Desk Job: Sarah In Office-Land Review by Neil K. Henderson

Set in the offices of a big Sydney business concern of the 1990s, Desk Job by former Masque Noir editor, Rod Marsden, reads like staring through a hothouse window at a weird menagerie of mismatched captive fauna.

Among the exotic and nightmarish metaphors for office “types” – such as praying mantises (women of “a certain age” out for blood at a sniff of male impropriety), dung beetles (sycophants to the mantises), hawks (upwardly mobile managers), caterpillars (semi-comatose top brass), mules (disregarded drudges), and butterflies (pretty young do-nothings) and their older, drabber moth counterparts – real human souls live-out daily drama in this infernal inversion of Alice’s Wonderland. Animal behavior is controlled by the government-imposed political correctness dictates of the period. No one dares infringe on the rights of a “protected species.” On the other hand, it’s open season on the native wildlife. Tensions mount. Fear, paranoia, and madness ensue until one employee is murdered by another while most are too busy watching their own backs to notice. It’s the kind of mess you’d need a psychic investigator to work out.

Enter Sarah Hollingsworth, who’s seen it all already in a dream. She can read people’s minds to present the reader with psychological profiles and biographical insights into the group of characters under the microscope. (She even interviews the victim!) This lets her give the kind of nonjudgmental overview that keeps things nicely in balance and stops the reader (and some of the characters) from totally losing the plot. She also provides a few surprises along the way with her own interaction among the forces of the mystical realm.

It’s a testament to Rod Marsden’s easy style that the whole unfolding kaleidoscope of animal imagery, social comment and dark fantasy reads with a page-turning immediacy gripped until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. (Not so much a Whodunnit, this, as a Whydunnit.)

But, the conclusion is not the end of the book. What Marsden does with the remaining third is to literalize the previously metaphorical types as living dream creatures, in a totally fantastical code section reflecting back the Lewis Carroll motifs from a new perspective. Sarah here ventures through an interdimensional portal, like Alice’s looking glass, to interact with real mantises and beetles and a Queen of Hearts who wants to psych out the office workers via computer consoles and hand-mirror getaways. A fast and furious fantasy adventure follows – ensuring the novel achieves a flying finish.

Sandwiched in between the episodic close-ups on specific cases in part one, collected quotes from contemporary Australian books on office psychology provide a Greek chorus to the developing drama. These interludes continue as a unifying factor through the second part. Here, the lika-lika bird (every sentence starts with “like a…”) rears her gorgeously plumaged head. She’s still young and uncorrupted, prior to landing that fatal office job. Her outside view is refreshingly alternative. There is also the graffiti-spraying mall rat, destined to become a mule, or even a hawk someday.

It is difficult to encapsulate in a brief review the complex interplay of fantastical dream situations, figuratively-represented actuality and actualized fantasy contained in Desk Job. Odd magical moments come to mind, such as the vision of several “brown-nose” dung beetles lining up to boil themselves in a cauldron because of the praying mantis they worship like soup. There’s also the annoying whistling delivery man who appears at the office every so often, and is perfunctorily assaulted by a member of staff. Then, there are the cats which periodically pop through mirrors or get their tails pulled by startled mortals. Particularly amusing is the scene near the end of lika-lika birds all crowding around one such hand-mirror, convinced that the cat which just appeared was cleverly programmed in by the manufacturers. I can just see them haunting all the shops in Sydney asking for the mirrors with the pop-out cats!

Does that make sense? Not maybe on the face of things, but, in the context of this curiously individual and delightfully engaging novel, it makes perfect sense. If you don’t believe me, I recommend you take a psychic trip through the portal of its covers and experience it for yourself. Desk Job is a book with “Read Me” written all over it.

Desk Job is Rod Marsden's satire on political correction.

Suspension of Disbelief

When I began submitting short stories, the editors bounced them back with comments such as “characters not believable” or “no suspension of disbelief.” This usually happened when I included a real-life event. I never understood why using real events didn’t work, but I found that embellishing the details helped my cause.

All fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. Basically, we’re trying to convince the reader that the characters and settings in our stories are real, and that the events depicted could happen in everyday life. In horror, fantasy, and science fiction, we’re talking about a giant suspension of disbelief.

We can convince readers our stories are believable by testing details for plausibility and proving that each event is a natural outgrowth from the one preceding it in the novel. For example, I wouldn’t have a blizzard in Florida or palm trees in Alaska, unless I prepared a foundation in my story to make that possible.

Genre fiction introduces a new world with new rules.  Once you’ve set up your world and establish your rules, you have to consistently follow your rules if you want your story to be believable. For example, you can’t have a vampire shy away from religious objects in Chapter One and wear them in Chapter Five unless you’ve established a profound change in him.

One thing that I’ve struggled with is inconsistency in characters. I see this flaw in many books and movies, too. I could never understand how someone could be next to dying on television, and then two days later, back on the job. It doesn’t work that way in a real-life hospital. At least have the hero do some time in Physical Therapy.

If I’m reading a book about a hero with a phobia of heights, and by Chapter Five, he’s scampering up a ten-story building to rescue his beloved, I start to wonder. That character had better be sweating putty balls as he climbs. If he goes up the building calm and cool, that’s going to ruin my suspension of disbelief. I will probably set down the book and head for the nearest balloon store.

My Steel Rose protag has severe hand arthritis. Does she battle a monster? Of course. She has to draw on her strengths to fight. I gave her a long nap before the attack so she could stay alert and think fast. I’m not going to tell you if she survives because that’d be giving away the story.

I’m struggling with inconsistency now in my current WOP, and my writer buddies calls me on it when my protag acts out of character. That is a good critique group. One thing I’ve found helpful was using a calendar. Keeping track of the months in which events happen enables me to write the setting appropriately.

How do you deal with suspension of disbelief and consistency with your characters? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Kryszka renegades like this attack Alexis is When Blood Reigns.

Kryszka soldier that attacks Alexis

Zombie Apocalypse Forthcoming…Seriously Speaking

Yes, that’s right. I believe we’re headed for a zombie apocalypse down the road. I may or may not live to see it, but it’s coming. And I’m as serious as Parkinson’s Disease.

The apocalypse won’t be supernatural as it was in City of Brotherly Death, or the short story trio, Trilogy of the Dead, where the dead have major scores to settle with the living. In my forthcoming book, Steel Rose, and its sequel, aliens inject a chemical into live humans, turning them into flesh eating zombies. Sometimes the aliens implant microchips in the dead to make them walk and attack. However, I doubt aliens will have anything to do with real world zombies. I acquired a taste for zombie fiction, having read Rot & Ruin, Dust & Decay, and other books by Jonathan Maberry. He’s a brilliant writer, but I don’t foresee viruses causing zombie-like behavior either.

Jim Gurley touched on my suspicions about zombies in his book Hell Rig, which opens with Global Oil Rig #13 claiming twenty-one lives during Hurricane Katrina. When Ric Waters, the half-mad sole survivor, return with his restoration crew, they discover the presence of vengeful Voodoo Loas on the haunted rig. Now I don’t believe people will use Voodoo to make zombies in the future, but the weather will cause the dead to rise. I’m thinking about Katrina, Irene, and now Sandy. These monster storms seem to be our new normal. Ditto for the extreme winters where you get two feet of snow or more.

Sandy left behind many battered trees that fell on live wires and property. My local buddies and I have had to change driving routes to avoid the live wires and detours. I got to thinking what if some of those live wires landed near a cemetery. The thought takes me back to Frankenstein, where electricity gave life to a dead body. We’ve just gotten through Sandy, with another nor’easter coming in a couple of days. As the years pass, all of that rain and flooding will cause graves to open up. Lightning and live wires may electrocute the bodies, and cause them to move…and walk.

