Saturday, December 9, 2017

First Chapters

First chapters are my favorite things to write. They burst out of you, helped by that initial surge of excited adrenaline that comes with every new story idea that has enough substance to stick around in the old noggin and not be forgotten with the shopping list. First chapters are where decisions are made: Is there a book here? Can I let this thing run itself out for four or five hundred pages? Does it have a heart beating in its chest? Those answers are never really clear, to be honest. You can only get a better sense of what's going on by writing a first chapter, meeting some characters, and deciding whether or not their lives are interesting enough to follow for upwards of a year. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: the best stories are not created; they are discovered. My job is not to make these people do things, but rather to hang out with them and be there when the shit goes down. And the shit almost ALWAYS goes down. If it doesn't--or if it doesn't seem like it's going to--then I bail after the first chapter. Because if I don't, when that initial excitement fades (and it always does), then I won't be able to care enough to write down what happens... or, if I do, I won't write it down the way it deserves and the story will be flat.

So... Here is a first chapter from my latest book. I like this one. I think it'll be great. I also think it's a rough draft and probably full of typos and all that other shit that I spend months fixing. What I mean to say is this: don't read it and then message me to say I forgot a period or misspelled something. That will just make me want to fart in your salad.


The Unnamed 


PART ONE
A Death

#

CHAPTER ONE
Nor’easter

1

On January 24th, 2016, Molly Sanderson and her son, Ben, crossed the Grocer Go parking lot, beneath a low January sky as snow began to fall. Ben, nine years old, had his face angled up to the sky, tongue pushed out of a gaped mouth, trying to catch the small flakes as his mother dragged him along by the hand, in fits and starts.
“I got one, Mom!” he yelled, stopping again. He tried to wander away, tongue outstretched, chasing another.
“Knock it off.” Molly tugged him back toward her.
His arm yanked in its socket, stopping him short, like a dog finding the end of its leash. He reeled in his tongue, his face threatening to pout. “Hey, you made me miss that one.”
Molly gave another light tug. “Benji, come on. Let’s go. You can play when we get home.”
“But—”
“But nothing. Now’s not the time. There won’t being anything left on the shelves but black olives and Velveeta cheese if we keep dilly-dallying.”
“I hate olives.”
“I know you do.”
He fell in step with her, slouching as the excitement went out of him. “But I want to catch snowflakes, I’m thirsty.”
“We’ll get you a drink inside. If they have Yoo-hoo, I’ll buy you a Yoo-hoo.” White panic burst in her mind, trickling down into her chest. Her talk of buying something had summoned it. She slowed, looking down into her purse to make sure she had her wallet; a quick scan of this morning’s memories did not return any recollections of seeing it, of placing it for sure in her possession. God, if she’d forgotten that at the house she would have to drive all the way back to the other side of the island to get it. She came to a full stop and started to dig through the mix of receipts, lipsticks, tissues, packs of gum, and other junk that she didn’t need, making a mental note to clean out her purse when she got home. The storm would be a good opportunity to get a few chores like that done. The sort of chores she always told herself she would do later. Well, Molly, she thought, today might just be a perfect later.
“Mom?” Ben started swinging her arm back and forth impatiently, twisting from side to side at the waist like a whirling dervish.
“Hold on a sec,” she said, distracted, and continued to search for her wallet.
“I’m thirsty,” he repeated.
Too deep into her self-loathing, she didn’t answer. Why am I such a scatterbrain? Why, why, why? How hard is it to remember where you put your damn wallet?
Ben swung his mother’s arm harder. “Mom. Listen to me-eeeee.” He paused, but continued swinging and twisting. “Mooooooom!” A long, stretched-out whine.
At last Molly found her wallet at the bottom of her purse. It always amazed her how long it could keep itself hidden in such a small space, how certain she could be that it wasn’t there when deep down she knew it had to be. What amazed her even more was the frequency with which she lost things. Dr. Alder, her therapist, had taught her to stop telling herself by default that she’d “lost” something when she couldn’t find it. Instead, she should tell herself it was simply “temporarily misplaced,” and it would turn up if she just took a breath and counted to ten. It usually did. No, actually, it always did.
“All right, we’re good,” she said.
Ben huffed and then began to lodge another complaint with his mother: “Mo—” But he was cut off.
“What, what, what? I heard you, Benji. We need money, don’t we?” Molly said, readjusting the purse on her shoulder. “They’re not going to give us anything for free.”
A car horn blasted behind them—three short honks—turning both their heads.
A smiling, bearded face leaned out the driver-side window of the plow-strapped pickup truck and yelled, “Move it or lose it, you two! I got places to be!” The man laughed, showing a mouth of bright white teeth.
Molly smiled back, shaking her head. She and Ben reversed direction toward the truck. “Hi, Mike.”
“Hey, Mol,” Mike said, his eyes drifting down to Ben. “Hey, Benji boy.”
“Hi,” Ben said shyly, pressing himself against his mother’s side and hiding half his face in her thick coat.
“Benji, you remember Mr. Harrow, don’t you?” Molly put her hand on her son’s back.
Ben nodded. “The firewood man?”
Mike laughed, adjusting the old, grease-spotted John Deere hat that sat atop his tangle of brown hair. He was in his early forties, with leather-tough skin that seemed to stay tan no matter the season. “That’s right, the firewood man.” He glanced around the parking lot and pointed to the sky. “Looks like I’m gonna be the plow man soon, too. News is saying it’ll be one heck of a storm.” With his Yankee accent, the last word came out stawm.
“Last I heard, we’re due at least ten inches by tomorrow morning,” Molly said. “I’d say bad but not terrible. Just a clipper. Nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before.”
Mike curled his hand into a lose fist and made the universal sign for “more” by cocking his thumb upward a few times. “The radio just pushed it to a foot and a half.” Half was pronounced hawf. “Now they think the storm’s gonna stall off the coast and really wallop us good. Boston and Cape Ann are expecting at least two feet… maybe more. This’ll be a good one, that’s for sure.”
