“The Nonbelievers” and a Haunted Book from Paris

“The Nonvelievers,” my second published work, hit the web in December through Under the Bed’s monthly Horror short story magazine (it can be found here if you’re interested: http://www.fictionmagazines.com/shop/u-t-b/under-the-bed-vol-2-issue-3/).

A lot of people aren’t into horror – I get it. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t be. Getting scared is certainly a rush, but we’ve all hade nights where we make sure the doors are locked, or lingered at the top of the basement stairs when the light wouldn’t turn on, or been forced by our spouse to brave the attic to get the Christmas decorations. Fun fact: my attic door has a latch on it and leads right into my bedroom. So, yeah, that’s not creepy at all.

I think one thing most writers and film makers have inexplicably forgotten is that, almost without exception, our mind is the scariest thing on this planet. It’s scarier than any CGI monster, masked slasher, or drooling zombie. Why? Because our mind has a way of knowing exactly what we’re scared of. It knows that spider legs give us the willies and that the thought of a hand clawing at the basement door will force us to listen to Disney princess theme songs to help us find our happy place.

So things that are unseen are almost universally scarier than those that are. An exception like Stephen King’s “The Mist” or John Carpenter’s “The Thing” come to mind (not that crappy prequel), but even those films kept true to the rule, in spirit, because their monsters could essentially be anything or anyone, so even after you see them, the thrill isn’t gone.

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“One of the few horror films where the black guy doesn’t die…well until the end from extreme cold”

I experienced this phenomena quite vividly on a trip overseas a few weeks ago. I had the chance to take a two day trip to Paris and got a quick, Reader’s Digest version of the city. The Eiffel Tower, Arc De Triumphe, Notre Dame, etc. My wife wasn’t able to go with me so I made it a priority to get her some unique souvenirs. One thing my wife loves is books, particularly old books, so when I stumbled upon an antique book stand just outside the Basilica I knew I had to find one for her.

All the books were wrapped in plastic and I wasn’t about to be “that American” that opened them up like I was sampling snack foods in Dollar General, so I was forced to choose sight unseen, save the cover. The book I decided on had a soft, peach hue with small cartoon angels depicted on the cover. The title was obviously in French and, without cell phone signal or internet, I wasn’t able to translate. “Diabolico foutro Manie? huh, sounds good to me.” (if you google it, please know it’s certainly NSFW)

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“Diabolico? I wonder if that means ‘Diabolical?’ Nah, I’m sure there’s nothing creepy about this book”

It was hours before I realized I’d been stupidly carrying it around with me all day without ever even glancing inside the front cover. I pulled it out and undid the wrapping while a couple of my friends stood around to see what I’d bought. It was old – a later print of a book first published in the 1830’s – and all in French. I looked through the introduction and gathered it was a textbook of some kind, and then found the first picture.

“What, uh…whatcha got there?” my friend asked.

I stood with a confused look and responded “I’m not exactly sure.”

Turns out it was an educational book covering a movement during the early decades of the 1800’s in France that found artists obsessing over “demonic eroticism.” If your mind can’t quite visualize what that is, be thankful. Suffice it say, these lithographs covered everything from dancing penis demons to guillotines retrofitted with rubber sex toys (among other things)…so, yeah, I was slightly surprised to find demon rape in the book I bought and also wasn’t exactly certain how to explain to my wife that this particular book was what I was bringing back from Paris to her.

When I got back to my room I talked to her over facebook. She asked how the day went and what I got to see and we eventually reached the topic of what I got her. “I found a book,” I said.

“Really? What kind of book?”

“An old book…”

“Oooo I love old books. What’s it about?

“Uh, it’s very…unique.”

It took her a bit to find it on the internet (turns out I probably could have turned a profit had I sold it), but the more she found, the more disgusted she got. The conversation started out with possibly putting it on a high book shelf where no one would see it. Then we thought maybe the garage was the best place for it. And finally, after sitting in a dark hotel room with it for about an hour, I decided it wasn’t coming home with me.

But, lying in bed in a quiet room in Germany, my brain did what any normal brain does – it began to wander. I rolled over and saw it on the nightstand and put it on the floor. Then I realized the thought of it anywhere near the underside of my bed was deeply disturbing and I put it in the trash can, which I then put in the bathroom and then I promptly shut the door.

Was the book haunted? Nah. Of course not. That abomination wasn’t whispering in the darkness. It didn’t open it’s pages and spit up pea soup and ,thankfully, it didn’t follow me home (although the thought of opening the cargo bay of the plane I was flying and tossing it into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean did cross my mind…just to make sure), but that didn’t stop my mind from wandering.