The zombie’s behavior will depend on how long it was dead before reanimating and the condition of the heart and brain at the time of death. In a recently deceased person who died of say, a gunshot wound to the stomach, the heartbeat might resume, delivering blood to the vital organs, including the brain. Such a person might be able to think, make decisions, and recognize people. They might speak clearly, know right from wrong, and be able to express affection.

A close relative or friend might feel wonderful about being reunited with his Uncle Joe, enough so that they bring the person home with them. And that’s where trouble begins. Basically, we’re talking about a crapshoot. By the time the person reanimates, the brain has sustained moderate damage, and resumption of circulation doesn’t guarantee that deterioration will stop. The first signs of brain damage include agitation, combativeness, and confusion. In the newly reanimated, family members may not pick up these signs in Uncle Joe. So after a couple of days, the “happy reunion” ends when the person fails to recognize his family, acts out, and bites. The bitten may not turn into zombies, but they will pick up a nasty infection, perhaps the kind that kills without timely treatment.

Most of the newly reanimated won’t be able to think because their brains have decayed so much. Their voices will sound like pebbles lodged in the windpipe. I picture them shuffling the streets like the fictional zombies, but not necessarily tearing up and chewing on people. They may become agitated and bite without provocation. If the bitten dies from the infection, they won’t rise from the dead unless another storm comes along, and lightning strikes the grave.

By the time our apocalypse happens, most people will own generators. I pray they do. I pray that someone comes up with a battery-powered generator because many landlords and homeowners’ associations won’t permit residents to own gas-powered generators. That stinks because when the dead rise, a power outage is inevitable. Howcumzit? The dead might go after people who run the power plants, and a plant can’t run itself. Also, if the dead break into a plant and start batting at the buttons and controls, the power from the plant will become history. I’m optimistic that given our track record of storms, most people will pony up the money for a generator and keep it hidden.

These zombies are not going to be strong brutes that can tear down telephone poles and transformers, so we may have electricity in some areas. Again, a crapshoot.

If the zombies come during my lifetime, I’m going to look over my shoulder wherever I walk in case one of the reanimated heads my way. As for my balloon stories or photos, I might share them with a friend who just died and reanimated, and thus able to appreciate a good balloon tale. At the first sign of agitation or confusion, though, I’m running as if King Kong were after me. I’m hoping by the time this apocalypse happens, science invents plasma guns, like the kind in Steel Rose. The kind that’s user-friendly for delicate hands.

How do you feel about zombies? Do you think we’re headed toward an apocalypse? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Aliens injected a chemical that turned Barbara Custer's characters into zombies in Steel Rose.

If live wires or lightning strikes a grave, we’ll get a visitor like this zombie.

Writer Bewares and Watchdogs

Over the last year, I’m seeing a lot of small press book companies set up shop, accept work for publication, and then close without communicating with the authors / artists, let alone paying royalties. In June, 2007, Triskelion Publishing Company filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. And sometime in 2011, Aspen Mountain Press folded after five years of publishing. Operations formally suspended in April, 2012, but the breakdown in communications and payments happened way before that. Other names have come up; the list runs long, including Dorchester Publishing, and self-publishing companies like Publish America (aka AmErica House).

Do these publishers open up their company with the intention of cheating authors? I doubt it in the majority of cases. Generally, the company is headed by one person who develops serious health problems. Perhaps the publisher began without adequate knowledge of formatting or distribution. Perhaps he took on too many projects too soon. No doubt the economy had a lot to do with it, especially if the publisher worked a day job that provided the capital for his venue. Mostly I contemplate Night to Dawn and conclude, there by the grace of God go I.

In the end, the authors / artists are left stranded. Folks, your works are important. You’re sharing part of you on the printed page. Whether you sketch or write about soldiers, monsters, priests, families, a part of you will show, and that’s priceless. You owe it to yourself to research your company before submitting, reading the contract carefully before nodding your okay, and promoting the book once it goes to press. With that in mind, I’m happy to list several watchdog sites that will give you the skinny on your prospective company. Keep in mind as you visit these sites that the bad boy companies have a way of changing their names to cover tracks.

