Flash-Fiction Friday #1: Snake Handlers

 

There are basically two types of tent revivals.

First, there’s the hoopin’ an’ hollerin’, hallelujah-callin’ jumped up revivals, where everyone is dancin’ in the aisles and throwin’ their hands up in the air and shoutin’ praises.  There’s lots of singin’ – some of it is even on-key – and folks sharin’ their stories and their joys and their lives.

The other kind is all fire and brimstone, hell and damnation and suffering eternal.  You’re a sinful creature and you rightly belong in the deepest pit of hell for all of eternity.  The preacher wants you to know you’ve done wrong, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do to overcome your depravity.

But they’ve both got the same message, the Good News, capital letters an’ all.  In the good times tent revivals, it’s all about celebrating that fact, reveling in the joy of salvation.  In the darker sort of revivals, it’s the spark of hope, the single lifeline to grab hold of an’ cling like the Devil his-own-self was tryin’ to drag you under into darkness.  But you can only get there if you repent, if you accept your depraved nature and strive to earn that hope you can’t ever possibly earn.

When I was a kid, we had more of the latter kind of revivals than the former.  My daddy wasn’t much for softness, either physically or emotionally.  He’d hide us good when we did wrong – and my daddy could always find things you did wrong, even things you weren’t aware you’d done – and drive us hard even when we were doin’ the right thing.  He drove himself even harder, though, preachin’ as though there was a fire in his belly eatin’ him from the inside out.  He’d shout and holler and accuse, hurl invective and judgment from the pulpit like he was God sittin’ in judgment from His throne.  My daddy’d sweat and spit and near as like to catch fire; he’d work himself up into a frothing lather, foamin’ at the mouth like a rabid dog, screaming at the depraved congregation.

And they’d take it, accept his judgments as God’s own truth.  And they’d strive to be better folks.  They believed every word my daddy told ’em, all evidence to the contrary.

When I was 16, daddy decided to try snake handling.  He’d seen another preacher do it down in Okemah in early June, and he liked how it grabbed everyone’s attention.  So daddy found a snake wrangler and bought a whole mess’a snakes and put them all in a glass case and brought them to the next revival.

Daddy was a good preacher, full of fury and fire and passion, but he weren’t the smartest guy around.  He didn’t pay real close attention to the snake handler he’d seen, didn’t notice that the guy had only used harmless, non-poisonous snakes for his bit.  Daddy missed that part, and ended up with a whole bunch of poisonous snakes.  I dunno if the snake wrangler he used was stupid, too, or just didn’t care much for daddy’s preachin’, but he loaded daddy up with a couple dozen cottonmouths and a copperhead or two.

The night daddy tried out the snake handling, the tent was packed.  Every makeshift pew – usually made with a couple of boards and a few barrels – was stuffed so full the boards sagged and groaned.  People stomped and clapped and hollered along to the hymns, and the heat in the tent was so great that a couple of folks in the back passed out.  Daddy said it was just the Holy Spirit takin’ hold of ’em, but of course he’d say somethin’ like that.

It was gettin’ towards the end of daddy’s sermon, and he was tellin’ everyone their faith weren’t strong enough.  “But if you believe with all your heart and soul, the power of our Lord Jesus will descend upon you, and you can do wonders!”  And he reached into that glass case and pulled out a handful of angry snakes.  I remember watchin’ ’em writhe in his hands, coiling and hissing and lookin’ none-too-happy about the whole situation.

Of course, when a snake ain’t happy, it’s only got one way of lettin’ you know.  An’ these snakes sure let daddy know.  They sank their teeth into the flushed flesh of his hands and forearms, pumpin’ venom into him faster than the dickens.  Daddy yelped and tried to rip them snakes off his arms, but it weren’t no use.  They weren’t gonna let him go.

Daddy collapsed beside his pulpit and went into convulsions, shakin’ and shiverin’ like a body possessed.  Folks cried out in fear and surprise; some figured it was the rapture, others thought it was demon possession, and some folks with a bit of know-how recognized it as the venom killin’ daddy.  No one wanted to get near him, not with all those damn snakes sittin’ there, so we all just watched in fear and anguish as my daddy died.

Cover Reveal Participants Wanted — royaljamespublishing.com

We are looking for some amazing bloggers to participate in an upcoming cover reveal. It’s for the awesome short story BoyzNite By Xane Fisher. The date for the cover reveal is on June 15, 2016. Send us an email to royaljamespublishing@gmail.com or click here to join our blog tour email list. Thanks! About BoyzNite: Law […]

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Help my publisher show off covers as they get revealed!  Mine will be several months from now still, but you can go ahead and get in on the ground floor with June 15’s reveal of BoyzNite by Xane Fisher.