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“At least the book was kind enough not to lock me in a jungle for 8 years, although the content rating certainly wasn’t PG”

I’m not even exactly sure what spooked me specifically (maybe it was the devils raping people…yeah probably that), but there was just some vibe I got – an aura, a gut feeling, whatever you want to call it – and once my mind got a hold of it, it couldn’t get enough. It wandered towards thoughts of my wife, my daughter, finding the book in the attic, the demons disappearing from the pages and hearing voices at night before going to bed… Seriously, how much scarier is that than a CGI demon breathing fire or holding some stupid red trident? The answer is way more scary.

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The French artist was like “Yeah but it needs to be scarier. Maybe it needs more penises.”

I’m actually considering writing a short story on the ordeal (with plenty of exaggeration and creative license) called simply “Diabolico.” I’ve got the basic outline written, but every time I try to delve into the story, it awakens those thoughts again and convinces me I made the right choice letting some (possibly unfortunate) hotel maid find it locked in the bathroom. Regardless, it’s one of the things that creeps me out most about the horror genre, but the thing that keeps bringing me back. Things that are scary stay with you, linger, and remind you that sometimes it’s okay to sleep with a lamp on. And every so often, just for kicks, they apparently add a dildo for some strange reason.

“Space Jockey” hits the digital shelves – Why writing is like waiting tables.

The Anthology “Space Jockey” is finally in print (well, digital print anyway). The book includes 315 pages with 14 different stories and, I’m happy to say, the first person who reviewed it on Amazon liked my story.

“Farsider – Ethan Rodgers: A sad story about a pilot in a bad place with no options, but much more a story about the greatest power we know of in our world today – the human brain and it’s unstoppable ability to adjust to any situation, adapt, overcome, persevere – and all by holding on to the smallest piece of hope, even if it’s not really there anymore. An interesting read.”

Always good to get a little positive feedback. Not that there’s anything wrong with constructive criticism (heck, I welcome it with open arms. It’s the only way to get better), but I’d certainly hate to be a black eye on an otherwise successful publication. The anthology is available here if you’re interested in purchasing it: http://www.amazon.com/Jockey-Science-Ficiton-Stories-ebook/dp/B00FEPGLB8. As Macklemore might observe – S!$&, it’s only 99 cents!

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One day after getting accepted for “Space Jockey,” I received an email from fictionmagazines.com, formerly “E-Fiction.” Their Horror publication “Under the Bed” sent me this: “Thank you for sending us “The Nonbelievers.” The staff and I love it, and we would like to publish it in an upcoming issue of Under the Bed Magazine (formerly eHorror). Congratulations!”

So, as they say, great news comes in pairs. “The Nonbelievers,” the story of a family living in a small village that’s gripped by a religious fanatic, will be featured in December’s edition of “Under the Bed.” If you’re interested, here’s the link to their website – http://www.fictionmagazines.com/underthebed/ (Facebook.com/underthebedmag; twitter – @under_the_bed_)

The fact that “The Nonbelievers” got picked up, despite my cold-query email stating “previously unpublished,” is extremely promising. When a submission from a no-name arrives in a publishers inbox, they typically only give it a couple paragraphs to “wow” them before tossing it in the garbage. When that no-name also has never been published (which, when I submitted it, I hadn’t been) it’s given to an intern to look over briefly before he spills coffee on it and throws it in his personal garbage can, or a shredder, or a fire pit. The fact that I can now add a previous publication list to my resume is very exciting.

Why is this? Well, I liken the writing world to the restaurant world. If you haven’t worked in the restaurant “bizz,” you may not know that breaking in can be difficult. It’s just waiting tables, right? What’s so hard? Any idiot can do it?

You’re absolutely right. Any idiot can wait tables – I’m living proof. But when I tried to find a job my sophomore year of college, I had a pretty solid resume. I’d held two different jobs for extended periods of time (one as a telemarketer at the age of 16, the other as a lifeguard). I was an Air Force ROTC (reserve officer training corps) cadet, a college student with a 3.9 gpa, letters of recommendation, and – without sounding like too much of a haughty ass – a pretty accomplished communicator, something very important to waiting tables. I thought I’d have a job in a week.

Olive Garden? Nope. Red Lobster? Nope. Chilis? Nope. I kept working my way down the food-chain (so to speak) until I hit rock bottom, applying to places that barely qualified as restaurants. I must have applied to a dozen establishments. I wasn’t even sure where else to apply. I know the old adage – “you gotta start somewhere” – but where the hell is “somewhere”? Golden Corral? Chuckie Cheese? Or did I have to ask if someone wanted fries with their order before I could walk up to a table and say “Hi, my name’s Ethan. I’ll be taking care of you this evening”? Did I have to serve fourth meal at Taco Bell before I could serve higher class patrons at a refined eatery?

The interviews always seemed to go well, but the managers always got hung up on one issue – “I see you don’t have any prior experience.”

