A Surrealist Cadavre Exquis

By Lisa, Medha Godbole Singh, A. A. Rubin, Lesley Mace, and Anna Cavouras.

The following piece was composed by the authors as a surrealist cadavre exquis. The cadavre exquis is an exercise practiced by surrealist artists where an artist began by drawing something at the top of a folded piece of paper, and then refolded the paper so that only the bottom lines of their drawing were visible. They would then mail the paper to the next artists, and the process would repeat again, over and over, until the piece was complete. We have attempted to adapt the exercise for writers. The first writer composed a paragraph and then sent their final line to the next writer, who continued the piece using that line as their first line. The process continued until each writer had composed their paragraph. Each writer wrote with no knowledge of the content or style of the previous verse, save for the last line.

For more information about the Cadavre Exquis exercise, click here:

For the previous entries in this series, click here and here.

“In the beginning was the word. And the word was good.” The sounds echoed around, bounced off thick stone walls before some slipped into Charlotte’s ears. She was always a good girl. As the mob of children left their pews she walked without saying a word. It was 1978 most of the girls wore the same style of black laced shoe but hers although far from new were carefully polished and both were neatly tied. They tapped lightly on the uneven floor. Even when Gary tugged hard on her plaited pony tail she was a good girl. She didn’t turn and punch him in his smelly freckled face like she wanted to. She was a good girl back in class too. Wrote carefully in her exercise book, showed her workings for her sums and at the end of the school day tucked her chair slowly under her desk without a jarring floor scrape.

Charlotte always had the bus money but didn’t get the bus. She preferred to walk home she enjoyed being part of the bustle of the high street. Besides she was saving up. It was only March but she already had a reassuring weight of 2p’s in her pot pig. No one in her family knew that she did this long walk twice daily.

No one knew and no one cared which was exactly why Charlotte was not spending her bus money – she wanted to get out of there as soon as she was old enough to leave. 

She was waiting. The wait was excruciatingly painful. Getting to the right age and saving enough money – both seemed to be eons away to her young heart. The fact that no one cared was another reason she used to wander off on her own a lot. The bus money was kept safely, tucked in the inner pocket of her jacket for another day or perhaps, days. The days which would be blessed by freedom. Charlotte frequently fantasized about what she would do when the right time comes. She would revel in those thoughts and lose herself in them. Until, well, she met with the harsh reality at home. Her bubble of bliss was always invariably burst by her parents. The verbal beating that followed after she was back home from wandering off in the woods for hours was horrid, to say the least. She would cover her years tightly to block the yelling, run off to her room and shut the door. Hours later, her mother would find her asleep, cowered, under the bed. A stare-down and a meal was what she would get in response. “Why do you have to be such a difficult child”, her father would grumble. 

Nothing Charlotte ever did was enough. Even when she did exactly what was expected of her, she got glared at. Or simply ignored. Not a word of encouragement. The word ‘Love’ was missing from their life’s dictionary. Apathy was perhaps the word their life’s dictionary started and ended with. Charlotte had once popped a question to her best friend Nicole’s mother (who was a gem of a person), if she was really born to the people, she called her parents. Her eyes would sadden for a split second in response and then she would say, in an extra cheerful tone, “Oh dear. Of course they are. You see, they are going through a tough time. Adults sometimes cannot really say what’s happening to them. So, you know they behave in a weird way. But smart kids like you know that even though they behave like that, they love you. Right?” Charlotte used to nod in approval, thoughtfully.

She still wondered why there was never a single act or a word of empathy and love directed towards her by her parents.

Even now, many years after their deaths, it continued to affect her and profound and unusual ways. The ghost of her mother sat, constantly, on her shoulder, whispering criticisms in her ear, and second-guessing her every decision. Try as she might, she couldn’t get rid of her. Her mother’s specter was invisible to everyone else, but her coping mechanisms were not. The tick she developed,  swatting at something seemingly invisible, caused other (living) people to believe she was as crazy as she felt. Worse, it did nothing to get rid of her nuisance of a parent, and just opened her up to more scathing criticism—for her ears only—which reverberated across the catacombs of her mind (I told you it was empty in there) like the last bit of hope screamed, privately into the abyss. Once, she has even blurted out “will you please shut up!” in the middle of an important meeting. That had been three jobs ago, each more ignominious than the last. If anything, her father was worse.

He only appeared in her dreams, staring at her with his cold, judgmental eyes, from beneath his clouded brow. 

