memoryformomOn one of my birthdays in elementary school, all my friends came home with my after school for my party. We couldn't get in the front door. The whole house was filled with string, winding around everything. Each kid was handed a popsicle stick with their name on it, and each stick was tied to one end of a string. We had to wind up the string, crawling under furniture, looping it through the rungs of a chair, going from room to room. It took an hour for us to untangle the house. At the end of the string, each kid found their own bag of treats.

My mom always did fantastic things for us kids. We had amazing birthday parties, challenging summer activities, and the freedom to learn and explore. My mom made all these wonderful memories possible, and now she's starting to lose them.

Mom is seventy-two, in good shape, and very active. She enjoys working outside and playing with her grandson. but, like many people her age, she's starting to lose some of her recall, and it really bothers her. In March, I took a trip down to her house, and I figured I could help her with that problem. I wrote a bunch of letters to my mom, reminding her of the best moments I could recall from my childhood.

  1. I thought about my childhood in phases--toddler, pre-school, Kindegarten through 3rd grade, 4th through 6th, 7th through 9th. I stopped at 9th grade because that's when all the memories I could think of were complex and tied up with conflicting emotions.
  2. For each phase, I listed the most memorable moments. This takes some time and concentration, but once you start, it comes easily. The trick is to not force your memory. Latch on to one clear image and rebuild it with as much detail as you can. Then, forget about that moment and move onto something else. Come back to that memory after your brain has had some time to cook up connections and then try to bridge that one memory into a couple more. I listed them all out on a sheet of paper.
  3. I culled my list. I was looking for things that evoked strong, loving emotions; moments from my childhood when I felt that the world was complete, and she was the center of my universe. These weren't hard to find. I also tried to find memories that spanned all the different roles she played in the household (protector, nurturer, provider, educator), and memories that demonstrated all the things I learned by her example.
  4. I wrote a letter briefly describing that event. I tried to make each one fit on a small page--that kept the scope manageable. I also tried to remember to thank her for specific things. I'm certain I never thanked her enough when I was growing up, and I definitely never thanked her for the right things.
  5. I hid the letters around her house in places where I knew she would find them.

She really enjoyed those memories, so I decided to write down some more and send them for Mother's day. If you're looking for something thoughtful to do that she'll love, I recommend it. Even if your mom is not having any memory problems of her own, I bet she'll enjoy your fondest memories of her written down.

One thing I love about Stephen King books is the dialog. I can tell I like these people by the way they talk.

Susan smiled a little defensively. "Sure, I'm sure. He looks like . . . oh, I don't knowa college instructor or something."

"They say the Mad Bomber looked like a gardner," Mrs. Norton said reflectively.

"Moose shit," Susan said cheerfully. It was an epithet that never failed to irritate her mother.

DialogBubbleThat chunk is clearly from an early work, before Mr. King focused on eliminating all adverbs from his dialog attribution. Later, in On Writing, he'll take himself to task for those adverbs. I think they're delightful. Here's another bit where you can hear the voices if you care to listen.

"Sure it does. This isn't Boston or New York. It's not going to be just a matter of me keepin' my lip buttoned. People are going to talk. Why, there's an old biddy over on Railroad Street, name of Mabel Werts, who spends all day with a pair of binoculars"

"I don't care about the townspeople. My partner doesn't care about the townspeople. The townspeople always talk. They are no different from the magpies on the telephone wires. Soon they will accept us."

I like the way he uses dialog because somehow in the way he has his characters speak, we learn more about them than when he reveals what they're actually thinking. You can hear an open, honest thought process there. Dialog is also useful for demonstrating the bond between people. I tried to use playful banter between the boys in The Vivisectionist to demonstrate the friendship that evolved:

"Hey, you guys ever hear about that snake last summer?" asked Ben.

"Are you just trying to scare everyone?" asked Jack.

"No, seriously, you didn't hear?" said Ben. "Last summer this guy's six-foot boa got out of his house and lived in the woods for weeks."

"Shut up!" said Stephen. "That's the oldest story ever."

"Whatever, you don't have to believe me. Some guy almost hit it driving down Kirkpatrick Road." maintained Ben.

"Oh, wait — I heard about that," said Jack.

"You guys are full of shit," said Stephen.
"Really. I saw the picture in the paper," replied Jack. "The worst part was that when they caught it, it got upset and disgorged."

"Yeah, that's the one," agreed Ben. "Snakes get scared and throw up so they can run away."

