Being a Ship With No Flag: How to Ignore the Rules (A Micro-Musing)

Ennis Drake’s short fiction has appeared in various publications online and in print, including: “Love: The Breath of Eagleray”, at Underland Press (publisher of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Finch”, John Shirley’s “In Extremis”, Brian Evenson’s “Last Days”, among others); “The Dark That Keeps Her”, published in Twisted Legends, an anthology from Pill Hill Press (honorably mentioned in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 2); and “The Fishing of Dahlia”, published in the Bram Stoker-nominated and Black Quill Award winning +Horror Library+ Volume 4. “The Fishing of Dahlia” also received an honorable mention in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 3. Forthcoming from Word Horde (summer 2013), “The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick-Maker”, will appear in the anthology, Tales of Jack the Ripper, edited by Ross Lockhart. His debut novel, “Twenty-Eight Teeth of Rage”, was released May 31st, 2012, from Omnium Gatherum Media, and was a finalist for The Shirley Jackson Award. Most recently, his collected novelettes, “The Day and the Hour” and “Drone”, were released by Omnium Gatherum Media (Feb. 2013).

Write what you know. Write what you love. Write every day. Catch an adverb, kill it. Write longhand. Write as fast as you can. Edit line by line, page by page. Let it cool. Write it while it’s fresh and hot and screaming. The Oxford Comma. Strike unnecessary punctuation. Network. You must have a “Platform”. Create a Facebook, and a Twitter, and a blog, and an author website. No, none of us knows why we create massive networks of other writers and market to them (because all readers are writers?), but it’s what we do, so you should, too. Go to conventions. Wear adverts in your hat. Do everything I tell you. I’m a writer, after all. I know THE SECRET. Thousands upon thousands of my books are in circulation, I’ve been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, so, naturally, whatever I say must be true, and it must be true for me, and you, and you, and yes, you, too.


The only truth is there are no hard truths.

I do not write what I know (unless you count crazy). I do not write what I love (I detest both my fiction and my subject-matter). I do not write every day (and don’t plan to). I don’t count words (and I sure as shit don’t waste time posting word counts to, well, anywhere). I happen to use a great many adverbs. Sometimes I over-punctuate. Sometimes I strip it out. Sometimes I don’t (the key, if there is a key, is consistency—your editor will have the say later, anyway). I do have a Facebook. I shit around on it with a handful of friends in the industry and occasionally post about my writing projects. I have a Twitter. I almost never use it. I don’t have a blog (chances are? I hate your blog), and I don’t have an author website (and unless a publisher requires me to have one in-future, foots the bill, and maintains it, I probably never will). I take every bit of advice I’m given, consider it, keep what I like, and ignore the rest. And yes, I’m aware I’ve stolen that bit (I can’t be bothered to remember exactly who from, but there you go)…so far as writing advice goes, it’s the best I’ve ever seen.

So what are we really talking about, then, I sense you asking (if you’ve not folded interest and decamped already)? Individuality. Individuality will make or break you. You can maintain it, or you cannot. If you cannot, you will surely disappear. You will learn your own unique Voice, you will learn what works for you, or you will not. You will (to paraphrase Bruner) learn to discover “the internalization of your personal novel. . .itself the search for identity”. It was once written of Gertrude Stein: “She is a ship that flies no flag and she is outside the law of art, but she descends on every port and a leaves a memory of her visits.” This is the advice I give to you. Be like Stein. Fly no flag and live outside the law of art, because there are no laws of art. True art pushes, bends, breaks rules.

So, these are the rules:




Good luck.

What Drives Your Fiction?

“The rest of it – and perhaps the best of it – is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

Stephen King, On Writing


What’s the primary vehicle behind your words?

A sports car, all angry growls and bright headlights screaming in the night?

A sleek roadster, all curves and purrs cruising languid on a Sunday afternoon?

A cozy sedan with air bags, a sunroof, and the best safety ratings in the country?

A tired old junker, barely holding itself together, let alone its own on the road?

There’s a certain headspace writers slip into when creating words and worlds, but there’s another space, a deeper one, that guides the path of those words–the emotional space. Let’s call it the hurt engine.

Some people thrive creatively when their hurt engine is fueled with anger, others work best with a stream of sorrow or happiness, and some can write no matter what emotions are flowing in the real.

Of the five novels I’ve written in as many years, the earliest two were penned when my hurt engine lived up to the name and was, in truth, running on overdrive. The words flowed and the stories poured out, like the perfect mix of gasoline and air through a carburetor. I wrote the first draft of the first novel in forty days and two weeks later started the second. Thirty days later, that first draft was done, too.