She always fought to wake from these recurring dreams. His telepathic abilities terrified her. There were so many secrets concealed in her mind, and if she met his gaze he would read them all. On the nights she succeeded in breaking free from sleep she would be gasping for breath and tangled in sweat-soaked sheets.

Sometimes she failed and then the dream turned darker, twisting into a fiery nightmare of burning and torture. But she always refused to meet his gaze.

In reality he was searching for her, and she fled before the sense of it. Moving fast and moving with minimum baggage, frequently changing her appearance and her accent, for months she believed she could outrun him. The Network helped her, she was smuggled from safe houses to cellars and attics, to priest holes and on one occasion to a cave in a cliffside.

She tried not to get involved with anyone, to stay aloof, and apart. But eventually a young man broke through her barriers, and she trusted him. The dream became reality. Handcuffed and roped to a chair she waited for him to arrive. Two men guarded the door, their breath fogging into the stench in the room, and their faces expressionless.

Closing her eyes she shut out her surroundings. The cold helped her to still her mind; she built walls, raised defences and hid what she must never tell behind them.

Not all the secrets she held were her own, and she couldn’t allow him to uncover any of them. 

She reminded herself of this as she approached airport security clutching her passport and her yellow carry-on bag. The bag was gaudy, ugly even with large pink peonies on the side. Her passport was slightly sweaty in her palm and the hum of the airport activity filled the background with familiar sounds. Her bag held everything that mattered to her and her family. The only unknown in this plan was the next two minutes and what this security guard might do.

Security passed uneventfully. He waved her through, no secondary search. She let out a long exhale and wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans.

She had moved things before, money usually, drugs occasionally, once a selection of rare orchid pods for a wealthy collector. This time was different. Three uncut gems were sewn in to a small beaded purse and blended in perfectly with the glass ones that surrounded it. The purse was nestled in an ordinary small black duffel, surrounded by other ordinary carry-on items. Once she got these gems home she would be able to pay off the debts her family had incurred and everyone, including her, could start over.

After she boarded the plane she lifted her carry-on into the overhead compartment and quickly removed the yellow floral bag revealing her black duffel with the precious items inside. She scanned the compartment quickly and then grabbed a small backpack left there trustingly by another passenger, stuffing it inside her yellow peony bag. Her plain black duffel sat there, unassumingly.

Having made the switch, she sat down and buckled her seatbelt dutifully. She puts her phone into airplane mode. The dry unscented plane air blasts down from the fan above her head, and reaching up to adjust it, she does not make eye contact with her brother sitting three seats to her right and he ignores her. Other passengers board and she hears the pilot welcoming people. Grabbing the magazine from the seat pocket she flips the pages without catching any of the content.

A flight attendant approaches her, flanked by two plainclothes officers.

“Ma’am, I’m going to need you to step off the aircraft.” One of the officers shifts his jacket revealing a glimpse of a pistol holstered under his arm.

“Why? What’s going on?” She protests as she knows she’s expected to.

“We just have a few questions for you before you leave.” The other officer reaches up into the overhead bin and pulls down the yellow floral bag. “This one?” The flight attendant nods.

Collecting her magazine and her phone, she unbuckles her seatbelt and follows the officers off the plane. Everything had gone exactly as she had hoped.

The paragraphs were composed in the order indicated in the byline.


Lisa writes mainly microfiction. You can read her work on her website, and follow her on twitter.

Medha Godbole Singh is a professional content creator with a penchant for creative writing. She has been a part of several anthologies and her short stories and poems have been published in online journals. She can be reached on twitter, instagram, and facebook.

A. A. RUBIN surfs the cosmos on winds of dark energy. He writes in many style, ranging from literary fiction to comics, formal poetry to science fiction and fantasy, and (almost) everything in between. His work has appeared recently in Love Letters to Poe, Ahoy! Comics, and The Deronda Review. He can be reached on social media as @TheSurrealAri, or right here on the website which you are now reading.

Lesley Mace’s writing ranges through many genres. She is the winner of the 2015 CWA Margery Allingham Short Story prize. Also loves making hedge-wine, sloe gin and sourdough bread. She can be reached on twitter.

Anna Cavouras is a writer living in Toronto. She writes diversely. Her most recent publications range from memorial jewelry made with cremains, to sideshows, to poetry on living with a disability. In the background she is working on a project set in the future about tattoo artists. 