"Well I do know about that," said Stephen, "but I still say you're full of shit."

"Anyway," continued Ben, "what they didn't say on the news was that it disgorged a whole baby."

"No way!" said Stephen.

 I don't think anybody wants to read page after page of pure dialog, but it does make a nice break the for the eyes to get some short, quick lines in there to break up all the text. There's one big problem though. It's really hard to know when it's right. It can sound right to me, perfect even, but I know how it's supposed to sound. If you cut out some of the description (trying to reduce the clutter), you can accidentally make a chunk of dialog that looks right to you, but is ambiguous to the reader. 

In the title of this post, I promised some free ideas. When an interesting bit of dialog crosses my path (overheard or imagined), I like to write it down. A lot of times I don't use it verbatim, but I try to capture the feel of it in a story. Here are some random ideas you can have for free (they're worth every penny):

"He doesn't say 'good morning,' he says 'morning,' and he says it like it's a warning."

* * * *

"I hate people who's names are verbs, but you totally Petered that."

* * * *

"You had sex with him, but you won't with me?"

"I actually care about you."

"Huh. Could you care less about me for a few minutes?"

"I'm starting to."

* * * *

"How long are you going to hold this against me?"

"Not the rest of my life, but probably the rest of yours."

We waded out through waist-deep water and then swam downstream to get to the big rock. On a hot summer day that rock would be covered by dozens of sunbathers, but on this late-spring day, the three of us were alone. Frank, Clay, and I had been trapped inside by a week of rain. When the sun came out that afternoon we didn't waste any time heading down to the river.

BigRockNewRiverTwenty-five miles upstream from where we sunbathed, the dam at Claytor Lake holds back 4,500 acres of water. That day, our late-spring day twenty years ago, the rain had collected in countless mountain streams and dumped into Claytor Lake, pressing against the face of that dam. When the operators opened the gates to relieve the pressure, a klaxon sounded to warn everyone downstream of the coming flood. Unfortunately, we were too far downstream to hear the alarm. The three of us napped in the sun while the water rose around us.

 

I remember being afraid of the dark when I was a kid. Something always lurked under the bed or at the back of the closet. I knew with absolute certainty that as soon as my bare foot hit the floor a hand would shoot out from under the bed and grab my ankle, pulling me under to die amongst the dust bunnies. The space between the mattress and boxsprings also seemed a likely place for a monster. Just let your hand dangle too far over the edge, and something could slip out of that gap and grip your wrist tight. What happened to those monsters? Did logic drive them away, or did their threat weaken simply because night after night they failed to materialize?

I read 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King for the first time when I was a teenager visiting Maine one summer. I stayed in a second-floor bedroom of a house built in 1856. As I stayed up past midnight, neck craned over my distressed paperback, the house played games with my fright. The old latch on closet door would suddenly spring and the door would creak open half an inch. Or, just as I was reading about the vampire Ralphie Glick showing up at someone's window, the rollup blind would raise six inches and then stop.  I've never been more scared by a book than I was that summer.

 

But all those frights paled in comparison to the fear that built when we realized we were alone on a rock in a rising river, six-hundred feet from shore. The opposite bank was much closer–only about one-hundred-and-fifty feet away–but it lay on the other side of nasty rapids. Also, swimming to the far shore would have left us twenty miles of walking to get back to the car. These are the facts we debated as the water lapped at the edge of the rock. Normally, that rock stood at least six feet out of the water. 

We made a couple of attempts to swim upstream to the shallow part of the river, but we were washed back down to the rock each time. Hundreds of feet closer to the car, two guys sat on the rock closest to the shore. We watched them dive in and head for safety. 

After twenty minutes of panicked debate, we conceded that our rock might be underwater before too long. Floods of ten feet or more weren't unheard of, and the water had only risen half that much. The three of us left together. Just downstream from the rock, the current tumbled over a ridge of rocks, kicking up whitewater. The swirl pulled me under and my ears popped as I was plunged towards the bottom of the river. I fought with flailing arms and legs until I came up, gasping for air. After orienting myself, I poured all my energy into swimming for shore. 

Realizations came in waves. I've always been a strong swimmer, but that day I realized that a cramp or an accidental mouthful of water can prove unrecoverable. Halfway across, I realized that if one of my friends went under, I wouldn't be able to save them. Although I hate to admit it, I realized that if one of them needed help, I probably wouldn't have even tried to save them. Finally, I realized that I could die. I understood for the first time that my life could end on a warm, sunny afternoon. 

