In November I wrote a novel, and for a while I sort of forgot about it. Going back and reading it now, I realized that I think it's actually pretty cool and deserves the time and effort to be edited and maybe even released. Or maybe I've lost my marbles and it should stay in the drawer. Either way, good or bad, let me know what you think!
The story was heavily inspired by both The Dark Tower cycle and Letterkenny, which I think will be pretty (maybe even a bit too?) apparent.
This is the first ten or twelve(ish) pages of that novel.
Through a Field of Stones:
The Stonepicker Saga
A Novel By
1. The Hick
The field was littered with stones, and the sun had just barely begun to rise.
“Well, time to get fuckin’ picking, I suppose,” Gus said, leaning his back against the knuckles of both his fists and releasing a series of pops up his spine. Walter sat beside him in the neatly cut grass running up the sides of the gravel driveway, looking up with his big dumb grin. The dog would watch his master work for almost an hour from this very spot before wandering back to the house for a drink of water and a nap on the porch.
On a summer morning like this, when the evening chill had yet to be broken by the warm sunshine of the day, it was always best to get working early on. By noon that old thermometer which had been nailed to the porch on the day it was built would be pushing past 35 degrees Celsius, and Gus’s plaid poplin shirt would have sweat spots spreading quickly under the arms and down the back.
“See you for lunch, Wally,” Gus said to the dog, giving his ears an affectionate flop back and forth on his big head and setting out in to the field with the wheelbarrow. He’d walk the seven acres of land under the possession of his sister and himself in a grid, filling the wheelbarrow with the rocks he found and dumping it in two piles. One would begin back here, by the house. The other would be out at the edge of their land, just before the barbed wire fence that lay between the Mears acreage and the Toorin’s.
Ruby was just setting out for the day, truck keys dangling loosely in her right hand, old jeans riddled with holes that had been earned from hard wear rather than purchased that way. She taught a third-grade class in town along with her friend Rebecca. The two of them, with Gus peripherally taking part when the conversation didn’t devolve to gossip about the other teachers, polished off a forty-ounce bottle of rye the previous night. None of them were too bothered about it this morning.
“Have a good day, big brother. Call up Clay and Marv if your back starts hurtin’, will ya? Doesn’t make you weak to ask for help once in a while,” she shouted over to Gus as his right boot struck the first stone.
“Should be able to handle it just fine, Roob. Have a good day with the little ones,” he hollered back.
Ruby had inherited her name from their great grandmother. Dad said she was just about the meanest old broad he ever met and that she never hesitated to leave a welt on his ass with her thick redwood cane. He was drunk when he bestowed the name on Gus’ sister. His claim was that the name deserved some redemption, and that if his daughter ended up half as tough as his grandmother had been, she’d be taking care of Gus rather than the other way around.
He wasn’t exactly wrong on that front, either. Ruby had always been tougher than hell. There was never the briefest of hesitations to put her hands to work on one of the bigger kids that tried to rough Gus up in school. As girls around the eighth grade tend to, she shot up early, and towered over most of his peers regardless of their two-year advantage.
She’d always hated their dad for giving her that horrible name, though.
The truck pulled away slowly, so as not to send gravel spraying like a shotgun blast, with Ruby inside. Gus set back to work. He walked the field slowly, scanning the ground with his eyes, and picked up rocks big and small. Every stone made the wheelbarrow heavier and the work harder. He was grateful when he reached the end of their land and emptied his load, starting the first stone pile. The sun had already breached the horizon and sweat had already begun to bead on his brow. He took a moment to wipe the moisture away with the arm of his shirt before setting back towards the house.
2. The Farm
The Mears’ house had been built by Gus and Ruby’s grandfather Bill, along with his father Bob, sometime in the 1930s. Their grandfather Bill remembered it as 1937, but his father Bob (as told by Gus and Ruby’s dad Al) argued it had been 1935 until the day he died. Grandpa Bill, on his increasingly seldom visits, would always make a point of standing at the bottom of the porch stairs and saying, ‘she looks pretty good, for something built in ‘37’, with a wink to Gus or Ruby, whoever stood nearest by to him. The kids got a kick out of it. Al had grown tired of the debate.
The porch faced out towards Range Road 37, a dusty old thing that ran a few kilometres off the highway until its dead end out by the reservoir. Three farms split off that road, the Mears’ being the first and smallest of them. Gus had replaced the three wooden steps up to the porch two summers ago. The rest of the structure was all original. He’d been meaning to rebuild the deck since he turned eighteen and his father started hounding him about it, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
“She’s holding up just fine,” Gus had told Al as he picked splinters out of his heel ten years ago. This was when their parents had been moving out, leaving the farm to the kids and moving in to the city where there was ‘less work and more play’, as they phrased it. Al only shook his head and told his son it was his problem now.
Inside, the house had two stories, with a staircase leading up on the far back wall. The front door opened on to a living room. It was furnished with an old, rarely turned on television that could have weighed anywhere between a hundred and three thousand pounds, and a couch upholstered with floral print that had no business existing anywhere past 1983. Past this and separated by a wall was the kitchen and a circular dining table surrounded by four handmade chairs older than Ruby or Gus.
The staircase creaked something fierce, but the steps themselves were sturdy. At the top, you would turn left and walk a short hallway that ended with a bathroom and split off to a bedroom on each side.
Growing up, Gus and Ruby shared a room until their teenage years, when their fights were no longer broken up by times of calm. Gus took to the couch in the living room and merely treated the bedroom as somewhere his clothes were kept.
Mom would cry sometimes when they were eating breakfast.
“Annie, it’s too early for that much emotion,” Al would say, stern but not unkind.
“I know it, Al. I just wish this old house had one more room. Our boy sleeps on the couch like an unwelcome house guest. It’s been more than a year of it now.”
