Human bites make it hard to type

Anselm Hook via Flickr

Last year, a burglar bit my hand.
About 1:30 in morning, I thought the kid was up sneaking video games, so I pulled on my robe and went out to say “Go the f*ck to sleep.” But just as I reached my bedroom door, I heard the front door spring twang. I rounded the corner and there was a man in our landing.
I grabbed the back of his jacket, spun him around and said, “What the fuck are you doing in my house?”
He bit me.
I’m told I screamed.
I don’t remember that bit.
What I do remember is tackling him, hearing him say, “Run, Vinnie,” while I yelled for my husband to come help. The dog, who’d started new arthritis drugs that day, realized he should start barking. In the background, I could hear our son on line with 911.
Burglars are stronger on the ground.
He squirmed and wriggled and generally tried to get away. The burglar stank of aged sweat, alcohol and drugs. I told my husband to get his leg. He told me that was his leg. My husband grabbed the burglar’s flashlight and hit him in the head.
He yelled about his cabeza (Spanish for head).
I leaned over him and cursed him and his entire family.
He cried for his Mamacita.
The police arrived and an adrenaline drive blur of checking the house and giving statements accompanied a review of the burglar’s pockets. They emptied them on the hood of a police SUV. There was my jewelry along with three large knives.
The canine unit went after Vinnie.
One set of cops thought my dog had bitten me. The paramedics thought it was the canine unit. I was insulted that they’d besmirch either dog and explained it was a HUMAN bite. At which point they informed me that I needed to go to the hospital.
Human bites require antibiotics to make sure you don’t end up with a nasty infection. What they don’t tell you is that you can get HIV, herpes and hepatitis. What few law enforcement and legal officials seem to know is that in Washington state, you can’t get a search warrant for a burglar’s blood, not if you’re just the victim.
If you’re a good samaritan, healthcare provider or law enforcement official, getting the blood is automatic. The victim of a sexual offender? You wait until conviction. Me? You depend on the kindness of the guy who just sank his teeth into your flesh.
The burglar plead out. In exchange for dropping a drug charge, he gave up his blood. My blood work is okay, but the months of nerve and tendon damage forced me to restrict writing to paid-as-I-go tasks. Turns out I’m not great at dictating stories. I need to feel my hands on the keys or a pen.
And my hand needed time to heal, including the use of contrast baths. My skin smelled like me, but the spent water? Whenever I would dump it, I would get a whiff of burglar sweat. I kept at the contrast baths until the smell came up clean.
Embarrassed, our dog is now off his meds and barking furiously if a squirrel farts and there are alarms on all our doors.
Vinnie got away. The biter got 23 months. Despite my insistance that they get him into a rehabilitation program, I suspect he’s just being warehoused. I Googled the guy as soon as I had his name. We were his sixth offense. This is how he makes his living. My hope is that he can find something else to do, so no one else has their life stalled by a bite. And, yes, when all of the more pressing political issues settle down, I plan to work on changing Washington state law so that no one has to beg to make sure they haven’t just contracted a deadly disease.

Shifting focus to alter perception


Like a magician, a writer’s skill depends on focus. We take the reader over for a look at one thing while something shifts across the foreground. We can widen the focus to take in an entire street, country, world, evolutionary time period, or we can narrow to a single taste of a character’s lips.

Deciding where to place the reader’s focus can be challenging. You’d like them to have all kinds of information that appears necessary on first draft (or maybe you need to add it back in on the second), but the real truth is that the reader is Goldilocks: she wants just the right amount of information to keep her engaged, but not so much that it interferes with the story.

When I write, my vision often narrows to the size of my laptop screen, but it never stays that small. On great days, I fall between the sentences to find myself on the other side of the story netting just what I need to show the reader to make them feel like they’re with me.

In other words, I shift my focus from narrow to wide.

Although I do this regularly on the page, it didn’t occur to me to consciously try this in regular life until I read Les Fehmi’s “The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body.” A clinical psychologist and researcher, Fehmi helped pioneer biofeedback in the 1960s and later turned to generating consistent alpha states to enhance relaxation and improve performance through neurofeedback.

Fermi’s exercises involve imagining the space between parts of your body as well as how you and your body intersects with the space surrounding you.