A Surrealist Cadavre Exquis

By, Sharmon Gazaway, Jon Black, A. A. Rubin, Polly Alice McCann, and Renee Cronley

Intro: The following piece was composed by the authors as a surrealist cadavre exquis. The cadavre exquis is an exercise practiced by surrealist artists where an artist began by drawing something at the top of a folded piece of paper, and then refolded the paper so that only the bottom lines of their drawing were visible. They would then mail the paper to the next artists, and the process would repeat again, over and over, until the piece was complete. We have attempted to adapt the exercise for writers. The first writer composed a paragraph and then sent their final line to the next writer, who continued the piece using that line as their first line. The process continued until each writer had composed their paragraph. Each writer wrote with no knowledge of the content or style of the previous paragraph, save for the last line.

For more information about the Cadavre Exquis exercise, click here:

Stop. I beg you. Don’t do this. It’s not what you think it will be. Yes, you’ve made this great discovery, and all you’ve wanted your whole small, dull life was to make a great discovery, or a great anything. You know this is your chance. Probably your only chance. Naturally, you can’t let it pass. And how will you know if the discovery is truly great if you never try it out? You can risk only yourself. That’s good. That’s admirable. But don’t. Don’t do it. It’s unlike anything you are imagining. It won’t bring you any kind of happiness. Maybe recognition, but even that can’t be guaranteed. That tingle you’re feeling—it’s not the mere excitement of nerves and thrill of the unknown. Trust me. It’s the electric charge of curiosity mingled with the twist in the gut that accompanies foreboding. It’s inside you telling you what I’m pleading from here. Listen to it. Even if you’ve never heeded another’s advice in your life, heed me now. We all send our direst warnings. Everything you’ve known will be lost, everything you’ve hoped for will be…different. Remember Eve. Remember Pandora. Recall the handwriting on the wall, and the curious cat. It did not end well. No, not death. That’s not the fear here. At least, not now. This is different, worse. Yes, worse. At the risk of repetition, it’s beyond all you have imagined, or can. I would tell you if I was able. I’m not. None of us are. But don’t. Just don’t do it, it’s not what you think it will be. 

***

Just don’t do it, it’s not what you think it will be. Would it be worth it? Could it be worth it? Guillaume barely heard his thoughts over the hissing steam, boiling water, and crackling fire. Regrettably, he had no problem hearing the church bells outside, their peels like the cadence presaging a firing squad. Drinking deeply from the bottle, his face wrinkled. He pulled his under-linens and shirt from the porcelain bleaching pot filled with onion juice. In the days of his grandfather’s grandfather, launderers had used their own urine. People today didn’t want that. But, truthfully, urine worked better. Most days, a small army toiled in the laundry to meet the village’s needs. Today, it was operated by, and for, one man. The bleached clothes went into the copper boiler where the rest of his outfit already soaked alongside a chunk of lye. Snatching up the baton, he turned his clothes within the water. Guillaume considered the two images on the wall above the boiler. The icon of Joan d’Arc still shone brightly with the colors of passion and pain. The woodcut of Louis XV, so-called “the beloved,” had wrinkled, faded, and stained with generations of steam and smoke. A relic from a world which no longer was. Grimacing, he again swigged from the bottle. The vintage, from Chantal’s father’s vineyard, should have aged at least two years before uncorking. Guillaume didn’t have that kind of time. Better early than never. When at last the bottle was empty, and the clothes in the boiler as heavily churned as the virgin wine in his belly, he removed the garments. He placed them in the soaking basin and then laid them beneath the box mangle. Working its iron crank, the heavy wooden block rolled across the fabric, forcing out the water. Finally, he placed the garments on a table, covered them with thin linen, and took up a heavy iron from the fire. Today’s outfit would be immaculate. Guillaume wondered, had anyone ever so lovingly laundered the very clothes in which they would be buried that day? Outside, the bell tolled once more.

***

Outside, the bell tolled once more. She tried to focus on the sound, like a Zen monk practicing meditation, and let the monotony drive away her problems. But she had never been much good at meditation: Instead of driving away her troubles, each gong seemed to magnify them. Gong, the mortgage; Gong, the kids; Gong, the pandemic; Gong, another workout skipped; Gong, the number on the scale, ever growing. A loud gong, but in a low register, insufficient to break the glass ceiling against which she kept bumping at work. With each chime, her world grew smaller. With each toll, the walls closed in a bit more. A wave of claustrophobia washed over her. Soon, she would be trapped in a small, glass box, like a mime, unable to speak. It was more than she could take, She got up from her desk and rushed through the house, cringing at each toll of the incessant bell. (Were the intervals getting shorter? They definitely felt shorter.) She fumbled through the neglected Tibetan prayer bowl for her keys, and burst out into the open air of the suburban streets hoping to escape the sound. But the bell continued to toll. Outside, it was even louder. It seemed to follow her, somehow amplifying whichever direction she ran. She doubled back to the house, got in the car, and turned up the radio as loud as it would go. She drove for miles, far past the limits of where the sound could possibly carry, but the bell tolled, nonetheless, if not in the outside world, distinctly in her mind. It echoed through her head, and reverberated off the walls of her skull. There was no escape. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, she thought, it tolls for me

