The Ghost Strikes At Midnight

At one of the recent writer’s group meetings, we decided that everyone should write a flash-fiction length (under 1,000 words), scary story for the month of October. Here is mine.

-Christopher M. Palmer

Every Halloween, the neighborhood tradition was for the older kids to stay out after dark to play “The Ghost Strikes at Midnight,” a version of hide and seek. Abigail Richmond wanted to play every year, but her parents arranged for her older sister to bring her home after trick-or-treating, saying she wasn’t old enough to stay out and play in the dark with the other kids. This year, she was seven and Halloween was on a Friday, not a school night, and her dad convinced her mom that it would fine as long as she didn’t get scared.

Abigail wasn’t scared of anything. She was the first to volunteer in class, she loved to perform, she wasn’t even afraid of the dark or of scary movies and TV shows, not that she’d seen that many of them—her parents were rather strict with her TV viewing. Her sister, Penny, and her friend, Renee, had teased her all week about how scary it was to play in the dark. “You’ll get so scared, you’ll be the first one the ghost finds because you’ll be peeing your pants and running home to mommy,” Renee told her.

“You’ll see,” was Abigail’s response.

She had already picked out her first hiding spot: behind the loose latticework under the porch of the deserted, dilapidated, and spooky-as-all-get-out Lindholm house. She’d spied it out after school three days before, first checking that no one was watching her approach the house. They had been warned to stay away from it, but also she didn’t want anyone to find her hiding place. She thought it might be be dirty and icky under the porch, but the soil was dry and packed down hard. There were a just few beer cans and cigarette butts, and a couple of cobwebs she swept away with her hand. She wasn’t afraid of spiders, either, she just didn’t want them in her hair. She was sure that no one would think to look under the Lindholm house’s porch, since many of the kids said the house was haunted and dared each other to enter the yard to touch the side of it.

She hoped she didn’t get picked to be the ghost, because hunting was not as much fun as hiding, but since she was the youngest, she doubted that would happen. Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe seemed random enough, but kids always threw in a few extra phrases if they didn’t want to pick someone.

Abigail was so excited to be playing with the big kids, trick-or-treating was almost perfunctorily rushed through. She only wanted to hit the few houses that gave out the best candy every year and, by the time the sun fully set, she was ready to drop her plastic pumpkin full of candy off at the house and ditch her plastic dinosaur mask — she was not happy with her store-bought costume this year, but it didn’t really matter, the green dinosaur suit would be hard to see in the dark. She grabbed a couple of candy bars and ran out the door and up to Caleb’s house, where all the kids would be meeting.

“Who’s the baby?” Caleb asked, knowing good and well who she was.

“Shut up, Caleb,” Abigail retorted. He just laughed.

They finally started the game at eight thirty. It was a perfect Halloween night, crisp as a tart apple, with a light wind stirring the fallen leaves. As Abigail suspected, when she was about to be picked as the ghost, Caleb threw in another “old dirty dishrag” and the clenched fist bumped on Penny to be the first ghost. The game was about to start!

Her sister wasted no time in starting the count. She yelled, “It’s noon!” Then quieter, and in a spooky voice, she said, “The ghost strikes at midnight.”

The kids scattered, most of them had already figured out where to hide. Abigail ran behind a row of bushes to get out sight quickly. The limits were Oak Street to one side and Chestnut Street to the other. Anywhere on the two cross avenues, Morgan and Cameron, was fair game. With such a large area, Penny played fair and counted slowly. Abigail was on the backside of the house next door before she heard, “It’s one o’clock!” followed by the fainter promise of the striking of the ghost.

Abigail wanted to win so badly, she didn’t want anyone to see where she hid. She waited in the bushes until Zach and Jess passed by. She saw Ashley hide behind the shrubs beside the Johnson’s back shed. She wouldn’t be able to see the Lindholm house from there. The coast was clear and it was already seven pm according to Penny’s chant. Abigail ran into the shadowy yard of the Lindholm house, pulled the latticework skirting aside, and slid into the darkness under the porch, pulling the lattice back in place. Safe and hidden and no one saw her.

Faintly, she heard the last count, “It’s MIDNIGHT! THE GHOST STRIKES AT MIDNIGHT!” Penny yelled. Abigail giggled to herself, certain that she would impress everyone with her bravery and her skill at hiding.

Penny found Lionel right away. He had a crush on Penny and probably wanted to be found. He tagged along as the Penny the Ghost searched for the rest of the neighborhood kids.