“I don’t mind a bit, mom. Every night’s like a sleepover. Besides, it beats sleeping in the same room as Roob,” he’d shot a stiff elbow in to his sister’s side then, “you fart in your sleep, you know that sis?” He laughed. They all laughed.
Quickly, Ruby had his head under her arm and was squeezing until the pressure built behind his eyeballs.
“One day it’ll be better, kids, I promise,” their mom said absently, going back to her toast and coffee and ignoring the headlock taking place just behind her back.
“Don’t knock him out before breakfast is done, Ruby,” Al said, “I need him out in the field today.”
She released her brother, brushed his shoulders off, and gave him a good smack on the back.
Eventually, Gus did tire of sleeping on the couch. Soon after that, when the sibling rivalry started again, but with an edge of adultish reality, their parents decided to leave the house to them.
3. The field
He’d never minded picking stones. It was the sort of mindless work that seemed to get done quickly, whether you paid it much attention or not. Gus could get his thoughts straight out there. At the end of the day, when his muscles ached, he would sit out on their porch with a cold beer and a hot cigarette and know he’d done something useful. The world didn’t hold many feelings better than that.
As he finished his fourth pass, dumping the stones out of the wheelbarrow on to the pile, Gus took a moment to go inside and fill a glass with ice cold water from the tap. Walter sat just outside the screen door, looking in at the couch longingly, and let out a small grumble. Gus drained the richly mineral tasting water in one go and refilled it, looking out at his furry friend and giving in much quicker than he used to.
He opened the door, mumbling out, “c’mon, then,” and let Walter inside.
The dog didn’t hesitate to hop on the couch and curl up with his big head on one of the armrests.
“You’re pampered, y’know that?” Gus asked him, again wiping the sweat from his head with his sleeve. He returned to the kitchen and checked the clock over the old gas stove.
Quarter to ten already. He wasn’t even a third of the way through with stone-picking yet. It could be a very long day ahead of him. Gus left the glass by the sink, knowing he’d be coming back for it soon, and made for the front door.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” he told Wally, “we’re headin’ back outside, boy.”
The dog got up slowly, stretching his back legs and dragging them behind him a bit as he followed out the door.
Lighting a smoke, Gus gave his dog a good scratch down his back and on his haunches. His tail whipped back and forth happily, thwapping against the leg of Gus’ jeans.
“You’re a good boy, Wally. Now go lay down while I get back to work.”
He finished his smoke and put it out on the side of a deep glass ashtray kept on a small plastic table by the front door.
Noon was coming quickly, and the work wouldn’t do itself. Gus made his way back to the field speckled with stones and began to push his empty wheelbarrow through it, bending down every few steps to pick a rock out of the soil. When it was done, it wouldn’t seem like it took all that long. He’d feel better at the end of the day. He always did.
4. The Ritual
With a clear field, a clear head, and a dull ache in nearly every muscle running through his body, Gus leaned back on the steps of the porch, tilted his neck to each side, and elicited two stiff cracks from his spine. He lit a smoke, inhaled deeply, and looked up at the bright blue sky as he returned the rather crumpled cigarette pack to his chest pocket.
Behind him the porch door creaked open. Something cold came to rest on his forehead. He opened his eyes to find Ruby standing over him, holding an ice-cold beer bottle.
“I thought something was missing,” she said as Gus accepted it from her graciously, taking a long swallow.
“Thank you, sister,” he said.
Ruby left her brother to his peaceful post-work ritual, taking Walter inside with her to take up his place on the old couch. Of the three of them, he most certainly got the most use out of it. Ruby had been home for an hour or so. Her and Rebecca traded off teaching mornings and afternoons. Today, Ruby had been on the morning duty. Thankful for Rebecca, who strolled in to the classroom sporting sunglasses and a disturbingly healthy-looking green drink. The rye had clearly been less gentle on her.
The sun was only just surpassing its highest and hottest point in the day. Gus would enjoy his time of quiet with a clear head, a cold beer, and a strong smoke before going inside to shower and put something together for dinner. ‘Every hard day deserves a soft night’, was sometimes his mantra. Others, he would replace that one with ‘every hard day deserves a harder night’. The latter was usually the product of a shitty day. Often, those ones ended with something more than a nice cold beer and at least two dozen more smokes.
It had been a good day, though. The work was hard, but rewarding, and the sun had shone on his back without roasting him alive.
Hard to complain, and Gus wasn’t the type to anyhow.
He drained the rest of his beer, stood from the steps, and crushed his cigarette on the glass ash tray.
“Who’s a good boy?” Gus asked Walter as he went inside.
Walter knew who. His tail whacked against the god-awful floral sofa to prove it.
Outside, the bright blue sky filled with rays of beautiful sunshine rippled like a pond in the breeze.
5. Ripple in the Sky
From outside the house, off of the land, above the earth, over the sky, outside of space and through all of time, a being named Cero watched Gus carefully. It didn’t often choose to take a physical form, but when it did, its skin had a deep olive tone with an underlying glint of oceanic blue that could only be caught out of the corner of your eye. Its eyes were turquoise, and its ears were too big for its head. It looked at and through all at once. It stood seven feet tall and wore a charcoal grey suit with three-inch lapels. The tie was also blue, knotted neatly over a white shirt.
Cero had been observing Gus for some time.
Cero needed somebody to help him.
6. An evening
Gus and Ruby sat at the kitchen table with four cards fanned out in their hands.
Walter snored loudly from the couch.
“I’m on the afternoon tomorrow. I can help you ‘round the house in the morning,” Ruby said, laying down an 8 of hearts.
“Can you?” Gus asked, grinning widely and laying down a 7, placing his red peg two spots ahead on the cribbage board.