***

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, she thought, it tolls for me. The words jangled in her head like a bronze clapper. The reverberations seemed to go from the base of her neck down to her toes. She covered her ears and squeezed her eyes closed. When the sounds stopped. She opened her eyes and she didn’t know where she was. A warm chamber with a shell-like ceiling enveloped her with white light. Where was she? She looked at her hands, they seemed different somehow. Why didn’t she feel panicked? Waiting seemed easy, almost weightless until a small port window she hadn’t noticed grew dim and someone entered. That someone swam in, with a long lush green tail, her hair swinging like so many live anemones, her eyes yellow and cool. That’s when it became clear, she was underwater but breathing without any problem. 

***

That’s when it became clear, she was underwater but breathing without any problem. For a moment, it was overwhelming.

She was used to shallow living, so the depths were frightening and she was worried she might drown in her emotions.

Liquid calm spread throughout her body as a myriad of memories surfaced in her mind.

All those nights of her running out of the beach house, her tear-stained cheeks stinging with an angry hand imprint.

It was walking along the beach that soothed her. The ocean had a voice, and the sound of her name seemed to roll off whitecaps like a soothing lullaby. 

She would write save me in the sand with a stick.

Throughout her life, she felt like a piece of property—a ship that one man had commandeered after the other. She was nothing but a vessel to steer on their own course. She had no control over her life. 

But they could never conquer the sea and so she admired it. Some days, it was like she was stuck in a prison staring out into the azure through a window of blurred tears, wishing she could dive in and swim away. 

But this was better.

The warm water cradled her like the amniotic fluid that once protected her long ago while she was in utero.

She was born of the sea.

And she was free.

The knots that lived inside her unraveled. She embraced her repressed untamed nature that always existed below the surface. 

She made skirts of bright red kelp and decorated her hair with hibiscus flowers. A flounder took her under his wing, and told her legends and showed her lost treasures. 

Sometimes ships full of men would linger near them, casting their nets so they could blindly catch whatever they could reel in and watch gasp for air on the deck. 

She taught her friends to sabotage nets and hulls using the knowledge she gained on land. They would use the weather to their advantage. Once the men were overboard, flailing their arms for someone to save them, she would pull them under and fill their lungs with the sea. 

The more men gone, the better for her survival. 

She knew the life that awaited her on shore.

And she would never allow herself to be caught again. 

FIN

The paragraphs were composed in the order indicated in the byline.


Sharmon Gazaway writes from the Deep South where she lives beside a historic cemetery haunted by the wild cries of pileated woodpeckers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Enchanted Conversation, New Myths, Metaphorosis, Breath and Shadow, Ghost Orchid Press, and elsewhere. You can find her work in the anthologies, Love Letters to Poe Volume 1, Dark Waters, Orpheus + Eurydice Rewoven, and Wayward and Upward. You can contact her on Instagram at sharmongazaway. 

Jon Black is an award-winning writer of historical fiction with pulp, supernatural, or Mythos twists. He is best known for his Bel Nemeton series, combining 6th century Arthurian historical fantasy with brainy 21st century pulp as well as the Jazz Age supernatural mystery Gabriel’s Trumpet. Jon is obsessed with the Parisian avant-garde, on full display in his short story “The Green Muse,” a mythos tale revolving around the Montmartre Cubist scene and featured in the anthology The Chromatic Court. He dabbles in creating Dadaist and Surrealist visual and performance art. In 2016, Jon hosted the Austin, Texas celebrations honoring Dada’s 100th anniversary. Find out more about him at https://jonblackwrites.com/

A. A. Rubin surfs the cosmos on winds of dark energy. He writes in many style, ranging from literary fiction to comics, formal poetry to science fiction and fantasy, and (almost) everything in between. His work has appeared recently in Love Letters to Poe, Ahoy! Comics, and The Deronda Review. He can be reached on social media as @TheSurrealAri, or right here on the website which you are now reading.

