, with a light and breezy comic tone.

Accordingly, the book’s publisher–mindful of the enormous success of Schmeidler’s past three books–decided on an aggressive advertising campaign. With the mantra that no press could be bad press, and attempting to trade as much as possible on Schmeidler’s newfound literary fame, they made her the centerpiece of said ad campaign. “Adriana Schmeidler Must Diet” trumpeted the ads, which featured the waifish author looking decidedly malnourished. The implication, naturally, was that a woman as slight as Schmeidler had no need of a diet.

The publisher had expected–indeed, they had counted on–a firestorm of protest. Schmeidler herself had a few reservations, but ultimately saw the novel’s comic tone and controversial content as the best way to start a national conversation on a topic she held near and dear.

What none of them had counted on was a simple printer’s error: the ad copy went to print and banner ads reading, instead, “Adriana Schmeidler Must Die.”

And it was only a matter of time before someone took her up on that apparent request.

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“All it takes to turn the real into the unreal is the slightest of twists.”

That was the advice of J. Sturgis Tarboski to any young turk writers that approached him about his secrets. And secrets they were: he had an unbroken string of relatively successful science fiction stories and novels spanning the 1950s to the 1980s, the longevity of a Heinlein or an Asimov but with a far grittier sensibility. Where other writers concerned themselves with spaceships and ray guns, galactic wars and the like, Sturgis Tarboski wrote stories set in a recognizable, if often out-of-phase, mid-century America. Where other writers used a modern setting as a springboard for social criticism or utopian/dystopian dreams, Sturgis Tarboski preferred to focus on his characters.

He might have been considered closest to Vonnegut (but for the two men’s long-running enmity stemming from a fierce elevator argument over religion and politics) or a Bradbury (but for Tarboski’s fierce dislike of Bradbury’s longtime friends Forrest J. Ackerman and Gene Roddenberry). And, hagiography aside, it’s a little disingenuous to pit Sturgis Tarboski against such luminaries; a dedicated attendance at science fiction and fantasy conventions and legendary openness to fans helped mask the fact that he was successful and comfortable in the upper tiers of the genre’s minor leagues.

He’s probably best-known for his 1978 short novel The Othering of Deerton which describes the slow infiltration of a fictional small town by powerful artifacts of unknown origin and the unpredictable effects that were wreaked thereby. It shows a certain degree of influence from other authors, most prominently the Strugatsky brothers, but is unique in that it is told entirely through found artifacts–transcripts, interviews, depositions, newspaper articles, and the like.

The bizarre “painbridge” is perhaps the most noteworthy artifact in Tarboski’s story. Appearing like an unnaturally heavy ceramic mug with three radial handles, it has the curious and horrifying effect of violently killing whoever touches it with bare skin while causing an exact duplicate of that person to appear somewhere in a 5-mile radius exactly 19 minutes later. The struggle over the “painbridge” and its use dominates the latter part of the book, which ends with the item lost in a collection of actual novelty coffee mugs owned by a local eccentric. “Painbridges” of later fiction, including the Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits revival episodes, featuring a “death cup” and a “duplicup” respectively, can be traced directly to Tarboski.

Upon his death at age 80 in 2013, Tarboski–who had never married and outlived most of his close relations–asked that the contents of his estate be auctioned off to “fellow writers and fans.” Accordingly, his executors arranged an auction to correspond with the interval between the 2014 Nerdicon and 2014 SciCon conventions. The first item up for bid? A ceramic cup with three handles inside a plexiglass box.

There were no takers.

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Young Adult Novel
Prep Time: 6-8 months
Total Time: 12-18 months
Allergy Information: Unsuitable for cliché, formula, fanfic, or movie adaptation allergies
Serves: 500,000-1,000,000 copies

1 15-18 year-old heroine. 1 hero may be substituted at the expense of smaller serving size.

2-3 16-19 year-old love interests. For best results, include at least one smouldering but dumb hunk and one smarter but less attractive dweeb.