“That I can,” Ruby lay down a 6, and moved her own blue peg three spots ahead.
Gus furrowed his brow at this. Then he put down a ten and pushed ahead two more spaces. They continued playing quietly, the only sounds in the house being Walter’s floor rattling snores.
“I’ve got the field clear of stones,” Gus said.
“Do you? Did you call Clay and Marv down to help?”
“And how’s your back, then?”
“Bit sore. Should be fine by tomorrow.”
“If you say so, brother.”
Their plates sat off to the side. After their game, Ruby would clean up the mess from dinner. Gus had thrown steaks from the Toorin’s on the grill and boiled a few potatoes from out of the cellar. A simple meal, but it filled their bellies just fine.
“If you’re not gonna call Clay to come down and lend a hand tomorrow, I will. If only to say thanks for the steaks,” Ruby said, “you know he admires you. Likes working for you.”
“He’s a good kid. But he’s still a kid.”
Ruby lay down her finished hand, counting points on her fingers before pegging ahead twelve spaces.
“Good hand,” Gus said, eyeballing his six points and huffing gently as he fell behind in their game.
She nodded, flipping over her crib and beginning to count up her extra points. “Fifteen two and the rest won’t do,” Ruby took her lead with a thinly veiled arrogance.
“Have a beer?” Gus asked, getting up from the table to grab one from the fridge.
“Not for me. Too full,” she said.
They finished their game quickly. Ruby kept her lead until the last two hands, which Gus outwardly wanted to think were a result of skill, but they both knew were just the luck of the cards. The siblings put the board and its cards back in its spot in the junk drawer of the kitchen, where it would sit until tomorrow night. Ruby sulked a little as she piled the dishes in to the sink. Losing didn’t come easy to her. Gus went upstairs to take a shower, taking another beer along with him.
7. A Day on the Mears Farm
Gus didn’t argue when Ruby picked up the phone to call Clay Toorin from the next farm over. She thanked his mom, Trudy, for the steaks before asking if Clay was available to come down and give them a hand preparing the produce for sale.
“He’ll be ‘round in an hour,” she said, putting the phone down on the counter and pulling a pot full of bouncing, boiling eggs from the stove.
“Good stuff,” Gus said, sitting on the stairs and lacing up his boots.
Walter yawned from the couch, sliding off of it to come greet his pal. Gus allowed his face to be licked precisely once before giving Wally’s ears a good scratching and taking him out front for a pee.
Ruby ran the eggs (a full dozen of them) under ice cold water from the tap. She let them sit in their cold-water bath while she chopped up cucumbers and celery that she’d taken that morning before sunrise from their small personal garden back behind the house. A loaf of fresh bread was out on the counter just begging to be sliced. Gus loved when she baked bread. He’d never ask her to do it. But when she did, it was uncommon for it to last longer than a day or two.
There was a steaming hot cup of black coffee waiting on the table for Gus when he brought Walter back inside. He’d poured a generous scoop of kibble in to the dog’s bowl before he noticed.
“Thank you kindly, Ruby,” he said, taking a tentative sip and burning his lips.
“Very welcome. Breakfast will be up soon.”
He took a seat at the table. Wally crunched mouthfuls of kibble happily behind him. The coffee cooled, the bread was sliced, and generous scoops of egg salad were placed between thick cuts of that heavenly, lightly toasted joy.
Gus ate slowly, savoring every bite and the quiet of the morning. It would soon be broken by the arrival of Clay Toorin. A good kid, willing to help and learn along the way, but still a kid. Ruby could put up with the chit chat. She taught kids. Gus had never been one for too many words. His patience would be tested after breakfast.
8. Back to Work
“I gotta say, Ruby, that may be some of the finest bread you’ve ever baked,” Gus said, wiping egg salad from the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin and draining his third cup of coffee.
“You say that every time I bake bread. It can’t all be the finest, you know,” she said, cutting off one more thin slice and spreading a thick layer of their homemade apricot jam over it.
“That’s where we dis—” Gus’ grin dropped from his face like a sack or bricks as the screen door creaked open and Walter let out one low woof to alert them of their visitor’s presence. Clay Toorin strolled in to the house.
His jeans were a few sizes too big, cinched tightly around his waist with a thick leather belt and bagging out below it. The legs were tucked in to knee high gum boots. In contrast, the hoodie he wore was one he’d outgrown last year, and its hem hovered just around his belly button. His voice cracked as he spoke, “Hellooooo, Mears family. I hear through the grapevine that I can be of some assistance today?”
“Take a seat, Clay,” Ruby said patiently, “have you had breakfast?”
“I… have. But that bread smells mighty enticing. May I bother you for a slice?”
Gus kept his eyes squeezed firmly shut for the duration of this interaction, until he was forced to open them and greet the kid whose scrawny fingers squeezed a bit too hard in to Gus’ shoulder.
“Clay. Morning,” was all Gus said.
“Morning to you too, Gus. What’s on the docket for this lovely day?”
Ruby handed Clay a slice of toast with some apricot jam. He sniffed it enthusiastically as the siblings met eyes. Gus rolled his.
“You’ll be packing up the spring produce for sale. Gus was out picking stones all of yesterday, so him and I will be out tilling the soil.”
“I coulda came n’ picked stones with you yesterday, buddy! I never minded picking stones. Soothing work.”
This was a sentence Gus had said to Clay, word for word, last summer. He remembered it clearly.
“Got it done just fine myself,” Gus said, though his lower back did throb with a dull ache today.
“Course ya did, big fella like you,” Clay reached to squeeze Gus’ arm, but quickly pulled his hand back when Gus gave him a look.
“Work’s not gonna get itself done, you two,” Ruby said, snapping the tension and pushing in her chair, “you can clean up after breakfast when we break for lunch. Sound good, Gus?”
