WRITING: “Why Would You Spend So Much Time Writing?”

Because the words will kill you if you don’t.

Unexpressed stories tend to eat you from the inside until all that’s left is a withered husk. And you won’t get back your vitality.

You see all those old people, desperate to tell you their unwritten stories? That’s because they looked in the mirror and saw the words clawing to get out, tearing at their flesh from the inside, gnawing at their muscles until they became too weak to stand without assistance, and sucking the moisture from their skin until they became wrinkled prunes.

And the old desiccated human husks know that if they could just tell your their stories, they might not revitalise themselves, but they can stave of death for another day and maybe inspire you to look away from that television set that sucks away all your creativity, and sit down and write. Write to express yourself, to tell your stories, and to let out all these stories so they will stop haunting your dreams and start haunting other people’s dreams.

And then you can finally lay down to sleep, huddle beneath the covers, knowing the monsters aren’t under the bed but in your head, and that they’ll only be mollified for a day or so, so you’ll have write again tomorrow, but at least you’ll be able to sleep.

But if I’m wrong, and you’re already too numb to feel the stories gnawing at your insides with their blind craving to be set loose on the world, then perhaps you have already become that walking empty husk, and perhaps there’s no need for you to write your story.

In that case, forget everything I said.

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WRITING: Where do you get your story ideas?

I was asked on Quora: “What is your personal method for finding short stories ideas?” and this was my response:

I tend to combine past experiences and certain idiosyncrasies, and blend them into a story. To give you an example, this is my unpublished story Bonebag:
BONEBAG by Martyn V. Halm
Talons digging deep in her bony shoulder jerked Ange from pleasant dreams into cold dark reality. Muted green numerals floated in the dark bedroom to inform her that it was a quarter past two in the morning. Angrily she reached up, pried the fingers from her shoulder and turned to face her lover.
“Christ, Carla! It’s two in the morning, what the…”
A skittering sound in the kitchen made her swallow the rest of her tirade. Ange sat up and listened. The neon sign of the bar downstairs sprang on, blue light washing over the bedroom walls and the pale blob of Carla’s face, her dark eyes wide with fear.
Soft paws skittered along the length of the kitchen floor, followed by big paws that scrabbled for a hold. Ange could hear the claws gouge the linoleum floor as the cat wheeled around in pursuit of some ignorant rodent that had entered their apartment by mistake.
“That’s Felicia,” Carla whispered in a high strangled voice. “Your cat got something…”
Ange cocked her head. “Not yet. But she will in a minute. Now, can we go back to sleep? I have to be up at—”
“No, Ange.” Carla’s warm damp hand fell on her thigh and she could smell the sour smell of sleep on her breath. “Please, you got to do something.”
“Go to sleep.” Ange slipped back under the warm eiderdown, pulled the covers over her head as she turned on her side.
On the other side of the wall steel clanked against steel. Felicia’s food bowls. Apparently the pursuit had progressed into the bathroom.
“Ange!” Carla tugged her shoulder. “You know what she did last time!”
A couple of weeks back Felicia killed a mouse, opened the tiny rodent from throat to anus, and deposited the mutilated corpse on the floor in front of the bed, in obeisance to her mistress. Carla, who usually slept in, had the misfortune to get out of bed early. Still half asleep she put her foot in the gored mouse, her toes squishing into the juicy carcass. Yelling the whole apartment building awake, Carla had hopped on one leg to the bathroom and vomited all over the toilet seat while she removed the rodent’s entrails from between her toes.
“Just look where you put your big feet tomorrow,” Ange mumbled chagrined and turned on her side again. “And try to project your vomit into the bowl this time.”
“You know I can’t help it!” Carla took a deep shuddering breath. “Dead animals upset me.”
Upset was a mild term for the phobic revulsion Carla exhibited when confronted with a flattened hedgehog or a fish floating belly‑up. Her irrational hysterics spoiled walks along the beach and trips through the countryside. It put a damper on a pleasant walk in the woods when you had to hold your lover’s hair out of her face while she puked another meal behind a tree.
And still…
What bothered Ange was the suspicion that Carla’s abhorrence was mixed with fascination. Why else would her eyes scan the asphalt for roadkill? Or make Carla stand transfixed at the sight of gulls hacking an unfortunate crawfish to pieces? A slaughtered mouse in the house would keep her up till dawn.
And Ange with her.
“What the fuck do you want?” Ange turned around to face Carla. “You want me to help Felicia kill the stupid bugger? Is that what you want?”
“Just end its suffering.”
Ange whipped the eiderdown away. “I’ll make it suffer all right.”
The bedroom window was partially open and she was freezing her scrawny butt off, the cold waking her up completely. The neon sign flashed again, outlining her body in an almost pornographic blue nimbus reflected in the mirror in the corner of the room.
Where her parents found the audacity to call her Angelique was beyond her, for her appearance was anything but angelic. Her slanted green eyes narrowed as she viewed her reflection. Her thin frame with the pointed breasts, pelvic bones jutting out from her hips like handlebars, limbs strangely angular and bird‑like. She looked like she belonged in an enchanted forest, a malevolent pixie leading unwary travellers astray.
No wonder her nickname at school had been Bonebag.
The sign winked out again and Ange shivered as her feet touched the cold linoleum. She hurried across the kitchen floor and entered the bathroom.
After she closed the door behind her to keep the mouse in, she pulled the switch cord and shielded her eyes. The fluorescent strip light over the bathroom mirror flickered twice, then burned steadily, humming like an angry mosquito.
Felicia hunkered by the cabinet under the washbasin, her tail swishing from side to side. The cat didn’t even glance up at the light, her yellow eyes glued to the tiny creature hiding under the cabinet.
With her foot, Ange shoved the cat aside, but Felicia skirted behind her heels and took up guard at a different angle as Ange grabbed the sides of the cabinet and lifted it of the floor.
The mouse—startled by the rude disappearance of its shelter—spurted away, a small brown shape streaking across the floor for the back of the toilet bowl.
Felicia pounced and looked confused.
Ange noticed the trembling mouse behind the mop. Small fella, this time. An inch and a half at most, its tail three times the length of its body. Ange grinned, took the handle of the mop and shook it. She could see why Felicia liked this game so much.
The mouse didn’t like the game at all and fled into the shower stall. The rodent realised its mistake too late, for there was nothing to hide behind in the pristine cubicle. And the holes in the drain were too small to pass through, even for a tiny mouse like this one.
The petrified mouse cowered in a corner, while Felicia stalked it at leisure, her furry belly low to the ground, clearly savouring the moment. The mouse stared in the cat’s menacing yellow eyes, captivated like a rabbit in the bright light of a poacher. With her furry chin lowered to the tiled floor, Felicia stretched forth a tentative paw and nudged the mouse as if trying to spurn it into action. The mouse scurried back into the corner, reared up on its haunches and froze. Even the whiskers and the nose stopped moving. Its beady eyes, shiny with fear, glazed over. The mouse wasn’t petrified anymore. In mortal fear, its little rodent heart couldn’t handle the stress and stopped pumping.
Scared to death.
Felicia tilted her furry head. Surprised by the unexpected demise of her prey, the cat sat up and eyed the motionless rodent warily, her quivering ears twisting back and forth. With blinding swiftness, the cat lashed out. Her stiff paw whacked the mouse like a golf club and made the stiff rodent skid the entire length of the shower stall, until its diminutive corpse came to rest upended against the wall. Felicia uncoiled and pounced, coming in for the unnecessary slaughter.
Ange held the cat back by the scruff of her neck and picked up the stiffening mouse by its long tail to study the tiny creature. Its eyes—small black nodules bulging from the springy grey‑brown fur—were dull and lifeless. A tiny circle of blood had formed around the left nostril. Its slightly parted jaws revealed small yellow incisors. The tiny front paws were raised to its tiny chest like a dog begging for a morsel.
Ange opened the bathroom window to throw the corpse into the dark gardens three stories down. Felicia jumped on the toilet seat, her yellow eyes riveted on the dead mouse. Ange grabbed her cat by the neck and they both looked at the tiny dead creature swinging in the cold November air.
“Ange?”
She didn’t drop the mouse, but pulled back her arm and closed the window.
“Ange?”
Ange opened the bathroom door, noted the soft yellow light of the reading lamp over the bed shining into the dark hallway. The bedroom looked warm and cozy and here she was standing cold and naked in the freezing bathroom. All because of that stupid bitch and her necrophobia.
“What is it?” she yelled back.
“Is it… dead?”
Ange looked at the tiny corpse dangling from her fingertips. “You can say that.”
“Don’t forget to wash your hands, okay?”
Jesus H. Christ. Why had she ever shacked up with the stupid cow? She could have been lying in her warm bed. Felicia could have enjoyed her kill. Holding the mouse aloft in her right hand, Ange turned on the tap with her left and looked at her face in the bathroom mirror. The corners of her mouth, her most distinctive feminine feature, were turned down. She touched her full lips, so out of place in her narrow face. Stroked the sensitive skin, the tiny corpse in her other hand momentarily forgotten.
Felicia meowed and swatted the air under the swinging mouse.
Ange had a mind to take the mouse back into the bedroom and ask Carla to check if the tiny rodent had really kicked the bucket. An impish glitter filled the green eyes looking back at her from the mirror and her wide mouth curled into a wicked grin.
She took the fragile corpse between her fingers, felt the bones under her fingers. A little bonebag. Ange opened her mouth and placed the mouse inside, facing out. Tilted forward on her tongue, the tiny paws and the small furry head stuck out over the lower hedge of her white teeth. It looked like the mouse lived in her head and her mouth was its balcony. Staring into the eyes of her reflection, Ange closed her mouth gently to keep the little corpse in position. To keep the inside of her lips from touching the mouse, she had to pout lasciviously. Ange turned off the tap, switched off the light and left the bathroom. Her step was light as she padded to the pool of light in the bedroom.
Felicia followed closely, rubbed her furry body against her moving legs.
Carla sat in the middle of the bed, hugging Ange’s pillow against her breasts. Her dark eyes searched her face.
Ange stopped at the foot of the bed and kneeled on the eiderdown, pinning Carla’s legs under the covers. With a seductive smile around her pouting lips, she came slowly forward over the bed, supporting herself on her hands, trapping her lover under the eiderdown.
“Did you throw it out of the window? I heard—”
Ange shook her head slowly, her eyes fixed on Carla’s.
“No?” Carla looked worried. “You didn’t throw it in the trashcan, did you? I can’t…”
Ange leant forward and opened her mouth, arched her tongue under the small paws and moved the mouse up and down behind her teeth.
Carla blinked and focused on the dead mouse wobbling in her lover’s mouth. Her huge dark eyes widened in horror and she backed away until her back was against the wall. Ange closed her mouth, rocked back on her heels, pointed at her throat and swallowed thickly.
Carla’s eyes filled with revulsion and she broke away, threw herself off the bed. She bounced hard with her elbows on the carpet as she tumbled in a heap on the ground. Loud retching noises came from her mouth as she grabbed the door frame to support herself as she stumbled off to the bathroom.
Ange rose from the bed, opened the bedroom window and spat the tiny rodent corpse into darkness. The dead mouse dropped three stories and landed with an audible thud on the sidewalk. She hawked up a gob of saliva and spat into the blue neon night.
Wiping her mouth, Ange climbed back into the warm bed. She thumped the pillow back into shape, turned off the light and listened to Carla vomiting in the bathroom, then smiled to herself and pulled the warm eiderdown over her head.
Copyright: Martyn V. Halm. All Rights Reserved.