“You’re kidding,” Molly said.
“Wish I was. Whatever supplies you were thinking about getting, I’d double it.” Mike glanced at Ben. “You know what I’m gonna be when this is all over, Benji?”
Ben shook his head.
“The tired man,” Mike said, and laughed.
Ben smiled, peeling himself away from his mother’s side.
“They cancel school yet?” Mike asked.
“No,” Ben said, looking at the ground. But a surge of hope lifted his gaze. “Mom thinks they will soon, though. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
“They will. I’d bet my truck on it.” Mike dropped his arm outside the window and patted the door panel twice with an open hand. “Anyway, I’ll let you get to it, Mol. Won’t be nothing left inside if I keep the two of you much longer. Half of Rockcliffe’s already in there buying up everything but the flooring. It may be a small island, but folks got themselves big ideas about this one. You’d think they never seen snow before.”
Molly laughed. “I know it. Same thing happens every year. First big one always gets people excited.”
“Uh-huh. That’s the truth. Take care, now.”
“Bye, Mike,” she said, offering a smile.
“Bye, Mike,” Ben repeated.
“Stay warm. You don’t want your ears to fall off. I seen it happen, yes sir.” Mike winked at Ben, laughing as he rolled up the window, and drove away from them. He paused at the intersection, then went right and headed out of the shopping plaza, the bed of his truck piled high with sand that was starting to turn pale from a light dusting of snow.
“Come on, critter. Let’s get a move on,” Molly said. “Heavy stuff’s going to start coming down soon.”
That wasn’t entirely true; they still had time. According to Channel 7’s lead weatherman, Pete Ambrose, the main body of the nor’easter wouldn’t arrive until late afternoon—around five or six o’clock—which still put it a few hours out. This was an old routine for Molly, for anyone who lived in New England, really. When a winter storm rolled on through, folks did the same old song and dance of preparation they always did. They gassed up their snow blowers, brought in firewood to stack beside the woodstove, set the television to their preferred news station to stay abreast of storm coverage, and they headed to the store to stock up on rock salt, shovels, essential groceries—bread, milk, eggs, bottled water—and, of course, plenty of booze.
The shovels always confused Molly, but only when she thought about them in that obsessive way she sometimes thought about things. It wasn’t why a person would need a shovel—duh, she thought, that was pretty obvious—but rather how every year the Grocer Go and True Value Hardware sold so many of the damn things without the demand ever seeming to slip. It happened the same way every season: come early November, both stores lined their front sidewalks with dozens, if not hundreds, of shovels—a wide variety of plastic shafts, wooden shafts, and aluminum ergonomic designs meant to spare aching backs—and every year they sold out by mid-January. Molly never understood how. Where the hell were they all going? She and Jack had purchased two cheap ones from True Value when they bought their house ten years ago, and they still had both. There were only eighteen hundred people on Rockcliffe Island, but she supposed being five miles out in the middle of the Atlantic did make them a little more susceptible to that wet brand of snow that was notorious for breaking backs, giving out-of-shape men heart attacks, and snapping shovels if you weren’t careful.
“Mom?” Ben said. The unease in his voice snatched Molly’s mind back from that yellow place in mind where she sometimes found herself. The warm place that smelled like dry chemicals and tasted like bitter chalk on the back of her tongue.
She shook her head, eyes blinking as her mind returned to her. “Sorry. I forgot what I was saying.” She looked around, dazed. They were still in the middle of the parking lot, but she didn’t know how long they had been standing there without moving. The snow fell a little harder now. Probably they had been standing there for no more than a few seconds. But couldn’t it have been much longer?
Yes, it could have.
Ben tugged her arm apprehensively. “Are you okay? I don’t like it when you do that?”
Molly smiled and dropped to one knee. She could feel the cold asphalt through the knee of her corduroys. “Do what?”
His eyes flicked sideways, avoiding hers. “I don’t know… act funny.”
“What’s the matter, critter?”
“Mom! Don’t call me that.” Ben sighed and then threw his head back dramatically, the red pompom of his winter hat whipping through the air.
Molly stood, dropped her hand on her son’s shoulder, then reached farther down and tickled his side as they began to walk again. “What? You’re my little crispy critter.”
The look on his face—the one that had shown equal parts fear and sadness—broke apart, and Ben picked up laughing as his mother’s fingers dug into his ribs and played them with the expert skill of a concert pianist.
They continued across the parking lot to the automatic double doors of the Grocer Go.   

2

Snowstorms in New England are funny things. It’s not so much that people hate them—although most wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to tell you they do, and how much they do—but rather that locals love to hate them. Nothing pleases them more than to gather at the backs of pickup trucks, in parking lots, or out front of the pharmacy or the grocery store or on sidewalks, a cup of coffee in hand, gossiping about how bad the latest inbound snowstorm was sure to be; talking about how many inches were headed for them, how they couldn’t wait for the summer hurry up and get there, already, because they were sick of all the snow and the cold; and every year it’s more of the rotten same, wouldn’t you know, and they just couldn’t take it anymore, and this was their last winter in this godforsaken frozen hellscape. And just what in the hell was a polar vortex, anyway?
But underneath this ingrained narrative of weatherly woe resides the true heart of a New Englander—a big nostalgic soft spot for the white stuff, endeared from youth with memories of snow days, sled rides, and hot cocoa. New Englanders hate the snow in the same way everyone hates that one annoying childhood friend who, no matter how many times he or she has pushed your buttons, you’re still a little excited to see them when they show up at your doorstep, ready to shake up the stale routine for a little while and turn things interesting.
Yes, snowstorms in New England are funny things. They certainly are.