Polly Alice McCann, poet, artist, says that poetry saved her life. She began writing  after a night sleeping under desert stars with only a book for a pillow. Her work explores faith, loss, and the search for the true heartland: “I will not forget,” she writes. “I am woman, all things began in me.” Her first books, “Kinlight,” and “Puss ’N Boötes” published in 2019, 2020. She has been published internationally in Naugatuck River Review, Arc 24 and elsewhere. She credits her narrative free verse style from studying under poets Julia Kasdorf and Ron Koertge, and her degree from Hamline University MFAC. Her art has been published in several publications including Rattle Magazine. She is the founder of Ketchupedia Poetry Radio and the managing editor of Flying Ketchup Press.

Renee Cronley is a poet, writer, and nurse from Brandon, Manitoba.  She studied Psychology and English at Brandon University, and Nursing at Assiniboine Community College.  Her work has appeared in NewMyths.com,  Love Letters to Poe, Black Hare Press, SmashBear Publishing, Canadian Stories, Panoply, and Discretionary Love and is forthcoming with Dark Dispatch, Dark Rose Press, and Off Topic. Social Media Links: https://www.instagram.com/reneecronley/, https://twitter.com/ReneeCronley, https://www.facebook.com/renees.writing.page

Publishing News: Dollar Store Magazine

My short story Storm Soliloquy was just published by Dollar Store magazine.

This story is different from much of my other recent published work in that it is not recent. I wrote it some time around 2003 or 2004, probably in my cubicle at trade magazine company where I was working at the time. I guess it was ahead of its time.

The story is very different stylistically than what I’ve been writing recently. It is sort of a Kerouac does speculative fiction stream of consciousness prose poem. I’d never written anything like it before, and I haven’t written anything like it since.

It is interesting to look back on a piece of writing I did nearly 20 years ago. While I am in a very different headspace and life situation, I recognize elements in it—certain phrases and metaphors—which I still use in my writing to this day.

Let me know what you think of the piece.

You can read “Storm Soliloquy” here:

https://dollarstoremag.wixsite.com/discount/contact

Marking a Milestone on my Creative Journey

Believe it or not, I was not always into comics. Sure, I had a Spider-Man light switch in my room growing up, and sure, there was a period in junior high school when I read the Daredevil and Thor comics that were in my orthodontist’s waiting room pretty consistently, but from the time I graduated 8th grade until the time I graduated college, I hardly read comic books at all.

The same held true for my writing. At that point in my life, I was torn between writing “serious” literary prose and scifi/fantasy. I thought it would be my project to marry the speculative and the literary, perhaps incorporating fantasy elements into my writing the way Vonnegut incorporated science fiction into his. I was writing a lot of short stories during this period, and perhaps influenced my writing-workshops at Columbia, where I majored in writing/literature, I had not even begun to consider writing in the comics medium.

My attitude toward comics changed in the early 2000s, because of my love for Neil Gaiman’s writing. I had read and enjoyed Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy early in college, and having completed that series, as well as his two Dirk Gently books, I was eager to read more clever, British speculative humor. I had a friend who had an internship with Adam’s company (where she was working on the Starship Titanic text-based video game), and I asked her what I should read next. She suggested Good Omens, by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, a book which has had a profound impact on my creative life.

From that point forward, I started working my way through Gaiman and Pratchett’s novels, alternating between books like Neverwhere and American Gods and Pratchett’s Discworld, happy to find authors I enjoyed who were both prolific and coming out with new material.

At this time, I also began to lean into writing witty humor. I had dabbled with it since reading Vonnegut—and after watching Monty Python, which, seemingly, was on a loop in our dorm-room common area—but as I read more Pratchett and Gaiman it began to seep into my writing more and more.

Fast forward to 2003, when I met Neil Gaiman after a reading he did promoting Sandman: Endless Nights. As I blogged recently, during this meeting, he gave me some great writing advice. It was a pivotal moment for me as a young writer with just two published stories to my name.

During the reading, I noticed something else: The majority of the attendees were fans of Gaiman’s comics work. This is not surprising, as the event was in support of the Endless Nights release. I was struck both by the enthusiasm of the crowd for The Endless, and by the quality of the prose in the passage that Gaiman read at the event, which came from the Despair story.

I decided to give comics another try.

At that time, I was working at trade magazine house located on 31st street and Park Avenue in New York City. I was living in Inwood, a neighborhood about as far north in Manhattan as you can get. Every day, on my walk to the subway, I passed by Jim Hanley’s Universe, a large comic book store, which was located directly opposite the Empire State Building on 33rd Street.

My old office building at 460 Park Avenue South

One day soon after Gaiman’s reading, I went in and purchased the first volume of The Sandman in trade paperback. The rest, as they say, is history.