When we'd made it within one-hundred feet of shore, we were out of the rapids and the water was swift but smooth. On the road that ran down the edge of the river, police cars, ambulances, and boats on trailers had arrived. We clawed our way up the banks amid a dozen rescue workers who ignored our presence. My body suffered scores of lacerations from tumbling against the rocks, and I was soon covered in blood. One of the paramedics asked if I needed help and I returned his question with my own:

"What are you guys doing here?" I asked.

"That lady saw a kid go under," he said, "right along here."

It was one of the guys from the close-to-shore rock. He and his friend had tried to swim for shore and he hadn't made it. The woman told the police that she'd seen just his arm and then nothing. They found his body the next day, thirteen miles downstream. He had suffered a broken leg and drowned. I read his name two days later in the paper, but I can't remember it now. At the time, I figured it must be a mistake. Even after I read the full story, I couldn't believe that we had lived and another person on those rocks had died.

 Clay and Frank made it to the bank, no worse off than I was. The three of us walked back up the road. We'd been washed about a quarter mile down the river during our swim. It felt like a long trip back to the car. 

I didn't lose my love of scary books and movies that day, but they've had less power over me since. I write scary stories to try to recapture that feeling when one's own mortality first sinks in. For example, in The Vivisectionist I explore that moment of realization with the boy strapped to the murderer's chair. How do you cope with the sudden knowledge that your life will end someday and there's nothing you can do about it? Would you cramp up, or would you swim?


OnWritingAbout twelve years ago, Stephen King published a book called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book is fantastic. Let me give you my summary of the book and then we can talk about it a little.

** SPOILER ALERT ** 

Near the bottom of this post (2nd to last paragraph), I talk about the endings of  'Salem's Lot, Misery, The Stand, It, and The Dome. I also (of course) reveal details about On Writing, but you would have guessed that, right?

** SPOILER ALERT **

Mr. King opens with an autobiography of sorts. He mostly covers the parts relating to his writing career, but you get other little stories as well. His style and his voice are so clear. This section is just as engaging as one of his novels, but in a way it's even better. If you've read a bunch of King, you've probably made a habit of picking up little details about the author from his characters. So many of his main characters are writers who seem to reflect him clearly: Ben Mears in 'Salem's Lot, Jack Torrance in The Shining, Thad Beaumont – The Dark Half, Paul Sheldon – Misery. It's hard not to equate these guys with Stephen King. They're each a thoughtful adolescent in a grown man's body, trying to do well for the people he loves. But in this book you don't have to peer at a reflection. He's standing right in front of you, showing you every detail.

By the way, there's a great article on Wikipedia which lists all the novels written in SK books by SK characters.

King talks about not having an answer to the "Where do you get your ideas?" question. But after claiming ignorance, he demonstrates the process. He was nineteen or twenty when he worked briefly as a summer janitor in Brunswick High School. There he cleaned the showers in the locker rooms and witnessed that the girls' shower had curtains and tampon dispensers. While recalling that at another job, he remembered a story from Life magazine – telekinesis emerges with puberty and then "Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea." That idea turned into Carrie, the first book he sold.

After the autobiography, King addresses the toolbox you'll need to write:

  • Vocabulary – keep it simple; don't try to show off; find the right word.
  • Grammar – kept it simple; make it active; don't use adverbs.

Mr. King dedicates the last half of the book to the process. He has firm ideas that he delivers as edict.

  • You must read and write a lot. There's no other way to understand the craft.
  • Write your first draft behind a closed door, but for your second draft, leave the door open. King believes that your good ideas will evaporate in the light of day. You must grow them secretly, in the dark, like mushrooms.
  • Books should be composed of narration, description, and dialog. No plot! "Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest."
  • His books generally come from a "what if?" question that forms in the collision of ideas: "What if a young mother and her son became trapped in a stalled car by a rapid dog? (Cujo)"
  • Backstory and research belong in the far back. It's easy to become enamored with the knowledge you've collected in your research. You become so fascinated, that you spend twenty pages describing a process that nobody cares about.
  • Write for your Ideal Reader.
  • Before you revise, leave it alone for six weeks. Then use this formula: "2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%."
  • Flashbacks are corny.
  • You don't need writing classes. You need experience.

