My publisher asked me what project I was working on. I replied I was working on two children’s books. After some discussion, he suggested I may want to publish the books under a pseudonym. A pseudonym is publisher code for “You’re a foul-mouthed, vulgar, smart-ass, and no parent will read a book to their children written by you”. If I wasn’t such a “foul-mouthed, vulgar, smart-ass”, I may have been insulted.
I started to write a children’s book because my two half-werewolf children asked me to write a book they could read. If you haven’t read my book, Donations to Clarity, it is a comedic fiction/satire which isn’t appropriate for children (It’s full of foul-mouthed, vulgar, smart-ass-ness!). Trying to write a children’s book taught me something: It’s really hard to write outside of your genre. Writers are told to write what we know. A key component of writing what you know is to read works of your genre. The main idea is, as a writer, you will begin to intuitively know what works for your chosen genre.
The problem is, I don’t want to just read humor and satire. I also like to read nonfiction and thrillers. We need to explore and to test the boundaries of our comfort zones. Think of what of what you watch on TV. You probably don’t just watch comedies or thrillers. You probably have a fairly wide range of interests from history, to sitcoms, to documentaries, to sci-fi. My reading also reflects my interests.
When I was trying to find a publisher, I submitted several articles of flash fiction to different literary magazines. If you aren’t familiar with flash fiction, it’s extremely short fiction. Typical word count can range from 55 to 500 words. What flash fiction teaches is to write concisely and with brevity. It can make your writing very muscular by forcing you to chop out the fluff. As part of my research into writing flash fiction, I turned to an unlikely source: songwriters. Makes sense, right? Songwriters paint stories and pictures in very few words that resonate with the audience. Think of Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle. The song is a cautionary tale which has left an indelible impression on millions, and it’s only 440 words long if you include all of the choruses. It’s 314 words long with only one chorus. This is a great example of making a powerful impression with relatively few words.
As I was writing flash fiction and sending out query letters for my manuscript, I read Cormic McCarthy’s The Road. The novel inspired me and influenced much of my writing at the time. I didn’t realize it then, but writing outside of my genre was challenging me. As writers, we develop plots, characters, and themes, but writing in another genre forced you to pay attention to the subtle tones and textures of your writing.
The next time you are at a crossroads in your manuscript, try writing some flash fiction in another genre. If you write science fiction; try to write a romantic scene. If you write romance, try writing a satire which doesn’t include a saucy sex-pot rolling in the hay with a dark rogue with a sculpted chest. For me, it was trying not to be a foul-mouthed, vulgar, smart-ass; which is harder than you might think.
Here’s an example of a short thriller I wrote:
I woke with a start; disoriented in the darkness. My hand tightened around the grip of the .45 pistol, and I thumbed the safety. I strained to hear beyond my tent. Tinnitus irritated me and I cursed myself for listening to my headphone volume too high when I was a teenager.
A twig snapped behind me; a bad position. I was on my back so an attack on that side would be hard to defend. I slid the pistol to rest on my chest; finger on the trigger guard.
Every movement caused a rustling sound against my canvas sleeping bag. The wind was blowing through the trees, masking sounds. If whoever was out there kept their noise below the ambient noise level, I wouldn’t hear the attack until it was too late.
I couldn’t tell if it was animal or human. I hadn’t made a fire or used a light after dusk. I was careful to make sure I wasn’t being followed; circling back off trail several times. I could’ve been seen by lookouts. Getting water was always dangerous. I could’ve been seen by the small stream filling my water jugs. Some tribes placed lookouts near water to catch the stragglers. Like me.
All my precautions wouldn’t add up to much with animals on the hunt. They could follow my scent long after I passed. I didn’t have any food so it wasn’t poor housekeeping. It was the smell of flesh. Me.
Something was moving through the brush to my right. I switched the pistol to my left hand; tracking the barrel along with the sound. A smooth brush of fur against leaves. No self-conscious pause. Animal.
Then came the sniffing at the tent flap. I was surprised at how quiet the animal was. Able to approach the tent without making a sound. The sniffing moved left to right. Not the same animal I heard to my right. A pack. Wolf? Coyote? Not stray dogs. Formerly domesticated dogs weren’t this quiet. They hadn’t been raised in the wild so their stalking lacked finesse.
I aimed at the sniffer while sitting up quickly. I pulled the KA-BAR from its sheath. The sniffer snorted at the sound, then a guttural growl. My left index finger moved to the trigger. I slowed my breathing and tried to hear where the rest of the pack was. I didn’t want to shoot. The sound would let others know I was here. A tribe might come looking for me. I hadn’t eaten in . . . how long had it been? I needed the protein. The sniffer would do. Not if I shot him. I would have to pack and run before someone came looking for me. Before the rest of the pack regained their nerve and came after me again. I wouldn’t eat it raw on the run. The blood scent was too attractive. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
The sniffing started again. The night was cloudy, moonless. No shadows to help my aim. A nose pressed up against the tent wall. Protruding inward in the shape of the snout. An obscene image. A phallus growing out of nylon.
I struck fast, sinking the blade directly into the snout. I dropped the pistol and grabbed the snout with my left hand; removing the blade from the struggling animal. I pulled the snout towards me and sank the blade into the base of its skull. It twitched momentarily and then all struggling stopped.
Picking the pistol back up, I went for the tent flap. I climbed out and circled the tent to defend my kill. I knew the rest of the pack was there but I couldn’t hear them. I pulled the rope from my pack and went back to the kill. Coyote. Big one. I tied the back feet together and pulled out the flashlight. Scanning for a suitable tree limb and eye shine of the pack. I found them. They’d moved back from the tent; cautiously observing. I found a suitable tree limb and returned to my pack. I pulled out the baseball. The one I had drilled a hole into. I fed the end of the rope through the hole and tied a knot in the end. I tossed the baseball over a branch and hoisted the kill out of reach of the pack.
I used to say I preferred animals to people. Animals were more trustworthy than people. People were unpredictable. Animals were unpredictable in a predictable sort of way. Animals attacked and we were always surprised, but it happened predictably enough for multiple television shows to be made which captured this unpredictable nature every week. Mother Nature is a stern teacher. You could bet on it. You just couldn’t bet on when.
That was naive of me. The noble predator. The majestic prey. The fierce beauty of the kill. The idea that somehow those animals were somehow better than us. Living wild and free. Eating where the food was and mating where the mate was. More in tune with the earth. Moved by primordial urges. Guided by diurnal variations and seasonal migrations.
What I preferred were animals that were controlled by people. I was fully comfortable with our position of dominance over the animals. The earth was ours to do with as we pleased. Oh yes, we would look out for the dumb animals. Fight for tracks of habitat for them to play in. Even better if we could do it and make a profit at it. Do the evolution, baby.
That was until they rose up against us. Not in the Orwellian sense. When we lost the technology, we were faced with the harsh reality of our own weakness. We buffered ourselves with our own consumption and the latest celebrity gossip. Technology became a moat separating us from them.
When we lost the energy crisis. We lost the technology. We lost the moat. Finally we lost our humanity.
The animals we were shepherds over had waited for centuries. Their wait was over.
Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity.