Thursday, May 4, 2017


On April 29th at Stokercon in Long Beach, California, I received the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction for my novella The Winter Box. For those of you unfamiliar with the awards, they’re presented annually by the Horror Writers Association at the organization’s yearly conference. Works are nominated and voted on by members, with juries in each category adding works of excellence to the ballot that may have been overlooked by the membership.
 During my acceptance speech, I spoke about a conversation I had with author and editor Thomas F. Monteleone at a World Fantasy Convention some years ago. We got to talking about writing awards, and Tom asked me if I’d won any yet. I assumed Tom was talking about major awards, and feeling a little embarrassed, I said no.
“That’s okay,” he said. “You will.”
His simple faith that I was capable of producing fiction that someone might find award-worthy meant the world to the young writer I was at the time. Tom continued.
“The good thing about awards is that they’re an acknowledgement from your peers that you’re doing good work.”
Tom taught me that awards aren’t about what works are “best,” nor are they about “winners” and “losers.” They’re recognition that you’re doing good work. This means that every work nominated also receives the same recognition, regardless of who carries home a statue. (Yes, it really is an honor to be nominated!) Every person who voted for your story recognized you. Even if only one person in the whole damn world recommended your story for an award that means that person recognized you’re doing good work.
The first award I remember winning wasn’t for writing. It was for art. I was in sixth grade, and the school had an art contest. The winner would get a ticket to see the high school play. (It’s very possible this was only one of the contest prizes. I don’t remember.) I decided to copy the cover from a Wizard of Oz adaptation that Marvel Comics published (which I choose to view as artistic inspiration instead of outright plagiarism). I won the ticket, and I got to see a play called The Ghoul Friend. There were lots of cool monster costumes, but in the end it basically turned out to be a Scooby Doo Mystery (sorry for the spoiler), which was a bit of a letdown for a monster kid like me. Still, I enjoyed the play well enough. This was the first time my creative work was acknowledged beyond a few encouraging words from teachers, and it felt good. And getting to see the play was something special that marked the occasion, something that made it more than a teacher saying, “Good job.”

I was a sophomore in high school the next time I received an award for creative work, this time for writing. I was in Mrs. Vagedes’ creative writing class, and I did another homage (which as you all know if French for rip-off). A few years earlier, I’d read a story in a horror magazine – Creepy or Eerie, most likely – about the last Christmas elf. Santa and all the other elves had died, and this elf carried on alone, flying the sleigh and delivering presents. But since this was a horror magazine, the present he delivered was killing an abusive relative for a kid. I thought the writer missed an opportunity to tell a better story, one that was about what it was like to be the last elf, struggling to carry on Santa’s legacy. So I wrote “The Last Christmas Elf.” Mrs. Vagedes liked it so much she read it aloud in class, but she didn’t say who wrote it. She didn’t want to embarrass the writer with the extra attention. She gave the author (psst, it was me) a chance to out him or herself, but I kept quiet. Partly because I was an awkward teen, but also because it was cool to see the reactions of my classmates to the story itself, without the identity of the writer (still me) influencing their response.

Thanks to Mrs. Vagedes, I was honored as The Writer of the Month for that story. I had never heard of this honor before, and I never heard of it again. Sometimes I wonder if I was Milton Union High School’s only Writer of the Month. Maybe I got a certificate. I don’t recall. That was cool, but then a reporter from a weekly newspaper called me to ask if they could publish my story along with an interview with me. This turned out to be my first publication AND my first interview. I showed up at the reporter’s house wearing a suit and tie because I had no clue how writers really dressed (hint: NOT in suits and ties). When my story and interview came out, that was the concrete part of the recognition, the Something Special that helped commemorate it.
My next writing award came when I was a junior at Wright State University in 1985. I’d submitted a story to the spring issue of Nexus, which ran a contest every year, and I won second place. My friend Pete Ficht won third, and I can’t remember who won first. The winners would receive certificates and checks (I think I won $40) at an awards ceremony at the end of the quarter. Before the ceremony, I went over to Pete’s place, and we got drunk and high. (I drank plenty in college, but this was literally the only time in my life I’ve ever smoked weed.) Unsurprisingly, I don’t remember much about the ceremony. I managed not to trip on my way to the podium or giggle like an idiot when I received my award, so I consider it a win. Next year I was the editor of Nexus, and I got to choose the contest winners along with the rest of the staff. I was sober for that ceremony. (I swear!) In this case, the $40 was the Something Special that I received.
The next writing award I won was first place in the Authorlink! 1998 New Author Awards Competition in SF/F/H category. I don’t remember how I learned about the contest, but you had to submit the first chapter of a novel. I sent what would become the first chapter of Nekropolis, and I was surprised (maybe even a bit shocked) that I won. I got a certificate and a gift voucher for a bookstore. I knew it wasn’t a “big” or “important” award, but I still framed the certificate, and it’s still on my office wall, and it’s still Something Special.

Over the next twenty years, my work received several award recommendations. In 1999, my story “Anubis Has Left the Building” was a finalist for the Darrell Award for Best MidSouth Short Story. In 2008, 2013, and 2014, I had work nominated for a Scribe Award for Best Speculative Original Novel, presented by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. And my novella The Men Upstairs was a finalist for the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award in Long Fiction. This was the closest I’d come to winning a major award, and I was proud to take home the small rock token that nominees got. I had no idea what the rock represented, until my wife said, “Shirley Jackson? ‘The Lottery’?” That rock is – you guessed it – Something Special.

In 2016 I was honored to receive the Sinclair Community College 2016 Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award. (Sinclair is where I’ve taught full-time for the last eighteen years.) I mention this one because my writing was a big part of why I won the award. The Horror Writers Association presented me with the 2016 Mentor of the Year Award, which – while not for my writing specifically – was still a great honor. And this year, I won a Stoker. Which for horror writers is like winning an Oscar. (I think the Shirley Jackson Awards might be horror/weird fiction’s equivalent of the Tony Awards.) So, after all these years, what have I learned about awards?

                  The recognition that you’re doing good work isn’t just the most important thing – it’s the only thing that really matters.

                  The Something Special is just a physical symbol – a cool physical symbol, true – of the recognition you received. It can serve as a useful reminder that at one point someone thought your work didn’t suck on those days when you’re sure your current work in progress is a steaming pile of shit.

                  Awards can be useful marketing tools. From now on I’m Bram Stoker Award-Winning Author Tim Waggoner, and I’ll use this however I can and see where it takes me. I’d be a fool not to.

                  A wonderful side benefit to winning an award is how many people are excited and happy for you. At least in the horror community, there a lot of good will and support.

                  Sometimes you need to apply for awards, and sometimes you have to let people know your work exists. I used to think awards just happened, and sometimes they do. I did nothing to make The Men Upstairs available to the Shirley Jackson Award judges. But there was an application process for the Faculty Scholar of the Year Award, and I made sure The Winter Box was available to voting members of the Horror Writers Association. I didn’t promote The Winter Box or urge anyone to vote for it, but these days, so much is published – traditionally and indie – that there is no way in hell that any one person can keep up with it all. People need to know your work exists if they’re to have a chance to vote for it. This year, I learned that you can submit work to the World Fantasy Awards. (Although I think you can only submit one work on your own. Your publisher can submit more, I believe). You can ask your editor to submit your work to the Shirley Jackson Award judges, too. You need to make sure your work is seen. And yes, giving free work for voters’ consideration might cut into your sales – especially if you publish with a small press or are an indie writer. You’ll have to make your own choice about that. You might consult with your publisher, too. If your book just came out and you start giving away free copies, your publisher might not be happy about it.

                  Don’t be an asshole. It’s rare, but in the past, I’ve had people contact me and offer to swap award recommendations. (You recommend my story, I’ll recommend yours.) I’ve had people push me to vote for their work, and I’ve had people ask me to talk about their work on social media in the hope that it’ll help generate some award interest. (I have no idea why these people think anyone gives a damn what I think.) I didn’t do any of these things because they’re wrong. Your moral mileage may vary, I suppose, but I refuse to bend on this. It’s okay to offer free copies of your work to voters or to see that your work is submitted to judges, but that’s it.

                  I’ve served as a juror for the Scribe Award several times. There were only a handful of us on the jury, so our personal (and very subjective) preferences obviously came into play. From this, I learned another way to look at awards: A particular group of people decided to honor a particular work at a particular time. There ultimately is no such thing as “best” work when it comes to awards.

                  Waiting to see if your name will be called is nerve-wracking, and if you are summoned to the podium, you won’t hear anyone cheering or remember anyone’s faces. You’ll be lucky to remember your name.

                  Have a speech prepared ahead of time, even if you don’t think you’ll win. I don’t write speeches down (I’ve taught for thirty years, and I’m used to talking extemporaneously.) But I’ve had an award acceptance speech mentally prepared for many years. It was the anecdote about that conversation I had with Tom. So now that I’ve used that, I have to come up with another acceptance speech, should I ever be lucky enough to be nominated for another writing award.