3

Chaos greeted them inside the store. Only two shopping carts remained in the caddy near the entrance. His mother grabbed the one without the crooked wheel.
“Mike wasn’t kidding,” she said, taking a straight path toward the crowd gathered at the meat counter. “Come on. Don’t wander off.”
Ben trailed closely behind her, his head on a swivel, eyes wide. He had never seen the place picked so clean. It didn’t look real. A silver flash of undefinable fright needled his gut. He didn’t know why the scene made him uncomfortable, but something about it did. The produce shelves were empty down to the green matting, a stray scarred eggplant or dented squash here and there, scraps of withered lettuce leaf. The little island by the seafood counter on which onions and potatoes were usually piled high was now nothing but an empty bin of dried husks. People were grabbing whatever they could and dropping it into overflowing carts. If he had known the word, Ben might have thought the crowd looked desperate. And if he had been a little older, he might have understood that this desperation he sensed was the source of his unnamed disquiet. Because desperate people were dangerous people. He didn’t know this as knowledge, but he felt it as truth.
“Mom, there’s nothing left,” he said, worry bleeding into his tone.
“Keep up, critter.” His mother continued across the crowded store without looking back at him, skillfully maneuvering the cart through the hordes of panicked shoppers like a racecar driver working toward the head of the pack.
A moment later they reached the butchery line and came to a halt.
“Wait here a sec. Don’t let anyone steal our cart.” Molly shouldered her way to the counter and pulled a number from the little spool. Overhead, the “Now Serving” sign read: 30
“What number did you get?” Ben asked, when his mother returned.
She flicked the ticket against her palm twice, then folded it in half. “Forty-three. But it’ll go fast. They’ve got a few guys back there today.”
Ben, waist-high in a world full of adults, could see through the forest of legs and heavy winter coats in front of him to the foggy display case. It wasn’t completely empty, but it sure seemed to be getting close. A stack of roasts lined the far right side. He didn’t know what type they were, but people were buying them up quickly. He recognized it as something his mother had cooked before, and he knew that it smelled good and tasted even better.
Rind rib, he thought. It’s something like that. Maybe Pine rib? He couldn’t remember.
Ben glanced up at his mother. A preoccupied look had possessed her face as she slowly pinched and rolled her bottom lip, staring vacantly across the store. He could tell something was the matter. He poked her leg with his finger, calling her eyes to him. “Mom, there’s not going to be anything left.”
She let go of her lip and smiled at him. The warmth of it loosened the anxious rope lassoed around his stomach. “It’s going to be fine, critter. We’ll get something tasty for dinner, don’t worry your handsome little face. It’s just a snowstorm, it’s not the end of the world.”
“But what if they run out. Forty-three is soooo far away.” He threw his head back, dropped his shoulders, and huffed.
Molly rubbed the top of his head, then slapped the pom-pom on his hat to the side. “You’re too young to worry so much. Everything will be fine. We have stuff in the freezer at home, too, if it comes to that. It’s not like anyone is going to starve.”
A moment of silence settled between them, and her concentration drifted away again. She looked over her shoulder and began to stare at something—maybe someone—but Ben couldn’t see what or whom. Her hand went back to her bottom lip and began to pinch and roll it.
“Mom, is everything okay?”
She didn’t hear him. Or if she did, she didn’t acknowledge him.
“Mom?”
This time she looked back to him and unfolded her arms. “What? Huh?”
“Nothing,” Ben said, and started swinging his arms slowly from side to side, dropping his gaze to the floor.
“Why don’t you do us a favor, critter? A big boy favor.” She tickled his shoulder.
“What is it?” he said, disinterested.
“Why don’t you go get the bread and the milk before those are gone too. Okay? That way we can have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Yoo-hoos for lunch when we get home. Sound good?”
“But there’s probably nothing left.”
“You won’t know if you don’t go check,” his mother said. “Go on, now, I’ll be here. Do you know where everything is?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve seen you buy it before.”
“That’s my smart little crispy critter.” She smiled at him.
He didn’t want to go. It felt like a chore. Or maybe not a chore. It felt like something other than what it was, and he didn’t like it. It felt, like Gollum might say, tricksy. His father had read him all three Lord of the Rings books last year, a few pages every night before bed over the course of six months, and Ben had fallen in love with the story. Everything about it had been magic, and he hadn’t wanted it to end.
“Hurry up, be quick about it,” his mother said. “We need to get home to check the news and see if school’s canceled tomorrow. If it is, I’ll take you sledding in the morning. Go, go, go.” She patted him gently on the back.
His face brightened a little, and that silvery disquiet burning in his gut eased back some. “Promise?”
“Of course. Pinky swear.” She stuck out her pinky, so did he. They hooked them and gave a little shake. A promise.
“Okay,” Ben said, and headed toward the other end of the store.
When he reached the bread aisle, he glanced over his shoulder before heading down it. His mother, watching him, nodded and waved encouragingly. That’s it, she mouthed, and pointed to the left with one finger.
He went down the aisle, and the tether to his mother severed.

