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Won’t Someone Think of the Children-Eaters?

We all know that children are annoying. Countless scientific studies have proven they don’t even have souls until they’re about fourteen or fifteen, and maybe not even then. They’re loud, they’re unpredictable, they’re narcissistic – they’re basically tiny drunks we can’t send to detox.

So when a heroic adult breaks free of our deliberate societal delusion about the saintliness of children, there’s cause to stand up and cheer.

This Minnesota woman – I hesitate to use her name because her next job search is going to be complicated enough without Google dragging her down – responded to months of systematic terrorism from her shrieking child neighbors just as you or I would.

This is the look of a woman thinking, "Screaming children left toys on my porch and I'M the one in a jail jumpsuit?"

This is the look of a woman thinking, “Screaming children left toys on my porch and I’M the one in a jail jumpsuit?”

By sending little anonymous notes about how she wanted to eat the children. Because you might as well put that degree in Psychology to use.

Threats to eat children have a long and noble tradition all the way from folk and fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel up to noted serial killer Albert Fish. They’re how we keep kids in line. I’m the man I am today because my father wasn’t above shaking a bottle of barbecue sauce in my direction when I got unruly.

Here, a brave witch faces down terrorists the only way she can: with a wicked recipe for shepherd's pie.

Here, a brave witch faces down terrorists the only way she can: with a wicked recipe for shepherd’s pie.

Not long ago, we used to believe it took a village to raise a child. And sometimes, when those children are yelling and running around and leaving toys in your yard, you need a village witch to step in with a few minor cackling threats and some subscriptions to magazines under the name “Your Tasty Children.”

What we don’t need is to put honest witches in jail under charges of misdemeanor terroristic threats.

The simplest way to avoid this would have been for those children to have been raised in a far-off Dickensian boarding school. The second simplest way would have been for this woman to have had a better plan than “1. Send threats. 2. Scare family. 3. Family finds it safer to abandon a house with twenty years left on the mortgage than to let children get eaten.”

Rest assured, this will have a chilling effect. Gone are the days when we could dig traps in the park or hose down trick-or-treaters with impunity.

And when the chaos ensues, when a generation grows up without fear of being eaten, we will reap what we have sown.

Appearance: Necronomicon 2015, Grand Hyatt Tampa, October 9 – 11

I consider Necronomicon to be my home convention, one I’ve been attending since I was thirteen years old, and I’m always nostalgically pleased to be a guest!

This year’s event is once again at the Grand Hyatt Tampa from October 9th to the 11th.

I’m serving on these panels:

  • Friday, 4pm: How can SF Writers Keep Ahead of the Future?
  • Friday, 6pm: The Perils of Premature Publishing
  • Friday, 9pm: Making It Scary
  • Saturday, 11am: Crossing Genres
  • Saturday, 12pm: How RPG-ers Morphed Into Writers

I hope I’ll see you there!

A Pitch Session!

Some exciting things have been happening with my writing.

My collection of weird stories In Search Of and Others and my impeccable track record of selling only barely speculative stories to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine caught the attention of some pretty heavy hitters in Hollywood, and long story short, I had a pitch meeting.

At Marvel Studios.

Here’s what I gave them, more or less verbatim.

The film opens with the camera focused at ground level on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, and a vintage convertible sports car zooms over our heads. The license plate says STARK, and now we’re following Tony Stark and Bruce Banner on their way…somewhere. We don’t know where yet because all we see is two guys in civilian clothes eating Funyons and drinking soda on a road trip.

Yeah, they have adventures: they stop at the Longaberger factory and the world’s biggest ball of twine, they help a battered wife escape from her husband at a truck stop, they get a flat tire, they accidentally ingest mescaline, they get into a fist fight at a biker bar somewhere in Texas. And between it all they talk, and we find out slowly that Nick Fury has died poignantly of cancer or something, and they both feel guilty for not being there when he died.

Hey, you’re the continuity guys. If Nick Fury isn’t really dead, that’s your thing. He’s dead for this movie, that’s the point.