Next was Patrick and then one by one, they all fell to the searching of the ghost and her minions. Penny looked anxious the one or two times she’d passed in front of the Lindholm house. Abigail had to be nearly the last one left and she smiled thinking that Penny was actually worried about her.

“I’m going to win,” she said to herself in a soft voice.

“Yes, you are.” A damp, gritty hand closed around the lower half of her face. “No one is ever going to find you.”

Top 12 DragonCon Writing Tips

Toni Weiskopf, Jody Lynn Nye, Larry Niven, Lisa Manifort, and Declan Finn

I spent last weekend enjoying DragonCon 2018 in Atlanta. I attended as many of the writing panels as I could manage, including two 15 minute one-on-one mentoring sessions with Jody Lynn Nye and Robert J. Sawyer, which were great. 

Here, in no particular order, are the 12 best pieces of writing advice I collected. It was going to be 10, but I thought of a couple more. Check out Twitter (@NAWG and my personal Twitter @CMPalmer) for any new ones I think of.

  1. Small presses and online only markets are great for building confidence and getting your name out there, but you should make a habit of submitting to the highest paying, most prestigious markets first and working your way downward. You’ll probably garner more rejections, but when you do get a hit, the reward will be worth it.

  2. Telling your whole story to someone can sap your will to actually write it. You may want to consider just sharing your “elevator pitch” with others until the story is finished. Build anticipation from others as well as yourself.

  3. Similarly, some writers avoid writing the last scene or last chapter of a work until they’ve finished revising the rest. Write up to the end, go back and revise, and when you’re happy with the whole thing, go ahead and write the last scene/chapter. Once you’ve written the ending, your brain says “You’re done!” and saps your energy for revision.

  4. Don’t over-read or over-edit. Finish a story, but it aside for a week or two and work on something else, then come back to it with fresh eyes. If you obsessively read through a story, you’ll either not see the errors or (in my case) start overthinking it and hating it.

  5. When revising and editing, know the difference between “better” and “just different.” Any edits will make your story different, but do they make it better? When you’ve removed and reinserted the same comma five times, it’s time to submit it somewhere and move on.

  6. When writing novels, remember that most publishers are accepting works that won’t be published for a couple of years. Chasing the current hot trends isn’t always a good idea because that trend may be dead by the time a potential book would be published.

  7. If you’re not writing what you want to write and the kinds of things you like to read, you’re probably not going to be successful. Writing what you think is “hot” even if you don’t like the style or genre is a bad idea.

  8. If all you have is non-pro sales, only include them in your cover letter to pro-markets to inform the editors that you can be worked with. Too many people can’t handle editorial input and a pro-editor isn’t going to invest the time to mark up your work if you’re going to be obstinate about making any edits to your precious baby.

  9. In writing science fiction in particular, if the idea is old enough, you can use it as a standard trope, but it shouldn’t be the focus of your story. In other words, you shouldn’t write a book about discovering a ringworld and exploring it, but your space opera universe might include ringworlds. Science fiction is always “standing on the shoulders of giants” and expanding the vocabulary. You shouldn’t steal, but you can borrow.

  10. The main difference between writing a short story and a novel is the complexity of the plot. Short stories have one, maybe two, plot points. Novels have to have many more. 

  11. John W. Campbell used to read slush pile manuscripts with a red pen, but usually his only mark was a red line under the point where he stopped reading. Ask your writer’s group and beta readers to put a red line where they would have given up if they weren’t committed to reading through your story. This is pretty hard advice, but I’d love to know. I know I give up on stories even in magazines and “best of” anthologies sometimes.

  12. With a short story, you’ve got a first line and maybe one or two paragraphs to hook a reader (and an editor is just a reader with way too many stories to read). For a novel, you might stretch that to a few pages. One editor last year said, “Nobody wants to read your story. Particularly the slush pile editor. It’s your job to make it impossible for them not to read your story once they’ve read the first paragraph.”

Creating Aliens

Photo by Chris Palmer

I’ve read science fiction all my life and, while many of my stories deal with the out-of-the-ordinary in some way, my latest story, tentatively titled “Cold Water” is one of my first forays into aliens, alien planets, and space opera’ish settings.

The story started in a stupid way. One of my writing exercises if I’m stuck on something is just to write stream of consciousness drivel. On that day, I didn’t even write real words. I wrote a string of gibberish: Whee. Sallah-bwii. Sallah-boynda. Then I started imagining this as an alien language and the story started building in head. Of course, at some point, I had to figure out what this sentence meant.

