"When I Grow Up"

Ever since he can remember, Ted Michael LaBelle wanted to be a serial killer.

His father was a cop.  Or as he would later find out, a Securitas night guard at the local Supermall.  But Mr. LaBelle, Dad, would come home with wild tales for his son from the beat, of murderers captured in the act, of smoking pistols and unsolved mysteries.  Ted Michael LaBelle was enthralled.  Dad was reprieved.  It was a lot more captivating than flooded bathrooms and elderly shoplifters.

That first Halloween, the first one he can recall, Ted Michael LaBelle dressed up as one of his heroes.  He told his mother he was a businessman, a noble costume for a 9-year-old boy, and Mom couldn't see the harm in a dapper suit and slick hair.  She wanted him to go as a flower, an old costume she'd worn as a child and saved for this very occasion, but he wanted to be a businessman.  Who was she to hold him back?  Her boy would grow up to be rich and powerful, better than a security guard or a vacant gambler or a silly flower.  She never questioned the plastic meat cleaver he required to complete the ensemble.  Mothers.

In elementary school, he did his best to stay out of trouble.  But it wasn't easy.  He wouldn't tolerate being called, simply, Ted.  It was Ted Michael LaBelle.  All three names, equally as important.  He would write the name in his notebook, next to complex puzzles and fake news stories about how the FBI finally caught the greatest serial killer of all time.  That's when the teasing started, and the bullying, when they found his notebooks.  But Ted Michael LaBelle welcomed it, taking punches and insults with a smile.  He thought it was all an important step in fulfilling his destiny.  You're doing it, he told himself, you're learning; play the part.

Books guided him further toward his calling.  The true crime section at the school library was surprisingly reckless for an elementary school, filled with tomes of warped humanity, and with pictures, too.  The pictures were the best, black and white, stolen from the past.  Soon, the library became his only friend.  He would escape there until the kind librarian would tell him to leave.  But that wouldn't do.  Not once he reached junior high school.  It would be too suspicious.  A boy with no friends was a boy to look out for, and Ted Michael LaBelle did not want to be looked out for.  Cover was essential.  His alibi had to be siege-proof.  He had to blend, the way his counterparts did so well.

So Ted Michael LaBelle went out in search of friendship.  He had to find children he could trust, children he could manipulate, the weak-willed and such.  But it wasn't easy.  Children were smarter than they looked, he realized, and decided to make up ground in gym class.  No one would see it coming: Small, distant Ted Michael LaBelle, the hero of the gym class football team, winner of friends and praise and the marginal attention necessary to avoid criminal detection.  He read up on the rules of football, never one to waste too much time in front of the television with Dad, and found its rules simple enough.  The application was harder, however. He was small and unathletic, and couldn't catch or throw, but he had a sharp, sudden ferocity to him that caught people off guard and left plenty of classmates breathless and holding their ribs.  It didn't matter that it was flag football.  Ted Michael LaBelle never did become the hero, but they didn't pick him last anymore.  Mission accomplished.

The boy who was picked last became his one and only friend.  Steven Somethingorother.  It was enough to get by, Ted Michael LaBelle convinced himself, and besides, high school would come soon; he would start fresh, slip into circles and make acquaintances without them ever knowing who was in their midst.  Steven would be discarded for another echelon.  He had to keep learning, to study the mannerisms and habits of all sorts of people, to find the right targets.

High school came, and Steven Somethingorother remained his only friend.  Baffling, he thought.  But it was a temporary setback, after a few years, he would get to start fresh at a university, that's where the true predatory work would begin.  High school was merely a chance to observe, and Ted Michael LaBelle studied his classmates the way Jane Goodall studied her chimps.  He took detailed notes, documenting their lives between faint blue lines.

But there was something missing from the formula.  Ted Michael LaBelle knew he could stalk and prey with the best of them, but he lacked a lot of the serial skills necessary to finish the deed.  He'd never killed a thing before, although he knew how his counterparts had, but without regular practice, without honing his talents against the grindstone, he might as well just be a killer's assistant.  That would never do.

That's how Ted Michael LaBelle joined the Boy Scouts.  He was too old, they said, but after some prodding from his father, the best damn beat cop in Precinct Supermall, the local troop let him join, going on camping trips with middle school boys and learning the skills of survival: Gutting fish, sharpening knives, covering tracks, all the important things.  What he lacked in years, Ted Michael LaBelle made up for with tenacity, and soon he'd eclipsed even the best young scouts, working his way through badges the way he'd soon work through a population.  He earned his Eagle Scout in record time.  His parents were so proud, he was headed in the right direction, they'd say, he was going to be a businessman, they'd recall.