4

Ben found the bread no problem. He didn’t think it was what they normally kept in the house—something called Seven Grain—but it looked similar. The bag he’d found on the lowest shelf said it was High Fiber Flax and Honey Oat. He didn’t know if that was good or not, but it seemed fine to him. Mainly he liked it because the label was blue, and blue happened to be his favorite color.
That done, he moved on to the next phase of his mission—the milk.
At the end of the aisle, he spotted the dairy cooler lining the perpendicular wall. He made his way to it, spent a moment analyzing his options, and ended up selecting the medium-sized jug with the red cap. He noticed there didn’t seem to be any shortage of milk in the Grocer Go, and for some reason, that made him feel a little better, like not everything was out of sorts. There was still milk where there should be milk. Hallelujah!
Bread in one hand, milk in the other, he retraced his route, heading back in the direction of his mother. As he walked up the bread aisle, he found himself thinking about the “Now Serving” display at the meat counter. He wondered what it would show when he returned. He had only been gone a few minutes by his estimation, but it had to be much closer to forty-three by now.
When he reached the end of the aisle, he went right. He could see he crowd at the meat counter, and to his surprise it had thinned out a little. He looked for his mother’s red parka—it was his beacon home, his lighthouse—but didn’t see it or her.
She must be at the head of the line, he thought. Our number has probably been called.
But with every step that brought him closer, that rope around his gut tightened. He didn’t see her in the crowd, he didn’t see her red parka, and the sign that kept track said they were serving number forty. So where was she? Panic started to wash over him, to drench him. He worked his way around the outskirts of the crowd, trying to peer through and catch a glimpse of his mother’s red coat.
Mom… Mom, where are you? an internal voice shouted. But it didn’t sound like a voice at all… it sounded like the shriek of a siren.
A sudden urge to cry rose up in him. Fear clogged his throat. His eyes went hot. He wanted to start screaming her name, but instead he started looking around wildly, knowing that she had to be somewhere. She had to be. She wouldn’t just leave him… would she?
She might… she just might…
No, of course she wouldn’t.
He backed away from the people at the butchery and started looking down the aisles, wanting to drop the bread and the milk to the ground and run as fast as he could. Nothing mattered except to find her and reattach his tether and never let it sever again.
“Mom,” he whimpered, feeling his chin begin to tremble.
And then just like that, his world made sense again. The first aisle down which he looked, he saw her. All the panic and fear melted away in an instant, sluffing off like old, dirty skin and falling to the waxed floor of the Grocer Go in an ugly heap. Molly was talking to a red-haired woman in a long black coat. Ben didn’t recognize her, but she looked angry, or maybe upset. They both did. He headed toward them, that silvery pearl of disquiet in his chest starting the hum.
When he was about ten feet away, he said, “Where were you?” His small, angry voice carried a faint trill. Hearing that brought the tears back to his eyes. He had thought they were gone, but it turns out they had only been waiting for the right moment.
His mother turned to him, a startled look on her face. “Benjamin.”
The woman abruptly walked away without so much a smile in his direction.
“I couldn’t find you. I thought…” He trailed off as his skin flushed hot and his mind folded back on itself to a few moments ago. Then there he was, crying in the middle of the grocery store, bread in one hand, milk in the other. The big boy feeling like a big baby. He dropped his head and felt the warm tears gather at the ends of his eyelashes and fall to the floor.
“I’m so sorry, honey.” His mother rushed over to him, dropped down to one knee, and wrapped her arms around him. “I didn’t think you’d be back so quickly. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’d never leave you.” She let go and held him by the shoulders at arm’s length. “Hey, look, you found the bread and milk. See, what’d I tell you? Look at my special little guy.”
He nodded glumly, biting his lip. “Who were you talking to?” he asked, eyes still watching the floor. He noticed two dark, dime-sized spots on the tiles near his feet. They were his tears.
“Who was who?” his mother said.
“That lady in the black coat? She looked mad at you,” Ben said, lifting his head.
“She was just looking for the olive oil, critter. She wasn’t mad, just worried like everyone else.”
“Do you know her?”
“Never seen her before,” Molly said. “Here, give me those.” She took the bag of bread and the jug of milk from him and put them in their cart.
“Don’t do that ever again,” he said, looking up at her. “It scared me, Mom.”
“Okay,” she said. “I promise.” Her eyes flicked up and looked past him. “Oh no! Did we miss our number?”
Ben glanced over his shoulder. “It says forty-two. We’re forty-three.”
“We’re next,” his mother said. “Come on, come on. Let’s go. Time to boogie, kiddo.”
She swung the shopping cart around, put her foot on the little lower crossbar, and pedaled forward with the other foot until she was riding the back of it. Ben felt a smile break across his face, and he ran alongside her, giggling as they headed up the aisle and back to the meat counter.
The “Now Serving” sign ticked up to their number the moment they reached the line.