Now, I came up with the idea for this story because three things about this story are real experiences:

  • My mother has extreme necrophobia, like Carla in the story. Her revulsion to dead animals borders on hysteria and used to make me extremely angry at her when she would scream like she’d broken her hip when it was just the cat bringing home a dead bird.
  • I once got out of bed and stepped into an opened carcass of a mouse, lovingly laid out by my cat. I wasn’t revolted, like Carla, because I recognised that the cat gave me a gift. I was her master, so she gave me an offering. I praised my cat and pretended to eat the mouse, then – when she wasn’t looking – I tossed the carcass out the bedroom window for scavengers in the gardens to enjoy. And I recall thinking how my mother would’ve been in hysterics if she had stepped in a dead mouse.
  • And I was woken by the sounds of my cat stalking a mouse in the bathroom, where the events happened like in the story – I lifted the bathroom cabinet and the mouse fled into the shower stall, from where it couldn’t escape. It sat back on its haunches watching as my cat stalked into the shower stall, and then the mouse just died. My cat had the same response as Felicia – she was surprised and disappointed, then wanted to bat the mouse through the bathroom, but I intervened and picked up the mouse, studying it briefly before tossing it out the bathroom window.
Ange is modelled on one of my ex-girlfriends, who looked like a beautiful pixie. I hope she doesn’t mind that I turned her into a lesbian with a wickedly horrible sense of humour.
Everything else is pure imagination.
So, tell me, where do you get your story ideas?

FAQ: “How do you get reviews?”