But a good serial killer doesn't have proud parents, and being a businessman was too time consuming.  He needed a job, something flexible, where he was the boss and could fudge the hours, if the police ever needed to know where he was when.  Ted Michael LaBelle picked up a part-time job at a driving range, whizzing around in the gas-powered range picker, picking up balls, dumping them into buckets, and heading back out again.  It was simple, repetitive, and it allowed him to focus his mind only on what was important.  The money helped, too.  He bought a machete.  For camping trips with his fellow scouts.

And he also bought a girlfriend.  Jenny Somethingorother.  She wasn't popular by any stretch of the imagination, but she wasn't unpopular either, and her connections would be necessary.  Ted Michael LaBelle took her out and paid for little meals, giving her whatever money he could afford to give.  He didn't need the money so much, he already had a signature weapon, after all; he needed the girlfriend.  He needed to work on his charm, on his charisma, to learn the necessary skills to be attractive.  It was a monumental task.  Her father was a lawyer and worked a lot.  You'd think she'd have a lot of money flowing around, but Dad kept it all to himself, as most dads do.  But Ted Michael LaBelle knew he'd eventually need good counsel, when he turned himself in.  The police would never be able to solve his riddles, but that's what he wanted, it would add to the allure.  Mr. Somethingorother would valiantly defend him in court, pleading with judge and jury, telling them what a sweet, caring young man he was, how he'd known him for years and knew he'd never do such horrible things.  A little doubt in the courtroom would make things all the more dramatic.

Ted Michael LaBelle was surprised to get into college.  He didn't pay too much attention in school, getting by on wits and multiple choice tests.  But his entrance essay, a brilliant piece titled "The Behavioral Tendencies of Boy Scouts & Their Masters," must've done the trick.  He was accepted into the school's anthropology program.

It was there he'd make his first killing.

There was a boy who no one seemed to like.  He was constantly surrounded by people, "friends," but no one seemed to actually like him.  They'd exchange looks behind his back, mock him when he wasn't there.  Ted Michael LaBelle watched him from the outside, from his own small circle of new throwaway acquaintances, studying the boy's every move, piecing together a schedule of his comings and goings, when he was alone, etc.  He was loud, and fat, neither of which would make the deed any easier, but Ted Michael LaBelle stacked himself up against the best, and decided that if he couldn't tick this loud/fat box off, he might as well give up his serial dreams.

For six months, Ted Michael LaBelle stalked his victim, visualizing every moment, day after day.  His plan was foolproof, and so he stopped visualizing one day and put his plan into action.  The boy would get wings and beer from a local bar every Thursday, despite being underage, and would stumble home alone, fat and dizzy and slow, where he'd card his way into his dorm and wander into the elevator, up to the fourth floor, room 433, and collapse in a lumpy heap in the middle of the living room, where his roommate would draw things on his face that don't need mentioning.

Ted Michael LaBelle, dressed in plain clothes, looking as plain and ordinary as possible, followed the boy home that Thursday, keeping his distance, pretending to listen to music and holding his backpack by the shoulder straps.  The boy stumbled toward his dorm, the same way he always did, kicking at garbage bins in the alley and causing a noisy scene.  As they approached the dorm, Ted Michael LaBelle sped up, walking briskly until he was practically breathing down the boy's neck.  His shoes were silent though, rubber soles a must. The boy fumbled through his wallet, finding magnetized identification and opening the door with a beep.  Ted Michael LaBelle slipped in with him, a gust of wind, undocumented by the cardkey reader and unnoticed by the sleeping security guard behind the counter.

He waited patiently for the elevator to arrive while the boy steadied himself against a wall.  They never made eye contact, although Ted Michael LaBelle tried.  The elevator dinged and the boy entered first.  Ted Michael LaBelle could feel his heart pounding, singing even, this was his moment, the one he'd been studying for, preparing for, visualizing, since he was a little boy.  He followed the boy into the elevator and took his position in front of the floor buttons and, more importantly, the emergency stop.  The door closed, and the loud/fat boy, breathing heavily, started singing a tune out of key, to himself, oblivious to Ted Michael LaBelle's presence.  Am I so small, so insignificant? he thought.  Am I nothing more than a fly on the wall to you?  He tried to conjure dark, sinister motivations, the way his counterparts would, manufacturing some sort of wrong-doing, some vengeance that needed to be enacted.  With the elevator in motion, Ted Michael LaBelle pulled the emergency stop, and the boy half-woke from his stupor, looking at him with confusion?

The boy garbled something only he could understand, and Ted Michael LaBelle smiled, said something back, he couldn't remember what, he was so excited, and then carried out the remainder of his plan.

