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Learn more about my first book, Six Pack: Emergence.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Yes, Horror Can Make You Think

When I was 11 years old (this was 1982), two friends of mine suggested we see Poltergeist. It was a horror film but rated PG (this was before the PG-13 rating came along) and my parents seemed OK with it, if that's what I wanted to do.

Toward the end of the film, it got so intense and scary that I was hurrying out of the theater, turned around and found one of my friends following me. After we caught our breath, we headed back to our seats and finished the film. And while I heard stories about people not getting much sleep after horror films, I actually slept well and didn't have any nightmares about the film. At the time, though, I was just an 11-year-old kid and was more interested in whether or not I liked a film, than I was about underlying themes.

A few years later, when I was in college, I took a class about reviewing films and writing about character development, camera techniques and themes. This was when I experienced another horror film, Psycho. Part of me wondered if I would get through the experience without being freaked out, but not only did that not happen, I turned in one of my better essays on one of the techniques, the prying eye. At the time, though, I still wasn't thinking as much about deeper critiques of film as much as I saw the class as a chance to watch movies.

Fast forward to today, in which I've entered the realm of novel writing. After hearing about Stephen King's nonfiction work On Writing, purchasing it and enjoying it, I decided it was time to read more of King's work (the only book I read of his was It). Along the way, it led me to purchase the DVD of Carrie, the 1976 film based on King's first novel of the same title. I knew enough about the film and book to know some of what to expect, but as I watched the film, I didn't find myself creeped out as much as I found myself sympathizing with the main character, and thinking about why I did.

I think that's because, as I explored novel writing, I learned more about character development and understanding what makes a story work. And, yes, that's possible with horror. In fact, what makes certain works of horror hold up over time isn't just memorable scenes, but characters and themes.

Going back to Poltergeist, it wasn't until I got older that I read up on the film and learned that it was really a critique of suburbia. The plot in brief: Steven Freeling is a successful real estate developer who owns a typical suburban home that was located on land on which an old cemetery was once located. It's revealed that the development firm Freeling worked for never bothered to relocate the entire cemetery but simply removed the headstones.

The theme touched upon is that suburbs have sprawled so much that nobody can remember, or may even care, what used to stand where their neighborhoods are located. We see how this has become a problem ranging from infrastructure that cities can't maintain without racking up debt or getting money from the federal government, to homes located on land that wasn't really suitable for them and resulting in structural problems or nature taking its course and ruining the land the homes sit on. It may not be the supernatural at work, but those problems exist.

King may have been ahead of his time when he wrote Carrie, because it's a critique of bullying. The main character is awkward and reclusive, largely because of her religious zealot of a mother, to the point that when Carrie has her period in the communal shower, she thinks she's bleeding to death. Her classmates torment her and are punished by the physical education teacher. One classmate of Carrie's feels guilty and wants to make it up to her, while another (who happens to be spoiled by her parents) wants revenge. It builds to the famous prom scene in which the latter classmate stages an elaborate prank to humiliate Carrie, who lashes out at everyone.

Indeed, we look in today's society about teenagers who lash out at their classmates, often through means we would never condone, and we learn that these teens were picked on and harassed when they were younger and, in many cases, the parents were oblivious that something was bothering their children. It's not surprising that there is heightened awareness of bullying and getting kids and teens to understand it's wrong and to speak out against it.

Finally, there's Psycho, which deals with an overriding theme of guilt. It starts with Marion Crane, who is asked by her boss to deposit a large sum of money into the bank, only to steal the money to give it to her boyfriend, who has debts to pay. From her boss seeing her head out of town and wondering if she's OK, to a state police officer following her because he thinks she's acting suspiciously, her guilt overcomes her and she decides to return the money and admit to her theft. I'm sure most of you know she never gets the chance.

Then there's Norman Bates, who seems to be on a guilt trip of his own. At first, it seems like he's feeling guilty about his mother and the atrocities she commits, but we find out later that his guilt actually stems from his jealousy over his mother finding a new lover and killing them both. He took on his mother's personality at that point, driving him to kill any woman he found attractive.

The lesson to be learned: Guilt is hard to deal with, so you are better off fessing up when you know you've made a mistake, no matter how bad it is.

What makes films such as Psycho, Carrie and Poltergeist stand the test of time is that the themes remain relevant today, and in some cases, more so than they did back when they were first released. They show that horror, when written well, can resonate on a larger scale, and that perhaps the real reason the best works freak us out is not because a scene was scary, but because the theme made us think about how we should be more aware of the consequences of our behavior.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: The Inner Circle

When I got back into comic books and graphic novels, I picked up Identity Crisis. That's when I became familiar with the writing talents of Brad Meltzer.

It was several years later when I ran across a selection of books for $1 each and one of Meltzer's titles was among them, The Fifth Assassin. I bought it and enjoyed it. It led me to track down the book that preceded Fifth Assassin, The Inner Circle.

The Inner Circle was the first book to follow Beecher Write, an archivist who works with the most important U.S. government documents. He stumbles upon a 200-year-old dictionary that once belonged to George Washington and unravels a mystery surrounding the President of the United States and a host of others, among them White's childhood friend Clementine Kaye, whose father had attempted to kill the President.

The story starts off slowly, with Meltzer getting into some backstory, all while hinting about what's to come later. It picks up in the middle, though, and becomes more intriguing as Meltzer builds to the climax. This is one of Meltzer's strengths as a writer -- he does a good job building suspense and dropping hints early that all is not what it seems. There are moments in which it was tough to put the book down because I wondered what was going to happen next.

He's also good at keeping the reader guessing as to who, among those White encounters, is really being honest with him. There are instances in which Meltzer suggests that one person is to be trusted, but reveals later that's not the case. Other instances see Meltzer hint that somebody isn't trustworthy, but that person's honest becomes apparent later.

Meltzer mostly sticks to first-person narrative through White, but at times, will jump into a third-person limited viewpoint. That might be jarring to some readers who are used to sticking in with one or the other throughout a book. There are chapters in which he jumps back to past events; again, that might be jarring to readers who want a seamless flow of current events.

I believe Meltzer's ability to build suspense and intrigue is what really keeps the story strong. There are a few loose ends left dangling, but it's understandable because this is the first in The Culper Ring series. The Fifth Assassin is the second in the series and the third, The President's Shadow, was released this past summer.

You can order The Inner Circle through Amazon or visit your local bookstore.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book Update: Entering The Home Stretch

So now it's coming to this: The sixth, and hopefully final, draft of my first novel.

I've had several beta readers give me good feedback, which indicated I needed to include more, after I had taken a lot out. What I needed to include more of was not more characters or plot developments, but more insight into the characters and what makes them tick.

I've learned over the course of these drafts that sometimes you need to remove something from a drat to make the story work better, but the more I've talked to those who have read my fifth draft, the more I realized I needed more depth. In other words, it's the "more" that actually works when crafting a novel.

Along the way, I've paid close attention to books as I've read them, not just enjoying what I'm reading, but paying attention to what's being developed and why it's important.

The latest book I'm reading is Stephen King's The Stand, which may be an extreme example of how you can include a lot in a novel but manage to get away with it. Of course, King had written multiple novels by the time The Stand came along, so he could rely partly on reputation to sell it to publishers. At the same time, he had to fall back on everything he learned as a writer in order to make the story work for readers.

I can tell you that my planned book will not approach the number of pages in The Stand (and no first-time novel writer should attempt that, I believe) but as the fifth draft came in at just a little more than 50,000 words, I have plenty of room to add without making the book get too long. The trick, of course, is to find that happy medium in giving the readers enough so they become more invested in the characters, but not so much that they become bored, overwhelmed or confused.

So I can tell you that I have completed three chapters and the count looks like this:

* Chapter 1: 4,144 words.
* Chapter 2: 2,988 words.
* Chapter 3: 2,849 words.

I am hopeful I can finish the sixth draft in a couple of months, only needing to balance that writing with my work schedule. Some chapters will require rewriting, others just need polishing. From there, I'm hopeful I'll have a draft that's ready for the next step.

In the meantime, I've got writing to review for other people and I am hopeful to get a book review up this weekend.