                  Beware of envy and jealousy. These destructive emotions created the Sad and Rabid Puppies in the science fiction field. (If you don’t know who they are, Google them.) I’ve heard several award presenters begin their presentation with some bitter variation of “I’ve never been nominated for the award I’m presenting, let alone won one.” They always act like they’re joking, but everyone knows they’re not. I’ve presented awards – and accepted them for friends – before winning one of the big ones myself. I know what it’s like to stand on stage and give a trophy you’ve never won to someone else. Of course, I’ve felt envious and jealous. I’m only human. But you can’t let those negative emotions fester inside you. It won’t do you or your writing any good.

                  I’ve seen people lament on social media that they’re never nominated for awards, and if they are nominated, they never win. And of course people bitch about those works that did win because they’re obviously not as good as what should’ve won – namely, the bitchers’ own work. I’ve known people to get depressed because they haven’t won an award, or even if they’ve already won a shitload, that they didn’t win this time. All of these negative feelings just make it that much harder for you to write. And they can turn you into a miserable sonofabitch no one wants to be around – at least during award season – if you’re not careful. And if you can’t help feeling bitter, for Christ’s sake, don’t go on a social media rant about them. All you’ll do is damage your brand as a writer.

People hunger for validation. Some of us are practically starving for it. You want validation as a writer? Write the very best you can each time and try to improve every day. Publish your work and get paid for it. Listen to readers who enjoy your work, whose lives may even have been changed by it. All of these things are the most important types of validation for writers. Awards are just the cherry on top.

But I have to admit, that cherry tastes pretty good.
Want to check out my Bram Stoker Award-Winning novella? (See what I did there?) The limited edition hardcover of The Winter Box sold out a while ago, but the ebook version is still available. Here’s an Amazon link for your shopping convenience:

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Incredible Story-Making Machine!

                                                                                                        Cartoon by Grant Howett

Every year, the college where I teach offers a workshop for young writers. This year, I'm conducting a session for 6-8th graders, and this year I created a story-generating exercise called The Incredible Story-Making Machine. I've posted it here in case any of you would like to use it in any classes or workshops that you teach, free of charge. Feel free to adapt it to your own needs as well. If you do use it, I'd appreciate hearing how it worked for you.


Input data into this "machine" to help you generate a story!

1) Create a CHARACTER.
            1 Psychological Strength:
            1 Psychological Weakness:
2) Give your character three BACKGROUND details. Try to use these details in your story.
            Detail One:
            Detail Two:
            Detail Three:
3) Give your character a GOAL (what the character wants to achieve in the story).
            Character’s Goal:
4) Create a SETTING for your story.
            Where and when does the story take place?
5) Create an ANTAGONIST for your character. (This antagonist can be a person, a force of nature, a situation, etc.)
6) Create three OBSTACLES that the character will have to overcome in order to obtain his or her goal. (The obstacles should involve the antagonist as well as the character’s psychological strength and weakness.)
            Obstacle One:
            Obstacle Two:
            Obstacle Three:
7) Create a PLOT TWIST for your story, an unexpected turn of events that will surprise your readers.
            Plot Twist:
8) Create an interesting and exciting CLIMAX for your story.
            How does the story end?
            Does the character obtain his or her goal?
            How is the character changed by the events of the story?
9) Using the information you generated with this template, WRITE YOUR STORY!
10) When you’re finished, share your story with others!

Saturday, January 28, 2017


As I discussed in my last blog post, I wrote the official movie novelizations of xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE and RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER. Both films came out within a week of each other, and now that I’ve had a chance to see them, here are some thoughts and insights.


 I was surprised that everything in the movie was in the script I had to work with. A few things were cut entirely and a few scenes were shortened, but what was cut had no bearing on the story or characters (for the most part), so no surprise that this stuff was left out. (And in my opinion, leaving most of those things out improved the movie.) Nothing was added. I was also surprised by how much of the action occurred exactly how it was detailed in the script. I expected some of the action scenes to be somewhat different because changes were made as the action scenes were blocked out and filmed. And while I'm sure that happened to a degree, it was much less than I thought. Several scenes in the script were written to create a build-up of suspense. Those scenes still exist in the movie, but they occur at straight-ahead action-movie speed. It was so strange to watch a sequence that was exactly like in the script go by so much faster than what the same scene felt like when I was writing it. I had to imagine those sequences much slower so I could write about them, so a sequence would go by in a few seconds in the film, and I'd think, "Well, hell, that took me a couple hours to write!"

As I mentioned in my previous blog about writing these books, I added two chapters and an epilogue to xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE. The studio cut all the additional material. They also cut some of Xander’s thoughts, presumably because he’s more an action dude than a thinker. No hard feelings on my part. When you write media tie-ins in, the IP holder is the ultimate boss.


This time the experience watching the movie seemed more natural than watching xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE. Even though I knew everything that was going to happen (mostly), I was able to watch the movie as a movie, while still mentally comparing it to the script and my novel at the same time. I didn’t feel as if I was able to watch XANDER as a movie in and of itself. The majority of THE FINAL CHAPTER followed the script exactly, with only a few minor scene trimmings here and there. Since Paul W.S. Anderson wrote the script and directed the film, it was no surprise to me that the movie was faithful to his script. There were two relatively major additions: one an action scene in the beginning of the film and the last bit at the end. If the first trailer had come out as I was writing the novelization, I could’ve guessed at the additional action scene (if not the specific details), and I would’ve placed it more or less in the same spot it appears in the finished film. (I SO wish I’d seen the trailer earlier; I’d have loved to write that scene!) There were a LOT of specific details that weren’t in the script that I had to guess at while writing – things like exact weapons characters used, how some of the tech looked and operated, etc. And some of the tech that was spelled out in the script changed a little for the movie in terms of appearance, if not in function. Some of the action was spelled out in the script and occurred on screen the same way, but a lot of specific action moves were added during filming, especially during hand-to-hand combat sequences. (I had to guess at a lot of the specific fight moves when I wrote the book). All I had to work with was the script, so while I was writing I scoured the Internet for every single image from the film I could find, including selfies actors took on set. This allowed me to get a better idea of what weapons the characters carried, how they were dressed, etc. This also allowed me to guess at one element that was dropped from the script so I could leave it out of my book. I was glad to see that all this work paid off, making my book closer to the finished film. One very minor detail in the script changed during filming, and the studio requested we change that in the manuscript. It was the only change they asked for.

For my book, I added a big battle sequence at the beginning (the battle in DC that happened between the last movie and this one). I was REALLY worried the studio would cut this, and I’m glad they didn’t. I added more scenes with Wesker and made him more of a bad-ass than he’s portrayed in this film. I added a chapter at the end to answer a question left over from the last film, and I added my own “Is this really THE END?” type epilogue for the fun of it. There’s an existential element to the story, and I emphasized that with Alice’s internal thoughts in a number of places. I generally enjoyed writing from her point of view. It was fun to write her as an ultimate warrior who also has a very human side. I also did my best to connect various threads of the script to the other films in the franchise and, in several cases, the novelizations of the previous movies.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how fans of these franchises respond to the books. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy them. If not . . . at least I had fun writing them. AND I got paid!


Want to check out the books? You know you do!



Sunday, January 15, 2017


I’m in my fifties, and back when I was a kid, we didn’t have DVD’s or Netflix. If we saw a movie at the theater and wanted to experience it again – assuming we couldn’t con our parents into taking us one more time – we read a novelization. I loved reading them because they normally contained extra scenes that weren’t in the movie, and best of all, they gave me insights into the characters’ thoughts and feelings – their internal lives – which provided a different way to view the story.

As a novelist, I’d always hoped I’d get a chance to write a novelization one day. Partly because I’m always interested to see what I can learn from working in a form I’ve never attempted before, but also because it would be a great way to come full circle and reconnect to the boy I used to be. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to write not one, but two novelizations, back to back: xXx: The Return of Xander Cage and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. And while I’m far from an expert at writing novelizations, I did learn a few things while writing mine, and now I’m going to share that knowledge with you. 


Both movies were continuations of a franchise, and while I’d already seen the previous movies in each series, I watched them again to prepare. I wanted to immerse myself in the actors’ performances – their speech patterns and body language – but I also wanted to immerse myself in the style and atmosphere of their respective worlds. When I write a media tie-in novel, it’s just as important for me to capture the feel of the property as much as anything else. And since both franchises are action series, I also wanted to get a strong sense of the actors’ physicality. How they moved was just as important to me as how they spoke.


People often ask me how much support IP holders give tie-in writers. The answer: not much. The xXx folks sent some references photos, but other than that, all I received were hardcopies of the scripts. Both scripts had been cobbled together from various drafts (the pages had notations indicating which draft they were pulled from), but neither were – as far as I could tell – final shooting scripts. At least, they weren’t indicated as such.

Both scripts were roughly the same length and had basically the same proportion of action scenes to non-action scenes. Both had more detailed descriptions of setting and actions sequences than I expected, but there were plenty of places where there was little – if any – detail. Both scripts had their idiosyncrasies. One contained different versions of dialogue throughout: dialogue from the original read-through script and alternate (and presumably improvised) dialogue recorded during the cast read-through. There was no indication which dialogue would be included in the final film. Both of the scripts had repeated scenes located in different places in the script, with no indication where they would end up in the final film. Both scripts had scientific errors, so I knew I would have to double-check every technical detail as I wrote to make sure my books didn’t contain such errors. (It didn’t matter that these were novelizations. Any book with my name on it is MY book.)