The elevator doors opened once, briefly, on the fourth floor, and then once more, on the main floor, where Ted Michael LaBelle walked out alone, leaving a warm pile of bloody, quiet/fat remains on the elevator floor.  The security guard was still asleep, and a short while later, Ted Michael LaBelle was, too.  Nice and cozy, his life in sudden bloom.

Aperture - Robots & The People's Republic

As a writer, it can be difficult to document your inspirations. I scribble notes on every available surface -- sticky notes, sketchbooks, cell phone lists, my overworked memory -- but even then, there's often a picture that goes missing. I spent some time trying to figure out what that meant and how to capture those ideas, and I quickly realized that documentation can be as easy as pressing a button. As a whimsical amateur-photographer, it (ironically) never occurred to me to document my own inspiration, the way set designers and artists take photographs to inform their physical work, I (wrongfully) thought that the written word needed to be documented as written word. 1+1=2, dammit. But photography can be a powerful tool for a writer, or any artist for that matter, because photographs often capture moments in better detail and color and emotion than the flighty brain. On A, ROBOT, I will be showcasing all sorts of inspiration: My own, the work of others, and hopefully some of yours, in a feature pretentiously-titled APERTURE. No, I'm not changing the title, do you see that fancy-ass graphic I made?

One of the best sources of photography out there today comes from the The Atlantic magazine. I subscribe to the 'In Focus' RSS, where photo essays are sent out from The Atlantic's incredible photographers, detailing everything from beautiful, sweeping landscapes of sparsely-populated countries to the inner workings of urban, industrial life. The photo essay is really a powerful tool, one that isn't used often enough in modern journalism, but it's good to know that there are still photographers and outlets who see the value of visual storytelling. There's a lot to learn from photographic composition and essay storytelling, something that can and should be gleaned for the writer. Just by looking at a photograph, my brain starts to tumble, dreaming up old blind ladies with robotic assistants, paraplegic soldiers reassembled for war, starving farmers staring at distant metropolises.

Two recent essays from In Focus, "Robots at Work and Play" and "Scenes From 21st-Century China" are especially relevant for writers and readers of science fiction. The first is an almost surreal exploration of the current state and use of robotics; a heavy subject in science fiction and something that's only getting more traction as we reach that point of robotic critical mass. The latter essay, documenting The People's Republic, shows a dichotomous China, dancing between an already-realized future and a punishing, divisive economy. Each photograph tells a marvelous moment, but together, they weave a larger narrative, one that must be deconstructed and shredded for a writer's own consumption. Inside each essay are hundreds of stories waiting to be written, and we are vultures; leave no carcass unclean.

Lines in notebooks are still important. As are simple words or scribbled paragraphs. But you never know when you're going to need that robot or that soldier or that farmer, when you're going to need that scenery, and 10 years from now, having a photograph, something that locks in the emotions and the imagery, may be far more fruitful than "contemplative orangutan."

Hurry up, assholes! Buy the Humble eBook Bundle!

There are just two days and change left before the incredible Humble eBook Bundle runs out. For only $15, you can unlock 13 BOOKS, easily transportable to any eBook reading device you want.

Let me repeat that.

For $15, you can unlock 13 BOOKS. Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean, John Scalzi, Paolo Bacigalupi, and more contributed to the bundle, and they just added even more content (!), including work from Penny Arcade, xkcd, and WHY ARE YOU STILL SITTING HERE READING THIS DRIVEL BUY THE BUNDLE ALREADY. I have been gnawing on Bacigalupi's "Pump Six and Other Stories" and I am completely, utterly blown away by his storytelling. My teeth are somewhere in a Chinese boy's pocket right now, and I don't want them back. He can have them, as long as he promises to trade them for something special.

Just remember, you can pay as much as you want, and tease the sliders to pay more to the authors, to charity, to the Humble team, or to Zuul, if you so please (all hail). I can't wait to sink my gums into the rest of the bundle. And here's another link, in case you're color blind or something.

Murakami, the master

I have to admit, I have an unhealthy love for Haruki Murakami ("The Wind Up Bird Chronicle," "Norwegian Wood," etc.). I have yet to find another author in his odd, jazzy realm, one who handles such difficult, bizarre things with almost-infuriating efficiency and ease. Murakami is unrivaled when it comes to complex simplicity.

After finishing a collection of his short stories, "after the quake," six stories set in Japan after the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, I feel as though I've just crossed paths with a ghost, something from my past, something deep and penetrating that no one was supposed to know but me. And yet Murakami knows. Somehow, he knows about those real, often painful things; shards of the human experience that would be taboo or clumsy to write for a lesser author. His bravery with the written word explodes off the page and nestles in the reader's brain.

