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Goin’ Back to Fester

Downtown York, Pennsylvania, sometime in the past

Thomas Wolfe once said you can’t go home again. Well, what if you don’t want to? That’s something I’ve been grappling with lately, as I labor to get two “new” stories out the door. The quotation marks are because the stories aren’t new; they comprise my first “serious” effort at writing a story from my own little twisted imagination.

It grew from a creative writing class and a sense of place. (As an architect, I was trained to say deep-sounding but vague phrases like “sense of place.”) What I really wanted to do was create a literary locale. I like to say it was inspired by Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, but that’s just so much pseudo-intellectual horseshit. I haven’t read Faulkner since high school, if that. Truth be known, it was Stephen King’s fictional towns of Castle Rock and Derry that provided the inspiration.

Thus Fester was born. Fester is located in fictional Kerry County, in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains in south-central Pennsylvania. It is a pastiche of the odd aspects of many of the places I’ve lived: Portland, Tucson, and Raleigh, with a dash of Albuquerque and Eugene. Of course, it draws most on where I was born and raised: York, Pennsylvania. I will not go into a detailed history of York here. Suffice it to say that it has a colorful history, from its claim to being the first capital of the United States, to a world-famous witchcraft murder.

I have not been back to York since 1996. I imagine that it has changed a lot since then – at least on the surface. Underneath, however – the people and the forces of history that made it such an interesting place to grow up are certainly still in effect. I’m sure it would be weird to go back there now.

It was certainly weird to revisit Fester. I wrote it from 2008 to 2014, then moved onto other things, such as Jackrabbit and a number of short stories. Somewhere after publishing Jackrabbit, I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to go ahead and publish Fester, figuring that would have to be at least as successful as Jackrabbit. As I mentioned in a previous post, I decided to resurrect a story line excised from the monster first draft, and use it as a promo/teaser for the main novel.

I had both manuscripts edited, and now I am reviewing the edits to prepare for the typesetting and proofreading and all the other fun, wonky book stuff that needs to be done before releasing a book on an unsuspecting world. I am now going back to characters and situations that I hadn’t thought of in years.

It’s really quite strange, in many ways – not unlike my last visit back to York. Unlike York, I know that the MS hasn’t changed, but I sure have. I’d like t o think that I’ve grown a bit as a writer (although perhaps not as much as I would have like to). There is a simultaneous feeling of strangeness and familiarity that brings once-mundane details into sharp relief. It can be unsettling for a writer, and I’ve really had to stifle the urge to re-write huge chunks of the story.

Still and all, it’s been fun to walk back into the strange little town of Fester, and revisit the characters who sprung up there. Pretty soon, you’ll get to do the same. POWWOWS, a novella that will be available in eBook format only, is slated to be released on March 31. I’m gunning for a Jun 30 release date for Fester. I’ll be providing more updates here soon.

In the meantime, Jackrabbit is still available through Amazon:

eBook It

Sketch of upcoming Fester prequel POWWOWS, by amazing Portland artist Ken Huey.

Things are staring to coalesce around the projects that I mentioned in the previous post. To be brief, I have a novel manuscript called Fester that I wrote several years ago that I decided to publish. While the process of editing and general literary turd-polishing is going on, I have a prequel that I wanted to release early as sort of a teaser/promo for the full-length novel.

At first I thought about just posting the story right here, as I did with “Reset.” Then I decided to go ahead and publish it as an eBook, and charge something ridiculously low, like 99 cents. I really didn’t plumb the depths of eBookery when I released Jackrabbit; it was more like an afterthought, an extra box to check on the Amazon KDP form. As I’ve done a little more research on eBook publishing, I realized that I had perhaps skimmed over an important aspect of self-publishing.

At first I thought that I might be shooting myself in the foot by charging almost-a-buck rather than just giving it away. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, though. First, I’m talking about a measly 99 cents. Anybody’s got a dollar to spare, and with this, you get change! How much entertainment will 99% of a dollar get you elsewhere? Not much, my friends, not much.

Then there’s the whole bass-ackwards notion of how we assign value in a hyper-materialistic society. In our world, dollar signs are all. By charging the public for this story rather than giving it away for free, the signal is received that this is worth something. Price tag determines value in the minds of most.

This is especially true in the world or literature and bookselling. I have a good friend who once specialized in rare children’s books. He had a number of really high-demand titles in his catalog that he was listing for very reasonable prices. Despite having collectable titles at great prices, the books weren’t selling. Flummoxed, he asked another bookseller what he should do. The other bookseller took a look at the catalog listings and immediately said, “Double the prices.” My friend was skeptical, but at that point he had little to lose. He doubled the prices of the books, and within a week they had all sold.