I consumed the Sandman series voraciously. I was in Jim Hanley’s about once a week, to buy the next volume in the (of the at the time 12 volumes of the series) over the next few months, and when I finished the series, I continued to visit the store to buy other Gaiman titles.

Eventually, I branched out to other comics creators. Through reading Gaiman, I was introduced to other writers. I started reading Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, and Frank Miller (whom I remembered had written some of those Daredevil books I had read at the orthodontist’s office).

There was something in their writing that I really liked. They were doing something different than what the so-called-literary writers were doing at the time, something innovative, without the pretensions of that was so rampant among the darlings of the moment of the literary world.

Personally—and this is just my preference—I preferred Moore to Franzen, whose prose I always found overwrought, and Gaiman, whose allusions seemed more natural, to Lethem. I not only enjoyed these comics writers, I studied them, and incorporated what I learned into my own writing.

I learned so much about structure from Alan Moore, especially about the circular narrative, a technique which I’ve used in so many of my stories.

Purchasing “Genesis, Jiggered” inside JHU

I learned so much about dialogue from Frank Miller, both about brevity and about how to write distinct character voices.

I learned so much about characterization from Garth Ennis, both in his Vertigo work, and his more mainstream work.

Eventually, there was Will Eisner, who combined character and setting masterfully in his Contract With God trilogy.

And of course there was Gaiman, from whom I had already learned so much.

This was a literary community with which I wanted to engage, a literary community, which unlike so many of the literary communities which I loved—was contemporary and active.

When I, eventually, decided to try my hand at writing comics, I began by studying Gaiman’s script excerpt, which I found at the back of one of the Sandman trade paperbacks.

This newfound interest in writing comics led me to attend New York Comic Con for the first time, where I discovered Buddy Scalera’s Comic Book School, whose panels furthered my education as a writer and as a fledgling comics creator.

Beyond the influence these trips to Jim Hanley’s Universe had on my writing, they rekindled my love of comics. Gaiman and Moore had both written Batman, and reading their Batman stories reintroduced me to a character I had not been involved with since I watched The Animated Series in the 90s. I revisited the Daredevil and Thor titles I remembered from those visits to the orthodontist slightly earlier. I began to go back even further to characters I enjoyed when I was a kid, like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.

Moreover, I enjoyed the sense of community I found at Jim Hanley’s universe. The staff, unlike the reputation that many comics stores had at the time, was helpful and enthusiastic. They were kind to me as I was learning, patiently answering my questions and offering recommendations. I remember one employee in particular, I think his name was Larry, who had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s back issues. Based on minimal clues I provided about comics I had read 10-15 years prior—and without my knowing the publication date, writer, or artist—he went through the back issues, and found, more often than not, the book for which I had been looking.

Inside of the current iteration of JHU.

Beyond the comics, however, I found that comics fans were also fans of other nerdy things I loved, like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and in another circle back to the beginning of this post, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. There was a used prose books section in the store, stocked with out-of-print science fiction titles, and my first introduction to the great Chris Claremont was through a prose novel (autographed) which he had co-written with George Lucas.

Hanging around the store, I made friends and had (let’s call them) discussions about a wide range of film and literature. These were my people, and I found them at Jim Hanley’s Universe.

Eventually, I moved on. I left the job at the magazine, and my next job was not in the same neighborhood. Jim Hanley’s has moved twice since then, further east, making it less convenient for me to get to. Still, the store held—and continues to hold—a special place in my heart. It still is, n my mind, my local comics shop, though it is no longer, truly, local. Whenever I need a title which I can’t find at the small store in my neighborhood, I order it from Jim Hanley’s, and whenever I happen to be in that part of the city, I make sure to stop in.

Like a good Alan Moore story, life tends to run in circles. And so, after many years of attending the Comic Book School panels at cons, I now co-edit their annual anthology. I’ve had comics published by Comic Book School, in literary magazines, and in anthologies. I’ve continued to publish my prose stories as well, and have won prestigious awards for my writing. I’ve also become a poet, something that young writer who met Neil Gaiman all those years ago would never have imagined in his future. I have had a good deal of success with my writing, and even though I aspire for more, I am grateful for everything that I’ve accomplished thus far on my journey.

My journey is far from over, however. A few months ago, I watched an episode of Comic Book School’s YouTube channel which featured Tom Peyer and Jamal Igle of Ahoy! Comics. After listening to them discuss their company’s vision—and describe their company’s open submission policy—I thought it would be a good market for my writing. The blend of literary and humor which permeated their conversation spoke directly to that part of me who fell in love with Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams back in the day (there go those circles again). I submitted a story to them, and it was accepted.