I was dumbfounded. Would you rather hire a drug addict that spent six months at Sizzler because he/she has experience? What about a serial killer that was a sous chef at Piccadilly? Or perhaps a drifter that bounced around between the various buffets in the food court at the mall? I wanted to shout “I have pedigree! I have panache! I have pizzazz!”

No dice. I wouldn’t even get a second interview. Managers couldn’t get past the fact that they’d have to start with the basics if they hired me – an unshaped ball of clay. Months passed without luck. For whatever reason, the interviewer always assumed because I had never worked in a restaurant, that I wouldn’t be any good at it. No one would give me a shot.

After exhausting most of my options, I got a call from an Italian restaurant for a second interview. Not only was this a restaurant – it was a really nice one.

Biaggis, an Italian restaurant based out of Chicago, gave me that shot. The GM was an Army vet and said to me “I like hiring people with no experience and a good resume because it means no one else has taught them how to wait tables wrong.” It was refreshing to hear and, to a 20 year old kid, the $150 I brought home on Friday night was nice. Not only did a restaurant hire me, but a *nice* restaurant hired me. I worked there for eighteen months, and when I turned in my two weeks notice, the managers unanimously tried to talk me into staying. I only left because I got a better offer from Bonefish Restaurant, where I could work better hours and make more money. I went from being a leper to a pseudo hot commodity on the free agent market. When I sat down with the GM at Bonefish, he told me the interview was more of a “formality.” Simply amazing.

So what’s this long, boring, unrelated tangent have to do with writing? If you’re not getting accepted for publication, it may not be you’re writing. Actually, it probably isn’t you’re writing. It’s probably your resume, and it’s not your fault.

Without anything on there, it’s pretty tough to get people to give you the time of day. I certainly don’t have the best writing pedigree – far from it – but I’ve read some pretty awful stuff that’s in print and I’ve asked myself “How the hell did this get published?” Some are boring, cliche, or just stupid.  Others are filled with grammar issues, typos, tense issues – rubbish. My writing is rubbish, too, but at least it’s technically sound (I think).

God only knows how many publishers looked at my submission and said “I see you don’t have any prior experience.” They weren’t interested in the story – they were interested in my name. Big names draw readers, no names draw no one.

Publishers are overloaded with manuscripts every day. There are hundreds of millions of aspiring writers in the world sending their trunk stories to every website with an open submissions link, and most of them are crap. The safest way to sift through the pile is to immediately burn those submitted by authors with no previous success. It’s easy to assume that if someone hasn’t been published, they’re probably not any good. That’s what those managers who didn’t hire me assumed. If I hadn’t held a job in the bizz, I must not be a good employee. Honestly, it’s a far more likely scenario than the alternative – that you’re a great writer that just hasn’t been given a chance.

That’s why it’s so important to keep searching. Aspiring writers don’t lack ability, they lack doggedness. We live in a world of “now.” Instant messaging, instant connectivity, instant results. Writing doesn’t work like that. We all want to be 25 year-old millionaires. We all want to sit on a sailboat in the Caribbean and write nonsense in a journal that people drool over. We want to be the next Hemingway, but we want it to happen before we’re thirty.

But the truth is, writing doesn’t work like that. This isn’t software engineering. It’s not quantum physics. Pardon the expression, but it sure as hell isn’t rocket science. This is *writing*. Any idiot with a pen and a piece of paper can do it. It takes no training, no education, and certainly no pedigree. Granted those things help, but you don’t need them. And if you look back on major authors that changed the world, that are remembered as masters of their craft, most of them weren’t 25 when they gained notoriety. Look at modern day success stories – George R.R. Martin, JK Roweling – older, wiser, experienced. Who knows how many times someone told them their writing was rubbish when they were younger. Are there many 20-something Mark Twains changing the world? No – virtually none. You have a better chance of hitting the lottery, being kidnapped and probed by aliens, or jumping the grand canyon on a moped than being a teenaged Tolkien.

So don’t get worried when someone says “I see you have no prior experience.” That’s them using an easy out. That’s them being lazy. Find a publisher that’s willing to give new writers a shot, one that’s proud of discovering up-and-coming talents, diamonds in the rough. Find a publication that is suited to your style and prints stories in the same vein that you excel at. And, most importantly, just hope to get lucky. In a sea of garbage, it may be difficult for even the most attentive of publishers to find your story, and if they do, it might not be what they’re looking for.  The internet has made the ocean seemingly endless.

But there’s someone out there willing to take a chance on you, so be patient. Maybe your story will wash up on shore when you’re least expecting it, or maybe it’ll be the culmination of hard work to get your head above the water just high enough for that barge passing by to see your head floating above the rest of the proverbial flotsam. And, hopefully, when others see that someone has taken that chance, they’ll hop on board too.