Discipline and Inspiration

A lot of my writer friends like to treating writing like any other job: there are deadlines, quotas to meet, specific goals to achieve.  And I get that.  If you just keep endlessly working on the same book forever, you’re never going to get to publish it any move on to something new.  But I also feels like it gives short shrift to the creative aspect of what we’re doing here.

Everyone decries inspiration as a fickle, fleeting muse, as though waiting for it to make an appearance is a form of weakness in a writer and a sign that they’re not a True Author (TM).  As if the only way to really, truly being a professional in the field is to spend each day putting words on the page, some good and some bad, and then going back and editing them to make them all polished gold or something.

That strikes me as a bit disingenuous.  Each of us started writing because we were struck with some bit of inspiration.  Maybe it was just a scene, or a character, or even a word or phrase.  Maybe it was a line of dialogue, or the brief description of an action or something.  We all started from a place of inspiration, not a place of discipline.  And while I think it’s great that some writers can crank out words every day without concern for whether or not they’re good words (or they’re words that can be fixed in editing), I’d still rather take my time, maybe not get something on the page every day, and make sure I put down the right words the first time ’round.

And maybe that’s arrogance on my part.  Maybe I’m not being as clear here as I’d like to be.  Writing about writing is always fraught with hand-wringing and sounding full of yourself.  “The Process,” y’know.  I always roll my eyes when creative folks talk about their Process.  It sounds so pretentious.  And I’m sure talking of inspiration sounds that way, too.  It’s a lot more down-to-earth to talk about being a writer through the self-discipline of writing.  You sound like a human, or like anyone could do what you do if they just built that discipline themselves.

But I’m not sure that’s true.  Maybe it’s a bit elitist, but not everybody can do everything, even with discipline.  I could practice every day, hire the best trainers and go through intense regimens, and still never be a better basketball player than LeBron James or Michael Jordan.  I could push myself to practice for hours a day, doing riffs and runs and arpeggios, and never be as good a guitar player as Prince was.  Those are (or were) all highly-disciplined people who spent years honing their crafts, but they started with the inspiration.  I’m just saying maybe we shouldn’t discount that part quite so much.  Discipline without inspiration is just so much hard work for nothing.

Defying Description

Whenever I tell someone new that I’m having a novel published, the question is inevitably asked:

“Oh?  What’s it like?  What’s it about?”

And I get to sit there for a second like a twit trying to come up with a concise, clear way of describing it.  I usually go with something like, “It’s a hard-boiled detective novel with bizarre sci-fi science elements and ninjas.  And an ape-in-a-suit named Vinny the Pooh.”

I’ll tell you, the weird looks I often receive in return aren’t reassuring.  Maybe my description is lacking?  I struggle with describing my creative endeavors, whether they’re comics or stories or poems or songs or freestanding dioramas portraying the inevitable betrayal and death of a beloved Joss Whedon character in one of his shows.

Part of me wants to be able to just say, “Here, read the first chapter.  That’s what it’s about.  That’s what it’s like.”  Unfortunately, I can’t carry around copies of the first chapter for that specific purpose; I’m pretty sure the administration would start to give me funny looks if I upped my copier use that much.

It’s probably best if I just come up with a snappier, more effective description.  I’ve been trying out the term speculative noir to describe the story, though that’s drawn some confused looks, too.

I like the term, though.  It encapsulates basically everything you need to know: speculative fiction is all about near-future tech and science and society, and the weird ways things are similar to and different from the future.  Noir, of course, hearkens back to the works of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, or films like The Maltese Falcon (a Hammet story, if you don’t know) or Touch of Evil.  There are shifty characters, individuals with dark secrets, and a central character who doesn’t so much have a character arc as he has a drinking problem and a curiosity that he can’t shake even though it threatens to get him killed all the time.  And hell, that’s Eddie Hazzard through and through.

Sure, I still have to explain what I mean with speculative noir, but once I have it does a pretty good job of getting my idea across.

Of course, I still have to mention the ninjas.  Because, c’mon, ninjas.

Favorites: Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited

I’m an unapologetic Bob Dylan fan.  I’ll even listen to the crappy late ’70s/early ’80s born-again Christian albums that everyone agrees are absolute crap.  But my favorite, the one that I could listen to over and over again for the rest of my days, the one that would be in my “Desert Island Discs” top ten, is Highway 61 Revisited.