He nodded his head, tucking his own chair back under the table and stretching his arms high up in to the air. Ruby led Clay out the door and past the back of the house to the barn. He had a lot of work ahead of him, washing and bagging vegetables, and Gus was glad he’d be doing it on his own. It was good practice for a young man to do some work on his own, in the peace and quiet with his own thoughts. Surely his parents knew this, and that’s why they so willingly offer the boy’s help.
Walter followed Gus down to the edge of the field, sitting loyally beside him as he gazed out over the land. The sun had risen already, day time already ebbing away, but Gus wasn’t concerning himself with it. Work would get done, and much quicker today, with the extra hands.
“Shall we?” Ruby prodded an elbow in to her brother’s side.
“We shall,” he said, and they made for the barn.
Walter held his post for a while, as he always did, but eventually the porch’s call to him became too strong and he sauntered over that way for a snooze.
9. Cero Approaches
An odd thing, he thought, for a species so intelligent to work so hard.
Cero had seen the birth and death of many intelligent species, across many different planets and dimensions in the multiverse. All of them a blip in existence that would be remembered only by those whose duty it was to remember. He was glad it wasn’t his duty. It sounded awfully boring, really, watching everything everywhere all the time, jotting it down in some ephemeral notebook.
Though, he did find himself drawn to this one human, for some reason. Perhaps his attention had grown less valuable over the millennia. Perhaps he was just bored with his own immortality.
He did need someone, though. A mortal with real appreciation for life could be the proper candidate. Who else could it fall on, to save existence itself, besides another blip in the timeline of the multiverse? Certainly, this man; spending his miniscule amount of time before his death turning over dirt to better grow vegetables, could appreciate the drastic impact of the end of all things.
Undoubtedly, he would want to prevent it.
Cero gazed down at the man, sweat already wetting his shirt and stinking up the air around him, and thought who better to serve as our hero?
Since releasing The Vigilant Principle last April, it’s been well-read and well-reviewed. I’ve learned so much about writing and editing and publishing and marketing that I never really expected to have much of a grasp on. I want to thank all of you for that. It’s been a fun ride so far, and it’s really just begun.
So, I thought I’d share with you a little bit about the new stories I’ve been cooking up and hoping to release later this year:
Skylight (which still needs a better title… I’m working on it) is a Science Fiction story following a woman named Emmy. When we meet her, she’s living in one of a handful of skyscrapers called Sky Complexes covering the North American continent. This is where the remainders of humanity have been forced to live their lives. On the surface below, hyper-evolved and hostile fauna has taken over.
To keep the citizens living in these Sky Complexes docile and unquestioning of the outside world, they wake each day with no memory of the last. Their names have been taken and replaced with a number. Unbeknownst to any of them, there’s much more going on outside the safety of the towers. When a knock comes on Emmy’s door, and she’s told of life outside the complex on the forest floor, she can’t resist the temptations of outside.
But soon, she will come to know that there’s much larger threats in the world than flowers and ferns. In the outside world, she’ll find something worth remembering.
Through a Field of Stones was my National Novel Writing Month project in November. I’d never tried to write a full-fledged novel in such a short period of time, but I was pleasantly surprised and excited about what I ended up with.
The story follows Gus and his dog Walter. Gus is a farmer who works hard, drinks hard, and doesn’t have much time to waste on conversation or city-folk. On a day like every other, he’s approached by Cero – an inter-dimensional deity who has tasked Gus with saving all life in all universes across every dimension. No small task. Not being one to shirk his responsibilities, Gus accepts with one stipulation: Walter must come along with him. Leaving his sister Ruby in charge of the farm, Gus and Walter follow Cero along on a journey through multiple worlds to save existence.
Experiments on Lake Du’Qwop is a horror story I just started last week.
In the middle of lake Do’Qwop is a stony outcrop of an island. Cabins dot the lakeshore, and in these cabins the children of families tell stories about the island. Stories of monsters and murder, kidnap and evil. The thing none of the parents expect is that these stories aren’t all untrue. There is an evil to the island… only, it’s hidden below the surface, under the lake, in a laboratory.
Kids have gone missing. Screams were heard, boats were seen, but as time goes on and no bodies turn up, tensions rise on the lake. The possibility must be faced that perhaps there is something evil out on that water.
I’m a very slow reader. Not even just a little bit, either. I’m talking, sometimes it takes me a month or more to finish a big book. I’ve given myself a hard time over it so often, telling myself I’ll never be a good writer if I’m not reading more, and while that’s not completely untrue… I’m here to defend myself along with all the other slow readers out there. My argument is simple, and it comes in the form of a silly simile, and it is this: Chewing through the pages just to get to the ending is like going out for a lovely dinner but not taking the time to care how it tastes. When you’re complaining at the end, thinking there may have been something missing, you’ve only got yourself to blame.
By no means do I wish to spark a debate. There are plenty of people out there who read quickly and retain everything. Some of us, however, do have to slow down and take those pages at a more leisurely pace in order to absorb and enjoy the story.
So, I’m Mark Karsten, and I’m here to tell you one important thing.
It’s not a bad thing to slow down. Books shouldn’t be a race. Spend your time in those made up worlds at your own damn ease and don’t let anybody tell you you’re doing it wrong.
If you’re a fast reader who burns through a book every three days and enjoys every second of it, you’re not doing anything wrong either.
Books are meant to be enjoyed. So, enjoy them. Don’t just rush to the ending, hoping to find satisfaction there. Unless that’s your thing, I guess… but, like, why?