Unfortunately, both novels needed heavy-duty edits/rewrites because while the words were driven by hurt, they were twisted by it too. Had I perhaps edited the first novel before penning the second, I might have realized what I’d done wrong. Live and learn, right?

Imagine my surprise when I started the next novel and the words didn’t have the same flow. It didn’t take long to figure out why. My hurt engine was running on a different fuel. I won’t lie, I missed the rush. Instead of zipping along at 95, I was stuck on 50. But I finished the novel nonetheless. The story is cleaner, but I’m a pantser, not a plotter, so my first drafts always have a bit of rust on their edges. My motto is “first draft is for story, second draft is for pretty.”

Sometimes the hurt engine doesn’t affect productivity, but it changes the flavor of the prose. I can tell what was fueling my hurt engine in my fiction by the word choices I make, by the staccato rhythm or the lyrical quality of the sentences.

I’ve since learned that I can trick the hurt engine when needed. I’ve written a story that required a certain taste of sorrow, and even though I wasn’t feeling sad at that moment, I pulled the necessary fuel from a memory and poured that into the story instead.

I’ve also learned how to set things on literary cruise control by swallowing the emotional fuel. The hurt engine becomes a quiet place of numbness. And yes, I can tell what stories I’ve written in that place, too.

Last year I wrote the most deeply personal short story I’ve ever written. I had to dig deep into a place I don’t like for the fuel, but the story is probably my strongest work ever. It sold quickly and well, but no, I’m not going to tell you which story it is.

The only stone in my tire is anger. I can’t write when I’m angry. At all. Sure, I can fire off an expletive-filled email, no problem, but fiction? Impossible. Fortunately, my anger burns bright and hot and then fades. I might still be angry, but the rage fuel tank is empty. And then I get back to work.

So what about you? What fuels your hurt engine? Do you escape your emotions when you write or do you let the emotions paint your words? Do you get blocked when you’re not in the thick of your preferred emotional space?

Try changing your fuel and let’s go for a drive.


Your Words are Your Life, Your Death

Lauren Dixon knows how to shoot a rifle. She’s written lingerie catalogs for the Army, talks a lot about vaginas, and does not eat animals unless they ask her to first. Her newest young adult novel, Throwaways, hasn’t killed her, so far. Her creative work has also appeared in Scapezine, Extracts, Oracle, DIAGRAM, Sojourn, INTER, Kadar Koli and (R)evolve (from Naropa University), and was previously nominated for the Best of the Net 2012 award and Best New Poets of 2006 Anthology. A Clarion West 2010 graduate, Dixon edits the literary ‘zine Superficial Flesh, an amalgamation of weird, absurdist literature and art. Dixon previously taught creative writing and literature at University of Texas at Dallas. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from Texas State University and is poised to receive her doctorate in Literary Studies from the University of Texas-Dallas. Find her online here:

One word is urgency. It hits us while we sleep; we wake in a stupor, not quite understanding why that sentence begs to be written right now, at 3:44 am, while outside the world rests in a few hours of reprieve. Another word is ephemeral. We don’t write that sentence, we don’t let that story take shape, and it is gone, only tasted for a few seconds. But we live in regret of its passing.

In December, my friend Mike Alexander, who began submitting stories for publication in 1980, the year I was born, who finally made his first sale in 2010, the year I met him at Clarion West, passes away. I’ve known him for two and a half years, and during that time he sells story after story, has been named by Gordon Van Gelder as an up-and-coming writer to watch, and has been nothing but a kind, generous, and self-effacing man. He once got up in arms about the processed ingredients in my vegan deli slices, but other than that, I’ve never seen him angry or bitter. The last time I see him is in November, a month before he passes. I don’t want to write about him in the past tense, will always write about him in the present, forever in the moment, forever with us.

It is now May, six months after Mike has walked out of his body and up to the moon. Since April 15, the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, my grandfather (I call him Papa) has suffered multiple strokes that have landed him in a rehab facility in Bryan, Texas. I leave Seattle for a weekend when I find out a branch of his carotid artery is 100% blocked and there’s nothing they can do to remove it.

My grandfather is 84 years old. A decade ago, he walked off a heart attack in the jungles of Costa Rica. Last Thanksgiving, he walked a one-mile fun walk with my family at a Turkey Trot. The Thanksgiving before that, he took me out to my grandparents’ massive backyard to go turtle hunting. He is always, always, always on the move. He’s written several books about amphibians and reptiles. There’s even a Wikipedia page about him. He’s left-handed like me, has a PhD, has actual species of creatures named after him, and he’s had multiple strokes, and now has very little mobility in his right side.

