If you like old science fiction television shows, alcoholic writers, and creepy tree stumps in the woods, this story is relevant to your interests.
Sometimes people ask me about my first collection, Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby! — where they can get it, why it’s out of print, why I never mention it — and I usually respond by strangling them behind a dumpster so no one ever speaks of it again.
There’s an old writer’s curse: “May you sell all your early stories and compile them into a collection,” and the Monkey’s Paw vindictively granted my earliest wish to be published. I’m not sure why the stories in CFB sold to some surprising places like Weird Tales, except perhaps for polite encouragement.
That collection is awful, and I hereby apologize for it.
The only reason to own CFB is for Deena Warner’s fabulous cover art, which can be easily trimmed from the front of the book and framed.
That cover makes my book a jewel-encrusted Yugo driven by a Serbian mobster in a track suit. Her husband Matt Warner’s introduction was also very kind, and I’m eternally grateful he hacked his way through the book and found nice things to say.
What went wrong?
The stories in CFB, including the title one about a review for a Cthulhu-themed Broadway show, are driven almost solely by gimmicks, the things that early writers think are the engines of story. On my honeymoon with my first wife, I attended a terrible theater show on the cruise and imagined the only way it could be worse was in service to cosmic evil, and bam! it became a story. Once while standing near the window of my 12th floor office, I saw a milk truck drive by on the bridge far below and wondered what would happen if you heard something banging around inside, and pow! another story.
Every piece in CFB is a joke stretched too thin, and the whole thing is a reminder of my greatest weakness, going for the easy laugh instead of developing an experience.
I won’t go quite so far as to say I wish it had never been published; it certainly fits into a very specific time of my career. I needed to plant a flag in the sand that yes, I was working earnestly on a career and if readers would just wait a little longer, I’d have something much better for them.
If you are one of the courageous and/or supportive souls who bought it early, I thank you for your confidence in me. If you’re a weirdo buying it off eBay today, I hope you’ll read it as what it is, a time capsule of my early career.
Let us never speak of it again.
My story “Night Fever” is appearing in the May/June 2017 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and along with the usual comments that it’s not science fiction (hello, alternate history!), I’m guessing I’ll get a few questions about where the fuck the idea of placing Charles Manson in the disco era came from.
A couple of years ago, I posted a tweet that said something like, “If Charles Manson was active in the 70s instead of the 60s, it’d be Night Fever coming down fast instead of Helter Skelter.” My friend Robert Levy replied that he’d read a story about that, so I quickly deleted the tweet to keep the idea to myself.
Though the combination was natural for me — the Manson case and New York of the 70s — it took a long time to get around to writing it for several reasons:
These are the issues that beset me with most stories, and the only way I’ve found to fix them is to sit down and tinker with a beginning until I find a voice to tell it in. I open a plain text editor and type out various sentences and paragraphs until I feel a twinge of recognition or excitement.
In the case of “Night Fever,” it was this sentence:
Sometimes I wonder what would be different if Charlie got out when he was supposed to. But then, he’d probably be as big an asshole in the 60s as he was in the 70s.
Then I hit upon the idea of writing the story in true crime fragments, quotations from articles and books and court transcripts. I’ve done this before, largely because I’m neurotically skeptical about third-person narratives. I always want to know who is telling the story and why, and the magical authorial voice out of nowhere just creeps me out. Plus I enjoy performing other voices (about half a dozen in “Night Fever,” including a gone-to-seed Truman Capote).
I wrote the story with my patented “tinkering” technique, which is hard to distinguish from fucking around:
The great thing about the story was that the structure was essentially dictated by the subject matter. I had to explain why Manson was released in the 70s instead of the 60s, I had to describe New York and the kind of people he’d recruit (focusing on one who’d be sufficiently self-aware like Linda Kasabian), and I had to introduce the prosecutor who would bring him down.
(Originally, the prosecutor was to be an alternate history Rudy Giuliani, but my editor was afraid we’d get sued.)
Then with the pieces in place, they had to commit a crime, get arrested, and go to trial. Most of that part was fun, finding echoes from the original murders in the 60s and play them out in the 70s. I made a playlist to get me in the mood for 1978 and researched what the clubs were like in the era. I absorbed a lot as a kid living there then, but my older sister was going to Shaun Cassidy concerts, not Studio 54.
I didn’t really have a point or purpose to the story as I wrote it except perhaps to refute the idea that any of the original Manson crimes were somehow inevitable results of the hedonistic 60s. Manson’s a chameleon, and I think he’d have done just fine in any era finding people better than him to fall for his shit.
(Modern day Manson followers, please don’t find and kill me!)
Starting Wednesday the 22nd, I’ll be at the 38th International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts down at the Orlando Airport Marriott.