4-6 cups special powers as a metaphor for teenagerhood and spoiled exceptionalism. Powers may be magical, the result of accident or alien origin, or Mary Sue prefection, but must be innate.

2-3 cups destiny. Minced archetypes are the traditional form, but passive characters inserted into conspiracies or over whom rivals fight may be substituted to taste.

1-2 hard-boiled antagonists. Add more antagonists to increase serving size; one 16-19 year-old antagonist and one adult to represent clueless grownups who just don’t get teen angst are traditional. Be sure to not include garnishes of character development or motivation, as these will spoil the flavor.

3-5 cups sacrificial quirky sidekicks. Sacrifice may be in the form of death, disfigurement, or simply disappearing, but in all cases must be seasoned heavily with unearned adoration of main heroine.

15-20 ounces new terms for old ideas. The more transparent or obfuscatory, the stronger the flavor.

20-25 hooks for future stories. Endings will spoil the flavor, so use them in the most sparing manner possible. Where practicable, prevent self-contained plot from precipitating during preparation. Hooks should allow for trilogy of subsequent servings, but pentology or septology are increasingly popular options at discretion.

1-2 cups chaste teen love. Precise measurement is essential, as too much or too little will drastically limit serving size. Superficiality and wish-fulfillment are popular garnishes and should be added to taste.

Stale ingredients work best, especially if sourced from organic or free-range young adult novels by other authors. Stir well with limp descriptions and over-abundance of world-building exposition. Book deals and movie contract are popular desserts. Can be made from leftovers of fanfic as a base and emulsifier with the addition of 1-2 cups Name Changes. Ideally served alongside PG-13 Summer Blockbuster souffle, Bad Emo Autotuned Pop Music, and/or First World Problems. Serve cold or lukewarm; allowing to cool and reheating is often preferred.

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“Who’s this strumpet?” asks my muse as he walks into my writing den–otherwise known as the single room comprising my kitchen and living room.

Sure enough, a young woman in a duster and hat, both heavy with dust, is sitting on the couch, arms folded, and glaring bullets at me. Luckily, the revolvers heavy on her hips are loaded with strictly imaginary bullets.

“This is Virginia McNeill, the heroine of my National Novel Writing Month novel for 2013,” I say. “I’ve been toying with her as a character since 2007 and finally got her story underway this year.”

“Uh, okay, great, sure,” says my muse. “I’m very happy for you. But why is she here, on your couch, which ought to be my place of honor? I am, after all, the imagined personification of your muse, shamelessly ripped off from an author so much richer and more powerful than you that I’m surprised you haven’t been sued back to the stone age?”

“If anyone asks, you’re fair use,” I say. “Or one of Stephen King’s Dollar Babies.”

“Whatever boats your float, slick,” says my muse with a hearty belch. “Now answer the damn question. What’s Annie Oakley doing in my ass groove?”

“I’m cross at him,” says Virginia. “I don’t like how my story turned out.”

“Ohh, and the crowd is crestfallen!” crows my muse. “All those years of thinking about Virginia’s story in the shower and you whiff on it like Casey?”

“I didn’t do any such thing!” I cry.

“I beg to differ,” snorts Virginia. “I thought my characterization was trite and two-dimensional, my character arc was more like a straight line, and that more often than not you were making fun of me.”

“Sounds like she has your number, slick,” says my muse. He tosses the cowgirl a cold beer from the fridge. “Here, have a brewski.”

“I for one think her story turned out well,” I say. “Sure, there are always edits and revisions, but-”

“Did you finish it?” snaps my muse.

“-I feel that I did enough justice to the outline of the tale that-” I continue, trying to ignore the question.

“DID you FINISH it?” my muse says again with exaggerated emphasis. “That WAS your resolution, wasn’t it?”

“It’s finished enough for now,” I say airily, evading the question.

My muse rolls his eyes afresh and turns to Virginia. “Did he finish it?”

“Far as I’m concerned,” she drawls acidly, “he never started it.”

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