When my dad and I arrive, it is 5:00 pm, so we walk into the cafeteria where my Papa is having dinner. He’s in a wheelchair, a sky-blue cardigan draped around his shoulders, and there’s a blueberry muffin on his plate. He tries to give it to my Grandma, but she gives most of it back to him. He shows us that he can lift his right arm six inches, which is worlds of improvement from a few days before. Dad rubs Papa’s back to relieve the pain of sitting in a wheelchair. Papa leans forward while Dad works at his muscles. Papa rolls his head from side to side and groans a little.

Later, Grandma forgets we’ve had dinner. She is 83 years old and doesn’t want to eat the snacks my mom has brought her because she doesn’t want to get fat. Grandma has low-blood pressure, and she, who once stood six-feet tall, leans into me, now the same height as my five-foot-eight.

A few days later, a former classmate’s father and grandmother perish in tornadoes that strike Texas, not an hour from my parents’ house. I seethe with the hole that begins to burn through me, the knowledge that death, the final unraveling frame of life, is all happening right now and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

To clear my head, I swim a few laps, do a headstand, go for a jog. Work on an essay about making the impossibility of fantasy a possibility in our world. I pull a muscle or tendon when I stay in a triangle pose too long. I will turn 33 in 13 days, and this is my life.

Nobody is burning out. It’s one little snap at a time, one little tendon pull, too much sugar or meat or alcohol or too little salt, too much attention paid to everyone else.

My Papa pulls at my cardigan, says he likes it. Tells me I should give my boyfriend Lucas a ring, says to tell Lucas to marry me. Says what happened to him, his strokes, can happen to anyone.

Back in Seattle a week later, Lucas and I sit beneath a gnarled tree in the afternoon sun. We drink coffee and Italian sodas and try to soak in a symphony of songbirds. A composer sits down at our table with his dog, who lets loose a stream of urine almost as soon as he sits down. He tells us he left Los Angeles because he didn’t want to be gentrified.

“You’re going to croak,” he says, looking at me. “Don’t ask for permission because they’re not going to give it to you.” Better to be who you are than who they tell you to be.

He is 22 years older than me, the age of my parents, of my father, who shaves my grandfather’s beard, wipes food from the right side of his mouth, and always asks if he can help any of the others whose weakened limbs prevent them from opening their half-pints of milk, from spooning their soup into their mouths.

Don’t ask for permission. A few years ago I felt my words had dishonored me, been part of something inside myself always destined to go rogue, to never answer a direct question directly. Part of something forever transgressive, my ability to write one sentence, then follow it with another, then another, no matter how wrong or sorrowful or regretful it made me feel. And in that way I learned to write about rape, incest, abortion, all wrapped up in the secret loves we have for each other, our fears that the mark of tragedy makes us untouchable, unlovable, unable to even fathom a touch of freedom. Body, a word we later learn to name “taboo.”

I have days, weeks, years left of my life, yet I’m forever touched by the knowledge that the meter is running. I work on my novel, I put it away. My Papa will probably never go back to Costa Rica, and I don’t know if my Grandma will be able to remember my sister’s baby when it is born in June. They are my past, my present, my future. I think of Mike, how his family and loved ones gave us that last chance to write to him, how I thought there had better be stars, how I didn’t know he’d left until the next day, when a crazy man began to yell at me about a government conspiracy hiding on the moon.

“Mike,” I thought, “you’ve left so soon.”

I have been a writer since I was able to pick up a pen. As a baby I ripped pages out of my mother’s books; as a child I loved my fairy tales so much I took them into the bathtub, destroying them when my clumsy fingers lost their grip and gave the books a good dunking. Words, like my family, have been my past, present, future, even when they violate me, cross a line I can never uncross. Nobody ever gave me permission, but I never asked. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do this, except myself, every time I rediscovered that impulse to veer off course and say too much, to expose taboo and offer a new name for it.

I try to avoid writing about my personal life. Never want to say too much, give anyone or anything too much power in knowing me too well. But time, my body, my Papa’s body, my Grandma’s mind, the composer’s dog’s bladder, there’s only so much before we lose the fight and something else takes the wheel. It can take you 30 years to hit your stride before your body decides you’ve had enough. It can happen tomorrow. But the fact that life can be an unbearably raw, open wound also means there’s a possibility of healing, however slow, however scarred. But if you shut the door on the words too early, give up in the face of cancer, of stroke, of dementia, of fear, the stars destined to come from your pen may well turn to dust.

So I will let my pen transgress. In the face of life rolling up the welcome mat ever so slowly, I give myself permission to say all of these wrong things, to give them a voice. Because there’s no going back, whether my thoughts appear on the page or in our lived world. And the truth is, they’re the same. Maybe we all know this. That’s the wound of writing. Someone out there will see your words as truth, even if in your mind you’ve made it all up. We all come from the same raw materials, after all.