Yeah, it’s kind of the obvious choice.  With “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s guaranteed to be one of the best-known of Dylan’s albums, standing alongside his earlier folk albums and Blonde on Blonde as the ones that all the casual fans know about and probably have.

But I’m not some hipster who thinks popularity makes something bad.  There is, I think, a good reason that so many people like this record: it’s just really damn good.  Peak Dylan, firing on all cylinders and writing with a passion and a fire that could barely be contained.  From the first firecracker snare shot of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the plaintive harmonica wail that brings “Desolation Row” to an end, Highway 61 Revisited is everything I ever wanted in a rock and roll record.  Dylan is by turns thoughtful, aggressive, playful, and mystical, tapping into a mythic America that seems somehow more real than the actual one.

Freehand

Though I’d deny it until my dying day if someone asked me directly, I am a bit obsessed with my appearance.  Over the past few years, I’ve become something of a clothes horse, building up a vast array of shirts and pants and shoes that I can mix and match to create a variety of (what I consider) stylish outfits.

I do a bit of accessorizing, too, but only on my left hand.

That may sound strange, but there’s a totally legitimate reason for it.

See, for as long as I’ve worn any sort of accessories (specifically, watches, which I wore habitually for pretty much all of middle school, high school, and college), it’s always been on my left hand.  When I got married, the wedding band naturally went on the left ring finger.  For a time, I wore my Fitbit on my right wrist, but it always felt weird and I always had to take it off when I played the guitar, since it would hit the strings and add lots of extra steps I hadn’t actually taken as I strummed.  So, I put everything on the left hand, ’cause it’s the one that doesn’t do all that much.  My right hand is for strumming, drawing, and writing.  Wearing stuff on that wrist/hand just gets in the way.  But the left wrist feels natural and comfortable, and I don’t end up with those extra unearned steps.

So, if you ever see me and my left wrist/hand seems over-accessorized compared to the right, you know the reason.  It may be a strange, silly reason, but it’s the one I’m sticking to.

The Day Job

Sadly, writing does not (yet) pay the bills.  No, like so many other writers, I have to have a day job.  And mine happens to be high school teacher.

I’ve been teaching for the past decade in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC.  It’s a very different place from where I grew up out in Oklahoma.  Academics are far more competitive, for a start.  Back in the land of prairie grass and oil rigs, it’s all about football.  I remember everyone in town coming to the high school football games on Friday nights: not just students and people with connections to the school, but old guys who graduated thirty years earlier but still wore their letter jackets, trying to hold on to those old glory days like a character in some Bruce Springsteen song.

Out here, it’s all about the academic achievement.  Where I grew up, maybe 1/3 of students went on to college, if that much.  Out here, it’s closer to like 90%.  So there’s a lot of pressure on the students and on the teachers to perform.

Things are a bit different for me.  I’ve always worked in special education, with students who have a variety of learning disabilities and associated Other Health Impairments (a category that covers ADD and ADHD), maybe some emotional disabilities or something on the Autism Spectrum.  I love working with this population, and not just because we tend to play the same video games and watch the same movies and read the same comic books.  There’s something deeply satisfying about working with a group that is so often maligned and mistreated in our society.  Learning disabilities are often treated as punchlines to jokes rather than conditions that can lead to so much frustration, anxiety, and even anger in the classroom and everyday life.  I’ve worked with a broad spectrum of students, from those who were capable of college-level academic work to those who literally cannot dress themselves or bathe themselves.  I’ve had students who could discuss Shakespeare, and students who could not remember my name from one day to the next.

It’s a job that has its bad days, that’s for sure.  Those days when you have what you think is a well-crafted lesson plan that falls apart five minutes in.  Or the ones where you think something will only take ten minutes, but it takes 50.  Or you think it’ll take 50, but it really only takes 5.  Of course, then there’s all the standardized testing you have to get them ready for.  Everyone loves the standardized tests, except that none of us do.

Teaching is far more challenging than most non-teachers think.  The teaching itself may be straight-forward and even simple, but with special education especially, that’s not the hardest part of the job.

No, the hardest part is having to be constantly on.  From the moment you walk into the building until the moment you leave at the end of the day, you are performing.  You have an audience, one that senses fear and mistakes and will jump on either and tear you apart if you’re not careful.  Every action you take, every word you say, it all has to be carefully thought out before you do it, and you are never given the time to actually do that careful thinking.  Decisions must be swift, downright immediate, or you risk everything spiraling out of control.  You can’t let yourself relax or lose focus for even a second, because that’s when disaster can strike.