Inspired a bit by the “Soo Soo Sook” line from the water seller in Dune, I decided it was an alien water seller. The line means: “Here! Fresh water! Cold water!” and with that, I started a small vocabulary for my aliens.

The aliens started taking form next. The Chirukh are about one and half meters tall. Imagine a cross between a bearded dragon and the Pokemon Sandshrew. Spiky skin, double-pupil eyes. They have two hands on each arm, a clawed overhand and a more delicate underhand because they evolved from creatures with eight limbs. They are venomous, ritualistically eat their dead, and have a weird defecation habit. Their world has been environmentally devastated and is a hot, radiation blasted semi-waste. But the Chirukh have a certain nobility about themselves and the universe, they are non-violent, gregarious, open to strangers, and believe poetry and mathematics are the same thing. To learn more about them, you’ll have to read the story, but I will discuss a little more about the bits and pieces of their language that I worked out.

Knowing the translation of the water seller’s call, it’s pretty easy to figure out what each word means and a little of their grammar. “Sallah” means water. “Whee” is “here”. “Bwii” is “fresh”, “Boyna” is cold. Adjectives come after the noun they modify.

I only had to create a few words and phrases. This isn’t like Klingon or Dothraki and I’m not a linguist. I just wanted a little flavor and to give a little insight into the alien’s thought process. Knowing they are mathematicians, the next line I wrote was “Gesta chi harra, sallah-boynda ges ii” – “The hotter the sun, the colder the water.” A direct transliteration is “Relationship between sun heat water colder implied causality will be,” which I think has a kind of mathematical notation to it.

One more: “Bu trosh agram-ii ayon mallah kham e” is “My honor it would be your flesh to eat.” I liked the idea that “sallah” is water and “mallah” is flesh because they would rhyme in the Chirukh language. “Sallah gi mallah” is “Water and Flesh.” That syntax is pretty close to Japanese.

All told, I only created a handful of phrases and less than twenty words in my Chirukh vocabulary and, whether the constructs are linguistically sound of not or whether the reader will dig into them, I’m pleased with the internal logic of them and they make my world feel more real.

Author’s Blogs and Websites

This isn’t really an exhaustive list. I’ll dig up some more and add them later or post in a separate post. Most of these authors I’m friends with or follow and Facebook and they cross post or link their blog articles to their Facebook pages. I really need to find more blogs about writing itself – the posts in these vary between promotion, cross-promotion, reviews (not just of books), and some politics (but I’ve omitted the ones who are mostly political).

Adam Troy-Castro is a novelist and short story writers who writes most SF and horror. He also writes book review columns. He has a huge Facebook following because he’s witty, opinionated, and likes to engage people in discussions. In fact, he posts occasionally to remind people who’ve followed him for other reasons that he is a professional writer. There are a lot of good, in-depth movie reviews here.

Steven Barnes is a writer I’ve been reading a long time, starting with his collaborations with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in the 1980’s. He teaches Lifewriting seminars and writes a lot about life coaching, Afrofuturism, and martial arts.

John Scalzi is a hugely successful SF writer. He isn’t very active on Facebook, but is all over Twitter. His blog, Whatever, is extremely popular and often controversial. One of the cool things he does is to use his large audience to let others promote their books (look for the posts titled The Big Idea:)

Ari Marmell‘s blog, Mouseferatu, is mainly used to keep his readers up-to-date with what he’s working on. Ari has written for RPG games and has quite a few novels as well, including one of the funniest fantasy novels I’ve ever read, The Goblin Corps, and an urban fantasy series set in the 1930’s about a Fae detective named Mick Oberon. He has a Patreon which gives his supporters free stories, beta reads of chapters as they’re completed, and a few other perks.

Stephanie Osborne is a local Huntsville writer who is retired from NASA. Several of her books are small press published, including her latest series, the Displaced Detective, which are about Sherlock Holmes transported to the modern day United States. She’s also collaborated on several books with Baen authors, including Travis Taylor, another Huntsville native (and star of the show, Rocket City Rednecks).

As far as what I read online about the process of writing, I’d say it’s most often Reddit’s r/Writing or some of the other subreddits about fantasy and SF writing, reviewing, etc. Maybe that should be another blog post to go over the various writing subreddits.

BONUS:

John Picacio is a cool artist and an acquaintance of mine from a few conventions. I like his art (I have two framed prints of his at home and several of his Loteria series cards) and he’s a cool guy. I used his Loteria painting La Sirena as a partial inspiration for “The Rusalka’s Embrace” story I wrote recently.