It's not just that Murakami writes with simplicity (his restraint is powerful), it's that he draws you in with it, only to smack you over the head with something loud and unexpected, something that doesn't belong, but you accept his plot willingly because his prose is so delicate. "after the quake" was a marvelous, haunting experience, especially the stories "UFO in Kushiro," "Landscape with Flatiron," "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," and "Honey Pie."

Short stories are often overlooked, especially compared to novels and other forms, but Murakami shows a mastery over the genre that his own characters often (ironically) dream about. He shares bits and pieces of himself, tearing skin and muscle and memories from his own body and slapping them down onto the page for others to touch. This collection is macabre, unusual, and often funny, and it's a can't miss for authors who want/need to simplify their prose and narrow their ideas.

One line, in particular, I read at least ten times, whimsically jotting it down in a notebook and thinking about it days later:

"Well, Mr. Katagiri, I have not been frogging all these years for nothing. I keep my eye on the important things in life." -Frog
Keep frogging.


What better way to start an author site than to discuss rejection?

I have been rejected countless times in my life. By women (a lot of them). Employers. My own subconscious. Don Hertzfeld. And yes, even by literary agents. My first long-form piece, a novella titled "Eleanor" (I'm not going to tell you what it's about yet, because hopefully one day someone will want to publish it, or I'll just suck it up and self-publish), didn't make the agent cut due to length. Most publishers won't publish novellas, especially for first-time authors, because they can't sell my 30,000 words as easily as they can sell Neil Gaiman's. Makes sense. I took the agent's great feedback and refocused my efforts on more substantial work. Yes, someone had turned away my precious baby, my beautiful child (the nerve!), but it wasn't personal, it's business. There are margins that a publisher needs to see in order to take the publishing plunge and invest. Novellas don't usually fit into those margins, so onward!

But one of the great hurdles that first-time authors, or even first-time writers have to overcome is rejection. Not the fear of it, you should never stop fearing rejection, because that fear helps keep the brain sharp and expectations realistic. What you should fear is the post-rejection fallout. It's not easy to be told your shit stinks; most people want to live in a Febreezy world where every word that flows out of their fingertips is inked in solid, fragrant gold (does gold have a smell? I am not a rich man). When you find out those foreign stenches are coming from you, it's easy to curl up into a ball and never want to leave the apartment ever again. But the reality is that rejection is a part of the writing process. You can't take it personally. You can't even really acknowledge it, other than to use it as a motivator (and it's a damn good one; the best).

Every author gets rejected. It's how you respond to it that defines you. I was lucky to have come from the world of journalism, where editors would send me on assignment, asking me to write passionate, long-form pieces only to decide posthumously not to publish my story on the U.S. version of American Gladiators (true story). Years of that sort of thing thickened my skin. It bulked up my backbone. And I feel armed to fail. Think about it like this: We're all armed to succeed. We can all handle compliments and candy pretty well. But our world is just one long, continuous journey through success and failure. We're here because our species "succeeded," and, as such, our brains don't cope too well with failure. But if you're serious about having a writing career, you better submit your work juiced up like Bane, sitting in front of your computer, waiting for the rejection letter, your steroid-fingers swollen so big you type like tfghg huj ikl swedf (this), because failure is part of success. Toughen up, sissies.

I don't want to turn this site into a fucking pulpit. It's called A, Robot, not "I'm Awesome." I plan to use this site as a platform to share interesting ideas (and some stupid ones, too, I assure you), to observe the world, to argue about science fiction, literature, comic books, etc., to share inspiring artwork, to croon over artists of every sort, to learn from people much smarter than I am, and to demand that you read the same things I'm reading so I'll have someone to argue with. And, of course, to document my literary journey. But I want to have FUN here, not slog through a preachy game of telephone. I'm still figuring this whole writing thing out, just like you are, and I'm not going to pretend to know everything there is to know about being an author, because, dammit, I'm not one yet. Well, I am an author, but the gap between published and unpublished is canyon-esque sometimes, and my inclination is to reject even my own assertions, because rejection is fun!

I am wrapping up my third piece (and hopefully my first published novel), a beastly Sci-Fi thing that dwarfs poor little "Eleanor," and while I've grown so much as a writer since finishing that initial novella, I'm still learning more about the craft every day. I learn from reading, I learn from other people, I learn from history, I learn from shutting the hell up and allowing my brain some time to decompress, but mostly, I learn from failing. I fuck up on a daily basis, sitting in front of a flashing cursor wondering if the last sentence is even worth keeping, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Every sentence is a challenge; it's a mounted knight standing opposite the jousting ... thing (you know), and I choose to face the bastard, whether or not his lance is longer or his horse is faster, because what do I have to lose? Rejection is just a chance to get better.