My reading on Thursday the 23rd is at the bracing hour of 8:30am, so if you like to wake up to weirdness as much as Aimee does, come on by!
I’ll also be lurking in panels and readings until Saturday evening.
I’ve just received word that my latest story “Night Fever” will appear in the May/June issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
What’s it about? I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s simply call it a tale of alternate crime and disco history and let you fill in the rest.
I’m finding that the older I get, the harder it is to dive into a new creative project with the same enthusiasm.
“Enthusiasm,” if you don’t know, comes from a Latin root meaning “too dumb (willfully or not) to know how much shit is ahead,” and the sad thing about experience is that it gnaws away at enthusiasm like a heartworm. I miss the heady, ignorant days when I could say like an idiot, “Fuck yeah, the world needs a story about monsters who live in milk trucks!”
The world has made abundantly clear that it needs none of my shit, even the really good shit that I felt deeply.
I’m more okay with that than I thought I’d be, but it still means that it’s hard to choose what to work on next. Sometimes an idea grabs me and won’t leave until I do something with it, but more often, I have to commit to hacking away at something I choose.
So here’s the patented Will Ludwigsen Writing Priority Grid(tm).
What you do is list all of the things you could be working on in a column on the far left side. Then, in the other columns, you rate the story idea in several categories, like so:
Now, if you want to get fancy, you can weight the numbers as I have here. Maybe the saleability of a story is more important than, say, how interesting it is to you (though I rather hope not). In that case, the maximum score for interesting might be a three or a four instead of a five for saleability.
(You’ll notice that most of the numbers don’t go above three even in the heavier columns. Well, that’s depression for you. Also, I grayed saleability because that’s the one that seems hardest to gauge.)
But what if you add up the totals and you’re not happy with the result? Well, that tells you something, too: there’s a story you WANT to work on despite the cold numbers and you should chase after that.
You can add other columns depending on your priorities.Possibilities might be “How long has it been lurking in my mind?” or “How eager is my audience to read it?” or “How important is the editor expecting it?” I considered “How likely is it to fuck over Trump,” but I figured that one would be depressing, but hey, maybe you want to consider the social impact of your work.
This would be a good place to write something encouraging about the choice you’ve made, but all I’ve got is this:
You should probably weight that “fun” column pretty heavily because that’s the fall back when all else fails. If you change nothing but yourself with your work, that’s a lot more than most people do.
I’m pleased that my story “The Leaning Lincoln” is now available in this month’s “slightly spooky” double-issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, though it’s origin is more than slightly spooky.
It’s based on a true event from my life.
The man started by fatally shooting his own lawyer (whom he saw as “mishandling” an inheritance case) and was luckily stopped there, but when he was arrested, he was found with a list of other victims not obviously connected to him. He never admitted they were connected to my father.
[I won’t comment on the specifics of the real case out of respect for the victim and his family. I hope I fictionalized it enough not to be offensive, and I hope that though I humanized the killer, I didn’t absolve him of his crime. He was definitely responsible for his own deranged reasons, but there’s a truth most people didn’t know which is that my father helped derange him.]
The man — fictionalized as “Henry” in the story — was kinder and more understanding to me and my family than my father ever was. He took us to the movies and talked about Dungeons and Dragons with me, and yes, he did make me a lead Abraham Lincoln figurine that seemed to bring me bad luck.
As a kid playing with action figures on the back patio, I heard my dad rant to “Henry” about his enemies while “Henry” quietly listened, and in the decades since, I’ve wondered what I should have done or whom I could have told. “Henry” was convicted and died in prison while my father went on to other crimes. He’s dead now, too.
The speculation in this story is the idea that a kid like me, weird and dreamy and superstitious, could find a way to use that to do good in the real world.
I wanted to talk about where magic came from with other readers like me who I know wonder that for themselves. I wanted to talk about how our books and comics and movies and action figures saved a lot of us from terrible things, and I wanted to talk about what we should do with that to pass it on, how we should add science fiction and fantasy to the world instead of just hiding there.
That’s what Scott does in the story, and it’s what I couldn’t quite manage when I was ten. I had to go back in time for another shot at putting my father on trial and convicting him with magic.
[If the enjoyment I get from it is anything to go by, I’d probably be a better speechwriter than the fiction kind. Sometimes I write things that other people could say to better make a point, but I don’t often share them. Here’s one for Hillary’s closing debate remarks.]
Like many of you, I’ve spent the last ninety minutes wondering why anybody would vote for this gibbering lunatic.
It can’t be because he’s got the best ideas for moving America forward; all he has are plans to come up with those ideas. It can’t be because of his great business acumen; he makes it a business practice to stiff countless vendors and employees. It can’t be because he’s a patriot; he’s proud of not paying his fair share of the taxes that keep our soldiers equipped and our kids educated. It certainly can’t be for his empathy or his eloquence.