5

Kneeling on the living-room floor, Ben watched the ticker scroll school closings across the bottom of the television screen while the New England Patriots battled the Denver Broncos out in Colorado. Hundreds of towns had already announced their cancelations for Monday, but Rockcliffe had yet to make anything official, and Ben thought they were cutting it a little too close for comfort. It was almost four o’clock and still nothing. Nada. Zilch. What were they waiting for? He had snow forts to plan. Sleds to wax.
“Can you move your head, pal? You’re right in the way,” Jack Sanderson said from his recliner chair, snacking on a bowl of popcorn.
Ben scooted over a few inches, maintaining his post at the TV, waiting with huge impatience for the R towns to make their next pass. Last time around it had jumped from Rochester to Rockland, skipping Rockcliffe. He had a good feeling about it this time, though.
Norton… Norwell… Norwood…
It was getting close, but the stupid thing moved so slowly. It reminded him of the clock in Mrs. Bernard’s classroom on the last day of school before summer break. Those last few minutes seemed to tick on forever.
Oakham… Orange…
He groaned, grabbing the side of his head and rocking forward dramatically. “Go faster! Why is it so slow?”
“Calm down, Benji. There won’t be school tomorrow.” Molly stood in the kitchen doorway, running her hands up and down her arms slowly. To Jack she said, “It’s freezing in here. Is the woodstove going?”
Jack craned his neck back and looked at the stove in the corner. “Should be.” He wiped the crumbs off the front of his shirt, set the bowl of popcorn on the little table beside his chair, then folded up the recliner’s leg rest and went across the room to diagnose the problem. He squatted down in front of the woodstove and opened the heavy cast-iron door, allowing a cloud of milky-white smoke to billow up and out. “That’s not good,” he said, shutting the door and waving a hand in front of his face to beat away the smoke.
“Did it go out?” Molly asked.
“Not quite, but it’s struggling. I must’ve forgotten to open the flue all the way.” As an afterthought, he added, “The wood was a little damp when I brought it in, but it’ll be fine. I don’t think Mike seasoned it long enough this year.”
Molly rolled her eyes. “It’s Mike’s fault, is it?”
Jack grinned at her. “Well, it can’t be mine. You crazy?” He laughed and then put on the thick fireproof glove he kept in the firewood bin, opened the door again, and shifted the hissing logs around. He blew on the remaining kindling coals softly until a weak tongue of flame licked up and everything caught fire again. Then he shut the door, adjusted the flue lever on the side of the chimney pipe, and opened the vents on the bottom of the stove. “That should do it,” he said, dropping the sooty fire glove back in the wood bin. “Give it a few minutes and it’ll warm up.”
Instead of returning to his chair, Jack stood in front of the woodstove on the brick hearth and folded his arms, the TV remote peeking out from the breast pocket of his shirt. From there he watched the game. Molly thought he looked handsome in his blue jeans and red checkered flannel. This Jack—Rugged Jack, Snowstorm Jack, Woodstove Jack—was her favorite, the version of her husband to which she was most attracted. He wasn’t trying to impress or charm anyone; he was just being himself in his home environment, taking care of the clan. She even had grown fond of the gray that had crept into his dark hair over the last few years, starting at his temples and pushing its way slowly across the side of his head. It had only added to her attraction. It made him seem more authentic somehow.
“Thanks,” Molly said. “Who’s winning?”
“Denver,” he said.
“Really? What happened?” Molly didn’t really care, but her husband did so she feigned interest. She did that a lot for him, and on more than one occasion she’d considered what that might mean. But she never thought about it for too long; better judgement told her to leave it alone. It was like her mother used to say: If you go digging in the dirt you’re bound to find worms.
“Don’t panic—it’s still the first half,” Jack said. Behind him, the woodstove had already begun to throw off tight little tinks and pops above the low roar now growing inside its iron gut. “I still smell a Super Bowl ring. Tom’s a fourth-quarter hero you can always count on, you’ll see.”
Fourth-quarter hero—a Jackism, if she’d ever heard one. He had a lot of little sayings like that. Although this one, she suspected, he’d probably picked up from ESPN or from one of his beer buddies down at The Pig’s Ear. It sounded a little too mainstream, too hip. She’d heard him recycle and rebrand other’s expressions as his own before, and it always made her cringe a little inside when he did it. Each time, she lost a little respect for him, not that she would ever call him on it or tell him as much. It’s just how it goes, she supposed. Seeing behind the curtain and catching a glimpse of how the magician pulls off his tricks is one of those natural things that comes with being in a relationship for the long haul. Sometimes seeing behind the curtain had its benefits—she wouldn’t deny that (perhaps it was the implication of having something rather than nothing)—but more often than not it just killed the magic, and with it that sense of wonder and excitement that had once drawn her so completely to the show.
Ben screamed. “There it is! There it is! Mom, you see it? No school tomorrow! Rockcliffe Elementary is closed! That’s what it said!”
Molly looked up, a wan smile curling the corners of her lips. She had been staring at the floor, lost in thought. “I told you, kiddo. See, you got all worked up for nothing.”
He ran across the living room, dived onto the couch, and started kicking his feet. Pillows went flying to the floor. One landed on the coffee table, almost spilling a cup of ginger ale. It slid to the edge but stopped just short of going over and soaking the new living room rugs they had recently put in.
“All right, pal, settle down… settle down,” Jack said, smiling at Molly and shaking his head. The look said: This is us, huh? This is our little slice of crazy American pie.
The television transmission stuttered as it transitioned to a commercial. Then it switched to a blue screen with a bold silver 7 inside a revolving red circle. “Live from Boston, this is a 7 News weather alert,” a stern voiceover said.
Ben ran across the living room to the wide bay window that looked out over the front yard. He peered out, then looked back over his shoulder. “Can I go outside?”
“I don’t know,” Molly said, crossing the room, palms cupping her elbows. She sidled up alongside her son in front of the window. The wind had begun to pick up and blow snow around. In a few hours, it would be downright nasty, but right now it was nothing too serious. The railing on the front steps showed only a few inches had fallen, and there were still greenish patches showing on the lawn. The storm hadn’t quite shown up yet.
“Please, Mom. I won’t go far. Just to the park.” Ben’s whole body squirmed, his hands making little fists and then unclenching over and over again.
Molly looked across the street to the park. It was a vacant scene, the playground equipment hardly visible through the screen of snow. “Fine. But it’s getting dark. So be—”
“Quiet, quiet. I want to hear this,” Jack said.
Molly and Ben turned their heads to him. He gestured to the TV, then pulled the remote from the breast pocket of his shirt and turned up the volume, his concentration focusing to a point on the upcoming weather update.
Together, the Sandersons watched as Pete Ambrose appeared on the screen, standing in front of a large animated radar that showed a massive green and blue monster of moisture slowly curling and crawling its way up the coast. His hair looked a little wild, his face a mix of exhaustion and subdued excitement.
“All right, folks, just a quick update on the weather and we’ll get you back to the Patriots game,” Pete said. “We’re starting to get reports of snowfall rates in the one- to two-inches-per-hour range from Boston, Rowley, Gloucester, Rockport, Ipswich, and things are just getting going. That should be some indication of how powerful this storm is. Don’t take this one lightly—that would be a mistake. It’s a slow-moving system, so once it starts to get bad, it’s going to stay bad for ten, fifteen, maybe even eighteen hours. We’re talking about blizzard conditions overnight and into the early morning hours. Lots of coastal flooding with this ten-foot storm surge and astronomical high tides. And you see this right here?” Pete waved his hand over a large blue H hovering off the coast of Nova Scotia. “This area of high pressure out to sea is what’s going to keep this storm system from pulling away like it normally would. All the computer models show it parking itself over eastern New England and letting us have it until late tomorrow morning, maybe even into the early afternoon. I’m thinking a wide swath of eighteen to twenty-four inches of snow for much of eastern Massachusetts, the Cape, and the Islands. Inland, don’t think you’re out of this woods on this one—count on at least a foot. Get comfortable, ladies and gentlemen, it’s going to be a while. The governor has issued a state of emergency for Massachusetts and, unless you absolutely have to, has urged everyone to stay off the roads to let the plows do their job. Don’t forget to charge all your devices in case you lose power. You’ll want to be able to stay up to date on Channel 7’s StormTracker coverage for the latest news on this powerful nor’easter. I’ll see you all after the Patriots beat the Broncos for Channel 7 news at Seven. Live in the Channel 7 newsroom, I’m Pete Ambrose. Now back to the game.”
The television flickered again and changed to a Dunkin Donuts commercial. The school-closings ticker continued at the bottom of the screen, but Ben no longer watched it, its purpose served.
“Okay. Can I go, can I goooo?” he said, pushing out his bottom teeth and widening his eyes. He reminded Molly of Frankenstein’s Monster when he did that. It was his if-you-want-me-to-beg-I’ll-beg face. And beg he most certainly would. She had no doubt about that.
“No further than the park, okay? And be back before it starts to get dark.”
“Okay, Mom. I promise.” He slapped the sides of his legs with stiff arms, then took off for the hallway closet to dig out his snow pants.
Molly looked at Jack and started moseying back toward the kitchen to finish prepping dinner—a roast chicken with root vegetables. “Think you’ll have work tomorrow?”
He went back to his recliner and sat, eyes glued to the TV. “I doubt it.” (writing note: what does he do for work? Is it important?)
She flicked her eyes to Ben, then back to her husband. “You think it’s okay letting him go play in this?”
Jack gave a frown of approval and nodded. “Yeah, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t look so bad yet.” He leaned his head back against the chair, directing his voice toward the hallway. “You’ll be safe, won’t you, pal? Don’t make your mother worry.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Ben said in a muffled voice, his body half in and half out of closet. Old coats, sports equipment, gloves, and other junk littered the floor around him now. The mess continued to grow as he pulled more and more stuff out.
“You’ll stay out of the street… keep an eye for the plows? Remember they can’t see you.”
“Yeah, Dad. Promise.”
“Benji, you’re making a mess,” Molly said.
“Sorry. I’ll clean it up” he said, and with a sudden burst of glee, he emerged from the closet, holding up a pair of snow pants. “Got em!” He began hopping up and down on one foot, eagerly trying to pull them on.
Molly shook her head, smiled, and stopped at the woodstove. She stood where Jack had and watched her life for a moment. Outside, the afternoon fell toward dusk as the first major storm of the season enveloped Rockcliffe, slowly building intensity.  