After working through one of his exercises (which is really just sitting there and being willing to go along for the ride by listening), I find my spatial perception widens and I am less conscious of where my body ends and the rest of the world begins.

While seriously relaxing, this state also appears to make it easier to draft new scenes and consider the daunting task of researching an historical novel. Since this feels new to me, I’ll have to let the writing cool and check back a few weeks from now, but the state feels like moments that used to happen to me as a kid, when the space between raindrops was as important as the rain, when I could trace a single snowflake from the top of the window to the snow pile or when I marked the shadows of street lamps as my dad drove us home from dinner with my godparents.

It’s a little like being able to step between the seconds of time and look on both sides—and almost as much fun as falling into the page of a story.

FREE READ: Feeding the Beast

Leo, JC OBrien

After scooping my last bite of Indian curry, I set the plate on the floor in the kitchen for the dog. He’s eleven, old in human years, so I spoil him and put up with pizza farts and having to share the tip of every ice cream cone.

But there was no ice cream on this January night. Instead, there was rain. Lots and lots of rain. Not the charming misty wet that used to happen when I moved to Seattle in the Eighties, one of the downpours we started having a few years ago. The kind of rain that loosens soil enough that Douglas fir trees are transformed from charming sentinels into possible instruments of death. The windstorms that follow the rains kill people in Western Washington when the trees start coming down like so many pick-up sticks.
So while my husband settled in under the covers with his book and the dog curled up in his bed, I lay lit by the light of my phone, ignoring Facebook while I listened to the rain pummel the roof.
The husband snored.
The dog snored.
And sometime after midnight, I drifted off to sleep.
Around two, my phone was right there, making it easy for me to check the time, the dog flipped over onto all fours. He whined and cried and stamped his feet until my husband climbed out of bed and took him outside in the rain.
While I lay there listening for wind and the creak of falling trees, I heard my husband cursing quietly as the dog came in. Without bothering to dry off either of them, he climbed back into bed. I kissed his wet hair and wrinkled my nose and pulled the covers tighter while the rain continued to fall.
An hour later, the dog was at it again. Only this time, he was bumping his nose against the bedroom door, demanding to be let into the kitchen. We like our Indian food spicy, so we let him out, but he refused to return.
Now here’s where I should tell you that my dog, even as a pup, could never see very well, but he has excellent hearing and we have wood floors. While listening as keenly as the dog, I was able to track him, moving from the far picture window in the living room to dart back to the dining room and over to the large window near the front door.
Outside of the rain, I heard nothing.
Or, that’s what I like to tell myself.
North Seattle isn’t like downtown. We have lots of Douglas fir trees and rhododendrons grow taller than garages. And we have animals. Neither raccoons nor rats have no problem sauntering about during the day, but while walking the dog on moonlit nights I’ve heard other things—sounds that make no sense in an environment surrounded by houses as well as trees. At the end of our street, just before the golf course, is a preserved bit of land: Llandover Woods. We walk the dog there and have seen only bees and woodpeckers, but there are places off the trail that appear dark, even during the day. And I tell myself that this is where something that didn’t sound right next to a house or a car would go at night when it was raining and it needed a place to sleep.
It would have no need to be around my house, driving my dog to distraction.
Leo’s nails clattered against the windowsill, squeezing a bark out of him. After another five barks, I got up and went into the living room to check on him.
He looked at me and snorted. No way I was getting the dog into the bedroom now.
I pulled the curtain aside and peered out into the wet, seeing nothing other than the dripping trees and phone lines, but I could sense something. When I was little, I read a book about a boy who went blind after playing with firecrackers. Nearly a whole chapter was devoted to the moment he learned to sense objects by feeling displaced air.
We live in an old house with cracks around the door and double-pane windows that no longer hold their seal. I closed my eyes and felt for the small sips of air that always find their way into the room.
I felt nothing.
I didn’t even hear the dog creep up beside me until I felt the shock of his fur against my bare knees. He wedged himself between me and the wall, pointed his nose at the door and began to bark.
He was close enough for me to feel the sides of his rib cage squeezing in and out. Between barks, I caught the slow scrape of claws against wood.
But Leo was on the carpet.
The front door shook on its hinges, bellowing in and out in response to each of the dog’s barks. My husband yelled for me to settle the dog down and come back to bed. I reached for the dog’s collar and he dashed to the other window, mounting the window sill and shoving the curtain out of the way as he barked, barked, barked.
His legs tangled with the curtain. As he dashed to the next window, the fabric was yanked back from the rod. I squinted out into the dark, but saw nothing. My nose twitched. Not the weird ozone smell that happens after some rain. Something vaguely rotten seemed to be coming in through the cracks in the walls.
I moved closer to the window and a tree branch cracked against it. I jumped and crashed into the piano and onto the floor.
The stench grew stronger as I lowered my nose. The dog dashed from door to window to door as a sound grew in my ears.
Not quite the growling sounds I’d heard while walking the dog. More like the soft sounds of everything that had ever scared me in the dark.
The dog came and stood in front of me. His barking grew more frantic as he bounced up and down on his front legs, his jaws snapping with sound.
My husband snapped on the living room light. “It’s four in the morning. Get the dog and get back to bed.”
The light seemed to chase away the smell, which didn’t make sense, but I didn’t feel fully awake. I tugged at the dog’s collar. This time he came with me, even if he did keep looking back over his shoulder into the empty room.
“I think we should leave the light on,” I said.
“Sure. Just sleep.”
The dog refused to stay in his bed. Instead, he stationed himself right in front of the bedroom door and curled up with his nose pressed into the space between the door and the floor.
By morning, he lay on his side.
The wet hadn’t stopped. I sent my husband out the back door into the rain with the dog while I tried to wake up with a cup of tea.
I sniffed as I walked around the house. Nothing.
My husband returned with the dog. I dried the dog while he dried himself. I had the towel in my hand when it occurred to me to check the front door.
Pulling it open proved harder than expected. Seattle rain can make it feel like night, but after telling myself that the street lamp was off, I turned the knob.
There on the front door was a set of twelve scratches. I ran my finger into a deep groove and brought it to my nose and nearly vomited. Whatever was under its claws was rotten.
“I don’t think we should feed the dog any more Indian food,” my husband called from the kitchen.
“I think you’re completely wrong. Have a look at this.”
The dog came along with my husband, he sat on his haunches while we examined the door, ears alert, face as perky as when he expected a treat.
“The dog eats whatever he wants,” I said and locked the door before going to find the dog something scrumptious.