As I read, I tried to imagine the films in my mind – the sights, sounds, and even the camera angles. I once read that scriptwriters always think in terms of image instead of words when they write, and I tried to keep this mindset as I read.


I wasn’t sure how to get started since I’d never written a novelization before. I decided to begin by typing in all the dialogue first. After all, I knew that the dialogue had to go into the books, and this would give me the opportunity to make decisions about what version of the dialogue to use from the one script that contained alternate lines. I figured this way I’d already have a chunk of each book “written” before I began. I was surprised to find the amount of dialogue in each script was almost exactly the same: 10,000 words. I have no idea if this is because they were both scripts for action films or if the proportion was due to some scriptwriting formula for how much dialogue a film in general should contain. Since I was contracted to write 80,000 words for one book and 70,000 words for the other, I knew I’d have to add 70-60 K words as I wrote.

I generated ideas for scenes that I could add or extend in case the scripts alone wouldn’t provide me with enough material to make my word count (which I assumed they wouldn’t). I was careful to come up with ideas that I thought would fit naturally with the stories.

Neither film had a trailer out when I started writing (although the xXx film’s trailer did drop while I was in the middle of writing that book), so in order to find out how the actors (or monsters) looked in the film – hair, clothes, etc. – as well as what the scene locations looked like, I scoured the Internet for images from the films, including selfies actors took on set. These images also gave me some idea what changes were made during the actual filming when I could see they were different than what was described in the scripts. Yes, my job was to novelize the scripts I was given, but as a kid, I always found it jarring when a scene in a novelization was significantly different than what I saw in a movie, so I wanted my books to be as close to the finished film as possible.


Drafting each book was very different. I had several months to write the first one, and only three weeks to write the second. In general, I find dialogue to be easiest to write and action to be the hardest. You have to carefully choreograph action sequences, and doing so makes my head hurt. But I’ve worked hard over the years to get better at writing action, and since the scripts mostly spelled out the action sequences to one degree or another, that part of writing the books wasn’t too bad.

Even though I didn’t get to consult directly with the scriptwriters, I viewed the process of writing these books as collaboration. To that end, I wanted to keep as much of the scriptwriters’ voices in the books as possible. So not only did I use their dialogue, I used some of their descriptive passages, not word for word, but I wanted to keep the details and narrative viewpoints.

Scriptwriters don’t always have to explain how characters get from Point A to Point B physically. They can just show the characters already present at a new location. So there were instances when I had to connect dots that had been left unconnected. And, as I mentioned earlier, I continually checked technical details for accuracy and made corrections when necessary. When various technology was used in a script – vehicles, weapons, etc. – I viewed YouTube videos to see how they’re used and hear the sounds they make, and I checked schematics online to get the vocabulary I needed to describe them. Occasionally, I even had to do some math to check things like a bomb’s blast radius.

For Resident Evil: The Final Chapter I added in new material as I went. Some of this was to strengthen connections between this story and those of the previous films, some was to provide answers to questions the script didn’t address. So when I finished that draft, it was more than long enough. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage was different. Because I had such a short deadline, I used only the material in the script for my first draft and added nothing. When I was finished, I had 60,000 words. I knew I had to add 10,000, so I created three new action sequences and an epilogue and added them to the draft, which got me to 70,000 words. (I wrote that extra 10,000 words over the course of three days, and if you think my mind was fried after that, you are correct.)

I had time to proofread and edit the Resident Evil book. I had no time to do so for the xXx book, and my poor editor had to take care of that job herself in the interest of time. It was the only time I’ve given an editor an unproofed manuscript, and it was an uncomfortable feeling for me. I hope I never have to do that again.

The trailer for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter came out after I’d submitted the manuscript for that book, and as I watched it, I had two main reactions: “So THAT’s what that looks like” and “Well, shit, that wasn’t in the script.”

I made a number of significant additions – along with some minor story tweaks – to Resident Evil: the Final Chapter. The studio only changed one very minor detail that had evidently been altered during filming. I added three chapters and an epilogue to xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. That studio removed everything I’d added, along with a number of places where I indicated what the lead hero was thinking and feeling during a scene. Evidently Xander Cage really IS all action.

I wasn’t upset about the deletions for the xXx book. That kind of thing is par for the course when you write licensed tie-in fiction. I think readers would’ve enjoyed the scenes, though. I was happy that everything I’d added to the Resident Evil book remained. I think (or at least I hope) that the series’ fans will like the extra material.

I’m writing this on January 15th, and neither film has been released yet. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage comes out on Jan. 19th, and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter comes out Jan. 27th.  I plan to see both, and I’ll be interested to see what differences there are between the scripts I novelized and the finished films – and what I learn from that. I’ll write a follow-up blog in early February and let you know. Until then, as Siskel and Ebert used to say, “See you at the movies.”


Want to read both novelizations? You know you do, so here’s some linkage:

After coming out of self-imposed exile, extreme athlete turned government operative Xander Cage must race against time to recover a sinister weapon known as Pandora’s Box, a device that controls every military satellite in the world. Recruiting a new group of thrill-seeking cohorts, Xander finds himself entangled in a deadly conspiracy that points to collusion at the highest levels of government.

As the only survivor of what was meant to be humanity's final stand against the undead hordes, Alice must return to where the nightmare began—Raccoon City, where the Umbrella Corporation is gathering its forces for a final strike against the only remaining survivors of the apocalypse. In a race against time Alice will join forces with old friends, and an unlikely ally, in an action packed battle with undead hordes and new mutant monsters. Between regaining her superhuman abilities at Wesker's hand and Umbrella's impending attack, this will be Alice's most difficult adventure as she fights to save humanity, which is on the brink of oblivion.


You can still pick up my horror novel Eat the Night. Peter Tennant had this to say about the book in his Black Static Review: “. . . this was a wonderfully entertaining work of fiction, but one that almost as an aside also explores the nature of reality and our ideas of truth, of how we are to conduct ourselves in the face of existential despair. And there’s also lots of blood, gallons of the stuff. I loved it.”

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Writing Dreams and Harsh Realities

Recently I posted this comment on Facebook: “People always ask me how I find time to write. I don’t. I choose to write.” I was in the process of finishing a movie novelization that I had only a few days left to turn in to the editor, so I didn’t pay much attention to the comments that followed. When I checked Facebook later, I saw that several people found my comment “not supportive” and even hurtful to people who had so much else going on in their lives that they didn’t have the privilege of extra time to write. I tried to clarify by adding that “Everyone has their circumstances, but anyone should be able to find a few minutes a day or week to do some writing.” If people truly want to become writers, they need to make a commitment to producing writing, however they can work it into their lives. Seems like common sense, right? If you want to get good at something, you have to practice.

I understood the reactions people had to my post, but I thought, “My god, if they found that comment overly negative and hurtful, how would they react to being in a room full of professional writers talking bluntly about the writing life?” They’d probably go apeshit.

In today’s world – especially, it seems online – unwavering praise and choruses of “You can do it!” are how many define support, and anything less than that is considered wrong, if not downright evil. But professionals feel as if we’re lying if we give that kind of empty support. We don’t praise unless we think something is truly good, and we don’t say “You can do it!” unless we’re confident you can. If we tell you what we think is the truth, it’s because we respect you – and the profession – too much to feed you any bullshit. We’re trying to decrease your learning curve – IF you’re serious about trying to take your writing to the next level.

So, in that spirit, here’s some more blunt talk about writing and publishing. If you find it unsupportive and emotionally damaging, ignore it and consider me a cynical asshole whose heart is nothing but a cold, shriveled husk. But if any of it helps you – even a little – then I’ve done my job as both a writer and teacher.

NOTE: If you write for fun or as a hobby, and you have no intention of trying to make some kind of professional career as a writer, none of the following applies to you. Feel free to ignore it all and keep having fun!


Hopefully, you have friends and family that support your writing. But whether you do or not, it’s up to you to make your dream come true – no one else. You’ll have barriers in your way – we all do to one degree or another – but you’ll have to overcome them, whatever it takes if you want to make a writing career for yourself. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are or how hard it is for you to find time to write. If you truly want to do it, you’ll find a way. If you can’t find a way, you won’t write. Is this fair? When it comes to writing, there’s such thing as fair. There are only your challenges and what you do to overcome them. If you want a writing life, you have to fight for it – with no guarantee that you’ll achieve it.

I read this in an article once: Make a list of everything that’s more important to you than writing. The shorter the list, the greater the chance you’ll succeed. This is a simple way to gauge how badly you want a writing career and what you’re willing to do to make it happen. I once read an article in which the agent Russ Galen used this phrase: “a lust for success that would appall Napoleon.” The closer you are to having that kind of intense, all-consuming desire, the greater your chances of establishing a writing career.


Just because you wrote a book, story, or poem doesn’t obligate anyone on the planet to read it. You have to give readers a reason to choose your piece of writing from all the bazillion others out there. This is especially true for self-published/indie authors who have no publisher vouching for them. They have to fight to grab readers’ attention in a sea of traditionally published and self-published books. But traditional writer or indie, it’s not enough that your writing is good. It needs to be competitive.

What makes you choose a story? What initially draws you to it? What makes you start reading it? What makes you keep reading? You need to be able answer these questions about your own work if you hope to snag and hold onto readers.