6

A gust of wind nearly ripped the storm door from Ben’s hand when he stepped out onto the front stoop. He managed to grab the edge of it in time to keep it from slamming back against the house, but he lost his footing and almost fell over in the process.
“You got it, pal?” his father said from the recliner.
“I got it,” Ben said, his voice muffled through the scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face.
“Okay, be careful. Don’t blow away.” His father turned back to the game and took a sip of his beer.
“I won’t,” Ben said.
He held the storm door in one hand, and with the other he reached in and closed the main door until he felt the latch catch in the jamb. Then he used both hands to pull the storm door closed against the wind. When he turned around, snow needled the exposed parts of his face, stinging his eyes. He thought about doubling back to get his goggles, the pair his mother had bought him when they went skiing up in North Conway last year, but he didn’t want to fight the door again so he decided against it.
Running a hand along the railing, he started down the front steps. When he reached the walkway, he compacted the snow he had gathered in his palm into a small snowball and tossed it in the street.
He looked around. Everything had begun to take on the same colorless tone. Faint shades of color still peeked through the few inches of snow that had already fallen, but these traces were quickly fading. There were a few dark patches—either grass or clay from the baseball diamond—showing in the field across the street, but they would be gone soon, and then everything would be a shade of white. Ben looked down and could see the brickwork of the walkway, but he knew that come morning it would be hidden beneath tall drifts of snow. Until his dad took the snow blower to it, of course.
He headed down the walkway, stopping at the end, where one granite step met the sidewalk that ran along Silby Street. He looked both ways, checking for cars and plows. When he was certain the coast was clear, he crossed to the park. As he passed through the gate, he looked back over his shoulder one last time at his house, making sure he could still feel that tether connected.
He continued into the gathering storm.

Friday, February 19, 2016

What I've Learned About Self-Publishing

I have been doing this writing and self-publishing thing for a little while now, and over the last year the hard work has finally started to payoff, albeit modestly. Just enough, I'd say, to make me see the true potential in self-publishing and want to write this post. The following is simply my opinion of what I found to work along the way, and what did not. I have spent countless hours over the last three years reading articles that others have written on the subject of self-publishing, and I think it's only fair to pay it forward and add my own two cents and, maybe, touch a little bit upon my own experiences. Take it or leave it. There is no formula for success for this, just a lot of trial and error and luck. But I would be lying to tell you there aren't things you can do to help your chances.


The Product

Once you have poured your blood, sweat and tears into writing your novel or short story or whatever, you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking business. Your book is now your product, and there are a lot of products out there that have had a lot of hours put into them to make them look like the professionally crafted products that they are.


So let's talk about what you're putting out there for a second. The first obstacle a self-published writer will be up against is the stigma attached to the fact that you are self-publishing your material instead of being "traditionally published" by a publishing house. Let's face it, for every well-crafted and professionally presented self-published novel put out there, there are a hundred that look like they were designed by a 5th grade computer class circa 1995 (that doesn't mean the writing is bad, but people will be hesitant to take a chance on you if your book looks shoddy). People often fear--and this is a stereotype that is rapidly being shed in the industry--that "self-published" is synonymous with "lesser quality." And they have every right to think this way because there certainly is no shortage of poorly crafted books out there in the digital self-pub market. So one way to increase your credibility is to make your product every bit as professional as what the big publishers are putting out. It's not easy on a small budget, but it also isn't impossible.