The moral of this story: we’re all idiots. I know I sure am.

So, while Fester is getting the editorial beatdown it so richly deserves, I will dive into the deep end of eBook publishing. Stay tuned for further adventures.


The Next Big Thing

I’ve decided to take a little time off of my constant doomscrolling obligation to do some actual writing. Well, not writing in a literal sense, but actually editing something I had written a while back, with a thought towards publishing. Initially, I had thought that the story wasn’t really good enough to publish. Now, with the perspective of some more experience, I realize that hardly anybody’s going to read the damn thing, so what the hell. Why not?

The latest project(s) started out as a novel manuscript that I began in 2008. It was about a fictional town in Pennsylvania called Lester. The gag was that the town founders were trying to follow the style of naming towns after ones in England. This town was to be named after Leicester, but the town founders got the spelling wrong. Then I found out that there actually is a Lester, PA. From what I can tell, it’s little more than a collection of industrial warehouses at the end of the Philadelphia airport runway, but it sort of spoiled the name. SO I changed the name of my town to Fester, which actually works a little better as far as gag town names go.

The first draft of Fester topped out at around 160,000 words, which is paltry if you’re George R.R. Martin or Neal Stephenson, but pretty big for a debut novel. Even pleading the case of world-building to boost the word count, it’s still excessive. So I chopped and chopped.

One of the things I chopped was a story arc about a witchcraft murder, similar to one that occurred near my hometown of York, PA back in 1928. I thought that it might be able to function as a standalone short story, but I was more focused on getting the Fester MS down to a more manageable size. I was shooting for 100,000 words, but I ended up settling for 110,000.

I made some attempts to interest some agents in Fester, but they were unsuccessful and I got distracted by the early stages of Jackrabbit. Pretty soon, I was up to my eyebrows in Dillingeriana, and I had forgotten about the doings in Fester, Pennsylvania.

There were a few more small writing projects last year, and then I got started on another novel MS, about stand-up comedians (working title: Laughingstock). As the first few chapters began to coalesce, it became apparent that this was going to be a long-term project. To have something to talk about besides my glacial writing process, I dusted off Fester. I decided to have a pro do the editing, since it seemed to work well for Jackrabbit. At the moment, I’m shopping around for editors.

While that’s going on, I went back to the first draft and began reassembling the story arc about the witchcraft murder. It was clear that it was going to need a lot of TLC. It was also apparent that it was going to be a bit longer than a short story. At 15,000 words, it inhabits that uncomfortable literary gray zone called “novella” or “novelette.” I’m sure there’s a technical difference, but to me it’s academic.

I’m hitting the keys on the witchcraft story, which has a working name of Powwows. Not sure if I will publish it as an e-book, publish it in its entirety here, or both. Regardless, readers will soon be able to get a glimpse into the strange little town in the Allegheny foothills that I call Fester.


Portrait of the Author as a Young Dork

Dig those red sox!

Yes, that’s me. Twelve years old, in 1980, in my Little League uniform. I can’t specifically remember how I got euchred into signing up for Little League, but I suspect that there was some well-intentioned parental pressure involved. There was definitely some sibling rivalry involved as well. However, as you can tell by a cursory glance a the picture, I was not a 12-year-old who was into sports.

The name of our team was the Royals. I played third base. I can infer from this that there must have been two or three guys on the team who were bigger spazzes than I. The only third-base action I got (so to speak), was a time when there were runners on second and third. The batter blooped a short fly to the shortstop, who winged it to me. I tagged the runner from second out, and was so amazed at this feat that it never occurred to me to throw to home. The runner on third scored, and the coach chewed me out anyway. It wasn’t ’til years later that I questioned why the shortstop hadn’t thrown to the catcher. Maybe it was too far for him to throw.

My younger brother, Todd, was on a rival team, the Orioles. So was every other kid in the neighborhood. As usual, I was the odd man out, the lone Royal in a neighborhood full of Orioles. This was in southern Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Baltimore – it was definitely O’s country. Also, the Little League O’s were good, and the Royals were not. Someone in the neighborhood hauled us to the games in a pickup truck, and I continually took chong from the tong from the Orioles in the truck on game day.

The fates conspired that the Royals played the Orioles for the championship. This in itself was amazing, given our basement-dwelling position for the first half of the season. However, we had acquired a secret weapon about mid-season: a new pitcher. I can’t remember his name, so I’ll call him Jake. Jake was a twelve-year-old hormone monster. He was nearly six feet tall, with a starter ‘stache and biceps and underarm hair. He could pitch like a sumbitch, too. Very powerful, but not a whole lot of control. I don’t think he ever actually beaned anybody, but the threat was always there.