This is my first time ever participating in National Novel Writing Month. For the month of November I'm writing 2200 words a day, every day, with the goal of having completed a ~60,000 word novel by the end of the month. So far, I'm on track. It's been a lot of work, but it's also been a lot of fun and, maybe more importantly, a good lesson in discipline and just getting the words on the page.
As of right now this book is under the working title of The Stonepicker Saga. That's going to change before it's done. At least, I hope it is, because I'm really not crazy about the title. It's taking heavy inspiration from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's co-authored masterpiece Good Omens, along with the TV show Letterkenny, and Stephen King's Dark Tower universe. The story follows a man named Gus Mears who encounters an inter-dimensional deity and is tasked with saving all of existence. Here's an excerpt, the 24th chapter, a brief introduction to the original seven beings from the beginning of time:
24. The Other Six
At the beginning there were seven.
This was before everything started coming in numbers of three, seven, or nine. This was before everything, in fact. So much so that nothing had ever come before this before. It was the first of time, first of actuality, first of something like life.
The seven sprung from one. The one was The Artist. It was the first, and often wished it had been the only. But its duty was to create, so it did.
Vast space was dotted with worlds and filled with life by its brush. Emptiness was made less empty, the cold void sprinkled with warmth. Only the act of creating brought The Artist joy. But, the more it made the less satisfied it was. Every world was critiqued harder than the last, every life less appreciated.
The edges of the canvas crept ever closer.
Six tried to love one. Six were pushed away. Time. Death. Light. Space. Love. Clementine.
Time dealt with all matters of its namesake. Its duties were complex and convoluted, often both linear and not in nature. It travelled through all the dimensional planes at once and possessed vast power. However, it was very busy. ‘Time never stops’, so they say, so it doesn’t (though, of course, once in a while time did have to stop. Everyone else gets a break. It’s only fair).
Death possessed the drabbest duties, and spent most of its time in a sullen state. It always envied The Artist for getting to be the one to create. All Death got to do was take the beauty of life away. Always viewed as a bad seed, never getting any respect or appreciation, Death was mostly depressed.
Light was the flashiest of the six, and the only one who could cheer Death up for a short time. Light found itself to be the closest to mortal of all seven immortals. After all, something so bright can only shine for a finite time. That was a battle Light fought hard and often. So far it was winning.
Space was vast and lazy. Its duty was simply to fill the void between The Artist’s creations. Again, it felt envy towards The Artist for always getting to bring life in to the universe. Space was always around to pick up the pieces, ever expanding and present to hold up a galaxy.
Love had the second-best job, next to The Artist, and knew it, too. Love brought purpose to all the creations rendered by The Artist’s brush. It was the reason for most of the beauty and joy in existence and didn’t hesitate to rub that in the other six’s faces. Love had a soft spot for The Artist and visited whenever possible. It managed to show the beauty of all things to The Artist for some time. Though, as things often go, Love visited less and less with more galaxies to get around to.
Clementine served no real purpose, other than to show the others that sometimes things just were. It was the bubbliest of all of them, because it had no job to do other than to be there. They all loved Clementine, though found its presence frustrating and didn’t spend longer than a century together at once.
All six knew the dangers of The Artist, and therefore made a pact to keep their eyes on it as often as they could. They had jobs to do, though (aside from Clementine, but it wasn’t in possession of conventionally great wisdom) and found it hard to juggle their own duties with keeping track of The Artist.
This is a story I wrote more than five years ago. It’s bad. Probably one of the worst I’ve ever written. It was to be the first in a collection under the title A Certain Paranormal Bouquet, which I still have full intentions of putting together, so don’t steal that title. It’s a good title. 50 points if you can tell me where it’s taken from.
I’ll tell you five (I’m sure there are plenty more) of the reasons why this story is no good down at the bottom.
Here’s one of the worst stories I’ve ever written, because bad writing is important.
Through the Floorboards
The door to the basement was never locked, see?
And I’m almost certain that’s how they got in. It’s a separate entrance, twenty or so feet from the patio. Twelve solid concrete steps down into an abyss that hides a sturdy oak door. We used to keep the empty wine bottles down there, but that came to a pretty sudden halt when my wife got pregnant. I would sneak a bottle every once in a while, when she fell asleep early and I needed to unwind, but my tolerance for alcohol had grown so low that one bottle would have me pretty well-done. There could have been a swarm of bees battling a crew of coked out construction workers down there and I’d be likely to shrug my shoulders and forget about it by morning.
There’s not a doubt in my mind that they were living down there for weeks, or hell, even months before they decided to surface. If it wasn’t such a crazy cluster fuck of a day, the cracks forming in the floor boards would have caught my eye. But of course, as these things happen, my wife’s water broke at precisely 6:18AM. As luck would have it, the night prior was one of the evenings I decided to take down a bottle of Cabernet Sauv-whatever all on my own. So, not only was I running around like a chicken with its head cut off, I was also throbbing gently all over with a minor hangover.
Several hours later, when I finally took a seat to collect myself after being removed from the hospital room by one of the nurses for “causing a scene”, I noticed something that brought back a dreamlike memory. Blood was staining the tip of my left foots white canvas sneaker. When I slipped it off the pain began to pulse up my leg and I noticed my sock was quite drenched in blood. The cause of the injury came back to mind immediately. As I was rushing back and forth through the kitchen looking for my car keys, I stubbed my toe hard on what should have been a smooth piece of hardwood flooring. A crack had formed, and a rough edge had lifted up. That had been the root of this bleeding toe problem.
But what had been the root of the cracked floorboard problem?
We spent a few days in the hospital after our little Justin was born. Complications with the pregnancy; he came out completely silent, which is never a good thing when it comes to babies. So, I completely forgot about everything else. All I could really do was sit in a chair beside Sarah’s hospital bed and hold her hand and try to be hopeful. Our lives had gone to both of the absolute ends of the happiness scale. The child we’d been hoping for for years came in to our lives, and we were at that moment the two happiest people in the world. Then the threat of him being taken immediately away from us brought us to the other side of the spectrum. When he was rushed away by the nurses in silence, I think I can speak for both of us in saying we wanted to die.