You need to hone your skills and keep improving throughout your life. You need develop concepts, characters, plots, and narrative structures that aren’t run of the mill while – especially if you write genre fiction – still fulfilling readers’ expectations.


Years ago, I gave a writing workshop at the college where I teach, and some of my colleagues from the English Department were kind enough to attend. At one point I said “Writing talent is as common as dirt,” and they laughed, obviously thinking about all the bad essays they’d graded throughout their careers. But my statement is true. I’ve encountered hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the years who had enough basic talent to have a good shot at establishing a writing career. Almost none of them have, though. Talent is only potential, and it’s worthless unless it’s developed, focused, and applied. Not only do you need to become the best writer you can, you need to learn everything you can about publishing and marketing in order to reach an audience. You also need to learn how to be persistent as hell. After all, you can’t succeed if you give up.


There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about the violin virtuoso Paganini. A young violinist approached Paganini one day and said, “Maestro, it would mean so much to me if I could play a bit for you and you could give me some advice.” Paganini told the man to play, but after a few moments, he stopped him. “I’m sorry,” Paganini said, “but you will never be a professional violinist.” Angry, the man went away, determined to prove Paganini wrong. He practiced night and day for years until he finally became first violin for a prestigious orchestra. He then went back to Paganini and said, “Maestro, do you remember me coming to you years ago and asking if I could play for you? You told me I’d never be a professional violinist. But now I am!” Paganini said, “Oh, I say that to everyone who asks to play for me. How can I determine if someone is going to become a professional from hearing only a few notes? But I know that if someone can be discouraged by a few words, then they definitely do not have what it takes to become a professional.”

Harsh? No doubt, and I’d never do that to someone. But the salient point of the story is this: “How can I determine if someone is going to become a professional from hearing only a few notes?” Teachers (the ones who are also professional writers) can tell if you have the basic talent and skill to build on, and we can give you tricks and tips, and some encouragement, and then send you on your way. In the end, we’re just resources for you to draw on. You are your own teacher.

You can take classes, go to workshops, read piles of how-to-write books, enroll in graduate programs, but none of these things will teach you to write in and of themselves. Only you can do that for yourself. You can pick up all kinds of knowledge and experience that will help decrease your learning curve, but only you can do that learning, and you do it through reading and writing a metric fuck-ton. There is no other way, and there is no short cut. The vast majority of writing students will never go on to publish anything, and it’s not because they don’t have the ability. It’s because they don’t want it bad enough or they’ve allowed themselves to become discouraged.

When I teach fiction writing, I know that most of the people in the room won’t go on to write. Hell, they may never write another word after the class is over. But I know that there’s a good chance that someone present will continue and persevere, and since I don’t know for certain who that person is, I treat everyone as if they are that person. After all, I was once a student in fiction writing classes, and I never said much. I just did the work and absorbed everything I possibly could. Yet even back then, I knew I was my first, best teacher, and it was up to me to learn everything I could on my own. And the most I’ve ever learned came from plunking my ass down in the chair and writing.

Hopeful writers, just like the young violinist in the Paganini story, believe they need a professional writer to read their work and use their vast wisdom to tell them how to spin their straw into gold. (Although in reality, these hopeful writers are most likely looking to have the pro tell them they’re awesome and bestow upon them the title of Real Writer.) But even if a pro reads your work, there’s not much he or she can do for you. We could give you a couple tips, any of which you could find in a basic book on fiction writing, and tell you to get back to work. There are no short cuts. But most pros simply don’t have the time to read beginners’ work. They’re too busy writing their own fiction. And why would you ask someone to read your work for free anyway? You wouldn’t go to a doctor and ask for free medical advice. You shouldn’t expect free advice from any professional, including writers.

Now, many writers – myself included – do offer advice and answer questions through social media, email, workshops, etc., all free of charge. I write this blog to share information freely when I could sell each entry as an article to a writing magazine for money. Sure, there’s a self-promotion aspect to my blog, but I doubt many people run out and buy my books after reading an entry, and that’s not the main reason I write it anyway. Writers – especially in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror – believe in helping other writers and paying it forward. But answering questions takes a lot less time than reading and critiquing manuscripts, especially novel-length ones. Sometimes I offer to read manuscripts for free, but only in special cases, and only when I decide to (so don’t ask me). I do want to help other writers but because I need to feed my family, I do so through classes that provide me a paycheck.


There are a lot of negatives in the writing life. Rejections, bad reviews from both readers and critics, poor sales, editors who quit on you before your book is published, Internet trolls, self-doubt, depression, and worst of all, utter indifference from the world. The positives of a writing career outweigh the negatives by a country mile, but you have to be prepared for the negatives so you can survive them and not let them derail you. Mental toughness – or maybe resiliency is a better word – is just as important, if not more so, than any other quality for a writer’s continued success (not to mention sanity). And just when you think you’re as tough as any writer who’s ever lived, you’ll take a hit which knocks the breath out of you and lays you out flat. And then you’ll get up, shake it off, and get back to work. Because you have to.

If you want help dealing with the emotional aspects of writing (or any creative life), I highly recommend Eric Maisel’s book Creativity for Life:


I’ve known people who’ve pursued a writing career for decades with little to no success. These people go to workshops, classes, conferences, and talks by writers. They read articles, books, and blogs. They follow writers, agents, and editors on social media, parsing over their every comment as if it were a pronouncement from the Delphic Oracle. These people are searching for IT, the one thing that will lift them from where they are to where they desperately want to be. There has to be an IT, they tell themselves, otherwise, how come they haven’t had any success after trying so long?

There could be many reasons why these people haven’t succeeded yet. Maybe they’re looking too hard outside themselves for answers when they should look inside. Maybe as hard as they think they’re working, they need to work harder. Maybe they’ve grown comfortable with their persona as an aspiring writer and they’re afraid – whether consciously or unconsciously – to step up to the professional level where their work will have to compete against established writers and succeed or fail on its own merits. Whatever the reason, as I’ve said several times already, there is no short-cut. There is no one thing you can buy, beg, borrow, or steal that will make you a published professional. If I had to choose one quality that it seems to me successful writers share, it’s the ability to move back and forth between two mental states: being a dreamer and being a producer of material. I’ve known people who are certified geniuses but who lack drive, focus, and discipline. Their minds are like butterflies wandering through a field of flowers. Regardless of how smart or talented they are, they produce nothing. The successful writers I know have the ability to channel their creativity and focus on a task and see it through to completion. I suppose they’re like Pokemon Masters: “I chose you, Writing Muse!” The creature inside the Pokeball is raw power, and the Pokemon Master is the one who guides that power. Writers – really, all successful, productive creatives – need to be both Pokemon and Master and be able to move back and forth between the two mindsets as needed. A pretty silly example, maybe, but it seems to me to work.

Can someone gain this kind of mindset or do you have to be born with it? Honestly, I have no idea. I have it, and I’ve worked to make it stronger throughout my life, but as far as I can remember, I’ve always had it, and neither of my siblings seem to. I recognize the same quality in every successful writer I meet, but I have no idea how they came by it, either. But if it exists in you, even in the smallest of ways, you should be able to improve it with practice. As the I-Ching says, “Perseverance furthers.”


This is the bluntest of all blunt talk about writing. Just as the majority of salmon die during the course of their upstream swim to their spawning grounds without reproducing, so to do most people who attempt to develop a writing career fail. This is a fact of life (and death) and there is nothing that can be done about it. You can work your ass off, make huge sacrifices, do everything you possibly can to succeed at writing, and still fail. But here’s the thing about the salmon metaphor. If you don’t try, you don’t know how far upstream you’ll be able to make it. Maybe you won’t make it to the spawning grounds – which for writers might be becoming a bestseller, winning tons of prestigious awards, having a vast and loyal readership – but wherever you end up, it will be a hell of a lot farther than you would be if you’d never started swimming.

The best advice about writing I ever received came from Pam Doyle, the teaching assistant who was my freshman comp instructor in college. She’d read a lot of my writing during the class, including creative writing I produced as my writing journal for the course. During our final conference, she said, “I urge you to take your writing as far as you can.” I’ve passed along this advice many times over the last thirty years because it’s the only advice that I’ve encountered that is absolutely achievable by every writer. If you try your hardest to take your writing as far as you can, wherever you end up is as far as you could end up. And since you have no way of knowing where that may be, if you never give up, if – as Dory says – you just keep swimming, you’ll keep going farther and farther. Will you get to the Promised Land of becoming a professional writer? Who knows? All I know, is I intend to keep swimming until I die, just like those salmon.

So there’s some unvarnished truth for you. It might not make you feel good, but feeling good isn’t the point. Becoming the best writer you can be is the point. So get to work, keep at it, and never let the bastards get you down.


My latest novel set in the world of the TV show Supernatural, called Mythmaker, was recently released. You can find out what torments I put Sam and Dean through this time by clicking here:

I’m proud to have a story in the Horror Writers’ Association’s latest anthology, Scary Out There, edited by Jonathan Maberry. Scary Out There presents horror stories for young adults, and my tale is “The Whisper-Whisper Men.” Check it out here:

My next horror novel, Eat the Night, will soon be released from DarkFuse in collective, trade paperback, and e-editions. If you’re a fan of my Leisure novels – Like Death, Pandora Drive, and Darkness Wakes – you’ll dig this one:

I’ll be at the Imagiarium Creative Writing Conference in Louisville Oct. 7-9 and at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 27-30. If you’re going to be at either, come say hi!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Womb Breaker: A Nekropolis Story




Note: This story takes place not long after the events depicted in the novel Dark War.