But, yes, the journey I've started is about to reach the next phase. It's simply a matter of sticking with it until I get there.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Reporting Has Changed, But Still Isn't Pleasant

Barry Petchesky shares the ugly truth about reporting. As someone who has written for newspapers, I can tell you that reporting is not always a pleasant experience and there are plenty of times when I didn't want to go out approaching people and ask them difficult questions, I understood it came with their territory.

I understand people don't like it when a reporter is rude, and yes, there are ways a reporter can approach a story without acting rude. For some people, though, there is no difference between the reporter who runs up to and starts firing off questions and the reporter who walks up to you, identifies who he/she is and asks if you are willing to talk. And a lot of that comes with how the media presents itself today and the impression people get from how it's presented.

It's important to remember that the way news is delivered is changing. If a major event took place in 1910, newspapers did the legwork. Most of the time it was limited to the newspapers closest to the event. In such situations, the pressure to get out the story as quickly as possible was not as intense because there were fewer people alongside you trying to get the story. If an event was so significant that a newspaper in a major city far removed from the area wanted to cover it, it took time for that paper to send a reporter there, so your supervisors weren't worried about that competition.

The first change came when television came along, and soon after, cable television and the rise of the 24-7 news network. Now it was possible to have reporters on the scene quickly, telling people what was happening. And these reporters would be followed along by a cameraman, able to pull viewers right into events and see action and emotion unfold before them. Combine that with 24-7 news networks needing to fill time as breaking news stories developed, and there became a greater need for local outlets to get the details.

Then came the Internet and social media. Now reporters who live in New York City don't have to worry about traveling across the country to Oregon to get details; they can approach people on Twitter -- especially when people who have firsthand knowledge about events are tweeting remarks about them. So it's no surprise you have those involved in journalistic outfits sending tweets back, asking if it's OK to talk to these people. More importantly, it's not surprising you see reporters do this, because they know everybody in journalism is using social media to keep updated about what's happening and if there's an important event that people want to know more about.

Petchesky is correct that Twitter means people can see the reporting process unfold and learn that it's sometimes unpleasant. Again, it's true you don't want to be rude, but one must remember that rudeness is about how you approach, not that you approached to begin with. And I agree with Petchesky that asking for comments on Twitter is less intrusive because it's easier to ignore a tweet (even if we sometimes find it easy to give into temptation) than an actual person with a microphone followed by a cameraman or somebody with pen and paper knocking on your front door.

More importantly, if you don't like the idea of reporters sending tweets to people who are tweeting how they are witnessing a newsworthy development, then why aren't you asking why people tweet about those developments in the first place? It's not surprising people would do this, because social media users are accustomed to talking about their observations and experiences. But as those who know technology would tell you, when you put something out on social media, it essentially becomes part of the public domain, even when you limit who can see it.

And when it comes to Twitter, most people who send stuff out know the public can see it. I've had people who don't follow me on Twitter interact with tweets I've sent out. That's why I've learned not to tweet something out I don't want to share with the public. If I tweet it, I accept that someone might respond. It comes with the territory.

Back to reporting: It's a job that is sometimes unpleasant and one that many people wouldn't have the stomach to do. In fact, I'll admit that hard news really isn't my thing. I've always done better with features and lighter material. Regardless, I know those who do hard news don't have an easy job, and that most of them are not insensitive pricks. There are a few who truly are rude, but they shouldn't be compared to those who approach people gently and ask if it's OK to talk -- and they certainly shouldn't be compared to those who send requests for interviews to anyone who uses Twitter to talk about a major event they are witnessing.

There are legitimate criticisms to make about the way reporters conduct themselves and how news is presented. But this is what happens when the competition to get story details becomes fierce. If a reporter doesn't bother to ask questions that allow them to humanize events, somebody else will, then somebody else will ask the reporter why he/she didn't do the job the reporter was hired to do.

Most of all, if you witness a major event and talk about what you are seeing on Twitter, or see somebody else tweeting about a major event, stop acting like it's a major ethics violation when a reporter tweets back asking if it's OK to talk about it. Because once it's tweeted out, you've told the world you want to talk about it.