There is a ratio going around that you’ll get on average one unsolicited review for every thousand books you sell. At this moment of writing, I have 115 reviews on GoodReads and 75+ reviews on Amazon. And I can assure you that I haven’t sold a 1000 books per review, more like 30-50 books. And none of these reviews is bought*.

I did a few giveaways on GoodReads that netted me some reviews, but most of my reviews are from two things:

  • I give away ARCs, which are Advance Review Copies. That means that I send reviewers my books before they are published, so they can post a review when the book is published.
  • I ‘request’ reviews from my readers by posting this message at the end of each book:

Thank you for reading the Amsterdam Assassin Series. 
For an independent author, gaining exposure relies on readers spreading the word, so if you have the time and inclination, please consider leaving a short review wherever you can.

Most readers won’t consider leaving a review, because they are not used to voicing their opinion, or because they don’t see the importance, or just because no one asks them for their opinion. That’s why the message at the end of the book is so powerful – I just remind them gently that I would appreciate if they’d tell others about this book they enjoyed, so others can enjoy the books too. And I’m serious about reminding them gently – don’t push readers into feeling obligated to review your books. And be grateful for every review, whether it’s 20 or 200 words long.


 

*Customer reviews now outnumber professional reviews, but that has also made for some underhanded practices – just as you can buy Facebook Friends and Twitter Followers, you can also buy reviews, especially through websites like Fiverr.com which trades in fake reviews that are posted through multiple accounts.

Other loathsome review practices are the ‘quid pro quo’ review circles, where authors buy each other’s books and give each other glowing reviews, and authors creating ‘sock puppet’ accounts to write their own reviews and upvote themselves (and/or downvote their competition. Most of these fake reviews are easy to spot, since they are as formulaic as the books they promote, but it’s still profitable since many readers equate having a lot of reviews with ‘a quality book’.


Ride Bicycles Like An Amsterdam Native

Author with infant son on his bicycle

Author with infant son on his bicycle (photo: M. V. Halm)

I’m a local and I ride my bike daily through the Amsterdam City Center, and I have some tips for tourists and out-of-towners:

  1. Unlike most cities, Amsterdam has dedicated bicycle paths that are easily identifiable by the bicycle painted on the road surface. The bicycle paths are for cyclists only! Walking on the bicycle paths marks you instantly as a [stupid] tourist.
  2. Amsterdam has a lot of one-way streets, but most of them are only one-way for cars [and sometimes motorcycles], which means that you still have to look BOTH ways when crossing a one-way street in Amsterdam, because bicycles can come from BOTH sides.
  3. Amsterdam has laws that protect the weaker traffic participants, so in an accident between a motorized vehicle and a bicycle, the motorized vehicle gets all the blame, unless they can proof that the cyclist disregarded all the rules. This makes driving a vehicle in Amsterdam incredibly risky, because a bicycle can come from any direction and you’ll be blamed for any accidents, even when they’re not your fault. By the way, a testimony by your passengers is often regarded immaterial by the police.
  4. If you’re staying in Amsterdam for several days, or if you visit Amsterdam regularly, don’t rent a bike. Yellowbikes yellow frames and MacBikes red frames immediately mark you as a tourist. Instead, go to a bicycle shop and ask for a secondhand bicycle. There are loads for sale, ranging from 25-150 euros, depending on the type [regular, ATB, racing] and amount of gears. Don’t choose a bicycle with more than three gears – Amsterdam is mostly flat, so you won’t need more than three to cruise comfortably. Don’t buy a bicycle on the street, they’re most likely stolen and if you get caught you’re not only perpetuating bicycle theft, but the bike will be impounded by the police and you will get a steep fine.
  5. If you ride a bicycle in Amsterdam, keep to the right. Don’t weave all over the road like a drunken monkey. If you want to gawk at something, don’t do it while riding. And get yourself a heavy padlock and a length of industrial cable so you can lock your bike to lampposts and bridge railings. Make sure your cable never (accidentally) ties up another bicycle, because the police will cut your chain/cable and impound your bicycle.
  6. Don’t ride on the sidewalks. Yes, I know you will see some cyclists ride the sidewalk, but it is prohibited and the police will fine you if they catch you. To talk your way out of a ticket, you have to speak fluent Dutch and be very persuasive. So keep to the bicycle paths, or if they are absent, keep to the utmost right on the main roads.
  7. Be extremely wary of mopeds! Most mopeds and scooters ride as irresponsible as cyclists, only faster. And since they’re heavier than a bike, the crashes often result in more damage.

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