The past, the present, the future – it’s always happening, right here, on the page. In this moment, I am with all of my loved ones, hoping to keep them forever safe in the company of my words. At least here I have the power to grant myself permission to love, to mourn, to be with them even as they transform into our beloved stars.

(Don’t) Give ‘Em What They Want

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

Recently, at the writers’ workshop I teach, we spent the afternoon discussing the ways characterization intersects with plot, particularly where conflict is concerned. After all, conflict moves story, but characters must have some element within themselves that makes them willing to engage in the conflict at hand… the hero’s quest, yadda yadda. At some point, early on, I made the very basic statement: as a writer it is your job to figure out what your character wants, then don’t let them have it. Because once they do, the story is over (so all right, let them have it at the end. That’s what makes it the end.)

Recently I’ve been thinking about what that means when you have an ensemble cast instead of a single protagonist. In the Western Fictioneers series Wolf Creek (by the multitudinous, multifaceted, and multifarious Ford Fargo), for example, every volume has about two dozen potential protagonists to draw from, each one with very different goals and desires/ How do we as a writing team, and I as an editor, keep them all from getting what they want, ever? It’s a sobering thought, at least from my end.

I’ve been thinking about some of the great western ensemble casts of bygone years. Deadwood had a magnificent ensemble cast. The network frustrated the desires of all the characters, and the audience as well, by canceling the show in the middle of a storyline. That’s clearly not the way to go.

The other greatest ensemble cast, in my opinion, was Gunsmoke (with plenty of other contenders). Most of the members of that ensemble had simple desires. Festus seemed to want a carefree life, and Chester a work-free one. Those desires are easily frustrated. Doc wanted to keep people from dying –in a place like Dodge City (at least on television), the frustration of that particular desire was guaranteed.

Which left the main protagonists, Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty. Matt wanted to be a lawman, and Kitty wanted to get married. Matt could not accede to Kitty’s desire, at least in his own mind, and hold on to his –considering it unfair to get married when he could be killed any day. I think that, really, he just didn’t want to be married. So Kitty never got what she wanted, and one suspects Matt was not able to fully enjoy his own life for the guilt he must have felt… and the story continued for about twenty years, with both of them stuck somewhere between vague contentment and unacknowledged sadness. Which was god for the show, really, because the tension between them remained, over and above the tension of each episode’s outlaw gang or Indian raid. And it was all very much between-the-lines, almost subliminal.

But, as I said, in Wolf Creek we have almost two dozen main characters. It would be nice if we could pair them off, a la Matt and Miss Kitty, so that their desires cancel one another out –maybe there’s a way to do that, I’ll have to give it some further thought.

I suppose I should begin by looking closer at the two characters I “run” –Black Seminole scout Charley Blackfeather and Marshal Samuel Horace Gardner. The two are about as different as night and day.

Charley is a remarkably complex man, with remarkably simple desires. He wants his universe to have balance. It is a major tenet of his, and his people’s, spirituality. If anything disturbs that balance it needs to be rectified. If there’s one fictional place your peace of mind can be jacked up, it’s Wolf Creek –check. This puts Charley in a similar situation as Doc Adams (and Doc Logan, in our series) –the one thing that most defines him is constantly going to be challenged as long as he is in that environment. It would be like being a housekeeper in a frat house.

Sam Gardner, on the other hand, is different. The one thing that defines him, that drove him from his Illinois home and keeps him in rowdy places like Wolf Creek, is his desire –his compulsive need –for action. He bores very easily. This makes Wolf Creek the kind of place he would thrive. It also makes for some very witty dialogue –but not much tension. I find myself digging a littelr deeper for the personality quirk that would cause discontent for the marshal in our rough-and-ready environs. And I think, in our most recent efforts (including some that have yet to see print, but will), I have found it.

Sam Gardner, in addition to craving action, craves respect. Not the sort of respect the corrupt mayor or crime boss of the town have, respect for his unique abilities. And that is already causing him some discontent in Wolf Creek. If he is successful at his job, and cleans up the town, there’ll be nothing for him to do. Not that there’s much danger of that; Sam is a prodigious gunman, but cleaning up Wolf Creek is a tall order indeed –the more he tries, the worse things seem to get. And that’s all well and good so far as things remaining exciting, but it is also causing people around town –and elsewhere –to doubt Sam’s abilities. So the marshal is I a Catch-22 of his own making, that is just going to get progressively worse. How long can that continue? I’m not sure –I guess we’ll have to ride along and see.

You can see things begin to unravel for Sam in Wolf Creek 4: The Taylor County War, out now.