Devona let out a bellowing cry that sounded like a cross between a lion’s roar and a pterodactyl’s screech. She was already holding my right hand in an iron grip, but at the loudest part of her cry she squeezed my hand even harder, resulting in a series of popping and cracking sounds as the bones within shattered.

It took a few moments for the worst of the pain to pass. Hers, not mine. I haven’t felt physical pain since I died. There are certain benefits to being a zombie, not feeling pain chief among them. Not feeling anything else? That part wasn’t so good.

When Devona’s mind cleared enough for her to realize what she’d done, she released my hand in horror.

“Oh, Matt! I’m so sorry!”

I held up my damaged hand to examine it. I’d had a fresh application of preservative spells not long ago, and the skin was smooth and healthy-looking. Otherwise, my hand looked like a flesh-colored glove that had been stuffed with gravel.

I gave my wife a smile. “It’s okay. I have a spare.”

I lowered my hand so she wouldn’t have to look at it any longer, but I didn’t offer my left hand for her to hold. I might need it later.

Devona lay on a hospital bed, and without one of my hands to hold onto, she gripped the bed’s railings. They were made of reinforced steel, and even someone with the strength of a vampire – or in Devona’s case, a half-vampire – wouldn’t be able to damage them. Hopefully. You wouldn’t think she was that strong to look at her. She’s a petite blonde who doesn’t look like she could hurt a fly if she wanted to. But in Nekropolis, looks are almost always deceiving in one way or another. She wore a white hospital gown which matched the bed sheets, the walls, the floor, and the plastic casings of the various monitors set up by her bedside, wires running to sensor patches placed on her chest. A blood IV was hooked up, the needle inserted into her right wrist. Her bare feet were placed in metal stirrups, spreading her legs apart. Not the most dignified of positions, but a necessary one if you’re going to deliver a baby, let alone twins.

I know you’re wondering how a dead man could impregnate a half-human, half-vampire woman. The short answer is magic. The long answer is none of your goddamned business.

We weren’t alone in the room. A nurse stood on the other side of Devona’s bed, keeping a close eye on the monitors’ readouts. She wore white scrubs and slip-on shoes. No rubber gloves yet. I assumed she’d put some on when it was time for things to get messy. She’d introduced herself to us as Cassara, and she was a full vampire, or Bloodborn as they prefer to call themselves. She could’ve been centuries old, but she appeared to be in her late thirties. Her black hair was short and straight, and when she concentrated a pronounced line bisected her brow, and the tips of her upper fangs protruded over her lower lip.

“Is everything all right?” I asked her.

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Everything’s fine. Each half-vampire’s body is different in its own way, and it takes me a little longer to interpret the readings, that’s all.”

The nurse didn’t look at us as she spoke. Maybe she was still assessing the monitors’ readouts, but it was also possible that she simply didn’t want to face me. Zombies aren’t held in high regard by the other Darkfolk, and while I’m a unique case – an intelligent, self-willed zombie – I’m still treated as if I was a garden-variety shambling, flesh-hungry corpse. Even my recent elevation to Lord of the Dead hadn’t changed that much. All it had done was make people more afraid of me, but in Nekropolis, fear is more valuable than respect. It’ll keep you alive longer. Not that I had done much as Lord of the Dead yet. The Ossuary – the stronghold of the Lord of the Dead – runs itself for the most part. I had some trouble when the ghosts of the Titanic and the Lusitania had a battle on the river Phlegethon. And Victor Baron’s estranged bride Elsa had tried to kill him in a spectacularly destructive fashion that would’ve taken out half the city if she’d succeeded. But overall, the job had been pretty dull so far.

I wore a white outfit similar to the nurse’s, only I had little white booties to slip over my shoes. The booties reminded me of my time back in Cleveland as a (living) homicide detective. We’d used to put on similar booties so we wouldn’t disturb crime scenes.
Another contraction hit Devona. She gritted her teeth, her body stiffened, and despite how strong the bed rails were, they bent beneath the pressure of her grip. She gutted out this contraction in silence, but I could sense how bad this one hurt. As a half-vampire, Devona possesses a host of psychic abilities that full Bloodborn don’t. Because we’re so deeply bonded as a couple, we share a strong psychic link, and we can usually tell what the other is feeling, both emotionally and physically. Because of this, I wore a special charm created for me by Papa Chatha, my friend and the voodoo priest who keeps my body in working order. The charm was an intertwined circlet of various plants and herbs that I wore on my head. The damn thing made me look like an idiot, but it blocked our psychic link – mostly – so I didn’t have to experience Devona’s pain. She’d teased me that I should feel every moment of discomfort along with her since I was fifty percent the cause of it. But we both knew I couldn’t afford to be incapacitated in any way during our babies’ births. Both of us had too many enemies who might want to take advantage of our vulnerability. That was my excuse anyway, and I was glad she’d bought it.

I carried a second charm, one that would prevent my less-than-sterile zombie body from spreading any germs that might endanger Devona or the twins. Sure, I was pretty fresh at the moment, but my body is always in a perpetual state of decay, so why take chances?

When Devona’s latest contraction passed, her body relaxed and she released an exhausted breath. We hadn’t been here long, just over an hour, but the contractions were taking their toll.

“You doing okay?” I asked.

The nurse dabbed sweat off Devona’s forehead with one hand while she placed the other on Devona’s swollen belly, as if trying to calm her body.

“Do I look like I’m doing okay?” Devona snapped.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said softly.
She gave me a wan smile. “Sorry. I’m not too worried. I am half vampire, after all. And that half comes from a Dark Lord to boot. I’ll be okay.”

Devona’s mother had been human but, as is all too often the case when human women become impregnated by Darkfolk, she died during delivery. Because of this, it would only be natural for Devona to have issues regarding the subject of childbirth, let alone going through it herself. We’d talked about her feelings before deciding to have children, and we’d revisited the issue several times since. I believed her when she said she’d be all right, but that didn’t mean I still wasn’t worried.

“You’ll come through this wonderfully,” the nurse said. She’d stopped mopping Devona’s brow, but she kept her hand on Devona’s belly. “Hybrids are the best of two species. You’re far stronger than you know.” She smiled and Devona looked at her, clearly uncertain how to take the woman’s comment.

“Uh, thanks.”

The nurse didn’t seem to be aware of Devona’s discomfort with the subject, and she continued.

“And who knows how strong your children will be? A half-vampire has never became pregnant before, and a . . . previously living person –” the nurse gave me a quick glance before shifting her attention back to Devona – “has never been a father. The rumor among the Bloodborn is that your children are expected to possess powerful magic of a type the Darkfolk have never seen.”

“That’s what we’ve been told,” I said. But despite all the tests Devona had undergone – magical, scientific, and strange combinations thereof – the truth was no one knew for sure what our twins would be like. All we knew is that we were having one boy and one girl. Otherwise, we were like any other parents, waiting for the mysteries that were our children to begin revealing themselves.
The nurse had continued touching Devona’s belly all this time, but now she glanced down at her hand, almost as if she’d forgotten what she was doing, and removed it.

“I assumed that’s the reason for all the precautions,” Cassara said. “There are Bloodborn guards stationed throughout the Fever House, both inside and outside.”

“My father is somewhat overprotective,” Devona explained.

“To put it mildly,” I muttered. Her father was Lord Galm, king of the Bloodborn and one of the five rulers of Nekropolis called Darklords – which, at least temporarily, included me. Devona hadn’t been close to Galm for the first seventy years of her life – like most vampires, she’d older than she looks – but once she became pregnant with his grandchildren, Galm had softened toward her. I wouldn’t give him an award for father of the year just yet, but I had to admit he’d changed since I’d first met him.

I was surprised that Galm wasn’t in the delivery room with us. The Fever House is staffed primarily be vampires, and as their king, Galm could command them to do as he wished. But when Devona’s doctor had told him he wasn’t permitted to be present during the delivery, he hadn’t argued, although he’d been clearly unhappy about it. Maybe the mighty Darklord was learning a bit of humility.

“It’s good your children will be strong,” Cassara said. She paused and her demeanor grew colder. “Nekropolis isn’t a place for the weak.”

Devona and I exchanged a glance, unsure how to take the woman’s comment. But before any of us could speak again, the door opened and another vampire walked in, this one wearing a white lab coat and black pants. She was tall and thin, her black hair short, her skin like white porcelain, and she projected a brisk, businesslike attitude that bordered on arrogance. Dr. Servia didn’t walk over to Devona as much as glide. She was a very old vampire and had lost much of her human behaviors over the course of her long life.

“How is the mother-to-be?” Servia asked. She didn’t smile and her voice was almost robotically toneless. Bedside manner was not her forte.

Servia’s question could’ve been directed to Devona, Cassara, or both, but it was the nurse who answered.

“She’s very close.”

Servia nodded. “Then let us prepare.”

The two of them scrubbed up at the room’s sink and put on surgical masks and gloves. Servia had even less use for zombies than Cassara, and when she came over to hand a surgical mask to me, she didn’t make eye contact.