He gives you all these rules along with the events that led him to these revelations, or at least his thought process behind them. I find it easy to just accept all these ideas as facts. He is enormously successful. If feels like that should count for something. King is careful to say that just because he's sold books doesn't make him an expert on the process. After all, he was born to write. Perhaps he's just a prodigy? But he did learn the craft from scratch. He started young and mostly taught himself, but he did end up sitting on a stack of best sellers.

About one thing I'm sure he's correct–at some point you have to understand the thing from the inside looking out. It makes no sense to try to study writing until you've spent a decent number of hours banging away at it. You have to learn the frustration of trying convey tension in a scene before you can step back and recognize where someone else pulled it off flawlessly. Only then can you analyze the technique and really be instructed by it.

This book is capped with a detailed, present-tense, frank picture of his accident (when he was hit and almost killed by a van). Finally, you get to see a passage of 1408 in its first draft, and then after his hand-written revision. It's a brilliant lesson. 

I'll repeat what I said up top: this book is fantastic. In fact, I love almost all the books he's written, but this book is my favorite. It finally helped me put a reason behind why I generally love his books but hate his endings. I like intricate, twisting books, and he's got plenty of that because he just goes wherever the story takes him. Nobody knows where the characters will end up. But they eventually have to end up somewhere, and that's where a lot of his books fall down. Somewhere in the last 10% of a King novel you're going to find that spot where he knows it has to end, but he isn't quite sure how to wrap it up. Some turn out great ('Salem's Lot–kill the boss, chase the rest; Misery–kill the bad lady, haunted forever) but some take a wrong turn and just stop (The Stand–hand of God blows up the nuke? It–the clown was an alien spider?? The Dome–bored/mean alien kids???). That said, the first 90% is generally so good that there's no chance I'll stop reading. 

If you have any ideas you'd like to write, or just like a good book, read On Writing. Have you read it already? What did you think?

Red_DragonFor Dexter fans the scene is familiar: the killer has his victim strapped to the table one second, and the next he's disposing of the body in a completely untraceable way. No need to worry about the police. He has once again outsmarted them easily without breaking a sweat, missing work, or even raising the suspicion of his babysitter. No need to worry about how he captured the victim, got them to the "kill room," or always manages to go unnoticed as he saws apart the corpse. How does he pull this off? The short answer–who cares?

In the first season of Dexter, we were given more detail about his methodology. Specifically, you may remember the third episode where we flashed back to Dexter's first kill. In the flashback, Dexter's dad (Harry) gives him permission to hunt a nurse who kills her patients with an overdose of morphine. This kill establishes Dexter's penchant for using a syringe containing an opioid to immobilize his prey. Dexter uses M99 (etorphine), which is a large-animal tranquilizer and classified as a Schedule I drug in the US. A little research suggests that M99 would be a terrible drug for Dexter to use on humans. First, it doesn't work instantly. The victim would have about thirty seconds of thrashing around before he settled down. Second, after the thirty seconds, the person would die and Dexter wouldn't get to do his "you can't escape from Dark Passenger justice" theater.

I know, I know, we're not supposed to worry about the details. We're supposed to suspend disbelief and just play along with Dexter's perfect crimes. After all, the M99 isn't even the most obvious problem with Dexter's modus operandi. How does he corner these people alone without being spotted? How does he get their unconscious bodies to his car? How does he chop up the bodies and package them so neatly in a reasonable amount of time? How does he move them to his boat in the middle of the night without arousing suspicion? We just merrily ignore the holes because the plot lies elsewhere.

BTW, Dexter orders his M99 using an alias: Patrick Bateman, M.D. My serial killer in The Vivisectionist also uses that alias in his written communication. I wrote that book a while ago, but it must have been after the Dexter mention. I'm currently debating if I should go back and change it, but who will notice?

There's a whole genre of serial killer fiction where the details are left to the imagination of the audience. Jigsaw from the Saw movies doesn't show his work, just the amazingly intricate results. And he's dying in most of those movies (I stopped watching, but I think he might now be dead). Other movies give you a taste of the work. For example, in the opening credits of Seven (or Se7en, if you prefer), you glimpse Spacey cutting the skin away from his fingertips. It's not much, but it hints at the sacrifice the killer makes to master his craft.

On the far end of the omniscient spectrum, you've got Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger. These killers are unstoppable. It doesn't matter if the police can track them because they have paranormal abilities.

This brand of TV Show/Movie paints such a different picture from law enforcement procedurals like CSI. In those shows the killer will be caught–it's just a matter of time. No matter how smart the killer, the cops are smarter. They'll find some DNA or physical evidence somewhere and then trace it back.