Preditors & Editors:  an oldie but goodie company, P&E will list most companies and will give a thumbs up or down. You won’t get much detail, but you’ll have a ballpark idea of where your company stands.

Piers Anthony gives a concrete explanation for his opinion on given publishers. He focuses on e-publishers, and that’s a great thing since eBooks are now outdoing print books. To get his ratings, click on the “publish on web” link.

Absolute Write gives a thorough rundown on recommended sites, bewares, and advice to the newbie writer. That also includes advice on what to do if your publisher goes incommunicado. They discuss agents who charge fees (a no-no), and recommend publishers (yeah!).

Victoria Strauss works with a watchdog group, Writer Beware, a service mark of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. When it comes to publishers who change their names, she doesn’t miss a trick, and she will edit her blog accordingly. However, her blog can be used by anyone, regardless of genre. She will also refer you to other sites that might make the submission process go smoother.

The alternative is self-publishing, which means you do your own editing, art, formatting, distributing, and marketing, or pay to get these services. The upside is that if you get a generous royalty per sale, especially with CreateSpace and Smashwords. The downside is that some reviewers and bookstores shy away from self-published books. A lot more authors are turning toward self-publishing.


Scorched Earth Warfare

My home was a forest. Balloon trees grew in every room. Butterflies, Disney characters, flowers, and glittering stars. Before Parkinson’s disease consigned Mike to a nursing home, we danced to classical music under the Mylar fruit that blossomed on those trees. When we weren’t dancing, he worked outside in his tomato garden or with our development’s grounds beautification group. He served in the Viet Nam war on the USS Wasp. His deep throaty laugh concealed his secret fears about the Viet Cong capturing him. His musical voice rang through the church during choir practice until his right hand began to shake.

About fifteen years ago, Mike’s war with Parkinson’s began, and he became a prisoner of war. When he received his diagnosis in 1996, his neurologist Dr. Miller assured us that medicine would control the symptoms. He called it “tremor-predominant Parkinson’s,” because Mike’s most terrifying symptom was tremor. Later on, I found out about the disease’s scorched earth strategy.

There were six classes of medicines to fight this beast. The ones Mike had to take caused agitation and mood swings. Tremor notwithstanding, he continued his day job and worked in his garden. The tremor accompanied him on our yearly journeys to the islands. The symptom spread to both sides, but we continued hoping that a magic treatment would come along and restore his life.

Our dream seemed to come true in 2003 when a neurosurgeon performed deep brain stimulation. He implanted rods in Mike’s brain, and in his chest, pacemakers called impulse generators. These generators caused the rods to release dopamine into key areas of his brain to stave off the motor symptoms. The shaking stopped, but his voice softened, and he began to splutter every time he drank his coffee. At work, his clients thought he was drunk. Because of his worsening fatigue, Mike struggled to keep his eyes open. Rather than lose his benefits, he retired on disability. That was the first time I heard the disease whisper “scorched earth.”

By 2005, his worsening cough raised concerns about aspiration, so I began to mix thickening powder into all his liquids. The memory impairment came next, causing him to miss traffic lights. At the doctor’s orders, I took away his car keys. The grounds beautification group he belonged to asked him to resign, citing “personality changes,” which came with Parkinson’s destruction. Each morning I had to list everything he needed to do before I headed out to work. We waded through the health insurance quagmire in between 2007 and 2009. Amid the balloons lay calculators, spreadsheets, exercise programs, weights, and other paraphernalia needed for his care. Worst was giving up his job and driver’s license. Even now, when I visit him, tears roll down his face when he talks about not being able to work or drive.

Through it all, he continued to garden. Raking and planting limbered his muscles, but he started returning from his excursions with scratches and bruises. I learned that his worsening balance caused occasional falls. That and his judgment lapses necessitated hiring a caregiver during the day. Gardening had become another casualty of Parkinson’s destruction. By 2009, the doctor’s label graduated from “mild memory impairment” to “Parkinson’s dementia.”