“I assume you’re warded against spreading germs,” she said.

I showed her my charm to prove that I was, and she nodded.

“Stay back and don’t touch anything – especially not your wife.”

Her lips pursed in distaste as she spoke this last word. As much as she didn’t like zombies, she liked the idea of one marrying a Bloodborn – even one who was half-human – even less.

Devona let out an ear-splitting shriek at that moment, and she pushed against the stirrups so hard that one of them bent.

“I’d say that’s a good indication that the time has come,” Servia said dryly. She and Cassara went over to the bed and began their work.

I stayed back, as Servia had instructed. I’m not normally one to follow orders, and I hated not standing at Devona’s side to do my part – small though it might have been – in the delivery of my children. But I needed Servia to focus all her attention on Devona, not arguing with me about where I stood. And although I had the charm against spreading any kind of infection, in truth I was worried about harming the babies with my presence. I was a dead man, after all. A walking, talking, and all-too-often rotting hunk of meat. I feared that I would prove toxic to my children, so much so that I was terrified by the idea of being too close to them, let along actually touching and holding them. I hadn’t shared my fears with Devona, though. I figured she’d had enough to deal with during the pregnancy – and with my suddenly being appointed substitute Lord of the Dead when Edrigu had mysteriously left the city. And while that was all true, I wondered if I really hadn’t wanted to talk about it because doing so would’ve made it seem more real.

Men. What are you going to do with us?

Devona had several more contractions, even more powerful than the last based on the volume and intensity of her screams. Dr. Servia and Cassara kept giving Devona instructions and monitoring the diagnostic equipment. They were both calm and professional, and I told myself that was a good sign. When the doctor starts worrying, you know shit has gotten serious. And I reminded myself that Devona’s Bloodborn heritage gave her both inhuman strength and healing capabilities. She and the babies were going to be fine.

I’d thought I’d adjusted to the idea of being a father, but now that the moment was almost here, my doubts resurfaced. I was tough enough to take down the deadliest threats this town could throw at me, but fatherhood was a challenge I wasn’t sure I was up to. What if I screwed it up? I’d be ruining the lives of two innocents who’d never asked to be born, let alone have an emotionally conflicted zombie for a father. Devona had assured me that I’d be a great dad, and I wanted to believe her, but there was no way to know for sure until I tried. And the most truly frightening thing about parenthood to me is that you don’t get a second chance to do it right. Talk about pressure.

Devona’s body stiffened, and she arched her back, thrusting her very round belly into the air. And then, so fast that I almost wasn’t sure I really saw it, her belly deflated, like a falling soufflĂ©. Dr. Servia – who at this point was sitting on a stool at the end of the bed peering between Devona’s legs – displayed the first emotion I’d ever seen from her: absolute and total shock.

Cassara looked at the monitors, her face expressionless.

“The babies,” she said. “They’re gone.”

* * * * *

Devona sat up in bed, and I sat on the edge, holding her hands in mine. She hadn’t been crying, but I knew that was because she wouldn’t allow herself. Me? I wasn’t physically capable of crying, although at that moment, I wished I was.

Servia and Cassara, after determining the babies were truly gone, had remained to help Devona deliver the afterbirth and departed soon after. Once Galm had been informed of what had happened, he’d come in and asked Devona if she was okay – he didn’t bother asking me how I was – and then he held his hands, palms down, several inches over Devona’s abdomen. He was a vampire, but he was also a Darklord – a real one, unlike me – and he possessed powers far beyond those of ordinary Bloodborn. After several seconds, he lowered his hand and bared his truly impressive fangs.

“I detect traces of strong magic,” he’d said. “The children were teleported away.”

He’d gone into full-on action mode after that. He vowed that the Bloodborn – all of them – would scour the entire city in search of the twins, and they wouldn’t rest until the children were found. He’d gone off to supervise the search, and that was the last we’d seen of him.

“Why did this happen? Who could have done it?” Devona said, as much to herself as to me. My wife is a problem-solver, a quality that helped her run the Midnight Watch, the most respected security business in Nekropolis.

“Who I don’t know. As for why, there could be any number of reasons. Someone could want to exploit whatever magic the twins might possess. They also might want to use the twins as leverage against your father, maybe even blackmail him.” I paused, not wanting to say this next part, but knowing I had to. “And both of us have made enemies over the years. One of them might have done this to get revenge on us.”

“Theorizing isn’t good enough, Matt. We have to do something!”

As emotionally devastated as she was – and since I no longer wore the silly-looking psychic blocker on my head, I knew exactly how she felt – she was determined to get her children back. Thinking of our psychic link gave me an idea.

“You carried the twins for nine months. More than carried. They were connected to you in the most primal way one person can be connected to another. They say the bond between mother and child is the strongest there is. And given your psychic abilities . . .”

Her face brightened with the first hint of hope I’d seen since the twins’ disappearance. “I should be able to sense them, maybe even locate them.” The hope left her face then. “Unless they’ve been taken too far away for me to detect them.”

“Try not to think about that. And try not to put too much pressure on yourself either. Any bit of information you can sense will be helpful.”

She nodded. “Okay, I’ll try.”

I started to get up from the bed so I wouldn’t interfere with her concentration, but she held me in place.

“Stay. The twins are linked to you as strongly as to me. Maintaining physical contact with you will help me focus on them.”

She closed her eyes then and her breathing deepened. As a half-vampire, breathing is optional for Devona, but she used it to speak and at times like these, to relax her body and mind. I expected her to go into a deep trance as she extended psychic feelers outward and began the search. But her eyes snapped open only a few seconds later.

“I’ve found them! They’re close by. Still in the hospital, I think.”

I frowned. “Why would they still be here? If someone wanted to kidnap them –”

“Who cares why? Let’s go get them!”

She tore the sensor patches off her body and tossed them aside. She then yanked the IV from her wrist and blood squirted from the needle, staining the bed’s white sheets. Devona ignored the mess as she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood. I hopped off my side of the bed and hurried over to her. When I’ve had a fresh application of preservative spells, I can move almost as fast as a living man, my movements smooth and fluid. The effect doesn’t last long – a day or so at most – but I was grateful for it then. I wasn’t sure Devona was up to going on a search. She’d just given – well, almost given – birth. Her face was paler than usual, and while her legs were steady enough, her hands trembled.

“Are you sure you can –”

“Don’t,” she said.

“All right, I won’t. But try not to push yourself too hard, okay?”

She didn’t respond to that. Instead she started toward the door. When we’d checked into the Fever House, neither of us had brought any weapons. Not only weren’t they permitted in the hospital, since Galm insisted on posting guards all over the facility, bringing weapons seemed pointless. So I didn’t have my gun or any of the lethal toys I carry in my coat pockets. All either of us had to fight with were our bare hands, and Devona had crushed one of mine. That only left three hands between us. I wasn’t that worried, though. I’d lost body parts in fights before and still won. Still, I couldn’t help wishing I had my Glock right then.

Once we were in the corridor, I looked around for a wheelchair. Maybe Devona would let me push her while we searched. But I didn’t see one. I also didn’t see any of the guards Galm had commanded too watch over us. He hadn’t been kidding about ordering every one of his subjects to aid in the search for the children. I assumed Servia and Cassara had vacated the hospital to join the search, and that the other Bloodborn who worked in the Fever House had obeyed their king’s command as well. Since the Fever House was primarily staffed by vampires, that meant the hospital was almost deserted of staff, giving the hallway an empty, desolate feeling. I hoped Galm had possessed the sense to allow some of the staff to remain behind to tend to the patients.

Devona led the way through the Fever House, and I kept silent as she did so, not wanting to disturb her concentration. I could barely feel her through our link. Her awareness was projected outward, focused entirely on the twins. She kept up a good pace, although I could see how tired she was. Her movements were slower than usual, less graceful, more wooden. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, her eyes gleamed with literal light, and her fangs were pronounced and bared. I didn’t need a psychic link with her to know she was royally pissed, and despite her weakened condition, if she encountered the person that stole our children, he-she-they were in for an underworld of hurt.

I knew exactly how she felt.

We passed staff members and patients, but not many. Devona ignored them all, but I gave each a hard look. Until we found our babies and whoever had taken them, everyone was a suspect in my eyes. Maybe, I reflected, it was a good thing I didn’t have my gun.

The farther we walked, the more we seemed to go back in time. We moved from the Fever House’s modern facilities to an older section, where the walls, ceiling, and floors were made out of gray stone blocks, and instead of fluorescent lights, the halls were lit by magic greenfire torches. The doors to the rooms were made of thick dark wood, and instead of knobs they had large metal rings to pull them open. Nekropolis was founded four hundred years ago when the Earth’s Darkfolk – concerned about the proliferation of humanity and its increasing technological development – relocated to a dimension of darkness. The Fever House was built around the same time, and while it’s been added to and renovated over the centuries, some of the original construction remains. I wondered if this section of the hospital was still in use, and if so, who and what was treated here.

The corridor terminated in a dead end. There was a door here, but it had no iron ring to open it with. On the front was a wooden sign with hand-painted red letters rendered in old-fashioned script. Enter Ye Not, it read. Peril Most Severe.

“Through there?” I asked.