Death is a funny thing to feel desire for. Even if it was offered, most who think they want it wouldn’t accept. But I sincerely think that if the black cloak walked in at that moment I would have taken his hand without a second thought. I’d never felt that way before and I haven’t felt that way since. I thank god for that. I’ve never been so scared.
Not even when they came through the floor.
The way I see it, we had two choices: get out of our house at any cost, or fight and die for our home. The cost of escape turned out to be much greater than I ever could have hoped.
Bringing home our sweet little boy was the most joyous experience I can recollect. Better than Christmas as a child or New Years as a teen. He brought so much light in to our lives; even more than I assume most parents feel, when we learned that he would survive.
Several hours after Justin’s birth, we were finally given the news that in my wife’s womb he had managed to swallow an impressive amount of amniotic fluid. He came in to this world already choking to death. They had managed to clear out the fluid from his lungs, however, and he was screaming his cute little butt off at that moment.
“if you listen closely, you can probably hear him all the way from peeds at this very second,” I remember the nurse saying.
And we could. His little battle cries echoed through the halls, letting everyone know that he made it and he wasn’t going down without a fight.
They would be monitoring him very closely for the night, but we could see our son in the morning. Who ever graced us with this incredible luck, I swore I’d kiss their face one day.
After sharing the wonderful news, the nurse pointed out my long-forgotten toe injury and asked if she could take a look at it. I allowed it, figuring we were already in the hospital and wouldn’t be checking out any time soon. As soon as the sock came off and I saw the extent of the damage my stomach turned, and pain flooded through my nervous system.
“We’ll need to do something about this,” she told me, with only a hint of concern on her face.
I just nodded. Not a care in the world, other than for the fact that my son was alive and well.
She returned with another nurse, and together she and he stitched me up quickly and applied an antibiotic ointment which they informed me would have to be reapplied twice a day.
“I know it will be hard to remember, what with a newborn baby in the house,” he started, “but it’s very important to avoid infections!” she finished. They looked at one another and smiled before walking out the door together. It was like something out of a corny 90s Sitcom. Eerily pleasant.
* * *
We got Justin home at 9:15PM on a Thursday and immediately took him to bed. Perhaps the only thing I’ve ever gotten done on time was setting up his crib in our bedroom. It would seem he’d gotten all of his crying done at the hospital, because when we lay him down he was quiet as a church mouse. He just looked up and out at the world that is our bedroom in absolute fascination. Everything was beautiful and new in his eyes, and it was already clear he would have an appreciation for life that neither me nor my wife had ever really managed to find. In his first day of living he’d already been through more than some people will until they meet their demise. If that’s not a character builder, then I don’t know what is.
We didn’t leave that room for nearly eighteen hours, outside of me stumbling to the front door to accept a great big brown paper bag filled with lo mein and dry garlic ribs. I don’t think I even said a word to the delivery man, just handed over a fistful of cash and grunted a few times. My eyes were closed the majority of the time. He either got an absurdly large tip or I short-changed him, I’m sure.
We slept and ate and slept again until our bodies were stiff from immobility. Intermittently my wife would get up and walk around the room with the baby bouncing gleefully at her chest, or I would change his diaper when his quiet cries woke me up, but mostly we all just slept. I think we needed it.
By the weekend we had recuperated the energy to show Justin around the house. It was at this time that we realized the extent of the damage to our floor, and I remembered to put ointment on my toe. A massive crack ran across our kitchen floor. It spanned over the width of six hardwood panels. We could see clearly in to the basement, and, as a matter of fact, if my wife would have taken one more step, her and the baby would have fallen right through.
We could only stop and look at each other.
“Wuh… where did this come from?” She asked me.
I just lifted my hands in the air.
“Earth…quake…?” I said tentatively.
But there hadn’t been an earthquake. We both knew that. I was the only one that knew that crack had grown from a small split in the floor to this gigantic crevasse over only a few days. But how?
“I think you should go stay at your mom’s. This isn’t safe for Justin. This isn’t safe for anybody,” I said.
“You’re not coming?” She asked, frightened.
“I have to look in to getting this fixed. The sooner it’s fixed the sooner we can come home,” I said.
I don’t know a thing about handy work. I’m more of a ‘pay somebody else ridiculous sums of money to do it for you’ kind of guy.
I smiled at my wife.
“Come on, let’s get you two packed and ready to go,” I rubbed her shoulder, trying to sooth her. Together we turned back towards our bedroom, looking in each other’s eyes in a way only new parents know.
But something was wrong. Something in her eyes, it wasn’t that fresh revitalized love that was there only a second ago. No, it was the blight of fear, spreading over her like napalm. Her entire body dropped before I could open my mouth to ask what was wrong.
Something had wrapped its twisted fingers around her ankle and was pulling her through the crack in our kitchen floor.
When she dropped, baby Justin flew out of her arms like a superhero. That innocent smile still glowing on his face, it was nearly enough to make me burst out in laughter. I caught our child and for the briefest of moments forgot that something had my wife by the ankle, dragging her through the floor.
She had already been swallowed to the waist by the deep dark of our basement. Dozens of disturbingly long grey fingers wrapped around any inch of her body they could reach. I screamed out for help, at the very least for somebody else to witness what I was seeing so I could know I’m not insane. Hundreds of cuts spread over her body from dirty, jagged fingernails, her clothes were torn to shreds and falling from her body.
Her screams are the part I’ll never forgot. She screamed my name. She screamed Justin’s name. She screamed for help.