Now I worked 12-hour workdays; eight at my day job and four more at night providing care. He kept walking albeit with a caregiver’s help. Instead of napalm, Parkinson’s had gotten him. His military service entitled him to benefits; my sister and I arranged his admission to the Veterans’ nursing home in 2010.

The nursing home was a godsend. Bingo, movies, and baseball games keep him engaged, and for a few moments, he forgets about his poverty of visitors, another byproduct of his personality changes. During visits, he’ll ask me about work or about my balloon collection, but our dancing stopped. He still works with plants from a wheelchair. During the first year we laughed and cut up at the home’s holiday picnics. Since then, though, his voice has grown softer, and it’s hard to understand what he’s saying. He can’t walk any more, and his wheelchair dependence is permanent, for the doctors couldn’t stop Parkinson’s scorched earth strategy.

My hope is that some research scientist will read this blog, realize how devastating Parkinson’s Disease can be, and perhaps work harder at developing more effective treatment.

I still continue with my day job and writing projects. I’ve been blessed with a loving family and friends in the writing community. My next book will feature a protagonist who’s fighting rheumatoid arthritis, another disease that burns the earth. She must slay monsters to stay alive. She won’t know how strong she is until necessity demands it.

When I wrote the dedication for one of my books, I called Mike a survivor in his own right. Because he is. Parkinson’s may have scorched his soil, but it has not destroyed his spirit.

Barbara Custer, writer of horror fiction, learned true horror through Parkinson's Scorched Earth Warfare.

Editing Software, Anyone?

I’ve read good and bad about writing software over the years, and once considered such gadgets a handy way to flush your money down the sewer pipe. About a year ago writer Gregory Frost talked up Scrivener software, which enables you to edit writing and research at the same time. Scrivener works well, once you get through the learning curve, and comes with a reasonable price tag at about $40. I was all set to try it out, until I found out that only Mac computers accommodate it. Both of my computers have Windows. So I cursed in three languages, went back to my editing for Night to Dawn, and forgot about the whole thing.

My thoughts on software changed when arguments developed between me and blurred vision, particularly when I read long passages. I will reserve the matter of my vision for another blog, after I’ve seen the doctor, but I came to realize no writer can see his/her own mistakes. I’ve gone through work done by professional editors and found faulty passages. Do-it-yourself editing, even for editors, is like a physician performing surgery on a family member. Alas, a content editor can cost about $1000, and a proofreader about $400 for a novel. Not many of us have that kind of money lying around. I was grateful indeed that Ginger Johnson edited my Starship Invasions stories. Now I’m back to Steel Rose and my blurred vision. Then I stumbled on Autocrit software, recommended by Writer’s Digest.

I tried out sample passages and was pleased to see Autocrit weed out weak words. The free version will point out repetitive words and sentence variability. You have to pay to edit longer passages and to get the other types of editing. This I did, and was amazed at the repetitions it turned up and cliches too. The readability report offered limited value, since I write for adults, but it did turn up several run-on sentences. When I used words like “look,” “have,” and “was,” the substitution forced me to use more “show” to substitute for the “tell” verb. Ditto for the dialogue tags. I found myself cutting unnecessary words. The people managing Autocrit are fast to reply to technical questions.

You can flush out repetition with Word’s search-and-replace feature, but Autocrit color codes the errant words. Color codes work best for me.

There are several caveats. I don’t believe the sentence variability, pacing, and homonym sections offer much. It might for a first-time writer, but most experienced writers vary their sentence lengths instinctively. Autocrit won’t catch misspellings, and neither will Word’s spell check. Use your judgment for cliches and sentence readability; sometimes changing the passage can ruin it. Autocrit will not guarantee a sale, but it may improve the chance of your story finding a publisher. Caveats notwithstanding, I was glad I purchased the software.

Have you ever used Autocrit, Scrivener, or other writing software? Would you consider trying it? I’d like to hear about your experiences.

The Gunslinger's Companion by Michael De Stefano features historical fiction with its own brand of horror.


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