Devona nodded. Then before I could say or do anything, she stepped forward, lifted a leg, and kicked the door hard. She has telekinetic abilities, but I figured she wanted to keep all her psychic energy focused on finding the twins. Besides, as angry as she was, she didn’t need telekinesis. The door broke apart in a shower of splinters. There was only darkness on the other side, so I removed one of the greenfire torches with my unbroken hand, and we passed through the now open doorway, stepping over and around the debris of the door Devona had destroyed.

I can still see and hear, although both of these senses tend to dull as I rot. But even at my freshest, I can’t smell, taste, or feel anything with touch. I’d like to tell you I’ve come to accept my limited sensory capabilities over the years, but I’d be lying. So I couldn’t tell if this section of the Fever House smelled of dirt, mold, and mildew, but from the way Devona’s nose wrinkled, I guessed that it did. The floor beneath us was plain stone, as in the corridor we’d just left, but I had the impression that the space we’d entered was much larger than the outer corridor. Our footsteps echoed in a way that made me think we were in a room, a very big room. After several steps more, I revised that opinion. It felt more like we were in an auditorium, or maybe even in a structure as large as an aircraft hangar. The torchlight’s illumination only extended so far, perhaps ten feet in all directions, and it revealed nothing but stone floor and the occasional stone column. The further we penetrated into the room, the more we began to see damage had been done to the floor as some point. The stone was broken in places, and there were numerous criss-crossing grooves cut into the stone, as if someone had slashed at it with a very sharp objects. Some of the columns were cracked, and a few had been broken into pieces, leaving rubble scattered on the floor.

I was going to ask Devona what she thought had caused the damage, but before I could speak, she stopped walking.

“This is it,” she said. “They’re here.”

“Are you sure? It’s awfully quiet. Shouldn’t newborn babies be crying?” A terrible thought occurred to me then. “Do you think –”

“They’re alive,” she said. “I’d know it if they weren’t.”

We’d known the twins’ genders for some time now – one boy, one girl – and we’d already chosen names. Devona called them now.

“Lily! Toby! Can you hear us?”

I doubt Devona expected the twins to recognize their names, even though she’d been talking to them in the womb for weeks using their names. They might recognize her voice, but it was more likely she was reaching out to them psychically as she spoke. If nothing else, maybe the sound of a human voice would startle the babies and set them to crying. But Devona’s words received no response. Not at first, that is.

After several moments of silence, we heard a shuffling noise, as if something large and heavy was heading toward us. We heard a series of sounds – tiny sighs, gurgles, lip-smacks, grunts, and moans. And then the thing making those noises stepped into the torchlight. It was tall, well over eight feet, and had a hulking naked body whose skin was a patchwork pattern of different colors and textures. Flesh, scale, fur, chitin . . . It was humanoid-shaped – two arms, two legs, one head – but there was something profoundly wrong about its body, something I couldn’t immediately put my finger on. But Devona understood what it was.

“They’re babies.” Her voice held equal part wonder and disgust. “Dozens of them, all joined together somehow.”

They gripped one another’s tiny bodies in order to make a combined humanoid shape. The “head” was actually multiple heads, five in all, and they – along with every other baby head that was visible – stared at us with suspicion and hatred. The reason for the creature’s patchwork appearance was because the Mega-Baby was made up of infants from various species. Lyke, Demonkin, and a number of types which I couldn’t immediately identify.

“Our children are part of that?” I asked.

“Yes. But I can’t tell which ones, not without getting closer.”

The Mega-Baby came toward us, moving with the agility of an exceptionally fat hippo on dry land. I had no idea what sort of magic was holding it together – not to mention making it possible for the creature to move with injuring its component parts. But I did know one thing.

“I’ve seen some pretty messed-up stuff since coming to Nekropolis, but this definitely makes the top ten.” I reconsidered. “Okay, top five.”

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

Cassara stepped out of the shadows and into the light. The Mega-Baby stopped advancing toward us and turned to her as she approached. The individual baby faces smiled and a number giggled. I noticed two of the five that comprised the head scowled, their mouths puckering as if they were about to pass explosive gas.

I caught Devon’s eye and pointed to the scowling babies.

“Any guess as to who they belong to?”

Devon smiled. “I don’t need to guess.”

“I was human once,” Cassara said. “Well, technically I was Arcane. This was a century or so before the Darkfolk left for Earth. I dallied with a moral man and conceived a child. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long after her birth. Despondent, I decided to end my own life, and one night I went down to the river near my cottage, intending to drown myself. But someone intercepted me before I could get there.”

“A vampire,” I said.
“Yes. There are rules now forbidding Bloodborn from turning other Darkfolk into their kind, but that wasn’t the case back then. I was attacked, drained of blood, and left for dead. But I rose as a vampire, and I have lived as one ever since, never telling other Bloodborn that I – like you, Devora – am a child of two worlds. A hybrid.

“Once I came to Nekropolis I began working as a nurse at the Fever House. I had experience with healing herbs and poultices from my time as a witch. My duties as a nurse were varied, but I especially liked helping to bring new life into the world.”

She put a hand on the Mega-Baby’s shoulder and gave it a loving smile.

“I also rescued some of those babies from parents who didn’t deserve them. Parents who were cold and cruel. I waited until they left the Fever House, and then after a time, I found where they lived and used my magic to teleport the children here, to this unused and forgotten section. Large monsters used to be treated here, but they caused so much damage that now they are treated outside on the hospital grounds. So I used this as the home for my sweet little ones.”

The Mega-Baby clapped its hands together as if delighted by her words. Our children continued scowling at her, though. Chips off the parental block, those two.

I remembered the odd way Cassara had touched Devona’s belly, and I realized that was when she had cast the teleportation spell, although she’d waited until later to activate it.

“I can understand why you’d want to protect these babies,” I said, “but why merge them into a single – and more than a little disturbing – body?”

Cassara looked at me. “So they’d be strong, of course. Nekropolis is an extremely dangerous place. Together they are far stronger than they ever could hope to be apart.”

“Why not simply raise them and teach them to be strong?” Devona asked. She gave me a quick glance. “Not that I’m condoning kidnapping.”

“Because they’re happier this way!” Cassara shouted. “My magic keeps them young. Keeps them pure and innocent. This way, they’ll never become true monsters, like their parents.”

Her motives were understandable in a twisted way, but I had no doubt that we were dealing with one crazy vampire. We needed to proceed carefully if we wanted to get our children back without any harm coming to them. Unfortunately, Devona was not in a careful mood at that moment. She walked up to Cassara and leaned in close to her face.

“Are you saying you think Matt and I would be bad parents? Is that why you stole our babies?”

Cassara looked shocked.

“I think you’d both be wonderful parents! But given the special nature of your children, so many people would try to exploit their powers, even Lord Galm, if you’ll excuse my saying so, Devona. This way, the children will be where no one would ever think to look for them. They’ll be safe. And in the end, isn’t that what any good parent wants for his or her children?”

“Safe for what?” I said. “To wander around here, alone in the cold and the dark?”

“They aren’t alone,” Cassara said. She reached out and patted one of the baby heads. “They have each other – and they have me.”

“Do you really expect us to go along with this?” Devona asked. “Just give you our blessing, walk away, and never see our children again?”

“That would make things more convenient,” Cassara said, “but I know it’s not realistic. I hadn’t expected you to be able to track your babies. I understood you possessed certain psychic abilities, but I didn’t realize how strong they were. Oh well. Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to correct them. Or, in this case, eliminate them.”

She bared her fangs and her eyes gleamed with feral golden light.

Devona bared her own fangs and lunged toward Cassara. But before she could attack, Cassara gestured and Devona was flung backwards twenty feet. She hit, rolled, came up on her feet, and charged the vampire-witch anew.

I started toward Cassara. Either a Bloodborn or an Arcane can be a formidable opponent, but the combination of the two was a special kind of threat, and I knew it might well require both Devona and me to take her out. But I only managed to advance a few feet before the Mega-Baby stepped into my path to block me. Normally when a monster gets in my way, I do my best to make it step aside, usually in the most violent way I can. But while the creature in front of me had been created by magic, its component parts were innocent babies. And two of them were mine. I couldn’t exactly start throwing punches at it.

I heard the sounds of Devona and Cassara fighting. Hisses, snarls, the crackling of released magical energy, the soundless sensation of psychic power being unleashed. But I didn’t take my eyes off the Mega-Baby. Dozens of tiny eyes gazed back at me, and I tried to gauge what, if anything, the brains behind them might be thinking. But all I saw in those eyes was anger. Except for Lily and Toby. I saw frustration in their eyes.

“Uh . . . Hi. My name’s Matt. I’m the daddy of two of you. The ones on top there.” I pointed to Lily and Toby. “I’d like to be your friend. Maybe I could, uh, tell you a story?”

The Mega-Baby regarded me for a moment, and then the mouths of its component parts opened and let out a chorus of angry cries. It raised its right arm and brought it swinging toward me, moving at unexpected speed. At the moment my reflexes were close to those of a living man, but they were still nowhere near fast enough for me to get out of the way in time. The arm hit me on the left shoulder, and I heard a crack! of bone snapping. The impact knocked me off my feet and sent me sprawling. I hit the floor and heard more bones break. I didn’t feel any pain – always a plus when you’re in a life-and-death battle with a monster – but I wouldn’t be able to assess the damage until I tried to get up. Not that the Mega-Baby intended to give me a chance to do so.