Hiring a new internal editor

I wrote my first short story at my grandmother’s kitchen table while she and my mother drank Cokes and talked family business. I was fifteen. My burnout boyfriend had dealt (and smoked) a little pot while I was in his friend’s car. At that time, I didn’t drink or smoke and since we were within three blocks of our high school I was freaked out. Honor students didn’t get busted for pot.
Instead of talking to him, I wrote a surrealist story that explained how I felt better than the “what the hell” that was running through my mind. I wrote longhand while my mom and grandmother chatted and I finished the thing in one sitting. I turned it in and my English teacher suggested I enter a local college’s writing contest. If I made it, I’d get to go to a writing workshop with other teens and maybe win a scholarship.
I got in. But instead of putting me with all the other short story writers, I ended up at drowningtable full of poets. The teens were cool. They put up with reading all the extra pages of my writing compared to the handful of poems they’d each submitted. The adult running the table was a published poet and he proved less helpful.
He fixated on a central image in the story and told me it was wrong, but explained that he didn’t know why. So I turned to the teens and asked them what they’d gotten out of the story. My feelings of drowning, struggling to swim — all seemed to have come across. So I shook my head at the poet and explained that I’d reached my audience. I hadn’t written the story for him. I’d written it for other teens and they had the exact reaction I was after — they got that it was about drugs and all they confusion and trying to fit in and fear that went with them (this was the ‘Just Say No’ era). He continued to disagree with me until the speaker started talking.
Oddly enough, I don’t clearly remember my boyfriend’s reaction to reading the story. A part of me wants to say that I tried to give it to him and he laughed it off, but I can’t be sure. What I do remember clearly is that poet sitting there in his three-piece suit shaking his head no while I was so certain I was right. Maybe I didn’t win the scholarship, but I walked away confident.
Or I thought I did.
I’ve never liked editing my own work. Give me someone else’s story and I’ll do my best to remain true to their vision, to tease out the lines of what’s there and ask questions so that the story remains the author’s, but ends up stronger than when it first landed in my hands.
I edit this way for other people because I have a deep respect for them and their stories. I feel it’s my place to help them find their own way, not grab their story and rework it until it’s mine.
I’m working on two large projects at the moment: a 600-plus YA novel that’s about to be beta-read by a teenager and a steampunk that’s given me troubles off and on for three years. I just realized that the editor in my head looks nothing like me. The editor in my head doesn’t even have a clear sense of how to tell me what he thinks is wrong.
And there it is.
The editor in my head is that male poet in his three-piece suit, leaning on the back of his chair, shaking his head no. And here I am trying to figure out how to politely thank him for his input and ask if he could kindly go find another member of the faculty. I don’t remember what any other teacher at that event looked like, so I’ll have to make someone up. Toni Morrison comes to mind, but frankly, I find her daunting. I’m not certain I can live up to her standards. So I’m going to pick someone I think would be more encouraging, but perhaps just as tough. Right now, I’m doing my best to get my cool, new editor to hang out with me. If you’re wondering what she looks like, she’s a bit like Stevie Nicks.
Yeah, the suit is still bleeding through, but this is new. I just created Editor Nicks in my mind. I need to give her some time to settle in.