As the trials and annoyances of the road press upon them, they argue more and more until Magneto destroys their car and strands them in the desert, unlikely to make it on time. They argue, they weep, they hug, and working together with a new emotional understanding, they do get to the funeral with, I don’t know, Black Widow’s help or something.

It was hard to gauge their response, but they gave me a great goody bag and some old fart greeted me with “Excelsior!”, so maybe those are good signs.

I’ll keep you posted!

A September Stroll

On September 11, 2001, I worked as a technical writer at the U.S. Mint building on Massachusetts Avenue, and our building wasn’t far from the Capitol.

I’d taken the Metro to Union Station that morning, bought a bagel, and walked the few blocks to work under a very blue sky. I was about halfway through the bagel when there was a sudden slowdown of our network. Being me, I went to a reliable news source to see what was going on and this is what I saw:

Bad news, folks! Servers are down! In other news, there may be some injuries at the WTC.

Bad news, folks! Servers are down! In other news, there may be some injuries at the WTC.

It took a few tries to call my (now ex-) wife, and when I said, “I think the United States is under some kind of coordinated attack,” she snapped in a terse and half-awake daze, “What are you talking about?” I got calls from friends (William and Tom, shout out!) and also my brother-in-law Marty, who raised the possibility that I should, perhaps, see about going home instead of hanging out near the Capitol building during what might be an ongoing…thing.

Huh, I thought. I’ll go ask my bosses.

When I went to my boss’s office, though, he was already gone. So, too, were the rest of the staff; they’d forgotten me. I was a contractor in my first month of employment there.

So I got my things together, stuffed them into a backpack, and started for home. I knew the Metro would either be crowded or shut down, so I simply walked. And because I’m terrible with directions, I headed for the only place I knew how to get home FROM: the Lincoln Memorial.

It was probably the safest eight-mile walk of my life. There were almost no other pedestrians, only men in suits on street corners holding M-16s and peering at me with my giant sapper’s backpack full of books. None of them stopped me because, hey, white guy!

I followed the Mall, passed the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and then crossed Memorial Bridge. That’s when the smell of burning plastic hit me from the smoldering Pentagon, and I continued down the center of the surreal deserted GW Parkway with its plume of smoke to my right. Marine helicopters passed overhead, circled the Pentagon, and then continued westward, and my only guess was that they were taking congressmen to look at the damage.

I made it as far as the marina on the other side of the airport before I reached a point where the parkway was no longer blocked off. By then I was exhausted and dehydrated, and my wife came to the barricades to pick me up.

I guess it’s somewhat telling that my 9/11 experience was mostly alone. I spoke to my mother and my friends on the phone briefly when I could get through, but for most of that walk, it was just me quietly wondering how the world would be different now, hoping that terrorists wouldn’t think to attack the Smithsonian, wondering if there was an accessible hose or water fountain at the marina. That’s what I do in a disaster, shove everyone away from me. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it isn’t.

I didn’t see any of the images until later, which might be why I’m still a little obsessively compelled by them today: I’m still catching up.

Or maybe I’m just still a little guilty that my 9/11 was a literal walk in the park compared to so many others’.

I Was a Teenage Republican

Twenty one years ago while a senior at the University of Florida, I wore a Jeb(!) Bush for Governor t-shirt to my Psychological Approaches to Literature class. The friend who sat in front of me clasped her hands over her mouth and shrieked into her fingers, never to speak to me again.

grad94

She was right to do so. I was a monster, no better than anything staggering from the swamps or across the moors with its arms clawing in the air for prey.

I’d applied for an internship at The American Spectator. I’d visited the Alacuha County Republican Headquarters with my girlfriend to pick up lawn signs and watch The Clinton Chronicles, an awesome low-budget film about how Bill Clinton had probably killed a dozen people and would likely kill again. I’d underlined about half of Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I’d called into Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

If you asked me then why I was a Republican, I would have hopped atop a nearby desk and declared that it was the party of freedom where men of passion and creativity could achieve the fruits of their work without losing them to the leeching government.