But I didn’t give it to her. I’m so torn between never forgiving myself and being overjoyed with how I decided to react. I had to protect baby Justin. He had become priority number one.
I looked once more in to the love of my life’s eyes, trying to tell her how much I loved her while knowing that if I said it out loud it would only hurt everybody more. Those horrible grey hands made their final wrap around her face, pulling her finally and completely down through the floorboards.
A second is all I took to say goodbye before running full tilt to the front door and out in to the streets. I wanted to drop to my knees and scream at the sky and hope somebody would hear what happened. But I knew I couldn’t.
Even then, the instant I got out the door, I began to question what I saw. If anybody heard my story, Justin would be immediately taken from me and I would be placed under psychiatric evaluation. What I saw was unbelievable, but I had to believe it. She had disappeared right in front of me, taken by some unimaginable grey figure. Or maybe figures. I don’t know.
The only option I had was to run, and I’ve been running ever since. Little Justin and I, on the road. Whether the running helps me to escape my guilt, I couldn’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t dare to stop.
Going home is so far out of the question that I don’t give it a thought any more. They could still be there. Or even worse, she could still be there barely clinging to life but not permitted to die.
Watch for cracks in the floor. Keep your doors locked. Your basement could be their next home.
Yikes. This is a bit painful to post.
So, just why is this story so bad? Well:
1) There’s no character development. As a reader, I don’t give half a damn about the narrator, or his wife, or their stupid baby. I don’t care what happens to them, so when bad things happen it doesn’t seem so bad.
2) It does not benefit from a first-person perspective. The setting and the characters would have been better off and developed far more easily with a third person narrative.
3) The setting is virtually non-existant. Do you know where we are? No! Do you like it? Not one bit! The concrete steps leading down to the sturdy oak door is the most fleshed out part of the world, and it’s ultimately unimportant.
4) Dialogue is weak and awkward. People don’t talk like that. Seriously, read some of that dialogue out loud. It’s bad.
5). The Ending. It’s abrupt, and while that can be good, it simply doesn’t work here. There isn’t time given to immerse yourself in the story, so when it’s over there’s no reason to care. An ending should matter. This one does not. Also, it addresses the reader. More than that, it gives the reader a warning. 95% of the time, that is not a good thing to do. Don’t do that.
I’m not saying I’m a great writer now, but I take comfort in knowing I've gotten a little better.
I’ve come to accept the middle portion of books as my greatest writing nemesis. Skylight spent a long time sitting with a strong beginning and a workable ending, but lots missing in between. The words were coming slowly, and the story’s connective tissue was taking much longer than I would have liked to piece itself together, but I think I’ve finally gotten past the hump. The beginning is done, the middle is done, and I know how it ends. I have hopes to finish the writing by October 31st and pass it off to my forever #1 beta reader before edits and looking for other people to beta read (if you’d like to be one of them, please let me know!).
In November I have plans to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write a very silly and hopefully very fun Fantasy novel about a Canadian farmer who is tasked by some otherworldly being with saving the world (or the universe, or a shelter housing less fortunate dogs, I haven’t quite decided yet). This is an idea I’ve had sitting in the back of my mind for over a year now, slowly gathering other bits and pieces to grow in to a real story, and I’m excited to get it out.
With Yuna getting her TPLO surgery on Tuesday (a million thanks to all of you who helped us with donations to pay for that, she’s doing well and we’re looking forward to her being fully recovered, but that’s going to take some time) we’ll be spending a lot of time at home and I’ll have lots of opportunity to get this work done, so hopefully I can stay on schedule and have some fun stuff to share with you all soon. For now, here’s a brief and poorly-worded synopsis of Skylight, although some of this is likely to change:
#1059214, formerly Emmy Hendridge, lives in a tower high among the clouds. The Sky Complexes house the remainder of human kind. Below, the earth is covered in hyper-evolved plant life which has made it a highly adverse environment to human survival.
Emmy, along with every citizen of The Complex, lives the same day, every day, over and over and over again. The majority of her memories are wiped at the end of the day; everything outside basic motor function and speech along with whatever skills she needs to do her assigned job. Complex rules dictate that all its surviving citizens must live this way, so as to remain complacent and not question what lies outside the tower. But on the forest floor, there are survivors, and they need her.
It is OH SO important to find your voice, because there’s a good chance that incredibly unique one in seven billion story idea you just thought up has already been written. It’s hard as hell to write a story nobody has ever heard before, so we must find new ways to tell old stories in a uniquely you fashion. That can be really hard sometimes, and more than a little scary.
New ideas are possible. They’re appearing every day. Yours could be one of them. Buuuuuuuuut there’s nearly 8 billion people out there. That idea about wizards fighting aliens while a sasquatch army assembles in the lost city of Atlantis to overthrow the government is probably floating around the internet somewhere already. At least, I hope it is, because that sounds awesome and like something I would love to read. So, as it grows harder to come up with something new and unique, it’s becoming more necessary to develop your voice and say things in your own way.
The fact of the matter is this: you’re likely to sound a little bit like a whole bunch of other people before you come to a point where you’re finally sounding like yourself. It’s normal and it’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it can be really helpful to accept it. The people you admire are the ones you’re most likely to mirror, and there’s certainly a reason you admire them, so this can be hugely advantageous to figuring out your own voice.
With that being said, there’s a pretty big difference between piecing together snippets of those you admire to build the mosaic of your own personal voice and blatantly ripping someone else off. That old adage of Be Yourself Because Everyone Else is Taken is annoying as shit when it’s blasted all over a poster or your social media feed (usually accompanied by a photo of someone like Kurt Kobain), but it does have some truth to it. In finding your own voice, you want to become someone that not only other people but you yourself can admire. If you’re a carbon copy of someone else, no matter how cool or talented they are, it’s going to be hard for you to take real pride in what you’re doing.