I was thrilled by the email I received from my editor, Sarah Litt, and eagerly awaited the day when my work would appear in a book which would be available at comics shops nationwide.

Thus, it was one of the great thrills of my creative life to walk into Jim Hanley’s Universe last week, and purchase Black’s Myth 5, the comic book in which my story Genesis, Jiggered first appeared, and to see my work on the shelves in the place where my passion for comics was rekindled so many years ago.

Appropriately enough, my first “professional” comics work is actually a prose story—and here is another of those Allan Moore circles coming around again at the conclusion of this post—a satirical fantasy in the mode of Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman.

Though the story is now available for free on the Ahoy! site, if you like it, I encourage you to order the issue to your favorite local comics shop. I hope you have had similar experiences there as I had in mine.

With my story, “Genesis, Jiggered”, in front of JHU

Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge, Step 2 Begins

For the second straight year, I am editing the Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge. The challenge just entered step 2 (but it’s not too late to join), and here is the column I posted for this phase of the challenge on the CBS site, which includes my advice for writing Flash Fiction.

I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead—Mark Twain

Writing succinctly is hard. You must say what is essential—and only what is essential, remain laser-focused on what you wish to convey, and avoid digressions. You must drill down to the pure essence of writing, and tell your story in its purest, most distilled form. It is a task that writers like Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, and Cicero all lament takes time, often more time that writing a longer piece would. For those who are participating in the Comic Book School Flash Fiction challenge, that time is now.

The drafting step of the current challenge begins today on our message boards for Flash Fiction #2, and first drafts are due in fourteen days. Here are three suggestions for how to approach this particular challenge:

1. Consider writing a One-Twist Story:

When writing flash-fiction you don’t have space for complex plots. Eschew all sub-plots, and focus on a single problem in a single dramatic situation. Build suspense around one question, situation, or antagonist. Try to build toward a logical, but unexpected resolution, and hide this resolution from the reader for as long as possible. If you are successful, the reader should be both surprised and satisfied by your story’s conclusion.

The Twilight Zone is the gold standard for this type of writing. Think of the episode, Time Enough At Lastin which Henry Bemis, a bookish man who wants nothing as much as to read finds himself with all the time in the world, surrounded by books. Unfortunately, his glasses are permanently broken. The powerful ending is built on one twist. All of the characterization focuses on Bemis’ love of books and his frustration with a society that won’t let him read. From the opening scene in which Bemis reads David Copperfield at his job, to the scene where Bemis’ wife setting him up for ridicule by first asking him to read poetry to her and then frustrates these attempts and destroys his book, each scene stays laser-focused on the single aspect of Bemis’ characterization that will be important to the resolution. If Bemis had been a character in a novel or a movie, he would need to be characterized more fully, but in the shorter medium, focus is essential.The single twist ending can also be pulled off in comedic form.

In perhaps the most famous episode of The Honeymooners, the 99,000 Dollar Answer,  the seeds that hint at the twist ending are sown throughout the early part of the episode. The writers engage in a classic misdirection framing the story around Ralph Kramden’s appearances on the gameshow, partially to hide those seeds, but there is still only one dramatic situation that leads to a perfect surprise twist ending.

In The Duel, my flash piece for the last anthology, I tried to affect a single twist ending. Reader have told me that were surprised by the ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s only 500 words. Read it and see if you’re surprised, then read it again and try to isolate the techniques I use to affect the suspense and hide the ending.

2. Consider putting your own spin on a traditional trope or cliché.

One of the hardest aspects of writing flash fiction for writers who are used to longer form writing is the lack of space for worldbuilding and backstory. When writing flash fiction, you must build a believable world quickly. Why not let the reader do some of the work for you? By using a trope with which the reader is already familiar, a writer can rely on that reader to do the world building for them. If you write what appears to be a classic fairy tale, a traditional horror, or noir crime story, half the work is done for you. The reader already knows where they are and what is supposed to happen.

The same can be said when using a seemingly cliched or trope-y character. Certain character types are supposed to act in certain ways: Prince Charming, the tragic hero, the undead monster, etc. Moreover, setting your story within a cliched trope allows you to subvert that trope to affect your twist ending. Consider Neil Gaiman’s masterful short story, Nicholas Was. (If you have not read it yet, read it before the next sentence. It’s only 100 words; I’ll wait) At the end of the story, Gaiman relies on the reader’s familiarity with the Santa Claus myth to affect his twist ending. The last three words of the story—”Ho, ho ho”—carry so much weight because the audience is already familiar with Santa Claus before reading the story. Gaiman has used something cliched and familiar to create something surprising and original.