The real reasons I was a Republican (which I couldn’t articulate then) were:

  • My girlfriend and her family were fervently conservative, and I loved them all. They seemed to live in their own warm bubble of existence and I wanted to live there, too.
  • My own family had deep Republican roots. My grandfather had tangentially known Nixon and presided as the chaplain at Tricia Nixon’s debutante ball or something. My father had campaigned for Republicans, just like Ted Bundy and for probably the same reasons.
  • I loved the writer P.J. O’Rourke and wanted to be that kind of humorist: applying what I thought was reason to the folly of government.
  • I was surrounded at college by annoying liberals who agreed so easily with each other that it struck me as scary. I definitely believe that whenever one ends up thinking like the majority, it’s time to change one’s mind.

Plus, most of all, I wanted a consistent system of thought that could hold the chaos of my anxiety disorder at bay.

I was a Republican all the way until the 2000 election, when George W. Bush’s staggering yahoo-ism made me realize that all of the things I thought were bugs in the Republican software (anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, evolution denialism, global warming denialism) were what they considered features.

What really happened was that I grew up and looked around.

When I was in college, I had a skewed idea of what led to success in the world: I figured the proportion was 99% hard work and 1% circumstance. Then I met some of the kids in school who’d gotten there through inherited wealth, and that dropped to 90/10. Then I got out of school with no idea what to do with my English degree, and it dropped to 85/15. Then I entered the workforce and saw who became managers and who didn’t, and it dropped to 70/30. Then I started voting and saw who ended up in positions of power, and it dropped to 60/40.

Now, after forty two years of observing the world, I’m pretty sure that proportion of hard work to circumstance is maybe 45% to 55%, which is why the hard work is that much more important: like advertising, you don’t know which part of the 45% is going to help so you have to do it all.

In other words, I’ve seen people work their asses off and still not transcend circumstance in the way the Republicans say they can.

I’m not quite sure what the government should do about it, though I think one of the better reasons to have governments is for a community to hedge against the vicissitudes of fate. Sometimes you’re on top to help other people, and sometimes you’re on the bottom and need the help.

I guess as time has gone on, my ideas of what people do and don’t deserve have changed, and it’s less about working longer hours and more about working at something that matters.

You know, growing up.

Appearing at Oasis 27

You COULD spend this weekend in Orlando shouldering your way through crowds of reeking tourists and their spoiled children, or you could spend it coming to see me speak on these panels at Oasis 27 at the International Palms Resort on International Drive:

Saturday, May 2nd

  • 5pm: The State of Horror
  • 9pm: Tales of the Supernatural

There are, apparently, other things going on like readings, signings, and other non-Will-related discussions, but if you want to avoid the crowds, come see anything involving me!

 

Now Let’s Blow This Class and Go Home!

The last class session of every semester I teach is dedicated to the “business” of writing: how one finds places to send short stories and novels, how one sends them, how one does or does not get paid for them.

It’s usually a grim and depressing class, and the students are all comically amazed at how little writers make or how bookstores can just send back books they’ve already bought. They look pretty gloomy at the end and I usually just say, “Well, thanks for coming. Have a good life!”

This semester, I thought I’d try to be a little…you know…encouraging.

What I tried to say was this:

I became a writer as a kid because of a movie called Star Wars (1977). Twenty years before you were born, I was running around in the yard with spaceships yelling “pew pew pew!” and whispering vast conspiracies between my action figures. What I know about morality and the nobility of friends working together, I learned there. What I know about dialogue and plot, I learned from performing my own stories with little plastic people.

hoth

A few days ago, the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, and I watched it with all the glee and excitement of my childhood.

Here it is, so you can see it, too.

After the glee and excitement abated slightly, though, something awful occurred to me:

J.J. Abrams is making my fucking movie.