Stop censoring yourself, stop thinking you need to act or sound a certain way, express yourself openly and learn as much as you can from those you admire. Let that beautiful voice of yours treat the ears and eyes of those you love and who love you. You’re probably a badass and you probably sound great already. So, let ‘em have it!
The Vigilant Principle is a book about the grey area of personal justice – a vaguely broken moral compass which points in the right direction (by sheer luck) once in a while but strays off in to dark corners the rest of the time. It’s a story of someone getting lost in what they think is right only to find them self in the wrong. Searching for the line between black and white often ends with wading through the ocean of grey which that line really is.
The story in the book isn’t my own views or opinions on the matter. Those are just characters living their own lives and making their own decisions. To be honest, it’s a subject on which I have a lot of trouble taking a stance. The easy answer is the archaic one; ‘an eye for an eye’, ‘if you’ve hurt someone I love, I’ll hurt you back twice over’. But I don’t think that’s always, or even often, the correct one. Our justice system is obviously flawed, there’s basically no questioning that at this point, but is there not also a flaw in becoming some sort of Judge/Jury/Executioner cliché.
One of the first things writers on the internet will tell you is that you should try to avoid clichés. So, it seems logical to avoid being one. Cliché. Cliché. If I say that one more time it’s not going to look like a real word any more. It’s making me think quiche. Words are weird.
We all love a vigilante. They’re the type of character that most people can relate to or even admire. They act in a way most of us have wished we could act. I think there’s real moral consequence and struggle to those characters, though, that aren’t often addressed in a realistic way in fiction. That’s what I wanted to do with The Vigilant Principle. Not to point anyone in any specific direction, just to raise questions and promote thought about what our idea of justice really is. As with most things, I think the answer lives in the grey area. There is no universal right or wrong for every predicament. Everything is situational.
This is absolutely shameless self-promotion, by the way. If you haven’t picked up The Vigilant Principle yet, and anything I said above strikes your interest, then you should. If you do, I hope you enjoy it. If you don’t, I still like you.
Where do you draw the line between keeping up with the most modern quirks of the English language and refusing to contribute to the destruction of the words that you love?
We all use and abuse it every single day. We’re cool and hip and we’re having fun, OK Dad?! But, there’s got be a line, right? Right!? A handful of very successful writing careers have been built upon completely made up words, and I’m certain I don’t need to tell you who I’m talking about (Dr. Seuss. It’s Dr. Seuss. But there’s others, of course, like that one old guy they call Shookspork or… or Shakeweight, or something like that). Quite frankly, if you’re writing Science Fiction, it’s almost impossible to get by without making up a word or two. So why, do you ask, am I so crotchety about modern slang terminology?
Because I’m a grouchy ninety-five-year-old trapped in an only slightly less grouchy twenty-four-year-old body, I suppose. Get off my damn lawn with your “yeet”s and your “turnt”s and your “fire”s.
It’s total hypocrisy, of course. Ten minutes ago, I told my girlfriend how dope I think bagels are. Dope. If that doesn’t date my level of coolness, probably nothing will. Because it can’t be dated. Because I will never stop being cool.
Slang is almost certainly one on a long list of things that every generation, every subculture, every person thinks 'we did it right and you’re doing it wrong'.
Speak however you like. Say whatever new neato phrases your favorite hip hop rappers are using. Not everyone is going to like it, but if it’s the person you want to be, then be it. But stay off my damn lawn if you’re gonna be yeet-ing and doing lits.
Just kidding. Be your terrific self. Don’t let my whining affect your decisions.
Well, tomorrow is the official book signing/launch party/narcissism event for The Vigilant Principle! Let me tell you, it feels weird not only inviting but encouraging people to attend something that is basically all about me and the story I wrote. Not only weird, it feels downright wrong. I’ve never been the type to actively seek attention, but now, in a way, that has become exactly what I must do to succeed. Does the obnoxious feeling ever abate even slightly? Does it ever get easier to say, “hey friends, pay attention to this thing I’ve done, it’s important to me so it should be important to you too,”?
I’m honestly not really expecting it to. I love the fact that people are reading and enjoying my book, but I’m not entirely sold on the idea of pushing it in to people’s hands. Finding the happy medium between loving my stories enough to share them and aggressively shoving them under your nose is going to be one of my biggest goals and toughest struggles.
Largely, though, I’m really just excited to meet people who are excited about reading, and to discuss the act of putting words on a page, and hopefully encourage someone with a book inside of them to get it out! It was one of the most liberating and therapeutic things I’ve ever done, to bring these characters and places and events to life. In a way, it was even a cathartic experience, to explore these ideas of morality and consequence through the eyes of fictional individuals.
I’ll never be able to vouch enough for writing as a form of stress relief. It doesn’t even have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Just tell the page how you’re feeling; or what you want; or make up a world where you’d rather be; or even something that scares the absolute hell out of you. Put the words down as a form of escape, if you have to. Build yourself a safe place in the lines of text on the paper in front of you.
I started this blog post afraid to face tomorrow—to speak to anyone about the story I’ve told and the time it took and the reasons why. I’m still afraid, and I’m still extremely nervous, but I do feel a little bit better about the fear. That’s one of the most incredible things in the world to me, and that’s a large part of why I think writing is so important.
Anyhow, thanks for reading my rambles. I look forward to seeing some of your faces tomorrow or any other time in the future. You’re all absolutely lovely and I appreciate every second of your time that you’ve given me.
Who am I?
I'm Mark Karsten. I'm from a city called Lethbridge in Southern Alberta, Canada. I read, I write, and I snuggle puppies at every given opportunity. It's lovely to meet you.