On the way to the championship game, it was the usual raft of crap from the Orioles about how bad they were going to murder us. They had yet to play the Royals with Jake on the mound, and they didn’t know what they were up against. I just kept my mouth shut.

The rest is anticlimax. The Royals, with Jake at the helm, whipped the everloving snot out of the Orioles and took the championship. I’d like to say that I knocked it our of the park to make the winning run (believe me, it’s tempting – who would know?), but that’s not true. I don’t recall ever getting past second, actually. Probably just as well; I hated running.

So, maybe this story wasn’t as heart-warming as an all-American Little League story could be, but it was still personally satisfying. The ride back home in the truck with Todd and the rest of the Orioles was a lot more enjoyable for me than any of the other ones we’d made Turnabout is fair play, you cocky sonsabitches.


So there’s my little story behind the dorky 12-year-old Little League photo. I’ve been working on other things, as well – but nothing that’s close to being ready to share. I hope that 2021 is going to be a little more productive than this year has been when it comes to writing and storytelling. In the meantime, I will continue to bask in the glory of someone else’s 40-year-old sports achievement. And plug last year’s Dillinger novel.

The 2020 Rut

Hola, amigos! I know it’s been a long time since I’ve rapped at ya, but I’ve been busier than a one-armed fiddler with the crabs!

Well, no. Not really.

Actually, I’ve been pretty stagnant. Maybe “paralyzed” is a better word, as it implies outside forces beyond my control, acting on poor ol’ innocent me. I blame 2020.

This has been a fraught year for everyone everywhere, and it’s been especially here in good ol’ Portland, Oregon where I live and work. Of course, there is the political angle to the general Suckiness of 2020, but I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole – at least not on the Sweet Weasel Words blog. (If you’re really interested, check out the American Knucklehead podcast site.)

Suffice it to say that I would be a considerably happier camper if I had the wherewithal to shut myself off from the 24-hour news cycle. But I can’t; I’m a news junkie, and my attempts to throttle my news consumption has always been short-lived and largely ineffective. Maybe there’s a twelve-step group available for news addicts.

Regardless, as the year has worn on and the avalanche of stupefyingly depressing news stories have absolutely tanked my initiative to do just about anything, including writing. It feels like I’m constantly in a reaction zone where the only thing that seems palatable is the old and comfortable. There’s enough novelty – and most of it horrifying – coming through my cell phone and computer, thank you. It’s hard to get enthusiastic for anything that might stress me out further.

Even enjoyable things like writing and reading seem like a chore now. For example, I eagerly awaited the release of William Gibson’s delayed novel Agency. I got my dirty mitts on it right around the time Covid hit, and I was so flabbygastered that I could barely concentrate on the story. About seven chapters in, I realized that I had no idea what was going on or who the characters were. I put it on the shelf, and spend the summer readin Stephen King novels that I had read many times before.

This same inertia applied to my writing (and blogging, obviously) – and has only gotten worse as the year wore on. By the time we had gotten past Labor Day, the only writing I could muster consistently was a hand-written journal which since early March has been labelled “Plague Journal.” I was completely locked up as a writer.

Then I had a Cunning Plan.

I would simultaneously start three writing projects, so that there was more variety to choose from:

  • A new novel about stand-up comics that has been on the back burner for several years.
  • An episode or two of the American Knucklehead podcast
  • A short story based on expurgated chapters from an unpublished novel manuscript called Fester.

This started out as an effective Cunning Plan, and I was soon gleefully cranking away on the comedian storyline (working title: Laughingstock). The idea was that I would always have something engaging to write, and that I would jump from project to project as the day’s whim dictated.

Except that it didn’t work out that way. Basically, I got a few chapters into Laughingstock, hit a wall, and lost all interest – again. Oh, I eventually finished writing the political screed for Knucklehead, but whether I actually engineer and publish it is still an open question. And the Fester short story still languishes, even though the main structure of the story has already been written.

So be it. I should be happy that I was able to write the Laughingstock chapters and the podcast script – and this blog entry. I’ll call that a win, although I probably won’t have the gumption to add an entry to the Plague Journal today. Good enough, call it a win. Things get bad, then they get better again. Salud!

Runs in the Family

My uncle surprised me by publishing a novel on Amazon. It didn’t surprise me that he had done so; I just wasn’t aware that he had a novel in the works. I can honestly say that my uncle, Hugh Fuller, was a major inspiration to my taking up the pen. I remember reading a number of really funny short stories he had written back in the 70’s, and thinking “Wow – someone I know can write something that’s really good. Maybe I can, too.”