There are any number of reasons he’s getting to make my movie while I’m not. I’m guessing he might have had a more pleasant childhood, for one. He probably conducted himself better with other people, too. He also learned to work in longer concentrated bursts than thirty minutes somewhat sooner than I did. He had a clearer sense of what steps to take.

The real difference, though, is that he didn’t waste as much time wondering if he was “meant” to do it or if it was worth it or what he’d do as a back-up plan if he couldn’t like I did.

I’ve written some little stories that I’m proud of. I’ve gotten starred reviews and award nominations. I’ve entertained a few people, and I’m glad of it. But I wrote a lot of those stories because they were safe, because I could control them, because if I blew it, the consequences would be minor.

We live in a terrifying world at the mercy of oblivious or malevolent jackasses, many of them in publishing (though not as many per capita as in, say, Boko Haram). They want us to live small and be scared and buy things instead of making them.

You can work with them or against them. Maybe you’ll do that by writing, and maybe you’ll do that by doing something else. But what I hope for all of us is that we go down fighting big instead of fighting small.

Gah! Bees!

Though I understand that bees, like Republicans, have some arcane utility in our ecosystem, that doesn’t mean I’m above spraying them mercilessly with poison when they’re pouring out of my chimney.

(Bees, not Republicans.)

As with Republicans, our own bee attack started small: first one bee came in and then another. The cats leaped after them and Edgar got stung on the nose by a third. Aimee tried to humanely capture and release them outside, but then there were a lot more skittering across the bricks and my manly responsibility to KILL ALL THREATS kicked in.

So of course I hurried to Publix to buy bee spray, something that I hoped actually existed, and while I was there, a woman ran up to the same section and said, “There are a bunch of bees or wasps or something pouring out of my chimney!”

“Funny you should say that,” I said. “Mine, too.”

We wished each other luck and I returned home with two cans of what turned out to be outdoor wasp and hornet spray. At that point, though, the bees had more or less declared my house outdoors anyway.

When I got back inside, there were bees rattling against the windows and light fixtures, not to mention circling the living room. So I did the American thing: I took decisive action.

Hey, Norwegians were immigrants, too.

Hey, Norwegians were immigrants, too.

I swept the air with arcs of foaming poison, splattering the windows and the ceiling and oh, soaking the fireplace. Aimee had thoughtfully corralled all of the animals into the bedroom so I was free to essentially destroy all of our furniture.

And they. Just. Kept. Coming.

Yep. Exactly like that.

Yep. Exactly like that.

Now, I’ll admit I do have a deeply neurotic and intense fear of bees, maybe like you do for spiders or gay people. But what I fear almost as much are heights, and it was obvious that I’d have to climb onto our steep roof and attack the swarm from the top of our crumbling chimney.

So up I climbed, lodging my shoes against the corrugated ridges of our metal roof, and I took up a crouching position as close as I could get to the chimney.

(Which, by the way, was sealed long ago. The bees had found a crack.)

So I sprayed the bees zinging around the chimney too, grateful for all of the target practice from games like Call of Duty and Borderlands. A couple of dozen fell and then all was quiet.

When I climbed back down, there were no more in the house, either. They were gone. They’d given up. I’d proven once again that overwhelming irrational force can truly work.

Among our casualties on the field of battle were several pillows and cushions, a dog bed, the clothes we were wearing, and several towels and washcloths. Aimee and I had to scrub down the windows and floors and bricks around the fireplace because man, that poison is some serious shit.

Aimee discovered with some Internet research that apparently bees will send out scouting swarms in search of new places for hives, and apparently they came to our house (not to mention the other lady’s at Publix) looking for succor. They found none. We drew a wet oily poisonous line in the sand.

Do I wish there was a diplomatic solution? Of course. But with so much at stake, we couldn’t risk failure. We had to destroy the living room to save it.

I Could Not Stop for Academia, But It Kindly Stopped For Me

Twenty years ago today, I received my first humiliating sign that I really didn’t belong in academia. Given that I now have two graduate degrees and an adjunct teaching position, I clearly have yet to follow that sign, alas.