But it is a rewarding job, as day jobs go.  There’s a sense of satisfaction when you see a student master a new skill, or remember information they didn’t think they’d be able to recall, or see them become interested in a subject they’d detested or thought they could never get into.  Those are the moments that make teaching something I love doing, and something I continue to drag my carcass out of bed for each morning.

Plottin’ and Schemin’

I’ve…never been good at organization.  If any of my previous English teachers are reading that sentence, they are muttering to themselves that it is the single greatest understatement in human history, ranking up there with “the Beatles were a pretty good band” and “maybe Hitler was not a very nice man.”  I’d like to blame it on my ADD (like that guy from AWOLNATION, who capitalizes the entire band name for some reason?  Maybe that’s the ADD’s fault, too), and it’s probably a significant culprit, but executive function has just never been my bailiwick.  It bleeds over into my planning and plotting on a book, too.  A few months ago, I wrote a guest post for Hart’s Romance Pulse where I talked about plotting by the seat of my pants.  I’m not going to completely rehash what I’ve already said pretty clearly somewhere else, but I did want to address it a bit here on my own site.

Some authors, of course, craft very detailed, very specific outlines, with plot beats planned and scripted in a rigid text that is to be adhered to like a holy book.  I am not of their ilk.  A lot of my plot beats are created in the spur of the moment, following a general theme of, “I’m kinda stuck at the moment, what if someone started shooting at the protagonist?”  It’s served me pretty well so far.

Generally speaking, when I’m writing, I’ve got a couple of plot points that I know have to happen.  I usually know how the story will end.  What will happen between my starting point, those important plot beats, and the ending?  Only God knows for sure, and He likes to make me work it out for myself.

Mostly, it’s a lot of bad guys shooting at the hero.

Influences, Part 1 of Many: Terry Pratchett

As a writer, I sorta have to acknowledge my influences.  There are many, and I wouldn’t be who I am today as a writer if it weren’t for them.  So, to assign credit/blame where it’s due, this will be the first of several posts outlining my influences and what they’ve done for me.  Today, it’s the work of Terry Pratchett!

Sir Terry Pratchett is, of course, the beloved author of the Discworld series, 40-odd books set in a world where magic is real and the world is a flat disc sitting on the back of four elephants that in turn stand on the back of a giant space turtle, the Great A’Tuin.

It’s still hard for me to talk about Sir Terry, who passed away last year from complications related to a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s.  He

The Discworld, Art by Paul Kidby
Art by Paul Kidby, the definitive Discworld artist.

wrote right up until the end, crafting books with speech-to-text software when his brain betrayed him and forgot how to read and write.  But his sense of humor, his love for the absurdity in the world, was still as strong as ever.  So was his sense of anger.  Neil Gaiman, his friend and writing partner for the novel Good Omens (one of my absolute favorite books of all time, and the novel that introduced me to both Pratchett and Gaiman), described Sir Terry as a man driven by a deep sense of anger with the injustice of the world.  Whatever else Pratchett wanted, he wanted justice to be done and for good to win in the end.  It may not be a clean win – in many of the Discworld books, the “good guys” win, but with compromises and conditions.  Pratchett was, behind the jokes and the satire and the fantasy tropes that he constantly subverted, a bit of a realist about human nature.  Folks aren’t usually good or evil, right or wrong.  There are gray areas, and you have to acknowledge them if you want your writing to have any real depth to it.

I guess the biggest thing I learned from reading Terry Pratchett’s novels was that you can tell a ridiculous story, one with fantasy elements or bizarre sci-fi elements, and it can be funny and affecting and emotional and real in a way that non-genre fiction often can’t be.

Favorite Terry Pratchett Novels:

1. Small Gods.  Sir Terry’s beautiful examination of the value of faith and belief, not just in some higher power, but in yourself.

2. Thief of Time.  The Monks of History are tasked with making sure effect follows cause, that past comes before present, but the building of a mysterious clock in Ankh Morpork (where everything big always happens) and the weird powers of a thief-turned-novice-monk might not mean the end of the world, just the end of Time itself.

3. Witches Abroad.  The Witches novels are my favorites, but that’s because I’m partial to Granny Weatherwax and her pragmatic approach to magic (or what she calls “headology”).  This isn’t the first Witches novel, but it’s probably the best, and it carries the idea of the power of stories and narrative causality to a perfect conclusion.  Someone is using stories to get their way, and it’s up to the Witches to stop them.  Assuming some jerk doesn’t drop a house on their heads first.