I would recommend finding a good website that sells pre-made or custom covers. Oh. Here's one. www.humblenations.com This is where I bought my cover and it was like $40, but it looks great if you ask me. I've actually received a few emails from people who liked Cicada Spring saying they bought it because they liked the cover. So, yes, people do judge a book by the cover. It is the first taste of the story the book contains. I like to think the cover sets the mood before the reader has read one word.*


*I won't lie. I still have a couple book covers on Amazon that aren't as nice as I'd like, but they are for short stories, and I kind of like seeing them as a reminder of how I started.


I would also recommend springing for a professional editor. Oh. Here's a good place. www.redadeptediting.com For a 100,000 word manuscript it's about $500 (I suggest the one-pass line edit), but it is worth every penny. And if things go well and you make a little money selling books (the business side of you should want this), you will be able to write that amount off on your taxes to reduce what you owe Johnny Government.**


**Here I should add that you should save all receipts for anything you do writing related. You'll thank yourself later. Anytime you do anything that costs you money and it is related to your writing, get a receipt and put it in an envelope.


Bottom line is that it is important your book has as few errors as possible inside. Have someone edit it, then have six or seven people proofread it. I won't tell you it will ever be perfect, even after five proofreads from others and a dozen of my own, I still doubt I got them all. That's okay, though. Even Big House books have errors. But the goal here is to get this thing as polished as possible. And if you do find a typo in your digital book after it is published, it's not that hard to fix. Here's Hugh Howey to explain how. And if you don't know who he is, you should Google him.


Fixing print book errors is a different story though, and I'm not going to get into that.


At the end of the day, though, no matter how pretty and professional your product is, how spotless the grammar and spelling is, if you're not telling a story people want to read (no fixes here), you're gonna have a bad time. I have a hard time seeing how a poorly told (or a boring) story will sell well (consistently beyond marketing campaigns, anyway) because word of mouth is key to a book's success. And people don't tell their friends about books that didn't do it for them.


That brings me to my next part.


Marketing


Word of mouth always is and always will be the ultimate marketing tool. But it takes some big pushes, and patience (and sacrifice), to get people talking about your book. However, thanks to the wonderful world of social media, it is much easier for people to hear when their friends are chattering about your book. If you haven't already, go sign up for Goodreads. It's Facebook for booklovers and authors.


When it comes to marketing your book, there are a lot of options. I will tell you the things I have done that have led to over 100,000 downloads and some trailing sales.


Let's start with this, and you're gonna hate it if you just spent a year or more writing a book: GIVE IT AWAY FOR FREE as much as possible. If you don't have a readership yet, which I don't imagine you do if you're reading articles about self-publishing, then the best way to gain one is to give content away for free. And not just any content--give people GOOD CONTENT, a good story, for free and they will gladly pay for your next. They will also tell people about your book and if your free promo is over they will buy it if their friend gushes about it enough, especially if you are pricing your book in the $2.99 - $4.99 range.


What's a free promo? Well if you use Amazon KDP Select, and I recommend you do, you will learn that the service allows you to do five days of free promotion every 90 days. Doing a promotion alone won't generate a ton of downloads, but pairing it with a marketing campaign like Bookbub (more on this in a second) will blast you up the charts.


Here is what I did.


The first time I did a free campaign I did it by itself without any marketing. Luckily, a site called Pixel of Ink picked up that it was free and in three days I had 15,000 downloads and Cicada Spring made it to #2 on the Amazon list of free books. These lists are crucial; they get eyes on your book. And after the free promo was over, I had about 200 sales. Not great, but more than I had ever anticipated. The most valuable thing about the promo though was that it got me about 75 reviews from random readers, and they were good reviews. This increased my credibility.


I then leveraged those good reviews to apply for a Bookbub campaign to list my book for free again in the next few months.


What's Bookbub? It is a website/email subscription with over 3 million users. You basically pay them to blast your book out to all these people. The catch is that they are also super exclusive and picky and won't pick your book if they don' think their readers will like it (here's where those 75 reviews helped).


Anyway, I applied and Bookbub accepted and I paid them $400 (tax write-off) to list my book as free. I listed it for four days. End result: 95,000 downloads. For the following four months I also sold a thousand books and had over a million pages (Kindle Unlimited users) read.


This was all generated by giving away my books for free. Oh, and I also sold a bunch of my short stories. It was a good learning experience too. I received a ton of emails asking if I had more full-length books. I did not, and so ended up depressed that I was missing so many sales opportunities. However, I think it is a testament to how powerful a marketing tool giving away free content can be. It goes against all the hard work you put into writing your novel, but in the end it gets you what you should want as a writer...it gets you readers.


Keep Writing


This is most important. You can't keep focusing on your one book. Once you have written it and polished it and gotten it out there, you need to turn your focus to writing another book. That's where I am right now. Your book is out there until Amazon somehow crumbles, and it has the rest of its life to be discovered. Your best chance of that is to have a few books find moderate success and hope the fire catches. Here is where luck is nice. You never know who will stumble upon your book and love it.




Earlier I said I didn't think there was a formula for success in this industry, but I think I was wrong. I think what you need to do is consistently put out quality writing that people want to read. That's what the pros do. And how do you get people to want to read your stuff? I think you just have to say something interesting. Readers will forgive a lot, but they won't forgive being bored by your writing. The rest, the consistency part, is just hard work.


And here is where I end abruptly, perhaps having written a lot, said little, and taught nothing of value. It's Friday and I feel like leaving the office now. I guess in the end this was more a story about myself than it was advice. I think there is some useful stuff in here though. Basically just pour your heart into a book, spend money polishing it, then spend more money giving it away for free. It worked for me though.