Sorry Linda Hamilton, you didn’t prepare me for ‘Fury Road’

Sometimes there’s a movie that changes something in you that you didn’t know needed changing.
I like things that go BOOM!
Always have.
Never mind that I used to have friends who tried to make me feel guilty for my proclivities. They’re gone and now I have a kid who thinks “Mad Max: Fury Road” is perfect for a delayed Mother’s Day celebration since there’s no such thing as a bomb range where mama could blow off a little steam.
Given the reviews, I was prepared for a great ride.
I wasn’t prepared for my reaction.
I’ve heard men go to action flicks because they can identify with the main character and I thought I understood it because, hey, I’ve seen “The Terminator” and even worked out to make my arms strong like Linda Hamilton’s.
But it wasn’t the same.
This film was brutal.
And the women filled the screen and spilled out into the top of my head and threatened to make my skin explode.
Even now, I can feel it — that sense that there was no separation between them and me. No little thing in the back of my head saying “No, I wouldn’t be that into him.”
Growing up in the U.S., girls learn to watch themselves with men’s eyes: How will he see this dress? My hair? My body?
You learn to know how someone sees you. You separate.
And you do this before a movie screen.
This is how my date/my boyfriend/my husband sees the actresss.
This is how he sees me.
But Fury Road doesn’t leave you enough breath to separate.
The movie isn’t about how Max sees Furiosa or the wives.
There’s no separation.
This is a movie about US.
The top of my head is humming.

An Evening with Neil Gaiman — and 1,200 other people

Neil Gaiman, UW, HUB, Seattle, Trigger Warning, reading
My completely blown out shot of Neil Gaiman speaking at the University of Washington HUB Ballroom last night. You can tell it’s him by the black clothes and the hair.

Some authors are more gifted with sentences than voices and when they speak, their words sound wrong because they don’t sound the way they do when you’re reading their words in your own head.

Despite having heard Neil Gaiman on YouTube, I was a little worried before I went to his reading last night.

Sure, he comes with a British accent and a lovely voice, but what if his rhythm sounded all wrong when he was just talking?

What if he said or did something that wiped away the magic?

Ironically, Neil Gaiman talked about the very same thing last night, mentioning that he now avoids certain famous people because he wants to hold the image he has of them in his head.

And that’s the thing about Neil Gaiman, he has this uncanny ability to bring up the thing that you’re thinking about at the moment, like he’s been thinking about it, too. The only thing is that being a master storyteller, he’s quite a bit better with the words — he tells you the story you didn’t recognize in your own heart.

The substance of the reading was surprisingly simple. Neil asked attendants to distribute index cards through the crowd. It seemed like three out of four of the 1,200 people at the sold-out event wrote questions. During the reading, he shuffled through them in a bit, but he took them more or less as they came and fashioned the night into a story just for us.

Some questions were simple like “Where did you get the idea for ‘Fortunately, the Milk,’ and some more complicated, like the reader who mentioned that she’d been dealing with a lot of death lately and wondered what Neil had to say about death and mourning.