Also, Hugh has released two books already: a memoir of his service in Vietnam, and a memoir about all of the dogs that he has owned and loved. Neither of these, however, was available to the Great Unwashed. His new book, Requiem for a Rat, is available at Amazon – links have been provided above.

I always figured that Hugh would get a book or two out there one day, but I was honestly surprised when my brother, Todd, published a book in 2013. He might have mentioned that he was working on a book, but if so, it hadn’t registered with me. Brother Todd is a self-directed entrepreneur. He always has yea number of irons in the fire, and not all of them pan out. Maybe that’s why I only listened with one ear when he mentioned that he had a book in the works. His book is autobiographical, chronicling his adventures in higher education, world travel and entrepreneurship.

I also have an aunt, Claudia Pattison, who has written a romance novel, as yet unpublished. I encourage her to go ahead and get that puppy into print. It’s really not that hard, and given the book market, it will probably wildly outsell anything that myself, Hugh or Todd has done.

I suppose that writing and self-expression tend to run in my family. We’ve always been a verbose group, which has made for some very memorable family gatherings. As for myself, I’ve got a few more things in the works – but when they’ll see the light of day is still very much up in the air. Keep checking this blog for updates. And buy my uncle’s and brother’s books.

And mine, of course.

Cover of Jackrabbit, new John Dillinger novel
Buy on Amazon

Love in the Time of Covidiocy

This image has no bearing on the writing below, but I thought it looks cool.

From the Writing for the Sake of Word Count Department:

The good news: I just cleared the 5,000 word mark in my new novel manuscript. The bad news: it’s taken me three fuckin’ months to do so.

I love to write. At least, I used to…or I think I used to. Can’t really tell anymore. Then again, there’s a lot of stuff I used to love to do but don’t because of this godawful pandemic. And here’s the damn aggravating part: all things considered, I got it sweeeeeeet. I’m still employed, and I now work from home. I have a decent living situation, with a tidy little house and a loving wife and a bit of backyard I can enjoy now that the weather’s warm.

Of course, all of these things aren’t about to stop me from whining my ass off. It’s the American way. (Also, I’m fairly certain that nobody reads these posts, so what the fuck*.)

Unfortunately, the American way also now comprises widespread ignorance, hostility, animosity (redundant, yes, I know), idiot conspiracy theories, idiot politicians, idiot citizens and idiot wind.

My problem is that I am a news junkie, and for the last several months – and the last several weeks especially – I can’t read the news without flying into a mouth-foaming rage at the state of the world, and especially the state of the nation. Lately, I’ve been trying to greatly scale back my news consumption, but even articles in The Onion can send me into a screeching rage. Even if I cut out my news consumption entirely, I can feel the nationwide covidiocy, like picking up errant radio signals on my bridgework.

Only through a regular intake of ‘frop** am I able to socially function, and that only on the most rudimentary level. Basically, I get up, I work, I ‘frop, I watch The Simpsons, I go back to bed. Even that routine can be a chore, never mind trying to work on a novel manuscript, a journal or a friggin’ blog post.

Compounding the frustration are reminders of other great works that have been produced when people have been isolated in times of pandemic isolation. The NYTimes’ Decameron Project, is a good example of what’s fueling my sense of authorial inadequacy. The problem is compounded by well-meaning friends and relatives who say things like, “Wow, I bet you’re getting all sorts of writing done, what with this lockdown and all.” It takes all of my willpower not to scream obscenities when I hear this.

So, where am I going with this? Is there even a point? Well, from a thematic viewpoint, there’s none whatsoever. However, I have just cranked out approximately 500 words, so…

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

Remember when this guy was the shittiest possible POTUS we could imagine?

*To see if anyone is actually reading these things, I offer this: the first person to contact me with the code word “bleen” will get $20, or a back rub. My email is crawford@sweetweaselwords.com.

**Short for habifropzipulops, a Tibetan herb that grows only under very special conditions.

-CS

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Dillinger Download Days

Yours truly with a copy of JACKRABBIT, in front of the “Dillinger House” on Tucson. John Dillinger was arrested there in January 1934, prior to his amazing breakout from Crown Point jail.

From now until midnight on Sunday, May 17, download a FREE copy of Jackrabbit

Back in January, I went to Tucson to attend a friend’s memorial service. It was a strange trip in a number of aspects, not the least of which was my reason for visiting. I had lived in Tucson for five years back in the 90’s, but I hadn’t been back in over a decade. After having spent that interim ten years in the Pacific northwest, being back in the Sonoran Desert was very odd. On one hand, it was quite familiar from my presious life there; on the other, the desert seemed really alien after a decade in the Pacific Northwest rain forest.