In “The Duel,” I combine two common tropes, the duel at high noon from spaghetti westerns and the traditional high-fantasy wizard archetype, to create a new and different world. Because readers are generally familiar with the Western movie archetype, I could quickly establish the setting with details like the old-west saloon, the tumbleweed rolling across the road, and the townsfolk shuttering their windows. Because readers are familiar with the wizard archetype, I do not have to explain an elaborate magical system that allows the wizards to shoot magic from their staffs. The tropes have done that work for me. But, because I mash-up two unfamiliar genres, the story still feels fresh and new.

3. Consider using an unconventional or experimental narrative technique.

Because flash fiction is so short, it affords the writer the opportunity to experiment with form and language. An unconventional storytelling method can set your story apart and grab the reader’s attention. Readers will stick with an unconventional technique longer in shorter-form fiction, and this gives the flash fiction writer freedom to try out new things.

In her famous short story, The Birthday Party by Katherine Brush uses multiple point of view shifts—including the dreaded second person—to affect the dramatic distance of the reader to the story. In “The Duel,” I use present-tense narration to create immediacy and build suspense. These techniques work better in short form writing than in long form writing. They make the reader uncomfortable, which has the contradictory affect of hooking them in the short term (hmm, this is new and interesting, I’ll give it a shot) and alienating them in the long term (This is just weird/difficult; I don’t want to put in the work to deal with it).

Flash fiction offers you the opportunity to experiment with unconventional techniques and forms without alienating the reader. Take advantage of that opportunity and be creative. Surprise yourself by writing in an unfamiliar way, and you will be sure to surprise your reader.

The drafting phase is the perfect time to experiment with these unconventional narrative techniques. If you write your draft in, say second person, and you don’t like it, it is easy to revise your narrative perspective in future drafts.

There are, of course, many more ways to approach Flash Fiction—many more than I have space for here—and I encourage you experiment with them all. If, however, you are having trouble getting started with the challenge—or if this is the first time you are attempting to write flash fiction—I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

As always, I look forward to seeing your creations, and I will see you on the message boards for Flash Fiction: Step #2.

How to Participate

Register for the challenge, review the creative prompt, and start brainstorming on the boards.

We hope you will take on the flash fiction challenge. We’ll see you on the boards…and in The Time Inn.

Next Steps

Read the announcement for the 8-Page Challenge and fill out the startup form.

Questions? Contact our editor A.A. Rubin on the Flash Fiction Forum.


This article first appeared on the Comic Book School page. Comic Book School runs the flash fiction challenge.

Free Stories You Can Read While Socially Distancing

With everyone home on quarantine or practicing “social distancing,” now is a great time to get some reading done. As such, I decided to share some of my stories that are available for free at online. I’ve written a short description with the each link to help you pick which you’d like to read. Enjoy, and please stay safe out–or in–there:

Here is the story I shared in my last week’s blog. It is in the mode of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. If you haven’t read it yet, please check it out: Darkness My Old Friend.

I have a short flash piece in the current issue of Mythic Picnic Tweet Story. It features the unlikely combination of Lovecraftian monsters and humor: The Kale of Cthulhu.

You can read an older comedic fantasy style story of mine, featuring a sphinx complaining about dragons in Pif magazine: The Sphinx’s Lament.

If you are in the mood for something more traditionally literary, more touching and emotional, check out this piece I wrote for The Hopper Review: In Good Hands.

If poetry is more your speed, Local Gems Press has made eight Ebooks free to read during this period of quarantine. One of them, Rhyme and PUNishment, features my poem, “In Good Hands.” My poem is on page 50.

Last year, I had 6 micro-flash pieces in issue 4 of Drabblez magazine. “The Kale of Cthulhu” was first published there, but check out the other 5 pieces as well. My stories start on page 30.

If you are missing sports, here is a story I wrote about a playground basketball player in New York City. I originally wrote it in college for an assignment to write in the voice of a character who is very different from you (a great writing exercise, which I will cover in a future blog). The story was published in Scriveners Pen, which no longer exists, but I’ve posted it on my deviant art page. While your there, check out the comics samples I’ve posted there and some other short stories as well: Sweetness.

I hope you enjoy these stories. I hope you enjoy them. Depending on how long this situation lasts, I may post more in the coming weeks.

Stay safe.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.