4. Reaper Man.  Death takes a holiday as Bill Door, works on a farm, and sorta ends up saving the universe from the Auditors.

5. Guards!  Guards!  The first of the Commander Vimes novels.  Ankh Morpork’s Night Watch is where the worst of the worst end up, the folks too lazy, dumb, or not-self-aware who can’t hack it in the daylight.  But when a dragon mysteriously starts appearing around the city and causing random havoc, it’s up to Vimes and his small team of nearly-useless fellows to solve the case and save the day.

Tunes!

If you’re like me – and you should all be so lucky – then writing is a process that involves music.  Lots of music.  But not just any music!  No, you must listen to specific songs or specific styles to help set the mood for your protagonist’s adventures.  Or misadventures.  Or what have you.

I have a constantly-evolving playlist on my phone of the songs I listen to while writing.  Some are on there because they fit a specific scene, while others are more about describing the characters or the mood.  The following playlist was developed while I was writing The Invisible Crown and another novel that will appear later in the series, tentatively called Death and the Dame (that one’s a love story.  Sort of).

1. Anita Kelsey, “Sway”: There have been times I’ve just written to the Dark City Soundtrack.  This is still one of my favorite songs off that collection.

2. Sting, “Perfect Love…Gone Wrong”: On there because of the smoky, steamy city jazz feel, and also the extended metaphor where Sting is a disgruntled dog amuses me to no end.

3. John Mellencamp, “The Full Catastrophe”: Perfect summation of my protagonist, Eddie Hazzard.  His life is a bit of a rolling catastrophe, and there is a minor chance he was accidentally loving your wife while you were loving his.

4. Soul Coughing, “Fully Retractable”: One that’s on there for tone/mood.  There’s a dark undercurrent, a sinister feel to this song that’s just really fitting.

5. Muddy Waters, “Rolling Stone”: Life in a blues song always sounds like it sucks.  I imagine Eddie’s life is much the same way.

6. Bob Dylan, “What Was It You Wanted”: Either the narrator is stuck in a world that makes no sense, or the guy took a shot to the head.  Either way, a Dylan song is a must-have on pretty much any playlist I put together.

7. Gorillaz, “M1A1”: Fight scene song!  Love the energy, the staccato burst of the snare, the spiky guitars…great soundtrack to a fistfight.

8. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand”: Another mood setter.  Creepy, dark alley vibe that I dig.

9. EL VY, “Happiness, Missouri”: Like I said, a lot of songs I stick on these for the general mood they set.  This one fits with the general feel of the city of Arcadia: dark, slightly mysterious, vaguely threatening and sinister.

10. Arcade Fire, “My Body is a Cage”: The contemplative, protagonist considers his actions and his destiny before launching into the story’s climactic scene song.  Love the build of it, the sense of determination and all that.

11. The Dead Weather, “Hustle and Cuss”: Basically the Eddie Hazzard theme song.  He has to be out there hustling, working his tail off, because his enemies are always a few steps ahead of him.  And cussing…well, you have to express your frustration somehow.

12. David Gray, “Dead in the Water”: While The Invisible Crown might be the first of Eddie Hazzard’s cases, it certainly won’t be the last.  I’ve got three other novels already written in the series, I’ve started working on the fifth novel, and I have plans for the sixth.  The core idea for the sixth book came from a short story I wrote a couple years back about Eddie and a particularly disturbing case and a mis-remembering of a lyric from this song.  Expect to see that book in…um…2022 or so, maybe?  I dunno.

13. Adele, “Rumor Has It”: A private detective works with whatever information he can get.  Sometimes, that information is merely rumors.  Sometimes, those rumors turn out to be true.

14. Tom Waits, “Way Down in a Hole”: Tom Waits sounds too ludicrous to even be one of my characters, and I have one antagonist who’s a head in a jar named The Fish.  Honestly, when developing characters, I just ask myself, “What would Tom Waits do?” and go from there.  It’s served me pretty well so far.

15. Modest Mouse, “Bukowski”: This always struck me as driving music, the sort of thing you’d hear on the soundtrack if TIC was turned into a movie/TV series and they had a scene of him driving from the office to an informant or chasing down a lead.

That’s my playlist!  What do you listen to when you’re writing?

Welcome!

Welcome to the blog of Charlie Cottrell, author of the speculative-noir series Hazzard Pay. Book 1, The Invisible Crownavailable now on Kindle and in convenient dead-tree edition! Book 2, The Hidden Throne, is also available now on Kindle and as a physical book made of pages and ink.