Definitely not me.

Definitely not me.

I’d scampered quickly through my undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, attending over the summers to minimize how much I’d have to pay in room and board. So when I started graduate school (also at UF), I was the youngest person in my first class, an Emily Dickinson seminar: twenty-one.

(Nowadays, it is far more common for there to be people that young in grad school, hiding from life. I like to think I helped started that trend back in 1995.)

I felt that youth acutely because during our class introductions, the other students had been teaching abroad or publishing poetry or otherwise doing cool things, and I was a terrified introvert who’d spent his entire academic career avoiding other human beings in the library like a Lovecraft protagonist.

The class went well, though; I loved Emily Dickinson and I loved the old-school literary scholarship my professor encouraged, actually reading letters and researching biography and understanding origins and context. At the end of class, we had a presentation for our research, and I was terrified.

For good reason, it turned out. On April 21, 1995, I walked to the front of the classroom with a little packet of index cards, ready to discuss what I’d discovered. I was literally sick in the bathroom all that morning, and I’m pretty sure my hands were shaking.

A key to my discussion was the theory of Friedrich von Schiller that great art is an interplay between two drives, stofftrieb (the intuitive and emotional) and formtrieb (the structural and logical) resulting in spieltrieb, a kind of artistic play. So I walked up to the board and wrote:

STOFFTREIB  FORMTREIB

There were a few chuckles from the class and my professor raised his hand. He pointed out that I’d transposed the E and the I in both words.

(In my defense, those are both words in the horrible language of German. Or as I like to call it, Klingon.)

Now, any normal person with social ability would have laughed and made a joke about being nervous while correcting the spelling. Not me. I doubled down, insisting that my sources spelled them that way. I know, I know.

I was flustered then, and the index cards got scrambled in my hands. I forgot the cogent argument I’d structured and was left to stammer and glance around the room like a cornered raccoon.

According to later reports, what happened next was that I set down the index cards and lurched out from behind the podium among the desks to pace around the room and deliver a comedy routine about Emily Dickinson scholarship. I don’t remember it at all, which is probably good. I drove home that afternoon thinking that my academic career was over.

The next day, I visited my professor in his office and asked if there was any way I could make up for the disaster.

“Disaster?” he said. “That was the best presentation I’ve ever seen! You shouldn’t be in academics. You should entertain people for a living.”

And I sort of followed his advice: that was my last semester at UF while I meandered through a teaching certification, followed by a whole host of other egregious errors in judgment both personal and professional. Plus I started writing stories more seriously.

I later went back (though to UNF) for my Master of Arts, and then I earned an MFA from Stonecoast. What can I say? I like taking classes.

Now I teach creative writing to undergraduates in a manner not much unlike that botched lecture long ago: I ramble a deranged comedy routine about some writing concept and then skulk away at the end.

I guess I still haven’t taken the signs.

Finally! Will Has Spoken!

Gee, Will, why don’t you take a principled stand in any of the burning questions of the day?

Due to a quirk (one of several, actually) in the way I grew up, I have absolutely no expectation that rational argument will change anyone’s mind. When I was a kid, all the yelling and sturm and drang tended to result in the same thing: me sneaking off to do what I wanted anyway. These days aren’t much different; I say my thing, someone disagrees, and then I quietly sidestep that person like any other inanimate obstacle to move on.

That’s not to say that I’m impervious to changing my mind. I’m often swayed by argument. I just don’t think that my arguing is particularly effective, and certainly not as effective as experience. When you walk in someone else’s skin, that’s when things change, and that’s why I think fiction can often be more useful than simple rhetoric.

So my reaction to recent events like the cadre of frustrated fedora-wearers who have stacked the Hugo awards nominations with authors and works of their choosing is to think, “Huh. That’s a flamboyant scream into the abyss of irrelevance for them, isn’t it?”

Are there things worth fighting for? Of course. But there are definitely people who aren’t worth fighting because they’ve already lost.

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