Farsider, my first sale as an author. Don’t give up

In March of this year I told myself that it was time to face facts. I’d always written casually — it’s been a favorite hobby of mine since grade school — but nothing had ever come of it. I’d started novels and given up. I’d written short stories and let them collect dust in the deep, untouched folders of my laptop. I’d entered writing contests, wasting 15$ a pop to hear someone say “Sorry, this just isn’t what we’re looking for.”

There were plenty of negative thoughts overwhelming me. “This is a waste of time,” “You’ll never be successful,” “There are probably millions of authors out there who are better writers than you.” This all may be true. Actually, the latter is absolutely true. But I read something very interesting in a short story magazine. One of the authors of the short stories stated “I often find that hopeful authors don’t lack talent or ability. They simply lack doggedness.”

So I made myself finally commit. I wasn’t going to half-ass it anymore.
The deadline I set for myself was August of 2013. I wanted to be published – I didn’t care how or in what, but I wanted my name in a magazine, a blog, a quarterly… something… anything. I joined an online writing workshop. I started reading books focusing on what I was interested in writing and books focused on creative writing and editing. I took down every idea that came to my mind, morning noon and night, in a journal. And I wrote. Nearly every day I either wrote or conceptualized.

Months passed. I started with magazines like Clarkesworld and Asimov’s. That was a mistake. I now know that my manuscripts were, more than likely, relegated to a pile filled with unwanted stories and never really given a chance. They probably never were even read. The rejection letters came in faster than spam emails. No critiques or feedback, just pure rejection. I started a collection in a folder titled “Motivation” and put every rejection letter in there. I think there is at least two-dozen.

Just before Summer, I started casting my line out a bit farther. I’d started with the most popular publications with the greatest circulations. Perhaps this was vanity or maybe laziness, but I realized that, barring a miracle, I was never going to get noticed. I started looking for every single SF and Horror magazine I could, joining mailing lists and finding out who was holding open submissions.

By early July, I realized it was going to take me a lot longer than six months. Most publications were taking 12 or more weeks just to get back to me, and all of them were bluntly saying “No thanks.” I had an interesting decision to make.

While my ultimatum had been completely unrealistic, it was an ultimatum. I promised myself I’d stop wasting time if this didn’t work. I promised myself I’d make it just a hobby and quit pretending that I’d like to write some day. But then I got an interesting comment on my online workshop.

I’d posted the second draft of a short story titled “Farsider” on the Online Writing Workshop for Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. The story revolves around a woman named Kendra that flies a cargo ship far in the future. I wrote it from personal experience, to a degree, since I’m a pilot, and tried to make the writing simple, crisp, and similar to what I was reading in SF magazines. The third review simply said “Please contact me, I’d like to talk with you more about your story.” It was the publisher of “Misque Press” and an accomplished author, Tara Maya.

For some time prior I’d be insistent that the style I’d grown to enjoy writing was what I was going to write. Period. Changing wouldn’t be true to myself. Now, when I hear some of my friends say they don’t want to “sell out,” I sort of chuckle. I realized, after receiving the email and the praise for the piece, that I wasn’t “selling out.” I was just writing better.

I look back at what I wrote as little as twelve months ago and cringe. The sentences are long, confusing, and filled with useless adverbs. The past tense is wordy, inefficient and boring (sort of like this blog post). The descriptions were lengthy, cliche and useless. I could pick out a pitfall that every young writer falls prey to in each and every paragraph. It had only taken me six months to completely improve my writing style just by reading, learning, and listening. And all that junk I used to write in, all the fluff and “style” I thought was part of my writing, was just my misconception of what people thought was good writing. It was bloated, it was boring, and it was stupid.

So now, if you’re reading this still, my word of advice would be: stick with it. As long as you enjoy it, don’t let anyone tell you to stop. Join work shops, listen to critiques, and keep writing. But, most importantly, don’t think you’re anything until you’re something. You may think the 3000 word piece you finished last evening was the best thing you’ll ever write. You may tell yourself “If this isn’t it, than nothing is.” But I can tell you, with near certainty, that there is probably no author on the entire planet that has ever finished his first work and realized it was a manifesto, a gift to humanity, or the apex of his career. That piece will only be your best piece if you settle for continuing to write what you’re still writing, which is probably crap (just like what I write).

Perhaps this will be the only thing I publish ever. Perhaps when you google “Ethan Samuel Rodgers” the piece “Farsider” will be the only one that pops up. Perhaps I’ll look back when I’m older and wonder why I wasted so much time on such a fruitless hobby.

But my deadline was August 2013, and today I received a contract to publish my first short story in a Science-Fiction magazine. And if I can do it, anyone can.