The only reason I can imagine to vote for Donald Trump is because many of you just really, really hate me.
Of course, I wish you didn’t. Or if you have to, I wish you’d hate me for the right reasons.
For decades, some of you have seen me as a Machiavellian figure in some paneled room with her fingers tented, cackling as my plans come together. You see me as a puppet master, pulling the strings of some sinister agenda for power.
I’ve spent my adult life around power, and I can tell you it’s easy to come by and virtually useless by itself. If I really wanted power and only power, if I really wanted to be a demagogue and rule the country by my egotistical whim…well, I’d look a lot more like Donald Trump. And I’d have done it better, too.
Here’s the prosaic truth. I don’t want your guns, though I wish there were fewer of them. I don’t want a one-world government. I don’t want white people to disappear from the Earth. I don’t want to tax all your money to pay for forced abortions.
You know who I am? I’m the vaguely annoying student government geek from your high school who used to stay late in the gym painting the homecoming float by herself.
When I brush my teeth in the morning, I’m not thinking of ways to rule with an iron fist. I’m thinking of what I need to do, who I need to talk to, so we can fix something broken that day.
All I want is for the roads to be a little better and for college to be a little cheaper. I’d like to keep America secure not so much through force of arms but by diplomacy. I’m hoping we can be welcoming to more of our people, and it’d be great if we weren’t lighting the planet on fire.
Like my opponent, I’ve made mistakes, sometimes with dire consequences. But the ones I’ve made haven’t been about grabbing power or making me look better, that’s for sure. They’ve come from tunnel vision: I sometimes forget that even the greatest ends are made of up small actions, and I’m counting on all of you to remind me that good is done one small step at a time, not all at once whatever the cost.
Here’s what I’m asking. If you believe in Donald Trump’s character or policies — whatever they are — then vote for him. If you believe in Jill Stein’s or Gary Johnson’s policies, then vote for one of them.
But don’t vote for anyone simply because you hate me. That’s not the way to choose a president. At least, it shouldn’t be.
Vote because of what you believe, not because of what you hate.
Then work for it.
Why, yes, I’m once again a guest at my home convention, Necronomicon in Tampa. It’s been around for 35 years and I’ve been attending for 23 of them. This year’s event takes place on October 28th through the 30th at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay.
I’ll be on panels this year about:
Holy shit. That’s a lot of panels. I’m okay with you not coming to every single one of them; that’s probably the legal definition of a stalker. But for full credit, you should come to at least, I don’t know, let’s say six.
I’m told there are other things going on at the con this year like a masquerade and some gaming and panels about non-Will-related subjects, too.
I can think of at least five kinds of writing that I do better and more easily than fiction:
(I suspect I’d be pretty good at speechwriting, too, but I’ve never had the opportunity to find out. I used to be adept at love letters as well, but these days I’m like, “Hey, it’s awesome you’re alive. Let’s go eat pizza rolls and watch true crime.”)
In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that fiction (description, exposition, dialogue, plot, etc) is actually the kind of writing I’m WORST at. It’s certainly what I feel least comfortable doing, as though my mind doesn’t work that way naturally. I don’t even know how to practice at it, though I’ve written thousands of exercise paragraphs.
If there’s a story of mine you like, there’s a good chance that it isn’t structured like most stories. It’s a teenager’s science fair paper or a near-death experience or a series of letters or fragments of research books or a fake acknowledgements page from a book about ghosts.
Now that I think of it, I’m not sure I even believe in fiction, the arbitrariness of story-time, the contrived third-person stance outside of events. Most of what I write pretends to be non-fiction, as though I’ve chosen the wrong genre to tell it.
(I lie and exaggerate too much for ethical reporting, alas.)
As I struggle on this next novel, I’m wondering about my future as a writer of fiction. Between writing the only two chapters that exist, I wrote an entire 16,000-word novelette while cackling insanely with amusement. What was the difference? The novelette was stitched together from many forms and perspectives — fake books and newspaper articles and court transcripts.
A few things bother me about writing that way:
Even so, I’m still deeply uncomfortable writing stories that don’t somehow explain or hoax their existence in the real world. The forms that please me like newspaper articles and diaries and letters fit so much better with my aim of making stories part of our lives. Everything’s a story if you look at it close enough.
I guess this is just my fair warning that even if it shortens my career or loses me readers, I’m going to keep telling my stories as fake found objects.
If you’re looking for authorial-voiced guy with a pipe in his mouth (“In the hinterlands of Merlindor, the ancient cobbled roads wind unguarded through primeval forest…”), that isn’t me.