Neil spoke about the death of his good friend and fellow writer Terry Pratchett. They wrote “Good Omens” together a long while back. He talked about how even when you knew death was coming it could “take you by surprise.” And then he read an excerpt from “Good Omens” — a bit he remembers as being written mostly by Terry.

The scene where the demon tries to convince the angel to thwart Armageddon sounds very much like two old friends getting drunk together and the sense that Neil would have liked to drink with Terry one last time was palpable, especially when he referenced the scene and talked about death drawing a “bottom line” on thirty years of friendship.

Neil also worked in two stories from his new short story collection “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.” The one about the uninventor and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag.” The later is a classic horror tale written with the kind of clear story that leaves grown ups afraid to wander into the dark.

Towards the end of the evening, Neil addressed how he chooses what to write.

Apparently, back in 2001, when “American Gods” came out (which is currently being made into TV series), he had an editor claim she could make him a “proper successful writer” if he would agree to write only books like “American Gods,” “but a little different.”

Fortunately, Neil has no intention of doing that. “What I really like doing is whatever the fuck I want to,” he says.

And while we were still thinking about the courage it takes to do what you really want to do, he went on with an analogy about writing, getting quite particular about the difference between an old English sweet shop and a candy store. The jars make all the difference. As he says, “because in a sweet shop, everything comes in huge jars. All these jars, more strange or peculiar than anyone can eat. I will never, if I live to 100, get to know what’s in every jar.” But he imagines writing is a like being locked in that shop over night, “desperate to get my hands in as many jars as I can before they open it up and catch me and drag me out.”

Makes you want to run off with the shop owner’s keys, doesn’t it?

This isn’t even close to what it’s like to hear Neil in person. If he comes to town, go. If comes within a three-hour drive and you don’t have a car, rent one.

Fangs away: NIGHT SHIFT released

NIGHT SHIFT, Vampires, Werewolves, Witches, Seattle, J.C. O'BrienAfter a year of writing in cafés while baristas vacuumed under my feet and complimented me on my concentration skills, I wrapped my vampire novel’s climax scene in time to pop a bottle of champagne and ring in the New Year with Dick Clark.

I’m married to a jazz musician, which means New Year’s is a work night for him and usually for me. Although, I have to say despite the kid and the dog, it’s a little lonely without Dick Clark.

That was back in 2012. Editors had yet to develop “fang fatigue.” I had two requests for a full manuscript and figured my novel would be out within a year or so.

By the time I learned about fang fatigue, readers were experiencing it as well. I put NIGHT SHIFT in the metaphoric bottom drawer and worked my day gig, wrote part of a mermaid novel, part of a tarot novel and planned a supernatural noir series.

The vampire book still came up in conversation with random strangers — and nearly everybody’s eyes would light up with an unworldly gleam as they told me they wanted to read my book.

I toyed with the idea of going indie, but until I came up with the right cover, it wasn’t going to happen.

Gainsbourg, Seattle, absinthe, rum, JC O'Brien
The menu from Gainsbourg in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood that inspired me to start searching for pulp fiction cover inspiration.

Fast forward to my husband spending a few painful months modeling fangs using Poser and a particularly blunt cover critique from my NanoWrimo group and I found myself drinking a Sinthesizer at Gainsbourg in Greenwood with a pal. Maybe it was the absinthe and rum or the company, but the drawing on their menu inspired me.

I came home and started searching through pulp fiction covers. My painter husband (yes, he plays bass and paints — creativity is a turn-on) got excited and several computer drawings later, my cover was born.

Which is the long way of saying that my vampire novel is FINALLY available for purchase. You can find it on Amazon and Smashwords. Give it a read. Let me know what you think. I’d love it if you’d consider leaving a review.

And if you’re going to be in Seattle on May 3rd, I’ll be having a book release party at one of the book’s locations, the Alibi Room in downtown Seattle (you know, near the Gum Wall). Join us. Details below:

NIGHT SHIFT book release party
May 3
Alibi Room
Happy Hour: 3-6pm
IMPORTANT BIT: This is a buy-your-own-drink event. Believe me, I have bashes planned for the future, but only after I’m flush. If that makes you curious, help me get there, buy a book 🙂