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.
Well, we're both here, so the choice has been made. The irony of a blog post about how much distaste I have for blog posts certainly is not lost on me. In the back of my mind all I hear is "xoxo, gossip girl" and that bothers me a little bit. My knee jerk reaction to the idea of a blog would be a firm shake of the head. The word itself sounds like a dry heave to me. Bleeehawg. But, I felt the same about Twitter approximately two weeks ago, and now I'm checking it often, seeking the approval of strangers on the internet. That comes with the territory of being a writer, probably. It's all fairly new to me!
But, honestly, how cool would Gossip Girl have been if it were reimagined as a supernatural crime drama on HBO, in which the Gossip Girl is some sort of omniscient deity picking off New York's most talked about young adults? Am I allowed to talk about Gossip Girl like that here? Am...Am I supposed to be portraying myself as a professional? Is it abundantly clear that I have no idea what I'm doing? Huh... That's neither here nor there, I suppose, but I've been thinking about it for a while. If you have a friend at HBO, let me know I guess?
So if you're here reading this, then I thank you for giving me a minute of your time. Maybe I'll get better, maybe I'll get worse, but more blogs will begin to pop up eventually.
xoxo, Mark Karsten
(That's not going to become a thing, don't worry.)