One of the really interesting things about the more recent season of Dexter is that he's now portrayed as supernaturally good at solving crimes. He used to be clever, and sought after, but now he can recreate all the minor details of each crime within seconds. That makes him the only person in the Dexter universe who could possible catch Dexter. In Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris plays this line back and forth: only Will Graham was smart/lucky enough to catch Hannibal Lecter; only Hannibal Lecter could deduce the identities of the Tooth Fairy or Buffalo Bill. Lecter then plays live-action chess with the detectives and killers from his prison cell. At first, it seems that these books presuppose that good police work will eventually win. But in the end, the omniscient Lecter prevails.

What kind of killer do you prefer? The omniscient? The paranormal? The kind the cops will catch at the end? I guess I like the ones who are too smart to be caught. But perhaps when the show/movie/book is over and the lights are out, I vote for the third kind.

consumers-thumbI'm preparing another novel for Kindle right now. At the moment, it's called Debunking the Lies of the Prophets. I say "at the moment" because everyone who has read it so far has told me that it's a terrible title. So I'm still working on that part. Got any suggestions?

Perhaps you should read it first... Which brings me to my title question:

How would you like to get a free copy of my next novel?

It's a very simple process.

  1. Write a review on Amazon.com of The Vivisectionist. This doesn't have to be a long review, or even a positive review. You can just click some amount of stars and then just put in a sentence or two. I'm just looking to have a few more opinions posted about that book before I put up the second one.
  2. Post your review on facebook. If you don't do facebook, then just tell a friend about the book. 
  3. Send me your email address. You can use the little box in the right column or just This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I will only use your address to send you the free book and announce future books. I won't share your address with any of the thousands of SPAM merchants whom I regularly deal with. I swear.

Just three simple steps and you'll be done. I'll send you a copy of my next book for free, just as soon as I come up with a decent title and finish my editing. It will really help -- thanks!

Self publishing is a giant signal to agents, critics, publishing companies, and readers that your work is no good. Once you've printed your book through a Vanity Press, everyone knows that your writing couldn't stand up to the scrutiny and high standards employed by the industry.

VivCover2This seems to be changing with the growth of electronic publishing and the ease with which any author can make their work available. But while making it easier has allowed many legitimate authors to choose that route, it has also allowed lots of valueless work out into the marketplace. There are no enforced standards for spelling, grammar, pace, formatting, and cover aesthetics if anyone with access to a computer can publish whatever their fingers can puke into a keyboard.

So, here's my plan: I'm going to "publish" several more novels to Amazon while I continue to pursue the old-school, traditional publishing routes. My goal is to present the potential reader with lots of options at a very low price, and hope to lure them into an impulse buy. Then, assuming my novels are entertaining enough, they'll be inclined to buy one or more other books from me. Of course, I'll be limited to people who'll read eBooks, but there are more and more of those every second. Hopefully this holiday season will bring a lot more Kindles to people. 

Stay tuned – I'll probably publish Debunking the Lies of the Prophets by March of 2012. Happy vanity!

 

 

the vivisectionist-thumbBack in April 2008, I decided I wanted to try writing a novel. I had a story in my head that I called "Empty Hotel." It only took me a few months to grind out a first draft, but it took years to turn it into something that I thought I could publish. I learned a ton during that process, and I've learned even more since. 

Do me a favor? Take a look at that first novel. It's now called "The Vivisectionist," and you can buy it on Amazon for Kindle. Just click here and be sure to rate & review it when you're done. Thanks!

When did everyone give up on saying "Wednesday" and "February" how they're spelled? The British haven't, I guess, but everyone else has.

FebCalI know a guy who freaks out when anyone shortens History to Hist'ry, but he happily says Vet'rans and Vet'rinarians. Most people I know say Offin (instead of Often), too. But seriously, nobody wants to screw around trying to put an extra D in Wednesday, or an extra R in February. Seriously.

My word of the day is pareidolia.

turtlecloudThis is the phenomenon where people can find meaning in even the most random stimuli. When you look at a cloud and see a cloud that looks like a turtle, or play Black Sabbath backwards and hear Ozzy saying, "I think that any good investment strategy should include a mix of stable commodities and higher-risk ventures, such as overseas technology."

Pareidolia is probably the root of every "paranormal" "evidence" ever collected. It's probably the basis of every major religion. It's certainly the rock-solid foundation of numerology.

I love pareidolia, and it makes happy chair very happy.

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