I’d dropped the greenfire torch when I’d fallen, and it had landed behind me. The flame was magical, so there was no danger of it going out, but its light threw my shadow onto the advancing Mega-Baby, making it look even more sinister. It thudded over to me and raised a foot, clearly intending to stomp me to jelly. I glanced quickly at the arm that had struck me, and as near as I could tell none of the babies that comprised the arm had been injured when it had hit me. Cassara had said her magic had made the children strong, and it looked like she’d spoken the truth. I was relieved that the Mega-Baby wouldn’t harm itself attacking me. But that didn’t mean I tended to lie there and get flattened.

I rolled to the side as the Mega-Baby’s foot came down. It hit so hard that the stone floor cracked, and I wondered just how strong the thing was. I tried to get to my feet, but my body didn’t want to cooperate. My right hand – the one Devora had broken – wouldn’t support my weight when I pressed down on the stone. And my left arm was broken in several places from when the Mega-Baby hit me, and it wasn’t much help either. It took a bit of maneuvering to get my legs beneath me and rise to a standing position, and by the time I’d done so, the Mega-Baby had reached me. It swing its arm toward me again, but this time instead of hitting me, it grabbed hold of my broken arm. It didn’t have fingers per se, but rather five baby arms which extended from its wrists. Tiny hands gripped my arm with inhuman strength granted by Cassara’s magic, and the Mega-Baby pulled, tearing my arms free from the socket.

The no-pain thing served me well again, and since my body, even at its freshest, doesn’t work like a living one, there wasn’t any blood, so blood-loss wasn’t going to be an issue. But losing an arm is not only inconvenient in a fight, it’s downright embarrassing. Especially when it happens as often as it does to me.

Once the Mega-Baby had my arm, it paused and looked at it. It shook it back and forth several times, and a number of its heads giggled at the way the hand flopped around. It was at that moment when I understood that despite what Cassara had done to these children, they still were children. And that gave me an idea of how to deal with them.

I risked a quick glance at Devona and Cassara. They fought at the edge of the torchlight, little more than two shadowy silhouettes. They grappled toe to toe, gripping each other’s hands as if they were wrestling. Both women were snarling like animals, and while there were no visible signs of power discharge, I could sense the energies at play between them. It was a psychic rather than physical impression, and it felt like the build-up of energy before a powerful thunderstorm. I could sense Devona’s fury and determination through our link, but I could also tell that her strength was beginning to wane. She’d been through a lot physically and emotionally today, and it was starting to affect her. I wasn’t sure how much longer she could go on fighting like this. Cassara seemed to be struggling too, but she appeared to be holding up better than Devona. I needed to help my wife, but to do that, I needed to deal with the Mega-Baby first.

The creature was still examining my arm, several of the heads gumming the flesh and making it slick with drool. I walked up to the creature, picked one of the heads at random – one that protruded from the chest area – reached out with my broken hand and quickly touched its nose. And then I swiftly pulled my hand back and stuck the top of my thumb between my index and middle fingers. It took a bit of work to make my broken fingers do the job, but I managed. I then held my hand up for the Mega-Baby to observe.

“Got your nose!” I said.

The Mega-Baby’s eyes – all of them – stared at my hand, or more precisely, the tip of my thumb. My arm slipped from its grip and fell to the floor, forgotten.

I wiggled my thumb a couple times, and the babies’ eyes widened. Some of the babies wriggled until they could get a hand free and then reached toward their faces. Before any of them could touch their noses, I reached forward and touched my thumb to the face of the baby whose nose I’d originally “stolen.” The babies touched their noses and found them right where they were supposed to be. They lowered their hands and as soon as they’d done so, I reached out and pretended to snatch the nose one more time.

“Did it again!” I said.

Some of the babies giggled. A few looked like they might cry. Most of them just looked at my thumb, mystified.

I spoke as I wiggled my thumb once more. “Lily, Toby . . . I don’t know if you can understand any of this, but I’m trying to reach out to you through the link I share with your mother.”

The babies tried to check their faces again, so I returned the nose. My children hadn’t reached for their faces this time. Their gazes were fixed on me.

“I don’t know if your being part of the head means you have more control of the body than any of the others . . .”

I snatched the nose one more time, waving my hand in a slow circle for good measure.

“But if you can, try to direct the body to go over and help your mother against the bad lady who did this to you.”

I returned the nose one last time, and then I stepped back and waited. The link Devona and I shared was a primal thing, and it normally didn’t allow direct telepathic communication. That was something Devona had to purposely initiate. And I had no way of knowing if it was possible for me to reach the twins by going through Devona’s mind as if she were some kind of psychic router. I supposed I’d find out in the next few seconds.

The twins closed their eyes and furrowed their tiny brows. The Mega-Baby’s conglomerate body stiffened, and for a long moment, nothing happened. And then it turned and began walking toward Devona and Cassara. It moved slowly at first, but then it picked up speed until it was running. Neither woman saw it coming toward them. They were still caught up in their hand-to-hand battle. A nimbus of pulsing light surrounded them now, as the combination of magical and psychic energies built toward a dangerous level. The Mega-Baby appeared unconcerned about the light. It went to Cassara, grabbed her around the waist, and lifted her off the ground, pulling her free from Devona’s grip in the process. Magical energy discharged and both Cassara and the Mega-Baby cried out in pain. The Mega-Baby didn’t drop Cassara, though. Instead it spun her around until her head was pointed toward the floor. Then – magical energy still crackling around them – it brought her down in a single swift motion. Cassara’s head hit the stone floor with a sickening sound, and the magical energy winked out. The Mega-Baby let go of Cassara, and the vampire-witch’s body slumped to the floor. The Mega-Baby stood there for a moment before wobbling unsteadily and then sitting down.

Devona and I both started toward it, but before we could get there, all of its eyes closed, and it fell backward onto the floor and lay still.

* * * * *

“I think they both look like you,” Devona said.

“Poor things. Maybe they’ll grow out of it.”

We were back in Devona’s room. The four of us. Devona lay in bed, both Toby and Lily wrapped snugly in baby blankets, one held in each arm. I sat on the edge of the bed. My detached arm lay on a small table on the other side of the room, sealed in a plastic bag with a biohazard symbol on it. I’d already put in a call to Papa Chatha and he’d arrive soon to reattach it for me – and to fix my broken bones. I suppose the staff at the Fever House could’ve taken care of me, but I trust Papa more than those quacks any day of the week.

As far as we could tell, our children were completely human. They displayed no signs of being Bloodborn or zombies. I had the feeling they weren’t going to be exactly normal, though, but that was fine. Whatever they turned out to be, it would be perfect, as long as they were healthy and happy and could kick ass when they needed to.

While most of the staff were Bloodborn, they did have some Arcane doctors to deal with magic-based afflictions, and they were able to counter Cassara’s spell and separate the Mega-Baby into individual children again. Our babies had been returned to us, and the others were being take care of in Maternity. We weren’t sure what would happen to them, but we’d told the staff why Cassara had taken them, and we felt confident none would be returned to an unsafe home.

Cassara would survive – after some brain surgery augmented with copious amounts of blood infusions to stimulate her vampire healing abilities. There had been some talk of sentencing her to Tenebrus, but given her mental state, I thought it more likely she’d end up being a longtime guest in the hospital’s psychiatric wing.

The door opened then, and I expected Dr. Servia to enter, coming to check on the babies. But instead it was Lord Galm. He was a tall, well-muscled man with long brown hair and a full beard. He wore a fur cloak, loin cloth, and boots, and nothing else. His skin was hard and shiny as marble, its hue bleach-white.

“Hello, daughter!” he said in a booming voice. He gave me a quick, perfunctory glance. “Richter.”

I nodded. Given how he felt about me, that was an effusive greeting.

He walked over to the side of the bed and looked at each of the babies in turn before addressing Devona. “Your doctor tells me that both you and the children are doing well.”

“We are.” Devona’s tone was pleasant but guarded. Her relationship with her father had improved over the years, but it still had a long way to go.

“I am gratified to see my grandchildren at last,” he said.

Full Bloodborn didn’t produce children, and half-vampires were always sterile. Lily and Toby were the first grandchildren Galm had ever had throughout the millennia of his existence and that – more than whatever power the twins were supposed to possess – made them special to him. At least, that’s what I’d like to think.

He reached out for the twin closest to him – Lily as it turned out – but before he could touch her, Devona bared her fangs and snarled at him like an infuriated jungle cat.

Galm’s eyes blazed red and he bared his own fangs. He was the Lord of all Bloodborn, the most powerful vampire who’d ever existed.

I spoke softly. “It’s a wise grandpa who knows not to piss off the mother of his grandchildren.”

Galm turned to glare at me for a moment, but then the fire left his eyes, and his fangs receded. He turned back to Devora and in a thoroughly chastened voice said, “May I hold my granddaughter? Please?”

Devona smiled sweetly and with no little satisfaction. “Of course.”

She handed Lily to Galm and the vampire lord cradled her with surprising tenderness as he gazed down at her. I expected him to make some sort of snide comment about her not being Bloodborn, but he said nothing, only smiled.

I looked at Devona and we exchanged smiles of our own. It was clear that things were going to very different from now on. And infinitely better.