Thursday, February 11, 2016

Goodreads Giveaway and Brief Update

I know, I know, I have been neglecting my social media duties lately. But I think that's okay because I have been busy with work (gotta pay the bills) and writing my second novel. It's coming along nicely, although it has changed a lot along the way and is a much different story than I had first envisioned. That's all right though. Isn't that usually what happens when you try to write a book? You have an idea of what the story should be, but the story has its own ideas and you end up meeting somewhere in the middle and agreeing on a fair compromise. At first I said that 'Soldier of God' was going to be like 'Sling Blade' meets 'The Green Mile,' but it has turned into something closer to 'The Shining' meets 'It' meets, well, still 'Sling Blade.' I'll post an excerpt soon, once I know the storyline is pretty much cemented in place. I'd rather not post a chapter/an excerpt/whatever if I will end up cutting it later, or if it is part of a plotline that ends up being unnecessary. Anyway, I almost forgot why I even decided to write this post: I'm doing a Goodreads Giveaway. There should be a widget below. Sign up if you'd like a chance to win a signed copy of my first novel, 'Cicada Spring.'







Goodreads Book Giveaway

Cicada Spring by Christian Galacar

Cicada Spring

by Christian Galacar

Giveaway ends February 25, 2016.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter Giveaway

Monday, October 19, 2015

Short Horror Stories for Halloween

As promised (at least I think I promised this at some point) I have collected four dark short stories, old and new, and published them. The collection is titled "Blackwater: Four Stories"(damn I'm clever), and it is available for $0.99 on Amazon. Some of the stories are my first children, and they have buck teeth and bad acne, but they are not without their moments so give them a chance... I was just learning to walk, myself. These aren't intended to be award winners, and perhaps they should've stayed in the trunk where trunk stories belong, but they might occupy an hour of your time and leave you with a shiver or a smile, depending on how demented you are. I won't judge.

http://www.amazon.com/Blackwater-Four-Stories-Christian-Galacar-ebook/dp/B016UV0250/









Thursday, September 24, 2015

Finally Got Around to Creating a Website

I had been putting off the daunting task of creating a website for quite some time. Then I realized it really wasn't a daunting task at all, and that I was being dramatic and lazy. As I suspected, the majority of Internet-related things that once seemed complicated to non-tech-savvy people, such as myself, have since been streamlined and made user-friendly to the masses. I suppose that's how we advance as a species. Anyway, website building was one of those things that got easier. Go figure.

As it turns out, there are many companies that provide this service--Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, Jimdo, to name a few. I chose Wix. It was relatively inexpensive ($75 per year), and the editing platform was easy and intuitive. The others are fine companies, but admittedly I didn't vet them as thoroughly as I could have. With so little free time, I need to be efficient.

So without further ado, I give you my website, the official Christian Galacar Author Page. I'm sure I'll update it over the next few weeks. Tweak things etc. But the basic idea is there. If you visit, be sure to sign up for the newsletter. I only really plan to take advantage of that feature to announce book releases... and possibly to solicit reviews and offer advanced reader copies.

 
 
 
 
 
Damn that's a clever domain name. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Cicada Spring Is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

This is some exciting news! I was just notified that Cicada Spring is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree. If you don't know what that means, click here and have a look at their website. No viruses, I promise (although that's exactly what a virus would want you to think). Now my cover has a fancy new emblem. I'll update my Amazon cover soon.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What's Next



Over the past month or so, I have received a lot of emails from new readers who have read my first novel, Cicada Spring, asking if I had any more books. It’s always a bittersweet thing: I love hearing from people who have enjoyed my writing, but I am always slightly bummed that I don’t have more books to offer at the moment (I don’t count the short stories I have published on Amazon). From a business standpoint, I can’t help but see it as the missed sales opportunity that it is. But what is even more disappointing (far more so than any amount of lost revenue) is not being able to provide more entertainment to people looking for it.

Now I know writing is not an immediate endeavor, but it is hard to know there are people out there asking for more when I don’t have anything to offer right away. I feel like I’m turning away hungry patrons, forcing them to leave empty-handed, stomachs still rumbling, appetites not sated. I don’t like it. Nope. Not one bit.

The only solution it would seem is to write another book. And, I suppose, the purpose of this post is to assure people who might stumble upon it that I am in fact writing another book. It’s called Soldier of God (for now, anyway), and my plan is to have it ready for publication in May/June 2016. I’m about a third of the way through the first draft, and provided my schedule doesn’t become even more hectic, I should be able to finish it in time for this coming spring. At my current rate, taking into account the responsibility of my full-time job (gotta pay the bills), I feel confident that I can put out at least one book per year—and maybe a few short stories here and there when time allows.

But what’s the new book about? you ask. Well that’s a good question. Here’s what I will tell you: Soldier of God takes place in the fictional town of Gilchrist, Mississippi, in 1959. There is murder. There is kidnapping. There is a strange river. It is kind of like a bizarre lovechild of The Green Mile and Sling Blade. That’s all I’ll share for now, but rest assured I am really enjoying writing and discovering this strange tale as I go. And at the end of the day, that’s what my writing comes down to: I write the kinds of stories I want to read... and I absolutely want to keep reading this one.

Oh, and I almost forgot. In October I plan to put out a short story or two. Definitely one, maybe two.  The definite one is titled Blackwater which is my homage to Stephen King’s short story, Graveyard Shift, one of my childhood favorites. The second is a really short story I wrote when I first started out called Mercury Rain. They’re both fun stories, and they’ll either be $.99 or free. I might actually end up packaging the two together and releasing it as a duo.

Anyway, that’s all for now. I have to get a haircut. If you want to stay up to date on what I’m up to with my writing, follow my blog by adding your email to the little gadget thingy on the top right of my blog’s home page. And as always, please feel free to reach out to me through email at cgalacar@gmail.com. I truly do like to hear from readers.