While I was there, I made it a point to visit the house where John Dillinger was arrested in 1934. It’s a small, neat “territorial” house in the old neighborhood just west of the sprawling University of Arizona campus. Although all of the action in Jackrabbit takes place starting immediately after the Tucson arrest, it seemed like an appropriate place to take a publicity photo.

Also, I’ve learned that Tucson has begun embracing its Dillinger history with an annual “Dillinger Days” celebration, featuring reenactments, a historical exhibit, a vintage car show, and a Tommy gun display. Unfortunately, I had missed the fun by a week or so this time, but I would like to make it in the future. January is a great time to get the heck outta Portland for some desert sun.

The Plague Journal

I’m tryin’ to think, but nothing happens!

-Jerome “Curly” Horwitz

I hope everyone is safe and well in these anxious and uncertain times.

One of the questions I’ve gotten quite a bit as the coronavirus pandemic has made its mark is whether I’m writing more now that I’m spending more time at home.

The answer to that question is an emphatic “Hell, no!”

I’m so wound up and stressed out, I can barely read, much less write. To illustrate: I recently got a copy of William Gibson’s latest, Agency. The publish date was pushed back multiple times, so I was really glad when I finally got my hot little hand on a copy.

But I couldn’t read it very well. I’d go over a page or three and then just sorta zone out. After I was about sixty pages in, I realized that I had no idea what the hell was going on. I put it back on the shelf to be read at a less discombobulating time. Instead, I switched to my literary equivalent of comfort food: Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I figure that should carry me ’til mid-May, at least.

As for actually doing any serious writing – forget it. This post here is the first “serious” writing I’ve done since the beginning of March. The only writing I’ve been doing with any regularity has been maintaining a spotty “plague journal,” which consists largely of short entries like “curled up behind the couch and whimpered for two hours.” Such missives will not exactly put me up there with the likes of Defoe and Pepys (who wrote very eloquently about the 1665 Great Plague of London). At least I’m getting some words on paper.

And it feels like I’m kinda tapped out for this post, so I’m going to wrap it up and chalk it up as a win. I hope everybody out there is staying safe and staying well. THis is some scary shit, but it too will pass.

Be brave, be kind.

What About Scott?

The other day, I published the third installment of a “short” story called Reset. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this was based on a very weird and vivid dream I had about finding myself back in junior high school, but with all of my adult memories and experiences. Very freaky. Freaky enough, in fact, that I spent several months fleshing out a viable story arc. When it was all said in done, the first draft topped out at about 21,000 words (hence the quotation marks around “short”).

At first, I’d thought about trying to whittle the MS down to a nominally-publishable 10,000 words. Then I realized that I didn’t give a whoop if it was “publishable” or not; I had no intention of trying to shop it around, and I could just post the whole damn thing on this website. Which I did.

One of the issues I had was figuring up how the wrap up the story. Basically, I opted for a cliffhanger approach, which met with mixed reactions. About half the readers felt it was a cop-out, while the other half was good with it.

My main problem was what to do with the main character, Scott Gray. Would he go back to his “marginally dysfunctional” adult life and try and pick up whatever pieces he could? Or would he live his life over, avoiding all of the mistakes he made the first time, and using his knowledge of future events to his advantage?

I didn’t care for either of these options, really. Also, there were some other characters in the story who ended up being a lot more interesting than I had originally anticipated (especially Missy McSween). I didn’t want to abandon them if Scott went back to 2019, but I had already plumbed the Memory Lane of the early-eighties nostalgia, and didn’t want to spend any more time there, either.

So I left it up to a coin toss – the cop out, so to speak. However, at no point did I suggest that the result of the coin toss would result in Scott staying in 1982 Pennsylvania, or returning to 2019 Seattle. (Sure, Dr. Wu suggested that, but he’s a bullshit artist.) Basically, I saw the ambiguous ending as a springboard to that self-publishing/authorial goldmine:

A SERIES!

This seemed like a win/win/win idea. I could play around with Scott getting zapped to different alternate realities that could explore different genres (swords-n-sorcery fantasy? sci-fi? Western? hell yeah!) Also, I could see more of the interesting characters and see how they develop. Finally, I wouldn’t have to come up with a satisfying conclusion to the original story. What could be better?

Well, maybe an ice cream cone.

Anyway, it presents a lot of interesting and enjoyable possibilities as a writer. I’m looking forward to working more on the adventures of Mr. Scott Gray, but the next story is going to have to get in line – I’ve got a number of other projects on deck or in the works. But that’s a topic for another post.

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